A History of Armenian Critical Thought…
Armenian News Network / Groong
May 7, 2018
By Eddie Arnavoudian
The criticism of an unjust, iniquitous social order, of oppressing and exploiting states and ruling classes is not a Marxist invention! The intellectual critique of foreign and domestic states and elites forms a solid axis in the cultural and intellectual legacy of every nation. Among Armenians too, besides the sycophantic, self-serving glorification of ugly elites, by hired pens of a kept intelligentsia, often priestly, there is an ancient critical tradition worthy of recall and recovery.
From 5th century Moses of Khoren whose powerful ‘Complaint’ against the Armenian ruling establishment startles with contemporary relevance, to 20th century novelist Shirvanzade’s denunciations of heartless Armenian capitalists in Baku, the history of Armenian critical thought shines with challenges to the devastation of community and national life by foreign and domestic elites.
Today when every radical criticism of society (or indeed even the mildest – by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain for example) is denounced or dismissed as dangerous or irrelevant Bolshevism, a reminder of the history of Armenian critical questioning of power can inspire us to hold firm as we battle against forces that today destroy not just community and nation but the very natural world in which these must exist.
Part IV: The 18th Century Bourgeois Age
I. The Madras Troika
Unlike Britain or France, Armenia did not have a bourgeois revolution that ridding itself of the feudal order and absolute monarchy would set the basis for the evolution of a constitutional democratic republic or state. Nevertheless flowing from specific and peculiar historical, social and economic circumstances the history of Armenian thought registers a coherent and comprehensive 18th century ideological challenge to Ottoman and Iranian feudal occupation and to the Church-dominated Armenian feudal order, a challenge that runs together with a vision of an independent, democratic constitutional Armenian state.
The outstanding exponents of this 18th century worldview were the troika of Joseph Emin (1726-1809), Movses Baghramian (c1720s-c1790s) and Shahamir Shahamirian (1723-1797). All three were rooted or anchored in a hugely wealthy Armenian merchant class settled in Madras, India, with parents or grandparents often hailing from historical Armenia. Born in Iranian Hamadan, Emin and family migrated to India where they prospered as merchants (See Note 1). Originally from Garabagh, Baghramian lived in New Julfa and after adventurous journeys through Russia and the east he settled in Madras where he became tutor to Shahamir Shahamirian’s children. The latter’s birthplace is unknown but his family had also moved from New Julfa to settle in Madras where he made his fortune in the jewelry trade. In 1771 Shahamirian opened his famous printing presses that published the Troika’s works and attracted the rage of the heads of the Armenian Church in Etchmiadzin.
Introducing us to the thought of this Madras Troika, Gevorg Grigoryan’s ‘From the History of Progressive Armenian Socio-Political Thought’ (208pp, 1957, Yerevan) shows them not just as thinkers but as activists reaching out to Armenian forces in western Ottoman and eastern Iranian occupied Armenia as well to the Georgian and Russian monarchies with the ambition of building a united front to liberate Armenian lands from Ottoman and Iranian occupation.
The Troika’s political ambition went further. Their opposition to foreign occupation was premised on opposition to the feudal order. In the wake of the liberation of Armenia their intent was to remove the Church-dominated Armenian feudal order and replace it with a democratic, constitutional state after the fashion of the UK. Here the Constitution that described the Madras Troika’s political vision represented a sort of anti-feudal, anti-colonial bourgeois manifesto for struggle, right up to and including armed struggle if necessary.
For the Troika an independent Armenian state was envisaged as a safe haven for Armenian commercial and merchant capital that operating in international markets without the protection of its own state was beginning to be challenged and undermined by European competitors. Though limited by their class and their times, their vision had nevertheless a radical, even revolutionary dimension. It was fashioned not only by opposition to imperial domination, by opposition to Armenian Church feudalism, but also by an honourable internationalism and by substantial elements of a state welfare system for the common people.
Leo who was often zealous in his denunciation of wealthy Armenian capitalist merchants, was unrestrained in his enthusiasm for the Troika. To the Armenian community they offered, he wrote ‘the cutting edge of European progressive thought’, ‘the most advanced then available’. In his opinion Movses Baghramian was ‘a revolutionary thinker’ and the hugely wealthy Shahamir Shahamirian was ‘that Indian domiciled revolutionary jeweler’. Both, together with the ‘small circle of Madras and India based merchants’, glowed liked ‘extreme red revolutionaries’.
Leo’s enthusiasm is understandable. The Troika’s intellectual legacy shows them to have contributed a noteworthy anti-colonial and anti-feudal chapter to the history of modern Armenian thought. These men were oppositionists in the best sense, critics and not just of foreign foes but of domestic forces blocking national progress and development. They were men who looked, found wanting, and sought to act!
II. The historical and economic foundations
Historically the path for organic, territorially based Armenian bourgeois economic, social and political development was destroyed twice. The 9th-11th century Bagratouni state had registered substantial economic advance producing seeds of potential capitalist development. In 1049 it fell to Byzantine machinations from the west and Seljuk invasion from the east. Armenian elites readily abandoned their homeland and begun to set up base across the globe.
Not all elites left. In eastern Armenia right into the 16th century stubborn resistance with efforts to recover statehood were accompanied by economic growth that by the late 16th and early 17th centuries formed a new hub for a national revival. The process was cut short by the 1500-1639 Hundred Year Ottoman-Iranian war and the forcible deportation of entire Armenians communities from developing homelands into Iran there to serve Iranian economic development. (See 17th century Arakel Tavrizhetsi’s ‘The History’ – a compelling and tragic account. For a comment you can visit ‘The Critical Corner’ 02/29/2016 at http://www.groong.org/tcc/tcc-20160229.html)
Driving a sturdy merchant class out of Armenian homelands Shah Abbas’s deportations blocked the development of Armenian forces of production in Armenia proper. A new wave of Armenian merchants and traders spread across the globe. British occupied India was one site for settlement. There Armenian capital amassed huge wealth. Acting collectively they formed joint enterprises and began to extend into small scale manufacturing, purchasing plantations and other sources of raw materials. On his death Shahamirian left a fortune of 23 million roubles. He was just one among a group of wealthy merchants that included Shehmiranian, Khojajanian, the Raffaelian brothers, Karamanian, Ohanjanian, Geragian, Babajanian and many others (p25-26).
Together Armenian merchants and capitalists wielded a degree of such economic power that it forced concessions from British imperialism. Representing a significant force in the British occupied Indian economy in 1688 the British East India Company felt compelled to codify equal rights for Armenian capital. Armenian capital grew rapidly, developing its own independent interests. But as British power grew, as it drove out Dutch and French competitors, its unappeased hunger for profit, and its fear of a potentially significant commercial rival pushed it to turn on Armenian wealth.
Armenian capital resisted. It drew up a programme for Armenian autonomy in Madras (p123). It joined Indian forces in revolts against British authority. In 1763 Armenians joined Mir Gassim Ali’s armed uprising. Among the rebel army’s leadership was famous Armenian merchant Grigor Haroutyounianan. The Indian rebel army also included an Armenian battalion. But by 1772, having fortified their subjugation of India, the British made their anti-Armenian move: An act of Parliament rescinded Armenian capital’s privileges. Armenian capital in India was endangered!
Beyond India, Armenian wealth had developed in Western Europe, in Russia, in Poland and Ukraine. But here too as in India, European capitals undergoing national development began assault on Armenian business (See the concise ‘History of the Armenian People’, Yerevan, 1975, pp696-697). Across the world Armenian merchants and traders began to feel the fragility of positions that lacked the protection of independent statehood. So the more combative representatives of an emerging globally-based Armenian bourgeois class began to contemplate the restoration of independent Armenian statehood as an effective guardian of their interests. Among them there were significant divergences of vision
Within the Tsarist empire where Armenian commerce was prominent in the Northern Caucuses and Astrakhan men such as Hovsep Arghoutian produced an outline of Armenian statehood that in contrast to the Troika represented a right wing clerical programme seeking to restore Armenian feudal estates and relations, within which commercial capital would operate. Against such trends it was the intellectual representatives of India-based Armenian wealth menaced by British greed who elaborated the most progressive platform for an independent and democratic Armenian state as a safe harbour for their wealth accumulation.
III. The philosophy and the constitution
Hovsep Emin has left us a gripping and illuminating autobiography, the ‘Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin’ (1792, written in English; a 1918 edition has a substantial stock of Emin’s letters). Baghramian’s legacy is the first Armenian language socio-political pamphlet (‘Նոր Տետրակ որ Կոչի Յորդորակ’ 1772) that underlines the principle of political organization that he opposed to the individualism he had noted in Armenian life (p48). Shahamirian’s exhaustive and all-encompassing ‘Constitution’ (Որոգայթ Փարաց 1773) details the entire structure of an independent democratic Armenia. These offer a full description of the Troika’s world view, in their democratic virtues and their sometimes terrible backwardness.
The Troika’s outlook was shaped by the conservative wing of European and British Enlightenment philosophy and politics. They were opposed to the 1789 French revolution (p128-129) and were indiscriminate admirers of Europe who never referred to its brutal slave-owning foundations. Emin for example lauds European education thus:
‘If the Europeans had not devoted themselves to education and that in one of the smallest regions of the globe, they would not have been able to stand against Asia or Africa, and moreover they would not have discovered and civilized America (p71).’
One gasps and moves on! The Madras Troika were also Christians ascribing nature’s and humanity’s existence to divine creation (p57-58).
Yet in the context of Ottoman and Iranian occupation and of the collaborationist feudal Armenian Church that dominated 18th century life Emin, Baghramian and Shahamirian were bourgeois radicals, even revolutionaries. In their Christianity one could say they represented a sort of anti-feudal liberation theology that put the Bible to good democratic use. The Biblical narrative of creation here formed a pillar. Shahamirian:
‘In his struggle against feudal absolutism and against the class rule of the feudal Church, in his affirmation of the rights, the freedom and equality of the individual and in defence of a rational organisation of society…based himself on the Christian principle that God created all men and women as equal. (p62)
Arguing that ‘God created everyone equal’ Joseph Emin opposes absolutist and feudal servitude:
‘A rational person cannot willingly become slave to someone else and must be especially careful not to accept the superiority of his own Christian brethren, for God has created all of them equal…(p78)’
Christian convictions were combined with aspects of Enlightenment philosophy and natural law. All human ill, all woe and suffering are born of obscurantism and ignorance, of prejudice and irrationality that conceal Divine and natural truths. Overcome these with education, reason and enlightenment and men and women can begin to create a social order in harmony with their human essence. ‘On earth’ writes Shahamirian ‘man/woman are born naturally equal (p79)’. The rule of law and of constitutional government as the most rational form of social organisation flows from this Divine and natural equality. In contrast, the danger of individual tyranny and of absolute rule is evident, Shahamirian writes, in Armenian history:
‘Absolute monarchy, individual rule and authority and willful individual action have been the cause of the infinite troubles that have befallen Armenia and the Armenian nation… (These) have reduced us from a state of nobility and happiness to that of being enslaved by others. We have become objects of insult and scorn (p82-83).’
This was the starting point of the Troika’s criticism of the Armenian Church that they judged to be an obstacle to national liberation, progress and development. According to Emin:
‘Generally in the last few centuries the Armenian Church and clergy has not only not helped to liberate the Armenian people from the Turkish-Iranian yoke, but in preaching …patience and obedience it has held them back from struggle…has reconciled men to submissiveness…(and) has destroyed their will to fight… (The Church) ‘…shackles the Armenian people’s spirit (p63-64, 69).’
Baghramian asserted that the Church should have no leadership role in the national struggle. It should not even be a partner! Arguing that ‘a layperson has no right to interfere in the affairs of the Church’ he concluded that the clergy ‘should have no right to interfere in the work of the secular world (p65)
And so from remote Madras, without reference to the actual Armenian conditions and forces, Shahamirian produced his inspired Constitution, a veritable statement of struggle against Iranian, Ottoman and Armenian feudalism, ironically first published in 1789! The new democratic state was to be headed by an elected legislative assembly and an executive, with its own army and its own judicial systems. The Constitution proclaimed all people equal before the law, irrespective of gender, race, nationality and religion. It encouraged the development of trade and markets by removing a broad band of feudal restrictions (p120-121).
Besides its democratic structures, this Constitution had substantial features of a national welfare system, a social democratic dimension one could say. After meeting requirements of national security, all state income was to be devoted to health and education. A hospital was to be built in every town. Other clauses catered for orphans, for those unable to work and for the elderly who had no family (p116). Separating Church and state, education would be removed from Church hands (Clauses 155, 156 and 397 of the Constitution) and become obligatory for both sexes. With education and enlightenment always central to the Troika, the Constitution required schools to be set up in every town and village (p118). Additionally proposals for a humane prison regime insisted on cleanliness, healthy conditions while also allowing for weekend home visits and even conjugal rights.
Its progressive and democratic qualities notwithstanding, this was a bourgeois nationalist Constitution designed to benefit an Armenian capitalist and landowning class. So even as all nationalities were deemed equal before the law (Clause 2, 3, 10, 128) and even as there was to be complete religious freedom (Clause 5) the Constitution decisively discriminates. It secures Armenians, and only those belonging to the official Armenian Church, the dominant and leading role in political and economic life.
Only Armenians, men, not women and only those affiliated to the official Armenian Church could be elected to public office (p104)! To secure Armenian economic primacy, at a time when agriculture was still dominant, the Constitution stipulated that only Armenian men affiliated to the Armenian Church could own land (p104)! No account was taken of the multi-national citizenry of an imagined democratic Armenia! Here another underlining of the breach between the objective reality of the homeland and the Troika’s ambitions, revealing a narrow bourgeois nationalist class dimension.
Armenian women like non-Armenians were subject to discrimination that made them second class citizens. Despite formal equalities, despite opposition to what was termed the ‘Asiatic’ abuse of women, despite women’s rights to education and the prohibition of forced marriage, the Constitution offers women no role in public economic and political life. And shockingly in the sphere of family law they alone, not the man, would be punishable if unfaithful in conjugal relations (p114)!
Representing the political dreams of a segment of Armenia capital being edged out from British occupied India Shahamirian’s Constitution bore little or no relation to actual political, social, economic and demographic conditions in Armenian homelands. But its democratic and social foundation, its anti-imperial and anti-feudal thrust despite its awful limits, reserves for it a valuable place in the history of Armenian democratic thought. Significantly and thought provokingly in all their endeavours the Troika strove for Armenian freedom conscious of the rights of the Georgian and Aghvan peoples too (p133-136, 142,143, 179, 181, 188-190).
IV. The struggle for statehood
Emin, Baghramian and Shahamirian were no desk-bound dreamers. Opposed to the selfish egoism so prevalent in public life today, for the Troika the highest form of civic virtue, of public service was active patriotism! Emin indeed turned down a lucrative career in the Russian Tsar’s army to devote his energies to the national struggle despite impossible odds. Men of action, to advance their aims they sought direct links with political and social forces in Armenia.
Mature foundations and social forces for the realisation of an independent Armenian republic did not exist in historic Armenia. Nevertheless the Troika’s efforts did coincide with significant national political fermentation in both Ottoman and Iranian controlled Armenia, most particularly in the eastern Armenia semi-autonomous principalities of Garabagh. With these forces the Troika sought to establish active political relations.
Though the Garabagh principalities had lost position and power since the failure of their 1720s uprising against Ottoman and Iranian power, they remained prominent enough for Emin, Baghramian and Shahamirian to regard them as decisive forces for Armenian liberation. In his history that covers the period Leo writes that for the Madras activists Garabagh was ‘the base for the entire Armenian liberation movement and so they ‘strove to generalize the Garabagh movement across the entire Armenian land and nation (Leo p314 and 282).’
Ferment for liberation was also evident in western Armenia, particularly in the region of Mush-Sassoun where the destruction of Armenian life and of their communities was driving people to the edge. The scale of catastrophe is underlined by a frank contemporary Turkish historian who tells of destruction, of forced labour and super-exploitation (See ‘History of Armenia’, 1972, Volume IV, p203). In Mush Emin established relations with Bishop Hovann, progressive leader of the Armenian Church in the region (See Note 2). They discussed projects of liberation that included possible armed uprisings against Ottoman forces.
The paucity of local forces in a contest against Ottoman and Iranian power led the Madras Troika to seek Tsarist aid. This turn to a great power was not however the usual manifestation of Armenian dependency politics. The Troika, and especially Shahamirian, attempted to act as an independent not comprador trend of Armenian wealth. Shahamirian’s Constitution grants Tsarism a prime role in liberating Armenia from Ottoman and Iranian clutches but insists that Tsarist Russia respect the Armenian constitution and does not attempt to impose Russian feudal relations on the land (p139-140). It also demands that as the Armenian state built up its own defences Tsarist troops steadily withdraw from Armenia (p141-142).
In the late 1750s and 1760s Emin and Baghramian travelled through Armenia, Georgia and Russia negotiating, mobilising and working to build alliances with Mush and Garabagh as well as with the Georgian and Russian monarchies. Shahmirian, though he never left Madras, maintained systematic correspondence with Garabagh principalities and the Armenian Church in Etchmiadzin that he courted as possible allies. In this courting are evident those terrible contradictions arising from the absence of mature democratic forces in historic Armenian homelands. In search of practical allies the Troika was forced to seek collaboration with the leadership of an Armenian feudal estate that regarded them as the devil incarnate! With an Enlightenment bent they perhaps hoped that rational discussion and consideration would raise the Church leadership above its own material class interests and prejudices. Alas that this would not be so!
A liberated Armenia would face a huge obstacle, a formidable foe in the feudal Church. Through the centuries it had been able to preserve its status as a vast landowning estate with substantial holdings grouped around monasteries in Etchmiadzin, Datev, Gandzasar, Haghbad, Sanahin and Abragounis in the east and Aghtamar, Varak, Narek and Mush in the west. With 40 different forms of taxing the peasants living on its estates the Church kept them in check with a combination of obscurantist mystification and preaching of passivity. And if this failed they happily turned to occupying state forces to repress resistance (p15-16).
Hugely wealthy and integrated into Iranian imperial power (p153) the Vatican of the Armenian Church, Etchmiadzin, then headed by Simeon of Yerevan arduously sought to thwart the Troika. It obstructed and tried to sabotage Troika relations with Georgian monarchs (p151) and the Garabagh principalities (p152). Opposed to all members of the Troika Simeon of Yerevan was particularly enraged by Baghramian. When Shahamirian sent Simeon a copy of Baghramian’s pamphlet he received a letter by return denouncing Baghramian for uttering ‘words of the devil’ and instructing Shahamirian to collect up and burn all copies of the pamphlet. He goes further demanding that Shahamirian also close his own printing press and stop sending ‘dangerous letters’ to Garabagh’s leadership. He demanded in addition that Shahamirian expel Baghramian from Madras (p156-159)!
The measure of the progressive quality of Troika’s ideological programme and political initiatives was this ugly hatred from the Church, the dominant faction of the Armenian establishment. Against this reactionary, obscurantist feudal force the Troika’s world view, its ideology and programme however remote from the objective conditions that obtained in Armenia, represented and for a time became a genuine, democratic challenge for progress.
* * *
Alas the Madras Troika’s practical ventures came to nothing. The homeland did not have the native forces sufficiently strong to uphold a constitutional democratic banner in a struggle for liberation and progress. So the Troika’s vision dissipated leaving little or no influence on the next stage of the national liberation movement into the 19th and 20th centuries.
Some have been harsh in their evaluation! In Volume 2 of ‘The History of Armenian Intellectual Culture’ Arakel Arakelian is utterly dismissive. Emin is depicted as something of a charlatan, while together he claims, the Troika’s:
‘…ideals smashed to smithereens against the rocks of reality. Their ideas…found no fertile soil and did not develop in the grim reality of 1750s Armenia (p149)’
Yet in their anti-colonial ambition, in willingness to take up arms, in opposition to the Church led feudal order in Armenia and in their determination not to bend to Russian feudalism, in their struggle for a genuinely independent statehood and in their concern for the well-being of the common people, the Madras Troika’s ideological vision and work constitutes a rich episode in the history of Armenian national development and nation-building. They were self-made individuals doing their own class and national bidding, not that of another state or nation. They may not have succeeded but compared to 19th century comprador and conservative Armenian capital’s influence and role in the liberation movement the Troika’s was a superior independent light of progressive thought from which we can learn today!
Today, for all its limited, 18th century bourgeois vision and conception the Troika’s world view puts them head and shoulders above our contemporary elites. They strove to free Armenia and build an independent nation, develop its economy and its civic society not rob it and gift its resources and business to foreign capital. They did not want to be compradors. While our current elites sell off our national wealth and happily act as agents for foreign business the Troika’s vision embodied a genuinely independent and developed Armenia – independent economically and politically.
Leo offers the best brief biographical sketch of this truly extraordinary fellow whose authenticity is vouched for among others by British political philosopher Edmund Burke! Leo brings Emin alive both as an adventurous patriot and a determined visionary. See Leo’s ‘History of the Armenian People’, Volume III, Part 2, pp282-321, Yerevan, 1973).
Leo in the same volume offers a good account of the Hovann-Emin relationship. They seem to have clicked together almost perfectly. Incredibly Hovann assured Emin that he could mobilise 40,000 western Armenian soldiers to fight Ottoman tyranny if Emin and the Georgian monarchy could put 200 of their troops on occupied Armenian soil! A critical evaluation of the relationship between the two awaits its author.
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