For twenty years, from 1960 to 1980, the Turkish left struggled to match its remarkable militancy, and not inconsiderable support, to the realities of its country and its time. Ultimately, socialists were able to garner 3 per cent of the national vote in 1979, a disappointing figure. Today their organizations are illegal. Both the failure and the potential of the Turkish left were symbolized by a massive gathering at Taksim, the big square of Istanbul, on May Day 1977. The celebration was called by the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers Unions (disk)—the more radical of two such associations in Turkey—and 200,000 socialists responded. They gathered behind a welter of different, often competing banners. Devrimci Yol (Revolutionary Way) had 40,000 followers, Kurtuluş¸ 10,000. Both were independent groups with origins in the guerrilla struggles of the 1960s. All three of Turkey’s pro-Soviet groups were present. There were many student and professional associations, as well as the workers of the unions themselves. The historic disaster which awaited them was prefigured by the brutal conclusion to the gathering. As a Maoist group attempted
The problem has not been one of fragmentation and sectarianism alone, although the inability of the left groups to unite against the fascists has been the most graphic demonstration of their collective immaturity. Before the recent military coup the spectrum of competing groups on the Turkish left was quite staggering. First there was the largest organization, Devrimci-Yol, which was also very loose, almost a federation. Secondly, the Maoists possessed a paper, Aydinlik, which may have been the largest circulation pro-Chinese daily in the world outside of Chinese communities. Thirdly, in the factories and in some trade unions the traditional Communist Party (tkp) exercised considerable influence. Yet each of these three general currents—the independent, the pro-Maoist (or pro-Chinese) and the pro-Soviet—were in turn split between relatively strong contending factions. It must be noted, of course, that the variegated divisions of the Turkish left found a parallel in the traditional instability of parliamentary alliances and succession of governments in Ankara: division is a general feature of Turkish society. Equally important is what all the left groups shared in common at the level of their political practice and conduct of mass work. Across the various divides that separated them, it is evident that all sectors of the Turkish left tended to alienate the masses in the name of the masses. Many Istanbul workers, for example, have to commute across the Bosphorus. The boats are crowded, the journey is especially tiring after work. Imagine their feelings as they crowd off the boat onto the landing and search for their bus for the next stage of their journey, when they are met by newspaper-sellers who cry, ‘power grows out of the barrel of a gun!’ Nor does only the ‘ultra-left’ have a monopoly of such counter-productive political activity. The manipulative entrism of ‘realistic’ tacticians who spurn anything that smacks of ‘adventurism’ can be just as demoralizing, both because of its superficial cynicism and because it deliberately disarms, rather than ‘over-arms’ the necessary combativity of the masses.
A similar criticism might also be levelled at the ‘social-democratic’ leader of the Republican Peoples’ Party (rpp), Bulent Ecevit, who managed to gain a slender parliamentary majority in 1977. He failed to consolidate his popular base and, instead of calling upon the working class to assist him in the struggle against fascism, he presented himself as the personification of the state. The rpp’s Ataturkist origins, its
Yet socialists outside Turkey have scarcely recognized the full dimensions of the disaster which accompanied Ecevit’s ultimate ouster from power by Demirel in 1979. Demirel’s minority government regained power only with the support of the National Salvationists, the Islamic fundamentalist party, and of the Action Party, the Turkish fascist movement whose ‘Grey Wolves’ have claimed so many lives. This much is widely known, of course. But less understood is how Ecevit’s inability to prevent such an outcome, after having had the prize of office once more in his hands, was in international terms perhaps a ‘Chile’ for social democracy in the Third World. My aim in this article will be to inquire into some of the causes of the Turkish left’s ‘impotent potential’. I will look at the way the left has made its presence keenly felt whenever the class struggle assumes more violent forms, yet has been quite unable to integrate itself into the daily life of the oppressed, who are badly in need of help and self-organization. This is not a matter of contrasting the parliamentary and the insurrectionary roads to socialism, but of critically examining the ‘militaristic’ virtues of a left which is almost crippled by the demands of peaceful work or co-operation, despite its collectivist ideology. The brief, chronological survey which follows does not pretend to be a history of Turkish socialism, nor an account of the class struggle in the Turkish formation. It is an initial inquiry into the strategic disorientation and the associated ‘structure of feeling’ which has kept the Turkish left in its fateful grip.
The first Turkish Communist Party was founded, under the leadership of Mustapha Suphi, in June 1920, inside the Soviet Union. The proximity of the Russian revolution thus led to a Leninist organization before most other countries. Despite this, the Third International had little direct effect on Turkish political life, or indeed on the traditions of the Turkish left: in terms of international comparison the greatest
Ataturk’s nationalism was of a specific variety. Its early victory was rooted in inherited, pre-First World War, Ottoman traditions. A ‘Turkified’ extension of state-organized, Ottoman enlightenment, Kemal’s independence movement fought against (but later was aided by) British and French imperialism. It crushed Greek attempts to cash in on the Ottoman defeat in the Great War. But Ataturk did not draw his support from a popular resistance. On the contrary, he based his army on demobilized veterans, while coercing peasants to fight in the ranks (more were killed fleeing the lines than died under Greek guns, a remarkable tribute to the Turkish peasant’s sense of self-interest). Of course, this weakened Ataturk’s fighting ability, and meant that the ‘Green Army’ was at first a vital ally for him. Led by Ethem, a Circassian populist, the ‘Green Army’ was a guerilla-type, peasant force inspired by hopes of expropriating the village merchants and notables. Its existence demonstrated that a liberation which combined class with national struggles was a possibility at that time. Ataturk, however, although opposed to foreign domination, was a Western-oriented modernizer and secularist who had no intention of overthrowing indigenous capitalism. His greatest skill was in combining his domestic aims with a shrewed grasp of international realities. Thus he welcomed Soviet diplomatic support against the British in his most difficult hour, while simultaneously preparing to liquidate his own populist allies.
As his position strengthened, Ataturk crushed the ‘Green Army’ with his own professional force under the command of his trusted subordinate, General Inönü. That same month, January 1921, Suphi and a small group of his comrades were somehow inveigled to visit Turkey from the ussr. They were drowned off Trebizon in a classic, Ottoman style elimination. Thus both the founding Turkish Communist as well as the most militant class force were cut down within weeks. Two months later the Soviet-Turkish treaty was signed, which in its preamble committed both countries to ‘the struggle against imperialism’. Two years later, Bukharin was to argue that Turkey: ‘in spite of all persecutions of Communists, plays a revolutionary role, since she is a destructive instrument in relation to the imperialist system as a whole’.footnote2