Perhaps no other incident in history better illustrates the old cliché that politics makes strange bedfellows than the Soviet-Turkish ties in the early 1920s.
This relationship had two phases. In the first that occurred during War Communism, the USSR made common cause with Turkey because they both were anxious to fend off British imperialism. 40,000 British troops were part of a 13 nation expeditionary force that was determined to overthrow Bolshevism.
Meanwhile, Britain used Greece as a surrogate invading power to control what would become Turkey in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal relied heavily on Soviet arms and material during 1920.
Within a couple of years, the policy of War Communism had been abandoned in favor of the NEP. This meant that the Soviet Union would put a high priority on establishing peaceful relationships with any and all countries, including Britain. This was also the period in which the Comintern looked Eastward in the hope that Asia would rise up against imperialism. It viewed national liberation movements as progressive, even when they were led by someone like Mustafa Kemal. Given this turn, it would make sense that the USSR would bend over backwards trying to link up with Turkey.
The definitive statement on Soviet-Turkish relations came from Karl Radek, whose articles England and the East and The Winding-Up of the Versailles Treaty, a report to the fourth Comintern congress are must reading. It is a shame that Goldner made no attempt to evaluate such material since it would at least have given the reader the assurance that he was considering all sides of the debate. In the second article, Radek zeroed in on the Treaty of Sevres that put the WWI victors in charge of the Ottoman finances and extracted other concessions. It was analogous to the Brest-Litovsk treaty that punished the infant Soviet Republic for having the temerity to withdraw from the WWI bloodbath. Radek wrote:
Whatever may be the result of the Near Eastern crisis, one thing is quite patent: the Sevres Treaty has been smashed by Turkish cannon. The popular masses of the Near East, who in the eyes of the Allies are not only a quantité négligeable, but simply the scum of the earth, have been set in motion against no less a thing than the Versailles Treaty. They are at present beginning to play their part. Among the diplomats who think to be able to control the course of history through clever formulae and secret conferences, there is disunity. Great Britain has experienced one of her deepest humiliations in her long history, when after the defeat of her Greek vassal, she durst not come in shining armour to his assistance, and after having pronounced a sentence of death upon Turkey, had now to flatter her and even to offer her a place in the League of Nations. This fact is the irrefutable proof of the break-up of the Sevres Treaty. Popular masses on a low level of civilisation can only be kept in subjection as long as there is unity among the slaveholders, but not when these come to loggerheads. As soon as the slaves perceive that the oppressors are trembling, they begin to rebel. The East of to-day which sees Great Britain trembling, is no more the East of the days of the Sevres Treaty. The Turkish victory finds an echo in India and the whole Islamic world. This echo is the best proof that we have to do with an important episode in the growth of the world revolution, with a success of the world revolution, though the organisers of the victory are far from being revolutionary in the modern sense of the term.
What is missing entirely from Goldner’s analysis is any sense of how important Kemal’s victory was in pushing Greece and Britain out of Turkish lands. This was not only important for the defense of the USSR, it was also a genuine anti-imperialist victory on a par with Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal or the British being forced to leave India. It does not matter that Nasser or Gandhi were bourgeois nationalists simply interested in capitalist development. Marxists, at least those not addled by philosophical idealism, have always considered colonial struggles as worthy of support even if they are not being led by communists.
In 1882, Engels wrote a letter to Karl Kautsky that was very much in the spirit of what Radek wrote. You will notice that he does not make communism some kind of litmus test. He is for the independence of oppressed nations even under bourgeois leadership:
One of the real tasks of the 1848 Revolution (and the real, not illusory tasks of a revolution are always solved as a result of that revolution) was the restoration of the oppressed and dispersed nationalities of Central Europe, insofar as these were at all viable and, especially, ripe for independence. This task was solved for Italy, Hungary and Germany, according to the then prevailing conditions, by the executors of the revolution’s will, Bonaparte, Cavour and Bismarck. Ireland and Poland remained. Ireland can be disregarded here, she affects the conditions of the Continent only very indirectly. But Poland lies in the middle of the Continent and the conservation of her division is precisely the link that has constantly held the Holy Alliance together, and therefore, Poland is of great interest to us….
I therefore hold the view that two nations in Europe have not only the right but even the duty to be nationalistic before they become internationalistic: the Irish and the Poles. They are most internationalistic when they are genuinely nationalistic. The Poles understood this during all crises and have proved it on all the battlefields of the revolution. Deprive them of the prospect of restoring Poland or convince them that the new Poland will soon drop into their lap by herself, and it is all over with their interest in the European revolution.
Maybe Goldner does not consider Engels to be a real communist, only one of those people promoting “reactionary anti-imperialism” but Engels is good enough for me.
All that being said, the question remains: was the USSR correct to try to maintain a close relationship with Turkey after Kemal unleashed his repression against the Communists? In some ways, this is a difficult question to answer since time was drawing near when it would become moot. By 1923, when Kemal was mopping up the Communists, the USSR was on the verge of isolating Leon Trotsky and other critical-minded Marxists who objected to what was becoming a policy of accommodation to the national bourgeoisie. In four short years, the disastrous policy in China would unfold prompting Trotsky to open a full-scale assault on Stalin’s class collaborationist politics. Under directions from Stalin, the Chinese CP had subordinated itself completely to the Kuomintang, leading to the slaughter of far more many working class militants than was the case in Turkey.
If the USSR was no longer able to serve as an example of how a revolutionary society relates to governments such as Kemal’s, there is one that is close at hand facing almost identical paradoxes and contradictions, namely Cuba. As I have already pointed out, Goldner is completely hostile to the Cuban government, linking it with North Korea in one of his articles:
Fewer still look to surviving relics such as North Korea or Cuba. The most radical elements of the 1960’s and 1970’s upsurge, from Socialism or Barbarism in France, Eastern European “Marxist humanism” (Kolakowski, the Yugoslav Praxis group), the Situationists, or the Italian workerists mainly rejected these regimes as viscerally as they rejected the (Keynesian) Labour and Social Democratic welfare states of the 1945-1975 period.
If they were the most radical elements of the 60s and 70s, I am glad that I went my own way. Frankly, there was about as much chance of me hooking up with the Situationists as there was with the yippies. I don’t begrudge someone like Guy Debord having a grand old time at the expense of middle-class propriety but I was far more interested in organizing mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
Now Cuba faces many of the same problems as the infant Soviet republic but with the added complication of having a much smaller resource base, a narrower geographical space that is additionally vulnerable due to its proximity to the USA, and—more recently—without socialist allies internationally.
Cuba faced a similar quandary in 1968 when the Mexican government unleashed a terrible repression against the student movement, many of whose leaders were likely Fidelistas politically. Although this is not quite the same situation as took place in Turkey in the 1920s, the Cuban government was as low-key as the Soviets were when the 15 Turkish Communists were drowned.
As I have pointed out myself to uncritical Fidelistas on Marxmail, there was no response from the Cuban government. If you go to the Castro speech database and do a search on Mexico during 1968, you will not find a word of protest.
Now it is no accident that Turkey and Mexico are connected in this fashion since both exemplify the paradoxes of national liberation movements led by the bourgeoisie and governments that have become calcified after it takes power. The Mexican PRI and Kemal’s Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican Peoples Party) were both political leaderships of arguably the last hurrah of the bourgeois revolution.
And, interestingly enough, both republics gave asylum to Leon Trotsky. For all of Mustafa Kemal’s hostility to Communism, he was willing to host Trotsky in the first leg of his exile. While Trotsky does not exactly sing Kemal’s praises in “My Life”, there are some accounts that he enjoyed his stay in Turkey immensely on a personal level. I recommend the documentary Exile in Buyukuda for the modern Turkish take on his stay in their homeland.
Despite Mexico’s more democratic functioning during Trotsky’s stay there, not much differentiated it from Turkey in economic terms. Both Kemal and Cardenas were committed to national development and considered labor and capital to be co-equal partners in a bid to modernize the respective countries. Of course, this was just propaganda. The way it worked out in practice, as it does everywhere in the world, is to the benefit of the bourgeoisie. In both the case of Turkey and Mexico, the lip-service paid to labor and the actual benefits it received declined the longer the two hegemonic bourgeois parties remained in the driver’s seat.
No matter how degraded the Mexican PRI had become, there was still a residual spark that motivated it to stand up to imperialism when it came to Castro’s Cuba. In a paper titled Capitalizing on Castro: Mexico’s Foreign Relations with Cuba, 1959-1969, Renata Keller makes clear how important Mexico was to Cuba. The article begins:
In the decade immediately following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Mexican leaders consistently distinguished themselves from their Latin American counterparts by acting as outspoken defenders of the Cuban people’s right to self-determination. Influential politicians such as Lázaro Cárdenas threw their support behind Castro, and in 1960 Mexican president Adolfo López Mateos welcomed Cuban president Osvaldo Dorticós in a lavish state visit. At the July 1964 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, D.C., Mexico was the only Latin American country that refused to adopt the resolution to break diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and impose economic sanctions. Mexico thereafter maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba, which effectively established Mexico as the sole link between Castro and the rest of the hemisphere because none of the other Latin American governments recognized Cuba’s revolutionary regime until after 1970.
So in order to fend off American economic pressure and to find an ally, sincere or not, in diplomatic initiatives against the counter-revolutionary OAS, Cuba found itself in bed with Mexico.
While it is difficult to quantify what this relationship meant to Cuba, it very likely helped Fidel Castro to survive. No matter how politically bankrupt Mexico and the USSR were, they were necessary allies against imperialism. If Castro refused to denounce Mexico in 1968 or the USSR for invading Czechoslovakia in the same year, he more than made up for this in assisting liberation movements in Africa and Latin America.
In the real world, politics can be very messy. My advice to my anarchist, situationist, left, council and libertarian communist friends who want to keep their hands clean is to stay out of politics altogether.