PKK fighters

Rejection of Marxism

Continuing his examination of the various programmes of the Turkish and Kurdish left, Esen Uslu looks at the new-found ‘democratic confederalism’ of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan

After perusing the programmes of the legal TKP and ÖDP, we will now take a look at the programme of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK).

Contrary to the view of many, who regard the PKK as a nationalist guerrilla movement, at its inception the founding members of the PKK were not Kurdish nationalists - at least not in the sense that the term could be applied to several remarkable Kurdish organisations in Iraq and Turkey, first and foremost among them the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

The initial bunch of PKK leaders, including comrade Abdullah Öcalan, had their roots in the revolutionary Marxist organisations of the late 60s and early 70s. However, since its foundation the PKK has passed through several political and ideological bottlenecks resulting in a change of programme - among the Turkish left there is a tendency to despise such programme changes.

We must bear in mind that the PKK has been engaged in open warfare since 1985, and despite suffering heavy losses it has still maintained substantial support among the population of Kurdistan. Considering the frozen nature of the Turkish left’s positions on the national question, the PKK’s attempts to understand the rapidly changing realities of the region and adjust its programme accordingly is actually commendable.

The initial programme of the PKK was altered in 1995; however, the basic demands set forth in the previous programme remained unchanged.1 Just before the abduction of comrade Öcalan there were apparent preparations indicating an imminent change of policy, and consequently the programme as well. However, Öcalan was captured in February 1999 and the ensuing trial and unilateral ceasefire declared by the PKK to remove guerrillas from the firing line created an organisational upheaval.

It took years to resolve these organisational difficulties and for comrade Öcalan to develop his ideas in captivity and define a new political line. This was only fully worked out in 2008. The new programme showed the new policy lines as well as new thinking. It is quite a long document to deal with in its entirety here. However, I will try to bring your attention the most striking sections. For further reading on the comrade’s ideas, there are some English texts available on the internet, and also a recent book.2


The PKK programme consists of three parts: an introduction and two sections entitled (a) ‘A democratic, ecologic, and gender-free society’; and (b) ‘Democratic confederation of the Middle East’.

In the introduction, the striking points are as follows:


The restructuring of the PKK, which has come about under the illumination provided by the social and political developments experienced in the world and in the region, is meant to provide solutions to the serious social problems of our people and the Middle East, as well as an alternative solution to the problems being experienced by humanity ...

In the 21st century, Kurds - a people of almost eight million with their national identity, freedom and democracy questions unresolved, but determined not to be ruled as before - are still the subject of several strategies and devices. Without democratic confederalism, based on a democratic, ecological and gender-free paradigm reaching beyond the classical statist, power-hungry, nationalist and violence-based understandings and policies, the likelihood of Kurds becoming a centre of conflict exceeding the intensity of the tragedy between Arabs and Israel is very high ...

The PKK is unable to achieve these tasks if it remains within its old paradigm. The PKK has travelled along the line of intersection between real socialism and classical national liberation, and has been unable to unearth its true organisational potential, having been subjected to severe outside pressures, while at the same time suffering from internal inadequacies.


Here we find “democratic confederalism” as the mainstay of the programme - a concept not quite familiar to Marxists. Also we find an extended critique of the Marxist tradition and real socialism. The aim of the programme is quite clear:


The PKK bases its restructuring on democratic confederalism, which is not an alternative to the state, but … if necessary is prepared to accept a principled compromise ... however, [the PKK] regards organised uprisings and self-defence-based guerrilla warfare as a requirement to maintain its respect and responsibilities towards itself, the people, our history and future ... The PKK believes the solution of the Kurdish question lies in living in solidarity and free unity with neighbouring peoples; in the Kurds establishing their own democracies wherever they are, irrespective of political borders; in bringing together all the Kurds of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq in new federations; and unifying all of them within a higher confederation.

It is vitally important that the PKK restructures itself to stop being a party focused on one state, aiming for power and indexed to war, and instead standing for the democratic transformation of Kurdish society and of neighbouring peoples, for their free future.

This approach is not an ordinary or cyclical transformation. Behind it ... lie the aims of: overcoming the malady of statism that has left its mark on the 150-year development of socialism; renouncing the bourgeois concept of the nation-state in order to create a democratic nation; and regenerating the ideals of freedom and equality by basing ourselves on democratic communal values that have emerged throughout history.


The second section of the programme is the longest part. It starts with an exploration of the concept of society and proceeds to an examination of the history of civilisation, from the Neolithic revolution to the collapse of Soviet Union. I will try to be as brief as possible without losing the train of thought underlying the programme. The basic new idea employed here could be summarised as follows:


Accepting natural society as the initial state of human existence is realistic. Later on, a hierarchical, statist society was developed as an antithesis to the natural society in order to suppress it and push it back. The natural society ... was dominant until the end of Neolithic period (4,000 BC). It continued its existence within the pores of society, albeit in a suppressed state ... The values of the natural society were in contradiction to the hierarchical, statist society. The struggle emanating from that contradiction has been the most important driving force of social history. While the driving force of society has been defined as such, the narrow class struggle was not the only one - the class struggle is only one of several historic dynamics. The dominant role was played by the resistance of communal society values ...

What is the essential for us is the history of the opposite pole in class and gender-based social development. All types of ideas and actions undertaken by slaves of ethnicity, class and gender who stood against hierarchy and political power are essential for us, since they are drawn from the natural society. The essence of our theoretical approach is a democratic, ecological and gender-free society which expresses a synthesis on that basis ... That is, an ethical system that establishes a sustainable, dialectical relationship with nature, that is not based on internal tyranny, and that determines its common features through direct democracy.

Communal life is the mode of existence of a society. The discourse that hierarchy and power enlivens and enriches a society is nothing but a lie ... Religion is the theory of natural society, and ethics is its practice. Those two institutions are sufficient for the administration of a natural society.


The programme continues its exploration of society, condemning the state as an organised apparatus of violence. It states:


Regarding [organised violence] as the midwife for the birth of an advanced society has been one of the fundamental mistakes that deeply damaged the concepts of state-based revolution and democracy and the practice of organisation/action.


The evident rejection of classical Marxist positions is striking. Further down, the programme spells out what it sees as the historical mistakes of Marxism-Leninism.


The final section of the programme deals with the Middle East as a whole. It starts with the keys to unlock the Middle East enigma:


In order to grasp the social history of the Middle East correctly, the following specific features should be considered:

1. The first thing to analyse is the strict dogmatism, utopianism and fatalism in the mental sphere ...

2. Hierarchy and the institutionalisation of the state are the most difficult social phenomena to be analysed ... The region was the centre of primitive communal society in the Neolithic era, and the culture of that era still survives in the deepest social memory ... Also slavery and feudal forms of statist social formations form powerful cultural values within the region. The western culture added on top of that cultural heritage has not much meaning apart from a coat of varnish ... Patriarchy has seeped into every pore of the Middle East ... From the very beginning the despotic and belligerent characters of the state system in the Middle East have been dominant ... Conditions are ripe neither to absorb the capitalist state nor to disperse the traditional one quickly.

3. Another set of serious problem as grave as the state is the social mentality and behaviour centred on the family and women.

4. Within the problematic of the Middle East, defining phenomena such as ethnicity, nation, country, class and property correctly at the conceptual level has great importance. It is true that ethnicity has not fully dissolved within the nation and class. Therefore, instead of the rejection of ethnic relations, what is important is their democratisation. In the Middle East, democratisation based on the communal values of ethnicity is more realistic than a democratisation based on individuality ... In the Middle East, the nation is a political rather than a sociological concept ... Nationalism is the most important tool for legitimising itself. Religion is the genome of the state, and nationalism is the modern form of it ...

In the Middle East, classes are never revealed in their bare structures, but are veiled by ethnicity, religion and sects. Therefore in every ethnic, religious, sect or other type of community and in every type of clash of ideas there is a class essence.

At present the political status quo in the Middle East created after World War I is unsustainable ... The conditions for developing a democratic civilisation in the Middle East could be summarised as follows:

1. For nation-states to maintain their existence in their present form is quite difficult.

2. Within the framework of a third giant move to globalisation, the USA is intervening in the region and clashing with backward-looking nation-state structures ... The region’s social oppositions are striving for radical freedoms and democracy and their demands are on the rise. The USA is already in a quagmire. Therefore the US seems rather unlikely to succeed in achieving its aims in the Middle East alone.

3. The struggles of the popular/toiling masses have increasingly become a significant force in overcoming the chaos in the Middle East ...

The basic forces taking part in the struggle for Middle East solutions indicate that the transformation to democratic civilisation in the Middle East will result in a varied democratic regime.

The era of solutions based on the nation-state has passed ...

The era of dictating the nature of a regime through the unilateral will of imperialism has also been cast off into history ...

Despite their opposition the popular/toiling forces do not yet have adequate awareness and organisation to create their own democratic, ecological and gender-free social system. A principled conciliation of differing sections that create a varied democratic regime is the most likely outcome. The most important thing of all is not to display a blind resistance to the restructuring of the system and not to enter into unprincipled conciliations.


The PKK’s new political line is directly premised on its changed programme. A unilateral truce has been declared, and covert negotiations pursued under the auspices of the British secret services. Recently revealed documents indicate that an agreement on the basis of European Charter of Local Self-Government is almost ready. However, all this suddenly came to an abrupt end, and last year the armed conflict flared up again.

Whether or not the PKK maintains its present programme is open to question. Its leader has been kept in isolation for more than a year now. He is unable to see his lawyers and his relatives have not been allowed to visit him on the prison island of ?mral? in the Marmara Sea.

This examination of the PKK programme completes our general overview of the various trends in Turkey. In the next article we will start looking at the programme of the HDK (People’s Democratic Congress) and the proposed platform for this ‘party of unity’ in the making.


1. For the English translation of the 1995 programme see http://kurds-kurdistan.blogspot.co.uk/2005/12/party-programme-of-kurdistan-workers_27.html.

2. A Öcalan Democratic confederalism: www.freedom-for-ocalan.com/english/download/Ocalan-Democratic-Confederalism.pdf; A Öcalan The road map to democratisation of Turkey and solution to the Kurdish question: www.freedom-for-ocalan.com/english/download/Abdullah_Ocalan_-_The_Road_Map_-_Summary.pdf; A Öcalan War and peace in Kurdistan: www.freedom-for-ocalan.com/english/download/Ocalan-War-and-Peace-in-Kurdistan.pdf; A Öcalan Prison writings: the PKK and the Kurdish question in the 21st century London 2011.