Liberalism does not have a long history in Turkey. Private possession and liberal rights were first debated by the Young Ottomans of the Sultan Abdülaziz period in the second part of the 19th century. This does not mean, however, that the Young Ottomans were liberal in belief, politics or economics. Though they had some liberal thoughts, the state was at the epicenter of their political understanding. Besides, the majority of them were public servants.
It was not until the Republican Era that one could find self-reliant liberals, who also had some differences from the average liberal figures of Western Europe. Many of the Turkish liberals have defended a mixture of economic liberalism hand in hand with nationalist politics and cultural conservativism. Moreover, especially today, “liberal” refers to pro-Western elements of Turkish politics including the center-left and center-right, some Kemalists and Kurdists, a few Islamists, some very small groups such as the LGBT and feminist movements, and the “liberal left.” Liberalism has connotations with not only federalism against the nation-state structure, which attracts the Kurdists, Islamists and liberal left, but also a certain type of Americanism that has consolidated the center-right for decades against any and all elements of the political left that they referred to as “Sovietism.”
On the other hand, before the postmodern situation and even before the Cold War between the so-called “liberal West” and the totalitarian East (Soviets), there was a debate on economic models among Turkish parties, civil society and thinkers. During the initial years of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's presidency, a pro-market economic policy was supported to some extent. In 1925, Atatürk supported the first Economic Congress held in Izmir, an international city of trade, just two years after the republic was founded and he became leader. Additionally, he also supported his friend Fethi Okyar to build a liberal opposition against his own party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Okyar’s party was named the Liberal Republican Party (SCF), which had an obvious connotation of liberalism.
The SCF was closed in a very short time in the year of the Great Depression, which devastated national economies all around the world. Turkey also adopted a state-controlled economic policy that became constitutional in 1937 and lasted until the early 1980s. Thus, the liberal attempts in politics, the academy, intellectual circles and business fields were suppressed by the state mainly by negligence. One of those neglected elements of liberalism was Ahmet Hamdi Başar’s life work, which includes his business enterprises together with publications suggesting a liberal economic model.
Life and career
Başar was born in 1897 in Istanbul. He belonged to the famous Karamanoğlu family on his mother’s side. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the mathematics department at Darülfünun (today’s Istanbul University) in 1912. After two years, he quit mathematics and enrolled in the geography department, where he graduated late in 1919 due to World War I.
Even as a student, Başar was full of entrepreneurial ideas. Besides his work as a schoolteacher during his own education at university, he opened a private elementary school called Timsal-i Maarif with friends. Later, he published his first periodical on commerce titled “Ticaret-i Umumiye.” He also wrote columns in daily newspapers. After 1921, he began to publish the journal “Türkiye Iktisat Mecmuası.”
Başar propagated what he called the “national economy” in his writings published in the aforementioned journals. He also helped to establish the “Milli Türk Ticaret Birliği” ("National Turkish Trade Association"), which aimed at supporting the Muslim traders to take the place of the non-Muslim traders in the general economy. The association was very active at the Izmir Economic Congress.
Başar was at the center of the struggle to promote the strength of the national or nationalist economy. He established the “Türk Çalıştırma Derneği” ("Association for Turkish Employment") with friends in order to enhance awareness about employing Turkish nationals instead of non-Muslim minorities.
Another attempt by Başar toward building a strong Turkish national economy was the “Ahali Ticaret Fırkası” ("People’s Party of Commerce") in 1918, which was a liberal, populist and nationalist party, among others. The organization suggested that the state should help private enterprises by granting them small amounts of capital for their startups.
Başar was not an abstract thinker. He was in business from his early youth. Besides his theoretical and civil society works, he was also the director of the Istanbul Port Company, which gifted him his nickname “Limancı Hamdi,” literally “Hamdi from the Port.”
Although Başar wrote, worked and organized politics for a national and private economy relying on the Muslim majority of the young republic, the single-party regime led by Atatürk – who originally supported attempts at liberalism until his frustration about the masses being in possible opposition to his ruling CHP stopped him – chose to run a fully state-controlled economy, suppressing private enterprise. Başar did his best to argue the opposite approach.
He published numerous articles to sway public opinion toward a private economy, saved and supported by the state. He even exaggerated situations in his columns and articles. For instance, he denied that the economic unrest at the beginning of the 1930s was linked to the Great Depression. This failure of the American market economy shouldn’t overshadow the liberal attempts in Turkey. He thereby underestimated the effects of the global economy and insisted on defending his original position for decades.
He published a crowded series of books during the 1930s and 1940s. He criticized the state-run economy on behalf of a nationalist understanding of the private economy. After Atatürk’s death in 1938, Başar became more dissident against the Inönü government in economics. He became a member of the Democrat Party (DP) and addressed his crucial criticism to Inönü himself at the second Economic Congress held in 1948, two years before the DP's great defeat of the CHP, considered by some interpreters as a democratic revolution.
On the other hand, Başar’s relationship with the “liberal” DP didn’t last long either. He was elected as a member of parliament from the DP rows in 1950, but he resigned in 1953 due to conflicting economic ideas. He also became a dissident toward the DP government, against which he published two books. Başar was assigned as a member of the Social Works Commission of the National Unity Committee, the junta responsible for the 1960 military coup.
Başar’s work with the military junta seems to be a contradiction for a liberal. Yet, he was the child of the Second Constitutional and Early Republican eras, a time when nation-state and nationalism among the country's citizens came first as he experienced the very real possibility of the dissolution of Turkey.
After he left the Social Works Commission, Başar published the “Barış Dünyası” ("World of Peace") journal starting in 1944, but it would be his last work as he had to close it after 21 issues. The main focus of that journal was world peace, inspired by World War II. Başar criticized capitalism for being responsible for armed conflicts around the world. He thought that world peace was only possible with a combination of a rational organization of societies, the inspiration of the socialist approach and the wisdom of great religions. This mix explains why Başar’s liberalism was limited to free trade opportunities to be used by Turkish citizens, a nationalist position in reality.
Başar was married to Şükufe Nihal, a prominent fiction writer and civil society figure, from the end of World War I until they divorced in the late 1950s. He died on June 26, 1971, in Istanbul.
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