Gezi park: between democracy and Kemalism

Chances and dangers for a social revolutionary left
by Wilhelm Langthaler
The old left had failed facing the AKP challenge – because they read them erroneously as a linear prolongation of the military dictatorship. As the authoritarian and culturally repressive tendencies of Erdogan are coming to the fore, a new chance is being offered to social revolutionary democrats. But there is one condition: not to tap into the trap set by Kemalism which already had seemed moribund.
Hand sign second from left is the one of the Grey Wolves

The starting point of the mass protests, to prevent the destruction of a park in the very heart of Istanbul’s political centre, offered a broad and flexible platform. As the movement is multi-faceted, it can develop in various directions. Where it will go is yet not decided. Here are some thoughts on the character of the events and how to act upon them.

The different souls of the protests

First of all the mass action is directed against unrestrained capitalism and its reckless megaprojects which do not tolerate objections. People on the street are targeting the new Islamic elite, which had promised to be different to its secular predecessor, but eventually turned out to be very similar. But that does not automatically mean that it is all about an uprising of the poor. Looking at it in sociological and cultural terms, the movement is based on left-wing liberal, urban, European middle classes often called “white Turkey” – in opposite to rural, poor, Islamic “black Turkey”. Even though the context does not fit at all, the analogy of the German environmentalist movement against nuclear power might be evoked, from which later the Green party emerged.

Obviously the democratic aspect against authoritarianism and against the arrogance of power is decisive and determining. This contains the defence of the cultural liberties of the secular sectors of society. For a certain period the AKP seemed to remove the authoritarian elements of its secular predecessors, such as the absurd ban of the headscarf, while maintaining a certain tolerance. But now it looks as if they wanted to turn things upside down.

The movement certainly does also contain die-heard Kemalists who long for revenge. They do not represent the people on the street but they are also not alien and there are points of convergence.

Erdoğan’s miscalculations and mistakes

Erdoğan had enjoyed extraordinary consensus far beyond the Islamic milieus. This broad support for a moderate Islamism was due not only to rapid and permanent economic growth but also thanks to a cautious democratisation and the readiness to cultural co-existence with secularism which continues to yield important influence in Turkey. Last but not least there are the attempts of a détente with the Kurds who suffered most from extremist Kemalist nationalism.

This general relaxation of societal tensions passed unnoticed by the radical left. They have been interpreting the AKP rule as a linear continuation of the military dictatorship or even as fascism which eventually led to their marginalisation.

The first big mistake harming Erdoğan’s ascent has been his Syrian adventure. By lending full support to the popular revolt he was sure to reap a further triumph and to see his homologues rule in Damascus. In no way he foresaw to be dragged into a sectarian civil war backfiring in many ways into his one country. One impact has been the mobilisation of Turkey’s millions of Alevites (a community quite close to the Arab Alawites) which so far had not appeared under the flag of sectarianism. Furthermore Erdoğan’s image of being independent from the West has been losing credibility as he has been begging for Western intervention into Syria including by military means. While his “no problems with our neighbours” foreign policy enjoyed overwhelming endorsement in Turkey, his interventionist stance on Syria definitively does not. There runs a kind of a 50:50 split though Asia Minor. At these straws Kemalism could clutch for survival.

Actually before the Syrian quagmire a significant Turkish opposition had ceased to exist, except for the Kurds. The current popular protest became possible only on the base of the split over Syria. Surfing on hubris and omnipotence Erdoğan’s hard-line reaction will cost him dearly. It will neither affect his die-hard supporters nor so much his Islamic constituencies, but it will destroy the specific strength which made the AKP unique and promoted Turkey to become a role model: the de-facto coalition with a large section of the liberal and secular middle classes. They had enough of decades of military dictatorship and supported Erdoğan’s cautious but steady democratisation while keeping the Kemalist elites in check. When he staged the referendum against the army in 2010 he was rewarded with a 60:40 victory. These urban secular middle class people have left him now. The more Erdoğan goes on rampage the bigger the damage becomes.

(It is not by accident that the community which voted most in favour of the army were the Alevites of Dêrsim/Tunceli. They did this out of fear from Sunni Islamism which the urban middle classes did not share at least to the same extent.) 1

There can be no doubt that from a democratic and social revolutionary point of view, we must participate in and support the movement. But there are considerable pitfalls as Kemalism is lurking behind the corner to seize its opportunity.


Although directed against the capitalist excesses we are substantially faced with a movement of white Turks. As such this does not mean to refuse them but one needs to be on alert to avoid a confrontation between “white” and “black” Turkey. Under attack Islamists tend to resort to a cultural struggle trying to usurp the representation of the poor, the “blacks”. This trap must be avoided because its paints not only the secularists but also the democratic as “white”. The democratic demands should be addressed to the “blacks” to drag them into the social revolutionary camp and not to push them away. If the democrats fail to avoid isolation from “black” Turkey they will turn back into the arms of “the father of all Turks”, Kemal Atatürk.

Far worse, beyond the old fault lines of secularism versus Islamism, the sectarian danger is growing in Turkey as well. It cannot be excluded that the millions of Alevites will rise as such. Then Turkey will become part of the Sunni-Shia schism rocking the Arab world and making a common front against imperialism impossible.

Up to now the Kurdish milieu around the BDP party has been participating in the Gezi movement. But Kurds first of all fight for their national rights which are in no way popular with the middle classes. It took them several decades to overcome chauvinist nationalism of Kemalist brand which they exchanged with a more post-modern sceptical position towards nationalism. That does not imply the support for the Kurdish right to self-determination. The Kurds remain alien to the movement. They have been introduced by the radical left which is on its turn a sub-culture of the urban middle classes. In a certain sense the Kurds represents the “blackest” part of Turkey. “Apo” cult 2 and bourgeois bohemians, however, do not fit together.

If Erdoğan is clever he will continue the détente with the Kurds. This might result in dragging them on his side thus isolating the Kemalists. The PKK, on its turn, could hardly refuse such an offer.

The most important thing in this conflict is to keep the relationship of forces in mind. The AKP has lost most of its secular supporters. For the moderate Islamists this means a huge loss – a strategic damage they might not even be aware of. It sounds the death knell for the Turkish model. In the Arab world there has been not one single country where the Islamists have been able to forge a similar alliance, maybe with the exception of Tunisia where there have been some timid steps in this direction (En-Nahda’s coalition government with the centre left). At the same time there can be no doubt that the AKP’s socio-political bloc remains the strongest one with Islam as powerful glue. Trying to topple Erdoğan means to go against the dominant force in society whose rule is justified by a whole series of election victories. Not only that it is futile, it is also politically wrong because it would further compact the AKP bloc as they can defend themselves against the projection of a secularist coup d’état.3

What we suggest is a line of democratic and social opposition without an immediate claim on governmental power. It is all about to appeal to at least a part of black Turkey both in its Islamic as well as its Kurdish component and to attract them to a democratic social revolutionary project. In this way the ruling capitalist AKP bloc can be decomposed and eventually split. Their claim to represent “black” Turkey must be contested and proved false. This will become clearer as soon as the capitalist boom is over and Turkey enters a recession.

Furthermore any unfounded claim on power inevitably pushes the Gezi opposition into the arms of the old Kemalist elites including some generals with their coup records. This would be the very end of any revolutionary left. Based purely on the Alevite communal group revolution proved to be impossible.