YPJ fighters in Rojava declare solidarity with 'Black Lives Matte
I believe that the liberation of Kurds and Blacks are intertwined. I believe that both of our struggles are animated by the spirit of a radical humanism, and that the resolution of the Kurdish and Black Questions are important steps towards universal freedom. Yet, it is also a tragedy that we have always just been “Questions” by the powers that have kept us in bondage. Once people were more transparent in asking the “Kurdish Question” and the “Black Question.” Now they are more cryptic. Perhaps an anecdote is in order to demonstrate what I mean.
In 1933, Trotsky had invited some of his American sympathisers to discuss the "Negro Question" in Prinkipo, Turkey. A former member of the Politburo of the Soviet Union, it's hard to imagine that the Turkish authorities didn't know who he was.
While the Turks themselves were dealing with the "Kurdish Question", concluding it with the maxim "Happy is the one who calls himself a Turk" (assimilation), they seemed fine with Trotsky hosting a conversation on what was then called the “Negro question.”
On this occasion, the well-intentioned American Trotskyists, many of whom had been unconsciously blinded by their own prejudice, appealed against the right of blacks to self-determination. The solution they insisted, was not for black Americans to seek their own nation, but for black and white workers to unite. Because the Communist Party of the USA had said they would support black nationhood, many black intellectuals decided to join them instead of the Trotkyists who had trouble winning them over. The Trotskyite delegates were flabbergasted by this and didn’t seem to understand why their message couldn’t appeal to the aspirations of the black intelligentsia.
A member of the American league complained to Trotsky that they could not "consider the Negroes a national minority in the sense of having their own separate language. They have no special national customs, or special national culture or religion; nor have they any special national minority interests." Calls for self-determination, they insisted, were petite bourgeois and the fate of blacks was to be "subordinated to the class relations of the country and depending upon them." It was an old formula, as Eugene Debs put it in 1903: "There is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle."
I’m sure that you, my Kurdish friends, have also come across these words before.
To his merit, Trotsky approached the aspirations of the black liberation struggle with more sophistication . He lashed out against the Americans, this Russian who knew not of a black population in his own land, forcefully argued:
"We do, of course, not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are, then that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for. We say: If the Negroes want that then we must fight against imperialism to the last drop of blood, so that they gain the right, wherever and how they please, to separate a piece of land for themselves. The fact that they are today not a majority in any state does not matter. It is not a question of the authority of the states but of the Negroes."
Indeed he was building off of an important tradition. Marx, for example, believed that even though the ascendency of English working class could move us towards the liberation of humankind – the English workers “wouldn’t do anything” unless they resolved the “Irish Question.” He ended up concluding that because they were to chauvinistic, the “lever should be applied in Ireland” instead. In the same spirit, Trotsky insisted that “today the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them.”
Senseless calls for worker unity are useless unless we sincerely approach the question of self-determination head on. It is a shame that the history of the Left is mired with such calls.
I’d like us, for now to focus on the setting: Turkey. The Turkish State, posing as a citadel of the enlightenment, allowed such conversations to happen. In fact, it was Attaturk himself -- a fervent anti-communist-- who provided the hospitality for Trotsky to enjoy his exile from the Soviet Union. Turkey: a place where Marxists all around the world could come to discuss the "Negro Question."
But what about the Kurdish Question? Well, the Turkish authorities did everything they could to eradicate it; either by subsuming the Kurds into Turkishness and labelling them "Mountain Turks" or eradicating the Kurds themselves. In 1923, Ismet Inonu, like the kind hearted communists who pleaded to Trotsky, insisted that "the Grand National Assembly is also the government of the Kurds as much as of the Turks." By 1925, he was of the opinion that the government should "Annihilate those who oppose the Turks or 'le turquisme'." Such is the potential fate of all who are considered a "question."
Three years prior to Trotsky's castigation, Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, the Minister of Justice under Turkey, insisted that "Those who are not of pure Turkish stock can have only one right in this country, the right to be servants and slaves."
This has always been the truth about Turkey. It is a country where the authorities can simultaneously pretend to facilitate the liberation of those outside its borders, and call for the enslavement of the non-Turks within. It can pretend to be the vanguard for the Palestinian struggle and decimate the villages of the Kurds. It can provide a platform for discussions concerning the "Negro Question", and respond to the Kurdish Question by refusing its existence.
Please remember that Erdogan, no matter how Islamist he claims to be, is carrying on the traditions of Turkish republicanism. Don't ever let him convince you otherwise.
As for the both the Blacks and Kurds, even if we don't put it in these words today, we have always been a "question."
As W.E.B Du Bois put it:
"They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town (...) To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."
We’re still not obliged to answer, for it is exhausting. Even though they consider us to be a problem, it is their loss to not comprehend that we might be the solution. We may tire of being a question but there is a reason for us to celebrate today. We have a reached a new stage of radical humanism. We are at a time where both the Black and Kurdish struggles have recognized that the path to self-determination is not the same as the quest to statehood. In this new phase of both of our struggles, let us work together. Let us imagine how to change the world without seizing the power of the State. Towards Revolutionary Intercommunalism, towards Democratic Confederalism.
- Mohammed Elnaiem
- Kurdish Question
- Black Question
- Democratic Confederalism
- Karl Marx
- Leon Trotsky
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