return to the main page
Review in "The Spokesman"
Abdullah Ocalan translated by Klaus
Happel, Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilisation,
Pluto Press, 336 pages, hardback ISBN-13: 978-0745326160, £25
download this review in PDF format
Abdullah Ocalan was the leader of the
PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which conducted a guerrilla war
from 1984 with the aim of establishing an independent Kurdish state
in south-east Turkey. In February 1999, he was kidnapped on the
way to Nairobi airport and taken back to Turkey, where he was tried
and sentenced to death, although the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
In prison on the Turkish island of Imrali
in the Sea of Marmara, he has produced, as part of a submission to the
European Court of Human Rights, a volume which is an analysis of the
history of civilisation centred, in particular, on the Middle East.
Although his approach is essentially Marxist, he rejects economic determinism
as the basis for his interpretation of history and places great importance
on ideology. This is reminiscent of the Italian Communist, Antonio
Gramsci, who also produced important theoretical work while in prison.
Ocalan regards the palaeolithic period
of history, which covered 98 per cent of humanity's existence on earth,
as having been brought to an end by the neolithic revolution, based
upon better tools, the development of agriculture and animal husbandry.
The essential counterpart to these technological changes was the development
of primitive patterns of social behaviour such as fetishism, animism,
totemism, matrilineal kinship, patriarchy, and so on.
The next technological revolution led
to an oriental slave society. This was based on the use of bronze
and the building of settlements which eventually became cities, initially
on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, before 3000 BC; in ancient Sumer.
A vital feature of this revolution was the development by priests of
a new ideology comprising a new religion and a new mythology.
This was required to transform the mental outlook of the new settlers
from one based on kinship and tribal freedoms to a submissive mindset
in which slavery and inferiority were accepted. Citizens of Sumer
were persuaded to accept subordination to a 'divine order' which
reflected and demanded obedience to gods who, in effect, decreed a slave
society. The priests established an ideological hegemony over
the new urban settlements by this means.
Any challenge to this took a religious
form. It was the will of alternative gods, monotheism or the advent
of a messiah or redeemer which provided an ideological cover for a revolt,
or even an invasion, from outside to overthrow a ruling élite.
Slave society with specific local features
also developed in Egypt and the Indus Valley in the Indian sub-continent,
and religious rituals and beliefs came into existence to create an acceptance
of their structures. Elsewhere, other less advanced peoples went
through the neolithic revolution before developing their own slave societies
which were different in form though they embodied the same fundamentals
as those to be found in Sumer. Greco-Roman societies did not have
as rigid a religious structure as Mesopotamia or Egypt and, here, philosophical
Christianity and Islam both challenged
slave society and provided the ideological counterpart to changes in
the mode of production which led to the emergence of feudalism.
Feudal society was basically concerned with land and land holdings,
but it was dominated by religion.
Capitalism in its turn emerged through
the introduction of new technologies and the scientific method, but
it was accompanied by a successful ideological challenge to feudal religious
dogma. In Europe this took shape as the Renaissance, followed
by the Reformation, which led on to humanism, the enlightenment, individualism
Ocalan's view is that the Middle East
failed to undergo an equivalent change. He believes it is in desperate
need of its own Renaissance or Reformation, leading to the adoption
of individual rights, secularisation, women's rights, pluralism and
democracy. Only then can it advance.
He is committed to a socialist transition
of society worldwide, but argues that this cannot be achieved by means
of revolutionary violence or the establishment of a totalitarian state.
He regards the Soviet Union as a failure in its overall efficiency,
its excessive bureaucracy, and its denial of its peoples' rights.
He further declares that traditional violent methods of achieving change
have done extreme harm to the Arabs, the peoples of Israel, Iran and
Iraq, and the Kurds.
He now argues that socialism can only
be achieved through a wide-ranging democratisation and the achievement
of a form of democracy which is superior to current Western democracies.
He demands pluralist structures, participation of all in decision-making,
women's rights, and peace.
'In my opinion', he says, 'one
of the fundamental criteria characterising a socialist regime must be
the level of democracy which it enables'. [p. 37]
Ocalan's treatise is based upon a profound
study of the history of the ancient Middle East and the world in general.
During the First World War a Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, wrote
a History of Europe to 1550 without access to sources, while
he was interned by the German authorities. Ocalan's achievement
in prison conditions, with limited access to books, calls this to mind,
although he does provide a bibliography and, presumably, consulted the
Ocalan might have made some reference
to the controversy about the existence of a specifically Asiatic hydraulic
form of society, which Marx and Engels accepted, but which was rejected
in the former Soviet Union. He might have referred to the theory
of the former Iranian Kurdish leader, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, that
the Kurds are the descendants of the Medes. There are numerous
other aspects of his book that raise key issues for further discussion
and debate. Some of his contentions are controversial.
Notwithstanding this, Abdullah Ocalan
has produced a brilliant theoretical study of the origins and development
of civilisation which should be essential reading for all historians
interested in a scientific approach to our knowledge of the past.
It is a fascinating work which is likely to be of permanent interest.
The final conclusion that democratisation, not Islamic fundamentalism
or the armed struggle (apart from self-defence), is the way forward
in the Middle East and elsewhere is not the message one would expect
to receive from the leader of a group that conducted a guerrilla struggle
in Turkey for nearly a generation. Left-wing socialists and all
who oppose imperialist attempts to dominate the world should consider
very carefully the arguments which he advances to justify this thesis.
As for the Kurds, he suggests that being
divided between several nations (i.e. Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria)
gives them a key advantage in contributing to change in the Middle East
by democratising themselves.
'No longer will the fate of the Kurds
be ignorance, war, rebellion and destruction but a democratic and developed
civil society and unity in freedom,' he declares. [p. 297]
Abdullah Ocalan has written an extremely
important book which everyone concerned with the politics of the Middle
East, the Kurdish question, ancient history or socialist ideas should
read and digest. Whatever the view taken of his previous stance
as a guerrilla leader, his erudite and thought-provoking thesis is of
outstanding interest and I recommend it without reservation.
The Spokesman (no.95, price £6 including postage from Bertrand
Russell Peace Foundation, Russell House, Bulwell Lane, Nottingham NG6
England). Purchase online (www.spokesmanbooks.com).
download this review in PDF format
return to the main page