Written by Havin Guneser with Eleanor Finley
What sets us apart as humans—especially those who struggle for freedom and reject injustice, inequality, oppression, and exploitation—is our imagination. We can refuse to accept that which is simply handed over to us as truth. Let us begin here in our exploration of the journey of the Kurdish people in their quest for freedom over the last 45 years. Where are Kurds coming from? How can we holistically understand what has happened to the PKK and the strategic thinker Abdullah Öcalan and why? Let me briefly lead you all through this journey. So where are we coming from? This is what I want to get into: to be able to holistically understand what happened and why it happened. There’s a lot of contention around that issue.
The Early Years (1970–1989)
Obviously, struggles for freedom are not unique to Kurdistan or to the region. They happen across the world. Many people like to think that Öcalan’s thinking changed suddenly in 1999 after his abduction in Kenya. In fact, at that time, many people believed that he betrayed the Kurdish people’s cause. But when we look at 45 years of the struggle of the PKK, we can see that the organization has continuously moved forward and developed itself. The Kurdish freedom movement has seen many movements and struggles emerge and then wither away (for example, real socialism, national liberation movements, feminism, and anarchism). The PKK’s ability to evolve lies with its analysis of these movements, deducing lessons that it then applies to itself.
When the PKK was gathering in order to take up the Kurdish issue during the 1970s, there was very limited information available about leftism. Around the time of the military coup in Turkey, the first of which was in 1960, there were translations of leftists into Turkish available only from Russian and French. There existed a bit of Marxism, feminism, Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism, but no Gramsci, Bookchin, or other contemporary thinkers back in those years. It was not until the 1990s that the work of alternative movements began to be translated from English; even those that were translated were subsequently censored. For example, The Origin of the Family by Engels went against the traditions of society, so it was censored.
Even the history of the Middle East itself was suppressed. Throughout the region, the nation-states that had formed were interested in completing processes of cultural homogenisation. The information least available of all was Kurdish history. By the 1970s, they had nearly succeeded in getting Kurdish people to forget that Kurdistan was divided into four parts. The majority of Kurds knew only the history of the part in which they lived. In this way, it came to be inscribed in the minds of Kurds themselves that Kurdistan was barren, nowhere worth living in, backward, etc. They were participating in auto-assimilation. Thus, the founding members of the PKK (and especially Öcalan) gave a great deal of importance to education, reading, and the ability to draw conclusions from different movements and great deal of studying was done during this period.
The founding members of the PKK were not all Kurdish and not all male. They came not only from one social class. Already within the initial group, we see the presence of students, workers, women, and people of different ethnicities. This point is very important to making sense of how and why the group developed the way that it did. If we were to say that Öcalan and the PKK knew what they were doing from day one and that they had already arrived at their own paradigm in the 1970s, that would be incorrect. However, it would be correct to define Öcalan and the early founding members as people in the process of questioning everything. They questioned what was being presented to them—even from the Left. The initial group began with a simple premise: Kurdistan is a colony. The issue is not simply about Turkey, but also about Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and as well about the hegemonic system in which they lived. That’s why they started saying that Kurdistan was an inter-state colony, an international colony. During this questioning, they established a political party that was Marxist–Leninist. To do so at the time of the Cold War time was like creating a Molotov cocktail. One was banned from saying even the words “Kurd” or “Kurdistan” and instead people would use the letter “K”. So not only were they a political party that demanded freedom for Kurds and their homeland, but on top of that, they were Marxist–Leninist. Of course, people used to say “There’s no proletariat in Kurdistan, so you can’t be socialists! You have to first become a proletariat and then become a socialist.” There were all sorts of funny and odd situations like that happening in the Middle East at that time.
The relationship between the PKK and the Turkish left was complex. On the one hand, Kurds needed to form a separate movement because the issue of Kurdish colonization would not be taken up by the Turkish left. The PKK were also emboldened by national movements around the world, such as the Vietnamese liberation movement and the ideas of Franz Fanon.
On the other hand, the PKK was inspired and influenced by the Turkish Left and leftists who were killed by the Turkish state. Öcalan and the founders saw that in order to unite, first you had to separate and build yourself on your own roots. Today, we’re seeing that there is indeed a reemergence of unity and coming together. Öcalan was also very cautious not to become the disciple of some kind of centre, which was common in those days—either Moscow, Albania, or China. Öcalan refused all that. He said that what was needed was to be able to understand Marxism and Leninism and to implement the ideas according to the conditions of Kurdistan.
Öcalan was very critical of so-called “real socialism” at the time. Can you imagine the Molotov cocktail here as well? Firstly, you’re Kurdish. Secondly, you’re Marxist–Leninist in the 1970s. But then you’re also critical of the Left within the Middle East and in Turkey as well as the mainstream Left, including USSR or China. This was a very difficult situation in which to stay alive. Apart from the Kurdish people themselves, there really has been no support for the Kurdish movement itself. If the USSR was what it was claiming to be, why did it ignore the Kurdish people if they are also Marxist–Leninists? If the Iranian Left, the Iraqi Left, and the Turkish Left are also Marxist–Leninists, why were they doing the same? Although it appeared like a negative situation (and in many respects was), the fact that they were ignored or excluded from virtually all other political tendencies gave them the courage to question all of these tendencies. Until very recently, if you asked anyone but Kurds about the PKK, you got a very negative answer. The left wing would say they’re nationalist. The religious wing would say they’re atheist. The Turkish state would say they’re Armenian, which is a terrible word to say in Turkey, it’s like a blasphemy. You get all these contradictory descriptions about one and the same organisation and movement. It means that the Kurdish movement has questioned everything that was there.
Soul-Searching within the PKK (1990–2010)
During the early 1990s, the world witnessed the collapse of the USSR. Although Öcalan was already critical of the Soviet Union, he saw this happening and started to analyse. He didn’t give up on socialism or communism, but instead he wrote a book called To Insist on Socialism is to Insist upon Being a Human Being.
Thus, during this period, there was a great deal of questioning about activities within the PKK. In 1996, his analysis concluded that we need to kill the dominant male. I remember very distinctly that from the years 1997 to 1998, Öcalan spoke about real socialist practices within the PKK. That is why this is such a dynamic and non-dogmatic movement. The questioning was not only towards the outside, but also towards the inside. The PKK did a lot of doing and thinking, thinking and doing at the same time. And that’s something very important for Öcalan, and he continues to say it to date. He’s very much of a dialectical thinker in that way, insisting that you should think as you do and do as you think so that you may find different ways of doing and different ways of thinking.
Öcalan set up a school garden, which he likened to Socrates’ garden. There, revolutionaries would discuss the developments of the organisation, the questions that face the movement, and the questions that face revolutionary people and humanity in general. He drew many conclusions from those discussions. He did not allow himself to be affected negatively by a question or criticism. Instead, he would go and re-question and try to understand why things happened the way they did. For example, he said that you cannot doubt the intentions of the people who make revolution. Instead, you must go back and interrogate the tools and the meanings that were given to do things. He made similar remarks regarding feminism. Feminism has been great at making invisible the loss of women’s freedom, but where did this go wrong? How did it become elite and come to lack grounding within the people?
There were pragmatic points as well. From the very beginning, Öcalan was looking at the question of the State. But neither the Left nor the Right addressed this problem, apart from anarchism, but even this tendency didn’t offer an alternative solution. Perhaps in this we can see why he was later inspired by Bookchin. The freedom movement imagined an independent and free socialist Kurdistan within a Middle Eastern confederation—there was always the hope of this re-unification at some point. However, in 1993, Öcalan said for the very first time that there could be talks with Turkey, that there could be a solution within the official borders of Turkey. Of course, outside observers thought this decision was entirely tactical. Although it was arguably more of a practical than paradigmatic step, it was also the first time that Öcalan definitively broke away from the idea of a separate state. At a practical level, he approached the issue so that it could be resolved within the borders of the Turkish state.
I should emphasise the developments concerning women’s freedom during this period. The dimension of freedom for women had been formed as a branch of the party, just like any other party or national liberation movement. In the early 1990s, however, there was a huge influx of young women into the PKK, which represented a hope for freedom not only in terms of ethnic repression on the Kurds, but also regarding social relations. Because the PKK was Marxist–Leninist, it rejected feudal relationships and ways of treating women. In fact, before the PKK fought the Turkish state, it fought the feudal lords. Early on, it was the feudal lords who showed resistance to this movement. As agents of the State, they prevented the PKK from growing, so it could not enter into the rest of society.
Ocalan’s Abduction and Captivity (1999–)
In 1999 Öcalan was in Kenya and, as a result of a NATO operation led by USA, UK, and Israel, he was handed over to Turkey. All of these discussions lay in the background alongside the ever-present need for Öcalan to find a solution to what was happening to the Kurds. Those who know Kurdish history know that supressing rebellions is actually about capturing the leader, killing the leader, and then massacring the people. The Kurds are acutely aware of this history. There were approximately 20 rebellions in the recent past of the Kurds—they have experienced this day in and day out. Thus, when Öcalan was abducted, all Kurds were on the streets protesting what they knew was coming if he was killed in the hands of the Turkish state.
There’s a very strong link between how the Kurds see Öcalan and what he represents for the Kurdish people historically and presently. He is of course a tested leader who has guided the Kurds in and out of grave situations. Moreover, he has helped Kurds become proud of who they are and helped show them that they have dignity. The Turkish state wrote volumes about how Kurds are in fact “mountain Turks”: it is an ideology of the State. They claimed that as Kurds walked in the snowy mountain trails, they made the sound of “kat-kurt-kat-kurt,” and that’s where the word Kurd comes from. Can you imagine? This was considered rational thinking by university professors in Turkey! Can you imagine?
Thus, the abduction of Öcalan in 1999 was a major rupture because of what it represented in the history of the Kurdish freedom movement and the history of the Kurds in general.
Öcalan’s abduction was also historically significant because of the way he handled this chaotic moment. Many movements within the Middle East—especially in Turkey—exclaimed that the PKK’s leader had just betrayed them and called upon them to take their weapons and join them. Instead, what Öcalan asked for was for countless people to go onto the streets around the world in protest. Some even burned themselves alive. This direct action by Kurdish people stopped many horrible possibilities, including any plans there may have been to harm Öcalan during his abduction from Kenya to Turkey. There were many who expected him to go on a hunger strike, but instead he asked for calm.
Öcalan and the movement could foresee the intervention of the world system into the Middle East. In fact, he dates the beginning of this intervention to October 9th, 1998, the day he was pushed out of Syria. In his books, Öcalan recalls that in 1998 Israel sent an envoy to him. They wanted him to accept Israel’s patronage regarding the Kurdish question and its resolution. Öcalan could neither accept it morally nor politically. As a result, his odyssey began, which Kurds call the “international plot”.
Öcalan made use of this rupture quiet positively. In prison, he had more time to read. He requested thousands of books and one of the authors, of course, is Murray Bookchin. One could say that the Kurdish freedom movement revitalized Bookchin’s ideas; the Kurdish freedom movement is the most influential struggle in the world that has been inspired by him. What Bookchin wrote helped Öcalan immensely to find his own questions from a philosophical background.
Just as it was a Molotov cocktail in the 1970s to be Kurdish and Marxist–Leninist, in the 2000s—just when people expected something else of him—Öcalan declared, “No, we don’t want a state”. Can you imagine the world’s reaction? Some people said it must be out of personal fear. The Kurds thought, “It’s tactical, it must be definitely tactical”. At the time, it was thought that peoples without a state are like people without a father: a bastard. Without a state, you’re bullied, massacred. Therefore, you aspire to have a state because this is where liberation lies. As Öcalan went into questioning, he realized that was one of the traps that most of the Left fell into.
In 1999, with local elections in Turkey, Kurds began to be active in the municipalities for the very first time. They became mayors and council members of the municipalities. Öcalan had told all of the mayors about Bookchin’s Urbanisation Without Cities and instructed them to have this book on their table, to study and read it. He also studied The Ecology of Freedom in depth. The title of Öcalan’s third major volume, Sociology of Freedom, reflects that. The book that most reflects inspiration from Bookchin is currently in process of being translated. It is a huge book and it’s the foundation of Manifesto for a Democratic Civilisation, two volumes of which you see here. This book is where he deals with issues of hierarchy, domination and state theory.
Öcalan wanted to understand the source of the problem of the State in the depths of history. As he got in deeper and deeper, he reached some conclusions. He looked at how slavery was built and the basis of the State on three pillars. As Bookchin emphasized, it doesn’t happen through the use of pure violence. Rather, it’s coupled with other things. For example, Öcalan says that when violence wasn’t enough, ideological and religious narrative had to come into play. So if you don’t accept what’s going on through sheer force, there’s the ideological narrative as well. If you’re not accepting that, then your livelihood and economy are taken away from you, so you’re made economically dependent as well. We see all of this reflected in mythology. This is why Öcalan describes his method as interpretive. He looks at mythologies and tries to see what they are telling us in terms of the struggle.
The difference between Öcalan and Bookchin is that Öcalan stretches back to the Neolithic period and he associates the issue of class and nation with the loss of freedom of women and her system.1 Öcalan doesn’t attribute the loss of woman’s freedom to her biology; he sees it as the loss of the moral and political society that she founded and guided. He says that in order for society to be subdued and dominated, women had to be subdued and dominated. The beginning of state society is the institutionalisation of patriarchy. It’s not to say that there wasn’t any hierarchy or domination, but that statist class civilisation as we know it begins with the institutionalisation of hierarchy, and not just hierarchy alone. This is very important.
Öcalan is thus asking what happened to what he calls “moral and political society” throughout history. His point of departure is the Kurdish question. Throughout 48 years, throughout asking all of these questions, and throughout the seemingly impossible resolution to the Kurdish question due to national, regional, and international issues, he came to the point of trying to understand in depth what is actually happening to us as humans. That is why, in the 2000s, when everybody expected him to come up with something utterly different, he came out with democratic confederalism: a non-state solution for not only the Kurdish question, but for the social questions we are experiencing throughout the world. Bookchin was very important for Öcalan, especially the several books he obtained, and he continually asked for others that had been translated into Turkish.
The Present: Where Do the Answers Lie?
Öcalan looks at it like this. There are three components to how we are enslaved: (1) violence; (2) ideology; and (3) economic. Where do the answers lie? Firstly, it’s important to remember that we’re not the first in this freedom struggle; we are part of and linked to a chain. But this chain is dispersed. It needs to be brought together. Öcalan attempts to do this, which he outlines in an essay Sociology of Freedom, by linking together the people, the communities, the women who have struggled for freedom. If there is a history of states, domination, hierarchy, the city/class/state civilization, he argues, then there is another civilization, which he calls the democratic civilization of peoples, women, workers, craftspeople, clans, tribes, etc. who resist these centralizations. Therefore, he clarifies, “I’m not doing anything new, I’m just trying to make visible what is already there”.
Öcalan’s unit of history is moral and political society, which I believe Bookchin calls organic society. However, Öcalan bases this moral and political society on the loss of women’s freedom, so women are key agents. Therefore, he realizes that freedom and revolutionary struggles of the past fell into some traps regarding violence of the army and the military (including the PKK) and he asks, “How do we redefine this?” There’s extraordinary violence being applied against the people, even at this very moment. It’s not just economic, there’s sheer physical violence at the same time. There needs to be what he calls self-defense, to protect yourself—not to attack, but to protect yourself. He feels that there needs to be a force to open space for this.
The second piece is ideology. This is why there is Jineology [a science of women], so that women can decide on what their history is and not just rely on the history that is given to us. And this is necessary for the history of the people as well.
How do you become independent of state structures? As we can see, states today are grabbing people off the land and putting them in the middle of the road, especially in the Middle East. But this is also happening across the world. We are witnessing a reconquering of these geographies, of their land and riches. Through them, they are making the European and Anglo-Saxon world a little bit scared so that they’ll go and embrace the State as a “protection” against what’s coming. They’re using populations against one another. And they are using economics. So how do we develop an independent economics and living from the State in response? This is the fundamental point. Öcalan says that you can’t conquer the State and then make it useless and have a classless society. No, forget about that. What is crucial is to organise the people so that they can organise their spaces independent of the State, which is nothing but a monopoly and the peak of all monopolies that have arisen throughout time: military, ideological, cultural, industrial, monetary, etc.
He’s separating governance from the State and he’s creating tools like democratic confederalism that can find a compromise with the State. It goes over boundaries; it goes to individuals as well. We cannot expect to change the system if we don’t change ourselves. However, our change cannot be on the basis of the individual; we need to have an organised society. We’re seeing capitalism destroy society, not only nature—Öcalan calls it societycide, the killing of society. He believes this is the biggest problem at present. What revolutionaries should do is keep these forces off of society so that moral and political society has the space to reawaken and to function once again.
This is the soul of the matter: whatever format you have, it means nothing if the soul isn’t in the right spot. But the soul must be accompanied by tools that can further it.
The Nation-State defines itself on a mindset of nationalism. How do we define ourselves, what is our mindset? The same as Bookchin—freedom. This is something dynamic. The nation is static. That’s why Öcalan defines the democratic nation on two characteristics: freedom and solidarity. It is a mutualistic and dynamic identity.
1. While Bookchin carefully examines Neolithic society in the Ecology of Freedom and traces the development of hierarchical society in Sumer in contrast to the rest of Mesopotamian society, he does not link specifically the loss of freedom with the loss of freedom of women. See also Chapter 2, The Emergence of Hierarchy and Chapter 3, The Legacy of Domination. Similarly, the first chapter of Urbanization Without Cities focuses on early Mesopotamian cities and he remarks on Kurdistan by name.
This text is an excerpt from the book “Social Ecology and the Right to the City: Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities”, containing the proceedings from our 2017 conference in Thessaloniki. Read more about the book here.