The Kurdish Struggle with Self-Determination

By Matt Broomfield

As suggested by the title of ‘Self-Determination Struggles: In Pursuit of the Democratic Confederalist Ideal’, the vaunted right to self-determination is worthy of deeper critical scrutiny. Rather than uncritically surveying historical and international struggles for self-determination, in his new collection of essays and papers then Cambridge University’s Thomas Jeffrey Miley scrutinises struggles about and within movements claiming to seek self-determination. Placing the concept in its material, historical and philosophical context, the sociologist seeks to demonstrate contradictions and flaws inherent to the 20th-century model of national self-determination.

Miley therefore represents the political proposal advanced by jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan as a paradigmatic advance, heralding a new concept of emancipation drawing on but advancing beyond the Leninist concept of national self-determination and inception of a socialist state. Given Marx and Engels’ famous declaration that the ‘worker has no country’, it’s perhaps unsurprising the Kurds, who remained literally stateless long after many other colonized ethnic groups were able to achieve state power, have proven able to identify pitfalls in the nominal process by which national emancipation leads to the transformative implementation of socialism.

But at the same time, the Kurdish movement’s own efforts to establish Kurdish-led autonomy on the basis of a broader form have not necessarily proven immune to dangers identified by both Miley and Öcalan himself. A clear-eyed analysis of the achievements of the ‘Rojava revolution’ in North and East Syria (NES) proves the need for continued, comradely-critical assessment of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and its claims to implement a broader form of self-determination reaching beyond mere Kurdish national aspirations.

Miley’s opening sketch of the ‘self-determination’ concept in history is instructive. A Kantian notion of individual liberty proved useful to nascent national movements in the era of bourgeois revolutions and the 1848 ‘Springtime of the Peoples’, at which time the concept of ‘national self-determination’ came to the fore. This position was criticized by Marx, who sought to locate the emancipation of the workers as lying beyond and necessarily superseding the mere emancipation of this or that country’s bourgeois class.

Nonetheless, following the establishment of actually-existing state socialism in the following century, the ‘national question’ surged to the forefront of the Leninist political programme – with Lenin inheriting the concept of ‘self-determination’ not from Marx himself so much as through his ideological contest with and appropriation of the ideal from US President Woodrow Wilson, as Miley quotes intriguing recent scholarship on this intellectual history to demonstrate.

In Miley’s account, therefore, the concept of national self-determination is as intoxicating as it is dangerous, with its necessary corollary the Volkish tendencies and violent population exchange as the ‘nether side of self-determination’ which dogged the era of state formation in Europe. These dangers did not vanish in the era of post-colonial state formation. On the contrary, national elites were able to exploit the uncritical, post-Leninist valorisation of national self-determination to seize power and control for themselves (for example, Syrian Ba’ath socialism concentrating power in the hands of an Alawite elite), while neo-colonial powers have proven all too capable of arrogating the revolutionary potential of self-determination to suit their own hegemonic agendas (for example, regular US backing of ultra-violent anti-communist regimes and coups such as those under Suharto in Indonesia or Pinochet in Chile).

In this regard, the Kurdish experience is instructive. For further illustration of the fact that national self-determination is open to exploitation by hegemonic powers and regional elites, we need only to look across the border from Rojava to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), where US sponsorship of Kurdish aspirations to break away from the federal Iraqi authorities following the ‘Anfal’ genocide against Iraqi Kurds has not brought with it even nominal sovereignty. Rather, the oil-rich client regime under the Barzani administration remains beholden to Turkish markets and US geo-political influence, while Kurds and other minorities in the region continue to suffer from poverty, lack of development, corruption, disenfranchisement, repression of freedom of expression, and other aspects of the ‘decentralised despotism’, which post-colonial critics, cited by Miley, identify as endemic through the post-colonial South.

As Dilar Derik adroitly notes in her recent study of the ‘Kurdish Women’s Movement’, the Kurdish movement arrived ‘late’, emerging in its original manifestation as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla battling for Kurdish-led state socialism well after the 1960s heyday of post-colonial self-determination. Though this struggle waxed in the 80s, there was no realistic prospect of the Kurds seizing state control from the central (Turkish) authorities, a reality made incontrovertible following the collapse of the USSR. Öcalan’s steady transition toward a political analysis aiming to reach beyond mere state formation in part constitutes a pragmatic acceptance of this reality.

That is, though the Kurds’ drive for national self-determination was destined to be frustrated, this frustration also contained in it the germs of a more expansive political paradigm. Noting that state sovereignty has failed to provide genuine self-determination guarantee basic rights, Miley embarks on what we could term a Marxist critique of Marx, applying the Marxist ‘ruthlessly critical posture [opposed] to raising any dogmatic banner whatsoever’ to the dogmas and idols of Marxism itself.

To Miley, Öcalan has achieved a dialectic advance through which the “principle of self-determination has once again been reinvented,” through his proposal for a federal ‘commune of communes’ based on bottom-up, community-led direct democracy, aimed at working alongside and against and ultimately supplanting the state by fostering an alternative model of community, federal self-determination. This political model, known as ‘democratic confederalism’ should serve to unite diverse peoples on the basis of a ‘brotherhood of peoples’ (‘bîratîya gelan’) into a ‘democratic nation’ (‘netewa demokratîk’).

That plural ‘peoples’, applied to what is typically an uncountable noun in Kurdish (‘Gel’), marks a clear political commitment to moving beyond the idea of an individual folk or nation to a broader, federal collectivity. This commendable model is intended as a panacea to the inter-ethnic conflict which has plagued Kurdistan into its contemporary history. But as Marx is critiqued on Marx’s own terms, so too must the Öcalan-inspired project led by the AANES be assessed on Öcalan’s own terms.

A strong element of Kurdish nationalism was and is indispensable to the achievements and enduring survival of the AANES. As Vladimir van Wilgenberg and Kirsty Allsop show in their quantitative survey of Kurds living under the AANES, the ‘Rojava revolution’ is necessarily understood by most ordinary Kurds living in the region as entrenching normative rights for the Kurdish people – hence the movement’s strategic alliances with other regional Kurdish power-brokers. The fight against ISIS was understood in large part as a struggle to defend values coded as ‘Kurdish’ (democracy, freedom of expression, women’s rights) against theocratic, fascist violence, with these values understood by much of the Kurdish population as a corollary of Kurdish-led autonomy. (It’s telling that many local Kurds will still use the term ‘Kurdistan’ as a shorthand for the KRI, in a stark indication of the appeal Kurdish quasi-statehood retains for many ordinary locals.)

Nor is this merely a case of the masses failing to grasp the ‘paradigm change’ valorised by a political elite Öcalan’s teleology of history, which presents Mesopotamia as the cradle of a utopian, prelapsarian ‘natural society’ overcome and repressed through the emergence of social, patriarchal and subsequently state-enforced hierarchy, naturally suggests a pivotal historical role for the regions where Kurds now live. Again, for many Kurdish locals then Öcalan’s attempts to present history as the struggle of democratic forces against hierarchical elites are significant only insofar as they speak to present-day struggles for Kurdish autonomy and expression against centralised, chauvinist governments in Damascus or Ankara, or the Islamic State itself.

In contradiction to some of Miley’s more utopian suggestions, therefore, more strictly Leninist concepts of both national liberation and democratic centralism remain prevalent among both the Kurdish political elite in NES and the Kurdish masses. Though the Kurdish movement may indeed be ‘no longer aligned with the aspiration for a sovereign Kurdish nation-state’, many Kurds in the regions it governs still are, and the AANES both struggles with and benefits from this reality, mobilising nationalism against external threats on the one hand while engaging in ideological work to implement a more broad-church concept of self-determination on the other. Principles of decentralisation and community self-determination are not in themselves emancipatory, in just the same way as principles of national self-determination have not necessarily led to the emancipation of a given national community.

While Miley’s new book is more concerned with the extent to which Öcalan’s ideas mark an abstract advance on the failures of national-liberation projects based on traditional state form, in work published elsewhere the author proves capable of assessing the dangers and compromises also facing the Rojava revolution today. In collaborative work with Cihad Hammy, Miley uses interviews with political actors on the ground in NES to identify the twin risks of Leninist ‘democratic centralism’ and vanguard-led authoritarianism in Rojava, and the admitted challenges the region has faced in supplementing capitalist markets with a nominally cooperative, localised economy. The paper quotes one anonymous interlocutor: “the problem is not only that [the revolutionary forces’ actions] do not conform to what [American ‘social ecologist’ and key influence on Öcalan] Bookchin once thought… but rather what the historico-social conditions in Kurdistan enforced.”

Critiques by post-colonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon addressing centralisation and the replication of moribund state power in post-colonial contexts can and should be applied to the AANES’ own efforts to build a new polity following the withdrawal of the Syrian authorities which for so long operated Rojava as an effective internal colony. Given its ideological commitment to community rather than national self-determination, will the region be able to do things differently?

Certainly, the political project in NES has faced pressure from internal, regional and international forces to adopt Kurdish-nationalist, quasi-state form. The necessities of dealing with conservative tribal actors and authoritarian neighbouring states; a reliance on black-market oil revenues to keep millions from starvation through the provision of subsidized bread, diesel and other necessities, as well as to maintain national defence in the face of existential threats; parochialism, anti-Arab chauvinism and patriarchy among the non-vanguard population; continued commitment to Leninist modes of political organising among the Kurdish vanguard; the unexpected expansion of the AANES project into highly-conservative Arab regions home to restive populations and an ongoing ISIS insurgency; pressure from international guarantor powers; in various constellations, all of these obstacles stand between the AANES and its vision of implementing an Öcalan-inspired ‘commune of communes’.

But these ‘historico-social conditions’ are a reality, just as much as those conditions which pushed Lenin to adopt a platform of national self-determination despite his own argument for the gradual liquidation of state apparatuses in ‘State and Revolution’, in contradistinction to the internationalist outlook advanced by Rosa Luxembourg – another hero of Miley’s. The AANES must necessarily implement many of the Althusserian ‘ideological state apparatuses’ outlined by Miley in his analysis of how states perpetuate their hegemony, from its media to its progressive educational program to its military. (This latter institution – perhaps paradoxically – could be seen as the AANES’ most powerful incubator of inter-ethnic cooperation through its role in uniting diverse communities in the struggle against ISIS, somewhat as national militaries served as incubators of bourgeois-nationalist feeling during the 19th century).

From the economy to the classroom, there are multiple fields, worthy of further analysis, where the AANES is being forced into unexpected, fraught, and sometimes politically-productive compromises – from allowing Christian minorities to determine their own education programmes rather than implementing the AANES’ more progressive curriculum, to tolerating polygamy in those regions more recently-liberated from ISIS, to permitting the circulation of over-priced black-market goods from Turkey via the KRI into bazaars in northern Syria as the necessary cost of keeping open vital smuggling routes connecting the region to the outside world. In all cases, the ideal of decentralised, community governance and self-determination is being put to the test.

These realities must be factored into analyses of Öcalan’s claim to offer a paradigmatic alternative to ailing, authoritarian centralized states like those which encircle NES. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s precisely in those conservative Arab regions only recently liberated from Isis that the AANES has been repeatedly forced — through admirably open-minded public consultations, pressure from conservative tribal federations, and street protest — to rethink, revise or defend its positions on issues such as women’s education, conscription, the detention of ISIS-linked individuals, and relations with Assad. Rather than denying the admitted challenges faced in extending the AANES’ progressive, decentralised programme into regions dominated by conservative tribal actors, analyses of the revolution should analyse its contributions to revolutionary praxis in their material context, assessing the extent to which community self-determination has proven possible given both internal and external security and economic pressures, and the potential for federalised, bottom-up decentralisation to frustrate or directly oppose the emancipation of women and other subaltern populations.

To take just one current example, the black standard of ISIS was recently raised in the AANES’ most restive region of Deir ez-Zor, alongside rumours that the AANES’ military wing were going to finally remove former Syrian rebel and AANES-allied strongman Abu Khawla from his dominant position in the region, given regular reports of his corruption and tribal favouritism. But how to proceed? Remove Khawla, and risk further ISIS resurgence? Promote another military leader, and stoke tribal tensions further? Devolve decision-making responsibility to the region wholly, in line with Öcalan’s vision, or withdraw wholly from the Arab hinterland in line with the wishes of Kurdish nationalists, and leave local women and subaltern populations facing further violence? Assert stronger central control over the region, and risk provoking regional tribal actors further?

There are no easy answers. Rather, the Kurdish movement’s claim to promote an alternative to national self-determination is being tried daily in the crucible of practical implementation, with the model of regional devolution and federalism struggling to accommodate other challenges to the movement’s progressive ideals. It’s in the experience and process of implementing these ideals, and the spirit of self-criticism valorised by the Kurdish movement, that an Öcalan-inspired critique of Öcalan’s ideals will emerge in praxis, just as Öcalan himself was able to engage in the Marx-inspired critique of Marxist shibboleths.

Miley’s work is at its strongest as a study of ideas, organised in interconnected, sometimes overlapping essays. His claim that we “simply can no longer afford to delude ourselves into thinking that putting an end to imperialism can be achieved by any other means than by destroying the capitalist system in the so-called advanced capitalist core” is difficult to deny in one sense, but also downplays the very real achievements of socialist states, and makes it hard to identify a practical proposal beyond this utopian goal. While an essay on Bookchin ends with a brief, paragraph-long gesture to the AANES ‘alternative characterized by citizen’s assemblies and self-defence militias,’ an alternative he scrutinises in more detail elsewhere, in this book his focus is more on using Öcalan and the AANES to critique the failures of state socialism and national liberation movements established on the basis of national self-determination.

As Miley told me in an interview following his book’s publication, “Where the [Rojava] revolution has been very good at acceding to political power, the question [remains] of the transition to democratic confederalism and what are the prospects of moving toward that, given the war economy and surrounding war conditions. I don’t think it’s supportive to support the movement without being critical at the same time.” Continued engagement with the Kurdish movement’s own practical ‘struggles’ with the potent but troublesome concept of ‘self-determination’ will allow Öcalan’s unique political programme to be grasped and studied to its fullest extent, and the extent of the AANES’ complex, compromised and vital contribution to 21st-century revolutionary praxis made clear.


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