What is the meaning of the upcoming referendum on constitutional reform in Turkey?
Turkey is mired in crisis. The ruling class of the country is divided: The Kemalist party CHP, which dominates the army and the state bureaucracy, is fighting against the conservative AKP, which controls the government and the majority of parliament. The CHP sees itself as the protector of the principles of the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal. The AKP, in contrast, represents a rising bourgeoisie that wants to put the state apparatus in its place.
This fight is carried out with conspiracies, trials, media campaigns and competing mass mobilizations. The AKP will carry out a referendum on September 12 to reform the constitution and “democratize” Turkey. The CHP warns of an imminent “islamization”. But what is really going on? A look at the history of Turkey is useful.
The state apparatus is the historical father of the Turkish bourgeoisie. After the First World War, the Young Turk regime set out to create a bourgeois nation state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. A key task was to create a modern economy in the hands of Turkish owners – i.e. a significant Turkish capitalist class had to be formed.
Potential competition was swept aisde by violence: At first it hit the Armenian population which was active in trading, then Greek and Assyrian ethnic groups. Finally, Northern Kurdistan was treated as an internal colony. The natural resources there were important to the development of Turkish capitalism. The Kurdish people were suppressed and used as a massive reserve of cheap labor.
Under the strong arm of the very independent Turkish state bureaucracy, the Turkish capitalist class was able to develop. With massive repression – including bloody coups – this bureaucracy defended the interests of Turkish capital, increasingly against the growing working class in Turkey. The military coup of September 12, 1980 (the 30th anniversary of which is the date of the referendum) was primarily directed against a strengthening workers’ movement.
But now this apparatus has become an obstacle for significant parts of the Turkish bourgeoisie itself. Especially the young bourgeoisie from Anatolia wants to restrict the apparatus, which operates too freely and costs vast sums of money. On the political stage, this force is represented by the AKP. The AKP is based on “Islam Sentezi Türk” (Turkish-Islamic synthesis), i.e. on reactionary ideologies that became strong after the coup of 1980. Therefore it is not without a certain irony that today accusations are being directed at the Turkish military for crimes that were committed also in the interests of the AKP faction.
The AKP government has attacked workers in Turkey with laws (such as raising the retirement age to 65) and massive privatization projects (such as the privatization of the state tobacco company TEKEL). It has reinforced the privatization policy which has been the official policy of every government since the military coup in 1980.
The constitutional reform of the AKP contains some improvements for the oppressed (especially regarding the restriction of the army, which until now functions as an uncontrollable state within the state):
Employees of the state may engage in collective bargaining, but without the right to strike. The state guarantees certain rights of women and children. Personal information is better protected. Travel abroad can only be prevented by the courts. The powers of military courts are limited: Civilians can only be tried in military tribunals in times of war, and officers can be tried in civilian courts.
These half-hearted reforms cannot (and are not intended to) improve the situation of the workers significantly. They offer no protection from the hammer blows of bourgeois politics. The only alternative consists in proletarian politics, i.e. the consistent struggle, especially in the workplaces, against all cuts, layoffs, privatizations and closures! The delineation from all bourgeois forces, whether AKP or CHP, and linking up the struggles and their activists in Turkey and internationally: This is the only perspective to avoid future of misery!
The constitutional reform thus represents neither a fatal threat nor salvation. The AKP and the CHP are pest and cholera: Both represent the interests of Turkish capital. But the restriction of the repressive state apparatus, planned in the interests of capital, does not constitute an attack on our interests. For this reason, we are for a critical “Yes” in the referendum. But regardless of victory or defeat of the referendum – our victory or defeat depends on our ability to successfully fight against the entire bourgeoisie.
The referendum have provoked a lot of talk about “democratization”. But the only force in Turkey that can carry out a genuine democratization is the working class. It can successfully defend itself against the attacks of capital if it overcomes its division into different ethnic groups, for it literally has the economy in its hands.
The working class of Turkey spoke up in 2010 with a number of militant strikes and demonstrations. The 300,000 workers at Taksim Square in Istanbul on May 1 are a sign that the workers’ struggles have created a new consciousness. This consciousness is largely thanks to the struggle at the tobacco company TEKEL which began in December of 2009. This struggle revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the workers’ movement.
Thousands TEKEL workers protested against layoffs in the framework of the privatization of the company and spent 78 days camping in Ankara, despite the attacks of the police and the threats of the government. There was also a general strike on February 4. At the same time, there were further workers’ struggles in Turkey: among others at Marmaray, Cimen Tekstil, Kent Is and the fire services.
The Turkish left has a strong Stalinist tradition and therefore could not play a very laudable role in this process. Surprised by the resistance of the workers and politically helpless, most of the left ignored the possibility of initiating assemblies and strike committees of the workers. Thus, the power to makes decisions remained in the hands of the trade union bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was questioned again and again, but it could not be brought down.
The demands raised by the left were either minimal or maximal. Either the workers were called on to immediately begin armed struggle or declared junior partners in a bourgeois anti-imperialist front. The popular demand for a general strike was not sufficient by itself. Without mobilizing other sectors of the working class, the initiatives for a general strike remained toothless. Pressure was not built up from below in the trade unions, nor were there serious attempts to unite the struggles outside the unions.
On September 14, the Constitutional Court will decide on the outcome of the struggle at TEKEL. The union bureaucracy has used this as an excuse to cease all actions and adopt a purely legalistic line.
Many workers struggles will take place in the coming period in Turkey, such as the ongoing strike at UPS. What is lacking is a revolutionary party which can impart the experiences from other countries and times, like the experiences of the colleagues at Zanon or Kraft Foods in Argentina which provide instructive examples to the workers’ movement in Turkey about how to fight back against the attacks successfully. Only a workers’ movement which keeps its experiences alive can defend its interests successfully.
Which way now?
The situation of the Kurdish population, which is specially oppressed, is central to the revolution in Turkey. Kurdistan is a colony of Turkey, which gets access to cheap labor, raw materials and regions of geopolitical importance. The Kurdish movement is dominated by the BDP (respectively the PKK). However, different classes are represented in this movement, and they pull in different directions.
The workers and landless peasants in Kurdistan are severely affected by the oppression. They suffer most from the Turkish colonial war. In contrast, the petty bourgeois layers that lead the Kurdish movement experience the oppression almost exclusively on a cultural level. It bothers them that they must deny their language, history and culture in the cities of Turkey. This is clearly reflected in the current policies of the BDP and the PKK.
Their position of solving the Kurdish problem primarily on a cultural level, without wanting to fundamentally alter the misery of the broad masses, has even led them to declare themselves defenders of Turkey. The Kurdish member of parliament Hasip Kaplan said in July 2010: “If there are issues in Turkey which do not need to be discussed, then the unity and the cohesion of this country.”
The Kurdish workers are the part of the Kurdish people who can most easily unite with the Turkish working class. In the TEKEL struggle, workers of different nationalities struggled alongside each other – and that at a time when the nationalist agitation against Kurds had reached almost fascist levels. An important part of the Kurdish workers lives in the slums of western Anatolia, which is why the unity of Turkish and Kurdish wage laborers is of immediate political importance.
What prospects are there? The majority of the left in Turkey strives for a bourgeois-democratic revolution. In their national point of view, they believe Turkey is not ripe for the proletarian-socialist revolution. However, there is no wing of the bourgeoisie which has a serious interest in resolving the democratic questions – they are so afraid of a mobilization of the masses that they prefer to hang on to the outdated structures.
The TEKEL struggle showed that the working class of Turkey is capable of carrying out a general strike in a very short time and fundamentally changing the political atmosphere. Only the working class in Turkey and Northern Kurdistan is in a position to break with imperialism, the feudal structures and the autocratic state apparatus. But the workers can not separate the bourgeois-democratic program from the socialist tasks. Only a program of permanent revolution can significantly change Turkey.
If the workers struggle together, they are forced to take action against the nationalist agitation. A revolutionary organization must become active in the working class in Turkey and defend the right of self-determination of the Kurdish people.
In this sense, a revolutionary program for Turkey would have to at least include the following transitional demands:
- Against all privatizations! For the occupation and nationalization of all enterprises that threaten layoffs or closure, under workers’ control!
- For a program of public works to end unemployment and underdevelopment, under the control of workers’ organizations!
- For the unconditional right of self-determination of the Kurdish people! For a common revolutionary organization of the workers of all nationalities!
- Disclosure without exception all the military reports! Investigation of the thousands of murders carried out by the apparatus by multi-ethnic workers and peasants tribunals!
- For elected strike committees! For a class struggle movement at the base of the trade unions to fight the betrayal of the bureaucracy!
Statement by RIO, the Revolutionary Internationalist Organization, September 5, 2010, based on a draft by Suphi Toprak, Munich, and Victor Jalava, Kiel