Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 14, 2013

Taksim Square in context

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:52 pm

This article is divided into two parts. The first is an attempt to understand the historical origins of the ruling party, and particularly its capacity for repression. The second is a video interview with Marxist economist E. Ahmet Tonak, who has been both a scholar and committed activist for four decades. He comments more directly on the Taksim Square protests.

To unravel all the contradictions that led to the explosive confrontation between protestors and cops in Taksim Square this week would probably require us to go back to the origins of the Turkish republic in 1921.

But it is also possible to begin with a traumatic event that is in the memory of most Turks living today, namely the coup of 1980 that was a response to mounting challenges to the status quo by an earlier generation of activists. Kemalism was based on an import-substitution model adopted by many semi-peripheral nations aspiring to break into the top tier of capitalist powers. Among them was Argentina, another country led by a modernizing nationalist—Juan Peron.

In the 1970s Turkey entered into a stormy period marked by the failure of that import-substitution model not that different from Argentina’s of the same time. It revolved around balance of payments difficulties growing out of increasing imports, foreign debt, IMF directives and all the other ills associated with the Washington Consensus. When a powerful left and trade unions stood up to the government, the army stepped in and crushed the mass movement.

The army made a decision early on to exempt Islamic institutions from state terror. In doing so, it was following the model of the Shah of Iran who had developed a partnership with the Imams after Mossadegh was overthrown. Despite some disagreements between the Shah and the clergy over issues such as mosque ownership of land, they formed an uneasy alliance against the left. The same scenario developed in Turkey.

Once the left and the trade union movement were crushed, it provided an opportunity for a fraction of the capitalist class to utilize the opening it provided to take a different approach than that of the Kemalist bourgeoisie that was wedded to state control and monopolies. Hailing from Anatolia and much more religiously observant than the heavy-drinking and heavy-partying Kemalists (I have seen them in action in visits to Izmir), they were able to take advantage of a unorganized workforce and new trading opportunities in the West. These “Anatolian Tigers” were based mainly in the textile business and sought a business climate not that much different than the traditional textile business of the American South until it relocated to East Asia and elsewhere. Using its Islamic bona fides and a willingness to dispense charity in the form of food banks, clinics and free religious schools, the Islamist bourgeoisie began to exercise political power capable of challenging the old guard.

This excerpt from an excellent PBS documentary on the Anatolian Tigers will give you an idea of this rising bourgeoisie’s relationship to its observant workforce:

The first modern Islamist party was formed in 1983. Called the Welfare Party, it was led by Necmettin Erbakan who served as Prime Minister in 1996 to 1997 until ousted by the army. As is typical of the unprincipled character of Islamist parties in Turkey, Erkaban forged a coalition with the Correct Path Party, a rightist Kemalist formation that blended secularism with free-market orthodoxy.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) was formed as a split from the Welfare Party in 2001 by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the former mayor of Istanbul, and Abdullah Gül, who had a PhD in economics and worked in banking. The new party cleverly soft-pedaled the Islamist ideology and stressed its democratic credentials. To many Turks, including the liberal and social democratic intelligentsia, the new party was a breath of fresh air. It promised to break the stranglehold of the Turkish army on politics, to resolve the conflict with the Kurds, and move Turkey closer to the European model if not make it a member of the European Union.

I have vivid recollections of my Turkish language professor at Columbia University telling his class that he intended to vote for Erdoğan in 2007. He was a typical liberal intellectual who had bitter memories of performing military service under bullying Kemalist officers. Against that experience, he saw the AKP as beneficent dispensers of free medical care who would rein in the bullies.

Some Turks remained distrustful. Over 300,000 people demonstrated in Istanbul against the AKP campaign, fearing that it would bring an end to secularism and the unique character of modern Turkey. Among them was my wife’s closest friend, a woman who was as likely to appear in a scarf in public as I was. My in-laws in Turkey were all rock-ribbed Kemalists, including my wife’s parents who moved out of Üsküdar because religious folks from Anatolia were swamping it. It was getting harder and harder to find a restaurant that served alcohol.

Such inconveniences aside, the real shortcomings of the AKP were exactly the same as those of the system it replaced. In January 2007 Hrat Dink, a Turkish-Armenian who advocated reconciliation between the two peoples and human rights in general, was gunned down by an ultraright nationalist. Despite many warnings about the threat to Dink, the cops sat on their hands. When Ramazan Akyürek, the head of intelligence at the time, received word about a plot to kill Dink, he did nothing. Public outrage led to his transfer to a less sensitive position but in early 2012 he got a promotion to a top post in Ankara. So much for AKP concern about human rights.

This is not to speak of the crackdown on journalists and personalities who have only the slightest connection to the Kemalist power elite. In 2010 Turkey was roiled by government charges that a conspiracy named Ergenekon had been uncovered. Supposedly the discredited officer corps of the Kemalist party was plotting a coup. But typical of the wide net spread by the prosecutors was the arrest of a famous transvestite named Sisi, who happened to be doing a documentary called ‘The Women of the Republic”, on the role models of Kemalism in country’s early period.

Sisi was not the only “trannie” to get on the wrong side of the Islamist authorities. In 2008 Bülent Ersoy, a transsexual performer of Ottoman classical music, was a judge on the Turkish version of “American Idol” when she spoke out against the Turkish invasion of Northern Iraq directed against the Kurds—stating that if she was a mother, she would not allow her son to fight. After being charged with the crime of “turning Turks against compulsory military service”, she was found not guilty.

Anticipating Erdoğan’s smear of Taksim Square protestors as being in league with terrorists, he attacked planned trade union May Day demonstrations as being instruments of Ergenekon subversion.

Until very recently Turkey was held up as the “good Muslim” country that could serve as a model for countries that were associated with the Arab Spring, particularly Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood hoped to adopt the same mixture of neoliberal economics and ham-fisted repression that had made Turkey such a “success”. With its 5 percent annual growth rate, its “moderate” commitment to Islamic values, its supposed tolerance for dissent, and most importantly its willingness to support imperialist objectives in the Middle East, it was the West’s poster boy even if it strayed from the consensus by sponsoring flotillas to Gaza.

All that is left in smoldering ruins today, at least for that sector of public opinion that is not likely to be interviewed on “Meet the Press”. Erdoğan is a first-rate bully cut from the same cloth as Mubarak. Given a sufficient amount of “provocation”, he could easily be seen as willing to drown protests in blood.

With respect to the Arab Spring, or what is left of it, Turkey’s relationship to the ongoing events deserves some deeper scrutiny especially in light of Syria rapidly turning into a confrontation allegedly involving super-powers. In his latest article that appeared in the July-August 2012 New Left Review (“Democratic Janissaries?”), Berkeley sociologist Cihan Tuğal takes a close look at Turkey’s involvement with the massive changes taking place in the Middle East.

In the very first uprising that took place in Tunisia, Turkey remained silent. When Egypt followed fast on the heels of Tunisia, Erdoğan advised Mubarak to keep a step ahead of the “exploiters” and “dirty circles” that had dark scenarios in mind for Egypt—not a very encouraging take on matters for someone facing what might amount to a “Turkish Spring” before long.

Ankara was also silent when protests erupted in Bahrain, even when demonstrators were gassed and shot. On March 20, just after Saudi tanks advanced on the mostly Shi’a masses, Erdoğan announced that Turkey and Saudi Arabia “provide an important contribution to regional peace and stability, and exhibit a model cooperation”. Tuğal writes:

Indeed, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu moved to consolidate Turkish relations with Saudi Arabia as the Arab Spring wore on, serving to strengthen the sectarianization—Sunni versus Shia and Alawi—of the region. Ankara was prudently silent about the uprising in Yemen, too, where Saudi and American interests might have been endangered had demands for jobs, living standards and democratization been satisfied. As repression took its toll, the divisions within the ruling tribal elite took on greater salience, eventually pitching tribe against tribe, rather than activists against the dictatorship. Tribal brokerage ultimately led to the removal of President Saleh without any major change in the state apparatus, which was still fit for purpose as far as the Saudis and the Obama Administration were concerned.

Given Turkey’s ostensibly aggressive stance against Bashar al-Assad, it is worth taking a close look at the relationship between the two countries—once again through the lens of Cihan Tuğal.

He points out that a free-market trade agreement between Turkey and Arab states that resembled those found in the West like NAFTA was partially responsible for the revolt against Baathist rule. “Here, the very free-market policies that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had been promoting through the regional Economic and Trade Association had helped to worsen the plight of youth in the run-down agricultural towns, from Daraa in the south to Homs, Hama and Idlib, that would be the centre of the revolt, while a tiny elite had grown spectacularly rich.”

From early on, there were signs that the AKP leadership was willing to sell out the revolution. Tuğal notes:

In early March 2012, Gül was favouring the ‘Yemeni road’ for Syria: Assad should appoint one of his aides, as Saleh had done, and step to one side, leaving the governing structures intact; the notoriously divided Syrian opposition was not yet ready to rule the country. The following week he warned against military intervention, calling for a ‘political solution’ and an expanded ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Ankara that would include Russia, thereby ruling out a military option.

Events seem to be catching up with Gül’s Metternichan calculations. The AKP took a gamble on backing the Syrian rebels, expecting perhaps a rapid victory through a combination of their fighting spirit and the willingness of Sunni-ruled states to supply arms sufficient enough to break the back of the Syrian army. However, American intervention was successful in preventing the revolutionaries from obtaining the weapons they needed to take down aircraft or stop a tank in its tracks. With its massive armaments, its support from Russia and Iran, and finally its genocidal appetite for the deaths of combatants and noncombatants alike, the Baathist regime appears capable of staying in power for the foreseeable future.

That being the case, it is no wonder that the AKP—always ready to make a fast buck—is seeing its way to make some war profits at the expense of its hollow Islamist values.


Turkish company supplies diesel to Syria

By Humeyra Pamuk | Reuters – Mon, Jun 3, 2013

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has become an unlikely new source of vital diesel for the Syrian government, according to shipping documents and sources.

Private Turkish oil company Aves, from the Mediterranean port city of Mersin, has loaded seven cargoes of ultra low sulphur diesel in April destined for Syria’s state-controlled port of Banias.

Turkey is not subject to EU sanctions against Syria, however, the trade is a potential embarrassment for Ankara – one of Damascus’ most outspoken critics.

The Turkish foreign ministry declined to comment on the specific matter but reiterated its position on Assad regime.



  1. Of course, when it was pursued by Turkey; import substitution and infant industry protection were part of the then analogue of the Washington Consensus that was pushed by the World Bank. This saw WB money made available for large heavy industry and infrastructure of dubious value (e.g. a steel works in Tanzania).

    Comment by Harsanyi_Janos — June 14, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

  2. […] over historische en economische achtergronden van de ontwikkelingen geeft Louis Proyect in “Taksim Square in Context”, op zijn weblog The Unrepentant Marxist. Dat stuk bevat onder meer een bespreking van het […]

    Pingback by Turkije: lezen over lente | Eylem Nerede — June 18, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

  3. […] over historische en economische achtergronden van de ontwikkelingen geeft Louis Proyect in “Taksim Square in Context”, op zijn weblog The Unrepentant Marxist. Dat stuk bevat onder meer een bespreking van het […]

    Pingback by Turkije: lezen over lente | Ravotr — August 17, 2014 @ 4:07 pm

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