Turkey’s Authoritarian Roots

Against the Current, No. 203, November/December 2019

Daniel Johnson

Why Turkey is Authoritarian:
From Atatürk to Erdoğan
By Halil Karaveli
Pluto Press: Left Book Club, 2018, 256 pages, $21 paper.

TURKEY’S RULING JUSTICE and Development Party (AKP) was delivered a number of blows in municipal elections in March 2019. The party of President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan lost the country’s three largest cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, as well as the important urban centers of Adana, Antalya and Mersin.

The Istanbul race was especially close, with People’s Republican Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu defeating the AKP’s Binaldi Yildirim by some 13,700 votes in a city of more than 15 million. The AKP unsurprisingly contested the election and, equally unsurprisingly, Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council agreed to the regime’s demands for a rerun.

The June do-over proved a momentous trouncing for the AKP. Imamoğlu’s margin of victory increased by more than 800,000, a clear denunciation of the party’s refusal to accept democratic defeat. Yildirim’s loss is an even bigger disappointment for Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul who has famously stated of municipal elections: “whoever wins Istanbul, wins Turkey.”

Celebrations in Istanbul lasted through the night, with the election arguably constituting the biggest challenge (there have been others) to Erdoğan and his party’s nearly two decades of rule. With a number of high-profile founders having left or rumored to be leaving the party, some believe the 2019 election will be remembered as the beginning of the end of the AKP’s dominion in Turkey.

As opponents of the pro-capital, socially conservative party justly revel in AKP losses, a key question for the left now that Erdo?gan and his party are no longer seen as invincible is: what now?

More than a hundred journalists and thousands of members of the leftist People’s Democracy Party (HDP) remain imprisoned while social movements are weak. Erdoğan has called Imamoğlu and other new non-AKP mayors “lame ducks” and, true to form, in August 2019 the democratically elected mayors of Diyarbakir, Mardin and Van (all from the HDP) were removed from office.

A new work whose subject is how Turkey arrived at its present state is Halil Karaveli’s Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdo?gan, published by the Left Book Club.

Karaveli, a senior fellow with a Swedish-based research institute and editor of its publication Turkey Analyst, argues that the explanation for authoritarianism in Turkey is not a result of a political defect related to Islam, or of clashes between secularists and fundamentalists, but is rather explained by the continuity of right-wing rule.

Though this seemingly simple argument itself begs a number of questions, Why Turkey is Authoritarian is a perceptive and powerfully argued, if analytically and strategically flawed, analysis of rightwing rule in modern Turkey.

Violence, Kemalism and the Left

During Turkey’s post-World War I independence struggle, founder of the Communist Party of Turkey Mustafa Suphi urged fellow socialists to support the Kemalists [followers of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — ed.] and the government in Ankara in their anti-imperialist struggle — even though “they might be nationalist bigots.”

When Suphi and 14 other exiled communists attempted to return to Anatolia from Russia in early 1921, they were murdered off the coast of Trabzon and dumped into the Black Sea.

The murders, perpetrated by rightwing nationalists against a potential threat from the left and tacitly approved by the new government, was just the first manifestation of a pattern of violence that according to Karaveli continues to the present.

From the secular republic’s authoritarian repression of civil society organizations in the 1930s to the Islamist AKP’s repeated attacks against dissenters, governments in Turkey have consistently suppressed the left, or implicitly sanctioned nationalist violence against them.

Yet many on the ostensible Turkish left, the “nationalist left,” continue to adhere to a belief in Kemalism as a progressive force. In Karaveli’s view this notion stems from the fact that Turkish “progressives” (as he terms them) have generally privileged the fight against religious obscurantism over that of social justice, with secularism rather than equality standing as the primary indicator of modern progress.

“The left,” the author asserts, “has taken issue with religion, and much less, if at all, with capitalism.” Since, Karaveli argues, ordinary people are held by Kemalists to be too uneducated and unsophisticated to make proper use of democratic freedoms, the way has been paved for conservative forces to claim the mantle of democracy in opposition to elitist secularists.

While oversimplifying (and never actually defining) “the left,” Karaveli is correct that an obsessive fear of religion among secularists has consistently played into the hands of the religious right, constituting one key reason for the continuity of rightwing rule.

Rather than mobilizing the people for change, Kemalist leftists have historically placed their hopes for social transformation in the military. This includes many student radicals in the 1960s, who argued that a top-down national democratic revolution was required before a socialist revolution could take place.

As Karaveli shows, however, the Turkish military has consistently been the watchdog, “not of secularism, but of the bourgeois order of the country.” That was made painfully clear after the 1980 military coup.

Not only were thousands of radicals arrested and tortured, but in the coup’s aftermath neoliberal reforms were implemented while religious education was expanded and the military promoted the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” a doctrine earlier developed by conservative intellectuals as an antidote to increasingly popular leftwing ideas.

Subsequently, in the 1980s and 1990s what Karaveli calls the “liberal left” embraced the capitalist class as a counterforce to a corrupt authoritarian state. The notion that the despotic state had prevented the development of civil society and democracy served as a reason to support capitalist interests as manifested in the AKP.

The “left” has therefore been at least partly responsible for the continuity of rightwing political dominance in Turkey. In the early republic a Kemalist left supported a state whose primary concern lay in developing a domestic bourgeoisie and suppressing dissent, while in recent decades liberal leftists have given credibility to the right’s claims to represent the people against a pro-Western authoritarian elite.

Karaveli argues that the old strategies are obsolete.

Capitalism, Class and Culture

While the subtitle of Why Turkey is Authoritarian implies that the book begins with the rule of Atatürk after Turkey’s winning independence in 1923, it in fact reaches further back in history. This is because social development in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire substantially determined the shape of 20th- and 21st-century authoritarianism in the Turkish nation state.

Drawing on the work of historical sociologist Çağlar Keyder, Karaveli notes that the Ottoman state prevented the formation of a dominant landlord class that could challenge its power. Throughout the Ottoman period the peasantry was therefore able to maintain its independence as a small landholding class.

However, though lacking a substantial bourgeoisie or landless proletariat, the Ottoman Empire was increasingly integrated into the European capitalist world system in the 1800s on exploitative terms, leading to concessions to Western powers that continued until the demise of the Ottoman state following defeat in World War I.

As the wealth and prominence of a minority of non-Muslim traders (mostly Greek Orthodox Christians, and to a lesser extent Armenians and Jews) increased with the empire’s integration into Europe’s economic orbit, Muslim rural, mercantile and artisan groups found themselves unable to compete with cheap European imports. Ruling Ottoman elites exploited these religious differences, as ethnic and religious violence occurred with growing frequency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

According to Karaveli, what appeared to be a religious conflict in fact had social and economic origins. This has been another recurrent pattern in Turkish history:

“(B)usinessmen from religiously conservative, small-town Anatolia, who did not enjoy the same privileged relation with the state as culturally ‘Westernized’ businessmen and industrialists did, were to form the backbone of the Islamist movement that arose in Turkey in the late 1960s, while working-class frustration at economic inequality also ‘naturally’ came to be expressed in cultural and religious terms, as the economically privileged groups in society had a ‘Western’ cultural outlook.”

To argue, however, that “the conflation of class and culture has benefited the right” implies that class and culture (and therefore the economy, politics, etc.) are somehow separable orders. This orientation posits a base/superstructure model that promotes a “false consciousness” interpretation of popular belief — an unhelpful approach for those interested in social change.

Moreover, the argument that East/West (or religious/secular) distinctions have substituted for “real” class consciousness also reproduces an essentialist civilizational divide that Karaveli rejects at the book’s beginning.

The historical development of capitalism in the late Ottoman Empire to some extent helps Karaveli explain ethnic and sectarian violence that culminated in the attempted destruction of the Ottoman Armenian population during WWI. It feels somewhat more forced in explaining the historical repression of Kurds and other minorities from the early republican period to the present.

Although a systematic analysis of the Turkish state’s long history of subjugation of Kurds, Alevis (a Sufi sect that in Turkey is politically progressive) and others would seem essential in a study of authoritarianism in Turkey, it is only treated sporadically in Why Turkey is Authoritarian.

Bülent Ecevit and Social Democracy

Karaveli rightly argues, though without elaboration, that the future of the Turkish left will depend on a more inclusive social vision — including an understanding of popular religiosity. In all of Turkish history, in fact, there has only been one leader on the left who successfully appealed to the pious masses.

Why Turkey is Authoritarian devotes a long chapter to the exception — Turkey’s only social democratic prime minister, Bülent Ecevit — and argues that his example is proof that the Turkish people are not by nature averse to progressive politics.

This is an important point. Unfortunately, Karaveli’s excessive attention to Ecevit as a man “idolized” by the masses (and ultimately betrayed by them) suggests a Great Man view of history that most clearly demonstrates the shortcomings of the book.

Ecevit, compared to other 1960s “radical aristocrats” like Robert F. Kennedy in the United States, Pierre Trudeau in Canada, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in France, and Olof Palme in Sweden, was a driving force in pushing Atatürk’s CHP to the left in the 1960s. According to Karaveli, like these leaders Ecevit was young, rich, progressive, charismatic and shared their desire to inspire progressive change in the masses.

Despite his elite origins, in contrast to Kemalist politicians Ecevit sought to engage with the working classes and eschewed the traditional bourgeois privileges of political life. He extolled an “Anatolian humanism,” a belief that Turkish culture was predisposed to a commitment to tolerance, democracy, progress, equality and solidarity. The notion that mosque attendance and leftist politics were not incompatible was borne out in 1977, when devout Muslims voted for the CHP in large numbers for the first time.

Ecevit’s ability to appeal to the people in a way no previous politician on the left had been able is surely admirable. Yet Karaveli’s treatment of Ecevit borders on hero worship, while other developments of the ’60s and ’70s (industrialization, rural-urban migration, trade unionization, class conflict) are given comparatively little attention.

The social and cultural context of Ecevit’s rise and fall — except for the right’s violent response to the left’s gains — are neglected in favor of a dramatic story of rightwing opposition to the noble and tragic leader.

Karaveli acknowledges that the radical left was suspicious of Ecevit’s reformism. He also concedes that Ecevit was a social democratic reformer, not a Marxist revolutionary; and he mentions (also without elaboration) that a major reason Ecevit pushed the CHP to the left in the 1960s was because of the creation of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP) in 1961, the country’s first legal socialist labor party.

Yet more important for Karaveli is the fact that Ecevit went further than any other leader in “challenging capitalist power.”

Ecevit was undoubtedly in a difficult position as premier in the late 1970s, as economic crisis, rightwing violence (increasingly met with counter-violence by the left), and labor militancy produced a turbulent political environment.

Karaveli usefully discusses the pernicious U.S. role in Turkish politics, historically and in 1979 when Washington decided Ecevit had to go. The coup of 1980 would have been impossible without the approval of the American government, as cold war imperatives and suspicion of Ecevit led to U.S. approval of the military putsch.

Karaveli argues that the labor movement’s abandonment of Ecevit in 1979 was a “grave mistake,” while the “working class and peasants defected to the right at the first opportunity” following Ecevit’s agreement to an IMF bailout. Though he acknowledges the persistence of worker militancy after Ecevit’s “abandonment,” the possibility that Ecevit’s decisions were themselves mistaken is never considered.

Rise of the Right

A final chapter on “The Rise of the Islamists” recounts the economic and political contexts in which the AKP came to power in the wake of the 1980 coup. Beginning with Erdoğan’s involvement in the conservative student movement in the late 1960s and ending with a failed military coup in the summer of 2016, the chapter will be useful for readers interested in the AKP and its Islamist predecessors.

Like their previous incarnations, since the 1970s religious conservatives claimed to speak for the people in opposition to the secular elite. The main shift in recent decades has been a move from statist and protectionist policies to a neoliberal orientation that continues to deploy a “social” rhetoric.

Crucially, in Karaveli’s view it was neoliberal globalization that brought about bourgeois unity. Previously small Anatolian capitalists opposed to the Istanbul-centered and “big bourgeoisie” became major exporters to Europe by the 1990s; now, both the “secular” and “Islamic” bourgeoisies wanted to be a part of the American-led global capitalist order.

This unity made possible the rise of Erdoğan and the AKP. Though this is also well-covered ground, Karaveli distills a complex recent past into an accessible and succinct narrative.

Concepts and Conclusions

In an afterword, Why Turkey is Authori­tar­ian addresses Turkey’s “Kurdish question” with reference to its 2018 invasion of Afrin in northwest Syria. According to Karaveli, historically and today the mobilization of anti-Kurdish ideology “helps sustain the hold of authoritarian nationalism” in the country, even among the left.

Characteristically, however, the author’s definition of the left is so capacious (here it signifies the centrist CHP’s support for the invasion) as to be nearly devoid of meaning. Nevertheless, for Karaveli the main task for the Turkish left today is for it to emancipate itself from its Atatürkist past.

How exactly this is going to happen, and how the left’s penance for its nationalist sins will lead to justice for Kurds and other oppressed groups, is unclear.

This relates to a final problem in Karaveli’s analysis. It is symptomatic that for Karaveli, again evoking Ecevit, “the emergence of a social and democratic reformer able to establish a following among the pious lower classes remains to this day the key to breaking the vicious cycle of authoritarianism in Turkey.”

It should be clear that authoritarianism in Turkey cannot in fact be broken by any one individual, and hoping for the emergence of a charismatic leader capable of uniting a working class divided by religion and ethnicity is not a viable political strategy. Fittingly, Karaveli cites political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s argument concerning the purported need for a charismatic leader to crystalize a populist “we” identity, and notes with approval Mouffe’s influence on Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France and Podemos in Spain.

Perhaps sensing the many problems with Mouffe’s theory (not least of which is her rejection of the Marxist terminology so prominent in Why Turkey is Authoritarian), Karaveli does not wholeheartedly endorse the leader principle. He claims that charismatic leaders are decisive — but “only up to a certain point.”

Yet the reason for this objection is practical rather than theoretical. In the case of Turkey, Karaveli claims, Bülent Ecevit’s charisma (and Ecevit is credited with single-handedly mobilizing the Turkish masses against the capitalist system) “could not withstand the onslaught of the system he sought to change.”

Unfortunately, Karaveli doesn’t conclude from this claim that what is needed is not a new social democratic leader but rather a broad coalition of social movements, organizations and parties able to oppose the authoritarian rule that has so long dominated Turkey. Since capitalism and authoritarianism are more entrenched in Turkey today than was the case in the 1970s, one wonders exactly how a new charismatic reformer would fare any better than did Ecevit.

If Karaveli’s top-down perspective ultimately falls short in advancing socialist strategy, Why Turkey is Authoritarian contains a wealth of information that will be of considerable benefit to readers. Karaveli’s writing is sophisticated yet readable, and the breadth of his knowledge of modern Turkish history is impressive.

November-December 2019, ATC 203

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