Anarchism among Kurds and Ukrainians

There is a certain similarity between the current Kurdish “nationalism” and the Ukrainian “nationalism” before World War I. I mean by “nationalism” a community of language — call it “linguistic nationalism.” Linguistic nationalism is to be contrasted with a (centralized, or integral) State nationalism. Linguistic nationalism strives for some kind of autonomy; it does not necessarily strive for a State.

In the United States, we take linguistic nationalism for granted — everyone speaks English. Those that do not are almost invisible. And assimilating people into the English language is an almost gentle “melting pot.”

Not so in other parts of the world which practice a deliberate, forced linguistic assimilation to the dominant State language.

The plight between the current Kurds and pre-World War I Ukrainians is very similar. Not to go too far in history, the land of Ukrainians — i.e., those who speak the Ukrainian language — was in the 18th century divided between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as this map shows.

And after the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, 1795), Ukrainian speakers found themselves in the West under Austro-Hungarian rule in Galicia, and under Russian rule in the East.
Under Russian rule, there was a prolonged policy of Russification of Ukraine.

Similarly, the Kurds today find themselves living in four different States: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria (an area known as Kurdistan). And they are experiencing Turkification, Arabization, and Persianization.

In the late 19th century Ukraine, as in current Kurdistan, three ideologies were prominent: Integral (State) Nationalism, State Federation, and municipal or community federalism. This is comparable to the Kurdish stance of the PKK in the 1970s with the goal of establishing a Kurdish State (federated or not)(which was the policy then advocated by Abdullah Ocalan), and that of community federalism (a policy advocated by Ocalan after his imprisonment in 1999.)

In Ukraine, in the 1880s, Mykhailo Drahomanov, seeing no prospect for a Ukrainian State, and not desiring a centralized State, advocated an anarchist structure of federated communities, just as Ocalan is advocating today for the Kurds — and is succeeding in Rojava.

There is a difference between what I will call “State federalism” and a “federalism between communities.” What we have in the United States is a federation of States, and States themselves are federations of municipalities (which themselves have the structure of States). By a “State” I mean a centralized government with or without macro-democracy.

The leading Ukrainian intellectuals (including the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius) — and still into the period of the Russian revolution — which included the position of the first President of Ukraine, Hrushevsky — all favored “State federalism.” However, in view of the irreconcilability with the Bolshevik regime of the power structure, and the subsequent Russian invasion, the Central Council of Ukraine proclaimed Ukrainian independence as a sovereign State.

In the period of 1917-1921, Ukraine became a battleground between four forces: Ukrainian State nationalists, Russian and Ukrainian Bolsheviks, the reactionary White monarchists and republicans, and the Ukrainian anarchists, who wanted everyone of these centralizing invaders out of their territories. The most successful of these was Nestor Makhno, who although an anarchist and a follower of Peter Kropotkin, was not familiar with the writings of Drahomanov — though in fact he was in resonance with his thoughts. He managed to control a large region of southeastern Ukraine (see the map below).

After the First World War, Ukraine became a federated State within the Soviet Union suffering a genocide [Holodomor] under Stalin, and a policy of further Russification.

And after the downfall of the Soviet Union (1991), Ukraine remains a very centralized State with a sizable Russian-speaking population, some of whom have an evident desire to embrace mother Russia, a situation which made possible the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the present stalemate in the Donbass.

Roads to Anarchism

With the current project in Rojava, which so far is succeeding as an experiment in an anarchist society, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on past attempts at anarchism. I have in mind Mexico, Ukraine, Spain, and currently Rojava.

The common feature of all of them is that what transpired in these places was during civil wars. This means that the normal police powers of a State were either suspended or inoperative, and this created a period of time in which some other forms of organization could be tried. And if these experiments were to be experiments in anarchism, two things had to come into play — especially with peasants: redistribution of the land in some fair manner, and giving political power to a local community, such as, for example, a village. A third element operating in some of these circumstances, which may have acted as a catalyst, was a leader.

Let me consider each of these experiments in turn.

The Mexican Revolution. The beginning of the Mexican Revolution is taken to be November 20, 1910. It was started by Francisco Madero with his Plan of San Luis Potosi, which aimed to overthrown the then President of Mexico, Porfirio Diaz — which it did. [I am hesitant to call a coup — however orchestrated — a revolution. It is more like a non-democratic replacement of one “dictator” by another. This is also true of all the recent so-called “color” revolutions.]

What is of interest to me as an anarchist is the activity of Emiliano Zapata whose Plan of Ayala called for the restitution of land to the peasants of Morelos. This was one step towards anarchism. The other step would have been the formation of local autonomous communities. If Zapata had anything like this in mind, he wanted it to be implemented through a central government. And so, he pinned his hopes on a visionary President. In this respect, he was not an anarchist. But what is important is that there was a leader to whom the peasants flocked for the sake of land rights.

[Since 1994, there has been an anarchist movement in Mexico, in Chiapas. It calls itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Unlike the other anarchist movements which I focus on, it is taking place during a period in which Mexico is relatively stable.]

In Ukraine, during the Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917-1921), while various centralizing armies (Red, White, Nationalists) were aggresively expanding (through territorial incursions), Nestor Makhno, a self-conscious anarchist, and follower of Kropotkin, was engaged in two projects. The first was to fend off all military incursion into his territory. The second was to institute local councils for handling land distribution and self-organization. In both regards he was successful until overwhelmed by superior Bolshevik military strength.

In Spain there was a long-standing historical involvement with anarchism from the days of Bakunin. There was the CNT, a huge libertarian union, and there was the FAI, an anarchist federation. When Civil War broke out in 1936, in the anarchist areas, people collectivized farms and industry. Spain was an exception in not having one anarchist leader; instead it had an anarchist tradition. However, one anarchist fighter did stand out — Buenaventura Durruti, who was killed on Nov. 20, 1936.

The Spanish Republicans (including anarchists and communists) lost the Civil War to Franco who was aided both by Hitler and Mussolini.

We come now to the present and the plight of the Kurds. After World War I, and despite Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric about the self-determination of nationalities [Fourteen Points], the Kurds did not get a State; instead they are scattered within four States in the region known as Kurdistan.

The Kurds are fortunate to have a leader, Abdullah Ocelan, who combines the features of the Ukrainian freedom and independence fighter Stepan Bandera and that of the anarchists Nestor Makhno and Mykhailo Drahomanov. Ocelan helped to found the PKK in 1978, a Marxist Kurdish worker’s party which waged guerrilla warfare against Turkey for an independent Kurdistan. This is analogous to Stepan Bandera as the head of the OUN-B fighting for Ukrainian independence. In 1999, Ocelan was abducted from Nairobi, Kenya and flow to Turkey, where he was tried, convicted, and sentence to be executed. This was commuted to life inprisonment on the island of Imrali on the Sea of Marmara.

In 2005 Ocalan issues the Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan. This marked a break with his Marxism and an advocacy of anarchism, a position which was adopted by the PKK. His main inspiration came from Murray Bookchin‘s “The Ecology of Freedom [1982].”

[Ocalan’s current position is very similar to that which was advocated by Mykhailo Drahomanov, under similar circumstances when the Ukrainian population was living in territories ruled by Austro-Hungary in the west, and Russia in the east.]

So far since 2012, the Kurds in Syria have created a polyethnic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Rojava) — an anarchist experiment. The hope is that all of Kurdistan can be made a part of federated States.

Whether Rojava and the hope of federalism will survive is yet to be seen.

Is anarchism understood only by people who are highly self-conscious?

Yes and No.

Yes. From a theoretical or speculative perspective, it seems that the idea of anarchism is difficult for people to grasp. First, they probably understand it in the sense of lawlessness — a sort of random rampage. So, it is the word “anarchism” which is not understood by people in a scholarly manner. Again, as to the political theory of anarchism, ordinary people are totally ignorant of it. This is also true of historical events. Inasmuch as people are ignorant of history, to that extant they are also ignorant of anarchist movements.

No. If we understand by anarchism (1) free access to subsistence land, and (2) direct democracy by a small group, then (1) an anarchistic society is the most natural and normal society of people. All indigenous people — I am thinking of hunter/gatherers primarily — untouched by States are anarchists. This is the anthropological finding. (2) Under conditions of civil war as occurred in Mexico, Ukraine, Spain, and now in Syria [Rojava], people — especially peasants — become anarchists. They divide the land equally and gather together to make decisions through direct democracy.

Three attempts at an anarchist society

David Graeber, being an anthropologist, knew that an anarchistic way of life was possible because indigenous people — when not contaminated by modernity — are all anarchists (in Marxist terminology they are “primitive communists”). By my lights, anarchism requires two things: (1) free access to subsistence land, and (2) direct democracy on a small scale.

Other than indigenous or primitive anarchism, there were only two temporarily successful anarchist experiments.

The first one was in Ukraine, during the Russian and Ukrainian Civil War (1917-1921). The military leader of this anarchist movement was Nestor Makhno who managed to control the southeaster area of Ukraine. The program consisted of distributing land to those who worked it, and instituting local councils which operated by direct democracy. [a caveat: anarchism is not against government; it is against a hierarchical top-down democracy — if it is a democracy — elected through mass or macro-voting]. The Makhnovchina — as the territory was know — eventually was conquered by Bolsheviks due to a lack of weapons.

The second attempt at an anarchist society occurred in Spain — particularly in Catalonia (see George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”) — between 1936 and 1939. The experiment failed because the Spanish Republic lost to the coup of Franko, aided by the arms of Hitler and Mussolini (a destruction so well depicted by Picasso’s “Guernica”)

Currently there is a third attempt at forming an anarchist society in northeastern Syria, in the region called Rojava. When David Graeber, an anarchist himself, became aware of it he became terribly excited and a great supporter of this effort. And it is through him that I became aware of Rojava and the ideologue behind it — Abdullah Ocalan. I too am excited about this.

Abdullah Öcalan (1948- ) — The Idealogue of Rojava

“Abdullah Öcalan is the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), regarded as one of the Kurds’ most important political representatives and a leading strategist. Ever since his abduction from Kenya in 1999 and subsequent trial and death sentence — commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole — he has been held in total isolation on İmralı island. For almost eleven years, he was the sole prisoner there.”

“Öcalan has written extensively on history, philosophy, and politics, and is regarded as a key figure for a political solution of the Kurdish issue. Since the author has been held totally incommunicado and not been able to consult his lawyers or receive regular visits for many years, this op-ed has been edited from his prison writings and recent statements by his collaborators and sent to Jacobin for publication. His recent works include The Sociology of Freedom (2020) and The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan (2017).”

His current thoughts are partially expresses in the following article:

Abdullah Öcalan: My Solution for Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds,” Jacobin, Aug. 7, 2020.

Publications by Abdullah Öcalan in English


Pamphlets Compiled from the Prison Writings

  • War and Peace in Kurdistan (Cologne: International Initiative Edition, revised edition, 2017).
  • Democratic Confederalism. (Cologne: International Initiative Edition, revised edition, 2017).
  • Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution (Cologne: International Initiative Edition, 2013).
  • Democratic Nation (Cologne: International Initiative Edition, 2016).

On the writings of Abdullah Öcalan:

Building Free Life: Dialogues with Öcalan, 2020

David Graeber (1961-2020)

Wiki article on David Graeber

David Graeber, 1961–2020, The New York Review of Books, Sept. 5, 2020.

David Graeber, Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value , 2001.

David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, 2004.

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, 2011.

David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bueaucracy , 2015.

David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins, On Kings, 2017.

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 2018.

Bibliography of David Graeber’s Works, The Anarchist Library

Why I am an anarcho-socialist.

I have noticed that people throw around the words “capitalism,” “socialism,” “state,” “government,” and “anarchism” without knowing what they are talking about, or using these words in some idiosyncratic way.

So, let me explain to you how I understand these words.

“Capitalism” — as I keep repeating — is a political stance which bars people from free access to subsistence land. It is a system which creates a class of proletarians. These are people who have to work for wages or become homeless.

“Socialism” is a political stance antithetical to capitalism; thus, it allows free access to subsistence land. [Granting everyone a basic income or, as Bertrand Russell called it, a “vagabond’s wage,” would compensate for not allowing free access to subsistence land.]

“State” and “government” are not synonymous. A government is a set of rules regulation social life — however formulated: either by informal agreement, direct or indirect democracy.

A “State” is a centralized government ruling over hundreds, thousands, or millions of people over some territory.

“Anarchism” is a government ruling over a small community of about 150 families through direct democracy or through a council (the Russian word for a council is “soviet.”

By combining the idea of a small community ruling itself with the idea of granting everyone in the community free access to subsistence land, we get the hyphenated idea of “anarcho-socialism.” It can also be called “libertarian socialism” since by “liberty” is meant the self-rule of a small community.

The idea of “anarcho-capitalism” is a contradiction caused by not knowing how to define capitalism. The usual idea given is that capitalism involves free-trade. But free-trade, although a necessary condition for capitalism, is not a sufficient condition — simply because free-trade has existed under slavery and feudalism. The other necessary condition is the barring of people from a free access to subsistence land. Yet, those who call themselves “anarcho-capitalists” also want to grant everyone a homestead. But granting a homestead is equivalent to granting free access to subsistence land. Hence, a puzzling situation for the anarcho-capitalists. Does “ideal” capitalism really allow free access to subsistence land?

Below is the flag for anarcho-socialism. A red flag represents socialism. A black flag represents anarchism.

Land and Survival

My wife, Kathy, and I are addicted to the series “Naked and Afraid,” in which a man and a woman are paired, transported to various “raw” environments, stripped of all clothing, and given each a tool of their own choosing. Usually the choices are rational: a machete or a large knife and a flint firestarter. Sometimes, however, some odd choices have been made. Once a woman chose a magnifying glass, another woman chose a cooking pot, and still another chose a tarp.

Given that the couple is naked, a major concern is temperature — especially at night. And with the additional possibility of rain, hypothermia is a danger. So, a shelter and fire are very important. A machete will help in the construction of a shelter as well as for other uses, like making a spear, as well as preparing food. And a fire is needed for warmth, boiling water, and cooking. Let me point out that without a fire starter, people had to twirl sticks to create an amber — and sometimes this proved to be impossible.

It is said that without water a person can survive for a week, and with water but no food, for a month. Perhaps for this reason the producers of the show made the duration of coping with nature 21 days.

So, in the order of priorities: shelter, fire, water, food.

So, why is this show so fascinating? Because this show makes explicit the human needs for survival. And survival is the bare bones of human life. Everything else is luxuries and psychological quirks.

Other than making such mistakes as drinking unboiled water and eating the wrong food (e.g. green figs), or not knowing how to hunt and fish, the main obstacle for successful cooperation is an individual’s character traits. Some individuals cannot endure the physical discomforts or psychological distress; others cannot cooperate because of laziness or ignorance, or because of being too bossy or too needy — and some are downright mean.

What this show teaches is that humans can survive even in the harshest environments as long as they have access to these environments. However, modern States which favor capitalism, forbid such a free access to subsistence land.

Below is an example of the show: