Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Lessons for the US Left from the Turkish Elections by Muhsin Y.

 
 
 The United States is a country where presidential elections dominate the political discourse almost totally. Every four years, a new president is elected from one of the two parties in perpetual governance of the state. This election circus, from the start of the campaigns to the debates all the way to election day, continues for over a year prior to each election. Even before and after this process, the remaining three quarters of US political life focuses disproportionate energy on the personage of the president, whether it is defending them from their party, attacking them from their pro-system rival, or choosing sides on petty issues from third parties and left-wing organisations.
By contrast, Turkey holds multi-party elections for shares of the parliament, with most of the power concentrated in the parliament's hands, with the president playing a theoretically limited role, and the prime minister chosen as the representative of the party in power in that parliament. This system is presently under threat through the manoeuvring of the AKP, which has been in government for 13 years, and has managed to rescue itself from the catastrophe (from its perspective) of losing the capacity to enter government by itself by the HDP in June. On November 1st, while the three opposition parties (the mainstream nationalist CHP, the openly fascist MHP, and the leftist HDP) remain in parliament, having not fallen below the 10% electoral threshold, the AKP is now in government and has aims to expand its power further, so that their president, Erdoğan, can achieve US presidency levels of power and beyond, with the parliament acting as a mere formality.
In spite of the overwhelming mood of pessimism which hangs over the Turkish left at present due to the loss of some HDP seats in parliament on November 1st, there is still cause for optimism. In spite of a socially conservative population, in spite of a fascist state apparatus which has silenced opposition media, arrested HDP elected officials, besieged Kurdish areas resulting in the deaths of civilians and innumerable daily violations of basic human rights, no investigation into bombings of leftists and Kurds in broad daylight (in Diyarbekir, Suruç, and Ankara, to name but the most recent and flagrant examples, in spite of the regular and open accusations by the forces behind all these, represented in the AKP government, that all their critics are terrorists, while those who accuse them of fascism risk imprisonment for "defamation" (!), a left-wing party uniting socialists, the Kurdish movement, environmentalists, feminists, and the LGBT movement remains in parliament and a strong force in the streets, unwilling to be co-opted or bought out. What is the HDP's secret, and why does such a phenomenon not exist in the United States, where cynicism towards the two mainstream parties is widespread?
The social and historical foundations of Turkey and the United States are different enough that it is difficult to view the HDP as a formula that can simply be replicated in the US context, but what parallels exist must not be ignored: Where Turkey possesses a large national minority in search of its most basic rights, the US has the Afro-American people, whose presence in the streets against the physical arm of state violence has been impossible to ignore over recent months. As it is clear to the Kurds that the system as it stands cannot produce answers for them, so too has Obama's presidency exposed to many young Afro-Americans that a white supremacist system is in place which cannot be solved by putting a black face on it. A new generation of young Afro-Americans is again coming to the realisation that Black Power, and not vague appeals to "post-racial America", is what will solve their problems. Many leftist organisations in Turkey remain distant from the HDP, although they theoretically support "the right to self-determination" for the Kurdish people. They oppose taking part in the HDP project specifically on the grounds that the Kurdish national movement is excessively hegemonic. The parallel here is clear: Almost all left-wing organisations in the US officially oppose racism fiercely, and many will even draw on slogans of Afro-American self-determination, but this is a mere recruiting tactic. They must show in practice that they support the Afro-American people's real self-determination, and not merely that they will "award" such self-determination to the Afro-American people after a revolution at some indeterminate point in the future.
In the United States, as in Turkey, there are numerous social issues which are part of political discourse based on divisions in the society other than class (where the exploited class is the majority, but not a political class for itself yet) or nation (wherein the population in question has a territory and the capacity for self-determination and independence). Chief among these is the women's movement, which, while not producing in any geographic place a majority like class or nation, makes up approximately half of all societies everywhere. The HDP has taken an exemplary role in this area by having co-mayors, co-chairs, and everywhere a man and woman standing side by side in equality, and with the highest proportion of woman parliamentarians of any party in Turkey. This is achieved by conscious "affirmative action" (in US parlance) or "positive discrimination" (per the terminology in other countries). For this the HDP has been accused of being "bourgeois feminist" by other left-wing organisations in Turkey. Again, it is these organisations who, failing to examine the concrete dynamics of their own organisations, assume that their nominal support for women's equality is all that needs doing. But many of these organisations are dominated by men, with women speaking less and taking on lower posts, wherever one looks. Again, parallels can be seen on the US anti-capitalist left, among whom it is an open secret that men outnumber women in terms of membership and are disproportionately powerful over women in terms of group dynamics.
As anti-capitalists, many of us are predisposed to a very abstract understanding of Marxian thought: There is the proletariat, there is the bourgeoisie, the latter exploits the former, and if the proletariat would just see how amazing our ideas are, they would follow us to a revolution which will turn these dynamics on their head, bring the proletariat to power, expropriate the expropriators, end exploitation, etc.

Obviously these are noble and correct goals. But there are concrete reasons why the proletariat do not flock to these ideas in practice. Obviously one may bring up the repression of genuine revolutionary socialist ideas by the state and its agents in every country. But, given that we assume the state is a bourgeois state and the bourgeois class as a whole is our enemy, we should expect them to resort to such tactics and examine our own failure to respond appropriately to them. In Turkey as in the US, the poor, on an everyday level, are concerned with many issues that, while they are the product of capitalist exploitation in the final instance, are primary contradictions to them today. Leading all the workers and the oppressed masses does not mean merely stating that you are their leader and expecting them to join up because you've promised to end exploitation and oppression. It means showing them that you are a principled group that actually struggles against and does not merely condemn in word the oppression they face, whether it is sexism, homophobia, the destruction of their environment, etc.
In all these areas the HDP has taken a real vanguard role, drawing in activists and civil society groups representing religious minorities, the LGBT community in Turkey, environmentalists, the women's movement, etc., and not only spoken out in their defence, not only been their by their side, but also leads them, step by step, towards unity and progress. For this, revolutionary socialist elements within the HDP have been accused by their rivals of "reformism" and "selling out". But it is this last point which is truly crucial for the US left to understand: Rather than building a party like this, the US left remains fragmented and directionless. Rather than building a party like this, the US left votes for the Democrats because they are "the lesser of two evils", and "there's nothing we can do now". Meanwhile, the HDP does not unite with the CHP, because they are nominal "social democrats" and many good people happen to vote for them out of habit. The HDP remains distant from the CHP (while of course building tactical alliances based on concrete circumstances), in spite of the widespread view among liberals that the CHP, as the second biggest party in parliament and the one which has the most forward-thinking voters (and some small number of basically democratic parliamentarians). Revolutionary socialists in the US in particular, and the US left in general, remain trapped in a sectarian fantasy world where their mere existence represents a vanguard role, and unfortunately, by the time many notice this, they fall on the opposite extreme and put trust in the system's own party (the Democrats) to hold back the tide of the Republicans' open reaction and enact some non-threatening reforms (as they are indeed capable of doing when it doesn't threaten the core of the system).

It is time for the US left to learn a lesson from the Turkish left. This is not merely to learn a lesson about "unity", but to start seriously examining their relationship to various observed rebellious dynamics against the system in place in the US. The US left, and revolutionary socialists the world over, must truly see the dynamics among the masses, must truly look for signs of progressive theory and practice from groups even outside of their particularly theoretical worldview, and work towards this unity. Unity does not mean when two Marxist groups declare that they agree on most things and are going to form a slightly bigger micro-sect together. Unity means a real unity of struggle, which already exists in the society, built on and through one's real participation in that struggle. In Turkey, this has been understood, and we must ceaselessly examine how to move forward in that capacity, electorally (through the HDP) and extra-electorally (through the HDK). In the US, the time is now to take further steps towards building a political movement of this character. The time is now.

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