Talking Turkey

The repression of a small protest against the commercial transformation of Istanbul’s Gezi Park in Taksim Square unleashed unrest which has shaken Turkish society to its core and posed a revolutionary challenge to the political leadership of the country.

The Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdo?an, and his Justice and Development (AK) Party have a large electoral mandate. He once appealed to the people with the following words: “I am not a king. I am your prime minister elected by my nation’s votes. I am your servant, not your master.” His utterances have now returned to haunt him from the streets. This self-proclaimed humble servant of the people now smears protestors as extremists and terrorists. They are sprayed with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray, like insects facing the exterminator. At least three people have died so far, hundreds have been injured and more than a thousand have been arrested. How can this happen in a democratic state, a candidate to join the European Union and a staunch ally of the United States?

Modern Turkey was established as a secular state and the secular constituency makes up about 35 percent of the population. Turkey’s ruling classes welded themselves to U.S. imperialist policies in the region and acted as a NATO bulwark. For decades the U.S. backed Turkey as an anti-communist force and Turkey’s barbaric treatment of its minority Kurdish population was ignored. Erdo?an supported U.S. policy in Iraq and most recently backed Western sponsored and Jihadist insurgency in Syria.

Turkish capitalism experienced an economic boom over the course of the last decade and was mooted as a regional model for newly democratic states, born out of the waves of unrest in North Africa and the Middle East commonly called the Arab Spring. But Turkey’s democratic shell conceals the reality of a fiercely repressive state, particularly towards the communist movement and independent journalists.

Erdo?an’s government is imposing increasingly Islamist laws on a people whose state was founded on secular principles. Many women don’t wear the veil in urban areas and abortion is still legal, although severe restrictions are planned, which will hit the poorest women hardest. Erdo?an has made inflammatory remarks against abortion and a new law bans the sale of alcohol at night. This is all part of Erdo?an’s play to the religious constituency whose rise was largely a reaction to imperialist wars in the Middle East.

The sudden and unexpected revolutionary outburst in Turkey is in its infancy and has no leadership. Paul Mason, the BBC’s best journalist, noted the ecstatic mood when the government withdrew police from the center of the protests in Istanbul. But one victory cannot resolve this war. Communists in Turkey need to formulate strategy and tactics suited to the terrain of this revolutionary awakening.

The protestors are demanding Erdo?an’s resignation, the reigning-in of the police and the annulment of the park project. But in order for any of these demands to be realized, it will be necessary to split Erdo?an’s electoral base. His AK Party supporters are mobilizing alongside the police in an attempt to physically crush the movement. At the same time, the AK, religious leaders and the mass media will all try to isolate the movement. To do this they will engage in many days of cat and mouse with the demonstrators, both in physical conflict and by using all the tricks that a bourgeois-democratic political façade can employ.

Various trade union federations have now called for strike action. This is vital if Erdo?an is to be defeated, as many workers voted for him. Discontent with low wages, long working hours, poor housing and persistently high unemployment is widespread. Street protestors should link their protests to demands on these issues in order to find a receptive ear within Erdo?an’s base amongst the poor. Articulating the interests of the working class is also a way to reaching the minds in the mosques.

The protest, with no organizational forms to unify them, will have to be improvised based on locality, workplace or college assemblies. There is a real danger that if the movement is not clear headed and organized, Erdo?an’s democratic mandate can be used as a cover to galvanize a semi-fascist reactionary movement of repression. This can be stopped if Turkey’s many brave Marxists, communists, socialists and other revolutionary fighters find a way to unify the movement with the working class. This, in turn, will require some concept of an alternative to capitalist visions of democracy, social justice and societal development, so as to inspire the movement in the days and weeks ahead.

The events in Turkey reveal that in our era, passivity and tranquility are commonly punctuated by upheavals, unrest and revolution and counter-revolution. These events reveal the inner tensions of modern capitalist society. No matter how democratic it may appear to be, capitalism always defines profit as the primary societal good. No matter how religious its leaders claim to be, it is the money god that they really worship.

Heiko Khoo
 The text has been originally published 
 on where the author is 
 a regular contributor.

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