Roni Margulies, known to many Socialist Worker readers for his despatches from Turkey and his talks at the Marxism Festival (see video below), died in Istanbul last week. He had been enduring a long struggle against cancer.
Scholar and collector, multilingual and multi-talented, Roni was as engaged in art and culture as revolutionary socialist politics. He was a celebrated and prize-winning Turkish poet. He was a memoirist, and once a political and social commentator with a TV series. He was an anti-racist and an internationalist. He was a dutiful and loving son and brother, an inspirational comrade, and a stalwart friend.
Roni was born to a Jewish family in Istanbul in 1955. He enjoyed a privileged education at Robert College before travelling to London in 1972 to study economics. He then went to Soas in London for a Masters in development economics.
Here, he and I fought an ultimately victorious struggle against our tutors Bill Warren and Terry Byers over imperialism. He then secured a PhD from UEA in Norwich in the political economy of Turkish agriculture.
Roni was, alongside Dogan Tarkan, a founder-member of the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (Dsip), the Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) sister organisation. He was a member of Dsip’s central committee, and the editorial board of the Altust (Upside Down) political journal.
Among his many translations for Dsip was Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia, which explains Stalinist Russia was a state capitalist society. This was a significant intervention on the Turkish left, which was wedded to Stalinism.
Roni’s theoretical work addressed issues of the state, ruling class nationalism and “Kemalism”, the nationalist ideology named after the founder of modern Turkey.
His newspaper column explained the International Socialist tradition, which Dsip and the SWP stand in, to younger comrades in a concise and easily comprehensible manner. In his last few years, Roni and Dsip were greatly concerned with the rise of anti-Arab racism in Turkey as the state scapegoated Syrian refugees.
Before relocating to Istanbul recently, Roni was an active member of the SWP in north London and spoke at branches across Britain on Turkey, Palestine and the Middle East. On his annual returns to London, he attended branch meetings with an insistent interest in local activity and British politics.
A self-professed “non-Jewish Jew”, Roni broke with the dominant Zionist ideology of people around him. He championed the struggle of the Palestinian national liberation struggle. His critical talks and articles were significant in winning many Jews and non-Jews, in Turkey and Britain, to Palestine solidarity.
He never denied his heritage as a descendant of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish families, or lost his identification with the city of his birth and formation. That was attested by his book of memoirs—on his family, and on Istanbul.
In a breakthrough in Turkish broadcasting, Roni jointly hosted a current affairs programme with the Turkish‑Armenian journalist Hayko Bagdat. The mere fact that two such Turks, one of Jewish and one of Armenian descent, should have a TV programme was of some political significance.
Nor did he ever flinch from championing the cause of the Kurds in Turkey. His name means brightness in the Kurdish language Kurmanji. He captured this celebration of cultural otherness in one of his poems, Trial.
Roni was a polymath and linguist. His cultural pursuits ranged from the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin—selections of which he translated—to modernist art and drama, classical opera and modern jazz. And he had a serious interest in anthropology and palaeontology. He spoke Turkish, English, French and rudimentary German, and was lately studying Greek. A connoisseur of English beer and French wine—in that order—he knew how to handle a bottle of Raki with his meze.
Roni had been writing poetry since 1991. His poetry is renowned in Turkey for how it uses the language. In substance, it focuses on senses of loss and on opportunities squandered or sacrificed, whether personal or political or historical.
The poems are about our alienated and oppressed condition, about cultural and physical migrations, and about the impossibility and yet the necessity of continuing this life. They never degenerate programmatically into manifestos. They are about a sense of place—Istanbul and London—and about the lure and illusion of love.
This was a life cut short too soon. This was a man who still had much to offer the struggle. He too had a sense of this, and he was right. The last two lines of his last poem read, “All lives are incomplete. All deaths are untimely.” He leaves behind his mother and his sister, his innumerable friends and colleagues, and his comrades in Turkey and Britain.
Thanks to Osman, Senol, Selim, Mehmet Ali, Simon, Phil and Alex