Turkey and the Tactic of the Military Bloc
—Adaire Hannah and Barbara Dorn, 27 March 2017;
with interpolated comments by Tom Riley, 3 April 2017
Breitman and Riley’s document, “On Erdogan’s Bonapartist Regime,” begins with a quote from “Turkey: A War of Two Coups” by Sungur Savan, which concludes as follows:
“…the outcome of the 15 July episode was not democracy defeating despotism, but the victory of the more gradualist despotism in the face of a more abrupt repression of all democratic forms.”
“As opposed to the immediate ending of any semblance of democracy that the coup represented, Erdoğan’s is a long-drawn-out strategy of infusing extremely anti-democratic substance into seemingly formal democratic structures. “
This poses a strong argument for a position of a military bloc with those forces (including those commanded by Erdogan himself) opposed to the 15 July 2016 military coup – that is, blocking with a “more gradualist despotism” against “more abrupt repression” to buy time for the working class. It is usual in a military conflict over governmental power for revolutionaries to give military support to the more gradualist enemy against those that pose a more immediate threat to the interests of the working class. Unfortunately, despite their use of this quote, HaPe and Tom are not arguing for this position and instead see no important difference between immediate dictatorship and the prospect of one.
This entirely misses the point. The “gradualist” introduction of Erdogan’s despotism had been underway for well over a decade. Savran describes the process (the key elements of which HaPe and I sketched in our document) as “a long-drawn-out strategy of infusing extremely anti-democratic substance into seemingly formal democratic structures.” In a qualitative sense the gutting of democratic restraints on Erdogan was already an accomplished fact prior to the coup. This was demonstrated conclusively when the unsatisfactory June 2015 election result was overturned and Erdogan unleashed a campaign of violence and intimidation by fascists, state agencies and the AKP’s two million Ottoman Hearth thugs (who performed the same functions as Hitler’s SA and Khomeini’s Hezbollah) prior to the November 2015 re-vote. This is all well documented:
“the Kurds’ defiance of Erdogan at the ballot box [in the June 2015 election] was met with a terrible vengeance. As nationalist mobs freely attacked Kurdish workers and businesses in the west of the country and suicide attacks killed young Kurds and socialists, paramilitary police units descended upon besieged Kurdish towns with tactics and brutality all too reminiscent of the 1990s. For some Kurds –mainly conservative Sunnis, tribal leaders and/or business owners –who abandoned the AKP in June to protest Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish stance since Kobane by pushing the HDP over the threshold, this seems to have been too high a price to pay. In the re-run election, about a million HDP voters either returned to the AKP or did not show up at the polling booth at all.”
This was only possible because for years the AKP had incrementally sapped the democratic mechanisms which it had used to assume governmental power through purging and recomposing key personnel in Turkey’s military, media, judiciary and civil administration. We outlined how this process unfolded in “On Erdogan’s Bonapartist Regime.”
Erdogan was elected to power through the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy but, as those comrades opposed to a military bloc against the putsch correctly say, he was no “democrat”. <The incrementalism of Erdogan and the AKP distinguished them from the Khomeinites, who displaced the shah’s regime in dramatic fashion. Even then it took a couple of years for Khomeini (who from the outset enjoyed a lot more popular support than the AKP) to finally consolidate a fully theocratic regime and eliminate all legal “infidel” opposition. This had been their objective from the beginning, just as it has been the Turkish AKP’s and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.> There is no valid basis, however, to argue that there was no bourgeois democracy worth defending on 15 July 2016. Erdogan has been chipping away at the bourgeois democratic structures, but he has had to move very carefully to extend his powers through parliament and referenda. As Josh put it in a previous contribution, Erdogan is “resting on (an attenuated form of) democracy”.
After successfully purging the officer corps, the security apparatus, the judiciary and the civil service, there was no effective restraint on Erdogan, whose bonapartist rule had little more than a democratic fig-leaf. Had democracy not already been so thoroughly “attenuated,” the Ottoman Hearths and their fascist allies would not have enjoyed the assistance, covert and overt, of the state apparatus in terrorizing the AKP’s opponents prior to the November 2015 election. If there was any meaningful “bourgeois democracy worth defending,” the victims of the brazen attacks by the AKP thugs and their allies in the state security services would have had some form of legal redress. But they did not; attempts to complain would only invite persecution:
“We can now speak of a regime in Turkey that is fully committed to establishing a governance structure, where all agencies of the state are expected to serve the will of the president without question. From this we can expect no prosecutor to file a lawsuit questioning the validity of the election results, even in the face of good evidence which may come out in due course. We are also unlikely to witness any court which would accept to hear the case. Any such accusation questioning the outcome of the election would be branded as an unacceptable repudiation of the ‘national will’ that was delivered at the ballot box, and the persons pursuing the case severely punished.”
—http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sinan-ciddi/the-end-of-turkeys-experiment-with-democracy_b_8575748.html , [16 November 2015, emphasis added]
It is indisputable that since the coup we have seen a phenomenal number of arrests and suspensions of trade unionists, teachers, academics, journalists, judges, prosecutors, military and dissidents. And yet there has continued to be opposition shown to Erdogan and the AKP. Despite repression, opposition parties existed and continue to exist after the coup, indicating that Turkey is not yet ruled by a completely autocratic dictatorship. <Erdogan’s autocratic dictatorship is qualitatively similar to Pilsudski’s in Poland during the 1930s—both regimes permitted opposition parties to operate.> Erdogan clamped down on the media after the 2013 mass protests, and his attacks on his critics intensified after the 2014 Taksim Square demonstration. But this did not stop organised opposition to Erdogan’s increasingly repressive actions. While the 2015 elections ended the possibility of rapprochement with the Kurds, the HDP held 59 of the 559 parliamentary seats and remain in parliament even after the rerun election, although many of their MPs face severe legal threats and some are in jail. This paints a very mixed picture of the state of “democracy” in Turkey.
The picture painted is the same as that of Pilsudski’s Poland where elections were held regularly and some opponents of the regime were always elected. Under Pilsudski, as under Erdogan, when the parliamentary opposition became too troublesome some of the dissident deputies were sent to jail on trumped-up charges. This is not a “mixed picture” of bourgeois democracy, it is bonapartism with a democratic fig leaf.
HaPe and Tom’s document provides some interesting material on the history of military coups in Turkey, pointing out that different coups take different forms and can occasionally result in more democracy than the regime they replace. The comrades are not, of course, arguing for support to the coup, but rather that the situation was already lost for bourgeois democracy whichever side prevailed. <One of the most important points in our document is that Turkey’s ruling elites, which has always ruled in a more or less bonapartist fashion, have, for more than a century, been deeply split: on the one hand, a secular Kemalist establishment, centered on a modernizing officer corps, and on the other a reactionary, traditionalist Islamist opposition.> This is ignoring the status quo on the night of 15 July as the battle for power in Turkey was played out over approximately six hours. Erdogan was in the contradictory situation of resting on the nominal structures of bourgeois democracy that elected him but which he was trying to destroy. <Erdogan’s situation was not contradictory—he had already effectively gutted all “democratic” restraints. What he “rested on” was not the “nominal structures of bourgeois democracy” but rather his control of the repressive apparatus, his mass Islamist popular base and the ability of his Ottoman Hearth thugs to crush potential opposition. Erdogan’s dominance, while still not absolute, has doubtless been further enhanced by the post-coup jailing of tens of thousands of the regime’s opponents, the banning of 19 trade unions and the imposition of an indefinite state of emergency.> In his “Comments on M’s 7 Points on the Turkish coup” [18 October 2016] Tom says:
“I think that if it can be shown that the coup was aimed at the interests of the working class (as for example Pinochet’s and Franco’s was) then we have a side in defending militarily the lesser evil bourgeois regime. … to have a side it is necessary to show that there was a qualitative distinction.”
In her document of 11 December 2016 Roxie says:
“This was a struggle between two elements of the bourgeoisie. The coupists were not directing themselves primarily against the WC, and there was no working class power to direct against anyway.”
A military coup, by definition, is naked power or violence alone – it may be murderous and cruel or even relatively benevolent, but there is no pretence that power comes from anywhere else than the barrel of a gun. The elements of bourgeois democracy still apparent in Turkey in July – parliament, opposition parties, freedom of assembly, however restricted they were – are of vital importance to the working class because they permit organisation in defence of working-class interests. From a class standpoint, there is no difference between Erdogan and the military. <Let’s not lose sight of the fact that a large section of the military, including virtually the entire top command, sided with Erdogan. This is hardly surprising as he has aggressively sought to purge Kemalists and appoint officers sympathetic to AKP/Islamist rule.> But from the standpoint of the working class’s ability to organise itself, there is indeed a qualitative difference, and that is why we had a side. <There is no qualitative difference between the Gulenist-Kemalist wing of the military which launched the coup and the AKP-MHP wing which opposed, and ultimately defeated, it. The massive thuggery employed to rig the November 2015 election conclusively demonstrated that bourgeois democracy under Erdogan is essentially a façade. That event revealed a post-democratic bonapartist autocracy still in the process of consolidation—something that Marxists cannot defend or militarily bloc with.> Disputes between bourgeois forces are always about who is going to exploit the working class. And the weakness of working-class organisation at any point in time is no argument for failing to fight a force that will weaken us further. <Whether the working class is weak or strong there is never any reason to take up arms to defend “a force that weakens us further,” as of course Erdogan proceeded to by banning unions etc., as soon as he won.>
What is a military bloc?
In 1917 #11 p 9 we wrote: “The working class must defend democratic liberties in capitalist society against all attempts to curtail or suspend them.” Christoph also expressed this well in his 18 December 2016 response to Roxie:
“If the military launches a coup against the existing government it does not do so in order to boost the rule of parliament. The generals strike in order to shatter the democratic framework, and often the working class organizations with it.”
The working class therefore had a side to defeat the coupists and then turn their forces against Erdogan. The call for a military bloc against the coupists was essential to give the working class the space to intervene as an independent force. By acting independently, the working class would have provided leadership to gather the oppressed within its fold.
Barbara followed up on Christoph’s email on 6 January 2017 with the following points:
“I understand that comrades are cautious about taking sides in a clear intra-bourgeois struggle but when the immediate interests of the working class and our ability to organise are threatened, it is necessary to do so. We are always clear that this does not imply any political support for the forces we are blocking with. We don’t say Erdogan has a commitment to democracy but that his objective situation made it difficult to dismantle democratic structures. <This is refuted by the ease with which the regime reversed the result of the June 2015 election. Erdogan has openly admitted that, contrary to the constitution, he has already been ruling on the basis of personal decrees. His constitutional amendment is designed to legalize this fait accompli, (cited in “On Erdogan’s Bonapartist Regime.” )> We didn’t argue that Yanavev was committed to the maintenance of the Soviet Union, just that his material interests coincided with it. We didn’t argue that Kerensky was more committed to the revolution than Kornilov, just that at that point he was less of a threat to it. We didn’t argue that Allende had the way forward for the Chilean working class.”
Erdogan has always been committed to the imposition of Islamist rule and Sharia law, not to the preservation of bourgeois democracy. He famously described democracy as a “train” from which you alight once you get to your station. He has reached his. His program is and always has been the establishment of an Islamist theocracy. This is why we do not defend his reactionary regime against the Kemalist-Gulenist opposition. The Marxist orientation of the iSt in Iran in 1979 – “Down with the shah, Down with the mullahs”- is entirely appropriate for Turkey in July 2016. A pox on both reactionary houses. It does not matter who is in power, or who starts the confrontation, or whether there is a 97% endorsement for an Islamic Republic – Marxists oppose the rule of would-be Islamist theocrats just as much as we oppose military rule.
After the Kornilov affair, this is how Lenin described the military bloc with Kerensky he had advocated:
“Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing Line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.
“We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference. It is rather a subtle difference, but it is highly essential and must not be forgotten.
“What, then, constitutes our change of tactics after the Kornilov revolt?
“We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now. We shall approach the task of fighting against him in a different way, namely, we shall point out to the people (who are fighting against Kornilov) Kerensky’s weakness and vacillation.”
—“To the Central Committee of the R.S.D.L.P.”, 30 August 1917
In this debate, every analogy that has been raised by either side has been dismissed by the other side as not relevant and it is true that no comparison is perfect. It is, however, useful to examine cases where we advocated a military bloc and why we did so – always because there was something to defend, though in many cases that something can merely be the buying of time for the working class. The military bloc with Kerensky against Kornilov is the classic example from which we derive our military bloc understanding. While the circumstances of Russia 1917 and Turkey 2016 were undeniably different, this classic case provides a model because it shows that although Kerensky was no democrat and no revolutionary and ultimately had to be dealt with, it was necessary to bloc with him against a more immediate threat.
Kerensky imprisoned opponents such as Trotsky and Kamenev, forced Lenin and Zinoviev into hiding, suppressed Pravda, reinstated the order in the army and the death penalty, arrested agitators and appointed Kornilov as head of the armed forces. Trotsky and Sukhanov described him as follows:
““Kerensky needed an energetic pressure upon him from the right, from the capitalist cliques, the Allied embassies, and especially from headquarters [ie the military],” wrote Trotsky early in September, “in order to enable him to get his own hands absolutely free. Kerensky wanted to use the revolt of the generals in order to reinforce his own dictatorship.””
—P190, Vol 2, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution
“Sukhanov rightly says of Kerensky: “He was a Kornilovist—only on the condition that he himself should stand at the head of the Kornilovists.””
—P189, Vol 2, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution
In blocking with Kerensky against Kornilov the Bolsheviks successfully defended the organizations of the left and working class against counterrevolutionary repression. The victory of Erdogan over his bourgeois rivals, conversely, resulted in the immediate abolition of 19 trade unions and the jailing and purging of tens of thousands of the regime’s political opponents. The victory of the coupists would likely have had an essentially similar result (although Erdogan’s supporters, rather than his detractors, would have been jailed). In Russia 1917 there was a qualitative difference between the two sides as regards the capacity of the workers movement to organize; in Turkey 2016 there was no difference. The two situations cannot be equated.
Another classic military bloc that defines our organisation was when in 1991, after an internal fight, we called for military support to the forces behind Yanayev against Yeltsin. We recognised that both were for the restoration of capitalism in the USSR, but Yanavev in charge would have delayed this reinstatement and this would have given the workers space to mobilise in defence of proletarian property forms. We argued:
“A military bloc with the coupists against Yeltsin was not counterposed to the struggle for soviet democracy. Just as Lenin’s bloc with Kerensky against Kornilov in August 1917 prepared the overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government, a struggle against Yeltsin in which independent working-class formations pointed their guns the same way as the coupists would have strengthened the forces favoring political revolution, and blocked efforts by Yanayev, Pugo et al to resurrect their system of political repression.”
—“Soviet Rubicon & the Left”, 1917, No. 11, p13
The argument we make here is that a serious bloc with Yanavev would lay the ground to defeat Yanayev through the organisation of forces in his defence that were ultimately hostile to him, just as the Bolsheviks’ bloc with Kerensky set the stage for them to defeat him a few months later.
In defending/blocking with Yanayev against Yeltsin we were defending the incompetent Stalinist CPSU hardliners who sought to prolong the status quo (i.e., maintain the Soviet degenerated workers state) against the forces of open counterrevolution. To bloc with Erdogan against his Gulenist-CHP rivals is to side with one counterrevolutionary gang against another.
That no working-class forces were independently mobilised to oppose the immediate threat of the coup in Turkey allowed the AKP to assume leadership of the anti-coup movement and pose as democrats. <There was no “anti-coup movement”—there were two gangs of counterrevolutionaries locked in combat. Everyone who participated understood that there was a binary option—a continuation of Erdogan’s regime or its replacement by the Kemalist-Gulenist coupsters.> Had a revolutionary party intervened independently of the AKP but in a bloc with it, it would then be well placed to oppose Erdogan taking advantage of the coup to further his dictatorial aims. <Had a revolutionary party sided with Erdogan in this confrontation it would have discredited itself with the masses, as the Polish Communist Party did when it initially backed Pilsudski’s 1926 coup.>
HaPe and Tom are absolutely right that by July 2016 Erdogan was well on the way to building a dictatorship and has intensified that process since the coup. Their instincts to thoroughly oppose this are well founded. Where they err is to argue that Erdogan’s planned destruction of the structures of bourgeois democracy was already complete, and by doing so they reject the best tactical approach to reversing that process.
Do the comrades consider the November 2015 election to have been a legitimate (if attenuated) exercise in bourgeois democracy? If so, surely the same could be said of the 5 March 1933 elections in Germany (called by Hitler after his elevation to Chancellor)? In that contest candidates of both the KPD and SPD, as well as various other parties, were elected. Formal constitutional niceties were observed in both these cases (as they also were in the elections conducted by Pilsudki and, in the early period at least, by Khomeini). To dismiss the massive thuggery of Erdogan’s Ottoman Hearths as a mere “attenuation” of a democratic process, rather than a qualitative rupture with anything resembling one, is to abandon all sense of proportion.
Tom, in his document “Comment on M’s 7 points on the Turkish coup” says “The question is, should we defend Erdogan’s government, the coups target.” This is the wrong question. We have never called for the defence of Erdogan’s government, which implies political support. <In fact, as we have often explained to the CPGB among others, military defense does not imply political support. It merely means that the working class has something at stake in the victory of one side over the other.> We argue for the necessity of turning the guns on Erdogan after the defeat of the coupists. As well as calling for workers’ defence guards to stop the coup, during the coup and intensifying afterwards our slogans would have included: Stop AKP attacks on democratic rights! Defence guards to stop AKP/fascist attacks on workers/Kurds! For freedom of the press! Release all working-class political prisoners! For a workers’ government!
Pilsudski, Erdogan and Referenda
HaPe and Tom argue that the “2015 elections demonstrated that Erdogan’s regime had moved from the authoritarian edge of the bourgeois democratic spectrum, to something qualitatively similar to Pilsudski’s in Poland in the 1920s and ‘30”. They cite Trotsky describing Pilsudski as somewhere between Bonapartism and fascism and comparing him with contemporaries Hitler and Mussolini, rising to power on the back of a petty-bourgeois movement, but unlike them not strong enough to consolidate a fascist regime. Do HaPe and Tom really consider that Erdogan is that close to fascism? <Erdogan’s regime circa 2016 was equivalent to Pilsudski’s in 1926. Both were bonapartist dictatorships with democratic facades. Under Khomeini in 1979 there was far more democratic space than under either Pilsudski in the 1930s or Erdogan today. But that makes no difference, because we are opposed to Islamist reaction in principle, just as we oppose military dictatorship.> That Erdogan was not fully a Bonaparte in July, or even now, is illustrated by the forthcoming 16 April referendum in which he needs a yes vote to consolidate his power, demonstrated by his desperate efforts to seek support from the European Turkish diaspora, souring relations with EU powers in the process.
In fact, a victory in the referendum will only legitimate the status quo, as the Economist observed more than a year ago:
“It is not just that Mr Erdogan wants to rewrite the constitution to award himself executive presidential powers. The trouble is that he hardly needs them. Sometimes overtly, but often by stealth and dissimulation, the AK party has spread its tentacles across Turkish society. The courts, the police, the intelligence services, the mosques, the public education and health systems and the media are all, in one way or another, subject to the party’s overweening influence.”
—http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21689877-mr-erdogans-commitment-democracy-seems-be-fading-getting-train [4 February 2016]
If comrades do not consider that the massive campaign of terror and intimidation that reversed the outcome of the June 2015 election demonstrated that Turkish “democracy” was effectively gutted what would it take? Rather than fantasizing about imaginary scenarios in which Erdogan’s actions are still meaningfully constrained by “attenuated’ democratic institutions, Turkish workers need a leadership prepared “to face reality squarely.”
If Erdogan wins the referendum it will only formalize the de-facto situation that has existed for the past several years. <Since the coup Erdogan has been ruling by decree, an “exceptional” measure which the AKP-MHP parliamentary bloc have routinely renewed. Do the comrades imagine that if Erdogan does not win the referendum on direct presidential rule he is likely to forgo his current powers? What would compel him to do so?> Despite extreme repression which may well swing the result in Erdogan’s favour, polls indicate that the Turkish population is closely split. <Do the comrades believe that the ruling regime’s use of “extreme repression” to shape an electoral outcome is somehow congruent with the existence of an essentially democratic system? It would rather obviously seem to be evidence of the opposite.> The referendum poses something of a conundrum for comrades who claim that Erdogan was already a dictator prior to the July 2016 putsch. Josh sharply posed this issue in his 16 March email to Tom:
“Could you clarify your position? Are you in favor of voting ‘No,’ abstaining or calling for a spoiled ballot?
“My understanding is that your position is that the Erdogan government is already the equivalent of a military dictatorship, so I would have thought you’d call for a spoiled ballot (or abstention, presuming that abstaining would not sign one’s death warrant)”.
Tom and HaPe continue to argue that either a “No” vote or abstention would be a possible position.
In fact we responded as follows to Josh’s inquiry:
“Obviously we are opposed to the proposition. How to best express this is I think a tactical question that would depend to some extent on what other anti-Erdogan elements of society are doing (OTOs, unions, women’s groups, religious minorities). It would also depend as Josh suggests on what confidence we have in avoiding extreme repercussions. There have been suggestions (by oppositionists and presumably not at all serious) that the votes may be cast publicly (to allow identification of no voters). If that were the case it would be suicidal (as well as stupid) to advocate participating to vote no.
“But in the absence of any overriding tactical objection, presuming that most of the opposition is going to participate (and if the vote is going to be close that seems likely) we would of course also vote no. What I was trying to suggest was how we would frame our position–how important it would be to convey our attitude toward Erdogan’s bonapartist authoritarian regime and make clear that the fact that we participate does not mean that we consider it to be legitimately democratic.”
For Marxists, as has been concluded by most organisations in Turkey representing workers and the oppressed, “No” is the correct response, because there is an important difference between the status quo and the proposed “presidential” system. The position that HaPe and Tom would have us take on the July 2016 coup would disarm the Turkish workers as to the importance of this referendum. <As we made very clear, we agree on voting “No” to Erdogan’s attempt to endorse his authoritarian rule. What is most likely to disarm Turkish leftists is any illusion that defending (or blocking with) Erdogan, the theocratic AKP and the fascist MHP is somehow likely to preserve democratic space (or breathing room) for the left and workers’ movement. It certainly did not work out that way in July 2016, and there is no reason to expect a different result in the future.> There is still something to fight for in this referendum, just as there was on 15 July. In both cases, victory would only be the very beginning of the fight for the rights of workers and the oppressed and ultimately a socialist Turkey, but unless the working class is mobilised as an independent force to take all tactical opportunities, that time will never come.