Class consciousness rekindled

Esen Uslu reports on the massive May Day demonstration in Istanbul


For the first time since 1978 workers in Turkey celebrated May Day 2010 by marching to Taksim Square, the traditional rallying point of the militant working class. Hundreds of thousands gathered in a peaceful, legal rally after decades of bans.

Historically the attitude of various governments towards May Day demonstrations has been indicative of their own insecurity and, ironically, that applies to the soft Islamists of the AKP government. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) is undoubtedly under huge pressure and is desperately looking for allies as it attempts to resist the pro-junta right.

When the Turkish nationalist bourgeois republic was established in 1923 amid the ruins of the Ottoman empire, the nascent government was in an unenviable position. On the one hand, it was the continuation of the military and civilian bureaucracy of Ottoman rule and consequently had to bear the weight of the atrocities committed against the non-Muslim peoples of the empire: the 1915 Armenian genocide; the forced dislocation of Greek Orthodox Christians from Western Anatolia; and the subsequent mutual population exchange between Greece and Turkey.

On the other hand, the new government – located in Anatolia, not the industrial and commercial centres, such as Istanbul and Izmir – had managed to survive by allying with the Soviet Union, despite their mutual dislike. May Day in 1923 was celebrated in Istanbul with the participation of workers’ organisations, but in Ankara it was organised as an official occasion. And, as the years passed, the independent working class movement and trade unions were suppressed, and the Kurdish national struggle developed into a revolt which was brutally suppressed.

In 1924 holding May Day rallies became an offence punishable by long terms of imprisonment. And, when in 1926 Turkey adopted a new penal code based on Mussolini’s, involvement in the organisation of any independent working class event became punishable by death.

The first May Day rally following half a century of such repression was massive. Held in Istanbul in 1976, it was organised by the Revolutionary Trade Union Confederation (Disk) with the participation of all progressive people. It was an anathema for the reactionary and fascist forces.

Bloody May Day

A year later, the 1977 Istanbul May Day rally was brutally dispersed by gangs organised and armed by the intelligence arms of the state, who fired upon the 500,000 crowd. This caused tremendous panic and, as people sought to escape, the security forces in their armoured vehicle, with sirens blaring, drove into the crowd and launched stun grenades. Thirty-six people were killed – crushed under the wheels of the armoured vehicles or shot. That operation marked an important milestone, paving the way for the military junta to take power in 1980.

Despite all the odds, a similar sized crowd courageously showed their defiance by demonstrating on May Day 1978 in the same square with renewed determination. The rally was marked by the forceful demand of the illegal Communist Party of Turkey for the century-old ban on its existence to be lifted.

In early 1979 state-sponsored terrorist atrocities committed against Alevis and Kurds in Maras and other cities led to the declaration of martial law by the civilian government. Holding a May Day rally in Istanbul was prohibited. The trade unions opted to hold it instead in Izmir, which was not under martial law at the time. Despite the ban the leaders of Workers Party of Turkey (TIP) attempted to march to Taksim Square, despite the curfew in Istanbul. Dozens of militants were bundled into police vehicles.

In 1980 the trade union centre decided not to hold a single, central May Day rally, preferring to hold several rallies in provincial centres. However, the masses were already feeling the effects of the initial shock waves of the impending catastrophe and the rallies were quite small in number. Later in the year the military junta took over and banned all May Day rallies without exception.

Until 1988 no attempt was made to organise anything on May 1, but even in that year things were frustrated by the arrest of the trade union organisers. In 1989 police opened fire on small groups trying to reach Taksim Square, and one student was killed. In 1990 a similar attempt was made and one girl was paralysed after being shot by the police.

The next attempt to organise a May Day event was made in 1993 and for three years very restricted rallies were held in Istanbul in different locations. In 1996 one was organised in Kadikoy and the police again opened fire, killing three people.

Since then every year police have brutally suppressed any attempt to hold a rally in Taksim Square. The most they were prepared to permit was a commemorative gathering in a corner of the square, where a small contingent of trade union representatives were allowed to honour the martyrs of May Day 1977.

Changed climate

This year the AKP has felt the need to win public support for its proposed constitutional amendments. It is continuing to defend its corner against the nationalist-racist, reactionary, pro-junta forces, which are represented in the political arena by the fascist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), as well as the so-called ‘social democratic’ Republican People’s Party (CHP), while their covert support is found in the military and civilian bureaucracy.

However, government policy has vacillated between political gestures – the so-called ‘overtures’ to Kurds, Armenia, Alevis, Christian minorities, etc – and its reactionary instincts and inclinations. It readily adopted the repressive measures suggested by the national security council, consisting of army tops and government representatives: for example, the recent rhetoric about deporting thousands of illegal workers from Armenia has marked the end of the ‘Armenian overture’. Similarly a series of court cases against Kurdish guerrillas, who were invited back from the mountains of Iraq and allowed into the country with much fanfare last year, but are now accused of “conducting propaganda of a banned organisation”, marked the end of the ‘Kurdish overture’.

Despite the claims of the liberal press that the AKP is the only democratic force in the country that is capable of breaking with the bad old ways, the gap between the rhetoric and actions of the AKP government is widening and its false liberal credentials are being exposed by the day. It has been walking a tightrope. It is in this context that we should view its sop to the working class of declaring May Day an official holiday and allowing the trade unions to hold a joint May Day rally in Taksim Square. The police and security forces were held back.

And the trade union-organised rally won huge support. A generation of old militants who had taken part in the demonstrations in the same square in the 70s returned to commemorate their fallen comrades and show their grandchildren where they were on Bloody May Day 1977. The nostalgia of the older generation aside, the younger generation finally felt something had been achieved.

However, the demonstration showed the left in its true state – in tatters. Its fragmented parts, neither willing nor able to organise unitedly, were exposed as what they are – relics of a bygone age, each distinguished by their separate slogans of yesteryear. Their efforts to support practical working class struggles are deflected and warped.

All in all, though, May Day 2010 marks a positive step towards a new consciousness. The working class is frustrated by the impotence that fragmentation produces. It is not content with curtailed trade union and political rights graciously conceded by the ‘liberal’ AKP. It will not be bought off by the palliatives of the government and demands, instead, genuine, substantitive change.

Working class militants will continue to call for a secular and democratic republic. They will continue to uphold the national rights of the Kurds and fight for an end to discrimination against all minorities. Their task is more than ever to bring all these forces together in an organisation that looks beyond the horizons set by the bourgeoisie.

The working class of Turkey must strive for greater unity in struggle with its counterparts across the globe. It must move beyond simple economic demands, and embrace the democratic culture of the international working class in the battle for the most advanced politics and organisational structures.

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