A review of Havin Guneser, The Art of Freedom: A Brief History of the Kurdish Liberation Struggle (PM Press, 2021).
When Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in Nairobi, Kenya, in February 1999, after an Odyssey through several countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, I was visiting family and friends in Innsbruck, Austria. The arrest was big news there, with Austria being the home of a significant Kurdish community. Ten years earlier, when I was still a teenager, I had my first encounter with Kurdish activists (apart from timidly walking alongside them at the antiimperialist demonstrations I had started to frequent). That night, I was attending a meeting at a well-known punk rock venue on the outskirts of Innsbruck (sadly, long gone). A European cup soccer game in town was only a couple of days away, and far-right supporters (there were plenty at the time) had announced to “trash that place” for post-game fun. As we were sitting there to prepare our defense, a group of Kurds showed up. It didn’t seem like they had much to do with punk rock, but they left a phone number and assured us that they would be there within minutes if help was needed. We never had to use that number, but the gesture left a deep impression.
The world has seen hardly anything of Öcalan since his arrest, but it has heard plenty. During the defense of Kobanê in Rojava, the part of Kurdistan under Syrian rule, the world’s attention turned to a radical Kurdish movement that had apparently undergone significant change – away from a more orthodox Marxist understanding of history, struggle, and liberation, to a new idea called “Democratic Confederalism”, influenced by no other than Murray Bookchin and developed by Abdullah Öcalan despite the near-total isolation he lives under in a Turkish prison.
In The Art of Freedom: A Brief History of the Kurdish Liberation Struggle, Havin Guneser, one of the spokespersons for the international initiative Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan – Peace in Kurdistan, and translator of several of Öcalan’s books, provides a much needed introduction both to Öcalan’s thought and the history of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination. It is not an exegesis of Öcalan’s writing, but rather places it in the context of a collective struggle, explaining how it developed in relation to it.
The book is based on three lectures that Guneser gave at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco in 2018: “Critique and Self-Critique – The Rise of the Kurdish Freedom Movement from the Rubble of Two World Wars”, “The Rebellion of the Oldest Colony – Jineolojî, the Science of Women and Life”, and “Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Nation – Defense of Society against Societycide”.
Guneser’s lectures are framed by a spirited introduction by radical anthropologist Andrej Grubačič and an interview Guneser did with KPFA broadcaster Sasha Lilley. Both are very valuable contributions to the book, and so is the final piece, a “Political Biography of Abdullah Öcalan”. The interview with Lilley includes a January 2021 postcript on the state of the revolution in Rojava, which makes the release as up-to-date as any book publication can be.
Breaking with the Idea of the State
Often, books based on lectures serve nerdy needs. They are printed not necessarily because the contents are all that but because they complete the oeuvre of a famed academic or the like. Not in this case. Here, the setup works, as Guneser’s lecturing style makes her introduction accessible and engaging. There is no abstract theorizing about revolution, but hands-on observations on how a revolution plays out in real life. At the end of each lecture, questions from the audience and Guneser’s answers are added. The questions are good, and Guneser’s answers help clarify them. Once again, it’s not a publishing move that always works, but in this case it does.
One of the biggest question marks raised with regard to the Kurdish liberation movement is what some, leftists included, perceive as a personality cult around Abdullah Öcalan. I will not enter this debate here. What becomes clear from Guneser’s lectures is that there is no lack of critical reflection within the movement. There is nothing dogmatic about her presentations, in neither tone nor content, and there is no romanticization either. Revolutions are complex affairs, moral purity hard to attain, and there is no pretending here that this would be any different in Kurdistan.
Guneser takes us through the Kurdish struggle of the last century not only for liberation, but also for recognition and identity, naming the imperialist powers responsible for their oppression, but not sparing the Kurdish elites from critique either. She describes the foundation and rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (better known under its Kurdish acronym PKK) and the ensuing armed struggle in Turkey, which send shock waves into the Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian parts of Kurdistan as well. She talks about the arrest of Öcalan in 1999, and the subsequent change from a liberation movement focused on the establishment of an independent nation-state to one focusing on “an alternative to the nation-state”, namely “democratic confederalism”, which “rests on principles of democratic nation, democratic politics, and communal self-defense”. Guneser says about Öcalan: “If somebody asked me what really changed after 1999, I would say that he clearly broke with the idea of the state.” (For the record, Guneser also mentions Öcalan’s critique of anarchists in that they “fail to offer much in the way of social and political organization of the community”.) Guneser also emphasizes that “if there is to be a revolution it has to be led by a women’s revolution”. The developments in Rojava Guneser considers “very important to the whole world; it showed everyone that revolution was still possible, even in the least expected of places”.
Guneser’s lectures and answers to the questions posed to her include many aspects that are of value to radical organizing way beyond Kurdistan. Some are seemingly simple truths, but all too often forgotten by a liberal left preoccupied with realpolitik: “Why say no to migrants? Say no to colonization and the war that creates the refugees and migrants.” Or: “What I often don’t like is that some of the left fall into the trap of just being anti-American, or anti-American imperialism.” Guneser also cites precious Öcalan one-liners such as: “In the past, if somebody was poor, they would revolt. But today, everybody hopes to win the lottery.”
With regard to political activism and organizing, Guneser says: “If you develop as an individual while you struggle, you won’t burn out. If you think you are doing it for somebody else, that actually you’re so good that you’re freeing somebody else, then, yeah, burning out is a possibility.” Guneser confirms that for imperialism failed states have become more important than puppet regimes, or, as she puts it: “Nobody wants stability.” In the context of outlining jineolojî, literally “the science of women”, Guneser reminds us of the importance of critiquing Eurocentric models of rationalism and positivism, highly important at a time when the reflex against right-wing conspiracy theories leads many on the left to rally behind one-dimensional notions of science (should anyone care, I wrote something about this on Counterpunch about a year ago).
Of particular importance is the reminder that if we pursue a worthwhile ideal such as socialism, it doesn’t make much sense to give up on it just because certain attempts of implementing it have failed. The only sensible thing to do is to find better ways of implementing it. Or, as Guneser puts it in the context of the Kurdish struggle: “Instead of losing hope … what the PKK began to do was to question.”
Finally, it was very interesting to see Guneser refer to the Kurdish people as “indigenous to the Mesopotamia area” and simultaneously criticizing the “compartmentalization” of modern life: “Maybe we have been overly compartmentalized. Maybe we all have the ability to do more than one thing.” Consider what Sámi artist Synnøve Persen told me when I asked her about how the boundaries between music, poetry, and visual arts are very blurry in Sámi culture. Persen said: “To have more than one leg to stand on has always been part of our culture. Specialization was a luxury we couldn’t afford. … The basis of Sámi culture is survival, and in order to survive you need to do many things.” Sámi scholar Harald Gaski added: “I think it also has to do with our holistic view of the world. Aristotelian divisions don’t make much sense in Sápmi. … This has survived centuries of colonialism.” (Both quotes are taken from the book Liberating Sápmi: Indigenous Resistance in Europe’s Far North.)
Referencing the Sámi brings us back to a central theme not only of Guneser’s lectures, but of the Kurdish liberation struggle in general: how to understand concepts such as autonomy, sovereignty, and self-determination outside of the nation-state context. It is a decisive question for the future of national liberation struggles, as, throughout the twentieth century, so much has rested on pursuing an independent nation-state. So, if this is no longer the goal, how do you secure autonomy, sovereignty, and self-determination? And how do you engage with existing nation-states? The Kurdish liberation struggle provides a practical context in which we can search for answers. As Guneser concludes, “neither surrender nor hopelessness are an option”.
(June 28, 2021)