By Rahila Gupta, 02 July 2021
Öcalan began to peel away from the idea of an independent state of Kurdistan in 1993, a dream which many Kurdish people found hard to give up because a nation-state had appeared to be the only solution to the oppression they had faced, especially in the four countries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria across which they were split. Where can you go if you are victimised in your own country? Guneser asks.
That is why a new book on the history of the Kurdish liberation is called The Art of Freedom because it is imagination that powers art and it is imagination that allows us to see, beyond the status quo, the possibility of a new world, a new reality. To imagine freedom when you are in chains is an act of bravery, a revolutionary act.
For all those new to the Kurdish liberation struggle, this is a must-read book which succinctly introduces the reader to the main threads in a tapestry which weaves together the theory and practice of a new way of life with freedom for all as its most cherished value. It acquires weight and credibility because these ideas proved to be the blueprint for the women’s revolution in Rojava, an experiment in democratic confederalism, multi-racial exclusivity and ecological sustainability. And yet ‘blueprint’ suggests a fixity which doesn’t quite capture the fluidity and dynamism of the movement.
This book is a collection of essays based on lectures given by Havin Guneser at the California Institute of integral Studies, San Francisco, translator of many of Abdullah Öcalan’s books, Kurdish activist and academic. The book blurb describes her as ‘one of the most important spokespersons for the struggle of Kurdish freedom’. The titles of the lectures are a good indicator of the content: ‘Critique and Self-Critique – The Rise of the Kurdish Freedom Movement from the Rubble of Two World Wars’; ‘The Rebellion of the Oldest Colony – Jineolojî, the Science of Women and Life’; and ‘Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Nation – Defense of Society against Societycide’.
She traces the history of the Kurdish struggle from the founding of PKK in 1978, bringing it bang up-to-date to January 21 with a postscript to an interview with Sasha Lilley, a radio presenter. The approximately 40 years of struggle that culminated in the Rojava revolution is a useful reminder that it didn’t happen overnight. Andrej Grubaĉić, radical sociologist, who introduces the collection, tells us that this is one of the myths that the book dispels. However, as a member of Southall Black Sisters which has been going for a similar number of years, fighting for women’s rights in the UK, it still feels like a revolution that happened overnight in comparison with our achievements.
Of course, there are many complex reasons which become clearer in hindsight as to why a particular political movement was successful in achieving its goals. The ‘Arab Spring’ which brought democratic resistance against Assad to Syria led to a vacuum of power in the North. And the Kurds were ready. As Guneser explains, ‘it’s an organisational process that has been going on for forty-five years just waiting for the moment and when the moment arrived it could be seized because of the organising among the people for so many years.’
These are words of hope for activists around the world. It is important to keep going, to be ready with the right analysis and the right structures when the moment comes. In fact, hope is the engine that drives the theoretical assertions throughout this collection. There is even a passing analysis of burnout which blights today’s activist circles. Guneser says ‘Waging struggle must bring joy. You know how it is done? If you develop as an individual while you struggle, you won’t burnout.’
Even this moment of capitalist crisis is the ‘Age of Hope’ for Öcalan because, ‘There are two very different ideological ends that are destroying the status quo. On the one hand, global capital, because the status quo is an obstacle, and, on the other hand, the revolutionary movements.’ Another reason to keep going.
But it is in the interests of capital to cultivate apathy and passivity in people. We are made to think and feel that it is easier if somebody else decides for us. Society has become dependent on the state; decision-making has been taken away from society and given to the state which makes it incredibly hard to imagine life without a state. Öcalan calls this societycide. Influenced by the ideas of Murray Bookchin, American anarchist and political philosopher, he proposed democratic confederalism, which is not an alternative state but an alternative to the state, in order to reinvigorate the moral and political basis of society.
Öcalan began to peel away from the idea of an independent state of Kurdistan in 1993, a dream which many Kurdish people found hard to give up because a nation-state had appeared to be the only solution to the oppression they had faced, especially in the four countries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria across which they were split. Where can you go if you are victimised in your own country? Gunesar asks, ‘…therefore, peoples without a state thought having a state facilitated freedom. But then we see all these other peoples with a state, and we see they too are not free.’ Nation-states like those which had fought for their independence from colonial powers too had come to grief.
We who live as migrants in the West have seen firsthand the homogenising nature of nation-states where everything bends in the direction of the dominant ethnicity and their cultural norms; creating a national culture is seen as essential to their survival. I found Guneser’s conceptualisation of the different oppressions i.e. class, gender and colonisation under capitalist modernity a thought provoking one: she sees the working class as a struggle within the system and the struggle of women and the colonised as the struggle of those excluded from the system.
Women’s enslavement was seen by Öcalan as the first turning point when the matriarchal Neolithic civilisation ended 5000 years ago and we saw the first signs of ‘statist civilisation’. In other words patriarchy is a central pillar of the nation-state and today of capitalist modernity. His emphasis on the liberation of women from patriarchy as almost a pre-requisite for the liberation of all other oppressed sections of society is a refreshing new political approach, unheard of in other freedom struggles, and one which has come to fruition in Rojava.
There is a whole section on Jineolojî, the science of women (I would add revolutionary women) and how and where it departs company from Western feminisms, which would require more space to analyse than I have here. There is much to get to grips with in this book. No review can do it justice which is a status that every book should aspire to. It is also a very good reason to buy it and read it yourselves.
Havin Guneser, The Art of Freedom: A Brief History of the Kurdish Liberation Struggle (PM Press, 2021)