8 Sep 2014

Kurdish spring: what are the PKK fighting for?

The PKK could play a key role in the battle against Islamic State, but their roots as Marxist guerrillas leaves the west wary. Channel 4 News looks at how the group is pursuing a Kurdish Spring.

Ocalan flags

After over 30 years of an anachronistic Marxist-Leninist insurgency against the Turkish state, militants of the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) say they are rejecting nationalism, Maoist military strategies and even the idea of a nation state – adopting instead the teachings of an obscure US academic.

After PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was arrested and imprisoned in 1999 he began re-evaluating the hardline Marxist-Leninist strategy he had followed since founding the group in 1978 and the subsequent violent guerrilla war launched in 1984 that led to thousands of deaths.

Read more: How British Kurds are heading to fight Islamic State

In prison Ocalan discovered the writing of Murray Bookchin, an anarchist academic and contrarian from New York, whose theories of “social ecology” and “libertarian municipalism” remained obscure even within his own political current until his death in 2006.

Combining these ideas with teachings from Fernand Braudel and Friedrich Nietzsche, Ocalan announced the new direction he believed the PKK should take.

In his new manifest he rejected political violence, nationalism and even the idea of establishing a Kurdish nation state declaring: “The nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us.”

New mentality

In north London, members of the Kurdish community have spent years studying the new ideology proposed by Ocalan and holding debates over how to distance their struggle from its authoritarian past.

Memed Aksoy, a Kurdish community activist, told Channel 4 News how he envisioned a Kurdish region taking shape comprising autonomous regions in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria based on Bookchin’s idea of “libertarian municipalism”.

There has been a great push in the past 10 years to do away with the nation-state mentality. Memed Aksoy

“There has been a great push in the past 10 years to do away with the nation-state mentality of the old PKK and develop cadres to have a democratic, ecological gender-equal mentality,” he explained.

“Eight autonomous regions are proposed for North Kurdistan. Organising the people from the ‘bottom-up’ in an upside-down pyramid there are currently street, neighbourhood, town and city assemblies; each one sends representatives to the Democratic Society Congress,” he explained.

“There are currently three autonomous regions (cantons) in West Kurdistan (Syria) and each one has a parliament, a prime minister, ministers and its own defence force. These regions employ a barter economy where possible and have formed communes at all levels to solve their problems.”


But after years of bloody conflict, which has seen over 40,000 people killed, can the idealism of the PKK’s imprisoned leader hold any sway over the forces now fighting Islamic State in Syria.

Memed explains that there are conflicts within the PKK over this issue: “It has been difficult for people to give up on a unified, independent, socialist Kurdistan – or a Kurdish state.

“Ocalan’s reformulation of democratic socialism and how this can be brought about in the body of democratic autonomy seemed like a pipe-dream to many only a few years ago.”

You can frequently hear quotes or passages from Adorno, Bookchin, Arendt and Nietzsche in Kurdish circles. Memed Aksoy

“Now it has become evident with the revolution in West Kurdistan and then the inability of the KRG to defend itself that this is the only possible solution in a region, which is rife with sectarianism, nationalism and patriarchy.”

Like Ocalan, Murray Bookchin searched for a new political home late in life – he had ultimately rejected the anarchist movement he had become a leading voice within and was pursuing communalism.

Ocalan attempted to make contact with Murray Bookchin while he was still alive, however he was too unwell at the time to open correspondence. Now his lifelong collaborator Janet Biehl continues his ideological work on social ecology and examining the Kurdish application of his ideas.

“We can say in general that the movement is staying true to Ocalan’s ideas and ideals and discussing these in educations, seminars, conferences, in the media and amongst themselves,” Memed explains.

“You can frequently hear quotes or passages from Adorno, Bookchin, Arendt and Nietzsche in Kurdish circles!”

‘Marginalised and criminalised’

The PKK are currently engaged in a peace process and ceasefire with the Turkish government and hope to see Ocalan ultimately freed.

Ocalan stated in 2006 that “the PKK should not use weapons unless it is attacked” and called for a “democratic union between Turks and Kurds”, a major break with their prior “three phase insurgency” taken straight from Chairman Mao.

Memed admits their adherence to a fringe ideology and Marxist roots prevent the PKK from finding support in the international community for the fight against Islamic State forces.

“The PKK has refused to ‘play ball’ with the international community on many occasions; Ocalan’s capture and his call for peace following the capture being one.”

“Being a de-facto enemy because of its struggle against the Turkish state and because of the division between Kurds that has given the KRG the role of ‘good Kurds,’ the PKK has consistently been marginalized and criminalised.

“It hasn’t fit into the grand narrative written by the international community like Islamism and the gangs it has fostered has.”

Reporting by Brian Whelan.