A controversial and provocative thinker for our times
Armenian News Network / Groong
April 5, 2022
By Eddie Arnavoudian
Arsen Tokhmakhian - an intellectual for the 21st century
Armenia needs a new generation of radical, revolutionary intellectuals to guide us out of the rut in which we find ourselves, especially after the disastrous 2020 44-Day War. Here digging deep into our own intellectual legacy is an urgent first step. And hidden from view by more well-known figures is one Arsen Tokhmakhian (1843-1891) – possibly the most consistent and most radical but also the most controversial and provocative of Armenian thinkers who adumbrated central methodological principles in studying Armenian history, politics, and life absolutely relevant to our future in these 21st century global times.
Born in Van, in the heart of historical Armenia, Arsen Tokhmakhian was one of the most brilliant minds of the 19th century Armenian national liberation movement. Throughout his life he remained a humble local activist. Primarily a teacher, in 1872 he helped form the anti-Ottoman underground resistance organization in Van called ‘Unity and Salvation’. He was also, remarkably, an abbot at two different monasteries before his criminal assassination by Armenian hands in 1891 .
Tokhmakhian’s legacy is slender - ‘The Peasantry and the Nation’ (1881) and ‘On Ararat’s Southern Flanks’ (1882). His evaluations and judgments however, derived from his study of Armenian history and of the 19th century Armenian peasantry, offer a powerful analytical framework for understanding Armenian history and society and our troubled 21st century too! Tragically today Tokhmakhian is largely unknown and his work unavailable to the public.
We must be grateful then to Tateos Avtalbekian (1885-1937) who in an enthusiastic 1914 essay  salvaged for the public something of Arsen Tokhmakhian’s legacy. In his essay Avtalbekian, a lifelong socialist  murdered during the Stalinist purges, reproduces substantial extracts from Tokhmakhian’s writing. Opening, he explains that Tokhmakhian:
‘…though not a general, in fact a mere foot soldier…saw further and understood the enemy’s movements better than many a famed commander (p243).’
Tokhmakhian’s singularity was an extraordinarily clear, unwavering, and uncompromising critique of the role of Armenian elites and ruling classes through history and in particular of their exploitation and oppression of the Armenian common people who constituted the core of the Armenian nation. Tokhmakhian’s starting point was the defense of the common people against its own elites damned as ‘the most dangerous class’ in Armenian society.
‘For centuries, beginning with the most ancient times, elites have exploited the people. Today they continue to exploit the people and hope to do so in the future too, and that on an even more extensive scale. These elites are the most dangerous class (emphasis added). In classical times they appeared as the aristocracy, now they are landowners and urban dwellers, merchants/usurers. It remains to be seen what name they will bear in the future (p263)’
Unflinching in judgment upon these ‘most dangerous classes’ Tokhmakhian lays all the ills of Armenian society at the door of its ruling classes. They have been and remain the main cause of the endless tragedies suffered by the common people and the Armenian nation. The elites, the ruling classes, throughout Armenian history act as an enemy within, a 5th column undermining the common people and the nation. This political and social approach needs extending and elaborating in accord with the realities of our own day, to the rule of Pashinyan today and to those of his post-Soviet predecessors.
In exposition and commentary Avtalbekian draws out the incontestable logic flowing from Tokhmakhian’s acute albeit succinct and almost didactic evaluations: for the sake of the Armenian people and the future of the Armenian nation Armenian elites and the social order they rest upon need to be eliminated.
Such is the essence of Tokhmakhian’s thought. We have attempted many roads. All so far have led to dead ends. Let us give Tokhmakhian some consideration at least!
A telling remark on the ‘inconsistent democratism’ of a segment of the 19th/early 20th century Armenian intelligentsia opens a discussion on Tokhmakhian’s radical re-evaluation of the patriotically glorified, 3rd to 11th century Armenian Arshagouni and Bagratouni era aristocratic elites. Avtalbekian writes that while
‘…professing democratic principles for the present and future, they (the ‘inconsistent democrats’) forget these same principles when speaking of Armenia’s past… Pursuing popular sovereignty today… they gaze in awe at the petty and ambitious tyrants of Armenian noble houses. (They) are enthused by the… arrogant feudal lords and devious priests, brazen princes and Christian friars who live off the labor of enslaved masses (p244).’
Tokhmakhian’s was a dissident voice. Armenian aristocratic elites, far from being grand and glorious, constituted in fact a ‘most dangerous’, selfish, parasitic and brutal landlord class that wrecked the lives of Armenian peasants and artisans, and weakened resistance to foreign conquest. Reflecting a truth about aristocratic elite attitudes, servile and obsequious court historians also judged the ordinary man and woman:
‘…so utterly lowly that in their work mules and precious horses are remembered more fondly than the people… who are valued at zero… (p251).’
Tokhmakhian grasped something that eluded most: by virtue of their position in class society, by virtue of their ownership of land and their enjoyment of absolute political power to protect these lands from the common people, elites exist always and only on the basis of exploitation and oppression.
Tokhmakhian tears aside the cloaks that disguise, he casts aside halos placed above the heads of Armenian kings, lords, princes and priests.
‘The social order of the Armenian aristocracy (that – EA) has always reduced the people to the level of beasts (p251, original emphasis).’
Recognizing the common foundation and character of all feudal/aristocratic elites, to press his point home Tokhmakhian goes a provocative step further and equates the Armenian heads of noble houses with their modern Turkish, Kurdish or Iranian counterparts. Visiting historical Armenian lands now part Persia he writes that they:
‘…awoke in me a recollection of the similarities with the ancient Armenian people’s lives. Even though Turks and not Armenians live there today, they live in the old (Armenian) manner. Armenian aristocratic houses no longer exist but there are Khans and heads of clans who in the same manner (emphasis added) destroy each other’s lands and put them to flame.
In pursuit of personal hostilities, they damage the common interest. They exercise absolute power. The life and the very existence of the collective is subject to the will and whim of the individual (p248).’
Avtalbekian indicates the direction of Tokhmakhian’s thought.
‘The Armenian feudal lords were (in their essence – EA) nothing but Khans. Of course, a Bagratouni landlord, a Prince from Syunik… could sometimes be more sensible and literate… than a Hassan Khan or Ibrahim Khan but nevertheless their attitude to the people is the same. The former and the latter, as a class of aristocratic landowners, lived off the surplus labor of the people (p248).’
Despite patriotic wishful thinking, aristocratic elites did not represent nation or people. Theirs’ was not an era of common nationhood. Their states were but a conglomerate of warring clans for whose leaders ‘everyone… was an unconditional slave.’ ‘Constantly gnawing at each other (p249)’ the Armenian aristocracy was no different to any other aristocracy across the globe.
As a class with absolute power the Armenian aristocracy is deemed to be little different to 19th century Kurdish clan leaders that for Tokhmakhian today ‘represent a dismal image of our own ancient (Armenian – EA) historical life (p249)’.
The possibility of ‘common nationhood can begin only with the disappearance of aristocratic clans and tribes.’ But alas for Armenians this (nationhood – EA) has been delayed as the Church took over from the aristocrats (p250).
Avtalbekian appropriately notes that were Tokhmakhian:
‘to write a history of Armenia we would hear many a bitter truth…He would enrage…but will have served the most sacred of values – those of science and democracy (p252).’
Unable to grasp the selfish and brutal essence of elites, unable to recognize that they exist only through ceaseless exploitation and oppression of the vast majority, the bulk of the nationalist intelligentsia remained blind to the fatal role of the new late 18th and 19th century urban Armenian merchant/usurer elites whose predatory arms reached into the heartlands of historical Armenian peasant communities.
Tokhmakhian was an exception. He was:
‘…the one intellectual… who most clearly put his finger on the fundamental evil that set root in Ottoman-Armenian peasant communities and sucked out its life-essence (p254).’
The ‘fundamental evil’ ‘sucking out the life-essence’ of the core of Armenian society and nation was the Armenian merchant/usurer. In Tokhmakhian’s view this class was a, if not the, main force behind the ceaseless migration that was emptying rural Armenian communities in historical Armenia and so critically damaging the economic, social and political fabric of Armenian society. Trapping the peasantry in a web of unpayable debt and seizing their land as collateral the Armenian usurer destroyed whole communities driving tens of thousands out of their homelands to often far away foreign towns and cities in search of livelihood for their families. Thus, together with the Ottoman state and Kurdish clans this Armenian class was an accomplice in the terminal weakening of the Armenian nation.
Though Armenian, this class:
‘…possesses not a single positive national attribute. It is marked by total selfishness and through its influence has taken first place among those exploiting and plundering the (Armenian – EA) peasantry (p254-255).’
Tokhmakhian makes his case in angry detail (p255-257). The usurers’ vast network:
‘…is the means by which the peasantry is systematically impoverished and in due course has its land and property transferred to the usurer so reducing the peasant to the status of a slave…. Thus, peasant families are irreparably ruined (p256).
And these ruined families are forced from their villages and lands to labor as servants for the urban privileged living in the diaspora hundreds and hundreds of miles from their homes. Tokhmakhian curses these parasites:
‘…the person constantly moving back and forth before you, the one doing your bidding, the one clearing your muck and rubbish…the one who suffers like a beast of burden, who spends the night in a damp and stinking corner…far from loved ones now, the one buried in the mire of your urban decadence, that person is the former peasant you robbed and have now reduced to a slave-like laborer (p258).’
Tokhmakhian damns the usurer for ‘taking the first place’ in the oppression of the Armenian peasant. Avtalbekian does remind us that Tokhmakhian ‘does not reject the Ottoman state’s exploitation or Kurdish pillage and plunder’. But significantly, unlike others he grasped the almost irreversible destruction caused by Armenian merchant usurers in Armenia’s rural heartlands. Tokhmakhian was confident that Ottoman power and Kurdish clans could be resisted, by political action and by armed self-defense. But before the Armenian merchant/usurers and the social relations they rested on, the Armenian peasant was powerless.
‘Today when the peasant is menaced by the unjust and venal (Ottoman) state official or by Kurdish pillage he appeals for help to his better off (urban) Armenian compatriot. But with sweet words these hypocritical blood relatives come to seize the peasant’s property and wrap the eternal chains of slavery round his neck…The peasant heaves beneath official state exploitation and complains and protests against Kurdish plunder but is slowly destroyed without a murmur by his own national exploiter (p259).’
Regretting the lack of space that prevented him supplying evidence upholding Tokhmakhian’s case Avtalbekian nevertheless quotes from a contemporary writing about the Armenian region of Mush/Sassoon:
‘In 25 years, the land of Mush will be uninhabited…emigration is wrecking our land. Free the land of Mush from debt so that we are not driven into emigration and are free of the home destroying usurer…Usurers are like a plague condemning the land of Mush to destruction…If this continues, we will have the misfortune of seeing these broad and fertile plains become home to unpleasant bats (p258).’
Tokhmakhian was prescient about the fatal role of exploiting, unproductive and parasitic elites in society! In the Ottoman era alongside the Ottoman state and its elites, the Armenian usurers through their robbery of the peasant’s wealth drove tens of thousands from their homelands undermining people and nation. Today a similar class, siphoning off the wealth of the nation destroys the foundation of the Third Armenian Republic by impoverishing and so driving hundreds of thousands out of their homeland.
Tokhmakhian’s views on Armenian national political independence were equally prescient to say the least! Even if Armenians secured national political independence disaster would beckon unless the 5th column elite was removed. If it remained in post, despite political independence nothing would change.
‘From the peasants neck the elites will simply remove the filthy yoke soaked in their sweat… and in its stead place a new one, but gloriously garlanded… “Though this new yoke is heavy” they will say “it is your own…!” Then the peasant will understand that though the Kurds and external exploiters are gone his condition has deteriorated yet further, and the present is worse than the past (p263).’
Replace reference to the ‘peasant’ with the ‘modern-day worker’ and the warning is an address to the common man and woman of the post-Soviet independent Third Armenian Republic! In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union a new ruling class seized power in an ‘independent Armenia’ and did exactly as Tokhmakhian warned. Like all previous elites it wrecks society and the lives of the common people now impoverished and desperate.
Tokhmakhian clearly ‘saw further and understood the enemy’s (the elite’s – EA) movements better than many a famed commander!’ We can learn from him!
A stunning enigma
Yet…Yet…in an astounding, almost incomprehensible turn, in the sphere of political action Arsen Tokhmakhian cast aside the whole of his analytical thought and replaced it by a limp program of action based on the idle hope that elite wolves could become sheep, that elites which for centuries had robbed and plundered the common people and the nation could undergo righteous moral conversion (p266) to become decent and patriotic citizens. It appears that under the flag of national unity Tokhmakhian, against the entire logic of his worldview, in the political sphere, urged the common people to cease political and social self-organization against the elites that he so rightly depicted as enemies of the people and nation. A great tragedy.
Consideration of this enigma may be fruitful. But it does not in any way devalue Tokhmakhian’s fundamental analytical argument and the conclusions that follow. His impoverished political thinking is separated by an unbridgeable abyss from his rich analytical thought. His political program has no relation and no purchase whatsoever on the splendid quality and imperative demands of his analytical thought.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to access any information on Arsen Tokhmakhian’s murder except that he was falsely alleged to have been a traitor.
Tateos Avtalbekian, ‘Journalism, Essays and Letters’, 1156pp, 2011, Yerevan – pp239-268
Tateos Avtalbekian was an unusual intellectual and political activist. He was neither a member of any Armenian political movement nor was he a Bolshevik. He was a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party but belonged to the Menshevik faction of that Party, a faction that was much less influential among Armenians than the Bolsheviks. Before and in the early Soviet era, besides his substantial political and journalistic work Avtalbekian was also a literary critic of substance with major studies on Mikael Nalpantian, Hovhaness Hovhannisian, Hovhaness Toumanian, Khatchadour Abovian, Muratzan and others. During the worst Stalinist period his writings were suppressed. The substantial collection cited above appeared as we can see only after the collapse of the USSR.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/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.