A Marxist view of Abdullah Öcalan’s political theory. Translated, reworked and updated version of an article originally published in German in the issue 26 of the quarterly magazine of SAV (German section of the CWI), sozialismus.info.
The Kurdish self-government in Rojava in Syria explicitly bases itself on the ideas of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, also known as “Apo”, who has been imprisoned in solitary confinement on the island of Imrali since 1999. In recent years, Öcalan has comprehensively revised the theory and practice of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
The PKK, while not pro-Beijing, was founded around Maoist-influenced ideas in the mid-1970s with the immediate goal of a ‘national-democratic’ revolution leading to an ’independent and democratic Kurdistan’. Now he has moved away from the idea of a Kurdish nation state and the classic model of guerrilla warfare, and advocates “democratic autonomy” (also called “democratic confederalism”) as a vision for the coexistence of the peoples of the Middle East. Öcalan’s main work is the book “Bir Halkı Savunmak” (published in German as: “Jenseits von Staat, Macht und Gewalt” – “Beyond the state, power and violence”) which he wrote in prison in 2004 as a political defence against the prosecution by the Turkish state.
Öcalan does his work extensively. He deals not just with the practice of the Kurdish movement, he begins with the interpretation of history. At this point, he breaks with what he regards as the Marxist view of history. He rejects historical materialism – the idea that the class society in the various successive forms it took came about through the development of the productive forces and the struggle over the growing surplus product. He does not regard class rule as historically inevitable: “The reason for the emergence of hierarchy and class rule was not inevitability but force.”
Öcalan continues to describe himself as a socialist. But while Marxism defines socialism as the phase after capitalism, based on an enormous development of technology, science and production, Öcalan regards it as an ideal, a human necessity without having a programme to achieve it. Thus he ignores the material basis that socialism needs and argues that, in his opinion, a society free from exploitation and repression could have been created much earlier. This leads to Öcalan’s view that history’s “detour” via the route of class societies was actually not necessary.
Öcalan’s efforts to understand and describe the history of the Middle East, starting with the Sumerian culture, probably the earliest developed class society, are noteworthy and he develops some interesting thoughts about the role of authorities and ideologies in the time predating class society.
But there are startling gaps in his account. The economy seems simply not to interest him, neither in ancient Sumer nor in the current times, when he speaks about how “democratic autonomy” can develop in opposition to the repressive state. This is no mere theoretical question, it has consequences in practice. Öcalan says he wants to overcome capitalism, but his sort of socialism does not seem to require the expropriation of private capital owners and the taking into public ownership of the means of production.
Questions such as how productivity is increased, where the surplus product comes from, what effects the unjust appropriation of it have, seem only of secondary importance to Öcalan. While he mentions the effective irrigation system of the Sumerian priestly dictatorship and the “enormous surplus” which it produced and which was the basis of the systems claiming to be “divine”, he apparently remains of the opinion that it would have been possible to maintain the old, free but less productive system.
He claims that slavery was a hindrance for science and art, but he does not pose the question of why there was no progress in these fields in the long millennia of the ungoverned primitive societies, while there was a veritable explosion of progress in them with the establishment of class society, with a further acceleration accompanying the growing intensity of exploitation of man and nature.
Öcalan describes how the “barbaric” Germanic peoples, whose society retained strong egalitarian remnants, destroyed Roman slavery, but missed the opportunity to build a democratic society on the foundations of their own traditions and instead accepted a new feudal class society. He claims that the Germanic people were deceived by their leaders and that a democratic Europe would have been possible. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that this “betrayal” came about because the society was producing too much for an egalitarian subsistence society, but not enough to be able to offer a good life to all.
Rejecting class struggle
It is no injustice to Öcalan to say that he is returning to pre-Marxist utopian socialism – the likes of Babeuf, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen and Lassalle, who saw socialism or a society free of a ruling elite as a moral necessity, not as the result of class struggles.
He points to the destructive effects of “analytical intelligence”, displays a scepticism towards science, emphasises “emotional intelligence” and, to use a modern term, the traditions of grass-roots democracy which in his opinion always existed in the “Fertile Crescent”, the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. He emphatically rejects class struggle, claiming that there is a threat of dictatorship when the interests of one class are put above those of another.
Öcalan’s notion of socialism has a strong similarity to the agrarian socialist ideas of the Narodniks, the nineteenth century Russian populists, who regarded the Russian village community as the starting point for a just society. From quite early on in the book, Öcalan sounds like a Narodnik; later on he even mentions himself that the PKK is most comparable to this movement.
He does not consistently stick to his idea that the new class societies were not better than the previous ones, but had rather merely intensified the exploitation. There are some passages where he sees positive aspects to the introduction of capitalism. According to Öcalan, capitalism asserted itself first of all in Western Europe, because this region was less dogmatic than the Middle East.
The real reason why the capitalist mode of production asserted itself was not this mentality, but rather, above all, the class structure of European feudalism, which aided the formation of a dynamic, aggressive bourgeois class, while the Middle East (and Asia and Latin America) were dominated by the so-called ‘Asiatic’ mode of production, and large centralised empires hindered the development of effective class struggle among the peasants as well as the development of a bourgeois class and petit-bourgeois intermediate layers. The lack of intellectual flexibility in the Middle East was a result of this rigid form of feudalism, which did not bring forth an urban class.
It seems as though Öcalan wants to ignore at all cost the significance of classes and class struggles, because they do not fit into his concept of a “natural classless society”, which always existed as a counterweight to class rule and to the state, and which should reassert itself in a natural manner.
While Öcalan argues against “vulgar materialism”, upon which Marxism allegedly bases itself, he himself has an extremely simplistic and vulgar image of it. His woodcut-like idea of Marxism is probably an expression of the Stalinist ideas that dominate in the Turkish and Kurdish left, which turned Marxism from a living method into a collection of simple articles of faith.
For example, he speaks of an alleged “inevitable development towards communism” and accuses Marxism of being obsessed solely with questions of economy and inevitability. Coming from a Stalinist background, Öcalan does not seem to be familiar with Lenin’s work on the national question, or Trotsky’s on culture or on the analysis of the bureaucratic dictatorship in the Soviet Union, nor with the writings of Luxemburg or Gramsci.
Abolish capitalism! Or not?
Öcalan gives a lively description of how capitalism destroys human relationships and values and the natural basis of human existence. In some passages of his book, he reaches a level of militant anti-capitalism which we can only agree with.
He sees the capitalist system in crisis, in a “chaotic phase” since the 1970s. He points to the enormous aggressiveness of the system, to the dangers of war and nationalism: “That the system has been in crisis for a long time does not mean that it is becoming weaker. The crisis brings with it the danger that it will abide even less by the rules, that it will become even more aggressive.”
For him, the crisis of the system is coming to a head in the Middle East, and it is there that it must be solved. His fixation on the Middle East sounds somewhat mystical at times, but in view of the dramatic situation in Iraq and Syria and the possibility of ethnic and religious conflicts spreading even more, it is entirely justified to see the alternative of “socialism or barbarism” coming to a head in this region.
His description, written in 2004, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, sounds very current. “Against the terror of those in power”, the “terror of tribes and clans” is developing. This kind of resistance, on a narrow ethnic and religious basis, makes the problems worse. The “American empire of chaos” is causing states to break up, particularly in the Middle East and the Balkans. The Middle East is the “main geopolitical contradiction of the US-led system”.
According to Öcalan, the time of national despotisms is over, and at the same time there is no perspective for a “liberation nationalism” which strives to create new states. New solutions are necessary. He hints at the coming “Arab Spring”, but at the same time fears a deepening of the chaos if no new solutions can be found.
Moving away from the PKK’s original idea of a peasant based “people’s war”, Öcalan deals with the question of armed struggle in a different way. Instead of carrying out a war of conquest, he advocates self-defence, defining the tasks of armed units as “creating guarantees for democratic efforts” and foresees in quite a concrete fashion the political and military practice of the YPG/YPJ in the defence of Rojava. The establishment of self-defence units is something which he regards as necessary due to the “increasing uncertainty”.
The PKK has until now managed to overcome crises and assert its position as a strong force in the region. Öcalan and the entire Kurdish movement may be miles from developing a socialist strategy, but the PKK sees many of the dangers in the Middle East and has managed to effectively fight IS, equipped with a certain amount of left and vaguely anti-capitalist ideas. This is by no means a guarantee for the future. The cooperation with US forces and with pro-imperialist Kurdish groups like Barzani’s KDP, and the ambivalent attitude vis-à-vis Assad’s dictatorial regime, are severe political errors. In addition, Öcalan gives the impression that he is prepared to make too many political compromises in order to achieve a successful conclusion of the peace negotiations with the Erdoğan regime. These developments show that the PKK is in danger of not being able to unify in action the region’s working people, poor and youth while also being dragged, as a largely Kurdish based force, into the region’s ethnic and religious civil wars.
Öcalan does not maintain his militant anti-capitalist stance throughout the whole book. At times, his arguments somersault at breakneck speed. For example, he states that capitalism is “not to be rejected outright” and that the system can repair itself.
Regarding the perspectives for the Middle East, there are also statements which stand in stark contrast to the clear words quoted above. At one point, he leaves the question open whether the situation in the region has become better or worse through the US-led invasion of Iraq. He speaks of the possibility of a “second Marshall Plan” for the region.
While at one point he emphasises the dangers of war and nationalism that are inherent to capitalism, he claims elsewhere that the USA wants to “overcome” the nation-state. The danger of war in Europe has, in his view, been banished by an EU which is allegedly peaceful and conducive to creating understanding between peoples.
Öcalan seems to counterpoise capitalism to an alternative inspired by humanism and socialism, but he does not define how capitalism can be overcome and how a socialist society would differ from it. In this respect he is not too far away from the classical social reformist interpretation, which sees socialism as a guiding idea and thinks that its realisation can be recognised in each reform within the confines of capitalism.
State vs. Democracy
The central slogan of the left Kurdish movement in Turkey as well as Rojava is “democratic autonomy”. Öcalan places the terms “State” and “Democracy” at the centre of his thoughts. In his opinion, the state is “probably the most dangerous instrument in history”. Revolutionaries who aim to create a different, better state – a workers’ state, do not, in his opinion, break with the logic of repression and exploitation; they merely add new aspects to it. Not using the analysis of the Trotskyist movement, Öcalan lumps together Marxism with Social Democracy, “Real Socialism” (his term for Stalinism,) and national liberation movements which, in his opinion, all went this way and in doing so actually prolonged the lifetime of the capitalist system.
As he has no programme for workers’ democracy, this sounds as if Öcalan had become an anarchist, regarding the smashing of the state and the immediate introduction of the free association of production as central tasks of the revolution. But he clearly distances himself from this idea, saying that the capitalist state should not be smashed, instead it should die off slowly.
Not applying a class analysis the vague idea that “the alternative to the state is democracy”, is one of Öcalan’s central tenets. “The people” forms the antipode to the “state-supporting layers”. In his historical descriptions, state and democracy, oligarchs and the people sound like pairs of irreconcilable opposites. But the more concrete things become, the clearly it emerges that this is not his view at all. The state and democracy may be opposites, but they can coexist according to Öcalan, stating that it is “not about confrontation”, but rather about “acting in parallel”. An extension of democracy would limit the state, there may be “compromises” between the two, in a manner which is “true to principles”, although he does not state which principles he means. This would “increase the possibilities for freedom and equality”.
Öcalan assumes that a dangerous, destructive capitalist system with its repressive state will continue to exist, but that its violent and repressive character will increasingly fade away due to the extension of “democracy”, before being finally overcome completely. He calls for “equilibrium” between the collective and the individual, between “public and private economy”.
In the end, the peoples are supposed in this way to overcome nationalism without fundamentally restructuring the system, which is merely “reduced in size”. Therefore it is alleged to be possible to make the transition from what Öcalan himself describes as a highly destructive capitalist class rule to a “global democratic civilisation” without any kind of revolutionary break. In a democracy, there would be no repression, no “unjust exploitation” and no “extreme greed for profits”.
“In place of deadly rivalry we have competition. Democracy reduces to a minimum the main causes of crises such as the imbalance of supply and demand, prices, inflation and similar financial playthings”, says Öcalan of his vision of capitalism tamed by democracy.
According to Öcalan, “Democracy” should organise the fields of education, health, art and sport. In addition, political-social organisational forms of “houses of the people” all the way to a “people’s congress” of all sectors, would play important roles. Even in these very concrete passages of the book, there is no talk of planning the economy for society as a whole.
What Öcalan describes as “democracy” is not a new form of society, nor even the seed of such a society within the old, nor a form of dual power. Rather it is a mixture of the formation of a political, social and civil society and the grassroots organisation of social services -which in Turkey are organised only in a very repressive form, if at all. With a view on the practice of Kurdish self-determination in south-eastern Turkey and in Rojava, it should be added that in these regions there is a democratisation of local administration, a comprehensive programme for the advancement of women and a strengthening of small cooperatives and small businesses, in what would probably be most accurately described as a locally based or solidarity wartime economy, while attempting to apply ecological criteria, within capitalism.
These are by no means unimportant questions. These are reforms for which many people in Kurdistan are prepared to fight. But without a radical change of society, including the economic structures, it will not be possible to secure these reforms. Such an alternative society to capitalism is not even described in Öcalan’s writings. The council democratic elements merely consist of the statement that elected office holders should put themselves up for re-election after one year. This is not even foreseen in the constitution of Rojava.
Between the lines
Öcalan gives a radical impression – almost an anarchist one, condemning the social democratic and Stalinist adaption to capitalism and rule, creating the impression of a new and revolutionary idea – only for its political practice to boil down to merely wanting to fight for more democratic rights within capitalist states.
Öcalan has correctly abandoned the idea of using classic guerrilla warfare to create a viable Kurdish nation-state. He is right to place no more faith in regional despots such as Assad, and to recognise their destructive role – even though some of his co-thinkers in Syria do not seem to fully share this view. But on the other hand, in an attempt to reach agreement with the Turkish ruling class, he has also pushed aside any claim to pursue an alternative revolutionary course. He advocates the self-organisation of the oppressed to build a kind of civil society counterweight, and in this way create pressure in order to achieve compromises with the rulers. He puts his faith in this coexistence bringing forth reforms which will lead to capitalism being tamed in a social and ecological manner.
Looking at his description of democracy as an antipode to the state, it becomes clear that his written defence is not first and foremost a reappraisal of the philosophical and political principles of the PKK, aimed at activists. The book is aimed also, perhaps even first and foremost, at the rulers of Turkey and the imperialist states of the West. In his book, Öcalan states his conditions for the integration of the Kurdish movement into the existing system.
He did not write the book in freedom, but rather as a prisoner of the Turkish state. His written defence is not just a peace offer in a military sense, but also in a political sense. Öcalan seeks to argue – sometimes overtly, sometimes between the lines – that he neither wants to topple the existing social order nor chance national borders, and that those in power therefore need to fear the PKK.
His message between the lines is: “Give us democratic rights and possibilities of participation at local level. Stop persecuting us. Then we will no longer threaten your rule. We neither want a war, nor do we lay claim to a nation-state of our own.”
His warnings regarding the dangers of nationalism and violence in Middle East and the destructive effects of the state and class rule are of burning importance and relevance in these times, but their main purpose is to hold up the mirror to those in powers and to show them scenarios of horror, effectively saying: “If you do not change, things will end badly, so reform your system and you will avoid these terrors”. He also appeals to the USA to tolerate Kurdish self-rule and to look for reliable allies in the region.
The message of this book raises the question of whether Abdullah Öcalan arrived at his reform-oriented views due to his distancing himself from Marxist influenced positions in terms of economy and philosophy, or whether his historical discourses are the consequence of a tactical adaptation to a reform within the confines of capitalism. This question cannot be definitively answered, but it is of secondary importance in terms of politically assessing his ideas.
However, we do advocate taking Öcalan and the political debates within the Kurdish movement seriously and taking part in them.
The opening of the PKK which he has pushed forward has been an opening to the “right”, in the direction of a reformist accommodation of capitalism, but at the same time this opening has allowed room for manoeuvre for the unity of working people and the poor across ethnic and religious lines. The rejection of national oppression and the strengthening of democratic rights, particularly women’s rights, are central messages of the Kurdish movement.
The heroic defenders of Rojava, the hundreds of thousands of supporters of the movement in Turkey, Iraq and Iran are important sources of potential for the building of a multi-ethnic, multi-faith movement of the oppressed and exploited. Marxists argue that such movements should adopt a strategy which bases itself on the mobilisation of the masses, democratic discussions and decision-making structures, the perspective of overthrowing capitalism and the creation of a voluntary socialist federation of states in the Middle East.
In the end, capitalism in Kurdistan will not be brought down by a Narodnik-like organisation, but rather by a socialist workers’ movement, through a still-to-be-built working class based revolutionary organisation in the region.
All quotes are taken from the German version of Abdullah Öcalan’s book “Jenseits von Staat, Macht und Gewalt” (Beyond the state, power and violence).