On confederalism in North Kurdistan




Revolutionaries in the northern Kurdish region, now part of Turkey, have by several accounts taken up social ecology’s call for a confederation of directly-democratic assemblies.  Their project and its accomplishments are described in a recent book from the New Compass Press, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan, containing Janet Biehl‘s English translation of a recent account by German activists.

A recent article in ROAR Magazine offers a similar perspective, tracing the journey of the imprisoned separatist PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan:

Öcalan embarked, in his prison writings, on a thorough re-examination and self-criticism of the terrible violence, dogmatism, personality cult and authoritarianism he had fostered: “It has become clear that our theory, programme and praxis of the 1970s produced nothing but futile separatism and violence and, even worse, that the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us. . .” Once the unquestioned leader, Öcalan now reasoned that “dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god. That was the mistake I made.”

Öcalan, an atheist, was finally writing as a free-thinker, unshackled from Marxist-Leninist mythology. He indicated that he was seeking an “alternative to capitalism” and a “replacement for the collapsed model of … ‘really existing socialism’,” when he came across Bookchin. His theory of democratic confederalism developed out of a combination of inspiration from communalist intellectuals, “movements like the Zapatistas”, and other historical factors from the struggle in northern Kurdistan (Turkey). Öcalan proclaimed himself a student of Bookchin, and after a failed email correspondence with the elderly theorist, who was to his regret too sick for an exchange on his deathbed in 2004, the PKK celebrated him as “one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century” on the occasion of Bookchin’s death two years later.

The PKK itself has apparently taken after their leader, not only adopting Bookchin’s specific brand of eco-anarchism, but actively internalizing the new philosophy in its strategy and tactics. The movement abandoned its bloody war for Stalinist/Maoist revolution and the terror tactics that came with it, and began perusing a largely non-violent strategy aimed at greater regional autonomy.

However, as ISE board member Eleanor Finley – who has sought out additional sources of first-hand information on the situation – points out, “The movement is not without contradictions. For one, as a paramilitary organization, the PKK maintains a hierarchical command structure with Abdullah Öcalan at its center. Thus councils are often established ‘from above’ and it is unclear whether the popular legitimacy of these councils stems from a grassroots revolutionary sensibility or rather the widespread perception of illegitimacy attributed to the occupational Turkish government. In the past, the PKK have violently repressed rival left factions and Kurdish nationalist groups. Today, they negotiate with Erdogan’s government and pursue regional alliances with liberal Turkish political coalitions. And yet despite all this, Kurdish revolutionaries have launched arguably one of the most important and unique socio-political projects in the world.”