Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

The Good Left, the Seedy Left, and the Kurds

For 40 years, people on the left have defended the Kurds, who are a force against barbarism, in a region filled with barbarism. The left must continue to defend them.

Paul Berman
November 17, 2014
(Sadik Gulec /
(Sadik Gulec /

The cause of the Kurds is the cause of the left. At least, it used to be, in the dimly remembered past when the left was recognizably still the left. An example: a collective letter to The New York Review of Books, May 29, 1975, under the title, “Plight of the Kurds.” The contention: “The situation in Kurdistan has taken a tragic turn.” The conclusion: “The signers of this appeal affirm the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people: they deplore the Iraqi military offensive which has as its aim the liquidation of the Kurdish national movement, and they call upon international organizations and the forces of democracy to intervene in order to prevent a massacre.” The signatories, among others: Stanley Hoffmann, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Vidal-Naquet.

And even today the cause of the Kurds is the cause of the left. Not the left as a whole, but a definite stream within it. Evidence from the present: a collective letter to the French newspaper Le Monde, Sept. 16, 2014, under the title, “Let Us Help Kurdistan Protect Yezidis and Christians, Our Values Depend on It.” The contention: “Iraqi Kurdistan has received hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons fleeing the massacres of the jihadists of the Islamic State. Among them are tens of thousands of Christians, Yezidis, Shabaks, and members of other religious minorities who have lived for centuries in the lands of Upper Mesopotamia and who, after having survived the persecutions and massacres of the Ottoman Empire and the bloody dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, are at present threatened in their existence.” “This is why we demand: the intensification of humanitarian aide.” Also: “the delivery of weapons.” The principal signatories: two former Socialist prime ministers, a former Socialist foreign minister, the current Socialist mayor of Paris, and Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders and himself a former foreign minister.

More present-day evidence: a collective open letter in Britain, under the title, “We Say Never Again,” from a group calling itself Labor Solidarity With Kurds, Nov. 1, 2014. The contention: “The Kurds of Kobani, Rojava, and the Kurdistan Region, including Yezidis, Christians, and other minorities, are on the front line of a global battle against the vilest fascism of our age. We must help them, we must call on the world to help them, and this help must be given by whatever means necessary. The Labor movement is an internationalist movement which understands deeply the plight of those who suffer under tyranny. We must now stand united in our efforts to secure changes to current UK government policy in this conflict.” The letter calls for military action. The signatories: 58 stalwarts of the Labor Party, including three members of parliament and a number of journalists, among them Alan Johnson of Fathom magazine and Gary Kent from the Labor Friends of Iraq.

Still another British signatory, indirectly: the journalist Nick Cohen, who wrote a Spectator column called “Solidarity for the Kurds from—er—the British Left. This is Not a misprint”—offering an explanation of the open letter’s deepest meaning, which is this: a plea to Ed Milliband, the leader of the Labor party. It was Milliband who conspired with the Tory right to prevent British intervention against Bashar al-Assad. It is Milliband who nonetheless issues pious declarations about genocide and crimes against humanity and his family’s experience of the Holocaust. And the message to Milliband is: “Stop being such a jerk.”

Still another example, this time American and on the activist wing of the left—to wit, an op-ed by David Graeber, who was the intellectual leader of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Graeber published his op-ed in the British Guardian on Oct. 8, and the argument he made for solidarity with the Kurds likewise banged on an anti-fascist drum. He invoked the Spanish Civil War and revolution, and he invoked his own family history, and he poured both of those invocations into his first sentence: “In 1937, my father volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defense of the Spanish Republic.” And Graeber described a modern Kurdish parallel to the long-ago revolutionary developments in Spain:

Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots—albeit a very bright one—to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women,” the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.

Graeber acknowledged that, in the battle for Rojava (which includes the besieged town of Kobani), the most dynamic of the Kurdish forces are affiliated with the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, of Turkey, which has a reputation for Stalinism and terror. But he pointed out that, in recent years, the PKK and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, have announced an ideological shift. Instead of the dictatorial leftism of the past, a libertarian socialism for the present. Öcalan, it turns out, has expressed an appreciation for the political theories of Murray Bookchin, the American anarchist, which is no small thing to consider. Bookchin spent his later years in Burlington, Vt., working up doctrines of ecological radicalism and grass-roots self-government, which he called “libertarian municipalism.” And somehow these Burlington theories have wended their way to Kurdistan. From Graeber’s standpoint, the Kurdish resistance to the Islamic State in Rojava represents a glorious revolution, and Abdullah Öcalan’s appreciation for Murray Bookchin (who was himself a historian of the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s) demonstrates just how grand the glory has become.

I will confess that some of this makes me nervous. There is a long history of Third World radical movements headed by charismatic intellectuals who adopt the most fanciful of doctrines and thereby entrance and delude far-away observers in the wealthier countries; and it is all too easy to picture Abdullah Öcalan in that light, there in his well-deserved Turkish jail. I note that Bernard-Henri Lévy (if I may turn back to France, and to still another writer whose political sentiments revolve around an anti-fascist father who fought in Spain) has just now proposed a slightly more skeptical, wait-and-see attitude toward Öcalan and his political evolution.

Still, BHL observes that terrorist parties do sometimes change their stripes, and Öcalan’s PKK, having renounced its past, ought no longer to figure on the European list of banned organizations. And the PKK and its Syrian affiliates are fighting harder than anyone else against the Islamic State. And, in the zones where the affiliates have established some control, they have presided over a secular spirit, a “modern, moderate, and ecumenical conception of Islam,” and an equality of the sexes—which does seem revolutionary. Such is BHL’s argument. The letter to Le Monde by Kouchner and other people with government experience in France argues similarly about the Kurdish provinces of Iraq: “This rare example of democracy in the land of Islam deserves not only an encouragement, but an active and massive solidarity from the citizens and governments of the Western democracies.”

So, Graeber has a point, even if he adorns his point with a utopian flourish, and everybody appears to be in agreement on one basic analysis. In the war against the Islamic State right now in Syria and Iraq, there is something dreadful to oppose, which is the barbarian jihad. And there is something positive to support, which is the political culture that is visibly flourishing among the Kurds.

Nick Cohen in his Spectator column on the Laborite solidarity with the Kurds observes that our modern left is, in fact, a series of separate lefts, which ought not to be confused with one another. Several of those modern-day lefts are, in his word, “seedy.” He means the sundry left-wing strands of our own moment that would rather choke to death on their hatred of America and their manias about the Jews than offer any kind of solidarity to far-away people who are demanding Western military support. Still, the seedy left is not the entire left. The several groups and individuals who have come out for solidarity with the Kurds comprise an entirely traditional left, which turns out to be a vigorous left, which is grand to see, and a relief to see.

For who is going to rally on behalf of the Kurds, faced, as they are, with “the vilest fascism of our age,” which is the Islamic State? It is not going to be the moderate Islamists of the Turkish government. Nor is it going to be the Iraqi Arabs and their own government. Nor is it going to be the Kissingerian “realists” in the United States, who are Democrats and Republicans alike. Kissingerian “realists” will never be the friends of the Kurds—and, indeed, Kissinger himself presided over a betrayal of the Kurds, back in the days when he was secretary of state.

And so, the cause of the Kurds had better be the cause of the left, or at least a sliver of the left. It is the sliver, or no one—and the “or” is too horrible to consider, though I suppose we had better consider it.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.