On Sunday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s electoral victory returned him to the presidency, a crushing disappointment for all those alarmed by his authoritarian behaviour and outright rejection of democratic principles. But why does democracy continue to elude Turkey?
In his new book, Why Turkey is Authoritarian, Halil Karaveli refutes the notion that Turkey is an embattled state caught between a ‘Westernized’ ideology and popular masses defending their culture and religion. Arguing instead for a class analysis of Turkish politics and history that would reinvigorate the Left and provide the opportunity to connect culturally with the Turkish masses.
Turkey is supposedly a country where secularism and Islam collide. In fact, it is capitalist interests and the interests of the broad masses of the people that have collided and shaped the course of Turkish history during the last two centuries. Capitalist dynamics tore apart the Ottoman Empire, contributing to unleashing ethnic violence on a massive scale, and they have sustained authoritarianism throughout the history of the republic of Turkey. The Turkish military has not staged coups to enforce secularism, but to secure the interests of the Turkish ruling class, the bourgeoisie. Closer inspection reveals that secularism and Islamization in Turkey are in reality the two sides of the same, right-wing coin.
Both the military and the Islamists have been the instruments of the bourgeoisie of Turkey. There is continuity from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the state, to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who superficially appears to be his antithesis. Atatürk and Erdoğan have both served the same class interests, even though the former was a bourgeois radical, while the latter is a bourgeois conservative. During the early years of Turkey, the promotion of capitalist interests required culturally radical measures, but when the Turkish ruling class came to fear the “red threat” during the Cold War, it resorted to religious conservatism to inoculate the masses against socialism. And since the 1980s, religious conservatism has been mobilized to safeguard the neoliberal order.
While the authoritarian right, whether in uniform or in suit, whether in “secular” or “Islamic” incarnation, has dominated Turkey, the left has mostly been unable to offer a democratic counterweight. The Turkish state has ruthlessly oppressed the left. But the left has also been crippled because it has alienated the popular masses who have rallied to populist conservatives who on the campaign trail have spoken to their religious feelings and resentment of the elite, while in power serving the interests of the economic elite. Turkish progressives have committed a fatal, historical mistake: they have held the pious to be reactionaries, and they have taken issue with the masses’ religious beliefs instead of privileging the fight against social and economic injustice.
The Turkish left has been shaped by Kemalism, the nationalist-secularist legacy of Atatürk: Turkish Marxists have held Kemalism to be the first step to socialism, while Turkish social democrats entertain the fiction that the universal principles of social democracy are compatible with Kemalism, entirely overlooking the class aspect of Atatürk’s policies as well as his nationalism and authoritarianism. Indeed, Turkish social democrats remain beholden to nationalism. If the first historical mistake of the left in Turkey has been to equate religion with reaction — which has disabled it as a popular force — its second fundamental mistake is the assumption that the unitary nation state represents progress; this assumption has made Turkish social democrats insensitive if not hostile to the aspirations of the Kurds and prevented the formation of a progressive front uniting Turkish and Kurdish social democrats.
The historical record of comparable countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal illustrates that social democracy plays a crucial role in the passage from right-wing authoritarianism to democracy. In the 1970s, when these other southern European nations were moving toward democracy, social democracy was on the rise in Turkey as well. It was led by Bülent Ecevit, an aristocratic radical, an intellectual and a poet who established a unique rapport with the popular masses. Ecevit is the only leftist — so far — to have governed Turkey. He was a progressive who did not demonize religion. Ecevit is ignored in standard accounts of Turkish history, but his legacy deserves to be revisited; his writings and activism from the 1950s to the late 1970s show the way for the left today in Turkey, and indeed elsewhere as well.
Ecevit took issue with the bourgeois radicals, the pretentious elite progressives, who had done the left a profound disservice with their contempt for the uncouth peasants and workers they were supposedly going to “enlighten.” His criticism has a resonance in our own time; what Ecevit had to say about Turkey’s elite “progressives” could just as well be said about their equivalents in the United States and many European countries today. Their reactions to the working-class vote for Donald Trump and his like are moralizing and judgmental rather than informed by empathy. Turkey has remained right-wing authoritarian, not because the people are “backward,” but in part because the progressives’ contempt for the masses has contributed to disabling the left. And that may be what the future has in store in other countries as well, if self-professed progressives persist in writing off the people as hopelessly reactionary.
Ecevit might have come to be thought of as a great social democratic reformer, but it was not to be. Turkey was not permitted to follow the paths of Greece, Spain and Portugal. Instead, Turkey took the Latin American path. Ecevit’s challenge to the capitalist system elicited a violent reaction from the bourgeoisie, while he was punished by the United States for his independent foreign policy. Like in Chile, the left was crushed, and a military junta imposed a neoliberal economic order. The 1970s was the turning point in the history of Turkey; in the absence of the left, the stage was taken over by Islamic conservatism, which neutralized the working class challenge to neo-liberalism.
The lessons of Turkish history are clear: those who embody bourgeois interests invariably prevail; and democracy is never the winner. The task of the left remains as daunting as ever; two thirds of the population of Turkey identify themselves as pious, nationalist and conservative and less than one third as either leftists, social democrats or socialists. Yet a progressive front that succeeds in transcending ethnic and cultural barriers, which reconciles class and identity politics, would offer a way out of authoritarian rule and the impasse of neo-liberalism and nationalism. It is the Turkish social democrats who hold the key to forging such a cross-ethnic, progressive alliance. To fulfill their potential as democrats and help bring peace and democracy to Turkey, they need to resolve to redefine what it means to be a progressive and emancipate from the hold of Kemalism.
The story of Turkey – where the right has, for most of the time, succeeded in monopolizing the working-class vote by playing on religion and culture – is being replicated across Europe and in the United States. The European and American centre-left’s inability to hold on to their working-class base paves the way for the far right. Turkey is a warning example: it shows how the left can be disabled when the right succeeds in recasting class conflict as culture war, exploiting the detachment between the popular classes — the uneducated rural population and the working class – and the urban elites. The future of democracy will depend on the emergence of a reinvigorated left that embraces the cause of the people, of the working class and of minorities, and which by speaking up for social justice and freedom succeeds in reconciling social and cultural claims. It is particularly useful to ponder the Turkish case, because it shows that the left must be able to connect culturally with the popular masses if it is to make a difference.
Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan by Halil Karaveli is available from Pluto Press.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, a US-Swedish think tank, and the editor of the Turkey Analyst. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs and the National Interest.