The PKK As A Marxist-Terror Organization? A Discursive Analysis of PKK Violence in Turkey

23 October 2012
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The Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan—better known as the PKK—has recently ramped up its attacks against Turkish state forces both in scope and depth; firefights are now more intense and claim more lives on both sides. In fact, an estimated 700 militants and state officials have been killed in the last year or so according to the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) latest report.(1)

The conflict, however, is not solely confined to the physical battlefield. Turkish officials have cracked down on what is evidently the civilian branch of the PKK—the KCK network—as the Turkish urban sphere now bears witness to a crucial aspect of this wide-ranging conflict. Thus, and in many other regards, the PKK conflict has transcended from being merely a localized and traditional conflict to a total and universal communal issue of modern Turkish politics and society.

As this 30 year conflict continues to wage on in Turkey, new theoretical perspectives could help shed light on why violence continues to self-perpetuate and, perhaps more importantly, why traditional accounts have proven insufficient in accounting for the existence of such a violent environment in the first place. To this end, the works of political and social philosophers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Maximilien Robespierre, and Leon Trotsky can prove resourceful, while a theoretical framework derived from Alain Badiou’s recent works could contextualize these philosophers within a proper political and social milieu. Of particular interest in this case are the interpretations these theorists have on the topics of terrorism, revolution and violence.

Blind Terror, Powerless Virtue?

French Revolutionary and Dictator Robespierre once stated that, “…virtue, without which terror is disastrous; terror, without virtue is powerless”. He reminded the French people what revolutionary terror meant with, “Terror is nothing but prompt, severe and inflexible justice; it is an emanation of virtue…” (2) The strategic introduction of terror to the political sphere as a proto- policy in the modern sense can effectively be traced back to years following the French Revolution. Terror, through coercion and its ruthless application of violence, molded French society and allegedly brought out ‘the general good’ (3), though however terrible this policy seemed. Eventually, terror became self-defeating as Robespierre’s overly-idealistic regime lost popular support and grew distanced from the social and political reality emerging in France. Terror ruled supreme as blind violence rendered virtuous endeavor obsolete; Robespierre’s demise was certain thereafter.

Is the PKK’s terror an emanation of virtue in its own right? Not taking the ideological or political justifications of PKK members into consideration, one could say that a virtue of sorts is operative within the terror operations of the PKK; this virtue stems from the PKK’s idealist and radicalized worldview. In this sense, the PKK is certainly Jacobin-esque: the ontological substance of the PKK’s arguments is less important rather than its method of propagating and exercising its power. However, much like the way Robespierre’s terror was rendered blind and the radical Jacobin virtue deemed powerless, the PKK must account for its representative responsibility. If the PKK ceases to represent or—as some argue—never represented a substantial portion of the Kurds or Marxists in Turkey, then its terror will effectively be made blind and its virtues powerless.(4)  

Regardless of abstract philosophy, terror has a very real practical effect; terror alters the state of things—even if self-defeating. It is, in this sense, a change inducing catalyst. Therefore, it is embraced by a few as a ‘necessary evil’ that will usher in changes to a system, even if it means total vanquish for those opting for terror. While modern terror as a political-philosophical concept, as we have seen, stems from the French Revolution, instrumental terror in the modern ideological sense developed during the early stages of the 20th Century. In other words, the Jacobin mantle was taken up by emergent Communist parties across Europe—of which the most notable being in Russia.

Emancipation through Terror

The dire historical and social contexts in which one of the most important revolutions of the 20th century, the Russian Revolution, occurred greatly influenced those ruling or, perhaps more accurately, guiding it. Figures like Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Josef Stalin left their imprints on revolutionary Communism—imprints that still provide overtones and undertones to Marxist struggles throughout the world. The strategic and tactical use of Terror during the Russian Revolution varied sufficiently from its previous political and social incarnation. Hegelian and Marxist notions of dialectics, materialism and class-struggle all added new dynamics to an otherwise old struggle for power.

Lenin and Trotsky’s notions of terror are particularly noteworthy. When the Soviet councils organized dissidence in Imperial Russia, they offered ripe opportunities for Communist infiltration and, consequently, introduction to mass-politics. (5) These councils were composed of workers and political dissidents, but even then they only accounted for a minority of the Russian populace. The effects of industrialization in Russia had not yet run their full course as to establish the contingent number of workers needed for an ideal Communist takeover—let alone proper Socialist galvanization. Revolutionaries like Lenin and Trotsky understood the necessity of political terror so as to establish the required political and social conditions for a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. (6)

Instrumental terror as a political weapon saw the demise of those opposing the Communist vanguard party and its revolution. Terror was, in the eyes of Lenin and Trotsky, the instrument of the people’s emancipation from the oppressing bourgeoisie and aristocracy. The harsh repercussions of the First World War, coupled with the indentured servitude of the Russian peasants, were all attributed to the local and, eventually, the global bourgeoisie and their insatiable appetite for material commodity—at the cost of the Russian ‘people’.

In many ways, the PKK’s use of instrumental terror is congruent to that used by both Lenin and Trotsky. Innocent Kurdish and Turkish civilians in Turkey were forced to bear the brunt of the terror-counter terror struggle; many villagers were displaced, forced to choose sides, and infrastructural development in south eastern Turkey lagged behind many decades---let alone the wanton casualties. Much like in Russia, the PKK (and the Turkish Left in general) faced the problem of galvanizing the villagers more so than the traditional industrial workers. (7) These societal limitations made Terror as a policy and instrument seemingly necessary.

Marxists like Lenin and Trotsky, among many others, were imbued with a sense of historical determinism; at the final phase of modern history lay the Socialist utopia that would guarantee the emancipation of the workers, help establish international fraternity between nations and, depending on the case, promise certain other ‘deliverances’ that—for better or worse—excused the otherwise immoral acts of violence and other deplorable transgressions of its advocates. How different or commendable were those that opposed the Marxists is still debated today, but the Hegelian mindset of historical continuity greatly influenced those that engaged in attempts to actualize the promises of utopia.(8)

However, and as remarked earlier, all these were before the alleged ‘end of history’. (9) Which theory—that is at least in the same tradition with some of the mentioned above—could now account for the violence seen in Turkey today? Why does the PKK continue to exist if the traditional Marxist struggle is anachronistic in an age of globalization, free market economy and democracy?(10) To answer these questions, it is important to turn to the works of post-modern Communists like Alain Badiou and how they view traditional Rousseauian ideas of the state, society and the individual today.

Enter Alain Badiou    
Traditional interpretations no longer suffice to entirely account for the violence observed in Turkey. While it is true that text-book Maoist/Communist notions of incremental battle-tactics are implemented by the PKK and that the PKK wages a comprehensive social struggle in the Marxist materialist sense (11) of the term, several ideological and existential logic gaps exist to undermine these narratives. (12) There can be no mistake that PKK members continue to martyr themselves for, at least according to them, political and social reform in Turkey—if not for complete independence. Here Badiou’s recent work on social and political use of violence can help shed light on why a culture of violence has gripped namely south eastern Turkey. Of particular importance is Badiou’s notion of the ‘passion for the real’, for the PKK continues to cling on to this passion and will continue its attacks until the ‘real’ is finally and totally realized in Turkey.(13)

Badiou’s ‘passion for the real’ must be roughly understood as a phenomenon that belongs to the 20th century. While the preceding 19th century provided the utopic promises and the proverbial ‘blueprints’ to realizing these ambitions and goals--seemingly attainable by the advance of science and exertion of will power—the 20th century sought to essentially deliver and make-good on these just-out-of-reach goals. To peel off the vestiges of the reality constructed in the 19th century, 20th century politicians resorted to violence by way of ‘event’ in order to deconstruct the ‘semblance of the real’.(14) Badiou, for a while at least, concurred with the proposition that destruction empirically entailed or was accompanied by political novelty. Though he has lately distanced himself from this premise, traditional notions of Marxist political change apropos violence still seem to dominate the PKK’s raison d’être and influence its modus operandi. (15)

Then is violence ruled out of the ‘post-modern’ Marxist narrative? The answer seems, at least for the time being, a resounding no. However, the destructive energy of violence can be re-directed to law maintaining and constituting forms—and coupled with its ‘divine’ form—can actually render the existing state inoperative instead of destroying it.(16) Consequently, the passion for the real can provide the Spartan discipline required for political willpower and digesting imminent social change.

The forms in which this passion could be channeled and manifested in reality vary. Demonstrations—in the form of a collective body with a strong self-awareness—for example, are pure ‘acts’ that enable a ‘taking of the real’, but are exhausted in the process and, subsequently, fail to bring about the anticipated formalized declaration. Badiou is merely interested with how demonstrations tend to draw out ‘engagements with the real’ as long as they are in effect. How axiomatic solutions are obtained is still illusive, but in the case of Turkey, a reexamination of Rousseau’s work on society and the social contract could offer solutions with this regard.

Rousseauian Conclusions

Many academics and researchers have pointed out the Rousseauian aspects of Badiou’s work. Though Badiou identifies himself as a Marxist/Communist, it is important to think of societal issues embedded within a Rousseauian context; modern societies all rely—with varying degrees—on Rousseau’s imagination of society and community. The PKK issue in Turkey is of course a security issue, but above all it constitutes a societal problem. In fact, even the PKK operates with Rousseauian characteristics (17):

I. Formalism-The PKK is attempting to establish the formal conditions of legitimate politics. Formalism would effectively pave the way for the ‘event’ that would allow the ‘real’ to persist in engagement as mentioned earlier.

II. Voluntarism-An important aspect in which a people wills itself into existence by way of act. This act of politics would allow for the creation of something out of nothing. The PKK relies on voluntarism of a person or people in general to create the declarative consciousness required for the ‘subjective act of creation’.

III. Equality-Though Marxist notions of egalitarian distribution of wealth is first thing to come to mind here, this equality is more in the sociological sense of the term. The ‘equality ‘of Badiou is a Rousseauian universal norm that which forces politics to base itself on. A rigorous and unanimous application of equality between persons ensures the foundation of the ‘general will’ based on the collective’s union. The PKK, as discussed earlier, tries to foster this equality by way of ideological ontology and real developments. PKK members living and dying together produces a strange inter-subjective sense of equality. The authentic experience derived from violent transgression and face-to-face combat, as referenced by Zizek, gives PKK members a similar experience to those of Ernest Jünger during his times in the trenches of World War I.(18) 

IV. Locality-Generic politics, with its participating members having formalized and declared themselves as people of equals and cognizant of this fact, must be—both to Rousseau and Badiou—local in its application. This locality ensures a visceral and personal experience of politics. For example, demonstrations or fêtes—ideally distanced from the state for Badiou—constitute a form of this ‘local politics’. These local activities, however, are not particular to a region, but should be thought as ‘the local universals’. This way these local events would be indicative of greater movement(s). Ethnic Kurdish or May Day celebrations in Turkey often display these ‘local politics’—especially since these celebrations are stigmatized in Turkey. 

V. Rarity-Rousseau’s historical experience suggested to him that true politics—an act by which a people wills itself into existence—is a rare occurrence. In other words, the rarity of the act demonstrates the difficulty of finding what Badiou calls the ‘evental site’. Badiou criticized Rousseau for having conceived politics as an abstract notion in this sense. The PKK tries to attain true politics by way of persistent violence perhaps to attain or lay the foundations for the ‘evental site’ of Badiou. Once grounded, the evental site could spring forth a Paris Commune-esque true politics. Some argue that the KCK and BDP organizations work towards this eventuality.

VI. Representation-Much like the locality mentioned above, representation was an important point of Rousseau’s political materialization of the general will. Since a general will of a people cannot be represented, it must be directly presented by the people itself. Put differently, politics should not be about government representatives ushered in by votes, but about the people and how they present themselves to themselves. This issue is a problem for the PKK as, we have seen, it assumes a self-declared, self-authorizing legitimacy to re-present a certain faction of people by no real democratic means. This dictatorship of representation was the next point of Rousseau and offers the most contentious element of his works.

VII. Dictatorship-A point mentioned earlier, dictatorship is legitimatized for Rousseau—and even more so for Badiou—when the body politic’s survival is at stake. Under these dire circumstances, the laws of popular sovereign authority could be suspended. Badiou goes a step further to argue that dictatorship is, “the natural form of organization of political will”.(19) The PKK itself is a relic of a bygone era whose ghosts have yet to be exorcised; it struck out against the Turkish state after the republic witnessed another military coup d’état in 1980. (20)  This coup, together with the societal marginalization of the Left in Turkey, constituted the ‘dire conditions’ that, according to PKK members, warranted a dictatorial response in the form of terrorism.


The societal problems responsible for PKK violence must be confronted in its entirety; the Turkish political sphere cannot continue without civilian measures at resolving these issues. To this end, the concept of nationalism in Turkey might have to be rethought; the restrictive Jacobin nationalism fused with the German notion of the ethnic community now prevalent in Turkey needs to incorporate elements of Ernest Renan’s nationalism.(21) Civic and liberal patriotism could provide the communal inclusivity demanded by the marginalized and radicalized members of society. Free market capitalism with strong worker and union benefits could guarantee a safe and prosperous future for those that would have, otherwise, been drawn to radical Marxist narratives.  The Rousseauian and idealist essentials of society mentioned above could flourish without the need for the PKK to own up to them.

Otherwise, as this article has tried to demonstrate, the PKK can effectively argue or re-imagine itself without really losing its existential resilience. The political insecurity or past grievances of the Turkish political and social environment allows the PKK to make ad-hoc modifications to its ideological and real existence; it can excuse its terror by way of virtue or appear virtuous with its seemingly-justified ‘passion for the real’. Missed opportunities of peace—such as the time soon after the fall of the Soviet Union—are ‘windows of opportunity’ hard to come by.

However, the Turkish state is not the only actor that needs to understand the importance of constructive engagement. The PKK needs to recognize the fact that modern day Communists or Marxists are actively trying to distance themselves from the unsavory aspects of their history. Communism is seeking a reset and those that once sympathized with violent Marxist groups are now eschewing these traditional means. PKK members can only really exercise their ‘passion for the real’ through non-violent means—what those means are or will be is still debated today. (22)

All in the meanwhile, however, the cost of the conflict continues to take its toll on the innocent and non-innocent alike—the PKK conflict has sadly not been more discriminating in this regard. Notwithstanding the philosophical and ideological rhetoric found in this article, the harsh elements of this conflict should not be forgotten; thousands continue to die, are silenced by terror and life has become unbearable for those living with this reality. The Realpolitik truth of this conflict more than negates the seemingly lofty and verbose concerns of the academic community. Turkey finds a staunch PKK, regardless of ideological commitment, opposing its policies in almost all of its strategic and normative engagements. In other words, a deconstructive and often ‘agent-for-hire’ PKK does what it could to sap Turkey’s strength. To this end, the PKK has often negated its own Marxist ideals by engaging in racketeering, international drug smuggling and even has a pseudo-Capitalist merit and hierarchy structure.    


1. See: International Crisis Group (2012). Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement. Europe Report No 219. Retrieved October 10, 2012. URL:

2. Thus, Jacobin notions of virtue and terror should share mutual connectivity and logical congruence. This is no false dilemma, as one without the other becomes self-defeating. Corruption and the defeat of the subject is the alternative when neither terror nor virtue guides the nation. As far as utility is concerned, terror provides virtue the corporal vigor it needs when virtue is introduced to the realm of the real from the transcendent domain it normally is found. Virtue, on the other hand, provides terror the ideal schematic and vision. Otherwise, terror applied without virtue would be more akin to what Walter Benjamin calls ‘divine violence’; violence that is law-destroying . See: Zizek, S. (2007). Slavoj Zizek presents Robespierre Virtue and Terror. Verso Publications. Meard St, London. P.VIII-XI.

3. According to another French Revolutionary, Saint-Just, that which “…produces the general good is always terrible”. Ibid. p. ix

4. Try as it might, the PKK cannot assume ad-hoc representative authority over populations; the self-defeating logic that “the people want what is good, but do not know how to attain it”, coupled with Saint-Just’s statement in the previous footnote, constitutes by no means a legitimate representative authority. The only possible exception that could excuse such a justification—and still morally ambiguous one at that—would be an argument along the lines that the PKK is actually the true representative of Kurdish interests in a system that is morally warped to begin with. In other words, dire situations require dire measures and, coupled with the abnormal conditions in Turkey, the PKK is not so much of a ‘terrorist’ organization as it is a ‘liberating agent’.

5. In the words of Trotsky himself, “…the soviets are the weapon of the revolution itself. After its victory, the Soviets become the organs of power.” See: Zizek, S. (2007). Slavoj Zizek presents Trotsky: Terrorism and Communism. Verso Publications. Meard St, London. P. XV

6. Trotsky equated the dictatorship of the proletariat with that of the dictatorship of the party. In other words, the proletariat and the party were one-the-same and mutually synonymous; the party was the direct representative and guarantor of the proletariat’s well-being. The dictatorship aspect was necessary for Trotsky because, “… it is a case, not of partial changes, but of the very existence of the bourgeoisie. No agreement is possible on this ground. Only force can be the deciding factor…having gained possession of the apparatus of power, and having guaranteed to itself the possibility of independently deciding on which points to yield and on which to stand firm…” Hence, for Trotsky, dictatorship and its terror were out of necessity more so than choice---all due to the big Other the bourgeoisie. Ibid.p. xv

7. Unlike 19th century industrialized states, Turkish industrialization came much later. Late industrialization prevented the creation of urban-industrial centers when it mattered the most for Marxist revolutionaries; the creation of a working-class proletariat was absent during the ‘revolutionary tide’ after World War I. Moreover, Turkish political developments marginalized Communist and Leftist activities in Turkey. The untimely death of Mustafa Suphi, the first president of the Turkish Communist party, and the subsequent military coups ensured the difficulty of the Left permeating into Turkish mass-politics. Another possible explanation as to why Turkish Socialism and Communism never fully attained mass interest originates from the alleged incompatibility of the Marxist worldview and Islam. Turkey, being a nearly 99% Muslim nation, would thus be ill-receptive of a Marxist state. See:Goksu, S. (1999). Romantic Communist. Hurst Publications.

8. Hegel should not be understood as having propagated any form of finality, but to have merely elaborated on what he believed to be the design of historical character and continuity: history, roughly summarizing here of course, operated in what would be called the ‘dialectical’ fashion. A thesis would present itself and, in time, a counter-thesis would emerge to this thesis. Through the proverbial dialectical clash of these theses would emerge a new synthesis of a narrative, an account or a new thesis. The historical process would continue in this manner. Karl Marx was a Hegelian historian in that he also based his account of history in the same Hegelian way described above. Perhaps for him, however, the clash of theses in the political realm went parallel with power contentions—for example, between those that had power and those that wanted it.

9. The end of history allegedly took place after the fall of the Soviet Union and, with it, the allure of Communism. The triumph of liberal democracy heralded, especially with satisfactory recognition and fulfillment of individual liberalism, the final product of a centuries old historical experiment that now yielded its best arguable state system. See: Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. Avon Books Inc, New York.

10. That is, if one accepts Turkey as a globalized democracy that is integrated into the international free market economy.

11. For a thorough discussion on what constitutes a ‘Marxist’ struggle—and especially the greatly successful Maoist derivative of it—see: Gat, A. (2001). A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War. Oxford University Press Inc, New York.

12. The most important and inexplicable logic gap stems from how relatively easy of a time the PKK had incorporating traditionalist/rightist concepts of nationalism into its narrative—especially after the fall of global Communism. While it can be said that the PKK borrowed more from the Marxist-Nationalist anti-colonial/imperialist narratives  as observed with the Vietnamese or Algerian struggles against French rule, traditional imperialism—at least in the Western sense of the term—did not exist in south eastern Turkey. However, this alternative explanation cannot be written off so easily either; for according to many PKK sympathizers, the Turkish nation—and not a certain political faction—has applied a form of imperialism, economically, culturally and socially. 

13. Badiou’s passion of the real is, perhaps, inapplicable to the case of Turkey and the PKK due to case-specific historical antecedents and contextual differences. Regardless, as remarked earlier, a theoretical framework from Badiou’s work could provide a schematic template for explaining the apparent causal relation between violence and the new politics emergent in Turkey. 

14. Badiou’s ‘event’—rather Platonic in  its conception—offers glimpses into the ‘real’. The real, according to Badiou, can never actually be captured or attained, but only peered at by way of event. What constitutes an event is less discernable; Badiou is quite selective as to call anything an ‘event’ in the proper sense of the word. The formal event would be able to break with the, “...febrile sterility of the contemporary world”. Revolutionary politics, in this sense, means “...the seizure of power which breaks with the dreamless sleep of an unjust and violently unequal world”. The only paradox here is how destruction of the semblance of the real (reality) actually only destroys the semblance and anything left after the destruction is the absence of the real and not constitutive of actualized ‘real’. See: Critchley, S. (2012). Why Badiou is a Rousseauist. The International Journal of Badiou Studies. Extract of: Critchley, S. (2012). The Faith of the Faithless. Verso Publications, Inc. Meard St, London. & Jenkins, J. (2008). Violence in Badiou’s Recent Work. Cordozo Law Review Vol. 29:5.

15. Badiou expands on the paradox mentioned above and brings to attention what he calls the ‘subtractive path’. This alternative would allow those interested to ‘engage’ with the real but actually avoid “falling for the paroxysmal chasms of terror”.  The subtractive path would provide the opportunity to ‘subtract the real’ from reality—by seeking not to destroy the reality, but “subtracting it from its apparent unity”. How possible it is to actually attain this is open for debate. Ibid, p. 2123

16. See: Benjamin, W. (2000). Critique of Violence: Between Poststructuralism and Critical Theory. Routledge Publications, NY.

17. The following points are from: Critchley, S. (2012). Why Badiou is a Rousseauist. The International Journal of Badiou Studies. Vol 1, Nr. 1.

18. See: Zizek, S. (2002). Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Verso Publications. Meard St, London. P. 6

19. Found in: Critchley, S. (2012). Why Badiou is a Rousseauist. The International Journal of Badiou Studies. Vol 1, Nr. 1.

20. It has been popularly argued that a crucial way to effectively resolving some of the grievances and issues stemming from the loose ends of this coup would be to draft a new constitution for Turkey—one that is in scope up to date and considerate of democratic concerns of Turkish citizens. 

21. For a thorough discussion on the forms of nationalism, see: Beiner, R. (1999). Theorizing Nationalism. State University of New York Press, Albany.

22. Badiou discusses what protests look like today in his The Century. After the total dismissal of epic nihilism and the concept of ‘fraternity’ following the World Wars, demonstrations are incoherent “single moving material forms” composed neither of “I”s or “We”. As remarked earlier, these demonstrations attain the pure act but are exhausted in the process. See: Jenkins, J. (2008). Violence in Badiou’s Recent Work. Cordozo Law Review Vol. 29:5. P.2128

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