“Turkishness contract” and Turkish left / Barış Ünlü

| September 27, 2017

Involvement of the Turkish left in the Kurdish issue has a long history stretching from 1920s to present. And this history is not one to be ashamed of. In fact, some periods and people in that history can be admired. While either a complete chauvinist attitude or at best a thick silence prevailed towards the Kurdish issue during other ideological phases of Turkish politics and intellectual realms such as Kemalism, Pan-Islamism, Center-Right, the Turkish left was able to display emancipatory and radical efforts at both an individual and collective level. On the individual level, the ones that first come to mind are Hikmet Kıvılcımlı’s statement in 1930s that “colonial methods [were] being used in Kurdistan”, works of İsmail Beşikçi, a young Turkish academic, on the Kurdish issue, which he started in the 1960s and continued in the following decades despite all the pressure, and İbrahim Kaypakkaya’s, one of the radical youth leaders in the 1970s, detachment from Kemalism and efforts to defend all usurped rights of the Kurdish people, including the right to determine their destiny.

 

In the context of a political movement, public demonstrations organised by the Turkish Labour Party in the Eastern provinces in 1967 are very significant for the Kurdish people. The issue’s ethnic dimension was brought up explicitly for the first time in the political field during those demonstrations (Twenty years later, Süleyman Demirel, the prime minister during the period 1965-1970 would say “those demonstrations created huge problems for Turkey”). The Liberation (Kurtuluş), which was one of the most radical left movements in the 1970s, supported the thesis put forth by the Kurds and Beşikçi that “Kurdistan [was] a colony”. Even the Social Democrat People’s Party’s (SHP) alliance with the Kurdish movement which only lasted for a couple of years in the early 1990s, can be cited as a history of democracy and an example of such alternative policies arising from the center left.

The cost of such individual and collective stances, some of which I mentioned herein, and the sides chosen, has been high. People were killed, alienated, seen as traitors and spent a significant part of their lives in prison; political parties were banned and political movements were criminalised. What I want to emphasize is that the history of the Turkish left, which is being subject to much justified and unjustified criticisms today, is in part a history of political and intellectual courage. To voice and do similar things is easier and less costly in a more democratic country, such as the USA or France. Such acts, however, bear great risks in a country like Turkey, which is oppressively right-wing, conservative and statist. In such an atmosphere, the Turkish left was able to bring about people and movements it should be proud of. There exists no other ideological-political movement in Turkey with a similar history.

Yet, the history of the Turkish left’s relationship with the Kurdish issue is also full of mistakes, shortcomings, blindness, deafness and distortions, which should be criticised. The instances I have mentioned above, which are positive examples in my view, remained as exceptions at the individual as well as the collective level. From 1920s until 1990s, the majority of the Turkish left organisations remained quiet in respect of the Kurdish issue. Some of them adapted a chauvinist attitude and some placed themselves on the side of the state. The left academy, on the other hand, wrote almost nothing about the Kurdish issue until 1990s, failed to support its few members, who indeed wrote about the Kurdish issue, and even sometimes had them silenced.1 Why has a significant portion of the Turkish left been indifferent, statist and sometimes openly chauvinist towards the Kurdish issue? This article will fundamentally seek answers to these questions. The use of the phrase Turkish left hereinafter instead of Turkey’s left is a conscious choice. The subject of criticism is the Turkish left, which has been unable to become Turkey’s left.

Barış Ünlü (Assoc. Prof.)  He completed his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in economics and political science at Ankara University, Faculty of Political Sciences and his PhD in sociology at SUNY Binghamton University. He is currently a lecturer at Ankara University, Faculty of Political Sciences. 

Kemalism, Marxism and the Kurdish issue

Having had a significant impact on the Turkish left on an ideological level and, more or less, pierced into vast majority of Turkish leftists, Kemalism is one the primary reasons. The Turkish left supported Kemalism’s modernising, centralist, nation-state and secularism project to a great extent and found Kemalism progressive, anti-imperialist and at times even anti-feudal. In that respect, for example, the tradition of Turkish Communist Party (TKP) and the left academy characterised the Şeyh (Sheikh) Said and Ağrı rebellions against the Republic of Turkey as reactionary, feudal and imperialist plots, and supported the state, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly.

Dersim incidents, which are called a rebellion but in fact are genocide, have been condemned to the same fate as well. Naturally, the Turkish left, which sided with the state during the critical and bloody phase of the Kurdish issue corresponding to the initial decades of the republican regime, was also involved in the historiography of these phases and, as a result, contributed to the enormous lack of knowledge and apathy prevailing in the Turkish public opinion. Turkish left has played an important part in relation to the effect and influence of the official ideology on the Turkish public opinion. To summarise, for the Turkish left, official Kemalist ideology has been a fetter, and to get rid of it is difficult and time consuming.

Marxism, the principal source of radical left, is another ideological influence, which has had negative effects on the Kurdish issue. Having placed the proletarian revolution as its actual political objective in the modern world, Marxism was not sufficiently interested in ethnic matters and nationalism of oppressed nations. Proletarian revolution depended on progress, modernisation, industrialisation and destruction of feudal relics. In this respect, for a long time, the Turkish Marxists perceived Kurdish rebellions as relics of feudalism, rusticity and tribal culture. At a time when a socialist revolution was expected or strived at, Kurdish issue emerged as a hindrance. As criticized in the 1980s by Hatice Yaşar, a notable figure of the Kurdish movement, “International solidarity would have demanded that these days not be so much delayed; however, under the official version, where socialism was interpreted as the advancement of productive forces, it was difficult for a communist to avoid the trap of sovereign state nationalism. Unfortunately, it was inevitable for Turkish socialists, who accepted official socialism as the ideology that would liberate the proletariat, to fall into the very same trap…”2

Having placed the proletarian revolution as its actual political objective, Marxism was not sufficiently interested in ethnic matters and nationalism of oppressed nations. Proletarian revolution depended on industrialisation and destruction of feudal relics. For a long time, the Turkish Marxists perceived Kurdish rebellions as relics of feudalism and tribal culture. At a time when a socialist revolution was expected or strived at, Kurdish issue emerged as a hindrance.

Moreover, Marxism possessed a unique orientalism, which it, however, received from the age it was born into and internalised. It is known that Marx viewed the British dominion in India as a positive element for the destruction of old structures that resisted change. A similar approach can also be observed in the orientalism of the Turkish Marxists’ view of Kurdistan. Turkish modernisation may have pursued ruthless methodsin Kurdistan; however, feudal and reactionary relics could not have been demolished otherwise. This was the idea.

Marxism and Kemalism – two ideologies that influenced the Turkish left deeply– almost cooperated and were complimentary in shaping of approaches to the Kurdish issue. It must be related to the blindness caused by Kemalism and Marxism that there was almost no mention of Kurds in revolution strategies propounded by the Turkish socialists in 1960s and the social structure analysis built thereon. In conclusion, the revolutionary potential in Kurdistan was mainly disregarded.3

In addition to the skewed perceptions and blindness that these two ideological effects revealed, the close relations between the Republic of Turkey and the USSR, the two countries that embodied Kemalism and Marxism as official ideologies, respectively, were also important and made a negative impact on the Kurdish issue. The USSR, which was in close relations with Turkey from time to time, almost always perceived Turkey as a strategic neighbour that should not be mistreated, supported Turkey against the Kurds. This support directly reflected on the tradition of TKP as one of the major institutions of the Turkish left. As long as the USSR supported the Turkish state, TKP supported the Turkish state as well. Or at least it was not able to take the stance it should have taken. Had the USSR sided with the Kurds, probably TKP would have done the same. Besides the above criticisms of Marxism, the Lenin-led nations’ right to determine their own destiny in particular and the notion of nationalism of oppressed nations within Marxism required such an attitude. However, as I have empasized, the positions taken by the USSR may have caused Turkish leftists to adopt the weaker and controversial aspects of Marxism.

Different attitudes adopted by so called socialist countries, in general, and by the USSR, in particular, towards ethnic/racial issues in different countries were so significant that this situation caused completely opposite communist traditions to emerge. In that respect, it may be instructive to compare the communist traditions in Turkey and South Africa briefly. During the 1920s, when the USSR decided to support Turkish government against the Kurds, it also decided to support the black population and the movements against the white dominance in South Africa, and it infused this attitude into the South African Communist Party (SACP). As a result, from 1950s until 1994, the SACP, founded by white people, and the African National Congress (ANC) fought against apartheid and faced the consequences together as allies.4 From 1994 to date, their partnership in the government has continued under a coalition.

Why did the USSR take two different positions in two countries?

  • The first reason was the significance of Turkey for the USSR. The USSR did not wish to antagonize a country which is so close and powerful. Such a strategic reason did not exist in relation to the southernmost part of the African continent.
  • The second reason was the fact that black population was the majority in South Africa, whereas the Kurds were a minority in Turkey. The majority would be expected to come into power sooner or later. Thus supporting the majority is pragmatic; whereas supporting the minority is not because their fate is uncertain.

Whatever the underlying reason may be, these two different positions taken by the USSR contributed to the formation of two very different communist traditions in Turkey and South Africa in relation to oppressed nation nationalism and racism. For this reason, in the beginning of 1990s, when the Soviet Bloc collapsed, TKP had a low-prestige in Turkey and the world, whereas SACP’s prestige was very high.

Today, in 2012, the majority of the Turkish left is severing and attempting to sever its ties with Kemalism. The effect of major blows to the official ideology suffered in recent years has played a big part in this. As a system of thought, Marxism has freed itself from the hindrance created by socialism (as practiced in the twentieth century), in other words, having the status of being the official ideology of socialist states, that has prevented it from developing and liberalising. Therefore, today, Marxism is much more emancipatory, much less statist and orientalist and much more sensitive to ethnic issues. In parallel with these developments, today the Turkish left is able to approach to the Kurdish issue in a more emancipatory and egalitarian manner.

However, the Turkish left’s problematic history with respect to the Kurdish issue is not only related to Kemalism, Marxism and state socialism. Today a major part of the problem is constituted by the bundle of privileges, ideas, reflexes and emotions, which are never questioned by the Turks and which is what I call “Turkishness”. In Turkey, the left was born Turkish because of its Turkishness. It remained as the Turkish left and was not able to become Turkey’s left or just left. In Turkey, social sciences were born as Turkish social sciences and remained as such. In the remainder of the article, I will try to expand on what I mean by Turkishness and how Turkishness has shaped the Turkish left and left academy a Turkish problem.

Turkishness and the Turkish issue

Turkish leftists do not see and wish to see themselves as Turkish. They see and wish to see themselves as internationalist, socialist and Marxist. When ethnicity and identity politics are mentioned, they think of Kurds and other minorities. They cannot see that they themselves fall under an ethnicity, they are a part of the majority and, by virtue of this affiliation, how privileged they are, how limited and distorted their knowledge is and how impoverished and monotonous their feelings are. In other words, they cannot relativise their knowledge, feelings and privileges; deconstruct them and decipher their relations to their own Turkishness. To the extent they cannot realise their Turkishness, they cannot properly perceive and feel the Kurdishness of others. As long as they cannot see the privileges of being Turkish, they cannot properly understand the numerous disadvantages of being Kurdish. They cannot genuinely empathise with Kurdish people. Due to their failure to recognise their identity, they criticise others for pursuing identity politics. Turkish leftists have been a part of the Turkish issue to the extent they have been unable to realise their Turkishness and sufficiently contribute to the resolution of the Kurdish problem.

Turkishness of a Turkish leftist is, undoubtedly, not the same as the Turkishness of a Turkish. The Republic of Turkey was founded on the Turkishness contract.

  • The first condition of the contract was to be Turkish and/or become Turkish.
  • The second condition was not to speak of or write about the purge of non-Muslims from Anatolia and seizure of their wealth.
  • The third condition was not to write and pursue politics with regard to other Muslim groups, who could resist against Turkification.

These were the principal articles of Turkey’s unwritten constitution. nationalist or Islamist. However, this does not mean that leftists do not have Turkishness. While the rigid Turkishness of a Turkish nationalist can be easily discerned and is palpable, Turkishness of a Turkish leftist is like vapour: it is hard to discern and grab. Turkishness has taken on unique forms within the left. However, although Turkishness of the left and the right has taken on different forms, these two separate states of Turkishness share the same origin.

The Republic of Turkey was founded on a metaphoric contract I call “Turkishness contract”. According to this contract, those who have Turkish as their first language and been subject to Turkification (Circassian, Laz, Kurdish, Arab, Bosnian people etc.) would benefit from this agreement and potentially would be able to climb the ladder in politics, business, bureaucracy, academics and art.

  • The first condition of the contract was to be Turkish and/or become Turkish.
  • The second condition was not to speak of or write about the purge of non-Muslims –on whom the contract rose– from Anatolia and seizure of their wealth.
  • The third condition was not to write and pursue politics with regard to other Muslim groups, who could resist against Turkification.

These were the principal articles of Turkey’s unwritten constitution, and any proposal for amending them was out of the question. Each and every Turk and Turkified individual may not have actively singed this metaphoric contract. However, as per the contract, every individual can benefit from it even if he/she is not a signatory.6

The critical point was not to resist and breach the contract. Those who were in breach were to be severely sanctioned. Sanction could take the form of killing, torture, dismissal, unemployment and exclusion. On the other hand, those who actively supported and/or passively accepted the contract would be the actual or potential beneficiaries of various opportunities. They could be, and have become, bourgeois, judges, teachers, professors, ministers, workers, governors, musicians etc. The material basis of Turkishness was constituted by this metaphoric contract and the set of privileges offered to the contracting parties.

Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, the Kurds resisted to this contract. Naturally, Kurds, who rejected Turkification, and the handful of Turks who supported the Kurds, were sanctioned severely in various forms. Majority of the leftists, whom one would expect to support these groups in their cause, turned their backs or directly supported the state’s policies. Most of the time they asserted this attitude was a requirement of Marxism, internationalism and progressivism, because identity struggles were diversions from the socialist goal. The Kurdish issue was not important; it was an imperialist plot, a reactionist movement, which divided the proletariat into ethnic groups. While they were saying this or, as is usually the case, saying nothing relating to the issue, they actually perceived themselves as internationalists and progressives.

Turkish and Kurdish leftists live in two different emotional worlds. There are significant differences between the emotions of a typical Turkish leftist and a Kurdish leftist towards, for instance, Atatürk, Independence War, Sheik Said, Kurdish guerrillas, Abdullah Öcalan etc. For Turks, empathising with a Palestinian child throwing a stone is easier than empathising with a Kurdish child doing the same. He does not know what to feel against the Kurdish guerrilla, who fights against his own state, while he feels sympathy towards a guerrilla, who fights against a state far away.

They convinced themselves to believe this, because they had to believe it. If they did not believe it and resisted against the Turkishness contract and supported the Kurdish resistance, they knew, as per the Turkishness contract, the severity of the sanctions in return for such support. They could lose their lives, be dismissed from their jobs and/or ostracised by their close friends and relatives including their families. To avoid being subject to such sanctions and retain their privileges, they found theoretical justifications and dodged certain truths. However, their denial was not a conscious, but an unconscious one. The conscious denier should face his cowardice. For denial to be real, it must leave behind a feeling of shame. For this reason, it is imperative to realise the denial unconsciously. And at that point Marxism and internationalism were used as avoidance tools.

Instead of embarking on a concrete internationalism in connection with Kurds, an abstract internationalism has always been the safer choice. Organizing (pure) Turkish literature events, criticising those who speak Kurdish in courts and parliament for nationalism, writing about the plots of American imperialism in Turkey, while all kinds of cruelty is being endured in Kurdistan; asserting justifications such as “Marxists are against the state, why should we support foundation of a new state, what good will this do anyway, it will also become USA’s toy”… These were not only Turkish leftists. For a long time, Kurdish leftists did not speak Kurdish in and out of courts or give Kurdish names to their children. They explained their behaviour with justifications such as “we are not nationalists, we are internationalists”. Either Turkish or Kurdish, in this way they escaped from the truth as well as deceiving themselves and others. Turkishness and the Turkishness contract, Turkified a significant portion of the left in this way: by inducing them to deny the requirements of the Kurdish issue.

Turkishness is a set of knowledge as much as it is a bundle of privileges. Until recent years, it was not possible to find any serious piece of knowledge in the Turkish left’s sphere of knowledge in relation to the Kurdish issue. To test the veracity of this assertion, one may check the number of serious works undertaken and published by Turkish leftists in relation to the Kurdish issue. They did not just fail to undertake such works, but also failed to take seriously or ignored those who actually undertook such works. It is also possible to verify this assertion by checking the writings and speeches of all significant Turkish social scientists, in particular those who had completed their progress prior to the late 1990s.

However, this lack of knowledge is not passive as put forth in studies on whites in the USA in relation to white intellectuals.7 The state of unknowing did not come about due to the lack of knowledge but failure to inform oneself. Because knowledge confers responsibility on the individual in relation to the thing he/she knows. If you know, you have to carry out what is required by that knowledge, which in turn has a price. To avoid this, one should not know and should ignore the knowledge and not take the creators of knowledge seriously. However, when you do this, you must do it without compromising your self-respect.

At that point, mechanisms pushed out of the consciousness come into play. When determining the areas he would like to gain knowledge on, the leftist individual does not find the events occurring in Kurdistan significant. Topics such as squatting, phases of capitalism, Turkey’s half-colonial condition and different aspects and thinkers of Marxism are on top of the leftist’s list. The most devastating issue of the country, which caused the deaths of ten thousands of people for hundred years, was not able to enter the knowledge repertoire or sphere of interest of either leftist academics, or Turkish leftists in general, for a long time. Turkishness and the Turkishness contract determined the knowledge repertoire of the Turkish left.

Along with the bundle of privileges and knowledge repertoire comes the emotional repertoire. Emotions develop and change through socialising and knowledge. Emotions can be taught and learned. In that respect, Turkish and Kurdish leftists live in two different emotional worlds. There are significant differences between the emotions of a typical Turkish leftist and a Kurdish leftist towards, for instance, Atatürk, Independence War, Sheik Said, Kurdish guerrillas, Abdullah Öcalan etc. They approach the same notion from different perspectives and with different emotions. Turkish leftists find it very hard to empathise with their Kurdish equals with regard to problems and emotions of Kurdish people, the things they like and do not like. For Turks, empathising with a Palestinian child throwing a stone is easier than empathising with a Kurdish child doing the same. He does not know what to feel against the Kurdish guerrilla, who fights against his own state in a nearby territory, while he feels sympathy towards a guerrilla, who fights against a state far away. Another measure of Turkishness is what is in and what is not in the emotional repertoire.

In fact, there is nothing suprising in all of this. Protection of the bundle of privileges may be seen as natural and indicate to the poorness and weakness of the emotional repertoire. For decades, the state, school, military, media, family, vocational communities that the individual is related to impose various information and emotions on Turks and those who have been subject to Turkification. When the individual attempts to act beyond the contract, he loses his privileges and is ostracised. The suprising thing is that the Turkish leftist does not reflect on why he/she feels this way and not that way, why he/she knows this and not know that, why he/she is interested in this issue and not that issue. The interesting thing is that Turkish Marxists have the idea that their thoughts on one issue relate solely to Marxism and that it has not occurred to them that their thoughts and emotions may have been clouded by Turkishness. What calls for criticism is the failure to see that instead of being a part of the bundle of privileges, knowledge universe and emotional world pertaining to Turkishness, they have been a part and occasionally the re-creator of that world. And this, I think, is a major reason behind the lack of creativity in Turkey’s intellectual sphere. Turkishness continues its existence as an invisible wall on the path of free thought and emotional richness.

Marxism’s liberation from the formality of socialism in the last twenty years and the fact that Kemalism is collapsing as an official ideology, liberalised the Turkish left and academy significantly. Now, the Turkish left approaches the Kurdish issue with more knowledge and emotion. However, collapse of Kemalism and the existing forms of socialism does not mean that Turkishness, internalised by the Turkish left, will automatically vanish.

As I emphasized in the first part of this article, Marxism’s liberation from the formality of socialism (as practiced in the pre-1989 era) in the last twenty years and the fact that Kemalism is collapsing as an official ideology, liberalised the Turkish left and academy significantly. Now, the Turkish left approaches the Kurdish issue with more knowledge and emotion. However, collapse of Kemalism and the existing forms of socialism does not mean that Turkishness, internalised by the Turkish left, will automatically vanish. This is because Turkishness is to a great extent a subconscious existence form. It is the certain states of seeing, hearing, feeling, knowing and not seeing, not hearing, not feeling and not knowing. Turkishness keeps itself alive with seemingly passive apathy, lack of emotion, knowledge and action. Realising the notion of Turkishness requires recognising the subconscious or semi-conscious mechanisms underlying the lack of knowledge and emotion, apathy and inaction, determining which thoughts are real and which ones are just reflexes and deciphering this entire structure. Only when these are accomplished, may the Turkish left cease to be Turkish and become Turkey’s left or just left. And, in the same way, the educated may become intellectual, the Turkish academy may become university in the genuine sense.

 

Footnotes

  1. For critical commentary on the history of the relationship between the Kurdish issue and Turkish left see: Sever, Metin (1992): Kurdish Issue: What do our Intellectuals Think? İstanbul: Cem Publishing.
  2. Yaşar, Hatice (1988): “Turkish Socialists’ Attitude Towards Kurdish National Issue”, Encyclopedia of Socialism and Social Struggles, v. 7, İstanbul: İletişim Publishing, p. 2114-15.
  3. For a highly useful collection of works on the ideological sources of the Turkish left and its relationship with the Kurdish issue see Gültekingil, Murat, ed. (2007): Political Thought in Modern Turkey: SOL, v. 8, İstanbul: İletişim Publishing.
  4. : Ellis, S./Sechaba, T. (1992): Comrades against Apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile, London: James Currey.
  5. I attempted to analyse the issue of Turkishness in more detail and comparatively in my following article: Ünlü, Barış (2012): Short History of Turkishness, Birikim, 274, p. 23-34.
  6. Here, I took inspiration from Charles Mills, who states that the USA was founded on a racial contract and every white, whether signatory or not, benefits from this contract. See: Mills, Charles W. (1997): The Racial Contract, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  7. For example, see: Sullivan, S./Tauna, N., eds. (2007): Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, Albany: SUNY Press.

 

Source: www.boell.de

 

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Category: Deneme, Deneme, Köşe Yazıları, Köşe Yazıları, Toplum

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