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Making Sense of the Turkish Elections through a Marxist Lens: an Interview with Cihan Tuğal

LeftEast is grateful to Eylem Taylan and H. Deniz Sert who conducted this interview and to its subject, Cihan Tuğal for letting us translate the original Turkish text that they published at İ

The May 14 and 28 elections in Turkey resulted in the continuation of the Erdoğan regime even though almost half of the country opposed it. To make sense of these results, we talked with Cihan Tuğal, a professor of sociology at the University of Berkeley, about the place of the socialist movement in Turkey, the position of the left-social democracy in the world, the relationship of the socialist movement in Turkey to blue- and white-collar workers, the legacy of the Gezi Resistance, and the place of the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) in all this.

In the aftermath of the 2023 general elections, it seems that the ruling bloc and the mainstream opposition bloc have not experienced a significant change in terms of voter support. In many post-election analyses, it was pointed out that a significant part of the working class did not break away from the ruling bloc and that left-social democratic politics failed to make advances. Which social groups and class relations were decisive in this “freezing” of the blocs?

There has actually been a regime change, in the sense of both political and economic regime, in Turkey for a long time. But it cannot be finalized. And there are many reasons for this. During this change, new areas of struggle open up for socialists. And the socialists so far have been unable to utilize these areas. It’s very complicated and there is no clear prescription or clear structural change. It is a very confusing situation, which is why we are experiencing these difficulties. In fact, the government itself is experiencing certain difficulties. But by changing course so radically every two years, sometimes every year, they have managed to pick up everything they lost. This has been going on for almost 12-13 years: it is not a new process. This ability of the government to overcome its challenges deserves serious analysis. Where does it come from?

But before discussing that, let’s talk about what these structural changes are. We need to start with neoliberalism. In the 1980s and 1990s, a more classical neoliberalism was practiced in Turkey. This has changed a bit around the world. In the 2000s, the AK Party became the expression of a transition from that classical neoliberalism to a more populist neoliberalism. In the 2000s, they practiced a controlled neoliberalism with social welfare practices. But with the 2008 crisis, this too came to the brink of bankruptcy, and from that point on, we started to see harsher state interventions and the involvement of the state not only in welfare but also as a regulator in the accumulation process.

Let’s start with the first structural change. Almost all socialists in Turkey say, “Neoliberalism is not dead, it is still the reigning order.” But few people talk about the change in this accumulation model. There is a shift away from neoliberalism in the organization of the accumulation model, but there is no change in the employment regime. In this area, neoliberalization continues, privatization continues. But we should not get hung up on the form of privatization, in other words, its legal appearance. On the one hand, state capitalism is being established. But as I said previously, state capitalism cannot be finalized. Therefore, we cannot say that neoliberalism is over and state capitalism has started. Some sociologists in Hungary use the concept of “national capitalism.” However, in Turkey, a nationalism in the full sense of the word is not being built. Yes, the tools of national capitalism and state capitalism are being used, but they are not being brought to their final or logical conclusion. This incompleteness is due to both the influence of world trade balances and class relations in Turkey. We can see the influence of these balances on the example of China. No matter how much national capitalism China practices, it is actually a limited regime within the general neoliberal order of the world. The Chinese model is not an alternative to world capitalism or a state capitalism outside it. In fact, we can talk about classical neoliberalism in the US and national capitalism in China as two separate things: they are intertwined and feed off each other. In this sense, we can say that it is a different regime from the state capitalism of the Roosevelt era. In other words, neoliberal market capitalism does not end where state capitalism begins. We are moving along such a spiral.

This spiral gives birth to very serious labor movements. We saw this with the Metal Storm (the 2015 wave of strikes that swept through Turkish automotive sector). Then there was the very short Labor Spring in 2022. But these fizzle out immediately before the socialists can establish any sphere of influence. In the coming years, we will need to discuss why and how this is happening. There is no clear prescription at this point. These movements will continue to ` and socialists will continue to learn by trial and error. But perhaps it should be emphasized that these movements have not been taken seriously enough until now. Of course, a few small circles, a few leaders have tried to enter them, to have influence in them, but we can say that the socialist movement as a whole has not experienced a major change of course. However, this needs to happen. As the Metal Storm, but especially the Labor Spring of 2022 has shown – the Labor Spring is not comparable to the workers’ uprisings of 1989 – we can see that workplace tensions can gradually escalate, even if not always in the form of strikes and struggles for unionization.

This needs to be recognized as a structural change and the socialist movement needs to be built on this main vein. But as soon as we realize this and turn towards it, even if almost the entire socialist movement turns there, it will not be a vein that we can organize immediately. The situation in China is obvious: Many socialist students have been channeled into these struggles, but they are all arrested, suppressed, disappeared. … Something similar or worse could happen in Turkey.


The second structural change points to a shift in the geopolitical balance, which is not so independent from what we have described above. There is a decline, if not a collapse, in American imperialism. Russia and China are trying to open up space for themselves. We have been experiencing this for at least fifteen years. This process was dramatized during the Arab Spring. There were very harsh inter-imperial showdowns over Syria. Now we are slowly starting to see a tragic version of this explosion in Ukraine. China is acting deeply behind the scenes here and the US is certainly not hiding itself as much. It looks like a war between the US and Russia, but there is a much bigger showdown. While Turkey was trying to find its way here, the ruling-bloc alliance (Cumhur İttifaki, comprising Erdoğan’s own AKP, the ultranatıonalist MHP and other smaller Islamist and nationalist parties) was actually doing something that the oppositional alliance (Milet İttifaki, comprising Ithe Kemalist CHP, the nationalist İyi Party, which had split up from MHP, and various smaller parties that had split from AKP) could not do. This is also very relevant to the issue of state capitalism. The oppositional alliance continues to act as if American imperialism is in its happy old days, and the European Union is still waiting for the White Turks (Westernized elites) with open arms. However, the European Union no longer cares about the distinction between White Turks and Black Turks (Islamist subordinate classes). They see us as a black nation and have no intention of taking us in. There can be no political discussion without a clear understanding of this situation. The ruling-bloc alliance makes very good use of the gap arising from this weakness of the oppositional alliance. That is why the former continues to be the hope of the working class and the people despite all its absurdities, weaknesses and shortcomings. What do I mean? Certainly not to suggest clear anti-imperialism on its part, of course. On the surface, on the surface there is an anti-Americanism. But rather how much influence Turkey can have in the space vacated by America, the ‘state’ is currently pushing these walls. This is of course a reflection of the incomplete transition from neoliberalism to state capitalism that I mentioned when we evaluate it through its economic relations with China and energy relations with Russia.

In other words, Turkey is trying to establish a sub-imperial moment. When we say sub-imperial, we think of a national power under an imperial power in a more classical sense. However, Turkey is trying to establish a sub-imperialism in a vacuum created by the inability of two or three imperial powers to confront each other. Moreover, the rise of nationalism should not be seen only in terms of hatred of immigrants or Kurds. The intertwining of all these processes arouses certain expectations in the working class and other sections of the population: Our war industry will develop, we will become an energy transit country, there will be an industrial leap based on intermediate goods… All these create fragmented expectations and hopes, which are embodied in the personality of Erdoğan. He is exaggerated as a leader who challenges the world, but we should not get too hung up on the exaggeration part. That is to say, there are some concrete geopolitical and accumulation model-based foundations for that embodiment, which is why the working class and popular segments are pinning their hopes on such an expectation. Since neoliberalism in its classical form is over, America is slowly declining and cannot bring a neoliberal or even liberal peace to the region, what will save us? Sub-imperial games, the war industry that will emerge from it, national pride, etc… All of this is the intertwining of class relations on the one hand and ideology and imperial relations on the other, which still sustains the oppositional alliance in this situation.

Thank you very much for this general framework. The following observation has often been voiced: After the global recession, there was an Occupy wave, square movements and a left-social democratic wave that raged through the 2010s. It could not last for a very long time and maybe even ended this decade with a defeat. When you think about the post-2010 global trend – we can include Occupy, Syriza, Podemos and some examples from Latin America – what kind of relationship do you see between Turkey and this global trend?

What was defeated here? We need to start with this question. It was not the same thing that was defeated everywhere. As I will explain more in a moment, the word ‘defeat’ should be used carefully and in a limited way. In the US, Occupy was formed from a more anarchist, autonomist position and was indeed quickly defeated. However, after the defeat of Occupy, the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) movement started to grow. Within four years, a left-social democratic conception of democratic socialism expanded rapidly. The background is the defeat of Occupy, but the Trump victory in 2016 also had a huge impact. The generation between the ages of 20 and 35 suddenly turned an organization of 1-2 thousand people into an organization of a hundred thousand people. The DSA organization is seriously focused on unionization and trying to turn the Democratic Party into a workers’ party. Within four years they have gained serious positions. It is too early to talk about a defeat, but for the last two years, since Biden was elected, they have lost a lot of that momentum. They didn’t read the moment well, in other words, they got too caught up in the class dimension. However, racism and anti-Trumpism had a huge impact on the growth of this movement and that was not understood very well. The misreading also stems from seeing these issues as separate. The Jacobin circle, the understanding of Marxism that dominates this DSA, is a very economist understanding of Marxism: either you march on the basis of race or you march on the basis of class. Therefore, they did not understand very well that the wind blowing in their sails was a yearning for democracy that was intertwined with racial dynamics as well as class dynamics. I think this erroneous understanding still persists. Therefore, there is a loss of momentum, which is not analyzed correctly. But it is too early to call it a defeat.

In the case of Podemos and Syriza, there is a clearer defeat, but the rise of the left there was also sharper than in the US. While in the US there were still debates about whether something is happening, whether it will happen, how much it is happening, in Spain and Greece there was a clearer leftist, socialist wave. I think it was founded from a populist place, which was partly true, but it was an incomplete populism: It was a socialism without a class basis and without a cadre movement. It is actually quite different from the US. While in the US there was a left-social democratic, left reformist emphasis on class and cadres, Podemos and Syriza emphasized neither class nor cadres. They always emphasized discourse, thinking that if we use populist discourse very well, people will follow us. And indeed people did follow them for a while. In other words, votes of up to 30, 40 percent were received. But without cadre and class support, you cannot turn this into a permanent power. In other words, it is not just about rhetoric. You can win elections with good rhetoric, but it’s not enough to turn election victories into a new regime. That was the lack of populism in these two examples, and I think this is not understood enough in our country. We have always debated whether the populisms of Southern Europe (or even populism in general) are good or bad. Logically, I liken this to the debate on ‘race or class’. We cannot ask whether populism is good or bad. Populism is a necessary form of politics. If you want to transform society and the state, you have to be populist. But if it is not based on class and cadre, it will go nowhere and there will be no change. That was the problem in Greece and Spain.


In Latin America, it has been a completely different story, and each country is different. If we focus on Brazil, almost the opposite is true: the Workers’ Party has a class base, it has very strong cadres in the landless peasant movements and in some organized unions, and it is supported by a populist discourse. So all the elements missing on both sides, in the US and in Southern Europe, that could complement each other, have come together in Latin America, especially in the case of Brazil. Partly this is also seen in Bolivia and Venezuela. So what is invisible then, and why have there been defeats in this region as well? But it must be emphasized that the defeats in these three geographies are very different. I didn’t even use the word defeat for the DSA, there was defeat in Southern Europe. In Brazil there is actually a shaky situation. There have been victories and there have been defeats. And the most unfinished one is perhaps the story of Latin America, an example that still gives us hope. So why is it so shaky? Why can’t Brazil, Bolivia and other examples turn into a victory more clearly?

I think it is easier to summarize the Bolivian case quickly. Because whatever you do in Bolivia, we are talking about a very small country. Its economy is not very developed, it is still dependent on raw materials. They have tried to break this a little bit, but they can’t go too far beyond that. Bolivia is not a medium-sized power like Turkey or Brazil; it is a tiny country. It has to be more deeply dependent on world capitalism. In such a small country, as in the case of Cuba, you can either isolate yourself completely and condemn your people to poverty or you can depend on world capitalism. Beyond the debate on whether socialism can be established in one country or not, socialism cannot be established in one tiny country: it is not possible. Therefore, despite all its democratic and class foundations, even cadre foundations, there are limits to what can be done in Bolivia. Unless the whole world takes a different course, socialism there is not structurally possible.

Brazil, by contrast, is a medium-sized country. So, of course, it is possible to talk about borders in a medium-sized country. Dependence on world capitalism has necessarily continued. And in interaction with it, an experience that started from a more left-social democratic position in the early 2000s turned into a more right-social democratic position. There was never really a move towards socialism. But left-social democracy survived for a while. Why didn’t it last longer? Actually, it survived for another 10-15 years. So let’s not say that no victory was won there. Some gains were made. But the cadres were quickly integrated into the state and the grassroots movements were easily dampened. The balances of world capitalism are also very important here. While the flow of hot money continued, an easy redistribution was achieved. This pacified the people and grassroots movements lost some of their momentum. When the flow of fast money began to fall, this transition could not be overcome because the grassroots movements were not given enough importance. There was no transition from redistribution based on hot money to a new model. We can talk about very small experiences, but in Brazil, there was no effort to create a new model of accumulation. They are actually suffering from similar difficulties to those besetting the AK Party. We think of one as right-wing populism and one as left-wing populism, but actually right-wing populism and left-wing populism are not that different, at least in these two examples. They are both neoliberal populism.

Both the Brazilian regime and the Turkish regime were based on the possibility of creating relative prosperity based on the redistribution of hot money flows. In Turkey, the state intervened more aggressively, in Brazil they could not do that. Even in Turkey, as I said, nationalization could not be fully realized, in other words, it could not take the Chinese route. But in Brazil, left populists were satisfied with less state intervention. That’s why they were easily removed from power in one election, with a little bit of shenanigans. Nevertheless, the Workers’ Party, because it is a grassroots organization, because it still relies on cadres and because there is still a left populist tradition, was again able to remove the neoliberal rightists from power. But how lasting a victory will it be?  We shall see.

In all these respects, we can see how different Turkey is compared to the above examples. We don’t have a Kautskyite holistic organization like in the US, that is, an organization that dominates and shapes the entire left. We don’t have a cadre based on landless peasant movements like in Brazil. The Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) tried to imitate the left-wing populism in these regions and in Southern Europe, but first of all, the dynamics of Turkey and Southern Europe and Brazil are very different. Secondly, in a place where right-wing populism is dominant, left-wing populism cannot make a leap that quickly on its own. At first, in this sense, a somewhat false parallel was drawn between Turkey and Southern Europe. There are no right-wing populist governments there. In fact, the AK Party and its broader alliance are beyond right-wing populism in the classical sense, they have started to establish state capitalism and have an organizational base. Such a hegemony does not exist in Spain or Greece. It is not possible to pierce such a right-wing hegemony with mere rhetoric.


Let’s carry this context to its projection in Turkey, to Gezi, a moment of left-socialist tendencies, a moment of mass opposition. After discussing this global context, we would like to address Turkey from a left-socialist perspective, through Gezi. Ten years have passed since the Gezi movement and the following assessment is being made: Gezi and its immediate aftermath were perhaps the first moves of the bloc against Erdoğan’s one-man regime. Ten years later, when we make a fair assessment, where do you think the legacy of Gezi stands for the left-socialist movement? What kind of opportunities did this moment produce, but at the same time, what kind of limitations did it confine left-socialist movements to? Can we say that Gezi and the way of doing politics in its aftermath has come to an end? From today’s perspective, do you think Gezi was defeated?

I am of course not saying that the left in any geography is completely defeated. I can also say this about Gezi. In some ways it opened new spaces, in others it was pushed back. Now let’s get down to the basics: Gezi opened up several very important areas. One of them, as I have been emphasizing for a long time, environmentalism and ecology was seen as a hippie issue, a student issue, a middle-class issue, but suddenly it became a people’s issue, a homeland issue. It’s still not a working-class issue, but at least it’s an issue for all people. So I objected to this “it’s not two trees” from the beginning. This tree symbolism, on the contrary, needs to flourish. Something very marvelous can be built from here. It was built, it was broken, it was built, it was broken… I can’t say it is still completely broken, but from the beginning there was the discourse of “This is not a matter of trees”. However, from the very beginning, it was necessary to say that the opposition to Erdoğan is precisely a tree issue. There were some circles that said this. Maybe we should look at why they were marginalized. In other words, this discourse had a great impact on Gezi at first, but later it was marginalized and Gezi was reduced to the issue of “We will either overthrow Erdoğan or we will overthrow Erdoğan.” If you reduce it to that and you can’t overthrow him, it’s a defeat. Or if you expect a full-fledged liberal democracy to be established after Gezi and you fail to establish it, that would be a defeat. However, if you look at it in terms of politicizing new areas, there has been a victory. But this victory could have been much bigger, so there is a defeat in quotation marks. Why couldn’t we establish this? The defense of trees against capital and the state is a matter of homeland. This is very incompletely established. It resonates more now, of course, but after that great uprising, this could have become one of the main axes of the opposition in Turkey. On the contrary, CHP municipalities continued to expand into the forests, just like AK Party municipalities did. The trees could not become an anti-capitalist axis, but the possibilities for this emerged, so we cannot call it a complete defeat.

Another possibility that came out of Gezi was the forums. Those forums could have become more permanent structures. But again forums were seen as tools to overthrow Erdoğan. If we go back to the Soviet example, for example, in the Russian Revolution, worker-peasant councils were not only a means of overthrowing the tsar, but also a means of establishing a grassroots democracy. Even in the most violent revolutionary situations, the sole function of such structures is not to overthrow the government, but in this case the forums were gradually reduced to a means of overthrowing power, of overthrowing the government. Anyway, this was not seen: AK Party is a party that has established hegemony. You cannot overthrow it with such an uprising, in this respect it is different from tsarism. But this is not the only problem. The main problem is that it has been reduced to a means of overthrowing the government and the issue of grassroots democracy has been pushed aside over time. Of course, there are exceptions to this, like the Maltepe Forum. In other words, in a few places these were tried to be kept alive, and where they were kept alive, you see that the ecological dimension of the Gezi movement was also kept alive.

It is also necessary to emphasize this: Ecology is not just a matter of trees by themselves. Its dynamics are intertwined with the city and the accumulation model. This was the magic of Gezi. The symbolism of the tree contained many things: The uprising asked the questions of what kind of a city we want to live in and what kind of a life we want, and gave partial answers. The trees had become symbols of this and could have remained as such symbols, but they didn’t. In other words, it is necessary to build ecology, the tree, the city from here so that the environmental problem does not become only a middle class and hippie issue again. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to completely belittle the middle class and hippies, they are also permanent parts of this movement, but the ecological movement has a worldwide malady of not being able to integrate with the working class. Moreover, although the environmental movement has peasant bases and indigenous bases in many places, it cannot yet grow a working-class base. Because it is not seen that ecology, trees, urbanization and urban growth is a class issue, a labor issue.

In Gezi and the forums, the opportunity arose to rebuild all this, or at least to begin to do so. In this sense, Gezi is still a horizon. It was defeated in terms of the goals it set for itself (i.e. democracy could not be established in Turkey, Erdoğan could not be removed), but in terms of starting to utilise these possibilities, Gezi has made great gains. We just need to re-establish that memory in that way, through the Maltepe Forum, through the forums in a few other places. And beyond that, let’s look at Can Atalay and Mücella Yapıcı, these imprisoned people: Mücella Yapıcı is a person who has been talking and discussing earthquake, urbanisation, trees, in other words the issue of ecology since the 1990s, and has built her activism from there. Because of the existence of such people, the discourse established by Taksim Solidarity brought all these elements together, despite its limitations and lack of public outreach: Ecology, the growth model, the working class. When you look at Can Atalay’s past, you see that he brings all these issues together. Can Atalay is both a lawyer for labour murders and a spokesperson for Gezi. He is also a spokesperson for ecology. In fact, these elements have come together in the background, activism and discourse of such people. However, since these names are reduced to an opposition to Erdoğan, these richnesses are not recognised. We need to make sense not only of Gezi’s past, but also of its present, namely the imprisoned Gezi protesters.

Yes, a very important question. I would like to start with two mistakes. We will gradually come to the questions of what could have been done and what we can do from now on. There were two mistakes in Gezi. White-collar workers mobilised. They mobilised even to the point of clashing with the police, in a sense they became revolutionary. And the first easy conclusion to draw from this was, “They are also the working class, we see very clearly that this is the working class, this is also a workers’ movement”. I think that the most qualified pens of the Turkish socialist movement and the Marxist intelligentsia unfortunately succumbed to this mistake. On the contrary, although it was not expressed very clearly, there was always a disdain, “These plaza youth are nothing, this is a white-collar movement, not a labour movement”. Now, if I say that both of these are wrong, then what are we left with? We are, or should be, left with this: This is a white-collar labour movement, but whether it will become a workers’ movement or not is something that will be determined in the process. That’s why I have been saying Poulantzas for 10 years. Why? In Poulantzas’ class analysis, these groups are described as unpredictable groups. Will they be middle class or working class? This will be determined by the process, organisations and ideology. So we can objectively call them middle class (and not working class) at the moment. But as the working class movement gets organised, expands and establishes its ideological hegemony, the proletarianised sections of the white collars may start to become proletarian not only objectively but also subjectively. But at the moment, these segments are middle class people both in terms of their class position and their emotions and ideological tendencies. That is to say, it was like this in the heyday of the Gezi uprising, it was like this when some of them turned towards the HDP, and it was like this after 2015 when the HDP weakened. This was also the case when they became Turkicised again, and it is still the case now. We still see a clear and sharp hostility towards workers and blue-collar workers in these groups, this is undeniable. When you start to discuss these issues a little bit, they immediately say the same routine we have known for forty years: “What’s wrong with labour, workers are racist, workers are religious, workers are ignorant, and why don’t I earn as much money as they do” and so on…


After this accounting of Gezi, let’s move on to a related question: middle class layers and the left-socialist movement. As another legacy of Gezi, as you have just mentioned, it has been widely discussed that these urban, educated, middle class and labouring layers have shaped the strategy of the left-socialist movement and that they have not been able to establish an organic connection with the working class in the traditional sense. How do you evaluate these debates and in this context, what kind of opportunities and limitations does the class composition that gives colour to these left-socialist groups and movements create?

A great majority of these groups still come before us with the discourse of Kenan Evren. There are even people among them who clashed with the police during Gezi. There are even people among the middle class components of Gezi who see the downfall of Gezi in the fact that young people from the slums came to Gezi in droves and started clashing with the police or participated in clashes with the police. In other words, that class hatred continues. Therefore, from a subjective point of view, these people are definitely not proletarians, definitely not part of the working class. We need to see this clearly now, we really need to overcome the illusion that “Gezi was a working class uprising”. But these people, despite the built-in class hatred that also hurts them, are indispensable for the establishment of socialism in Turkey. Socialism cannot be established in Turkey without winning the white-collar labourers, especially the proletarianised sections, and even a significant part of the non-proletarianised sections. Without eroding this class hatred, these sections cannot be permanently won into the struggle. This was also emphasised in a couple of articles published in İleri Haber, I think it was emphasised in Ahmet Bekmen’s article. For example, in the UK, white-collar labourers are a larger segment, but Turkey is a country of both white-collar and blue-collar labourers.[1] If socialism is to be established in our country, it will be established with the serious coming together of these two segments. But in order for these difficulties to be understood and then overcome, these difficulties must first be confessed. I think this confession is still lacking.

It will continue tomorrow: How can the bonds between the Turkish Workers’ Party with blue and white collar workers be strengthened? How is it possible to bring white-collar workers and the classical proletariat together? Can solidarity networks and forums contribute to the establishment of socialism?

Cihan Tuğal is a Professor in the Sociology Department at UC Berkeley. He studies three interlocking dynamics: 1) capitalism’s generation and destruction of communities, livelihoods, and places; 2) the implosion of representative democracy; 3) the crisis of liberal ethics. His ongoing research focuses on global populism, the radical right, and neoliberalism. He has also initiated a team project to study the ecological crisis of capitalism, with special emphasis on the role of labor and community struggles in developing sustainable energy.