Abdullah Öcalan: democracy

Nationalism from another angle

Esen Uslu completes his review of the Turkish left’s attitude to the Kurdish question by considering two leftwing thinkers

When those sections of the Turkish left that are willing to work with the Kurdish freedom movement started to take part in the initial attempts to form an umbrella organisation, there was not much discussion on theoretical or programmatic issues. The practical aspects seemed to be the priority. With ‘urgent organisational matters’ at stake, there was a tendency for any attempt to bring up programmatic issues to be seen as divisive, or an idiosyncrasy of particular individuals. However, the initial optimism soon dissipated and was replaced by stupor and disintegration.

Then, when the HDK (People’s Democratic Congress) was being formed, a new emphasis was placed on programme as a necessity of circumstance. Once more, when comrades attempted to make an input into the discussions, the democratic congress was not prepared to listen to ‘isolated individuals’ or pay much attention to those attempting a fresh but unaccustomed approach.

But a programmatic proposal on the national question has now been put forward and, even though it is not discussed much today, I believe it will form the basis of discussions in the near future. This proposal has been made by comrade Demir Küçükayd?n, who is not widely known among European comrades (although he is more familiar to those involved with the groups formed around Ernest Mandel, and especially within immigrant movements in Germany).

He was active in the student movement of the late 1960s and, despite undergoing guerrilla training at one of the Palestinian camps, on his return to Turkey he distanced himself from the armed struggle and gravitated towards organising a new generation of cadres in a proletarian party. He undertook trade union work and was involved in various major construction site struggles.


The tardy and ultimately unsuccessful drive to reorganise a proletarian party before the military intervention of 1971 was centred on Dr Hikmet K?v?lc?ml?.

Dr K?v?lc?ml? was an enigma of the communist movement. He was one of the intellectual heavyweights of the party, but his ideas were not in line with the prevailing pro-Soviet thinking. So for most of the left he was a voice in the wilderness. He spent more than 20 years in jail following various cases brought against the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) during the 20s and 30s. During the late 50s he formed the Country Party (VP), taking advantage of the legal opportunities available at the time, but ended up in jail once more. During the 60s he was not welcomed into the Workers Party of Turkey (T?P) because of his previous convictions, but started writing in various left newspapers, and publishing books and a short-lived newspaper, Sosyalist (Socialist). For the younger generation he became one of the few comrades who represented a link with the past.

However, his insistence on the need for an old-style party, basing itself on an ideological discipline centred on programme, and an organisational discipline when it came to work among the working class and peasant movement, fell on deaf ears among the younger generation. The guerrilla movements were de rigueur in the late 60s among the revolutionary sections of the youth movement and for most of them long years of patient work in low-level working class struggle seemed unfathomable. The centrist and opportunist right wing of the youth movement still had an ear for Soviet music and was not ready to tune into voices from the wilderness.

Dr K?v?lc?ml? was also renowned for his work on the history of ancient societies and civilisations, and his ideas on the subject were out of step with the solidified opinion held by the Marxism of the day. Contrary to the idea of a simplistic progression (savagery-barbarism-slavery-feudal society-capitalism), he pointed out that ‘barbarian’ and civilised societies co-existed, and the dynamic of their interaction has played an important role in history. He was able to publish a summary of his work on the subject, the Thesis on history in the late 60s. Further fragments of his theses were posthumously published by groups claiming to pursue his line during the 70s.

His proposals to the central committee of the TKP in the mid-30s were also published in full during the military regime by the exile press in Europe. He entitled his proposal Yol (‘the path’) and presented it for discussion at a congress which was unfortunately aborted. The proposals contained seven chapters. The sixth chapter, relating to the Kurdish question, was entitled ‘The reserve force: nationality (east)’ and contained unorthodox proposals such as this one:


There are two tasks before the TKP: (1) to establish strong links with the oppressed Kurdish people; (2) to assist fraternally in the formation of a Kurdish Communist Party ... Where do we start? Considering the specifics of present-day Kurdistan with a view to nurturing communist thought and creating a communist organisation there, we are bound to commence work from two starting points: (1) training cadres; (2) the partisan movement.1


These theses were never discussed in public or in the underground, since shortly afterwards the Comintern’s infamous ‘decentralisation order’ liquidated the party and its press, and Dr K?v?lc?ml? yet again ended up in jail, once more to be forgotten.

From the wilderness

After Dr K?v?lc?ml?’s release by the military regime and death in exile in 1971, comrade Küçükayd?n was part of a group attempting to reorganise the Communist Party on the ideological platform inherited from Dr K?v?lc?ml?. He became the editor of the K?v?lc?m (Spark) newspaper, which appeared for a brief period from 1973-74. But it was soon banned, comrade Küçükayd?n was sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence and the group was dissolved shortly afterwards as part of the move to organise a legal left party to take part in the elections and emerging parliamentary democracy. That effort ended in the creation of the Socialist Workers Party of Turkey (TSIP), which many who followed the line of Dr K?v?lc?ml? joined.

After a short while the fault lines separating the groups that formed the TSIP became apparent, and supporters of the K?v?lc?ml? line were either expelled or resigned, switching to the new VP. Comrade Küçükayd?n became one of the most prominent theoretical writers in that party’s press. He spent almost all of the 70s and part of the 80s in jail, but he continued his studies on many theoretical problems of Marxism. He came to evaluate Trotskyism in a new light, free of Soviet dogma.

When he was released from prison in the late 80s he escaped to Europe and worked with Mandel, where he studied post-war Marxism and worked with comrades from other migrant communities. He proceeded to develop his theses, which were published on the internet in the 90s - some of them appeared in book form in Turkey during the second half of first decade of this century. At present he is based in Hamburg, and travels regularly to Turkey to take part in various discussions.

He established strong links with the Kurdish freedom movement and wrote a regular column for its daily newspaper. In the discussions within that movement following the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, he steadfastly supported comrade Öcalan’s line. Comrade Küçükayd?n particularly valued his attempts to understand the history of the region and its dynamics, which had more than a hint of Dr K?v?lc?ml?’s opinions. He also exposed the shortcomings of the Kurdish freedom movement in failing to understand the line supported by Öcalan, which defends democracy for the whole region as the primary aim. He criticised those sections of the Kurdish freedom movement that were quite prepared to accept compromises with the nationalists - who had nothing but the formation of an independent Kurdish state in mind.

As readers will appreciate, comrade Küçükayd?n’s track record - declining to take part in guerrilla action; organising that most obscure part of the trade union movement in Turkey, construction workers, who were often half-peasants; working in far-flung corners of the country with strongly anarchist trends; being a well-known follower of Dr K?v?lc?ml?; opposing the formation of the TSIP and supporting the VP; being a turncoat who became a Trotskyite in his later life; writing regular columns in the Kurdish press supporting the PKK and Öcalan’s line - did not make him a popular figure, to say the least, among the Turkish left.

His ‘street credentials’ are those of an individual operating on the margins, who is divisive and obsessed by his own self-centred ideas. So, now that the crucial issue of programme has once more come to the fore, there are not many prepared to listen to what he is saying. In my estimation that is a grave error.

What is nation?

Comrade Küçükayd?n has published some of his theses in a book entitled Defending and developing Marxism - volume 1, A Marxist critique of Marxism: the theory of superstructure, religion and nation, but to date there is no English translation. However, I have translated his thoughts on that quintessential problem of the Turkish left, the Kurdish question:


If we are to understand developments in the world, and not miss our way in the quagmire of events, first of all we should adopt a programme and take up a stance against nations (note: I am not saying against nationalists, but I am saying against nations; and I am not using the term ‘internationalist’ either, since internationalism is another nationalism.)

If we are to understand developments in Turkey, and not miss our way in the quagmire of the events, first of all we should adopt a programme and take up a stance supporting democratic nationalism and the democratic nation against reactionary nationalism and the reactionary nation.

But what is the difference between a democratic nation and a reactionary nation? A democratic nation (and consequently democratic nationalism) refuses to define a nation by any language, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, clan, race, culture, etc ... A reactionary nation (and consequently reactionary nationalism) is a nation (and nationalism) that defines a nation as being Kurdish, Turkish, Arab, Muslim, Christian, etc.

Reactionary nationalism defends the ‘right to self-determination of nations’. Democratic nationalism does not defend the right to define a nation by language, religion, ancestry or clan; on the contrary, it struggles against such a definition. However, democratic nationalism supports even the right of any village to separate if it is in a democratic nation, which is real ‘democratic autonomy’.

According to reactionary nationalism, a nation that suppresses another nation cannot be free. According to democratic nationalism, a nation can be free if it suppresses nations and nationalisms that define a nation by language, religion, ancestry, clan, race or culture.

Reactionary nationalism talks about the ‘Kurdish question’; however, democratic nationalism talks about the ‘Turkish question’.

Reactionary nationalism does not regard the central problem in defining a nation as being Turkish, but in not defining it as being Kurdish. Democratic nationalism regards defining a nation as being Turkish as the problem.

Whoever does not have a stance and programme based on such democratic nationalism, whatever good intentions he or she may have, cannot but be placed among the reserve army of ruling forces, twist and lurch in the wake of events, and end up defending a spineless policy.2


As I am sure comrades will agree, some of these unfamiliar ideas require further study.


1. In the parlance of the 30s the term “partisan movement” was employed as we would use ‘guerrilla movement’ today.

2. D Küçükayd?n, ‘The political meaning of Kilicdaroglu-Erdogan meeting and declaration of Leyla Zana’, June 17 2012: http://demirden-kapilar.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/klcdaroglu-ve-erdogan-bulusmas-ve-leyla.html.