We are here republishing notes for a talk entitled “The Political Approach of Abdullah Öcalan” delivered by Dr Thomas Jeffrey Miley, lecturer of political sociology at Cambridge University and patron of Peace in Kurdistan, at the 3rd Annual Kurdish Conference “The Struggle for Kurdish Freedom: The Way Forward in Today’s Middle East.” The conference was held at SOAS on 15 February 2024, organised by Kurdish People’s Democratic Assembly of Britain.

Notes for talk on “the political approach of Abdullah Öcalan,” Feb 15, 2024

1. Öcalan as a key role player in any foreseeable peace process for Turkey, and increasingly, for the broader Middle East.

2. From the early 90’s, even before his abduction in the international conspiracy that led him to being chained to the rock of Imrali, he was already searching for a way to find peace.

3. The brutality of the Turkish assault upon the Kurdish Freedom Movement, with the Turkish state’s policies of collective punishment on the Kurdish population, should never be downplayed or forgotten. Over 40k killed in the conflict since its outbreak in the mid-80’s, peaking in the early 90s with the burning of over 3500 villages, and again heating up most recently since the breakdown of tentative peace negotiations in 2015.

4. Like Mandela, Öcalan somehow embodies the aspirations and suffering of the Kurdish people and the Kurdish Freedom Movement. His inhumane isolation and imprisonment is symbolic of the fate of the Kurds. His freedom would seem a prerequisite for any full-fledged peace negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish state.

5. As the Belgian Court of Cassations has argued, the PKK is best understood as a combatant in an armed conflict – that is, as a legitimate political actor. However, it remains on the list of terrorist organisations, and the Turkish nation-state views it through a nationalist lens as an existential threat.

6. Öcalan’s inhumane isolation and the PKK’s status as listed as a terrorist organization, serve as severe obstacles to the prospects for overcoming the negative dialectic of tyranny and chaos in which the Middle East, including Turkey, is inextricably enmeshed.

7. Since his imprisonment, Öcalan has undertaken a thorough process of self-criticism, including a critique of the statelike aspects of the PKK, of which he remains the nominal leader, and the PKK has taken many of his criticisms to heart, undertaking a radical reorientation of the movement’s organizational structures and ideological aspirations.

8. Öcalan’s influence over the Kurdish Freedom Movement can hardly be overestimated. This is one reason why his voice is so crucial for any imaginable peace process. Perhaps only he can provide a credible commitment for the movement to undertake a definitive ceasefire and to put down its arms.

9. But Öcalan’s significance is even greater than his potential role in a long overdue peace process. His ideas have animated a revolutionary process underway in the North East of Syria, in Rojava, and they have made an impact on broader left wing thinkers even beyond the Kurdish constituency.

10. As part of his defence in the European Court of Human Rights, despite very difficult conditions, in an act of existential defiance, he has penned a five volume Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, in which he manages to re-articulate what the principle of self-determination can and should mean in the 21st century. In the process, he has inspired a5 transformation in the Kurdish Freedom Movement, a transcendence of the movement’s origins as a movement of national liberation, towards an understanding of self-determination understood as radical democracy against the state.

11. This anti-state or non-state nature of Kurdish imaginaries of self-determination means that the Öcalan-inspired movement has abandoned, not just pragmatically but as a matter of principle, the idea of a Greater Kurdish nation-state. Instead, the Kurdish Freedom Movement is struggling to achieve direct democracy and power sharing among different ethnic and religious groups. This at the same time that it seeks to advance the cause of gender emancipation, and the goal of ecological sustainability as well.

12. These three pillars of Kurdish self-determination are not only inspired by Öcalan’s writings, but they are also incarnated in the revolutionary regime in power since 2012 in the North East of Syria, or West of Kurdistan, a.k.a. Rojava. And to these three pillars, we would add a fourth, the organization of peoples’ militias for self-defense.

13. The revolutionary dynamics underway in Rojava came to be seen as an existential threat by the Turkish state especially after the siege on Kobane. This was the period in which the strange bedfellows military alliance with the US in the war against ISIS was first consummated.

14. The breakdown of the last round of peace negotiations in 2015 can be attributed in no small part to the developments in Rojava, not to mention the mobilization of the Kurdish movement inside of Turkey to help defend their comrades in Rojava. The stand-offs and violence at the boarder of Kobane are indicative in this regard.

15. The intimate links between the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey and that in Rojava renders Öcalan as having a credible role to play in a Syrian peace process, too. Though in my opinion, there will be a need for a broader Middle East peace process, as meanwhile tensions and conflict continue to escalate across the region.

16. The escalation of the war against the Palestinians, along with the retaliation wrought by the Houthi in Yemen, and the surge in tensions with Iran, can be interpreted as fronts in an already unfolding third world war. In fact, the PKK’s leadership in Qandil has interpreted the dynamics in very much this way.

17. The war in the Ukraine represents a different front. Meanwhile, the multiple crises which the established institutions of liberal democracy in the capitalist core are being forced to confront have them seemingly shaking at their foundations. Witness the circus that is the American electoral cycle, or for that matter, the immolation of the Labour Party in the UK.

18. We may well be coming to the precipice of civilizational collapse. What the Kurdish Freedom Movement, inspired by Öcalan, represents is but a glimmer of light and hope amidst a dark, dark night of desolation and desperation. We need the Kurds at least as much as the Kurds need us.

19. In order to imagine a way out of the current conflagrations in which humanity is enmeshed, would require an embrace of the ethos of democratic confederalism. This is the alternative to the ecocidal and collectively suicidal path that the civilization of capitalist modernity has us locked in to.

20. Öcalan conceives of a long arc of history, dating back at least 5,000 years, in which a dialectic of hierarchy and resistance has played itself out. Hierarchical social relations, indeed the cult of hierarchy, are enshrined in what he calls capitalist civilization, or sometimes the dominant civilization, when not capitalist modernity. By contrast, egalitarian social relations, and a celebration of collective freedom, is characteristic of what he calls democratic civilization, or sometimes democratic modernity and the democratic nation.

21. The concentration of wealth and coercive power in the hands of a globally-coordinated capitalist civilization which characterized the previous neoliberal period has given way to a new round of inter-imperialist rivalry, with the relative demise of the US and the rise of the BRICS, perhaps especially Russia and China. The realpolitik maneuvering in the Middle East can only be understood against this backdrop. A democratic confederal reckoning would seem to require an end to the tyranny of geopolitics. But imagining such an end means imagining a transcendence of capitalist modernity and its replacement with democratic modernity. For as Öcalan once put it, there is no space for hegemony within the praxis of democratic confederalism.

22. The Kurdish issue is located at a focal point in contemporary geopolitics. Affecting Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the borders of which divide the Kurdish people. This is why Öcalan sees there to be a need for a comprehensive peace process in the Middle East to adequately address the Kurdish question. Thus, the confederal spirit of his message – he advocates a coming-together confederalism of sorts, which does not seek to change borders but to transcend them.

23. At the same time, the Kurdish model operates beneath the level of the nation-state. So it both transcends it but also decentralizes it. The decentralisation takes the form of the construction of local popular assemblies, organised along neighborhood lines. Sovereignty is decentered and decentralised into direct democratic assemblies. This is what we mean when we say that the Kurdish imaginary of self-determination implies the notion of radical, direct democracy against the state.

24. The popular assemblies are confederated, with delegate positions adhering to a co-chair system, which operates in accordance with a gender-parity mandate. Which brings me to the second pillar of the model, which is women’s emancipation. Öcalan has referred to women as the first colony, and argues that their emancipation is an historic necessity. He draws on the work of Maria Mies, among others, to make such a case. And this emphasis translates in practice into an empowered women’s movement. There are women’s assemblies, an academy for jineology, or the science of women, and last but not least a women’s militia. Nearly all the attention heaped on the Kurdish women’s movement for its role in the war against ISIS may have romanticised them, but they mostly focused exclusively on what the women were fighting against. Much less attention in the mainstream press focused on what they were fighting for – a robust model of women’s emancipation.

25. Robust but also Spartan. For the Kurdish model is certainly militant, even militarist. The circumstances of the region dictate as much. Alongside the popular assemblies, a second feature of the Kurdish confederal institutional arrangement is the organization of militias for self-defense. Thus we have in Rojava the YPG and the YPJ, the latter being the autonomous women’s militia. Now in democratic confederal theory, these militias should be built from the bottom up. However, in praxis, these militias are coordinated from above, or outside, by the PKK.

26. The YPG and YPJ have been integrated into the SDF, and maintain close relations with the US military embedded in the Northeast of Syria. This relation has continued even after the Turkish forces began their campaign of ethnic cleansing of Afrin and subsequent incursions along the border and occupation of Serikanye in the canton of Cizre.

27. The US plays it both ways with the Kurds. On the one hand, they work closely with the SDF in Rojava. On the other, they stand by their NATO partner Turkey in its vicious assault against all manifestations of Kurdish identity.

28. Õcalan has written eloquently about the need for communal self-defense. This ability to defend itself has a lot to do with the successful seizure of power back in 2012, when Assad pulled his forces out of the region. But the same emphasis in Turkey is certainly associated with a spiral of violence and repression which characterises the conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK.

29. Direct democracy via local assemblies, women’s emancipation, and the organizations of peoples’ militias for self-defense are three aspects of the democratic confederal revolution underway in Rojava. Another pillar of the revolution, at least in theory, is the search for ecological society. In accordance with this pillar, ecological projects and cooperatives have been encouraged by the revolutionary authorities. But a break from oil exports and, more generally from a war economy, has proven very difficult to achieve in praxis.

30. This organizational structure, its aims and its inspiration, come largely from Öcalan. In turn, Öcalan has been heavily influenced in the articulation of his new paradigm, by the work of Murray Bookchin, among others. The result is a gripping experiment with forging a viable and desirable alternative to the tyranny of capitalist modernity, a democratic confederal alternative, that is no longer confined to the theories of marginal radicals, but has become a force in history. Because the Kurdish Freedom Movement will not be easily defeated. Even in these dark times, there remains a glimmer of hope.

31. The campaign of Freedom for Öcalan which we at Peace in Kurdistan, alongside the International Initiative, and other organizations, including the UK and international trade union movement are involved in, constitutes a principled as well as practical act of solidarity. His freedom would bring about the possibility for genuine peace negotiations between the Turkish state and the PKK. The time has come to pit down the weapons and wage peace. It is, indeed, an urgent necessity, even as so many actors in the region and more globally continue to beat the drums of a third world war.