Polemics with the ICL:
Kurdistan & the Struggle for National Liberation
Enough of opportunism, adventurism, Bundism—
For a Trotskyist perspective in Turkey
WSL’s Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 12, February 1978.
The following document was signed by two members of the Trotskyist Faction of the British Workers Socialist League (WSL) which fused with the London Spartacist Group in March 1978. This document originally appeared in the WSL’s Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 12, February 1978, and was reprinted in Spartacist Britain (SpB) No. 1, April 1978.
“This is not a ‘perspectives document’ since perspectives for the work cannot be drawn up in the abstract in London but must be developed in the context of the living struggles in Turkey.”
—Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 6, p. 1
“By these few words, the international character of socialism as a scientific doctrine and as a revolutionary movement is completely refuted. If socialists (communists) of one country are incapable, incompetent, and consequently have no right to decide the vital questions of the struggle of socialists (communists) in other countries, the proletarian International loses all rights and possibilities of existence.”
—Trotsky, Writings 1933-34, p. 33
The work carried out by the comrades in Turkey is based on their experiences in working with the WSL in Britain. The WSL leadership has inspired and “guided” the work in Turkey; consequently this must be seen as a test of the WSL’s politics and programme. This hostility to the struggle for programmatic clarity coupled with a familiar posture of doing “mass work” [has] led to what must be called the crisis of the Turkish work. We seek to provide the political basis for a complete reorientation of this work while recognising that this cannot be accomplished without a radical reorientation of the WSL itself. We agree when the leadership says that “The problems of this work are the problems of the WSL” (Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 6, p. 1).
On the History of the Turkish Work
The WSL’s Turkish work was first developed when some comrades went to Turkey, where they had discussions with the leadership of the sympathising group of the United Secretariat there—the KOZ. The comrades then met four people in Istanbul who were linked to a small group of people who were close to the KOZ (Turkish Mandelites) and managed to have several meetings to discuss politics with these people. At this point Comrade H. intervened and suggested that the four people whom we met at first should begin to work with us. Contact with KOZ sympathisers was then dropped. What made this break very destructive and sectarian was that it was not made on the basis of political differences—even the people who were eventually recruited were not won to our political positions. And since no attempt was made to recruit these comrades politically, some have subsequently become demoralised and have left the group.
With the breaking off of contact with the KOZ sympathisers, the leadership then took up “mass work” as the main orientation of the group. This was in reality a liquidation of potential cadres into a series of stupid and adventuristic actions. One of the first of these actions is described in the leadership’s document as follows: “... we agreed [to] a joint one-day mobilisation around the polling stations, so we would fight along with the workers to defend democratic right” (p. 8). But what was this “mobilisation”? And how many workers were we fighting “along with”? In a letter written on 7 June ‘77 Comrade H. answers these questions:
“Though it was late, some comrades from this group and us organised a meeting and elected a committee to mobilise 20 comrades for defence of the polls and against violence. Some [special defence measures were] involved in the mobilisation. Though it was very weak it was useful for some youth comrades. But because of lack of practice inside the factories, the defence had not been really fought as a workers defence.”
It should be noted that with this isolated activity we managed to bypass completely the mobilisation of DISK, the main trade-union federation, to defend the polls.
Another example of WSL “mass work” in Turkey is described in the document produced by the leadership:
“When the comrades got jobs in another small factory, we were able to lead (!) another (!) unionisation fight. Again we fought the DISK bureaucracy, and we won the support of the workers we previously organised, who helped with pickets and money-raising. But the strike was isolated, was broken, and all the strikers were sacked. Though the battle was lost, our comrades were developed and new contacts won.”
—Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 6, p. 9) [our emphasis—SpB]
We told these very young workers at a small factory that they should strike for union recognition. We had very little understanding of the Turkish trade-union movement and we had no means of giving a lead to such a strike beyond our experience with the WSL in Britain. We were totally ill-prepared to give even good trade-union leadership to back up our advice to these workers.
Besides the idiotic gloating over our small organisational gains at the expense of workers being sacked, we blamed the workers for the failure of the strike! In a letter to Comrade F., Comrade H. wrote:
“The biggest reason for this [the defeat of the strike] is not because we are wrong and because of our method of work but it is because the laws are against us, even in such a struggle, and that a very small group of workers do not have the power to change these laws. The other mistake made which is not our mistake is that it was the workers’ militancy, it was their going out early.... The struggle is defeated but as the method of the Transitional Programme signifies, we gained, first, the development of our own comrades, and, second, we had the opportunity to develop a couple of militant workers there!”
—23 Aug. ‘77 [our translation and our emphasis—SpB]
So the crisis of leadership is not the problem when we are involved: we blame the workers for their defeats.
But the dizziness with success has not lasted long. Posing the crisis of the Turkish group as disagreements on centralisation, and “secret visits” by an ex-comrade, the leadership’s document states that these things:
“... had political effects on one comrade in Istanbul and on a few comrades in Ankara. The comrade in Istanbul resigned from the group.
“At the last meeting we had in Ankara, comrades agreed to act again as a centralised group. But since then we have not received detailed information about the situation in Ankara.”
—Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin No. 6, p. 9
The truth is that, by failing to make political clarification the most important job for our Turkish comrades, the WSL has wasted its opportunities in Turkey. The WSL Turkish group is in a mess, and it is doubtful if its membership supports the WSL anymore. The crisis of the Turkish group and the demoralisation expressed by the above statement are linked to two causes: first, the cliquish (non-programmatic) basis on which the group has been built and, secondly, the stupid adventurism which could only discredit us in the eyes of any serious militants.
For a Trotskyist Propaganda Orientation
The only way in which the basis for a real Trotskyist party can be established is through abandoning all pretences of already acting as a mass party and concentrating on recruiting and training cadres who will form a future leadership. This task, primarily one of propaganda for Trotskyism, also involves an orientation towards discussion, debate and polemics against other supposedly “revolutionary” groups—most importantly the false “Trotskyists” of the KOZ, which is approximately 20 times as large as we are. Not only are there many subjective revolutionaries in this organisation who can be won to genuine Trotskyism, but its very existence makes it additionally an important obstacle to the formation and growth of a revolutionary organisation. The struggle against the KOZ can also play a part in the struggle to smash the Pabloite revisionists internationally. To a lesser extent we must orient our propaganda work to the various other “Marxist” formations—Maoist, Guevarist, “anti-Stalinists” (especially in the Revolutionary Youth where many elements are interested in Trotskyism). Any other strategy—like the leadership’s “mass work”—can only amount to a liquidation of the fight for a revolutionary leadership in Turkey.
In the early days of the formation of the International Left Opposition, Trotsky projected exactly this course:
“Our strength at the given stage lies in a correct ... revolutionary prognosis. These qualities we must present first of all to the proletarian vanguard. We act in the first place as propagandists. We are too weak to attempt to give answers to all questions, to intervene in all the specific conflicts, to formulate everywhere and in all places the slogans and the replies of the Left Opposition. The chase after such universality, with our weakness and the inexperience of many comrades, will often lead to too-hasty conclusions, to imprudent slogans, to wrong solutions. By false steps in particulars we will be the ones to compromise ourselves by preventing the workers from appreciating the fundamental qualities of the Left Opposition. I do not want in any way to say by this that we must stand aside from the real struggle of the working class. Nothing of the sort. The advanced workers can test the revolutionary advantages of the Left Opposition only by living experiences, but one must learn to select the most vital, the most burning, and the most principled questions and on these questions engage in combat without dispersing oneself in trifles and details. It is in this, it appears to me, that the fundamental role of the Left Opposition now lies.”
—Trotsky, Writings 1930-31, p. 297
The United Front Slogan in Turkey
One of the most serious political errors in the Turkish work has been the entirely false and incorrect usage of the “united front” slogan. For revolutionaries the united front is a tactic which is useful in uniting the workers of various political tendencies for certain limited and concrete common actions (against the fascists for example) while at the same time providing an opportunity to expose the treachery and inconsistencies of the reformists and centrists to their followers.
Centrists attempt to use the slogan of the “united front” to cover their own capitulation to the reformists—or as some kind of magical short cut to mass influence. They try to present common blocs for propaganda with the reformists (or other centrists) as an alternative to or a first stage of building a revolutionary party. The Leninist formula for a united front is to “march separately—strike together” but the centrists always want to march together with the reformists under a common banner. This is exactly the strategy proposed by the leadership of the Turkish comrades of the WSL in Enternasyonal No. 5 (Sept.-Oct.-Nov. 1977).
“Such a [United] Front will approach the economic and political questions of the workers and labourers and be an alternative for power. The question is reduced to the establishment of a political and organisationally powerful combination where other wide labouring sections and members of the petty-bourgeoisie could have faith ….”
Or again in Enternasyonal No. 3 (July 1977): “The struggle should be advanced to establish the United Front with a socialist programme.” Such a proposal—for a strategic united front with the reformist and centrist traitors for socialism—is in reality an opportunist proposal to liquidate the revolutionary vanguard.
One of the results of the confusion introduced by the leadership over the question of the united front is that comrades logically wonder whether the revolutionary party could have united actions in which the mass-based bourgeois RPP might participate, without forming a popular front. If we were to accept the leadership’s definition of a united front as a strategic front—a coalition with a common programme—the involvement of the RPP would make it a popular front. However, if we accept Lenin and Trotsky’s definition of a united front as a temporary agreement for limited common actions within which the revolutionaries keep full freedom of criticism, it is clear that united actions at which the RPP appears do not constitute popular-front betrayals.
The Struggle Against Fascism
Today in Turkey, the existence and growth of the fascists pose a serious danger to the proletariat. The National Action Party freely uses its youth organisation to attack workers’ organisations and individual militants. While we have at present only very limited forces in Turkey, it is necessary for us to advance a correct political programme for crushing the fascists. Our group is not capable of creating an independent defence organisation. The task is to fight to create such a body within the trade unions. While this policy is counterposed to the absurd and potentially disastrous adventurism connected with the defending of the polling stations by our group, it is likewise counterposed to the opportunist call for a strategic united front of the existing workers’ organisations.
Trotsky’s call for the CP to form a united front with the SPD in Germany cannot be separated from the Left Opposition’s self-characterisation of itself as a faction of the Comintern. Therefore we do not call for a united front of the existing workers’ organisations as an answer to the fascist threat. Such a strategy amounts to telling the workers to place their faith in a bloc of the Stalinist and social-democratic class-collaborationists. Trotskyists must never teach the workers to rely on the unity of the reformists—rather one of the reasons that we call on the reformists to engage in united-front actions (with us) is so that we can better expose their treachery and cowardice to their base. In a historical sense the working class in Turkey as everywhere else is faced with two alternatives: socialism or barbarism (which might well take the form of fascism). The threat of fascism cannot be removed except through the victory of the socialist revolution—and that requires the leadership of a Trotskyist vanguard party.
The Question of the Labour Party in Turkey
Unlike Britain and other Western European countries, there are today no mass reformist workers’ parties in Turkey. Both the Turkish Labour Party (TIP) and the pro-Moscow Turkish Communist Party (TKP) are very small organisations (not much bigger than Tony Cliff’s SWP) with only a limited base in the unions. The party which does have a mass base in the unions (the RPP) is an out-and-out bourgeois party.
Thus a key task for revolutionaries in Turkey is to struggle to break the workers from the RPP and for the creation of a mass workers’ party as a means of building the class independence of the workers from the bourgeoisie. When we raise the call for such a party we must be clear that we are calling for a workers’ party based on a revolutionary programme—the Transitional Programme. We have no interest in fighting for a Turkish version of Britain’s reformist Labour Party. This is clearly Trotsky’s position in his discussions on the programme for a Labour Party in the United States: “We must say to the Stalinists, Lovestonites, etc., ‘We are in favour of a revolutionary party. You are doing everything to make it reformist!’ But we always point to our program. And we propose our program of transitional demands.” (“How to Fight for a Labor Party in the US,” The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, p. 124)
Only in two early issues of Socialist Press has the WSL called for building a Labour Party in Turkey, but in its Turkish language material the WSL’s Turkish group has never raised this slogan. Instead the policy of the leadership has been to offer support to the tiny ultra-reformist Turkish Labour Party (TIP). At the time of the last elections the TIP tried desperately to make an electoral bloc with the much larger bourgeois RPP. Only when the RPP refused the offer did the TIP stand candidates, and then they ran on a programme of class collaborationism—to try to force the RPP to form a popular front with the TIP and other small parties of the left. Despite the clear popular frontist basis of the TIP campaign our group shamelessly called for workers to vote for these traitors and even raised the opportunist and ridiculous call for the class-collaborationist TIP to fight for a revolutionary programme! The reformist “tactic” (which amounts to trying to build illusions among the masses about the TIP) is clearly copied from the WSL’s call to “Make the Lefts Fight”, and the WSL’s call for votes to Labour despite its coalition with the Liberals.
We call for a break from capitulation to the tiny group of class-collaborationist social-democrats in the TIP and for taking up the call for the political independence of the Turkish workers—for a Labour Party based on the Transitional Programme in Turkey!
For the Leninist Position on the National Question
Leninists uphold the basic democratic principle of the equality of nations and therefore recognise the right of all nations to self-determination—i.e., the right of all nations to set up their own political state. We do not put forward this policy to strengthen the reactionary ideology of nationalism among the proletariat but to weaken it, and hence strengthen proletarian unity across national lines. Whether or not we call for the right of self-determination in a particular situation depends on a variety of factors. As Lenin notes in The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up:
“The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now: general-socialist) world movement. In individual concrete cases the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected.”
—Collected Works, Vol. 22
In the following passage Lenin summed up the Bolshevik approach to national oppression and our hostility, to nationalism:
“The awakening of the masses from feudal lethargy, and their struggle against all national oppression, for the sovereignty of the people, of the nation are progressive. Hence, it is the Marxists’ bounden duty to stand for the most resolute and consistent democratism on all aspects of the national question. The task is largely a negative one. But this is the limit the proletariat can go in supporting nationalism, for beyond that begins the ‘positive’ activity of the bourgeoisie striving to fortify nationalism.
“To throw off the feudal yoke, all national oppression, and all privileges enjoyed by any particular nation or language, is the imperative duty of the proletariat as a democratic force, and is certainly in the interests of the proletarian class struggle, which is obscured and retarded by bickering on the national question. But to go beyond these strictly limited and definite historical limits in helping bourgeois nationalism means betraying the proletariat and siding with the bourgeoisie. There is a border-line here, which is often very slight and which the Bundists and Ukrainian nationalist-socialists completely lose sight of.”
—Critical Remarks on the National Question, pp. 22-23
For the Right of Self-Determination
of the Kurdish People
The Kurdish people are an oppressed national minority who are divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Soviet Union. The largest portion of the Kurds (about one quarter) live in Turkey. A correct position on the Kurdish question is central to the orientation of a revolutionary group in most of the countries in which the Kurdish people now reside.
Although there have been numerous uprisings by sections of the Kurdish people against various oppressors over the past century, what the Kurds as a people desire is by no means definitely determined. The various struggles of the Kurds over the past century give no clear indication as to whether they desire simple equality or regional autonomy within a given state or independence.
The best known recent struggle of the nationalist Kurdish Democratic Party has been for regional autonomy within the state of Iraq. In a situation such as this where there is national oppression but in which the desire of the nationally oppressed people has not expressed itself clearly, we can only advance a solution which undermines national divisions among the proletariat of the region, i.e., the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination. This demand is negative—no forced solutions to the Kurdish question by the ruling bourgeoisies of the region—and leaves open the question of what the Kurds will decide—equal rights, regional autonomy or independence.
In taking up the Kurdish question in Turkey it is vital that Trotskyists ruthlessly expose the national chauvinist position of the Turkish Communist Party (TKP). In its attempts to tail the bourgeois RPP, the TKP essentially denies the right of the Kurds to self-determination and supports the “right” of the Turkish bourgeoisie to continue to oppress the Kurds who live within the present frontiers of Turkey. The WSL leadership’s position on the Kurdish question rejects the national chauvinism of the Stalinist TKP only to take up a nationalist programme.
The position of the leadership of the WSL Turkish group is unashamedly Bundist: “The political task of Trotskyists in Kurdistan must consist of the fight for an independent party and [of the] fight to gain and preserve working-class political independence from the bourgeois nationalists.” While the vanguard party in Turkey may have special organisations for work among the Kurds, these will only reflect a division of labour within the party. This division of labour is simply to carry out the organisation and mobilisation of the Kurdish masses. We stand with Lenin against the segregation into separate parties of proletarians of different nations living within the borders of a single-state power:
“The Great-Russian and Ukrainian workers must work together, and, as long as they live in a single state, act in the closest organisational unity, and concert, towards a common or international culture of the proletarian movement, displaying absolute tolerance on the question of the language in which propaganda is conducted, and in the purely local or purely national details of that propaganda. This is the imperative demand of Marxism. All advocacy of segregation of the workers of one nation from those of another, all attacks upon Marxist ‘assimilation,’... is bourgeois nationalism, against which it is essential to wage a ruthless struggle.”
—Critical Remarks on the National Question, pp. 20-21
The leadership’s document projects a programme for work among the Kurds which is a two-stage conception:
“Such a programme will focus on democratic demands (national independence, a constituent assembly, the right to speak Kurdish, etc.) but must also point to the permanent character of the revolution.” [our emphasis—SpB]
This was even more clearly spelt out at the London aggregate on Turkey on Dec. 11 when Comrade H. stated that: “The task before the Kurdish nation is not to unite with the Turkish proletariat but to achieve its national unity first.” At the aggregate Comrade H. was just repeating what was said by him at a conference on Kurdistan held in London in November. We do not accept permanent revolution as an afterthought for internal documents while the real activity of the organisation focuses only on democratic demands. In the words of the Transitional Programme:
“Democratic slogans, transitional demands, and the problems of the socialist revolution are not divided into separate historical epochs in this struggle, but stem directly from one another. The Chinese proletariat had barely begun to organize trade unions before it had to provide for soviets. In this sense, the present program is completely applicable to colonial and semicolonial countries, at least to those where the proletariat has become capable of carrying on independent politics.”
To argue that the Kurdish proletariat has not become capable of carrying on independent politics (as a class) would be to ignore the important potential which was shown by the post-World War II struggles of the Kirkuk oil workers.
Finally, we stand for the Leninist slogan of the right of the Kurds to self-determination and against the capitulation to nationalism which is embodied in the leadership’s call for an independent Kurdistan. Lenin deals in particular with the question of advocating secession:
“The demand for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply to the question of secession in the case of every nation may seem a very ‘practical’ one. In reality it is absurd—it is metaphysical in theory, while in practice it leads to subordinating the proletariat to the bourgeoisie’s policy. The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. Theoretically you cannot say in advance whether the bourgeois-democratic revolution will end in a given nation seceding from another nation, or in its equality with the latter; in either case, the important thing for the proletariat is to ensure the development of its class. For the bourgeoisie it is important to hamper this development by pushing the aims of its ‘own’ nation before those of the proletariat. That is why the proletariat confines itself, so to speak, to the negative demand for recognition of the right to self-determination, without giving guarantees to any nation, and without undertaking to give anything at the expense of another nation.”
—The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, pp. 53-54
The National Question in Cyprus
While Cyprus is not part of Turkey, the sizeable Turkish population and the involvement of the Turkish state in the affairs of Cyprus make Cyprus a key question for Turkish revolutionaries. Up until 1974, the Turkish population of Cyprus was nationally oppressed by the Greek population—since the invasion by the Turkish army, the Greeks have been in the more oppressed position. Because the two populations have been thoroughly intermingled on this small island it is clear that the reality of “self-determination” for either people can only come at the expense of the other and thus “self-determination” is not applicable. We call therefore for the withdrawal of all foreign troops (whether Turk, Greek, UN, NATO or any other) and for the unity of Greek and Turkish working peoples of Cyprus to overthrow capitalism and establish a workers’ state under the leadership of a Trotskyist party. Only through a united workers’ revolution can national oppression be ended in Cyprus in a fashion which is just for both peoples.
The Importance of the Workers’ States
Because of’ Turkey’s strategic location, the question of the attitude of revolutionaries to the workers’ states is extremely important. The glaring omission of any mention of these questions in the leadership’s document is an indication of their inability to understand the tasks facing Turkish revolutionaries. We stand for political revolution in the workers’ states and for their unconditional defence against imperialist attack.
For Leninist Democratic Centralism
The internal organisational form of our Turkish group is far removed from democratic centralism. Rather it is cliquism in the form of a rigid centralism. In Britain Comrade H. the “General Secretary” of the Turkish Group, and Comrade I. act as a disciplined unit with the Executive Committee against the other comrades. This ridiculously rigid centralism reached its highest point in Turkey. In Istanbul, there was an area committee of three and a membership of two who were not on the area committee. In Ankara, formerly there were two area committee members and one comrade who was not on the area committee. The political consequence of this mode of organisation is that the membership has no participation in the discussion of the group—and therefore has its political education stunted. Real discussion takes place only in the “leading body”—the rest of the membership is simply presented with decisions which it must accept or launch a fight against the leadership.
The bureaucratic methods of the leadership cannot be separated from the way that members are recruited to our group in Turkey—not on the basis of agreement with the WSL’s political line but simply on an agreement to participate in the group’s activities and to accept the discipline of the group. We stand for the Leninist form of democratic centralism—the membership must be involved in discussing and forming the political line, and after a decision is democratically arrived at it must be carried out loyally by all comrades. Only in this way is it possible to correct the errors of the leadership and educate the members.
Leninist discipline is not just an agreement of vaguely sympathetic individuals to work together. James P. Cannon, the father of American Trotskyism, said the following:
“It isn’t a question of 50 percent democracy and 50 percent centralism. Democracy must have the dominant role in normal times. In times of action, intense activity, crisis, … and swings of the party such as we took toward proletarianization after the split, and so forth, centralism must have the upper hand, as it had in the last few years.
“Now the Leninist method and form of organization flows from the program, the tasks and the aim that is set for the party, in complete harmony, a completely harmonious conception.”
—The Socialist Workers Party in World War II, p. 352 [emphasis ours]
For a Democratic-Centralist International Tendency! For the Re-Creation of the Fourth International!
While the beginning of the Turkish leadership’s document pays homage to the need to belong to a principled international movement, it is against being part of a democratic-centralist international tendency: “.... we propose to establish ‘Enternasyonal’ groups on a centralised basis in each area, as a preliminary step towards a Turkish Trotskyist party, autonomous of, though in political alliance with, the WSL.” (p. 10) We oppose the setting up of more groups like the Greek CIL or American SL(DC) with which the WSL can “ally” without taking any interest in or political responsibility for. This kind of “internationalism” is the loose federated “internationalism” of the centrist London Bureau of the 1930’s or of the United Secretariat today—it has nothing to do with [the] Bolshevik internationalism of the Left Opposition. We stand for the organising of a Leninist democratic-centralist international tendency which will struggle for the re-creation of the Fourth International. Such an international tendency cannot be a series of politically allied but organisationally autonomous groups but must function as the embryo of the world party of socialist revolution—the Fourth International.
The establishment of a democratic-centralist international revolutionary tendency is not simply an organisation question—it is primarily a political one. The revolutionary international, and all of its sections, must steadfastly uphold the basic programmatic positions of the Transitional Programme: opposition to all forms of class collaborationism; recognition of the validity of the strategy of Permanent Revolution; and a determination to lead a political revolution against the ruling Stalinist bureaucrats in the deformed and degenerated workers’ states combined with a policy of unconditional military defence of these states against imperialism. Before the WSL can undertake any principled revolutionary work in Turkey (or anywhere else) there must be a complete programmatic re-alignment of the movement in accordance with the positions presented in this document and the document “In Defence of the Revolutionary Programme” for which we hereby declare our support.
Forward to a Turkish Trotskyist Party, Section Of A Re-Created Fourth International, World Party Of Socialist Revolution!
E. (Turkish Group; Hackney Branch)
F. (Turkish Group; Hackney Branch)
28 January 1978
(We acknowledge help in preparing this document from Comrade Jim Saunders.)