Academic journal article Kritika

World War and World Revolution: Alexander Helphand-Parvus in Germany and Turkey

Academic journal article Kritika

World War and World Revolution: Alexander Helphand-Parvus in Germany and Turkey

Article excerpt

The number of those who resist the tyranny of Russia, who take up arms and throw dynamite, increases every day. When the Russians rise up, the Ottomans must rise up too, and when the Ottomans rise up, the Russians must do the same. The world is in turmoil. Besides Russia, the Spanish, Portuguese, Belgians, and French are rising up.

--Ottoman exile journal Intikam (Revenge), no. 30, Geneva, 28 March 1900

A classic question of modern Middle Eastern studies concerns the limited impact of revolutionary European and Russian socialism in the late Ottoman world. In the 1910s, however, there was a cluster of significant intellectual convergences between leftist revolutionaries and the Young Turk "rightist revolution": (1) the concept of anti-imperialism; the desire for a strong state; support for world war as a catalyst of revolution and destroyer of the existing order; and, of particular importance, an identification of classes with ethno-religious groups that justified ethno-religious war and expropriation as forms of class struggle. In this article, I seek to explain these convergences by considering the connections among emigre intellectuals of both the Right and the Left in the 1910s. I focus in particular on the Russo-German socialist Alexander Parvus (1867-1924), whom the ruling Young Turks regarded as an expert on economy and revolution and who, perhaps unintentionally, provided an intellectual foundation for the appropriation of leftist concepts by the Right. (2)

Though an adventurous and often solitary outsider, Parvus was an influential activist whose record of both decisive agitation and widely read publications is impressive. He exhibited a clever opportunism as he moved among concepts, models, and empires; and unlike many other socialists from tsarist Russia, he included the Ottoman capital in his transnational, cross-border area of operations.

This article focuses on Parvus's multiple activities during his stay in Istanbul in 1910-15, and in particular his impact on the revolutionary introduction of an exclusively Turkish-Muslim "national economy" (milli iktisad). Having become a sophisticated though dissatisfied socialist intellectual in Germany, Parvus embraced the possibilities of influence, power, and enrichment that opened to him in Istanbul during the Balkan wars and World War I--wars that he treated as means to his final aim of world revolution. By way of introducing the respective Russian and Turkish revolutionary lexicons, this article first goes back to the revolutionary Russian and Ottoman student diasporas in Switzerland, where Parvus had studied before adopting German social democracy (SPD) as his social and spiritual home. The diasporas of education and political activism in belle-epoque Switzerland were a hotbed for the elaboration of utopias, for revolutionary activity, and for networking by both the Left and the Right. This was the starting point for Parvus's career as a prolific socialist writer and activist.

Born Izrail' Lazarevich Gel'fand (Helphand) in Berazino, east of Minsk, in 1867, Parvus gained notoriety under his pen name in the SPD at the end of the 19th century. An aura of fascination still surrounds his personality. "In a world of mediocrity and a time of decadence, he was colourful, ambitious, theoretical, prophetic, extraordinary--a man of incredible intuition and intelligence," a Turkish academic has recently written? The present article, by contrast, seeks to demystify Parvus's intellectual and political performance, though without vilifying him in the manner of his former friends such as Karl Radek, Lev Trotskii, and Rosa Luxemburg--most of them, like Parvus, Jewish emigres from Russia--as well as that of the National Socialists, for whom he was the Jewish prototype of both a Marxist revolutionary and a capitalist war profiteer. Dividing his political and intellectual biography into pre- 1910 and post-1917 periods, this article departs from earlier portraits by stressing Parvus's time in Istanbul as a pivotal and revealing episode that prepared him to be an agent of the wartime German government and its policy of backing the Russian Revolution of 1917. …

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