101 years of communist struggle in Turkey

On the 101st anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of Turkey, Peoples Dispatch spoke to Ekin Sönmez, a member of the party’s Central Committee, about how the party is confronting the urgent challenges facing Turkey’s working class and is deepening the struggle for socialism

September 10, 2021 by Zoe Alexandra
Image: Midhun Puthupattu

Today September 10, 2021, marks 101 years since the founding of the Türkiye Komünist Partisi or the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP). The party was created in the period following Russia’s October Revolution, in a moment where the ideas and inspiration of the Bolsheviks gave new energy to causes for national liberation and working class struggles globally.

In Turkey, this was a moment of great struggle and upheaval. The centuries-old Ottoman Empire was in its final days, and new movements were being born to fight for the establishment of a republic and the creation of a new society. The Communist Party in this period was part and parcel of this movement for national liberation, from a perspective of fighting for working class unity and power, not by exacerbating ethnic tensions and social and economic divisions in society. The party faced repression and persecution by the young republic’s government as it embarked on bold efforts to organize industrial workers in major cities in the country. Yet, armed with its commitment to socialist revolution and working class power, it continued to resist and organize.

101 years later, the TKP remains as an important force in the Turkish political scene, in a moment where Turkey’s working class is facing unprecedented challenges. The conservative, anti-people government of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP-Justice and Development Party) led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has launched attacks against all sectors of society, eroding the rights of the masses and the very basis of the republic and its democratic institutions. The country is also facing the impacts of the global crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the imperialist wars all along its borders. In this context, the TKP has reiterated its goal “to build socialist Turkey” as the only way forward to save the country from the capitalist order and its incessant exploitation and misery.

To learn more about the work of the TKP and its perspective on the current situation in Turkey, Peoples Dispatch spoke to Ekin Sönmez, a member of the TKP’s Central Committee and responsible for international relations.

Peoples Dispatch: The AKP government has come under international pressure due to its brazen campaigns of political persecution against many sectors of the opposition. What has been the impact on TKP and how has it challenged the authoritarian nature of this government?

Ekin Sönmez: The pro-Western AKP government, when raised to the rule of the country in 2002, was applauded by the liberal elite and rapacious middle-class, with the assumption that they will steer the country into a more democratic, EU-oriented, wealthier direction. Yet, AKP is an Islamist, conservative, anti-republican, anti-people party, sharing common ideology with the Muslim Brotherhood, who was able to sell itself as pro-democracy to the liberals and centrists of the time. At that time we were warning our people of the danger awaiting our country.

What happened was gravely unfortunate but not surprising. While AKP concentrated greater power in its hands, strived for greater ambitions and took greater risks abroad, created an illusionary temporary economic growth which ended up in a harsh crisis and immense debt, it increased its authoritarian tone inside, oppressing workers and political opponents, gearing up nationalism and reaction.

Apart from the pervasive authoritarian rhetoric and actions of the AKP government against opposing political actors, we should also keep in mind that anti-communism has been a continuous vein within the Turkish bourgeoisie, at any time, for any government. Therefore the attacks of the government against our Party are nothing new, despite rising severity. To concretize, one could mention the recent Several Central Committee members, including our General Secretary, intellectuals affiliated with the Party have been put on trial and penalized for the excessively repeated pretext of “insulting Erdoğan”. This is on the one hand the political abuse of judicial forces by the executive one and on the other a weapon to threaten all others who consider opposing the one-man leadership cult.

Time to time we are also observing attacks against our District Houses and local branches, generally perpetrated by the elements of religious sects or fascists, which are also nurtured by AKP. One example of this is an attack to the party members in Istanbul’s densely populated district Bahçelievler, following the distribution of our weekly Boyun Eğme newspaper which carried the headline “All religious sects are harmful!”. These sects have flourished since the coup d’etat in 1980, but especially since AKP took power, aiming to transform the fabric of the society and impose their own rules. They are basically the street militia of the government and a tool for greater oppression of the society. Although they may have some rivalry in between, as exposed by the 2016 coup attempt, what they have in common is their strong links with the capitalist class and their anti-communism.

In the face of all these, our main response is to do our job, to organize everywhere a single communist breathes, factories, malls, plazas, schools, neighborhoods. We know that the only way to counter the oppressive actions of the government will be the organized, united force of working people. There are several examples of this in the recent past, with the biggest being the Gezi Uprising in 2013 June. Fear will not help and this should be loudly voiced. That is our main goal.

PD: How has the AKP government used the pandemic context to intensify attacks on workers’ rights? What are the main fronts for workers’ struggle today in Turkey?

ES: Even before the pandemic, the conditions of the working class in Turkey was deteriorating both in terms of labor market indicators and the working conditions, with a very high-level of unemployment up to 25%, even higher in the youth.

As any other capitalist country, the AKP government has totally abused the pretext of and the conditions created by the pandemic (lockdown, closure of schools, etc.) for its own interests and for the profits of the capitalist class, to the detriment of workers. The outcome of this is disastrous: On the one hand, workers were forced to work under deteriorating conditions, crowded workplaces with inadequate COVID prevention measures. On the other, many people lost their jobs and income.

We should also keep in mind the already massively privatized services sector, health, education, transport, security etc. resulted in the pandemic days being extra burdensome for working people. The pandemic helped these private companies maximize their profits over the vital, urgent needs of people. Indeed the biggest monopoly groups have made around 50% profits amid the pandemic, thanks to the policies of the AKP government. Meanwhile, even the IMF reports indicate that the government in Turkey was among those who provided least public support to its citizens. AKP is fully lying about this, summing up the giant incentives provided for capitalists and the modest help provided to people as the total sum of support given.

Moreover, AKP government has used the “social distance” necessity as a pretext to silence and pacify the working class, to ban the protests, to extricate people’s voice off the streets. Bourgeois opposition resonated with the government in this, as they are also as much afraid of a working class uprising as the ruling party. Not falling into this trap was important for our party, because once the threshold is crossed, then the long-term gains of the working class, freedom of struggle and expression, would have been permanently lost. We cannot allow these to become the “new normals”. That is why, for example, we have made every effort to commemorate May 1st, of the Republic Day, October 29th. We continued the work of the Party adapting our ways of organizing meetings, seminars, activities etc. One of the Party’s most fruitful congresses took place in the midst of the pandemic last year in August 2020.

The main fronts of struggle today are many. To count the most important ones: the right to unionize and organize, political rights, the struggle against dramatic inequalities, the struggle against privatization of basic public services and rights… All of which are linked with the struggle for socialist revolution.

PD: The questions of migration and xenophobia have also been central as xenophobic attacks increase and the flow of migration into the country continues due to the intensification of imperialist wars in the region. What work has the party taken on to challenge sentiments of xenophobia and address the root cause of the issue, and what position has the government taken on these issues?

ES: As you are rightly saying, it is imperialism that gave birth to the refugee issue. This should be clearly demarcated to develop the correct approach to the problem.

AKP government took an open-borders policy, there were several goals behind it: The Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi or other citizens in Turkey meant a pretext for intervening in the internal affairs of these countries, in line with the expansionist goals of the AKP government. Refugees constitute a not easily irrevocable cheap-labor force, an extra 4-5 million workers, for the Turkish capitalists, especially in the sectors AKP has fueled the economic growth, construction, textile & manufacture, and to a degree seasonal farming. The government also achieves greater bargaining powers against the representatives of the working class, creating a wider reserve army of workers. Keeping the nationalist sentiments hot has always been a strategy they benefited, for internal and foreign politics. While a 6 billion Euro deal was signed with the EU, AKP has resorted a couple of times to blackmailing the EU governments with the threat of “letting the refugees off the borders”. Meanwhile, where the provided money was spent has never been transparently shared.

The bourgeois opposition in Turkey, now under the umbrella of the so-called “Nation Alliance, composed of social democratic CHP, nationalist Good Party, ex-AKP cadres, religious conservatives, as well as pro-Kurdish HDP and liberal-left Workers’ Party of Turkey (albeit implicitly for the latter two), has an ambivalent, mixed stance on the issue. Nevertheless, the dominant actors in the alliance, CHP and Good Party, advocate for the return of refugees or sending them back to their own countries. The leader of CHP, Kılıçdaroğlu recently defended a position which could be summarized with his slogan “Border means honor”, provoking anti-refugee sentiments of especially the middle class people with self-concerned individualistic tendencies. Border means honor indeed, but what about the borders of other sovereign countries, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and so forth? This is an incomplete and hypocritical argument, unless it is valid for these other countries in which the Turkish army is present on illegitimate grounds, as a NATO force, as a proxy of the Western imperialist camp, or for its own regional claims.

As for the issue of migration, the root cause of it is labor exploitation. To counter xenophobia, we are challenging all these aspects behind refugeeism. And more, we are aiming at the recruitment of refugee workers in our country to the ranks of socialist struggle. This is the imperative of a class based approach to the immigration issue. We recently founded a Bureau for Immigrant Workers to concentrate our efforts to overcome language, cultural, logistical barriers in front of organizing.

Of course the escalating wave of migration, the reasons and outcomes of it is an issue that needs to be largely addressed beyond our space here. Therefore I am referring you to a statement we recently published titled as “The immigration problem is a labour problem”.

PD: The TKP has been active in demanding justice for the recent victims of femicides and opposing Turkey’s exit from the Istanbul Convention. What are the primary factors behind what seems to be an increase in patriarchal violence in the country?

ES: In the last 20 years, we have seen a dramatic rise in the prevalence of femicides and violence against women. Beyond physical harassment, mobbing, humiliation are also much more present than ever. This is of course no coincidence and is the direct result of AKP governments market-oriented and reactionary Islamist policies, as well as inequalities in all aspects of life. Women are lower-paid, less-employed (despite an increase in the general employment of women due to the increasing labor needs), less-educated. Not surprisingly, the household work is traditionally on the shoulders of female members of the family.

Over 400 murders a year is a tremendous shame. While the problem needs to be addressed meticulously, what happens is the contrary. The judiciary organs in most of the cases take decisions favoring the perpetrator, providing the so-called “good conduct abatement”. The perpetrators in many cases are openly or discretely affiliated with the government itself, or use this to get away with their crimes. I can mention a very demonstrative example: the murder of Ozbek citizen Nadira Kadirova, who was working as an immigrant housemaid at one of AKP MP’s houses, which is literally “covered up”. You see the intersection of all dimensions of the problem in that case: cheap immigrant labor, double oppression of working women, reaction, inequalities and hierarchy in the society, the corrupt politicians of AKP… All eventually culminating in the tragic death of a 23-year-old woman in Turkey’s capital Ankara in 2019. Please note that in this very case we also see the tragic outcome of the dissolution of Soviet socialism for Central Asian nations. Nadira could have had a bright future in dignity as a citizen of a socialist country.

Based on all these, of course we have been at the forefront of street demonstrations and other activities protesting this reactionary, backward step of the AKP government, which arbitrarily signed the Convention in 2009 and withdrew from it when its function for their facade was over. Now, the Istanbul Convention is stemming from the UN and the spirit of the text can be found in bourgeois progressive values. It doesn’t carry a class-based approach to women’s inequality and therefore has a limited horizon.

Following one of our 13th Congress resolutions in 2020, the Party has announced the launch of Women’s Solidarity Committees, in order to form a base against oppression, violence and exploitation and fostering the bonds of solidarity among working class women. Women’s Solidarity Committees have been key for the recruitment of new members and friends, politicization of women and demanding essential rights in various localities, such as the right to kindergartens. We made a declaration in March 2021, representing the resolutions of working women for equality and freedom– a maximalist list of demands overarching the limits of the Istanbul Convention.

It will be the strong hands of these women on which a socialist Turkey will rise in the future.

PD: On September 10, the Communist Party of Turkey is celebrating its 101 year anniversary. What are some of the major legacies of the communist movement over the more than 100 years in Turkish society?

ES: TKP was born soon after the Great October Revolution and the foundation of the Comintern and was born into the anti-imperialist independence struggle in Anatolia, which are very much linked with the founding principles and values of our Party. Since the foundation of TKP in 1920, the principles of independence, secularism, enlightenment, and anti-imperialism have always been carried by organized communists. No matter the temporary setbacks in our history, the main goal of TKP has always been socialist revolution, the grasping of power by the working class. The belief in the actuality of revolution is at the core of our struggle, and even in the darkest periods of Turkey’s history, exploiters were not able to eliminate this idea.

TKP has been the advocate of internationalism and the friendship of peoples against nationalist, racist, xenophobic, militarist currents. The Peace Association (which was banned two times, after the coup d’etat of 1980 and 2016, and acting under the name of the Peace Committee of Turkey since then) has been affiliated with communists. Formerly, it was the communist intellectuals of Turkey who reacted against the sending of soldiers to the Korean War, as a bloody bribe aiming Turkey’s membership to NATO and founded the Association of Peace-lovers.

Moreover, the most renowned, impactful intellectuals, authors, artists, scientists, archeologists, that not only have national but a universal value have been proud communists, including Nâzım Hikmet, Suat Derviş, Sabahattin Ali, Aziz Nesin, Halet Çambel, Necdet Bulut and so forth. No one can draw a picture of enlightenment in modern Turkey without these figures, who are endless sources of inspiration for us.

TKP is the oldest and youngest political party in our country. It is the hope and the vanguard of Turkey’s working class, for a future free of capitalist barbarity.