Feroz Ahmad, The Turkish Experiment in Democracy, 1950-1975 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1977).

From the mid-1940s onward, Turkish politics belatedly began to reflect the ongoing struggle among the various classes in the country. [1] The well-established bureaucratic tradition inherited from centuries of Ottoman rule, constituting a rather broad alliance of forces and thus obscuring to some extent the class struggle, had survived in the form of the ruling Republican People’s Party (RPP). As political parties representing specific interest groups surfaced — in particular, newly emerging segments of the ruling class such as the urban industrial bourgeoisie — contradictions within the ruling alliance became manifest. Attempts to establish economic and political dominion by various classes, and contradictions within the classes themselves, contributed to making the years from the 1940s to the present one of the politically most dynamic periods in the history of Turkey.

Feroz Ahmad’s The Turkish Experiment in Democracy spans precisely this extremely intense and complex period. Starting with a brief review of the final years of the single party regime under the RPP, he analyzes the multi-party regime in its three phases: the Democrat Party (DP) era of 1950-1960, the period of liberalization between the coups d’etat of 1960 and 1971, and the years following the so-called “memorandum” of March 12, 1971, in which the army once again intervened to “safeguard” the state. Separate chapters on the effects of religion on the political struggle, and of the political struggle on foreign policy, discuss these issues over the quarter century under study.

Ahmad’s book is in a class by itself. Very few are the works in English and even Turkish which cover the 1950-1975 period. Even fewer are those which, in an area of study dominated by a very traditionalist perspective, manage to break free and do so with erudition. The book thus deserves much praise, and our criticism is certainly not to suggest that there are better works available on the subject.

The Turkish Experiment in Democracy attests to an extremely impressive amount of research. The author scoured the Turkish press in great detail for the entire period under study. [2] The extent to which the text relies on references to the daily press has the very distinct advantage of emphasizing the continuity in Turkish political history. Instead of appearing to be spontaneous and isolated, as they do in so many other works, the events are put in chronological context. This strong point of the book is unfortunately also the root of its major flaw: The theoretical framework is somewhat underplayed. Quotations fall together in a relatively eclectic fashion, without being subjected to a sound analysis. The author generously cites left- and right-wing politicians, authors and reporters, but rarely evaluates their opinions. For example, he quotes the statement of the young would-be assassin of Ahmed Emin Yalman to the effect that he had chosen his victim because he was a “Jew and a mason.” The author defers mentioning that, in fact, Yalman was not at all Jewish, but a member of the Dönme sect [3] (and of one of the most integrated and Muslimized families at that), until an unrelated footnote on p. 385. Although Jews occasionally did suffer government persecution, in particular under the RPP-initiated capital levy (varlık vergisi) of 1942, they were certainly never shot in the streets for being Jewish, something which the reader may very well conclude from the statement cited above. The truth is that Yalman was one of the leading figures of the liberal intelligentsia, and  was thus considered a good target in order to intimidate what reactionaries saw as dangerous libertarian currents. Elsewhere the author observes that the Unity Party of Turkey (UPT) “was hindered [in the elections of 1973] by its reputation for being the party of the Shia.” This was indeed a widespread belief. Yet one would like to know why, if this reputation was justified, the UPT did not get most of the Shia votes, approximately 20 percent of the electorate. If it was not justified, who propounded this notion and for what purpose?

The author writes that governments in the 1960s “concentrated more on the growing left, which they diagnosed as the real threat to the existing order.” While this was undoubtedly the belief held by the governments in question, the statement surely deserves some commentary, especially in the light of what is known about the fascist activities of Alparslan Türkeş’s Nationalist Action Party (NAP) and its armed paramilitary phalange, the Commando. Similarly, a quotation from a Turkish newspaper to the effect that it was the “‘inflationist politicians who breast-fed the Marxist, Leninist and Maoist movements in Turkey,’ and became indirectly responsible for the breakdown which invited military intervention” would require a vast amount of commentary, since this view is superficial and misleading as it stands. Ahmad’s personal views and opinions gradually become evident to a reader well-versed in contemporary Turkish politics, but it seems unreasonable to expect the reader to establish all the necessary connections and arrive at such an important synthesis.

The Democrat Era

It would be unfair to point to this weakness in the theoretical framework of the book without referring to its greatest strength. Departing from the practices of most traditionalist scholars, Ahmad weighs heavily the determining relations between the base and the superstructure, the economic and political domains (though his approach is not entirely without positivist tendencies). Unfortunately, this correct perception of the connections between economics and politics is reflected at times somewhat negatively in the organization of the book. The economic and political analyses appear in separate chapters, and the dialectical relations between them are obscured.

A good example is the discussion of the Democrat Party (DP) era, from 1950 to 1960. The governments’ policies, relations with opposition parties, and the dissidence and internal conflicts within the DP, are discussed in chapters 2 and 3, while the economy in this period is analyzed in chapter 5. The extremely important connections between these are not always easy to establish. The DP phenomenon in Turkish politics corresponded to the replacement of the bureaucratic etatist tradition by a political current rooted in the emerging class structure of the social base. The determining class in the formation of the DP can be inferred from the social origins of the founders of the party: These included large landowners (the political awakening of whom heralded the development of capitalism in the agricultural sector) and members of the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, who had suffered under the state control of the RPP government.

All this information is in the book but there is more to it. The tentative alliance between the agricultural and industrial sectors proved extremely important in the development and eventual downfall of the DP. The party had established the peasantry as its electoral base, and undertook several measures which favored the agricultural sector. These included purchasing crops above their market price and exempting agricultural income from tax, and were designed to ensure the loyalty of the peasant electorate. Some of the cost was met by printing money (the inflation rate in 1958 reached 40 percent), [4] and the government did take some measures to help the industrial sector, such as the implementation of import substitution, especially on consumer goods, whereby the imports were reduced from 9.5 percent of the GNP in 1962 to 2.5 percent in 1958. [5] But these policies were generally at the expense of the urban bourgeoisie. This contradiction between the DP policies towards the agricultural and industrial sectors is not completely clear in the book, although it gives a clue as to why “the private sector failed to respond.” Indeed, the entire Freedom Party episode, which the author ties to the failure of attempts to “democratize” the DP by “liberal” party members, developed out of the disillusionment of the urban bourgeoisie with the DP’s economic policies. This disenchantment was eventually to bring about the downfall of Premier Adnan Menderes and his party.

It is thus hardly fair to claim that the Democrats “were victims of their own naive economic philosophy, believing that growth was the same as development.” Their economic philosophy was in fact not at all naive, as evidenced by Celal Bayar’s statement: “A democratic economic policy may be defined as a system which is based on private property, which defends the economic freedom of the individual, and which considers private enterprise to be fundamental.” The DP had very consciously chosen the capitalist path. If they failed, it is at least partly because the process of introducing capitalism into the agricultural sector fell short of developing a capitalist economy as a whole, with capitalist industry as an equally privileged partner.

Undoubtedly there were also extraneous factors affecting the political developments in that period. A weakness of this work is the absence of a thorough analysis of Turkey’s position in the capitalist world. In the 1950s and the 1960s, Turkey’s position in the world economy was that of a large market for manufactured goods. Turkey never had a specialized commodity to export comparable, for instance, to Chile’s copper. Although some quantities of chromium and of wheat were exported, its export capacity remained insufficient. The government took numerous measures to attract foreign capital. In 1950, its economic program included “creating the conditions in which it would be possible to benefit as much as possible from foreign enterprise, capital and techniques and carrying out all that is necessary to accomplish this.” Bayar announced that “a speedier opening of our resources for production is necessary. This will become possible through the influence of foreign capital.” The concrete manifestations of this policy included the Law to Encourage Foreign Investment, which Menderes considered a “patriotic duty” to pass, since “no national economy has developed without foreign capital.” Yet capital flow into the country remained scanty, as the author points out but fails to explain. In fact, the policy of the advanced capitalist countries was entirely in keeping with Turkey’s position as a consumer market. It was only in the late 1960s and the 1970s that this position began to change, and that Turkey started on the way to becoming a producer. Still, in its striving to become the semi-peripheral country of the Middle East, it has had to compete with a strong rival, Iran. [6]

An additional factor was the relatively stable, autonomous bureaucratic tradition in the government, a lineage of the Ottoman state. In that respect, Turkey was unlike many Latin American countries where imperialist powers could easily meddle in state affairs and even occasionally overthrow rulers if necessary. This character, along with the numerous customs and tax regulations, rendered Turkey an unsuitable candidate to be entrusted with capital. [7] Ahmad closes the discussion of the economy under the DP with a sentence that precisely describes the dilemma of Turkey’s economy in 1979, 20 years later: “The economy was now in crisis. The lack of foreign exchange led to the drying up of almost all imports, and the lack of raw materials forced factories to operate at half their capacity.” The reader may draw his/her own conclusions.

Growth of the Bourgeoisie

The period following the May 27, 1960 coup, or the “Second Republic,” was the period of expansion of the Turkish bourgeoisie. The growth rate of industry reached 9 percent. [8] The internal contradictions within the bourgeoisie became more and more acute, as this class developed, particularly between small and monopoly capital. Once again, Ahmad is aware of all the facts, but an in-depth analysis is lacking. For instance, it is not stated explicitly enough that the Union of Chambers of Commerce represented to a large extent the small bourgeoisie, and as such was in perpetual conflict with Istanbul monopoly capital. The fact that the Union of Chambers opposed wage increases is significant for precisely this reason: while monopoly capital was essentially directed towards the production of internal market consumer goods (at least in the 1960s), and thus did not oppose wage increases because they had positive effects on the buying power of the internal market, the Adana textile export-oriented bourgeoisie (which had a strong influence in the Union of Chambers) strongly opposed such increases. [9] This struggle was also reflected in the fact that Necmettin Erbakan’s group, using its social base composed of small capitalists (known sometimes as “the Anatolian capital”), defeated Enver Sirri Batur and took over the Union of Chambers in 1969. Necmettin Erbakan later founded the National Order Party, which preached a fundamentalist Islamic philosophy and heavily relied on the Anatolian petty bourgeoisie for votes. After the 1971 coup, which Erbakan followed from safely distant Switzerland, and during which his party was outlawed, he founded the National Salvation Party which espoused a largely similar political line.

Cracks within the bourgeoisie started to appear in its major representative, the Justice Party (JP). Unlike its predecessor, the DP, the JP aligned with the industrial bourgeoisie. The foundation of the new Democratic Party in 1970 corresponded to the split of the agricultural bourgeoisie from the JP alliance. (Because it was legally impossible to use the name of an outlawed party, its founders named this party Demokratik Parti, rather than Demokrat Parti.) Such factionalism in the ruling classes eventually brought Turkey to March 12, 1971, and its second military intervention.

The author states rightly that “most observers failed to understand the character of the intervention.” But when he writes that “no one was immediately able to discern which faction in the armed forces had acquired control,” he is in danger of being unable to go beyond the confusion of the intelligentsia and liberal press which he criticizes. For neither the factions in the army, nor the frustration of the man in the street with the government’s incompetence and the continuous violence perpetrated by the urban guerrillas, can explain the significance of the military coup. Here, too, the material needed for analysis is available in the book. The author sets forth the dichotomy between “the business community” and “the largest entrepreneurs and industrialists,” but does not develop an analysis of the class character of the March 12 phenomenon. What actually happened was that the struggle between small and monopoly capital throughout the 1960s ended with the victory of the latter.

There are many indications of the role played by monopoly capital in the military intervention. Ahmad writes that

the government’s program of reform ran into strong opposition. The business community, except for the largest entrepreneurs and industrialists, still a small minority, considered the program a threat to their very existence. Raif Onger, president of the Union of Chambers of Turkey, claimed that the private sector was the guarantee of the country and its democracy. He stated that any attempt to remove this guarantee would shake the economy, destroy stability and damage the wellbeing of the nation…. The business community feared the growth of either monopoly capitalism in the hands of a few giant organizations or the re-emphasis on state capitalism; in either case they knew that they were threatened. The landowners were bitterly opposed to the government schemes for land reform and the tax on agricultural income. Together, the businessmen and the landowners provided formidable opposition to the government.

The last sentence referring to the landowners should be compared to a 1964 statement by Nejat Eczacıbaşı. As one of the representatives of the Istanbul monopoly bourgeoisie, he strongly advocated reforms in the agricultural sector:

Transformation of agriculture is the crucial problem in developing economies. If farming cannot be transformed, there can be no genuine revolution of economic growth…. There is no doubt, however, that as agricultural methods are thousands of years old, agriculture is the most difficult sector to change. Yet it seems to be a safe rule to put down for developing communities that if you do not change agriculture, you will not change the economy.

At this conjuncture, the terrorism/communist takeover scare was used to perpetrate numerous measures on the behalf of monopoly capital. Some preliminary studies indicate that while the rate of surplus value (exploitation rate) fell steadily during the 1960s and reached its lowest value of 234 percent in 1970, the trend was sharply reversed after 1971, and it reached 352 percent in 1975. [10] While these results must be interpreted without falling into the trap of mechanistic economic determinism or conspiracy theories, it represents more than sheer coincidence. Finally, the creation of OYAK, with its controlling interests in the Turkish Automotive Industry (International Harvester), an insurance company, food and cement factories, as well as lesser shares in Petkim (a petrochemical corporation), Renault and Goodyear, was clearly tantamount to integrating the army into a branch of big capital. (OYAK, the Army Mutual Assistance Association, founded in 1961, accumulates capital thanks to the requirement that all regular officers in the armed forces invest a full 10 percent of their salaries, to be reimbursed at a later date.) The “rapid expansion it has undergone within a few years,” wherein its assets grew by 1972 to $300 million, is a good indication of the economic dimension of the military intervention of 1971.

Right and Left

A study of Turkey after 1960 cannot be complete without a survey of the left and right wing political currents. Here, the book is weakest, for the author concentrates almost exclusively on government politics, ignoring for the most part both the growing movement of the left and the fascist reaction. The manifestation of the international contradictions of the bourgeoisie in the form of neo-fascism is intimately connected with the shift in Turkey’s position within world capitalism. The role of Türkeş’s NAP has been both to keep the fascist alternative open, and to check the development of the workers’ movement, which reached new heights after 1960. Describing Col. Alparslan Türkeş as “a man with fascist leanings” must surely be one of the major understatements of recent times! While it is true that the present dimensions of the fascist terror movement were not reached until the period of the Nationalist Front governments (1975-1978) and after, the NAP was already busy at work in the 1960s. Numerous student hostels were raided by its military branch, the Commando, and several leftist students were killed — some were hurled out of high windows, in a manner quite reminiscent of the German SA methods in the 1920s. The “Bloody Sunday” episode of 1969 was yet another example of organized fascist violence. [11]

Apart from brief references to the Turkish People’s Liberation Army and to the kidnapping and murder of the Israeli consul Ephraim Elrom (by the Liberation Front, not the Liberation Army), the book is conspicuously lacking in a discussion of left wing urban guerrilla movements which took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While these movements were not marginal, in the sense that support was relatively widespread, they never actually constituted a genuine danger to the state. The repeated claims by the army and later by the military courts to the effect that the guerrillas were undermining the regime were simply a tactic to rally popular support to crush the left. Despite their endeavors, however, the March 12 (1971) movement never truly became popular, as evidenced by the results of the elections of 1973 and the events that followed.

It is certainly fair to expect a minimal discussion of these issues in a book about Turkey and democracy. The same holds, of course, for the total suppression of all democratic and human rights in the years following the March 12 military coup. Not only were guerrillas killed and executed, but a general crackdown on the intelligentsia followed, resulting in the imprisonment and torture of politicians, students and labor leaders, as well as artists, writers, journalists and university faculty members. All this gets only passing references in the book, although they are well documented both in Turkey and in the West. [12]

The internal contradictions of the bourgeoisie were not the only reason for the 1971 intervention. The labor movement started to develop in the post-1960 liberalization: the Workers’ Party of Turkey (WPT) was founded in 1961, and the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions (CRWU) in 1967. The initial electoral performance of the WPT (3 percent of the votes and 15 out of 450 members of Parliament in 1965) renders the statement that they were never an electoral threat at least questionable. When one also considers that the WPT did not represent all the trade unions, radical students and workers, but that there were several organizations, legal or otherwise, that rallied the support of the left, it becomes clear that a trend was set. Perhaps one of the most important omissions is a discussion of the massive workers’ demonstrations in Istanbul and Kocaeli on June 15-16, 1970, organized to protest an attempt to amend the law governing unions (Law 274) so that only one union would be allowed to represent workers of each sector. [13] The aim had been to keep in check the CRWU which, though still a minority in several branches of production dominated by Türk-Iş (an establishment-oriented confederation of unions founded in 1952), was rapidly growing. The amendment was cancelled in February 1972, following legal appeals by the WPT and the RPP.

Since 1975, when the book leaves off, the political situation in Turkey has reached a crisis. We need mention only the First and Second Nationalist Front governments and their economic and educational policies, the infiltration of the fascist party into the state bureaucracy as well as the police and security forces, the fall of the Nationalist Front and the new RPP government headed by Bülent Ecevit, the organized fascist terror culminating in the massacre of Kahramanmaraş, the proclamation of martial law, and, most recently, the events in Iran and the renewed interest of Western powers in Turkey. Clearly there is a need for a similarly thorough analysis of this most recent period, one which would not suffer from the basic flaw of The Turkish Experiment in Democracy: the weakness of the theoretical framework. There is no conclusion chapter in the book, and the reader is forced to formulate his/her own conclusions. This is hindered by the organization of the text, which makes it relatively difficult to establish connections among disparate events and develop a firm understanding of the subject matter. Yet the book remains unique in its field, is highly readable, and is a very good source of information on the complex politics of Turkey in the years 1950-1975.


[1] Throughout this article, we refer to classes in their broadest definitions. While we recognize the importance of developing such categories within the context of time and place, it is clear that such a task cannot be accomplished within a short review article. However, the historical context of social classes in Turkey is implicit, for instance, in the replacement of the term “urban industrial bourgeoisie” used in discussing the 1960s by the terms “monopoly capital” and “small capital” used in reference to the 1970s.
[2] This research also led to a highly useful sourcebook published in Turkey, a chronology of the multi-party regime from 1945 to 1971. Feroz Ahmad and Bedia Turgay Ahmad, Türkiye‘de Cok Partili Politikanin Açıklamalı Kronolojisi (1945-1971) (Istanbul: Bilgi Yayinevi, 1976).
[3] A sect which traces its origins to the seventeenth-century false messiah, Sabettai Sevi. Although the Dönme had technically converted to Islam, some members have maintained crypto-Jewish practices. For more details, see the fascinating works of Gershom Scholem.
[4] Cağlar Keyder, “The Political Economy of Turkish Democracy,” New Left Review 115 (May-June 1979), p. 22.
[5] Ibid.
[6] For a thorough discussion, see Cağlar Keyder, Emperyalizm Azgelişmişlik ve Türkiye (Istanbul: Birikim Yayınlari, 1976). For an interesting account and comparison of the developments of Iran and Turkey, see Reşat Kasaba, “Türkiye ve(ya) Iran,” Toplam ve Bilim (Istanbul, 1978).
[7] Keyder, NLR, p. 24.
[8] Ibid., p. 27.
[9] Ibid.
[10] E. A. Tonak, work in progress.
[11] For an overview of recent political violence see Seyla Benhabib, “Right-Wing Groups Behind Political Violence in Turkey,” MERIP Reports 77 (May 1979).
[12] See, for instance, Jane Cousins, Turkey: Torture and Political Persecution (London: Pluto Press, 1973). Turhan Feyzioğlu was hard pressed to either deny or satisfactorily justify the torture and political imprisonments, when he appeared before the Council of Europe as the Turkish envoy.
[13] These events are only briefly mentioned on p. 202. For a discussion of the reasons and consequences of the demonstrations of June 15-16, see Turgan Arinir and Sirri Öztürk, Işçi Sınıfi, Sendikalar ve 15/16 Haziran (Istanbul: Sorun Yayinlari, 1976).

How to cite this article:

Ertugrul Ahmet Tonak, Irvin Cemil Schick "Turkish Politics and Class Struggle, 1950-1975," Middle East Report 84 (January 1980).

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This