- We Have a Lot to Learn


New Compass Press has recently published Civilization: The Age of Masked Gods and Disguised Kings, the first of a series of five books by the imprisoned PKK leader Abullah Öcalan. Under Öcalan’s leadership the PKK has changed from a Marxist-Leninist to a libertarian socialist movement. Here, David Graeber, anthropologist and author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, reflects on what this change means and why the book is worth reading.

Why have you, coming from a libertarian socialist background, written a preface for a book by Abdullah Öcalan – a person who has been identified as a Marxist-Leninist?

Well, he doesn't think of himself as a Marxist-Leninist. In fact, he rejected Marxism entirely. It’s a strange reflection on our movement when a major social movement like the PKK comes around to say something like "You know guys: you were right! We should join your side," and we say "What? No! We don't want you! We don't believe you. We think you're lying." 

Many anti-authoritarian groups can't believe that anybody else might decide they are right. But that's what happened with Öcalan and the PKK, isn't it? These anarchists keep saying that the PKK is really still an authoritarian, Marxist-Leninist, nationalist group; that they are just pretending to be against the state to curry favor.

As I have to keep pointing out this defies any conceivable common sense. If you are an authoritarian, nationalist group and you want to fake a position to just get international support, you're going to choose anarchism? It's insane! Why would you possibly do that? I mean, you either choose liberalism or Islamism, because those guys can give you guns and money and actual support. You're not going to fake an entire ideology just to get support from a bunch of broke guys hanging in pubs and clubs debating abstract theory. That's not going to help you. This view involves such a bizarre, narcissist self-importance, that it is almost beyond imagination.

I think we have a lot to learn from this movement’s self-analysis of what they got wrong, and what adopting a new kind of politics means to them.

They did start as Marxist-Leninists of a rather familiar variety. They did have a quite authoritarian structure. They did have a cult of leader, which they still have to some degree, but it is rather different now that the leader is in prison. It is funny that with a case like the Zapatistas we don't have a problem with that. They also started as a group of fairly hardcore doctrinaire Maoists, who did listening exercises and actually listened and transformed themselves. In a way, the PKK did the same thing, except that it was a much more difficult process. It was a fairly small number Maoist cadres who went down to become the Zapatistas – maybe a few dozen people – whereas the PKK already had thousands and thousands when they went down the process of change.

What do you think we can learn from the movement and how is that expressed in Öcalan’s recent book?

One of the most interesting ideas Öcalan develops is that the positivist scientism in traditional Marxism means nothing to the people we claim to want to liberate. Actual workers and peasants don't think in positivist terms, it is rather the thoughts of the petty bourgeoisie and the technical administrative classes. It's hardly surprising that when revolutionary movements do take over it's essentially the petty bourgeoisie and the bureaucrats who do take over, because the whole project is founded from their world-view. From the world-view of the popular classes the things we write off as religious, magic and mystical actually make a lot more intuitive sense. We need to embrace what we can actually learn from those strains of thought.

Video: David Graeber talks about the revolution in Rojava which is very much inspired by Abdullah Öcalan's ideas.

Why does, for example, revealed religion speak to people? Öcalan argues that one of the reasons it makes intuitive sense to people is that the way it explains social change is true at some level. Social change is not a matter of continual, gradual, cumulative change like the positivists tend to it. Rather, there are great moments of almost revolutionary change where things come out of nothing. Like the Neolithic revolution. Almost all of our everyday habits that we don't even think about – sitting on chairs, eating from plates – were all invented in fairly brief period of time. They seemed to come out of nowhere, and once invented those patterns just stay and are repeated in a ritual fashion ever since. That's reality, that's the way life actually is. Religion captures that and gives you a way of conceiving it, which positivist science doesn't.

One of Öcalan’s most radical moves is to revive the notion of Neolithic matriarchy. This notion was very common in the 19th and early 20th century but has recently been cast aside. There is, however, something very telling about this has been completely rejected in contemporary archeology and history. In most intellectual fads and trends there is a pendulum. An idea will come in, go out and then come in again. Like Karl Polanyi who rises to be a big star, then he's rejected and a generation later he is back again.

But the idea of Neolithic matriarchy, once it went out it just was gone. It became like a taboo, no one can touch it, you're considered crazy if you talk about it. In fact, however, there is a lot of empirical evidence that there existed if not matriarchy sp at least women's equality and quite possibly women's power in a lot of Neolithic communities. All of the artistic representations of authority figures in many of them were of women. You might say that there is no documented case of a society like that that we know of. That's true, but there is also no case of male dominated societies where all the figures of authority are of women. 

The strong emphasis in Öcalan on the Neolithic partly has to do with the particular position of Kurdistan. Öcalan thinks that the Kurdish people are direct descendants of goddess worshipping peoples in the Middle East. So there is a particular national slant on it. He holds that there were these societies that were relatively egalitarian and dominated by women's values which were gradually displaced by patriarchy, which made the state possible as well. In a way he argues that women are the first proletarians. The oppression of women makes possible the other forms of oppression. He's right! I mean, we can argue about how that happened, but certainly it's true.

Portrait of David Graeber

Image: Anthropologist and libertarian socialist David Graeber has written a foreword to Abdullah Öcalan's most recent book.

Öcalan’s work is a way of reimagining history from a libertarian socialist perspective, taking in issues such as the rise of patriarchy, and he's constantly trying to understand the appeal of historical alternatives coming from a Middle Eastern and Kurdish perspective.  In a sense he's constructing a great historical myth, but I don't think that's a problem. History, if it's not myth, is just a meaningless chain of events. In so far as it's possible to take out any meaning from history, you are essentially mythologizing it. That is not a bad thing, as long as you understand that that it is what you are doing. Öcalan is trying to create a great myth in the same way as all the revolutionary thinkers from the mid-nineteenth century did, back when revolutionary thinking was still compelling and mobilizing of people – almost despite itself. 

Would you recommend people to read the book?

One of the things that I find refreshing with Öcalan is that he's not very dogmatic. He's not laying down the law. He's quite consciously trying to open doors rather than to close them. He throws out a lot of ideas that he leaves to others to develop. Perhaps we could come up with sociology of freedom based on quantum theory? Maybe the science of women would look like this? He shifts back and forth in between his own personal reminiscences, abstract theoretical experiments and then specific historical narratives. It's a very interesting texture of the book which is quite unusual.

I also think he has done a pretty good job considering his very limited resources. As I say in the preface you have people like Francis Fukuyama and Jared Diamond who are writing histories of the world, and these guys have access to all the best libraries in the best countries of the world, and I still think that Öcalan with his extremely limited resources in a Turkish prison probably did a better job. Any major historical work is going to leave somethings out, it's going to have its own angle and slant and you can criticize it for that. It's always going to be a partial picture of reality, but I think his partial picture of reality is a lot more compelling than the other ones out there.