The Sad State of Turkish Freedom

‘And with the pencil which draws the cartoons

of the master of Religious Knowledge,

demolish the pages of the Koran.

You must know how to build your own paradise

On this black soil.’

(Advice to Our Children, 1928)

It is likely that the millions of men and women who have been occupying Taksim Square in Istanbul since the last week in retaliation for the state’s plans to convert an environmentally-protected space – the Gezi Park – into a reconstructed military barracks-cum-shopping mall  really do know something about building their own paradise, in consonance with the not-so-pious wishes of Nazim Hikmet, modern Turkey’s greatest poet, who died 50 years ago today, in icy Muscovite exile, away from the daily struggles and resistance of Turkey’s common people who he glorified in his verses throughout his stormy life.

There is much value today in remembering the life and legacy of a man who single-handedly epitomized Turkey and Turkish culture for most of the 20th-century, much before Orhan Pamuk became a household name in the Western academy. For unlike many of his contemporaries in other parts of the world – Pablo Neruda, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Garcia Lorca, Nizar Qabbani – Hikmet singlehandedly liberated Turkish language from the stifling conventions of the Ottoman era and into the realm of the everyday vernacular infused with revolutionary commitment to Marxism-Leninism.

He was born in the beginnings of the last century to a bourgeois family with ties to the decaying Ottoman Empire. As he himself proclaimed in his poem In the Reign of Sultan Hamid, ‘(My father) was a senior civil servant, son of a pasha. I changed my class and became a communist.’  Mercifully, the defining event in his youth was not the Turkish War of Independence, which culminated in the depredations of Kemalism and which he would later commemorate in a significant work, but his decision to witness for himself the newly-consolidated Soviet Union.  His subsequent commitment to Marxism-Leninism and opposition to the Turkish ruling elite would make him a persona non-grata in his native country and repeated spells in jails, while an international celebrity abroad, until he was able to escape permanently to the Soviet Union in 1951.

The sheer breadth of Hikmet’s subject matter is enormous, from a 15th century revolt of peasants in Ottoman Turkey to the epic of the Turkish War of Independence; from his denunciations of fascism to the deleterious effects of the use of the nuclear bomb in World War II; and from a lament over solitary life in jail to a celebration of love, Hikmet always adopts the position of, and solidarity with, the peasant, the worker, the common man, the oppressed. Right from his opposition to dictatorship, war and religious fundamentalism, Hikmet has been very prophetic about the shape of his beloved country as it was immediately after the consolidation of the Republic down to the present time.

Turkey emerged from the ravages of World War I as the successor state to the defeated Ottoman Empire and under the dictatorship of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, consciously chose to eschew its Ottoman past while incorporating the projects of Soviet Russia and Europe of the Enlightenment. However in doing so, it forged a mythic national consensus where dissenting narratives like those of the Kurds and the Armenians were forcefully and brutally assimilated, whereas any attempt to rival the ideology of Kemalism from the Left was also brutally crushed. Meanwhile Turkey, like Pakistan and Iran, became a frontline Sunni state firmly in the American orbit against both the Soviet Union and Arab nationalism, by signing a series of military pacts, virtually assuring the military as the ultimate arbiter of Kemalist authoritarianism and secularism. This latter was achieved through a series of military coups in the 1950s and 1960s, whose main aim was to crush the threat from the Left, not only the trade unions but also from a faction of the Communist movement which had launched armed struggle. It is in these crucial decades when Hikmet lived and wrote that his poetic work becomes so important in understanding a false sense of independence which the ruling elite has foisted upon the people in the name of order. He evokes this lyrically in his 1951 poem A Sad State of Freedom, written very soon after being released from prison in a general amnesty and escaping to the Soviet Union:

‘You sell out – your eyes’ alertness, the radiance of your hands.

You knead the dough of the bread of life, yet never taste a slice.

You are a slave working in your great freedom.

You are free

with the freedom to suffer hell to make Croesus rich.

As soon as you’re born work and worry,

Windmills of lies are planted in your head.

You hold your head in your hands in your great freedom.

You are free

in your freedom of conscience!

You are decapitated.

Your arms loll at your sides.

You wander the streets in your great freedom.

You are free

in your great freedom of being out of work!

You love your country as your dearest love,

but one day, for instance, you could sign it over to America

together with your great freedom.

You are free

in your freedom to become its airbase.

Wall Street grabs you by the scruff of your neck.

One day they could send you to Korea.

You could fill a pit with your great freedom.

You are free

with the freedom of being the unknown soldier.

You say you should live like a human being,

Not a tool, a number, a means to an end.

They clap on the handcuffs in your great freedom.

You are free

in your freedom to be arrested, go to prison, even be hanged.

In your life there are no iron, bamboo or lace curtains.

There’s no need to choose freedom:

you are free.

This freedom is a sad thing beneath the stars.’

What Hikmet saw as a pathology in the 1950s became a permanent structural contradiction between the Turkish ruling elite and the people for the rest of the decade. Turkey indeed became as free as American airbases are allowed to, and a happy playground for American capital.

The roots of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has dominated Turkey for more than a decade lie in the 1980 military coup, which was conducted immediately after the revolution in Iran in 1979, with the support of the CIA. As in Pakistan, the coup brutalized Turkish society and led to increased Saudization of society and culture, with increasing crackdowns on the struggles of the Left, workers, intellectuals, students and Kurds. As one communist comrade told me during my visit to Istanbul in the summer of 2012, a capitalist boss was quoted as saying, “Until now (before the coup), the workers had laughed, now we will laugh.” After the end of dictatorship, Turgut Ozal’s administration opened the economy to neoliberal policies in 1989 and kept up with repression of the Kurds. The corruption and opportunism of the 1990s produced the economic collapse of 2000, which allowed Erdogan to ease into power in 2002. The anomaly is that Erdogan, who ironically was once jailed and banned from publicoffice for reciting a Hikmet poem in public, is now the first democratically-elected leader since Adnan Menderes in 1960 to have won three successive elections, and all this has been achieved by deepening the so-called ‘Turkish model’ – being a loyal satrap of Washington, privatizing everything, and Islamizing everything, so that in effect they are little more than NATO’s Islamists. In an attempt to understand Erdogan’s Turkey, I went to see Caglar Keyder, Professor at Bogacizi University in Istanbul, who knowledgeably talked about the evolution and rise of the AKP for more than an hour with me. According to him, AKP benefitted from the economic crisis of 2000 because there wasn’t any great dispute among the Turkish ruling class and therefore they did not need a coalition to rule. They have also been lucky in terms of economic performance, enjoying a fairly good ten years of economic growth. However they are also very good followers of the post-Washington Consensus, having created lots of new institutions in agriculture, helping to subsidize smaller town capitalists against the Istanbul bourgeoisie. Their social policy consisted of getting rid of old subsidies to farmers but also making sure that farmers were in populist reach of the government. Apart from doing things to rationalize the economy, the AKP government has followed poverty-reduction policies like sending children to school, increasing health expenditures by making hospitals autonomous and instituting comprehensive health reform e.g. people could access drugs without private insurance. By playing such a double-game with the people, the AKP this has penetrated the capillaries of socio-economic life and assumed full control of everything. The outcome, according to Keyder, has been capitalist development, which is more pervasive,and  really dominates social life. Thus while income distribution didn’t worsen much, but Turkey has a neoliberalism with a lot of social policy, a lot more political control and the development of a new capitalist class as an alternative to the old Istanbul-based capitalist class. Also, the relatively successful economy had led to a ten-fold jump in university attendance and in high school despite the low quality of universities. Keyder also pointed out that the AKP does not rely on the peasantry for support and obviously satisfies half the electorate to be able to do so well at the polls. Disagreeing with my characterization of the AKP as Bonapartist, he said that that it could not be labeled as such in the sense that they relied on market-oriented population. The opposition to the AKP in his opinion came from people who were not getting as much as they should; while a third of the opposition is secular and felt that the AKP is a threat to their mode of life. And what of the resistance to these policies, I asked? According to Keyder, there was some resistance but it wasn’t effective, because it wasn’t taking place at the ideological level. For example, in the health sector, the doctors and the union of hospital workers frame their opposition by saying that health is a right and must e provided by the state for free. But what the AKP has done is a vast improvement over what previous governments did, so the doctors’ demand sounds utopian, according to Keyder. There had been a material improvement in the lives of people under the AKP, in terms of ethnic and education policies, while the Left in Turkey wasn’t strong. The ‘very doctrinaire left’ wanted to rely on an industrially-weak working class; and the ‘immature left’ split up into factions after the 1960s, became militant and opted to go for a revolutionary road without any social base. Therefore, concluded Keyder, it was easy for the army to get rid of the Left and after 1980, ‘there hasn’t been any left in Turkey’. However, Keyder admitted that leftist factions existed in Turkey today, which work with the Kurdish movement, but they were not important. There were leftist movements earlier in the 1970s which thought of themselves as social democratic and nationalistic, which were similar to Arab socialism, but were never a realistic option for Turkey because this was a frontline state with American military bases. Regarding Erdogan’s quixotic foreign policy, which even at the time when I visited Turkey was massively unpopular (regarding Syria), Keyder said that the AKP tried to pretend as if they were a sovereign country by allying with China and Iran, but had now defaulted back. This is a very coherent foreign policy strategy, but they always fell back into the American line. Under the AKP, foreign policy was a failure since the very beginning, because the regime claimed to do things it could not. They still had pretensions that they could act as messengers of the West, but they had failed miserably. Therefore it would be difficult to impose a coherent agenda abroad; domestic policy had been much more successful.

Some of what Keyder told me was borne out by the fact that the Erdogan government had aggressively worn the mantle of Neo-Ottomanism by sanctioning the construction of multiple mosques and a grotesque personality cult fed by giant portraits of the Supreme Leader everywhere, as well as promotion of a book he had supposedly written.

I also think that Keyder, who is no longer in touch with what he calls this ‘non-existent left’, rather underestimates its existence. For instance, the Turkish Labour Party (EMEP), founded in 1995, whose roots lie in the origins of Turkey’s communist movement in the 1920s, of which Hikmet was a pioneer, is doing very important work with the oppressed Kurdish movement, which is the single most important issue in Turkish politics today. Women make up 30% of the EMEP and I was privileged to be a part of their Youth Camp at Dikili, an idyllic place next to the Aegean Sea near Izmir, where some 1500 youth from all over the country came to debate about everything from the Kurdish issue and women’s rights to Turkey’s political economy. Meanwhile the Turkish Communist Party (TKP), which is playing a leading role in the rebellion at Taksim Square, has valiantly fought back AKP’s attempts to declare it illegal. It maybe small, but in the last national elections, the party got 70,000 votes across Turkey.

So, Erdogan’s Turkey blunders on. Where the international presses and financial institutions see only compliant Islamists buoyed by turbo-charged neoliberal capitalism, the regime has managed to accumulate $93 billion in debt servicing alone. Erdogan is wont to reiterate about the need for Turkish women to reproduce more children per family. He wants to turn Kurdistan into a cheap labor economy for Turkey. Meanwhile a large number of college graduates are unemployed and they will become part of this cheap labor force. Youth unemployment rate is between 10 and 15%. Also, 30 million women in the country are now housewives but are excluded from unemployment so the official unemployment rate is deceptive. Real unemployment rate is 25%. Turkey leads Europe in the number of worker casualties i.e. in mines and construction. The AKP government is now trying to abolish unemployment benefit for the laid-off workers.

As I write this, the offices of the TKP have been raided by the AKP goons and two of the largest trade unions, namely KESK, which is the Confederation of Public Worker’s Unions and DİSK, which is the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions. have announced a general strike for June 4-5 in solidarity with the Taksim Square insurgents. One of the achievements of the AKP government’s decade long tryst with power and NAT0-Islamism is also a whole mass of depoliticized youth, whom I encountered during my trip in 2012. This together with the peasantry, whom the Turkish left hasn’t really touched since the failure or armed struggle in the 1970s, and who are conspicuously absent from Taksim Square, hold the key if the slogans of the occupiers are to reach anywhere beyond ‘Hukumet Istifa’ (The government resign).

As Erdogan moves to crush these latest protests, he must surely know, as the proud conqueror of the Turkish military and the media (which is barely being allowed to report on the Taksim occupation) and the architect of Saudi-Neo-Ottomanism in the Levant what happened to his predecessor, poor Adnan Menderes, who after winning three consecutive general elections and even with a former coup-making general at his side in the presidency, confronted a similar level of discontent, ultimately being overthrown and paying with his life. In his sober moments, he would also do well to heed this prescient early warning from a young Hikmet:

‘For centuries instead of heaven’s eternal light,

The gloom of dark fanatical forces

Has pervaded the purest, cleanest hearts

Of this land.

For centuries this dark power,

A wound that bleeds in our souls,

Has growled like a parched wolf

Whenever the country ran towards radiant light. 

While the swart hands of this dark force

Encircle our throats,

We, in our hearts, still give this thief

The most sacred place.

But ungrateful are all the Faithful

If they don’t kneel and give thanks to God

When those hands that steal youth’s sacred light

Are cut off like the hands of a thief.’

(The Dark Fanatical Forces, 1921)

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, literary critic, translator and political activist (of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party) He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in UK, and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is presently working on a history of pos-Arab Spring Yemen. He can be reached at: