Kurds and supporters gather in Hamburg




Internationalizing Democratic Modernity : A report from Challenging Capitalist Modernity III

by Eleanor Finley

Conference logo, c/o Network for an Alternative Quest,

From April 15 – 17, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany the Kurdish freedom movement held its third instantiation of Challenging Capitalist Modernity, the biennial conference dedicated to ‘democratic modernity’ and the ideas developed by imprisoned Kurdish political leader Abdullah Ocalan.

On the first day, over 1,200 activists, scholars, and students packed into a vast lecture hall, the University of Hamburg’s Audimax, with seven interpreter booths and two balconies. Outside, blossoming trees and vivid new grass lined the walkways, calling attention to Hamburg’s lovely German turn of the century architecture. It was a windy, cold weekend in spring, very much like the conference’s previous session two years ago, when the predominantly Kurdish city of Kobane was at the peak of fervent international attention. Radical Kurdish leftism for many years had been ignored or derided by much of the international Left. Yet the successful defense of Kobane against seemingly impossible odds proved revolution to be the only force effective in defeating the vicious fascism of the Islamic State.

At that time, I attended the second Challenging Capitalist Modernity in Hamburg as one of many awe-struck participants. Through the organizers, I was hosted by a local Kurdish family, an experience which turned out to be the first of many as a guest among Kurdish people. I listened raptly as speakers reported straight from the front lines of the revolution in Rojava. It was an electric and inspiring moment.

Much has changed during the two interceding years. Kobane has been saved, yes, but war has also spread north into in Bakur, Northern Kurdistan, where the Turkish military and police have smashed dozens of cities and hundreds of villages. During the conference, 187 political prisoners in twenty different Turkish prisons continued an indefinite hunger strike. More than one of the activists who spoke at the pervious conference had been arrested and imprisoned.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, I wondered what the mood of the conference might be like.

What I discovered was that the overall sense of revolutionary transformation had not waned. True to the passionate declarations of Kurdish militia fighters, as well as international volunteers, what carries this revolution forward are ideas, not guns or military success. In this context, the Kurdish question has come to symbolize the general social situation — what has become of humanity and what are the possibilities for a free and egalitarian future? What might we be capable of that is continuously said to be impossible?

In that spirit, we heard this year from new voices. A young, British YPG volunteer presented from the front lines via Skype, arguing breathlessly that the distinctive feature of any truly revolutionary movement is the centrality of women; that women’s centrality in Rojava is what further distinguishes their vision from the socialism of the old left. A young Kurdish woman, no more than 19 or 20 years old, offered eloquent concluding remarks: “Today, the unwritten histories are being written.” In contrast to nearly every leftist conference in my memory, a clear majority of the presenters were women.

Despite the pressing humanitarian situation both in Turkey and in Syria, discussion at the conference was focused decisively through an international lens. Abdullah Ocalan’s address, which was read aloud by a young Kurdish woman, advocated for the construction of a global, delegated council, something like a parallel U.N. The program also featured representatives from multiple Latin American social and political movements, including Brasil’s Landless Worker’s movement (MST). Social theorist Raul Zibechi characterized the enculturation of everyday political engagement in the Zapatista communities, while Ecuadorian activist Carlos Pazmiño spoke to stateless political traditions among Ecuadorian indigenous peoples in relation to anarchist theory and history.

A recurrent theme was that although revolutionary projects may be suppressed, humanistic ideals will continue to present themselves under different names and places. Poignantly, Murray Bookchin’s daughter Debbie Bookchin shared a quote that her father carried for decades in his wallet; words by the utopian socialist William Morris:

“Men fight and lose the battle and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat and when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

Two years ago the Challenging Capitalist Modernity conference took place at a peak of international attention. This year noted anthropologist David Graeber was in attendance and sociologist John Holloway able to address the audience via recorded video, but the movement deserves wider support and sustained engagement from western academics. There are precious few venues where the left can engage in this kind of critical analysis and visionary thinking.

[More details and the full conference schedule are available at]