PRISON WRITINGS: The Roots of Civilisation

Abdullah Ocalan, translated by Klaus Happel PLUTO PRESS ISBN: 9780745326160 Hardback Price: £25.00 / $40.00 / €37.00 View Cart Publication Date: January 2007 Pages: 320pp Size: ROYAL (230x150mm) buy at amazon -uk- -us-

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Abdullah Ocalan was the most wanted man in Turkey for almost two decades until his kidnapping and arrest in 1999. He has been in prison ever since. He is the founder of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). From 1984, under his leadership, the PKK fought for an independent Kurdish state in the south east of Turkey. In a sustained popular uprising, tens of thousands of PKK guerrillas took on the second largest army in NATO.

Since his imprisonment, Ocalan has written extensively on Kurdish history. This book brings together his writings for the first time. Breathtaking in scope, it provides a broad Marxist perspective on ancient Middle Eastern history, incorporating the rise of the major religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), and defining the Kurdish position within this, from the ancient Sumerian civilization through the feudal age, the birth of capitalism and beyond.

 


 

Reviews and opinions

'Very readable. It is a tour-de-force.'- Ghada Talhami, D.K. Pearsons Professor of Politics, Lake Forest College, Illinois
**

'We would expect Abdullah Öcalan to write a political treatise. Instead, he has penned a monumental history of the ancient Near East that offers a grand vision. His well-informed and highly original synthesis has the additional advantage of transcending academic fields. This is the first truly postcolonial history of Mesopotamia.' -    Randall H. McGuire, Professor of Anthropology, Binghamton University, New York
**

'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.' (Full review...)-    Stan Newens, former MP and MEP, United Kingdom.
**

'It can be read with profit by anyone who seeks to forge a modern secular future of peace and progress for the Middle East built upon the best offered by previous world civilizations.' (Full review...)  -  Michael M. Gunther, Professor of political science, Tennessee Technological University, USA
**

'While it is about terrorism or global violence more broadly, it is a radical departure from most interpretations on the subject because of its attention to the long-term, cultural and material roots of the problem in a Gramscian mould. The book will be indispensable for educators and concerned citizens attempting to understand political violence.' (Full review...)-    Tamir Bar-On, Professor of Humanities and International Relations, Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Mexico
**

Stan Newens

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 ideologies emerged.

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 and secularisation.

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 items listed.

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.

Stan Newens, former MP and MEP, United Kingdom. This review has been published in The Spokesman No. 95, Journal of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation (Original review...)

**

Michael M. Gunter

For almost a quarter century, Abdullah (Apo) Ocalan led the Kurdistan Workers party (known universally by its Kurdish initials, PKK) and its predecessors in a guerrilla war against Turkey that resulted in some 37,000 deaths (the great majority being Kurdish), 3 million displaced persons, and 3,000 destroyed villages. He eventually lost the military struggle and was captured after escaping to Europe, where he tried unsuccessfully to begin negotiations for peace. He was condemned to death by a Turkish court, which later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment as part of Turkey’s EU candidacy. Given the new-found pride and determination of many ethnic Kurds in Turkey, however, Ocalan and his call for democratization to solve the Kurdish problem may yet win the final political victory.

The present volume follows upon an earlier one (Declaration on the Democratic Solution of the Kurdish Question) written during his original trial in 1999; surprisingly, it contains little on the Kurds. However, it does contain much Marxist analysis on political, social, economic and religious developments in the Middle East from ancient Sumerian times to the present. A projected second volume will follow and deal more specifically with the Kurds.

The book is divided into five parts, the first of which surveys ancient body politics from Sumer to Rome. Ocalan states that “the earliest state-based society and the oldest written sources of human history can be found in Lower Mesopotamia and can be accredited to the Sumerians” (p. 5). He also argues that “the mythological fabrications of the Sumerians, their rituals and practices of worship, constituted the oil that fuelled and kept the machinery of social institutions, both in sub- and super-structure, running smoothly” (p. 15). This pattern largely replicates itself in the base and super-structure of all subsequent polities and illustrates the importance of the institutionalization of religion in creating a patriarchal political order to which the individual was completely subordinated.

In his second part, Ocalan examines medieval Europe and the Middle East as well as the impact of Christianity and Islam. He concludes that the former has been more supportive of progress and modernity: “The Christian religion … played quite a positive role in the intellectual and structural development of the European nations” (p. 172). Although Islam at first opened with an era of progressive achievements, dogmatism and fatalism stifled further development. This, of course, was not an uncommon view of many modernist leaders in the Middle East including Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdul Nasser. The Ottoman Empire “only had to guard the cultural graveyard” (p. 174) — in other words, the Middle East already was declining relative to the West during Ottoman times.

In contrast, the European Renaissance and the development of capitalism propelled the West forward by emphasizing the importance of the individual, secular thought, new modes of production, scientific progress, and new forms of political organization such as democracy and the nation-state. “The East, in particular the Middle East, has been in a defensive position ever since” (p. 110). Ocalan deals with these developments in the third part of the book. He also points out more negative traits of the West such as the continuance of state-based male domination as well as the imperialist grafting of European traits onto the rest of the world. The original promise of “unsuccessful real socialism [communism]” (p. 286) failed to provide a solution to these problems, and with its collapse democracy became the main form of government because it enabled individuals to seek freedom nonviolently.

In part four, Ocalan contemplates the contemporary international situation and its future, arguing that the Middle East should adopt such modern European achievements as individual rights, secular thought and politics, and pluralism. However, the Middle East remains the principal region that dogmatically resists assimilating Western civilization. This situation makes the Middle East ripe for its own renaissance based on its own cultural past.

Democratization is the means to achieve this renaissance, and it constitutes the fifth and final part of Ocalan’s book. Female and minority rights can help establish pluralistic, federal body politics, which can offer mechanisms for resolving existing social, religious and ethnic conflicts. Globalization also plays a role in dissolving despotism. Decentralized federations can merge into a democratic Middle East Federation: “Geographic and cultural similarities throughout the region, and shared economic needs and water resources, might form the basis for a democratic federation of the entire region” (p. 287). Civil society is the primary means of furthering these changes. Armed struggle only results in weak, reactionary and autocratic regimes. Organized armed defense, however, is legitimate. The Kurdish question links Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, four of the main states in the Middle East.

Ocalan is long on theory but short on specifics for implementation. Nevertheless, his vision of a modern, democratic, and federal Middle East freed from its reactionary past inspires new hope for a better future. Thus, Ocalan’s treatise is impressive not so much for the philosophy of history it espouses, but for the glimpse it conveys of the author: a man stamped as nothing more than a terrorist by Turkey, the United States and the EU and, therefore, unworthy of serious engagement, but who nevertheless is revered by millions to whom he gave a new sense of dignity. It can be read with profit by anyone who seeks to forge a modern secular future of peace and progress for the Middle East built upon the best offered by previous world civilizations. As Ocalan himself writes: “There is no need for a war of civilisations. … People in the Middle East should make their barren ground a holy land again and boldly and generously open their hearts to all that exists” (p. 175).

Democratization is the means to achieve this renaissance, and it constitutes the fifth and final part of Ocalan’s book. Female and minority rights can help establish pluralistic, federal body politics, which can offer mechanisms for resolving existing social, religious and ethnic conflicts. Globalization also plays a role in dissolving despotism. Decentralized federations can merge into a democratic Middle East Federation: “Geographic and cultural similarities throughout the region, and shared economic needs and water resources, might form the basis for a democratic federation of the entire region” (p. 287). Civil society is the primary means of furthering these changes. Armed struggle only results in weak, reactionary and autocratic regimes. Organized armed defense, however, is legitimate. The Kurdish question links Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, four of the main states in the Middle East.

The manner in which Ocalan’s treatise was compiled is noteworthy. Apparently, he simply gave handwritten pages to his lawyers or relatives infrequently visiting his cell in the island prison of Imrali. On other occasions, he dictated to the lawyers or had them take notes while he spoke. He had no access to sources and no one with whom to discuss matters. One wonders to what extent the Turkish authorities were aware of what he was doing and permitted it. The translator and editorial team are to be commended for having produced a readable and interesting manuscript. Their joint project ends with more than 10 pages of notes, a short bibliography, and useful index.

Michael M. Gunther is professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University. This review has been published in Middle East Policy 14 (Fall 2007), pp. 166-167. (Original review...)

**
Tamir Bar-On

In the post-9-11 climate, a veritable cottage industry of books on the subject of terrorism have inundated the public. They range from "no-nonsense" guides to conspiracy and anti-conspiracy theories to case studies of suicide terrorism.1 The work in question, however, cannot be neatly lumped into any of these categories. While it is about terrorism or global violence more broadly, it is a radical departure from most interpretations on the subject because of its attention to the long-term, cultural and material roots of the problem in a Gramscian mould. The book will be indispensable for educators and concerned citizens attempting to understand political violence.

Ocalan is the leader of the militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). A former practitioner of terrorism, Ocalan reflects on his organization's changing fortunes after his arrest by the Turkish state. He makes a turn from the lionized leader of the PKK to an intellectual who largely eschews the violence of his past. The transition is remarkable, as Ocalan was enemy number one in Turkey from 1984, the year he began the PKK's violent uprising, until his spectacular kidnapping in Nairobi and subsequent arrest by Turkish authorities in 1999. Ocalan currently resides in the Turkish prison of Imrali, where he penned his Prison Writings.

For a man that lived by the gun, Ocalan devotes very few pages to terrorism. In Parts 4 and 5, which includes "A New Programme for the Kurdish Movement," Ocalan favours "contemporary democracy" and federalist principles,2 while longing for a new historical synthesis of world civilisations. A new "democracy of the people," argues Ocalan, will fail outside Euro-American societies if it is not "superior" to Western democracy.3 This bold assertion reinforces the Hegelian idea that history unfolds towards universal, civilisational progress and that "contemporary democracy" is for now the highest expression of this progress. It is also intended to counter what Ocalan views as the tendency of authoritarian states in the Middle East to rhetorically wave the banner of popular representation, while eroding democratic practices. If a new civilisational synthesis emerges, argues Ocalan, it will need to build on the real historical progress made as a consequence of the emergence of "democratic civilisation": individualism, the rule of law, rule by the people, secularism, women’s rights.

The first three parts of Prison Writings are devoted to the history and "ideological identities" of three major civilisations: ancient Sumer, the age of feudalism, and the birth of capitalism and the development of democratic civilisation in Europe.

Ocalan’s novelty is in linking a Gramscian project to the history of Middle Eastern civilisations. His central theoretical influence is the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who wrote his own prison writings while in a Fascist jail and died in a government-controlled clinic in 1937.4 Yet, democratic theory, ecological anarchist Murray Bookchin, the New Left, feminist theory, Marx, and Hegel also figure as influences in Ocalan's book. His goal is a new civilisational model in which "democratic civilisation" will be merely one component of a still emerging global, civilisational synthesis. The new synthesis will need to answer two central questions: "how a person ought to live?" and "how a person becomes a person?"5 The accumulation of cultural knowledge in the Middle East and the claim that slave-holding Sumer was   "the blueprint for all that followed" (p. 249)   leads Ocalan to the conclusion that the region deeply influenced European civilisation and the cultural memory exists to provide the synthesis of the future. For now, insists Ocalan, the Middle East remains the most resistant world region to the spread of "democratic civilisation."6

How will the new civilisation emerge? Given the proclivity of contemporary Middle East states for violence, as well as the tendency of many states in the area to mimic the style of leadership inherited from Sumer based on "the deification of human beings in the person of the king," (p. 98) the new civilisation will not emerge from conservative state structures. Rather, Ocalan argues the "third sphere" of civil society  "comprises the tool of democratic possibilities - that opens the door to developments hitherto impossible." (p. 227)

Gramsci insisted that in any society intellectuals are the critical group in determining social stability and change. Ocalan continues a Gramscian tradition in which intellectuals are entrusted with the elitist task of rescuing us from the current age of Middle East violence and authoritarianism, environmental catastrophe, the breathtaking pace of scientific-technological civilisation, and poverty and hunger. The task is to create counter-hegemonic discourses in the cultural terrain outside the state (e.g., sufi orders, dissident religious thinkers, legal networks), which will act as vehicles to change modes of thinking in the masses and eventually dislodge antiquated political structures. Intellectuals in the region, Ocalan asserts, need to break with nationalist, socialist, or Islamist "dogmas" of the past, create a new "antithesis" to democratic civilisation, and drive humanity forward.7 Rejecting the the nationalist "poison" the PKK swallowed,8 Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria can be the guiding inspiration for the implantation of this peaceful, "third sphere" throughout the Middle East.9 All Middle East conflicts from the Arab-Israeli wars to the current quagmire in Iraq are interrelated and require the resurgence of the "third sphere" to unlock the region from nationalist or religious cycles of violence, deep-seated authoritarianism, and sectarian violence.10

While some might question Ocalan's sincerity based on the ambiguity of Gramsci’s notion of a “war of position,” his purported aim is to unravel the historical, economic, and psychological roots of human violence. Yet, how will we get to the democratic "world federation"11 Ocalan craves? Will intellectuals be the Leninist vanguard minus the exhortations to violence? If so, what does this say about a genuine participatory democracy? Women will have a greater role in the new civilisation, insists Ocalan, but how does one resist those powerful state structures and fears of a "world constitution" and "uniform global economy"?12 Divergent groups outside the state in Israel, Palestine, Iran, and Turkey need to desperately revive civil society to help forge a new civilisational synthesis. However, a weakness of Ocalan's treatise is that it does not consider the variations of autonomous, civil society in different Middle East countries. He undermines the role that Israel or Western-style institutions in Turkey can play in the civilisational synthesis of the future by insisting the the former is an "alien body,"13 which was imported from outside the Middle East. This contradicts Ocalan's earlier account for the history of civilisations in which he correctly points out that Judaism is indigenous to the region and plays a major evolutionary role in the spread of "democratic civilisation." What Ocalan is really searching for is a Middle Eastern "enlightenment" for the Islamic societies. Like Gramsci before him, Ocalan is convinced that we progressively evolve as human civilisations. Traditional conservatives will not be persuaded, while the events of the new millennium will surely spring new hopes and disappointments.

    1 Examples of each genre include: Jonathan Barker, The No-Nonsense Guide to Terrorism (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002); Ami Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism (London: Blackwell, 2005); Eric Laurent, La face cachée du 11 septembre (Paris: Plon, 2004); and David Ray Griffin, Debunking 9/11 Debunking: An Answer to Popular Mechanics and Other Defenders of the Official Conspiracy Theory (Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2007).
    2 Abdullah Ocalan, Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilisation, 255-6.
    3 Ibid., 237.
    4 See Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (translated and edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith) (New York: International Publishers, 1971). Also see Prison Notebooks, volumes 1-3 (translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg) (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992; 1996; 2007).
    5 Abdullah Ocalan, Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilisation, 285.
    6 Ibid., 277-82.
    7 Abdullah Ocalan, Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilisation, 285
    8 Ibid., 296.
    9 Ibid., 296-7.
    10 Ibid., 289.
    11 Ibid., 264.
    12 Ibid., 282.
    13 Ibid., 280.

Tamir Bar-On is professor for Humanities and International Relations at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM), Campus Queretaro, Mexico. This review has been published in Millennium - Journal of International Studies Vol. 37, No. 2, 511-513, September 2008. (Original review...)


 

Table of Contents

Preface
Translator's introduction
Introduction


SECTION 1: SLAVE-OWNING SOCIETY AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF CIVILISATION
1 The birth of civilisation on the banks of Tigris and Euphrates
2 The historical role of Sumerian civilisation
3 Permanent effects of Sumerian civilisation
4 Some methodological problems concerning historical development and expansion
5 The expansion and maturity of slavery
6 Tribal confederations, local and territorial states
7 Resistance to slaveholder civilisation and its reform
8 The Greco-Roman Contribution
9 Medes, Persians and the making of the East
10 The Demise of a Paradigm

SECTION 2: THE AGE OF FEUDAL CIVILISATION
11 The ideological identity of the feudal age
12 Islam as a revolutionary force of the feudal age
13 Institutionalisation and expansion of feudal civilisation
14 Climax and decay of feudal civilisation
15 Some conclusive remarks on Sections 1 and 2

SECTION 3: THE CIVILISATION OF THE AGE OF CAPITALISM
16 The birth of capitalism and its new ideological identity
17 The development and institutionalisation of capitalist civilisation
18 Capitalist expansion and the climax of capitalist civilisation
19 The overall crisis of civilisation and the age of democratic civilisation

SECTION 4: IDEOLOGICAL IDENTITY AND TIMESPACE CONDITIONS OF THE NEW DEVELOPMENT IN CIVILISATION
20 Ideological identity in the third millennium
21 A new programme for the Kurdish movement
22 Reflections on strategic and tactical approaches
23 Time as a creative element
24 Global aspects and perspectives

SECTION 5: CAN A NEW SYNTHESIS OF CIVILISATIONS ARISE FROM THE CULTURAL TRADITIONS OF THE MIDDLE EAST?
25 The renewal of ideological identity is a task of historic priority
26 The Democratic Civilisation Project
27 Theory and practice of Middle Eastern civilisation

Notes
Bibliography
Index


 


Author details

Abdullah Ocalan was the most wanted man in Turkey for almost two decades until his kidnapping and arrest in 1999. He has been in prison ever since. He is the founder of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). From 1984, under his leadership, the PKK fought for an independent Kurdish state in the south east of Turkey. In a sustained popular uprising, tens of thousands of PKK guerrillas took on the second largest army in NATO.

 

 

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