Turkish communism: Why is it still alive?

Turkish communism: Why is it still alive?

Istanbul’s Taksim square was filled with tens of thousands of Turks yesterday, who all rallied for Labor Day with posters in bright red. Besides various trade unions, there were also a variety of socialist groups, ranging from Marxists to Marxist-Leninists, Stalinists, Maoists, Trotskyites, and God knows what else. As a novelty, there was even a new cadre of “Muslim anti-capitalists,” who do not see instructions for the protection of private property and free markets in the Quran — as I do — but hints for collectivization of wealth. 

Turkish communism, in other words, was alive and kicking yesterday, in a Taksim which looked more “red” than ever.

To Western eyes, that might seem a bit surprising. Communism is an ideology that has been tested, and tested well. Its results have always been tragic, if not outright horrific. The gulags of Stalin or the killing fields of Pol Pot have shown the world some of the purest manifestations of evil. In its milder forms, communism created authoritarian states and stagnant societies. That is why it has collapsed everywhere, and its few relics - such as Cuba or North Korea - are really not the nicest places on Earth.

Turkish communists, however, seem uninterested with all that trial-and-error. The common argument you will hear from them is that none of the terrible communist experiments in the twentieth century were “real communism.” (So, they want to have yet another experiment!) Some of them, on the other hand, take a bolder stance and argue that Stalin, Mao and other figures in the communist hall of fame — people that I would call mass murderers — were in fact great patriotic leaders who have only been defamed through “capitalist propaganda.”

But why is this the case? Why is communism still so popular among Turks?

Well, the story goes back to the 60s and 70s, when being a communist was almost synonymous with being an intellectual in Turkey. With a few rare exceptions — including, I must say, my father — almost all the Turkish literati became passionate adherents of Marxism. The Communist Manifesto became a hit, and college girls fell in love with the “revolutionaries” who had dirty long hair and funny sideburns and who preached against capitalism and religion.

Then the came the 90s, however, in which almost all communist regimes fell one by one. Turkish communists proved uninterested in that empirical fall of their ideology, as they keep on proving. 

Halil Berktay, an erudite professor of history at the prestigious Sabancı University, and a columnist for daily Taraf, has been discussing that phenomenon for a while in his pieces. A former communist himself — of the Maoist type — Dr. Berktay has renounced his old ideology and has moved on to a liberal-social democratic synthesis.

What he points out about his former comrades is that they are simply out of touch with reality: They have never understood why the Soviet Union fell or why Red China had to liberalize its economy. They rather have a dogmatic faith in “Marx the master,” and the so-called “laws of history” that the German thinker was arrogant enough to think he had discovered.

For me, this is the case, because, just like Kemalism, communism is a “secular religion” in Turkey. It gives its adherents a sense of meaning, purpose and morality. It even gives one the sense of devoting oneself to a Higher Being called “the Revolution.” Once you subscribe to this secular religion, whatever happens in the real world does not influence your dedication. You never “lose hope.” And so you rally to Taksim every Labor Day, to prove that you are still a believer.

may day,