Havin Guneser, The Art of Freedom: A Brief History of the Kurdish Liberation Struggle.
“We are made to think of world history in a very linear way. For example, we only look at the struggle of the working class under capitalism, so we don’t see the struggle of, let’s say, the colonized people or tribes and clans that are resisting being sucked into classical civilization as just as important as the struggle of the working class. Another example would be that of women and their resistance to assimilation into this classical civilization. The fact is that all these different struggles have exposed aspects of this larger truth. What Öcalan is actually trying to do with his theory of democratic civilization and democratic modernity is to bring all this together as the integral truth, as the whole truth.
The Kurdish movement knew that all it had was a critique. As I said, they began by saying, ‘Kurdistan is a colony.’ So what they did at the beginning was recover Kurdish people’s truth. Öcalan used to say, ‘Ninety-five percent of our struggle is against the Kurds. Only 5 percent is against the Turkish state.’ This is an immense reality, because over so many years of so many different policies—ideological, physical, and economic policies—the Kurds had distanced themselves from their own reality, and it was very difficult to bring them back to it. Öcalan would say, ‘Vietnamese people knew they were Vietnamese.’ But Kurds, you had to first say, ‘Hey, look, you have another truth! You have something else here.’ To be able to do that, they began with a critique; they had to expose the official state ideology of Turkey and the methods used by the state. What were those methods? They made some places extremely religious. They actually actively did that. And, in other places, they paved the way for high university attendance in specific cities. Let’s say I’m from a specific city called A. I would be educated and would look down on everyone else, even though we would all be equally oppressed, exploited, and so on. This was an active expression of assimilationist policies. They used all sorts of different methods and techniques to make it very difficult for the people to associate, unite, and act together.
This clearly shows the infrastructures and superstructure of these methods, but I think what was even more important, and this is also another way that the freedom movement addressed this, was how these structures can be overcome—not just exposing these structures but also coming up with creative means to overcome them. In fact, the method was as follows: if you had a critique, you also had to show what the alternative was and why. So the other side of the coin of any critique was to show what the new way could be, what it is to be replaced with. Especially during those early years, the ideological and political capacity and ability of the movement was due to the dialectics of critiquing. What occurred as these critiques developed? One of the people who was present at the beginning said in an interview, ‘We would go to the villages and would say, ‘Down with imperialism and the colonizers!’ And then we would go away, but nothing would come down.’ So, although, yes, they critiqued it and talked about it, they saw by just talking they weren’t bringing anything down. What had to follow, therefore, was the implementation and the practice of their theory.
From the group’s birth to the 1980s, the very important and primary task was to develop an ideological critique. There was not much self-critique yet, because they were still trying to find themselves: who they were, what they were trying to represent, what they rejected. The reason for this was very simple: they first had to break down the boundaries in their heads. Right? I don’t know, maybe some of you tutor or give lessons. When you talk about something, you actually overcome yourself in a sense as well. All the other duties at the time were actually secondary. Therefore, what they did was analyze the situation, critique it, and take responsibility for doing something about it. I think today this dialectic is the motor force of the Kurdish freedom movement. In this period, some monumental works were written by Öcalan and his friends, including Kurdistan’da Zorun Rolü (The Role of Force in Kurdistan, 1983), which unfortunately has not been translated into English yet.
Of course, the movement went through many stages. Although critique was a constant part of the freedom movement’s development, what they discovered when they tried to implement the results of their critique, was that they were not necessarily all doing the same thing. Some people had interpreted it in one way, others in another way. As a result, they realized that the tie had come to turn the critique inward, and that is what they began to do. During this period, they critiqued Kurdish society from 1981-1982 onward, but especially the period following 1985. The critical focus became more internal than external. Their focus was both Kurdish rebellions of the past (the PKK was very much criticized for this, with people asking ‘How can you criticize the rebellions?’) and Kurdish society, but they also critiqued themselves, their implementation efforts, and their practice.
They realized that two things were happening, the intellectuals and people coming from universities basically thought, ‘I will just tell the truth, and the rest will follow,’ but how do you implement that. So that was critiqued. Others thought that there was no need for education, no need to expand knowledge, theory, or intellectualism. ‘We’ve made a decision. Now let’s do it. That’s all there is to it.’ Therefore, there was a lot of discussion to address these problems. They concluded that in their own praxis, practice could not be severed from theory or ideology. Their main pillar became, as Öcalan describes it, ‘Think as you do, and do as you think.’ This approach renders individuals totally open to doing things differently and to treat that moment of doing to act or respond differently than we had learned to. We usually act and react in predictable ways. If I slap you, you will slap me. Maybe that’s a very vulgar way of presenting it, but if you slap me, I could pause to think about it and perhaps do something a little bit different. This approach was implemented both on the level of the immediate and on the level of praxis over longer periods of times—one year, a couple of months, whatever. This weapon of critique and self-critique allowed the movement to both clarify its position and determine how to implement it.
Finally, the concept and practice of critique and self-critique doesn’t unfold on the basis of an individual’s ideas. It unfolds on the basis of a paradigm or a political and ideological line that is accepted by an organization’s members. Therefore, how an individual implements that line is evaluated. That individual is not evaluated on the basis of someone else’s likes or dislikes or that person’s own likes or dislikes. It’s about a line, a paradigm, a set of ideas that have been collectively developed and consensually approved. Therefore, it doesn’t leave any room for unclear motives and establishes a very transparent framework for all participants. At the same time, it allows for the further development of this ideological line. This is why the Kurdish freedom movement is not stuck forty-five years in the past. It has continually evolved, and it has based that evolution on very concrete factors, which it has laid out in its publications.”
“When Abdullah Öcalan was in Damascus and in the Beqaa Valley, they would have huge educational sessions, and there would be anywhere from two to three hundred people: women, men, both cadres and ordinary people. They would all discuss together about political developments, about the revolutionary movement’s praxis and cadres. And they wouldn’t stop there. They would videotape the meeting and all of the discussions and send copies of the video to the homes of sympathizers, so the whole society could watch it. It was an amazingly open process of critique and self-critique that did not aim to discredit any individual but to make sure that all individual and collective practice would serve the development of the entire society, so that the whole society could overcome shared shortcomings. In the final analysis, all of these individuals are products of society, which is the product of the policies of various governments—not only that but that as well. Therefore, meetings are extremely important and are where the transformation of the mindset occurs for the Kurdish freedom movement.
This is, of course, extremely difficult, especially in the U.S., but everywhere else as well, because we are disabled from doing this by the fact that we must provide three basic things for ourselves: housing, food, and the needs associated with reproduction, the needs of children and the family. To survive, in this modernity everybody needs money. Something that is also discussed outside of Kurdistan is: How do you sever ties with wage slavery, so that you can actually do what you should be doing instead of just trying to survive? It’s a very military thing, isn’t it? I know in the Turkish military, at least it used to be, for example, when the leaves fell in autumn, the soldiers had to clean them up. It’s a nonstop thing, the falling leaves. The soldiers used to be sent out to collect the falling leaves, so that they were not idle, so that they always had something to do. The same idea is implemented throughout society. ‘You should not be idle, so that you don’t think. You should not start doing things.’ Therefore, we need to continuously open space for that, and we have to find ways to do that.”
“Öcalan and the Kurdish freedom movement call this World War III, and it is, as you can see, in different stages of happening, especially in the Middle East, in a very physical sense. There is an overlap of several different hegemonic wars going on. On the one hand, global capital, especially that of the United States but also that of other imperialist entities, is trying to abrogate any rule or law. It wants complete access to the entire world. On the other hand, we have national capital, which is both in conflict and allied—as paradoxical as it may sound—to prevent that to a degree. Where they overlap is in their unrestricted desire to exploit and colonize. This is why Trump here and Erdogan there and the right-wing gaining strength in Germany are basically one and the same.
ISIS can also be seen as exactly the same threat. And they are all about talking about male ‘suffering’ or loss of power. Because what they are doing is trying to empower the male—I’m using this in a negative sense—so that he can become its paramilitary agent, its hand within society for reshaping society. ISIS is the most extreme form of that, but Erdogan is going the same thing. However, I don’t want to personalize this. I don’t want to say ‘Erdogan’ or ‘Trump,’ because everbody kind of thinks it’s only Erdogan or it’s only Trump. We must see the institutional dimensions and aspects. It’s not just some lunatic out there, and, whoever it may be, it is not an individual. To the contrary, it is very organized. The way they are analyzed or perceived is such that it disempowers us. If we see them as lunatics, we won’t do much about it. We hope that one day the lunatic is taken to the hospital or dies or something, but, in the meantime, there are structural changes in our world. And they are making those changes together. At first, they tried to do it through proxies, like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and all the others. This didn’t really work, and now they are really getting down to the nitty-gritty—the trade wars, the reversal of disarmament.
When we talk about global capital, we are talking not only about US capital but also about Chinese and Russian capital and others, including German capital. In the meantime, everybody is trying to expand their hegemony. But you know where I think the hopelessness comes from? It is the result of seeing ourselves as objects of this and not subjective agents who have also contributed to this structural crisis of capitalism. We also did this. It’s not just transnational or global capital that brought about the structural crisis of capitalism. It’s the women’s movements, and, no matter how profound our critique, it’s the national liberation movements as well. It’s all those who resisted and struggled. Again, it is colonized people, Black people, Kurdish people, all those at the bottom who were aggrieved by the capitalist system, who fought against it, as well as global capital at the top, that now sees these structures as an obstacle. So we almost have a situation where global capital is overlapping with what the oppressed are doing. It’s interesting. This is why some people get confused about what the Kurds are doing in the Middle East. Because some want to see the Kurds as on the side of the US or Russia or some imperialist power like that. While others argue that the Kurds should just accept the old status quo. There are two very different ideological ends that are destroying this status quo. On the one hand, global capital, because the status quo is an obstacle, and, on the other had, the revolutionary movements. Of course, we must be careful. These alliances and networks must be forged very thoughtfully, and this situation cannot be seen as hopeless but as an option for transition.
This is where the media is being used extremely well by capital, so that we don’t see this moment of creative and artistic freedom. Look at it. Look at the amount of violence. It is almost pornographic. They show us ISIS beheadings, and even cats being raped, and all the oppression and the violence that is going on—the recolonization of people everywhere. They are hoping that the oppressed and the colonized do not seize the moment. And when I say seize the moment, I don’t mean it in the old way, you know, ‘Let’s bring down the state.’ No. This has been done. It has been done in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Let’s save these discussions for tomorrow and the next day. If seizing the moment does not mean taking over the state, then what does it mean? Kurds, women, and others in Syria, in Rojava, are showing us what that might be.
However you look at it, you must acknowledge that if the Kurdish freedom movement did not act in the way it did in Syria, today’s Syria would have been another Libya, because the hegemonic powers do not want stability. They have no need for stability. Do we not remember what happened in Libya? Does nobody remember? Is there an actual government there now? What’s happening there? Nobody wants stability. Let’s not be fooled. Today, peace denotes surrender. Don’t do anything. Acceptance, submission, that is what peace is. This is the way it’s being used. Therefore, I love the way Öcalan describes what is happening. He says, ‘I call this age, the Age of Hope.’ We know so much more than we previously knew—in terms of history, in terms of women’s enslavement, in terms of colonization, in terms of the formation of classes throughout time. However, there is a need to organize and establish peoples’ social and political systems in a way that allows us to come out of this World War III, to benefit everyone who is struggling for freedom. Therefore, this is the Age of Hope, but it won’t happen on its own, and we are beginning to see that.
As I said, this moment is being used by organized gangs in different places throughout the world to increase the level of fascism. They are both creating displaced people and using this influx of migration to recolonize people of the West, by producing propaganda that claims migrants will lower wages, undermine the Western way of life, and so on. The way things can be twisted to again benefit the establishment of that system is savagery. We say, ‘Why say no to migrants? Say no to colonization and the war that creates the refugees and migrants.’
This gets lost in the volume of what they dish out to us and the speed with which they do it. It’s so fast: everything is so fast. And again, it’s a form of consumption. Everything and everyone is very quickly consumed. Therefore, we can live with it, but it’s not a life. Otherwise, how is it that we are okay with people disappearing in the middle of the sea? How can you justify this by saying, ‘I will have less bread if you come’? It’s not even clear that that is true. In the crisis in Turkey, as is the case with the real estate crisis here, it’s not the banks, it’s not this and that who are losing. It’s not the Turkish state or the government that is losing either. It’s the people who are losing. But it is portrayed so differently that, in Europe, there is, as a result, once again a call for people to embrace their states, which goes hand in hand with a call for men to be in charge and become more sexist, and nationalist, etc.
The thing is, there is so much to be hopeful about. You know why? Despite what’s happening in Turkey, people are resisting. It may be quiet, but there is resistance. You saw what happened in the elections. Adalet ve Kalkmma Partisi (Justice and Development Party: AKP) couldn’t get over that 50 percent mark. There is huge resistance everywhere, and I think that we do it a grave injustice if we only look at what’s happening in the world as the scheme of imperialism alone. Those struggling for freedom have to see their part in this and act accordingly.”
“The Kurdistan regional government in Southern Kurdistan is already a very primitive state—a pre-state. We are seeing that a victim can very quickly become a perpetrator. It’s not about your ethnicity. It’s not about this or that. It’s about this tool of statehood. This tool itself is oppressive. It’s barbaric. It’s an organizational mafia. We see it in the form of the Israeli state. They were first victims, and now they are perpetrators. We are seeing it in South Africa. We are seeing how the tool of state is corrupting what was once a freedom movement. We saw it in the Soviet Union. When it collapsed, all the worst things came out of it: sexism, nationalism, religionism. They all burst out of it. People have embraced this new paradigm, but in the finer details there is still a lot of headway to be made. This is simply how it is. The notion of an overnight revolution was wrong. Some things can occur overnight, but to get rid of the characteristics or traits that have been created in each one of us require a lot of struggle. This is what is called simultaneous critique and self-critique. Each individual has to fight themselves as well. We have all been educated in a particular way for a long time—and we still are. If we are not at school, we are watching a film. If we are not watching a film, we are watching the news. If we are not watching the news, we are on Twitter. If we are not on Twitter… There is continuous regeneration. We have to combat that somehow, which requires insistent and continuous mechanisms. But, mostly, it requires a willingness, a desire, to rid ourselves of all of this.
This opens whole new horizons of freedom and whole new horizons of joy. We often here the term burning out. What burning out? Is this a burden? This is not a burden? This is our life. Waging struggle must bring joy. You know how that is done? If you develop as an individual while you struggle, you won’t burn out. If you think you are doing it for somebody else, that actually you’re so good that you’re freeing somebody else, then, yeah, burning out is a possibility. Definitely.