In April 2015, a conference was held in Hamburg ‘to introduce the thoughts of the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to the international community.’ Silvia Federici was supposed to send a ‘message of greeting’ – just as Toni Negri and Immanuel Wallerstein had at a similar previous conference.† Federici then dropped out. However David Harvey, David Graeber and John Holloway did attend and all three spoke on a stage with a large portrait of Ocalan in the background.†
During the event, held on Ocalan’s birthday, Harvey claimed that Ocalan ‘is waging a struggle for the freedom of all women.’† While Graeber said: ‘He has written the sociology of freedom. … I have some questions and criticisms in the technical dimension, but I agree and appreciate his views.’†
This all raises several questions, such as who exactly is Ocalan and is his political project really as radical as these well-known intellectuals seem to believe?
OCALAN ON VIOLENCE, REVOLUTION AND DEMOCRACY
Abdullah Ocalan is the ideological leader of the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, whose offshoot, the PYD, is the main political force in the Kurdish areas of Syria known as Rojava. Many PYD activists in Rojava have what one eye-witness calls ‘total faith’ in Ocalan and consider him to be, to a certain extent, ‘sacred’.† Indeed, the leader of the PYD, Salih Muslim, has openly admitted that: ‘We apply [Ocalan’s] philosophy and ideology to Syria.’†
This semi-religious attitude to Ocalan goes back to the 1980s and 1990s, well before his imprisonment in Turkey. PKK fighters from these earlier decades say things like: ‘The PKK is in a certain sense identical with its founder, Abdullah Ocalan’ or ‘[Ocalan] doesn’t so much represent the party, as he is the party.’†
When ISIS began threatening Rojava in 2014, the PKK/PYD introduced compulsory military conscription. All PKK/PYD fighters are still ‘trained in political thought’† and, consequently, they still say things like: ‘our ideas are based on the philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan’† or ‘these are the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, this is our ideology’†. This deeply Stalinist way of thinking would be a problem even if Ocalan’s ideas were genuinely revolutionary but, like most Stalinists, he has little enthusiasm for social revolution.
To his credit, Ocalan does acknowledge not only the appalling brutality of the Turkish military but also the brutality of the PKK during its war of national liberation against Turkey. For example, he admits that there was ‘unfeeling violence … escalating to the point where we killed the best of our own comrades’† and that ‘young fighters were summarily executed in the mountains.’ He even says that ‘the whole party is guilty; nobody can deny his responsibility.’†
But Ocalan’s admissions now just make it easier to believe long-standing claims that he authorised the execution of many hundreds of people including civilians and dissident PKK members.† To give just one example, an ex-PKK leader has said that ‘there were between 50 and 60 executions just after the 1986 PKK congress. In the end, there was no more room to bury them.’† Ocalan’s admissions are also seriously marred by his repeated attempts to shift the blame for any atrocities away from himself and onto what he describes as ‘gangs within our organisation’†.
This blame-shifting raises even more questions when one reads Ocalan’s claim that ‘young women fighters … [were] forced into the most primitive patriarchal relationships.’† This is a statement that begs to be compared with that of another PKK leader who claimed that it was Ocalan himself who ‘forced dozens of our female comrades to immoral relations’ and that he went so far as to ‘order the murder’ of women who refused to have ‘relations’ with him.† *
Ocalan had his accuser killed so we may never know if there was any truth to these allegations.† We may also never know how genuine Ocalan’s regrets are concerning wars of national liberation. This is especially the case if we consider his assertions that these wars ‘were valid at the time’, that the war against Turkey ‘could have been won’ and that when ‘nationalism [was] flourishing, it was almost treason not to agree with the principles of national liberation.’† But we do know that the failure of the PKK’s war – combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union – led Ocalan to reject not only any continuation of the war but also any sort of violent revolution.
In his Prison Writings he warns that ‘socialist society must not attempt to overcome old structures of state and society by means of violence and force.’ He goes on to say that: ‘It would be a gross contradiction of the nature of the new ideology if force were to be accepted as a means of overthrowing the state – even the most brutal one.’† He also claims that ‘revolutions and violence… cannot abolish [social phenomena]’ (vol.1 p224) and that ‘revolutionary overthrow … does not create sustainable change. In the long run, freedom and justice can only be accomplished within a democratic-confederate dynamic process.’†
These statements are more than just understandable criticisms of violence, they seem to be rejections of any need for social revolution once a Western-style democratic system has been instituted.
Ocalan does claim that such a system will eventually be superseded by ‘a more adaptable administration which will allow even more freedom’. But he also claims that ‘the Western democratic system contains everything needed for solving social problems.’ He even says that, eventually, ‘the right and the left … will come together in the system of democratic civilisation.’†
OCALAN ON MARXISM, ANARCHISM, FEMINISM AND CAPITALISM
Like so many other neo-Stalinists, from Gorbachev to the Eurocommunists, Ocalan combines his enthusiasm for Western-style democracy with a dismissal of Marxism.†
He also rejects anarchism, saying: ‘Anarchism is a capitalist tendency. It is an extreme form of individualism which rejects the state itself.’† He is quite clear that he ‘does not reject nor deny the state’.† Instead, he advocates ‘a lean state as a political institution, which only observes functions in the fields of internal and external security and in the provision of social security.'† **
Few liberals would have too much disagreement with this approach to the state or, indeed, with Ocalan’s approach to feminism. Just like any liberal, he is also quite clear that women’s liberation ‘should have priority over the liberation of … labour.’†
Ocalan does make bold, if somewhat hypocritical, statements about male domination in contemporary society such as: ‘To kill the dominant man is the fundamental principle of socialism.’† And women’s participation in the Rojava revolution is a striking example of how women will be central to any social change in the 21st Century. But a genuine women’s revolution would surely require a proletarian women’s movement outside the control of either middle-class activists or the PKK/PYD.
Such a revolution would also require the transcendence of the family. According to one Rojavan human rights worker: 'Society here is very masculine and very feudal, … there still needs to be a change in the classic family structure if we are ever going to see [women's role] expand.'† Yet, despite his criticisms of the family, Ocalan still insists that the family 'is not a social institution that should be overthrown’. Indeed, he even argues that a reformed family is both the ‘most important element’ and ‘the most robust assurance of democratic civilisation.’†
As regards capitalism, Ocalan does argue for a ‘progressive transition from a production based on profit to a production based on sharing.’† But he appears to believe that capitalists ‘never number more than one or two percent of society’† and he even claims that the class war ‘has come to an end’.† He also proposes that the new social order 'will allow for individual and collective property’ and that labour will be 'remunerated according to its contribution to the entire product.’†
In the programme for the Hamburg conference, John Holloway claims that the Kurdish movement in Rojava is one of ‘the most outstanding examples’ of anti-capitalism.† But these statements by Ocalan instead show a movement whose ideological leader has a very limited understanding of capitalism and no real desire to end the misery of private property and wage labour. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that one of the economics ministers in Rojava has openly stated that he wants any cooperatives to compete with private capital.† While, the head of Internal Security even said that Rojava is ‘a new market, and everyone can play a role, including the Americans.’†
Ocalan’s solution to every social problem really does seem to be, not anti-capitalist revolution, but democracy. Democracy is certainly preferable to dictatorship. But it makes little sense to say that democracy, even a radical form of direct democracy, is itself a ‘corrective for extreme class divisions’.†
It is, of course, just such extreme class divisions and inequalities, exacerbated by capitalism’s chronic crises and wars, that have led to today’s situation in which so many people have turned to the seemingly revolutionary alternative of ISIS. But from Egypt to Turkey to Iraq, democracy has done little to empower proletarians to push for the radical sharing of wealth that is so urgently needed to end all class divisions and so end the appeal of ISIS.
The PKK say they want to transform the Middle East ‘without the utopian perspective of a world revolution’.† But it is surely only the prospect of an anti-capitalist world revolution that could ever inspire people both to overthrow ISIS and to spread the Rojava revolution across the Middle East.
Such a world revolution would require a political movement that was far more internationalist than the PKK/PYD could ever be, burdened as it is by its deep attachment to Kurdish identity. The PKK/PYD is also burdened by its initial decision to be relatively neutral in the Syrian civil war and by its later decision to ally with the US. No matter how understandable these decisions were, they have discredited the Rojava revolution across the Arab world and made it even more difficult for it to become a starting point for international revolution.
Any talk of international revolution may seem utopian. But the Arab Spring and Occupy movements showed that potentially revolutionary movements are now able to emerge and spread internationally like never before. And a global revolution is still a more realistic prospect than any hope that an alliance with Western imperialism will somehow lead to the Rojava revolution spreading across the Middle East.
After the victory at Kobane, the PKK/PYD leader, Salih Muslim, visited government officials in London and spoke passionately in favour of an even stronger alliance with the West. He said:
‘We insist on establishing good relations with the US. … We had a martyr who was English. He died in the same trenches as us. … Our martyrs are the most glorious treasure we have. We see them as the crowns, they are crowns and they are light that show our way to peace and freedom. … We want to establish stronger relations with the English, Australians, Germans and Americans. That relation will be nourished by our martyrs’ sacrifice. … Rojava is taking the lead in giving an example of democracy in all of Syria. And our people are proud of that. And you know it is true when you see a British man next to you in the same trench and he becomes a martyr. … [Our] resistance is becoming an example to the world.’†
Despite obvious differences, this overblown rhetoric sounds very much like that of politicians a century ago who extolled ‘English, Australians, Germans and Americans’ to sacrifice themselves for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ in the trenches of the 1914-18 war.
The revolutionaries of the last century made two great errors: one was to support the descent into the imperialist bloodbath of 1914, the other was to support Stalinism. Developing a 21st Century revolutionary politics that avoids any repetition of these disasters will not be easy. Radical intellectuals like Negri, Graeber and Holloway have made important theoretical contributions that can aid this development. But their apparent support for the PKK suggests serious limitations in their political outlook.
Fortunately, younger Kurdish activists are increasingly questioning the authoritarianism of the PKK. If radical intellectuals have any constructive role it is to encourage such attitudes and to avoid giving any credibility to the totalitarian cult around Ocalan.
Capitalism’s present crisis will, sooner or later, compel people to question the entire system more deeply than they are presently doing in Rojava – or, indeed, in other countries where various types of neo-Stalinist have taken power such as South Africa, Venezuela and Greece. Until then, we surely need to keep trying to find ways to support grassroots’ struggles without giving any support to neo-Stalinist politicians – or to imperialism and its endless wars.
All sources can be found by clicking on the † next to the quote or see the version at libcom.org
* Some critics of Ocalan have claimed that his response to such abuse accusations was to say: ‘These girls mentioned. I don’t know, I have relations with thousands of them. … [They] say ‘‘this was attempted to be done to me here’’ or ‘‘this was done to me there’’! These shameless women. … I try to turn every girl into a lover. … If you find me dangerous, don’t get close!’† However, unlike the other Ocalan quotes in this article, I have been unable to find a verifiable version of this quote. I have also been unable to find a second source to confirm claims that the Rojavan authorities 'prohibit the display of flags and photos of political figures' other than those of Ocalan and other PKK symbols.†
** The revolutionary hopes engendered by the Arab Spring coincided with a fall in support for Islamist terrorism. Once those hopes were dashed, such terrorism revived and, inevitably, the Rojavan police have now set up an elite anti-terrorist unit just like those of any other capitalist state. (See their Hollywood-style video here.) This development is in some contrast to Graeber’s hopes that the Rojavan police were on the way to, one day, abolishing themselves.†
‘Democratic’ assemblies, street scenes, militia fighters and colleges in Rojava - all overshadowed by the leader of one party, the PKK’s Abdullah Ocalan.