The Kurdish Question Then and Now

Semir Amin,
Monthly Review.

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

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