Respect for Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, “chained to the rock of Imrali,” a symbol of resistance, of fortitude and resilience, a responsible leader, a prophet, a man with a powerful political vision.
A vision that has inspired the revolutionaries in Rojava in Syria, and that fuels the Kurdish resistance to Erdogan’s tyranny in the southeast of Turkey (and beyond).
The heroic defence of Kobane caught the world’s attention, the movement’s will to struggle, its ability to mobilize the people for collective self-defence, to sacrifice and to die for a cause, and not just for any cause, for a good cause: the project of “democratic confederalism,” a project which represents the only alternative to the negative dialectic of tyranny and chaos currently tearing the Middle East apart, or, in Ocalan’s terms, the only alternative to “hierarchical and dominated civilization.”
The project of “democratic confederalism” in construction in Rojava is an experiment in radical, direct democracy, based on citizens’ assemblies, defended by citizens’ militias.
It is a radical democratic project which emphasises gender emancipation, by implementing a model of co-presidency and a quota system that enforces gender equality in all forms of political representation, by organizing women’s assemblies and women’s academies, and by mobilizing women in their own militia for self-defence.
It is a radical democratic project that redefines “self-determination” as direct democracy against the state, that renounces as divisive and utopian the equation of the struggle for national freedom with the goal of an independent nation-state, and that seeks to overcome the danger of majority tyranny by institutionalizing a “revolutionary-consociational” regime. A consociational regime whose “social contract” guarantees multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and multi-religious accommodation, again, as with women, by implementing quotas for political representation (concretely, for Arabs and for Assyrian Christians), by direct assemblies of different constituent groups, and by mobilizing these groups in their own militias of self-defence.
And it is a radical democratic project which stresses the importance of “social ecology” and environmental sustainability, in a place where the soil bleeds oil, and Imperial and sub-Imperial vultures circle in the sky.
In sum, an alternative to the dialectic of tyranny and chaos, an alternative to the machinations of Imperial and sub-Imperial divide and conquer, a project that combines radical democracy, self-defence, gender emancipation, multi-cultural and multi-religious accommodation, as well as social ecology. A real road map for peace.
A road map sketched by an imprisoned leader with a prophetic message, a man who, especially since his abduction, has, even in the harshest of conditions, been eloquent and prolific in elaborating his model of “democratic confederalism” – initially as part of his defence in his trial. Paradoxically, prison has proven a space of intellectual freedom for Mr. Öcalan. Like it was for Trotsky, for Gramsci, for Malcolm X, even Mandela, before him. While behind bars, he has spent much of his time reading (though with very limited access to books), writing, and reflecting upon his predicament, that of his people, and that of the modern world.
The first of his five volume Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization has recently been translated into English by Haven Guneser.
In this volume, subtitled “The Age of Masked Gods and Disguised Kings,” Ocalan sets out to uncover the deep historical roots of the tremendous problems plaguing “capitalist modernity,” and to recover the even deeper historical sources of the democratic alternative he proposes.
Especially considering the conditions in which the text was composed, the inhumane, indeed torturous isolation, not to mention limited access to books, the result is an intellectual and existential accomplishment of high order.
In volume one of the Manifesto, Ocalan mounts an assault on hierarchy in all its forms. He counters hegemonic, near ubiquitous, pseudo-scientific, social Darwinist accounts that reify and essentialize competitive egoism and the penchant for hierarchy, accounts that would locate these social pathologies near the very core of human nature, as the products of natural selection, as “hard-wired” in our brains, even encoded in our genes. Ocalan insists to the contrary, that the roots of hierarchy do not run so deep. He locates these roots not near the core of human nature, but a mere 5,000 years in the past, emerging with the “birth of civilization” in the Neolithic period. And he goes on to sketch a compelling account of a dialectic between domination and resistance, between hierarchy and freedom, that was then triggered and that continues to this day.
Like Foucault before him, whom he hails (with Nietzsche) as a “philosopher of freedom,” Ocalan stresses the “extraordinary effort” involved in the interpellation of individuals by dogmas and myths to justify quiescence and subordination to hierarchy and domination. “Socialization can only be achieved through a continuous effort,” and indeed, it is impossible for any individual to “escape being constructed according to the dictates of society.” Even so, Ocalan contends, such efforts can never be entirely successful. The impulse to “freedom,” the urge to resist “classed and hierarchic,” “oppressive and exploitative societies” can be suppressed, but never extinguished. Individuals “will not readily accept societies that construct slavery,” despite the constant “endeavors not only to transform [them] as they pass through the oppressive and educational social institutions but also to eliminate them” (p.72). The point is all the more powerful and persuasive coming from a man who has spent close to two decades in solitary confinement.
Ocalan’s approach is nothing if not ambitious. It corresponds to his awareness of and sensitivity to the critique of the modernist faith in the trinity of science, technology, and progress; combined with his sober assessment that our imprisonment within the confines of “capitalist modernity” ultimately has less to do with the power of its “money” or its “weapons” than it does with its capacity to constrict the horizons of our consciousness.
If we are to believe Öcalan, Thatcher’s dictum that “There is No Alternative,” alongside Fukuyama’s declaration that we have reached “the end of history,” are best interpreted as but self-fulfilling prophecies, since “the real power of capitalist modernity” allegedly “lies in its ability to suffocate all utopias – including the socialist utopia which is the last and the most powerful of all – with its liberalism” (p.28).
Moreover, the consequences of this impoverishment of our imagination are nothing short of apocalyptic. Underneath the façade of triumphalist liberal ideals, Öcalan insists, the “capitalist modern forms” have led to an increasingly pervasive culture of nihilism, rendering “the antagonistic dualism of death and life meaningless,” while “detach[ing] life from all its magical and poetic aspects.” The result: “an era of perpetual death, similar to judgment day” (p.37). An unsustainable world, characterised by such pathologies as “the proliferation of nuclear weapons, population explosion, exhaustion of resources, environmental destruction, excessive growth of social rifts, disintegration of moral bonds,” not to mention “a stressful life that has lost its charm and lyricism,” all of which “demonstrate that our regimes of truth have failed” (p.51).
How to escape from this dead end, from this dire fate? A revolution in consciousness is required. Such a revolution is possible, Öcalan contends, simply because “the primary characteristic of our mind is its flexible structure” (p.73). But to acquire the necessary “new mentality” requires, in turn, the elaboration of a radical critique – one that exposes the root causes and origins of the pathologies of “capitalist modernity,” so as to recuperate and revive healthier, more sustainable, human potentialities that have long ago been forgotten and repressed, indeed, deliberately suppressed.
Ocalan identifies the cult of power and hierarchy and the worship of the state as deeply ingrained traditions conditioning our mentalities and constricting our ideological reflexes, even capable of co-opting movements of resistance, as exemplified perhaps most dramatically by the experience of state socialism. If the cult of power corrupts, the exercise of power corrupts even more. Indeed, Ocalan contends, “one of the most striking examples of the corruptive force of power can be found in the experience of real socialism” (p.165). Such are the difficulties faced by those who would resist the dynamics of hierarchy. They are up against “a culture of domination” that is deeply entrenched, having been prepared by “hundreds of brutal emperors and various other dominating forces.” Indeed, Ocalan concludes, “therein lies the true importance of the quote attributed to Mikhail Bakunin, ‘If you took the most ardent revolutionary, vested him in absolute power, within a year he would be worse than the Tsar himself’” (pp.164-165).
How can such deeply ingrained hierarchical mentalities and reflexes be successfully resisted? Ocalan emphasizes, along Gramscian lines, that “activists and theorists of freedom and socialism must prepare their own fields,” that they must “continuously diagnose and treat contagious diseases … generated by power relations,” that they must even “keep a distance from power relations and all its institutions and characteristics.” But he goes beyond Gramsci to insist as well on the construction of radical and direct democratic forms of self-rule, such as the model he has outlined in his writings on democratic confederalism. If such “rich democratic forms are not implanted and nurtured at the same time,” he warns, those who engage in resistance “will not escape the power net, but just repeat the thousands of failed attempts that in the end were not at all different from the systems of power they sought to escape” (p.166).
Öcalan has abandoned the illusion of any linear notion of “progress.” For him, finding the way “forward” requires a return to the deep past. Only by returning to the deep past, only by providing “a proper historical interpretation of our problems,” expansive in scope, with “reference to origin,” can we hope to “illuminate our future” (pp.94, 102). Only after these origins have been revealed and comprehended will we be prepared to transcend the culture of hatred and death, “to make the transition into a life where love reigns” supreme (p.94).
Yet, references to Braudel notwithstanding, Öcalan’s recourse to the deep past, his provision of a “proper historical interpretation of our problems,” is not undertaken with the pretence of a professional historian in pursuit of the elusive goal of “scientific objectivity.” This is why his admission that his account is “amateurish and unpolished” should not be read solely as a disclaimer and gesture of humility (p.279). For Öcalan is a proponent of the “mythological method,” a method he insists “should be given back” its prestige.
He contrasts the method of myths to those of both “monotheistic religious dogma” and “science” which succeeded it. Despite the differences amongst these successive successor “regimes of truth,” Öcalan insists they are nevertheless similar, at least insofar as they both “alleg[e] to bow” before “absolute laws” (p.42). Not so with myth.
Öcalan’s own “historical interpretation” is thus best interpreted as providing a “noble myth” of sorts, an account of humanity’s fall and of its potential for redemption in this world which is at the same time a manifesto reflexively in favour of myth and against dogma of either the religious or the secular-scientific kind.
Ocalan laments the conversion of science into “a new religion,” one that takes “the form of positivism,” with its “objective laws” representing “nothing but the modern equivalent of the ‘Word of God’ of antiquity” (pp.90, 53). Science, united with power and capital, comprising “the new sacred alliance of modernity” (p.91). Science has been fetishized, idolatrized, rendered a new dogma, turned into an “-ism.” Those who espouse this new dogma of “scientism” he deems guilty of hubris. In perpetuating the pretence that “science alone can render truth about the world and reality,” they would belittle, dismiss, deny all that “cannot be apprehended by the scientific method” (p.79, fn.16).
Ocalan emphasizes the ideological function of this all-pervasive modern “-ism.” He insists that “the world of science has become the power that constructs, legitimizes, and protects the system’s methods and contents” (p.48). Not only the system of “capitalist modernity,” but the system of state socialism, too. Though in the end, it would sow the seeds for the demise of that false alternative.
Indeed, according to Ocalan, “the objective scientific method played a determining role in the failure of scientific socialism” (p.48). This because faith in science is closely associated with rule by experts. “One of the biggest errors of the Marxian method” was to perpetuate such elitist convictions. In so doing, it actively inhibited “the mental revolution” required for the democratic construction of a new society, a genuine alternative of collective emancipation (p.53).
Even worse, Ocalan alleges, the “rationalism” and “positivism” implicated in the new dogma of science have positively “paved the way for the ‘fascist flock’.” They have done so by inculcating “robotic and mechanical human being[s]” as well as “simulative perceptions of life,” thereby propelling us towards the destruction of “the environment and the history of society” (p.80).
Dogmatism, either religious or scientific, is an enemy of emancipation. It leads to reification, to presenting unjust, hierarchical and oppressive social arrangements not as social constructs, but as “unchangeable,” as “sacred,” as “divine[ly] establish[ed],” as reflecting unchangeable laws (pp.70-71).
A Focus on Patriarchy
One of the most compelling parts of Ocalan’s account is the close attention he pays to the issue of patriarchy, and the links he makes between the oppression of women in particular and oppression in general. Ocalan has elsewhere equated patriarchy with “[w]oman’s slavery,” and diagnosed this as “the most profound and disguised social area where all types of slavery, oppression and colonization are realized” (Democratic Confederalism, p.17). In volume one of the Manifesto, he elaborates on this point. Ironically, he invokes not Marx and Engels, but rather, Nietzsche to this end – referring to the German philosopher’s talk “about how society is made to adopt wife-like features and is enslaved by modernity” (p.82). More substantially, he relies on feminist scholar Maria Mies in sketching a perceptive analysis of the links between patriarchy and hierarchy, and in tracing their mutual origins.
According to Ocalan, women systematically suffer from the oppressive status of housewifization – this time dubbed “the most advanced form of slavery.” But to make matters worse, in capitalist modernity, such slavery of women has been compounded, perhaps even fuelled, by “the housewifization of man – after his castration through citizenship” (p.91). Capitalist modernity, distinguished for its relentless pursuit of the subjection of all, in the “public sphere” – a subjection of all crafted in the image and likeness of the subjection of some, of half, of women, in the “private sphere,” the home.
A democratic alternative, Ocalan insists, requires the replacement of the current family system, “based on the deep-rooted slavery of women,” and the creation of an entirely “new family system, based on deep-rooted freedom and the equality of woman.” Such a creation would promise in turn to “help abolish the male-based hierarchic and statist order” (p.94).
With respect to the origins of housewifization, “the most ancient form of enslavement,” Ocalan contends that “it has been institutionalized as a result of woman’s defeat by the strong man and his attendants,” a defeat that “required a long and comprehensive war,” indeed a struggle so “intense and fierce” that “it has been erased from our memories, together with the consequences thereof.” The result, according to Ocalan: “Woman cannot remember what was lost, where it was lost and how it was lost. She considers a submissive womanhood as her natural state. This is why no other enslavement has been legitimized through internalization as much as woman’s enslavement” (p.163). A case of collective amnesia, associated with the trauma of subjugation, compounded by the patriarchal biases built into the “his”-torical record, resulting in reification, essentialism and naturalized quiescence by woman, even naturalized identification with her subordinate status in society.
This characterization is of course not uncontentious, even on feminist grounds. Something of Nietzsche’s scorn – if not for women as such, at least for the feminine – can arguably be still detected in Ocalan’s trans-valued employment of the category of the “house-wife.” A scorn reflected in Ocalan’s inclusion of “crying” among the list of symptoms of subservience and “housewifization.” The ethic of care, not to mention the ethics of mourning, would seem to lie outside, or beyond, the theoretical horizons informing Ocalan’s brand of feminism as militant self-defence. Even so, a brand of militant feminism it is indeed, one embodied and personified by the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s women’s militias.
But let us return to the contours of Ocalan’s metanarrative about the origins of hierarchy. The deep-rooted and insidious patriarchal biases plaguing the “his”-torical record help justify Ocalan’s heterodox – indeed, mythical – interpretation about gender equality in the “Neolithic” – a period crucial to Ocalan’s broader metanarrative about the emergence of hierarchy.
According to Ocalan, before humanity’s “fall,” that is, before its fateful descent into oppression and inequality, there had been a “moment of creation,” a “quantum moment” and “chaotic interval” whose epicentre was located in the Fertile Crescent. Where what Gordon Childe termed “the Neolithic Revolution” occurred. This period signalled the end of the “monotonous life of hunting, gathering and defense” of “clan communities, hundreds of thousands years old.” With the transition to “settled life and farming,” clan society gave way to “broader structures,” including the birth of “ethnic ties.” It was an era of momentous upheaval and creative fertility, in which “thousands of mental revolutions” took place. Most prominent among these, the introduction and invention of “numerous nutriments, means of transport, weaving, grinding, architecture,” as well as complex symbolic forms of “religious and artistic” expression (pp.122-124).
The “symbol of the Neolithic society” was the mother-goddess, Inanna. Worship of her rose symmetrically to the decline of the totum, “the identity of the old clan society,” which decreased in significance (p.122). The cult of Inanna in turn reflected the prominent role of women in this period. Indeed, according to Öcalan, “[d]uring the Neolithic, the driving force had been the mother-woman” (p.139). Thus, the attribution of sacredness to her.
The residues of this “quantum moment” remain ingrained as sediments that survive in the human psyche and are capable of being revived, of coming once again to structure social relations. Not only in terms of gender relations. Indeed, a whole host of “treasured moral values … more precious” than those of capitalist modernity – values such as “respect, affection, neighborly relations and solidarity” – are products of and remnants from this period (p.123). These values thus have a deep historical basis, and they underpin the unextinguishable will to resist oppressive, hierarchical social forms. They have been congealed and transmitted in collective memories that have never been fully suppressed. As is, for example, evidenced in “the narratives of the Holy Books,” where the memory of those times is sublimated “into the idea of paradise” (p.124). A paradise never fully lost; a paradise that can be recovered.
The descent into hierarchy, patriarchy, and class inequality would come, in Ocalan’s account, with the rise of the Sumerians, whose main legends recount “the rivalry between the craft male god Enki and the leading female goddess Inanna,” a cosmic rivalry among the Gods that Ocalan interprets as reflecting and projecting transformations in material and social relations among humans – specifically, “the transition from the Neolithic village society that had not allowed exploitation, to that of the urban society – newly constructed by the priests – which was open to exploitation” (p.139).
Ocalan thus again employs a materialistic hermeneutic of religious belief. Whereas the prominence of Inanna in the religious expressions of the Fertile Crescent during the Neolithic stands as evidence and reflection of “the social strength of the creative and leading power of the Neolithic – namely woman,” the rivalry with and rise of worship for the crafty male God Enki signalled the rise in prominence of a new social class, “the priestly class,” now sublimated and “exalted in the new religion” (p.140).
Religion, the Priestly Class, and Hierarchy
Ocalan’s wonderfully comprehensive and complex work gives much food for thought for the religious scholar. Not only does he utilize the history of religion in his interpretation of the development of the modern nation state but he places it at the core of his interpretation. This is remarkable among cultural theorists who see religion as an offshoot of other more relevant factors for social change as found in neo-Marxist works (Foucault, Derrida, Critical Theory) or by religious scholars of the History of Religion (Eliade, Long, Smith, J.Z.) who have placed its purpose in religion never-never land as they emphasize its sui generis nature as if it has had little social or political effect in structuring the very nature of modern democratic society. By Ocalan’s constant reference to the movement from Matriarchal Neolithic goddess worship to Post Neolithic male dominated religious imagery he places religion as the driving, if not, the hidden driving force in the way modernity understands and has structured its political nature.
The Sumerian “priestly class” plays a particularly nefarious role in Ocalan’s account. Not only does it represent and protagonize the birth of class divisions; so too is to be blamed for the subordination of women, and for the transition from mythical to dogmatic belief systems. According to Ocalan, the priest’s main task – a thoroughly secular one – “was to administer the requirements of the growing urban society” (p.142). But at the same time, it usurped access to the world of the Gods, since “anyone wanting to hear the word of god had to listen to the high priest.” The combination of these two roles rendered the priest-class “the group bearing the biggest responsibility for the formation of both the civilization of modernity and of civilization in general” (pp.140-141).
With the consolidation of priestly power, the rivalry between the crafty male God Elki and the mother-goddess Inanna was decided in favour of the former. “Over time, less and less figurines of the woman-goddess were made,” and by the “onset of the Babylon period, the woman-goddess had been destroyed” altogether. Another signal of the increasing oppression of woman, now subjugated as “an official public and private prostitute as well as a slave” (p.146).
The Sumerian priests were the first to disguise their power and legitimate their usurpations and expropriations by dawning the masks of the gods whose worship they ritualized and regulated. But the kings would soon learn this most useful trick from the priests (p.149).
These masked men managed to cast a spell on the exploited, on the worker, who as if hypnotised, came to increasingly accept a new subservient role legitimated by the dictates of “newly manufactured gods” (p.159).
Ocalan’s interest in the relatively deep past is never divorced from his concerns about the present. Indeed, he insists that a proper analysis and understanding of the process of descent into hierarchy achieved by Sumerian society promises to “enhance our understanding of our own society.” This because such analysis can help us to identify and “pull off the masks that cover,” to see past dominant mystifying and legitimating tropes, to see “the true faces, the real profits and the actual status of the different role-players” in contemporary society (p.154).
Ocalan contends that the spell of submission to hierarchy first cast by the Sumerian priestly class has yet to be broken. Indeed, those who have “claimed to rebel for their tribe, nation, or religion” have in reality only usurped the “crown of power” (p.157). The class division first wrought by the Sumerian priests has remained “a fundamental characteristic of civilization” ever since. Provocatively, he insists, “in the few cases where [power systems] were overthrown by their subjects and proletariat, the new administration has usually been far worse than the previous oppressive and exploitative regime” (p.160). Along with and as a tool for the emergence of hierarchy, the emergence of the state, consecrated by the worship of its rulers, who dawn the mask of gods. The state, which Ocalan defines as “the unity of power relations through which the general coercion and exploitation of classed society is enabled” (p.158). The state, which with the development of capitalist modernity tends to fuse with the nation in “the mask-less new god – the nation-state” (p54). The cult of hierarchy remains alive and well in the contemporary cult of the nation-state, Ocalan concludes, is “the god that has removed its mask” and that “is being sanctified … in all modern societies” (p.81).
To break from the spell of hierarchy thus requires a break with the state, as well as a disciplined strategy of resistance to the hypnotic powers of the modern priestly classes. A first step in this direction is to decode and understand the source of such hypnotic powers – and here is where the category of dogmatism comes into play.
The Sumerian priestly class sought to legitimate emergent inequality, the formation of social classes, and division of society into exploiters and exploited by overseeing and encouraging the demise of the “mythological method” and its replacement with “dogmatic religious perception.”
According to Ocalan, “the relationship between the newly formed classes of the exploited and the exploiters demanded indisputable dogmas” capable of “disguis[ing] and legitimiz[ing] the exploitation and power of hierarchical and class interests.” The emergent despots, the dominators, the exploiters hid behind the mask of a gods, not just any gods, ones “endowed with ‘indisputable’ characteristics” and revealed in sacred texts containing allegedly “infallible words” (p.43). The transition from the “mythical method” to “dogma” is thus related to the invention of the written word – and the priestly class’s power was based in its role as interpreter of the indisputable, infallible words of gods contained in sacred texts. The consolidation of the priestly class’s role as conduit and interpreter of the word and the will of the gods meant the cultivation of a new “slave-like submission” and a “fatalistic perception” on the part of the exploited. “A shepherd-herd dialectic was” thus “established” (p.44).
Ocalan diagnoses dogmatism as a disease first propagated by the Sumerian priestly class, and still at the core of the ideological legitimation of hierarchy. Unlike orthodox atheist critiques of religion, Ocalan’s critique is not framed as an exercise of “de-mystification,” but instead focuses on the usurpations of the priestly class and on their propagation of dogmas.
Ocalan makes it clear that he is no enemy of the mystical, the sacred, or the divine per se. Instead, his problem is with those who dawn the mask of gods and claim to be conduits of the Divine when justifying exploitation and tyranny. Indeed, among the reasons he gives for his admiration of Neolithic society in comparison with contemporary capitalist modernity, Ocalan mentions an alleged harmony between Neolithic society and nature, as reflected in their view of nature “as filled with sacredness and divinity,” in their belief that nature is “as alive as they were themselves.” According to Ocalan, in Neolithic society “divinity had nothing to do with coercion, exploitation and tyranny” (p.239).
It was the Sumerian priests who introduced this connection – with their penchant for dogmatism, and their novel attribution of “punishment and sin to the notion of god,” for the purpose of developing “the sense of obedience.” These innovations allowed the notion of God slowly to fuse with and turn into the state. This is the key to the “reform brought about by the Sumerian priests” (p.167).
Punishment and sin linked to the promise of an after-life – a connection allegedly first made in Sumer, later in Egypt, then inherited by the Abrahamic tradition. More than a connection, a “paradigm of heaven, hell and life to come.” Ocalan contends that this connection, this paradigm, provided a crucial and “strong legitimization device, needed to convince the slaves, who certainly did not have an easy life” (p.194).
A “strong legitimation device” capable of conjuring submission and quiescence in this life by promising reward in the next. A utopian projection, “a promise of paradise,” “talk about millennia of happiness,” all of which, Ocalan adds, reminds him “of the longing for an oasis.” And thus, he surmises, a reflection of “[i]ts opposite,” “an infertile life.” Echoes of Bob Marley’s refrain – “if you knew what life was worth, you would look for yours on earth.” But Ocalan goes further, concluding in a decidedly secular vein, “the quest for paradise is nothing but a promise of a future in a new world,” “a harbour inevitably constructed by those who have lost hope” (p.274). A contentious point, no doubt, since belief in paradise can just as easily conjure the courage to struggle and the willingness to die for a cause than quiescence and submission to the status quo. The historical record is full of examples.
Examples of which Ocalan is well aware. Indeed, he makes explicit mention of the many “wars waged in the name of Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” though he interprets these as “in essence struggles for dominance over Middle Eastern civilization,” with religion serving as but a pretext, a means of mobilizing support, “masking the real reason behind bloody wars.” The instrumental efficacy of religious convictions would become all the more transparent when they were later directly appropriated by the state and “declared official state ideologies.” Conversely, within and against the hegemonic religious and national projects institutionalised in given states, the mobilization of “dissident sectarian” sentiments and loyalties have reflected and channelled “class conflict” and have “signified the rebellious attitude of the marginal societies excluded from civilized societies.” As with wars of religion fought between states, Ocalan insists, sectarian struggles within states are best interpreted again all too often as but “a pretext” masking “real” reasons, indeed, “a type of nationalism” (p.169).
Here Ocalan displays the profound and continuing influence of materialist thought upon his hermeneutic – even seeming to flirt with a characteristic left-atheist double dismissal of religious consciousness as simultaneously pacifying and dangerously divisive. A historical-materialist influence and impulse, to be precise, that he marshals relatively consistently in his interpretation of Islam, both past and present. In speaking about the birth of Islam, he denies the sovereignty of supra-natural in favour of mundane causal forces, contending that the birth “was not a ‘miracle in the desert’ but the product of strong material and historical circumstances” (p.269). Likewise, in speaking about the spread of “radical, or political, Islam” in the present, he emphasizes the “need to understand [the] structural aspect of it” (p.272).
Consonant with his advocacy of the mythological method, Ocalan limits his critique of religion to the critique of religious dogmatism. He does reject a “spirit-matter dichotomy,” and even denies that the “richness of life … can be explained through the dogma of an external creator.” Even so, he is openly adamant that “[i]t is meaningless to claim that there is nothing besides a physical life” (pp.62, 76-77). Perhaps most crucially, he considers the religious impulse akin to the artistic impulse, or even the impulse to cultivate knowledge – all important “metaphysical feature[s]” he alleges to be “indispensable” for “endur[ing] war, death, lust, passion, beauty, etc.” (pp.76-77).
For Ocalan, religious convictions are closely connected with collective memory. This helps explain their persistence. The sacred religious books continue to be revered not due to the appeal of the dogmas and doctrines about an “abstract god” or even associated “rituals,” but instead, because “humans can feel the meaning and traces of their own life and story in these books.” They are books which contain and congeal “the memory of living society,” which humanity “will not abandon so easily” (p.117).
The Question of Monotheism
Ocalan’s take on religion has evolved over the past decade. In The Roots of Civilization (the English version of which was published in 2006), Ocalan had already emphasized the link between dogmatism and official religions dedicated to the legitimation and perpetuation of hierarchy. Nevertheless, in that work, he had been relatively friendly to monotheism, contending that the monotheistic religions had “emerged at a period of profound crisis in social development, and indeed, that they triggered “a revolution in the mental and ethical character of humankind” (p.56). In comparison with the “polytheistic” and “totemic” conceptualizations that had preceded it, Ocalan then contended, monotheism had “represented a higher form of logical reasoning,” potentially appealing “to the whole of humankind,” relating to “a more complex stage in the history of human intellect” (p.62). Moreover, in his discussions of the history of Christianity and Islam, he explicitly distinguished between an original revolutionary and emancipatory impulse from below, later co-opted by rulers, and converted into an instrument of hierarchy and control.
However, in volume one of the Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, Ocalan seems to have reconsidered. He now laments the demise of the mythological method and its substitution by religious dogmatism serving to justify hierarchy, which he now associates directly with monotheism. Moreover, he now appears much more sympathetic to polytheism and to notions of immanent divinity. He even goes so far as to claim that “polytheism occurr[ed] during an era of tribal equality,” and that the “decrease in number and the ranking of gods according to supremacy is closely related to the administrative protocol” (p.168). A questionable generalization, at best, given the polytheism that characterized and served to legitimate Greek patriarchal and slave-holding city-states, not to mention the Roman Empire.
In fact, monotheism has been both a force for enslavement and emancipation. The same is true for Polytheism. See Greece and Rome in the moves toward democracy and domination. The Grand Narrative of Monotheism vs. Polytheism binaries falls apart under intense historical scrutiny.
In nominally monotheistic traditions, a close look at those from the oppressed classes reveals a consciousness that appreciates a polyphony of divine presences whether they be found in the Cabbalah, or the Sufi, Quaker and other mystics of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The march toward a spirit-less monotheism has been led by societal elites since Akhenaton, Josiah, Zoroaster who have made intellectual and ritual acceptance of monotheism a primary weapon against the “superstitious” peasant classes who still are in contact with the myriad expression of The One, yet without the need to curtail the expression of others.
However, even in the strongest self-proclaimed Monotheistic Societies, the peasants and some fortunate few from other classes find themselves confronted by Spirit(s) that are beyond the doctrinal proscriptions of Monotheistic Religious dogma. Freedom is free even from its Monotheistic Master. Nat Turner, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, MLK, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and many more experienced a Spiritual presence that urged them on toward freedom. Conversely, the Black Panthers learned the hard way that the folks ain’t giving up God for the Freedom of a Marxist spirit that denies their apprehension of Ultimate Reality.
This point against Grand Narratives that would pose a binary between monotheism versus polytheism is crucial, and worthy of closer attention. Indeed, one of us (Don) spent much of last summer searching the origins of monotheism and its importance for the West. This was not intentional but since we kept finding different views regarding its origins and place in history we had to pursue it more deeply. It is the Holy Grail of Western Religious ideology. Scholars expressed deep differences in opinion but carefully refrained from directing their critical comments toward any of their scholarly comrades.
Hypothesis One. Monotheism originated with the Pharaoh Akhenaton (1300s BCE) when he claimed that the other deities other than the sun (Aton) did not exist. He changed his name from Amenhotep to signify this change. This led him to destroy other images of other Deities (Amon among them) and closed down the temples of those deities that proclaimed allegiance to other gods. He was more of a lover than a fighter and his kingdom experienced military defeat. A serious no-no if you want your god to be held in high esteem. He died mysteriously and may scholars believe he was assassinated by the Priests of the temples he had closed. His worship of Aton never seemed to amass popular appeal.
Hypothesis One A. Other Egyptologists believe that Egyptians had shown belief in Monotheism by their theological understanding that a single and Mysterious High God, composed of male and female elements began creation through a dialectical process which led to a Trinitarian or ‘Triadic” structure which is found expressed in various forms throughout Egyptian history. Others call this a Henotheistic Structure. Henotheism being defied as God at the apex of creation that is immanently related to the lesser deities. It is not “polytheism” which would mean many gods that operate independently.
As you can begin to see this whole business of “monotheism” is becoming increasingly complex for scholars to accurately define. Yet, the development of a “true” monotheism is seen as an important development in human consciousness. It desacralizes the world to an extent that the possibility of human invention is increased. But this has extreme political importance because it is used to distinguish “godly” societies from lesser “pagan, ungodly” societies. The development of monotheism is a dividing point between the wise and he foolish; the wicked and the good, the civilized and the uncivilized.
Hypothesis Two. Monotheism springs from the teaching of Zoroaster/Zarathustra, 600-500 BC. The Jewish exiles in Babylon recognized this and incorporated it into their post exilic religious understanding as a form of lost knowledge that was recovered during the time of Josiah immediately before the exile of the Jewish State. In this version, Josiah’s discovery of the Deuteronomic texts which insisted that God is One God and since the Jews had been worshipping other false gods they were going to be punished by being taken into exile. Jewish scribes never assign credit to either the Egyptians or the Persians for their monotheistic belief.
However, there is no historical evidence that shows that the people of Israel and Judah ever practiced a monotheistic devotion to YHWH as the only God. The historical evidence shows that the Jewish peasants practiced worship of other gods throughout their rising to power in Palestine.
Even so, this belief in monotheism became a marker that distinguished the Jewish religion from that of others. This belief was passed down to Christians and Muslims who, when they gained power, made this the litmus test on steroids. Those who failed this test were persecuted. And since the three major expressions of Monotheism had different understandings of what that looked like, they also persecuted each other for their “unorthodox beliefs.”
On a sociological and theological level this belief in monotheism holds no water since Jews, Christians and Muslims not only differ from each other in how they conceptualize and practice “monotheism” but there have been and are competing expressions of monotheistic belief within their own traditions.
But let us return to Ocalan’s account. In the Manifesto, Ocalan is still willing to admit some positive aspects of monotheism. For example, he contends that, with the Hebrews, their “monotheistic belief may have had much to do with [their] resistance [to] assimilation into civilization” (p.202). Nevertheless, he criticizes “the extreme formalism of Hebrew tribalism,” blaming such formalism for the emergence of “the concept of the immutableness of law,” and with it, the transformation of the Divine into the image of a sovereign king, a law-giver, one who has decreed “perpetual laws and orders” (p.270).
Ocalan on Islam and Christianity
With regards to Islam, Ocalan maintains that the “term ‘Allah’ itself is conceptually so wide that sociologically speaking it has the capacity to integrate the divine in nature with that in society,” but that “the issues its followers would like to understand as ‘perpetual laws and orders’ are extremely unclear.” He argues that though such an “understanding of law as changeless might have been useful in overcoming tribal anarchy but, in later centuries it led to great conservatism in the Islamic society” (p.270).
Ocalan shows some respect for the prophet Mohammed, complimenting him for having “escaped contracting the familiar disease of being the god,” though he is quick to add that “one of his failings was his inability to overcome the Judaic rigorousness” (p.270). Still, he also lauds Mohammed for his “emphasis on morals,” which indicate “that he was aware of the problems inherent in civilized society.” In this vein, he refers to Mohammed as “a great reformer, even a revolutionary,” and remarks favourably upon “his rules about interest,” his “well-known abolitionist tendencies,” and his “affectionate and favourable” attitude towards “freedom,” even mentioning that “[a]lthough he was by no means desirous of equality and freedom for women, he did despise the slaver of women.” Finally, he notes approvingly that Mohammed “recognized the differences in class and ownership in society,” though seems to chastise him for being “like a social democrat” and trying “to prevent the forming of monopolies and their social hegemony by using excessive taxation” (p.271).
According to Ocalan, “the strongest feature of Islam” is the equilibrium it has established “between the material and the ideological culture.” Unlike Christianity, in which “the moral aspect” allegedly prevails. To this effect, Ocalan cites approvingly one of Mohammed’s hadiths, “work for this world as if thou will never die and work for the afterlife as if thou will die tomorrow,” which he suggests captures the Islamic balance between this-worldly and other-worldly concerns well (p.271).
Ocalan goes on to comment about “Saddam Hussein’s relationship with the Qur’an just before his execution,” calling it “quite intriguing,” and concluding that the “Qur’an provides exceptional power to construct the minds of those who have no hope left.” He returns to the subject of paradise, again insisting that it is a projection of hope in hopeless conditions, a coping mechanism in response to ubiquitous oppression, servitude, and slavery – “[o]ne cannot properly understand the messages brought by the Holy Books without understanding the conditions of slavery.” Though he adds, en passant, that not only oppressive social conditions, but also the “metaphysical nature of the human,” rendered the utopia of paradise (and its counterpoint hell), as well as many other utopias, “inevitable” – since “without striving for a better future, life cannot really be lived” (p.275).
It is questionable whether the striving for paradise, for transcendence, can be captured or reduced to a “striving for a better future” – not only because, strictly speaking, according to the Abrahamic tradition, paradise is alleged to exist outside of homogenous empty time; but perhaps more importantly, because striving for paradise at least as frequently reflects deep-felt desires and longing for reunion with the past, more specifically, with loved ones who have been lost. Not to mention, a desire for immortality – for ourselves, and for those we love. A desire which Ocalan equates with the “fear of death,” and contends is but a social construct, adding, in an (unwittingly) Heideggerian vein, that “the most precious part of life is becoming aware of death (p.275).
According to Ocalan, both Islam and Christianity “held an intriguing promise for ending slavery.” But the question of an alternative to servitude and oppression, he continues, “was evaded with the promise of a life that would be like living in paradise” – through retreat from the secular world into “the communities of the monasteries and madrasahs,” intended as examples of “the new society to be constructed.” The revolutionary potential of these religions would be further subverted by their co-optation and instrumentalization in the hands of “the heads of the Christian churches as well as the conquest commanders of Islam,” who “easily created a late, revised slave-owning system.” Though importantly, he adds, to call these “Islamic and Christian civilizations would be unjust,” that “although there were some revised slave-owning regimes, principalities, city-states and empires constructed in their names,” to consider them Islamic or Christian represents “an ideological distortion,” indeed, that “the aim of these utopias was “not the creation of new civilizations but to salvage life and to turn it into something beautiful” (p.276).
Ocalan concludes that, “despite their objectives,” the utopias of Christianity and Islam ended up “serving the onset of capitalism” – even if “the conflict between those elements of Islam and Christianity that became the state itself cannot be called conflict between Islam and Christianity.” Such conflicts in fact have their origin in the dynamics of hierarchy and civilization, and “religion is only used as their disguise” (p.279). Again, the metaphor and motif of religion as mask, as disguise. Not only did these utopias serve the onset of capitalism, they “do not have the skill to [re-]enchant the world of capitalist life,” something he contend “can only be procured by the power and skill of the sociology of freedom” – a new type of sociology, one we can only begin to imagine, trapped as we are in the horizons of capitalist modernity, but one Ocalan promises to contribute to in his own forthcoming work (p.277). A performative deconstruction of the orthodox Islamic belief in Mohammad as the seal of the prophets, if ever there was one.
A demotion of sorts for Islam and Christianity, at least with respect to the alleged impact of these traditions upon the affairs of this world. But it is at the same time a partial exoneration of the worthy original core messages of Islam and Christianity, since Ocalan deftly distinguishes these from the long histories of corrupted practices, indeed, usurpations by clerics and rulers, who have sought to justify hierarchy, exploitation, and unjust advantage by dawning the masks and distorting the meaning of Islam and Christianity.
Islam is commonly considered one of the main sources of Middle Eastern culture, just as Christianity is putatively constitutive of Western culture. Ocalan disputes such identification, insisting instead that “the real source of both cultures [is] the five thousand year-old hierarchic and statist structures” (p.88).
If Ocalan thus shows considerable respect for the original, putatively core, revolutionary messages of early Islam and early Christianity, he shows a good deal less for the contemporary corrupted practitioners who speak the name of their God in vain. His attitude borders on contempt when it comes to “political” or “radical” Islam. He dismisses such movements as movements of pseudo-resistance, and contends that though their organizations “criticize European modernity” and even “violently oppose it,” though they may have “put on the clothes and the beard of tradition,” in reality “their soul and body are loaded with the most backward remnants of modernity” (p.89). In sum, Ocalan considers so-called “radical” or “political Islam” a false resistance, a movement that perpetuates and embodies the very values it claims to resist. A form of nationalism, in fact (p.87).
Which brings us to the subject of Orientalism. Ocalan is adamant that his approach is an “anti-Orientalist” one. But he would do well to study more closely the critique of Orientalism, and perhaps especially the work of Edward Said, whom he strangely criticizes as aligned with radical Islam, even claiming that, like Hezbollah, Said may “seem to be anti-Orientalist and an enemy of Western modernity” but in fact is trapped “within the boundaries of this modernity” (p.89). An ungenerous interpretation of the thrust of Said’s message, to say the least.
Ocalan elaborates what could be called a “Fertile-Crescent Centric” metanarrative about the arc of human history, including a story about the rise and trajectory of “civilization.” It is a metanarrative ultimately too dependent on Eurocentric historiography, one that at times even reproduces certain rather crude and dubious tropes about Aryans versus Semites. Indeed, like so much of the Eurocentric historiography on which his account relies, Ocalan’s treatment of ethnicity too often displays a tendency to anachronism, essentialism, and reification, and too often ignores liminal spaces, too often downplays the prevalence of hybridity.
So too does Ocalan’s metanarrative reproduce certain characteristic exclusions. Most tellingly, for Ocalan, the story of human history begins with an exit from Africa. In his account, even Egypt is rendered derivative, its African-ness basically denied. This is especially problematic given Ocalan’s expressed ambition to provide a metanarrative capable of underpinning and fuelling resistance to capitalist modernity, in favour of an alternative “democratic modernity.” For, as Cedric Robinson has rightly emphasized, “the obliteration of the African past from European consciousness was the culmination of a process a thousand years long and one at the root of European historical identity” (Black Marxism, p.82).
Alas, Ocalan is not infallible; but his narrative is nonetheless powerful. Quiescence and consent to the injustices of neoliberal capitalism, not to mention support for the war crimes and spiralling violence committed in the on-going Orwellian global war on “terror” – such attitudes of quiescence, consent, and support are all underpinned and perpetuated by the propagation of dominant myths. Effective resistance requires that such myths need more than just deconstruction. Belief in viable and desirable alternatives to the present order need to be encouraged and elaborated as well.
In this vein, Ocalan’s sweeping historical vision of the dialectical struggle between domination and resistance as the motor of history is not to be underestimated. Indeed, his “dialectical naturalist” (Bookchin) effort to denaturalize hierarchies, to identify their origins and to uncover even deeper egalitarian and libertarian alternatives is most commendable, especially given the conditions of duress in which it has been composed.
But knowledge is always social, and Ocalan’s manifesto is of course not the first or the last word. He does certainly point in at least some of the right directions: both forward and backward (if not upward, even though the verdict is by now unanimous that Nietzsche is dead, while the jury is still out on the God of Abraham and the promise of Divine Justice).