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.’