Left: no strategic answers

Istanbul revolt suppressed

Esen Uslu reports from Istanbul on the brutal repression that finally saw off the rearguard action of the protestors

‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons’, and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!

- Rosa Luxemburg Die Rote Fahne January 14 1919


It is now time to prepare for the next step by learning the lessons. The police first cleared Taksim Square, and then the demonstrators were forced out of the adjacent Gezi Park, finally ending the revolt.

Compared to what the Turkish police and security forces are capable of, generally a controlled level of force was used before the international media. However, when the clashes continued in the narrow side streets away from the cameras, the true face of police brutality became more apparent.

Here I can almost hear readers’ objections: ‘What are you talking, man? We have seen in the social media the level of violence used against demonstrators.’ That is indeed true, but what I am pointing out is that even our readers could not imagine what the police and gendarmerie, and the special army units waiting behind the scene, are capable of when they are ordered to put down a revolt. Even in Turkey up to a couple of days ago, only the Kurds living in Kurdistan could truly understand that, since they have been fighting against it day in and day out for the last 30 years.

The new generation of young students and professionals who led the revolt has not had any previous direct experience of state repression. The personal anecdotes of the years under the fascist junta were just the tales of old has-beens to most of them, and Kurdistan was far, far away from their world.

The repression they saw when the revolt was put down was their first direct experience of state violence. This baptism of fire will inevitably have sent some of them back into their own world, but it will have tempered the resolve of the best of them - those prepared to carry the torch forward. They took on the role of leading the revolt without asking for or expecting to be given such responsibility, and did their best to resist and carry on fighting.

However, their naivety and lack of political experience was apparent. When their resistance to the initial police action forced a hasty retreat, an opportunity was created to win massive support amongst large sections of the population. But, unsurprisingly, the youth were unable to develop anything approaching a political programme to embrace all the democratic demands of the disaffected sections of society. Despite their realisation that the problem was not just a few trees or a park, but the entire system of state repression, the core of the revolt was not equipped to act accordingly.

They were unable to unify the diverse political forces within a common front. They did not know how to stop the state inserting its ideological and political wedges into the fault lines dividing them. But it goes without saying that to expect such a gargantuan leap from them would have been totally unrealistic. A momentary spark caught the attention of the whole country, but clearly it was beyond their capabilities to overcome such political odds in the current complex world climate in order to lead the country towards a democratic revolution.

Yet it seemed as though everybody within the small organisations of the left was expecting - unrealistically or fantastically - miracles. The leftwing groups failed dismally in the tasks before them: bringing to bear the lessons of historical experience, providing theoretical assistance in terms of a political programme, and extending the organisational capacity of the revolt to withstand the coming onslaught. Despite its value in providing brave fighters on the barricades, the left’s theoretical and organisational impact did not extend beyond adding some steel to the revolt and assisting in tactical operations.

Kurdish tensions

After the initial success, the core of the revolt reverted to an introvert stance, limiting their demands to those of an ecological, judicial and administrative nature relating to Gezi Park. By doing so they lost the chance of expanding the bridgehead they had gained.

Unable to envisage a broader democratic programme, they were unable to rally to their ranks forces yet to join the revolt. Indeed some of their potential allies were alienated. The only force that has a clearly developed programme which includes democratic demands for local autonomy is the Kurdish freedom movement.

But the lack of any meeting of minds contributed to the appearance of cracks in the support gained by the heroic action of the revolt. The Kurdish freedom movement, hampered by its own difficult negotiations with the government and attempts to persuade its own rank and file to pursue the “peace process”, acted very hesitantly and was slow to support the action centred in Gezi Park. The movement has to oversee a carefully staged withdrawal of armed forces as well as preparations for four large conferences. It was not ready to rock the boat through the embrace of a new, uncertain force.

It was overcautious in its response, wary of alienating this first open revolt against the regime by putting forward a programme that may have been construed as divisive or particularistic. However, by failing to do so it missed the first serious opportunity to become a party with answers for the whole of Turkey by popularising the democratic autonomy programme envisaged by Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and possibly affecting the outcome of the revolt.

The PKK was also quite slow to appreciate the importance and potential of the revolt, despite the fact that this had been pointed out by leftwing MPs elected with the support of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), who even acted as a catalyst for the initial resistance. The Kurdish youth of Istanbul immediately responded to the revolt when it engaged in resistance to the police, joining in the demonstrations and supporting the camp in Gezi Park. This movement from below eventually pushed the upper echelons of the BDP to act. But very valuable time was lost and the initiative could not be regained.

Nationalists and junta fans

The revolt also saw the national-socialist ex-Maoists and other nationalist/racist/xenophobic political groups rushing to the scene. Some openly called for the military to topple the government, and suddenly their calls for the resignation of the prime minister and government seemed to dominate the political agenda in the absence of a democratic programme.

These groups brought with them their divisive opinions oriented against not just the peace process, but the Kurds and the Kurdish freedom movement. There were several physical attacks on Kurdish participants in the revolt in Istanbul and elsewhere. They also brought with them their distinguishing mark: the Turkish flag adorned with an image of Kemal Atatürk, the ‘founding father’ of modern Turkey. At almost every demonstration they raised objections to the carrying of Kurdish flags and to placards bearing the image of comrade Öcalan, which created numerous flashpoints.

Members of the social democratic CHP and in some localities even the rightwing MHP joined the demonstrations with slogans against the government of the soft Islamist AKP. This created confusion within those parties, with the MHP leadership instructing its members to stay away from the demonstrations. The CHP as a whole deserted the scene and only the most rabid nationalist section of the party continued to appear at the demonstrations. The CHP leaders paid lip service to the limited demands of the revolt, but failed to take any further action. Their anti-Kurdish stance and their instinct for defending the state were apparent.

The leading core of the revolt did its best to prevent the spread of open divisions and clashes within the ranks of the movement, and several times physically intervened to prevent attacks on Kurdish demonstrators or fights breaking out. However, they failed to act against the nationalist agenda, and Turkish flags dominated the demonstrations held in various parts of Istanbul and other cities.

On the last day those leading the Gezi Park action decided to take down all party banners, and BDP MPs persuaded the Kurdish youth to remove their flags and Öcalan posters from their tents. Other political parties and groups were also asked to remove their banners. However, no-one even considered removing the Turkish flags. Having cleared the Taksim Square, the police immediately hung two giant Turkish flags and a large Atatürk poster to the facade of the adjacent culture centre. They chanted nationalist slogans while removing the banners and placards of the revolt.

The weekend rallies of the AKP were also marked by the fact that there were numerous Turkish flags on display. It was apparent that the AKP government was assuming the mantle of nationalism. We will see whether or not the core of the revolt is capable of drawing the necessary lessons from that fact.

And the AKP is not only using the flag to enhance its nationalist credentials. It is also attempting to assert its authority over the army by clearly indicating its intention to use the military against the revolt under the pretext of maintaining the national unity. Despite having sufficient police at its disposal, the government brought gendarmerie riot units onto the streets of Istanbul. Its spokesmen gave forceful speeches praising the preparedness of the army and emphasising their intention to use it if and when required.

Such drastic action may be deemed necessary to maintain civilian control over the army: that is, to prevent the possible formation of another junta. It may also be required to strengthen the position of the army top brass in the impending round of promotions and retirements due at the end of August.

In any case, it is clear that the AKP is aiming to steal the symbols of the nationalists. This, of course, bears ill omens in regards to both the peace process in Kurdistan and policy in relation to Syria and the changing international agenda.


Many political analysts have put great emphasis on the Islamism of the AKP government in their attempts to fathom the causes of the revolt, which they interpret as a battle for secularism. Indeed the nationalist-racist forces that attempted to hijack the revolt were renowned for their hostility towards Islamists, while supporting the repressive Kemalist ‘secularism’ which was in reality a means of maintaining state control over religious affairs.

However, they never gained the upper hand. The core of the leaders of the revolt firmly, but resolutely sidestepped such traps. The headscarf was accepted as a personal lifestyle choice by the leading forces in the revolt. Consequently women wearing the hijab felt completely free to take part in camp activities as well as in the demonstrations. They clearly showed that not every woman wearing the hijab is a supporter of the AKP government.

Furthermore, there were anti-capitalist Muslims taking part. They organised two Friday prayers in the park, where hutbe (sermons) were read out charging the government with hypocrisy and betrayal of the basic tenets of Islam. Those Friday prayers were protected by a ring of pickets, which included leftwing militants. The Night of Ascension to Heaven (Lailat al Miraj), an Islamic holiday, was observed by the Muslims in the Park and again there was an atmosphere of comradeship, solidarity and respect.

During one of the police attacks a group of people sought refuge in one of the mosques and called on the muezzin (who recites the call to prayer) to open the gates. The AKP government tried to use this to denigrate the demonstrators, claiming they had entered the mosque still wearing their shoes (a great disrespect) and that they drunk alcohol while they were inside (even worse). There are various video recordings proving both allegations to be false - the only alcohol available was used to treat the wounded, but the rumour mill provided by the AKP’s pet media continued. After the muezzin concerned came forward to refute these allegations, within a day he was forced to take annual leave, and most probably will be punished on his return.

Perhaps the core leadership of the revolt should be criticised for failing to accept a clear secular agenda, however - such a move would have opened up the prospect of incorporating the diverse demands of the religious minorities, which would have been an important step towards developing a democratic programme. For example, the core leadership did not consider issuing a call to the Christian communities or other minorities to join in, despite the fact that part of Gezi Park was built on the site of an Armenian ancient cemetery. The monument erected in 1919 to commemorate the victims of the 1915 Armenian massacre was secretly but deliberately removed in 1922.

However, the core leadership was learning from the experience. June 15 was the anniversary of the execution of 20 comrades from the Social Democrat Hunchakian Party in 1915. For the first time, this year a commemoration was held at the site of the execution and a ceremony was held in Gezi Park, where a member of the SDHP addressed the demonstrators.

Resistance continued for some time in the side streets of Istanbul, as well as in districts renowned for rebellions, especially Alevi neighbourhoods such as Gazi, Sultanbeyli and Kartal. However, the dismal performance of the organised working class was indicated by the reaction to the “general strike” called for Monday June 17 by the DISK and KESK trade union centres.

But things will not end there. We have been forced to retreat, but preparation for a new leap forward is the order of the day. And, as Rosa Luxemburg said nearly a century ago, we will return with a vengeance.