The Left in Today’s Turkey

Interview with our writer Atakan Çiftçi published by the Persian political left magazine Aasoo, in January 2022. This is the English translation of the interview.

1. The co-joined /collaborative project of Islam and capitalism is an important topic to the Marxist scholarship today. Apart from Gulf countries, Turkey has been the first Muslim country that made attempt to appropriate Islam with capitalism. What do the intellectuals and political activists of the left in Turkey have about this?

The first political Islamist party was founded in Turkey, as early as the end of the sixties, under the charismatic leadership of Necmettin Erbakan, influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Before founding his party, Erbakan was an important figure within the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey, representing the interests of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), based in rural and conservative areas of the country.

During the seventies, Erbakan’s party was defending a developmentalist approach, based on state investments in heavy industry. After the military coup in 1980, Turkey passed from import substitution industrialization to neoliberal economic model, and Islamism was adapted well to this process. Many SMEs in Anatolian cities became large enterprises and demanded more share from public resources. Erbakan’s party started to moderate its political positions in the ‘90s and attracted marginalized urban voters as well as conservative provincial popular sectors. However, during Erbakan’s short-term prime ministry, confrontations between secular military-civil bureaucracy and his Islamist party sharpened, and the Constitutional Court banned the Islamist party at the end of the ‘90s.

A more moderate wing emerged within the Islamist movement under the leadership of Tayyip Erdoğan, ex-mayor of Istanbul, claiming that they were no more Islamists but conservative democrats. This moderation process was in line with the rise of the conservative bourgeoisie. Rather than an Islamic revolution in the country, they preferred a conciliation with secular elites, being part of the European Union, and a more aggressive policy in the region. After the deep economic crisis of 2001, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) could take advantage of the political vacuum in the country and obtained an absolute majority within the parliament. During its first years of government, to consolidate its power, the JDP launched some halfway democratic openings. At the same time, it followed and even deepened the neoliberal agenda of the former governments. Despite the economic growth, the economic inequality reached unprecedented levels. After weakening its political rivals and the global economic crisis that started in 2008, the JDP followed more repressive and exploitative policies. During its governance of 18 years, Erdoğan and its party was able to create its oligarchic bourgeois sectors in the economy, based on a growth model on the construction, energy, and arms industry. The JDP became a role model of a successful combination of Islamic rhetoric and neoliberalism. However, the balance of its political power is an unprecedented misery for the working people and a highly authoritarian regime for the oppressed, such as Kurds, women, lgbti+ community.

2. Can you provide an overview of the class structure of Turkish society? Has the Turkish left been able to find a base among the lower classes? What political tendency dominates the working class?

Turkey is a capitalist country situated by some global institutions in the “developing countries” group with others such as India, Brazil or South Africa. Its industry share is 23% in its GDP (construction 9.7%, services 60.2%, agriculture 6.9%). Of its 83 million population, there is a quite strong industrial working class of 3.5 million; including other salary earners, some 30 million active working people, besides some 14.2 million unemployed. (Unregistered workers are not included in these numbers.) The small business people category is registered as 1.6 million.

Some 60% of the workers’ monthly earnings is the minimum wage established by the government, which is about 300 dollars.

What we can define as “left” in Turkey is highly divided and with some specifications quite different from its Western counterparts. One which self-proclaims as left, center-left or social democrat, is the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Nowadays is the biggest opposition party and usually collects some 20-25% of the votes. Being the unique governing party, which constructed the Republic in 1923 and reigned alone for 23 years, it is highly nationalist with some Bonapartist traits. Most of its supporters are secular and educated people of the Western cities and poor Alawites (the second-largest Islamic sect in Turkey). From a Marxist point of view, it is a reformist social democratic bourgeois party.

The other mass party, which we can include in a general definition of the left, is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) which is very strong in the Kurdish territories of the country. In general elections, it obtains some 10% of the popular vote. It can be characterized as a petty bourgeois nationalist party.

Then there are other small revolutionary left parties, some of which are from Stalinist or Maoist origins. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union these parties and groups became to bear a tendency towards more reformist positions, trying to construct multiclass movements on issues as climate change, environment, women emancipation, LGBT, etc. On the other hand, the Trotskyist current preserve the orthodox Marxist positions and try to extend its influence in the working classes.

But, due to the rapid development in Turkey between the years 2002 and 2007, the major party also within the workers became to be the actual governing party, the Justice and Development Party (JDP) of Erdogan, although nowadays highly loosing supporters for its dictatorial regime, the economic crises and its regrettable and mortal managing of the Covid-19 pandemic.

3. Gezi park protest was environmental ground activity when it began and developed immediately. What is the status of the issue of environment among the leftists in Turkey?

Gezi park protests started on environmental issue (withdrawing the trees of the park) but with the first intervention of the police forces, it rapidly turned to be an insurrection against the dictatorial regime of Erdoğan. It was a multiclass mobilization and the biggest mass movement of Turkey’s history.

The real struggles against environmental deterioration began to develop recently with the mobilization of the rural people against the construction of hydroelectric and thermal centrals or countless mining projects that destroy the country’s remaining forests and natural life zones. Energy and mining are the JDP government’s strategic sectors for economic growth. Despite the destruction of agricultural zones and the natural environment, it is a fast and easy way to make profit for Turkish capitalists as well as multinational companies. These attacks that destroy the environment trigger the convergence of anti-capitalist struggles with the ecological movement. The majority of the left is sensitive to this issue, and there is a growing solidarity movement with the local resistants against such destructive projects.

4. In recent decades, a kind of Islamic left has been formed in Turkey. Ali Shariati’s ideas have attracted the attention of such groups. What is the opinion of the Turkish secular left about the Islamist left? As you know, in the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran, the secular left cooperated with Islamists – including leftist Islamists – which did not have a good result. Does this tendency exist among the secular leftists in Turkey?

In the noughties, some Islamic left groups, such as Anti-capitalist Muslims and Revolutionary Muslims, occurred in Turkey. They even joined the Gezi Revolt -the massive mobilization that gathered millions of people against the JDP government in 2013- and took part in the occupation of Taksim Square; central square of Istanbul occupied by protesters for more than a month during the Revolt. However, these groups could not become mass organizations and remained marginal.

Some sectors of the left, coming from left-Kemalist or Stalinist tendencies, are categorically against such formations. They define them as counter-revolutionaries and reject doing any united political actions with them. Liberal left tendencies welcome these Islamic left groupings, and they think they would become a tool for attracting the conservative base of the JDP from a left point of view. A more balanced approach would be the following: we can organize joint protests or political actions against the JDP government or for supporting mass mobilizations with them; however, we should avoid building permanent political fronts with them and should not give up a political/ideological discussion with these groupings.

5. What is the role of women among the secular left in Turkey?

It is hard to give a straight answer to this question because there is not a single answer. To start with, we can say that the role and place that women occupied within the left, historically speaking, have always been fundamental; but whether it was seen that way or not is the question. The left was considered, and it self-identified itself to be driven by men. Men were the brain, the thinkers, the vanguard, and women simply followed, and completed the picture — this was the understanding here, just like it was everywhere else, at first. The “official history” was one of men’s.

Yet women’s place and role, as well as the reality of patriarchy and how it works hand in hand with capitalism was more openly acknowledged starting with the emergence of a feminist movement in Turkey in the late 70s and early 80s. This is not to say that there weren’t feminists in Turkey before. It just means that this period is when women, collectively, asserted themselves as political subjects and started questioning the patriarchal norms underlying social and political spaces, including the left. That doesn’t simply mean bringing a feminist agenda to the table or having a right to speak up solely about issues concerning women; it also means pushing for an acknowledgment of women as fundamental actors in class struggle and class politics. 

On the one hand, Stalinist sectors, and their variants, for instance, still struggle with what to do with women or feminist struggle. Not only does their stagist understanding of class society and social change make them postpone women’s liberation and struggle against patriarchy to a time that succeeds socialist struggle. This understanding sometimes goes as far as to label women’s issues or demands as “bourgeois.” They are also still coming to terms with the idea that women can do politics or theorize about class struggle or challenge male analyses.

On the other hand, there are other sectors of the left that consider women’s struggle against patriarchy as inseparable from class struggle, and openly espouse feminism as part of their political programme. One can count Trotskyist parties, student movements, socialist feminists among them. And recent history only proves this fundamental role of women and women’s struggle in the leftist struggle. For instance, women were at the forefront of the Gezi Park mobilization — not simply to fight against certain sexist discourses that were part of the protests, but also to fight against the government and its political, economic, social, and environmental policies at large. Similarly, during the period of heightened repression and extended state of emergency following the coup attempt against the Erdogan government in 2016, women were the only sector that didn’t pull back from the streets to continue defending their rights and lives against the government.

6. What is the standpoint of the secular left towards Turkish nationalism? Do you think leftists should cooperate and unite with liberals and nationalists?

What we can call “Turkish nationalists” bear two diametrically opposing parties. One of them, as I mentioned above, is the CHP, which revendicates the social democratic program; but the other, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) is a fascist organization, based on the belief in the superiority of the Turkish race. With the first one, there can be joint actions inside the working class, not forgetting that it is a bourgeois party. As for the second (MHP), we should categorically struggle against it.

Those who can be called liberals once supported Erdogan’s government. They believed the Erdoğan government would “modernize and civilize” the country and insert Turkey into the European Union. Nevertheless, for some years, as the results of Erdogan’s Bonapartist dictatorial regime became more explicit, the liberals were silent and turned to be a marginally defamed sect. Any real left current that would collaborate with them will lose all its prestige if it has any.

7. Does the Turkish left believe in fighting against imperialism? Do you think that the domination of the great powers should be removed from the Middle East?

Yes, the left should definitely be anti-imperialist. However, what is strange in this country is that everybody claims to be “anti-imperialist.” Every day, Erdogan insults the imperialist countries, saying that the USA and the EU are trying to enslave our people and for this to destroy his government. Of course, this is hypocrisy on his part because Turkish capitalism is highly dependent on imperialism, and Erdoğan only tries to have a better position in his negotiation with imperialist countries. Even so, his supporters, to some extent, buy this demagogy.

The far left is, in theory, against imperialism, but the majority believes that imperialism is only composed of the United States. For that reason, they prefer to support, for example, the European Union (“for democracy”) or other big powers such as Russia and China to balance the USA. As for the revolutionary left, it is against all imperialist and expansionist powers in the Middle East and revendicates the solidarity of all the peoples of the Middle East to eradicate imperialism from the region and for the construction of a Federation of Socialist Republics.

8. What is the status of the rights of sexual minorities in Turkey?

Legally speaking, homosexuality is not a crime in Turkey, but there is no legal status or protection for same-sex couples. Sex change is allowed, transgender people can change their legal gender since 1988, and lgbti+ people have the right to seek asylum in Turkey under the Geneva Convention. Yet, no specific laws — civic, labor, or penal — exist to protect the lgbti+s against discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

And the reality on the street is quite different from the legality confines. For instance, Turkey has a large lgbti+ refugee community — including individuals from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. However, the government refuses to offer them refugee status or protection, and recently took these refugees’ rights to access healthcare, just prior to the pandemic.

Public opinion on homosexuality, and the lgbti+ community in general, has generally been conservative. Lgbti+ people are subject to systematic social, political, and police discrimination, harassment, and violence. In recent years, the conservative government has increasingly and openly targeted them. The head of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs went as far as to blame lgbti+s for causing and spreading Covid-19 during a sermon, approving and promoting hate speech and violence against the lgbti+.

In addition to femicides, several transgender individuals are brutally murdered every year, and the toll, just like in the case of femicides, has been on the rise. However, since the murder of transgender people is not considered a hate crime, there are no reliable statistics or reliable actions, or protection undertaken by the government. On the contrary, the perpetrators are protected by the police and the legal system.

It is also important that the bourgeois opposition parties remain mostly silent against the discrimination and violence that lgbti+s face. They shy away from espousing a pro-lgbti+ position, fearing losing their electoral base’s support. The lgbti+ community and movement, the feminist movement, and the left are the only sectors that publicly denounce, refute and fight against discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

9. What is the position of the Turkish left on the Kurdish issue? What is the relation among the Kurdish left activists and the Turkish left activists? What have the leftists done to improve the situation of the Kurds in Turkey?

Traditionally, the left-Kemalist and Stalinist sectors have not acknowledged Kurds as separate nation and their right to self-determination. Since the 1970s, as the struggle of Kurds radicalized, some sectors of the Turkish left did recognize their national rights.

Since the 1980s, as the Turkish left has steadily weakened, the Kurdish national movement turned into a mass movement. While the armed struggle of the PKK made the Kurdish issue more pronounced, its methods played a divisive role between the Turkish and Kurdish working classes. In 2014, some sectors of the Turkish left and the political representatives of the Kurdish movement formed a joint party: People’s Democratic Party (HDP). It has been under harsh state repression after the negotiation process between the Kurdish movement and the JDP broke up in 2015. Thousands of HDP members are now arrested, including their ex-presidents and elected mayors. The grand majority of the Turkish left is in solidarity with the HDP against the state repression. However, the main challenge is raising and popularizing a political program that would combine the liberation of the Kurdish people and the emancipation of the Turkish and Kurdish working classes.

10. What is the standpoint of the left regarding the Armenian genocide in Turkey? How does this the genocide have been discussed in the society?

As is in the case of the Kurdish issue, the traditional left, represented by left-Kemalism and Stalinism denied the Armenian genocide for a long time. As an internationalist and a genuine radical left emerged in the 1970s, the Armenian issue started to be discussed within the Turkish and Kurdish left, and this internationalist and anti-capitalist left acknowledged the existence of the genocide. The state policy of Turkey is a categorical denial of the genocide and through education policies and the chauvinist positions of the mainstream political parties, this question is still a taboo for the society. However, the internationalist left, as well as the HDP, recognize the genocide and condemn the JDP government’s hostile policies against Armenia. They claim the solidarity and brotherhood of all peoples in the region.

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