A tribute to a Marxist ‘traitor’

A tribute to a Marxist ‘traitor’

Turkey has a strong tradition of the Marxist left, and one of the successes of this camp has been its excellence in the universal Turkish attitude: self-righteousness. Spokesmen for the Turkish left, in other words, are great in venerating themselves. They always speak of either the virtues and sacrifices of their comrades, or the evil conspiracies that they have been subjected to. 

Many of the conspiracies in question relate to the 70s, the peak of both the Marxist movement and its clash with the state and the nationalist right. Thousands of militants died in those tumultuous years in Turkey, paving the way for the brutal military coup of 1980.

My personal take on that period is simple: Every camp involved was fanatic. The Marxists believed in a violent revolution, the nationalist right wanted to stop them violently and ultimately the military crushed all of them very violently. No camp was completely clean, no camp was praiseworthy.

The Marxists, however, have kept on believing that they were virtuous martyrs. And one of the icons of their mythology has been the Bloody Labor Day of May 1, 1977, in which some 34 leftists were killed in Istanbul’s Taksim square by gunfire and the subsequent panic it caused. (That is why Taksim square was closed for decades to Labor Day celebrations and only reopening three years ago.) 

For decades, the left has blamed the “deep state” and the CIA for this notorious bloodshed. They argued that police with submachine guns began firing on the huge crowd from the top of a big building next to Istiklal Street and that “snipers sent from the CIA” killed even more from a room in today’s The Marmara Hotel. Even legends developed telling how these American shooters were welcomed at the airport by limos the day before the event and were served the finest brands of whiskey. 

But lo and behold, this week one of the very activists who were in Taksim on that Bloody Labor Day, Halil Berktay, gave a long interview to daily Taraf which debunked the whole leftist myth. There was no evidence of any police shooting or CIA snipers, he explained, adding that it was most probably the bitterly divided communist factions (Sovietists versus the Maoists, versus all others) which began shooting at each other.

“An unbelievable political rigidity was in the air, with bigoted, fanatic groups which see any view that deviates from that of their own even a millimeter as their enemy and the servant of imperialism, bourgeoisie, CIA, etc. The left was divided into at least fifty factions who thought that way,” Berktay. 

Some of these groups were armed, Berktay also said, adding that it was quite conceivable that a clash between them could have sparked the violence. Only five of the victims were shot, after all, whereas the rest were crushed to death during the panic. 

In the next couple of days, other eyewitnesses that Taraf interviewed confirmed Berktay’s observations, including Canada-based director İshak Işıtan, the only person who had filmed the whole drama. 

Of course, Halil Berktay is not a communist anymore. As a respectable historian at Sabanci University, he is a political liberal. And he has been debunking the communist myths about not just the Bloody Labor Day, but also the alleged “democratic essence” of Marxism.

His former comrades call him a “traitor,” and that is precisely one of the reasons he deserves my full respect: For we have very few “traitors” in this country, which is rather teaming with apparatchiks with unquestioning loyalty to competing narratives. Only when we have more Halil Berktay’s, I think, will we be a saner nation.