Centenary of the assassination of Mustafa Suphi and his comrades: turning point in the history of communism in Turkey
My wounds keep bleeding in the salt
Sleepy hazel eyes are beginning to wane
One part of me dies with Suphi Nejat
Another part keeps fretting on the wave
The day will come, my wounds will heal
This is not forever, they will foot the bill
One part of me Persia and China perceive
Another part keeps fretting on the wave
Exactly one hundred years ago, on the night of 28-29 January 1921, 15 communist cadres were assassinated off the coast of the city of Trabzon (Trebizond) on the Black Sea. Among the victims were, alongside a host of other leaders and cadres of the newly-founded Communist Party of Turkey (CPT), Mustafa Suphi, chairman of the party and historic leader of communism in Turkey, and Ethem Nejat, secretary general of the party and one of the “Turkish Spartacists”, thus called because they had become proletarian revolutionaries while they were in Germany as students or workers and participated in the November 1918 revolution there. (These are the two personalities Ruhi Su refers to in his poem-song quoted above as if they were one single person when he says “One part of me dies with Suphi Nejat”.)
For those who are familiar with the history of the country, it will be obvious from the date cited that these communist leaders were murdered in the very midst of what has gone down in history as the National Struggle 1918-1923 in Turkey. In this post-World War I period, the moribund Ottoman Empire was reduced to a rump state confined to Asia Minor (Anatolia), where the Turkish-Muslim population had been the largest population group for centuries, as opposed to the Balkans and the Arab-majority territories of the empire. But even Anatolia (roughly corresponding to the territory of today’s Turkey) was brought under the invasion of imperialist powers (Britain in what was then the capital city of Istanbul (or Constantinople for Westerners), the French in Cilicia in the southeast, the Italians in Antalya in the south etc. Greek armies at the behest of the British in Izmir, the main Mediterranean port city of the country, and its hinterland in the west. The Sultan and his government having sheepishly swallowed the occupation, a revolution broke out in the country, with different class forces organising armed resistance. Dual power was established as a result of the moving of the national parliament from Istanbul under occupation to Ankara (subsequently the capital city of the country under the republic) under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) and other rebel generals of the Ottoman army, as well as a host of other forces. Having defeated his internal class enemies, Mustafa Kemal won the war against the Greek army (not without the contribution of revolutionary defeatism on the part of the Greek communists, who correctly perceived the occupation of Izmir and its hinterland as an indefensible act of unjust war) and proceeded to establish a bourgeois republic to replace the six-century Ottoman empire, but solely in Anatolia and the eastern part of Thrace, on what is considered to be the European continent.
The CPT was established in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan newly Sovietised in April 1920, in a founding congress held immediately in the aftermath of the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, in September 1920. The party was the product of the unification, on the one hand, of the cadres who had been prisoners of war in Russia during the Great War and later become communists under the new Soviet regime in the wake of the October revolution and, on the other, of the communists of Istanbul and Anatolia, although the most important offshoot of communism in Anatolia, the party formed in Ankara in the summer of the same year, was not part of the congress, reportedly because of lack of financial resources.
The year 1920 was perhaps the most difficult for the Ankara government, at the end of which Mustafa Kemal and his cohort, having taken the upper hand over the forces of the peasantry and defeated the guerrilla armies led by peasant leaders, progressively consolidated the power of the bourgeoisie over the revolution. It was precisely at this turning point at which the leadership delegation of the CPT moved into Turkey on the basis of a rather ambiguous correspondence between Mustafa Kemal and Mustafa Suphi. Whatever the merits of that correspondence, the times had changed rapidly at the end of 1920. The Ankara government did not welcome the communist delegation, who were rightly regarded as moving to the country not in order to solely join the effort at defeating foreign occupying armies but also to accomplish a social revolution if and when they found the terrain ready for this kind of move. They were sent from the Soviet-Turkish border in the north-eastern part of the country to Trabzon on the coast so as to be deported back to Soviet territory.
The reason why they were not immediately subjected to refoulement at the border post, but directed to the port city to be only then deported by sea route was the wicked objective of the Kemalist regime to subject them to the humiliation of mob pestering on the road wherever they passed from, this in order to demonstrate to the Bolshevik administration that although the Kemalists sustained friendly relationships with the communist regime in Russia, the people of Anatolia were too hostile to the programme of communism to accept the presence of communists among themselves.
But then things came to a head when the group reached Trabzon. They were put on boats supposedly to be sent back to the port of Batum on the Soviet side, but another set of boats full of murderers caught up with them, killed them off (they had been disarmed before they were embarked) and threw them into the Black Sea in the black of the night.
The bourgeois revolution of 1918-1923 in Turkey was thus accomplished on the basis of the cold-blooded assassination of the leadership of the recently established Communist Party of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal marched to power and established the bourgeois republic over the dead bodies of the historic leadership cadre of communism in Turkey. A sea of blood thus separates real communists from the bourgeois republican leadership of modern Turkey.
The culprits: Enver Pasha and his henchmen
For a full century after this abominable political assassination, historians and the communist (socialist) left in Turkey was not able to establish the real culprit. The scenario of popular humiliation of the communist delegation did not include violence, let alone wilful murder. On the contrary, all instructions to local officials expressly ruled out any violence to be exerted on the communist leadership. Nonetheless, the overwhelming opinion on the left was that the Kemalists has been at the root of this crime.
Now, thanks to a document we have very recently rediscovered and reinterpreted, it has been established that it was Enver Pasha and his henchmen who planned and committed the crime. Enver Pasha was the powerful leader of the Committee of Union and Progress (the CUP), the leading organisation at the head of the first Turkish, or rather multinational, revolution on the soil of the Ottoman Empire in 1908. Having first gained his fame as the “Hero of Liberty”, he later became notorious for a despicable policy. In a Thermidorian act of sheer brutality, he became a member of the CUP Triumvirate that ordered, in the fire and fury of World War I, the deportation and the genocide of the Armenian population of Anatolia in 1915. So he was perfectly capable of the kind of cold-blooded murderous act that annihilated the communist leadership of the CPT. The reason for the assassination of Mustafa Suphi and his comrades is very easy to understand: in his quest for taking over the leadership of the Anatolian resistance, Enver was currying the favours of the revolutionary Soviet regime. Mustafa Suphi was both a formidable contender for the same position and an implacable enemy of Enver and his cohort. Among the many characteristics of Mustafa Suphi’s CPT that differentiated it from its Stalinist avatars was to deal honestly with the question of the genocide of the Armenians. Thus, Mustafa Suphi was a sworn enemy of the CUP leadership because the latter had the blood of close to a million civilian Armenians on its hand and because it had sowed the seeds of division and enmity between two of the most populous nationalities of Anatolia, the Turks and the Armenians. And he struggled with Enver, humiliated him at the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East and put all kinds of obstacles in the way of his fight for power, the details of which need not detain us here.
However, the fact that it has now been conclusively proven that Enver’s henchmen were directly the murderers of Mustafa Suphi and his comrades in no way absolves the Kemalist leadership of the Ankara regime from responsibility in their destruction. It was the Kemalist leadership that created the entire atmosphere of quasi-lynching of the communist leaders on the way to and in Trabzon that made it possible for Enver’s men to deliberately kill them. Had it not been for the cynical policy of humiliating the communist leadership and denigrating the status of communism on Anatolian territory, Enver’s hitmen would certainly not have found the opportunity of destroying them.
Hence the different wings of the Turkish bourgeoisie are jointly responsible, to differing degrees, of the bloody affair of the political assassination of the first communist leadership of communism in Turkey. This includes not only Mustafa Kemal and Enver and their followers, but the reactionary, partially Islamist, anti-republican notables of Eastern Anatolia. It was this entire array of forces that continued to persecute communists all throughout the republican period. The Stalinist CPT of later years, despite pursuing a tail-endist politics with respect to Kemalism all throughout its history, had to remain underground until the 1980s, when it liquidated itself in the footsteps of Gorbachev.
Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Stepan Shaumyan, Mustafa Suphi
Attention should be drawn to the fact that Mustafa Suphi’s assassination was not the only one of its kind in the post-war period. The first wave of world revolution in the wake of World War I triggered by the October revolution witnessed a series of assassinations of leaders of the proletarian revolution in different countries. The most prominent, and notorious, case is, of course, that of the German revolutionary Marxists Rosa Luxemburg (whose 150th birth anniversary we will be celebrating this year) and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919 during the insurrection of Berlin workers in the course of the German revolution that had started in November 1918.
The other two cases are bitterly symbolic as twin catastrophes that befell the communist movements of two peoples that ironically experienced the most tragic event of World War I, the Armenian genocide of 1915. The Baku Commune, established in spring 1918 and the first socialist government outside of Russia proper in the land of the Tzar in the wake of the October revolution was led by Stepan Shaumyan, Lenin’s close associate and later famed as the “Lenin of the Caucasus”. Betrayed by the Armenian petty-bourgeois socialist and later pro-imperialist Dashnak party, 26 commissars leading the Commune had to leave the city and were hunted down and killed by stray forces of the counter-revolution in the countryside, with the connivance of the British imperialists.
Beyond the immense loss suffered by world proletarian revolution as a result of the death of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and the setback that the death of Shaumyan and Suphi for revolution in the triple-region formed by the Caucasus, Anatolia and Mesopotamia, these three incidents, as well as others in other times and distant climes, including the assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940 by a Stalinist agent, of momentous importance for the international proletarian movement of the 20th century, suggests to us two very important conclusions, not often discussed within the international movement to the best of our knowledge.
First, some of the worst mistakes committed within the revolutionary Marxist movement relate to the protection, or rather the lack of protection, of the leaders of the
movement. In none of these cases can it be reasonably contended that there were not mistakes, even serious ones, committed by those immediately involved in the defence of the lives of these leaders. This also includes mistakes on this score by these leaders themselves.
Second lesson: the question of protection of leaders gains particularly acute importance in times of revolution and war. Let us not forget that even Trotsky’s assassination was related to the world war raging over the globe, despite the fact that he was struck in the peaceful suburb of Coyoacán near Mexico City. The other leaders in question were all hunted down on the field of action. What makes situations of war and revolution doubly dangerous is not only the fact that the ruling classes are now much more unsure of their future and thus disposed to commit the worst atrocities in defence of their privileges, but also the possibility of the intervention of peripheral, even marginal, groups who may find the opportunity of access to these leaders since all order has been radically upset in wartime or conditions of revolutionary upheaval.
The difference between the three L’s
The communist movement spoke of the three L’s for a long time. Lenin, Luxemburg, and Liebknecht, three heroes of the first wave of the world revolution, all died in the early 1920s and were for a long time commemorated every month of January together. However, a major difference in the attitude of the Bolsheviks to the protection of leaders, in particular of Lenin, and that of the German Spartacists, later communists, has gone unnoticed. As a preliminary, let us point out that during the Great War, Lenin took hiding in Switzerland so as to avoid diplomatic complications and remain at large. He was thus able to attend the only internationalist events of the war period, the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences. The Spartacists of Luxemburg and Liebknecht did show up in Zimmerwald, albeit with some reservations, but they were not represented by their leaders because both Luxemburg and Liebknecht were in jail.
In his writings on the war early at the beginning of the hostilities, Lenin had warned internationalist social democrats (the name for Marxists at that time) to pay great attention to keeping themselves free of the attacks of the state, including imprisonment, and recommended the use of illegal methods of work. The Spartacists, accomplished Marxists as they were, unfortunately did not heed the advice and paid for this. It was natural for Liebknecht to take the risk. He was addressing, as a former member of parliament, a crowd of workers on May Day when he called out his rightly famous slogan “the main enemy is at home”. He got arrested immediately. What about Rosa Luxemburg, though? There was not the slightest reason for the movement to let the state lock Rosa up. She was opposing the carnage and social-chauvinism within international social-democracy with literary instruments and could very well have done so in hiding! So, during the Great War, the Spartacists fell prey to the habits of the exclusive use of legal methods of work of the party they were so critical of, habits that the Communist International was to oppose so vehemently in the practice of the Western European communist parties after 1919. (We will not go here into the tragic example of Antonio Gramsci, the leader of Italian communism, in the face of the creeping rise of Mussolini’s fascist regime.)
In 1917, when, after the stormy July days, Lenin was accused of being a German agent, he said to Trotsky, “now, they will kill us”. The Bolshevik Party decided to send Lenin and Zinoviev underground. Lenin was this leader who the mighty workers’ procession that started the July days “visited”, so to speak, at the Kshesinskaya Mansion, the headquarters of the Bolshevik Party in 1917, in order to urge the Bolsheviks to take power! This was already his stature among the proletariat in July, three months before power was to be effectively taken! And yet, in the midst of the revolution, the Bolshevik Party went so far in caution as to send this mass-acclaimed leader of the revolution into hiding! Such was the acumen and sound revolutionary judgment of the Bolshevik Party, that incomparably superior organisation among all revolutionary organisations of the modern era.
Lenin had to suffer all the negative consequences of his hiding in Finland, oinevitably bstructing him in his tireless effort to direct the party in the fire of the revolution. But that this was a price worth paying was proven in that other great revolution of the period, the German revolution of November 1918. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were both murdered by the counter-revolutionary Freikorps, with the connivence of social democratic ministers, in the heat of the revolution because both personally participated physically in the Berlin workers’ insurrection of January 1919. Lenin’s prediction of July 1917 (“now, they will kill us”) was, thus, not a moment of paranoia in the great revolutionary, but a streak of genius that was later confirmed during the German revolution! The contrast is overpowering and full of lessons for today’s revolutionary organisations. The loss of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was not only a personal tragedy. It caused the German party to waver and zigzag during the decisive episodes of the German revolution under the direction of less experienced and less able leaders. That the destiny of the German revolution was key to the international situation and the future of the Russian Soviet formation is a point well-rehearsed in the literature.
This difference between German social democracy, even at its best, and Russian Bolshevism comes out clearly here. And with unforgettable lessons for the future.
The dire consequences of the assassination of Mustafa Suphi and his comrades
Great mistakes are, as a rule, paid at great price on the part of the revolutionary movement. This was true in the case of communism in Turkey as well. We will not go into the mistakes that were committed by the CPT and the Comintern Executive (EKKI) resulting in this debacle, which we have done in detail in an article written on the occasion of the centenary of the assassination. We will wind up by pointing to the dire consequences of this assassination for the future of proletarian socialism in Turkey.
We will only touch upon two consequences in summary form. First, the opportunity of turning the revolution of 1918-1923 into permanent revolution and even Sovietising Turkey was missed when the vanguard of the revolution was destroyed in this event. Turkey is the southern neighbour of Russia. The interests of the two countries were locked into a single equation because of their common interests in the Caucasus in opposition to Britain. The international civil war headed, on one side, by British imperialism in the name of the world bourgeoisie, and, on the other side, by the young proletarian state born of the October revolution drew Turkey into its vortex implacably. This was a time of immense influence of Bolshevism on all the classes and strata of society in the country. The Kemalist leadership itself frequently felt the need to hypocritically speak the language of Marxism.
Added to this was the deadly conflict between the guerrilla leadership of the peasantry and the nascent bourgeois regime in Ankara, which was to come to a head in early 1921. One current within the guerrilla movement, at least, had been infiltrated by Anatolian communists in collaboration with the Soviet representation in Ankara. Mustafa Suphi and his comrades were readying to intervene in this explosive situation. Had the Executive of the Comintern (EKKI) and the leadership of the CPT acted differently, the outcome of the revolution could possibly have been very different from what it eventually turned out, i.e. a bourgeois republic.
The second consequence concerned the later nature of the communist movement in Turkey. Communism in Turkey developed at first very much under the influence of Bolshevism and the Spartacus uprising in Germany. This was what the leadership of the duo Mustafa Suphi, chairman of the new party, and Ethem Nejat, secretary general, symbolised in its innermost meaning. Both got killed in the 28-29 January assassination. Not only the able leadership of communism in Turkey, but the competencies acquired by the movement through the direct experience of the Russian and German revolutions were annihilated. The reconstitution of the party after the debacle took some years and fell under the leadership of a certain Şefik Hüsnü, a product of the French reformist socialism of Jean Jaurès, whatever the extraordinary personal talents and rectitude of the leader of that trend in international socialism may be worth. The party thus became much more adaptable and vulnerable to the later wave of Stalinisation that took hold of all the parties of the Comintern to differing degrees.
Mustafa Suphi himself was an accomplished student of Lenin. The CPT stood out by its devotion to world socialist revolution, to proletarian internationalism, to the building of a disciplined, democratic centralist Leninist party, to the forcible seizure of power (it even organised a regiment level military unit composed of Turkish POW’s that fought under the command of the 11th Army of the Red Army and then was planned to be sent to fight the occupying forces in Anatolia), and, most markedly, as opposed to all trends in Turkish politics at that time, was for a federation-type unity of all the peoples of Anatolia (Armenian, Greek, Kurdish, as well as Turkish), recognising explicitly the right to self-determination up to and including secession.
All this was abandoned in the later Stalinised CPT under Şefik Hüsnü. This party slavishly tail-ended the Kemalist leadership of the one-party dictatorship of the bourgeois republic after the end of the war and revolution. It was left to the world-renowned poet, but also lifelong communist militant, Nazım Hikmet to organise the opposition to this line in the so-called Opposition Communist Party of Turkey, whose leader he was in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Whether the fact that this party was formed in precisely 1929, the year Trotsky was sent to his Turkish exile, had anything to do with the presence in Istanbul of the world leader of revolutionary Marxism thenceforth is an enigma waiting to be solved by the younger generations of Turkish Marxists. We have examined Nazım Hikmet’s anti-Stalinism in detail in an English-language article elsewhere.
The historic heritage we claim
We at DIP (Revolutionary Workers Party), as Turkish revolutionary Marxists, claim the heritage of Mustafa Suphi and his comrades of the early period of formation of communism in Turkey. DIP declared the year 2020, the centenary of the foundation of Suphi’s party, “the CPT year”. We celebrated the foundation of the party in our party press, examined the formative influences and the programmatic and organisational principles of the party in our theoretical journal, and published some important articles and speeches of Mustafa Suphi so that the younger generation of workers and of the student youth could become familiar with his thinking and practice. We also criticised the unwarranted owning of Mustafa Suphi and the early years of the CPT by many Stalinist formations of today, dwelling in particular on the explicit insistence of Mustafa Suphi, in the footsteps of Lenin and Trotsky, on the necessity of world revolution and the building of communism as a world phenomenon.
The case of the Communist Party of Turkey under Mustafa Suphi is a characteristic example that shows the continuity between the Bolshevism of the Comintern parties and the parties and organisations that subscribe to the Fourth International, on the one hand, and the deep chasm that separates the early Leninist parties members of the Comintern from the Stalinised “international communist movement” of the 1930s and later, on the other. It was the James Cannons, the Chen Duxius and the Alfred Rosmers, to cite but a few of the best-known instances, that represented the heritage of the Mustafa Suphis and the Stepan Shaumyans of that effervescent revolutionary period of communism.
21st century Marxism will, sooner or later, revive this noble tradition in Marxism. This is what we call revolutionary Marxism. Whoever stands on the ground of the first four congresses of the Communist International, as did Mustafa Suphi (he lived long enough to see only the first two), will take their place in this rebirth, this renaissance of communism.
We do not mourn Mustafa Suphi, Ethem Nejat and their comrades. We learn from them. From their strong sides and from their mistakes. And we call out in the line of the best traditions of our Latin American comrades:
Mustafa Suphi? Presente!
Ethem Nejat? Presente!
The Fifteen? Presente!
Happy the party whose young militants feel they are the Mustafa Suphi’s of the 21st century!
On bloody red marble
Have we inscribed the names of the Fifteen!
Our eyes are a steel mirror
For whoever wishes to see their picture…
Nâzım Hikmet, 1925