In a recent article by Patrick Cockburn, a well-respected journalist for The Independent, he wrote about the Iraqi military’s effort to keep control of their borders and resist efforts for “Kurdish independence.” As Cockburn notes, when Iraqi military forces retook control of the oil-rich Kirkuk province, they faced “little resistance so far from the Peshmerga fighters,” with the dream of real independence slipping away as the Kirkuk oil wealth, as he further wrote, came under Iraqi control. Adding to this, “Baghdad’s highly-trained and experienced Counter-Terrorism Force… drove unopposed to the quarter of Kirkuk occupied by… administration buildings” while the streets of the city were deserted, the Peshmerga abandoned their positions, and ethnic Turkmen reportedly celebrated takeover by the Iraqis. All in all, the success and speed of this victory against almost no Kurdish resistance is a “blow to President Masoud Barzani who ignited the present crisis” who held the referendum on “Kurdish independence” on September 25 and is seen as a “disastrous miscalculation” for him.
This is because there are fundamentally, as Cockburn points out, “deep divisions between the Kurdish leaders and their parties” with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led for decades by Jalal Talabani, recently deceased. Part of the later group “opposed the independence referendum as a manoeuvre by Mr Barzani to present himself as the great Kurdish nationalist leader” while the US, officially, “strongly opposed the independence referendum” seeing it as divisive, along with regional powers like Iran and Turkey. More simply, the Kurdish leadership was clearly more “divided than expected” while Iraqi armed forces were stronger. At the same time, “Mr Barzani had alienated his traditional allies.”
The Kurdish national dream is over. As Reuters put it, the loss of territory such as Kirkuk is a “severe blow,” leading some to say that the referendum was premature as without control of that region, “independence is problematic, since they would be financially worse off than inside Iraq,” while the New York Times declared that “the Kurds themselves were divided…the Kurds may now have to defer their independence dreams.” Already the Kurdish leadership has proposed to engage in unconditional talks with Baghdad as some sources report.
How can we interpret this development? After all, as James M. Dorsey wrote in September, “if Myanmar’s Rohingya are the 21st century’s rallying cry of the Muslim world, the Kurds could be one of its major fault lines.” Taking that into consideration, it is worth using the words of Joseph Stalin on the principle of self-determination, within an appropriately Marxist context, in order to understand the conundrum of “independent Kurdistan,” and this referendum.
One declaration or the other by bourgeois scholars will not help anyone of sense interpret the dilemma of “Kurdistan.” Josef (or Joseph) Stalin wrote on varying topics to promote communism and advocate for a better world. One of those topics was self-determination and nations. Stalin gave a concrete definition of a nation. In this section I aim to use the writings (and speeches) of Stalin to give a more radical analysis of “Kurdistan” as it currently stands.
One can examine the Kurds as a prospective “nation.” Bourgeois authorities definite “Kurdistan” as a “geographic region” which is mainly inhabited by the Kurds, with an “extensive plateau and mountain area” across northern Iraq, western Iran, eastern Turkey, parts of northern Syria, and northern Armenia, covering a total of 74,000 square kilometers. Along with that, Jeffrey B. White of the “Defense” Intelligence Agency (DIA) declared that “Kurdistan” was a “political-geographic microclimate,” among others in the world, where there is a “continuous struggle” among the Kurdish population itself “based on tribal and family allegiances” but also an “ethnically based struggle against the Governments of Iraq and Turkey.”
Furthermore, the anti-communist entry in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, written in 1996, adds that “…Kurds staunchly retain a national self-consciousness” and focuses on certain Kurds, the Yezidis, who are “adherents of the syncretistic religion known as Yezidism” but also says that most Kurds are Muslim since Islam “spread among the Kurds in the seventh and eighth centuries.” The entry adds that “the Kurdish nation is justifiably proud of its extremely rich oral literature…many of which have achieved popularity among other peoples.” BBC News, in one of their many online “profiles” to “explain” the world, through their imperialistic lens, to their English-speaking audience, says that 25-25 million Kurds currently live in a “mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia,” consisting the “fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East.” The description adds that the Kurds are “indigenous people” of the highlands of the region and Mesopotamian basin, forming a “distinctive community, united through race, culture and language” but have no “standard dialect,” adhering to a number of “different religions and creeds” although most are Sunni Muslims. Business Insider further claims the Kurds are currently “the largest stateless national group in the world” and says that while “Iraqi Kurdistan” is currently fully autonomous. Additionally, they have expanded territory since Daesh “took over Mosul” with fears fueled in Iraq that “Kurdistan” would declare “itself a fully independent state” even though it currently “runs itself in much the same way an independent nation would.” Finally, one Kurdish site claims that Kurdish history has no “beginnings” because the Kurds are “native inhabitants,” the products of “thousands of years of continuous internal evolution and assimilation” while another claims that some time in the past Kurdistan was a “recognized geographical entity.”
Now, for such a wide region to be a considered a nation, it would need to meet the simple definition proposed by Stalin in his seven-chapter work, Marxism and the National Question, published in 1913. He defined a nation as the following:
… A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture…a nation, like every historical phenomenon, is subject to the law of change, has its history, its beginning and end… none of the above characteristics taken separately is sufficient to define a nation.
Accepting what the bourgeois scholars say, as noted previously, the Kurdish people would seem to be “historically constituted,” have a language, culture, and territory that was common. However, it is hard to say how “stable” this community was over time, or what its economic life constituted as the years past, using the sources above. Perhaps the Kurds have a “common language,” hold a common territory from people living together in the same place “generation after generation,” but their “internal economic bond,” which ties together the parts of the nation is questionable. Furthermore, continuing to use Stalin’s words, he adds in his book that a nation must be a community of people which is not racial or “tribal” (ethnically comprised) but is rather “historically constituted” and is stable to an extent but not “casual or ephemeral.” It is within question of whether the Kurds are racial or ethnically comprised. While they seem to have a “specific spiritual complexion” or a “common psychological make-up,” which forms a common culture, if the Kurdish people are a community which constitutes a race or ethnicity, then they are not a nation as it currently exists.
However, there is an exception as Stalin outlines. If the bourgeois scholars are right, the Kurds seem to possess a common “national character” but are “economically disunited, inhibit different territories, [and] speak different languages.” Hence, people can have a common territory and common economic life but are not considered a nation because they do not have a common language or “national character.” At the same time, a union of people who think similarly and speak similarly, even if disconnected, can constitute a nation, with a “national character” based on a “common destiny.” The latter seems to apply to the Kurds. As Stalin wrote in 1904, in a piece outlining the view of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party:
We want to demolish national barriers…. Language is an instrument of development and struggle. Different nations have different languages… it is precisely in anticipation of such possible circumstances that the nationalities are accorded a right which will prompt them to strive to arrange their national affairs in accordance with their own wishes.
Accepting what the bourgeois scholars said for the time being, and using Stalin’s characteristics, seems to indicate that the Kurds are a nation. If we accept this as the reality, what action should be taken? Later in Marxism and the National Question, Stalin defines the “right of self-determination,” which is very logical, saying that it means:
… that only the nation itself has the right to determine its destiny, that no one has the right forcibly to interfere in the life of the nation, to destroy its schools and other institutions, to violate its habits and customs, to repress its language, or curtail its rights… the right of the nation itself to determine its own destiny…. The right of self-determination means that a nation may arrange its life in the way it wishes. It has the right to arrange its life on the basis of autonomy. It has the right to enter into federal relations with other nations. It has the right to complete secession. Nations are sovereign, and all nations have equal rights…. Nations have a right to arrange their affairs as they please; they have a right to preserve any of their national institutions, whether beneficial or harmful – nobody can…forcibly interfere in the life of a nation.
Taking this as it may, Stalin adds that regional autonomy, which deals with “a definite population inhabiting a definite territory,” breaks down barriers, unites the population, and makes it possible to utilize a region’s national wealth. Hence, he says that regional autonomy serves as an “essential element” in the solution to the “national question” as is equal rights for all nations, the idea that workers are member of one class, part of a “united army of socialism” and the principle of “international solidarity of the workers.” While the above quote and description by Stalin seems to apply to the Kurds, and ultimately to “Kurdistan,” the reality is a bit more complicated.
Let’s give a little history first before moving into the current referendum. In their description quoted earlier, BBC claims that “after World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.” The treaty does have a section titled “Kurdistan.” This would seem, at one glance, to be the endorsement by Western imperialists of a Kurdish state:
A Commission sitting at Constantinople and composed of three members appointed by the British, French and Italian Governments respectively shall draft within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as it may be hereafter determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia…If within one year from the coming into force of the present Treaty the Kurdish peoples…shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of these areas desires independence from Turkey, and if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence and recommends that it should be granted to them, Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas…If and when such renunciation takes place…an independent Kurdish State of the Kurds inhabiting that part of Kurdistan [will be created].
However, these provisions, in articles 62, 63, and 64 of the Treaty of Sevres, basically puts Kurdish “independence” at the mercy of the Western imperialists, going against any idea of self-determination. Even if this “independence” had been accepted, they would have been a vassal state of the global capitalist class, with each bourgeoisie working to get a piece in the “Kurdish” pie. For this to be touted as some official recognition of “Kurdistan” is short-sighted to say the least.
BBC then claims that the “hopes” for a “Kurdish state” were dashed when “the Treaty of Lausanne… made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in their respective countries.” The fact is, that this treaty does not mention the Kurds at all, not in Article 29, which talks about certain oppressed peoples in Turkey or within the section on nationality within Turkey, only saying later on that: “the Turkish Government undertakes to assure full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of Turkey without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion…. All the inhabitants of Turkey, without distinction of religion, shall be equal before the law.” However, to say that “over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was brutally quashed” as BBC says next is not accurate in the sense that the Kurds did have allies in this effort and were not completely alone. They had allies among the Western capitalists and later among the Zionists, as will be mentioned later in this series.
While Stalin clearly lays out the definition of a nation and the concept of self-determination in Marxism and the National Question, he also says that certain forms of self-determination are not always the right thing for a nation based on certain conditions. This is despite the fact that he does not provide many exceptions to support for self-determination or writes about international solidarity as a way to support self-determination, although he does so in other works. Stalin describes how the urban petty bourgeoisie in oppressed nations battle the big bourgeoisie in dominant nations, seeing the market as a place to learn their nationalism, appealing to the masses to rally behind their cause although workers continue to “combat the policy of national oppression in all its forms.” He adds that the fate of a “national movement” in such circumstances is bound up in the fate of such bourgeoisie, saying that as a result national struggle can be reduced and undermined, rendered “as harmless as possible to the proletariat.” Even so, he says that “social democracy,” or what can be broadened to include all of those fighting imperialism and capitalism, do not have to support “every demand of a nation,” especially not the “trampling on the rights of all other nations.” He further adds that autonomy or separation in all circumstances should be “everywhere and always be advantageous for a nation” and the masses who toiling, nations arranged in a way that “will best correspond to the interests of the proletariat.”
For the Kurds, the question remains if their “nation” would correspond with the interests of the proletariat in the region. This question is hard to answer on one hand because the Kurds are not currently asserting the creation of a state that covers Turkey, Syria, and northern Iraq, to name a few regions. Instead, the Kurds in Syria are asserting an illegal state in Rojava, the Kurds in Turkey have given up nationalistic aspirations, and the Kurds in northern Iraq voted for their own state of “Kurdistan”. In order to continue this analysis, let us suppose that the “Kurdistan” by itself, not including the Kurds in other parts of the Mideast is a nation and a state.
The biggest clue of the future trajectory of a possible “Kurdistan” in northern Iraq is the KRG’s 66-page-document titled “Kurdistan Region of Iraq 2020: A Vision for the Future.” This document declares there will be more social services, making liberals smile with glee at the “progressivism,” but it also says that companies should have more ability to exploit the resource riches in oil and natural gas (and even mineral resources) in the region. Interestingly, in citing “struggles of the past” for “self-determination against hostile neighbors and… a hostile world” it notes how the UN gave sanction to the KRG in 1992, and that helped them overcome the Iraqis. The document then begins to read like what would be said in a corporate boardroom:
To capitalize on these [development] opportunities [in Kurdistan], young residents of Kurdistan will need to learn languages and information technology skills and become work and service oriented… to make part of their lives… a strong work ethic… [while] the government must relieve regulatory and legal barriers to the private sector.
The Western capitalists would definitely be cheering! While the vision says that the infant mortality and other health problems in Kurdistan can be addressed by having a “package of basic health services to be covered by public financing” but making people “pay for all other services” with and expanding “network of private sector hospitals.” This takes away the idea there will be any progressiveness in this plan at all. The following are the case in this plan:
- a “social insurance system” but pushing for the creation of private insurance companies, developing the “private” health sector, and putting in place a system that benefits those who exploit people’s health for profit;
- embracing universal education, but supporting public-private partnerships to build schools, coordinate with the “private sector” on education, and limits on “bureaucracy”;
- supporting the development of NGOs, which only benefit imperialistic liberals in the West;
- having a “flexible labor market” (benefiting employers), pushing for a more skilled workforce, “reforming” pensions and benefits, having unemployment insurance only for those in the non-public sector, and incorporating women more into the capitalist market;
- having efficient infrastructure in order to expand the “private sector,” economic development near airports in “free zones” for capitalistic exploitation, and more mass transit after working with big capitalists;
- having a robust water (and sewage) system, but only supporting alternative energy when it makes sense “financially” and expanding the electricity industry;
- spurring capitalistic investment in communication;
- having “concessions to real estate developers” in certain instances;
- allowing the creation of large farms;
- supporting access to land for petty bourgeoisie;
- pushing for openness to the international capitalist economy;
- creating “special development zones” to attract capitalists;
- completing privatization in the Kurdish economy;
- wanting to be open and transparent, but supporting the idea of bureaucratic “efficiency,” making sure “mobile capital” doesn’t leave the region; and,
- helping civil servants leave government jobs and enter capitalistic enterprises.
Even if there are some positive policies put forward by the KRG which would impress progressives or “benefit” oppressed peoples, they are couched in capitalist logic. There are more aspects of the plan than what is listed here, but from the ideas noted above it is clear that the plan itself has an underlying capitalistic basis. This should worry anyone and makes you think: how progressive would an “independent Kurdistan” really be? This seems to indicate it would be a capitalistic paradise in more ways than one. This means that “Kurdistan” in northern Iraq would certainly not correspond to the “interests of the proletariat”, instead currying the favor of up-and-coming Kurdish bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie of Western capitalist states. This does not make “Kurdistan” a socialist nation by any stretch, which Stalin defined as ones which pushed for elimination of capitalistic, nationalistic, and national oppressive elements, with “a united front with all oppressed and unequal nations in the struggle against the policy of annexation and wars of annexation,” led by the working class and an internationalist party. Instead, “Kurdistan” sounds more like a bourgeois nation in the making, not at the level of France, Britain, Italy, and the US, which Stalin put in this category, which fosters “national distrust, national isolation, national enmity and national conflicts,” with the bourgeoisie and nationalistic parties pushing for territorial expansion, hatred of other nations, a “suppression of national minorities [and a clear]….united front with imperialism.”
In 1917, at the Seventh Conference of the Bolsheviks, Stalin expanded on what he wrote in Marxism and the National Question. He defined the term “national oppression” and said that this conception, as manifested in capitalist states, should be opposed by his fellow comrades:
National oppression is the system of exploitation and robbery of oppressed peoples, the measures of forcible restriction of the rights of oppressed nationalities, resorted to by imperialist circles…national oppression is maintained not only by the landed aristocracy…[but by] the imperialist groups.
Now, those in northern Iraq’s “Kurdistan” are arguing that they are being oppressed, basically, by the Iraqi state, and by extension the Iranian state, Syrian state, and Turkish state, all of which strongly oppose an independent “Kurdistan.” This is thrown into question considering that none of these states is imperialistic. Each of them has justified reasons for opposing an independent “Kurdistan,” other than the Turkish state. The latter is inherently anti-Kurd, has their own bourgeoisie, and wants to overthrow the duly elected government of the socially democratic state, the Arab Republic of Syria. As for the Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian states, they rightly see the U.S. and other Western imperialists exploiting the situation to establish a firmer foothold and “balkanize” the region, leading to chaos of the highest order. It does not seem right to say that the states in the region are engaging in “national oppression” against the Kurds, except perhaps the Turks.
As for “Kurdistan” in northern Iraq, it could be said that while the Kurds have the right to self-determination and can secede freely, this does not mean they should “necessarily secede at any given moment,” with the decision on whether or not to secede up to “the party of the proletariat in each particular case.” Furthermore, Stalin is right when he says that imperialism should be the common enemy of all since, after all, imperialists use brutal methods with “enslaved nationalities.” Still, he does say when “particular nations” secede, to decide their “political destiny,” this should be generally supported while recognizing that this right of succession is not an obligation, only done in “accordance with the interests of the proletariat, of the proletarian revolution.”
Hence, he argues that the question of whether to secede or not should be determined on a case-by-case basis, with the “the right of secession…not be confused with the expediency of secession in any given circumstances.” Taking this into account, it means that not every nationalist movement or every declaration of self-determination should be supported, especially if the effort is not the result of a “proletarian revolution” or would not favor the working class at large.
There is further context worth considering here. In 1924, in his book, The Foundations of Leninism, Stalin talked about self-determination once again. In Chapter 6 of this book, he wrote specifically about “the national question.” After talking about how Leninism expands the conception of self-determination to become the “right of the oppressed peoples of the dependent countries and colonies to complete secession,” he said that annexations is not a form of self-determination, meaning that this principle can become an instrument for “exposing all imperialist aspirations and chauvinist machinations…an instrument for the political education of the masses in the spirit of internationalism.” He further added that this principle leads to “real and continuous” support to oppressed nations with “in their struggle against imperialism for real equality of nations, for their independent existence as states.” This was foreshadowing the support of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements throughout Africa and Asia, against White imperialists, in years to come.