Dogan Tarkan: A personal tribute

I first met Dogan Tarkan in the mid-1980s. He was then living in exile in London. He had been a leading figure in the Turkish far left during the 1970s, a period of intense class conflict that involved street warfare between the left groups and the extreme right. The military coup of 1980 sent Dogan into exile, along with many other Turkish revolutionaries.

It was during this period that he broke with the Third Worldist politics of his organization, Kurtulus, and began to develop a new understanding of Marxism centred on the self-activity of the working class. He and his comrades formed a new group, Sosyalist Isci (Socialist Worker), the origins of the contemporary Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSIP).

The name Dogan chose for the group expressed a certain openness to the politics of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Through Ronnie Margulies, he met Tony Cliff, the founder of the SWP, and myself. We started to have regularly discussions in Cliff’s house in Hackney. These ranged very widely in the history and theory of the revolutionary movement. Increasingly, however, they centred on the question of whether Cliff was right to argue that the Soviet Union and its like were not socialist, workers’ states, post-capitalist societies or whatever, but were bureaucratic state capitalist societies.

We argued over this for five years. For Cliff and me, this wasn’t a matter of the attaching the correct label to the Stalinist societies. The theory of state capitalism allowed revolutionaries to reaffirm Marx’s fundamental principle that socialism can only be achieved through the self-activity of the workers themselves and not through the agency of a party or guerrilla army acting in their name. It also implied that opposing Stalinism did not require abandoning the whole wealth of the classical Marxist tradition and the lessons of revolutionary strategy and tactics offered by Lenin and Trotsky in particular.

Cliff used all his formidable powers of persuasion to win Dogan. But he had encountered someone as stubborn as himself. Dogan had come a long way, working his way out of the left-Stalinist politics in which he had been formed, and he was going to think through the implications of this hard-won break without an easy surrender to any alternative set of ideas.

What finally convinced him in the end was not Cliff’s dialectic but world-historical events. In the autumn of 1989 a combination of revolt from below and internal disintegration swept away the Stalinist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe. Whereas much of the left treated these political upheavals as a counter-revolutionary defeat, the triumph of capitalism, Dogan responded by embracing the theory of state capitalism. This allowed him to see the transformations in the East as what Chris Harman called a ‘move sideways’, from one version of capitalism to another. Far from socialism being finished, a new period had opened up, in which we could fight for the genuine article.

It was in this spirit that Dogan returned to Turkey in 1992 to found DSIP. The path forward proved more twisted than he had expected, as it did for the rest of us. For a while the SWP and DSIP diverged, but we found each other again, on the same side in the new period of struggle that developed after Seattle and 9/11. This involved new opportunities, in building the movements against capitalist globalization and imperialist war, but also new complexities, in trying, for example, to decipher and respond to the different forms of political Islam. We found ourselves making the same choices and taking very similar initiatives.

I’ve seen Dogan regularly over the past few years, usually when I spoke at DSIP’s Marxism events in Istanbul. I remember in particular a idyllic boat ride on the Bosphorus with him and his son Yusuf amongst others. Dogan was the same as he had always been – lucid, realistic, determined, and focused above all on the bottom line – the growth of the organization. It was these qualities – along with his personal strength and a shared sense of humour – that attracted Cliff and me to him long ago and led us to persist in all those arguments.

Dogan is irreplaceable. Individuals with his qualities of judgement and persistence are rare and he was a leading representative of a generation that is now beginning to pass. But his example and his inspiration will live on his comrades as they continue to build DSIP and the International Socialist Tendency.

Alex Callinicos, for the Socialist Workers Party (Britain)

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