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Kurdistan Workers’ Party: Then and Now

The 37th Anniversary of the founding congress of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) took place recently in Turkey. On November 27, 1978, the party’s founding resolution emerged at a secret meeting of 25 left activists in Fîs, near the Kurdish town of Amed.

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Photo: La Izquierda Diario

This article is an adaptation of an article originally published in La Izquierda Diario.

The political situation in Turkey during the 1970s was marked by deep tensions and polarizing mass movements. The unrest of the Kurdish people, facing inner colonization, showed itself once more after several failed uprisings. The radical left evolved from the student movement of ’68, which orientated itself towards petit bourgeois guerilla movements.

Among Turkish leftists dominated the chauvinistic opinion that Northern Kurdistan was not an inner colony. Many were convinced that Kurds did not experience specific forms of oppression. In addition, its diluted, collaborationist position towards nationalist right-wing Bonapartism (Kemalism) distanced the Turkish left from the oppressed Kurdish people. On the other hand, at the time of its founding, the PKK championed an independent, unified, and socialist Kurdistan.

The PKK’s Founding Program

Let us have a look at the founding documents of the PKK:

“The PKK aims for the liberation of the people of Kurdistan from the imperialist and colonialist system in the era of perishing imperialism and the rising proletarian revolution as well as the foundation of a democratic people’s dictatorship in an independent and unified Kurdistan. […] The PKK takes the view that imperialism is behind colonization, racism, and every form of discrimination. Therefore it is an urgent task to liberate oneself from the imperialist system. Imperialism, the colonialist states, and the collaborators are jointly responsible that Kurdistan, by separation into four parts, was made into a colony and that any national values of the Kurdish people were destroyed. […]

The agreement between the Turkish bourgeoisie and the French and British imperialisms, who divided Kurdistan between themselves after the first imperialist war of allocation, was approved without the will of the Kurdish people. Therefore it is illegitimate. The PKK denounces all chauvinistic Turkish forces and their reformist puppets among the Kurds who accept this status and push the Kurdish people to find solutions within this status. [emphasis added]. The PKK sees its right to exist among other things in fighting such forces. […] US imperialism is the major enemy of the people in the Middle East. […] Long live independence and the proletarian internationalism!”

This declaration came from the same party that today plans on “democratizing” the Turkish state. It has abandoned the vision of a unified, independent, and socialist Kurdistan and is now part of an alliance led by US imperialism in Syria. According to its historical statement, the PKK of 1978 would be bound to denounce and fight the PKK of 2015. The abandonment of the original program did not happen suddenly or without cause, but rather, resulted from a continuous turn to the right caused by the imminent class politics of the PKK since its foundation.

The organization of workers and the question of the expropriation of the means of production in favor of the independence movement against the oppression of the Kurdish people were never central to the PKK. Even then, the PKK subordinated class struggle to the fight for national liberation. It followed the logic of stages, which prioritized a democratic popular government over a dictatorship of the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry. The movement was a popular front. Admittedly, the PKK organized the impoverished and landless Kurds at the base, but portions of the Kurdish landowners were considered allies. In addition, the party never took an actual anti-imperialist course because it made no attempt to root itself in the labor movement. The petit bourgeois elements of the Kurdish movement – albeit with limited form – could develop into a bourgeoisie in the Turkish metropolises. Because the petit bourgeois PKK thought an emergence of bourgeois forces was necessary for a national coalition, they tried to realize the general interest of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the majority of their base. This is where the PKK’s swaying position arises as well as the reason why, after 37 years, the PKK is diametrically opposed to its founding declaration.

Guerilla Warfare Overshadowed by the Military Coup

The military coup of 1980 was a particular turn in the political situation in Turkey: numerous cadre of the PKK were murdered in the junta’s prisons. The regime’s goal was to destroy the organized labor movement, the Turkish left, and the Kurdish people.

While the Turkish left was practically crushed by mass incarceration, expulsion, and torture, the PKK would rise through militant actions in the torture prisons. In 1984, the PKK began a guerilla war in the countryside. The time between 1984 and 1990 was marked by military conflicts and in 1990, Kurdistan experienced a popular uprising (Serhildan) similar to the Palestinian Intifada. In 1991, the Kurdish party made its way into parliament in collaboration with the social-democratic SHP. During the official oath however, four Kurdish members of parliament were victims of racist attacks and one year later the party was prohibited. Four members of parliament were arrested after the annulment of their parliamentary immunity.

In the period between 1989 and 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and other bureaucratic workers’ states in Eastern Europe, the PKK began to distance itself from its basic program. This consolidation of this process occurred without resistance from the masses, frustrated by Stalinism. The political orientation of the “national coalition” within the Kurdish movement was primarily based on the interests of the Kurdish bourgeoisie. The PKK tried to win over the Kurdish clans. Instead of putting the clan structure into question via implementation of land reforms (which comprised some of the demands, atleast on paper), on the contrary, some were able to consolidate themselves through collaboration with the PKK.

From 1993 onwards, the PKK began to give up the ideological perspective for an “independent, unified, and socialist Kurdistan” and declared unilateral ceasefires with the Turkish state. The hope was to find a solution to the “Kurdish question” in cooperation with the conservative-liberal state president, Turgut Özal. After the talks failed, the “secret” murders by the Turkish state and its gangs multiplied.

The Turkish State’s only card was systematic repression: inspired by the barbarous tactics of the U.S. military in Vietnam, the Turkish state set ablaze Kurdish villages, displacing, arresting, and murdering thousands of Kurds in order to weaken support for the PKK. The repression was also palpable internationally; in November 1993, an activity ban was imposed on the PKK and Kurdish activists were criminalized.

Öcalan’s Incarceration and the New Stage

On February 15, 1999, a new stage for the PKK began with the incarceration of its leader Abdullah Öcalan (Apo). He had been on the run for a long time in several countries. With assistance from the U.S. however, the Turkish state was able to apprehend “Apo.” Dozens of Kurdish youth publicly self-immolated to protest Öcalan’s incarceration.

During this phase, Öcalan began to fundamentally reject Marxism. The founding of a Kurdish state was replaced by so-called “Democratic Confederalism,” that is to say non-governmental political administration. At the 7th Party Congress in 2000, the PKK once and for all removed Marxism from its program. The new strategic orientation was based on democratic autonomy within the confines of a democratic Turkish republic. Instead of “socialism,” “democratic” – but in the end capitalist – Turkey was to decide the fate of the Kurdish people. In other parts of Kurdistan (Iraq, Iran, and Syria) as well, the PKK orientated itself towards democratic autonomy. The borders drawn by imperialisms were no longer “illegitimate.”

The military offensive against the PKK has overwhelmed the Turkish State economically, above all. The state and military apparatus have struggled for decades in a civil war against the Kurds. When the AKP took over the government in 2002, Turkey was in deep economic crisis. The Turkish bourgeoisie began a re-structuring of the economy through neoliberal measures and promised an internal democratization, allegedly in order to deprive the military apparatus of its power. It is noteworthy, however, that any parliamentary attempt by the Kurdish movement ended with repression and expulsions.

Peace Process with Erdoğan, the Bloodthirsty One from the Bosporus

After protracted hesitation, the official talks between the PKK and the Turkish State began in Oslo with differing expectation from the protagonists. The PKK demanded amnesty, democratic autonomy, and recognition of cultural identities. The Turkish State, on the other hand, aimed for the liquidation of all PKK structures and hoped to use Northern Kurdistan as a entrance into the other parts of Kurdistan and the Middle East. This phase was characterized by negotiations that took place behind closed doors with “promises of solutions” and open repression against the Kurdish people.

In parliament, the official process was not launched until 2009, but was interrupted again by a ban on the Kurdish party (DTP) shortly thereafter. The reaction to this ban was the foundation of a new Kurdish party (BDP), which later formed the HDP together with Turkish left-reformist and liberal forces. [We have already published a number of analyses of the HDP and the peace process.]

A political turn, which influenced the course of the PKK, came about with the events in Rojava. The PYD, a sister organization of the PKK, formed autonomous structures in Rojava as the civil war in Syria went along. It is part of an alliance led by U.S. imperialism because its militias fight ISIS most effectively on site. For the Kurdish movement it is a historic moment to achieve international recognition. This engagement obviously produces pro-imperialist tendencies within the Kurdish movement because the PYD itself does not in the slightest take an anti-imperialist stance. In Rojava too, the Kurdish movement sticks – despite all the progressive aspects of the local self-administration – to a single principle: the sanctity of the private ownership of the means of production.

After the AKP’s relative electoral defeat on June 7, 2015, briefly ending the singular rule of the AKP, the military offensive against the Kurdish people flared up. Until the new elections on November 1, 2015 massacres and arrests prevailed throughout the country.

Specifically during this period, internal contradictions between PKK and HDP broke out, while the HDP pursues a “mass party concept” and attempts to organize sectors who are historically close to the Turkish State such as the Kurdish bourgeoisie as well as Turkish liberals.

Radical Deceit: Between Guerrilla Warfare and Negotiations

The PKK still strives for a Turkish democratization without touching the capitalist relations of production. Despite several changes of course, the PKK has always stayed true to the sanctity of the relations of production. We see the consequence of this understanding in the current context: in order to convince bourgeois forces of their democratic program, the takeover of production places and factories under workers’ control in Turkey is not considered. This would be necessary, for example, to make the logistical support for the reconstruction of Rojava possible.

The combative metal workers’ strike last spring, with its day-long factory occupation, was ignored by the HDP, which feared losing votes from broad bourgeois and petit bourgeois sectors during the parliamentary elections. The program lacking proletarian interest failed to win the trust of the combative portions of the metal workers.

The Kurdish people’s defense of their right to self-determination against the Turkish state— even if led by petit bourgeois leadership (in principle also a bourgeois leadership)—is a tenant of Marxism. Stalinism and Centrism transformed this fact into a template, where the working class waives its claim to leadership and fully subjects itself to (petit) bourgeois forces. But Marxist revolutionaries’ defense of the right to self-determination of oppressed nations does not mean an automatic subordination to other political actors. Today, this is where the left’s true chauvinism betrays itself – by its refusal to consider the Kurdish working class capable of pursuing an independent revolutionary path. The task is to expose the bourgeois leadership while showing full solidarity with the oppressed.

There have been numerous heroic insurrections in the history of the Kurdish people. The struggle of the PKK is probably the most important one. Yet the tragedy of the Kurds lays in their own leadership, which suppresses the independent endeavors of workers and masses in order to conduct peace talks without disturbance. They want to reform the Turkish State in a bourgeois-democratic sense. The Turkish State, however, cannot be reformed; it has to be destroyed.

Translated by Marc Roth

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Suphi Toprak

Suphi is an editor of our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse.

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