[a transcription follows the pdf]
A review of Abdulla Öcalan, Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization Vol. 1: Civilization in the Age of Masked Gods and Disguised Kings. Translated by Havin Guneser. New Compass Press, Persgrunn (Norway) and International Initiative Edition, Cologne (Germany), 2015 $22.95PLW Essay
On one hand, the Ottoman Empire has often inspired a certain romantic nostalgia with its tulips and sufis and traditional music, its unique architecture, its poetry and cuisine – even its so-called “tolerance” under the milet system in which certain minorities were allowed a measure of autonomy. I’m thinking of Orhan Pamuk’s fine melancholy book about Istanbul, which captures this atmosphere of elegant regret for a nearly-vanished civilization.
On the other hand, while “late” empire (Mughal, Hapsburg, Manchu, Persian, even the British Raj) have their style and charm, they are also bloody oppressive “imperialist” disaster zones in which humanity is oppressed and suffocated just as it has (or we have) always been – even since Sumer, Egypt, Babylon and Rome.
It’s possible to look back on Civilization with a sigh of loss, despite the fact that Civilization IS its “discontents” (as Charles Fourier might have put it) if only because what comes after Civilization invariably proves so much worse. Abdullah Öcalan has developed Fourier’s critique into a devastating attack of great profundity; no contemporary thinker despises Civilization and its betrayal of humanity more than Öcalan. And yet as a subtle dialectician he sees the “other hand” as well – that even imperial Civilization had its good points compared to its wretched aftermath. As he says in this Manifesto (p. 179), Greco-Roman culture represents the “apogee” of “material civilization”; “it was also the last of its kind. (Finding anything today comparable to [what] they attained is quite difficult – capitalist industrialism is not a civilization but a disease attacking civilization.)”
I’m afraid this verdict goes in spades for modern Turkey, where Ottoman charms are now plowed under with bulldozers (or commodified for tourists) and a great philosopher like Öcalan is condemned by many Turks as an “evil monster,” is despised and rejected, and has spent the last two decades in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara, where no one (not even family or lawyers) has seen him or communicated with him for years. Why?
Öcalan is the founder and leader of the “terrorist” Kurdish PKK, which in the 1970s launched a struggle (largely against Turkey) for national liberation. The organization then espoused a Marxist-Leninist line, and much violence was perpetuated on both sides. (This sketch ignores the Kurdish plight in Syria, Iraq and Iran, where similar struggles took place at various times.) Öcalan had to flee to Syria, to Greece and then to Kenya, where he was betrayed in 1999 largely by MOSSAD and the CIA, handed over to Turkey, and thrown in prison.
Meanwhile however Öcalan had undergone a conversion experience and renounced Marxism – his critique of “scientific socialism” constitutes one of the pleasures of the Manifesto – and embraced a non-(or anti-) authoritarian perspective strongly influenced by the American anarchist author Murray Bookchin. (Öcalan wrote to him, but by then Bookchin was old, sick and disillusioned, and failed to reply.) The anarchist influence on Öcalan’s thought remains strong, and one comes across references in his work to Kropotkin, Bakunin, Élisée Reclus and Proudhon, along with other favorite thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault, Wallerstein, Feyerabend, and Braudel (the longue durée is very important for Öcalan, as we shall see.) Anarchism itself he criticizes for its failure to change the world, but his alternative, “democratic confederalism,” is largely indistinguishable from Proudhon’s system (in his Federalism): bottom-up popular democracy based on regional autonomy, not involved with “nationalism” in any way, and valuing freedom even over socialism. Gustav Landauer would also be relevant here; – how I wish I could send Landauer’s On Socialism to Öcalan. How I wish he were free, so I could press a hundred books on him, or ever talk and argue with him. So many books, so little time – and now he is 69, only three years younger than me.
He is able to write (sometimes) and send his writings out because they are all composed as pleas to the World Court, to which he is allowed to petition (fruitlessly) for redress. Before the present volume he composed three major works translated into English (and some pamphlets) which I have discussed in my essay on him in Dare to Imagine: Rojava Revolution (Autonomedia, 2017). I can’t assume the readers of this review know about Rojava, so I must give it a few words here.
Rojava is basically western Kurdistan, below the Turkish border in N. Syria. Inspired by Öcalan’s ideas, the Syrian Kurds have succeeded – in the midst of civil war – in proclaiming autonomy for just such a democratic confederation (with “anarchist characteristics,” so to speak) as he proposed. It is based on radical feminist, socialist, ecological and secular principles. It has defended itself against ISIS with success. It is now directly threatened with invasion by Erdoğan’s Turkish Army (helped by Sunni extremists and Salafi remnants of the “Free Syrian Army” and ISIS itself). As I write, the Turks are poised in Afrin to launch an eastward offensive. Turkey has already been bombing and massacre-ing in Turkish Kurdistan, and now plans something like the genocide it once practiced against the Armenians. In this situation I fear the “Free Öcalan Committee” (based in Germany) is engaged in an uphill battle.
A book that proposes an average of one completely original idea per page flummoxes the reviewer. How to do it justice? For me, the foremost of his brilliant ideas concerns his reading of the archaeology and mythology of his own region, which used to be called Mesopotamia. Here, he insists, urban civilization first suppressed the Neolithic culture that had developed agriculture and animal husbandry thousands of years before. The form this suppression assumed was the STATE – the new thing, based on slavery, rape, religion, private property, class division and the pathology of technology. Of course (he insists) the Neolithic never completely vanished, and today it secretly underlies the fact of never-ending “ideological” resistance to “material civilization” and positivism that must be overcome through a “sociology of freedom.”
Öcalan’s basic politique reminds me of anarchist writer Paul Goodman’s witty self-description as a “Neolithic Conservative.” Öcalan really “believes” in the Goddess (and virtually in the primal matriarchy); in the communitarianism or “conviviality” (in Ivan Illich’s term), in the appropriate technology and the village eco-socialism etc. that all fall under the sign of love, a word he’s not afraid to use. The entity to be overthrown he calls “Capitalist modernity” – its “real power,” he says, “is not its money or its weapons; its real power lies in its ability to suffocate all utopias… with its liberalism” (p. 23). Capitalist modernity is the late manifestation of the “ziggurat state” that is 5000 years old (a very longue durée indeed) and based on the repression of the goddess Inana by Enki, or the “chaos” goddess Tiamat by the masculinist war-god Marduk.
Öcalan uses the term “ideology” in a positive sense in order to contrast his ideal (including “morality”) with his anti-ideal, “materialism” or “positivism.” His onslaught against positivism constitutes for me the most important aspect of his thought. Toward the end of Manifesto (pp. 194-5) he remembers Weber’s definition of capitalist civilization as “the elimination of magic from the world” (i.e., its “disenchantment”). “Of course,” Öcalan goes on, “in a highly advanced system of material culture a magical life cannot exist. Such a life is only possible in the world of ideological culture. Islamic, Christian and similar cultures do not have the skill to enchant the world of Capitalist life. This can only be procured by the power of the sociology of freedom…. Life itself is the most magical element there is. Therefore, our slogan should not be Socialism not Capitalism, but rather: Free life, not capitalism!
In Europe the Rojava cause, and Öcalan himself, occupy much public attention and are very popular. (Witness the French willingness to confront Turkey, a fellow NATO nation, in defense of the Syrian Kurds.) The leftist municipal government of Naples has given Öcalan the key to the city. Would he could use it! In America, however, I have noticed no such public enthusiasm for the Rojava revolution. Even most of the anarchists I know are lukewarm, either because they dislike “Bookchinism” or because they disapprove of the Öcalan “personality cult.” A few bold young anarchists have gone to Syria to join the Rojavan militias. But in general, even the fact that half of the militias is made up exclusively of women seems to rouse little enthusiasm, even in the #MeToo milieu. I find this both strange and obnoxious. I had my own issues with Bookchin, but I see no reason therefore to ignore the most exciting anti-authoritarian movement since the Zapatistas. (And what about the Sub-commandante Marcos Personality Cult?) Purist snobs who insist on their brand of anarchism or nothing will get precisely… nothing. Öcalan is like a great war-chief (e.g., Crazy Horse) who becomes a great peace-chief (Hiawatha and Deganawida), a champion who leads by precept and example, not by “authority.” He has repented of his former Marxism and renounced violence (except in self-defence, obviously). He is (I think) a genius and a hero, like Makhno or Malatesta – maybe even greater. It’s time to take him seriously – before it’s too late.
P. Wilson, Apr. 2018
Note: there will be English-language translations of all five volumes of the Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization. The second is already available: Vol. II: Capitalism: The Age of Unmasked Gods and Naked Kings.
For more information contact:
New Compass Press,
International Initiative Edition
“Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan
P.O. Box 100 511
D-50445 Cologne, Germany