50 years on: Remembering Nazim Hikmet and reflecting on the sad state of Turkish freedom

Published in Turkey

 By Raza Naeem 

‘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 tens of thousands of men and women who have been occupying Taksim Square in Istanbul recently in protest against the state’s plans to convert an environmentally-protected space – 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 fifty 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 epitomised Turkey and Turkish culture for most of the twentieth century, long 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, for example, Hikmet singlehandedly liberated the 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 at the beginning 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 force him to suffer repeated spells in jail – 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 fifteenth 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 the Second World War; 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 person, the oppressed. From his opposition to dictatorship, war and religious fundamentalism, Hikmet has been very prophetic about the shape of his beloved country immediately after the consolidation of the republic down to the present time.

Turkey emerged from the ravages of the First World War as the successor state to the defeated Ottoman Empire and under the dictatorship of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who consciously chose to eschew Turkey’s 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, and 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, and, by signing a series of military pacts, it virtually ensured that the military was the ultimate arbiter of Kemalist authoritarianism and secularism. This was achieved through a series of military coups in the 1950s and 1960s. The main aim of these coups 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 an armed struggle. It was in these crucial decades that Hikmet lived and wrote that his poetic work became very important in understanding the false sense of independence which the ruling elite had foisted upon the people in the name of order. Hikmet evokes this lyrically in his 1951 poem A Sad State of Freedom, written soon after he was released from prison in a general amnesty and escaped 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 brutalised Turkish society and led to increased Saudisation 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 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 continued the 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 public office 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, privatising everything, and Islamising 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. According to him, AKP benefitted from the economic crisis of 2000 because there was not 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, and helping to subsidise 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 rationalise 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 thus has penetrated the capillaries of socioeconomic life and assumed full control of everything. The outcome, according to Keyder, has been capitalist development, which is more pervasive, and dominates social life. Thus, while income distribution did not worsen much, Turkey has a neoliberalism with a large dose of social policy, 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 high school and university attendance, despite the low quality of universities. Keyder also pointed out that the AKP does not rely on the peasantry for support. Yet it obviously satisfies half the electorate to be able to do well at the polls. Disagreeing with my characterisation of the AKP as Bonapartist, he said that that it could not be labelled as such because the party relied on market-oriented policies. In his opinion, the opposition to the AKP 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 was not effective, because it was not 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 be 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 has been material improvement in people’s lives 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 for a revolutionary path without any social base. Therefore, concluded Keyder, it was easy for the army to dispose of the Left, and, after 1980, ‘there hasn’t been any left in Turkey’. However, Keyder admitted that leftist factions exist in Turkey today; they work with the Kurdish movement, but they were not important. There were leftist movements earlier in the 1970s; they thought of themselves as social democratic and nationalistic – which was similar to Arab socialism – but were never a realistic option for Turkey because it 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 (especially regarding Syria), Keyder said that the AKP, with a coherent foreign policy strategy, tried to pretend as if Turkey was a sovereign country by allying with China and Iran. But Turkey always fell back into the American line. Under the AKP, foreign policy was a failure since the beginning, because the regime claimed to want to do things it could not. It had pretensions that it could act as a messenger of the West, but it 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 developing a grotesque personality cult fed by giant portraits of the Supreme Leader everywhere, as well as promoting a book he had 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, has its roots in the origins of Turkey’s communist movement in the 1920s, of which Hikmet was a pioneer. EMEP is doing very important work with the oppressed Kurdish movement, and the Kurdish issue is the single most important issue in Turkish politics today. Women make up thirty per cent of EMEP membership, 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 1 500 youth from all over the country came to debate 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 Taksim Square rebellion, valiantly fought back AKP’s attempts to declare it illegal. It might be small, but it won 70 000 votes across Turkey in the last national election.

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 the need for Turkish women to reproduce more children per family. He wants to turn Kurdistan into a cheap labour economy for Turkey. Meanwhile, a large number of college graduates are unemployed and will become part of this cheap labour force. The youth unemployment rate is between ten and fifteen per cent. Also, 30 million women in the country are now housewives but are excluded from unemployment figures, making the official unemployment rate deceptive. The real unemployment rate is twenty-five per cent. Turkey leads Europe in the number of worker casualties in the mines and in construction. The AKP government is now trying to abolish unemployment benefits for sacked workers.

As I write this, TKP offices have been raided by AKP goons and two of the largest trade unions, KESK (the Confederation of Public Workers’ Unions) and DİSK (the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions) have announced a general strike for 4 and 5 June 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 mass of depoliticised youth who I encountered during my 2012 trip. They, together with the peasantry, who have not been touched by the Turkish left since the failure of armed struggle in the 1970s, and who are conspicuously absent from Taksim Square, hold the key if the occupiers’ slogans are to get beyond calls for ‘Hukumet Istifa’ (resignation of the government).

As Erdogan moves to crush these 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, was confronted by a similar level of discontent, and was ultimately overthrown and paid 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 social scientist, literary critic, translator and political activist (of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party). He was trained in political economy at the University of Leeds in the UK, and in Middle Eastern history and anthropology at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, USA. He is presently working on a history of Yemen after the uprisings.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 09:48

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