For the Turkish and Kurdish working class and the left, September 12 is above all a day of remembrance of one of the heaviest blows against the workers in recent history.
On 12 September in Turkey a referendum on amendments to the constitution is being held – initiated by the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government of prime minister Recep Erdoğan.
The current constitution dates from 1982 – drawn up by the military dictatorship following its 1980 coup, which was supported by the NATO powers, led by the US and (West) German imperialism. Erdogan is using the 12 September occasion – the 30 anniversary of the military coup – to portray himself as the democratic representative of the moderate Islamic forces against the ‘Kemalist’ military/political elite. But the coup of 1980 was directed not against any of the political wings of the capitalist class, but was organised to destroy the organised workers’ movement.
12 September will see a reshuffling of the balance of power within Turkey’s ruling (see article on the 12 September referendum). For the Turkish and Kurdish working class and the left, it is above all a day of remembrance of one of the heaviest blows against the workers in recent history.
“If we had not organised a putsch, there would be now a communist in my position to speak to you.” Said general Kenan Evren in a television and radio address a few days after 12 September 1980 – the day when for the third time within two decades (1960, 1971 and 1980) the military had taken power in Turkey.
Immediately after the military seized power left wing unions and the right to strike were outlawed and collective bargaining was banned. About 54,000 striking workers had to stop their actions and immediately start working again. Collective bargaining negotiations for 352,000 workers were stopped.
A wave of arrests swept the whole country. About 650,000 from the left opposition were arrested and tortured; many of them vanished for years or decades behind prison bars. Thousands were forced to flee Turkey.
Left wing organisations were forced to go underground. Overall, after the coup 23,667 clubs and associations were made illegal.
Repressive measures – a ban on self-organising and the right to strike, suspension of elections, murder, torture and imprisonment, as well as the re-establishment of reactionary Islamic influences – took the ground from under the feet of the left and the workers’ movement.
The coup was a reaction of the ruling class to the strength of the workers’ movement. This movement developed in Turkey only through the rapid industrialisation following the Second World War, especially in the 1960s.
The beginning of the workers’ movement
Mustafa Suphi, 1883 – 1921
The foundation of the TKP (Turkish Communist Party) by the Bolsheviks Mustafa Suphi and others took place in 1920 – a union of several communist groups that were inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution. In the 1920s and 30s workers increasingly began to organise and Marxist literature was published.
Several obstacles served to hinder the development of Marxist forces in Turkey in the following decades: Firstly, the working class was small in numbers.
However, the Russian Revolution showed that this in itself is not an obstacle. But, since the Baku Congress of the Peoples in September 1920, the understanding of the leading role of the working class in revolutionary movements was, unlike the position of Lenin and Trotsky, unclear. Zinoviev, the congress’s chair, orientated more towards the idea of a coalition to organise all the “oppressed people” in the East. Lenin and Trotsky by contrast had always emphasised the independent role of the working class and its struggle to lead the poor, more unorganised, strata to overthrow landlordism and capitalism, opening the door for a socialist world revolution.
The decisive factor however was the role of the Stalinists, who took control in the Soviet Union. Following the isolation of the Russian Revolution, in a backward country, without the help of the proletariat in the ‘advanced’ countries, a political counter-revolution developed: capitalism and landlordism were abolished, a planned economy was established, but political control was lost by the working class, and occupied by a small layer of bureaucrats, smashing any form of workers’ democracy.
The bureaucracy were fearful of any change in the Russian and international balance of forces. So for the following decades they defended the planned economy and the nationalised companies as the status quo in Russia, but increasingly in the 1920s and 1930s they tried everything to stop the development of the workers’ revolution internationally.
That is why they took up Zinoviev’s mistakes and re-hashed the Mensheviks’ “stages” theory, falsely presenting them as the policies that led to the October 1917 revolution. There was, according to them – for example in Turkey – the need to enter first of all a phase of capitalist development to create the basis for socialism. Thus, Marxist forces should work together with the ‘progressive’ capitalists.
The Russian Revolution itself clearly showed that the capitalists in semi colonial countries were completely tied in and subservient to international capital, and imperialism which prevented them from playing a revolutionary role against feudal relics or a “progressive” role in developing society as a whole. Moreover, their fear of revolutionary workers’ movements ultimately made them work with reaction.
But this mistaken perspective – first, achieve a capitalist democracy then, at a later unspecified date, a socialist revolution – was repeated again and again throughout Turkish history by a big part of the left.
It was easier for the Stalinists to implement this wrong theory in Turkey as the murder of Mustafa Suphi and 14 other leading communists left the weak Marxist forces beheaded in its early stages. These assassinations were organised in 1921 by the Kemalists – the same forces which the Stalinists later on argued should be an ally that communists should trust.
This was also justified by the role of “Kemalism”. Mustafa Kemal ("Atatürk"), the founder of the Turkish state in the 1920s, argued that Turkey would need modernisation organised by the state, from the top down. They argued that the backwardness of Turkey could only be overcome by the state apparatus, pushing back religion and organising a moderen state, defending the Turkish nation and developing capitalism.
In a way, this expressed the needs and the weakness of the capitalists in Turkey. Their wishes could only be implemented through brutal measures.
Mustafa Kemal "Atatürk": The prosecution and murder of Marxists and brutal meassures against the workers’ movement are a constant feature of the history of Kemalism.
This “Kemalist” state doctrine is still defended today. It was linked to a brutal oppression of Kurdish and Armenian people and justified the interventions and coups of the military. The prosecution and murder of Marxists and brutal meassures against the workers’ movement are also a constant feature of the history of Kemalism.
Workers’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s
Only in the 1960s and 1970s, the working class entered onto the stage of the events as a powerful force.
In 1960 the military staged a coup against a conservative government – the first freely elected government. The Kemalists feared they could be permanently cut off from power and influence because the ruling Democratic Party could base itself on a rural majority using pro-Islamic populism.
The 1960 coup created a constitution that would secure on the one hand the interests of the Kemalist elite and on the other hand create new urban supporters. The result was a constitution, which introduced some democratic and workers’ rights including press freedom and a proportional voting system.
A paradox resulted. The abolition of the democratically elected government led to the most democratic constitution Turkey has seen. This does not mean, that the 1960 coup was in any way an expression of a progressive nature of these Kemalists.
It showed the complicated situation in which they found themselves in. They sought point of support, amongst others classes, in the working class to counter a different wing of the Turkish capitalists and landlords which was vying for power. However when this ‘supporter’, the working class, grew up the Kemalists did not hesitate to take drastic measures to it – hence the following two military coups of 1971 and 1980.
The workers’ movement grew rapidly and dynamically in the 1960s. New organisations were formed. In 1967 DISK, the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions, was launched and attained great importance in subsequent years. The influence of ‘communist’ ideas – in fact Stalinist ideas including their Maoist variety – grew. 1970 saw two million unionised workers. The worldwide radicalisation of students and young workers in 1968 also had an effect in Turkey.
On the other hand, nationalists and fascists around the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party or Nationalist Action Party) and its youth organisation, the ‘Grey Wolves’, tried to attack workers in the interests of the ruling class.
Showdown in June 1970
When the government tried to attack the workers’ movement with a new law on trade union rights – mainly directed against DISK – this led to the showdown of 15-16 June 1970. Hundreds of thousands of workers spontaneously took the streets in Istanbul, the bridge of the Golden Horn, but also occupied a number of administrative offices. But the spontaneous uprising lacked leadership. The union leaders retreated and the chance to break with capitalism was missed. This led to a setback in the movement.
The June 1970 defeat was followed by retaliation – the coup of March 1971. This served primarily to consolidate the army itself. However, they were not strong enough at that time to decisively smash the organisations of the working class, despite the wave of imprisonment and persecutions. From 1974, the organised workers’ movement, quickly and energetically, grew again.
In the 1970s the Stalinist or Maoist dominated left-wing groups combined had tens of thousands of members. 1978, around one million workers, employees and students were organised in different groups and trade unions which were under the influence of left-wing parties or tendencies.
The rulers continued to rely on building fascist forces. The working class – such as thousands of workers in Izmir Taris – fought heroic struggles with strikes and factory occupations for higher wages and democratic rights and against the fascists.
Hundreds of thousands massed in Taksim Square, Istanbul, in 1 May 1977 to underscore the power of the workers’ movement. A mass panic followed because of gunshots (from unknown forces) and a subsequent confrontation with the police. 33 people were killed.
1 May 1977, Taksim Square in Istanbul: 33 people were killed.
The leadership of the workers’ movement, especially the DISK leaders and the radical left, despite their influence were not able and not willing to show a way out by organising for a decisive break with capitalism. The TKP – at this time because of its influence in the trade unions the most important force on the left – used its control over DISK to hold the movement back.
The TKP leaders hoped for a kind of united front government with the CHP (Republican People’s Party). Instead of showing a lead to break with capitalism, they tried not to frighten the so called ‘progressive’ capitalists. They even cooperated with the employers against more radical workers, for example giving their names for the bosses’ black lists.
The rulers relied on the waning of the hopes of the masses, who sought a radical solution. They used the inadequate leadership of the Turkish left and the help of the fascist forces in order to demoralise the left and rest on the more conservative layers of the population who wanted order and stability and an end to the chaos.
Even on electoral level the lack of a clear left alternative was apparent. With high hopes in 1977 the CHP with its leader Bulent Ecevit was elected as the biggest party.
The CHP has never been a workers’ party. (In the past parties like the SPD in Germany or the Labour Party in Britain were formations with a capitalist leadership but with deep roots in the working class. Workers tried to use these parties – despite their leaders – as a tool in the class struggle. Marxists therefore characterised these formations as ‘workers parties with a capitalist leadership’. The SPD and the Labour Party changed character in the late 1980s/early 90s. But the CHP could never have been characterised like this.) It had, however, driven by the mood in the country, taken up some radical left-wing rhetoric and made some promises to the workers’ movement.
Under its government, however, things remained unchanged. There was economic instability, the fascists continued to spread terror and fear unhindered and on this basis already in 1979 a right-wing government returned, led by Süleyman Demirel.
US imperialism pursued its own interests in Turkey due to Turkey’s proximity to the Soviet Union, and its geographical position, with borders with the Caucasus, Iran and Iraq. After the developments in Iran 1979, the importance of Turkey as a stronghold in the region for imperialism increased. The US started to install its air base in Incirlik, Turkey, at that time.
We can assume that the US was directly involved in the preparation of the coup. Thus, in the US, news of the coup was spread on radio hours before it had even taken place! A spokesperson for the US foreign ministry later confirmed that they were informed by the Turkish military about the coup before it started.
The International Monetary Fund made demands for privatisation and liberalisation from the Turkish rulers. The Demirel government was not able to get the unstable situation – marked by constant strikes and violent clashes – under its control.
The coup 1980
After a period of more than a decade in which revolution and counter-revolution were continually on the agenda, without the Turkish left being able to seize the opportunities the ruling class decided it was the time to draw a clear line.
This was the basis on which the military seized power, and organised the putsch on 12 September 1980. The workers’ movement and the left were hit by a deep blow and the ground was prepared for uncontrolled exploitation and privatisation.
Immediately after the coup a number of laws were implemented in Turkey that made it a ‘playground’ for foreign investors. Privatisation of public industry and services was launched. At the same time wages were driven down and living standards of the working class fell dramatically.
Eight years after the military coup, labour costs had been halved. In 1980 a worker earning the minimum wage had to work 36 days to get enough for an average monthly rent. In 1988 it was 102 days. Inflation soared and wages lagged well behind escalating prices. By 1988 the price of bread rose 43 times, the price of meat 33 times and newspaper 79 times, while wages rose only 10 times.
Why could the military win?
The Turkish left has had many opportunities to end the power of capitalism, imperialism and the landlords, and to open the door for a socialist transformation of Turkey as part of an international socialist movement. But the mainly Stalinist and Maoist influenced revolutionary groups opposed this. There were two reasons:
First, they argued that socialism would still not be on the agenda for Turkey. They sought the cooperation with capitalist forces. Behind the hope of cooperation with ‘progressive’ bourgeois/capitalist forces was their theory of stages, which assumes that on the path to socialism Turkey must first pass through a phase of bourgeois democracy.
Kenan Evren, leader of the putsch
But the makers of this ‘bourgeois revolution’ was are no longer there. The Kemalist representatives of the bourgeoisie in 1960 had played with fire – and burned their hands. The main concern of the Turkish rulers was the threat to their profits and their power by the working class. This drove all wings of the capitalists into the camp of counter-revolution.
A second mistake, which is related to the first, was the view that the main task is the struggle against imperialism. In the struggle against US imperialism various ‘revolutionary’ forces tried to ally with the Kemalists to develop Turkey in a national and capitalist way, free of the domination of the imperialists.
However, with the international division of the world markets under the dominant imperialist powers, there is no space for a sustained national development of capitalism anymore. National rulers are closely related with the international ruling classes – and subservient to the power of the world market.
The unresolved tasks of the bourgeois revolution – establish a capitalist democracy, solve the national question, implement land reform – today can only be solved by the working class – which will then not remain there, but which will put its own programme of the socialist revolution internationally into existence, in order to ensure the success of the revolution.
The confusion of the Stalinist left in Turkey was so big that a part of them wanted to see it as a kind of continuation of the ‘left’ putsch of 1960. They sent demands to the military, to take action against the fascist Grey Wolves and were “neutral” towards this coup or did not even want to call it a coup.
Rather than relying on the working class, many lefts hoped to cooperate with Kemalist or ‘progressive capitalists’.
That mistake was just mirrored by those lefts that supported the armed struggle and also replaced the working class as the vehicle for social change – only by other means.
At the end of the 1960s a layer of young socialists developed, whose martyrs are still hugely popular. Mahir Cayan, guidance figure for the student movement and organisations such as Devrimci Yol ("Revolutionary Path"), Deniz Gezmiş ("Turkish People’s Liberation Army") and Ibrahim Kaypakkaya (founder of the TKP/ML) argued for armed struggle and all of them died very young in battle, by execution or by torture. The respect for them, but also others, that have gone into the armed struggle, is still very strong.
Certainly all these young activists have fought heroically, but they have also tried to act as substitutes for the mass action and mass organisation of the working class and thus directing the struggle into an impasse.
It is completely justified to organise defence against attacks of fascists or the repression of the state. This includes the right and the need of armed self-defence. But a part of the Turkish left, even groups claiming to be Marxist, went far beyond this. They argued – using Che Guevara’s theories, for example – for a guerrilla war based on the countryside or the ‘urban guerrillas’.
This strategy was an obstacle for the left to concentrate on the struggle of the working class, to organise it and offer a clear, Marxist leadership. Instead of challenging the leadership of the trade unions, they were walking through the mountains or hiding in wait for the struggle. The false concentration on the armed struggle alienated some parts of the working class and played into the hands of the state, who tried to present the revolutionary left as violent and strange to normal people.
At the time of the military coup of 1980, these organisations, which continued to defend their ideas, were numerically strong, and some still exist today. However, “The liberation of the working class can only be the work of the working class itself.” This quote of Karl Marx has lost none of its accuracy over the years. Each path of individual terrorism – even if it appears as very radical – is doomed to failure.
Tekel workers’ struggle, January 2010
30 years later – new class struggles and old challenges
For the first time in 30 years something like a recovery from the consequences of the military coup and the following years of persecution and silence is developing. The strikes and occupations at the beginning of the year at Tekel and Taris have announced the return of Turkish and Kurdish workers as well as the fact that for the first time since 1977 300,000 people on 1 May demonstrated on the Taksim Square in Istanbul.
A new workers’ movement in Turkey is to face old challenges.
The idea of socialism was widespread in the 1970s. The fear of the leftist forces was great among the rulers. But the Stalinist/Maoist dominated left made big mistakes. And even if the dispute between those groups was heavy, and sometimes even fought with armed force (which made it easier to split the movement and undermined the unity in the struggle against fascism and capitalism) these forces in the end acted very similar on the crucial questions.
To make a balance sheet and draw the conclusions is the most sensible we can do now – in the memory of all those victims who fought against the coup and dictatorship.