Death fasts Marxists and the politics of suicide

Aziz Demir analyses the class background to the hunger strike by political prisoners

When the hunger strikes started late last year, comrades from the Weekly Worker asked me several times to write an article. I was not willing to do so at that time because I knew that the situation in Turkish prisons was appalling and that the comrades who were taking part were very determined to go to the end. However, on the other hand, it was very obvious that it was the wrong tactic from the point of view of communists and the working class movement.

There were two reasons why I did not wish to write about the situation at that time. Firstly the Turkish left was crumbling and Dev Sol and one or two others were the few remaining active organisations who were determined to do something about it. Perhaps they were playing out their last acts of significance and so it was not a good idea to be seen to kick them when they were already down.

Secondly, and most importantly, in Turkey the atmosphere on the left means that there is silence on many key questions. The so-called legal left has forgotten the Kurdish issue, has forgotten the armed struggle issue, has forgotten the political prisoners issue, has forgotten all those suffering at the hands of the police and the military. Nobody on the legal left is writing about these questions. As to what remains of the revolutionary left, only the death fast action concerns them. It was a very delicate situation. Communists were not in a good position to say, ?No, it?s wrong. Let?s do something else?, since we were unable to make it a reality. In such circumstances it would be very difficult to criticise the comrades.

However, it is very important to understand that the death fast or hunger strike is a very limited weapon for communists. It is not a correct, winning tactic, appropriate to the current situation in Turkey.

The movement in Turkey is today reaching a watershed. The Kurdish movement is entering a new phase. Its guerrilla forces are practically disbanded, while maintaining the capability of taking up arms if their ?political turn? goes wrong. Their approach is to wait and see what arises from Turkey?s talks with the European Union. Will there be constitutional changes allowing the possibility of legal political activity?

At the same time the other revolutionary organisations have found themselves more and more marooned. Their situation is fraught, with thousands of comrades in prison pushing them to do something. The hunger strike is the result.

Its timing was unfortunate. Turkey is experiencing the most difficult economic conditions following the crashes of November 2000 and February 2001. The working population is faced with new and completely different problems and the isolation of the hunger strikers is growing. The Kurdish militants have now pulled out. It is very sad, but support for the prisoners is not growing.

However, instead of calling a retreat and waiting for another opportunity for action, the organisers have continued to push forward and now the 35th comrade has died. Pulling back would mean surrender, loss of face, in their eyes.

Some of the hunger strikers were among  the prisoners released under the amnesty announced last year. They decided to continue their death fast outside prison. So there are houses in the shanty districts of Istanbul and other cities where former prisoners and their relatives are also on hunger strike.

There is no easy way out. The mode of thinking within  the organisations involved means that they are incapable of changing track, just as previously ?Fight to the last bullet? was the call. I cannot envisage a positive outcome. As far as I can see, the Turkish regime is determined not to give in.

The Irish hunger strikers in the early 1980s had  world opinion on their side, but the Turkish left has been unable to create support either internally or from world opinion. In this situation it is almost impossible for the hunger strike tactic to succeed.

The politics of suicide amongst the Turkish left has a history far deeper than the current death fasts. Taking up arms without regard for the consequences, without regard for the other aspects of struggle or the political situation as a whole, has been the cornerstone of the politics of suicide. This has frequently meant putting aside all other organisational and theoretical activity, all agitational and propaganda work, and relying on armed actions as the only means of raising consciousness, the only means of conveying ideas.

As a result, there have been many unnecessary deaths, deaths that could and should have been avoided. Good, resolute comrades, who have been prepared to take action even in the most adverse conditions, have died in vain.

In the late 1960s, for example, sections of the left engaged in urban guerrilla actions in the absence of an organised proletarian movement. This is an ongoing theme of Turkish political struggle. Young firebrands are prepared to take action. Without a strong Communist Party and working class movement to lead them, they accept wrong ideas. This has resulted in a wedge being driven between, on the one side, the youth and student movement, including working class youth and the Communist Party?s youth organisation, and, on the other, the working class movement in general.

This overwhelmingly petty bourgeois method of struggle has social roots. Turkey is a medium developed capitalist country, yes, but there is a petty bourgeois sea. Subsistence farming has not yet been completely eradicated. In the early 1990s the proportion of the gross national product derived from agriculture was about 17%. Agriculture?s role is greatly diminished in the economy and society, compared to, say, the 1950s. By contrast industry and the service sector have expanded considerably, thus changing Turkey?s rural structure.

Ten years later, agriculture still accounts for around 15%, so the rate of change is slow. However, no less than 45% of employed people work in agriculture. This means that there is massive hidden unemployment or underemployment in the rural economy. An examination of the statistics reveals that unpaid family workers account for 28% of all employed people. This means that 28% of people classed as ?employed? are not actually receiving a wage: they work on family farms, small shops or workshops. As you might imagine, women workers and youth make up the majority - 64% in fact. In agriculture unpaid labour makes up around 60% of the workforce, and 75% of such workers are women or children.

So a great proportion of the rural population in particular is still employed in the non-capitalist sector. They work under a different discipline, from the point of view of the working class a negative discipline left over from a previous mode of production. It is true that these feudal remnants are becoming part of the capitalist system and there is an enormous amount of exploitation, but relations are not yet normal wage relations.

If we look more closely at agriculture, 99% of Turkish farms have less than 50 hectares, and 65% less than five hectares. Around 60% of Turkish farms are capitalistically non-viable economic enterprises, working on or just above the subsistence level. This is a country which is among those trying to get agreement to reduce tariffs and subsidies on agricultural products from 2004.

This massive rural population is one of the most important sources of petty bourgeois influence on the working class and left politics in Turkey. It has a considerable effect on the cities and the urban proletariat. Every day small farms go under and the only possibility for families who have lost their means of subsistence is to migrate to the big cities and to the shanty towns  -  proof of the huge population movements within Turkey. Today there are 14 million people living in or around Istanbul - one fifth or one sixth of the total population. This is no seasonal phenomenon, but a result of permanent changes in agriculture and consequent internal migration of people uprooted from rural areas.

However, in the cities they are not able to find employment in the regular industrial or capitalist service sectors. The only hope for these newly arrived migrant workers in Istanbul and the other large cities is the informal or marginal sector, as it is called. They are employed in the immediate or larger family circle, in the kind of economic enterprise where normal wage labour relations do not apply and where working class discipline of production has not been imposed - another important source of petty bourgeois influence on the urban proletariat.

Those who are familiar with the rag trade sweat shops in north London will know what sort of conditions apply. Clothing manufacture is one of the biggest export currency earners, and conditions in Turkey are neither worse nor better than here. No pension scheme, no health insurance, no guarantee that wages will be received at the end of the month. People work for a week or two in a factory or workshop that perhaps goes broke, and then move to the next one to try and eke out a living.

In such circumstances, everybody has the same way out in their head - set up your own business. Comrades who know the Turkish community in north London will be aware that it comprises very few workers. Many own shops or other small businesses, and increasing numbers have moved to other parts of Britain. You can even find such people in the smallest village in Scotland. Established Turkish immigrants have also formed their own companies, employing, for example, Bosnians or other refugees. They have set up businesses in sectors which were traditionally associated with Turkish immigrants, such as cleaning.

Founding a small company to escape the misery is the prevailing aspiration. Being a worker is seen as a temporary state of affairs - a staging post to accumulate a small amount of capital with the aim of starting up a business: that is the mentality.

This leads on to another problem for the urban proletariat of Turkey today. Most secure jobs - those with a pension, health insurance, etc - are provided either by the state or local authorities. Typically local authorities are run by islamic groups and in order to obtain employment with such authorities religious references are required. The politics of ?tribe? or sect are part of the way of life for the urban proletariat.

Meanwhile, some 200,000 people have lost their jobs because of the economic crisis which took hold last November, so unemployment is a serious problem for the working class as a whole.

Under these conditions petty bourgeois ideas are rampant. This is hardly an unknown problem for revolutionaries around the world. It is part and parcel of the process of creating the urban proletariat. With each new wave of immigrants to the cities, the challenge is to integrate them into the struggle, change their ideas and in the long run win them to a new kind of consciousness.

But  the consciousness of the working class comes and goes with each new influx. In Turkey in the late 60s and early 70s working class consciousness was on the rise and there existed a keen revolutionary understanding amongst the core of the industrial proletariat. However, since the end of the military regime, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that consciousness has been tragically lost. Today this process of demoralisation is accelerating and we are moving towards rock bottom.

The prevailing petty bourgeois ideology brings its influence to bear on the working class and left politics in general. How do petty bourgeois ideas come to affect our politics? They not only bring a mentality which seeks an individual way out, but also can lead to suicidal acts born of desperation. This means that when there is a revolutionary situation, petty bourgeois ideas act as an impediment to the development of the left, and produce their own type of thinking and their own type of organisation.

In Turkey?s case this threw up the guerrilla movement in the 1960s, under the leadership of former student activists. There were few successful guerrilla actions: most were cut short by the state apparatus.

In the mid-70s the inheritors of the 1960s guerrilla movement surfaced again in the working class movement, gathering around the Communist Party of Turkey and the Disk revolutionary trade union centre. For a while they were cooperating, but soon were in competition and then became bitter opponents.

The Weekly Worker has recently been assessing the role of the anarchists in the aftermath of Genoa. The petty bourgeois movement in Turkey has had a similar impact. Wherever there was the possibility of organising the people around a particular campaign, the petty bourgeois movement would also be there, trying to put forward its own agenda and hampering the development of an effective fightback.

The suicidal actions of the petty bourgeoisie arise from a two-sided way of thinking. On the one hand such elements hate authority. On the other hand they are themselves authority megalomaniacs. In the Communist Party of Turkey itself we have suffered many problems as a result of this syndrome. Effectively it means: ?If I am not the authority, there is no authority. If I am not the leader of this organisation, I cannot be a member.?

Obviously such a mentality acts as a block against the development of the party. To take part in decision-making, abide by the decisions of the majority and unite in action as an equal is difficult for petty bourgeois individuals. If the opportunity arises, such individuals may instead try to create a new organisation around their own ideas.

The discipline of such organisations in Turkey is unbelievable - everybody must submit themselves to a higher person, while at the same time having command over five or six others. The relationship is one of domination, which means that there is no development of the members. This discipline does not train or educate cadres or translate their skills into best practice. Rather their initiative is blocked and viewed as a danger.

Such discipline is ineffective because it does not lead people to grasp the ideas behind an action, let alone the nature of the world in which they are operating. Instead there are sound bites and a highly simplified and often incoherent propaganda.

The dedication of many comrades amongst the petty bourgeois left in opposition to the Turkish regime is not in question. But they do not want to think for themselves; they are not capable of thinking for themselves at present. They are put in square boxes by such organisations. Packed together like factory product, they cannot act as self-motivating individuals.

The  history of the working class movement in the non-developed countries during the last century was characterised by such organisations. A consequence has been the various suicide tactics. You cannot think of winning. You cannot assess the results of your actions. You think, ?I will die for the glory of the organisation, for the glory of the working class.? The fact that these comrades are prepared to sacrifice themselves is of course an excellent thing, but the fact that they do so without theorticeal thought is utterly negative.

One of the most important failings of petty bourgeois politics is its lack of trust in the working class. In Turkey their organisations are always elitist. They come to believe that a few comrades can do anything, they can change the world. They imagine that if they lead, the masses will follow. The idea that ordinary workers will one day act decisively for themselves is beyond them.

In 1969, on June 15 and 16, there were hugely significant working class demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara. The government of the day had attempted to repeal trade union laws which for the first time allowed collective bargaining and the right to strike. They were answered with massive spontaneous strikes. At that time, along with many comrades who were later to become cadres in the Communist Party of Turkey,  I was active in the youth movement. We ourselves thought in an elitist way.

Before the working class entered the fray, the police used to beat the hell out of us, dispersing our organisations with ease. The army was also employed. Yet for  those two days in June 1969 the government completely lost control, faced with the working class itself in movement. That upsurge came as a slap in the face for many young comrades and helped change our approach to politics. Unfortunately not all young comrades entering politics have undergone such a profound experience.

The impetus arising from this significant event in Turkish history created the 1970s Communist Party of Turkey and the Disk trade union movement. But not all comrades learnt the lessons. If you do not believe in the capability of the mass movement, you cannot of course accept the structure necessary for a working class party.

If we are strong enough, if we are capable enough, to lead these petty bourgeois revolutionaries, they can be won over and transformed. But we must never forget that they are prone to act in the most unpredictable ways - that is their nature. But they are a fighting force and we have to approach these people. We have to do whatever we can to win them over through ideological struggle. So we must try to engage in joint activities, while at the same time sticking to our bottom line: we are communists and we insist on the need for a party. But when we march alongside them, we must always remain wary.