The Kurds and the Turkish left in the 1960s

Submitted by martin on 22 June, 2021 - 5:42 Author: Pete Boggs
Behice Boran at a TİP meeting

Behice Boran at a TİP meeting

For the whole series of articles on the Kurds in Turkey, see here


Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the "founding father" of the Turkish Republic, who had crushed Kurdish uprisings in the southeast and tried to forcibly assimilate Kurds into the Turkish nation, died in 1938. However, Turkey remained a one-party state until 1946 under İsmet İnönü, when landlords formed the Democrat Party (DP) after becoming disillusioned with the ruling Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) land reforms. The Democrat Party won the election in 1950, and began to liberalise Turkey economically and socially.

This liberalisation was far from comprehensive, but it made some important changes to the position of Kurds in Turkey. Much of the heavily Kurdish southeast had been put under martial law during Atatürk’s rule, establishing Inspectorates-General to pacify and “Turkify” these regions. The DP had campaigned on relaxing these restrictions, and a number of Kurds from prominent families who had been exiled were elected as Democrat Party parliamentary deputies. One of these deputies was Remzi Bucak, representing Diyarbakır, who likened the treatment of the southeast to British colonial rule in India. The DP government abolished the Inspectorates-General in 1952.

The economic policies of the DP helped to develop a stronger and more independent bourgeoisie in Turkey which included Kurdish capitalists. Those Kurdish capitalists prioritised investment in already developed western Turkey, and the disparity between the west and the Kurdish southeast grew. That contributed to the growing popularity of left-wing politics among Kurds. Under the Democrat Party Kurds had more freedoms, particularly regarding expression; but the reforms only went so far, and Kurds were still prosecuted for sedition under this government.

The military coup led by Alparslan Türkeş (who later founded the far right Nationalist Action Party, MHP, and its associated paramilitary, the Grey Wolves) in 1960 brought down the Democrat government and immediately stepped up the repression of Kurds. However, the generals returned Turkey to "parliamentary democracy" the following year, albeit with an central political role for the military.

The 1961 constitution drawn up under the supervision of the coup-makers set out more freedoms than had previously been enjoyed in the Turkish Republic: the right to strike, to form associations, to publish political literature. The generation that grew up in this liberal atmosphere was much more open to radical and independent politics than previous generations had been. This generation included many young Kurds who were more educated and cosmopolitan than their parents, and had no memory themselves of the brutal violence carried out against Kurdish uprisings which had dissuaded most older Kurds from involvement in oppositional politics.

In the 1960s, there were two strands among nationalist-minded Kurds. The less popular option was involvement in the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Turkey (TKDP), founded in 1965. This organisation was modelled on (and presumably named after) the Iraqi Kurds’ KDP, led by Mustafa Barzani (the father of the current president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq, Masoud Barzani), who was at the time leading the "Aylul Revolution" (the first Iraqi-Kurdish War) in Iraq.

The TDKP, like its Iraqi counterpart, was fairly traditionalist and influenced by the interests of Kurdish landlords, and it called for a Kurdish federation within Turkey’s existing boundaries. Their attempt to reach out to Barzani was snubbed, and their general secretary Faik Bucak was murdered in 1966. The party survived, however, and exists today as the Kurdistan Democratic Party/North (southeastern Turkey, where many Kurds come from, is the northwestern limit of a proposed Kurdistan).

More Kurds were attracted to the broader Turkish left, particularly to the Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP), and were actually the third most represented demographic in the upper echelons of the organisation after trade unionists and intellectuals.

The TİP refined its approach to the "Kurdish question" throughout the 1960s, becoming more understanding of the specific and national oppression of the Kurds. Initially their approach to the "Eastern" problem (as the issue of the Kurds was often euphemistically referred to in Turkey) emphasised economic underdevelopment in the rural southeast.

By 1968 they acknowledged that identity played a role alongside economics in the treatment of the East, and from their first congress onwards they condemned the discrimination against “those citizens who speak Kurdish and Arabic”, whilst still saying that “paralleling the economic backwardness of the region, citizens here are backward in social and cultural terms”. The fourth congress in 1970 (the last one before the TİP’s ban following the 1971 military coup) went much further than the party had previously on the Kurds:

“That Kurdish people inhabit the East of Turkey; that the dominant classes and fascist governments have, from the very beginning, implemented policies of oppression, terror, and assimilation towards Kurds … that, therefore, any consideration of the Eastern Question as a question of regional development is no more than an appendage of the chauvinist-nationalist perceptions and attitudes of dominant class governments; and that supporting the Kurdish people’s struggle for their full constitutional rights of citizenship … is an ordinary and obligatory task of our party…”

The TİP didn’t mince words on the state violence against Kurds in Turkey, but it crucially did not call for (nor make acknowledgement of) national self-determination. Despite having evolved beyond dismissing Kurdish national oppression as merely down to underdevelopment, they still thought that the problem could be solved as a side-effect of a socialist transformation of Turkey because a future worker-ruled Turkey which would no longer oppress the Kurds.

Kurdish secession was not necessarily then, and is not necessarily now, the only possible solution that socialists should countenance. There is a genuine discussion to be had here, and it is not a settled question even within the Kurdish movement in Turkey. The bottom line is that socialists should acknowledge the right of the Kurdish people to their own self-determination, whether they choose a separate state or genuine democratic rights within Turkey (and Syria, Iraq, and Iran). The nuances of this position escaped the Supreme Court, who banned the TİP in July 1971, citing the party’s supposed support for Kurdish separatism.

Many Kurds inclined towards the left were unhappy with the TİP’s refusal to support an independent Kurdish state. Kemal Burkay, who began his political life in the TİP like many others, said of his time in the party that “at that time we didn’t think of having a separate organisation. The goal of making changes in Turkey, of winning democracy, of winning Kurdish rights was tied to the struggle of the two peoples working together. In time, we understood that the Turkish left did not have a real Kurdish program.”

An important context for this period of the Turkish left is the rift opening up between supporters of “socialist revolution”, and supporters of a “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR).

Supporters of the NDR such as Mihri Belli looked to "completing" Turkey’s bourgeois and anti-imperialist revolution through a “national front” of the army, youth, intellectuals, and national bourgeoisie. Supporters of the “socialist revolution” perspective such as Behice Boran looked to the working class (alongside the rural poor) bringing socialist revolution without a distinct prior "national front" stage. (For a critical and in depth discussion of this debate, see 'Marxism and the Ideological Traditions of the Turkish Left' published by the revolutionary socialist group Marksist Tutum).

The question of the Kurds was not central to this debate, but the NDR supporters’ sympathy for Atatürk’s legacy and Kemalism (the state ideology of Turkey during the one party period, named for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) made them less inclined to support the Kurdish movement. Some proponents of NDR had a level of understanding for the situation of Kurds, but others such as Doğu Perinçek were wholly unsympathetic, and fundamentally NDR was a nationalist project. Conversely, “socialist revolution” supporters such as Boran were important in developing the TİP’s comparatively sensitive policy.

Kurdish leftists generally saw this debate as not really relevant to them. In 1969, Kurdish students at universities in western Turkish cities formed the Revolutionary Cultural Eastern Hearths (DDKO), using the standard euphemism of "Eastern" to denote Kurdishness and bypass the state censor. Abdullah Öcalan, the later founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was tangentially involved with the DDKO, and complained of their refusal to come to concrete political conclusions alongside the failure of the Turkish left to acknowledge the national question of the Kurds. The DDKO was banned in 1971 alongside the TİP.

From this point onwards, the Kurdish movement largely started to organise separately from the Turkish left. There have been important exceptions to this: the pro-Kurdish People’s Labour Party (HEP) went into a brief alliance with Erdal İnönü’s "centre-left" Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) in government before E. İnönü (the son of İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s successor) forbade them from attending a Kurdish nationalist meeting in Paris in 1992. That prompted them to break away from the SHP.

A more promising exception has been the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) which brings together parts of the Kurdish movement and the Turkish left, and is currently facing serious anti-democratic repression from the Erdoğan government.

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