It is a great honor to get the chance to speak alongside these distinguished activists and organic intellectuals all associated with the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Especially on this most emblematic day, the 15th of August, which marks the 36th anniversary of the PKK’s campaign and struggle for freedom.
Human rights atrocities and state terror have been, and continue to be, inflicted upon the Kurdish minority by Turkish security forces, most brutally in the early nineties, and now again with increasing intensity since the breakdown of peace negotiations in July of 2015. All-out war against the Kurdish Freedom Movement, both inside Turkey and across the border in Syria, has been the centrepiece of President Erdogan’s alliance with the far-right. Now, more than ever perhaps, the struggle for democracy in Turkey is thus intimately intertwined with the urgent need for a peaceful resolution to the so-called “Kurdish question.”
The historical trajectory of the Kurdish Freedom Movement has been profoundly influenced by the context of militarism, authoritarianism and paramilitary violence in which and against which it initially emerged and has never ceased to be in conflict. The Republic of Turkey, we must remember, was on the frontlines of the Cold War, a NATO member, and its security apparatus was armed to the teeth, and consistently permitted, encouraged, to be ruthless in its efforts to eradicate threats to capitalist social-property relations.
Torture and extra-judicial killings of leftist and pro-Kurdish militants propelled a process of polarization and radicalization that took place from the late sixties, which escalated after successive coups in 1971 and 1980, coups that were intended to crush the left, and that reduced the legal channels for mobilizing anti-capitalist opposition to a bare minimum.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, launched its military offensive against the Turkish state on this day in 1984, four years after the 1980 coup had triggered a bout of severe state repression, two years after the 1982 Constitutional reform had further entrenched military prerogatives, effectively confining and constricting the terrain of civilian politics. In a word, the PKK’s offensive was a product and response to this context of state aggression and denial of basic civil liberties.
At its inception, the PKK was structured in accordance with the Marxist-Leninist principle of democratic centralism, and conceived simultaneously as a vanguard political party and as a para-military force, a guerrilla, committed to waging a “prolonged peoples’ war” for national liberation. Its goal was originally the attainment of a Kurdish nation-state, indeed, a state-communist utopia which would unite Kurds from Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria in a Greater Kurdistan. A utopian dream, no doubt, equal to if not even exceeding in ambition the dystopian project against which it was struggling, that of the Kemalist Republic, with its intransigent goal of assimilating, if need be annihilating, all traces of Kurdish identity into a homogenised Turkish national imaginary.
The PKK, as a para-military guerrilla force, has from the time of its inception been considered by the state authorities of the Republic of Turkey to be a terrorist organisation. Indeed, Turkish authorities have consistently treated the PKK as public enemy number one; and as a result, those suspected of belonging to the organisation, or even sympathising with it, have been the victims of successive waves of brutal state terror. At the height of the war between the Turkish state and the PKK in the early nineties, thousands of Kurdish villages were forcefully evacuated, tens of thousands murdered, a mass exodus provoked. More recently, since the breakdown of peace negotiations in 2015, another brutal wave of state terror has been unleashed, this time including urban settings, leaving another bloody trail of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced …
The devastation and trauma wrought upon the Kurdish people by the Turkish security forces, the systematic state terror, the total evacuation of thousands of villages, the killing of tens of thousands, the displacement and exile of millions, made it abundantly clear to the PKK’s undisputed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, by the early nineties that the Maoist-cum-Guevarista strategy of a “prolonged people’s war” by the PKK could not lead to military victory, to “national liberation,” to the creation of an independent socialist Kurdish nation-state. The military might of NATO’s second biggest army, exercised within its own sovereign territory, was simply too brutal, too overwhelming a force, to overcome. Faced with the realization of the impossibility of victory, even the prospect of total annihilation, Öcalan began to reach out to European politicians, from his refuge in the Bekaa Valley and in Damascus, in search of a way to end the war without sacrificing the dignity of the Kurdish people, in search of a way towards a peaceful and democratic resolution to the raging conflict.
The end of the Cold War undoubtedly also influenced Öcalan’s burgeoning conviction that the party and the movement which he had brought into being was in dire need of reformation, indeed, of fundamental reorientation. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the disappearance of a state-communist bloc capable of patronising and protecting a “liberated,” single-party socialist Kurdish republic, inevitably wedged between hostile, neighbouring nation-states. It simultaneously signified the definitive death knell for the credibility of the state-communist ideal. In sum, it induced a crisis both at the level of realpolitik, and at the level of principles.
There were also developments originating from the grass-roots in Bakur, which were amplified, encouraged and promoted by the organised diaspora in Europe, operating within the orbit of the movement. These developments included the spread of “public celebrations and mass protests,” most emblematically around the annual Newroz festival, reconstrued as a myth of Kurdish resistance; as well as in events organised to commemorate the self-immolation of PKK prisoners and other “heroic acts of sacrifice” among PKK “martyrs.” Indeed, a whole repertoire of “representation of resistance practices” emerged, congealing around the myth of Newroz, and also hoisting up a host of “exemplars,” a veritable pantheon of revolutionary martyrs, the public commemoration, even worship, of whom burst onto the streets in a wave of so-called serhildan (or “rebellions”). From the early nineties, such “[b]ourgeoning civil resistance” against the security forces came increasingly to complement the on-going guerrilla campaign.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the repertoire of “representation of Kurdish resistance” that emerged from the early nineties onwards was the prominent place of women. Not only did women “participate in large numbers in numerous serhildan;” they also “took an active role in the activities of the legal political Kurdish parties,” indeed, they “came to the forefront of the resistance” and were increasingly “constituted” and commemorated “as ‘exemplars’.” Alongside and helping to propel such emergent symbolic and organizational prominence of women in the movement, over the course of the nineties, Öcalan would formulate an elaborate theoretical critique of patriarchy. Indeed, he would come to consider women as the “first colony,” and even to “redefine national liberation as first and foremost the liberation of women.”
Öcalan’s emphasis on the primacy of the struggle against patriarchy was quite developed even before his abduction and imprisonment; and has featured prominently in his copious prison writings, perhaps especially in his original synthesis and articulation of the long history of hierarchy, his vision of the dialectic of domination and resistance.
In Öcalan’s account of patriarchy, its origins are intimately intertwined with the emergence of the state. And especially since his imprisonment, Öcalan’s thought has taken a radically anti-statist turn. What began as a pragmatic, realistic appraisal of the impossibility of attaining a Kurdish nation-state through a guerrilla war against Turkish security forces, and as a compromise proposal calling for respect for human rights and cultural rights, alongside measures of decentralisation or autonomy, developed, under the influence perhaps especially of Murray Bookchin, into a principled rejection of the state. In effect, Öcalan advanced a redefinition of self-determination, now understood as radical, direct democracy, against the state.
Under Bookchin’s influence, Öcalan would also take up the theme of the urgent need for social ecology. Even so, as with the emphasis on the struggle against patriarchy, the sensitivity of the movement to ecological issues was not just born like Athena. It did not just spring spontaneously out of Öcalan’s head. Instead, it was forged in concrete struggles, most emblematically, the struggle to save the ancient village of Hasnkeyf in the province of Batman, set to be submerged under water by the Turksih state’s Ilisu Dam project. A struggle in which the European environmentalist movement would forge organic links with the Kurdish movement, thereby prefiguring the overlapping, decentralised networks of resistance envisioned by the democratic confederal ideal.
Öcalan’s articulation of democratic confederalism grows out of a deep disenchantment with and critique of Marxism-Leninism, which, in quasi-confessional terms, in a series of penetrating self-criticisms of his own previous mentality, he accuses of reproducing the cult of hierarchy, of behaving as organisations like mini-states, acting in accordance with a logic of conquest and domination, rather than resistance and freedom. The emphasis on the struggle against patriarchy, the fostering of awareness of the urgency of social ecology, the thoroughgoing critique of the state, the promotion of popular assemblies and championing of radically decentralised, direct democracy, all of these components of the “paradigm shift” are explicitly contrasted to the democratic-centralist model and mindset.
Likewise, Öcalan’s critique of Marxism-Leninism includes a critique of its scientism, of its hostility to the realm of myth, of its bias in favour of secular-fundamentalism. In this latter vein, in recent years, Öcalan has urged the Kurdish movement to organise a Democratic Islam Congress, with the purpose of elaborating a liberationist interpretation of the ethical and political implications of professing and practicing authentic Islamic faith. Whether, in practice, the tradition and perception of militant secularism among movement cadres and supporters has been transformed is another matter – certainly worthy of close empirical investigation, given not only the history of conflict with Kurdish Hezbullah, but also in terms of countering the appeal of Erdogan’s AKP and its brand of patriarchal, neoliberal Islam, not to mention the struggle against reactionary jihadists in Rojava. The fact that the first Kurdish rebellions against the Kemalist republic were mobilised along the secular-religious divide, in the name of the community of believers, is not irrelevant in the present. Indeed, the proper relation between religion and politics continues to be a source of dispute and contestation, capable of dividing contemporary Kurds. The movement’s attempt to articulate a Democratic Islam is intended to transcend such divisions; how serious and successful this attempt is will no doubt condition the contours and horizons of support for the ambitious democratic confederal project advanced by the Kurdish Freedom Movement.
Finally, and crucially, the principled rejection of the strategy of “national liberation,” understood in terms of the pursuit of a Kurdish nation-state, has included a rather elaborate set of arguments against the insidious evils of what Öcalan refers to as “feudal nationalism,” most often in reference to the example of Barzani in South Kurdistan. The ideological and programmatic re-orientation of the Kurdish Freedom Movement thus includes not just a renunciation of the goal of a state, but more ambitiously, the aspiration to transcend altogether the confines of the “nationalist imaginary.” A transcendence which should not be confused with repudiating pride in Kurdishness, but rather, with escaping the dialectic of “majority” versus “minority.” Indeed, as Öcalan has insisted, “in democratic confederalism there is no room for any kind of hegemony striving.”
Self-administration and autonomous organization of direct democratic assemblies, not to mention, of self-defence militias, for all ethnic and religious groups as the alternative to the tyranny of the majority, to the “hegemonic striving” deeply ingrained in the ideology of nationalism. A tall order to ask from a movement that has sacrificed so many lives for the dream of a Greater Kurdistan. An exercise in democratic leadership, if ever there was, on the part of Öcalan, his attempt to get his followers to dream internationalist dreams of radical democracy, to imagine forms of confederation that cut across and beyond the mental borders imposed by the cult of national community. Easier to pronounce than to achieve.
The struggle against patriarchy, the struggle for social ecology, the struggle against the nation-state, the struggle against sectarianism in all its forms, the struggle for radical, direct democracy – these are all significant departures from the original articulation of the struggle for “national liberation” understood as the creation of a state-communist Greater Kurdistan. Indeed, ambitious aspirations, and a thorough-going re-orientation of the goals of the movement … which have taken on a life of their own with the revolutionary developments in Rojava.