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Turkey: what kind of a ‘passive revolution’?

Following the June 2011 elections, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (pictured) stands as the most successful prime minister in Turkey’s history after winning, since 2002, a third successive victory as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP, having won 50 percent of the parliamentary vote and 326 seats in the 550-member legislature, is poised to engage in further fundamental social, political and economic change.

A lively debate is proceeding across academic and media circles in Turkey about the AKP’s success and its relationship with capitalism. One leading voice in this debate is Cihan Tuğal whose Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism utilises the concept of ‘passive revolution’ as developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci to explain the dominance of secularist capitalism in Turkey.

As I make clear in my recent book, Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development, a ‘passive revolution’ refers to conditions in which aspects of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of class rule. Historical examples could include the Italian Risorgimento (1861), the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), or modern Turkish state formation following the Ottoman Reforms and the institutionalisation of capitalism thereafter (1919-1923). Describing this concept in 60 seconds on YouTube, I stress that a passive revolution can actually involve processes of revolutionary upheaval that become displaced to result in the reconstitution of new forms of capitalist order.

I recently discussed the nature of Turkey’s passive revolution at the international conference on ‘Religion, Civil Society and Political Society in Gramsci’ held on the island of Büyükada in İstanbul and hosted by the Felsefe ve Sosyal Araştırmalar Topluluğu Derneği (fesatoder). My paper, ‘A Critique of Passive Revolution in Turkey: The Limits of Sociological Marxism’, was based on a forthcoming article in Praksis, a journal that aims to defend the role of historical materialism in the social sciences.

My argument is that Tuğal decontextualises and detaches the concept from Gramsci’s original usage and that this gives rise to misdiagnoses of the operations of power in Turkey and of the resilience of the liberal-conservative power bloc that Tuğal wants to combat. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Tuğal’s interview with Today’s Zaman—a conservative English-language daily in Turkey—that views the rise of AKP rule as benevolent.

The problem here is that the condition of passive revolution is not a literally passive process. It is often a ruptural (sometimes violent) struggle between classes that emerge in contexts of social, political and economic upheaval whilst carrying continuities with the previous social order. As a consequence, what is missing in Tuğal’s analysis of AKP rule is: (1) a tracking of the continuities of neoliberal policies identified through the AKP’s class, ideology and state practices that have heightened economic exclusion and social polarisation; and (2) a more engaged focus on forms of struggle and practices of resistance including analysis of new spaces of utopian vision, such as the tekel workers’ strike—initiated in 2009 against the closure of 12 factories run by the state-owned tobacco and alcohol company and sold to British and American Tobacco.

These features of social struggle should accompany any account of the reordering of hegemony in Turkey through AKP rule and the restructuring of contexts of capital accumulation through conditions of passive revolution.

Adam Morton

Published inInternational PoliticsTheory RevolutionTurkish politics

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