Foreword – John Holloway

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

SIX – The Emergence of the Social Problem

6.1 Defining the Problem of Historical-Society
6.1.a The First Major Problematic Stage of the Monopoly of Civilization
6.1.b From Rome to Amsterdam
6.1.c Eurocentric Civilization’s Hegemonic Rule
6.2 Social Problems
6.2.a The Problem of Power and the State
6.2.b Society’s Moral and Political Problem
6.2.c Society’s Mentality Problem
6.2.d Society’s Economic Problem
6.2.e Society’s Industrialism Problem
6.2.f Society’s Ecological Problem
6.2.g Social Sexism, the Family, Women, and the Population Problem
6.2.h Society’s Urbanization Problem
6.2.i Society’s Class and Bureaucracy Problem
6.2.j Society’s Education and Health Problems
6.2.k Society’s Militarism Problem
6.2.l Society’s Peace and Democracy Problem

SEVEN – Envisaging the System of Democratic Civilization

7.1 Definition of Democratic Civilization
7.2 The Methodological Approach to Democratic Civilization
7.3 A Draft of the History of Democratic Civilization
7.4 Elements of Democratic Civilization

7.4.a Clans
7.4.b The Family
7.4.c Tribes and Aşirets
7.4.d Peoples and Nations
7.4.e Village and City
7.4.f Mentality and Economy
7.4.g Democratic Politics and Self-Defense

NINE – The Reconstruction Problems of Democratic Modernity
9.1 Civilization, Modernity, and the Problem of Crisis
9.2 The State of Anti-System Forces

9.2.a The Legacy of Real Socialism
9.2.b Reevaluating Anarchism
9.2.c Feminism: Rebellion of the Oldest Colony
9.2.d Ecology: The Rebellion of the Environment
9.2.e Cultural Movements: Tradition’s Revenge on the Nation-State
9.2.f Ethnicity and Movements of the Democratic Nation
9.2.g Religious Cultural Movements: Revival of Religious Tradition
9.2.h Urban, Local, and Regional Movements for Autonomy


It is a great honor to be asked to write this foreword.1 I do it with pride, for who the author is and for the movement he represents. I do it to express my support for him in his struggle against a terrible imprisonment and my support for the struggles of the people of Kurdistan in their attempt to create a different world, a different way of living, in the midst of the most terrible violence. I do it to protest against the brutality of the Turkish state and of all the other complicit states.

The book was written by Abdullah Öcalan in prison. Arrested illegally in Kenya by NATO forces in 1999, he has been incarcerated since then on the prison island of İmralı. For much of that time he has been held in total isolation and frequently punished by having his books and pen and paper removed, in breach of basic rights stipulated in the Geneva Convention. In spite of this, he has succeeded in writing five volumes explaining his political ideas, volumes to be presented in his defense at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The present book is the third volume, written in prison in 2008 and published here in English for the first time. Through all these years of imprisonment, Öcalan’s ideas have been a major source of inspiration for the Kurdish movement in its struggles, centered on the province of Rojava in northeastern Syria, to create a different way of living, a form of social organization that they call “democratic modernity.”

The danger in writing a foreword to a book written by such a towering figure is that one sanctifies him, saying simply “how wonderful!” thus contributing to the formation of a personality cult that is undoubtedly present in the movement itself. This is very clearly not what Öcalan wants. At several points in the text he makes clear that for him this is part of a dialogue, and that he is looking for reactions to his ideas.

When I started reading the book, I was clear that I wanted to express my support but not at all sure that I would be convinced by the book itself. This initial attitude then gradually fell away and turned into a very different reading, one in which I was absorbed by the force of the argument. I say “gradually,” because, coming from Europe and Latin America, it took me a while to adjust to a different frame of reference and become engaged in an argument that is not about a world “over there” but critically and crucially about my world, our world—about our world and the possibility that we can still pull the emergency brake on the train of destruction and create something different.

Öcalan’s book is an important contribution to the dialogue of hope, a dialogue that is being conducted all over the world, sometimes by voices that are articulate and well-organized, like the Zapatistas in southeast Mexico, often by groups resisting the depredations of mining companies or urban planners, or women fighting against male violence; sometimes, it’s just students who look up from their books and think, “There has to be a way out, there has to be the possibility of creating a different world.” As the dark around us grows, as authoritarianism and militarism push us closer to the precipice, millions and millions and millions of voices join in the dialogue of “desperation and hope”: there has to be a way out; there has to be a way forward.

For Öcalan, hope lies in restoring the “free functioning of moral and political society” (ch. 7, 152). This is the revolutionary task: “The task of revolutionaries cannot be defined as creating any social model of their making but more correctly as playing a role in contributing to the development of moral and political society” (ch 7, 138). This moral and political society exists as a repressed substratum in all societies: “the democratic civilization system—essentially the moral and political totality of social nature—has always existed and sustained itself as the flip side of the official history of civilization. Despite all the oppression and exploitation at the hands of the official world-system, the other face of society could not be destroyed. In fact, it is impossible to destroy it. “Just as capitalism cannot sustain itself without noncapitalist society, civilization—the official world system—also cannot sustain itself without the democratic civilization system” (ch, 7, 143).

Moral and political society, as I understand it, is the gel of everyday life: the normally unspectacular comings and goings of people: the trust, the mutual support, the friendships, the loves, the sharing of food, the preparing of food, the washing of dishes and of clothes, the gossiping, the sharing and shaping of moral ideas—all those activities that are common to all of us, those activities that hold our lives together and constitute and reconstitute communities. But for the last five thousand years, ever since the Sumerian empire, moral and political society has been repressed and blocked by official civilization, the civilization based on power, on monopoly, on patriarchy, on capital, on cities. But this civilization of power has never succeeded in freeing itself from the moral and political substratum, however much it may claim to have done so. “Without the capital and power monopoly, moral and political society is the natural state of society. All human societies must have these qualities from their birth to their decay. Slave-owning, feudal, capitalist, and socialist society molds are like clothes they hope to put on social nature; they do not express the truth. In spite of what they claim, there are no such societies. These societies, whose original state was moral and political, were unable to fully develop, because they were continuously oppressed, exploited, and colonized by the capital and power monopolies” (ch. 7, 151–52). The civilization of power, then, is like a suit of armor thrown over moral and political society that hides and constricts and blocks its development and that is now increasingly societycidal, threatening to destroy society completely. The history of moral and political society (or democratic civilization) is a history of resistance, rebellion and struggle for life: “The history of democratic civilization, to a great extent, is the history of resistance, rebellion, and insistence on the life of the moral and political society of the tribes and aşirets in their struggle for freedom, democracy, and equality in the face of the attacks by the civilization” (ch. 7, 182).

There is a beauty in this conception. Revolution becomes “of course.” Of course, we need a revolution, and, of course, we must do it. But, of course, there is nothing more normal, nothing more obvious! Revolution is woven into the experience and creativity of our daily lives. It is we who create and re-create, day in, day out, the moral and political society that is the substance of our everyday intercourse. It is we who confront the obstacles to that creativity every day: the fact that we have to go to work or prepare for exams or are barred from access to the means necessary to realize our creativity. We are all aware of the power-civilization (capitalism, patriarchy, whatever we want to call it) that blocks our way, but, at the same time, we are rooted in a different sociality that gives meaning and direction to our lives: a moral and political sociality that resists and rebels, that pushes and pushes against its repression by official civilization.

The resistance and rebellion are constantly changing pattern, refusing here, refusing there, pushing here, pushing there against the attacks that come constantly from the civilization of power. The of-course-ness of resistance and rebellion shifts as the attacks against us move and our own sensibilities drive in different directions. Öcalan displays an extraordinary sensitivity to the shifting patterns of struggle. This is important, for, despite being locked up in isolation, his argument resonates strongly with current debates in all sorts of ways. Far from being a book relevant only to the Kurdish struggle, The Sociology of Freedom is an important contribution to current debates about capitalism, patriarchy, ecology, and the state. For Öcalan, the civilization of power is (and has been since the time of the Sumerian empire) built on the enslavement of women and the subjugation of nature, and its organizational form has been the state. Hence and of course, women’s struggles against patriarchy and the many struggles to transform the relationship between humans and other forms of life (and indeed the understanding of life itself) are and must be at the center of any revolution aimed at redeeming moral and political society. Hence and of course, the struggle is an anti-state struggle in its organization and aim: its organization is based on the assembly and its aim is not (emphatically not) the creation of a Kurdish state but the liberation of Kurdistan and the world from the state, from the state as an oppressive form of organization. The implications of Öcalan’s work are profound and exciting. It has an enormous influence on the Kurdish movement, reflected in the forms of organization and the leading role played by women in the struggle. And, beyond that, the resonance of his work with current struggles and debates throughout the world is truly extraordinary.

To feel this resonance is to be pulled into debate with the author. As we read the text, we move through phases of agreement, enthusiasm, doubt, disagreement, perhaps even annoyance—as we would with any good, provocative author, as we would with Bookchin (by whom Öcalan is strongly influenced and whose Ecology of Freedom is the model for the title of the present work)2 or Graeber or Negri or Wallerstein or Federici or many others. To respect an author is to criticize her. To read Öcalan uncritically just because he is the symbol of a great movement would be to put another lock on his prison door, to embalm him before he died. Even if we know that this foreword and other texts may never get through his prison door, we have to engage with what he is saying. Precisely because of the enormous admiration that I feel for someone who has dedicated his life to trying to change the world and has had such an influence on an amazing movement of change taking place in the most awful conditions, precisely because of that, I feel drawn into debate, into saying “wonderful, but perhaps…”

My own doubts center on the questions of historicity-negativity, money and market, working class, nation. The constant references in the book to Sumerian civilization, to Babylon and Assyria, to the Zoroastrian tradition, certainly extend my thinking into unexplored areas but at the same time make me feel that there is a danger of losing sight of the urgency of our situation. Perhaps there is a wider tendency (one thinks of Bookchin or of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years)3 to shift from the analysis of capitalism to a much longer perspective, to see capitalism as just the latest phase in the development of patriarchy, for example. Certainly, Öcalan is right to draw our attention to the continuities of domination, but perhaps our immediate concern needs to be with the specific form of domination that is driving us toward our destruction. Perhaps we have to say yes, but the official power-civilization that dominates in the world today has a name: capitalism. Capitalism has its own dynamic and its own fragilities and vulnerabilities that are quite distinct from—and infinitely more destructive than—those of the Sumerian civilization. By capitalism, I understand not an economic system but a totalizing system of “domination and resistance” that includes, crucially, the subordination of women and the exploitation of nature but has its own fragility based on its dependence on us, i.e., on the conversion of our activity into abstract, value-producing labor. This specific dependence-fragility has to be central to any development of a sociology of freedom.

The long-historical approach can lead us paradoxically into an ahistorical idealization of the resistance, of our resistance. Moral and political society, which Öcalan sees to be the center of our resistance and our hope, cannot stand outside the system of domination: it is inevitably penetrated by the power-civilization (capital) that dominates it. Again, Öcalan stands in the center of international debate, for here in Latin America too there is a tendency to idealize the community, especially the indigenous community, as a source of hope standing outside the system. This can easily lead to a romanticism but also to a dangerous dichotomy between inside and outside, reminiscent in some ways of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man,4 a very different book. Hope is then projected onto the outside: the moral and political society, the indigenous community, the socially marginalized, and this outside is then contrasted with an inside that is seen as totally integrated into the system. This is very strong in Öcalan’s treatment of the working class: “Just as the slave and serf were the extensions of their masters and lords, the concessionist [i.e., wage—JH] worker is always an extension of the boss” (ch. 7, 186). The same inside-outside dichotomy can also be seen when justified attacks on Eurocentrism slide into a dismissal of Europe (and indeed the northern part of North America) as possible locations of rebellion. Inversely, and at its worse, the same dichotomy leads to an exoticization of hope: for people of the “North,” hope lies in the “Global South,” in Kurdistan or Latin America, exciting places that are comfortably far away.

A different approach is to say that all domination tears us apart, both collectively and individually. There is no clear distinction between the integrated and the excluded. We are all subjugated, but there is always an excess, an overflowing, an inconformity, a rebellion, a dignity. Ordinariness lies in that excess. Hence, the depth of the Zapatista quote: “We are quite ordinary women and men, children and old people, that is, rebels, non-conformists, misfits, dreamers.” This daily overflowing, this daily excess is central to the of-course-ness of revolution. This rebel dignity, this push toward a world of dignity, is always present, more or less latent, more or less forceful. In general, the more forceful the repression, the more forceful the rebellion, at least potentially: this is the way that Marx introduces his idea of the revolutionary nature of the working class. As workers, we are exploited and, therefore, in revolt against our exploitation. As slaves, we are subjugated and, therefore, in revolt against our enslavement, whether that revolt is latent or patent, potential or actual. We are never just an extension of the boss. It is not that some people have dignity and others do not: rather, it is that dignity is the struggle against its own negation, stronger in some than in others, latent in all.

If domination tears us apart, that must be true too of the moral and political society. Öcalan’s conception of a moral and political society that is present as a substratum or social cohesion in any social order, however “civilized,” is a thing of beauty, but the history of moral and political society is a history of resistance, as he points out. It is not innocent, it does not stand outside the dominating civilization that is its enemy but is inevitably penetrated by it. Money is the most obvious and most potent form of penetration of capital into our daily lives. Moral and political society exists as a powerful, wonderful force, but it does not exist positively: it exists negatively, in the mode of being denied and, therefore, as struggle against its own negation.

The same is true of freedom. We are not there yet, we do not know what freedom would be like. Freedom exists as resistance, as struggle against and beyond its own denial, as longing, as flapping our wings and wanting to fly, but we cannot do it yet. To try to convert Öcalan’s great book into the basis of a positive sociology of freedom would be to go in the wrong direction. It is, rather, a provocation to be picked up and pushed further.

The idea that domination tears us apart, individually and collectively, is also relevant to Öcalan’s discussion of the nation, an important part of his argument. He distinguishes very carefully two concepts of nation—the state-nationalism that tends toward fascism and the “second way of becoming a nation is to transform the same or similar language and cultural groups—which are part of moral and political society—into a democratic society on the basis of democratic politics. All tribes, aşirets, peoples, and even families play their part as units of moral and political society in forming such a nation” (ch. 7, 183). This sort of nation, he says, is “the antidote to capital and power monopolies” (ch. 7, 184). The nationalism advocated by Öcalan is very different from the state-nationalism that is growing all over the world; it is a nationalism that promotes the struggle of all peoples against the state-capital-power, without in any way claiming a superiority for the Kurdish people. Yet I feel uncomfortable with the notion of a people or nation as a grouping with historical continuity or identity. I may or may not have been born in the same region as my ancestors of three hundred years ago, I may or may not speak the same language, but I am fairly sure that my daily experience is very different from theirs and likely to be much closer to the experience of someone living on the other side of the earth today. The idea of a distinctive prolonged and intergenerational flow of social experience that underlies any concept of nation may have some limited validity in peasant societies but is surely much less relevant for the majority of the world’s population that lives in cities. And yet the idea of the nation remains as a powerful fiction that kills millions. The danger of thinking of nation as a unit is that it glosses over divisions within the “nation,” such as class divisions between exploiters and exploited. Also, however different the two ideas of nation analyzed by Öcalan, there is a danger of a glide between one and the other. The struggle of the states that are fighting against the Kurdish movement (principally the Turkish, Syrian, Russian, Iraqi, and US states) is probably not so much to destroy Kurdish nationalism as to statify it, to convert the push for autonomy into a demand for recognition as an “autonomous” state or province, akin to or an extension of the existing Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Perhaps it is better to think of the struggles for another world as being necessarily not only anti-state but also anti-national.

I have a similar worry in relation to Öcalan’s concept of the market. Quite unlike Marx, who sees the source of capitalist destruction as lying in the fact that human wealth is produced as commodities to be sold on the market, with the relations between people mediated by money, Öcalan argues that “democratic civilization does not oppose the market. On the contrary, because it offers a truly free environment, it has the only genuine free market economy. It does not deny the market’s creative competitive role. What it opposes are techniques for amassing speculative revenue” (ch. 7, 186). It is important to point out that the sort of market that Öcalan has in mind is certainly not the financial markets of Wall Street, it is something closer to a bazaar, a place controlled by the community where products are exchanged to cover basic needs. In this sense, it is a concept close to the practices of many commons-oriented movements or, indeed, the great explosion of barter in the crisis and uprising of 2001–2002 in Argentina. Even so, it is hard to see how to separate the market from money, and how money can be separated from “amassing speculative revenue.” Money destroys and divides; it is the great enemy of moral and political society.

Radha D’Souza, in her fabulous foreword to the previous volume of Öcalan’s writings (a foreword subtitled “Reading Öcalan as a South Asian Woman,” which takes a very different approach from the one advanced here) opens by saying, “As I write this foreword, I cannot help feeling how much more exciting my engagement with Öcalan’s text could be if I could sit face to face with him and discuss, over cups of chai, as is common in the Eastern social settings, the issues he raises in this volume.”5 I would love to sit down and join that discussion, with Abdullah Öcalan, with Radha D’Souza, with David Graeber, who wrote a super preface for the first volume, with all the millions of people who have been inspired by this and the other volumes written by Öcalan. There would be so much to discuss, so many differences to air, so much to learn, so many voices in discordant harmony, a conversation between comrades who share the same hatred of capitalism and the same longing for a society based on the mutual recognition of human dignities.

The reality, of course, is much more brutal. Abdullah Öcalan is locked up in appalling conditions, while I sit comfortably in my professorial chair. We cannot meet to share a chai. What we can do and what I want us to do is to take his ideas seriously, to think about them, to discuss them, to disagree and agree with them, to take them into seminars and universities and assemblies and discussion groups. We are all participants in the same dialogue of “hope and despair,” all joined in the determination that we will break the “civilization,” the capitalism, that is destroying us.


1 Very many thanks to all who have commented on an earlier versión of this Preface: Azize Azlan, Edith González, Panagiotis Doulos, Lars Stubbe, Vittorio Sergi, Sagrario Anta Martínez, Havin Guneser, Andrej Grubaćić.

2 Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom (Andover, MA: Cheshire Books, 1982), accessed February 9, 2020,

3 David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011).

4 Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).

5 Radha D’Souza, “Reading Öcalan as a South Asian Woman,” in Building Free Life: Dialogues with Öcalan (Oakland: PM Press, 2020), 103–18.

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