John Holloway’s preface to Öcalan’s Sociology of Freedom manages to be both hugely supportive and helpfully critical, so I was excited to be able to meet with him at the Challenging Capitalist Modernity Conference in Hamburg and to ask him for his thoughts on how Öcalan’s ideas and the Kurdish movement can inspire and interact with the broader anti-capitalist left.
Holloway observed that Öcalan had shown him the world through a new and different historical and geographical context and that Öcalan’s philosophy and the movement it has generated have brought a fresh approach that is engaging people in its politics. He noted that the conference we were both at demonstrated that the Kurdish Movement has become a very important influence on radical left and anticapitalist thought, and also that the Kurdish Movement itself has opened up to different ways of thinking, resulting in a stimulating coming together of different movements.
I asked him, as an academic, about education, and, after expressing his rage and indignation at the Hamburg University President expelling the conference from the university, he spoke of the role of education in the practice of both the Kurdish Movement and the Zapatistas, who are the subject of much of his own research and writing. But he stressed that educational practices have to contend with the system in which we actually live, where we “exist in and against the system”.
Invited to say what he would most like to discuss with Öcalan himself, he raised the need to get rid of money and market relations completely, a subject that was the focus of his conference speech, but which is not on Öcalan’s agenda. And he said – noting the example of Subcomandante Marcos withdrawing from the Zapatistas – that he would like to ask Öcalan about the contradiction between the breaking down of hierarchical structures, and Öcalan’s own cult status.
Finally, he observed how the Kurdish Movement combines high standards of discussion, a very friendly atmosphere, and internationalism – and emphasised the importance of movements such as those of the Kurds and of the Zapatistas for how we think about the world and the possibility of a better society. Holloway ended with a reminder that this isn’t about solidarity for a distant group, but about a stimulating interaction.
Below are some key points from our exclusive interview:
What message does Abdullah Öcalan have for the wider anticapitalist movement?
He opened my world in the sense of introducing a different geographical historical context. He traces things back to the Sumerian empire, which I would never have thought of. I find it very stimulating.
This is really an interesting approach. It’s fresh, it’s different. It’s something that we should engage with very much I think. And I think it’s something that people are engaging with…
[The conference] shows how the Kurdish movement has become such an important influence in radical left, radical anticapitalist thought in the last few years; and also how the movement itself has opened up to different directions, to different ways of thinking.
What about Öcalan and education?
I think what I would want to say, or what I will want to say about education really has to start with the kind of rage and indignation I feel, and I think that we all here feel, about the decision by the president of the University of Hamburg – the administrative council – to expel this meeting from the university… How awful that is. For me, completely anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical, politically stupid, contemptible…
We have to think of education where we are – from our own contradictory experiences. In schools and in universities we don’t actually exist – most of us – in an autonomous framework. We actually exist in and against the system.
If you could meet him, what subjects would you raise with Öcalan?
It could be lots of different theoretical points about the question of money and the market, for example. That he sees the market as being important… – a kind of small scale market, as being an important part of the development of a post revolutionary society. It seems to me, in a much more traditional Marxist framework, that no, we shouldn’t think in terms of market at all: that we have to think in terms of some sort of common, communal system of planning, of production and distributions. I think, on a more intermediate level between theory and practice, I would want to ask him about how he feels about his own cult status within the movement. He obviously has had an enormous impact in making people think and move away from hierarchical structures, and think of the revolutionary movement as a collective communal effort, which is so evident here in this congress for example. And then, on the other hand, you have Öcalan as the leader figure, which is an obvious contradiction. How does he feel with that. Certainly that was also a theme in the Zapatista movement.
What about the organisation of the movement and the hevalti (comradeship)?
There is this combination of a very high standard of discussion and a very friendly atmosphere. Very welcoming, very international, which obviously involves an awful lot of hard work…
A final word
The final word would really be just how important these events are. Just how important the influence of movements like the Kurdish movement and the Zapatista movement is for the way in which we – who are neither Kurds nor Mexican indigenous – the way in which we think, the way in which we think about the world, the way in which we hope for a different society. I think the important thing for me, is not to think in terms of solidarity with them who are over there, but really to think of the way in which the interaction with them is enormously stimulating – certainly for us and I hope also for the people directly involved in the Kurdish movement.
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter