Shawn Hattingh and Lucien van der Walt,  2019, “Appendix: The Kurdish Question – Nationhood or Autonomy?,” in Alfredo Bonanno, Anarchism and the National Liberation Struggle, Zabalaza Books, Johannesburg, third South African edition, pp. 36-39, from HERE, reprinted from HERE.
Taking a look at the existential crisis of the Kurdish in Turkey and elsewhere [this article looks at the limits and possibilities of national liberation struggle. It shows how the current Kurdish struggle in Rojava is assuming revolutionary features influenced partly by anarchism, and its inspiring fight against oppressive forces — including the extreme right ISIS movement. It also looks at some of the limits of what is taking place. In closing the article argues that the revolutionary outcomes in Rojava, as opposed to the limits and failures of much of the “Arab Spring,” shows that strong organisation and an emancipatory programme, based among ordinary people is essential — not vague demands for “democracy.”]
The Kurds are a nationality concentrated in a territory that straddles four states: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. For months Kurdish militia have been fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) in Kobane on the Syrian and Turkish borders and have been subjected to ongoing attacks by the Turkish state.
The Kobane (part of Rojava in Northern Syria) conflict is one episode in the longer struggle by the Kurdish national liberation struggle. It is also increasingly associated with a revolutionary reconstruction of society in the region of Rojava, influenced in some ways by anarchism, that is, the tradition of Bakunin and Kropotkin.
Indeed, left-wing ideas like anarchism, and, Marxism-Leninism, have a lengthy history among the Kurds, of which developments in Rojava are one part. National liberation struggles have historically taken many forms. Evidently, nationalism – the doctrine that the whole “nation” must unite across class divisions, to secure a nation-state that can express the “national” will – has played a key role. But nationalism is only one of a number of possible responses to national oppression, and it has only sometimes achieved dominance.
Systems generating national oppression, such as imperialism and colonialism, have, historically, evoked responses ranging from collaboration, to liberalism, to religious millenarianism, to radical right-wing currents, to left movements like Marxism and anarchism/syndicalism. Conflating national liberation with nationalism misses this complexity, and the far more radical roads that have sometimes opened up.
This crucial distinction – between national liberation struggles, and nationalism – is essential to understanding the evolution of the Kurdish national liberation movement, and the challenges it faces. This movement is deeply fractured by different approaches, each proposing very different solutions. One of its most striking features has been the influence of the left: Marxism-Leninism from the 1960s, and, more recently, ideas derived in part from anarchism/syndicalism.
A distinct Kurdish nationality dates back many centuries. National oppression was not unique to Western or capitalist or nominally Christian empires. The feudal Ottoman Empire, dating back to the 1200s, the last major nominally Muslim empire straddling Africa, Asia and Europe, included many subject peoples and religions: many, including the Kurds, had major grievances.
In the 1800s, successful national liberation struggles and conflicts with rival empires were breaking up the Empire. Increasingly harsh policies against rebellious nationalities marked its last years. The First World War (1914-1918) saw a number of monarchies fall, as well as three empires collapse, including the Ottoman, the remnant of which became Turkey. While some subject peoples secured independence, others – among them, the Kurds – were transferred to new imperial masters, which drew new borders, including the borders of what became Iraq and Syria. The existence of independent Turkey and Iran, and the decolonisation of Iraq (1932) and Syria (1936) did not solve the Kurdish national question: instead, the Kurds remain an oppressed minority [split across four states].
Nationalist ideas came to play an increasing role among the Kurds from the 1920s, some nationalists seeking complete independence, others greater autonomy. Policies like discrimination, restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, forced removals and state-sponsored resettlement of other groups into “Kurdistan” continually generated struggle. Various parties emerged in the different states from the 1940s onwards, like the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP, formed 1946) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
In the 1960s the radical left came to play a major role, and placed the struggle against feudal notables amongst the Kurds themselves on the agenda. Marxist insurgencies took place in Iran as well as within Turkey from 1978 by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has also undertaken actions in Iraq and Syria and is closely linked to the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) in Iran. Its anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-feudal politics were far more radical than the KDP and PUK.
Complicating matters have been continual efforts by regional and global powers to use Kurdish struggles for their own agendas (as when Iranian and Syrian agencies have used Kurdish struggles against their rivals Iraq and Turkey), and violent conflicts between Kurdish groups, like that between the PUK and KDP in Iraq in the 1990s.
Ironically the destabilisation of the Middle East, both due to imperialist actions and attempts to repress the “Arab Spring”, have given an impetus to the Kurdish struggle. The 2003 American invasion of Iraq led to the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region, while the crisis in Syria, including US actions from 2011, has seen the PKK playing a major role, alongside its local allies.
As ISIS has grown – in part through the Syrian civil war that started with the al-Assad regime’s repression of the “Spring” protests, in part through US tolerance during the Iraq occupation – the PKK and its allies, including the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD, formed in 2003, affiliated to PKK) have proved to be the major force halting its atrocities and reactionary programme.
From the 1990s, the PKK increasingly abandoned Marxism-Leninism in favour of “democratic confederalism,” associated with the late American revolutionary Murray Bookchin, which developed out of anarchist ideology. Whereas the PKK line was for a new state before the 1990s, the new line (according to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan) involves a scepticism about nationalist and Marxist-Leninist projects, and rather favours a “democratic system of a people without a State,” that “takes its power from the people and adopts to reach self-sufficiency in every field including the economy.”
That is, while they have remained anti-capitalist, anti-feudal and anti-imperialist, the PKK and groups affiliated to it, no longer wish to set up a state, seen as a system of elite rule. In areas influenced by the PKK in parts of Turkey and in Rojava, a system influenced by “democratic confederalism has been established. Federated communes, assemblies and councils that use direct democracy and recallable delegates (i.e. a sort of upside-down pyramid, in place of state hierarchy and centralisation) has been put in place in many areas. In some instances, co-operatives have been formed, as an economic system consistent with the bottom-up ethos. Also notable: the system is multi-ethnic, non-racial and does not practice religious discrimination, favouring instead basic liberties.
Thus in parts of Turkey, Kurdish people have tried to put “democratic confederalism” into practice and they have used a militia system to defend it against attacks by the Turkish state. The actual practice in Rojava though, where the system exists on a far larger scale, is quite contested, and while numerous councils and assemblies have been established, as part of a larger Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), some forces seek to use this to build a new state i.e. to transform structures like KCK into a traditional representative government.
While the diverging trends are united in fighting ISIS, it is not clear how long unity can last. The PKK is also not the only player: the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a de facto state in Iraq, run by the PUK and KDP, proposes a more orthodox nationalist road. Whether the PKK will retain a central role in the Kurdish national liberation struggle, and whether the model of “democratic confederalism” will sustain itself and move fully towards a social revolution – including in the economy – remains to be seen.
While US air strikes have helped halt ISIS, this does not mean the US, for example, favours the PKK, which it, like Turkey, declares a terrorist organisation. Interventions by regional and international powers remain a major threat. Another threat is posed by radical Islamism, a powerful radical right-wing current flourishing in the crisis [of] Arab nationalism. And the PKK’s own history also poses challenges: its radical bottom-up approach should not detract from the reality that for much of its history it was a top-down paramilitary force.
The PKK, even in its new phase, is not an anarchist organisation: it is closer to Bookchin’s model, which although derived from anarchism, also waters down some key parts of it. Nonetheless, anarchist ideas, via Bookchin and Öcalan, now form part of its ideological mix, a development of enormous international significance. It remains unclear though whether the council system the PKK favours will co-exist with, or replace, states, and it remains unclear how far it will be applied to the economy.
The “Arab Spring” has largely ended in winter. What the success of the PKK, in using a difficult situation for profoundly liberating purposes, shows that it is not enough to have vague demands for “democracy.” Without strong organisation and an emancipatory programme, based among ordinary people, little will be achieved – and much will be lost.