Turkish workers against the military

Submitted by Matthew on 12 July, 2017 - 12:18

This is the second in a three part series – read part one: From dictatorship to liberal capitalism

There were many large student demonstrations against the Democratic Party (DP) government in its last days of DP rule (after 1950). This was the background for the 27 May 1960 military coup in which ex-Prime Minister Menderes and two of his prominent ministers were summarily tried and hanged.

Both the Turkish industrial bourgeoisie and imperialism welcomed this coup, because, whatever the intentions of the lower ranking officers who led it, it was ultimately to their benefit. These officers believed they had carried out a revolution to defend and protect the liberties and institutions of the Republic, introduced by Ataturk, and against the undemocratic practices of the DP! But their real intentions were shown in the first political statement they made after the coup: “We are respectful to all international treaties. We are loyal to NATO and CENTO.”

Shortly after the coup, the officers called on the CHP, the party created by Mustafa Kemal, to take power. The CHP represented the urban bourgeoisie gathered around İş Bankası (Business Bank), the bourgeois intelligentsia and military-civil bureaucracy. These circles wanted a planned capitalist industrialisation and for foreign capital to be attracted. They founded a “state planning organisation”, to prepare a five-year plan with the help of the imperialist west. The regular routine of the parliamentary regime in Turkey returned and in 1965 the Justice Party [AP] came to power.

Though it had been founded as an extension of the DP, now, unlike in the past, it also represented the industrial bourgeoisie. The AP gave priority to industry, especially to the assembly-line industry. This led to an inevitable growth in concentration and centralisation of capital. In the 60s the whole society began to prosper politically and culturally. All sections of the society began to set up its organisations, associations, co-operatives, etc. Prohibited and suppressed leftist books began to be published openly. Socialist ideas attracted a broad section of intellectuals.

In 1961, a legal socialist party TIP (Workers Party of Turkey) was founded, which would become the first mass party in the history of the republic. It was founded by trade unionists who were joined by socialist intellectuals. From the very beginning TIP was very popular, both in the towns and in the rural areas. In 1965 the TIP got 15 members of Parliament elected. These successes encouraged the workers, and in 1963 a Code of Strike and Collective Bargaining was won.

At this time there was only the state-controlled union confederation, Turk-Is, and it became quickly apparent that it was unable and unwilling to support the rising economic struggles of the working class. A strong opposition developed within the Turk-Is. The new generation of workers and their leaders were critical about the kind of unionism that is servile to the bourgeois state, under the guise of “non-political unionism”. Four unions (Maden-Is, Lastik-Is, Basın-Is, Gıda-Is) were expelled from Turk-Is and founded a new confederation, the DISK (Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions) in February 1967. These unions were at the forefront of the struggles in the private sector.

The actions of youth and the wave of general strikes in Europe in 1968 immediately influenced the youth in Turkey and mobilised them. And the wave of struggles of the working class that begun at that time also went beyond the legal framework of the bourgeoisie, increasing in intensity and breadth, using such tactics as factory occupations, boycotts, and outlawed strikes. Although they were developed spontaneously they all contained a revolutionary essence. These were immediately accompanied by the rising demands of the youth in favour of national independence and the demonstrations and land occupations of the peasants in the rural areas. The DISK got stronger, and also the workers belonging to Turk-Is began struggling to leave it and become members of the DISK.

In 1968, the only legal mass left party was TIP. Many leftist circles and individuals, with different political views carried out work within this party. The illegal TKP did not try to have a separate organisation until 1973 and it worked within TIP, too. In fact the majority of the leaders of TIP were the old TKP members. In spite of this, there was a complete gap between the old cadres of TKP and the younger generation.. Yet the TKP continued to have an effect, directly or indirectly, on many political formations in Turkey, not excluding the TIP.

Guerrillaism and Maoism began to be organised at this time, particularly among the youth. TIP, which had united various left fractions, gradually began to experience a chronic split. Since then there has never been a comparable mass legal party of the working class in Turkey. At the same time the state started to organise the religious reactionary movements and direct them against workers and students. The Arab-American oil companies – like ARAMCO – directly financed these reactionary organisations. The government brought in laws measures to close the DISK.

On June 15 and 16, a workers demonstration took place involving over 150,000 workers in Istanbul and Izmit. The streets were shaken by the strength and virility of the demonstrations during these two days. The police and army attacked the workers with guns, resulting in three deaths and over 200 injured. Martial law was declared and a curfew lasting for two months was imposed.


This period is that of the acceleration of the monopolisation in industry and the fusion of bank and industrial capital. The model of industrialisation was based on foreign debts and “import substitution”.

For instance the automobile industry and durable consumer goods industry in Turkey were installed as assembly-line industries from the beginning. Components were imported from abroad and then assembled in Turkey. The fact that the workers’ movement had developed by leaps and bounds and had become increasingly militant, and anti-American acts scared both the ruling classes in Turkey and the US imperialism. Moreover, currents of anti-Americanism and national independence had been developing within the army.

The ruling powers staged another military coup on 12 March 1971 and closed the parliament. As it was first portrayed as a leftist coup. Certain petty-bourgeois revolutionists were extremely misled. In this period of extraordinarily oppressive, semi-military regimes, between 1971 and 1974, both the workers’ movement and the developing socialist movement received a harsh blow. TIP was closed down.

The activities of the DISK trade unions and the youth associations, were banned. Thousands of socialist intellectuals, workers, revolutionary youths, unionists etc. were arrested and tortured. The leftist movement completely disintegrated and the organisations scattered. The Turkish bourgeois state hanged three leaders of the youth movement on the charge of violating the constitution. This dictatorship changed the relatively more liberal Constitution of 1961 by abolishing all the democratic articles of the old constitution. It introduced new anti-socialist articles into the Penal Code.

In 1973, new elections were held and in 1974 Bülent Ecevit’s CHP came to power. Ideologically there were two main tendencies among the now disintegrated left.

First, the traditional Stalinist left tendency that aimed at organising among the working class and trade union movement, and followed the line of the official CPSU.

Secondly, the revolutionary populist tendency, which was organised among the student youth, and the petty bourgeois layers of towns and provinces.

The ideological nurturing source of this tendency was also Stalinism. Their political line was embodied in Maoism and guerrillaism. Although there were some tiny intellectual circles defending Trotsky’s ideas and criticising Stalinism, they could not form an active political organisation among the left movement, or even a current of thought, because the Stalinist current was so very strong. At the time among the leftists of Turkey there was, and there still is, a strong negative prejudice against Trotsky and Trotskyism. In their opinion Trotsky is an “enemy of Leninism”, “an adventurist”, “a traitor”, etc.

In 1973, the TKP decided to organise anew on an illegal basis within the country. Even with illegality it enjoyed a rapid and improving popularity. It had also created a broad legal mass movement on its periphery, which was able to affect the trade union movement to a great extent, by dominating the leadership of DISK. Between 1970 and 1980 many members of this illegal TKP were elected to the executive committees of many unions and legal mass organisations. There were also legal associations of youth, teachers, technical employees, and women, having tens of thousands of members, founded directly under the party’s control. And there were hundreds of secret party cells composed of workers in the factories.

This method of organising by the TKP was, as a matter of fact, correct. Unfortunately, both its political line and leadership were entirely social reformist and class collaborationist. It followed the line decided by Moscow without challenge; the inevitable result was a split in the party, between those wishing to take a more revolutionary road and the reformist. Under the direction of the TKP, the DISK organised a mass rally in 1976 to celebrate May Day, something which had been prohibited for 50 years. 200,000 people joined the rally and the trade union movement organised the most prolonged strikes in the history of Turkey. The most militant union — the metal workers — started the strikes, which covered 120 factories in the private sector, with 40,000 and would last 11 months.

A wide and strong solidarity movement formed around these strikes. In 1977 over 500,000 people, from every section of society, took part in the May Day celebrations in Istanbul. But this great rally was to witness a bloody provocation, staged by the American and Turkish secret services — the demonstrators were subjected deliberately to volley fire by contra-guerrilla teams, placed in the surrounding buildings (Taksim Square). Forty demonstrators were killed. After then, the bourgeoisie stepped up its counter-revolutionary provocations.

Ecevit was already preparing to break the influence of the TKP in DISK and to pacify DISK. Workers’ leaders and revolutionaries began to be attacked by paramilitary-armed gangs, led by the fascist MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), in the cities, especially in the working-class districts. Death lists were being published in the fascist papers, naming the people being targeted for the next murder. In this campaign nearly 5.000 people were killed. Eventually, they killed the president of DISK, Kemal Turkler, the leader of the metal workers. Over 500,000 workers attended his funeral in Istanbul. The working-class movement began to retreat. When the economic and political crisis intensified just before 1980, tanks, cannons and guns were called in once more.

On September 12, 1980, Turkey witnessed its third military coup: • 650,000 people were arrested, the majority of them tortured, • Over 50,000 people were forced to migrate to European countries. • 700 death sentences were demanded, 480 sentenced to death, eventually 48 were hanged, • Around 200 people were killed under torture, • 23,677 associations were banned.

• The final part of this abridged article will be published in Solidarity 445.

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