Historical survey of the Turkish left and workers’ movement, focusing particularly on the 1960s-70s and the slide into guerrilla warfare, looking both at the strengths and fatal weaknesses of the two interconnected movements.
When the Turkish armed forces general staff took power in September 1980, suspended all political and trade union activities and rounded up tens of thousands of political activists, it encountered no resistance from the masses who had been organised in their hundreds of thousands or even millions in the previous two decades. Posing as the saviours of the nation, the guardians of law and order and the sole force able to stop bloodshed, the generals benefited greatly from the passivity of the masses who became a totally ‘silent majority’ in the days following 12 September 1980. No protest came from either the universities or the factories which had been in the front line of the mass mobilisations before the coup. The acquiescence of the masses was expressed most dramatically in the response to the call of the military authorities of the most experienced and militant sections of the working class, organised in DISK (Revolutionary Workers Union Confederation). After having arrested the executive committee of DISK and the presidents of its affiliated unions, the Istanbul martial law authorities made a call through the press, radio and TV to the trade union activists of DISK at every level, from shop stewards to branch organisers and trade union representatives in the factories, to give themselves up to the military authorities.
Before the deadline, thousands of workers responded positively to this call, creating long queues in front of the main building (and notorious prison) of the Istanbul martial law command. These were the workers who had first started trade union struggle in the early 1960s or who had engaged in unofficial strikes and factory occupations and had bloody confrontations with the security forces; these workers, the vanguard of the working class, had had considerable experience of trade union strikes, general strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations during the turbulent years of the 1960s and 1970s. Now they were humiliated waiting in queues to give themselves up to the butchers of the basic democratic rights of the working class.
Having inflicted such a heavy blow to the morale of the working class vanguard, within weeks the generals were able to make a fatal assault on the Turkish left as a whole. Before 1980 was out, two decades of revolutionary struggle in Turkey by young but giant political organisations and groupings, with their massively circulated press and their weak but tumultuous control of mass organisations of around a million people, ceased to exist. The September coup and its aftermath is the most striking proof that the Turkish left movement in the period of its explosive growth was nevertheless suffering from serious weaknesses.
It is these weaknesses ‒ of theory, politics, organisation, continuity and tradition ‒ stemming mainly from its own past, from the nature of the class struggle in the country, and from the problems of the world workers’ movement as a whole, which I will attempt to analyse in this article through a survey mainly of the last two decades of the Turkish left. I will also venture to explain whether these weaknesses will endure, or whether the Turkish left is on the way to political maturity.
We can delineate four periods in the history of the Turkish left covering the history of the modern Turkish republic. As there was virtually no socialist legacy inherited from the period of the Ottoman Empire, we shall also take into our consideration of the last 60 years starting with the collapse of the Empire, the struggle to establish the new order. The first period begins with the end of the First World War and ends on 27 May 1960, four decades of a low level of class struggle, and only marginal left political activities. As far as the development and nature of the Turkish left political movement and workers’ mobilisations are concerned, it makes sense to consider 1918-1960 as one period.
The second and third periods are the decades of the 1960s and the 1970s. They represent different levels and forms of class consciousness, different types of revolutionary organisations and different theoretical problems. In this article I will dwell mainly on these two periods because they correspond to a phase of extremely severe class struggle and of political and economic crisis, a phase in which the Turkish left took its present shape and orientations. The 12 September 1980 coup opened a fourth period about which we obviously cannot yet speak definitively.
The Turkish left up to the 1960s
When the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) was founded in Baku in the Soviet Union in June 1919, Turkey was already in the throes of a liberation war and heading towards a bourgeois revolution under the leadership of young officers of the dispersed Ottoman army which had been defeated and disarmed by the victors of the First World War. The first attempt by Turkish communists to join the liberation war and participate in the shaping of the new Turkish state was fatal. Almost the entire leadership of the Communist Party was annihilated immediately after entering Turkish territory in Trabzon, a city in the north east, in January 1921. During the same months, the leader of the National Assembly in Ankara (and commander-in-chief of the regular military forces) Mustafa Kemal, was busy eliminating the peasant-guerrilla forces which had been formed independently of his government in order to fight against the Greek occupiers and their indigenous feudal allies. These forces, headed by Ethem and called the ‘Green Army’, had become an obstacle to Mustafa Kemal’s bourgeois cadres’ aim of establishing an independent bourgeois republic.
Despite his rather good relations with the newly-formed Soviet Union, it was not difficult for Mustafa Kemal to eliminate his left rivals within a few months. From then on this bourgeois leadership, which enjoyed the active support of the majority of the military and civilian Ottoman bureaucracy, the then socially and politically strongest force in society, carried out its plans and realised a republic in 1923 whose political life was dominated by a one-party system.
After the foundation of the republic the Turkish communist cadres were composed of the remnants of the Russian-born TKP, those who had become communists in Germany during the workers’ mobilisations towards the end of and after the war, a handful of cadres from the liberation war, the left circles of Ankara and the communists of Istanbul, who had certain relations with the workers’ movement in that city. They held their second congress in 1925 in Istanbul and united and reorganised the party. From then until after the 27 May 1960 coup the TKP cadres while carrying out only meagre and inefficient clandestine organisational activities encountered the harsh repression of the state apparatus and experienced again and again arrest, torture, persecution and prison.
The workers’ movement of the country in this period of almost four decades was no more animated, experiencing just a few modest mobilisations ‒ all of them crushed without mercy by the Kemalist state. Towards 1925, when unionisation among workers became active and intense, the government, using the pretext of a Kurdish uprising in the east, made an assault on the workers’ organisations and banned them for good. In 1932 when a second party (a party led by Kemal’s close associates) was allowed to organise and take part in elections, Izmir, the then second biggest industrial city, became the scene of workers’ mobilisations. Yet along with the demise of this ‘second Party’ farce, the workers’ mobilisations soon dwindled. The last wave of the workers’ movement occurred in 1946, when Inönü, then president of the republic, under the impact of the end of the Second World War, pledged to form a multi- party system and the famous ban on the organisation of activities on a class basis was lifted. It was this chance that paved the way for organising trade unions, which had been forbidden since 1925. In the next few weeks, the industrial centres witnessed a wave of unionisation activities. Tens of thousands of workers organised in trade unions. Six months later the martial law authorities (martial law had been in force since the beginning of the war) banned unionisation, made arrests and started the usual persecutions. The 1950s, despite the foundation of the first trade union confederation TURK-IŞ, with the collaboration of US trade unions under the conditions of the Cold War, saw no important workers’ mobilisations. If we add to this short, yet complete, list of workers’ mobilisations over these four decades the ‘arrests of communists’ in 1925, 1927, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1937, 1946, 1951,1957 1 it is not difficult to imagine the poverty of the theoretical, political and organisational legacy, and the infertile development, of Turkish communism. We should not forget also the severity of the punishments meted out to communists, keeping them for long years behind bars and causing long periods of stagnation in clandestine organisational activities. One has only to recall that the famous Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet served more than 15 years in prison because of alleged communist activities and Hikmet Kivilcimil, another communist veteran, served more than 20 years. Under these circumstances the party faced dispersion many times. It was not able to hold a congress for a long time, let alone regularly. Its last congress was held in 1932 2. Thus on the eve of 27 May 1960 ‒ the date of the coup which was to open a new era in the development of the Turkish left ‒ the TKP consisted of divided groups of ex-party member circles, none of them claiming to be the party, and an ‘external bureau’ based in Eastern Europe, with broadcasting facilities but without any influence in Turkey.
It was against this backward and sterile social and political background and in a state of near-complete organisational collapse that the TKP cadres witnessed the novel development of the post-1960 period. The two main left tendencies that emerged in the early 1960s were completely independent of these cadres. One was the populist-inclined TIP (Turkish Workers Party) which was formed by trade unionists and left intellectuals who had no real political past, tradition or experience. TIP kept its distance from the TKP cadres for the sake of ‘legality’. The second tendency was Yon (Direction) which was a follower of the state- sponsored Kemalist ‘revolutionism’ of the last forty years. In these circumstances Kemalism, which had inspired the young officers of the 27 May coup, flourished as almost the only revolutionary tradition of the past. Most TKP cadres joined the chorus which said that Kemalism and its so-called fortress ‘layer of military and civilian intellectuals’ had not exhausted its revolutionary potential.
The fact that the majority of TKP cadres were forced to accept various Comintern analyses of Kemalist Turkey as ‘anti-imperialist’ and ‘progressive’ shaped these cadres’ positive understanding of Kemalism. Yet even those who in the 1930s had analysed Kemalism as a reactionary bourgeois ideology and had no expectation at all from the ‘layer of military and civilian intellectuals’ changed their stance after 27 May 1960! 3 Perhaps the young ‘Kemalist’ officers’ coup and the ensuing developments dazzled the old communists, accustomed as they were to prisons and four decades of stagnant and lifeless political and social conditions.
1960s: Heyday of the Turkish Left
The rise of the Turkish left movement, for the first time in the history of modern Turkey, became possible in the context of the new political order brought about by the 1960 military coup. What had been the cause of a handful of Communist Party members during the previous 40 years, emerged in this new period as the mobilisation of tens, even hundreds, of thousands, with new forms, new slogans and new organistions. With the 1960s Turkey entered a twenty year period in which almost every form of class struggle was experienced by millions of people: from the youth movement to upheavals in the army, from working class movements to urban guerrilla activities, from civil servant unionisation to unrest and the organisation of activities in the police force. The roots of this development go back to the 27 May 1960 coup which, unlike the subsequent coups of 12 March 1971 and 12 September 1980, was organised and made by young officers, and resulted in a new constitution which unleashed a strong students’ and workers’ movement, powerful mass organisations and mushrooming left publications.
The formation of the TIP by 15 trade unionists in February 1961 and the publication of the weekly Yon (Direction) in December 1961 marked the emergence of the Turkish left as a new political force. The founders of TIP were from a tendency of militant trade unionism with left political inclinations that emerged in TURK-IŞ, then the only trade union confederation. They were stimulated by the post-27 May 1960 Constituent Assembly containing trade union representatives and the preparation of a constitution that included the right to strike and to engage in collective bargaining. The formation of TIP by trade unionists heralded the developments in the working class during the coming period. Although TIP’s founders lacked political experience and any socialist past, with only quite limited trade union experience, they were nevertheless trade unionists on the eve of the new era, who were claiming their ‘place in the sun’. It was certainly no coincidence that this generation of trade unionists were to form DISK ‒ a new militant trade union confederation ‒ in 1967, and lead the trade union movement in the 1970s. The formation of TIP was the first sign of these developments.
The TIP started uncertainly, in the first few months it ran the risk of withering away by virtue of sterile internal struggles. The founders of TIP called on left intellectuals to join the party to overcome this. With this intellectual injection the Turkish Workers Party found its real identity. From then on the left intellectuals, those who had stayed out of the Communist Party before 1960 and those who had become leftists under the impact of the new period, set their stamp on TIP together with its trade unionist founders. After this turning point TIP began a continuous rise reaching its climax in the 10 October 1965 general election. In the 1963 local elections the Party had access to the radio for the first time. With its own publications, weeklies, monthlies, leaflets and the like and with the support of some columnists of certain dailies, the Party rapidly made itself felt on a national scale. The talk about socialism that could be heard on the radio, the widespread left publications, the leading headlines concerning the TIP in the biggest Turkish dailies and even the symbol of the Party, Çark-Başak, (Çark: wheel of a machine, Başak: ear of grain) and its main slogan ‘Land to the peasants, Jobs for all’ were all dazzling novelties of a new era. The more or less unitary nature of the party and the high morale of its cadres made it strong enough to defend itself against violent right-wing attacks during this period of growth.
In the 1965 general elections the TIP gained 3 per cent of the votes cast. This was significant in the sense that socialism was gaining legitimacy in Turkey. The low proportion of working class votes in this 3 per cent, however, indicated the weakness of the party’s class base. With the help of an election system that protected small parties, three hundred thousand votes gained TIP 15 seats in parliament. The TIP leadership, dizzy with this election ‘victory’, was now absolutely convinced that the party as the political organisation of the working class was on its way to becoming one of the most powerful forces in parliament by the next election. Within a few years, however, the absence of a powerful trade union movement with a long history, the political immaturity of the young Turkish working class, and the political and theoretical impotence of the TIP leadership revealed the bankruptcy of these parliamentary illusions.
In the mid-1960s, as a party with a brief history, TIP seemed to be a very strong and healthy organisation with a promising future. After the general election in 1965, it had about ten thousand members, a 15 member parliamentary group and an impressive press. Almost all the Turkish intelligentsia of recent decades and all the energy of revolutionary youth flooded to TIP. Despite these positive points, however, five to six years after its formation, its existence within the working class was close to nil. Its relations with the class did not go much further than the trade union affiliation of its founders. Moreover, neither the party’s orientation nor its style of work was directed to developing these relations. Having tied itself to the parliamentary mechanism, TIP tended more strongly to populist propaganda aimed at the peasantry and the middle classes. An interesting indication of this new orientation was the change in 1969 of the party’s symbol from ‘Çark-Başak’ to a portrait of a man who looked like a peasant. Parallel to this new class orientation the party leadership increasingly proved unable to educate young cadres who were rapidly turning to Marxism. This incompetence would later be one of the main factors that laid the ground for theoretical confusion and unhealthy splits.
To sum up, the TIP was to lose its particularity as the unique central organisation of the Turkish left within a few years. To a certain extent though, it served as a school for the young generation that had met Marxism only in the early 1960s. What the young militants received from this school, however, was anti-imperialism with a nationalistic content, populist-democratic perspectives and some vague conceptions of socialism and Marxism, rather than working class politics in the true sense.
In the same year as TIP was founded, a new journal called Yon was launched in Istanbul by a group of left-inclined intellectuals who regarded themselves as neo-Kemalist. In its first issue Yon published a manifesto signed by 531 prominent intellectuals explaining its ideas concerning ‘rapid economic development’ and ‘Westernisation as the aim of Atatürk’s revolutions’. This was to be the second important current within the Turkish left in the early 1960s. Yon presented its ‘nationalist development model’ as the ‘third way’ against both ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’. According to this theory, Turkey was a country where the working class was still weak, where the masses were easily manipulated by ‘collaborationist-comprador-landlord’ forces via the parliamentary mechanism. This ‘model’ which was based on nationalisations, land reform and state planning would be realised not through the classical parliamentary road but by a Constituent Assembly formed by a ‘national front’ under the leadership of ‘nationalist-revolutionary’ officers, technocrats and intellectuals. 4
In a very short time the journal reached a circulation of 30,000. Although it did not maintain this, its later circulation of over 10,000 proved the widespread influence of Kemalist ideology in that period. Yon had a great impact on the majority of Marxist-inclined intellectual\student circles, some left circles in the RPP (the Republican People’s Party, founded by Mustafa Kemal himself) and also later on, within some political groupings in the armed forces. Despite its considerable strength in the beginning, however, with the emergence of both the MDD (National Democratic Revolution) movement in 1967, a movement that claimed to be Marxist, and also the ‘left of centre’ current in the RPP, Yon lost its power within the Turkish left towards the late 1960s.
While TIP and Yon were ascendant, the workers’ movement, independently of them, was advancing its own way. The working class was in the process of becoming one of the most important social forces in Turkey’s future. This fact was manifested in the increase in trade union membership. While in 1963 this was only around 300,000, by 1968 it exceeded one million. Of course the real quantitative strength of the working class was well above that. Due to the restrictions in social security legislation, an important part of the urban working class, those workers in small industry and all of the rural proletariat (both sectors could be counted in millions) had neither social security coverage nor the possibility of being unionised.
Even so, the mobilisation of even a limited section of the working class was enough to make itself felt in every domain of the country’s social life. This rapid and lively period of unionisation was accompanied by workers’ actions, such as strikes, slow-downs, and sit-ins, although it should be admitted that in this first stage working class actions did not reach tremendous dimensions. In the five years between 1963 and 1968 there were 320 legal strikes with the participation of 40,000 workers 5. This official figure does not include the number of workers who participated in unofficial strikes called in Turkish ‘direnis’ (resistance), which flared up because of the long legal procedure that was indispensable for official strikes. According to a rough estimate (official statistics for this do not exist) about 70,000 workers were involved in 38 unofficial strikes. In addition to the increase in the number of workers involved in industrial action, the struggles which took place were much harsher and in bigger factories ‒ most of them with more than 1,000 workers.
The militants of the socialist movement played no role in these mobilisations. These were typical spontaneous explosions of the working class often going beyond the limits set by the unions. In these years the socialist movement and the workers’ movement were marching along different paths; this was to continue in the post-1974 period.
Although in 1967 DISK was founded as a second trade union confederation under the leadership of trade unionists who at that time were members of TIP, this was not a turning point signaling the convergence of the socialist movement with the workers’ movement. The foundation of DISK, however, marked the beginning of militant trade unionism in Turkey. From 1967 until 12 September 1980 DISK remained the most important trade union organisation of the Turkish workers’ movement. This organisation, putting forward militant trade unionism as an alternative to the extremely bureaucratic trade unionism of TURK-IŞ, raised, albeit not very clearly, slogans expressing the desire to integrate the workers’ movement into the socialist movement. When it was founded, DISK had only 30-35 thousand members while TURK-IŞ had almost one million. In the years following, DISK and TURK-IŞ were differentiated as organisations covering two different generations of the working class. TURK-IŞ with its huge membership was well entrenched in state concerns most of which were 20 or 30 years old, dating from the period of so-called étatism in the 1930s. These enterprises, which worked principally in the production of steel, textile, cement, coal and sugar, had been, due to state planning, spread all over the country, rather than concentrated in certain industrial centres, and they covered the backward sections of the working class. These workers, who numbered hundreds of thousands, neither led nor participated in the upheavals of the 1960s. It was not until the mid-1970s that these sections of the working class became involved in the working class movement, and then only to a limited extent. On the other hand DISK gained strength rapidly in the private sector plants which were the product of the late 1950s and 1960s. These private enterprises with their relatively modern production technology were concentrated in big industrial centres such as Istanbul, Izmit and Izmir in the more developed western part of the country. The lack of job security and the various methods of labour intensification practised in these enterprises, together with the other economic problems concerning such things as wages and working hours, contributed to the exacerbation of the trade union struggle, and the workers turned inevitably to DISK.
The acceleration of the development of the workers’ movement with the foundation of DISK coincided with the emergence of new currents in the socialist movement which were soon to dominate the scene. These new elements were the socialist youth movement of the sixties and the MDD (National Democratic Revolution) movement of old TKP members. We should now examine these.
Emergence of the Revolutionary Youth Movement and the MDD (National Democratic Revolution)
The three phenomena of the 1960s that shaped the revolutionary youth movement, which culminated in the guerrilla activities of the early 1970s, were the youth mobilisations of the early 1960s, which triggered the 27 May coup and continued on issues such as Cyprus and US bases in Turkey into the mid-1960s, TIP which acted as a school for young revolutionaries, and the MDD movement.
Towards the end of 1967, a handful of old cadres from the TKP launched a weekly called Turk Solu (Turkish Left) which claimed to be the voice of all national and democratic forces in Turkey ranging from the representatives of the proletariat to those of the national bourgeoisie. On the theoretical level, it successfully articulated the so-called revolutionary potential of Kemalism with the Stalinist stagist understanding of the revolution. According to the MDD, Turkey still had feudal aspects and was under the hegemony of US imperialism. The first revolutionary step should therefore aim to eliminate these forces and create not a socialist but ‘a fully independent and truly democratic Turkey’ as it was expressed in the MDD’s main slogan. This was to be created by a front of all national classes and layers from the proletariat to the national bourgeoisie. With its Kemalist revolutionary tradition, which was not yet exhausted, the ‘layer of military and civilian intellectuals’ was to have an important, or more accurately, a leading, role in this revolution through their junta taking power. The MDD never put forward any concrete suggestions about the problem of the party, it limited its organisation and activities to agitating among young, left intellectuals through its weekly and monthly publications.
The MDD movement levelled severe criticisms at TIP, accusing it of being opportunist for rejecting the idea of revolution by stages, condemning its tactic of alliances and for ignoring the revolutionary potential of the ‘layer of military and civilian intellectuals’. It was this theoretical critique which attracted support, particularly from those young militants who were in the process of breaking with the TIP.
TIP increasingly confined itself to parliamentary activity and had started to take a negative stand towards militant youth activities such as university occupations and anti-American actions. While the TIP leadership were warning the youth that ‘fascism might come’ as a result of their activities, the MDD movement, on the contrary, encouraged them. This was decisive for these young revolutionaries, who regarded militancy as the only criterion of being a revolutionary. That is, contrary to the TIP’s ‘legalism’, the MDD represented a certain ‘revolutionism’, though not a proletarian one, to which the young generations were ready to devote themselves.
Further, despite its tail-endist character and theoretical backwardness, the MDD, because of its leadership’s origins in the TKP, was able to present its ideas under the guise of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy with abundant references to Marx, Lenin, Mao et al. Given that the TIP leadership lacked even the minimum Marxist theoretical knowledge required from them as leaders, and that the young militants had an ardent inclination towards, though little knowledge of, Marxist theory, the MDD’s superficial orthodoxy was convincing enough for them to appear to be the only true Marxist political current.
It shouldn’t be ignored also, that the young militants, despite their sincere faith and orientation towards Marxism, were still suffering the effects of their own past. The MDD line which gave great prominence to the ‘layer of military and civilian intellectuals” role as the bearers of ‘the revolutionary potential of Kemalism’ was consistent with a residual Kemalist nationalism. Thus, now with a theoretical line on which to base itself, the revolutionary youth movement grew stronger day by day and took on a massive character. It created the unique and sui generis revolutionary youth organisation, Dev-Genç, of a few thousand young socialist activists, which could mobilise considerable numbers of university youth. The activities of Dev-Genç went further than the domain of the university youth properly speaking. They organised not only boycotts and university occupations, but also actions against the US Sixth Fleet, agitation in rural areas, support for strikes and unionisation, struggle against armed fascist aggression, ideological struggle against the TIP leadership, and so on. In this process in the last years of the 1960s, the revolutionary potential of the youth movement was to be transformed into a political movement which would give birth to the guerrilla organisations of 1971-72.
The Period of Splits in the Turkish Left (1968-71)
The late 1960s were marked not only by the escalating revolutionary activities of the revolutionary youth movement and the working class but also by numerous splits on the Turkish left. These splits produced within three years more than half a dozen socialist groupings or organisations. They were inevitable given the enormous problems that the young revolutionary movement faced.
First and foremost the Turkish left was taken by surprise by the variety, complexity and intensity of its own struggle and was confronted by the gigantic question of how to lead it. While facing such crucial problems it went through a continuous and rapid theoretical development. Lacking a specific theoretical-organisational tradition, each new element of progress or even confusion in the theoretical arena opened the way for new disagreements and, given the low theoretical level, prepared the basis for a new crisis. Also, of course, the splits and crises of the international workers’ movement took their toll on the theoretical development of the Turkish left, and not in a constructive or positive manner. The Sino-Soviet dispute, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the mounting guerrilla movements in Latin America are just some of the elements which attracted most attention on the Turkish left.
In 1968, on the eve of this period of splits, the two main forces on the Turkish left were TIP which was in a period of stagnation, and the MDD. The MDD was grouped around two publications, consecutively Turk Solu and Aydinlik, and mainly influenced the most militant sections of the socialist youth movement with limited but steadily increasing control over certain TIP members, particularly in Istanbul and Ankara. The other main left group of the early 1960s, Yon, ceased publication in 1967, but its cadres launched another journal called Devrim (Revolution) in 1969. It transformed itself into being the voice of the radical officers’ grouping in the army without having the influence among Marxist circles that Yon did in its time.
Then TIP, while it had been suffering internal struggles and with the ideological assault of the MDD movement on the issue of ‘revolutionary strategy’, experienced a sudden split in its own leadership. When Czechoslovakia was invaded by Soviet troops in August 1968, the sections of the left gathered around TIP were particularly seriously shaken; this was not the case for the MDD movement. The latter hailed the invasion as a ‘revolutionary intervention against the reformist tendencies that were under the control of the CIA’. In TIP, the party chairman, Mehmet Ali Aybar, openly denounced the invasion. This was the first and clearest opposition to the official Soviet line in the Turkish left’s history. Another wing of the party ‒ which was to dominate and take the leadership later, in October 1970 ‒ supported the invasion and launched a big attack on the chairman’s line. In later years, the group around Mehmet Ali Aybar reached almost a version of Eurocommunism with their slogans of ‘smiling socialism’ or ‘democratic socialism’. The other current would stick to a pro-Moscow line. From that point on these two currents were no longer decisive forces in the socialist movement.
The MDD’s first split happened in the early 1970s. One of the groups dominated by young university academics criticised the extremist practices of the youth movement praised enthusiastically by the MDD movement, and accused the MDD of not accepting the leading role of the proletariat. This group split from the MDD and became Maoists in the months that followed; it has stayed loyal to the Chinese line up to now.
On the other hand, among the young militant cadres, tendencies towards armed struggle and guerrilla warfare were rapidly growing stronger. This orientation was to accelerate their rupture with the MDD line. Neither the MDD’s so-called orthodoxy or its anti-parliamentarist stand meant much anymore, the young militants started to regard themselves as the best Marxist-Leninists and the best fighters. Furthermore, these prospective ‘guerrillas’ became more aware each day that the political calculations of the MDD were dependent on a radical junta taking power. Thus it was not because of their proletarian line or Marxist- Leninist consciousness but because of their sincere faith in the proletariat and Marxism-Leninism that they began first of all to take their distance from the MDD and finally to split from it. One of the two main groups which went on to form guerrilla organisations announced its differences with the MDD in a relatively sophisticated theoretical manner. In a pamphlet it declared that on the issues of conceptions of the revolution, party building and hegemony of the proletariat it totally opposed the MDD line. This group was to form the THKP-C (Turkish People’s Liberation Party-Front) a few months later. The other group which was to call itself THKO (Turkish People’s Liberation Army) declared its differences by immediately starting guerrilla war and regarding itself as an army. Three years after its emergence therefore the MDD movement gave birth to both Maoist and ‘Focoist’ tendencies. It is these tendencies which would leave their mark on the following decade.
While the Turkish left was in crisis the mass mobilisations in the country and particularly the workers’ movement were gaining more and more of an impetus. The period between 1968 and 1971 was the most militant period of the working class in recent history. This is illustrated by the official and unofficial strikes that took place in 1968, of the 40,000 workers who participated in these 80 per cent were involved in unofficial actions. Influenced by the rising student movement with its university occupations, workers were involved in more factory occupations in these years. 1970 was the year that marked the high point of the workers’ movement. While 25,000 workers participated in official strikes, most of them being workers in big factories, 60,000 workers were involved in unofficial ones. In the same year more than ten big factories were occupied and severe clashes with the police took place during these occupations. 1970 was also the year of the biggest devaluation Turkey had yet seen. Parallel to these workers’ and student mobilisations, in the rural areas, from time to time, the resentment of the poor peasants combined with the agitation of the militants of Dev-Genç and turned into massive protest actions. For the first time in the history of Turkey ‒ and the 1970s would not witness such actions ‒ certain sections of the poor peasantry, particularly the small farmers engaged in agricultural export production, took part in mobilisations. At the same time white collar staff organisations grew stronger. Teachers succeeded in organising a 100,000 strong general strike. Organisation within the military structures accelerated and intensified. A lot of plotting was taking place in this area and left currents had a certain influence, particularly in military schools. Turkish society was in such a state of ferment that in the summer of 1970 there was even a strike attempt in the riot police over wages and conditions!
In June 1970, the biggest workers’ action yet seen broke out. In Istanbul and Izmit more than 150,000 workers responded to the call of the DISK leadership by leaving their workplaces and taking to the streets to protest against a bill that aimed to eject DISK from the trade union scene. The size of this action forced even the DISK leadership to take a step back. While the marching workers were on the streets in their tens of thousands, the DISK chairman was making a ‘return to your workplaces’ call. But it was already too late! Workers, casting aside all police and military barricades, continued their marches. These two-day long demonstrations in which three workers and a policeman lost their lives, were only stopped by the declaration of martial law in Istanbul and Izmit. This was followed by the arrest of the DISK leadership and hundreds of workers and students.
Towards Guerrilla Warfare
It is interesting to note that while the workers’ and mass movements were unfolding, a significant sector of young socialists, who can be regarded as the best element of their generation in every sense, turned towards guerrilla struggle in organisations with imposing titles but which had, in reality, ludicrously weak material forces. Compared to other, fatal, unsuccessful guerrilla struggle experiences in various countries, the conditions that would in a way ‘legitimise’ the young militant revolutionaries’ orientation towards guerrilla struggle did not exist in Turkey. There was no stagnation in mass mobilisations, neither was there powerful reformist-syndicalist control over the workers’ movement, nor was the left movement stuck in the limitations of parliament. In the Turkey of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the non-existence of an influential reformist Communist Party, the weakness of the trade union bureaucracy in DISK, the unfolding of workers’ and mass movements and the bankruptcy of reformist currents provided healthy prospects for a young revolutionary vanguard. Ignoring these favourable circumstances, however, the revolutionary youth adopted guerrilla struggle. This orientation not only brought about the heavy defeat of this generation but left its deep imprint on the younger generation of the 1970s.
Thus the reasons for the 1971-72 guerrilla wave were not ‘classical’ but ‘original’ ones. This originality stemmed from the fact that the young revolutionary generations of the 1960s had put their mark in a striking fashion on the main gains of the revolutionary struggles of recent years. Particularly in the period between 1968 and 1970, the accomplishments of Dev-Genç in various fields of the class struggle and their serious contribution to the theoretical discussions of the Turkish left put these young militants in the front rank of the left movement. During this period these experiences provided them with a rapid political education and a certain level of maturity. The lack of real leadership from the older generations on the theoretical, political and organisational levels led these young revolutionaries inevitably to see themselves as the sole true vanguard of the socialist movement. They became extremely self-confident.
It was that sense of being the vanguard, from theoretical struggles to practical battles, which influenced significantly the Dev-Genç cadres in launching guerrilla struggles with their insufficient forces at the end of 1970. It was also not surprising that cadres totally lacking the experience of a political organisation, in a period of that kind of upheaval, would choose a form of struggle so clear-cut, un complex and also romantic. We should point out too the effect of the ideological framework of the political movement in which these young revolutionary cadres had received their political education. As we have mentioned, the MDD movement in essence placed all its hopes for social transformation on forces outside the working class. From start to finish it worked as a group of people around two publications aiming to be influential in student intellectual circles and took no notice of the organisations or struggles of the working class. It would have been impossible therefore for the young generations coming from that tradition to have quickly turned to the working class and create appropriate forms of organisation and struggles. Understandably, even the workers’ uprising of 15-16 June did not sufficiently influence young cadres to take the path of working class politics. It might have hastened their break from the MDD, but the ‘revolutionism’ they put in the place of the MDD’s tailism was not that of the working class, it was that of rebel guerrillas.
Although it made a great impact on the Turkish revolutionary movement in general, the guerrilla upsurge of 1971-72 was on quite a small scale. The nucleus of its cadres, overwhelmingly students, was hardly more than a few hundred. It continued no more than eighteen months (September 1970 to March 1972). Five to ten bank robberies where small amounts were confiscated, the kidnapping of one businessman, one child held for ransom, the kidnap pings and assassinations of the first counsellor of the Israeli embassy and three British technicians, a couple of months of rural guerrilla action by a team of 25-30 people which ended in the first armed clashes with gendarmes: that really sums up this entire guerrilla wave. Nevertheless, despite its small size, this guerrilla period was accepted as the climax of the class struggle in the history of modern Turkey by later generations and attracted great sympathy. In a country that until then had seen no war for almost 50 years, had barely experienced ‘peaceful’ class struggles in the previous five to ten years, had not witnessed political assassinations and lacked even a powerful non-political underground world, this romantic armed rebellion of young revolutionary militants, though small, left a deep impression on the following generations and would thus have a significant influence on the 1970s.
12 March 1971 Coup and the Transformation of the Turkish Left
The repression brought about by the 12 March 1971 military intervention was to be a turning point for the Turkish left. The relatively legal conditions of the ten years between 1961 and 1971 ended very abruptly. The activity of the mass organisations was halted, left political organisations were banned, mass arrests, militants being hunted, raids, persecution ‒ almost all young revolutionary cadres had to face this reality for the first time. After the suppression of the guerrilla activities, the revolutionary movement was silent, with the exception of a few minor self-defence resistance actions, for the following three years. All the left activists, from the TIP leadership to the founders of Yon, from the MDD leaders to the militants of the guerrilla uprising and the new vanguards of the recently emerged radical Kurdish movement were behind bars till the 1974 amnesty.
The repression experienced particularly by the young guerrilla-oriented militants produced the new revolutionary consciousness of the 1970s. First and foremost, the 12 March coup and its aftermath put an end to illusions concerning Kemalism. What had happened in the army, presented as a revolutionary force by both Yon and MDD for almost the whole previous decade, was a terrible disappointment for some and provided important political lessons for the others. In the months preceding the 12 March 1971, political activities in the armed forces, with the preparation of various plots and juntas, were at boiling point.
With the exception of TIP almost all the Turkish left, to varying degrees, had positive expectations of these plots. Some left forces were even in co-operation with them. Those preparing or embarking on guerrilla warfare were no exception. Their approach was quite different to that of Yon and MDD of course, in that they did not see these developments as decisive for their guerrilla war. Yet it must be admitted that under the influence of their ‘MDDist’ past they too nurtured some positive expectations of these so-called ‘revolutionary Kemalist’ cadres.
When the 12 March generals (most of whom could be regarded as sincere Kemalists) forced Demirel to resign, they were applauded by almost the entire left whose expectations reached their climax. In a short time, however, the same generals launched an assault on the left and the young army officers as well. While the assault on the left was conducted by banning left political party activities, suspending trade union life and performing a bloody counter-guerrilla operation, the attack on the dissident officers consisted of massive lay-offs and arrests. It was so severe that the armed forces ‒ in which radical ideas attracted widespread support in the 1960s ‒ witnessed no such politicisation in its own ranks in the crisis years of the 1970s.
These developments, occurring within a few months, not only proved that Kemalism contained no revolutionary programme but also demonstrated the incompatibility of putschist methods with revolutionary aims. The myth of the revolutionary potential of Kemalism and its ‘layer of military and civilian intellectuals’ was laid to rest in the eyes of the socialist cadres.
The same period also witnessed an ‘awakening’ from the guerrilla romanticism which had mesmerised young militants in recent years. The military and political failure of the guerrilla activities of 1971-72 involving the loss of some of the best cadres of this generation could not be disguised. From this point onwards, although an overwhelming majority remained active politically, almost none of these former guerrillas were involved in this form of struggle. Yet this was a bizarre awakening. The guerrilla upsurge, despite its defeat, had great prestige among young revolutionaries and attracted some sympathy from the masses as well and the ex-guerrilla leaders therefore preferred, hypocritically, to make use of the legendary memories of this period rather than to make a sincere and open critique of the guerrilla experience.
Although this cynical use of the past grew stronger in the post 1974 period, one point did become clear to these cadres when they were in prison. After the defeats of their ‘parties’, ‘fronts’ and ‘armies’ which had consisted of university students, their ‘armed propaganda’ actions in the cities and rural guerrilla activities in the mountains, their theoretical works concerning ‘people’s war’, ‘guerrilla warfare’ and ‘peasant revolution’, the guerrilla cadres could not easily claim to be working class socialists. They could not explain their defeat as simply due to the strength of the enemy or lack of sufficient preparation or by some tactical faults. It must be admitted that in this repressive period, and perhaps particularly under the impact of prison conditions, young revolutionary cadres frankly confessed these negative points in one way or another.
Yet these positive sounding changes did not lead to such constructive improvements as perhaps they should have. Although the generation of the 1960s became aware of their main weaknesses in that period they did not succeed in acting more politically and theoretically mature in the following one. Neither the theoretical accumulation nor the practical experiences of the movement in general proved sufficient for such a development. When the revolutionary cadres faced the new upsurge of the post-74 period, frank confessions concerning the fundamental weaknesses of the Turkish left ceded their place rapidly to the zealous so-called orthodoxy of the new orientations ‒ Maoism, pro-Moscow communism or the ‘heroic’ memories of recent guerrilla adventurism. This quick re-shaping of the Turkish left resulted in the Kemalist illusions of the 1960s being replaced by RPP liberalism ‒ which influenced not only socialist cadres but also the masses in their millions. At the same time in place of the 1960s generation’s romantic guerrilla adventurism came the stupid armed struggle hopelessness of the 1970s practised by thousands of young militants. Dreams of ‘peasant revolution’ on the scale that existed during the 1960s were no longer, instead the revolutionary cadres were to make serious political and ideological concessions to the trade union bureaucracy. In the confusion of their orientation to the working class, the left presented the trade union bureaucracy as working class ‘heroes’ and helped its ascent to the detriment of the workers’ mobilisations.
Martial law was lifted in 1973 and the army ‘returned to barracks’; the RPP emerged from the elections of the same year as the biggest party of the country; and the revival in the workers’ movement together with the resurgence of the student mobilisations occurred in the following year. Having now shouldered full responsibility in the new decade, the 1960s’ cadres had to find solutions which required no substantial extra endeavours, and thus the three main new tendencies of the 1970s started to emerge ‒ Maoists, pro-Soviets, and the independent left.
1974 and its Aftermath: New Upsurges and New Orientations
1974 was the year of transition from the 12th March repression to the revolutionary upsurges of the 1970s. Under the coalition government of the social democratic RPP and the Islamic fundamentalist NSP (National Salvation Party) 1974 saw a partial amnesty releasing the majority of political prisoners, the formation of TSIP (Turkish Socialist Workers Party) as the first legal party of this period, a revival of left publications and the rapid development of trade union activities. The first shock was not late in coming. In the summer of 1974, Turkey invaded one third of Cyprus. The invasion was immediately followed by the declaration of martial law, and a ban on strikes. It also caused a giant wave of chauvinism which embraced the whole of society from top to bottom. This wave was so strong that all trade unions including DISK, the professional associations, together with employers’ organisations not only approved the invasion but launched campaigns to support it in every sense. Consistent opposition to the invasion in the socialist movement was rare.
After the Cyprus invasion, the RPP-NSP coalition collapsed when manoeuvres for a new election by the RPP failed. From then on Turkey entered a period of parliamentary crisis which would be accompanied in later years by a severe economic and social crisis lasting until 12 September 1980. In May 1975 the formation of a National Front government with the major participation of the fascist party was followed by a rapid development of fascist terror and the speedy growth of fascist armed gangs. In these difficult conditions the socialist movement and workers’ movement started an ascent which culminated in 1977.
In this new period the workers’ movement began to experience an awakening on a national scale that had only happened in certain industrial centres in the 1960s. This paved the way for DISK to organise in Anatolia and among the municipal workers of various towns and cities and among textile and metal workers in certain areas. It could not make the same gains in some of the newly built, big industrial centres of Anatolia. For example, in the coal mines of the north-west where hundreds of thousands of workers are employed and where big workers’ mobilisations had taken place from time to time, DISK managed to recruit no one. In two different cases, in the Seydisehir aluminium production plant and the Iskenderum steel complex employing tens of thousands of workers, DISK, having had certain initial successes, later faced a terrible setback following the attacks of fascist gangs. The most important cause of these failures was the weakness of the local left cadres in these districts who were too inexperienced to accomplish the enormous task of organising the workers in the face of fascist aggression.
DISK was nevertheless on the way to becoming a powerful workers’ organisation of hundreds of thousands of workers. In the early years of the post-1974 period, an orientation to DISK was the cause of various unofficial strikes. The figures for workers’ mobilisations speak for themselves. In 1974 for example, despite martial law and various bans on strikes, the number of workers on strike was more than eighty thousand. The next year while this figure passed one hundred thousand, there was also a leap in the number of unofficial strikers. That same year, the mini-general strike of 60 thousand TURK-IŞ workers in Izmir was an indication of the effect of recent developments on TURK-IŞ. Despite the fact that a new social-democratic movement emerged within it, however, TURK-IŞ never became the centre of the working class mobilisations. This role was played by DISK with its membership of 300 thousand from 1968 until 12 September 1980.
In 1976, there were more than 200 official and unofficial strikes, a general strike of more than 100 thousand DISK workers against the formation of the State Security Courts and May Day was celebrated in Istanbul for the first time in 50 years, by hundreds of thousands of workers challenging an official ban. The following year a skilful provoction by the secret services using the feud between the left groups (mainly between Maoists and pro-Soviets) turned the May Day demonstration of over half a million into chaos, leaving 37 dead. Also in 1977, elections took place in which the RPP, having officially adopted ‘social democracy’ in the 1970s under the leadership of Bulent Ecevit, was widely regarded as the representative of all the progressive forces. Workers were in a great majority in RPP meetings in the big cities. The landslide victory of the RPP in the big industrial centres proved that the workers’ illusions in the RPP were stronger than ever at that time.
Together with the workers’ mobilisations, the social and political mobilisation throughout society in 1977 reached high tide. Student youth while intensely active in the political arena waged an enormous struggle against fascist militants. Civil servants, from whom the right to form trade unions was taken away, formed various mass organisations of hundreds of thousands. Teachers, at that moment, had one of the largest and most active mass organisations in the country. Technical workers such as engineers and architects formed mass organisations which had significant influence on social and political life. Added to these, the 1970s witnessed the formation of the most interesting mass organisation of all in Turkey: the Police Solidarity Association with its 40 branches and 15 thousand members declared itself one of the democratic mass organisations. The last congress of the association, held before the RPP government closed it down, was attended by the representatives of various progressive organisations and socialist parties who made speeches to the congress ‒ as had become the tradition in the congresses of all the democratic organisations!
To sum up, when Turkey saw a new RPP government in 1978, around one million workers, civil servants, toilers and students were organised in mass organisations that were under the control of various socialist groups, parties and currents. The members and sympathisers of these groups could be counted in hundreds of thousands. We can now say a few things about the main currents of the Turkish left movement of this decade.
The Rise of the TKP (Communist Party of Turkey)
The TKP (Communist Party of Turkey), a small, isolated political organisation before 1960, and an ‘external bureau’ in the 1960s without any supporters’ milieu inside Turkey, became one of the most powerful left currents in Turkey within a few years in the 1970s. The TKP had a huge youth organisation, the first ever formed women’s organisation, great influence, or even dominance, for a time over DISK and various other mass organisations, and a widely read press including a daily. The rocketing influence of this current, which enjoyed the enthusiastic support of certain sections of university youth, petty bourgeois intellectuals and the DISK bureaucracy, was one of the most striking phenomena of the 1970s. One reason for this novel development has already been pointed out: its function as a ready-made solution for cadres desperately in need of a new orientation at the outset of this period. Although the TKP’s external bureau cadres did not enjoy any respect from, or have the confidence of, the young revolutionary generations, they had sufficient attraction as the ‘sister party’ of the ‘World Communist Parties’ at a time when the bulk of the Turkish left turned its face towards the two main currents of the international workers’ movement. On the other hand the increasing influence of reformist illusions which paralleled the ascendency of the RPP stimulated the left petty bourgeois intellectuals to orient to the TKP.
As for the TKP’s domination of DISK, it stemmed from the feeling among the trade union bureaucrats of being obliged to make a choice among the various left currents. The increasing politicisation of the workers forced the trade union bureaucracy to give up the stance of referee which had been the most convenient guarantee of their power when the influence of left groupings was minimal. Now in every affiliated union, in every branch and in almost every plant the organising activities and worker militants of various socialist groupings could be seen. In these circumstances, given that the politicisation among DISK members was quite strong and positive on the one hand, and the power struggle among these groupings tended to be quite harsh on the other, the trade union bureaucracy faced the necessity of adopting a clear political position. They naturally inclined to the TKP which had important international relations in every field (including the international trade union movement), the potential for rapid growth, a reformist political programme and slogans that were not too disturbing. In a way this was a kind of repetition of the activities of the trade unionists who had formed TIP in the early 1960s. The second time, trade unionists (even some of the same personalities) ventured to take another political step forward which, however, proved no more successful or fruitful than the first.
It was in the period of the TKP’s greatest influence on DISK that the militant trade union movement suffered severe organisational problems. For almost three years DISK was the scene of purges through various non-political manoeuvres ‒ from violence to bureaucratic tricks and from making alliances with the bosses against politically advanced workers to forming rival trade unions in some branches. The anti-democratic traditions of the Turkish left, in a field such as trade unionism, where not only political interests but also extraordinary material interests were at stake, was to take the most extreme and disgusting forms. Except for the RPP and the TKP, all currents on the Turkish left were the subject of these purges. 1978, when the alliance between the left wing of RPP trade unionists and the other left groupings ended the domination of the TKP, was not the end of the anti-democratic practices which suffocated DISK and caused great demoralisation among workers. Moreover, this time the same methods were to be applied to the TKP itself.
The TKP during the decade of the 1970s, together with the other less influential pro-Soviet currents such as TIP and TSIP, brought its full weight to bear on the political developments of the 1970s by its anti-democratic tradition and practice, and classical reformist politics.
The Maoists and Enver Hoxha Followers of the 1970s
The second main current on the Turkish left of the 1970s were those choosing the ideological dominance of the Maoist wing of the world Communist movement. While Aydιnlιk, which split from the MDD and became Maoist immediately in 1970, continued its activities slowly but steadily with a political party, the TIKP (Turkish Workers-Peasants Party) ‒ who though not massive had a weekly and then a daily paper ‒ the aftermath of 1974 witnessed the emergence of various Maoist, and later pro-Albanian groupings.
These new Maoist tendencies originated mainly from the guerrilla movement. When these rigorously anti-reformist, extremely sectarian cadres looked to the outside world to find an ‘international revolutionary bulwark’ on which to base their new theoretical line it seemed to them that the Soviet line, with its old age reformism and its policy of peaceful coexistence, was a startling example of ‘revisionism’. China’s so-called revolutionary intransigence, though in a process of softening, attracted most of these cadres. Also under the impact of the goal of their recent past, ‘peasant revolution’, they could easily come to terms with Maoist ideology. In addition, the Maoist ‘people’s war’ theory enabled them to make a guarded critique of their recent guerrilla activities while not losing them the opportunity of benefiting from its prestige.
These groupings, which were called such names as ‘Halkin Kurtuluşu’, ‘Halkin Birligi’, ‘Halkin Yolu’ (People’s Liberation, People’s Unity, People’s Way) took on a massive character in quite a short time. The total circulation of their weeklies was over one hundred thousand which gives an indication of their widespread support.
They had great influence among university youth, certain young sections (students, unemployed and non-proletarian toilers), of shanty-town dwellers in the big cities, and also in some rural areas. The influence of these movements among the industrial proletariat was always extremely weak.
Towards the end of the 1970s, these organisations transformed themselves into followers of the political line of the Albanian state. From the outset, these cadres had had some problems stomaching the People’s Republic of China’s foreign policy and the ‘three worlds theory’ on which it was based. When the Albanian Labour Party first criticised this theory at its seventh congress in November 1976, these movements while not directly aiming their criticism at Mao followed suit. After Enver Hoxha adopted a clear stand towards Chinese policy in 1978, the bulk of these movements became, within a few months, perhaps the second biggest movements following Enver Hoxha in the world after the ALP itself.
It should be noted that there was another Maoist movement which had existed since 1970 and followed the armed struggle path stubbornly and which assumed a massive character on the same class basis as the others during the 1970s. TKP-ML-TIKKO (Turkey Communist Party- Marxist, Leninist-Turkey Workers, Peasants Liberation Army) having rejected the ‘three worlds theory’ from the beginning, insisted in a way on the classical Maoist line of the late 1960s.
The Independent Left
The third biggest grouping on the Turkish left of the 1970s was of organisations which could be classified ‘independent’. These tendencies, with leaderships from guerrilla movement origins, first implanted themselves among university youth and young petty bourgeois intellectuals. In a short period, however, they gained a massive character in the big cities and the backward regions of Anatolia. This ‘independent left’ movement consists of three main tendencies. The one which has to be mentioned first is Dev-Yol (Revolutionary Path) which claimed the whole heritage of the guerrilla movement of the early 1970s and presented itself as the continuation of the THKP-C ‒ the famous guerrilla organisation of that period. The strength of the legend of the guerrilla movement was quite effective in putting its stamp on the orientation of the new generation of young revolutionary students.
Yet, along with its prestige, the memories of the guerrilla movement’s defeat were still very much alive. This was especially true for the leadership cadres. For this reason, the bulk of the ‘true followers’ maintained for a long time that the conditions for guerrilla struggle were not mature enough. As a result Dev-Yol experienced an early split which gave birth to the Dev-Sol current (Revolutionary Left) who immediately started their ‘armed propaganda’. It was after this split that Dev-Yol rapidly took on a massive character. It formed grass roots organisations in plenty of Anatolian cities and towns, in the shanty-towns of the big cities and among university students. The circulation of its journal (a bi-weekly) reached 100 thousand.
Despite its size, this current remained a petty bourgeois youth movement, far from the working class. Although Dev-Yol had an important function in the armed resistance against fascists on a neighbourhood basis because of its militant and massive character until the 12 September coup, this form of struggle ‒ which was daily and lacked any form of central leadership ‒ did not lead to the political maturation of its cadres. As far as theory was concerned this movement was unable to score any advances. Under the strong influence of the armed struggle theory of the past guerrilla movement, it went no further than making some minor revisions to that illusory theory.
If Dev-Yol was in the centre, the other organisations of the independent left were at two opposite ends. Kurtuluş (Liberation) having a leadership with a guerrilla movement tradition, levelled serious criticism of its guerrilla past. While opposing Maoist and pro-Moscow currents rigorously it strove to establish a more ‘orthodox’ Marxist theoretical base, studying Lenin through Stalin in particular. This current was differentiated from the rest of the guerrilla tradition by the fact that it took theory seriously. There was no corresponding difference, however, in the social base of its supporters. It also had its base in the youth movement. It remained a smaller current than Dev-Yol because of its critical approach to the guerrilla movement and its relatively higher theoretical level.
At the other end of the spectrum of the independent left were the ‘followers’ in the true sense of the word of the guerrilla movement. These cadres, almost all of them university students, began ‘armed propaganda’ actions in the mid-1970s. Oddly enough, however, these ‘armed propaganda’ organisations did not take much part in the active resistance to the fascists which was the most pressing and vital issue of the time. The tight structure of their illegal organistions did not allow them to participate in a struggle as such. They inclined rather to assassinations of the leaders of the fascist movement, USA military officers, police chiefs, and the like.
These groups called themselves by striking names, the above mentioned Dev-Sol, THKP-C (Turkey People’s Liberation Party and Front), MLSPB (Marxist-Leninist Armed Propaganda Squad), HDO (Revolutionary Vanguards of the People), yet in spite of their abundant ‒ and some of them really spectacular ‒ actions, they scored no political gains and could not manage to grow stronger in this period. They were accused by both left and right of being responsible for ‘anarchy’…
I should emphasise that I have pointed out only the main organisations and tendencies of the Turkish left. There existed tens of organisations, groups, journals, paper circles legal and illegal. Yet all of them, over 40, can be considered within these three main orientations.
The Kurdish Left
There was another phenomenon on the left in the 1970s which should be taken into account independently ‒ the Kurdish revolutionary movement. The armed uprisings by the Kurdish liberation movement in the Turkish republic in the 1920s and 1930s ‒ the last one in 1937 ‒ and the massacres following ushered in a long period of silence. Of course, before 1960, there were arrests, persecutions, imprisonment and exile for ‘Kurdish separatists’ just like the famous ‘Communist arrests’. Yet these did not correspond to a revival in the Kurdish left or Kurdish liberation movement. In the 1960s, however, the developments in Turkey were felt in Turkish Kurdistan (or Northern Kurdistan). The first indication of this was the relatively serious support for TIP [Turkish Workers Party] in this part of Turkey. In the same period, a series of ‘Eastern Meetings’ or ‘Demonstrations for the East’ which raised the problem of underdevelopment and were held in the main cities of northern Kurdistan were an indication of this awakening taking a massive character. The late 1960s witnessed the first attempts of young Kurdish revolutionaries (who were students in Ankara and Istanbul at that moment) to organise. They formed the ‘Revolutionary Eastern Culture Associations’ which became gathering places for Kurdish militants. A short time later, following the 12 March coup the martial law authorities attacked and repressed both these Kurdish militants in the big cities and the political vanguard in Northern Kurdistan.
Under the powerful influence of Kemalist nationalism, in the 1960s the Turkish left approached the Kurdish problem with nationalist prejudices. The only current with a relatively positive position on this problem was TIP. For that reason a considerable number of Kurdish militants stayed members of this party for a long time. Then the early 1970s’ guerrilla movement, by virtue of its independent character and its rebel nature, drew many Kurdish militants into its ranks. However, the desire and inclinations of these militants to organise in their own independent organisat ions was in the process of strengthening. In the next decade, the fruits of this process led to the emergence of various Kurdish revolutionary organisations.
What happened in Northern Kurdistan in the 1970s, in contrast to the rest of Turkey where the workers’ movement rose up and began to merge with the socialist movement, was the rapid politicisation of students, middle class intellectuals and the peasant masses on the basis of national consciousness. Many of the revolutionary Kurdish organisations which emerged became massive in quite a short time. In a way, Northern Kurdistan in the 1970s was like the 1960s in Turkey. Everything concerning left politics was quite novel for the Kurdish masses and also for young Kurdish revolutionary militants. Despite the absence of any tradition among the past generations, Marxist ideas were greeted with great enthusiasm. Almost all political groupings regarded themselves as Marxist. Another important difference between the Kurdish left and the Turkish left was the fact that in Northern Kurdistan, the three main tendencies characteristic of the Turkish left ‒ pro-Soviet, Maoist and independent left ‒ could not be observed. The left groupings which could be regarded as ‘independent’ were in a small minority. As for the Maoists, they were incomparably weaker than the Turkish Maoists. The influence of Soviet communism was strong, however, and almost all the main organisations regarded the Soviet Union as the leader of the world socialist movement. This strong tendency towards Soviet communism was, and is, perhaps because of the living memories of the past defeats of Kurdish uprisings against the Turkish state and the belief that the Soviet Union might be a decisive factor in their ultimate success.
The Kurdish left, after experiencing rapid growth towards the late 1970s, fell into a serious crisis. All the left groupings despite their enjoying widespread support, could not respond to the theoretical, political and organisational requirements of actual events. Their enthusiastic embracing of Marxism could not immediately overcome the cultural backwardness, the lack of theoretical traditions and the weakness of the workers’ movement which aggravated the problems of the Kurdish revolutionary movement. On the other hand, the Turkish left was not in a position to guide the Kurdish revolutionary movement in these difficult times because of its own problems and increasingly growing crises and demoralisation. Integral to these problems, the severe assaults of the state apparatus and fascist forces on the Kurds, and the feud between left groupings which sometimes led to bloodshed, pushed the Kurdish left as a whole into an impasse, or rather a degeneration, leading up to 12 September 1980.
Towards 12 September 1980
In January 1978, a defection by eleven MPs from the JP aided the formation of an RPP government. This was one of the last temporary solutions to the political crises that had been gathering pace since 1974. The RPP government was formed at a time when workers’ mobilisation was at a peak, mass organisations were their most active and powerful, and also the fascist movement was on the offensive. With its utopian demagogic programme and its slogans of ‘democracy’, ‘peace’ and ‘social justice’, the RPP had been the ‘people’s hope’ since the period of repression in the early 1970s. Now this party was in power at a time of severe economic crises and of political and social polarisation. In these circumstances, the masses expected solutions to two urgent problems of the day, first a reverse of their progressive immiseration and second, a halt to fascist terror. The RPP, not unexpectedly, failed to provide an answer to these problems. The continuous decline in living standards occurred during the period of the RPP government which practised IMF prescription. As for fascist terror, just recalling that the Kahraman-Maraş fascist massacre which claimed more than a hundred lives happened in the same period is sufficient testimony. All these corresponded to an extraordinary stagnation in the mobilisation of the mases. For the masses, by virtue of their fatal confidence in and expectations of the RPP were not now keen to go into struggle. For example, in 1978 the number of workers involved in official strikes was only 10 thousand. This was below the figures of the pre-1968 period. The fall in unofficial strikes was even more drastic.
Not surprisingly, the incompetence and failure of the RPP government did not mean the masses turned to the socialist movement. Quite the contrary, the disappointment of the masses with the RPP pushed them into demoralisation and apoliticisation. Apart from the figures concerning strikes or strikers and other indications of mass mobilisation, there were also some more important developments showing the depth of this demoralisation. First, in this period the continuous increase in DISK’s membership since its foundation stopped and gave way to a decrease. Many inter-trade union conflicts resulted in the victory of independent trade unions. Coupled with this was the lessening support of the masses for the socialist movement. In the local elections of December 1979 the worker masses who had supported the RPP in the election two and a half years earlier overwhelmingly showed their reaction to RPP governmental policy by not casting their votes in the election. The most striking example was in Istanbul. In this heartland of the working class, the RPP’s vote fell by almost 50 per cent. The socialist tendencies who stood were able to gain only 3 per cent countrywide. This was no more than the number of May Day demonstrators who were organised and led by socialists just a few years before…
These conditions caused severe crises in the socialist groupings. In the late 1970s the Turkish left experienced its most serious splits and internal crises. These internal fights, which brought neither theoretical development nor different orientations, caused only more demoralisation among revolutionary cadres.
When a new MC (Nationalist Front) government was formed by the leadership of the JP and the fascist NAP (National Action Party) there seemed to be a revival in workers’ mobilisation. Unofficial strikes occurred in which tens of thousands of workers were involved and some of which resulted in major clashes with the police, but this was only temporary and exhausted in a short time. Given that the famous ’24 January measures’, which were announced in 1980 by the government, caused an abrupt and dramatic fall in the living conditions of the masses, even this revival was insubstantial. In the following months the working class tended to use its legal right to strike. The response was ‘legal’ government strike-suspension.
On the eve of the 12 September coup, around 50 thousand workers, a majority in DISK, were on strike. Yet these strikes lacked morale and discipline utterly. Not only the bosses but also trade unionists were waiting for the workers’ patience to be exhausted and their consent for unfavourable contracts. The agitation of the socialist movement was meagre and inefficient on this matter. In some months hundreds of thousands of auto, rail and textile workers, most of them TURK-IŞ members, were on the eve of new strikes. The 12 September coup was not too late…
The Aftermath of the 12 September 1980 Coup
The losses suffered by the Turkish left from the 1980 coup were immense. Although here is not the place to give a full account of the effects of the repression, we should draw attention to one loss above all which has most affected the movement and will have long-term consequences ‒ the marked absence of moral support and sympathy, even passive, from the masses of whom they claimed to be the leaders and political vanguard. This indicated that the Turkish left had lost something of the legitimacy gained during the 1960s’ struggles and consolidated in the early years of the post-1974 period. While it was true that the masses did not regard the Turkish left as mature enough to be a candidate for power in either of these two decades, because of its influence on mass organisations and its leading role in mass struggles, at least it had been regarded as a serious political force. The aftermath of the 12 September coup proves that this posture of the Turkish left has been exhausted in the eyes of the masses.
The masses’ impassivity in the face of the savage attacks on the left by the Turkish state did not, of course, come out of the blue. Facing this reality under the much more difficult circumstances of illegality, imprisonment, detention or trial, however, has been incomparably less bearable for the left. For this reason alone, the coup, with all its shocking effects, will have long term consequences ‒ if not necessarily entirely negative.
In the years preceding 12 September 1980, the programmes and slogans of the Turkish left, the method of its fight against fascists, its style of work in mass organisations, had all contributed in their own way to the terrible outcome of the coup. The Turkish left was wholly unsuccessful in convincing the masses of the credibility of its leadership. First and foremost, the left was unable to put forward a coherent political programme, particularly as an alternative to the RPP’s. When RPP liberalism was ascendant socialists had two extreme stands towards it, the one the mirror-image of the other. Either they encouraged the masses’ expectations of a prospective RPP government by their assessments or slogans (expressing their own expectations of it), or they denied the urgent demands of the masses while they were supposedly struggling against illusions in the RPP. Dreaming that problems could only be solved with slogans like ‘the only way is revolution’, ‘people’s war’ or ‘power lies through the barrel of the gun’ together with hundreds of others, the left could neither politically orient nor politically educate the masses.
Secondly, the nature of the anti-fascist struggle itself functioned to isolate the revolutionary cadres from ordinary citizens who themselves had been the subject of the fascist terror. For the left groupings never undertook anti-fascist struggle as part of the struggle of the working class and other toiling masses. Despite their rhetoric the anti-fascist struggle was waged solely as a means of establishing the dominance of this or that left grouping in any particular locality. The reason was obvious ‒ to encourage the masses’ participation in anti-fascist struggle required, apart from experienced political and also military leadership, and traditionally trusted organisations, a measure of democracy in order to ‘civilise’ the competition between left groupings. The Turkish left was utterly bereft of a meaningful democratic practice, therefore a struggle which had to be isolated from other revolutionary groupings necessarily had to be isolated from the masses too. The famous so-called ‘liberated zones’ in some districts of some cities where the revolutionary movement was strong enough to control many aspects of the daily life are a striking example of this. These zones were ‘liberated’ not only from the police and fascists but from the other left organistions as well! It was this weird anti-fascist struggle, or self-defence, which only burdened the revolutionary cadres with its unbearable weight, and led the masses to turn to other forces, more ‘serious’ and ‘trusted’, to protect themselves from fascist terror and death. First the RPP and later the armed forces…
The famous so-called ‘armed struggle’ waged from the mid-1970s onwards was another cause of the alienation of the Turkish left from the masses. Among contemporary examples, it is difficult to think of examples of such a struggle which despite extraordinary sacrifice brought about no positive results. The guerrilla activities gave neither morale to revolutionary cadres, created no enthusiasm, sympathy or even interest in the masses, nor caused panic among the fascists and police forces. In fact, they only provided considerable material for right wing demagogy about ‘anarchy’ and ‘terror’…
The last but not the least important factor in the tragedy of the Turkish left was the disastrous internal struggles in the mass organisations and particularly in DISK which had a devastating effect on the relations between the left political groupings and workers and other toilers. Having witnessed such deleterious power struggles waged with violence or gangster-like methods in their own organisations, and having seen the same kind of trade unionists coming to power time and time again under different political labels, the workers started to feel alien not only from these organisations and left groupings but from politics as well.
These negative points in combination, whose effects were apparent long before the military coup, led to the abrupt rupture between the masses and left groupings immediately after the 12 September coup.
The Balance Sheet of Two Decades: One Step Forward in the 1960s and Two Steps Backwards in the 1970s?
After 20 years of struggle will the Turkish left be able to draw positive lessons from its theoretical impasse, its political incapability and the bad memories of its relations with the masses, and start to build anew again? A close look at the last two decades might illuminate today’s developments and the prospects for tomorrow.
Despite the limits imposed by Stalinist and Kemalist influence, the 1960s was a period of rapid and productive development. Marxist theory in general was a subject of great interest in those years. In this decade ‒ the first ascent of the Turkish left ‒ the young cadres’ enthusiasm for Marxist theory, the left intellectuals’ intensive contributions in this field, and the existence of dialogue among various different groupings all contributed to healthy development in the theoretical domain. The same period was also marked by a serious concern with the outside world and an awakening internationalism contravening the nationalist prejudices originating from the traditions of Stalinism and Kemalism.
Throughout the 1960s the Turkish left experienced relations with the masses which were healthy and improving. At the outset the enthusiastic interest of the middle class intellectuals and some sections of the Kurdish and Turkish peasantry towards TIP was noteworthy. The socialist cadres responded to this by vivid and impressive propaganda and agitation. Later on, young militants successfully leading large student masses and some sections of the poor peasantry, together with some limited relations with workers, were also important experiences for the maturing Turkish left. These relations in some sense prepared the masses for their most severe and successful street fights with the police, factory occupations or unofficial strikes accompanied by severe clashes.
The 1960s were notable for the enthusiasm and strength of the fresh revolutionary wave, the weakness of RPP liberalism, the absence of the trade union bureaucracy’s control over the newly-awakened working class, and the absence or low level of factional feuds ‒ at least those being settled with firearms ‒ all in sharp contrast to the next decade.
The 1970s were quite different. Marxist theory was no longer a subject of enthusiasm. After 1974, the ready-made formulas and solutions of the pro-Soviet, Maoist and guerrilla movements of the early 1970s were enough to explain every problem. Not that the Turkish left failed to write or discuss anything in this period. On the contrary, it did more than was necessary, writing on every subject and every problem ‒ but only shallow comments putting forward the position of this or that grouping. The positive effect of the left intellectuals of university circles who were eagerly involved in the 1960s no longer existed. With the disappointment of the 1971 defeat these cadres withdrew into their academic milieu in the 1970s.
In the same period the Turkish left’s concern with international problems went no further than translating items of pro-Soviet or Maoist literature. Although the effect of Kemalist nationalism diminished considerably in the 1970s, compared to the previous decade the decline of internationalism on the left represented another backward development. The international revolutionary events which shocked the world in the 1970s were watched only passively by the Turkish left ‒as if they were happening on another planet! For example, neither the Portuguese revolution nor the collapse of the Greek or Spanish dictatorships were the subject of discussions or seen as the opportunities to draw theoretical lessons. A few years later, the rise of Eurocommunism attracted no serious attention, it was watched with amazement as if it was lightning in the still sky. Other important developments, such as the Lebanese civil war and the decline in the Palestine liberation movement received nothing more than simplistic rhetoric of the ‘long live…’ variety. Perhaps consciously, the Vietnam-China and Vietnam-Cambodia wars were not taken into account. Towards the end of the decade neither the Iranian revolution, nor the Nicaraguan revolution, nor the invasion of Afghanistan managed to excite the attention of the Turkish left.
To sum up, a few more remarks about the political maturity of the revolutionary cadres and their ability to lead the masses are appropriate. As already mentioned, during the 1970s these cadres displayed no more creativity in this domain. Their connection with the working class was made only through the trade-union bureaucracy. On the other hand, the peasant mobilisations of the 1960s were not witnessed in the 1970s. As for the student movement, it was no longer a unitary mass movement, but now consisted of various ‘zones of influence’ among this or that left grouping. As a result, there are only a few examples of mass confrontation with the police, street fights, factory occupations or militant unofficial strikes in spite of the depth of the economic and social crises and the growth of the revolutionary movement. In these circumstances the revolutionary cadres’ relations with the masses could not have been improved. And how would it have been possible for them to grow politically more mature? The 1970s’ ‘guerrillas’ were another striking example of this backwardness. These were bizarre guerrillas ‒ from the leadership to the rank and file ‒ who started political activity as ‘guerrillas’ in a territory which could not employ so many guerrillas! …
We can discern a strange or ill-fated development of the Turkish left in its last two decades. The revolutionary movement seemed to go no further than the point it had reached by the late 1960s. It is as if the Turkish revolutionary movement developed backwards during the 1970s or, rather, in this decade there was an uneven relationship between the political maturation of the vanguard, the degree of mass mobilisation, and the depth of the social crisis.
What Does the Future Promise?
Before some final words on the prospects of the development of the Turkish left, we should first glance at the working class. Without doubt the working class will put its stamp on any new political and social revival much more powerfully than in the 1960s and 1970s. In the future, the orientation of the bulk of the Turkish left to the proletariat ‒ and the indications are there now ‒ will be an important factor in the social mobilisations of the next period. After the experiences of the last two decades, the working class will be mature enough to shoulder a leading role in future struggles. The increasing numerical strength of the working class is also another factor in this estimate. According to 1981 official statistics, the number of insured workers has already reached 2,154,000. This figure does not cover either workers in small industry, most white collar workers, or workers in certain sectors such as health and military production. Neither does it cover the agrarian proletariat. The proletariat now consists of at least 25 per cent of the economically active population.
Although with its 20 years of struggle, the working class can no longer be regarded as young, it should also not be forgotten that the Turkish working class, despite two decades of intense experiences, mainly of trade union struggle, still lacks sufficient political experience. It is worth noting that, despite the tumultuousness of the last period, the working class never experienced any organisation on a mass scale other than trade unions. It has never seen the organisational forms with which it could taste both democracy and power. It does not have such memories. Its relations with the political forces in existence in the last two decades provide further proof of this weakness. As a class the workers have always been remote from the political organisations and always in the minority in their membership. For example, the RPP, despite its strong influence on two trade union confederations, and its rapid transformation towards social democracy, could not organise workers en masse. The organisational embodiment of its relations with the working class went no further than party ‘workers’ committees’ ‒ which can be found in any bourgeois political organisation. Neither were the socialist groupings any different in this respect. Among hundreds of thousands of readers of the socialist press, worker readers consisted of a small minority of only 5-10 per cent. The fact that the Turkish left movement has no tradition of ouvrierist currents is another interesting indication of this weakness. Despite this negative background, with integral to its numerical strength its concentration in certain industrial areas, its nucleus who have been in the cities for a few generations, its being in a rapid process of cultural development and its not being under the strong influence of religion, the Turkish working class is on solid ground for political maturation.
On this, of course, everything will depend on the Turkish left. Without hesitation one can say or rather hope that after the crushing defeat of September 1980, the Turkish left will emerge in the near future having undergone important changes in every sense.
While there are not yet strong indications of such changes, there is one important factor in the life of the Turkish left whose consequences should bear fruit in the medium term. For almost the first time in its history, the left has been experiencing exile conditions in large numbers. Never has there existed so many Turkish exiles in the western countries. Looking at the history of the Turkish left we can say that the handful of TKP exiles who returned brought nothing to the Turkish left except, of course, Stalinist so-called internationalism, or rather nationalism, and, under the haunting influence of the experiences of the Comintern parties, anti-democratic organisational forms. Now, while Stalinist Communism is in crisis, the West might provide an important political education for the Turkish exiles who can currently be counted in thousands. It is rather striking that this Turkish exile existence is the first since the ‘Young Turks’ flooded to western Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century. That generation’s few decades in Europe left their imprint on Turkish political thought and life for almost the whole of the next century. Of course it is too early to speak of today’s generation in this way.
If almost half of the vanguard of the Turkish left is in exile, the other half is in prison, experiencing directly the most harsh terror of the dictatorship. In spite of all the brutal repression, the prisons have been almost unique heroic centres of resistance to the 12 September dictatorship in the last three years. Though with concentration camp-like conditions they are not the places for theoretical education as to a certain extent the 12 March prisons were, it is in the prisons where the militancy and determination for struggle is alive and continues to be kept alive.
After the theoretical, political and organisational bankruptcy which all factions of the Turkish left faced to some degree, a new era is ahead. A wide range of cadres are aware of this and admit it explicitly or, in most cases, implicitly. This is particularly clear for the cadres who entered the revolutionary movement in the first years of the 1960s. They now face a second and more severe defeat. A new era requires new tasks. First and foremost given the depth of the theoretical impasse they face in one sense the task of learning ‘from the beginning’. It is a gigantic task and whether these cadres are ready is not clear.
More than ten years ago, the then TIP leader Mehmet Ali Aybar during the time of his condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, recommended young revolutionaries to read not only Lenin but Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and others as well. He was immediately condemned and his advice regarded as anathema by almost all enthusiastic young militants. Of course, he himself had read none of them properly and maybe for that reason he was not convincing, but it must be admitted that since then the Turkish left has neither expanded its theoretical horizons nor its tolerance to different and new ideas. Also since then, it has received no recommendation such as Aybar’s. Perhaps now such a recommendation could be put forward more convincingly. With the pressure of a gigantic impasse, the 1960s generation in particular, might look towards different approaches to Marxist theory. It is possible that these cadres might not be able to stomach such an approach, forcing them to read from the beginning, to study meticulously and to learn in a humble mood, yet in a way it can be said that the era of alchemism has already ended for the Turkish left. If that generation does not start to study the ‘natural sciences’ of working class politics, not only shall we experience terrible new losses for the Turkish left as a whole, but also this generation itself will vanish without a useful legacy in spite of its having experienced the two most tumultuous decades in modern Turkish histor
- For the arrests up to 1932, see H. Kivilcimli, Parti ve Praksiyon (Party and Fraction); for the others, see A. Sayilgan, Solun 94 Yili (94 Years of the Left). ↩
- See TKP 5 Kongresi (1983) (Documents of 5th Congress of Turkish Communist Party), London, 1983. ↩
- For the analysis openly advocating Kemalist revolution and its repression of the Kurdish uprisings see Ş. Hüsnü Degmer, Seçme Yazzlar (Selected Writings). For the opposite analysis see H. Kivilcimli, Yol, written between 1929-1933. ↩
- For a detailed exposition of this perspective see Dogan Avcioglu, Turkiye’nin Düzeni (The Social Order of Turkey). ↩
- Figures for official strikes taken from the State Statistics Institution, the Ministry of Labour, and also from the published reports of various trade unions. Given that these figures often show discrepancies I have taken the average between them for each year. For the unofficial strikes, as no official statistics exist, I have based my figures on the publications of various left organisations. ↩