A bourgeois republic, led by Mustafa Kemal, was established in Turkey in 1923, and this was an historical turning point pertaining to the development of capitalism in Turkey. However the Turkish bourgeoisie did not totally abolish the old despotic, Asiatic state traditions of the Ottoman Empire.
The social and political reforms necessary for modern capitalism to develop in Turkey were carried out from above, with Bismarckian methods, and this was the pattern until the 1960s. The Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) was founded in 1920 as a section of the Comintern, under the direct influence of the October revolution. But the bourgeois nationalist movement of Mustafa Kemal followed a hypocritical policy of secret agreements with imperialism to crush the Turkish communist movement, by resorting to intrigues and conspiracies, whilst at the same time pretending to be an anti-imperialist, populist movement, seeking help from the Soviet Union.
For a long time the socialist movement in Turkey could not understand the real character of Kemalism. The fundamental weakness of the great majority of the left in Turkey is a conception of anti-imperialism without an anti-capitalist content. The left in Turkey considered Kemal’s movement as really anti-imperialist for years. Another misconception of the left is to equate, more or less, the state capitalism of Kemalism with socialism. Because of this mistaken approach the Turkish left are blind in many spheres, particularly in the Kurdish question, where they have assumed a chauvinist attitude up until today.
The history of the bourgeois republic in Turkey is the history of never-ending persecutions, prohibitions and state terror on the working class and socialist movement. For example, the Turkish Communist Party [TKP], the oldest left party of Turkey, followed the official Stalinist line throughout almost its whole existence. Although some opposition groups did emerge in the TKP none of them could break with Stalinism. There was only one exception to this, which was the “Workers’ Opposition”, organised in 1932 and supported by the great Turkish poet Nazım Hikmet. But this opposition group was accused of being Trotskyist, and liquidated by the Stalinist party leadership.
Under Kemalism, despite both liberal policies and the enactment of encouraging laws, neither a capitalist industrial advancement nor a desired level of a “national” bourgeois class could be created. There was not an adequate amount of native capital accumulation for this, nor was there was not an inflow of foreign capital from the west. Although the Kemalist general policy aimed at Westernisation (which means to become a capitalist country), the Western capitalist states still approached the young Turkish Republic with caution.
As a result, Turkey remained largely an “agrarian country” with pre-capitalist production relations. Crucially landlordism remained, especially in the eastern and south-eastern parts (Turkish Kurdistan). Rather than liquidating this landlordism, the Kemalist bureaucracy had allied itself with this landlordism. Therefore, most of the super-structural reforms in the social sphere remained as superficial reforms that could not go beyond formal limits and were “alien to the people”.
1929-33 was a period of deep crisis of the world capitalist system. This crisis affected the Turkish economy through its foreign trade. Since the exports of Turkey were primarily based on agriculture, decreases in the prices of agricultural products lessened the revenues of both the state and the landowners. Turkish currency lost its value significantly. Moreover, the Turkish treasury was in difficulty because the country had begun to pay back Ottoman debts, debts which devoured nearly one tenth of the budget.
These unfavourable conditions forced the young bourgeois state to develop a new economic strategy involving the direct intervention of the state in economic life (statism) to start industrialisation and to build a national economy. The military-civil bureaucrat cadres around the state were similarly inclined to implement this strategy. The Kemalist bureaucracy believed that a “national” capitalism in Turkey could only be established through the state. They could see the economy of the Soviet Union, a neighbouring state, based on statism, was not significantly affected by the economic crisis. The Turkish state started to prepare its first five-year economic plans, similar to those in the Soviet Union.
This period, extending from 1930 to 1946, was a period of absolute “statism” in all spheres of the economy. Bureaucracy The political life was under the one-party dictatorship of the official state party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which represented the rule of the bureaucracy. It had nothing to do with the people and its interests. This party was the representative of the block of “bureaucracy-bourgeoisie-big landowners”, against the working people. State enterprises spread rapidly and the share of state industry in the economy doubled.
Until 1950, banking, big industrial institutions, mining, energy, chemistry, transportation, communication, textile, alcoholic drinks, cigarettes (tobacco) etc. were all run by the state. The basic and long term aim of this statism was the development of a native capitalist industry and a “national bourgeois” class, by means of a rapid capital accumulation, and super-exploitation of labour. In these years there was the utmost authoritarian and repressive political framework. The labouring masses were not permitted to have a say, nor was there an improvement in the standards of life. But the state could implement this policy only under the veil of a rhetoric of “populism” and “anti-imperialism”.
Kemalist power was supported by some of the leaders of the Stalinist Communist Party of Turkey, including the then General Secretary. Other leaders left the party to publish Kadro (meaning cadre) in support of Kemalist power. They defended the following idea: “Our statism is such a national statism that it is not based on any class and can be an example for the peoples of the world that wage an independence war.” This profound illusion has remained alive in left movements in Turkey, even today!
After Mustafa Kemal’s death in 1938 there were not even the slightest changes in the structure of the one-party dictatorship. Another ex-Ottoman pasha, Ismet Inonu, assumed the presidency. Although Turkey did not participate in the Second World War, the labouring masses were drawn into unprecedented misery, as if they were in a war. There was a steep increase in military expenditures, shrinkage of production by 5-6% on a yearly basis, recruitment of workers to the army, a proliferation of war profiteering all over the country. Moreover the labouring masses lived under a system of severe repression and terror.
The minorities living in Turkey, such as Greeks, Armenians, Jews etc., got a share of this repression. Their properties and assets were seized, many were sent to labour camps as a result of operations such as “Tax on Wealth”, a policy reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Turkey did not refrain from selling herself to whichever imperialist camp they thought would be victorious. For example, they let a racist fascist tendency develop within the state, which was in collaboration with the Nazis, in case of the victory of Nazi Germany. Only after it became clear that Germany would lose was this current liquidated. Once the defeat of Germany became certain, Turkey hypocritically declared war against Germany, in order to compensate for her slippery record.
After the war, facing a considerably changed world, Turkey was thus compelled to introduce liberal measures in the political sphere. And faced with serious economic problems, the Turkish ruling class was desperate for economic aid from Western capitalism. In 1946 Turkey was compelled to accept the establishment of new political parties. The coalition that had been formed by the ruling class around the CHP underwent a split. The big landowners and merchants left the CHP and formed the Democratic Party (DP). They wanted to free themselves from the political patronage of the Kemalist bureaucracy.
In 1950, with the coming to power of the Democrat Party, the one-party dictatorship of the CHP came to an end. The broad popular masses had voted for the Democratic Party in the 1950 elections, and carried it to the parliament with an overwhelming majority. Yet the DP, reflecting the interests of the big landowners and capitalists, was in fact a party of the existing order. The DP channelled the anger of the masses by pretending to be in favour of democracy and liberties. Yet quite soon after its victory the DP proved that it was as capable of being as cruel an enemy of the working class and the left in general, as the CHP. In 1946 the TKP had created two legal socialist parties, because it was still illegal to create a political party with the word “communist” in the title.
One was the “Socialist Workers and Peasants Party of Turkey” and the other was the “Socialist Party of Turkey”. With the Kemalist CHP still in power, and at the time claiming that liberal reforms were being carried out, it closed down these two socialist parties just six months after their launch. On the other hand, the Turkish working class began to establish legal unions. Hundreds of local unions were established and thousands of workers were organised in these unions. Then the Turkish bourgeoisie panicked. After just six months, these legal unions were closed and their officers were arrested.
Only in 1947 did workers win the right to set-up unions, but the right to go on strike and to collective bargaining were made illegal. These rights were achieved only in 1963. The bourgeois state did not permit any legal socialist parties until 1960. However, the articles that prohibited”communist
propaganda” were not abolished until 1990. After the war came a frenzied capitalist development in agriculture and a considerable advance in industrialisation. The driving force was the opening of new lands to agriculture, and the use of advanced techniques in agriculture. A conflict between the traditional block that was in favour of interventionism in the economy, and the bourgeois section that was in favour of liberalism, continued without reaching an accommodation.
Relations between Turkey and the US imperialism became much closer. Affiliation to NATO (1952), the US’s decision to include Turkey into the Marshall Plan, the formation of CENTO etc., all took place in this period. Turkey actively supported the US’s Cold War policy through sending troops to the Korean War, and became one of the closest allies of the US in the Middle East. With the guidance of the US, the Turkish state had the Confederation of Turkish Labour Unions (Turk-İş) organised in 1952, which would operate under state control. This organisation sought to install an American style business trade unionism. This period also created the conditions for an economic and financial crisis.
The government had increased the foreign debts and followed a one-sided policy of investment, primarily in agricultural investments, counting on revenues from agricultural exports. This suited the interests of the imperialist capital, with both the US and the European capitalist preferring to lend money with high interest rates, and making profit from selling their goods, instead of direct investments. And this would soon draw Turkey into an economic and financial impasse. In 1958 a financial and foreign debts crisis prepared the way for the overthrow of DP rule. Foreign trade deficit reached 60% of the total exports. The import of the necessary inputs for industry (machines, equipment, raw material) became impossible. The economy shrunk, and social expenditures were reduced. Turkey could not repay foreign debts.
The DP continued to pump finance from state funds and banks to the big landowners, but did not support industrial capitalists adequately. Foolishly the DP also alienated the army by cutting its budget weakening their political influence. The industrial bourgeoisie wanted to end the domination of the big landowners. The imperialists were in favour of putting an end to the power of the big landowners, as they were an obstacle to capitalist development. It was also clear that an essential transformation of the economy could not be brought about whilst the DP ruled.