Kurdish Issue

Kurdish issue related articles, news etc.



by Dr. Tamir Bar-On, Full Professor, Department of International Relations and Humanities, Tec de Monterrey, Campus Querétaro, Mexico. This paper was presented at the Challenging Capitalist Modernity II Conference, Hamburg Germany, 3-5 April, 2015. 


His name is very well-known in Turkey, but he remains largely a mystery to the outside world. He is a hero for many Kurds and a blood-thirsty criminal for the majority of Turks. Abdullah Öcalan is the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  A former practitioner of terrorism, Öcalan reflected on his organization’s changing fortunes after his arrest by the Turkish state. He continued a dramatic turn, which began in the 1990s, from the lionized leader of the PKK to an intellectual who largely eschews the violence of his past. The transition is remarkable, as Öcalan was enemy number one in Turkey from 1984, the year he began the PKK’s violent uprising, until his spectacular kidnapping in Nairobi and subsequent arrest by Turkish authorities in 1999. Öcalan currently resides in the Turkish prison of Imrali, where he penned his three-volume Prison Writings (Öcalan, 2007, 2011, 2012).

For almost 15 years Öcalan has languished in a Turkish prison as the only inmate guarded by 1500 Turkish soldiers. Abdullah Öcalan is a solitary figure, sitting in a remote Turkish prison off the Sea of Marmara. He thus had lots of time to re-think the strategies of the struggle for Kurdish rights and independence. He also reflected on other key issues: the violent guerrilla and terrorist tactics and strategies of his Marxist-inspired PKK (including suicide bombings, the brutal killings of “collaborators” within his own ranks, and indiscriminate killings of civilians), the nature of the Turkish state and its ideological foundations, the divisions and feudal structures of the Kurds, the history of civilization, and new models to resolve the Kurdish question and the problems of humanity at large. “The PKK launched most of its attacks on Turkish security forces, but also attacked other Turkish sites at home and abroad, as well as Kurdish civilians who would not cooperate with the group,” wrote Greg Bruno (2007) of the Council of Foreign Relations.

Robert Pape (2003, p. 361) has pointed out that in the 1980s and 1990s the use of the tactic of suicide terrorism rose worldwide “largely because terrorists have learned that it pays.” Despite their secular credentials, Öcalan’s PKK engaged in suicide terrorism. Yet, suicide terrorism was not central to the PKK’s operations.  The PKK’s campaign of suicide attacks began on 30 June 1995 and ended on 5 July 1999. About two-thirds of the attacks –eleven of its fourteen attacks–were undertaken by women and led to less than 20 deaths (Kurth Cronin, 2003, p. 17). Rather the PKK had a preference for guerrilla warfare, a form of irregular warfare in which a small group of combatants such as armed civilians or irregulars use military tactics such as ambushes, raids, and, hit-and-run tactics, as well as great mobility to fight a larger, traditional military. In 1984, the PKK guerrilla warfare operations began and included a raid on a police station in Skirt on 17 August, which was followed by an attack that killed three of General Kenan Even’s Presidential Guards in Yüksekova, and an ambush which killed 8 Turkish soldiers in Çukurca. Despite the PKK’s guerrilla warfare tactics, it did not mean that terrorist attacks were not committed against civilians as the primary targets. Although the majority of PKK activities are focused on village guards, police, and military posts, they have employed suicide bombing tactics on tourist sites and commercial centers in Western Turkish cities, especially during the tourism season. In addition, the PKK has engaged in non-suicide terrorist attacks against civilians, including in Istanbul on December 25, 1991 (11 deaths and 20 injuries) and a suspected PKK attack on July 27, 2008 (17 deaths and 154 injuries).

Suicide terrorists use the “strategic logic” of suicide terrorism because it can extract political concessions such as the expulsion of “occupying forces” from one’s territory or limited autonomy. Suicide terrorists sought to get Israeli forces to leave Lebanon in the 1980s and quit the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the 1990s, while they pressured the Sri Lankan government to create an independent Tamil state from 1990 onwards. Yet, Pape (2003, p. 361) insists on the failure of the PKK once it adopted the tactic of suicide terrorism: “In all but the case of Turkey, the terrorist political cause made more gains after the resort to suicide operations than it had before.” That is, the tactic of suicide bombing did not yield concrete gains such as autonomy or independence for the Kurds, while ironically Öcalan’s capture by the Turkish state has set the stage for a historic resolution of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

For a man that lived by the gun, Öcalan devotes very few pages to violence in his three-volume Prison Writings. Öcalan’s novelty is his historical approach to the Kurds and more broadly Middle Eastern civilizations. This paper advances a Gramscian interpretation of Öcalan based on his numerous writings after his capture by the Turkish state, but argues that the PKK leader has moved to a more radical “democratic autonomy” position superseding the former Italian Communist leader. I especially focus on Öcalan’s The Road Map because it set the stage for historic negotiations between Öcalan and the Turkish state in order to resolve the long-standing Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

Born in Ales, Sardinia (Italy) in 1891, Antonio Gramsci, was a political theorist and former leader of the Italian Communist Party. A hero for Marxists in Italy and around the world for his resistance to the Fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, Gramsci wrote his own prison writings while in jail and died in a government-controlled clinic in Rome in 1937 (Gramsci, 1971, 1992, 1996, 2007). I utilize Antonio Gramsci to help us understand cultural-civilizational sea changes that allow political space for new ideological syntheses (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 445; 506-507).  Following Gramsci, I use Öcalan’s writings to stress the role of intellectuals in history. Intellectual ideas play a key role in shaping history and moulding consensus among the people in civil society in favour of or against a reigning ideological framework. An intellectual is a person whose profession is centred on the production and dissemination of ideas. Antonio Gramsci (1971, pp. 131-133) distinguished between “organic” and “traditional” intellectuals, with the former wedded to a particular social class (bourgeoisie or proletariat) and the latter connected to the older socio-economic order and “hegemonic project.”  Öcalan is neither an agent of the bourgeoisie and not the proletariat in the dogmatic Marxist sense because he has criticized the one party dogmatism of Communist states and the PKK’s narrow-minded socialism of the past. So, for example, in Prison Writings I, Öcalan (2007, pp. 234-236) stated that socialist and national liberation movements “made excessive use of violence”; the Communist One-party state was a “tool for the strict implementation of a totalitarian understanding of government”; the “dictatorship of the proletariat” slogan was “largely motivated by propaganda purposes”; and there can be “no socialism without democracy.”

Öcalan’s theoretical influences are diverse. Democratic theory, ecological anarchist Murray Bookchin, Immanuel Wallerstein, the New Left, feminist theory, Marx, and Hegel influence Öcalan’s thought. So, for example, Öcalan’s focus in recent years on democratic-confederalism and democratic-autonomy beyond the state is influenced by the ecological anarchist Murray Bookchin (Akkaya and Jongerden, 2013). His goal is a new civilizational model in which “democratic civilization” will be merely one component of a still emerging global, civilizational synthesis. Öcalan favours “contemporary democracy” and federalist principles, while longing for a new historical synthesis of world civilizations (2007, pp. 255-256).  A new “democracy of the people,” argues Öcalan (2007, p.237), will fail in the Middle East if it is not “superior” to Western democracy. This bold assertion reinforces the Hegelian idea that history unfolds towards universal, civilizational progress and that “contemporary democracy” is for now the highest expression of this progress. If a new civilizational synthesis emerges, sustains Öcalan, it will need to build on the real historical progress made as a consequence of the emergence of “democratic civilization”: individualism, the rule of law, rule by the people, secularism, and women’s rights.

Whether in his days as a practitioner of the armed struggle or in his jail cell, Abdullah Öcalan is a unique figure that the world knows little about. The same cannot be said about Menachem Begin and Yasser Arafat, two prominent Middle Eastern leaders that used the armed struggle to “liberate” their peoples. Moreover, while Öcalan is an indisputable voice of conscience of the Kurdish people, why is the Kurdish question relegated to a secondary international status compared to, say, the Palestinian, Tibetan, Basque, Kosovar, and even Quebecois national questions? In an epoch that Zbigniew Brzezinski (2007, pp.205-208) has dubbed an “anti-imperial age” (that is, an era of “global geopolitical awakening” and de-colonization where it is no longer acceptable to rule over other peoples because of the principles of national self-determination and sovereignty), it appears rather strange that the Kurds have been left off the list of nations deserving a state. According to an expert on the Kurds, David Romano (2008, pp. 346), “the Kurds are often described as ‘the world’s largest stateless nation,’” and about half of the 28 million Kurds in the Middle East come from within the territory controlled by Turkey. Another prominent specialist on the Kurds, Michael Gunter (2000, pp. 849), points out that Kurds comprise as much as 20 per cent of the total population in Turkey and that Öcalan’s capture “signalled a whole new beginning in the attempt to solve Turkey’s continuing Kurdish problem.” The tragedy of the Kurds has been a history of brutal state repression, as well as practical complications in seeking cultural rights or statehood from four sovereign states: Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

Linking Gramsci and Öcalan

As highlighted above, the aim of this paper is to analyze Abdullah Öcalan’s Prison Writings III: The Road Map to Negotiations (The Road Map) from a Gramscian perspective. I use Gramsci’s writings in prison, his example, and his theoretical insights in order to explain the transformation of Öcalan’s thinking. In addition, I suggest that The Road Map’s contents offer the Kurds, Turks, and other peoples in the Middle East a way out of the blind alleys of authoritarianism, uncritical nationalism, and statist assimilationism. The Turkish state and PKK have a historic opportunity offered by The Road Map and could seize the moment in order to radically change Turkish-Kurdish relations. Should this historical moment be seized, the fate of the Kurds beyond Turkey might also be transformed. In addition, The Road Map offers us a model for the resolution of long-standing ethnic conflicts in the region, although no two conflicts can be solved similarly. In Prison Writings I, Öcalan (2007, pp. 296-297) argues that we have reached a historic moment in which we can “attempt a solution of the Kurdish question by democratic and peaceful means,” while insisting that the Kurds will be “a fundamental power of peace and democracy” for the entire Middle East.

Moreover, I argue that The Road Map is a text linked to a Gramscian metapolitical vocation. “Metapolitical vocation” here implies the following: (1) intellectuals rejecting direct and activist parliamentary or extra-parliamentary political interventions and focusing their energies on changing hearts and minds and the “conquest” of civil society; (2) a fixation on what Robert Nozick (1974 in Zaibert, 2004, p. 113) argued was the “the fundamental question of political philosophy, one that precedes questions about how the state should be organized”; and (3) a sophisticated form of politics that is not a flight from politics, but a continuation of “war” through “non-violent” means (Bar-On, 2013, p.3). In order to distance himself from fascist or Bolshevik strategies of a “frontal assault on the state,” Öcalan advanced Gramsci’s notion of a “war of position,” or the centrality of a politics of ideological struggle (Bar-On, 2013, p. 3).

Gramsci (1971, p. 481) pointed out that political struggle is “enormously more complex” than war because it includes both elements of consensus and force. Furthermore, Gramsci (1971, pp. 479-480) insisted that “the greater the mass of the apolitical, the greater the part played by illegal forces has to be,” or conversely “the greater the politically organised and educated forces, the more it is necessary to ‘cover’ the legal State.”  Gramsci (1971, p. 481) pointed out that there were “three forms of war”: war of movement, war of position, and underground warfare. He explains that Gandhi’s passive resistance is “a war of position, which at certain moments becomes a war of movement, and at others underground warfare.” (Gramsci, 1971, p.481) He also underscores that boycotts fall under the ambit of war of position, strikes are a type of war of movement, and the secret preparation of weapons and combat troops are considered underground warfare (Gramsci, 1971, p. 481).

Öcalan’s understanding of the “war of position” has indeed changed since his capture by the Turkish state. We should remember that a number of terrorist groups from the PLO to IRA and ETA have “increasingly renounced violence and maximalist goals in light of the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Marxist–Leninist Soviet Union, and cycles of terrorist violence that have reinforced the power of states.” (Bar-On, 2009, p.257) Öcalan’s call for the global spread of democratic civilization, scathing criticisms of narrow nationalism and dogmatic Marxism, and rejection of the utilization of violence should be viewed in the context of these global changes. Öcalan’s “conversion” process should be analyzed with respect to external forces (that is, the armed struggle that did not work and did not allow the Kurds to attain full cultural autonomy or independence) combined with internal reflections precipitated by his prison experiences (Bar-On, 2009, p. 258). What Öcalan shares with the Hegelian and Marxist perspectives is that history progressively unfolds towards more rational and higher spiritual, socio-economic, or political frameworks on a universal scale (Bar-On, 2009, p. 258).

Like Gramsci, Öcalan posits a less dogmatic view of history in which there is no “end of history” (Fukuyama, 1989, p. 3-18) and political struggles remain perpetually open and subject to constant movement and change. He is also, like Gramsci, a proponent of the importance of the conquest of civil society because this is where revolutionary activity should be directed in the contemporary world. For Öcalan, civil society “comprises the tool of democratic possibilities – that opens the door to developments hitherto impossible.” (Öcalan, 2007, p. 227) It is through the terrain of culture, including the media, Internet, education system and popular consciousness, which Öcalan hopes to lead the Kurdish people to their “promised land” of liberation in a manner that was impossible through the armed struggle.

Öcalan’s ceasefire call from Imrali Prison in the spring of 2013 continued his faith in the possibilities of radical change through civil society and the “war of position.” In the historic ceasefire call, Öcalan stated: “We have a new era starting upon us. A door is opening from a process of armed resistance to a process of democratic politics.” (21 March, 2013) He emphasized that a “new mentality” is emerging based on the trinity of democratic rights, freedoms, and equality. Öcalan reiterated his rejection of violence in the ceasefire announcement: “We have come to a point where we say ‘let the arms silence, opinions and politics speak’.” (21 March, 2013)

Yet, like Gramsci, for Öcalan the option of armed force is not completely taken off the table. Military and police targets were attacked regularly by the PKK in 2012. The use of PKK armed force will depend on whether the Turkish state fulfills its commitment to the Kurds in terms of the agreed upon road map, respects individual rights such as free expression and equality, and guarantees Kurdish collective rights, including legal, linguistic, educational, and broadcasting rights. Turkey’s desire to join the European Union (EU) led it to change many of its laws, including Öcalan’s death penalty, as well as its laws on political parties, the press, and association (Alexander et al., 2008, pp. xvii). Yet, in a move that was seen as directed at the PKK and its terrorist camps in Iraq, in 2007 the Turkish Parliament revised the Law to Fight Terrorism, “essentially broadening crimes punishable as terrorism offenses.” (Alexander et al., 2008, p. xxii) In October 2007, the PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire, while it simultaneously engaged in terrorist attacks against Turkey from its bases in Northern Iraq. These PKK attacks led to Turkish air strikes against Kurdish targets in Iraq.

Öcalan (2008) argues that independence is not a necessary precondition for respecting Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights: “Equal rights within a democratic Turkey” is the slogan. As Öcalan (2008: 39) wrote, “I offer the Turkish society a simple solution. We demand a democratic nation. We are not opposed to the unitary state and republic. We accept the republic, its unitary structure and laicism [secularism]. However, we believe that it must be redefined as a democratic state respecting peoples, cultures and rights.” Recall that Gramsci’s “war of position” contained non-violent elements such as boycotts, while the use of force could also be an option through “underground warfare.”

Analysis of Prison Writings III: The Road Map   

In this section, I comprehensively analyze Öcalan’s Prison Writings III: The Road Map to Negotiations. I argue that The Road Map is wedded to a Gramscian metapolitical vocation, but that the contents of the document are more radical proposals than the ideas of the former leader of the Italian Communist Party. As Öcalan (2007, 2011, 2012) has pointed out in his three-volume Prison Writings, the Kurds have faced a double historical tragedy: 1) the legacy of nationalist and statist assimilation at the hands of the Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian states; and 2) the continued failure to solve the Kurdish question in a way that would grant the Kurds independence, autonomy, confederalism, or equal civil, political, and cultural rights within the four main nation-states inhabited by the Kurds. The legacy of nationalist and statist assimilation even threatened the Kurds with extinction in Turkey in the early 20th century and more recently in Iraq. In her A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power (2003) examines the major genocides of the 20th century, including the little-known Anfal campaign launched by the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein from 1986-9, which it is estimated killed about 180,000 Kurds.  The grotesque pictures of chemical gas attacks against defenceless women and children in Halabja shocked the international community, but few in the West called for action against the brutal Ba’athist regime at a time when the West worried about the spread of another Iranian-style Islamist theocracy in the Middle East in the context of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). In Turkey, the Kurds as well as Turks also paid a heavy price. From 1984-1999, the period of the PKK’s insurgency, there were 31,000-37,000 dead (the majority Kurdish), 3,000 villages destroyed, and about 3,000,000 people internally displaced (Gunter, 2000, p.849; 2007, pp. 166-167).

In reading The Road Map, one gets the distinctive sense that the Kurds and Turkey are on the precipice of a historic solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey. As Öcalan (2012, p. 14) writes in the Foreword to The Road Map, the spirit of optimism even permeated the Turkish state, with Turkish President Abdullah Gül stating the following in respect of the Kurdish question in 2009: “It shall be resolved – there is no other way.” The guerrilla war between the Turkish state and PKK has killed many innocent people. Yet, peace is indeed made between former enemies. Who would have imagined the Oslo Accords between Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin? Who would have dreamed of secret negotiations between the Turkish state and Abdullah Öcalan? For many Turks, Abdullah Öcalan is a terrorist and war criminal; a man that ordered gruesome suicide bombing attacks against Turkish civilians and soldiers; a traitor to the Turkish nation. For many Kurds, on the other hand, the Turkish state aims at the extermination of the Kurds and Abdullah Öcalan is a hero for fighting for the Kurdish cause.

The Road Map is a unique historical document. It tells the story of the secret dialogue process between Abdullah Öcalan and the Turkish state. These negotiations began in 2009, but were broken off in mid-2011. The Road Map’s proposals for the resolution of the conflict have little to do with the Marxism or nationalism of the PKK’s past. These solutions certainly do not threaten the nationalist, secular, and Islamist-oriented government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the same way as an independent Kurdish state. Yet, the question remains: Is Turkey prepared to cede to Öcalan’s Road Map proposals for a “democratic nation” and a “common homeland” for Kurds? Are these more moderate proposals, which reject the armed struggle, Marxism, and call for equal political, civic, and cultural rights for Kurds within Turkey, still too frightening for the Turkish state? Are these proposals also troubling for the other states in the region with a “Kurdish problem”? Are they threatening for the major powers?

The Road Map is split up into six sections: Introduction, Concepts, Theoretical Framework and Principles, The Problem of Democracy and the Solution of a Democratic Constitution in Turkey, the Kurdish Question and the Prospects for its Solution, Action Plan, and Conclusion. The book also contains useful Editorial Notes by the International Initiative, the Cologne-based organization responsible for the publication of The Road Map. Finally, the Preface to The Road Map is written by Immanuel Wallerstein (b. 1930), a world-renowned world systems theorist who combines the insights of Marxism/neo-Marxism, the French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-85), and dependency theory.

The Editorial Notes penned by the International Initiative notes that Öcalan’s harsh Imrali Island prison conditions (for example, Öcalan cannot write or receive letters; he can neither make phone calls, nor receive visits, save from his lawyer and siblings) have earned the prison “the nickname ‘the European Guantanamo.’” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 5) We are also told that a Turkish state delegation “assured Öcalan that Prime Minister Erdogan agreed with ‘95 percent of the Road Map.’” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 7) After the June 2011 parliamentary elections, the Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) won its third term, while the PKK was preparing its disarmament and Öcalan drafted short protocols on the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the creation of a democratic constitution (Öcalan, 2012, p. 7). The Turkish government gave no written or verbal responses to Öcalan’s measures, thus leading the PKK leader to withdraw from the talks in July 2011 (Öcalan, 2012, p. 7).  The Turkish state re-started their military operations against Kurdish areas (including claims of the use of chemical weapons) leading to the loss of more civilian lives, while mass arrests targeted Kurdish political parties, writers, academics, and the press. In addition, Öcalan’s isolation increased as 36 of Öcalan’s lawyers were arrested, while none of his lawyers could visit him (Öcalan, 2012, p. 7). As a result, the International Initiative writes sardonically about Öcalan’s prison conditions: “Strictly speaking, no one knows if he is still alive.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 8)  Nonetheless, the Editorial Notes end on a more hopeful note, suggesting that although “Islamo-nationalism will become an intrinsic part of Turkish society,” Öcalan “embodies the voice of reason”; “the Road Map is still valid”; and they insist that “it is the only non-military solution that has been proposed by anyone.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 8)

Wallerstein’s Preface is a good starting point for Öcalan’s The Road Map. The Preface introduces us to the main theoretical concerns of The Road Map, which are broader than the Kurdish question. A scholar of the capitalist world-economy with its roots in 16th century Europe and the emergence of a modern world-system, Wallerstein sees four contradictions in such a system: 1) the search for state sovereignty; 2) the desire of all states to become nations; 3) the demands that states are democratic; and 4) the ways that capitalism maintains its equilibrium in order to survive (Wallerstein in Öcalan, 2012, p.10). Like Karl Marx, Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), and Öcalan, Wallerstein is convinced that “political action will affect the worldwide struggle about what kind of system will replace the now doomed capitalist world-system.” (Wallerstein in Öcalan, 2012, p. 13) Yet, before that capitalist world-system falls, Wallerstein insists that the solution to the Kurdish question in Turkey will depend on the powerful drive of the Turkish state to reinforce its sovereignty both from within and outwards; the desire of many in Turkey in the state and civil society to re-assert a dogmatic Jacobinism that does not recognize national or ethnic pluralism; and the way worldwide struggles will affect the Kurdish drive for democratic rights and autonomy. In this respect, it is possible that the financial crisis of 2008-9, Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados (Indignants) movement in Spain and Portugal, popular anti-government protests in Greece, and the Arab Spring all have the potential to impact on the Kurdish struggle. Indeed, Öcalan’s solutions for the resolution of the Kurdish question echo the concerns of the aforementioned protesters in terms of the desire for direct rather than representative democracy, criticism of the disproportionate power of money in the political process, and the more radical demand to democratize society by going “beyond earlier modernist political projects” and thus end the division between rulers and ruled (Gill, 2008, p.245). Whereas Gramsci and Öcalan once saw the Communist Party as a key agent in the counter-hegemonic struggle, today Öcalan is a prophet of a more radical, popular democracy that challenges both states and dogmatic leftist elites. Öcalan is a proponent of “democratic autonomy,” which is a form of democracy that takes citizens in civil society as its starting point; moves beyond elections as central to democracy; and challenges representatives as the key agents of the democratic process (e.g., party leaders, politicians, state officials, etc.).

As a supporter of “democratic autonomy,” Öcalan opines that civil society (including minorities, cultural groups, religious communities, etc.) and direct forms of democracy replace “representative” political elites as the main agents of democracy and social change. As Öcalan (2008, p. 32) wrote in War and Peace in Kurdistan in 2008 in respect of “democratic autonomy,” “the agents of this kind of self-government are not state-based authorities,” but the sovereign people seeking to attain democratic self-governance in all aspects of their lives. This position echoes a long-standing democratic tradition, which argues that there are “different roads towards democracy”; democracy does not entail merely formal elections; and direct democracy is more representative and fair compared to “elitist” forms of representative democracy (Rosanvallon, 2008).

Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya and Joost Jongerden (2012) confirm the “radical democracy” orientation of Öcalan, which they argue led to a profound ideological transformation of the PKK in the 2000s. These authors argue that the project for radical democracy is based on the conception of “politics beyond the state, political organisation beyond the party, and political subjectivity beyond class.” As a result, this conception of politics can conceivably undermine the centralist tradition in the Turkish political system, as well as challenge the statist and dogmatic class perspective of the Left in Turkey.

Whereas in the past the goal of the PKK was a “national liberation struggle” with the aim of an independent Kurdish state in Turkey, its aim today is a project of “radical democracy.” Radical democracy, argue Akkaya and Jongerden (2013), connotes the concept of democracy beyond nation and state. In addition, radical democracy can be developed along three dimensions: the democratic republic (of Turkey), democratic-confederalism (linking the Kurds in Turkey with Kurds in the rest of the Middle East), and democratic-autonomy (Both Kurdish and non-Kurdish communities promoting a democratic civil society beyond the state) (Akkaya and Jongerden, 2013). In his attempts to supersede a sterile and dogmatic Marxism, Öcalan sought to think of democratic practices outside the state, the PKK (the movement or party), and a narrow class focus (Akkaya and Jongerden, 2013). This “radical democracy” not only attempts to struggle against existing political institutions and Old Left thinking, but offers an alternative to the neo-liberal project where market civilization increasingly supplants democracy. The project of “radical democracy” is not only changing the PKK, but also influencing radical, leftist social and political movements, from the “liberation movements” of Latin America to the anti-globalization demonstrations in North America and Europe (Akkaya and Jongerden, 2013).

Cengiz Gunes (2012, pp. 463-464) points out that the PKK has played a role in the democratization processes in Turkey. The PKK’s ceasefire announcement in 1999, asserts Gunes (2012, p. 463), “brought about a significant reduction in the political violence in the region. The occasional eruption of violence in the past decade has neither been continuous nor as severe as past violence.” Although political violence has not disappeared between the PKK and Turkish state, the democratic opening has been important in limiting violence between the two entities. “The success of any democratic initiative to end the conflict rests on Turkey’s ability to generate a national consensus to recognize and accommodate Kurdish national demands and rights, such as education in Kurdish language, the constitutional recognition of Kurdish identity, and the extension of broadcast rights,” writes Gunes (2012, p. 468). He also points out that a Truth and Reconciliation commission might be necessary once the violence has stopped in order to deal with Turkish violence against Kurds, including extrajudicial murders during the 1990s of an estimated 17,500 people, as well as the violence of the 1980 coup d’état and the 1938 Dersim uprising (2012, p. 468).

The Introduction to The Road Map makes it clear that democracy and democratization are not merely Western, but universal tendencies “intrinsic to all beings” and societies (Öcalan, 2012, p. 15). Yet, in contrast to the universal drive for democracy, Turkey has been plagued by “severe nationalism” and “a bureaucratic oligarchic dictatorship” dating back to the Constitutional period in the Ottoman Empire from 1908-1922 (Öcalan, 2012, p. 16). Öcalan makes the claim that in Turkey “for a century an oligarchic autocracy has nested within the state.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 17) He insists that the Ergenekon trials will “determine the fate of Turkish democracy.”  (Öcalan, 2012, p. 17) The Ergenekon represents a state within a state, or what Öcalan calls “a clandestine, kemalist, ultranationalist organization in Turkey with ties to the military, security forces, politicians, and media.” (Öcalan, 2012 p. 17) This state within a state, argues Öcalan, used coups and other political maneuvers in order to undermine human rights, Kurdish rights, and the struggles of “oppressed classes.” For Öcalan (2012, p. 17), the aim of the state within the state has been to crush democracy and more ruthlessly “to eradicate everything related to being Kurdish and to Kurdistan.”

Historically, the Kurds were viewed by the Turks as “Mountain Turks.” (Gunter, 2000, p. 854) Kurdish communal identity was completely negated or denigrated, while nationalist assimilation was in general the rule in Turkey from the 1920s to the 1990s. The PKK was a product of the harsh assimilationist policies of the Turkish state. As Ertan Efegil (2011, pp. 27-28) argues, these policies can be traced back to the founder of the Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) who pursued a policy of “cultural unity” in the 1920s, which led to the emergence of Kurdish uprisings; the branding of the Kurds as “ethnic separatists”; and largely military measures to suppress these rebellions. This position continued until 1992 when Turkish President Turgut Özal criticized this assimilationist policy pursued by state elites; described the growing issue as the Kurdish “question”; and called for the improvement of the conditions of Kurds in Turkey (Efegil, 2011, p. 28). The opening to the Kurds was continued in August 2005 in a speech in Diyarbakır, in which Prime Minister Erdoğan argued in favour of more democratic rights for the Kurdish people.

Yet, the hopes for democratization in Turkey have been recently assisted by key powers such as the United States of America (USA) and the EU, which see their interests threatened and are “now more receptive to democratic solutions.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 18) Öcalan’s perspective has been corroborated by Cuma Çiçek who argues that “the new geopolitical conditions,” as well as the regional aspirations of the neo-liberal, pro-Islamist AKP, facilitates “the ending of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey” and the re-building of relations between Iraqi and Turkish Kurds (Çiçek, 2011, p. 15). Nonetheless, Öcalan argues that Turkey will need to shake off the shackles of the Ergenekon and adopt a new civilian constitution that guarantees fundamental rights (for example, the freedoms of expression and association), while safeguarding “the democratic, social, secular, and juridical attributes of the Republic.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 18) Öcalan is adamant that such a constitution would help find solutions for all of Turkish society and would not lead to Kurdish secession since Kurdish individual and social rights will be guaranteed.

In Part II, Öcalan outlines his key concepts, theoretical frameworks, and principles, which presumably would allow for the democratization of Turkey and the Middle East at large. Öcalan (2012, p. 19) is adamant that “constitutional solutions” are required in Turkey in order to solve the Kurdish question. He also notes that while the notion of Kurdistan “still inspires fear,” it was recognized by both the Seljuks and Ottomans (Öcalan, 2012, p. 19). Any Turkish attempts to deny the use of the words Kurd or Kurdistan would only lead to an impasse, insists the PKK leader.

Like Gramsci in another age, Öcalan has left the world of dogmatic Marxism. He argues that democratization is not merely “the dictatorship of the proletariat” or class war, but the protection of free speech and free association for all individuals, irrespective of their class position, culture, language, ethnicity, or faith (Öcalan, 2012, p. 20). Moreover, while he insists that the Kurdish problem can be resolved within the context of a Turkish, secular republic, Öcalan rejects the idea that it can be definitively decided through the project of the nation-state (Öcalan, 2012, p. 20). For Öcalan, a nation-state represents homogenization, assimilation, and at its worst the spectre of genocide. Öcalan (2012, p. 21) insists that Turkey could even become a “nation of nations.” He is adamant that the collective rights of Kurds or Turks must be balanced with a respect for individual rights.

In Part II, Öcalan (2012, p. 28-35) outlines ten principles for a more democratic political system in Turkey: 1) the democratic nation principle, 2) a common homeland principle, 3) democratic republic principle, 4) democratic constitution principle, 5) democratic solution principle, 6) the union of individual and collective rights and freedoms principle, 7) ideological independence and freedom principle, 8) the principle of historicity and present, 9) morality and conscience principle, and 10) the principle of self-defense in democracies.

A democratic nation connotes “open cultural identities and flexible nationalities;” it is not constructed forcefully by rulers; and respects both citizens and civil society (Öcalan, 2012, p. 28). This sounds rather similar to the state-sanctioned multiculturalism in Canada. Yet, Öcalan is interested in going beyond representative democracy as it relates to the state and towards the flowering of democratic activism at the lowest levels of civil society.

A common homeland would negate the “fascist” notion of a “uniform citizenry,” while it would be “multilingual, multinational, and multireligious.” (Öcalan, 2012, p.28) This position is obviously designed to undermine the near religious veneration of Turkish and Tukishness within the modern, secular Turkish republic.

Öcalan’s (2012, p. 29) ideal state is a republic that is not a nation-state, but rather a democratic state. The democratic republic cannot be tied to an ethnicity, argues Öcalan. Turkishness, Kurdishness, and Islam would be respected in civil society, but could not be part of the constitutional parameters of the state (Öcalan, 2012, p.29).

A democratic constitution would protect civil society from the assimilationist tendencies of the state, as well as from “the enormous concentration of power in the state.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 29) Here Öcalan focuses on the power of the people and society against the hegemonic power of the state. He reiterates the importance of the notion of “democratic autonomy.”

The democratic solution principle will attempt to democratize civil society, while civil society will not aim to topple the state (Öcalan, 2012, p. 30). The democratic solution springs from the forces of civil society rather than state-driven engineering. It seeks to protect civil society; constitutionally safeguard democratic institutions; and would not negate the existence of the state. Öcalan’s focus on civil society as the key motor for historical change echoes Gramsci, but also Rosanvallon and other proponents of more direct forms of democracy. There is even an anarchist strain in the PKK leader’s thought with the critique of state power, bureaucracies, and dogmatic Marxism, and desire for bottom-up democratic participation.

No political solution will work, argues Öcalan, without the appropriate balance between collective rights (state, civil society, Kurds, etc.) and individual rights. In a Gramscian tone, Öcalan (2012, p. 31) argues that the “ideological hegemony” of what he calls “capitalist modernity” and “positivism” must be superseded. In this respect, civil society can play a key role in undermining the prevailing pro-statist and pro-capitalist ideological hegemony.

The principle of historicity and the present refers to the notion that “capitalist modernity tries to destroy human memory and presents the present as if it were eternal or, rather, the end of time.” (Öcalan, 2012, p.33) Consequently, democratic solutions will take into consideration present society and the history of past experiences.

The morality and conscience principle entails the importance of religion and morality in democratic decision-making. Abstract reason and administrative solutions will merely aggravate problems, or at worst lead to genocides (Öcalan, 2012, pp. 33-34). Here Öcalan indirectly pays homage to The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) written by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (2002). Modernity was a dialectical process consisting of both cultural advances and barbarism, argued Adorno and Horkheimer. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the modern Enlightenment’s attempts to counter myth with reason led to the “mythology” of a modern world dominated by excessive faith in “instrumental reason.” From this perspective, the horrors of the Holocaust can be interpreted as merely a continuation of the project of modernity with its extreme, utopian faith in “instrumental reason” and technological progress. For Öcalan, “capitalist modernity” also entails contradictory progressive and barbaric processes in which the Kurds’ conservatism and feudalism can be superseded and yet new structures of domination are imposed through the universal spread of capitalism.

 Finally, the principle of self-defense in democracies means challenging capitalist modernity, industrialism, “the monopolist oppression and exploitation of the nation-state,” and the “war” against the environment (Öcalan, 2012, p.34-35). In the future, free individuals will need to resist capitalism and the state by living in “self-defense units” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 35). Presumably these “self-defense units” would be led by civil society organizations rather than the PKK, which Öcalan has criticized for the armed struggle, dogmatism, and socialist principles blind to historical realities (for example, the fall of the Communist Soviet Union).

Despite the Turkish government’s greater openness towards the Kurdish issue, there has not been “any considerably positive development towards a solution of the Kurdish issue.” (Çiçek, 2011, p.15) In 2009 and 2010, the Turkish state arrested 1,500 Kurdish politicians, including mayors, vice presidents, former MPs, and directors of the central and local branches of the Democratic Society Party (DTP). The Constitutional Court also banned the DTP for alleged ties to terrorist organizations and for questioning the “indivisible integrity” of the state.  There were also arrests of members of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), a PKK “self-defense unit,” as well as prosecution of children aged between thirteen and eighteen in adult courts under the Counterterrorism Law for throwing stones at members of the police force. Some children have been sentenced to imprisonment for several years (Çiçek, 2011, p.16).

Part 3 deals with the problem of democracy and the solution of a democratic constitution. Öcalan argues that modern, representative democracies, including the EU, are advances in human history, but “the monopolist state maintains its domination from the top.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 36) Individual freedoms have been paradoxically reduced in the era of modernity due to the trinity of capitalism, industrialism, and the monopoly of state-led bureaucratic power. This is why Öcalan insists that new freedoms can be gained through the “democratic autonomy” of civil society voices.

Turkey’s democracy problem stems from the adoption of Islam, insists Öcalan. On the one hand, the military and religious aristocracy received privileges from the monopoly of state power. On the other hand, the poor in cities and villages were excluded from state power. While Sunni Islam became the official ideology of the ruling classes, very few in civil society could resist against the ideological hegemony of Sunnism.

The modern Turkish state combined the ideological power of older historical civilizations (for example, Islam), as well as capitalist modernity. For Öcalan, the Turkish state thus became “capitalist, fascist, and bourgeois.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 39) Moreover, he insists that the Committee of Union and Progress became the prototype of the Italian Fascist Party and German National Socialist Party. Brutal class wars and genocides against Armenians and Kurds were the stock-in-trade of the Turkish state. Öcalan provides no evidence for how the Turkish state was the prototype for Fascist and Nazi regimes. Moreover, while the Turkish state has historically been monopolist and authoritarian, Öcalan’s claim that the Turkish state became fascist begs the question when? For if Fascism in its regime form was created in Italy in 1919, when did Fascism make its appearance in Turkey? And it begs a few other questions: Is Turkey still a Fascist state? Or, is it merely a semi-authoritarian state?  Or, is it a democracy? How do historians of Fascism classify the Turkish state both in the early 20th century and more recently? Does Öcalan have a tendency common to Marxist (or former Marxist) scholars to see all capitalist and modernist regimes as fascist, thus obscuring real differences between fascists and non-fascists, as well as totalitarians and authoritarians? (Payne, 1995)

Turkey’s democracy problem was histotrically aggravated by Mustafa Kemal and the foundation of a Turkish Republic, as well as the Jacobin tendency of the Turkish state. Öcalan argues that Jacobinism advanced the interests of the bourgeoisie, but was a popular movement that had dictatorial tendencies and made its mark in diverse regimes from modern Turkey to the French Revolution, and even the Bolshevik Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Despite the authoritarian nature of the Turkish state, Öcalan cites missed opportunities in respect of the Kurdish problem. He argues that both Mustafa Kemal and the Grand National Assembly of Turkey accepted Kurdish autonomy in 1924 and 1922 respectively. He points out that the British Empire played a key role in undermining Kurdish autonomy in conjunction with the Turkish state. The British sought to exclude Kurd, Socialist, and Islamist representation in the new Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal, while Kemal was a realist that accepted the new bargain. From 1950 to 2007, Turkey was under the sphere of influence of the USA and Gladio.  Is Öcalan trying to win favour with his Turkish interlocutors by stating that foreign powers rather than Turkey are principally to blame for the historical oppression of the Kurds? In addition, does not Öcalan overstate the powers of foreign forces in undermining the autonomy and self-governance desires of the Kurds?

When the Communist Soviet Union fell, Öcalan argues that “there was a plan to use it [Turkey] as a model for the modernization of the Islamic tradition.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 51) It is true that an Islamist party, The Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP), has governed Turkey since 2002 and it maintains a secular, republican tradition with expansive ties to the West. The PKK’s struggle is not for socialism or independence, insists Öcalan, but with the anti-democratic tendencies of the Jacobin, Turkish Republic. In addition, the PKK leader points out that Mustafa Kemal sought to counter the Italian Fascist inspiration of the Republican Peoples’ Party. Is this not again an attempt to win Turkish favour from Turks that consider Mustafa Kemal the Turkish hero of the 20th century? When he was captured by Turkish authorities, Öcalan surprisingly stated the following: “I really love Turkey and the Turkish people. My mother was Turkish. Sincerely, I will do all I can to be of service.” (In Gunter, 2000, p. 852) Öcalan’s various writings insisted on maintaining the unity, independence, and territorial integrity of Turkey. As far back as 1993 when he declared a unilateral ceasefire, Öcalan’s position evolved from outright separation of the Kurds towards a rejection of separation and a focus on the historical “brotherhood” between Kurds and Turks.

Yet, Öcalan argues that the Turkish state must be situated within the context of larger hegemonic powers: the imperatives of the British Empire from 1925 to 1945, the USA from 1945 to 2010, and global capitalist structures (for example, the IMF and World Bank) in conjunction with NATO’s Gladio, which Öcalan dubs “the real ruler” of Turkey (Öcalan, 2012, p. 55). As a result of the assimilationist, Jacobin tendencies of the Turkish state and the influence of external hegemonic powers, Turkey “annihilated” members of the Communist Party in the Cold War period (Öcalan, 2012, p. 55). Islamists were also targeted with arrests and deportations, but an Islamist modernization process led to the creation of the Erbakan movement in 1969 and eventual participation in government under Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan (1926-2011) in 1996-97. Erdoğan’s government cemented Turkey as a model for a secular Islamism in the Middle East. It was assumed that the Kurdish question was “terminated” after the rebellion period from 1920 to 1938, but the PKK began the process of highlighting the existence of the Kurds through violent and later more non-violent methods from 1980 to 2010 (Öcalan, 2012, pp. 56-57).

In section four, Öcalan highlights the key questions surrounding the Turkish problem and the prospects for resolving the Turkish question. Öcalan once thought that a state was the answer to the woes of the Kurds, but now opines that “the state is the greatest source of troubles.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 63) Again, this position should be viewed in light of Öcalan’s rejection of representative democracy and support for “democratic autonomy” from the bottom-up. In short, the assimilationist state denied the existence of the Kurds, while cultural protection was sought through the preservation of Kurdish lifeways, their focus on agriculture and animal husbandry, and the “shelter” of the mountains (Öcalan, 2012, p. 64). In short, Kurdish culture was maintained outside of the state in civil society. He insists that Kurds want to overcome the periods of near “cultural genocide” at the hands of the Turkish state, while becoming a “strategic friend” or “partner” of the Turks (Öcalan, 2012, pp. 68-69).

Öcalan maintains that he has learned from the Turkish state and his incarceration. For Öcalan, the armed struggle is identified as “a fight for truth.” (Öcalan, 2012, p.78) Did not Gramsci also learn from prison through his writings and the re-thinking of strategies in order to defeat capitalism? The “truth” that the armed struggle revealed is not that the Kurds need a state (as this state may replicate the assimilationist Turkish state), but rather “the existence of the Kurds.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 78) The PKK is today more concerned with finding democratic solutions within Turkey rather than the armed struggle, attaining a nation-state, or socialism. In this respect, Öcalan has superseded Gramsci’s attachment to the Italian Communist Party. Yet, questions remain about Öcalan’s authoritarian personality and the sexual repression associated with the organization. For example, Romano points out that in the 1990s “while a Kurdish National Assembly would have helped to develop Kurdish autonomous institutions and the legitimacy of Kurdish group demands, Öcalan soured on the idea as soon as it became clear that such institutions would not remain under his full control.” (Romano, 2008, p. 347; Marcus, 2007) The “democratic autonomy” and civil society-based solutions Öcalan proposes in The Road Map would undermine the power of the Turkish state, PKK, and all so-called “democratic” representatives of the Kurds.

Three main solutions have been proposed for the Kurdish question: national assimilation (or annihilation), a Kurdish federalist nation-state that encompasses Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and a democratic nation solution. Öcalan calls for the latter option within the context of the ten principles highlighted earlier.

The name Öcalan gives for the “democratic autonomy” solution is KCK. The KCK stands for the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (Komo Civaken Kurdistan), an umbrella of democratic Kurdish organizations in civil society. As pointed out earlier, arrests of KCK members intensified in 2009 and 2010. It is the KCK that will supposedly replace the PKK once the armed struggle is no longer necessary. It is in this crucial section that Öcalan insists unambiguously that the democratic solution means that he accepts “the institutions and present borders of the Republic of Turkey as legitimate.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 93) He also rejects a unitary, federal, or confederal Turkey. Instead, he argues that “the democratic, equal, and free aspects of Republic of Turkey’s citizenship be not just defined in the constitution and regulations but institutionally implemented.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 93) The solution must respect both individual and collective cultural rights, but also involve the entire society rather than a top-down, state-centric approach. Moreover, the Kurds should have their place within the “People” or “Nation” of Turkey constitutionally defined (Öcalan, 2012, p.94).

As part of the KCK solution, Öcalan points out that the army must be used for external threats alone rather than against the Kurds. Moreover, the KCK can be expanded to include other cultural communities in Turkey from Armenians and Assyrians to Turkomans, while a flexible confederation can include Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The Grand National Assembly of Turkey must take a leading role in the KCK solution.

Section five outlines the action plan for implementing Öcalan’s Kurdish solution. It is interesting that Öcalan comes out against the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq because its aim is “in controlling Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey.” (Öcalan, 2012, p. 102) In the first phase, Öcalan is prepared to reign in his PKK fighters in order to attain a democratic solution. In the second phase, A Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be conducted by the Turkish Grand National Assembly. In a third phase, Öcalan (2012, p. 104) argues that a resort to arms will not be necessary, Kurds can return from exile, and ex-PKK fighters and refugees can attain full citizenship status in the context of the KCK. Öcalan insists that the USA, EU, and United Nations can all assist in the transition to a democratic solution.

Yet, Öcalan (2012, p. 104) points out that if there is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he should be released. Will Turks who view Öcalan with suspicion because of his previous support for the armed struggle, suicide bombings, Kurdish nationalism, and Marxism, be ready to make such a leap of faith?

In the Conclusion, Öcalan (2012, p. 107) declares that should the current AKP government solve the Kurdish question, “Turkey has a chance to be a model” for the entire Middle East. Kurds and Palestinians, as well as other minorities in the Middle East from Copts in Egypt to Assyrians in Iraq, rightfully ask where is their Arab Spring? Those hitherto neglected groups insist that democratization processes must also grant them equal status politically. Öcalan (2012, p. 108) argues that a window of opportunity has been opened to solve the Kurdish problem as Turkish Gladio operations linked to NATO, the USA, Israel, and EU ended in 2007. Should this window be left open, the secret negotiations begun between the Turkish state and Öcalan will lead the Kurds away from a history of occupation, assimilation, colonialism, and invasion towards democracy, equality, and freedom.

Concluding remarks 

This paper analyzed Abdullah Öcalan’s The Road Map from a Gramscian perspective. I argued that The Road Map is infused with numerous influences from “democratic autonomy” and feminism to Immanuel Wallerstein and Hegel. Yet, a Gramscian reading of The Road Map allows us to see how changes in mentalities and civil society are preludes to revolutionary political change.  Gramsci stressed the role of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic ideas in civil society rather than merely the repressive apparatus of the state in the maintenance of liberal, capitalist democracies. Öcalan is convinced that for the first time in history the Kurdish-Turkish conflict can be solved through discussions and without arms. This position strengthened as a result of Öcalan’s incarceration in 1999, but it has its genesis in Öcalan’s turn towards “democratic autonomy” in the early 1990s. His claim is that “democratic civilization” is spreading worldwide and this will assist the Kurds in their struggle for their rights.

What is remarkable about Öcalan’s Road Map is that he has presented the Turkish state a framework for the resolution of the “Kurdish problem.” For all his defense of the Palestinians, Prime Minister Erdoğan has not similarly defended the Kurds within his own country and could miss a historic opportunity by not taking Öcalan’s proposals seriously.  The Turkish state continues to deny the existence of the Armenian genocide. This too does not bode well for the recognition of cultural and minority rights by the Turkish state. The Turkish state’s recent failure to seriously support the Kurds in Kobani (Syria) against the genocidal Islamic State (IS) further provokes Kurdish-Turkish tensions. Öcalan, on the other hand, comes off as a peacemaker. This is a remarkable transition for a man that once lived by the gun; a man that for a period of time valorized the deadly tactic of suicide bombing; a man that engaged in the armed struggle and executed “traitors” within his own ranks. Imrali prison is a bitter pill for Öcalan to swallow, but it has perhaps transformed the lionized PKK leader into a veritable Gramsci of our times.

Öcalan’s ceasefire call in the spring of 2013 further cemented his evolution from the armed struggle towards non-violence and the importance of “democratic autonomy”. Öcalan has been championing a Middle Eastern “renaissance” away from statism and authoritarianism long before the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010. Öcalan’s The Road Map offers hope for Kurds, Turks, and all “subaltern” forces in the Middle East. Öcalan is a new breed of organic intellectuals of “subaltern forces helping to organize workers, peasants and indigenous peoples,” as well as other hitherto neglected groups in civil society from women and Kurds in the Middle East (Gill, 2008, p. 182). Öcalan represents a larger wave of movements in the new millennium, which Gramsci scholar Stephen Gill has called “the post-modern Prince”, or “a set of progressive political forces in movement.” (Gill, 2008, p. 182) These movements, including an array of indigenous movements in Latin America, Occupy Wall Street, and some elements in the Arab Spring, are proposing more innovative forms of political agency, which question the division between rulers and ruled (Gill, 2008, p. 237-248). While Öcalan’s attention to the importance of civil society echoes Gramsci, his proposals in The Road Map for a more plural, inclusive, and flexible form of politics that rejects neo-liberal globalization, statist nationalism, and the Communist Party transforms the ideas of the Italian Communist hero. This transformation contradicts the picture Marcus (2007, p. 181) paints of Öcalan: A self-absorbed, flawed, and ruthless leader, determined to eliminate any activity “that would remove the Kurdish fight out of his direct control.” Despite his incarceration, Öcalan has “singlehandedly shaped the Kurdish issue within the Turkish republic.” (Kiel, 2011, p. 1) Yet, his radical democratic proposals for the resolution of the Kurdish “problem,” if implemented, will lead to the loss of real power for Öcalan, the PKK, and leaders and states throughout the Middle East. In his embrace of “democratic autonomy” from the bottom-up and rejection of the dogmatism of the party or state, Öcalan is more revolutionary than Gramsci. As I previously wrote, “Öcalan’s ‘conversion’ to ‘democratic civilisation’ is authentic in that it comes from a series of crises, including the demise of Marxism–Leninism as an animating ideology after 1989, his ignominious capture and the political intransigence of both the PKK and Turkish state in a guerrilla war (Bar-On, 2009, p. 250).In addition his conversion to radical democracy is based on “tactical acumen in the context of changed political circumstances. Forced state incarceration accelerated Öcalan’s conversion out of the dogmatic Marxist orbit.” (Bar-On, 2009, p. 258)

Yet, successful political “conversion” in the context of a “sacralization of politics” (Gentile, 2006) is a complex process and it requires more research. In a previous piece (Bar-On, 2009, 244-245), I highlighted numerous prerequisites for successful political “conversions”: (1) a series of major crises and collapse (i.e. political-institutional, socio-economic, ideological, cultural, spiritual, generational or external invasion); (2) a crisis of faith in the prevailing hegemonic ideology (i.e. the ability to inspire faith and enthusiasm wanes due to time, the emergence of new circumstances without the past’s revolutionary fervour and generational change); (3) the ideologue’s “conversion” to the new faith (with strains of the old ideology perhaps lingering in the new ideological framework); (4) political space for the new ideology; (5) dynamic proponents of the ideology able to attract a mass or key elite following; (6) a cultural-civilisational milieu that promotes the new ideas like a “mimetic contagion”; (7) the willpower of devoted “true believers” against great odds; (8) organisational cohesion driving the ideology to new heights of success; (9) the collusion or semi-collusion of established authorities; and (10) a dose of what Niccolò Machiavelli called fortuna (i.e. luck, chance, or circumstances beyond one’s control).

It would be interesting to use this aforementioned model in order to trace Öcalan’s unusual “conversion” from dogmatic Marxism and nationalism towards radical democracy. Such an analysis might highlight the authenticity or inauthenticity of Öcalan’s conversion to radical democracy; the crises that promoted such a conversion; and whether the political conversion will influence the Kurds, Turks, and the entire region. It is also important to note that political conversions also mean that the ideologue’s “conversion” is to a “new faith,” with strains of the old ideology perhaps lingering in the new ideological framework. In Öcalan’s case, what has remained from his older ideological past is his support for secularism and egalitarianism, the power of the people to make history, the Hegelian notion that history evolves, disdain for capitalism, and the need for new political and economic frameworks for humanity.


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