Feroz Ahmad, author of The Turkish Experiment in Democracy, visited Turkey for a month in the summer of 1979, after an absence of two years. On November 12, 1979, MERIP editors Philip Khoury and Joe Stork spoke with him at his home in Boston about recent political developments in Turkey.
One feature said to characterize Turkish politics over the last few years is the rise of a “proto-fascist” movement.
That’s too simple. I see Turkey’s problem as arising out of the development of capitalism in a society that started out with the full-blown legacy of semi-colonialism and underdevelopment. Look at the situation in Turkey since 1950. All this is of one piece. Fascistic methods have been used, especially by the Nationalist Action Party (NAP). But I see the NAP as the right wing of the Justice Party (JP). In the last election [i.e., the partial Senate and by-elections of October 14, 1979], the fascist party was weaker electorally. What seems to be happening is that the movement is reverting to a more monolithic form, much like it was until 1969, when the right wing of the JP broke up into a number of factions. The NAP, though it was founded before 1969, is a part of this tendency.
You don’t agree with those who have detected a significant penetration of the Turkish state apparatus by right-wing paramilitary groups?
The Turkish state has always been a state of the right since the founding of the Republic in 1923. But after Demirel came to power in 1965, the state apparatus did serve more openly the right-wing forces. In the period of the Nationalist Front governments [1975-78] the state apparatus, including some of the ministries, was parcelled out to the parties of the coalition. I don’t think this represents a qualitative change.
The fragmentation of the right after 1969 — was this the result of personal rivalries?
No. It was the result of the development of the capitalist economy as it grew larger and more monopolistic, lt destroyed the traditional economies in Anatolia. The Anatolian bourgeoisie — really a petty bourgeoisie — supported the Justice Party and wanted the JP to do something about its deteriorating situation. Süleyman Demirel, who stood for large capital, said, “Look, gentlemen, this is the way of the world. These are some of the sacrifices we must make to develop. Now, what you must do is reorganize, put your resources together, become part of this larger sector.” That was easier said than done. These people began to break away from the Justice Party and form parties of their own, like the Democratic Party or the Nationalist Order Party.
These were mainly merchants and small producers. The soft drink industry is a good example of this process. You would find it in every small town. It’s been overtaken by Coca-Cola and the multinationals. These people just can’t compete. It is, as Demirel said, part of the historic development of capitalism. But you can’t expect these people to accept their demise, just like that, ready to sacrifice themselves to this “greater end.” So they fought back politically and organized these small parties. They represent no alternative, since they also stand for capitalism, a national capitalism as opposed to the foreign multinationals. They’ve been losing ground politically. This is what the declining strength of these parties shows.
In Turkey now there seem to be three large economic groupings: the Istanbul group, the Aegean group around Izmir, and the Adana group. These latter are people who have mobilized rural earnings. Many were landowners who sold their land and moved into industry. Adana has been one of the fastest growing areas in the country. The Sabanci group there has challenged the Koç group of Istanbul in size, though the Istanbul group is the most advanced. They’re organized as the Turkish Organization of Businessmen and Industrialists, known by the acronym TUSIAD. Izmir’s dominant family, the Yaşars, put its assets into tourism and the like rather than productive investments. The Koç group does the same, but is much larger and has diversified.
Do these groups have similar relations with the multinational corporations?
Within the three major segments you don’t find opposition to the multinationals. They’re all collaborators, with franchises, licenses and so on. There is fear of foreign domination, but not much talk in terms of national capital. Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party, representing perhaps smaller elements within these three groupings, advances that line.
There is a struggle for dominance between the major groups, but they’re not that different. They tend to support the JP, but some of the TUSIAD group in Istanbul supported Bülent Ecevit, arguing that a social democratic solution could win over the working class and establish social peace. Ecevit has not been strong enough within the Republican People’s Party (RPP) to stick to a single line. The RPP was never a political party in the true sense, lt was a national movement and provided an umbrella for lots of factions. Some segments of the right, especially landowners, broke away, first in 1966-1967 and again in 1971-1972, but not all of them. After the closure of the Workers Party of Turkey (WPT) by court order in 1971, a number of WPT cadre joined the RPP, when the RPP began looking to the left for electoral support before the 1973 elections. In the RPP there is also a group of intellectuals, the “Third Worlders,” who feel that Turkey’s best options are with the Third World, that it ought to break with the US and Europe. These are the people who persuaded Ecevit to struggle with the International Monetary Fund rather than accept its terms straightaway. This is now seen as a tactical mistake because, the argument goes, in trying to defeat the IMF all you’ve done is make the economic crisis more acute while in the end — after 18 months of negotiations — accepting IMF terms after all. Personally I don’t see how the IMF solution can work in Turkey, or anywhere else for that matter. Turkey was trapped, and still is.
Can we identify the RPP right wing with the TUSIAD group?
Absolutely. TUSIAD is the progressive wing of Turkish capitalism, and the RPP is committed to a “more humane” capitalism, with less severe exploitation that would bring about capitalism with social justice.
But it soon became clear that Ecevit represented no significant alternative. Within 20 months the voters came out and showed their disapproval. I don’t know if you could call these recent by-elections a great blow for democracy. To me they suggest that once you accept a capitalist model — as Ecevit does — then there is only one path to follow, and that is the path Demirel has been consistently following. The only alternative to capitalism is socialism, and not some middle path as Ecevit proposed.
Is Demirel the undisputed leader of Turkish capital, or rather one particular faction of the bourgeoisie?
He sees himself as representing the common interests of all the bourgeoisie, but if they had their way they would replace him. He weakened the right for a decade. But the Turkish bourgeoisie is still very much in the process of development, and does not as yet dominate the party of the right. When Ecevit’s party wasn’t strong enough to form a government on its own, they wanted a coalition between the RPP and the JP. This was sabotaged by Demirel. As leader of the number two party, he was not ready to play a subordinate role in such a coalition, even though it would have led to stability from the point of view of Turkish capital.
Your interpretation is that the forces Demirel represents are in the ascendancy, and we will not see Ecevit or someone similar back in power after the next election?
In any other democratic system, people like Ecevit, and Demirel for that matter, should have resigned as party leaders after they lost elections. The resignation or defeat of Ecevit within the RPP would therefore represent a great step forward for Turkish politics. But that is unlikely.
Yes, the tendency Demirel represents is clearly the dominant one. The people who provide the surplus are the workers and peasants. Ecevit suggested he was going to introduce some new arrangement which would make the system humane, but couldn’t. And this phenomenon you see in Turkey is not unique. There are close parallels to India, with the fragmentation of the Congress Party in the 1960s and “the Emergency” of Mrs. Gandhi in 1975. The Indian Emergency of 1975 took place in Turkey in 1971. The problem was the same: how to continue to extract the surplus while maintaining “law and order.” Thus, after two years of repression and constitutional amendments, the capitalists hoped that Ecevit would be able to establish some kind of social peace through his ideology of social democracy.
There is always the alternative of a military regime, although it’s not clear how the army will react today. Martial law is already in existence, and likely to become harsher under Demirel. The top echelons of the armed forces have been integrated into the established capitalist order; they were given a segment of the economy with OYAK, the Armed Forces Mutual Fund. Retired generals go into industry and banks. But this didn’t appease the disaffection of the colonels and majors — you can’t coopt all of them. After 1971 there were long secret trials of people like retired Gen. Madanoğlu who was said to have secret links with the junior officers. One of the trends since the early 1960s has been the thorough infiltration of the army by the military and civilian intelligence services, reorganized after the coup of May 1960, so that the senior officers know what is going on below them. Conspiracy has become virtually impossible; now it would require a breakdown of society for the army to act from below.
You don’t feel that Turkey has come into that period of breakdown?
It seems not. The IMF money has been secured. There’s been a massive devaluation and the lira is now 47 to the dollar. There will be belt tightening. It’s difficult to see which forces will react against this. The trade unions have been weakened since 1971 and are very divided and politically confused. One cannot expect mass action, although I think this is possible. We saw this last May Day. But we also saw what the authorities did: They prevented the demonstrations and incarcerated a lot of trade union leaders and members of the new Workers’ Party.
What accounts for the divisiveness in the trade union movement?
Before 1971 the DISK (Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions) was making substantial gains at the expense of Turk-Iş, the confederation that claims to be non-political. With the martial law and trials of 1971, DISK was weakened and intimidated. The example of Chile had its impact. In such a situation, DISK leadership decided to support the RPP, and this weakened it in the eyes of its members, who knew that the Republicans could not and would not do anything for the working class. There was great demoralization. Workers have lost very heavily in terms of their standard of living since 1971. There is a tendency now to be more passive. These things will change, though, if the left can unify.
What are the main components of the Turkish left?
I do not consider the RPP a party of the left, though it has exploited the lack of a major left party by claiming to be social democratic. The strongest socialist grouping is the Worker’s Party of Turkey, founded in 1973. This party is unofficially aligned with the Soviet Union, and this may be its main weakness. Nevertheless, it is the best organized, has the best cadres, good publications and good analyses of internal developments.
There is a group that attacks the Soviets as revisionist, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of Turkey, and that seems to be its main concern. Mehmet Ali Aybar’s group, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, was expelled from the old WPT; they provide a good populist and anti-bureaucratic analysis but have no real strength as yet. Beyond these you have a lot of small factions. It’s difficult to follow what they are up to, how serious they are, to what extent they are groups created by Turkish intelligence to sow confusion on the left — if that is their goal, they’ve done very well. There is lip service to the idea of unity of the left, but no one moves to implement it. The WPT will probably emerge as the dominant group, and then there will be some solid criticism of the established order. In such circumstances the RPP might become the instrument of some movement in the direction of socialism. But there would have to be fundamental changes in the RPP before that happens.
What is the relationship between DISK and the WPT?
The relationship was stronger in the late 1960s, before DISK moved closer to the RPP for tactical reasons. There has been a movement within the unions to establish a social democratic party like the British Labor Party. The way the unions were established in the early 1950s, on AFL-CIO advice, precludes this. Turk-Iş was set up like a big American union, “standing above politics.” Yet the movement to politicize the unions is there, and could lead to the emergence of a strong working-class party. Should this happen, and people align themselves with one or another socialist party, this would provide financial strength and mobilize the working-class voters. Although weakened by the events of 1971, this is still an important alternative.
Did the recent by-elections suggest anything about the state of the Turkish left?
In terms of votes the position of the left parties improved somewhat, but there was no major step forward. The RPP lost votes in significant places. Istanbul, for example, which represents a massive urban vote, workers as well as people in shantytowns. Some voted for the JP, others for the left. The left has yet to salvage its position after the mauling it took in 1971.
To what extent was the foreign debt and the pressures of the IMF and the international banks a factor in the elections?
The RPP had succumbed to the IMF, and the JP was not about to make an issue of this. Remember, these were by-elections for only five members of parliament. They became significant in light of the solid losse sof the RPP. At no point was there a major campaign against foreign capital beyond some rhetoric from the “Third Worlders” in the RPP.
The Republicans made the miscalculation that after Iran Turkey would be of greater strategic significance to the West and therefore would be better able to secure concessions. That seems to have been Ecevit’s gamble, but the US and NATO had concluded back in the 1960s that Turkey wasn’t vital to the West; Greece would fill the need. They don’t want to abandon Turkey, but they will not succumb to pressure. After Iran, Turkey is still important, but the failure of Ecevit’s challenge has shown that international capital is a lot stronger than any Turkish government. This is bound to be demoralizing for Turkey and any other political challenger of the IMF.
Are there different relations between Turkish capital and US capital on the one hand and European and Japanese capitals on the other?
Some see the tension between the US and Europe as more important that the tension between the US and the Soviet Union. The Turkish foreign office in the 1960s came round to the view that Turkey’s interests were best served with Europe. They were sending Turkish workers, especially to Germany, and much of their trade was with Europe. In this latest financial crisis the Germans sent their negotiator to try to make funds available to the Turks, just to keep the economy going. At Guadaloupe it was Chancellor Schmidt who said that Turkey must be rescued from the economic crisis. But the US itself has wanted Europe to play a larger role in Turkey, and has been pushing the Germans in that direction.
Are the Europeans more concerned than the US with the outcome of the current crisis? Is there any significance in the social democratic links between Ecevit and Schmidt, for example?
These political links were emphasized by Ecevit and the RPP, which established links with the socialist parties of Europe. Interestingly, Demirel responded by holding conversations with the Christian Democrats in Germany, lt says something about “Islamic resurgence” in Turkey when the main party of the Turkish right has the tacit support of the Christian Democrats! The Turks have seen themselves since the 1950s as the intermediaries between the Middle East and Europe. That’s the role they would love to play. When I say “the Turks” I mean both major political parties. They would love to have European capital invested in Turkey which would then be used to produce goods for export to the Middle East. This great hope has yet to be transformed into reality through the massive foreign investments both Ecevit and Demirel are looking for.
Have the migrant workers had any impact on Turkish politics or the development of trade unions?
First of all most of them haven’t even returned. Fewer are going to Europe now, but few are coming back. When they went there was a lot of hope they would be politicized and would come back ready to advance the cause of trade unionism and so on. Instead, most of them have changed their self-image, and come back with the hope of setting up small small businesses. With the high inflation migrant workers are reluctant to repatriate savings, and much of that money has gone into black market profiteering. When efforts were made to organize Turkish workers abroad, they were sabotaged and smashed. Col. Turkeş and his NAP set up a rival organization in Germany. They beat up workers, broke up meetings, had links with German neo-Nazis. These workers may have some political impact in the future, but there’s not been much so far.
Could you comment on the notion that Turkey might go the way of Iran and experience an Islamic revolution?
To start with, there is no one with the stature of an Ayatollah Khomeini. Institutional Islam was destroyed with the caliphate in the early 1920s. The circumstances of the two countries are also very different. We’ve seen efforts in Turkey to exploit Islam for votes. The National Salvation Party had an ideological line similar to that of Khomeini in Iran. Who wouldn’t like interest-free loans that a so-called Islamic regime promises? But that is far from present-day reality. People in Turkey did not go for the kind of “reforms” Erbakan was calling for in his early days, such as the abolition of soccer. Soon it becomes hard for Erbakan to appear as a serious political figure. People ridiculed his politics, and he was forced to change his line. This business of an Islamic revival is an oversimplification of the media. Islamic ideology has not, cannot, and will not be applied to solve the economic problems of the current era. In Pakistan it isa mode of political intimidation. In Turkey, in its present phase of development, such ideological leanings have absolutely no foundation. Turkey is fairly well advanced along the capitalist road, and its bourgeoisie has a strong image of itself as leading the country forward. It’s nothing like the small coterie around the Shah. The political power of the Turkish bourgeoisie has been increasing with every decade, and it is too strongly entrenched to permit the Khomeini phenomenon in Turkey.
If the Turkish bourgeoisie has accrued power over the past decades, the question arises: At whose expense? Is it the state bureaucracy? Has there been resistance from the public sector to this?
Absolutely. But in Turkey the bureaucracy succumbed to the private sector in the 1950s; it’s not a major factor today. If the 1960 coup was indeed an attempt by the state bureaucracy to made a comeback, then it was a very weak effort, even the State Planning Organization was soon turned into an instrument of the private sector.
But remember, the Turkish state from its inception, and even at its most etatist phase in the mid-1930s, was dedicated to the creation of a capitalist order. A bureaucracy did emerge under the mono-party state, but it was defeated within the RPP well before the elections of 1950, by about 1947. In the elections of 1950 they were completely eliminated, and they have played a very secondary role to the private sector ever since. There was no socialist movement that had to be overcome. Ever since the last part of the nineteenth century the aim of the Turkish ruling class has been to create a capitalist Turkey. Capitalism seemed to account for the success of Europe, so why shouldn’t it work for Turkey? They’re still trying.