Dreams within Defeats: The Kurdish Quest for Meaning
By Matt Broomfield
Many of us are familiar with the dictum, attributed to Antonio Gramsci, that socialists should be possessed by “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” In its original context, a prison letter written to an anarchist comrade whom he accuses of simplistically claiming petty victories, the militant Italian intellectual goes on to opine how: “My own state of mind synthesizes these two feelings and transcends them; Since I never build up illusions, I am seldom disappointed. I’ve always been armed with unlimited patience – not a passive, inert kind, but a patience allied with perseverance.”
As this typically dialectic ‘synthesis’ suggests, Gramsci is not drawing a simple contrast or suggesting that communists should continue organizing toward revolution in blind ignorance of reality. Rather, it is his very pessimism which equips him for the long struggle ahead. In the same way, the Kurdish freedom movement has found ways to incorporate defeats, setbacks, and losses into its mythology, ideology and praxis. Rather than ignoring or writing off defeats, the movement’s representatives, too, synthesize them into a bold account of all they stand to gain, underwritten by an admittedly pessimistic analysis of the material circumstances in which they are currently forced to operate.
Incumbent President Erdoğan’s likely victory in the upcoming run-off election is far from the greatest blow the Kurdish movement has faced in its long history. Nonetheless, organizers and observers on the campaign trail report a bitter mood the day after the first round of votes. Beset by sweeping arrests, a ban on their main legal political party, and an extraordinarily hostile media environment leaving them at the mercy of other candidates’ virulently nationalistic rhetoric, the pro-Kurdish bloc still maintained its position as the third-largest force in Parliament, but failed to make hoped-for gains. More pressingly, Erdoğan’s sole serious challenger Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu was unable to defeat the President outright despite the support of the Kurdish bloc, leaving both candidates appealing to the hard-right ahead of the May 28th run-off election and Erdoğan the all-but-certain victor.
On the one hand, those on the campaign trail in Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) report the election is understood as part of a “life-or-death struggle”, describing “despair and heartbreak” as the results filtered in and Erdoğan garnered more votes than the polls had predicted. On the other, the result is described as “not that surprising”, with Kurdish political organizers planning victory parties and simultaneously laying contingency plans. Of course, the Kurdish movement is well accustomed to recognizing the limitations of institutional politics, even as they struggle for representation and participation within these institutions. But the same apparent contradiction is present in the Kurdish response to even more serious losses.
When responding to Turkish military operations against Kurdish-led attempts to establish democratic autonomy within and outside Turkey’s borders, the movement deliberately articulates the crises it faces in existential terms. In part, this is an effective strategy for organizing a guerrilla-style “people’s war” against a technologically-superior opponent. Representatives of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) use heightened rhetoric to describe the unsystematic ethnic cleansing which has seen the Kurdish population in Afrin (Efrîn) driven down from 97% to under a third, as Turkey installs primarily Arab and Turkmen militias in their place along the Turkish border, and incarcerates, harasses, and brutalizes the remaining Kurdish population.
Regional political leaders describe what is happening in Afrin as a ‘şerê hebûn û nebûnê’, (war of existence [or] non-existence), or sometimes more simply as ‘genocide’. If one believes that the region has not witnessed a sufficient enough number of systematic killings of Kurds to typically mark a genocide – then perhaps a term like ‘ethnic cleansing’ would suffice. However, this does not mean the conflict is not experienced by its Kurdish victims in an existential fashion, as a struggle not just for land or the right to governance, but over a political idea and way of life inextricably bound up in a particular ethnic identity.
Living in Afrin is not necessarily a death sentence for a Kurd: some corrupt collaborators, plus the elderly and indigent, endure. On the contrary, it is anyone suspected of defending their rights by working with the AANES or their military wings in the YPG (People’s Protection Units), YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), or SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) – whether Kurd, Arab, or Yazidi – who can expect to be disappeared into one of the region’s black sites. The Kurdish movement is quite right to state that Turkey is not only opposed to Kurdish self-determination, but to the broader political program of federalism being trialled on its southern border. The movement must appeal to this all-or-nothing sense to justify its prophetic belief in its own destiny as the answer to totalizing state violence, and the correspondingly total sacrifices it demands of its loyalists.
But this approach, which enables extraordinary acts of valor, comes with an additional cost. If people are told that a war is for their very existence, and that war is then lost, the question arises of how they can possibly endure the defeat? On the campaign trail, as during the Turkish military operations against the AANES, it is easier to experience heady sensations of camaraderie, courageous defiance, and noble sacrifice. But there comes a day afterward, when the war is lost, and yet the looked-for bombs are yet to fall on one’s own bunker or home, and the infighting and recriminations resume. This dynamic, all-or-nothing energy may be maintained through a battle, a week, a year: but it must subside at one point, to be replaced by a curiously hollow sensation.
The victory has not come – in a guerrilla war pitting F-16 fighter jets against AK-47s, or an electoral process in Turkey scarcely worthy of the name, it never really could – but nor has the oblivion of total defeat. The Kurds must, therefore, find ways to endure.
Arriving in Rojava in the weeks following the Turkish invasion and occupation of Afrin, I was immediately struck by the gap between the sense of existential defeat I had anticipated and the reality of continued, frantic organizing – not only on the military front, but across diverse economic, political and cultural fields. Likewise, following the subsequent occupation of Serê Kaniyê and Girê Sipî, Western journalists poured through the border, fearing an Assad regime takeover, pausing only to publish weepy op-eds heralding the death of the revolution. In reality, nothing changed on the ground in terms of the AANES’ political and security control of the northern Syria interior. And again, despite the “heartbreak” in Turkey, there is no sense the likely electoral loss should be marked by a loss of hope: “Maybe we weren’t too pragmatic or score-oriented. And we suffered a quantitative loss. But we have done our part for the development of democracy in Turkey. There is still hope and a second chance for regime change.”
As in Gramsci’s ‘synthesis’, this ability to experience qualitative hope despite quantitative defeat is marked less by cognitive dissonance than negative capability – the ability to maintain mental contradictions, accept “uncertainties, mysteries and doubts”, and thus finding truths which exceed mere reason. The Kurdish movement’s ideologues, too, valorize the ability to think and operate politically through and beyond ‘contradictions’ – a word which recurs on almost every page of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan’s writings.
In this aspect, Öcalan’s analysis of world history and the movement’s understanding of its own political history both recall the work of the mad, brilliant Marxist intellectual Ernst Bloch. Writing as a Jewish exile in the shadow of World War II, Bloch argues that Marxism is possessed of both ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ streams, with Marx not only instituting the science of historical materialism and thus demonstrating the logical inevitability of communism, but also releasing a current of utopian hope. Marx’s task is the ‘unmasking of ideologies and disenchantment of metaphysical illusion’ on the one hand, and yet unleashing a ‘liberating intention and… strong appeal to the debased, enslaved, abandoned, belittled, human being’ on the other – instigating what may, paradoxically, be defined as the new metaphysical ideology par excellence. The warm river flows into the cold and vice versa, cool dialectics instigating the white heat of revolution.
The Kurdish movement similarly speaks of ‘two rivers’ running through history, with the hidden and potent current of a repressed and democratic civil society increasingly submerged beneath the tidal bore of state power. As with Bloch’s teleology, this account remains ambiguous and open to interpretation – are we cherry-picking brief moments of hope from a history of continuous defeat and repression, or recognizing the subtler Marxist dialectic of progress through, rather than in despite of, these defeats? While Rojava is sometimes represented in isolated terms as the anarchist Paris Commune, or an unexpected and fleeting irruption of hope, as suggested above the project deserves the seriousness of critiques which contextualize it as a complex long-term terrain of ‘contradictions’, between minorities and chauvinist nation-states, women and patriarchal elders, and impoverished villages and centralized economies.
Albeit his account is the most radically transformative, Bloch was just one of several writers – Albert Camus, Theodor Adorno, Gabriel Marcel – who, writing in the aftermath of World War II, were nonetheless able to derive various calls for political action through pessimistic material analyses. What Bloch has in common with the Kurdish movement’s own approach is his ability to recognize the extraordinary liberatory potential in dialectic analyses of politics and history. Even as the movement describes its trials in existential, all-or-nothing terms, it is equipping itself for the transcendence of these trials.
This process finds its fullest expression in the secular martyr culture of the movement’s militant wing. In contradistinction to the martyr culture among Islamist groups, there is a strict opposition to the active pursuit of martyrdom, and the Kurdish movement does not tactically deploy suicide bombers in combat. But when that terminal point is reached, and a fighter falls in battle or sacrifices themselves to save their comrades, they are immediately placed among a pantheon of heroes, released from the process of navigating personal or political contradictions, while being celebrated and memorialized not for their death, but for their life and struggle. The Kurdish freedom movement does not deny these deaths any more than its defeats.
Rather, Rojava and the Zagros Mountains of Kurdistan are filled with memorial gardens decorated by the red, green, and yellow-liveried martyr posters, representing not the macabre, but the ability to find an inextricable expression of life in the very moment of death.
Another, less utopian Jewish intellectual, Walter Benjamin, called for the ‘political organization of pessimism’. In language which recalls Gramsci’s critique, he condemns the ‘unprincipled, dilettantish optimism’ of social democracy, recognizing the liberatory potential of surrealism as critiquing and undoing the concept of a linear process, but arguing this transformative, mercurial quality must be brought into line with an organized, “Communist answer”. If the Kurdish movement were to be plainly optimistic, it would suggest that all has been well until now, or that the current modes of political participation in Turkey and beyond will suffice for victory. Rather, it is their radical critique and liquidation which is expected and looked-for, in full knowledge of what the pursuit of this end has cost until now. A movement which identifies life in the moment of death is quite capable of ‘synthesizing’ admitted defeat at the ballot-box, barricade, or front-line into its own dynamic, organized, militant patience.