Democratic nation and national state (Part 1)

Approaching the Concept of the “Democratic Nation”: A Continuous Change in Self-Perception

“Freedom and equality achieved through nation states de facto only serve the monopolies, this has been shown all over the world. Power and capital monopolies never allow true freedom or equality. Freedom and equality can only be achieved through the democratic politics of a democratic society and protected through self-defence.” Abdullah Öcalan

This article is an attempt to provide a cursory insight into the definition of the key concept of the Democratic Nation in Apoism (1). The concept of the Democratic Nation has not been discussed much in the international stage, perhaps because at first glance it does not seem to fit with the PKK’s anti-nationalist and anti-state paradigms, which give the Kurdish movement a particular explosive power. In order to approach this term, we first have to understand that the Kurdish movement has made it its business to re-appropriate or reappropriate terms that may well have different connotations in the dominant discourse.

The Kurdish freedom movement has an anti-state and anti-nationalist character. The cornerstones of the apoist model of society, Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism, have already been discussed several times elsewhere. With the so important concept of the Democratic Nation, there still remains a certain blank space, although it describes the alternative model of apoism to the nation-state on a philosophical-practical level. The blank space arises in the European debate because the concept of nation is always associated with the concept of the nation-state as well as with nationalism: “The body of those nations that are afflicted with the nationalist spirit expresses itself in the state. Precisely because of their body, these nations are also called state nations. The body of those nations that are, however, free and in solidarity is Democratic Autonomy. Democratic autonomy means that the individual and society govern themselves with their own will. One can also speak of democratic leadership or democratic authority.” (Abdullah Öcalan, KÜRT SORUNU VE DEMOKRATIK ULUS ÇÖZÜMÜ, Kültürel Soykırım Kıskacında Kürtleri Savunmak, 2016) So we can first state here that Democratic Nation is not oriented towards ethnicity or religion, but is defined by a democratic mindset. However, in order to really get closer to the concept, we must try to approach Abdullah Öcalan’s thinking and methods more deeply.

In the historical, dialectical method used by Abdullah Öcalan, history does not develop along the antagonism of capital and labour, as in the classical Marxist method. But manifests and reproduces itself on new levels within the framework of the antagonism of democratic and state civilisation. (It should be noted that the term civilisation must be understood here in its original sense as “civitas”, as community or society, and not within the framework of colonial discourse). In the historical method of the PKK, the teleologically based historical materialism that describes the inevitable social development from primitive communism to slaveholding society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism to communism is understood as not immutable. The “natural society” or “primitive communism” was already described by Engels as a matricentric society (2) and many finds from Neolithic times, especially representations of goddesses, as well as the mythologies seem to provide evidence for such an interpretation, as does the systematic repression of women at the social level in the state structures of Sumer, Akkad and the ones following (3). This also supports Öcalan’s observation that the imposition of domination and patriarchy was not inevitable, but a process that was maintained through violence and betrayal: “In particular, the epic of Inanna, the goddess of the first city-state of Uruk, is very revealing. This epic, which describes an era in which the matricentric and patriarchal cultures were in equilibrium, tells of a harsh confrontation: lnanna, as goddess of Uruk, seeks out Enki, the god of the city of Eridu, in his palace, there she reclaims the one hundred and four ‘me’, the basic discoveries and inventions of civilisation, which she considers her rightful property. Through various methods she succeeds in returning them to Uruk. This legend is a key narrative that helps to understand that time. In the epic, Inanna forcefully emphasises that the ‘me’ as achievements of the civilisation belong to the mother goddess, that the male god Enki had nothing to do with them, but stole them from her by force and cunning. Inanna’s entire efforts revolve around recovering this culture of the mother goddess” (4). While it is not easy in the context of material findings to explore supposedly long-gone forms of society, mythology and narrative offer a rich treasure trove of perspectives. The primal society, which is not a paradise even for Öcalan, but the society that existed before the imposition of the “sacred rule” of hierarchy, in its first form as patriarchy and gerontocracy, rule of the old (men), has not ceased to be, but persists as a substratum, as what Öcalan calls Democratic Civilisation, which opposes state civilisation and continues to resist capitalist modernity to this day.
Thus, moving away from historical determinism and assuming that an alternative development would have been possible at any time implies that this is still true for today.
Öcalan notes that the latest expression of capitalist modernity is the nation state. The nation-state that has conjured up centuries of genocide and wars in Europe and overlayed the Middle East with monist regimes. In this context, nation-state formation is to be understood as a process that began in the 16th century and came to fruition in 18th and early 19th century Europe. Its roots lie in the bourgeoisie and in bourgeois society, which got rid of absolutist rule with the French Revolution by exploiting the oppressed, the women. If the dismantling of customs barriers had already been the content of absolutist mercantilism, nationalism as a bourgeois ideology now took over this task. Öcalan states that the flawed analysis of the nation state and the problem of the state itself in Marxism-Leninism contributed to the downfall of real socialism: “The inappropriate analysis of the question of the state by socialist ideology only deepened the problem (…) especially the right of self-determination of nations, the idea of a state for every nation contributed massively to deepening the problem” (5). The idea of the Democratic Nation “differs from real socialism and the classical Marxist-Leninist doctrine behind it. The right of self-determination is freed from its limitation as a bourgeois right and linked to the standard of social democracy. In concrete terms, this means that the solution of the Kurdish question is possible without etatist contamination, without the pursuit of a nation-state principle and without being forced into such categories; it can be realised through democratic models of self-management of society. This is the essence of the PKK’s transformation” (6). Regarding the concept of the nation state, Öcalan sharply criticises the overlapping of the concepts of people and nation, ethnos and demos. Ephraim Nimni of the Centre for Ethnic Conflict Studies also follows this logic when he, like Öcalan, describes the problems of the nation-state as structural; he states, “culture becomes a quasi-totalitarian feature for unity” (7), something we can clearly perceive again and again in the debates in Germany, but also in the regime of Turkey. The anthropologist Gellner describes assimilation, expulsion and murder (so-called “ethnic cleansing”) as the consequence of the logic of nationalism – the 20th century stands witness to this thesis. For the aggressive nationalist mobilisations of the 20th century, the congruence of state and culture was a basic prerequisite (8).

The development of modern nation states is, as I said, closely linked to the development of modern capitalism and its markets. The states of Western Europe began to gradually replace imperial concepts in the 16th century. This process culminated when the bourgeoisie overcame kings and feudal lords in the French Revolution and took their place. Women, the exploited who had driven this revolution, were betrayed, murdered and subjugated at the first opportunity by the new bourgeois elite of state civilisation. Nation-building happened in the context of market defence and conquest. Feudal taxes were abolished for the capital of their own bourgeoisie. Nations were defined as territories of production and consumption – internally at first, but aggressively expansive after consolidation. The nation, defined as “people”, provided and still provides the glue to bind the oppressed to the oppressors. The social scientist Jeffrey Miley depicts this development as follows: “Britain, for example, used the concept of Britishness to get working class people to identify with the imperial projects. (…) This represents a historical problematic that culminated in the rise of fascism in interwar Europe, when state actors used reference to the nation to mobilise the masses” (9). We can see that the nation-state perspective permeated everything. While positivism ostensibly displaced religion, the nation-state seems to have taken the place of God. This shows the emerging sacralisation of the nation and essentialisation of this fictional concept. Essentialisation and sacralisation were also evident in the emergence of “biological” racism and Social Darwinism as naturalisations of the capitalist model. Nation-state thinking encompassed all areas of society and thus intellectuals and philosophers were also hardly in a position to criticise the state system as such; at best, they limited themselves to partial aspects such as production. Today, in the discourse on the national competitive state, which in Germany shows itself as a debate on location, we see once again that the nation state is not the opposite of globalised neoliberalism, as nationalists would have us believe, but the playing off of workers in various competing nation states to win the favour of capital, actually a downright classical application of the nation state principle.

In contrast, Apoism radically rejects this definition of nation as state, as its description of women as “the first oppressed nation” shows. The understanding of the Democratic Nation is not based on territory, identity or culture, but on shared values. The Democratic Nation can co-exist with states, but practically manifests itself through Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism – its expression is radical democracy, not homogeneity but plurality as its characteristic. The separation of subject and object, manifested in dichotomies such as mind (subject) and matter (nature/object), man (subject) and woman (object), reflects the division of society into rulers and ruled. An important feature of the philosophy of the democratic nation is the abolition of this subject-object dichotomy – the individual and society are not conceived as a contradiction or unity, but the individual as something that can only be understood in a social context, that can only be free in the context of a political society and, conversely, a society can only be free through free individuals. Not the postmodern subjectivist individual who is so isolated that they are powerless against “society” – here equated with the state – and also not the modern individual who means nothing in the state or society and is therefore powerless, but the individual who organises themselves freely in radical democratic structures and thus shapes society together with others. Radical democracy, however, also means the democratic assumption of all the tasks snatched from society by the state, defence, justice, judiciary – as well as the building of relationships beyond patriarchal oppression and exploitation. Here it becomes clear that the closed democratic nation cannot exist at all, but that it is a continuous change of self-understanding in the individual – from the self-understanding of the subjectivist or objectivist speck of dust in front of the leviathan of the state to a conscious and free individual who is in connection with and organised in society.

“We are convinced that people are most enslaved under capitalist rule – liberalism creates the illusion of freedom – in this sense, individual freedom must be discussed. Sure, we don’t live in the age of religion and kings, but people still couldn’t become free individuals, they became objects. Perhaps people are not sold as often as they used to be, but the same is practised today through more subtle methods. The struggle is difficult, but it cannot succeed without the liberation of the individual – we have to ask ourselves: how free am I?” (Öcalan 2016)

  1. Apoism is used here, as in Turkish, as a shorthand for the network of concepts and terminologies around Democratic Confederalism, Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Nation.
  2. Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society (1877); Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1894); and V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself
  3. cf.: Helga Vogel, Antike Welt 2015/2,, 11.12.2015
  4. Abdullah Öcalan, Jenseits von Staat, Macht und Gewalt, 1. Aufl. 2010, S. 21f. (in English: Beyond State, Power, and Violence)
  5. Öcalan 2016, S. 19
  6. ebd.
  7. Nimni 2013, S. 5
  8. Gellner 1997, S. 239–240