Because of (a) the long-run legacy of Kemalist revolutionism and progressivism; (b) the medium-run legacy of Ecevit’s left-turn in the 1960s; and (c) the segment of society that the CHP represents, there is a sizable element of latent revolutionism among CHP voters. Outside the party, Turkey’s remaining Marxist-Leninists also keep voting for the CHP because it is their only realistic electoral alternative, its ideological background is acceptable, and it is the party that opposes the “counter-revolutionary” AKP. They have always supported, and continue to stand by, Mustafa Kemal’s positivism-fueled modernization project.
For foreign observers it is extremely important to grasp the still-present strains of Marxist ideology on the Turkish left, even the center-left. This is not the idealistic, class-based Marxism that they learned in their university political science classes; this is the really existing “Marxist-Leninist-Maoist nationalism” that has afflicted many a country since WWII. Even though Marxism is supposed to be based on a class analysis of industrialized capitalist societies, what made the Marxist-Leninist “swerve” into a 20th century global force was (i) the Bolsheviks’ WWI-predicated revolutionary success; (ii) the founding of socialism as a command economy in a largely peasant society; and then (iii) pursuit of worldwide socialist uprisings fueled by nationalist “anti-imperialism” much more than a passion for the working class.
In Turkey, Marxism-Leninism is still a major factor preventing most Turkish leftists, especially the intelligentsia, from thinking clearly about their own society. But as I explained in the previous two articles, radical leftist movements in Turkey were always only of marginal importance. Turkey’s Marxist-Leninists found shelter in the press and in academia, but their influence on the political mainstream was small. With one exception.
Since the 1960s the most important political base for “Kemalist leftism” in Turkish society is the party founded by Atatürk in 1923, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). It has always inherited and carried the mantle of revolutionism, or of Jacobin-like attempts at radical social reforms in the cause of progress. This general belief in the justness and virtue of revolution (and especially national revolution) never extended to Marxist-socialist revolution, though the sentiment and argument for it was at least partly derived from, or reinforced by, the Marxist theory of revolution. The CHP controlled Turkish society through its domination of state institutions in the One Party Era (1925 - 1946/50). By then, it was a very far cry from embodying the genuine revolutionary fervor of the National Resistance (1919-22), the proclamation of the Republic (1923), or the other radical reforms of the 1920s and early 30s. Nevertheless, it still stood for “progress” through state-imposed reforms from the top down. After Turkish elections became democratic in 1950, on one level the now-oppositional CHP mostly perpetuated its influence through its mental-spiritual proximity to the same state institutions. But at the same time, just being in opposition brought about a change of attitude. On this basis, after the 27 May 1960 coup, and before the 12 March 1971 and 12 September 1980 coups, the 1960s witnessed a partial yet significant shift in the CHP’s political outlook.
In the late 1950s a young poet and graduate of Robert College named Bülent Ecevit rose to prominence in the CHP’s ranks (1). In response to the 1960s’ political atmosphere, and especially in the face of the unexpected rise of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP) and its leftist rhetoric, Ecevit wanted to push the CHP to, as he termed it, the left-of-center (ortanın solu). This was not as much of a stretch as it might seem because of the CHP’s statist traditions. İsmet İnönü, who had been a proponent of even stronger statist policies in the 1930s, still led the party in the 1960s. He backed and promoted Ecevit and his new line for quite some time, supporting his protégé’s climb to the position of general secretary (under İnönü’s chairmanship). The two fell out only over the 12 March 1971 coup, which Ecevit openly opposed, while confronting the Turkish military was too much for the old man. It was this conflict that led to İnönü’s ouster by Ecevit in 1972. But in sum, the CHP took on a lighter and more diluted version of the left’s ideology. Ecevit went so far as to embrace a further self-definition of the Democratic Left while denying the label “socialist” as well as any other association with Marxism or Marxism-Leninism.
After the 1980 coup, together with all other political parties the CHP, too, was banned (and considered legally dissolved) by the military. Targeting the political space that the CHP had previously occupied, first a Populist Party, HP (Halkçı Parti) was founded with much-too-strong connections to the military was founded, though it would immediately be confronted by the much more autonomous and oppositional SODEP (Sosyal Demokrat Parti), led by İsmet İnönü’s son Erdal İnönü. Eventually, the HP and SODEP merged into the Social-Democratic Populist Party, SHP (Sosyaldemokrat Halkçı Parti), once more led by Erdal İnönü. In the meantime, however, the CHP was re-founded in 1992, under that old name and banner, by Deniz Baykal, whose dogged determination and factionalist skills ultimately proved too much for Erdal İnönü’s reluctant amateurishness. So in 1995 the SHP, too, went and joined the CHP, which immediately reclaimed the same socio-political bloc that it had always represented.
But that was not the end of this process of splintering and then coming together yet again. For in the mid-80s Bülent Ecevit himself had launched a new party under a new name. This was the Democratic Left Party, DSP (Demokratik Sol Parti). Since Ecevit (as well as Demirel or Erbakan) was officially banned from participating in politics, like all his old rivals he, too, initially led the DSP by proxy -- through his wife Rahşan Ecevit. When his political ban was lifted in 1987, Ecevit assumed direct leadership of the party. Please note, at this point, the leftist flavor of all the names adopted by these new fledgling parties as long as the original CHP name remained under the junta’s ban. They all kept pursuing the progressive implications of Kemalist revolutionism (however unsystematic) -- including Atatürk’s flirtation with the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s, the CHP’s association with various statist ideas, and the left-of-center stance pursued since the 1960s -- into a more modern attempt at a Turkish version of European social democracy
Ecevit’s DSP never established a mass constituency. It only rode his personal charisma through Turkey’s tumultuous 1990s, and he ended the decade as Prime Minister when the 1999 capture of Abdullah Öcalan boosted his party into a greater vote share. But after the February 2001 economic crisis, Ecevit’s worsening health problems forced him to call early elections in 2002. While the AKP won big and came into power, the disintegration of the DSP’s legitimacy resulted in Ecevit’s electoral support swinging to the CHP. The DSP lingered on under Rahşan Ecevit’s direction, but would never regain political importance.
After all these twists and turns, the CHP continues to represent essentially the same socio-political bloc that it has represented since the 1920s. Because of (a) the long-run legacy of Kemalist revolutionism and progressivism; (b) the medium-run legacy of Ecevit’s left-turn in the 1960s; and (c) the segment of society that the CHP represents, there is a sizable element of latent revolutionism among CHP voters (although the openly ulusalcı-types, such as Emine Ülker Tarhan, were ejected from the party in late-2014 and early-2015). Outside the CHP, Turkey’s remaining Marxist-Leninists, a small fringe group as they are, keep voting for the CHP because it is their only realistic electoral alternative, its ideological background is acceptable, and it is the party that opposes the “counter-revolutionary” AKP. Plus, in the end, they have always supported, and continue to stand by, Mustafa Kemal’s positivism-fueled modernization project. That prominent CHP socialists, such as Umut Oran (2), have seen their CHP profile reduced does not matter that much because CHP supporters vote as much for their socio-political identity as for ideology.
Hopefully, the explanation in this and the two previous articles will make clear why a large segment of Turkey’s educated, professional elites still perceive their own country in vaguely Marxist, revolutionist terms. This is a necessary dimension for understanding the distorted nature of the Turkish political scene, which was produced by the top-down imposition of a modernizing/Westernizing socio-political project starting more than 150 years ago.
1) In the mid-60s Turhan Feyzioğlu, a prominent law professor, was a leading rival of Ecevit within the CHP; as a classical statist-Ataturkist he was very hostile to a swing to the left in the party line and ideological outlook. After his defeat by Ecevit, Feyzioğlu and his supporters left the CHP to create arather right-wing party, which in its various reincarnations (as Güven Partisi, Millî Güven Partisi, and ultimately Cumhuriyetçi Güven Partisi), went so far as to support both the 12 March 1971 military régime and the Demirel-led ultra-right Nationalist Front governments of 1975 and thereafter. Turhan Feyzioğlu’s grandson Metin Feyzioğlu, also a jurist, and also very Ataturkist, is the current head of the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, and has been working for several years to increase his prominence in the CHP.
(2) Oran is a CHP member and a vice-president of the Socialist International. Despite that position, he was not fielded as a parliamentary candidate by the CHP leadership in the 2015 elections.
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