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What is CHP? What is it not?

*Tanıl Bora

The question is quite current, but let’s start with literature by going back in time.

The title of Ahmet Kardam’s book, published in 1976, is this: What is CHP? What is it not? (Ülke Yayınları.) As the 1977 general elections approach, from a socialist perspective – specifically from the perspective of the Turkey Communist Party[1] – Kardam discusses what can be expected from the CHP and what can be found. In essence, he explains that one should not expect much.

According to Kardam, a CHP government will undoubtedly “offer some relief” after the Nationalist Front. However, he emphasizes that a government formed by the CHP, which claims to solve the problems of the working masses and establish a democratic order, will not mean a “people’s government” or “democracy” as promised.

The book then lists the reasons why the CHP will be unable to fulfill these promises, stemming from its ideological and political stance. Despite opposing monopolies, the CHP defends an outdated and monopolistic capitalist system that has given rise to monopolies, opposing state ownership in areas such as industry, banking, and foreign trade. The CHP has invented an abstract concept called the “People’s Sector” model to achieve a long-gone “free competition capitalism” with no equivalent in the world. It has not taken a decisive stance on land reform. It believes that continuing NATO membership can be reconciled with an independent foreign policy claim. It opposes measures that would enable the working people to have a significant say in the country’s governance in the name of “liberal democracy” and underestimates the danger of fascism created by the collaborating bourgeoisie.

Ahmet Kardam concludes “What is CHP? What is it not?” by reminding that the CHP is certainly not a socialist party and will not become one; thus, one should not expect too much from it. However, he highlights the importance of the CHP having a broad and powerful mass support from the working class that has turned cities into CHP strongholds. According to Kardam, the organized working masses within the CHP, especially in the face of the violent attacks of fascism, will exert their influence on the party leadership and should increase it – this will create a dynamic that can push the CHP toward a more consistent line, even if reluctantly.

In the 1977 general elections that this book focuses on, the CHP reached its highest vote share in all multi-party era elections[2]: 41.38%. However, with a makeshift government formed by transferring 11 right-wing deputies, it could not even partially fulfill the promise of a “people’s rule.” It caused a significant disappointment, especially among the “working-class” that turned cities into CHP strongholds. This disappointment was not only mentioned in “What is CHP? What is it not?” but also in all socialist publications of that period.

Those days were once upon a time… Compared to the disappointment the CHP created in the past two months, its failure in the 1977-1979 period was a very qualified, competent disappointment.

Each generation will write its own “What is CHP? What is it not?”

Of course, the conditions of the 1970s were different. It was before the neoliberal era, before the criminalization of politics by the September 12 coup. It was also before the digital age. Zoom, tweets, not even an idea yet.

Back then, the internal struggles among “distinguished figures” excited the CHP members almost as much as public political struggles. (Now, internal struggles, and perhaps only the inner world of some, seem to excite more than anything else.) However, they were also busy with grassroots politics and organizing. In addition to group deputy chairmen, party central executive board members, and parliament members, there was a vigorous Youth Wing that had set off with a real movement excitement, a social-democratic municipalism movement, active CHP groups in trade unions and democratic mass organizations. There were minds entrusted to partisan and party-related intellectuals, not appointed professional advisors. And let’s not forget: as mentioned in “What is CHP? What is it not?”, there was pressure from the left. The pressure from both a vibrant working class and a vibrant socialist movement pushed the CHP forward.

The history of the left’s disappointments and resentments regarding the CHP is as old as the CHP itself. The history of CHP members resenting the left’s disappointments and resentments is also the same.

When there is no such pressure, these disappointments and resentments do not have much effect. For quite some time now, there has been no strong left-wing force. There is the HDP/Green Left, of course, but the CHP is so focused on becoming the Trust Party [Güven Partisi] against them that there is little interaction. This very imperviousness is already a dynamic of the Trust Party. (Would TİP have such an effect? Let’s see.) After the Baykal era’s withering, the CHP occasionally shows signs of having an internal left influence. Initiatives to modernize and develop the tradition of social-democratic municipalism,[4] the organizing zeal represented by Canan Kaftancıoğlu, the efforts of some human rights-oriented MPs… Instead of being a wing within the party, it’s more like a spider web.

Of course, it is also possible to manage the Trust Party better; there is nothing to say about that.

[1] This refers to the historical TKP (Turkish Communist Party) – the “classic” TKP or the ‘paleo’-TKP, let’s say, which existed from 1920 to 1987/1991.

[2] Let’s exclude the open vote, secret counting 1946 elections.

[3] As I said in my Weekly article in May 2017, it is an ever-remaining Trust Party, no matter how much you take out of it… The party of Republican-conservatism… Constantly trying to present itself to the state it is pushed out of, by constantly adjusting its appearance as a “state party.” A party turning centrism into dogmatism. (However, this Zafer Partisi pact might be too much even for Kemal Satır…)

[4] But very often, they interpret this modernization as a market-oriented governance. After all, isn’t the transformation of municipal administrations into beyliks a significant issue within the CHP?

*Tanıl Bora was born in 1963 in Ankara. He graduated from Istanbul Boys’ High School, then Ankara University Political Science Faculty. He was a journalist at Yeni Gündem, a weekly news journal, in between 1984-88. He has been the research / reading editor in İletişim Publishing since 1988. In between 1993 and 2014, he was the editorial director in Toplum & Bilim Journal, a social science journal published every three months. In 2012, he became the editorial coordinator of Birikim, a monthly socialist culture journal for which he was writing articles since 1989.

In between 2002 and 2017, he gave masters and PhD level lectures on History of Political Thought in Turkey in Ankara University Political Science Faculty. His field of study and interest is mainly political thought in Turkey. Some of his books published on the issue as follows: Devlet Ocak Dergâh – 1980’lerde Ülkücü Hareket (together with Kemal Can, 1991), Milliyetçiliğin Kara Baharı (1995), Türk Sağının Üç Hali (1998), Devlet ve Kuzgun – 1990’lardan 2000’lere MHP,2004), Medeniyet Kaybı- Milliyetçilik ve Faşizm Üzerine Yazılar (2006), Sol, Sinizm, Pragmatizm, 2010), Cereyanlar – Türkiye’de Siyasi İdeolojiler, 2017).

He translated more than twenty books from prominent authors like Karl Karx, Jürgen Habermas, Franz Kafka, Ernst Bloch, Wilhelm Schmid.

As the founder member of Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, he is involved in the organization committee of “Human Rights Movement Conference of Turkey” that has been organized for fifteen years. He has been a board member of History Foundation since 2017.

This article was first published in Birikim Magazine on July 26, 2023 and translated into English bu Politurco.

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