In the battle for Kobane on the Syrian border everyone talks about the enemy - IS - and the frightening ideas that drive them. No-one talks about the Kurdish defenders and what inspires them.
But the moment you look into what the Kurds are fighting for - what you discover is absolutely fascinating. They have a vision of creating a completely new kind of society that is based on the ideas of a forgotten American revolutionary thinker.
He wanted to create a future world in which there would be no hierarchies, no systems that exercise power and control individuals. And the Kurds in Kobane are trying to build a model of that world.
It means that the battle we are watching night after night is not just between good and evil. It is also a struggle of an optimistic vision of the future against a dark conservative idea drawn from the past.
It is a struggle that may also have great relevance to us in the west. Because the revolutionary ideas that have inspired the Kurds also shine a powerful light on the system of power in Britain today. They argue that we in the west are controlled by a new kind of hierarchical power that we don’t fully see or understand.
There are two men at the heart of this story.
One is the American revolutionary thinker. He is called Murray Bookchin. Here is a picture of Bookchin looking revolutionary.
The other man is called Abdullah Ocalan. He is the leader of the Kurdish revolutionary group in Turkey - the PKK
Here he is in 1999 after he had been captured by Turkish security forces and was on his way to a jail on a tiny island in the Sea of Marmara where he would be the only prisoner.
In his solitude he would start to read the theories of Murray Bookchin and decide they were the template for a future world.
Both men began as hardline marxists.
Murray Bookchin was born in New York in 1921. In the 1930s he joined the American Communist Party. But after the second world war he began to question the whole theory that underpinned revolutionary marxism.
What changed everything for him was the experience of working in a factory. Bookchin had gone to work for General Motors - and he realized as he watched his fellow workers that Marx, Lenin and all the other theorists were wrong about the working class.
The Marxist theory said that once working men and women came together in factories the scales would fall from their eyes - and they would see clearly how they were being oppressed. They would also see how they could bond together to become a powerful force that would overthrow the capitalists.
Bookchin saw that the very opposite was happening. This was because the factory was organised as a hierarchy - a system of organisation and control that the workers lived with and experienced every second of the day. As they did so, that hierarchical system became firmly embedded in their minds - and made them more passive and more accepting of their oppression.
But Bookchin didn’t do what most disillusioned American Marxists in the 1950s did - either run away to academia, or become a cynical neo-conservative. Instead he remained an optimist and decided to completely rework revolutionary theory.
Here is Bookchin in 1983 talking about how his thinking became transformed - and how his factory experiences led him towards anarchism. It’s part of a fantastic film called Anarchism in America - as well as Bookchin it’s got a great bit with Jello Biafra, and it’s really worth watching if you can get hold of it.
Abdullah Ocalan was born in 1948 in south-eastern Turkey. In the early 70s he went off to Ankara and became a student - and like many students then he became fascinated by revolutionary Marxism.
But Ocalan also believed in Kurdish nationalism. His family were Kurds - and like millions of other people in the south east of Turkey they considered themselves part of an invisible nation that stretched across the border into Northern Syria, Iraq and parts of Iran.
The Kurds had always had a bad time. They were oppressed by the Ottoman empire. Then - at the end of the first world war they were promised a homeland, but the new Turkish state refused to give them any land. While the British went and created the new state of Iraq and sent aircraft to bomb the Kurds there into submission.
Winston Churchill - who was the Secretary of War at the time - said they should be gassed. He said:
“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”
But the British government thought it wasn’t a good idea. The Kurds would have to wait for Saddam Hussein - who was also strongly in favour of using poisoned gas.
In 1978 Ocalan, along with a group of other student revolutionaries formed The Kurdistan Workers’ Party - the PKK. Its aim was to create an independent Kurdistan that would also be a marxist state. Then, in 1980 there was a military coup in Turkey - and Ocalan decided that the PKK party should use violence to achieve its aim.
He went off to the Bekaa valley in the Lebanon and set up a training camp to create his army of liberation. Here is some footage of them training - along with Ocalan explaining what they are trying to achieve.
It’s slightly ghostly - because over ten years years before, all the Palestinian marxists and the European student radicals had also set up training camps in the middle east. They were now either all dead or defeated - and Ocalan and his followers were like latecomers to a party that was almost over.
But that didn’t stop their growing popularity in Kurdish areas in Turkey. I’ve included some film from inside Turkey at that time - where weddings turn into celebrations of PKK attacks.
At the very time that Ocalan was training in the Bekaa - Murray Bookchin was in the US writing a grand theory of how to create a new revolutionary kind of world.
The problem - he had decided - were the hierarchies throughout society that controlled people. In many cases they had become so deeply embedded in peoples minds that they were almost invisible - people just accepted them as a natural part of life.
To begin with Bookchin turned to anarchism. But he didn’t stop there - he started mixing anarchist theories with all sorts of other radical ideas drawn from libertarian individualism, scientific theories of nature, Trotskyism and experimental psychology. One of the most important influences on him was a writer called Lewis Mumford who in the1960s argued that new and unseen hierarchies were emerging out of human beings relationship to computers.
The trouble was that all the anarchists and the marxists and the ecologists didn’t like their theories being mixed up together. Bookchin also had a habit of telling these other revolutionaries off for being limited in their ideas - writing pamphlets with titles like “Listen Marxists!”, and another which accused American anarchists of being “narcissistic lifestyle anarchists”
As a result Bookchin’s ideas remained out on the fringes.
Meanwhile Abdullah Ocalan was helping to create horror on a vast scale in Turkey. The war he had started had become a nightmare. By the mid 1990s nearly 40,000 people had been killed - the majority of them Kurdish civilians. The very people the PKK were fighting to liberate.
The Turkish security forces had responded with extraordinary brutality. They destroyed over 3000 villages - sometimes bombing and shelling them to destruction. At the same time they paid Kurdish villagers to set up local defence forces called “Village Guards” - to stop the PKK. If they didn’t agree their villages would be destroyed.
What resulted was a large part of South-eastern Turkey being transformed into a strange half-life zone. Millions of people lived in a state of constant fear and suspicion. The mood was captured by a film made by the writer Michael Ignatieff. Here are a couple of extracts.
It starts with him going to a PKK camp over the border in Northern Iraq where the fighters are still devoted revolutionary marxists. There is a really good section showing the “self-criticism” session for the women PKK fighters being held in a tent. He also takes part in target practice with the fighters.
But then Ignatieff goes into the heart of the Turkish-Kurd disputed area - to the town of Dyarbakir - and you get a real sense of the frightening world the war of national liberation had created.
Then - in 1999 - Abdullah Ocalan was captured by the Turkish security forces. He had been forced out of his base in Syria and had become a stateless person on the run. Everywhere he went - Russia, Italy, Greece - forced him on, until he ended up in Nairobi where the Turks kidnapped him when he was en route to the airport. Allegedly they were helped by the CIA.
Ocalan was then taken to Turkey where he was put on trial. There were massive protests by Kurds around the world. Here are some of the news reports of what happened. Plus some of the strange footage the Turks released showing Ocalan gagged and bound on the private jet taking him back to Turkey - and then on the boat out to the island prison.
Ocalan was taken to a maximum security prison on the island of Imrali. He was the only prisoner - surrounded, it is said, by a thousand military guards.
In his solitary confinement Ocalan began to read. And in 2002 he found a book by Murray Bookchin called The Ecology of Freedom - The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Despite the title, Ocalan was inspired by Bookchin’s arguments - and it changed the way he saw the world.
It made him realise - Ocalan said - that all systems of power create 'submissive persons’, and that the only way to really create a true revolutionary world was to build one without any hierarchies. He turned his back on Marxism and nationalism and proposed instead a completely decentralised system of government - run by local committees.
It was modelled on Bookchin’s ideas - and Ocalan sent out instructions to all militants that they should read The Ecology of Freedom. He even sent a letter to Bookchin asking to meet him - but Bookchin was too ill. Two years later in 2006, when Bookchin died, the PKK saluted him from their mountain hideouts as - “one of the greatest social scientists of the twentieth century.”
Then came the Syrian civil war - and the Kurds in the north of Syria used the chaos to create a series of free enclaves - one of which is the city of Kobane. The Kurdish group who did this is allied with the PKK - and it seems that they have set up free self-governing communities in these areas that are inspired by Bookchin’s ideas.
It is a fascinating story - but in our cynical age such ideas seem unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky experiments.
But I have found a film in the archives that suggests that maybe these kinds of ideas may have more relevance to the modern world than we think.
It’s a film made in the mid-1960s called Towards Tomorrow - and it tries to envisage what utopias might emerge in the next century. It asks how society, in an age of the masses and the decline of old forms of authority, will be organised. It describes two possible and contrasting visions of the future.
One is put forward by the American thinker who inspired Murray Bookchin - the writer and techno-theorist Lewis Mumford, and is very similar to the very ideas that the Kurds are now experimenting with.
The other is a vision of a world managed by an elite group of technocrats who see people as passive beings who need to be constantly monitored and managed in order to keep them happy. The section of the film that outlines this possible future is very odd - because as you watch it you get an eerie sense of familiarity. That what is being described is the very world in which we all now live.
Here - for example is one of the exponents of this future world. He is called Herman Kahn and was one of the first think-tank futurologists. The other man with him is his assistant. Listening to them talking in 1966 and describing what they think might come in the future is quite strange.
The film then goes to another promoter of this utopian future - an experimental psychologist called B.F. Skinner. He outlines a new way of controlling and ordering people. It is no longer possible, he says, to tell people what to do. In an age of individualism and mass democracy people won’t accept that any longer. Instead you reward them for behaving in the ways you want them to.
You make them happy, and they feel that they are in control - because by doing something they get the reward.
Skinner had started doing this with pigeons - and the film shows how he trained them to peck at a particular button because if they did they got a pellet of food, whereas if they pecked another button they got nothing. For Skinner though, that was just the start - and the film shows how his ideas were also being applied to human beings.
Here is that section - along with Skinner explaining his ideas. The film records an experiment in a mental hospital in San Bernadino - California. The patients are given rewards in the form of plastic fake money if they do what the doctors consider the right social behaviour. They can then use that money at meal-times to buy their way onto a “nice” table - with tablecloth and flowers.
Those without the rewards have to eat - as one of the nurses puts it, “in less elegant conditions”.
What emerges in the hospital is a new, ordered hierarchy created by a system of reward - but one where the patients don’t feel controlled - instead they feel “empowered” because it was through their actions that they received the reward. Skinner makes clear in the film that he sees this as a model for how to run a future kind of society.
Watching these sections of the film does make you think that what is being described is spookily close to the system we live in today. And that maybe we have misunderstood what really has emerged to run society since the 1980s.
The accepted version is that the neo-liberal right and the free market triumphed. But maybe the truth is that what we have today is far closer to a system managed by a technocratic elite who have no real interest in politics - but rather in creating a system of rewards that both keeps us passive and happy - and also makes that elite a lot of money.
That in the mid 1980s the new networks of computers which allowed everyone to borrow money came together with lifestyle consumerism to create a system of social management very close to Skinner’s vision.
Just like in the mental hospital we are all given fake money in the form of credit - that we can then use to get rewards, which keep us happy and passive. Those same technologies that feed us the fake money can also be used to monitor us in extraordinary detail. And that information is then used used to nudge us gently towards the right rewards and the right behaviours - and in extremis we can be cut off from the rewards.
The only problem with that system is that the pigeons may be getting restless. That not only has the system not worked properly since the financial crash of 2008, but that the growing inequalities it creates are also becoming a bit too obvious. The elite is overdoing it and - passive or not - the masses are starting to notice.
Which makes the alternative - the vision put forward by Lewis Mumford in the film, and which inspired Murray Bookchin - and the Kurds, seem more interesting as an alternative.
Here is Mumford from the film. He starts by criticising the managed utopia - how it turns people into sleepwalkers. He has a great quote:
“You reward them. You make people do exactly what you want with some form of sugar-coated drug or candy which will make them think they are actually enjoying every moment of it.
This is the most dangerous of all systems of compulsion. That’s why I regard Skinner’s utopia as another name for Hell. And it would be a worse hell because we wouldn’t realise we were there.
We would imagine we were still in Heaven.”
Mumford then goes on to describe eloquently the alternative, a system of direct democracy where we would all awake and become genuinely empowered - able to take part properly in deciding our destiny.
It is a powerful and optimistic vision of a new kind of progressive politics. But it has one very serious problem.
It means we would have to spend a lot of time going to meetings