Understanding Abdullah Ocalan

The Political Thought of Abdullah Ocalan: Kurdistan, Woman's Revolution and Democratic Confederalism
Pluto Press 2017 Reviewed by Chris SleeNovember 19, 2017 
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Abdullah Ocalan has been held in a Turkish prison on Imrali Island since 1998. For most of that time he has been kept in solitary confinement. Access to lawyers and family members has been limited and sometimes cut off altogether for long periods. At the time of writing, access to Ocalan is completely blocked, with no contact whatsoever since September 2016. Ocalan is considered the leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). His isolation means that he cannot participate in the party's day-to-day decision making, but his ideas are taken as the basis for the political strategy of the PKK in Turkey and similar groups in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Despite the difficult conditions of prison life, Ocalan has written extensively while in prison. This book's four chapters are articles by Ocalan written at different times. The first chapter, “War and Peace in Kurdistan”, begins with a brief history of the Kurdish people from prehistoric times to the present day. Various empires tried to control Kurdistan, or parts of it. By 1514 the Ottoman Empire claimed to rule the bulk of Kurdistan, with the remainder claimed by the Persian Empire. However, Ocalan notes that these empires relied on the collaboration of the "feudal Kurdish aristocracy" that had developed in the Kurdish areas. "The ruling class of the Kurds enjoyed significant autonomy in the Ottoman Empire". (p. 5) During the nineteenth century there were several Kurdish uprisings against the Ottomans. The Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I and the British and French imperialists "redrew the boundaries in the Middle East and left Kurdistan under the rule of the Turkish republic, the Iranian peacock throne, the Iraqi monarchy and the Syrian-French regime". (p. 6-7) These states all oppressed the Kurdish people: "The Turkish, Persian and Arab nation-states pursued a systematic assimilation policy using varying repressive means - both institutionally and socially - denying Kurdish language and culture any legitimacy". (p. 11) Turkey was particularly extreme: "All indications of the existence of a culture other than Turkish were to be exterminated. They even banned the use of the Kurdish language". (p. 7) The other states were also very repressive:
The aspiring Pahlavi dynasty in Iran proceeded in the same way. The rebellion of the Kurdish tribal leader Simko Shikak from Urmiye and the emancipation struggle of the Kurdish republic of Mahabad were crushed in blood ... In the Iraqi and Syrian parts of Kurdistan, Britain and France suppressed the Kurdish emancipation efforts with the help of their Arab proxies. Here, too, a bloody colonial regime was established. (p. 7)
Nevertheless, Kurdish national consciousness was slow to develop. Kurdish identity was associated with "tribal order and sheikhdom". (p. 14) Although tribal leaders sometimes rebelled, they more often cooperated with the system. In the second half of the twentieth century, debates about the Kurdish issue began to occur on the Turkish left. Some Kurdish students began talking of Kurdistan as a colony requiring a struggle for self-determination. The PKK was founded in 1978. Due to repression, many of the leaders and activists went into exile the following year. But by 1984 the PKK was able to launch an armed struggle for national liberation. Ocalan, who had been living in Syria, was expelled in 1998. He visited several countries, seeking political asylum and hoping to be able to put forward his ideas for a peaceful solution to the war in Turkey. But after being rejected by Greece, Russia and Italy he was abducted in February 1999 while in Kenya, and taken to Turkey. The abduction was carried out with the collaboration of Kenyan authorities, the CIA, Mossad and the Turkish MIT (National Intelligence Organisation). Ocalan was put on trial and initially sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment as a result of international pressure.

Ocalan's criticisms of the PKK

The abduction of Ocalan occurred at a time when the PKK had begun to "reorient itself ideologically and politically". (p. 17) Ocalan had become critical of the party he led, and was working on ideas for a new approach. The book outlines his criticisms of the PKK. One problem was the party structure:
The PKK had been conceived as a party with a state-like hierarchical structure similar to other parties. Such a structure, however, causes it to contradict dialectically the principles of democracy, freedom and equality: a contradiction in principle concerning all parties whatever their philosophy. Although the PKK stood for freedom-oriented views, we had not been able to free ourselves from thinking in hierarchical structures. (p. 17)
Another problem was that war was "romanticised as a strategic instrument". (p. 17) Ocalan now says, "the use of armed force can only be justified for the purpose of necessary self-defence". (p. 18)

New perspectives

Ocalan then outlines the PKK's "new strategic, philosophical and political approaches". (p. 18) The party has abandoned the goal of the creation of a Kurdish nation-state. Instead it aims for "the establishment of grassroots democracies, without seeking new political borders". (p. 19) The existing states need to be democratised:
The countries that presently exist here need democratic reforms going beyond mere lip service to democracy. It is not realistic, though, to go for the immediate abolition of the state. This does not mean we have to take it as it is. The classic state structure with its despotic attitude towards power is unacceptable. The institutional state needs to be subjected to democratic changes. (p. 19)
But reform of the existing state is not sufficient. There is a need to build up non-state institutions:
The Kurdish liberation movement is working for a system of democratic self-organisation in Kurdistan with the features of a confederation. Democratic confederalism is understood as a non-state democratic nation organisation. It provides a framework, within which...minorities, religious communities, cultural groups, gender-specific groups and other societal groups can organise autonomously...
The people are to be directly involved in the institutionalisation, governance and supervision of their own economic, social and political formations. This project builds on the self-government of local communities and is organised in the form of open councils, town councils, local parliaments and larger congresses. (p. 19-20)
A new economic system is needed:
The profit-based economy has not only damaged society but also the environment...Humanity can no longer sustain itself with such an economic policy. This is therefore the biggest challenge for socialist politics: progressive transition from a commodity-oriented society to a society producing on the basis of use value; from production based on profit to production based on sharing. (p. 23)
Ocalan concludes the first chapter by outlining some preconditions for peace in Turkey. These include recognition of Kurdish identity, cultural and language rights; freedom of expression and organisation; and democratic elections.

Democratic confederalism

The second chapter presents Ocalan's critique of the nation-state as an inherently oppressive institution that tries to suppress diversity:
It aims at creating a single national culture, a single national identity and a single unified religious community. Thus it also enforces a homogeneous citizenship...
These goals are generally accomplished by the use of force or by financial incentives, and have often resulted in the physical annihilation of minorities, cultures or languages, or in forced assimilation. (p. 34-35)
He argues "the foundation of a separate Kurdish nation-state does not make sense for the Kurds". (p. 38) It would only mean "the creation of additional injustice". (p. 39) As an alternative he outlines his concept of democratic confederalism:
Democratic confederalism is based on grassroots participation. Its decision-making processes lie with the communities. Higher levels only serve the coordination and implementation of the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies. For one year they are both mouthpiece and executive institutions. However, the basic decision-making power rests with the local grassroots institutions. (p. 47)

Woman's revolution

The third chapter deals with the history of women's oppression, and the need for "a radical women's revolution". (p. 89) Ocalan says that: "The solutions to all social problems in the Middle East should have woman's position as their focus ... Without gender equality, no demand for freedom and equality can be meaningful". (p. 90) He calls for "a movement for woman's freedom, equality and democracy; a movement based on the science of woman, called jineoloji in Kurdish". (p. 93) Ocalan says that women's liberation is "more important than class or national liberation" (p. 94), and that: "The role the working class once played must now be taken over by the sisterhood of women". (p. 90)

Democratic nation

In the fourth chapter Ocalan continues his critique of the nation-state, and puts forward his concept of "a democratic nation that is not bound by rigid political boundaries and a single language, culture, religion and interpretation of history". (p. 108) He links the nation-state to the capitalist economic system:
Capitalism itself is the most crisis-ridden stage of civilisation. The nation-state, as the tool deployed in this crisis-ridden stage, is the most developed organisation of violence in social history. It is society besieged by the violence of power; it is the tool deployed forcefully to hold society and the environment together after they have been disintegrated through industrialism and capitalism's law of maximum profit. (p. 102)
In its early years the PKK aimed to create an independent Kurdish state. Ocalan says the PKK "got stuck in nation-statism". He came to the view that "socialism could not be constructed through the state, especially the nation-state". (p. 98) Today the PKK struggles for "democratic autonomy", rather than for a Kurdish state. But democratic autonomy can take different forms:
The democratic autonomy solution can be implemented in two ways. The first is predicated on finding a compromise with nation-states. It finds its concrete expression in a democratic constitutional solution. It respects the historical-societal heritage of peoples and cultures. It regards the freedom of expression and organisation of these heritages as irrevocable and fundamental constitutional rights...
The second path for a democratic autonomy solution - one that does not depend on finding a compromise with nation-states - is to implement its own project unilaterally...It goes without saying that in this case conflicts will intensify with those sovereign nation-states who do not accept this unilateral implementation of becoming a democratic nation. If this happens, the Kurds will have no other choice but to adopt a full-scale mobilisation and war position in order to protect their existence...against the individual or joint attacks of nation-states (Iran, Syria and Turkey). They will not hold back from becoming a democratic nation with all its dimensions and to develop and realise their aspirations through their own efforts until they either reach a compromise or achieve independence amid the warfare. (p. 114-116)
The PKK has made many attempts at negotiating with the Turkish government - so far to no avail. In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has offered to negotiate with the Bashar al-Assad regime, once again with no result.

From scepticism to inspiration

The book has a foreword by Nadje Al-Ali. She mentions some of the doubts she previously had about Ocalan:
To be quite frank, for a long time I was very sceptical about what I perceived to be another male uber-patriarch whose picture seemed to pop up everywhere. If anything, I was slightly taken aback by his cult-like status. But my initial scepticism and reluctance to engage was replaced by a great sense of appreciation, respect and excitement. I have come to recognise Abdullah Ocalan not only as a political leader who has been able to engage in self-criticism and change his positions radically, but also as a political philosopher and inspiring civic rights figure. (p. x)
Al-Ali still has reservations about some aspects of Ocalan's concept of jineoloji. She points out that he seems unfamiliar with modern feminist theory. She questions the idea of "sisterhood", pointing out that "...depending on class, ethnicity, race, religion etc, women can be complicit and directly involved in the marginalisation and oppression of other women and men". (p. xvi) Nevertheless, Al-Ali reconises that Ocalan's strong emphasis on the struggle for women's liberation has had a very positive impact:
However, even if the concept of jineoloji might not reflect the rich and diverse histories of feminist thought and activism, it clearly plays an important role in the actual political struggle of Kurdish women activists who employ it strategically, as a form of knowledge production in a context where conservative and patriarchal norms are still prevailing. (p. xvi)
Al-Ali notes that it would be unfair to blame Ocalan, cut off from the outside world in Imrali prison, for any tendency towards cultism among his followers:
When will it be possible to openly engage in constructive criticism of some of Ocalan's ideas without being side-lined as someone who just does not understand, is not revolutionary enough, or even worse considered a traitor? ... These questions are important, but can only really be asked and engaged with once Ocalan has gained his freedom. And these questions are not so much related to Ocalan himself but to the political movement that is trying to implement and engage with his ideas. (p. xvi)
Al-Ali concludes on a positive note:
While one might not agree with every single idea and statement in Ocalan's writings, and while one might detect tensions, contradictions and problems within the Kurdish political movement, it should become obvious to the reader of this book that there is something incredibly refreshing, inspiring, constructive and positive in Ocalan's ideas and proposals. (p. xvi-xvii)