By Esat Erdoğan / 30.07.2023
Four years ago this July we lost comrade Ahmet Doğançayır. A few weeks before he died we had gathered in Istanbul to discuss his latest writings and the future of the “Kırmızı Gazete.” Despite his health problems, some of which were caused by the severe torture he suffered after the military coup on September 12 ,1980, he was enthusiastically interested in rebuilding around a workers’ newspaper. Unfortunately, shortly after this meeting, we received the news of his death.
Over the past four years, we have come to realise that we have not been able to explain his revolutionary personality and struggle sufficiently well to young revolutionaries. Not only has his memory sadly been forgotten, but so have most of the militant struggles of the Trotskyists of that period. It was not possible to clearly explain some of the key debates and issues of the time, and if there were publications, most of them had either been lost or were in the hands of the state. Especially journals such as Permanent Revolution, What To Do, Socialist Struggle Notebook, and Worker’s Front, which contain theoretical texts, still needed to be collected and compiled. When we set out to make an accurate history of the period before the September 12 coup, we found that the available documents were unfortunately very inadequate. In order to remedy the shortfall of archival materials, we had to resort to the police, prosecutor’s office, and court minutes of the post-coup period because the state had collected relatively extensive, albeit incomplete and complex, information on the subject. A large number of materials on organisation activities before the 1980 coup had been collected in the state minutes in a “Trotskyists” file.
From the documents we have viewed and the accounts of reliable sources, it is clear that the Trotskyists of that period were engaged in militant struggle while at the same time, they were dealing with the problems of party construction. Although they were not able to build a solid revolutionary structure rooted in the working class, the Trotskyist militants actively took part in fierce struggles, including the self-defence against fascist gangs of both the neighbourhoods where they were located and in the strikes they had helped organise. Sometimes they carried out these struggles alone, while at other times they collaborated with other leftist groups. Trotskyists were at the forefront of many struggles in Kartal, Pendik, Rumeli Hisarüstü, Kadıköy, İzmir, İnegöl, Ankara, and Antalya.
And wherever the fires of struggle were kindled, Ahmet Doğançayır was there. We have no desire to create a legend or glorify a comrade who is no longer alive. However, we think that Ahmet Doğançayır and the Trotskyists who managed to come out of that period with hope and the will to keep organizing should not be forgotten. The younger generation of Revolutionary Marxists, regardless of their political background, should remember these valiant revolutionaries. This is also a call to remember the nearly forgotten history of the beginning of Trotskyism in Turkey. It is our duty to write these lines on behalf of all Trotskyists who took part in militant struggles under the oppression of Stalinism, armed fascists, and the state.
A Young Militant
Ahmet Doğançayır was born in Istanbul in 1955. He grew up in a working class family where his father was a railway worker and his mother was a domestic worker; he was one of two children. Due to his father’s occupation, the family moved frequently and he attended primary school in Mersin, secondary school in İzmit, and high school in Bakırköy, Istanbul. His years in Istanbul were marked by the rapid politicisation of the youth of his generation. Ahmet started to take part in the revolutionary youth movement during his high school years. He participated in revolutionary actions organised by the youth movement without hesitation.
In 1973, he entered the Istanbul Academy of Economic and Commercial Sciences. It was during these years that he became acquainted with revolutionary Marxist thought. His criticism of the bureaucratic corruption and “Stalinist party dictatorship” in the USSR brought him closer to revolutionary Marxism. He started to visit Köz Publishing House, which was publishing revolutionary Marxist works at the time and where some of the young militants sympathetic to Trotskyism began to gather. The publishing house environment helped him to develop his revolutionary Marxist ideas and he participated in political organising there.
During his interrogation at the Bursa Police Station in 1982, Ahmet explained how he had been influenced by revolutionary Marxism in the following terms:
“…[It was] the deplorable situation in the Soviet and Eastern European countries especially which pushed me further into this subject. When I read the history of the Bolshevik party, I was struck by the presence of a person who was constantly despised: Trotsky. Thinking that I should do research on Trotsky out of curiosity, I read the Trotsky volumes, consisting of 3 volumes written by Isaac Deutcher and published by Ağaoğlu Publishing House. After that, my ties with Stalinism were severed.”
In 1974-75, Istanbul University was an arena of revolutionary struggle based on occupations and clashes with fascists. Ahmet Doğançayır and a group of comrades, some of whom are still fighting today, entered the struggle as Trotskyists. Their arduous task in the armed defence of the university and schools against the fascists made them militant, while their prestige among other socialists in the schools increased. This was one of the most militant outbursts of Trotskyist activity at that time. Ahmet’s bravery in this struggle almost cost him his life. One day he was attacked at school by armed civilian fascists. However, his attacker’s gun jammed and Ahmet survived.
These years were also marked by a period of heated inter-Trotskyist debates on organisational issues. Within a few years, there were various mergers and splits. The League of Revolutionary Communists, the Trotskyist League-Union of Revolutionary Internationalists, the Revolutionary Socialist League and the Communist Workers’ League (Workers’ Front) were the Trotskyist structures that emerged in this period.
While defending strikes and neighbourhoods on the streets, Ahmet took part in the process of party construction. During this time, he was guided by an understanding of political activity as based within the working class. He understood that the foundation of Trotskyist organisations is in the working class and in the struggle for the construction of a united workers’ front against fascism, and opposed to any attempt by the military to seize power in a coup d’état. For this reason, he supported the second tendency, which was the minority position in the debate between the “United Front of Revolutionaries” and the “United Workers’ Front” among Trotskyists.
After this tendency separated from the Revolutionary Socialist Union and founded its own organisation (the Communist Workers’ Union), Ahmet played an active role in producing a new publication. In February 1980, eight months before the September 12 coup, the magazine Workers’ Front was published in Izmir (martial law was in force in Istanbul). The magazine not only warned of an impending military coup but also contained a concrete “Action Programme” based on the united struggle of the working class against such a coup. This was the first and only publication of that period that was complete unto itself. A small political group saw and loudly proclaimed what the huge political structures of the period either could not see or turned a blind eye to. Although the situation was becoming increasingly dangerous Ahmet took over the ownership and editorial responsibility of the magazine without hesitation.
The Workers’ Front also published two illegal “Workers’ Bulletins” warning the working class against the impending coup and calling for armed self-defence ( including workers’ militias and self-defence committees) in factories and workers’ neighbourhoods under a united front. The call was modelled on the struggle against the Kapp coup in Germany in 1920, which was defeated by the united resistance of the working class. These calls were reported in the “Aydınlık” newspaper of the period. Following the declaration of martial law in Izmir (along with some other provinces) on February 20, when the occupation of the Taris Factory took place, the Aegean Army and the Izmir Martial Law Command ordered the magazine to be confiscated and closed down.
After the September 12 coup, Ahmet was searched by the Izmir Martial Law Command and imprisoned because adequate measures were not taken for his protection. In April 1981, he was sentenced to a nine-year prison term of hard labour by the Izmir Martial Law Command Military Court No. 1 on the charge of engaging in the “propaganda of communism” as the owner and editor-in-chief of the magazine İşçi Cephesi (Workers’ Front) and was sent to Burdur Prison.
In May 1982, a local operation against the unit of the “Workers’ Front” operating in Bursa İnegöl, detained many people and then spread to Ankara as a result of the testimonies given. On June 3, as a result of the torture and interrogation of a former organisation leader who had broken away from the movement, the organisation’s archive fell into the hands of the police. The operation then spread to Istanbul, and some militants in leading positions of the Trotskyist movement were arrested.
Ahmet Doğançayır, owner and editor of the magazine Workers’ Front and member of the Central Committee of the Communist Workers’ Union, who was in Burdur Prison serving a nine-year sentence, was taken from prison on April 14, 1982, and brought to Bursa Police Headquarters on April 15 to be interrogated once again after his name was mentioned in the Inegöl-Ankara operation. Despite severe torture, he denied any connection to any organisation during his interrogation. He insisted that he had published the Workers’ Front magazine on his own and with his own means, and maintained this position until the end. However, he would suffer the physical effects of torture for the rest of his life.
Ahmet’s testimonies given to police, the prosecutor’s office, and at court at the time constitute a complete political defence. He openly defended the revolutionary method and goals of the movement.
“The aim of the groups that adopted Trotskyism in the country, and therefore our aim [is] the realisation of the Marxist-Leninist revolution with or without armed popular uprising, according to the conditions of the day. … At this stage, there will be compulsory collectivisation, the nationalisation of the banks, the monopolisation of foreign trade, and the gradual decay of the state structure.”
His answer to the Kurdish question, under police interrogation and martial law courts, is an example of his political audacity as he openly defended the principle of a nation’s right to self-determination:
“There is a question of Kurdistan which concerns our country. It is necessary to recognise the principle of the right of nations to self-determination. The position of nations today, whether Basque, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Belarus and even the position of nations in the Soviet Union, must be considered from this point of view. These nations must be able to receive education in their own language and speak it freely. This applies not only to the Kurdistan of Turkey but also to the Kurdistan of Iran and Iraq. … We defend the idea of a separate state with its own parliament and assembly.”
When asked why Trotskyists advocate “defence committees against fascism,” he answered as follows:
“Fascism manifested itself as a grassroots MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) movement in Turkey before September 12. Against [fascism] we defend the concept of defence committees. It is certain that defence committees will be formed in order to prevent attacks by fascists [and that this will occur] by constantly explaining to revolutionary movements that it would be pointless to be separate, to strike separately, [and] that it would be better to act together. […] In this sense, the broadest front against fascism must be formed throughout the country. The present regime is a military dictatorship. It is appropriate to characterise it as an interim regime.”
He denied all accusations against him and his comrades and said that he did everything on his own. However, there were testimonies against him and the state had some important information about his activity and connections. Nevertheless, Ahmet was not demoralised and he prevented further harm by withholding information:
“As I have explained above, it is a fact that there will be an organisation in the long term by forming workers’ committees, people’s committees and defence committees against fascism by adopting Trotskyism throughout Turkey. But as you have said, it is normal that the magazine called Workers’ Front, which I published with my own means in cities such as Ankara, Istanbul, Antalya and Izmir in İnegöl district, gathered a mass of supporters in order to bring an opening to the revolutionary movement and to propagate Trotskyism through propaganda and agitation. And [it is normal] that these views, which were distributed throughout the country, were adopted. However, it cannot be said that these people contacted me by forming an organisation.
You mention the existence of such an organisation in İnegöl. You say that these people acquired weapons to be used in armed propaganda and that the members of the organisation used the signatures of Revolutionary Socialists and Workers’ Front in their statements and writings, that is, in writings reflecting the views of the organisation. And therefore I must have a relationship with these people. I have no relationship with an illegal organisation. I do not know the people named …, …, and …, whom you asked me about, and I do not have any organic ties with them. I only published a magazine called Workers’ Front, which adopts Trotskyism for the purpose of propaganda and to create a base by financing it with my mother-in-law’s 50.000 liras of money in the bank and my wife’s bracelets. In fact, this magazine was printed once and the first issue was published and the Martial Law banned its republication. In the first edition, 3000 copies were printed and distributed throughout Turkey through CEDA distribution in Istanbul. A central committee was not formed throughout Turkey and I have no relation with the members of this organisation using the signature Workers’ Front.”
Seeing that Ahmet resisted revealing information despite being tortured, police officers in the Bursa station threatened him saying: “You didn’t talk to us [before], but if you talk in Istanbul we won’t let you live this time!”
After Prison and Military Service
After six and a half years in various prisons, marked by utter oppression and resistance, and one and a half years of forced military service, Ahmet struggled when he returned to daily life. Despite some resentment and distrust arising from past experiences, he joined the movement that was beginning to recover and did not abandon the struggle. Rather, he continued to contribute to the struggle, sometimes within an organisation, and at other times alone until the end of his life. In the meantime, he wrote many articles and worked to spread the idea of revolutionary socialism. He happily took part in the Red Newspaper when we started publishing it.
Ahmet was a militant devoted to the cause of socialism and his comrades to such an extent that he was willing to sacrifice his own life. He was a revolutionary Marxist and internationalist. He was a determined fighter for the working class struggle. That is why Ahmet is an exemplary militant for all Trotskyists and revolutionary Marxists around the world. Long live his memory and his devotion to the struggle!