Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 08/27/2018

A HISTORY OF ARMENIAN CRITICAL THOUGHT... (Part 3)

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Part V: The Radical Democrats

Let us open with a taster of the tradition we inherit from the Armenian
mid-19th century.

Stepan Oskanian (1825-1901)

    'It is time that our common people came to realise that they are as
    capable of great things as any other people and that they can be as good
    as any other people in arming themselves against foreign or domestic
    tyrants.'

    'The Armenian masses are treated as game by Ottoman officials... We
    miserable Armenians, we need gunpowder yet we dispense incense.'

Krikor Chilingirian (1833-1923)

    `We live in an age when the rights of man are found at the tip of the
    sword. Where there is no sword rights will be trampled upon.'

Haroutyoun Sevajian (1831-1874)

    `It is not an external hand that tortures us. We suffer and are tortured
    by our own. For their profit and wealth the rich sacrifice us. They will
    sell us for their profit.'

Mikael Nalpantian (1823-1869)

    'We have not devoted our life and our pen to the rich. Behind their
    barricades of wealth they are protected even from the worst tyranny. But
    that poor Armenian, that exploited, naked, hungry and pitiable Armenian
    who is oppressed not just by foreigners, but by his own elite, his own
    clergy and his own ill-educated intelligentsia, that is the Armenian who
    deserves and demands our attention.'

Matteos Mamourian (1830-1901)

    `It is idiocy to believe that foreign liberators will arrive to free us
    of our shackles. The sole liberator of a wretched and enslaved people is
    themselves, their work, their labour, their inner strength, unity and
    will.'

Rooted in Armenian life but in part also inspired by revolutionary democracy
sweeping Europe in 1848, young Armenian firebrands took upon themselves the
unfinished business of the 18th century bourgeois democrats. The bourgeois
democrats had failed to dislodge the feudal Church-secular elite that so
disastrously ruled over Armenian communities in Ottoman and Tsarist occupied
Armenia. So by the mid-1850s as the radical democrats entered the fray the
Armenian nation was in perilous crisis. All-devouring elites that
collaborated with imperial states and often acted as their agents of control
were driving Armenian communities in historic Armenia to an irreversibly
bleak future.

So the 19th century radical democrats undertook an overhaul of strategic
thinking. As a guide to their action they redefined the concept of the
nation. National development and national emancipation remained their
ambition. But they refused to recognise the nation's wealthy elites as its
representatives or as the driving force for its development. The common
people, the majority, were the nation. The poor, the hungry, illiterate and
uneducated masses living in their historic homelands were the foundation and
the future of the nation. Such was to be the basis for the radicals'
programme of action.

Among the cluster of radicals, often inconsistent and backpedalling, Mikael
Nalpantian and Haroutyoun Sevajian were summits in a broader democratic
challenge to ossified elites. They were to become close collaborators. Born
in 1831 to a poor family in Istanbul, from 1856 to 1872 Sevajian edited and
wrote prolifically for `The Bee'. Nalpantian said of `The Bee' that `it was
the clean voice of youth and of the living people'. Besides being a
journalist Sevajian was an activist on the ground and helped launch an
amazing educational movement that recruited hundreds in a major voluntary
adult literacy drive. Sevajian and Nalpantian collaborated in underground
work and Sevajian also contributed to preparations for the defensive battles
of semi-autonomous Zeitun in 1862.

Equally prolific, Nalpantian also born in the Diaspora in 1821, in what is
now Rostov-on-Don, made outstanding intellectual contributions on political,
educational, linguistic, aesthetic, philosophic, literary and economic
questions. He is most popularly known as the author of the poem `On
Liberty. Tsarist authorities made it a criminal offence for anyone to
possess a photo of Nalpantian. Also a restless activist besides working with
Sevajian in Istanbul Nalpantian maintained links with activists in London,
Paris and Moscow and with revolutionaries such as Herzen and Bakunin.

In the persona of these two we can celebrate the full richness of the 19th
century Armenian radical tradition from which there is a great deal to
appropriate.


I. A perilous future - national crisis and disintegration

From the late 18th into the 19th century a historically evolving dual
process that had been shaping and dividing Armenian national life underwent
further accentuation - while the Armenian Diaspora prospered hugely,
historic Armenian homelands declined catastrophically.

The Armenian Diaspora, in Istanbul, Smyrna, Tbilisi, Moscow and Petrograd
experienced exponential growth. A new class of merchants often dealing in
European manufactured goods built fortunes that nourished a Diaspora which
lived something of a national cultural revival. Istanbul, with an Armenian
population ranging from 250-300,000, emerged as a predominant Armenian urban
centre concentrating vast wealth within as well as a substantial middle
class and a budding intelligentsia. By the 1850s Armenian-Istanbul had 25
printing presses. It had 42 Armenian schools with 4376 male and 1155 female
students. It also had growing social, welfare, cultural, theatrical and
literary organisations among them the `National Society', the `Studies
Society', the `Renaissance Society', and the `Armenian Museum' (HG392, 434
See Note 1).

Falsifiers of Armenian history frequently refer to the flourish of
Armenian-Istanbul and of Smyrna too as evidence that the Ottoman Empire was
a paradise for Armenians. The truth of Armenian life under the Ottoman heel
however was evident not so much in the Ottoman Diaspora as in Ottoman
occupied historic Armenia, still home to the vast majority of Armenians. The
truth was indeed also evident in the lower echelons of Armenian-Istanbul
where tens of thousands of impoverished migrants crammed into hovels and
slums as they fled the poverty and oppression they and their families were
subjected to in their historic homelands (HG422-429; MN445-447 See Note 2).

As the Diaspora flourished, in historic Armenian all the political, economic
and demographic pillars of Armenian life and nationhood were being uprooted
and destroyed through a ferocious Ottoman state and Turkish nationalist
offensive.

From the early 19th century on an Ottoman campaign to subjugate centrifugal
forces within the empire also targeted semi-autonomous Armenian Zeitun in
1862 (HG65-78) and Armenian Sassoun in 1864. Both could have emerged as
military and political bases for Armenian nation formation but were now
being systematically reduced. In 1864 for the first time in centuries
autonomous Sassoun at the core of historic Armenia suffered the presence of
Turkish military forces on its territory (HG67-68). The offensive to destroy
both regions was to continue up to the 1915 Genocide.

This Ottoman offensive coincided with the equally damaging Tsarist
dismantling of autonomous Armenian principalities in Garabagh that had been
the 18th century focus for the liberation movement. Thus two hostile Empires
uprooted powerful centres of Armenian politico-military organisation.

These military-political blows were followed in Ottoman occupied Armenia by
the bludgeon of a nascent Turkish nationalist capitalist class. Refusing to
countenance Armenian economic development in historic Armenia that they
intended to expropriate for themselves Turkish bourgeois nationalists
fearful of a formidable competitor resorted to arson and pillage. These
reached a notorious peak in the 1876 burning out of Armenian merchants and
artisans in Van (HG300-301- 323, 324). The systematic destruction of
Armenian economic life was to be a feature of the 1895-6 Ottoman slaughter
of 300,000 Armenians and of the 1910 Adana massacres in Cilicia.

Ottoman-Turkish blows to an Armenian national economy were compounded, as
both Sevajian and Nalpantian among others noted, by the penetration of cheap
European manufactures into the Ottoman Empire (HS133). Ironically many of
the importers of European goods were Diaspora-based Armenian merchants
(HG305 and Ashot Hovannissian `Mikael Nalpantian and His Times' Volume 1,
1955, Yerevan, p402).

The common people in their native lands, the peasantry and the urban
artisans suffered an unimaginable deterioration in their lives and
communities. The pace of land grabbing, of plunder and brigandage against
Armenian villages, of arbitrary violence and forced religious conversions
was ruining entire Armenian communities. Already living at the mercy of
savagely warring Kurdish elites that dominated historic Armenia, the
post-1830s state centralisation aggravated the disaster. Ottoman state
compromises to reign in Kurdish principalities gave their now more strongly
consolidated landowning class license to plunder the local population
without limit only on condition they paid taxes to the central government
and supported the central state during any crisis.

The national collapse was seen at its clearest in outward flow of the
impoverished and the hungry (HS288). Noting how `day on day the masses are
leaving their homeland' Mikael Nalpantian felt `unable to describe' the
phenomenon because its `awfulness causes me terror (MN445).' In moving
detail Ghazaryan describes a veritable process of desertification of
historic Armenia (HG341-355; 412-436). `During the 1860s and 1870s not only
did the number of emigrants not fall they multiplied at the least (HG415)'.

    `It was not just the peasantry that migrated. People from all social
    classes and groups left their homelands. Western Armenia was being
    reduced or emptied. Previously dense and prospering Armenian centres
    were now semi-ruins and were being populated...  (by non-Armenians)
    (HG420).'

Together with the massive emigration that had accompanied the 1828-30
Russo-Turkish war and almost emptied Erzerum and other urban centres of its
Armenian population (HG145) these processes were destroying the demographic,
economic and social grounds for Armenian national development. Sevajian was
indubitably right:

    `Little thought or foresight is required to grasp that our wretched and
    semi-ruined nation is on the edge of the precipice (HS396 See Note 3).'

So the radical democrats made action to save the Armenian people in their
homelands their prime business. `Our vision' Sevajian insisted `must not be
limited to Istanbul'. Armenians there `form only the smallest part of the
nation...' `Our homeland is in the east where the majority of our
compatriots live (HS240).' `Our strength is our brethren in Armenia...
without them we have nothing to be proud of before the world (HS330).
`Aside from Armenia everywhere else will be a burial ground for the Armenian
nation (HS397).'



II. Redefining the nation

Living in an age of nation formation the radicals grasped that for their
survival as a free people Armenians were also propelled to organise as a
national force in their native lands. Indeed in the Ottoman Empire it was
Turkish nationalism that drove Armenians and other oppressed nations to
resort to the national struggle. With Turkish nationalism targeting the
wealth, the land and the resources of Ottoman oppressed peoples Armenians
had no choice but strive for national liberation as the only then available
path for survival (See Note 4). But Nalpantian and Sevajian offered a new
radical vision of national development and the national struggle that put
the common people and not the elites at the centre.

The Madras Troika had identified the nation with its elites - with a class
of wealthy merchants and traders, as well as with what they deemed to be
progressive sections of the Church and secular elites of the semi-autonomous
principalities of Garabagh. In the Troika's plans these forces were assigned
the leadership role in the national movement with Garabagh and to a lesser
extent Sassoun considered as nucleus for independent statehood in the
future. The radical democrats cast aside such templates.

With Garabagh, Zeitun and Sassoun no more or in decline by the mid-19th
century, the radical democrats put the question of independent statehood on
the backburner and redefined the concept of the nation to present a new
strategy for struggle and emancipation.

The nation was the common people not its elites. The common people not the
elites were to be the driving force of national development and liberation.
The elites did not and could not represent or lead the nation.

    `It is necessary to understand that in the form they exist today our
    authorities, our rulers are not the nation and their interests have
    nothing to do with the national interest... By the term nation we
    understand the common people and not those few families who have
    enriched themselves with the blood and sweat of the common people
    (MN416).'

A programme of national development and resistance had not only to be based
in the homeland it had also to be framed by the demands of the common
people. The nation and its independence are to be cherished, but only if
they secure the 'real and essential' (MN) interests of the common
people. Any judgement about the nation and the national interest had to have
the needs of the common people centre stage. To serve the nation was to
serve the common people. Abuse of patriotic sentiments about national
freedom, national history, language or culture just to rope the majority
into the service of the rich, was not to be tolerated. To this end the
concepts of nation and patriotism and of freedom and justice too were
infused with concerns for social and economic equality.

There were substantial social and political grounds for such radical
formulations. Within Armenian communities social, economic class
relationships and divisions were pitting the established elites into sharper
opposition to the mass of people. `Today' Haroutyoun Sevajian rages `the
nation has many enemies, external ones and internal ones, enemies of both of
progress and enlightenment (HS154).' Reminding us of our own 1% today he
also put the point about `internal enemies' bluntly:

    `The Armenian nation seems to be formed by a very small number of rich
    people and a few members of the clergy, with the people existing solely
    as servants. The people have been denied all their rights. Today,
    finding a bag of gold in the street, or, and we fear not saying so
    stealing it, the Armenian thus enriched has rapidly become a tyrant over
    the nation (HS132)

Sevajian continues passionately.

    `(The Bee) notes the people's hardship at the hands of the Armenian rich
    who have been assigned power in the provinces...The Bee notes how every
    burden, every pain, every misery weighs heavily upon the people while
    all goodness, all lightness, all well being sucked from the blood of the
    people goes to fatten the rich."

Nalpantian too acts with the opposed interests of a selfish elite and the
vast majority in mind:

    'We have not devoted our life and our pen to the rich. Behind their
    barricades of wealth they are protected even from the worst tyranny. But
    that poor Armenian, that exploited, naked, hungry and pitiable Armenian
    who is oppressed not just by foreigners but by his own elite, his own
    clergy and his own ill-educated intelligentsia, that is the Armenian who
    deserves and demands our attention.'

`Pity the nation... that up till now has been sacrificed to the profit of
private individuals' exclaims Sevajian (HS269). Integrated into imperial
structures collaborationist and prospering Diaspora elites had no interest
in developing and were incapable of stemming the steady collapse of Armenian
life at its core. Sevajian and Nalpantian ridiculed any idea that a Diaspora
economy and its elite prosperity was testimony to Armenian national revival.
`Even if as a result of' their `trade hundreds are enriched, hundreds
receive a European education the state of the Armenian nation will remain
paralysed and static' declared Nalpantian. Sevajian noted similarly that
`all the wealth of our numerous rich will not enhance the nation or make it
wealthier and happier.'


III. Striking down internal enemies

With their dedication to the common people the radicals shifted
attention away from the Diaspora to historic Armenia where the
majority of Armenians lived. There they brought into focus three
critical questions - battle against Armenian elites that were a
barrier to the progress of the national movement, independent Armenian
economic development for all and struggle for democratic Armenian
community governance.

Before any direct challenge to Ottoman and Tsarist power, an Armenian
democratic national movement had first to strike down its `internal
enemies', the Church and secular elite, those `types who without
conscience sacrifice the nation to their own private interest
(HS269)'. These `internal enemies' were the main obstacle holding
back, debilitating and sabotaging the building of a movement for
national resistance and emancipation. As the first stage of national
emancipation the radicals urged struggle against these internal
elites.

    `Against self-proclaimed princes we defended the people; the
    exploited against the exploiters, the weak against the strong, the
    mass of the nation against the few! (HS63)

War to expose the elites and subject them to the democratic will of
the common people was the watchword of the radical democrats. With
focus on homeland, they took aim at the brutish western-Armenia based
establishment. At the end of 1861 Sevajian wrote:

    `The last year has not only halted national progress but thrown it
    back... In every town of every province the Armenian population is
    enslaved to one or two ambitious and profit-greedy individuals and
    so the people find themselves at the edge of despair. The old,
    women, girls and boys who need the care and protection of our
    national committee cry out in intolerable misery (HS236-7)

Following a journey to historical Armenia he reports:

    `I entered deep into the life of the descendants of Hayk, into the
    depths of the monasteries and Churches. I examined and studied and
    there I saw every evil possible... In virtually every town
    ruthless exploiting authorities, leaders and heads of monasteries
    were tyrannising without conscience. Authorities repress and
    oppress the wretched people. The exploited scream out but there
    are none to listen or help (HS310).'

Siege however must first be laid to the Church clergy that in the
homeland was more powerful, more savage and greedier than the smaller
secular segment of the elite.

    `If the people were to remain... subject... to the authority of
    the Church they will never be free of slavery and every
    Constitution or law would be a deception.'

Sevajian's most combative writing exposes the clergy's `brutality and
savagery'

    `The Bee notes the ignorance of the Church clergy... it notes
    among them a barbaric freedom, that is freedom to be slavish
    before the men of power... But in its relations to the people the
    clergy's barbaric freedom become acts of brutality and
    savagery."

Shocking clergy crimes against the people ranged from uncontrolled
greed, theft, murder, sexual abuse, plunder of livestock as well as
the charging of exorbitant prices for religious ceremonies to the
devout poor (HS293, 321-322, 324-325). This clergy treats the people
`as its servants who are obliged to meet its every need without any
recompense whatsoever (HS287).'

Sevajian's revulsion is volcanic. Addressing the Bishop of
Vasbourakan, a province in the very heart of historic Armenia he
writes:

    `Even if your letter of self-exoneration is supported with
    thousands of signatures it will never cover up the endless
    suffering, the thefts, the murders and the abductions of women
    that... Armenian communities have been subjected to under your
    supervision... Will you ever be able to make amends for your
    destruction, your ruin and your pillage, will you ever be able to
    erase the stain of innocent blood... Will your priestly robes be
    able to conceal the dishonor you have subjected innocent and
    saintly women to?'

`Monasteries were filled with useless, lazy, cheating and greedy men'
who were not just `ruining the monasteries but impoverishing the
people and destroying the nation too (HS289).' A power unto itself the
Church was:

     `... answerable to no one for whatever it does or plans. The
whole Armenian nation together, four million people... have no right
to ask even one question' of the Church and its use of its resources
(HS288).  Without any democratic authority to scrutinise and monitor
them:

    `These men plundered their own people with greater cruelty and
    ruthlessness than did foreign exploiters or tyrants' (HS289).'

So severe was Church oppression that many abandoned their traditional
Church to take refuge in Catholicism.

    `Hundreds of families send pleas for the Roman Catholic Church to
    accept them... Wearied and damaged by (Armenian Church) governance
    Armenians attribute their transfer to Rome solely to miseries and
    indifference suffered at your hands and those of your satellites
    (HS324)... In numerous places people having reached the limit of
    despair think of religious conversion as a refuge (HS328).'

It was time to end the clergy's pillage of what was the property of
the nation, of the people. Church `monasteries and its lands', its
wealth and resources were all `gifts from the nation (HS285)'. The
people's tithes, taxes and donations, as well as their labour and
dedication had built the Church and worked its fields, its cattle and
its orchards. This generosity was not however `intended to provide a
home to the lazy or to those too old to indulge in excess'.  It was in
expectation of a return `for a public service', for the provision of
education and welfare (HS285-286).

In what was an effective call for the nationalisation of the Church
Sevajian demands the subordination of its resources and personnel to
the democratic will of the people! The people-nation must have the
right to access Church accounts; it must have the right to sack
useless, thuggish, thieving priests. The people must have the right to
`replace the useless donkeys' that have misappropriated Church
property `with men of their own choice (HS288).'


IV. Democracy and constitution

Grasping the corrupting and exploitative power of wealth and capital
in the hands of `internal enemies' Nalpantian and Sevajian understood
that unless the moneyed class generally and the Church in the homeland
particularly was subjected to effective and vigilant democratic
control the nation's, namely the people's future was bleak. For the
Madras Troika democracy was designed primarily to consolidate the
position of Armenian merchants, traders and businessmen. For the
radical democrats it was an instrument to subject the corrupt and
abusive elites, the wealthy and exploiting merchants and the feudal
Church to the will of common people.

Genuine democracy and the secret ballot were necessary to block `those
who terrify the people by means of their wealth, authority and tyranny
(HS82).'

So as a first step of a broader strategic vision the radicals
advocated a vigorous form of constitutional democracy. Ending his
`Agriculture as the Way' Nalpantian asks:

    `What remains for us to do? Speak of the economic question, speak
    of the human being, speak of the nation, to the obscurantists
    speak to scandalise them, to the tyrants declare constitutional
    rule (emphasis in the original), and to the common people
    salvation (MN484).'

For such democratic battles there were ready conditions in the 1860s.
Armenian life at the time was marked by ceaseless demands for
democratic internal Armenian community government through an elected
`Armenian National Assembly' and an `Armenian National
Constitution'. Already `the people are fed up with those who impose
authority and rule by means of wealth alone'.  They have had enough of
those `who put money above right (HS89-90)'. Albeit within the ambit
of imperial domination the radicals sought to stretch this national
community constitutionalism to its limits. Active popular community
democracy could limit and define the powers of the Patriarch heading
the Armenian Church and subject Church, Clergy and secular elite too
to a degree of popular democratic control.

The formation of democratic assemblies was not however sufficient in
itself to control the moneyed classes. `Everywhere the Armenian tyrant
feels or has heard that the Constitution will be a huge obstacle, even
a final sentence on its bottomless greed (HS310).' So the rich and
powerful would `use every stratagem and spare no effort' to evade
democratic control. The clergy in particular would resist `the new
generation's intervening in affairs of the Church (HS308)'.

    `(The elites) have sworn to undermine every good order, every
    arrangement and every decision that benefits the
    nation. Destroying and annihilating all the good and beneficial
    they intend to enthrone their own will, their opinion, their faith
    and their profit (HS154)

Endless vigilance was called for. In the absence of sternest control
already `in many places gold has already found its tongue again' and
`through the power of gold self-proclaimed tyrants once more have
re-established their authority (HS373).' So the call for active
democracy, for the rigorous imposition of constitutional law
(HS223-234), for a vibrant free press (HS170) and freedom of speech
and debate (HS209), all necessary to stop democracy and constitutional
assemblies becoming rubber stamps for the reactionary powers
(HS144). To secure popular democracy Sevajian protested vigorously
against wealthy Istanbul being offered 160 assembly seats to represent
100,000 voting Armenians while the 1.9 million impoverished homeland
Armenians were offered only 60 delegates (HS205).

For effective popular participation in democratic life, to allow the
people to seize control of their future popular enlightenment and
education was of central even commanding importance for all trends of
the radical and democratic movement. The urgency with which the
radicals regarded this enlightenment and education of the people was
their stubborn and unwavering battle to replace classical Armenian
with a modern written vernacular spoken and understood by the common
people.

Sevajian insisted that as all their writing, as their entire battle
was:

    `...primarily for the common people' (I will) use a language that
    the common people understand... the language they speak in their
    homes.'

With optimistic tongue he adds:

    `Speaking with the people in their family language `The Bee'
    brought the people back from the edge of the abyss to which they
    had been condemned for eternity by the nation's rulers. It raised
    the people to a consciousness of their rights (HS134).'


IV. The `economic question'

In their struggle for an authentic and genuine democratic national
development the radical democrats put the `economic question' at its
centre. `Nationhood is nothing but an empty word without solving the
economic question' proclaimed Sevajian. Nalpantian was as adamant:

    `If the issue of the economy does not feature at the very centre
    of nation-building, then nation-building has no foundation, is
    based on false premises and is bound to collapse.'

The Madras Troika had also put the economic question at the centre and
had taken the common people into account too. But their overriding
drive was the security of Armenian wealth and business. For the
radicals however the resolution of the `economic question' had to be
determined by that which benefited not the `internal enemies' but the
common people. With agriculture then the dominant form of producing
social wealth, Nalpantian argued his views in 'Agriculture as the True
Way'.  The principles apply to whatever the form of wealth production.

The first step in solving `the economic question' was securing an
independent national economy in the homeland. No nation can be free if
it is economically dependent on others.

    'Only when the nation begins to cultivate its own soil
    (i.e. develop its own economy), can one speak of trade (and
    economy) that is genuinely Armenian and national.'

Both Sevajian and Nalpantian were contemptuous of the dependent,
comprador Armenian merchant and trading class. Trade for nations
without their own independent economy:

    'is not national in anyway whatsoever and has absolutely no
    relation to the national interest...  Armenian merchants become
    servants of European interests...  these people calling themselves
    traders and merchants are in reality only intermediaries for
    European powers. They do not serve the needs of the Armenian
    people.'

`Those we know as merchants' echoed Sevajian `are nothing more than
agents for the sale of European manufactured goods' in the Ottoman
Empire (HS252).

But with the conception of the nation as the common people an
independent economy had to be shaped with a collective and egalitarian
vision of development in historic Armenia (HS245, 250-254). After all
Nalpantian exclaims `the people cannot be truly free if material need
forces them to enslave themselves to another, just to obtain bread for
their family (MN).'  `Of what use are a few millionaires amidst
starving millions' he ask (MN)?

Nalpantian therefore proposes a system of economy which recognises
that the nation's wealth 'belongs to the people as a whole' and that
'every member of the community has an equal right to enjoy in
perpetuity' the fruits of that wealth. Albeit with less precision
Sevajian is also clear that any genuine national development had to
cater centrally for the common people's social and economic welfare
(HS236, 238)

Unless the economic question is solved thus with the nation, that is
the common people as its prime beneficiaries, all talk of nationhood,
of patriotism, of national history and culture is bombast.

    `You say to me let us preserve our nationality, our language, our
    traditions, etc, etc. Well and good... but preserve these for
    what...  Abstract nationhood that by and large until now has been
    preached among Armenians cannot answer this question... That type
    of abstract preaching can never sink roots among the people that
    beyond and over and above the abstract are confronted by real,
    practical needs (MN474).'



VI. The legacy

The radical democrats were persecuted relentlessly. A heroic and
tragic figure, a brilliant critic of a corrupt elite asphyxiating
national life Sevajian remained in significant measure isolated. Many
of his erstwhile comrades made their peace with the establishment
whilst his closest political ally Mikael Nalpantian languished in a
prison in Tsarist Russia. Isolated, impoverished and ill he was
destined to die just turned 44.

A similar fate befell Nalpantian. Attacked and persecuted by the
Tsarist state and Armenian reaction he was starved, imprisoned and
driven to an early death at 37. Near the end of his life he wrote:

    'For a long while now I have learnt to suffer. On the pathway of
    my life I have never experienced any budding roses. My heart is a
    sea of blood. Yet I have so much strength than none could read my
    condition off my face.'

A fuller evaluation of their thought would have to touch on important
limits. Sevajian and Nalpantian envisioned Armenian development within
the multi-national territories of Ottoman and Tsarist states that they
believed would be reformed and revolutionised by the joint efforts of
the peoples within these empires. But they are almost silent on the
concrete and practical questions of relations between Armenian, Turks,
Assysrians and Kurds in the territories they jointly inhabited. Not
always seeing eye-to-eye Sevajian in contrast to Nalpantian appears
largely indifferent to European colonial imperialism. Praising its
civilisation, unlike in Nalpantian, we read no denunciation of its
slave trade, genocide and global brigandage.

For all this, their legacy must live! It contains a radical logic
touching on all the central problems of our time. Their pamphleteering
and their journalism is an inspiring reminder of a richer, broader,
inclusive variant of 19th century democratic ambition as it flared in
London and Paris and elsewhere during the days of Chartism and the
1848 revolutions. In an age of decayed democracy, of growing
inequality, of the degradation of the environment their vision with
its insistence on the good of the common people, their demand for
subjecting money to social control still inspires.

In our age of increasingly reactionary, sectarian and chauvinist
nationalism their guide to internationalist, democratic and
non-sectarian concepts of nationhood is urgent. Rejecting `abstract'
`nationhood' among Armenians they also rejected the religious
sectarian definition of nationality. Against the elites' and
particularly the Church's insistence on making Armenian nationality
conditional on membership of the established Armenian Church, Sevajian
and Nalpantian argued a secular conception of nationality embracing
all Armenians irrespective of religion. `We are all of one nation,
religion is one thing the nation another...  (HS105).'

The radicals' democratic non-sectarian nationhood was extended to and
indivisible from opposition to imperialism and from the principle of
equality between all nations. Sevajian and Nalpantian opposed all
claims of national and imperial superiority. `We are not at all happy'
Nalpantian wrote `that one nation exploits another and imposes itself
by force of arms.' He vehemently rejected `all blind fanatical
nationalism' that `for the sake of a piece of stake for itself
slaughters another nation's cattle (MN462)'.

Mikael Nalpantian and Haroutyoun Sevajian were at once patriots and
internationalists. Admiringly Sevajian writes of Nalpantian that he
`was a free thinker, a lover of freedom who desired it not just for
his own nation but for the whole of humanity (HS254)'. As they
dedicated themselves to nation-building the two did not regard the
nation as an eternal form. A historically specific stage of social
organisation it would eventually be superseded they asserted by
superior international forms (MN462; HS246).

Nalpantian's and Sevajian's legacy throws down the gauntlet to elites
in Armenia that have disgraced democracy and the nation condemning the
vast majority to penury and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee
their homeland for bread and butter to feed their families. Excavating
the radical democratic legacy, using it as the intellectual brickwork
for building a strategy for survival can help contribute to averting
Armenia's and indeed the globe's apparently unstoppable slide into
what Paryour Sevak aptly called 'the new dark-ages'.

NOTES:

Note 1: Haig Ghazaryan `Socio-Economic and Political Conditions of
Western Armenia - 1800-1870', 670pp, 1967, Yerevan. Hereafter
referenced as HG followed by page number thus HG123. This is a hugely
valuable resource rich with data and quotes from sources of the period
under study.

Note 2: Mikael Nalpantian `Selected Works', 604pp, 1979, Yerevan.
Hereafter referenced as MN followed by page number thus MN123

Note 3: Haroutyoun Sevajian `Journalism', 555pp, 1960, Yerevan.
Hereafter referenced as HS followed by page number thus HS123

Note 4: Contrary to chauvinist falsifiers of Armenian history, the
19th century history of the Ottoman Empire provides plenty of evidence
that Ottoman-era Armenian nationalism together with that of other
small nations was a direct defensive reaction to the ruthless drive of
Turkish bourgeois nationalism not the other way round. The tired old
claim by these falsifiers that Armenian nationalism was an imperialist
manufactured movement is easily rebutted.


-
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have
also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in
Los Angeles.

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