Bella Ciao, Bella Ciao… Hope comes from the young for a world-weary Socialist

Milind Wani

An Invitation and a Conundrum!

When the announcement and the invitation reached my inbox, I read it in a state of contained excitement. The Academy of Democratic Modernity (ADM) had invited me (and others like me from all over the world) for a conference entitled “The Art of Freedom”. I was intrigued by the title. For one, the words sounded uncomfortably like those used by any number of pop psychologists and quasi-spiritual gurus (read charlatans!) that abound in the real and virtual space offering teachings (read placebos!) on all kinds of “arts” as the ultimate solution to the different ambitions, problems and challenges life besets us with – “Art of Seduction”, “Art of Living”, “Art of Leadership”- to name a few.  On the other hand, being slightly aware of what ADM is all about, I thought that perhaps they got the order of the words in the reverse by mistake. Shouldn’t it rather be “Freedom for/of Art”, I wondered, considering the stifling of freedom of artistic expression all over the world in the name of protecting culture/hurting religious sentiments? (Remember Charlie Hebdo?).  

On closer reading of the invitation letter, I realized that it was I who was wrong. What was being implied by the term “art” was akin to what Erich Fromm, the great philosopher and psycho-analyst, meant when he wrote books like The Art of Loving or The Art of Listening. What Fromm says about loving and listening is that these are acquired (artistic) skills, the mastery (stage 3) over which can be gained only by learning (stage 1) and practice (stage 2) – the latter two being prior requirements that need to be met in order to be able to master the practice. According to Fromm, just as a carpenter (or a musician) grows in her skillset, first as a novice learner and then to the level of mastery by dint of daily and disciplined practice according to norms that have evolved over time, the art of loving or listening can be likewise mastered, only through learning and practice (& praxis!). Fromm also posits the process as being dialectically open-ended, where each stage reinforces and deepens the other two and so on (for each level of mastery already points to new learnings and practices and so on). If this analogy is correct, I surmised, then the term  “The Art of Freedom” is indicative of certain learnings, political practices, understanding, disciplines, values, etc, that are required for the bringing to life the idea of freedom at the individual, social, political, aesthetic and civilizational level.  

A Struggle against Genocide

But I think I have jumped the gun! I should have begun perhaps by first saying something about the ADM – the Academy of Democratic Modernity. For the uninitiated, the ADM has appeared in the context of the long struggle the valiant Kurdish people have been waging for freedom, sovereignty and autonomy against the oppression, violence and genocide inflicted by colonial powers like Turkey, Iraq and Syria. The Kurdish struggle is a national liberation movement for the self-determination of the Kurdish people with the goal of building a socialist and democratic nationhood on the already existing basis of common geography, culture, history, beliefs, etc. Categorically this struggle is not for building a nation-state as its goal, but for implementing their indigenously developed concept of/for Democratic Confederalism which has been theorized by their charismatic leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been incarcerated since 1999, most of it in isolation. No one has seen him since 2015. Despite extreme prison hardships, he has put to good use his protean and fertile intellect and ironwill (much like the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, to whom he is compared) to write many volumes expounding and elaborating his ideas.

Portrait of Abdullah Öcalan. Pic. Milind Wani

The Kurdish Project – A Utopian Vision for the Planet

Drawing from his studies of modern thinkers as various as Murray Bookchin, Marie Mies, Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, Karl Marx, Michael Foucault, Fernand Braudel and Gorden Childe, as well as dwelling on lessons of myths (e.g. the Goddess Innana), religious insights, ancient history (e.g. the empire of Hitties (1600 BCE), the battle of Carthage (146 BCE), and historians (e.g. Herodotus), etc. –  the breadth and scope of his scholarship is astounding, at once cross-cultural, trans-historical and pluri-civilizational – he proposes the concept of Democratic Civilization (more below). The concept can be metaphorically imagined as a multi-dimensional net or quilt where delicate and beautiful threads weave together his gleanings from the above-mentioned studies, in order to offer a magnificent, utopian vision for a better world. This does not mean that his intellectual engagement with these great thinkers is uncritical. While acknowledging the originality of their views, he also points to their lacunas. For instance, while citing with appreciation two of his “favorite sentences” from Braudel, “Domination always secretes capital” and its corollary “Power can be accumulated – just like Capital” (Öcalan 2020, p.12), he cautions that such brilliant insights also need to be examined in the light of Braudel’s “economic reductionism” (ibid). Out of such critical engagements he posits,

“the option of democratic civilization…as a model for a systematic approach seems necessary…First of all, this option offers an alternative to the central world civilization system. Democratic civilization is not just a present and future utopia; it also seems very necessary and highly explanatory for a more concrete exploration of historical society.” (Öcalan 2020, p.13)

To understand why the concept of democratic civilization is important, one must read his argument(s) in full, something which cannot be elaborated within the space of this essay. But be that as it may, out of this immense labour has emerged the theorization of a Sociology of Freedom that is founded on the three pillars of Ecology, Jinology (Science of women) and New Socialism (so termed to distinguish it from the erstwhile scientific socialism of the totalitarian kind).  Collectively his prison writings (more than 10 deeply argued works of comprehensive scholarship) offer a world-view and vision that is at once proudly utopian in its optimism and pragmatic in its approach. Not for Öcalan the tempting and easy recourse to lazy, superficial and prescriptive thinking without the effort of rigorous and back-breaking intellectual labour. Rather one can’t help but get the feeling that Öcalan, while writing these books, was perhaps in an unintended fashion also throwing a gauntlet at fellow revolutionaries across the globe to get serious by embarking on a similar study of their own society (and civilization) – much as Marx did in his times through his provocative polemical pieces. This, along with his prison hardship and spirit of self-sacrifice seems to have anointed Öcalan into the hearts of millions of Kurdish (& non-Kurdish) people as a modern saint-revolutionary – even as this evokes worrying thoughts about the dangers of personality cult. Still, his writings (see: clearly have found great traction, resonance and application with the Kurdish people. 

Portrait of Kurdish activist Fidan Doğan. Pic. Milind Wani.

Towards a New Political and Moral Consciousness

The Academy of Democratic Modernity (ADM) is committed to spreading Öcalan’s ideas and the rich experience of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement and its paradigm of Democratic Modernity. Their publication activities are intended to start discussions with activists, academics and various anti-system groups and social movements in order to move forward in their search for a radical alternative to capitalist modernity and to realize a free life. Through their educational work, they want to create a new understanding of democratic politics, social enlightenment and a new political-moral consciousness. Some dimensions of social issues they address are the sociology of freedom, weaving together lines of resistance, democratic autonomy, women’s liberation, youth autonomy, social ecology, communal economy and art & culture. Through the development of platforms and networks, ADM wants to contribute to the strengthening of the international exchange of experiences and interweave existing struggles, in line with the proposal of World Democratic Confederalism. ADM believes that to overcome capitalist modernity, concrete local and global institutional alternatives are needed. They hope that if we succeed in expanding democratic politics in everyday life – through alliances, councils, communes, cooperatives, academies – the huge political potential of society will unfold and be used to solve social problems. In this sense, ADM through its activities seeks to contribute to the unfolding of Democratic Modernity and Democratic Socialism.

The Art of Freedom Conference

The aim of the conference was (in the face of the growing crisis of capitalist modernity and its multiple manifestations) to primarily explore the possible paths out of the crises through discussions on different perspectives and solutions. What are the fundamental aspects of the urgent and radical intellectual, moral and political renewal of opposition to the system? Starting from this question, the conference aimed to collectively discuss different aspects of resistance against the system. The idea was to create an open space – not only for the necessary theoretical debates, but also for different movements to come together and share their experiences and strategies- to think together about strengthening their practice and common struggle.

Over 180 people from 5 continents, 30 countries, and various organizations, movements and parties travelled to Basel from 17th to 19th November for the conference entitled “The Art of Freedom – Strategies for organising and collective resistance”, convened by the “Academy of Democratic Modernity”.

Panel discussion at the Art of Freedom Conference. Pic. Milind Wani

The conference came about by an understanding that an international democratic intervention that opposes the system is more necessary than ever in this era of crisis. What form will this new internationalism take? – given that anti-system forces over the last 200 years have failed in two ways, one by coming to power (e.g. Scientific Socialism of the Soviet era!), or by leaving the political arena empty in favor of social mobilization of grassroots-based groups that eschew electoral politics as being suspect and inscribed by the logic of capitalist modernity. Is it possible to present an alternative by developing a system against the three pillars of capitalist modernity – viz.  capitalism, industrialism and the nation-state? In Öcalan’s words,

“Since power tries to conquer and colonize every individual and social unit, politics must try to win over and liberate every individual and social unit that it rests upon. Since every relationship, whether that of an individual or a unit, is related to power, it is also political in the opposite sense. Since power breeds liberal ideology, industrialism, capitalism and the nation-state, politics must produce and build an ideology of freedom, eco-industry, communal society, and democratic confederalism. Since power is organized in every individual and unit, every city and village, at local, regional, national, continental, and global levels, politics must respond in kind. Since power enforces numerous forms of action at all these levels, including propaganda and war, politics must be countered at every level with appropriate propaganda and different forms of action” (Öcalan 2020, p. 353).

Doing Real Politics NOT RealPolitik

Democratic Confederalism, as a basic political form of democratic modernity, will play an essential role in reconstruction work (what in Gandhian parlance is the other side of struggle (sangharsh), i.e. nirman (constructing anew!)). In place of capitalist modernity which administers through orders, Democratic Confederalism governs by doing real politics through discussions and consensus. Of prime importance are the political and moral dimensions because the very existence of society is at stake. Öcalan expounds,

“The language of democratic modernity is political. It envisages and builds its systematic structure using the art of politics. The moral and political society aspect…evokes politics not power.  Moral and political society’s problem today is beyond that of freedom, equality, and democracy, it is existential; its very existence is in danger. The multidimensional attacks of modernity make moral and political society’s priority defending its existence. The response of democratic modernity to these attacks is resistance in the form of self-defense. If society is not defended, there can be no politics. Let me be perfectly clear, there is only one society, and that is moral and political society. The problem is to rebuild society under the more developed conditions of modernity, which has been highly eroded by civilization and, has been subjected to invasion and colonization by power and the state.” (Öcalan 2020, p.354)

Öcalan defines this“a new political world” (ibid) where Democratic Confederalism offers the possibility of democratic nations as the fundamental means of solving ethnic, religious, urban, local, regional, and national problems that arise from modernity’s monolithic, homogeneous, monochromatic, fascist model of society that is implemented by the nation-state. Öcalan proposes an internationalist structure in the form of confederations for the political tasks,

“The global union of democratic nations, the World Confederation of Democratic Nations [or World Democratic Confederalism], would be an alternative to the United Nations. Continental areas and broad cultural spaces could form their own Confederation of Democratic Nations at the local level” (Öcalan 2020, p.357).

For democratic forces, three tasks arise from this framework: intellectual, moral and political. At the intellectual level this would entail the construction of the World Confederation of Cultures and Academies, at the moral level the Global Confederation of Sacredness and Moral Studies, and at the political level the World Democratic Confederalism.

Posters at the Art of Freedom Conference. Pic. – Milind Wani.

Art of Freedom as an Aesthetic Dimension of Emancipatory and Liberatory Praxis of Revolution

Today, democratic forces are confronted with the challenge of (re)politicizing societies and creating democratic subjects. Given this context, politics i.e. political practices (in the plural!) that are not based on state and power, but on the grassroots diffusion of political power in society, is what the Art of Freedom is all about. One is reminded of Fidel Castro’s characterization, in response to a question by Frei Betto, of the revolutionary process of building socialism as being a work of art requiring an aesthetic vision. This type of social politics creates the possibility for liberation. Democratic and popular forces and those against the hegemonic system must reclaim their history of resistance and further this legacy by creating spaces in which freedom is learned and lived immediately.

The aim of the gathering (see video: The Art of Freedom: Strategies for organising& collective resistance / Event-Film of the Conference) was to address central questions that are currently facing emancipatory and liberatory politics. How can we connect the idea of democratic socialism with the reality of life today? What is the role of intellectual struggle, historical consciousness, ecology, women’s liberation, class struggle, etc.?

On the other hand, we are still confronted with the politics of the nation-state that homogenizes societies and which leads to a permanent struggle against multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. In various places around the world, social movements are resisting capitalist colonialism and peoples and societies repeatedly exert their right to self-determination. Therefore a central theme of the conference was to discuss perspectives of self-determination and autonomy in the 21st century. However, emancipatory politics today is not only confronted with the question of a correct theory that provides answers for the intricate reality of practice. What forms of organization and institutions should the forces of democratic modernity take in building a more peaceful, safe, ecological and just world?

The conference provided a collective space to identify common challenges, to try and create answers, for questions to blossom and for intellectual exchange on the practice and concepts between various movements, with the aim of bridging gaps between struggles, broadening common perspectives, and weaving together strategic lines of resistance. It was an invitation to lay new bricks in the theoretical and practical construction of strategies for organising and collective resistance – this being the critical task to initiate dialogue on the respective strategies of political forces. (For an overview of the proceedings please visit:

Posters at the Art of Freedom Conference. Pic. Milind Wani.

Kurdish Hospitality

It would be amiss of us to limit this article to the happenings at the gathering. Throughout our travel and stay, my colleague Shrishtee Bajpai and I experienced the magnanimity of spirit, generosity of heart, and warmth of soul of the Kurdish families that hosted us unconditionally and spoilt us silly with their love, food and gift-souvenirs. It was heartening to find kindred souls – whether it be the Marxist-Leninist couple with whom we stayed the first night (& who despite language barriers asked us about the Marxist movement in India, and particularly about Charu Mazumdar, the firebrand revolutionary of the 60s), or the family that loved songs from old Raj Kapur films, or the extremely romantic retired football coach and his equally romantic wife who instantly adopted Shrishtee as her daughter and me as her brother. And how can we ever forget the extremely kind-hearted political exile who accompanied us everywhere with a gentle smile, even as he carried in his sad heart the burden of memories of a martyred brother, another who had suffered a mental breakdown due to extreme torture, a younger sister and devastated parents back home? Much as we would like to, for reasons of security, we cannot name them.

Love as Eros Or Love as Agape?

Nor would the account be complete without mentioning the inspiring delegates and organizers- especially the young people, full of idealistic fervor, ardor and love for their homeland and a spirit of self-sacrifice to match. I have rarely met young people, even within the hallowed spaces of so-called social radicals, who are so clear about the demands of the task at hand and with the willingness to make the sacrifices in order to reach their goal- which is nothing short of a radical socialist revolution. Not for them the dreams of romantic relationships and enjoying sexual freedom. Given that romantic love is frowned upon in traditional and patriarchal societies (often leading to the extreme violence of honor killings!), don’t they see that the transgressive potential of love could break open the hierarchies of oppression? Can they not see that to fall in love is the most natural and beautiful thing? Of course, they do!

Patiently, with eyes too wise for their young years, they explain to me – a world-weary, heart-sick, wizened and cynical old socialist – that they are not against individuals falling in love. But, given their historical, cultural and social circumstance, it’s not a luxury that young social revolutionaries like themselves can afford. The task ahead is too important and urgent to spend time on personal gratifications. Extremely conscious of the heartrending and horrendous atrocities being undergone by their people back home due to the ongoing cultural genocide inflicted by the colonizers, they are ardently self-conscious of the ultimate sacrifice in the form of martyrdom that has been demanded from many of their fallen comrades. Under such circumstances, they ask me, would it not be selfish of us to think about our own personal happiness? I have no answer. They are hence happily living a life wedded to revolutionary dreams- marked by hardship, camaraderie, solidarity and self-denial. If the forging of a socialist consciousness requires one to pass through the crucible of the iron-heat of revolutionary process, then these young idealists are willing to pay the ultimate price of acquiring it. I asked myself, what right do I have to wear the badge of cynical disenchantment and disillusionment when young people like these have not given up the good fight for a just world?

Today’s Dreams are Tomorrow’s Reality!

On the penultimate day, there was a cultural evening where we got to see the vibrant and defiant Kurdish songs of protests and dances of solidarity – a microcosmic representation of the joyous Kurdish culture of resistance. I couldn’t help but join in. I lost myself in the whirls and the swirls till the end, when the whole hall rose to the crescendo of the song dear to all resistance fighters over the world,

Bella Ciao, Bella Ciao…Ciao Ciao Ciao

Another world is not only possible – given the world situation, it is fiercely needed.

Cultural evening on the penultimate day of the conference. Pic. Milind Wani.

Milind Wani works with Kalpavriksh ( on issues related to Social Wellbeing and Justice. In particular he is interested in exploring the potential of inter-faith dialogue and the teachings of various spiritual/ wisdom traditions to help face the polycrisis besetting the human and more-than-human world. He is the co-editor of the two books entitled “Ecosophies of Freedom – Suturing Social, Ecological & Spiritual Rift” (co-edited with Sucharita Dutta Asane) and “Pluralities, Faith and Social Action” (co-edited with Siddhartha (Pipal Tree Trust)).

Acknowledgement: Informal discussions with delegates (too many to name individually!) as well as publications in the form of booklets and posters that were made freely available at the venue, have been useful while writing this essay. The author has freely drawn upon all these sources of information. He would like to express grateful acknowledgement for the same.   


Öcalan, Abdullah. The Sociology of Freedom – Manifesto of the Democratic Civilization, Volume III. 2020. PM Press.

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