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The riddle of CHP

Murat Belge*

Historian Eric Hobsbawm referred to the era opened by the French Revolution as the “Age of Revolutions.” Indeed, Europe spent the nineteenth century with uprising actions aiming for revolution. In the revolutionary attempts that erupted in the west of the continent, the source of demands and grievances was social, meaning that the problems were based on class. The “West,” playing a pioneering role in industry, was the main actor in both the new formation of classes and class exploitation. The struggle was directed against the bourgeoisie.

In the eastern part of Europe, uprisings were not lacking, but their content was different: the issue was “national.” This was because three multinational empires were located on this side of the continent. These were the “Land” empires: the Ottoman, Russian, and Austrian Empires. The peoples outside the dominant ethnicity in these regions were striving to establish their own independent states. In the first quarter of the 19th century, these national movements also spread and succeeded in Latin America.

Two different types of struggle brought two different forms of political organization. In class-based struggles, the leading role was given to the working class. When it came to national issues and national independence, we witnessed a kind of “national coalition” leading the movement. In this case, the intelligentsia held a decisive position and tried to involve the entire nation in the struggle without focusing solely on class.

As described by Hobsbawm, the political and military balance in Europe turned the attention of Western states, each of which aspired to dominate the world, beyond Europe. Thus, the era of imperialism began, and in a short time, a large part of the world was “colonized.” Consequently, the rivalry that started in Europe spread across the world. Under these conditions, examples of “anti-imperialist” struggles emerged. Since the British Empire succeeded in becoming the “most imperialist” power, it was natural that the birthplace of such resistance movements was there. India took the lead in the fight against colonization. At the end of World War II, the “colonial” history of India also came to an end. The Congress Party, which successfully led this struggle in every stage, embarked on establishing a new India as the “savior” of the country and society.

When we look at the developments in a general sense, Turkey’s process is not very different from that. Like India, Turkey was the owner of an ancient empire and as it lost it, it also lost power against imperialist West. However, unlike India, Ottoman society did not become a “colony” during this process.

Turkey did not become a “colony,” but those who wrote the history of modernization in Turkey (thus shaping its “rhetoric”) decided to adopt such a tone. World War I was a major event that ended the era of “unfree peoples” in Europe. US President Woodrow Wilson played an important role in this process. New states were established in Europe such as Finland, the three Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Poland was reshaped. The borders of Romania and Bulgaria changed. In the Middle East, Syria and Iraq were established, followed by Jordan and later Saudi Arabia. Russia, which experienced the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, managed to convince the peoples living in its vast territories that its “communist” regime would not allow ethnic-based hegemony, except for those in the north. Ukraine, Belarus, and others became republics within the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Austria became a small country and the Ottoman state disappeared in history. However, the dissolution process of the Ottoman state did not follow a peaceful path.

The Armenian Genocide was on the table. In the regions where those who declared the end of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Turkey were dominant, the Armenian population had significantly decreased. However, an “Armenia” had emerged in the Caucasus. In the complex history of the Caucasus, this place could be seen as a “homeland” for the Armenians (Turkey’s position). On the other hand, there was the issue of Greece. In a world where Wilson’s principles of “self-determination” were valid, what would happen to the large Greek population living in Anatolia? Their inclusion, along with the land they lived on, in Greece was the reward promised by the “Allied” powers in exchange for Greece’s entry into the war. Britain played a leading role in this regard. In the 19th century, Prime Minister Disraeli (from the Tories) pursued a policy that leaned towards the Ottoman (Turkish) side partially due to Russia’s policies. His great rival, the leader of the Liberal Party, Gladstone, was openly anti-Turkish, and now the Liberals who respected him were in power in Britain. The Armenian Genocide had created an anti-Turkish sentiment throughout Europe, including the Young Turks. Greece, on the other hand, was seen as the heir to the glorious “classical” era and the embodiment of European values. Therefore, it formed the common attitude of the liberal public opinion that it was time to expel the Turks, who chose to ally with Germany during the war, from Europe. While liberals saw it this way, it cannot be said that conservative Europe sympathized with the Turks.

Therefore, Britain, as the “conductor” of the post-war world, said to Greece, “Here, take what you deserve.” Italy was bitter about this new situation because they had been promised parts of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning. France, like Britain, did not bind itself. Indeed, when Turkish resistance began, these two states did not take a stance against Turkey, and first Italy, then France, made their own agreements and withdrew from the region. Britain supported Greece throughout this process but never turned it into “armed support.” When the Great Offensive resulted in a Turkish victory, they gathered themselves up and left without delay.

“Losing an empire” is not an easy thing. It brings many wounds, and they often manifest themselves without much “rationality” but rather as a “display.” The “need to boast” often emerges. In Turkey, there is a literature of “fighting against and defeating seven great powers,” which is not entirely accurate. Turkey is not in a “victim” position regarding issues such as Armenians and Greeks (this does not mean that they have always acted “humanely” in every situation). As a result, we fought a war with Greece, and it is not very convincing to make the literature of “imperialist Greece” here. Greece lived under Ottoman rule for about six centuries and is a much smaller country compared to Turkey. We did not fight against an “imperialist” power other than a few insignificant guerrilla wars against the French (in the Independence War – there were, of course, prior instances: in the World War).

image 16
Ismet Inonu

The title of the article includes the name CHP, but we have not yet come to the subject of CHP despite having come a long way. I am trying to look at the international conditions from which CHP emerged from a specific perspective. In the meantime, I mentioned the independence of India after World War II. There are certain similarities between the Congress Party, which achieved it, and the Republican People’s Party, which established Turkey. They are “foundational national” parties. Being “foundational” does not end with establishing the state; they also have to struggle with the affliction of underdevelopment. They have a duty to “modernize.” To mobilize a society that does not know the way and is unwilling to endure the effort, they need to be “authoritarian.” When they exceed a certain degree of authoritarianism, they create anger and reactions in society. Bad memories created are not easily forgotten.

Just like Congress, CHP went through these stages. One of the first “tasks” was to create a bourgeoisie, that is, to ensure capital accumulation. It required a strict form of statism. It involved transferring a portion of the value behind protective tariff barriers to the aspiring class of capitalists…

If possible, to do this without resorting to methods like “wagon trading” similar to the Ittihatçılar, which involved elements of piracy and banditry (But, Yavuz/Havuz, etc.). Of course, among the many social requirements of modernization, these actions had to be taken. Thus, achieving the “initial accumulation.” You can explain to the elite why these tasks needed to be done and why they needed to be done with such methods. After all, they would be the ones who would reap the first benefits and enjoy the fruits. The renewal process would inevitably be a movement guided by educated elites. The society might be the passive object rather than the active subject of this process.

I am talking about a policy and a process filled with heavy burdens and unpleasantness. It will be a difficult path, with limited possibilities of seeing a “happy ending.” In some underdeveloped societies, the political cadres that took on this “foundational” function continue as long as they remain unrivaled in the country. This allows the parasitic elements, benefiting from this situation, to thrive. The so-called “temporary” order becomes “permanent.” In Turkey, the Ottoman past allowed for a political environment where concepts like “parliament” and “democracy” were not fully established but were discussed and welcomed. Thus, the end of the “single-party” regime in Turkey came with the victory of the democratic front in World War II. When the power changed hands through elections in 1950, it can be said that the regime of “initial accumulation” largely achieved its goal. The years of war-induced hardship could come to an end. And it did.

Therefore, the Democrat Party government gave the people a breath of fresh air and made them smile. It is important that İsmet İnönü provided this opportunity to the society, and it is expected to make those who compete in insulting him think a little. The method of “monopoly state capitalism” by CHP was an extremely repellent regime, but it also provided the clues for its own transcendence. DP took advantage of these clues. Here, I think we encounter a paradox specific to Turkey. When we look at it within the framework of “political history,” we see a fragmented, contentious, and contradictory course with various ideological conflicts and military coups. Naturally, these also reflect in “economic history,” but from a broader perspective, I believe I see a more stable and logical line that is followed consistently.

image 15
Adnan Menderes, PM, Leader of Democrat Party.

İnönü, in the 1960s (after May 27), stirred up the political world with the phrase “center-left.” Prudent İnönü did not say “social-democrat,” but this line could be seen where he indicated. Indeed, some people didn’t hesitate to see it, especially Bülent Ecevit.

In the 1960s, İnönü said “center-left.” Those who interpreted it as “social democracy” immediately emerged. Today, we are in 2023. The question of “Can social democracy emerge from CHP?” is still being asked today. So, it has remained unanswered for all these years.

Because there are complex ties that are difficult to see in history. These ties connect CHP to a past that is not “social-democratic.” It is a patriarchal past. Moreover, it is “nationalistic” to an extent that would not be found in the general context of social democracy (but such examples exist in the world). However, this did not prevent admiration for Mussolini and later Hitler. One arrow points to a so-called socialist aspect: statism. But it has not been able to present it in a more likable, more acceptable form than the statism practiced by “communist” countries – and it has such a bad reputation. “Secularism” is an endless subject of debate. Moreover, when it comes to “making concessions,” there is no end to it. Hostility towards the Ottoman Empire and an unquestioning commitment to its own history are unnecessary ideological burdens.

I wrote in another article. The first Communist Party was established in Turkey in 1920. What happened with the establishment of a social-democratic party is a complicated story, but it is not the main issue here. Why? Because CHP did not allow such a thing to be established; it did not view the existence of such a party favorably. Communist parties sometimes consider illegal activities inevitable and do not refuse to operate under such conditions. An illegal social-democratic party is not something that has been heard of.

To cut it short: It is not easy for social democracy to emerge from CHP. Moreover, not everyone within CHP believes that it is a good thing. The factions that will immediately turn to opposition are ready when such an attempt begins. On the other hand, although it may be difficult, it is not impossible. Nothing is impossible in politics. The most unpleasant situation is to say “I became like this” and not actually become that. This is something that CHP has always done.

But the point we have reached is no laughing matter.

This article was published in Turkish in Birikim Dergisi on July 3, 2023, and translated into English by Politurco.

*Murat Belge (born 16 March 1943) is a Turkish academic, translator, literary critic, columnist, civil rights activist, and occasional tour guide.

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