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The Kurdish Question Then and Now

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).

Translated from the French by Jenny Bright.


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?

Debates on the subject produce great confusion. This is because most contemporary actors and observers rally around a non-historical vision of this and related issues. The right of peoples to self-determination has been made into an absolute right, to be upheld for all people at all present and future times, and even past times. This right is considered one of the most fundamental collective rights, one that is often given greater prominence than other collective rights of social scope (the right to work, education, health, political participation, and so on). However, the subjects of this absolute right are not precisely defined. The subject of this right may then be any “community,” majority, or minority within the boundaries of a state or a province; a community defining itself as “special” in its language or religion, for example, and claiming, rightly or wrongly, to be a victim of discrimination or oppression. I will offer a counterpoint to this transhistorical vision of social issues and “rights,” through which the social movements of the past and present express their demands. In particular, I will attribute paramount importance to the divide that separates the thriving of the modern capitalist world from past worlds.

The political organization of those previous worlds has taken diverse forms, from the construction of power exercised over vast areas, thus qualified as “empires,” to that of smaller, more or less centralized monarchies, not excluding the extreme fragmentation of powers barely exceeding the village horizon in certain circumstances. A review of this patchwork of political forms preceding capitalist modernity is obviously not the subject of this article. I will refer here to only a few of the region’s imperial constructions: the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Arab-Persian Caliphate, and the Ottoman Empire.

The common qualification of these constructions—empires—is more misleading than helpful, although they all shared two characteristics: (1) given their geographic scope, they necessarily collected different peoples and communities by language, religion, and modes of production and social life; and (2) the logics that controlled the reproduction of social and economic life were not those of capitalism, but within what I have called a family of tributary modes of production (commonly called “feudal”). For this reason I consider as absurd the assimilation of all these historical empires as a unique form called “Empire,” including both: (1) those considered here with respect to the Middle East region, and others such as China; and (2) imperialist empires built by the major capitalist powers, whether they be colonial empires like those of Britain and France, or modern empires without formal colonies such as that of the United States. Paul Kennedy’s well-known thesis on the “fall of empires” belongs to the realm of such transhistoric, speculative philosophies.1


I return to the empire that directly concerns the Kurdish question: the Ottoman Empire, built when Europe began to break with its past and enter capitalist modernity. The Ottoman Empire was itself pre-capitalist. Its qualification as a Turkish Empire is inaccurate and misleading. The wars of conquest of the Turkoman semi-nomadic tribes from Central Asia were instrumental in the double destruction of the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate of Baghdad, and most of the settlement of Anatolia and Eastern Thrace. But the power of the Sultan of the Empire extended well beyond, over the territories of Armenians, Kurds, Arabs, Greeks, and Balkan Slavs. To describe this empire as “multinational,” leads to an incorrect projection of a future reality onto the past, as Balkan and Arab (anti-Ottoman) nationalisms are in their modern form products of the penetration of capitalism into the Ottoman Empire.

All the peoples of the Ottoman Empire—Turks and others—were exploited and oppressed in the same way, in the sense that peasant majorities were all subject to the same policy of heavy taxation, and all oppressed by the same autocratic power. Certainly Christians were additionally subject to specific discriminations. But we should not see here forms of “national” oppression, whether against Christians or against non-Turkish Muslims (the Kurds and Arabs). The ruling class associated with the Sultans’ power had in its ranks civilian, military, and religious notables from all parts of the empire, including the embryo of comprador bourgeoisies produced by capitalist penetration, particularly Greek and Armenian.

The specific characteristics of the Ottoman system mentioned here are not unique to this eastern empire. One finds similar expressions in other ancient empires, as in the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Or even in the Ethiopia of Menelik and Haile Selassie: the King of Kings’ power was not associated with an Amhara domination; Amhara peasants were not treated better than the others; the ruling class was recruited from all regions of the empire (it included, for example, a good number of native Eritreans).

There has been nothing like it in modern imperialist systems. The colonial empires of Great Britain and France, like the informal U.S. empire, were built systematically, on the basis of the sharp distinction between the people of the metropolis and those of the colonies and dependencies, who were denied the basic rights granted to the former. The struggle of peoples dominated by imperialist capitalism therefore became a struggle for national liberation, and necessarily anti-imperialist. We must not confuse this modern nationalism, which is anti-imperialist and therefore progressive, with other expressions of non-anti-imperialist nationalist movements, whether it be nationalism inspired by the ruling classes of the imperialist nations or non-anti-imperialist nationalist movements—such as those of the Balkan peoples, to which I will return later. To conflate the structures of ancient empires and those specific to the imperialist capitalist empires, and to confuse them in a general pseudo-concept of “empire,” would violate the basic requirements of a rigorous analysis of historical societies.


The emergence of nationalist ideologies within the Ottoman Empire occurred later. They were formed only in the nineteenth century, in the Balkans, in Syria, among the Armenians, and later among the Rumelia Turks, in reaction to others. There was not then the slightest hint of emergence of a Kurdish nationalism. The emergence of these nationalisms was closely associated with the new urbanization and the modernization of government administration. The peasants themselves could continue to speak their language, and ignore that of the Ottoman administration, which appeared on the countryside only to collect taxes and recruit soldiers. But in the new cities, and particularly among the emerging educated middle classes, mastery of a written language became a daily necessity. And it was from these new classes that the first generation of nationalists in the modern sense would be recruited. The rural character of the Kurdish populated areas, such as the Turkish Central Anatolia, explains the late formation of Turkish (Kemalist) nationalism and the even later formation of Kurdish nationalism.

A parallel with the Austro-Hungarian Empire will help explain the nature of the process that would eventually destroy these two empires. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed before the emergence of European capitalism; but it was its closest neighbor, and some of its regions (Austria, Bohemia) were rebuilt on the new foundations of capitalism. The new “national question” thus emerged there in the nineteenth century. We owe to the Austro-Marxists (Otto Bauer and others) a good analysis of this dimension of the socialist challenge, and policy proposals that I consider to have been the most progressive possible under the conditions of the time: safeguarding the benefits of the great State but accelerating its transformation by socialist (radical or even social-democratic) advances, creating an internationalism of peoples based on a rigorous policy of fair treatment for all, combined with a genuine policy of cultural autonomy. The sequence of events has not allowed the success of such a project, to the benefit of a mediocre bourgeois nationalism.

Balkan and Syrian-Arab nationalisms, which appeared later in mediocre forms associated with peripheral capitalism in the regions, triumphed and helped remove the Ottoman Empire. But the weaknesses specific to these nationalisms compelled their promoters to seek the support of outside powers—particularly Great Britain and Russia—against Ottoman rule. They paid the price: the resulting states remained in the lap of the dominant imperialist powers: Britain and France for the Arabs, Britain and Germany for the Balkans.

In Armenia, where a beautiful independent civilization had thrived before being incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, national renewal was defeated by the 1915 genocide. It was a nationalism torn between that of the new Armenian emigrant bourgeoisie in the cities of Rumelia (Constantinople, Smyrna, and others), who held positions of choice in the new business and financial sectors, and that of the notables and peasants of Armenian lands. Incorporating a small part of these lands into the Russian Empire (the territory of Soviet and later independent Armenia) further complicated things, because it aroused fear of manipulation from Saint Petersburg, especially during the First World War. The Ottoman authorities then chose the route of genocide. It should be noted here that the Kurds acted as agents and the main beneficiaries of the massacre: they more than doubled the size of their territory by seizing the destroyed Armenian villages.

Modern Turkish nationalism is even more recent. It was formed first with those of relatively educated military backgrounds and the Ottoman administration of the cities of Rumelia (Constantinople, Smyrna, Thessaloniki) in response to Balkan and Syrian-Arab nationalisms, and found no real echo in Turkish (and Kurdish) peasants of Central and Eastern Anatolia. Its options, which would become those of Kemalism, are known: Europeanization, hostility towards Ottomanism, and affirmation of the Turkish character of the new state and its secularizing style. I say “secularizing” and not “secular,” because the new Turkish citizen is defined by the social character of belonging to Islam (the few Armenians who survived the massacre, along with the Greeks of Constantinople and Smyrna, were not admitted). Nevertheless, the Islam in question is reduced to the status of public institution dominated and manipulated by the new government in Ankara.

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.

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.


Although the Kurdish peoples occupy a continuous territory (Eastern Anatolia, a thin strip along the Syrian border, the northeast of Iraq, the western mountains of Iran), the Kurdish question was posed in Iran and Iraq in different terms than it was in Turkey. The Kurdish peoples—the Medes and Parthians of antiquity—shared neighboring Indo-European languages with the Persians. It seems that, perhaps because of this, the coexistence of Kurds and Persians had not been a problem in the past. Again the Kurdish question emerged with the recent urbanization in the region. Moreover, Shiism, more official in Iran than ever, is also the source of discomfort suffered by the Sunni majority of Iranian Kurds.

Iraq, within the borders defined by the British Mandate, separated the Kurds in the north of the country from those of Anatolia. But again coexistence between Kurds and Arabs continued, thanks in part to the committed internationalism of a relatively powerful Communist Party in the region’s cities and in the multinational proletariat. The Arab chauvinism of the Ba’ath dictatorship unfortunately set back much of this progress.

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! The intervention of Gulf countries, supporting—behind the United States—the reactionary political Islam that gave rise to the so-called Caliphate of Daesh contributed to the success of Washington’s project. It is almost amusing to observe that the United States supported the Iraqi Kurds in the name of “democracy,” but not those of Turkey, an important NATO ally. Double standards, as usual.

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.2


  1. Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987).
  2. I speak of Kurdish nationalism in the plural, for the objectives of (often armed) movements that act today in its name are not defined: a large independent pan-Kurdish state? Two, three, four or five Kurdish states? A dose of autonomy in the states as they are? One possible reason for this fragmentation and blur can be found in Kurdish linguistic history. Arabs and Persians carried out a splendid renovation of their respective languages in the nineteenth century; the Turks did so later, in 1920–1930. The Kurds were not placed in conditions that required them to do so. There is not a single Kurdish language; there are neighboring but distinct languages, probably not up to the requirements of the modern world. This weakness found its counterpart in linguistic assimilation by Kurdish elites, who adopted Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, for better or for worse.
2016, Volume 68, Issue 05 (October)
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