Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 16, 2010

The USSR, Mustafa Kemal and “reactionary anti-imperialism”, part 1

Filed under: Stalinism,Turkey,ussr — louisproyect @ 10:00 pm

(part two is here.)

Loren Goldner’s “Socialism in One Country” Before Stalin, and the Origins of Reactionary “Anti-Imperialism”: The Case of Turkey, 1917-1925 interested me for several reasons. Not only do my in-laws have strong Kemalist credentials, I have developed a strong affection for Turkish culture, enough so that I studied Turkish at Columbia University for a couple of years until I ran into the brick wall of the advanced class.

Beyond the personal connection, I felt challenged by Goldner’s assertion that the Soviet Union’s turning a blind eye to the murder of 15 leading Turkish Communists in 1921 constitutes a kind of original sin that is manifested today in the following manner:

The “anti-imperialist” ideology of the 1960’s and early 1970’s died a hard death by the late 1970’s. Western leftist cheerleaders for “Ho- Ho- Ho Chi Minh” in London, Paris, Berlin and New York fell silent as Vietnam invaded Cambodia, and China invaded Vietnam, and the Soviet Union threatened China. China allied with the U.S. against the Soviets in the new Cold War, and the other “national liberation movements” that had taken power in Algeria, and later in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau…disappointed.

Today, a vague mood of “anti-imperialism” is back, led by Venezuela’s Chavez and his Latin American allies (Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia), more or less (with the exception of Stalinist Cuba) classical bourgeois-nationalist regimes. But Chavez in turn is allied, at least verbally and often practically, with the Iran of the ayatollahs, and Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as newly-emergent China, which no one any longer dares call “socialist”. The British SWP allies with Islamic fundamentalists in local elections in the UK, and participates in mass demonstations [sic] (during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, summer 2007) chanting “We are all Hezbollah”. Somehow Hezbollah, whose statutes affirm the truth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is now part of the “left”; when will it be “We are all Taliban”? Why not, indeed?

Such a climate compels us to turn back to the history of such a profoundly reactionary ideology, deeply anti-working class both in the “advanced” and “underdeveloped” countries, by which any force, no matter how retrograde, that turns a gun against a Western power becomes “progressive” and worthy of “critical” or “military” support, or for the less subtle, simply “support”.

At first blush, the hostility toward Hugo Chavez and the SWP might strike one as coming from the same place as Harry’s but Goldner is no New Labourite or Eustonite for that matter. He is a self-proclaimed “left communist” who identifies with Bordiga, Pannekoek and Paul Mattick. I honestly have not studied this current in any kind of depth but from what I have seen from Toni Negri and Harry Cleaver, two other “left communists” from the contemporary period, there’s little incentive to read further. To Goldner’s credit, he lacks the preciousness of these two and has a powerful writing style—leaving the politics aside.

As someone who has been very critical of the “anti-imperialism” of James Petras and MRZine, especially on the question of Ahmadinejad, I understood Goldner’s complaint. But I have a different assessment of Hugo Chavez than him. Despite my criticisms of Chavez’s overly positive characterizations of Ahmadinejad, I would not dismiss him as a “bourgeois nationalist”.

Goldner’s blanket condemnation of Chavez and all those who identify with him politically as “profoundly reactionary” and “deeply anti-working class” is the sort of thing one expects to hear from a “left communist” or anarchist seduced by philosophical idealism. From these quarters, there have been no real socialist revolutions in the twentieth century only the “class struggle” that never seems to culminate in a victory. In some ways these purists remind me of my late mother’s Irish Setter who we could not train out of chasing cars down our country road. I always told my mom that if Rusty ever caught up with a car, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Turning to Goldner’s article, almost a book at 67 pages, much of the substance appears to rely on Paul Dumont’s 500 page Du socialisme ottoman a l’internationalisme anatolien. Since I don’t read French, there would have been no point in tracking this book down. However, I did read George Harris’s The Origins of Communism in Turkey and two by Bulent Gokay, a leftist scholar: Soviet Eastern Policy and A Clash of empires: Turkey between Russian Bolshevism and British Imperialism 1918-1923. There is little difference between Goldner’s version based on Dumont and what I read in these books.

Harris and Gokay, as well as Dumont, add much detail to a story that I was already familiar with from reading volume 3 of E.H. Carr’s The Bolshevik Revolution that covers the period from 1917 to 1923. Two pages from Carr pretty much tell the entire story although I certainly encourage others to read Goldner’s article:

The indigenous Turkish movement of sympathy for communism which grew up in 1919 was mainly of peasant origin and was rooted in agrarian discontents. Its overt expression was the creation of a multitude of local Soviets which became for a time the effective organs of local government. The movement was fostered by Kemal, partly because its loyalty to the nationalist cause was fervent and unquestioned, and partly because an outlet was required for the real social and agrarian discontent represented by it. In the spring of 1920 it took organized shape in the creation of a Green Army which, recruited from the small and landless peasants, formed a major part of the national forces. The principal sponsors of the movement at this time, Hakki Behic and Hikmet, were ” easterners ” in respect of Turkish foreign policy and are both said to have been convinced Marxists. A somewhat farcical sequel of these proceedings was an officially sponsored Turkish communist party bearing the name of the ” Green Apple “. Hakki Behic was its leader; and according to a subsequent statement of a Turkish delegate to Comintern it was composed mainly of ” high officials and intellectuals “. Meanwhile the most successful leader of the Green Army was Edhem, a soldier of fortune who, while professing allegiance to Kemal, threatened to become a Turkish Makhno. The Green Army  reached the summit of its success in the summer of 1920. But in September 1920 — the same month in which action against Armenia was decided on — Kemal felt strong enough to put his house in order by removing a potential source of rivalry or insubordination, and issued a decree dissolving it. The order was not obeyed, and Kemal temporized. In November he appointed as Turkish representative in Moscow Ali Fuad, an army commander whom he wanted to get out of the way, and made an offer to Edhem to accompany the mission. Edhem refused; and in December, when the campaign against Armenia had been success­fully concluded, Kemal finally decided to take action against the Green Army. On January 6, 1921, Edhem was routed and fled to the Greeks, and what was left of his movement was then quickly mopped up.

The suppression of Edhem was immediately followed by drastic steps against the Turkish communists. Suphi was seized by unknown agents at Erzerum, and on January 28, 1921, together with sixteen other leading Turkish communists, thrown into the sea off Trebizond — the traditional Turkish method of discreet execution. It was some time before their fate was discovered. Chicherin is said to have addressed enquiries about them to the Kemalist government and to have received the reply that they might have succumbed to an accident at sea. But this unfortunate affair was not allowed to affect the broader considerations on which the growing amity between Kemal and Moscow was founded. For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.

So for Goldner, the real problem lies in Carr’s last sentence: “For the first, though not for the last, time it was demonstrated that governments could deal drastically with their national communist parties without forfeiting the goodwill of the Soviet Government, if that were earned on other grounds.” In Goldner’s words:

Only on Nov. 15 did long articles on the repression in Turkey appear on the front pages of Izvestia and Pravda. In the interim two weeks, the Kemalists had continued various anti-communist harassments. The Soviet embassy in Ankara had been forced to close its commercial outlet and a Soviet courrier’s diplomatic pouch had been confiscated. In Paul Dumont’s estimate, these harassments, combined with the preoccupation over the Lausanne conference, were the pinpricks that brought about the change in tone.

A new silence on the repression descended on the international communist press in late November. The Lausanne Conference opened on November 20 with Soviet participation, and the settlement of the status of the Straits loomed large in the offing. On November 22, a major article by Karl Radek in Pravda asserted that the Soviet Union would “support the legitimate demands of Turkey” at Lausanne and that critics in the West of the inconsistencies of Soviet policy

did not understand that, at bottom, our position is absolutely independent of tactical maneuvers or the internal policy of the Turkish government…But in spite of all deviations and zigzags, Soviet Russia is following the great historical road on which the international industrial proletariat can march together with the liberation movements of the peoples of the East in the struggle against international capital.

So in his eyes, there was always “socialism in one country”, even before Stalin. In dealing with Kemal, the USSR had the same realpolitik that would typify the Comintern after Stalin consolidated his grip on power. Just to drive home that point, Goldner opens his article with a quote from a memo by Trotsky to Lenin written in 1920 that sounds positively Stalinesque:

All information on the situation in Khiva, in Persia, in Bukhara and in Afghanistan confirm the fact that a Soviet revolution in these countries is going to cause us major difficulties at the present time…Until the situation in the West is stabilized and until our industries and transport systems have improved, a Soviet expansion in the east could prove to be no less dangerous than a war in the West…a potential Soviet revolution in the east is today to our advantage principally as an important element in diplomatic relations with England. From this I conclude that: 1) in the east we should devote ourselves to political and educational work…and at the same time advise all possible caution in actions calculated to require our military support, or which might require it; 2) we have to continue by all possible channels at our disposal to arrive at an understanding with England about the east.

In the interests of scholarship, I probably should have tracked down the quote especially since the words “a potential Soviet revolution in the east is today to our advantage principally as an important element in diplomatic relations with England” condemn Trotsky as a kind of Bolshevik Metternich. But I finally decided that this was pointless. There are many criticisms that can be made about Trotsky, but turning revolutions on and off like a spigot is not one of them. Trotsky sacrificed his life in the interests of world revolution and if Loren Goldner wants to make the case that he was no different from Stalin, I’d eagerly await such a specious argument in order to take it apart with relish.

In my next article, I want to take up the question of how the foreign policy of a revolutionary society cannot be reduced to simple black-and-white moralistic dichotomies, especially as this relates to Cuba, a country designated unsurprisingly as Stalinist by Goldner.


  1. “Western leftist cheerleaders for “Ho- Ho- Ho Chi Minh” in London, Paris, Berlin and New York fell silent as Vietnam invaded Cambodia…”
    Well I was only about 3 at the time, but I’m pretty sure that many Western leftists (e.g. Australian journalist John Pilger) were pretty clear that the Vietnamese army were on the right track to overthrow Pol Pot. Unfortunately this seems to be yet another case of a sectarian who has to rewrite history to fit his own preconceptions.

    Comment by Ben Courtice — May 17, 2010 @ 1:16 am

  2. “Goldner is no New Labourite or Eustonite for that matter. He is a self-proclaimed “left communist” who identifies with Bordiga, Pannekoek and Paul Mattick. I honestly have not studied this current in any kind of depth but from what I have seen from Toni Negri and Harry Cleaver, two other “left communists” from the contemporary period, there’s little incentive to read further.”


    Among the left-coms, Bordiga’s literary and political work were far, far ahead. Seeing the absence of *centralism* in “democratic centralism” within the Second International (otherwise no members of parties affiliated with the Second International would dare to circumvent the anti-war Basel Manifesto of 1912, and hawks would have been expelled), he advocated that the Communist International itself become a centralized party across all borders, with national organizations becoming mere Sections.

    In fact, in the era of the Second International, the title “Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière” (French Section of the Workers’ International) was symbolic, yet had more potency than the “Partito Comunista d’Italia, Sezione della Internazionale Comunista.”

    Comment by Jacob Richter — May 17, 2010 @ 2:00 am

  3. Bordiga, Pannekoek and Mattick are all a million miles from – and a lot more readable than – Negri and Cleaver, who aren’t left communists but autonomists.

    Ben # 1 is right – the ‘Western leftist cheerleaders’ for Ho Chi Minh certainly didn’t fall silent in 1979. They had, at the very least, anguished arguments about it. John Pilger was one of the first western journalists into Cambodia after the Pol Pot regime was toppled and his report covered the front page and many more pages of the Daily Mirror, which is a widely read Labour-Party-supporting British paper.

    Comment by Ken MacLeod — May 17, 2010 @ 7:37 am

  4. Interesting stuff here. Only the very misguided of leftists in Turkey would consider Atatürk as being some hero for their cause. It is more than respect, for the average Turk it is borderline worship: the statues, plaques, but by far the more bizarre is the Memorial Day. The Turkish government not only sets aside a day for when he died, they have even timed it: Nov. 10th, at exactly 9:05! People will, without the assistance of the police or a figure of authority, will stop whatever they are doing and pay a one minute silence. Last year, people over the Bosphorus Bridge even jammed on their breaks, stood outside their cars and honked their car horns for a minute, only to get back into their cars and resume their trips. Children in classrooms will be crying while reciting poems. While Atatürk was not Stalin in terms of the amount of blood shed, he certainly enjoyed Stalin’s cult of personality, perhaps the longest-surviving one in the world today.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    Comment by JL — May 17, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

  5. I am glad you have given Trotsky some slack, I mean he was only fighting a civil war, foreign meddling and counter revolution.
    And all the while he was trying to build socialism in a country dominated by the peasantry!

    Comment by Steve — May 17, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

  6. If anarchists describe Chavez as “anti-working class”, why is it that an avowed anarchist book publishing firm, PM Press, has just published a book, “Voices of Venzuela”, celebrating the grassroots activity unleashed by the Bolivarian Revolution? After all, PM Press receives far more submissions than it chooses to publish.

    My experience has been that anarchists support the Bolivarian Revolution, just as they support the Palestinian cause, participating in efforts to prevent the construction of the wall, because they believe in the right of self-determination in both instances, even if the outcome is not an anarchist one. You know . . . sort of like the USSR in regard to Turkey . . . . Oh my, that’s going to cause the computer to blow a fuse, isn’t it?

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 17, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

  7. You haven’t studied the current, but yet dismiss it. Negri has nothing to do with it.

    Do yourself a favor and spend a few hours going over these documents: http://www.marxists.org/archive/mattick-paul/index.htm

    Comment by Blow — May 18, 2010 @ 10:01 am

  8. Louis, you’re being way too kind to Goldner. Far from being some kind of exotic specimen of “Bordigist,” Goldner comes out of the Shactmanite “bureaucratic collectivist” “Third Camp,” which uses purist “left” rhetoric about the “working class” to cover its support to imperialism.

    In the late 40s and early 50s, before Max Shactman went over to cold-war liberalism whole-hog, he used to talk the same way about “Stalinism.” Only today Islam has replaced “Communism” as the enemy of “democracy,” i.e., US imperialism. Notice that according to Goldner, Hugo Chavez’s main sins are to be allied with enemies of the US and Israel, rather than the usual “crimes” of closing down TV stations that supported the coup against him or similar such stuff that liberals and social democrats pure and simple get so upset about.

    A while back I read a review that Goldner wrote of Max Elbaum’s book on 60s and 70s Maoism in “Historical Materialism” in which he vented his spleen against the “Third Worldism” of the sixties left. The article wasn’t as explicit as the one you quote insofar as its pro-imperialism goes, and he did score some easy points about the “illusions” many 60s radicals had in nationalism. However, his main gripe with the Maoists seemed to be that they hadn’t read as many books with big words as he and his “bureaucratic collectivist” cronies had. Worse for Goldner, the Maoists had instead been out in the streets raisng hell instead of being cloistered in the libraries alongside of him.

    Comment by MN Roy — May 20, 2010 @ 2:23 am

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