Discussion: Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdish Myth

ACG note:

The following text is from a discussion article published in “Solidaridad Obrera”, the journal of the CNT of Catalonia and the Balearics. 16.12.2020 and we republish it here to widen and continue that discussion. As an opinion piece, it represents the view of the CNT member who wrote it, rather than it being the official view from the whole confederation. Likewise, it is not the official view of the ACG, though our earlier statements on Syria and Afrin can be viewed by following this link scrolling down the page. In the spirit of open discussion, we also attach in the comments below the response from the Rojava Azidi Group in Madrid. We welcome further comments on this issue.

The Kurdish Myth – critique of Abdullah Ocalan’s political project

By CNT (Spain), January 11 2021

Translation – Monica Jornet, Groupe Gaston Couté FA

Note: Translated from French, which in turn was translated from Spanish

Published in “Solidaridad Obrera”, the journal of the CNT of Catalonia and the Balearics. 16.12.2020

When our comrades from the CNT set the record straight for anarchism

‘The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded on November 27, 1978 in a small village in the Diyarbakir region, Turkey. Its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, who had worked as a civil servant, enrolled in the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University, where he came into contact with the student movement. It was within this movement that the Kurdish identity began to be claimed and the idea of ​​a national liberation struggle defended, with the ultimate objective of self-determination of the Kurdish people. It was precisely a group of young Kurds and Turks, led by Öcalan, who created the PKK. This party then declared itself Marxist-Leninist, and embraced Kurdish nationalism. Its main reservoir of membership was the peasantry, and not the barely existing proletariat. It was to be banned after the coup d’état of the Turkish army in 1980 and many of its members imprisoned by the military junta. They took the path of armed struggle underground. Öcalan was arrested in early 1999 at the Greek Embassy in Kenya by the Israeli Mossad and handed over to the Turkish secret service (Turkish Military Intelligence Service MIT). Sentenced to life imprisonment, accused of belonging to a terrorist group, he has since been locked up in the Turkish prison island of Imrali.

‘During the 90s, the PKK had undergone an ideological turn which led to the VII Extraordinary Congress, from which was drawn up the political program for the year 2000 ” The duty of democratic transition ”  Despite everything, it is not really credible that, overnight, a hierarchical party typically on the Stalinist mode, embraces the libertarian municipalism of Murray Bookchin. It was in prison that Öcalan ended up defining the new official ideology of the PKK, which took the name of Democratic Confederalism . In May 2005, the Confederation of Peoples of Kurdistan (KCK) was founded in Turkey to disseminate – and put into practice – this doctrine. We find there from civil organizations to parties like the PKK or its counterparts in other regions outside Turkey like the Democratic Union Party (PYD). It was, however, only in Syria that Democratic Confederalism would be put into practice. It was there that in July 2012, in the context of the war in Syria, the process known as the “Rojava Revolution” began. This process has gone so far as to be called an “anarchist revolution” and theorists like David Graeber have contributed to such confusion. In this article, we want to help clear up a few questions and debunk this myth.

Democratic Confederalism, a Social Democratic Political Project

‘In his writing ” Democratic ConfederalismThe state uses coercion as a legitimate means. “In contrast, its project” is flexible, multicultural, anti-monopoly and consensus-oriented. Ecology and feminism are central pillars. ”Certainly the inspiration of libertarian municipalism based on the social ecology of Murray Bookchin or Janet Biehl appears clearly, when he asserts that decisions are made at the local level or are based on the community He went so far as to speak of a “democratic nation and democratic communism”. 

‘Later all traces of a so-called “theoretical anarchism” were to disappear when he declared in ” War and peace in Kurdistan”(2008), that” the immediate abolition of the state is not a viable option. “But he goes further by stating clearly that he is only seeking a” democratization of politics. “He does not consider more than violence – a path followed by the PKK in the past decades – is an acceptable path. “The classic state structure and its despotic conception of power are unacceptable”. In his new conception of the state, he says he sees power simply as a social authority. He speaks to us about self-managed local communities, and also about the organization in open municipal councils, local parliaments and general congresses. But he also talks about political parties and an electoral system. “Parties and the electoral system must submit to democratic reform.” Clearly Öcalan’s project does not seem to go beyond the establishment of a bourgeois democracy, not even independent but integrated into the Republic of Turkey. He speaks to us of an economic policy which aspires not only to profit, but also oriented towards a fair distribution of resources and which is able to meet the needs of society; he is far from envisioning revolutionary economic transformations.

‘In his work, Öcalan presents everything as a struggle between ethnic communities or between nations, but at no time does he speak of social classes or class struggle. He proclaims not only that “to consider history as a class struggle is too reductive” – ​​breaking with the materialist conception of history – but also that “the logic of class confrontation supposes a voluntary integration into the new. power system (civilization). “It therefore stands out from both Marxism and anarchism. He says of the “Marxist current”, that it “subordinates its method and the whole process of knowledge” to economic reductionism “and qualifies it as” the left of liberalism as regards method and epistemology (theory of knowledge). He says “anarchist currents “that they” do not manage to define the system, nor to solve the question of going beyond it”. Anarchism is presented as “a sect which protects itself from the evils of the system”. He does not envisage the supposed “period of transition” before the abolition of the state, by means of a dictatorship of the proletariat but of tools specific to bourgeois democracy. Ultimately, what Öcalan defends has already been invented in XIX century and bears the name of “social democracy”. And it is very clear when he says: “the philosophical, political and ideological line of the new PKK finds its most adequate expression in the use of the concept of” democratic socialism “. 

The Myth of the Anarchist Revolution

‘In the summer of 2012, a little over a year after the start of the civil war, the withdrawal of troops from Al-Asad to other fronts, had left a political vacuum in northern Syria whose party of the Democratic Union PYD took advantage, along with other Kurdish political forces, to take control of the area and establish a political regime based on Democratic Confederalism. After the dissolution of the provisional government known as the Kurdish Supreme Committee in late 2013, the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), which was a new coalition of political parties dominated by the PYD, took over the government. The three cantons that then formed Rojava, Cizîrê, Kobanê and Efrîn, established their own governments, known as democratic autonomous administrations (DSA). The PYD armed forces, the Popular Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), had a key role in the fighting against the Islamic State (Daesh), the culmination of which was the defeat in January 2015 of the fundamentalists in Kobanê. It has also had to cope with various military operations by Turkish forces in the area, even with the support of United States troops and the non-aggression pact with the Al-Asad regime.

‘The federation of cantons was formalized in March 2016 as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (FDNS), and in September 2018, with the integration of new cantons, it was now known as the Autonomous Administration of the North and Eastern Syria (AANES). The TEV-DEM political advisory system has been implemented. The communes, which can bring together from ten to several hundred people from villages or neighbourhoods, are the basic unit of the system, and they elect a junta in assembly. At the higher levels we find the popular councils (with their own assemblies); first the district councils (representing dozens of municipalities), then the town councils (grouping together districts) and finally the township councils (grouping together towns). Each level sends delegations to the level above, in principle according to a functioning of direct democracy. Most of the work of the municipalities and councils (defence, economy, justice, etc.) is carried out by committees. However, we are faced with a duality of power structure since faced with the system of councils, we have the autonomous administration of each canton, with its legislative council (Parliament), its executive council, and municipal councils which depend on it. We organize legislative elections, there are always political parties (which are in the communes and the councils), and a centralized police force of the No of Asayish. The process is therefore far from being an “anarchist revolution”. Most of the work of the municipalities and councils (defence, economy, justice, etc.) is carried out by committees.

‘The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has carried an alternative economic model based on cooperatives which, like the municipalities, are considered the pillar of democratic administration. Agricultural cooperatives are predominant (there are crops of wheat, barley, corn, cotton and olive trees); there are also cooperatives dedicated to animal husbandry, textiles, services, etc.  Industry is almost non-existent, even if there is a production of gas, phosphates and, in particular, oil. There are oil wells and refineries. Cooperatives are dedicated to the needs of local people and generally do not produce any surplus that allows them to market the products or services and therefore do not make a profit. “This is all a slow process, from the bottom to the top. In the future we will gradually move towards a cooperative economy. Of course, the possibility of war can ruin these efforts. We hope to achieve a society without the poor and the rich, but with an equal life for all “, explains Walid, spokesperson for the Economic Office of AANES. Communal cooperatives represent a marginal part of the economy in Rojava; and the private sector still exists in the form of small and medium-sized enterprises, and in the towns one can find traders and shopkeepers.  

‘Ultimately, the state has not disappeared in Rojava, and this apparatus of coercion is associated with the existence of social classes. They rely on their central government, their army – military service is compulsory – and their police force (asayish). Economic infrastructures are very late, with almost non-existent industrial development. This undoubtedly prevents the emergence of an upper bourgeoisie (industrial and financial), but this social class still exists, as well as a very large petty bourgeoisie. Capitalist social relations, private property exist, and even feudal social relations: there are entrepreneurs as there are also landowners. Feudal institutions remain, such as lordships, or tribal communities, all this being characteristic of agrarian subsistence economies. One anarchist activist described the Rojava process thus: “We must consider that the Rojava process has progressive characteristics such as a major leap in the direction of women’s liberation, the fact of having tried to develop secular, social justice. , a plural democratic structure, and the fact that other ethnic and religious groups are involved in the administration. But the fact that the recently emerging structure does not seek to suppress private property, i.e. ‘abolition of classes, the fact that the tribal system remains and that the tribal chiefs participate in the administration shows that the objective is not the suppression of feudal or capitalist relations of production.


‘Confederalism can hardly be a political project taken up by a revolutionary syndicalist or anarcho-syndicalist organization. In fact the CNT already has its own “confederalism”: the confederal concept of libertarian communism. It is not necessary to bring it back with supposed novelties – which are not – in this sense. The economic model envisaged in Rojava – based on agricultural cooperatives is not adapted to the specific realities of our Western societies either. In addition, it is necessary to clarify one point, cooperativism is not necessarily a factor of transformation and even less revolutionary. The fact that a region has not reached the capitalist phase of industrial development does not mean that it has overtaken capitalism; it simply means that we are faced with a subsistence economy, without a significant development of the working class and where even feudal relations of production still exist. Unlike those who emphasize cultural changes, at the simple level of “mentality”, or who do not go beyond the individual, any revolution worthy of the name requires a change in the economic structure of society (infrastructure), through the abolition of social classes and private property. And this is not currently the case in Rojava. We must of course be in solidarity with the Kurdish cause, but that does not mean to share their approaches or to adopt their political project, nor of course to stop criticizing them. 

‘Finally, I would like to make a remark about the pro-Kurdish organizations and groups which are active in our territory. They keep a very strong party culture, since they seem to be satellites in the shadow of the PKK, even when they present themselves as “anarchists”. Even the cult of Öcalan’s personality is visible and, make no mistake, it goes much further than simple solidarity with a political prisoner. The CNT is not and will not be the transmission belt of any political party, organization or external group seeking to act as a central committee of other organizations. Not to mention the fact that in some circles, the working class is refused as a revolutionary subject, and one puts in her place only the woman – not even the working woman but the woman in the interclass sense – or the youth in her place. We must prevent any possible entryism, in this sense of “pro-Kurdish” groups or any other type, since our organization is aimed specifically at the working class and our model is already sufficiently clear. Whatever the many indoctrination training that will be carried out, we are not going to follow a given political line, which as a bonus is foreign to us, nor be a pawn in a strategy external to our organization. I have nothing more to say at the moment.’

One thought on “Discussion: Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdish Myth

  1. Response from Rojava Azadi Group in Madrid: rojavaazadimadrid.org/respuesta-a-la-critica-vertida-en-el-blog-solidaridad-obrera-de-cnt-catalunya-a-la-propuesta-del-confederalismo-democratico/

    We wish to open this joint reflection by thanking the sincere support that the main anarchist unions in the Iberian Peninsula have shown in recent years towards the cause of the Kurdish people and more specifically the Rojava revolution.

    We want to emphasize that this reflection is not intended to be an attack against any organization or individual, but rather the opening to a dialogue where we can all enrich ourselves and where through debate we can expand knowledge and views. We consider that criticism-self-criticism is one of the fundamental bases for any political project that wishes to consider itself liberating and that it is, without a doubt, one of the main political methodologies that uses the paradigm of democratic confederalism and the Kurdish liberation movement.

    We note, to begin with, that there is some confusion in the text with the sources cited. For example, when he takes as reference the booklets ‘Democratic Confederalism’ and ‘War and Peace’ as text written by Öcalan, when in fact they are summaries that the International Initiative association has compiled from various Öcalan manuscripts, in order to facilitate their reading and comprehension. It is important that someone who appreciates making a deep criticism of a political theory reads the main sources, for which we recommend his work “Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization”, of which, unfortunately, only the first two volumes are translated into Spanish ( the first of them is mentioned in the article).

    We consider that there is a tone of high reproach in the entire text against Abdullah Öcalan, perhaps because he is for many and many the undisputed leader of the Kurdish liberation movement and this makes him easily the target against which all criticism is cast. And yes, we believe that respect must be shown to a revolutionary who has spent more than 20 years in prison for defending his ideas, many of those years in the most absolute isolation, and during which he has tried to make a new political paradigm flourish, with the which we can agree or disagree with, but which we must analyze from respect. At the same time, it is highly debatable to reproach him or hold him personally responsible for all the successes or failures that the political laboratories have been able to promote in Bakur or Rojava Kurdistan.
    Democratic confederalism, like any political paradigm, has two aspects, one theoretical and the other practical. The theory tries to imagine what the practice would be like and this, which must be based on reality, tries to adapt itself tactically to the strategies of the theory. Many times reality imposes situations that theory cannot foresee and then it is the subjects who must make decisions about how to continue the practice to get as close as possible to the ideological line, but without ignoring the material objective conditions they face. This reality should be taken into account by many of the organizations and groups of the Western spectrum that, clinging to the purism of their ideological theory, ignore and forget the reality that surrounds them, condemning themselves to political failure. What’s more, no revolutionary movement that has a tradition of several decades changes its ideological perspectives “overnight”; indeed, criticisms of the USSR and the doctrine of real communism were debated from the early 1990s until leading, for example, to the decision to remove the hammer and sickle from the party’s flag in 1995. But we do consider that the ability to self-criticize, reflect, change and develop new paradigms and political structures are the key to the survival of any revolutionary movement, as well as the only way to achieve achievements over time. The criticisms that Öcalan pours on the communist and anarchist movements and currents should be taken as a gift that opens the doors to the movements and their members to rethink what faults they are having and how they can improve, and should not feel like an attack that hurts the ego of his followers. Perhaps this is why many of the anarchist and communist movements in the 21st century are completely stagnant, obsolete and far from being able to effect any persistent and incident revolutionary change in their societies.

    As for the praxis of democratic confederalism in Bakur Kurdistan, whose most visible actor is the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), we must take into account the reality of the Turkish state as a clearly totalitarian state, as well as the composition and methods of the party. The HDP seeks to develop a communalist assembly system among its bases and follows the principles of co-presidency and the inclusion of all ethnicities and religions in the region, promoting self-administration among the communities within the possible and realistic framework allowed by the Turkish state. . It is true that the participation of State institutions always limits the radical nature of the actions that an organization can take, as they remain deeply subject to the institutional framework in which they participate. But it should also be noted that the dictatorial drift of the AKP (Justice and Development) government has led to the suppression of any political dissent or freedom of expression in Turkey. Hundreds of members of the HDP are in jail and practically every day there are new arrests and repression against their members. The vast majority of the elected representatives, both for mayors and in parliament, have been removed from their positions and relieved by trustees related to the regime. The repression against HDP members and the difficult conditions in Turkish prisons have led several HDP members, such as Leyla Gûven in 2018, to promote several hunger strikes for long periods of time, putting their health in serious danger.

    Regarding the implementation of democratic confederalism in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the article should have described in more detail the context of exceptionality in which Rojava finds itself. A war economy that for the past eight years has dedicated almost 50% of its resources to military defense against wars of annihilation waged against the human beings that inhabit Rojava (both residents and more than one million Syrian internally displaced persons). A territory that, in turn, is subject to a strict economic, commercial and health blockade at its only three points of entry-exit and contact with the rest of the planet: Turkey, Damascus and Iraqi Kurdistan. And if this was not enough, encapsulated within the catastrophic economic situations of the Syrian state, it is true that this political laboratory has its failures (and successes) in many areas of the administration, although it must also be borne in mind that it is not easy at all due to the constant pressures: war against the Islamic State and jihadist groups, invasions Turks, economic warfare, interests of the great international powers, etc. But we do want to highlight that some of the proposals that are being carried out are extremely interesting to consider and evaluate. For example, peace courts based on a type of restorative justice are quite effective: more than 80% of daily conflicts are resolved in popular justice committees without the need to take them to higher levels. In addition, the justice system has an autonomous section only made up of women.

    As for the criticisms leveled at the police (asayis), we believe that, unfortunately, they are the type of criticism that is made when the reality in the region is absolute. The reality is that the danger of simply living in the region makes it more than necessary for internal defense organizations to protect the population, both Asayis and HPC / HPC-Jin. No checkpointsWithout the operations to dismantle the cells of ISIS and other groups, without the protection of the communes and other institutions, life in the AANES would be simply impossible. The ultimate goal, as they and they themselves express it, is the abolition of the police, but for this the population must be absolutely prepared for mediation and self-defense, material conditions that do not exist in reality today.

    On the other hand, the text criticizes the maintenance of private property, but once again we must analyze the reality of the territory. The AANES territory has large properties of land and real estate directly expropriated from the Syrian regime, tracts of land that are not even in use due to lack of projects to cover them, so they win the enmity of owners by expropriating land or real estate that would not be used. it would be anything but logical. The abolition of private property, as Proudhon himself said, cannot be put into practice by violent abolition, but by promoting and encouraging collectivization. The AANES tries to support small family businesses, always subject to the surveillance of the communes and the control of non-accumulation and speculation, as well as the control of the price of basic products. Yes, no one can deny that there is a class differentiation between the population of Rojava and a tribal system typical of the area, differences that must be eradicated without a doubt. But we must also take into account what has happened in many other revolutions when the traditional bourgeoisie and property owners were expelled, only to be replaced shortly by new owners related to the revolution. Once again, the criticisms made are based on ideological precepts outside the context of an analysis of reality and without any type of proposal to improve it. But we must also take into account what has happened in many other revolutions when the traditional bourgeoisie and property owners were expelled, only to be replaced shortly by new owners related to the revolution. Once again, the criticisms made are based on ideological precepts outside the context of an analysis of reality and without any type of proposal to improve it. But we must also take into account what has happened in many other revolutions when the traditional bourgeoisie and property owners were expelled, only to be replaced shortly by new owners related to the revolution. Once again, the criticisms made are based on ideological precepts outside the context of an analysis of reality and without any type of proposal to improve it.

    Regarding the criticisms made of the Rojava economic model, we believe that much more accurate criticism could be made since the Rojava economic model is quite deficient, despite the efforts made by the AANES to try to improve it. Once again, the fact that the main criticism is about the existence of a private sector in the economy continues to be based on a theoretical dogmatism far from reality, which is especially worrying when criticizing the survival mode of the people who live there with this quote: “In cities you can find merchants and shopkeepers.”
    Regarding the entry of foreign companies into the territory, it is a difficult reality that the AANES has had to assume and which does not like either within the institutions or among the majority of the population, since they are not naive and they know perfectly well that this also means subordination to global economic powers. It is well known that, in the current context of war and blockade, there is a total impossibility of creating the necessary infrastructures to exploit the crude from the oil wells, which are the main source of profit for the region, as well as the main source. energy of the entire territory. This puts the AANES at the crossroads of how to maintain its economic independence while its population does not die of hunger and cold. As Kropotkin himself warned.

    We fully agree that the Rojava revolution should not be called an anarchist revolution, mainly because its participants have never called it that and because they also have their own political paradigm. We may or may not agree on whether the immediate abolition of the State as the main revolutionary practice is necessary (and possible), but we cannot blame that a revolution that has never maintained that its main objective is the immediate fall of the State, does not is carrying out. We believe that the AANES has had several opportunities to form itself as an independent region relying on international powers that would have been more than happy to have an institutionalized drift in the purest style of Western democracy, but even so the Administration has always refused.

    Democratic confederalism frames the abolition of the State as a deterioration of it, betting on generating alternatives of self-management that little by little make the State a useless and unnecessary tool. This proposal is based on the analysis of a reality where States are extremely strong, which not only govern and organize all aspects of the lives of people and peoples at a material level, but are also strongly rooted in the mentality of most people. We believe that this consideration should be taken into account, especially in the so-called Western countries, as it is even more visible than in other places on the planet. The ideologues of anarchism themselves already spoke in the 19th and 20th centuries that a real and lasting change will come only after a gradual and cultural transformation of the structures of the State. Kropotkin, with a very positive look, gave a minimum time of five years. As Bakunin also said: “A barracks system would be the only way to make an immediate change possible, and which will not necessarily produce a free self-determination of policies or decentralization, nor will it put justice or popular power in the hands of the people. It will be repressive out of necessity.”

    Regarding the rejection of violence, once again we have to disagree. It is true that the Kurdistan Liberation Movement has put aside the theory of the Prolonged People’s War as the main strategy of violent confrontation against the State, giving preference to the creation of a political counter-power. But the theory of self-defense that the Movement is currently putting into practice does not deny acts of violence as long as they are in legitimate defense; And that is why, in all the territories of Kurdistan, there is always a political structure and an armed structure, because they know that their existence and continuity depend on it. So we can conclude that self-defense is not done only as a proposal, but rather as an obligation to preserve life and organization.

    Regarding the fact that democratic confederalism does not take into account the class struggle, again we have to say that it is wrong, because although it is true that the vanguard of the revolution or the first political subject ceases to be the working class in favor of the struggle of women, the proletarian struggle is not left aside, but is put in the background. This conclusion is not made superficially, but after a deep anthropological analysis in which it has been concluded that the first colonized, repressed and enslaved nation or human community is women. In this way, Öcalan justifies that, in order to destroy capitalism and the state, patriarchy must first be ended. To learn more about this reflection, we recommend reading the book “Woman, Life, Freedom.” But still, We must emphasize that Öcalan’s writings repeatedly mention that the main forms of domination that every State reproduces are those of gender, class, ethnicity and culture, so none of the subjugation mechanisms used by the state and capitalist system are ignored. communities and peoples. We are deeply dismayed at the constant rejection by many activists of any change in the vanguard political subject. Above all, when the change of this political subject becomes defined as a woman, the criticisms and attacks become extremely virulent. The text reveals a disregard for the achievements of the Rojava revolution in the areas of gender and a profound invalidity of the theory of women as the first oppressed nation and, therefore, the claim that democratic confederalism is a practice of social democracy is simply absurd. The constant efforts to make the communes and base assemblies the main decision-making force and political and social organization, encouraging direct participation in all the institutions, are the opposite of the delegationism of the social democracy. The difficulties of changing a system where the majority of the population is used to delegating to state powers is actually the biggest challenge that any revolutionary organization can encounter, in Kurdistan and anywhere in the world. Reducing the deep meaning that Öcalan gives to the concept “democratic socialism” to make it synonymous with “social democracy” is at least a clumsy play on words.

    In conclusion, both the paradigm of democratic confederalism – with which we can agree more or less – and its practical application in Kurdistan, should be taken into account, as they are one more attempt to create a different social, economic and political model. . We recognize the errors and failures that both theory and practice have, but we believe that the criticisms that any individual or organization pour out on them should be adapted to a political framework of the reality in which they live and not based on exclusive ideological dogmas and reductionists. As Tomás Ibáñez said: “We must get away from the guardians of the temple.” All criticisms, especially those that are constructive and purposeful.

    Rojava Azadi Madrid. December 26, 2020

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