chapter  8
19 Pages

Confederalism and autonomy in Turkey: The Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the reinvention of democracy


After a long period of ‘national liberation struggle’ aimed at establishing an independent state, the Kurdish movement in Turkey led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK), has changed course and set its aim towards a project of radical democracy. Just as the Turkish state has been unable to quash the Kurdish identity and its political expression through decades of assimilation and oppression, so the PKK has not been able to overthrow the state systems of control through protracted guerrilla war. In its 1978 manifesto, the PKK had called for the destruction of all forms of colonialism and the construction of a united Kurdistan. Today, however, leading figures in the PKK argue that socialists should not fixate so much on the state as on their political project. In other words, alongside recognition of the limitations of further use of violence, there has come a profound change in the organisation’s philosophical approach.2 Inverting Lenin’s thesis that ‘it would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning anything but the right to existence as a separate state’ (Lenin 1914), the PKK states, in effect, that it is wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as having no other meaning than the right to exist as a separate state. This is a view confirmed, moreover, in the historical analysis of the modern state as a bourgeois project (Karasu 2009). Although the PKK’s ideological formation in the 1970s was not much

different from other liberation movements of the period, the PKK tried to develop its own understanding of socialism even during the period of its formation, breaking away from conventional communist doctrine imported from the Soviet Union or China. After the 1999 capture of Abdullah Öcalan, its now imprisoned leader, the organisation made a pronounced turn towards a project of radical democracy, rejecting not only what he called the ‘classical Kurdish nationalist line’, but also ‘a leftist interpretation of a similar tendency’ (Öcalan 1999: 10).3 In his subsequent ‘defence texts’, submitted to an Athens court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) Grand Chamber, Öcalan transformed his

theoretical considerations into a conception of what he termed ‘radical democracy’. This idea of radical democracy – radical in the sense that it tries to

develop the concept of democracy beyond nation and state – is developed in three projects: one for a democratic republic (of Turkey), one for democratic confederalism, and one for democratic autonomy. The project for a democratic republic comprehends a reform of the Republic of Turkey, disassociating citizenship from nationalism. The idea of democratic confederalism – developed, like that of democratic autonomy, in the later defence texts – is defined as a model for ‘democratic self-government’ (Öcalan 2008: 32). Since these, it is proposed, are to be built throughout Kurdistan (and wherever Kurds are living), democratic confederalism is to be considered the main mechanism for the unification of Kurds and Kurdistan. The Kurdish liberation movement, Öcalan argues, should work for the establishment of such a system of self-organisation. Democratic confederalism is also twinned to democratic autonomy, referring to the right of people to determine their own economic, cultural, and social affairs. While the democratic republic is a project of state reform, the projects of democratic confederalism and democratic autonomy embody the idea of a politics beyond and without the state (Akkaya and Jongerden 2011). In this article we have two objectives. The first is to explore how the PKK

makes sense of the projects of democratic confederalism and democratic autonomy. This promises to advance our understanding of the PKK in particular, and to contribute to radical politics in general. Second, a genealogy of democratic confederalism and democratic autonomy brings our attention to the work of Murray Bookchin, who influenced Abdullah Öcalan.4