BOOK REVIEW by Felix Padel

Abdullah Öcalan, Prison Writings, volumes I-III: The Roots of Civilisation (translated by Klaus Happel, London, Pluto Press 2007); The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century (translated by Klaus Happel, London, Transmedia 2011); The Road Map to Negotiations (translated by Havin Guneser, Cologne: International Initiative 2012), available through,, etc

The Kurds are often said to be the world’s largest people who lack their own country. Numbering approximately 40 million, and mostly divided by notorious ‘great game’ treaties in the 1920s between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria (apart from large refugee populations in Germany, Britain and other countries), their repression, set against determined assertions of cultural and political identity, represents an enduring problem in the Middle East as deep-rooted as the Israel-Palestinian divide, but far less understood.

The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) has a long and complex history of guerilla warfare, with a large number of women fighters, and a tradition of open discussion about socialist theory. Unlike for example the Tamil Tigers, the PKK has been notable for its observance of Geneva Conventions towards captured soldiers, and deserves the ‘terrorist’ label even less than the ANC in South Africa or India’s Maoists. There are significant parallels, as well as differences, with the Maoist insurgency in Central India and the suppression of adivasi movements.

The greater part of Kurdistan lies in southeast Turkey, where the PKK has been fighting for autonomy, and for basic cultural and human rights since 1984. Because the Turkish military has basically destroyed about 4,000 Kurdish villages within Turkey, PKK bases have often been based in northern Iraq and Syria, and the international community turns a blind eye to annual Turkish bombing raids over northern Iraq, aimed (unsuccessfully) at destroying PKK bases.

Abdullah Öcalan (pronounced Ojalan), charismatic leader of the PKK, was kidnapped from the Greek embassy in Kenya in February 1999 by the combined efforts of several countries’ intelligence agencies (including the USA, Greece and almost certainly Israel). Condemned to death in Turkey, this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in solitary confinement on the island of Imrali, in the Sea of Marmara, guarded by a thousand soldiers, where Öcalan has been for the last 13 years.

Öcalan’s prison writings therefore represent a unique document, since he is a theorist of extraordinary originality and integrity, as well as leader of one of the world’s most enduring guerilla movements. These books, which bear interesting comparison with Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, are written in the form of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, as well as for the Turkish courts, and from the start were intended for publication. Mostly they were written by hand and taken from Imrali by lawyers, friends and relatives on their infrequent visits.

Volume One, The Roots of Civilisation, takes the reader on a fascinating journey into ancient history – the neglected bits, to understand how the seeds of conflict and domination were sown in the ‘first civilsations’, in particular, the prototypes established by the Sumerians, including military conquests and the forced removal of populations, hegemony through myth and an elaborate priesthood, the institutionalization of prostitution, and struggles with tribal peoples on the periphery of city states. ‘Kur-ti’ is Sumerian for ‘mountain people’: in effect, Kurds have been fighting to preserve their autonomy against mainstream patterns of domination for most of the last 5,000 years!

Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are all shown as proto-socialists, concerned with individual salvation as well as a more egalitarian, communistic way of living. Öcalan explores how their teachings got subverted by being institutionalised within the oppressive power structures that congealed during the feudal age. Mohammad in particular was concerned to improve the rights and status of women. How did it happen that institutional Islam has so often turned this upside down?

This volume climaxes in its analysis of modern capitalism, and the cracks appearing in the system, alongside hopes for the emergence of a new stage in human history: democratic civilisation. Whether this will emerge, or our species will rise and fall in over-consumption and all-out fascism, depends to a great extent, Öcalan argues, on whether we can recognise the importance of Ideological Identity, and forge a new kind of identity, less based on myths and distorted ideologies. The despotic state – and one may add, the despotic corporation and financial institutions – needs to give way before a democratic reformation.

Reading these books, one has to bear in mind that Öcalan has been confined in near-total isolation for 13 years, denied most reading. This means that advances in Middle Eastern archeology, as well as in radical writings about corporate and financial power, have been denied him. Yet there is a freshness and integrity about the writing here that shows how jail can be a powerful crucible for great thinking.

The 2nd volume, about the controversial guerilla army known as the PKK (too little known about in India), is introduced by Cemil Bayik, one of its military commanders. It discusses in detail the reasons for America and Europe colluding with Turkish nationalist forces against the PKK, promoting the much less democratic PUK and KDP in northern Iraq – part of the unraveling of Iraq, and the uncritical promotion of Turkey as a key ally in the ‘war on terror’. Öcalan’s departure from other strands of institutionalised Marxism is apparent when he says: ’Our conviction that there would be no democratic socialism without individual freedom of thought invigorated the ideological basis of the PKK.’

The third volume, Road Map to Negotiations, was instigated by a visit from the head of Turkish Intelligence early in 2009, asking Öcalan for a comprehensive statement of his views on how a peaceful solution could be achieved. Hopes of peace along with a new ‘Kurdish opening’, based on Öcalan’s Road Map to Negotiations, to which the Turkish Prime Minister and President had promised to respond, were dashed soon after elections in April 2009, when pro-Kurdish candidates had achieved widespread victories, and started to be arrested in large numbers. At least 5,000 activists have been arrested in this ‘KCK’ operation, most still in jail and under trial in Turkey. Nearly all these are members of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

These books are important as a dialogue with Marxism, from someone who has applied it over many years, but also practices self-criticism and believes in individual autonomy of thought.

The books are not particularly easy to read, and contain a lot of repetition, mainly because – as with Gramsci – they are written by someone whose basic freedoms are radically curtailed. On the other side, this means that the gist can be obtained from any of the three volumes. There is nevertheless a progression, and The Road Map forms a fitting climax to the trilogy.

Öcalan engages deeply with Sumerian society, showing how many achievements the West attributed to Greek and Roman society were actually first made in ancient Iraq, and how much modern structural violence can be traced back to the Sumerians, including a repressive priesthood, prostitution and the degradation of women. It is intriguing that he underplays the importance of ancient sites in Kurdistan, that modern archeologists count among the key centres of the ‘neolithic revolution’, dating between 8,000-10,000 BC, especially Çatal Hüyük, Göbekli Tepe and Nevalı Çori, the latter now inundated by the Atatürk dam on the Euphrates. Why was Kurdistan the area where the world’s first cities got built? And why are so few aware of this?

Without question, Kurds are one of the oldest recorded Indo-European peoples, associated with the Hurrians, Mitanni, Hittites and Trojans. Turkey’s attempt to obliterate their language and culture and deny their status as the main indigenous people of Turkey rates among the world’s worst examples of Cultural Genocide.

‘Kurdistan’ was recognised as a province in Ottomon times, and was often referred to by Ataturk before all reference to the Kurds and Kurdishness was banned during the suppression of Kurdish rebellions in the 1920s. Kurds had been vital allies of the Turks overthrowing the Byzantine empire, and of Ataturk himself during the revolution against the Ottomans. Their later betrayal, and repeated betrayals by the ‘Great Powers’, form a little known yet central thread through modern world history.

For example, the RAF dropped 97 tons of bombs in over 4,000 rounds to suppress a Kurdish rebellion against British mandate-ruled Iraq in 1920-21. This policy was overseen by ‘bomber Harris’ (later notorious for firebombing German cities) and Winston Churchill, who commented ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes [to] spread a lively terror’. Use of poison gas under Saddam Hussein to kill thousands of Kurds at Halabja in 1988 is better known. But British and American politicians were prominent in selling arms to Saddam before and after the Halabja massacre.

When this policy reversed, removing Saddam by regime change, northern Iraq was made a Kurdish autonomous region – in reality a kind of proxy state, since its two dominant Kurdish parties, KDP and PUK, are predominantly feudal and anti-democratic in structure, while the majority of Kurds in Iran, Syria and Turkey – and many in Iraq – have been broadly supportive of the PKK. This is why most media attention on the Kurds has focused on Iraq, and very little on Turkey and Iran, where repression has been just as dire. Similarly in Syria, where Kurds have no reason to love Assad, though the main Kurdish group there, the PYD (Party of Democratic Union), has been careful to distance itself from foreign-armed rebels.

One of Öcalan’s outstanding contributions has been his emphasis on women as the primary oppressed class, alongside practical steps to empower them and ensure their prominence as leaders. Kurdish women leaders bring a high level of female consciousness into socialist thinking that is severely under-reported, yet has a capacity to inspire and resolve conflicts, and may yet emerge as a force for peace. Leyla Zana is one of many examples of this, an MP in Turkey who has spent ten years in jail, and was recently sentenced to another ten, though presently protected by parliamentary immunity.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. To understand this adage in all its complex detail, the world needs to engage with the Kurdish struggle, where the PKK’s branding as a terrorist organisation is deeply unjust – and recognised as such by many European MPs and parties. Öcalan, in these writings, takes responsibility for the highs and lows of PKK policy, in a spirit of proper self-criticism.

But isn’t it true that in India, as in Turkey, the greater terror has been perpetrated by the very ‘security forces’ who are supposed to be serving and protecting the people? This structural violence calls out for a Truth and Reconciliation process, highlighted by Öcalan in his Road Map to Negotiations. For anyone who believes in an inclusive development towards real democracy, Öcalan’s books are filled with profound insights and hope for a better future, based on understanding the history of where we have come from.

Felix Padel is an activists and author well-known for his work with India’s adivasis and his long term support for the people of Kurdistan. His recent books include ‘Out of this Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel’ and ‘Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection’ (in press).