Workers Vanguard No. 1095
9 September 2016
For a United Independent Kurdistan!
Turkey: Erdogans Countercoup
Turkish Forces Enter the Fray in Syria
Barely one month after emerging victorious from the July 15 botched coup, Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ordered his military to enter Syria. On August 24, after two days of artillery shelling, a small contingent of troops and tanks, acting in support of the Turkish-backed “Free Syrian Army,” moved toward the Syrian border town of Jarabulus. The town was held by the Islamic State (ISIS), which abandoned it in the face of the Turkish-led assault.
Operation Euphrates Shield is ostensibly aimed against ISIS, and the U.S. carried out air strikes in support of the Turkish incursion. Its central purpose, however, is to dislodge from the area U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Committees (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Upon entering Syria, Turkey carried out several air strikes and artillery bombardments of PYD/YPG positions. The PYD/YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) based in Turkey. For the past year, Turkish forces have been engaged in a bloody offensive against the PKK in Turkey, where Kurdish oppression is a key prop of Turkish nationalism and capitalist rule.
Amid the all-sided chaos and bloodletting of the Syrian civil war, the PYD/YPG has been able to carve out what are in effect two non-contiguous semi-autonomous regions in the northeast and northwest of Syria. In recent months, the YPG has been trying to link these two regions, including by displacing Arabs and Turkmen. Turkey rejects any expression of independence in Rojava, the Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan, and has inserted itself between these two Kurdish enclaves to ensure that they do not become contiguous.
For its part, the U.S. agrees with Turkey that the Kurdish-held regions remain non-contiguous, even as it continues to support the PYD/YPG, which has been U.S. imperialism’s most reliable ally in its war against ISIS. When Vice President Joe Biden was in Ankara on August 24, he issued a strongly worded demand to the YPG to retreat to the east of the Euphrates River, even threatening to withhold U.S. military aid if they did not follow orders. This threat underscores what has always been U.S. policy: opposition to Kurdish independence.
Biden’s visit was meant to repair U.S./Turkish relations, which were strained before the coup and have become more sour afterward. Much of this strain has to do with the anti-ISIS alliance between the U.S. and the PYD/YPG. Washington has called the clashes between Turkey and the Kurdish nationalists “unacceptable.” Referring to the Turkish shelling of YPG forces, one senior U.S. official emphasized that the U.S. “was not involved in these activities, they were not coordinated with U.S. forces, and we do not support them.” The U.S. is continuing the balancing act of having an ally and a proxy—Turkey and the PYD/YPG—that are sworn enemies of one another, further increasing tensions with Ankara.
Turkey is a member of NATO and a historic ally of the U.S. that provided a key base of operations against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991-92, the U.S. has looked to Turkey, often promoted as a “stable” and “moderate” Sunni Muslim regime, as a local gendarme. At the same time, Turkey is a regional power with its own interests, which do not always coincide with Washington’s.
Ankara wants to see Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, of the Alawite minority, replaced by a Sunni-based regime that would serve as a platform for projecting Turkish power in the region. After the start of the Syrian civil war, even as it claimed to oppose ISIS, Turkey opened its borders to the flow of jihadists into Syria and provided funds and military hardware. However, in July 2015, Turkey gave the U.S. permission to launch operations against ISIS from its Incirlik Air Base in exchange for the U.S. giving the Ankara regime the green light to launch air strikes against the PKK in northern Iraq. Since then, ISIS has claimed responsibility for a series of suicide attacks in Turkey. With the U.S. and Russia negotiating over the Syrian civil war, the Erdogan regime wants to ensure that it has influence over the outcome, including by militarily entering the fray in Syria.
Prior to the coup attempt, Erdogan had moved to stabilize his position in the region, most importantly by initiating rapprochement with Russia. Turkish/Russian relations were severely damaged after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet over northern Syria late last year. Notably, the first capital Erdogan visited after the coup was Moscow, where he reportedly was assured by Russian president Vladimir Putin that Russia would not fire on Turkish forces if they entered Syria. While Turkey and Russia have divergent interests in Syria, with the latter militarily backing the Assad regime, they, as well as the U.S., agree on maintaining the “territorial integrity” of Syria—i.e., no independent Rojava.
The Syrian civil war is reactionary and communalist on all sides, and as Marxists we have no side in it, including in the skirmishes between Washington’s Turkish allies and its Kurdish tools. Where we do have a side is against the U.S. and other imperialist powers. Thus, while we abhor and reject everything that the ISIS cutthroats stand for, we stand for the military defense of ISIS against the U.S. and its proxies, including the YPG. Every blow struck against U.S. imperialism coincides with the interest of the working and oppressed masses of the world. At the same time, while our main opposition is to the imperialists, we also oppose the other capitalist powers involved in Syria, such as Turkey, Russia and Iran, and demand that they get out.
Erdogan Lashes Back
At home, Erdogan aptly called the failed coup a “gift from God” and used it to further consolidate power. The wave of repression he has launched is not only aimed at those the government claims were behind the coup—namely, Erdogan’s erstwhile Islamist ally, Fethullah Gulen, and his followers—but also at silencing any critics. Such is the scale of arrests that the government has released nearly 34,000 low-level convicts to make room in the prisons for those detained in the aftermath of the failed coup. As we warned in “Turkey’s Failed Coup: Both Sides Bad for Workers” (WV No. 1093, 29 July): “We don’t know who the coup plotters were, but one thing is clear: the only position in the interest of workers was to oppose both the Erdogan regime and the coup.”
For the first time since the 1980 military coup, a nationwide state of emergency has been imposed, meaning that Erdogan can circumvent parliament to impose new laws and restrictions. The government is openly threatening to reintroduce the death penalty. Tens of thousands have been dismissed from the military and judiciary. Thousands more have been thrown out of their jobs in schools and universities. More than 130 media outlets have been closed and over 150 journalists have been rounded up. At least 19 unions, reportedly allied with Gulen, have been banned. Meanwhile, Erdogan has escalated his attacks against leaders and members of parliament of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP); several have been arrested and two parliamentarians face charges of engaging in “terrorist propaganda.”
The coup attempt has also given Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) the opening to accelerate its Islamist agenda. Erdogan’s fundamentalist supporters, who were called out the night of the coup through the many mosque minarets that dot Turkey’s landscape, continue to patrol the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities. Women in Western dress report constant harassment and assaults, and neighborhoods of the Kurdish and Alevi minorities have been attacked. On August 8, the body of Hande Kader, a 23-year-old transgender activist, was found in Istanbul; she had been raped and mutilated before her corpse was set on fire. Protesters in Istanbul have denounced Kader’s murder, which is part of a spate of attacks on gay and transgender people.
Since coming to power in 2002 as “moderate Islamists,” the AKP has been pushing a program of Islamization. This thrust was captured by Erdogan’s statement during his time as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s: “Our only goal is an Islamic state.” Turkey today has nearly 90,000 mosques, one for every 900 citizens, with more imams (prayer leaders) than doctors or teachers. During his first term as prime minister, Erdogan unsuccessfully tried to criminalize adultery. He lectured that women should have at least three children and frequently denounced gay rights. His government has enforced restrictions on the sale and advertisement of alcohol, giving fuel to fundamentalist gangs, whose attacks on bars and other establishments selling alcohol have become far more frequent in recent years.
Key to Erdogan’s consolidation of power has been his effort to purge the military and other state institutions—efforts that have been extraordinarily successful. Since the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923, the military has always presented itself as the defender of secularism. It carried out coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980 that were followed by bloody repression against the labor movement, leftists, Kurds and others. In 1997, the military mobilized in the streets and forced the government of the AKP’s precursor to resign. Especially beginning in 2008, then prime minister Erdogan began a steady purge of secularist officers from the military, who he understood were a threat to his authority. As we noted in “Turkey: Mass Protests Shake Islamist Regime” (WV No. 1027, 12 July 2013): “In Turkey the army is now subordinated to the Islamists.”
Prime Minister Erdogan and his AKP also carried out purges in the police and judiciary. It was in the context of these purges that supporters of Gulen, who was at the time allied with Erdogan, and his Hizmet (Service) movement gained positions of power in these institutions as well as in the military. But in 2013, with the secularist forces effectively neutered, the AKP and Hizmet had a falling out. When Gulen supporters pursued a number of high-profile corruption arrests against people allied with Erdogan, the prime minister moved against Hizmet, carrying out a series of purges that have vastly accelerated in the wake of the failed coup. The regime is now demanding that Washington extradite Gulen, who has been living in the U.S. since 1999; the U.S. has yet to offer an official response.
For its part, the Obama administration has hypocritically lectured the Erdogan regime to respect “democratic principles” in its response to the coup. But what really concerns Washington is that the massive purges of the army will weaken U.S. influence over the Turkish military, NATO’s second largest army. As noted by an nbcnews.com article (16 August):
“Those terminated in the past month include a cadre of pro-American, pro-NATO officers whom experts refer to as ‘Atlanticists.’ They were instrumental in urging Erdogan to host American fighter jets and drones at Incirlik Air Base for use against ISIS targets in northern Iraq and Syria.
“With those officers now out of favor, Washington could find itself losing influence in the wake of Erdogan’s purge.”
When General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Near East, complained that many of the Turkish officers the U.S. deals with were being purged, he drew a sharp rebuke from Ankara. Some Turkish officials accused the U.S. of being behind the coup, which, needless to say, the U.S. denies. Erdogan responded to Votel: “Know your place.”
Turkey Needs a
Leninist Workers Party
Erdogan has a real base of support—among the bourgeoisie in the Anatolian heartland, with the rural masses and in the urban slums. At the same time, Turkish society remains deeply polarized. Massive protests shook the country in 2013, with some three and a half million people participating. They were triggered by brutal police assaults on demonstrators protesting plans for a building project in Gezi Park near the historic Taksim Square in central Istanbul. The protests reflected the deep resentment of younger elements in the better-educated urban middle classes toward the Islamist regime. Some workers in Turkey’s politically divided trade-union movement participated, as did members of the oppressed Kurdish national minority. In the end, the government was able to crush the protest movement through ruthless repression and by playing on pervasive anti-Kurdish sentiment.
Turkey is one of the few countries in the Near East that has a significant industrial proletariat. However, less than 10 percent of the workforce is unionized, reflecting the massive defeat inflicted on the workers movement by the 1980 military coup and three subsequent decades of heavy repression. For example, the leftist Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions (DISK) was banned until 1992.
In recent years, however, attacks on the working class have not gone unanswered. In May 2015, over 20,000 auto workers in Bursa, Ankara and other cities launched a series of wildcat strikes for higher pay against an agreement reached between Türk Metal, the dominant union in the auto sector, and the bosses. In addition to demanding a wage increase, striking workers demanded the right to join the union of their choice, reflecting accumulated anger at the bureaucratic leadership of Türk Metal. By the end of the strike wave, several thousand workers had left Türk Metal to join DISK’s metal workers union.
In response to the coup, DISK issued a July 22 statement rightly denouncing the state of emergency, noting that such acts are “synonymous with extrajudicial murders, massacres, disappearances in custody and torture” and warning: “It is also clear that workers’ rights are severely threatened by the state of emergency.” However, the DISK statement claims, “The solution is democratization.” The government’s assault on democratic rights must be combated. But it must be understood that capitalist democracy—always frail and brittle in Turkey—is a cover for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, whose rule is necessarily based on exploitation and widespread oppression.
It is vital for the proletariat to come forward to lead all the exploited and oppressed in the struggle to overthrow capitalist rule. Key to this perspective is the forging of a Leninist workers party that would fight to break the working class from religious reaction, Turkish chauvinism and all forms of nationalism. Such a party would lead the struggle for women’s liberation through proletarian revolution and for Kurdish self-determination, without which the fight for working-class power in Turkey is scarcely conceivable.
Down With Turkey’s War Against the Kurdish People!
Whether secular or religious, the ruling elite of Turkey is united in suppressing Kurdish national aspirations. Since last August, several Kurdish cities and towns in southeastern Turkey have been reduced to rubble by Turkish tanks and heavy artillery. In a matter of months, hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than 350,000 people have been displaced as the regime let loose its dogs of war against the PKK. Erdogan has ominously vowed to attack Turkish Kurdistan until it is “completely cleansed” of PKK “terrorists.”
One of the worst-hit Kurdish centers is Cizre, a city of over 100,000 in Sirnak Province. From December 14 to March 2, the city was placed under curfew and sealed off. By the time the siege was lifted, up to 160 civilians had been killed. In perhaps the worst atrocity of the war to date, Turkish security forces killed 130 unarmed civilians and injured combatants trapped in three basements. This is but the latest chapter in an onslaught that has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Kurds since 1984. It is vital for the international proletariat to stand for the military defense of the PKK against Turkey and to demand the withdrawal of all Turkish forces from Kurdistan.
The immediate backdrop to the current assault on Turkish Kurdistan was the humiliating defeat suffered by the AKP in the June 2015 elections. Not only did the AKP fail to achieve a parliamentary majority, but the pro-Kurdish HDP got more than 13 percent of the vote, overcoming the 10 percent hurdle to enter parliament. The HDP is a petty-bourgeois nationalist party whose progressive veneer has helped it draw the support of a substantial number of secular Turkish liberals and leftists. Even more humiliating for Erdogan was that despite its support for women’s and gay rights, the HDP won away a considerable part of the AKP’s socially conservative Kurdish base, which was angered at Erdogan’s refusal in 2014 to allow passage to Kurdish fighters on their way to Kobani, a Kurdish town in Syria then besieged by ISIS.
The regime responded to the June 2015 vote by calling new elections for November. It fully scrapped the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK, which was already falling apart due to PYD/YPG military successes in Syria, and massively escalated its anti-Kurdish offensive to whip up a frenzy of Turkish chauvinism. This escalation included a series of violent attacks against the HDP and its supporters, including bombings blamed on ISIS. In July a suicide bomb targeting a gathering of mostly Kurdish activists in the border town of Suruc killed more than 30 people and injured over 100 more. In September mobs attacked and set fire to HDP offices and businesses belonging to Kurds all over the country. The violence culminated in two suicide bombings in October in Ankara at a peace rally organized by several leftist groups, labor unions and the HDP, killing at least 128 people.
The gambit worked. The AKP got its parliamentary majority in November, most notably by drawing votes from the Nationalist Action Party—to which the fascistic Gray Wolves are connected—beating it at its own game of strident Turkish nationalism.
The Kurdish people constitute the largest nation in the Near East without a state. Numbering between 25 and 35 million, their homeland is the mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Half of them live in Turkey, where Kurdish oppression is a glue that binds the Turkish masses, including substantial sections of the proletariat, to Turkey’s bloody rulers.
If the proletariat of Turkey is to ever liberate itself from capitalist exploitation, it must oppose anti-Kurdish chauvinism and take up the struggle for Kurdish self-determination. We aim to win the Turkish working class to the fight for a united independent Kurdistan as part of the fight for a socialist republic of united Kurdistan in a socialist federation of the Near East. Championing Kurdish self-determination would undercut U.S. imperialism’s capacity to manipulate the Kurds’ grievances in order to further dominate the region, while also cutting against the sordid maneuvers of the Kurdish nationalists themselves. Only by fighting all manifestations of Turkish chauvinism and national oppression, can the Turkish proletariat open the road for joint struggle with Kurdish workers against their common capitalist exploiters and oppressors.
We also support Kurdish independence from individual capitalist states (e.g., the right of Kurds in Turkey to secede). However, in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish nationalists have currently subordinated the just fight for self-determination to their alliance with U.S. imperialism. This is a crime for which the long-oppressed Kurdish people will pay the price.
Shortly after the Kurdish leaders joined the imperialist war against ISIS, we warned: “By selling their souls to the imperialists as well as to various regional bourgeois regimes, Kurdish leaders help perpetuate the divide-and-rule stratagems that inevitably inflame communal, national and religious tensions and serve to reinforce the oppression of the Kurdish masses” (“Down With U.S. War Against ISIS!” WV No. 1055, 31 October 2014). Now, in the wake of Turkey’s incursion into Syria, many Kurds justifiably fear that their imperialist patrons will betray them, again. As the New York Times (1 September) noted: “Drawing on history, Kurds see themselves as the playthings of world powers, used in proxy fights when it serves someone’s interest and then discarded.”
PKK Petty-Bourgeois Nationalism: Dead End
While standing for the military defense of the PKK in Turkey, we strongly oppose its petty-bourgeois nationalist program, which is an obstacle to the liberation of the Kurdish masses. Arising in response to the all-sided oppression of the Kurds, the PKK was formally founded in 1978. Led by Abdullah Öcalan (nicknamed Apo, or “uncle”), the PKK claimed to be “Marxist-Leninist,” reflecting Öcalan’s urbanized roots as a student in Ankara at a time when the doctrines of Mao Zedong and Che Guevara were popular among radicalized youth. Despite its rhetoric, the PKK never had anything to do with Marxism.
Rejecting the struggle for a revolutionary Leninist party based on the Turkish and Kurdish proletariat, Öcalan, like many Turkish and Kurdish leftists of the late 1960s and early ’70s, embraced the guerrilla road. He and his supporters retreated to the countryside, turning away from the combative workers of Istanbul, Ankara, Sivas and Adana.
To be sure, the petty-bourgeois nationalist PKK has for over three decades waged a heroic military struggle against the Turkish army, winning mass support among the Kurdish people in Turkish Kurdistan, the urban centers of western Turkey and the diaspora in West Europe and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the PKK uses guerrilla war simply to fight its way to the bargaining table, where it hopes to pressure the Turkish bourgeoisie to grant concessions. In 2013, with a cease-fire agreement between the Erdogan regime and the PKK in effect, the Peace and Democracy Party, a predecessor of the HDP, was slow in joining the Gezi Park protests, fearing that doing so would upset the Turkish government. In effect, these Kurdish nationalists were promoting illusions that the Erdogan regime could be beneficial to the cause of the Kurdish people.
Especially since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, the PKK has increasingly tailored its politics to the reactionary climate of the post-Soviet world, replacing even its formal call for independence with the demand for one or another kind of “autonomy.” But regional autonomy under capitalism means that decisive power remains in the hands of the national state. As the current anti-PKK offensive underscores, even if such an agreement is reached, it will be the Turkish state and its army that determine what rights Kurds do and do not get. This will never lead to Kurdish national liberation.
As they seek concessions from the Turkish state, the Kurdish nationalists also call on the “democratic” Western imperialists to pressure Turkey. An article in the July issue of the English-language Le Monde Diplomatique by Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the HDP, powerfully conveys the brutal attacks of Erdogan and the AKP against the Kurdish people and oppositionists in Turkey. But the core of the article is a call on the European Union (EU) and its institutions to come to the aid of the Kurds:
“Europe, worried about the refugee crisis, looks the other way while Turkey tramples human rights and democratic values. The US is mainly concerned with the war against ISIS. Both issues are certainly significant. But it is hard to understand why Europe and the wider world overlook the situation of the Kurds in Turkey, which is directly related. It is even harder to understand their silence over the severe violations of fundamental human rights committed by Erdoğan and the AKP, who use those fleeing the war in Syria as a tool of blackmail.”
Contrary to the illusions of the Kurdish nationalists, the U.S. and EU imperialists are enemies of the oppressed, including the Kurds. Along with the U.S., Germany, the central power in the EU, has long trained and supplied Turkish military death squads deployed in Kurdistan. Both the EU and U.S. have joined Turkey in labeling the PKK “terrorist” and banned it, and the CIA played a key role in Turkey’s capture of Öcalan in 1999. We demand freedom for Öcalan and oppose the bans on the PKK. More fundamentally, the EU is a consortium of capitalist powers whose purpose is the increasing subjugation of the working class throughout Europe and the domination of the weaker EU countries by the imperialist overlords, especially Germany. The ICL has always opposed the EU.
Promoting illusions in the Kurdish nationalists, to varying degrees, are reformist groups like Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and the British-based Workers Power group. Both groups supported voting for the HDP. A 20 November 2015 article reprinted on the CWI’s website by its Turkish affiliate upheld voting for the HDP and called on the DISK and other union federations as well as left groups, “jointly with the HDP,” to “organise a central conference on the joint initiative” to build a “democracy bloc.” Workers Power’s League for the Fifth International headlined a 7 June 2015 article, “Turkey: Vote HDP on June 7—Then Build a Revolutionary Party.” Unlike the CWI, Workers Power rightly notes that “the HDP is not a working class party but a petty bourgeois organisation”—only to call for a vote for them anyway.
We defend the HDP and its leaders from the assaults of the Turkish state, and we demand that all charges against them be dropped. But to call for a vote to the HDP is to subordinate the proletariat of Turkey to a petty-bourgeois party whose program is by definition hostile to the historic interests of the working class. Long promoted by reformists of all stripes, the call on the working class to support “progressive” and “democratic” non-proletarian formations has historically been one of the biggest obstacles preventing the working class from acquiring socialist consciousness. It has served to deprive the proletariat of its political independence from its class enemy.
Notably, even as they call to vote for the HDP, the CWI does not defend the PKK against Turkish forces. This is a reflection of the fact that the CWI lends its support to those whom the “democratic” imperialists support. Thus, in one article after another they fawn over the PYD/YPG in Syria, which is allied with U.S. imperialism. But in a 1 March article on the Turkish state’s anti-Kurdish offensive, the CWI condemns the PKK’s “individual armed actions” as “counterproductive” without so much as hinting that the international proletariat has a side in Turkey.
Kurdish militants confronted with the PKK’s dead-end guerrillaism and its reactionary politics must grapple with the fundamental difference between the PKK’s petty-bourgeois strategy and the Marxist perspective of proletarian revolution. The Kurds are not simply the victims of their national oppression and the betrayals of their leaders. There is a sizable Kurdish working class with a history of militant struggle. For the most part the Kurdish proletariat is outside Kurdistan, in such industrial centers as Istanbul and the mining regions of the Black Sea and southern Turkey; it also exists in West Europe, particularly Germany. It is in the urban centers, among the industrial proletariat, that the power exists to lead the Kurdish people to freedom.
For Permanent Revolution!
While the U.S. is the largest military supporter of Turkey, the Turkish capitalists are economically dependent on German imperialism, exporting more to that country than anywhere else. But relations with Germany have also become strained. A deal reached last year between Turkey, which has more than two million Syrian refugees, and the EU to limit the flow of migrants to Europe is under threat of unraveling. On July 31, a German court banned Erdogan from addressing by satellite an “anti-coup” rally held in Cologne. Then on August 16, German public broadcaster ARD reported that a confidential German government document accused Turkey of being “the central hub for Islamist groups in the Middle East.” The Turkish regime responded by denouncing the “twisted mentality” of the document.
After coming to power, Erdogan heavily pushed the virtues of the EU, portraying membership as the road to economic prosperity. But with the bigoted European rulers stalling on granting EU membership to Turkey, a large and overwhelmingly Muslim country, Erdogan started looking elsewhere. His regime has put particular stress on what a former foreign minister called the “strategic depth” doctrine or “neo-Ottomanism”—increasing Turkish clout in former territories of the Ottoman Empire as well as regions where Turkic languages are spoken. From 2002 to 2010, trade with the Arab world increased fivefold. Parallel to this vision of resurgent Ottomanism, the would-be sultan, Erdogan, has sought to concentrate more power in the hands of the presidency, a post he has held since 2014.
Notwithstanding its regional clout, Turkey is a country of belated capitalist development that teems with massive social and political contradictions. While industrial employment accounted for some 25 percent of the Turkish workforce in 2010 and the service sectors accounted for more than 50 percent, some 25 percent—including landless peasants and sharecroppers—still worked in the agricultural sector. The Turkish economy is heavily dependent on foreign capital. Laws implemented in 2001 allow the World Bank, World Trade Organization and EU to dictate agricultural policy, while mandating the elimination of state support for agriculture and accelerating the privatization of state-owned agricultural enterprises. Turkey’s agriculture has been further subordinated to imperialist agribusiness.
The Turkish republic that emerged in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk inherited an economically backward country without concentrated modern industry. To build the national capitalist state, the Kemalist movement used Turkish nationalism as a tool, including by ruthlessly suppressing national minorities such as the Kurdish and Armenian peoples. At the same time, acting as the vanguard of the nascent Turkish bourgeoisie, the Kemalists embarked on a program of reforms designed to develop Turkey into a modern capitalist nation-state. They proclaimed the country a secular republic and abolished the caliphate (office of Islamic ruler). Islam ceased to be the state religion. Religious symbols—the veil in schools and public institutions, and the fez everywhere—were banned. The Latin alphabet was introduced and the Western calendar was adopted.
Atatürk saw himself as a modernizer who could, with a few strokes of his pen, drag the country from the medieval age into the 20th century. But grafted onto a backward society, 80 percent of which was rural and dominated by feudal relations, his reforms could not resolve basic democratic questions. There were no attempts at land reform or expropriation of Turkish landlords. Genuine separation of mosque and state never existed. Instead, the religious hierarchy was brought under the control of the state through the Directorate of Religious Affairs.
Kemalism represents the apex of what could be accomplished under capitalism in the Near East. Atatürk’s reforms did introduce a genuine strain of secularism in the urban centers that would be difficult to find elsewhere in the region. Urbanized petty-bourgeois women certainly benefited. But, amid the material scarcity of the country, the lives of the overwhelming majority of women—in the countryside and in the cities’ slums—changed little. The headscarf ban, instead of being a liberating measure, deepened the exclusion of many women from schools, government service and public life. The gulf between the secular, educated middle classes and the illiterate masses, between city and countryside, widened.
It was precisely the failure of Kemalism to address the poverty and dispossession of the Turkish masses that led to the growth of political Islam. Contrary to the claims of the military to be the defenders of secularism, the Kemalist generals repeatedly encouraged the growth of the Islamists as a counterweight to leftists. In 1982, the military junta imposed Sunni religious classes in primary and secondary schools, to the outrage of secularists and the Alevis, the largest religious minority who make up 10 to 15 percent of Turkey’s population. An unorthodox offshoot of Shia Islam, they are relatively secular as they reject many Islamic practices, including the separation of men and women in prayer and taboos on alcohol. Considered heretics by Sunni traditionalists, they have been historically persecuted since the early days of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey presents a powerful argument for Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which found living confirmation in the 1917 Russian October Revolution. Trotsky’s theory provides the program for resolving the fundamental questions posed by countries of belated capitalist development. In such countries, the weak national bourgeoisie, dependent on its imperialist masters and fearing its “own” proletariat, cannot resolve democratic questions like the separation of religion and the state, agrarian revolution and freedom from imperialist subjugation. As Trotsky wrote in The Permanent Revolution (1930):
“The complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.”
What is vital is the forging of a bi-national, Turkish-Kurdish revolutionary workers party that would also draw in the oppressed ethnic and religious minorities of Turkey. Such a party, part of a reforged Trotskyist Fourth International, would lead the proletariat, at the head of all the oppressed, in the struggle for its own rule. In power, the working class would expropriate the bourgeoisie and the holdings of its imperialist masters, establishing a collectivized, planned economy where production is based on social need rather than profit. But short of its international extension, especially to the advanced capitalist countries, the development of such a social revolution will be arrested and ultimately reversed.
The struggle for proletarian power in Turkey, and more broadly in the Near East, must be linked to the fight for workers rule in the imperialist centers. Kurdish and Turkish workers are a strategic component of the industrial working class in Europe, especially in Germany, where they are a key part of the trade unions. These workers can serve as a living bridge linking the fight for socialist revolution in the Near East to working-class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries of West Europe. As we wrote in “Turkey: Women and the Permanent Revolution” (WV No. 916, 6 June 2008):
“In the Near East, the struggle against imperialism and its neocolonial surrogate regimes cannot be resolved within the confines of a single country. Justice for the Palestinian people, national emancipation for the Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities, freedom for women from the veil and Islamic law require sweeping away the capitalist regimes from Iran to Egypt to the shores of the Bosphorus and establishing a socialist federation of the Near East. The struggle for proletarian power in the Near East must be linked to the fight for workers rule in the advanced capitalist countries, and it demands the forging of internationalist workers parties to win the working masses of the region to the communism of Lenin and Trotsky and fight intransigently for working-class power.”