Could “Communal Economy” be a Distinct Mode of Production?

This essay is a Marxist critique of Rojava’s communal economy, written in Turkish by Olcay Çelik, translated into English by Onur Acaroğlu. It originally appeared in Abstrakt Magazine, 5th October, 2016.

There are, after all, some things that mix quite well, like salt and pepper, and others that don’t mix at all, like fire and water. As an attempt to mix opposite qualities, is the market more like salt and pepper, or is it more like fire and water?

─Bertell Ollman, Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists

Following the capitalist restoration in the USSR from the 1950’s onward, coupled with the social democratic capitulation to neoliberalism, debates around the ‘Third way’ in the mode of production, a simultaneous rejection of the free market and private property, as well as public property and planning, have intensified. In the USA and the EU, where capitalism is at its most advanced level, discussions tend to revolve around participatory economy, economic democracy, and solidarity economies through micro-entrepreneurial models, whereas in Latin America there are efforts to implement a hybrid model under the name of ‘twenty-first century socialism’, incorporating both private and socialised property. On the other hand, in places where capitalist accumulation is relatively low, such as Rojava and Chiapas, we see that there are debates around the model of communal economy based on agricultural cooperatives, the agricultural economy, and self-reliance. The perspective of communal economy that the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been attempting to institutionalise as an alternative to capitalism (and socialism) has recently gained much attention in academic circles.

In this article, taking a historical materialist approach, I will argue that communal economy:

1) will be compelled to evolve towards either capitalism or socialism in a short time, since due to its eclectic approach to public property and planning, it cannot be a distinct mode of production,

2) that this is because it deviates from the main tenets of historical materialism and bends the stick too far in the direction of idealism,

3) and that despite this, communal economy has a progressive and populist program, and where it can take up a perspective of class struggle, it can provide preliminary practices towards the more advanced mode of production of a system of workers’ and peasants’ soviets.

My criticisms will be, unlike the ordinary ones on intra-communal and intra-cooperative democracy, focused on the relations between the communes and the cooperatives, or the macro-economic scale.

Öcalan and the Thought of Democratic Civilisation

Abdullah Öcalan’s perspective of communal economy comes through a direct result of his historical and social formulations. In the volumes penned in the İmralı prison and published under the title Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, Öcalan expands on the thesis that the primary contradiction in history is the one between societies with states and democratic ones. According to this model, historical societies have shown characteristics of democracy, equality and solidarity.

These societies were suspicious of accumulation of property and money with the purpose of enrichment rather than the satisfaction of human needs, and redistributed this accumulation to those in need at the first opportunity. In fact, these natural communities have been ‘foreign to the idea of exchange value for a long time. This is not even considered, being seen as inappropriate. A valuable object is presented as a gift to the society and its members.’ (Abdullah Öcalan Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi, 2014: 8, All translations mine – OA)

As opposed to this democratic tendency, the tendency to monopolise and rule has led to an evolution towards a hierarchical and exploitative structure. Monopolisation has taken its harshest form in capitalism and the state, since, ‘Both are essentially forces that undermine the foundations of society through the expropriation of surplus-value’ (Öcalan, 2013c: 50). However, according to Öcalan, the tendency to monopolise cannot only be interpreted through an economic frame. The Marxist concept of base-superstructure is inadequate. Gender, family, ethnicity, religion, culture and other domains can also become points of monopolisation independently of economic exploitation and state violence (Abdullah Öcalan, Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi, 2014: 7). Thus monopolisation is furthered by the state, religious figures and practices of masculinity as much as capital, and these transform one another. For instance, there can be no such thing as capitalism without civilisation; alongside of the struggle to expropriate surplus-value there is also a culture that creates capitalism. What is essential for Öcalan is not the working class or female emancipation struggles on their own, but a struggle for a democratic modernity based on the axis of anti-monopolization as a whole (Öcalan, 2013b: 223, All bold lines in the original – OA).

The second focal point of Öcalan’s thought comes up in connection to this: life is a functioning of groups, and not individuals or states. Groups are a whole in cultural, religious and economic terms. Thus, contradictions do not take place between individuals or classes, but between the social bodies and groups that contain these (2013c: 223). In the same way that society is naturally made up of groups as opposed to individuals, democratic civilisation shall also be founded by groups. These groups will practice a directly democratic and gender-egalitarian perspective of ecological life, supported by a communal economy, and they will form federated associations between one another based on this perspective. How is the communal economy envisioned here?

The Communal Economy

The ideal shaping the communal economy is the necessity to collectively provide for local needs based on the local demand, planning and labour. Capitalism and socialism have stifled the local initiative, one of them monopolising it within the individual, and the latter in the state. Although for Öcalan, ‘the economy is the least nationalised and privatised social reality. The community is the basic fabric of collectivism’ (Abdullah Öcalan Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi, 2014: 11).

Öcalan does not regard capitalism in economic terms. For him, capitalism is in fact a structure that destroys the economy. It is not a market economy, since it has given rise to monopolisation that prevents trade on free and equal terms between individuals. Öcalan sees the economy as an activity of the local groups, communes and societies, instead of individuals (worker, boss, landlord, etc) or states (such as the nation-state or socialist state). This is also the condition for the efficient functioning of the economy (Öcalan, 2013c: 181).

The main units of the communal economy are the production cooperatives (Abdullah Öcalan Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi, 2014: 7). The property and administration of these cooperatives are entrusted to the communes and they should be governed according to democratic principles by their workers.

Both private and public property are rejected in this perspective. Group property is key. Capitalist production based on private property can only be transitory in the communal economy. At this point, it is necessary to take into account the fact that the way in which Abdullah Öcalan defines capitalism, the main adversary of natural society, only partially covers the personal capital that generates commodities and privatises gains in the form of surplus-value extraction. For instance, middle-sized companies are not capitalist institutions (Öcalan, 2013c: 98). However, basic needs such as nutrition, health, shelter, arts and culture should not be within the purview of activity by such companies. These are the concerns of communal life and the cooperatives (Abdullah Öcalan Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi, 2014: 91).

According to Öcalan, no social value, including commodities, are measurable since, ‘It is wrong to regard a product that is not only the product of live labour, but innumerable labours, as the value of one person’s labour, and this leads to expropriation and theft’ (Öcalan, 2013a: 136). Therefore, in the communal economy, in place of the exchange value that undermines labour by giving it a price, the use-value should be prioritised and accumulation should be prevented. (Abdullah Öcalan Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi, 2014: 88).

Öcalan does not reject the market and trade, but sees their presence as necessary. In fact, groups will freely trade with each other over the market in the communal economy. However, the measure here is not to set a basis for profit, but the facilitation of trade based on social needs. Production is made for need and not solely for sale. Money is not the goal nor the main vehicle of trade (2014: 93).

Consequently for Öcalan the market is not described as an unregulated and spontaneous relation. This is because, ‘No society or region, when creating their market, can make or enact decisions that concern other societies or regions’ (2014: 89). Here the democratic associations and councils will play a prominent role and prevent the intensification of exchange value and profit. The directly democratic councils that organise every aspect of life will ensure that private property does not prevail over group property, and that one group’s property does not prevail over another’s to an exploitative degree. The perspective of communal economy is being developed and concretised in the workshops and conferences of the Kurdish National Freedom Movement (KNFM). The cooperative organisation of vegetable markets, grocery stores and shops; creation of common supplies for the production of small scale companies; the conversion of the Hevsel Gardens in Diyarbakır [Amed] into areas of urban agriculture; the promotion of the idea ‘produce locally, consume locally’; the institutionalisation of barter markets; the foundation of non-profit credit societies that provide credit at low interest or deposit at high interest, are among some of the proposals for institutionalisation (Proclamations).

Clearing the Ground: Basic Concepts and Relations

Now, is it possible to found and sustain an economy where group property trumps individual or socialised property and small and medium-sized capital coexists with solidarity economy networks, centralising the market, yet with a high enough level of political organisation and consciousness to suppress excess profits and prioritise use-value? This appears to be impossible from many angles.

Groups and Property

Before discussing what it means for property to belong to groups, we need to question the necessity and validity of the concept of the ‘group’ as the main component of the economic model.

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries─even including the first half of the twentieth century─we could have separated all societies in the world into capitalist and rural societies, and spoken of regions within countries that were relatively cut off from the outside: producing for need, culturally and traditionally varied and comparatively small in scale. However, in our day and age production is socialised, and with the improvement of the forces of production, there are large factories that can produce on a mass scale, disrupting small groups in villages, and creating an urban proletarian population. This shows that separating the centralised and intensified production is not possible at the level of production. ‘Otherwise, organisations of production, which are useful for the organisation of the economic organisation of rural areas, will signify the dissolution of socialised areas of production’ (Lenin, 1990: 441-5, Translation mine – OA). In the same way that production has left the point where it could have been broken up behind, it is not possible to speak of the masses of workers that are concentrated in cities and make up a class as ‘fragmented local groups’. In this context, groups can only be conceptualised as ‘workers’ towns’ or ‘large scale workers’ communes’.

Alongside the centralisation of production, sites of production have become interdependent as a result of the division of labour based on the market. Nowadays, the products that satisfy our mundane needs─even the physical factors required for their production (raw material, labour power, skills)─are provisioned from different towns, or even different countries, depending on the market-based division of labour. This means that apart from subsistence agriculture and simple construction and production activities, the complex economic domain is made up of mutually-dependent components. Therefore, the envisaged anti-capitalist production and property need to be grasped as not the rights of groups, but as the activity and right of the working class as a whole.

Let us suppose for a moment that this project envisages large workers’ communes grouped around socialised production. In this case, does Öcalan’s suggestion that, ‘No society or region, when creating their market, can make or enact decisions that concern other societies or regions’ imply socialised property and a planned economy?

The right to property is fundamentally the combination of two rights; to use and to transfer. Öcalan says that the rights of the groups over the means of production will be limited to use. This means that while these means cannot be bought or sold, the planning of what is to be produced and in what amount, along with its distribution, is mainly done by the groups. The clause ‘mainly’ refers to the legal limitations of this discretion. However, Öcalan’s group-based ontology and the emphasis on the self-governance and fair markets show that the right to use of the groups is fundamental. Thus, Öcalan’s suggestion does not advocate planned production and total socialisation of the means of production, but appears to be a semi-ethical, semi-legal stance on the need for the independent groups, who plan production, to behave in an understanding and solidaristic manner when exchanging products with other groups through political semi-structures, such as the councils.

Now, what will this exchange be based on? To what extent do the concepts of the market and use-value overlap, and how does this semi-legal principle inform the structure of production?

Surplus Product, Market, and Value

Use-value may be prominent in self-enclosed and small communal groups, where the level of development of the forces of production does not allow for a surplus product and necessities are produced and distributed with a natural harmony and simple division of labour. Based on this, is it possible to contend that in the modern communal economy, there will not be a production of surplus, while there will be an emphasis on fundamental needs, and thus the exchange value generated in the market will not create a serious risk of accumulation?

Firstly, it should be noted that basic needs are not met and satisfied at once, but they develop continuously. Criticisms of today’s consumerism do not change the fact that needs are ontologically dynamic. Consequently, a perspective that defines basic needs and attempts to stabilise them as ‘natural society’, while depending on an essentialist mythology, will have to say that the forces of production are frozen in time and that people have ceased to improve their physical conditions. On the contrary, the dynamic nature of needs will always foster a motivation for surplus product. In this day and age, the main problem of capitalism is not the surplus product, but that this production is not made for society, but for capitalist class interests.

In a social structure where the forces of production are highly developed, production has reached extensive levels, been socialised through the division of labour, and autonomous producers sell one another the surplus products they have produced for the use of the rest of the society and care only for their own livelihood, the primary value will inevitably be the exchange value, rather than the use-value. The reason for this is that since there is no planned production, the independent producers that have the right to use the means of production will need an objective measure, or an ‘objective abstraction’, for the circulation of their surplus product that may or not match the social need.1 For the consumer there is not a single group, but an entire market made up of many groups, so the value of their products will not be determined according to the groups’ subjective use-value, but according to the objective exchange value. There seems to be no other way. The obtained surplus products will be amassed in certain hands in the form of trade profit as a result of the competition in the market, depending on factors such as access to resources, efficiency and openness to external markets, and the increase in the volume of production will create the foundation for the division of labour and capitalist profit mechanisms. Just as trade capital came about as a result of basic commodity production in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, followed by a transformation into industrial and financial capital that dispossessed producers and ultimately proletarianised them, a market economy based on group property and exchange value will also go through the same phases.2 The only thing to change will be the replacement of individual capitalists with collective ones.

That said, in a communal economy where a controlled market is advocated, and the voluntary association of producers taken as the basis, how would councils prevent such negative outcomes? To put it more accurately, can they prevent them?

The Limits of Redistributive Justice

Model 1: Full Communal Economy

Firstly, let us assume that all production and distribution takes place democratically between the communes and cooperatives. Undoubtedly, the directly democratic network of people’s councils and the economic assemblies would facilitate the groups’ interaction, mutual understanding, and coordination. However, these councils will not be more than instruments of redistributive justice that seek to intervene in productive and distribute relations.

At any given point, the right to use the means of production (on what and how much to produce) will be transferred to units that are smaller than the society, and in the last instance, independent of each other. This will mean there will be a compulsion to allow the realisation of the logic of profit through competition and capital in circulation. As a result, the appearance of competition will lead to the gradual control of the supply of commodities by specific groups, the increase of accumulation by way of surplus-product trade, a development of a debt-based relationship between the groups who have become richer this way and those that are impoverished, internal and external alliances between them, as well as the risk of these alliances influencing the system of councils in favour of group alliances. This is not a risk that could be ‘tolerated’ and its impact will vary depending on the unequal distribution of the forces of production and the administration of key sectors, uneven inter-sectoral and intra-sectoral development and the aggression of global capital.

It is true that we would be able to prevent uneven development if we were to initially distribute the means of production, quality and quantity of raw material and the specialist cadres equally, ban foreign trade and limit the groups to rights on usage. However, such an egalitarian distribution and its maintenance would take a very high (or even an impossible) level of centralized planning which neither Öcalan nor the KNFM aim to achieve. What is at question, at any rate, was the autonomy of the groups.

Let us suppose that this was indeed the aim, and that the forces of production were distributed equally and this would be maintained over time, while foreign trade was not allowed and groups were limited to their rights on usage. Even in this scenario, the total output and its quality per group will begin to differentiate based on 1) the available raw material and land, and efficiency of the use of means of production, thus the internal working discipline of the groups, their organization and initiatives in developing their techniques and 2) their stockpiling preferences. This is because the cognitive and social-organizational dynamics are part of the forces of production and the historical, geographical, social, biological and countless other factors cannot be equally allocated or maintained. Therefore, there may be a retardation of asymmetrical development but it cannot be stopped. There will be a differentiation in the level of profit and accumulation since the output will belong to the groups instead of the society, and presented to the market.

In other words, all forms of property apart from the social property will turn uneven development into a force antagonistic to society.3 The measures taken in the political infrastructure will always have to adjust to the relations of production determined by the exchange-value, and thus they will be relegated to a determined rather than determinant position.

This does not mean that solidarity between the groups cannot develop, but it means that the surplus value exchange will primarily depend on the exchange value. The main reason for this is that as a biological species, humans will primarily seek to guarantee the reproduction of their living conditions, and the physically direct way to satisfy their material needs is by increasing the productivity of their group. The primary things that groups have responsibility for, custody over, and directly control of, are their own productive forces and accumulation. In other words, this privilege arises from the economic independence of each group, which arises from the principle of autonomy, or the fact that they are not integrated into the wider society.

We can see the destructive results of the efforts of communes, cooperatives and regions to prioritise their survival and get a ‘piece of the pie’ through control over their own budgets, social-economic planning, and investment, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and the late period of the USSR. The SFRY implemented market socialism based on the workers’ self-management of communes, cooperatives, regions and federations, but it had inherited the uneven accumulation and productive forces of the past, which led to the emergence of core and peripheral regions (as well as stronger and weaker communes and corporations within them). The federal state, as the ‘common’ superstructure, had a policy of diverting resources to underdeveloped regions and corporations, but this resulted in disagreements at the political level, where the political representatives and ideologues of the developed regions claimed that this would be ‘irrational’. Ultimately these representatives prevailed, and redistributive justice gave way to an increasingly decentralised system with the reforms of 1956 and 1965, finally culminating in a restoration of capitalism in the socialist republic (Sancaktar, 2009; 259-69). The capitalist restoration of the USSR also took place as a result of the introduction of a similar regime of economic self-management. The Socialist Industrial Enterprise Law of 1965 had granted decision-making autonomy to corporations, which shortly led to the formation of counter-revolutionary sectoral blocs in heavy industry and other sectors, and their interests began to shape the political infrastructure.

As the internal logic of the mode of production and historical experiences show, a commune or a cooperative is more likely to pursue its own enrichment directly through competition in the market─or at least an effort to remain on an equal footing with the rest─than to partake indirectly in the political superstructure of the popular councils. This contradiction would be sharper at points where the interests of the group collide with those of society.

Model 2: The Mixed Communal Economy

The construction of the communal economy does not only involve communes and cooperatives, but also small and medium-scale capitalist companies. Here, it is necessary to remark that the claim that small and medium-scale capitalist companies are less ‘harmful’ than monopolies does not recognise that the issue is not the scale but the operating principle. All of the medium-scale capitalist companies of today are candidates for monopoly. The solution cannot solely be the dispossession of monopolies by the political superstructure, since due to the nature of capitalist accumulation, the emergence of new monopolies is inevitable.

One of the direct consequences of markets where the medium and large bourgeoisie are present is the development of competition between companies and cooperatives. Insofar as capitalist companies can produce products like those of the cooperatives, the latter will be at a loss. The primary reason for this is the reality that higher exploitation of surplus product will have an advantage in competition. Owing to their past accumulation from the exploitation of surplus product, private companies can invest more heavily in fixed capital, and sell their products at lower prices by utilising high-efficiency technologies. In monopolies, this advantage will be immeasurably higher. In order to find a share in the market against capital, but lacking the same accumulation and scale of production, cooperatives will have to release workers, take loans to increase investment, or lower wages in order to remove expenditure on labour. On the other hand, those that cannot reduce prices, as in the example of the Kazova Textile cooperative that sells knitwear for 95 TL, they will have to rely on ‘solidarity networks’, but this will not be an economic model on its own.

Once engaged in price competition, workers’ wages will, at best, return to the levels of the capitalist companies. For workers who are keen on preserving the democratic character of the cooperatives and to take on administrative tasks outside of their working hours, this will be unsustainable. The first thing that cooperatives will sacrifice to avoid bankruptcy will be democratic and ecological principles. Capitalist competition pushes medium-scale enterprises to use brutal exploitation methods, since they lack advantages such as advertising, technological research, and mass production that large enterprises have. They can only gain an upper hand by exploiting nature and labour.

As a matter of fact, this is exactly the situation at the Mondragon Corporation, the largest cooperative federation in the world, based in the Basque Country and employing nearly 75,000 workers in industry, finance, retail and information sectors. The workers who have an input in the administration receive wages that are higher than the market levels and which are level with each other, yet due to competitive pressures, as capitalist monopolies do, they have resorted to subcontracting production to capitalist companies at home, and shift their locations to countries with an abundance of cheap labour such as Egypt, Mexico, Argentina, Turkey, Thailand, and China. At this point, the number of paid workers without cooperative membership employed on a full-time, part-time or temporary basis has reached one third of the total. This situation is neither a ‘temporary’ nor an ‘unintended’ one, as member workers extract wage-profits through (absolute or relative) exploitation of the surplus-value created by non-members. In other words, capitalist competition has increasingly compelled Mondragon to exploitation of surplus-value, or an ‘exploitation outflow’.

Ultimately, cooperatives that wish to preserve their democratic quality and remain buoyant will have to produce for alternative markets that do not have a vital function for social reproduction. That is to say, in advanced capitalist countries, competition will quickly marginalise cooperatives towards sectors that are not harmful to the system.

After all, industries such as steel, railroads, and machinery, which are the lifeblood of capitalist production, require the organisation of cooperative labour at the national scale to be reconfigured along cooperative production lines. Thus, making the state redundant through a democratic reconstruction of the economy, away from the purview of the state and the bourgeoisie, is untenable. This is because targeting a field away from the state and the bourgeoisie will mean relinquishing the production of basic commodities required for mundane life (such as energy, durable consumer goods, machinery, weaponry, means of communication, textiles, and chemistry) to the bourgeoisie, and what is built will not be an ‘economic model’ but, at best, a solidarity network confined to alternative markets.

At this stage, if the task of the politically successful federation of people’s councils is not to expropriate the expropriators, but to constitute market ‘justice’ by limiting exchange-value; to prevent dumping and excessive pricing, or impose strict taxes on capitalist and developed communes and cooperatives, while encouraging disadvantaged groups, it must be remarked that this is not very different from the redistributive (in)justice─and consequences thereof─of capitalist nation-states.

The evolution of redistributive justice towards more progressive forms makes bourgeois belligerence inevitable. For instance, in 1970’s Sweden, a peak of social democracy, a plan was underway to transfer company taxes to the Share-Levy Producers Fund run by the workers/unions in place of the state, to turn the structure of capital in favour of workers. However, this was shelved irreversibly with intense funding and lobbying from capital and its representative right wing parties (Wright 2009: 162-4).

In sum, no matter how democratic the political superstructure, if the economic system is vulnerable to assaults from the capitalist companies and their logic, inequalities will re-emerge, as history and science have repeatedly shown. Democratic production processes will be marginalised and revert to the so-called ‘democracy’ of capitalist modernity.

Academies and the Return of Repressed Materialism

As directly democratic as they are, Öcalan undoubtedly did not set up the network of people’s councils on bourgeois principles of representation. We can see this from the value he attached to the academies founded on anti-capitalism and tasked with the creation of the ‘new person’, along with education and culture in general. The people’s councils are not solely voting mechanisms, but are also meant to be a school for the masses.

Creating a system is the creation of a culture, morality and a ‘new person’, this much is true. In this sense, it would be daft to say that such institutions have no impact on the transformation of the mode of production. However, it is one thing to utilise education to indicate the contradictions that the mode of production creates, or materialise a political goal, and another thing to see it as the sole lever of the transition to a new mode of production.

If we look at the role of the academies in the communal economy project, we can see that an equation has been made between the effectiveness of the material conditions in which people live their lives, with that of the intellectual field. This creates a quasi-idealist ontology, as the latter arises from the base of material conditions, just as with the people’s councils in the political field. The revolutionary superstructural institutions are seen to be independent of, and even determinative of, the contradictions that arise from the mode of production.

If you charge academies with the duty of preventing the logic of competition and profit from being installed in an area where a capitalist or more regressive mode of production is dominant, yet allow the capitalist mode of production to objectively reproduce itself through group property and the market, it is inevitable that you will be disappointed. Books, seminars, and ethico-ideological education would not be able to prevent asymmetrical accumulation of groups that are in unhindered competition.

In the same way that the ‘objective condition’ for the changes in primitive communal societies was not simply the will to political power, but the appearance of surplus product, the underlying cause of capitalist inequality is not the lack of morality and education, but the mass production of cheap and varied commodities with the revolution in productive forces and the dispossession and proletarianisation of the masses. Consequently, the way to transcend capitalism is not primarily based on morality and education, but the transfer of the right to use all means of production to society as a whole in order to overcome the inability of capitalism to develop its forces of production.

Thus, the questions we have listed, the predicaments we have indicated and their proposed solutions, are reservations that have been raised in the conferences and workshops where the perspective of communal economy is discussed. The conclusions of the last three activities touch upon the wage-relation as the basis of capitalist assault, and the need to prevent this through ‘social regulation units’; the fact that small and medium enterprises are places where the exploitation of labour takes place at intense rates; the obligation to socialise resources such as land, water, energy, transportation, shelter, education and land that cannot be left to communes or companies; the gradual deviation of solidaristic cooperatives from their initial goals; the decrease in popular support, and the risk of group privilege.

Group Property to Social Property, Market to Planned Economy

In summary:

  1. In conditions where surplus product and group property exist without planning, the market will prevail, and along with it, the exchange value as opposed to use-value.

  2. As it is impossible to allocate and/or develop productive forces in an absolutely egalitarian manner, the groups’ economic development will be asymmetrical.

  3. Redistributive justice needs to assume that the distribution is unjust.

  4. As per the principle of economic self-governance, every group will be entitled to prioritise and guarantee its own improvement, therefore the enriched groups will prevent the radical redistribution of wealth by the superstructural political mechanism. The existence of the bourgeoisie will only aggravate this issue.

  5. Today, the bourgeoisie has nearly reached its full productive potential, and cooperatives will not be able to access sectors with generalised production due to their scale. In other areas, they will be unable to compete with capitalist companies and will remain confined in positions relatively insignificant to the reproduction of daily life.

  6. Education is a superstructural institution. With respect to the conditions of reproduction in daily life, it is not determining but determined in the last instance. Arguing that education can transform the economic structure from its roots is idealism.

The results obtained from the logical conclusions of the principles of communal economy and local discussions show that there is a need to prioritise central planning over the market, and socialise all means of production to build an economy based on use-value. Thus, the communal economy needs to take on socialist characteristics, otherwise it will return to capitalism. Put differently, all problems that arise from the individual or group ownership of the means of production will have to be solved with measures that further socialise property and these practices lead us to a centrally-planned socialist economy. Only socialism can end the overproduction resulting from the drive to accumulate more profits and the planned economy will ensure that all surplus product can be fairly produced and distributed by the entire society. In such an economy, the overproduction in one area will not lead to deficient consumption on the other and signal a loss in market share, so potential differences in productivity will not have a destructive, but rather a beneficial effect.

That being so, what prevents the theory of communal economy from seeing this? If you can forsee that conditions of distribution, or relations of production, can continuously reproduce injustice, what could be the reason for limiting yourself to the politics of redistribution and the field of ideological education?

The reason that the communal economy thesis cannot display a determined model lies in the destructiveness of the desire to transition to communism without a socialist phase. In other words, the ‘ideal’ and the strategic are wrongly juxtaposed and the importance of the latter is downplayed within the former. Ultimately, while a stand is taken against capitalism as a tool for accumulation and exploitation, along with surplus-product, Öcalan’s criticism of the Soviet Union as a ‘state monopoly capitalism’ positions him against centralised planning and social property, and in favour of group property and the market.

However, without expropriating the expropriators and smashing the exploiters that hold social accumulation with determined organisation, it is clear that the attempt to build communism will be doomed to failure as a utopian idealism. Additionally, the organisation of social life in communes in order to increase participation and dispel the bureaucracy-society contradiction is not necessarily mutually exclusive to the idea of socialist central planning. The approach that pejoratively uses the idea of centralisation in the economy makes the mistake of reading self-governance as the autonomy of communes, rather than the equal participation of communes in decision-making mechanisms. Conversely, every effort for mutualism is a practice of centralisation. In this sense, what contradicts the notion of the commune is not centralisation, but bureaucracy.

“If the proletariat and the poor peasants take state power into their own hands, organise themselves quite freely in communes, and unite the action of all the communes in striking at capital, in crushing the resistance of the capitalists, and in transferring the privately-­owned railways, factories, land, and so on, to the entire nation, to the whole of society, won’t that be centralism? Won’t that be the most consistent democratic centralism and, moreover, proletarian centralism? (…) Like all philistines, Bernstein pictures centralism as something which can be imposed and maintained solely from above, and solely by the bureaucracy and military clique.” ─Lenin, 2014: 66

Surely, the social structure can be organised around communes, where all economic decisions and planning are deliberated, centrally, democratically and dynamically determined and revised by a soviet council formed of delegations from the communes, as opposed to the bureaucratic class. How this can be achieved today is the topic of a different discussion. All things considered, no discussion of democratising production can create an alternative to central planning and social property.

Communism, as the pattern where distribution is carried out in terms of use-value, can only be realised in conditions of prosperity and a real democracy that detaches people from capitalism; where a socialist revolution has improved the forces of production to a level where long working hours are no longer a necessity, and the social stratifications that creates the hierarchy and distribution of labour are effaced. The first step of this process is clear: ‘The transition from capitalism to communism is certainly bound to yield a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (Lenin, 2014: 45).

PKK and the Parting of the Ways

Considering these realities, are we going to say that the perspective of communal economy is a ‘vain hope’? If it does not present an alternative to capitalism and socialism, is it condemned to the dustbin of history? Currently some factions of the socialists of the oppressive nation take this view to trivialise the KNFM and justify their chauvinism. Such an inference would be ahistorical and detached from objective conditions and given power relations. Above all, the perspective of communal economy is a populist and progressive programme. This perspective has been developed in a geography of harsh financial, economic and military repression, and includes the Kurdish middle bourgeoisie as a progressive force on the side of the oppressed nation, and deserves recognition for its strategic-tactical value.

Moreover, this programme is valuable for the oppressed classes in Kurdistan. In rural North Kurdistan and Rojava where the development of productive forces and capital accumulation are limited, this approach provides guidance for implementing democracy and organisation at every level, and prepares a more advanced mode of production in the system of worker and peasant soviets by facilitating production for society.

The producer and consumer cooperatives of the communal economy, along with their trade relations and political organs such as the people’s councils, can serve as schools of solidarity for the unification of the leading force of the revolution, the proletariat, that is created through the workings of capitalism in the metropolitan areas of Turkey and North Kurdistan, supplemented by the petty bourgeoisie.

Besides, even within the frame of a socialist program, complete socialisation of the means of production is not possible, thus the cooperatives can play a crucial role in collectivising small-scale production in the metropolitan areas of Turkey and North Kurdistan. Also, a public sector built by cooperatives would provide an opportunity for those left unemployed to take initiative and seize the reins of industry if the bourgeoisie attempts to block production. From this perspective, the model of communal economy provides both political and economic opportunities for organisation, and aims to fend off colonialism. Even so, espousing this as more than a tactical-strategic move would mean ignoring class struggle, and a project of cooperativism without the aim of a socialist regime would be confined to a very limited area in Turkey and quickly get absorbed by the capitalist system.

At the same time, compromises with capital and increasingly prosperous groups will create pressures on the social base in North Kurdistan, and could lead to confusion in the KNFM in terms of reading class composition and class demands. In the final analysis, there are two paths for the economic emancipation of North Kurdistan, a colony of the Turkish bourgeoisie: The founding of a national capitalist economy with the Kurdish bourgeoisie at the helm─which is a democratic right per the right of nations to self-determination; or the foundation of a socialist economy─with the right to form a separate state retained─on the foundation of a union of soviet republics. There is no middle ground. It is clear that the fledgling Kurdish bourgeoisie is pushing for the first road. It can be said that the PKK rejects this as the political representative of Kurdish workers. Although, the proposal of PKK sits uneasily with the economic realities of contemporary society, and this strengthens the hand of the Kurdish bourgeoisie.


Abdullah Öcalan Sosyal Bilimler Akademisi. (2014) Demokratik Komünal Ekonomi, Aram Yayınları.

Proceedings of Demokratik Özerklik Çalıştayı (12/08/15), DTK Ekonomi Çalıştayı (06/02/16), Demokratik Ekonomi Konferansı (14/10/2014).

Engels, F. (2010) Anti-Dühring, Sf. 359 – 379, Sol Yayınları.

Lenin, V.I. (1990) “Kooperatifleşme Üzerine”, İşçi Sınıfı ve Köylülük, Sol Yayınları

_______ (2014) Devlet ve İhtilal, Bilim ve Sosyalizm Yayınları.

Marks, K. (2003) Kapital, Cilt 1, Sol Yayınları.

Öcalan, A. (2013A) Demokratik Uygarlık Manifestosu, I. Cilt, Aram Yayınları

_______ (2013B) Demokratik Uygarlık Manifestosu, II. Cilt, Aram Yayınları

_______ (2013C) Demokratik Uygarlık Manifestosu, III. Cilt, Aram Yayınları

Sancaktar, C. (2009) Yugoslavya’da Sosyalizmden Kapitalizme Geçiş: Özyönetim Uygulaması (Doktora Tezi), Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü, İstanbul Üniversitesi, İstanbul.

Wright, E.O. (2009) Envisioning Real Utopias, Verso.

1 Marx has shown in detail in Capital Volume I the way in which this objective abstraction comes about. This exchange value will equal the amount of labour-time that is socially necessary for the production of the commodity in question. On this point, Öcalan’s argument that value cannot be measured with labour has no basis, as in the market economy where the exchange value reigns supreme there is no other common referent by which this value is established (Marx 2003: 48). In the market the producers exchange their labour-power instead of their products. It is one thing to say ‘Value shall not be measured with labour’, and another to show the source of an already realised value. That is to say, if there is a market, there will be exchange value, and the determinant of this value is the labour, or the socially necessary labour-time, that goes into it. In this sense, the labour theory of value is not an ideal arrangement of Marx, but a theory of the workings of capitalist society.

2 For the transformation of the basic mode of production into trading capital and capitalist accumulation, see Engels, 2010: 359-379.

3 Of course, apart from the inequality that arises from inter-communal competition, social utility may also require a planned inequality. The maximisation of social utility does not necessarily mean that every producer must produce at an equal ‘value’. For the satisfaction of social needs some producers need an asymmetrical capacity in terms of the productive input and output, or even to face continuous losses. For instance, agricultural production is more efficient than industrial and technological production, thus such products have less value. Conversely, industry and technology require long term investment and potential losses in the long run. In order to maximise social utility, the surplus product from agricultural production should be continually transferred to the technology cooperatives. All in all, planned inequality is different from the inequality that emerges from the market and exchange value. While the former ensures social utility and equalises distribution, the latter means the enrichment and impoverishment of whole groups.