Roots of Civilisation

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  • Book: PRISON WRITINGS I. The Roots of Civilisation. Abdullah Ocalan, translated by Klaus Happel. PLUTO PRESS, 2014



"Abdullah Ocalan was the most wanted man in Turkey for almost two decades until his kidnapping and arrest in 1999. He has been in prison ever since. He is the founder of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). From 1984, under his leadership, the PKK fought for an independent Kurdish state in the south east of Turkey. In a sustained popular uprising, tens of thousands of PKK guerrillas took on the second largest army in NATO.

Since his imprisonment, Ocalan has written extensively on Kurdish history. This book brings together his writings for the first time. Breathtaking in scope, it provides a broad Marxist perspective on ancient Middle Eastern history, incorporating the rise of the major religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), and defining the Kurdish position within this, from the ancient Sumerian civilization through the feudal age, the birth of capitalism and beyond."


Michael M. Gunther:

"The book is divided into five parts, the first of which surveys ancient body politics from Sumer to Rome. Ocalan states that “the earliest state-based society and the oldest written sources of human history can be found in Lower Mesopotamia and can be accredited to the Sumerians” (p. 5). He also argues that “the mythological fabrications of the Sumerians, their rituals and practices of worship, constituted the oil that fuelled and kept the machinery of social institutions, both in sub- and super-structure, running smoothly” (p. 15). This pattern largely replicates itself in the base and super-structure of all subsequent polities and illustrates the importance of the institutionalization of religion in creating a patriarchal political order to which the individual was completely subordinated.

In his second part, Ocalan examines medieval Europe and the Middle East as well as the impact of Christianity and Islam. He concludes that the former has been more supportive of progress and modernity: “The Christian religion … played quite a positive role in the intellectual and structural development of the European nations” (p. 172). Although Islam at first opened with an era of progressive achievements, dogmatism and fatalism stifled further development. This, of course, was not an uncommon view of many modernist leaders in the Middle East including Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Abdul Nasser. The Ottoman Empire “only had to guard the cultural graveyard” (p. 174) — in other words, the Middle East already was declining relative to the West during Ottoman times.

In contrast, the European Renaissance and the development of capitalism propelled the West forward by emphasizing the importance of the individual, secular thought, new modes of production, scientific progress, and new forms of political organization such as democracy and the nation-state. “The East, in particular the Middle East, has been in a defensive position ever since” (p. 110). Ocalan deals with these developments in the third part of the book. He also points out more negative traits of the West such as the continuance of state-based male domination as well as the imperialist grafting of European traits onto the rest of the world. The original promise of “unsuccessful real socialism [communism]” (p. 286) failed to provide a solution to these problems, and with its collapse democracy became the main form of government because it enabled individuals to seek freedom nonviolently.

In part four, Ocalan contemplates the contemporary international situation and its future, arguing that the Middle East should adopt such modern European achievements as individual rights, secular thought and politics, and pluralism. However, the Middle East remains the principal region that dogmatically resists assimilating Western civilization. This situation makes the Middle East ripe for its own renaissance based on its own cultural past.

Democratization is the means to achieve this renaissance, and it constitutes the fifth and final part of Ocalan’s book. Female and minority rights can help establish pluralistic, federal body politics, which can offer mechanisms for resolving existing social, religious and ethnic conflicts. Globalization also plays a role in dissolving despotism. Decentralized federations can merge into a democratic Middle East Federation: “Geographic and cultural similarities throughout the region, and shared economic needs and water resources, might form the basis for a democratic federation of the entire region” (p. 287). Civil society is the primary means of furthering these changes. Armed struggle only results in weak, reactionary and autocratic regimes. Organized armed defense, however, is legitimate. The Kurdish question links Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, four of the main states in the Middle East." (

Source: Middle East Policy 14 (Fall 2007), pp. 166-167)


Stan Newens

Abdullah Ocalan was the leader of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which conducted a guerrilla war from 1984 with the aim of establishing an independent Kurdish state in south-east Turkey. In February 1999, he was kidnapped on the way to Nairobi airport and taken back to Turkey, where he was tried and sentenced to death, although the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

In prison on the Turkish island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara, he has produced, as part of a submission to the European Court of Human Rights, a volume which is an analysis of the history of civilisation centred, in particular, on the Middle East. Although his approach is essentially Marxist, he rejects economic determinism as the basis for his interpretation of history and places great importance on ideology. This is reminiscent of the Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci, who also produced important theoretical work while in prison.

Ocalan regards the palaeolithic period of history, which covered 98 per cent of humanity's existence on earth, as having been brought to an end by the neolithic revolution, based upon better tools, the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. The essential counterpart to these technological changes was the development of primitive patterns of social behaviour such as fetishism, animism, totemism, matrilineal kinship, patriarchy, and so on.

The next technological revolution led to an oriental slave society. This was based on the use of bronze and the building of settlements which eventually became cities, initially on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, before 3000 BC; in ancient Sumer. A vital feature of this revolution was the development by priests of a new ideology comprising a new religion and a new mythology. This was required to transform the mental outlook of the new settlers from one based on kinship and tribal freedoms to a submissive mindset in which slavery and inferiority were accepted. Citizens of Sumer were persuaded to accept subordination to a 'divine order' which reflected and demanded obedience to gods who, in effect, decreed a slave society. The priests established an ideological hegemony over the new urban settlements by this means.

Any challenge to this took a religious form. It was the will of alternative gods, monotheism or the advent of a messiah or redeemer which provided an ideological cover for a revolt, or even an invasion, from outside to overthrow a ruling élite.

Slave society with specific local features also developed in Egypt and the Indus Valley in the Indian sub-continent, and religious rituals and beliefs came into existence to create an acceptance of their structures. Elsewhere, other less advanced peoples went through the neolithic revolution before developing their own slave societies which were different in form though they embodied the same fundamentals as those to be found in Sumer. Greco-Roman societies did not have as rigid a religious structure as Mesopotamia or Egypt and, here, philosophical ideologies emerged.

Christianity and Islam both challenged slave society and provided the ideological counterpart to changes in the mode of production which led to the emergence of feudalism. Feudal society was basically concerned with land and land holdings, but it was dominated by religion.

Capitalism in its turn emerged through the introduction of new technologies and the scientific method, but it was accompanied by a successful ideological challenge to feudal religious dogma. In Europe this took shape as the Renaissance, followed by the Reformation, which led on to humanism, the enlightenment, individualism and secularisation.

Ocalan's view is that the Middle East failed to undergo an equivalent change. He believes it is in desperate need of its own Renaissance or Reformation, leading to the adoption of individual rights, secularisation, women's rights, pluralism and democracy. Only then can it advance.

He is committed to a socialist transition of society worldwide, but argues that this cannot be achieved by means of revolutionary violence or the establishment of a totalitarian state. He regards the Soviet Union as a failure in its overall efficiency, its excessive bureaucracy, and its denial of its peoples' rights. He further declares that traditional violent methods of achieving change have done extreme harm to the Arabs, the peoples of Israel, Iran and Iraq, and the Kurds.

He now argues that socialism can only be achieved through a wide-ranging democratisation and the achievement of a form of democracy which is superior to current Western democracies. He demands pluralist structures, participation of all in decision-making, women's rights, and peace.

'In my opinion', he says, 'one of the fundamental criteria characterising a socialist regime must be the level of democracy which it enables'. [p. 37]

Ocalan's treatise is based upon a profound study of the history of the ancient Middle East and the world in general. During the First World War a Belgian historian, Henri Pirenne, wrote a History of Europe to 1550 without access to sources, while he was interned by the German authorities. Ocalan's achievement in prison conditions, with limited access to books, calls this to mind, although he does provide a bibliography and, presumably, consulted the items listed.

Ocalan might have made some reference to the controversy about the existence of a specifically Asiatic hydraulic form of society, which Marx and Engels accepted, but which was rejected in the former Soviet Union. He might have referred to the theory of the former Iranian Kurdish leader, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, that the Kurds are the descendants of the Medes. There are numerous other aspects of his book that raise key issues for further discussion and debate. Some of his contentions are controversial.

Notwithstanding this, Abdullah Ocalan has produced a brilliant theoretical study of the origins and development of civilisation which should be essential reading for all historians interested in a scientific approach to our knowledge of the past. It is a fascinating work which is likely to be of permanent interest. The final conclusion that democratisation, not Islamic fundamentalism or the armed struggle (apart from self-defence), is the way forward in the Middle East and elsewhere is not the message one would expect to receive from the leader of a group that conducted a guerrilla struggle in Turkey for nearly a generation. Left-wing socialists and all who oppose imperialist attempts to dominate the world should consider very carefully the arguments which he advances to justify this thesis." (

Source: This review has been published in The Spokesman No. 95, Journal of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation