Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK and the Kurdish struggle

Prison writings: The PKK and the Kurdish Question in the 21st Century
By Abdullah Ocalan, translated and edited by Klaus Heppel; preliminary notes by Cemil Bayik
Transmedia Publishing, London, 2011 [Order here.]

Reviewed by Chris Slee

September 6, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Abdullah Ocalan is (or was -- it is uncertain if he is still alive) the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group fighting for the rights of the oppressed Kurdish minority within Turkey and in the Middle East more broadly. Ocalan has been held in a Turkish prison on the island of Imrali since being kidnapped from Kenya by Western intelligence agencies and handed to Turkey in 1999.

This book was written in prison, as part of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. It was later adopted as a manifesto by the PKK at its 2002 congress.

The Kurdish population exceeds 40 million, but there is no independent Kurdish state. Following the World War I, Kurdistan was divided between four states -- Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. These states have all repressed their Kurdish populations. Turkey has been particularly harsh in repressing Kurdish language and culture. According to Ocalan, “The dominant political approach to the Kurdish question is still to deny the existence of the Kurds as a coherent ethnic community.”[1]

However, the Kurds do exist:

The Kurds are an undeniable reality, both historically (as we know from archaeological and historical research) and politically (attested by their being a visible and audible force in the Middle East). Although they do not have a state of their own and have never been able to obtain nationhood, they have been living together in a clearly defined geographical region for several thousand years in very stable tribal communities. They have a language of their own, which comprises several different dialects. Over the ages they have been resisting continuous oppression, always hoping for a future life in freedom. What more evidence is needed for their existence as a social community?[2]

The Kurdish language and culture, however, are usually denied or banned from the public domain... Nor do [the Kurds] enjoy civil rights such as freedom of expression. In fact, any such attempt is harshly punished. Moreover, Kurds are prohibited from freely expressing their cultural identity. [3]

These conditions have given rise to many unsuccessful Kurdish rebellions. The early revolts were led by conservative feudal leaders, who were sometimes supported by imperialist powers wishing to put pressure on the governments against which the rebellions were directed. Such support always ceased once the imperialists had reached agreements with these governments.


The PKK, in contrast with the leaders of earlier rebellions, aimed at radical social change. It had a Marxist ideology -- although, as Ocalan says in this self-critical book, this ideology was distorted by “dogmatism”.[4]

The PKK was founded in 1975 and began an armed struggle for an independent Kurdish state in 1984. It won wide support in the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey. The Turkish government responded with extremely brutal repression. Thousands of Kurds were murdered. The inhabitants of 4000 villages were forced to leave their homes.

There were problems within the PKK. According to Ocalan, some sections of the party degenerated into “banditry” or “warlordism”.[5]

By 1997, the war was at an impasse. Neither side could win. The PKK tried to open peace talks with the Turkish government, which rejected these overtures. The PKK’s attempt to initiate peace talks reflected the beginnings of a new approach to the national question in Turkey. In this book Ocalan expands on this new perspective.

Instead of seeking an independent Kurdish state, the PKK now aims to contribute to democratic change in Turkey (and in other states where Kurds live). This democracy would ensure linguistic, cultural and political rights for the Kurds.

Ocalan explains:

The non-viability (at least for the time being) of an independent nation-state, combined with the universally increasing importance of democracy as the basis of society, politics and state, indicates another, more viable, solution: to live as a free, national community within a democratic country shared with others. Many old nation-states have embarked on the creation of federations or similar constructs. Illuminating examples of well-functioning federations are the USA (currently the most powerful nation) and the European Union. These examples might serve as a blueprint for a solution to the Kurdish question, namely a democratic federation of the countries with Kurdish populations.[6]

Along with this changed perspective on the national question, the PKK adopted a new military strategy. Instead of hoping to defeat the Turkish army militarily, the PKK adopted a policy of “legitimate self-defence”,[7] whereby it would defend itself if attacked but would not aim for a military victory, instead working for political change in Turkey.

Rethinking Marxism

Ocalan’s rethinking (as explained in this book) extends beyond the national question and military strategy. He argues that the collapse of what he refers to as “actually existing socialism” or “real socialism’ (the former Soviet Union and similar states) requires a rethinking of aspects of Marxism. He says:

Marx and Engels did not realise that an alternative to capitalism cannot be based exclusively on a critique of capitalism. In my opinion, this is the big flaw in their theory.

There were other flaws: their economic approach; the insufficient discussion of the role of ideology; the adoption of the state concept and of a ruling class in the form of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'; a poor understanding of religion; the lack of a realistic analysis of the institutions of the superstructure; and no discussion at all of ethical implications. Their analysis of democracy also seems unsatisfactory to me.[8]

In the absence of a more detailed explanation of these points, I am not sure to what extent these comments reflect real differences with Marx and Engels, and to what extent Ocalan’s criticisms are based on the rejection of distorted versions of Marxism propagated by the Stalinist regimes.

Explaining his new ideological outlook, Ocalan says:

My personal quest is for the development of an ideological system that opposes not only capitalism, but all state-based class societies…[9]

The use of technology should not be determined by economic criteria but by the ethical and legal norms of the society...

The principles of equal rights and freedom as well as the balance of nature must have proiority over economic interest and, most importantly, science and technology must be subordinate to the vital interests of society... Individual freedom and social welfare can easily be combined within this ideological frame...[10]

When implementing a new economic and social order, this new understanding of politics will rely on an optimum balance between the individual and society, where neither is given priority over the other. This fundamental principle will determine individual and social production while always taking into consideration nature and the environment. It will allow for individual and collective property...

It is a matter of detail whether we term such a society socialist or democratic, as long as it remains fully functional.[11]

Illusions in Western democracy?

I would agree with Ocalan that the struggle for democracy is of central importance for the Kurdish people. However, in some of his comments Ocalan appears to be insufficiently critical of the limitations of democracy in capitalist societies.

He says:

Thanks to the lessons learnt from nineteenth- and twentieth-century social conflicts, Western civilisation was able to transform its societies to a high degree of democracy… [12]

In principle, the Western democratic system -- which has been established through immense sacrifices -- contains everything needed for solving social problems…[13]

Europe, its birthplace, has by and large left nationalism behind in view of the wars of the twentieth century and established a political system adhering to democratic standards. This democratic system has already shown its advantages over other systems -- including real socialism -- and is now the only acceptable system worldwide.[14]

In these comments Ocalan seems to ignore some key points, including:

  • The fact that Western democracy is distorted by the economic power of the capitalists.
  • The fact that democratic Europe is a club of rich countries that exploit poor counties, and that try (with only partial success) to keep out the world's poor.
  • The growth of racism as a result of economic inequality and economic crises.

Solidarity essential

Despite these reservations about some of Ocalan's ideas, the campaign to free him deserves our support. So too does the broader struggle for the rights of the Kurdish people.


1. Ocalan, p. 3.

2. Ocalan, p. 8.

3. Ocalan, p. 10.

4. Ocalan, p. 6.

5. Ocalan, pp. 118-125.

6. Ocalan, p. 10-11.

7. Ocalan, p. 66.

8. Ocalan, p. 57.

9. Ocalan, p. 57.

10. Ocalan, p. 58.

11. Ocalan, p. 60.

12. Ocalan, p. 60.

13. Ocalan, p. 71.

14. Ocalan, p. 91.