Foreword by Andrej Grubačić

  • ONE
  • TWO
  • FOUR
  • FIVE
  • SIX
  • NINE
  • TEN

ONE – Social Reality and the Individual
Natural Society

TWO – Hierarchical Statist Society: The Birth of Slave Society
On Method
The Advent of Hierarchy

FOUR – Feudal Statist Society
The Mature Slave Society
The Capitalist State and Capitalist Society: The Crisis of Civilization

FIVE – The Democratic and Ecological Society
The Historical Essence of Communal and Democratic
Prophets and Barbarians
Monasteries, Witches, and Alchemists
From the Renaissance to Marxism

SIX – A Blueprint for a Democratic and Ecological Society
Democracy as a System for a Way Out of Crisis
Women’s Liberation
The Return to Social Ecology

SEVEN – Chaos in the Middle East Civilization and Ways Out
Understanding the Middle East Correctly: What Is the Problem and How Did It Develop?
The Mentality of the Middle East
The State in the Middle East
The Family in the Middle East
Further Particularities of Society in the Middle East
Ethnicity and Nation
Civil Society
Violence and Dictatorship in the Civilization in the Middle East

EIGHT – The Current Situation in the Middle East and Probable Developments
The Middle East Today
State Power
Theocracy as the Foundation of Every State
The Situation of Women
The Economy
The Future of the Region
Democratic Politics
The Freedom of Women

NINE – The Kurdish Phenomenon and the Kurdish Question in the Chaos of the Middle East
Some Distinctive Lines in the Kurdish Society
A Short Sketch of the History and Concepts of “Kurds” and “Kurdistan”
The Struggle Over Kurdistan, War, and Terror
The Policy of Forced Assimilation Targeting the
Culture of Kurdistan
Ethnicity, Class, and Nation in Kurdistan
Official Ideology and Power in Kurdistan
Self-Awareness and Resistance in Kurdistan

TEN – The PKK Movement: Critique, Self-Critique, and Its Reconstruction
Section A—Historical Sketch of the PKK
First Phase: Emergence
Second Phase
Some Thoughts on the PKK
Section B—Critique and Self-Critique in the Name of the PKK
The Concept of the Party
Power and Violence
Self-critique of the PKK
National Liberation
Section C—The Questions in the Restructuring of the PKK
Kurdish-Turkish Relations
First Contacts
The Strategic Alliance
Capitalism in Turkey
The Era of the Republic
1970 to Today
Section D—Reform and Social Transformation in Turkey
The Liberal Bourgeoisie

ELEVEN – Contribution to the Debate about the Refoundation of the PKK
Tasks in Reconstructing the PKK and the Time of Koma
Political Objectives
Social Objectives
Ecology and Economics
Internationalist Aspect
Individual Rights
The People’s Congress
The People’s Defense Forces
Options for Democratic Action and a Democratic
The Second Path

There is no doubt that Beyond State, Power, and Violence is an unusual book. This is a book of omnivorous contradictions, in which almost everything overlaps: myth and fact, past and present, dream and reality; it displays Abdullah Öcalan’s preternatural powers of observation, his astonishing grasp of history and anthropology, as well as his love of the colors and smells of the mountains. It feels like a work of art in the wrong genre: when I first read it, I was immediately reminded of Maupassant, who compared a novel to an “opera in prose.” The book, written in prison, was published in 2004, and is, in part, an original interpretation of world history, a revolutionary manifesto, an intellectual autobiography, a program for a unified social science, a courageous analysis of the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), a learned treatise on Kurdish and Middle Eastern history, a critique of political economy, all the while being an incredibly lively and readable text, despite, or because of, all the learning and research that went into it (Öcalan’s analysis deftly integrates Foucault’s biopower and power/knowledge, Wallerstein’s world-system, Bookchin’s organic society, and a number of other concepts and thinkers). André Breton once offered the image of a man cut in two by a window as the model of the surrealist picture. This is close to what Öcalan presents: neither window nor mirror but an artful combination of the two, in which exterior mingles with the interior, the two sides reflecting each other, while reminding us that women and life are the same word in some languages. I won’t test the reader’s patience with yet another summary of Öcalan’s fascinating life and politics; the book includes a very competent biography and chronology of his revolutionary journey. Instead, as a fellow world historian, I will say a few things about his historical method and the (“wrong”) genre of this book (which, inci-dentally, changed the entire course of the Kurdish revolutionary politics, but more on that later).

Breton’s mirror and window describe well the historical method Öcalan uses. The parts are not cut in two but, rather, creatively juxtaposed: if the window corresponds to dialectical critique, the mirror reflects insightful self-critique. As we learn in chapter seven, critical self-interrogation of the concepts of power, state (party), and violence (war), while carefully balancing analytical and emotional intelligence, led Öcalan to embrace democratic, ecological, and women-centered revolutionary politics. His critique and self-critique are braided through and shape his historical method. Öcalan understands it takes more than seeing to make things visible. He knows that certain processes, shooting like arrows across the whole field of study, evade the historians’ attempt to fix them in words.

With dazzling virtuosity, he debunks the idea of finding absolute truth in conventional historical assessments. Is it possible, Öcalan seems to ask, to separate the idea of scientific truth from that of a true society? While dialectical knowledge seeks to raise the stone under which the monster of modern capitalism lies brooding, positivist historical research into facts opposes such a desire. Within positivism, curiosity is punished, utopia is expelled, fantasy prohibited, and knowledge resigns itself to being a mere repetitive reconstruction. It becomes impoverished, like life under factory discipline. The felicity of knowledge, as Adorno put it, is not to be. In this scientistic syndrome of thought the goal of knowledge is confused with the means of knowledge. For positivists, the system is something “positive.” For dialecticians like Öcalan, the system is the core of what must be criticized. For a good positivist, always eager to quantify, art, mythology, and imagination all serve as a rubbish bin for everything that is excluded from this restricted experience. Social sciences are political concepts, as Öcalan convincingly suggests, constructed in the service of the state and capital; one of the principal concerns of liberal social science was precisely to establish a modern society organized around the triad of power, state, and violence.1 In History and Class Consciousness Lukács defined the social type of the historian as the dialectical extreme of reification. We could politely disagree and say that a professional historian, lost in fragmentary analysis of discrete shreds of the past, is even less attuned to the resounding echo of history. Like the great world historian William McNeill, Öcalan argues not for history but for a mythhistory, a project by which historians provide a sense of the past, a broad but intelligible and meaningful interpretation as a basis for a rebellion against the present.

Clearly, this rebellion is filled with signs and traces of antagonistic temporalities whose contents and forms are expressions of a much older history. From this point of view, nonhierarchical forms are not archaic forms or stages but antagonistic temporalities and contemporary alternatives. However, Öcalan investigates the past not to restore some form of new age obscurantism but, to the contrary, to reconstruct the truth left out of the official sources. Like Sheldon Wollin, Öcalan asks us what time it is, but his answer is that democratic time was, since the beginning of hierarchical society, out of sync with the normative rhythms and temporalities.

The task of his mythhistory is to look for those possibilities and examples of different social relations obscured by the temporalities of capital and the state. Residual faith would have it that the truth resides in original documents, while moving closer and closer to those documents, in fact, means moving closer and closer to incoherence. What we need is an intelligible world, and there is no sense in pretending that all we need is more detail.

Of course, this does not imply a total reproduction of experience. Let us remember McNeill’s adjunction:

Pattern recognition of the sort historians engage in is the chef d’oeuvre of human intelligence. It is achieved by paying selective attention to the total input of stimuli that perpetually swarm in upon our consciousness. Only by leaving things out, i.e., relegating them to the status of background noise deserving only to be disregarded, can what matters most in a given situation become recognizable. Suitable action follows. Here is the great secret of human power over nature and over ourselves as well. . . . Only some facts matter for any given pattern. Otherwise useless clutter will obscure what we are after: perceptible relations among important facts. 2

On that basis, relegating the background noise of conventional interpretation and positivist accumulation of swarming facts, Abdullah Öcalan had established perceptible relations among the facts that allows us to comprehend how the tradition can be revitalized to change the present.

Öcalan’s method is a practical mode of intervention into history. He presents an entirely different consideration of time and space to open new terrain of possibilities. His take on history is like that of an archeologist who investigates an archeological site not as a space of the past but as centuries and millennia that exist contemporaneously before our eyes. Unlike Enkidu, he refuses to escape to the city and the state, and he is not seduced by the liberal ordering of official time. He searches for the antagonistic temporalities revealed by his historical method, moving through the “useless clutter” of official facts.

Just like the positivist historian confuses the means and ends, so does the modern revolutionary. Öcalan’s signature contribution is to recognize that both revolutionary socialists and liberal reformers belong to the same temporal logic of capitalism. Soviet socialism was realized by this logic through gulags, and today the same logic still excuses imperial interventions. Both the Leninist conception of brick-and-mortar socialism and the productivist visions of traditionalist Marxism are complicit in the progressivist myth that is emblematic of the liberal conception of history.3 A new political temporality beyond state, power, and violence is necessary and is already present in the layers of antagonistic past; it needs to be recovered, rather than invented. The democratic and socioecological communal society is neither the break nor the accelerator; it is an alternative to the entire course of hierarchical society.

This is a revolutionary politics that rejects facile restitutionism (because a return to the “archaic” past would still involve a linear model of time). Rather, it cautions us that a mistake made by modern revolutionaries and scholars was to assert that unilinear temporality (with the modern nation-state at the other end of the developmentalist arrow) banishes antagonistic temporalities and political forms (Bookchin’s “legacy of freedom”). Organized on these different temporal registers, the book shows that a historical method can have connections with one’s own lived experience. It is striking how original a move this is. The result is a qualitatively different regime of historical times: not to restore the premodern past but to make a detour via the past toward a future in which we could recover the art of democratic and communal living. At the center of all this is the figure of a woman, the first slave and the first colony of patriarchal-statist society. Öcalan accords special salience to the restored dignity of women, as the premise and conditio sine qua non of egalitarian politics.

Capitalism and the US hegemonic model is in crisis, and the contemporary “chaos interval” of capitalist civilization is a key moment in time and space in which we—all of us, not only, or not exclusively, the industrial proletariat—might be able to rectify history for the future. In this restorative historicity, history is narrated into the future and capitalist modernity becomes the backward past, violent and morally unjustifiable. As we walk into the present, we have the future behind us, and the past in front of us. Time has looped on itself to reveal a solidarity of women and men across the centuries.4 It is tradition that is subversive, not the act of abolishing it.

What comes into full view is the poverty of liberal utopia. The essence of this parochial concept is the idea of the sovereign nation-state anchored to a bounded territory, as well as to a certain utopian temporal and spatial order, a belief in the inevitability and moral quality of progress, the nation-state, and capitalism. Öcalan turns this idea upside down. His appropriation of history challenges the Eurocentric divisions of time and space, inferiority and superiority, civilization and barbarism, the entire geography of modernization, including the essential dichotomy between nature and society. Against the fantastical finality of liberal politics, he speaks of democratic intervals, existing time-spaces of mutual aid and democracy, as practices retrieved from both the past and the present but entirely integral to democratic modernity.

Öcalan reminds us that history is forever unresolved, a field of unfinished possibilities. We reach back to refuse some possibilities, and we reach back to select others. He urges us to refuse the liberal vision of civilization and progress, but he is not kind to Lenin’s vision of state-centered internationalism and national liberation project either. If politics is a process of liberation of the natural and moral society from the state, national liberation should be thought of then as a rupture with the modern concept of the nation. It is the right time (Wallerstein’s “kairos”) to wake the people from their utopian dream of nation-states and focus our collective energy on the project of democratic world confederalism.

To conclude: the result of Abdullah Öcalan painstaking research, of his elaboration of an original historical method in the “wrong genre,” is a myth historical manifesto for a new politics and social science. This book was much debated in Kurdish revolutionary circles. Its publication has eventuated a far-reaching self-critique within the Kurdish freedom movement (the reader would do well to pay careful attention to the parts of the book devoted to the history of PKK and Kurdish identity). The result of this process has been reevaluation and reconstruction, a birth of a new organizational paradigm that has informed (and made possible) the social revolution in Rojava. I use this word, birth, intentionally. Öcalan had suggested elsewhere that he had not one but three births. One was biological, another political (the birth of PKK), and the last was shaped by his rejection of the state. This book is his first and most comprehensive expression of this belief. It’s historical and theoretical value is immeasurable. Considering its impact, both in and beyond Rojava, it does not seem like a terrible exaggeration to suggest that it is the most influential revolutionary manifesto of the twenty-first century.


1 Perhaps this was what T.S. Eliot meant when he said that there are men who have an incapacity for what we ordinarily call thinking. We have poisoned humanity almost to death with rational “understanding.”

2 William McNeill, Mythhistory and Other Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5–6.

3 One can recognize this elective affinity in the architectural collaboration between the Soviet and US American empires, something that had been written out of the history of both countries by the end of the 1950s. One of my favorite examples is that of Soviet poet Gastev, whose work faithfully mimicked Taylor’s system of scientific management, in which workers’ movements were measured and remunerated with piece rates. Concrete grain silos that dominated industrial cities like Buffalo were celebrated in the Soviet Union almost as much as the unsightly cupola of the Singer Building.

4 Another important influence on Abdullah Öcalan is French historian Fernand Braudel. As Braudel is not explicitly mentioned in this book, I will leave his analysis of the plurality of social times to another reviewer. But Braudel’s impa-tience with occurrences (especially the “vexing” ones) and his sensitivity to time as depth (multiple temporalities of event/long term/structural time) are very much present in Öcalan’s thinking in The Sociology of Freedom (PM Press, 2020), where he looks at the continuity that exists on the deeper level, below and beyond the “surface disturbances” of l’histoire eventuelle.

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