A route out of paralysis
Is Turkey ‘on the road to fascism’? Such talk is utterly counterproductive, argues Esen Uslu
Atatϋrk: hardly a democrat
The heading of Morning Star editorial dated April 18 -‘Turkey on the road to fascism’ - reflects a quite common leftwing outlook which is prevailing in Turkey and abroad.1
The Star, commenting on the outcome of the referendum on the constitutional amendment, held on April 16, lists didactically all the facets of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime that are irritating liberal European Union politicians. And it concludes that, if the death penalty is reintroduced, Turkey will “face an even more dangerous future”.
It is interesting to compare the Star editorial with some Turkish liberal articles. Before the constitutional amendment was passed by the Turkish parliament last year, an academic journalist wrote an article entitled ‘It is written as “new Turkey”, but pronounced as “fascism”’.2
On April 17 The Guardian published an article by well-respected liberal journalist Yavuz Baydar entitled ‘Erdogan’s referendum victory spells the end of Turkey as we know it’.3 Baydar wrote: “It’s hard not to notice the striking resemblance to the sequence of events in Germany from 1933: the Reichstag fire, the Night of the Long Knives, the infamous referendum in 1934.”
Such copy-and-paste comparisons of the situation in Turkey with Nazi Germany may work for disappointed liberals, but they cannot replace an informed historical analysis and - most important of all - cannot shed light on the prospects of struggle, which is the most important task of revolutionary Marxism.
The prime feature of this liberal approach has been its whitewashing of the Turkish regime up to now, as if it was previously a typical European liberal democracy - or at least as if it was better than today in relation to its respect for the ‘rule of law’, for human rights, etc. Such analyses see nothing but doom and gloom in prospect for the future.
When the liberals complain about the lost Turkey they knew, the working class - together with the Kurds, Alevis and the remnants of once well-established Christian communities - simply reply: ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about! Yesteryear was no better for us!’ The Turkish Republic has never been a democracy, not even in the common European usage of the word. Those who believed that this or that political development would usher in democratic advance have been disappointed many times.
The main reason for this is the fact that the republic was the continuation of the Ottoman state, in its most ancient as well as modern aspects, despite the contrary assurances of Kemalists - those who seek inspiration in the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of the early 20th century - as well as the Soviet and Turkish communist movement in the past.
In the 19th century, the Ottoman empire was gradually losing its grip on the Middle East and Balkans in the face of nationalist movements, and became a bone of contention, when it came to the establishment of spheres of influence by the imperialist powers. The Ottoman ‘solution’ was to suppress rival nationalisms, as well as promoting its own Turkish and Islamist nationalism, and creating a homogenous state at the expense of all alternatives.
That honour fell to the officers of the modern Ottoman army, developed in the 19th century on the Prussian model. Their putsches led to the formation of the Union and Progress Party - the blunt instrument used against the Armenian and Greek Orthodox population of Anatolia in the first decades of the 20th century during the creation of the Turkish Republic.
The so-called ‘war of liberation’ was led by a group of UPP officers after the blame for the World War I defeat fell on the former leaders of that party, which took the name, ‘Republican People’s Party’ (CHP), after the formation of the republic in 1923. The Kemalists waged a bloody power struggle with the remnants of the UPP and suppressed them through the so-called extra-judicial ‘liberation tribunals’ that hanged more people than were killed during the ‘War of Liberation’.
After obtaining recognition from the imperialist powers with the signing of the Lausanne treaties in 1924, the Kemalist republic dealt a heavy blow to Kurdish nationalist aspirations, as well as to the nascent Turkish communist movement. That onslaught against the Kurds has continued almost without cease to the present day - for example, the campaign to suppress the Kurdish Alevis of Dersim province started in the 1930s and lasted until the 50s. The passing of the 1924 ‘Law of Maintaining Peace’ granted gargantuan powers to the executive, and parliament was reduced to a mere rubber stamp.
Even as late as 1934 the Jewish population living in Thrace was subjected to a pogrom. During World War II the Nazi sympathies of the CHP regime were quite apparent, and they treated the ‘unauthorised’ Jewish migration to Palestine brutally during the ‘Struma disaster’ of 1942.
More or less that type of unbridled rule under the single-party state lasted until the aftermath of World War II. But, in order to be accepted in the new world order that followed, a multi-party democracy was adopted, and a section of the CHP became the Democrat Party.
In 1950 the DP was elected by a landslide, while all attempts to establish legal leftwing parties were quickly suppressed through draconian laws borrowed from Mussolini’s criminal law, and fortified with the mandatory death penalty for the crime of “attempting to overthrow the constitutional rule of Turkey” during the initial stages of the cold war.
It was the DP government that launched the pogrom against the Greek Orthodox and Armenian populations that remained in Istanbul in September 1955, and in 1959 it staged a new campaign against Kurdish intellectuals, typified by the ‘Trial of 49’.
The course of ‘multi-party democracy’ was disrupted by a military coup against the DP regime in 1960, which saw three DP leaders executed, and an offer to form a government was made to the CHP. However, in the first general elections after the ending of military rule in 1965, there was a reincarnation of the DP in the guise of Justice Party (AP), which dominated political life during the 60s.
The next crisis came in March 1971, when the army intervened once more, and a proxy civilian-technocratic government was formed - one of its first acts was to hang three revolutionaries. Military rule was ended mainly by the struggles of the working class - only to be met by another military takeover in September 1980.
For the first time in its history Turkey found itself under a truly fascist regime, in the sense of the counterrevolutionary terror of the bourgeoisie meted out against the working class through its army and other wings of the state. But even that regime could not rule for a long period, and was gradually dissolved into something resembling a multi-party parliamentary democracy, under the not-so-secret tutelage of the military lurking behind the scenes. For a while the Islamist politics of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) succeeded in pushing the military back, but there were at least two veiled military interventions and one serious attempt at another military takeover.
That is a brief summary of the Turkey known to working people and communists before the April referendum. However, the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations and the June 2015 elections have also shown to the working class of Turkey - as well as to the Kurds, Alevis and other national-religious minorities - that the onslaught of Islamist politics could be successfully resisted.
Nevertheless, over the 94 years that have passed since the formation of the republic, almost 70 have been under one form or another of military rule or some thinly veiled dictatorial regime. That is the past, as the working class experienced it. And, despite all the oppressive policies, the Kurdish freedom movement has gained strength since the 90s, and the regime has been uncertain as to how to suppress it - favourable conditions have emerged for the Kurdish freedom movement on the south-eastern borders.
After the defeat suffered in 2015, the Erdogan clique backtracked from the AKP’s Islamist agenda and found solace under the nationalist wings of the military, which actually represents historical state thinking - no truce with the Kurds and an all-out war to obliterate the guerrilla movement. The so-called ‘Sri-Lankan model’ was put into practice by kicking away the table from under the bilateral negotiations to find a peaceful resolution of the ‘Kurdish problem’, which had reached an advanced level.
Since then Kurdish cities and towns - especially their working class core - have been subjected to a brutal onslaught. The Turkish airforce began bombing alleged guerrilla bases and installations, and thousands have been killed or imprisoned. The leaders of Kurdish political parties, as well as civic organisations, have been detained. Kurdish MPs have been deprived of parliamentary immunity, charged, convicted and imprisoned.
However, this change of tack put the AKP, which had brought together an election-winning coalition, under enormous pressure and it split down the middle. It lost the support of the Gülen movement - a precursor of Islamist politics - and has been trying to cling onto power by purging old allies from state institutions by the thousand. It is now looking to ally with the likes of the nationalist-racist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the infamous Grey Wolves, in an attempt to resurrect the Nationalist Front governments of the 1970s.
However, the crucial question is, how can the AKP maintain such a delicate balancing act, while more than half of the population is clearly against it, as the results of the referendum demonstrated? Without addressing that question, any talk of impending fascism is nothing but an example of crying wolf. The Kurdish phobia prevailing among the CHP and Kemalists, as well as among the scattered groups and parties of the Turkish left, causes paralysis, preventing them from acting in unison against the AKP regime.
Any analysis that does not touch on such a simple, but fundamental, issue is as deceiving for the working class as the “bright future” discourse of the AKP. Far from helping the working class in its fight against the regime, this failing disarms workers and breaks their will to struggle. It also creates nationalist impediments to the development and deepening of working class consciousness.
Now is not the time for doom and gloom. Yes, during a retreat the drums cannot beat a victory march, but we need to stop and take a stock of the situation before moving forward. The left, together with the Kurdish freedom movement, could, and should, draw up a democratic programme aimed at uniting the progressive opposition - or at least bringing their respective movements into parallel motion. Talk of inevitable fascism, however well intentioned, is useless and counterproductive.
The lack of any coherent revolutionary Marxist leadership of the working class movement has meant that the vacuum left by the collapse of Soviet ‘communism’ is yet to be filled. However, despite that, the working class is quite capable of cutting a way through the clutter stacked before it by the liberals, old-style communists and other inconsistent democrats.