Much has been made of internationalism in the Kurdish movement. Attracting foreign supporters to the cause, both for the struggle within Kurdistan, and for solidarity on the outside, has been a pinnacle of Kurdish organising since the inception of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Particularly after the battle of Kobanê, mutual exchanges between leftist organisations across the world and the Kurdish movement have multiplied.
Through education seminars, co-organised events, demonstrations and a host of other activities, closer bonds have been formed between internationalist leftists and the Kurdish movement. In these exchanges, beyond spreading information, there has been a goal of creating support and, in some cases, encouraging leftists to adopt or work with, the Kurdish movement’s platform of ‘Democratic Confederalism.’
While undoubtedly successful in many cases, this article wants to shed light on the more surreptitious influence the Kurdish movement has had on leftist organising and thought. For while a wholesale adoption of the Kurdish movement’s principles may often be outstanding (and, arguably even against the idea Democratic Confederalism), this does not mean that the Kurdish movement has not profoundly impacted the ways in which international leftists think, work, and imagine a more just future.
To intimate how the Kurdish movement has impacted leftist politics, I share three short stories from one of the places seemingly most tangential to the Kurdish struggle, namely the capital of Norway, Oslo. The interviews are not intended as a generalised picture of how the Kurdish movement has impacted leftists abroad, but rather to highlight a way of thinking internationalism that does not fall into the simple categories of support or adoption.
These more subtle influences, I think, is where the dialectic truly resides, and are worth paying more attention to in the future. Sharpening an attention to these interchanges can open up new and more productive conversations, and indeed stronger bonds of solidarity.
Having both been involved in leftist milieus since I was a teenager, and also having worked in Kurdistan for my PhD, I asked a few of my compatriots, who I knew had organised for the Kurdish struggle, whether they would be willing to share how they thought the Kurdish movement had impacted their politics. Generously, they responded positively and agreed to meet.
Beyond the First International
Emanuel Totland Frogner is an author, film worker, and a union representative for the labour movement in Norway. Although he was aware of the Kurdish movement before 2014, it was the battle of Kobanê, he said, which really brought the movement to his attention. Since then, he has campaigned actively for the Freedom of Öcalan, and petitioned the EU-parliament to recognise the PKK as an adversarial force in a civil war with Turkey. Asking him what initially drew him towards the Kurdish movement, and what he thought he had learned, he paused, and answered: “First and foremost, with the defeat of Daseh, it was the symbolic effect of the movement.
“The fact that they represented a concrete example of something else being possible, beyond the world permeated by neoliberal collapse. That it is possible to have political change that exceeds what is the conventional framework for politics. It is one of the few examples in the world that shows it is possible to change things.”
For Emanuel, his initial attraction to the movement was that it provided concrete evidence for what may be called a reinvigorated leftist imaginary; that accepting the framework for politics now dominant in the world, in fact, does not have to be dominant. When talking about more concrete lessons, Emanuel is quick to qualify, however: “When it comes to concrete things that may be implemented in Norway, one can look to other aspects of the movement.”
The radical difference in circumstance between Norway and Kurdistan is not easily bridged, Emanuel points out. Nonetheless, Emanuel contended that “particularly with regards to the governance structures of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Kurdish movement’s emphasis on women’s role in co-leadership, and the will to include those affected in council structures, I think it has a great transference value.” These concrete measures, Emanuel thinks, have provided a solution to a problem that has plagued the left since the First International: How to deal with a liberal democracy?
“Now, obviously, Turkey is not a liberal democracy – so it might be even more appliable in a Norwegian context – but regardless, parliamentarism has a tendency to create its own logic of power that pushes people’s concerns to the side. The HDP has, as I see it, provided a solution for how to counteract this. By engaging with parliamentary structures of power, yet simultaneously keeping power in the movement’s own direct-democratic institutions, the Kurdish movement has created an interface which permits the expansion of popular, democratic power.”
Expanding on this point, Emanuel explained that by participating in parliamentarism (and using it for people’s benefit), he saw the HDP as also expanding the foundation for overcoming it. The HDP, therefore, departed from the more traditional Marxist-Leninist philosophies seeking to directly confront the state, seize it, or destroy it, and rather, in some sense used the state against itself. This understanding, Emanuel said, had led him away from a principled stance against parliamentarism (although he still harbours skepticism), to a greater appreciation of flexibility and pragmatism, recognising the need “to build a counterweight to the statist institutional structures within the structures themselves”. To do so, “one has to start in the corner one is in, and point outward from there. And in this, the Kurdish movement has greatly informed my perspective.”
Building on these insights, Emanuel, in his capacity as a union representative for freelance workers, said he now worked to create some form of confederated structure of the local branches in Norway, while simultaneously maintaining the union’s institutional relation to the state – although he was quick to add, smiling, that realising this goal is still a long way away. Ending his conversation with me, Emanuel reflected: “Due to the Kurdish movement, I no longer think of myself as an anarchist, but rather as a communist with a small ‘c,’ in David Graeber’s sense of the word.”
Adaptability and Context
Truls Strand Offerdal is a doctoral candidate in media and communication studies in Oslo. Aside from his activities in the union at the university, he is also the co-leader of the association ‘Solidarity with Kurdistan,’ which he has been involved in for four years in different capacities. Truls’ experiences with the Kurdish movement differ from that of Emanuel’s. Instead of emphasizing the importance of working within (and against) the parliamentary system, Truls highlights the movement’s focus on the local as a political point of departure. This, he says, has solidly influenced his thinking.
“The Kurdish movement has shown how important it is to think of politics at the level of the neighbourhood. It is important to think about how accessible and open one can be when conducting politics, instead of trying to form a subcultural political milieu. The idea of having decisional power at the neighbourhood level, and actually at as low a level as possible – within 20 families or at the workplace – I think, would be a better nucleus for political power than a traditional party, subculture, or very specific ideological formation, as we have previously tried.”
In this, he specifically emphasizes the difference in approach. “Before, we envisioned having an organisation with bulletpoints on our politics, and then convincing people that it is good, gathering enough people to make it big, and then getting power, but now, [I think], rather starting with the local level and initially struggling at the local level would provide a better core for mobilization and building a political base.” Aggregating these local concerns, Truls thinks, would countervene the idea of a “little, pure group,” and rather provide a foundation for broader alliances and political power.
It is, in this way, Truls reflects, an act of turning the traditional anarchist (at least platformist) and communist ideology on its head, starting with an intervention into local concerns as a way of building trust, power and democracy – though he quickly qualifies that this does not encompass all anarchist theory and practice.
Building a complex society from the local level, and securing one’s political base there, he says, is perhaps the clearest ideological lesson from the Kurdish movement he has drawn. This, he points out, was also a strong practice in the earlier days of the Norwegian labour movement. Continuing, Truls ventures that the reason the movement has been so successful in this area is the degree to which the movement conducts with continuous self-evaluation and seeks to adapt to local circumstances.
Drawing lines to Maoist movements’ practices of self-criticism, Truls argues that this – in some form – is necessary to conduct efficient politics; not Maoist in any ideological sense, he emphasizes that asking oneself why something works when it is working, and why it does not work when it is not working, is crucial for a movement to progress. Reflecting upon these aspects, Truls adds, “I think this is something one has forgotten in the Scandinavian left. I was, at least, not accustomed to it before I came into contact with the Kurdish movement”.
The movement’s adaptability has also informed his view on international politics and power, he says. After engaging with the Kurdish movement, Truls has become increasingly skeptical of the reductionist left-wing analysis of imperialism. “It has been really healthy to challenge this,” Truls asserts. “The classical equivocation of the US and Imperialism, applying only the US, is radically challenged if one follows and cares about what is happening in Kurdistan. There are too many global powers and sources of imperialism to reduce it to the maxim ‘US equals bad,’ in that sense.”
Like Emanuel, Truls is quick to stress the vastly different circumstances of the Kurdish movement and the Norwegian left. But, beyond the inspiration from the movement’s ability to “actually keep things going, and survive adversity,” the movement’s capacity to adapt, be flexible, and not get stuck, is an attitude Truls argues one may learn much from in the Norwegian context as well.
“I think that one has to imagine city-wide and democratic coordinating bodies for leftist organisations in the future, in order for the left to bolster its power – although, naturally this is far off at the moment.
“Democratic Confederalism, partially transferred – at least in regards to coordination and structure – is something one can dream of, where there are neighborhood councils filled with leftists, instead of small leftist groups. In this political re-orientation, the Kurdish movement has been important for me.”
Ronja Vara Sannerud is a student and is running for office in the Sami Parlament in Norway. She first became acquainted with the Kurdish movement in 2014, and participated in the long march for Öcalan in 2017, before she became a board member for the organisation ‘Ungkurd Norge’ (‘Ciwanên Kurd Norvec’). Since then, she has become an international representative for the Sami people in meetings with the Kurdish movement.
For Ronja, the interest in the Kurdish movement came when she saw that it was “an actual revolution, and was foundationally internationalist. It was a movement, which despite revolving around Kurdistan, was open and inclusive, and accommodated many other people and groups.” In this milieu, Ronja found it a great forum for discussing important leftist questions with people who had direct experience and insight, such as: “How to defend a revolution? In which aspects may one trust states’ support? And what happens after support is withdrawn?”
More than merely discussing these issues, however, Ronja emphasized that building solidarity was also important for her as a Sami activist. For Ronja, examining what could be learned for Sami people’s struggle – an indigenous people of Scandinavia also split between four nation states (Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia) – formed a large part of her interest in the Kurdish movement: “We all know that we cannot trust the nation states.
“But we can find solidarity with each other and exchange experiences and ways of organising societies within the confines that exist. Both the Kurds and the Sami are divided between four nation states.”
Surprisingly, when she travelled as a delegate in Europe, she learned that Kurds had a pretty good understanding of Sami history and politics, and that her project was met with great enthusiasm. She also learned that there had been exchange visits between Sami and Kurdistan back in the 80’s and 90’s. Talking about what she learned, the Kurdish movement’s emphasis on repurposing traditional structures of governance was particularly fruitful: “I thought it was exciting, especially in regards to the similarity of structuring society outside the framework of the nation state.
“In many ways, [the ‘traditional’ Kurdish] structures resemble the traditional sita structures in Sami communities. And I am not saying that they are perfect in every way, but we can see some of the same council structures there as well. So this is something that resonates with the Sami people and is easy to understand, since is resembles something we already know.”
With regard to implementation, Ronja found Democratic Confederalism as a model for political organisation perhaps a bit more transferrable than both Truls and Emanuel. “The Kurdish situation is very easy to relate to many Sami issues, although we are, of course, not at war. In that context, there are many things that are easy to understand and bring into a Sami context.”
“Personally, I want to reorganise Sami politics. There is too much pressure at the moment to work as a mini version of the Norwegian parlament. Following a Social Democratic model works very poorly in a Sami context – especially when it is only an advisory body. One does not actually have any influence on real politics, and is left without veto powers. I think that one has to think Sami politics anew if we want real power. It is one thing to be visible and proud, it is another to actually have something to bargain with.”
Furthermore, Ronja sees a model of nested councils, aggregating from neighbourhoods and families to gradually more centralised bodies, as being an inspirational principle for her politics. “I think this is a very good way of building [a social order], because it ensures that voices from below will be heard, and simultaneously manages to have a central organisation, which in the modern world is necessary.” It is not possible, Ronja emphasizes, to live as though one is separated from the world. This form of arrangement, Ronja concludes, “is something I will definitely advocate for if I get elected to the Sami parliament.”
Internationalism and Margins
It might seem strange to deem Norway as a marginal country. It is, after all, a country which benefits from great oil wealth, a social democratic foundation (even though it is gradually eroding), as well as a strong labour movement. Nonetheless, the article has hopefully shown that even in a place that may seem so tangential, the influence of the Kurdish movement is not negligible.
As we have seen with Truls, Emanuel and Ronja, activists and people involved in the movement may still be find lessons and draw inspirations. But this may not be in the wholesale adaptation of Democratic Confederalist principles, nor in outside-in solidarity work. It may work through more subtle means.
As, for instance, Emanuel shows, the Kurdish movement provides a conceptual resolution to a problem that has plagued the left for the last 100 years or so, namely how to deal with parliamentarism.
The Kurdish movement’s navigation of this provided Emanuel with an impetus to engage with parliamentary parties, rather than a wholesale rejection (at least in discourse). Similarly, Truls found that the Kurdish movement’s progress testified to the necessity of having a flexible, local and contextual attitude towards political organisation, rather seeking out ideological purism, still prevalent in many leftist milieus. Ronja, perhaps the most explicit about the Kurdish movement’s influence, found not only common ground in the Kurdish movement’s emphasis on transforming already-existing social forums, but saw the Kurdish movement as providing a template (with modifications, surely) for how Sami rights could be furthered and bolstered.
To be clear, this is not to claim that there is a causality here in that the Kurdish movement single-handedly changed these views and attitudes. Rather, the Kurdish movement should be viewed as one of many, but nonetheless incredibly important, factors contributing to the evolution of a more general leftist thought and practice. And this is key: It is not that the Kurdish movement can or should provide a template for internationalist activists’ work and ideology, but that it serves as a beaming example to depart from when thinking about one’s own context.
As Truls, Emanuel and Ronja show, understanding what one cannot learn from the Kurdish movement is equally important; there is no equally despotic state in Norway as there is in Turkey or Syria, there is no war, there are few local democratic fora, and strong institutional arrangements still exist. Understanding these differences sharpens the analytic lens, and adapts a leftist project better to local circumstances, which, in the long term, may paradoxically serve to align leftist projects more closely with the Kurdish movement’s goals.
Axel Rudi is a post-doctoral fellow in anthropology at the University of Bergen. Having worked in Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan intermittently since 2015, Rudi’s current research concerns Kurdish sovereignty, autonomy and self-governance in the region. He is funded by the Norwegian Research Council’s international mobility grant. Twitter: @axelerationism