Does the word “revolution” mean the same thing to the Kurdish liberation movement and to American leftists who supported Bernie Sanders? A little history…
In the 20th century, it was clear what people meant when they used the word “revolution”. Mao Zedong said it as well as anyone: “A revolution is not a dinner party…it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”.
The founders of Turkey’s PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) had this definition in mind in 1978 when they laid out a strategy of people’s war leading to an independent Kurdish state. They initially focused on “propaganda of the deed” and military training, building what eventually became an extremely capable force, as ISIS discovered in Syria. But their vision of revolution expanded enormously during the nineties, when a civil resistance movement called the Serhildan took off in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, along with efforts to build a parliamentary party that could combine electoral and advocacy work.
This wasn’t easy since every time the Kurds founded a parliamentary party and ran people for office, the Turkish state made their party illegal—this happened in 1993, 1994, 2003, and 2009 and is now happening to the HDP (Peoples Democratic Party), despite (or because of) the fact that it won 13.1% of the national vote in the parliamentary election of May 2015. Erdogan’s response to this election was to call another election, and at the same time begin an all out military assault on Kurdish cities in southeastern Turkey, where civilians were subjected to bombardment, depopulation, and massive war crimes, their homes and neighborhoods destroyed. This was in the name of fighting PKK terrorism.
In fact, the PKK rejected terrorism over twenty years ago, at their Fifth Congress in 1995, when they publicly swore to abide by the Geneva Convention and laws of war, disallowing crimes against civilians while maintaining the right of armed self-defense against the Turkish government. At the same Congress, they founded a separate women’s army to build women’s capacity for leadership in the struggle. Co-mayor of Diyarbakir Gültan Kişanak talked about the way the PKK transformed itself in a recent interview, saying that in the early days the perspective was to make a revolution first and then do something about women, but that changed in the nineties because of the influence of the international movement for women’s rights:
Within this new environment, women began to assume important roles and created their own separate branches, not just following what the general political movement says, but also creating alternative policies, which the party must follow…. These changes were not easy and the rights were not just given by men: Kurdish women have fought at all levels and achieved these changes despite barriers within patriarchal society and despite the resistance of some of our male comrades.
The Rojava Kurds follow the same political philosophy as those in the Turkish movement. Thus, despite the newness of Rojava, which became autonomous in 2012, the movement there draws on forty years of accumulated political experience, the last twenty of which have emphasized the development of local democracy, community organizing, and women’s leadership.
I began studying the Kurdish women’s movement during the siege of Kobane and soon became convinced that their story is so important that I had an obligation to get it out in English as fast as I could, even though I couldn’t go there and was limited by my lack of language skills. As I worked on A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State, I was constantly pulled up short by the radical nature of this revolution and the way it questions the most basic leftwing assumptions, not only about women, or about the relationship between armed struggle, mass movement, and parliamentary party, but about the state itself.
Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the 20th century were based on the premise that the state was an instrument of bourgeois class domination that could be captured and turned to the interests of the working class under the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. At its Fifth Congress in 1995, the PKK described how that had worked out in the USSR:
Ideologically, there was a decline to dogmatism, vulgar materialism, and pan-Russian chauvinism; politically, there was the creation of extreme centralism, a suspension of democratic class struggle, and the raising of the State’s interests to the level of the determining factor; socially, there was a reduction in the free and democratic life of the society and its individuals; economically, the state sector was dominant and there was a failure to overcome a consumer society which emulated what was abroad; militarily, the raising of the army and acquiring weapons took precedence over other sectors. This deviation, which became increasingly clear to see during the 1960s, brought the Soviet system to a condition of absolute stagnation.
In 1989, Abdullah Öcalan was captured and charged with murder, extortion, separatism and treason; his death sentence was commuted to life in prison because of EU regulations. He started to study and write in prison, and began to seriously rethink the role of the state. In his 2005 Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan, as well as his writings on women, he laid out a theory that is a complete break with the Leninist playbook. Today the Kurdish liberation movement argues that nation-states are intrinsically hierarchical, ethnically based, and sexist; and that rather than seizing the state apparatus, a liberation movement should be involved with the state only to the point of insisting that it be democratic and permit autonomy; beyond that, the movement should focus its energy on developing democratic economies and local self-governance based on anti-capitalist, feminist, and ecologically sound principles.
This strategy, as put into practice in Rojava, has not yet been able to reach fulfillment because of war and the embargo. Rojava is surrounded by hostile forces on all sides: battling ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (now with a new sanitized name) and other Islamists in Turkey; fired on by the Turkish army and recently bombed by Assad; and blockaded by Turkey’s KDP allies in the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region that borders Syria. Together Turkey and the KDP have imposed a brutal economic siege upon Rojava, refusing to let in food, building supplies, drugs and medical equipment, and making it very hard for people to get in or out. As UN aid shipments pile up at the border, Rojava can’t even feed the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have sought refuge there, the latest wave coming from Manbij and Aleppo. NATO has not put sufficient pressure on Turkey to insist that it lift the siege, nor has the US used its considerable influence with the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)
July’s attempted military coup in Turkey – which was immediately denounced by the HDP – does not seem to have changed anything for the better as far as the Kurds are concerned.
Though the coup was led by the same officers who had been bombing Kurdish cities, Kurdish spokespeople see what has happened since as a counter-coup, with Erdogan intent on imposing an Islamist dictatorship rather than a military one. It is surely significant that the only party Erdogan has excluded from his post-coup grand democratic coalition is the HDP, party of Kurds, hipsters, intellectuals, feminists, minorities, and gays.
It was a strange experience to be writing A Road Unforeseen just as Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution” was taking off in the US. I supported Sanders; it felt great to hear a politician of national stature use the language of the left which became virtually taboo in mainstream US discourse after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it was extremely moving to watch a new generation respond to radical ideas. But Bernie never really explained what he meant by a “political revolution” and many of his supporters were young, had not studied much history, and seemed to think it was possible to make a revolution in one electoral campaign. Their pain when Bernie endorsed Hillary Clinton – as he had always said he would if she got the nomination – was understandable, as was their outrage that the party system turned out to be partisan, ruled by considerations of long-term career affiliation, and unfriendly to sudden democratic eruptions from outside.
The history of the Kurdish movement could teach them how hard it is to make a revolution, how long it takes, and why women are key to the process. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” The history of US labour shows that when substantial economic interests are at stake, the powers-that-be fight to hold every inch. The kind of change we need in the US will not happen in one electoral cycle. It will not happen through electoral politics alone, or protests alone either. It will only happen through the kind of dedicated long-term organizing the Kurds have done.
The Kurdish liberation movement developed the strength we see today through many years of public education, building its own institutions, combining electoral and parliamentary work with nonviolent resistance and armed self-defense when necessary, striving to “serve the people,” as the Black Panthers used to say, and build democratically-run organizations that can be held accountable. This is why it is so important to support them as well as learn from their example.
A Road Unforeseen: Women fight the Islamic State is published by Bellevue Literary Press in August 2016
This piece originally appeared at Open Democracy.