9th January 2015
by Jihad Hammy and Eleanor Finley*
“There seems to be a strong tendency to collect ideas rather than derive them, to disassemble and reassemble them as though we were dealing with an automobile engine, rather than explore them as aspects of a process.” – Murray Bookchin, 1986. The Modern Crisis.
“We must neither be enveloped in European civilization nor must we reject it categorically. We have to contribute to the development of humanity as a whole.” - Abdullah Öcalan.
Rojava is a small geographical area in the Middle East that is inspiring and giving hope to people all over the world. Although this revolution has been surprising to many, it is not at all strange that Rojava has captured so much attention, for the paradigm which fuels it retains the development of free and democratic ideas throughout history. This is the reason why so many people feel akin to this revolution and are a part of it.
Rojava's spirit comes into being through the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan. One of the major tasks of this philosophy is to overcome dichotomies based on the division of subject and object. This division is found in such binaries as black/white, East/West, nature/society, and so on. Domination and exploitation quickly arise from such thinking as the active and intelligent subject (white, West, society, etc.) is separated and raised above the passive and inferior “object.” In order to move beyond hierarchy and domination, a new way of thinking is necessary to recognize the unity in diversity of social life. In this methodology, as well as many other topics, Öcalan derives from the work of political philosopher Murray Bookchin, who was the first major Leftist thinker to anchor revolutionary politics in confederal direct-democracy.
Although few in Rojava have ever heard of Bookchin, articles in several prominent and Leftist media outlets such as the New York Times, the Huffington Post and ROAR have noted Bookchin and Öcalan’s strong intellectual connection. As a result, many activists are concerned that Öcalan’s unique contributions are being dismissed as the product of a western author. They rightfully note that Öcalan is an easy target for the mainstream media, who seek to portray him as the dogmatic authority of a new “third world” uprising.
How ought we to understand the relationship between these two thinkers? How can we make sense of two sets of ideas, which are in many aspects so similar, yet in others so unique? To whom do the ideas that generated the recent transformative political events belong?
The answer can be found in their own methodology of dialectical naturalism. Dialectical naturalism was first developed by Bookchin as a critique and an answer to Marxism’s dialectical materialism, which saw social progress as driven by nature’s inherent scarcity. Dialectical naturalism portrays society as an organic entity, much like a tree with many branches that is still developing. Öcalan adopted this “retaining and organic” dialectic during his shift from a nationalist to an internationalist perspective. In 1999, after being rejected asylum by many countries and then kidnapped by NATO, Öcalan came to truly see and understand that the enemy was not only Turkey, but also the capitalist world system. His capture, he realized, had been arranged by Israel, the USA, Russia, and the EU. Meanwhile the role of the Turkish state was only secondary. As Öcalan explains in the first volume of his book Civilization, "The role that has been assigned to Turkey is to be the vulgar gendarme [soldier], the watchdog and the prison guard of all Middle Eastern peoples in order to make them more susceptible to the oppression and exploitation of the capitalist system".
From then on, Öcalan took a more serious interest in international philosophers and thinkers as he saw that a coherent and humanistic theory was necessary to pose a real alternative to the capitalist world system. Boundaries of “East” and “West,” he realized, were illusory. He began to view human development in a holistic way.
Bookchin's influence is perhaps most prominent in Öcalan’s book "In Defense of a People " where Öcalan breaks away from class struggle, and directs the revolutionary struggle against hierarchy and all forms of domination and exploitation throughout history. Here he begins to declare that the state is not an answer, but rather an obstacle in the way of achieving a free and ethical society.
The other crucial impact of Bookchin's on Öcalan is the advocacy of ecology as another arena for struggle. As the ecological world is going towards collapse, nature is nearing a place similar to the Apocalypse -to use a religious term - Öcalan calls for harmony between first nature (humans) and second nature (the world created by humans) against the insanity of capitalist industrialism.
Bookchin became the first Leftist author to identify events at the Fertile Crescent as meaningful for the project of socialism. In his quest to understand the origins of hierarchy, he identifies the Fertile Crescent as the site where the concept of “freedom” appears. The good weather conditions, soil structure, and the rivers and streams coming from the Taurus-Zagros Mountains made it possible to evolve from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled agricultural one, opening the path for a social, technological and political revolution in this particular geographical area approximately 11,000 years ago.
Here, a lineage begins in the development of free ideas. For Öcalan, there is additional meaning in how this social revolution spread not through conquest, but by “cultural expansion”. This revolution did not stop in a small geographical area, but moved and spread throughout the globe. By about 6,000 years ago, branches of Neolithic Revolution had spread and grown from its root (Fertile Crescent) into Europe, northern Africa, central and southern Asia.
Human social development -including free ideas- can be thought of like a tree, which is the accumulation of knowledge. We have Öcalan’s fruit and Bookchin’s fruit. Öcalan’s fruit tastes different, but it belongs to the same root and the same branch- it is a derivation and an elaboration upon a branch, which Bookchin established. We are not saying that we have a totality- but rather a unity in diversity. The unity is the root and the branches are the diversity. If we try to analyze this diversity without looking at its root, we will be far from the truth.
Nationalistic and orientalist approaches that pitch Bookchin against Öcalan are unproductive. Some of Öcalan’s ideas derive from Bookchin, yet are not reducible to them. Furthermore, Öcalan’s ability to interact with Bookchin’s ideas come from social ecology groups in Istanbul, who started working in the 1990s. These groups were generating interest in social ecology, which led to translations of Bookchin’s work. They were also publishing original work, and applying social-ecological principles to environmental issues in Istanbul and Turkey. Revolutionary ideas belong to the whole of human evolution, a single development, which has many branches, distinctions, and developments. The Revolution in Rojava represents a cultural development and the accumulation of free knowledge.
Jihad Hammy is a Kurd from Kobanê. He was a student of English literature at the university of Damascus before fleeing due to the civil war in Syria.
Eleanor Finley has been a student at the ISE since 2011. She has a background in feminist activism and was a participant in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Eleanor is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her research focuses on social movements, environment, and energy in Europe. She is currently conducting action-research within the Spanish anti-fracking movement. Click here for more info and for links to Eleanor’s writings.