How did a once hardcore Marxist-Leninist and nationalist guerrilla leader come to develop a politics of participatory democracy, feminism and ecology? Vanessa Baird traces Abdullah Öcalan’s journey.
Abdullah Öcalan (aka Apo) was born of a part-Kurdish and part-Turkish family, in the village of Ömerli in eastern Turkey, maybe in 1947. He isn’t sure – and no official birth records exist. Confusingly, in April this year his supporters celebrated his 71st birthday – in his absence, naturally. For, since 1999, the de facto leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been held at Imrali Island Prison on the Marmara Sea, Turkey, most of the time in solitary confinement.
As a boy he wanted to join the army, but failed the entrance exam for military high school. At school in Ankara, however, he met others who shared his growing interest in Kurdish rights.
After leaving school he took up a job at a title deeds office in Diyarbakir before moving to Istanbul to start a law degree. There he got deeper into revolutionary politics and after the first year transferred to Ankara University to study political science. In 1978 he and like-minded friends founded the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).
In 1980 there was a rightwing military coup and by 1984 the PKK had taken up arms and declared a guerrilla war against the Turkish state, using an array of insurgent tactics. Despite numerous ceasefires and attempted peace talks, the conflict continues, the PKK militarily based in the Qandil mountains in the Iraq-Turkey border region.
Don’t replace old chains with new ones
From his prison cell, measuring 13 metres square, all the PKK leader sees of the outside world is walls and sky, through a wire mesh. It’s ‘like a coffin’, he says. His sister, Fatma, has not seen him for five years. Between 2011 and 2019 even his lawyer was denied visits. Only very recently, after a fire in the jail, was Öcalan allowed a phone call with a brother.
But Öcalan writes – 10 books since his life sentence began – and these writings have had a profound influence on the Kurdish freedom movement and beyond.
According to Öcalan, his political thinking about the Kurdish cause began to change before his imprisonment. Already in the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union (and what he calls ‘real socialism’) had provoked ‘self-critical reflection’ among the PKK leadership.
‘The PKK, while proving Kurdish existence beyond doubt, got stuck in nation-statism,’ he writes. ‘The ensuing period of self-criticism revealed the anti-socialism and anti-democratic essence of nation-statism… To be more precise, the crisis of socialism was the result of an inadequate understanding of the problem of power and the state.’2
But in prison it was reading the work of US ‘libertarian socialist’ Murray Bookchin that produced the biggest shift.
In Öcalan’s 2005 ‘Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan’ he advocated that Bookchin’s magnum opus The Ecology of Freedom: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy be made the basis for a democratic confederation of Kurdish communities.
The PKK leader had come to a striking conclusion about the quest for a Kurdish nation state. ‘It does not make sense for the Kurds,’ he declared. ‘Over the last decades the Kurds have not only struggled against repression by the dominant powers and for the recognition of their existence, but also for the liberation of their society from feudalism.
Hence it does not make sense to replace the old chains with new ones and even enhance the repression. This is what the foundation of the nation state would mean in the context of capitalist modernity.’
‘Democracy without a state’
You can find many a turgid, jargon-laden account of Öcalan’s democratic confederalism. He himself puts it more plainly: ‘This kind of rule or administration can be called a non-state political administration or democracy without a state.’
He draws important distinctions: ‘States only administrate, while democracies govern. States are founded on power; democracies are based on collective consensus.’
Democratic confederalism, he writes, is open to various political groups and factions. ‘It is flexible, multicultural, anti-monopolistic and consensus-orientated. Ecology and feminism are central pillars.’ He is clear that ‘liberating life is impossible without a radical women’s revolution’.
The problem with the state is that it ‘continually orientates itself towards centralism in order to pursue the interests of power monopolies. The opposite is true of confederalism. Not monopolies but society is at the centre of political focus’.
And he warns: ‘As long as we make the mistake of believing that societies need to be homogenous monolithic entities it will be difficult to understand democratic confederalism’.
On how it would work: in this system ‘all societal groups and cultural identities’ can express themselves and make decisions through local meetings, general conventions and councils. ‘Each community, ethnicity, culture, religious community, intellectual movement, economic unit, etc can autonomously configure and express themselves as a political unit,’ he writes.
And when the need arises these direct democracy units or ‘federates’ can come together into a confederation.
On the relationship between the democratic confederation and nation states, he says it should be ‘neither continuous warfare nor assimilation of the former into the latter.’ The democratic confederation needs to be able to defend itself, though.
He is pragmatic: ‘Neither total rejection nor complete recognition of the state is useful for the democratic efforts of civil society. The overcoming of the state, particularly the nation state, is a long-term process... The state will be overcome when democratic confederalism has proved its problem-solving capacities with a view to social issues.’
‘Socialism without authoritarianism’
That’s the theory. Many have been busy putting it into practice – or trying to – in PKK-run refugee camps in northern Iraq, in parts of eastern Turkey, and most vividly and successfully in Northern Syria, aka Rojava.
In Rojava the Movement for Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) is the umbrella organization established to pursue this vision. ‘The Democratic Federalism of Northern Syria is based on the principle of making the land, water, and resources publicly owned; it adopts ecological industry and societal economy; it does not allow exploitation, monopoly, and the objectification of women; it shall realize health and social insurance for all individuals’ states their Social Contract of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, democratically agreed in 2016.
Based on the principles of grassroots democracy, women’s liberation and ecological sustainability, its aim is to create a liberated, self-governing society by devolving power to local units which confederate into larger units as necessary. Ideologically rooted in the writings of Öcalan, it ‘seeks to implement socialism without the authoritarianism of state mechanisms’, as the Rojava Information Center puts it.
All are welcome to partake in the communal councils, but political participation is not mandated. There is no private property, but rather ownership by use, which grants individuals usage rights to the buildings, land and infrastructure, but not rights to sell and buy on the market.
At the same time as the Kurds in Northern Syria have been developing this revolutionary society, they have been involved in armed struggle against ISIS, while also under attack from armed groups and the Turkish military.
Free Öcalan – and challenge him
The revolution in Rojava has attracted international attention and support. But the main party involved, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is officially seen as aligned to the outlawed PKK, which the US, EU and Australia have on their terrorist lists.
An international campaign to release Öcalan from the inhumane conditions of his captivity continues, with support from trade unions and progressive groups across the world.
Supporting the campaign, Tony Burke of the UK’s Unite union says of Öcalan: ‘I believe he is the Mandela of the Middle East.’ Not everyone would agree.
In some ways Öcalan’s continued incarceration has had a politically distorting effect on the Kurdish struggle. ‘As long as he is imprisoned, it is only natural that his role is symbolic and exceeding that of a political leader who engages in the everyday negotiations of power and politics and who might be challenged,’ observes Nadje Al Ali in her foreword to a collection of his writings.
His release from prison would enable more constructive criticism of his ideas, she suggests, without fear of ‘being side-lined as someone who just does not understand, is not revolutionary enough, or even worse considered a traitor’.
She adds: ‘I very much hope that the day will come soon when Öcalan will be challenged by young Kurdish men and women, and all come together freely and in the spirit of peaceful democratic discussion and negotiation.’
Indeed. That would be the kind of democracy he himself advocates in his political writings.