Capitalism and the Kurdish Freedom Movement

We publish Reimar Heider’s contribution at the “Challenging Capitalist Modernity—Alternative Concepts and the Kurdish Quest” – Conference in Hamburg 2012. He is one of the spokespersons of the International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan– Peace in Kurdistan” and has translated several books by Öcalan.

My topic is “Capitalism and the Kurdish freedom movement”, that is the development of discourses and discussions within the Kurdish freedom movement and its attitude toward the capitalist system. […]

The Kurdish freedom movement of the past 30 years is downright obsessed with history. From the first illegal speeches and pamphlets until today a detailed analysis of historical processes pervades. In the 1970s, the movement followed rather the classic Marxist canon with the sequence of primitive communism, slave society, feudal and capitalist society, which was was to be replaced by a socialist society. This understanding of history has undergone a change, which I would like to illustrate here.

The point of departure for Marx was the industrial revolution and its consequences in England: a high productivity and the incredible accumulation of wealth on the one hand and the emergence of great misery on the other hand. Marx examined the mechanisms of wealth accumulation and collected all his thoughts and conclusions in his most important work “Das Kapital”.

The starting point for the Kurdish movement, however, was the colonial situation in Kurdistan. There was almost no developed capitalism. We have just heard that capitalism was enforced only in recent years worldwide. This applies not only to areas that were once dominated by socialism, but also for relatively peripheral areas such as Kurdistan, which was and continues to be virtually non-industrialized. Of course there is some commodity production and Kurdistan is tied to the world market, but in the 1970s it was not permeated by capitalism completely. In this respect, we can say that the starting point was a colonial situation in which the system has forced people to identify with the oppressor. This included the production of absurd ‘truths’ such as that even Kurds who speak no Turkish but only speak Kurdish, are considered Turkish by the state.

Thus, there was less discussion about the economic implications of capitalism, but rather on how the system impacts the society and transforms the people into colonial subjects. This was the starting point for many discussions. Kurdistan was initially seen as an area that needed to be developed and is steeped in backward social structures with a lot of pre-capitalist elements such as tribal structures and feudal ownership of land. Large landowners owned entire villages and lands and were established as the absolute ruler.

An important impetus of the liberation movement was first to break and fight these pre-capitalist feudal structures. These were also the first targets in the fight not only against state institutions and military representatives of the Turkish state, but more importantly against feudal institutions and most hated large land ownerships. The underlying ideology echoed the real socialist ideology of progress. This includes the idea that development is something positive, other structures must be built, the economy needs to develop and that the transition from feudalism to capitalism and then possibly to socialism demonstrate a step forward. All this influenced the understanding of capitalism.

Developed out of 30 years of combat experience and experiences that other movements have made worldwide, the Kurdish movement has reconsidered this view very strongly since the early 1990s. There was no adherence held to certain dogmas, documents or beliefs but there was a constant search for new answers to historical, local and global issues. This is repeatedly reflected in discussion documents. There was the experience: Real socialism did not work. And then there was the question: What did not work? Why did state socialism, hence the attempt to install a socialist society and a socialist economic system, not work? Why is it that national liberation movements, which were victorious in Vietnam and elsewhere and have succeeded a decolonization for instance in Africa and in many other countries, failed to establish real liberated societies and failed to provide alternatives that provide societal liberation other than building an “own” state? Why has this not succeeded in the world? And why on the other side was it not possible for reform projects such as social democracy, which aims nothing more than a reformation of capitalism, to achieve resounding success?

The analysis of the Kurdish movement illustrates how all these movements have tried to realize their objectives through the state. State socialism has tried to build a socialist state in order to establish socialism and the social democrats have tried to gain state power in the capitalist system through elections. I do not need to explain that this has not been the case for a very long time, especially in Germany. Yet liberation movements, too, have sought to achieve liberation through struggles that acquire state power. Although in all cases where state power was won, true freedom was reached only to a limited extent.

At this point, the Kurdish movement has reconsidered its relationship to the institution of the state. Does the aim to establish a Kurdish state, even if it is only intended as an intermediate step to a confederation of states—a Confederation of the Middle East at the first place—actually represent such an intermediate step? Is it possible for the state to act as a means of liberation? Today the widest parts of Kurdish society, almost all groups in Northern Kurdistan, but also in other parts of Kurdistan, claim: No. A State cannot accomplish this. Therefore, a Kurdish state is not a real option, not really a goal to strive for. Especially not for the advanced parts of the Kurdish liberation movement, here the PKK at the forefront, who is not aiming to establish a state and to install his own power, but to free society.

At this point a moment of pause and a new search within the discourse has occurred. It is an attempt to understand the deeper causes and not to just scratch the surface. It’s not about issues such as what the Soviet Union did wrong in the 1980s or the like, but about questions regarding social conditions, rule, the installation of hierarchy and hegemony in human society in general. And the answer to all this lies in the significant repressive mechanism that is essentially the suppression of women by men in the patriarchal family and society. This is not only the historically oldest but also the most deeply rooted mechanism of suppression.

It is covered by so many layers of ideological discourses that it is hardly noticeable or can be ignored if something else is defined as the main contradiction. For instance, if one says, the main contradiction lies between capital and labor or between the bourgeoisie and the working class, then this contradiction may fall behind. However, the Kurdish movement has defined the main contradiction of mankind differently. It has been saying that the oldest, deepest and most important contradiction—when it comes to free a society—is the contradiction of gender and the establishment of patriarchy.

Then a very different discourse has been performed. The Kurdish movement has never maintained a blood-and-soil discourse. Since the mid-1990’s their answer to the question “What is a free Kurdistan?” is: A free Kurdistan is a Kurdistan where the women are liberated. This approach is the key in the Kurdish liberation discourse. Because a free society is only conceivable if their women are liberated and only then you can talk of a free country. Controlling a territory politically through the means of building a state does not equal a free Kurdistan. Hence the guiding principle since the mid-1990s is that the liberation of Kurdistan can only be a liberation of women.

Some of you may have wondered why Fadile [another speaker] mentioned Öcalan at the end of her talk. This feminist discourse in the Kurdish movement is not caused by the acquisition of something that a feminist group or a feminist flow in the PKK has developed. Instead, the main food for thought in this direction was all first introduced by Abdullah Öcalan himself. He is the one who has applied these discourses and demanded that all men should react to these theories, hence open space for women within the movement to deepen and broaden these discourses, as well as to fight against any attempt of falling behind the achieved progress in the discourse and the organizational realization—because all the theoretical paradigms were of course also implemented organizationally.

With this example I wanted to illustrate the central role that Öcalan plays for all I am explaining here. From the very beginning he was the main strategist and ideologist of the movement and has triggered all these discourses—whether it was about the promotion of the liberation struggle in the 1970s, the organization of the armed struggle in the 1980s or the question of how to realize a social transformation in Kurdistan today.

Moving on from questions like why state socialism and national liberation do not work, the discussion has changed and put society as a whole into focus. What should constitute a liberated society, what are the essential characteristics of capitalist societies, how does capitalism impact society and what are the approaches on resistance against it? What are the essential ideological ideas? What are the main subjects and groups who then carry these changes? Thus, in the last ten years of discourse a new political reference system—as I would call it—has developed. The classical sequence of social formations from primitive communism, slave-owning society, feudalism to capitalism has now been replaced by a consideration of the past 5000 years, which was also mentioned by Fadile.

State civilization goes back 5000 years. The hierarchization of societies started in the Neolithic period. Following several intermediates steps state civilizations were established 5000 years ago. This happened in southern Mesopotamia, what is now considered southern Iraq, in the Sumerian citystates, which have served as an ideological and organizational model that carries and maintains—until today—state civilizations. It is essentially an ideological, not an economic model, although the first states already have had a certain degree of economic formation. This ideological model is based on legitimating the rule and domination of a certain group, class or religious group. Consequently the ruler’s main function is to create certain mythologies, religious ideas to install and defend the ideological hegemony.

Amongst the series of “religious” ideas there are also some new ideologies. Felix said he would call economy a religion; the Kurdish movement and Öcalan however would call nationalism a religion—a religion of the nation state and of capitalist modernity. Nationalism is an essential mechanism to whitewash contradictions, as well as to persuade people to commit incredible atrocities in its name. This leads us again to the feminist discourse: The ideological hegemony of patriarchy is so strong that it is difficult to go beyond certain women-circles and to apply the ideas to the entire society, which then is able to actively organize itself to overcome patriarchy.

The historical reference system therefore departs from claiming that we look back at 5000 years of state civilization, and then ask: What was it like before? Has the state or patriarchy always existed? The answer is clearly “no.” The next question is then, where to find points of departure for a non-statist, non-hierarchical, non-sexist and non-patriarchal society. Felix has demonstrated a wonderful example for communities that still live like this today. Those are constituted as a community and claim to have their own rules, which are not written laws of any code of any state, but an ethical system that serves as the basis upon which life in the community is built.

In this example, this was illustrated by the lack of a penal system. They say: The aim of all our rules is reconciliation. Hence the community is working according to certain moral principles that are based on solidarity in the first place, thus on various forms of communal production, communal farms, communal life and communal education. The crucial point here now is to say, that this is the essential contradiction, namely a state society—according to this dialectical model—has arisen as an antithesis to existing natural societies, as Öcalan calls it. Previously these were quite universal; hence only two or three states existed as islands in a sea of societies that were organized through communal living. State civilization had to establish itself as an antithesis to all this.

Today we take the universal existence of states for granted. But today’s status quo is something that arose historically and very concretely through struggles. Thus, the Kurdish movement is referring to specific documents from the mythology of the Sumerians and others to understand with the help of historical research how this so-called civilized society and state society has prevailed against the natural society. A major point of criticism to the classical Marxist conceptual model of the sequence of societal forms leads to the conclusion: No. The ‘natural society’ that Öcalan calls the ‘stem cell’ of sociality in general, this basic understanding of solidarity, hence that people want to cooperate, that they do not really want to compete and want to hate each other, does not belong to the past.

That has not stopped 5000 years ago, on the contrary still exists in specific places where state civilization has taken root and destroyed societies. However, this also exists in the imagination, as an ideal by many movements and religious movements, who want peace and communality, as an ideal of philosophical movements that are concerned about how real life may look like, as an ideal of socialist movements, as an ideal for a communist utopia and also of anarchist utopia. So natural society exists both in reality and in the minds of people. The principle of ‘competition of all against all’ is not a natural state, it is rather unnatural for a human being to be seeking life in isolation from society as a completely particularized individual, because the actual state of nature is rooted in cooperation. Capitalism, Felix has illustrated it beautifully, is destroying those natural states wherever it finds them in order to make profit out of it.

Some may have wondered about the title of the conference, “Challenging Capitalist Modernity”. In this context, the Kurdish movement defines what she calls “capitalist modernity”. Öcalan identifies three main elements of capitalist modernity; hence of the current situation of the capitalist world system impacted by the modernist mind.

The first one is what he calls a capitalist society. The example of the legal system that Felix has given fits perfectly here. Öcalan refers to such a legal system as “moral society” opposed to a society that is governed and regulated by abstract laws. Each community has a moral system, an ethical foundation of human society. It would be wrong to claim that everywhere where no state exists, murder and manslaughter will prevail. This foundation is being destroyed by the capitalist state through a legal system, which is usually in the service of the rulers.

Another aspect of this “capitalist society” is that capitalism is often considered equal to economics. But we have just heard that the real economic livelihoods, whether the community is now living in subsistence economy or not, is being destroyed by capitalism and replaced by a new society that produces commodities and nothing more, which then leads to known societal consequences.

Another point is that sociality, meaning the strong sense of togetherness of people with different forms of life, whether they are called primitive peoples, indigenous communities or tribal societies, is being destroyed by capitalism and replaced by individualization. It was very much the Kurdish society that first developed this discourse: By looking at the differences between the different people that make up the movement, the people from Europe, Turkey’s major cities or from Kurdish villages. They all carry completely different characters and behave quite differently in a community.

The second pillar of “capitalist modernity” is industrialism. For this I must say the least, because it is clear what an industrial society is, as it destroys livelihoods, alienates people in the production process and is responsible for much of what is already criticized in capitalism.

The third pillar is the nation state, which is at the moment the most appropriate form to organize power of today’s capitalism. The nation state is that stage on which laws are being decided, wars conducted and nations ideologically constructed. Hence, yes, all nationalisms are based—that was mentioned in yesterday’s speech by Ahmet Alış—on the planned construction of a nation, what then simultaneously on the other hand means the extinction of many other cultural values. In the Turkish discourse it is always France—the Grande Nation and the nation par excellence—that serves as a model for the Turkish nation state. But of course, France could also only be established by the extinction of different languages and cultures, whether Basque, Breton or Occitan; all kinds of cultural traditions were wiped out to create this nation state. With its military and police the nation state serves as an instrument for all the destructive policies that have led to world wars and genocides in the 20th century. The nation state is the main formation that accumulates and concentrates political, military and economic power. I certainly hope with Achin that it is possible to overcome this system.

The Kurdish movement proposes the concept of “democratic modernity”. Based on the search for democratic elements of a natural society, where they still exist, but not in going back those 5000 years of history, but in developing a new society free of domination, thus democratic modernity.

There are three constituent elements. The first one is the “political and moral society.” This means a society in which the people themselves care about their own interests and concerns. It is not hard to see how this can actually work— we only need to turn our eyes to Kurdistan. I think there is hardly a comparable movement in Europe and the Middle East that is highly organized, fights at all levels and has such a strong political culture of discussion like the Kurdish. Hopefully this can transform into a society which then behaves politically, not only in the current battle situation. The term “morality” in “political and moral society” refers to a social togetherness based on morals and ethics, which is not only based on laws but on rules and various forms of moral systems that have been set up by the community itself for living together.

The second point is the “ecological” or “ecological-industrial society.” The aim here is to overcome destructive industrialism and replace it with a more ecological method of production. The focus on the community and the local plays a very strong role. Kurdistan has not only been permeated by capitalism quite late, there was also almost no industrial proletariat in the 1970s and even today there is very little industrial proletariat. It is a predominantly agrarian society that mainly operated through livestock breeding—especially in the mountainous regions. The hope is to build new or different forms of subsistence economy in places where full Industrialization has not taken place yet, hence not to catch-up development and hell-bent to demand and enforce industrialization, but to create the possibility to use a not yet capitalized society for alternative ecological models.

The third point is the “democratic confederal society.” Achin has beautifully described this as the “deepening and widening of democracy.” Deepening of democracy means the creation of bodies and forms that ensure direct participation in decision-making processes. This is being already tried. Tomorrow we will hear more about the practical experiments of building a council movement and various cooperatives.

A confederal society describes how communities within a certain area constitute themselves along different group affiliations. In contrast to the nation state, which ultimately calls for a uniform citizen, who speaks a certain language, follows a certain ideology, has a certain way to do business, or— very important in Turkey—where a certain belief is preferred over another. In a confederal society, the communities are organized according to cultural aspects—what languages they speak or what culture they want to live—, according to a religious aspects or according to professional organizations. Put it differently, organized in a variety of forms that do not act against each other but form a network that ultimately may be able to replace the state.

The point is not to just propagate “the state must go”, but to build an alternative model for it. This is also true in the sense of “expansion of democracy,” the expansion of such a model first within Kurdistan, hence collaboration between the different parts of Kurdistan across borders. Yet, without redefining the borders and without building a Kurdish nation-state or the like, rather in pursuing a collaboration of the different parts, not only at the national, Kurdish level, but together with the societies of the oppressor countries. Basically, it’s about creating a model that has potential to be further widened. Currently, there is no place where the nation state actually works. Today we witness that the Sharia gets introduced and installed even in more and more countries. It is an attempt to create an advanced model that can replace this chaos and progressively transform the situation.

[The following part explains the situation in 2012, for the more current situation read our article from 3rd of April 2020]

Finally, I would like to say a few words on the situation of the man who has given much pre-thought to these issues, who has initiated most of the discussion processes and has published more than a dozen books since 1999, Abdullah Öcalan. This whole process of thought that has been outlined here and has also led to this conference, is currently held in solitary confinement. He has been in complete isolation as the sole prisoner on the island of Imrali for more than 11 years [in the year 2012], guarded by 1,000 troops and is only interrupted once a week by a maximum one-hour visit by lawyers or family. He spends the entire rest of the week in total isolation. Back in 2005 he was able to have quite a lot of books, since then he is only allowed to have one book in his cell. These are the conditions in which these books, thoughts and discourses arise.

That man who has been living in constant discussion—for instance at the academy with all sections of society and all parts of the movement—throughout all those years, where he organized the movement and led the fight, is now in such a bad situation that no discussion is possible at all. It is not possible to write letters from outside or formulate reviews; hence to begin, import or deepen discussions.

I have left out the political dimension of Öcalan. There have been secret talks for more than two years, which by now have collapsed. However, there is a point I want to emphasize. During the secret talks with the Turkish state he has not stood still and has not focused solely on the negotiations, but has written more than ever before just at this time. He has not stopped to think and to stimulate discussion about how to organize a society.

We as the “International Initiative” firmly believe that if a peace like in South Africa is envisioned, this can only be achieved through a negotiation between the conflicting parties and their major representatives. On the Kurdish side this is of course, Abdullah Öcalan. He will play a constructive role in such a peace process. He is able to establish peace and bring together those who have become hostile towards each other. Yesterday, Solly Mapaila emphasized in the discussion with us that peace is always the result of a war.

In this sense, we hope that this fight can go a step further with a political solution. At the moment we have many thousands of political prisoners in Turkey. We do not want to lead these discussions alone, as well as we do not want to carry them abroad only. We aim to discuss, especially in Kurdistan, with all these political prisoners, and we want to discuss with Abdullah Öcalan directly in the future. Therefore: Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan, Peace in Kurdistan!