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The Kurdish Question Then and Now

The political chaos that has recently dominated the scene in the Middle East is expressed, among other ways, by the violent resurgence of the Kurdish question. How can we analyze, in these new conditions, the scope of the claims of the Kurds—autonomy, independence, unity? And can we deduce from analysis that this claim must be supported by all democratic and progressive forces, in the region and in the world?

The political chaos that has recently dominated the scene in the Middle East is expressed, among other ways, by the violent resurgence of the Kurdish question. How can we analyze, in these new conditions, the scope of the claims of the Kurds—autonomy, independence, unity? And can we deduce from analysis that this claim must be supported by all democratic and progressive forces, in the region and in the world?


by Samir Amin


The wars led by the Kemalists from 1919 to 1922 against the imperialist powers allowed the Turkish (and Kurdish) peasant masses of Anatolia to rally with the new Turkish nationalism. The Kurds were not distinguished from the Turks: they fought together in the Kemalist armed forces. Kemalist Turkish nationalism became anti-imperialist by force of circumstance. It understood that Ottomanism and the Caliphate did not protect the empire’s peoples (Turks, Kurds, and Arabs); on the contrary, they facilitated the penetration of Western imperialism and the reduction of the empire to the status of a capitalist, peripheralized, and dominated region. Neither Balkan nor Arab nationalism understood this at the time: they openly called for the support of the imperialist powers against the power of the Sublime Porte. Anti-imperialist Kemalist nationalism, then, gave the final blow to Ottomanism.


The anti-imperialist character of the original Kemalist system nevertheless rapidly weakened. The original option in favor of a state capitalism with an independent self-centered vocation was losing momentum, while a mode of dependent peripheral capitalist development was progressing. Turkey paid the price for the illusion of its bourgeois nationalism, of its original confusion. Kemalist leaders thought they could build a Turkish capitalist nation in the image of those of Western Europe; it did not understand that the realization of this project was doomed to failure, in Turkey and elsewhere in all regions of peripheral capitalism. Its hostility to socialism, compounded by the fear of the Soviet Union, led Ankara to seek support from the United States: Turkey’s Kemalist generals—like Greece’s Colonels—immediately joined NATO and became Washington’s clients. The acceleration of the development of peripheral capitalism was reflected in the emergence of a new capitalist agriculture in Anatolia, to the benefit of a class of rich peasants, and in the establishment of subcontracting industries.



Emergence of the Kurdish question


These social changes eroded the legitimacy of Kemalism. The multi-party elections starting from 1950, strongly encouraged by Washington, strengthened the political power of the new peasant and comprador classes, issued from the traditional Anatolian countryside and stranger to the secularism of the Roumelian Kemalist political class. The emergence of Turkish political Islam and the electoral success of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) were the result. These developments have not favored the democratization of society, but on the contrary have confirmed the dictatorial aspirations of President Erdogan and the resurgence of an instrumentalized Ottomanism, exploited, like its precursor, by the major imperialist powers, namely the United States. These events simultaneously drove the emergence in Turkey of the Kurdish question.


The urbanization of Eastern Anatolia saw the mass emigration of its ruined peasants toward the western cities, fueling the emergence of the new issue of Turkey’s Kurds, now aware that they were not “Turks of the mountains,” but distinguished by their own language, for which they demanded official recognition. The issue could have been resolved by granting a genuine cultural autonomy to Turkish Kurdistan, if the new ruling class had evolved in a democratic direction. But that was not the case, and is still not. The Kurds were then constrained, in these circumstances, to respond to the repression (worsened by their claims) with armed force. It is interesting to note here that the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the organization behind this struggle today, lays claim to a radical socialist tradition suggested by its name, probably associated with recruitment of the new proletariat of Turkish towns. One might imagine that they chose a line of internationalist conduct, and attempted to associate the Kurdish and Turkish proletarians in a shared fight for socialism, democracy, and the recognition of a binational state. They did not.



The new Kurdish question: A product of the U.S. project


The new Kurdish question is the product of recent U.S. strategy, which has given itself the goal of destroying the state and society in Iraq and Syria, while waiting to attack Iran. Washington demagogy, unrelated to the invoked alleged democracy, has given the highest priority to the exercise of the “right of communities.” Discourses defending “human rights” that do the same and to which I referred in this article, are thus very relevant. The Iraqi central government was thus destroyed (by Gauleiter Bremer in the first year of the occupation of the country) and its attributes vested in four pseudo-states, two of them based on restricted and fanatical interpretations of Shiite and Sunni versions of Islam, the other two on the alleged particularities of the “Kurdish tribes” of Iraq!


Are the two political parties exercising power over different parcels of Iraqi Kurdistan territory “democratic,” or is one better than the other? It would be naive to believe this Washington propaganda. It is only a question of cliques of politicians or warlords who know how to enrich themselves in this way. Their alleged “nationalism” is not anti-imperialist; anti-imperialism requires fighting the U.S. presence in Iraq, and not being part of it for personal gain.



The foregoing analysis perhaps better explains the nature of the Kurdish nationalisms at work today, the limits that they impose by ignoring the requirements of anti-imperialist resistance in the region, and the radical social reforms that must accompany this struggle, as well as the need to build unity of all the peoples concerned—Kurds, Arabs, Iranians—against their common enemy: the United States and its local allies, whether Islamists or others.

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Samir Amin is director of the Third World Forum in Dakar. His most recent book is Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (Monthly Review Press, 2016).


Please visit the original source of this article, the Monthly Review where you can read the full text


Volume 68 - Issue 05 - 2016, October

Translated from the French by Jenny Bright.

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