NEWS CENTER – However, perhaps the most important point on which the movement draws inspiration from Marx, and which already resonates in its description as a “struggle movement,” is the conception of Marxian thought as a “philosophy of practice.” The movement’s theoretical debates are not to be for naught or to fill journal pages, but to acquire knowledge for political practice. Practice, in turn, is the starting point for the further development of theory. This has happened in the Kurdish movement to such an extent that it can be credited with adding more than a few footnotes to the corpus of socialist literature.
If we are to discuss the importance of Marx for the Kurdish liberation struggle, I must first outline very briefly the various phases in the history of the Kurdish liberation struggle. This will focus on the role of Abdullah Öcalan, who, as the main theoretician and leader of the Kurdish liberation movement, has published eighty-one books (according to a recent count) and who has been in prison for almost twenty years, the last three of them in total isolation without any contact with the outside world.
Brief historical summary
Foundational years (1973-1983)
These foundational years cover the ten years between the formation of the first ideological group around Abdullah Öcalan in 1973 and the beginning of the armed struggle against the Turkish regime in 1984. During this period, a whole series of theoretical and programmatic texts were produced, all of them available online – though often only in Turkish – including the PKK’s founding program of 1978.
If we examine these texts, mostly drafted after a collective debate led by Abdullah Öcalan, we find in them the traces of a broad reading of Marx by the early protagonists of the movement. The party defined itself as a proletarian party, with its analysis of the political situation of the time based on the different interests of the various classes.
Years of struggle
In the years in which the guerrilla struggle grew from about thirty militants to as many as 30,000, practical problems played an important role. Questions of power and bureaucracy came to the fore, as the People’s Liberation Army (ARGK) controlled significant amounts of territory, at least temporarily. At the same time, analysis of the role of religion became important, as much of the population was and is religious, with many different religious groups present in the region.
One of the most striking achievements of the Kurdish freedom movement was to become a mass movement as a non-religious movement in a religious society. The key to this achievement was the movement’s precise understanding of different faiths and its renunciation of direct confrontation with religion. Religion is seen dialectically in its various functions: On the one hand, it provides community, offers people moral guidelines and a narrative about the past and the future. On the other hand, religion becomes a plaything for the interests of the ruling class and serves to pit communities against each other, even to the point of genocide. This understanding makes it possible for different communities to cooperate and avoid conflict, where the movement is influential.
New paradigm (1999 – present)
After the abduction of Abdullah Öcalan in Nairobi in 1999 and the subsequent ceasefire that lasted for about five years, the movement underwent an extensive re-evaluation of its theoretical foundations. In this process, Öcalan’s prison writings played a decisive role, in which he processed both his own political-practical experience and his reading of Marxist and other authors, from Hegel to Murray Bookchin. The reorientation of the movement on this basis forms the background of the revolution in Rojava/Northern Syria, but also of the politics of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) in Turkey.
The importance of Marx
What has been the importance of Marx for the movement over the years? I would like to present a number of theoretical and practical reference points that illustrate how the Kurdish freedom movement essentially follows Marx’s philosophy and method, and where it does not.
The beginning is an episode from the time of the 1968 movement in Turkey. Öcalan, who had been quite religious in his youth, acquired a copy of Leo Huberman’s “The ABC of Socialism,” a popular introduction to Marxism. He devoured it and concluded, “Muhammad lost, Marx won.”
Turkish translations of Marx’s works at the time enjoyed a dubious reputation and were subsequently widely criticized and revised. Moreover, the new movement was not primarily interested in economic details, but in the theory and practice of the liberation struggles inspired by Marx and Lenin in Cuba, Angola and, above all, Vietnam. However, some central elements of Karl Marx’s philosophy have been the ideological linchpins of the Kurdish liberation movement for forty-five years. Many of them have become so ingrained in the movement that they are no longer perceived as coming from Marx.
First, there is the philosophy of history. All conditions are made by the people and can be changed by the people. In addition, there is the confidence that history moves toward socialism with a certain inevitability, although it still needs the intervention of conscious revolutionaries. Although this determinism has been much criticized lately within the movement, the consciousness of being on the right side of history has been quite useful in confronting, simultaneously or successively, the NATO state in Turkey and its torturers, the Arab despots in Syria and Iraq, and the theocracy of the mullahs in Iran.
But beyond that, Öcalan proves to be a student of the method demonstrated by Engels in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Using the latest findings of scientific research, he attempts to discover and criticize the historicity of the foundations of present-day society. Like Engels, he deals with the origin of the state, but he deals in detail with the earliest states, the Sumerian city-states such as Uruk and Nippur, whose existence Marx and Engels could not yet have known about. The result is a fascinating analysis of the theological foundations of state thought, from Sumerian mythology to the secular religion of nationalism.
The greatest consideration, however, is given to the non-state structures that existed before states, to which the state constitutes the antithesis. Öcalan devotes great attention to these structures and their continued existence in oppositional religious and philosophical movements. Gradually, he has moved away from Marx’s postulate that all history is the history of class struggle. Today, the movement understands history as the history of conflicts between state, urban and patriarchal civilization on the one hand, and communal resistances to it on the other. These may be led by women, or by heterodox religious groups, by oppressed peoples and ethnic groups, or by communities with oppositional philosophies, including scientific socialism.
In many ways, I argue, Öcalan is doing for the Middle East what Marx and Engels did for Western history: writing history from the point of view of the oppressed, with the goal of liberation, using the methods of historical materialism. This brings us to the second point: dialectical thinking.
Like Marx, Öcalan thinks of everything in terms of relationships, in terms of movement, in terms of contradictions. Thus, the whole history of civilization, which he examines in many volumes, has an antithesis, which precisely are women, peoples and heterodox faith communities and movements oppressed by state civilization.
In political work, one of the movement’s methods is to get people from different socio-cultural backgrounds to work together, for example, a petty-bourgeois student from Istanbul with an illiterate pastor from a mountainous region of Kurdistan. The resulting conflicts are analyzed and discussed and serve as training material for the whole movement. In this way, contradictions are turned into something productively useful.
In the best tradition of Marx, the PKK conceives liberation in the Middle East as a liberation of all oppressed people in the region, not just the Kurds.
The Kurdish liberation movement was conceived from the beginning as an internationalist movement. The first three-person core of the movement consisted of two Turks and one Kurd. The liberation of Kurdistan was conceived in the 1970s in the context of a socialist revolution in the Middle East. The training of the first guerrillas took place in the camps of the Palestinian PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).
Kurdish nationalism, which in most cases took the form of collaboration with the state powers, was criticized and fought from the beginning. It is important to know this background today, when not only the bourgeois press rants about a “Kurdish state” in northern Syria. On a recent trip through northern Syria, I saw the huge cemetery of Kobanê, where most of the volunteers who inflicted the most important defeat of the Islamic State are buried. However, more Kurdish volunteers have fallen in the liberation of the so-called “Arab” cities, where Syrian democratic forces are building a system of multi-ethnic and multi-religious councils.
In its emphasis on women’s liberation, the movement goes far beyond Marx and almost all other revolutionary movements. Although Marx also provided the basis for the analysis of reproduction with his theory of surplus value, it is essentially concerned with production. Based on the analysis of the gender question as the essential social contradiction in the Middle East, Öcalan, in contrast, interprets the relationship between “reproduction” and “production” the other way around: the economy of providing food and clothing and raising children, which is essentially taken care of by women, is the real, use-value oriented economy, while the “economy,” sometimes exchange-value oriented and sometimes based on violent plunder, is a development of men. Öcalan finds evidence of the transition from a matriarchal economy to patriarchal relations of violence in the Sumerian city-states, which lasted for several centuries – if not millennia – in the ancient Mesopotamian texts.
The attitude towards women’s liberation finds visible expression not only in the large number of autonomously organized women fighters in guerrilla and self-defense structures in northern Syria, but also in the mixed-gender co-representation of all bodies at all levels of political work, including a right of veto by women’s structures.
“Philosophy of practice”
Perhaps the most important point, however, on which the movement draws inspiration from Marx, and which already resonates in its description as a “struggle movement,” is the conception of Marxian thought as a “philosophy of practice.” The movement’s theoretical debates are not to be for naught or to fill journal pages, but to acquire knowledge for political practice. Practice, in turn, is the starting point for the further development of theory. This has happened in the Kurdish movement to such an extent that it can be credited with adding more than a few footnotes to the corpus of socialist literature.
Thus, the movement is constantly developing new methods to dismantle existing power relations and replace them with egalitarian structures.
With its creative interpretation of Marx and a constant and lively debate on many questions of socialist theory and practice, the Kurdish freedom movement is perhaps the most important revolutionary movement in the tradition of Karl Marx today. The fact that many Marxists know little about this is a sad state of affairs that we are actively working to remedy.
The revolution in northern Syria is threatened, not only by Turkey and its Islamist mercenary forces. NATO is also fighting fiercely against the movement. Öcalan, on whose ideas the revolution in northern Syria is essentially based, has been completely isolated from the outside world in Turkey for three years; he has had no contact with his lawyers for almost seven years. The protest against these conditions – except from the Kurds – is unfortunately very modest. I call on everyone to learn more about the revolution and the movement that supports it, and to stand in solidarity with it on every territory.