The US video-sharing website YouTube shut down the People’s Defense Units (YPG)’s YouTube account on August 23 for violation of the site’s guidelines.
The US video-sharing website YouTube shut down the People’s Defense Units (YPG)’s YouTube account on August 23 for violation of the site’s guidelines.
An interview with comrades from the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF).
German police banned a demonstration against state terrorism in Turkey. Originally the demo was planned to take place on April 8th in Mannheim, Germany. Its not the first time German police banned a demonstration against Erdogan’s terror regime.
Statement by the International Revolutionary People’s Guerrilla Forces (IRPGF). The IRPGF is a militant armed group formed to defend Rojava, confront capital & the state, & spread anarchism.
We met and interviewed a person who travelled to Rojava to be a volunteer in the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG). We present this interview anonymously, as wished by the person interviewed.
“Revolutions that take power and gain statehood immediately cannot just be considered as exhausted; they are also the betrayal of the ideals of equality, freedom and democracy. In this sense the history of revolutions is also the history of the tragedy of betrayal. The French, Russian and Islamic Revolutions are full of important lessons in this regard.”*
Image: Banner reads: “Free Kurds do not recognise borders.”
Originally published by Kurdish Question
“Power to the people“ can only be put into practice when the power exercised by social elites is dissolved into the people.»
(Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism)
Originally published by the Cooperativa Integral Catalana.
The largely unknown until recently Kurdish city of Kobane managed to attract the attention of the world with its fierce resistance [i] against the invasion of the Islamic State and became an international symbol, compared to the defence of Madrid and Stalingrad. The bravery and heroism of the People’s Defence Units and the Women’s Defence Units (YPG and YPJ) were praised by a large spectrum of groups and individuals – anarchists, leftists, liberals and even right-wingers expressed sympathy and admiration for the men and women of Kobane in their historical battle against what was often seen as IS “fascism.” The mainstream media was forced to break the silence over the Kurdish autonomy and soon numerous articles and news stories were broadcasted and published, often depicting the “toughness” and determination of the Kurdish fighters with a certain dose of exotisation, of course. However, this attention was very often selective and partial – the very essence of the political project in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) was left aside and the media preferred to present the resistance in Kobane as some weird exception to the supposed barbarism of the Middle East. Without surprise, the red star, shining on the victorious flags of the YPG/J was not a pleasing image in the eyes of the Western powers and their media. The autonomous cantons of Rojava represent a home-grown solution to the conflicts in the Middle East, encompassing grassroots democracy, ethnic, social and gender rights and all this in rejection both of IS terror but also of liberal democracy and capitalist economy . Although the West preferred to stay silent on this issue, this ideological foundation is the key for understanding the spirit that wrote the Kobane epopee and fascinated the world, as the Kurdish activist and academic, Dilar Dirik, claimed recently[ii].
As the battles for every street and corner of the city were intensifying, Kobane managed to captivate the imagination of the left and specifically of the libertarian left as a symbol of resistance and struggle and soon it was placed on the pantheon of some of the most emblematic battles for humanity, such as the defence of Madrid against the fascists in the 1930s. It was not by accident that the Turkish Marxist-Leninist group MLKP, which joined the YPG/J in/on the battlefield, raised the flag of the Spanish republic over the ruins of the city in the day of its liberation and called for the formation of International Brigades[iii], following the example of the Spanish revolution. It was not the battle for Kobane itself, but the libertarian essence of the cantons of Rojava, the implementation of grassroots direct democracy, the participation of women and different ethnic groups into the autonomous government that gave ground to the comparisons with the Spanish revolution. Another association was mentioned briefly in several articles – the revolution in Rojava and its autonomous government were compared to the Zapatistas and their autonomy in the south of Mexico. The importance of this comparison might be crucial in order to understand the paradigm of the revolutionary struggle in Kurdistan and what it means for those who believe another world is possible.
The Zapatista movement is probably one of the most symbolic and influential elements of the revolutionary imaginary in the world after the fall of the state-socialist regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the morning of January 1, 1994, an unknown guerrilla force, composed of indigenous Mayas, took over the main towns of the southern-most Mexican state – Chiapas. The military operation was carried out with strategic brilliance and combined with the innovative back then use of the internet to spread the message of the revolutionaries, it echoed around the globe to inspire international solidarity and the emergence of the Alter-Globalisation movement. The Zapatistas rebelled against neoliberal capitalism and the social and cultural genocide of the indigenous population in Mexico. Ya Basta, Enough is enough, was their war cry that emerged from the night of “500 years of oppression”, as the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle stated. The Zapatistas rose up in arms when global capital was celebrating the “end of history” and the idea of social revolution seemed to be a romantic anachronism that belonged to the past. The Zapatista Army for National Liberation was forced out of the cities in twelve days of intense battles with the federal army but it turned out that the deep horizontal organisation in the indigenous communities could not be eradicated by any military intervention or terror. The masked spokesperson of the rebel army, Subcomandante Marcos, challenged the notion of historical vanguard as opposed to revolution from below, which does not aim to take power but to abolish it and this concept became central to the most mass anti-capitalist movements since – from Seattle and Genoa to the Syntagma and Puerta del Sol occupations and even the Occupy Movement.
Where are the similarities with the Rojavan revolution?
From Marxism-Leninism to Autonomy – a shared historical trajectory
The roots of the democratic autonomy in Rojava can be understood only through the history of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), the organisation, which has been central to the Kurdish liberation movement since its creation in 1978. The PKK was established as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organisation in Northern Kurdistan, part of the Turkish state, combining the ideologies of national and social liberation. It grew to a substantial guerrilla force under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan and managed to challenge the second biggest army in NATO in a conflict that claimed the lives of more than forty thousand people. The Turkish state displaced hundreds of thousands and reportedly used torture, assassination and rape against the civilian population but did not manage to break the backbone of the Kurdish resistance. Since its inception, PKK has expanded its influence both in Turkey and in the other parts of Kurdistan. The leading political force in the Rojavan revolution – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is affiliated with it through the Kurdistan Communities’ Union, KCK, the umbrella organisation that encompasses various revolutionary and political groups sharing the ideas of the PKK. The ideology, which unites the different civil and revolutionary groups in the KCK is called democratic confederalism and is based on the ideas of the US anarchist Murray Bookchin, who argued in favour of a non-hierarchal society based on social-ecology, libertarian municipalism, and direct democracy.
Although the Zapatistas are famous for their autonomous government and rejection of the notion of historical vanguard, the roots of the organisation were also related to Marxism-Leninism and just like in the case of the PKK, the idea of self-governance and revolution from below were a product of a long historical evolution. The EZLN was founded in 1983 by a group of urban guerrillas, predominantly Marxist-Leninists, who decided to start a revolutionary cell among the indigenous population in Chiapas, organise a guerrilla force and take power through guerrilla warfare. Soon they realised that their ideological dogma was not applicable to the indigenous realities and started learning from the communal traditions of governance of the indigenous people. Thus, Zapatismo was born as a fusion between Marxism and the experience and knowledge of the native population that has been resisting both against the Spanish and later the Mexican state.
This shared ideological trajectory demonstrates a historical turn in the understanding of revolutionary process. The Zapatista uprising and establishment of the autonomy in Chiapas marked a break with traditional guerrilla strategies, inspired predominantly by the Cuban revolution, this was made more than clear in the letter EZLN spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, wrote to the Basque liberation organisation ETA:
“I shit on all revolutionary vanguards on this planet. [iv]“
It was not the vanguard to lead the people now; it was the people themselves to build the revolution from below and sustain it as such. This is the logic PKK has been shifting towards in the last decade under the influence of Murray Bookchin and this shift demonstrates an evolution of the organisation from movement for the people to a movement of the people.
Cantons and Caracoles – freedom here and now
Probably the most important similarity between the revolution in Rojava and the one in Chiapas is the social and political reorganisation that is taking place in both places that is based on the libertarian ideology of the two organisations.
The Zapatista autonomy in its current form originates from the failure of the peace negotiations with the Mexican government after the uprising in 1994. During the peace negotiations the rebels demanded the government to adhere to the accords of San Andres, which give the indigenous people the right to autonomy, self-determination, education, justice and political organisation, based on their tradition as well as communal control over the land and the resources of the areas that belong to them. These accords were never implemented by the government and in 2001 president Fox backed an edited version that was voted for in congress but did not meet the demands of the Zapatistas and the other groups in resistance. This event was labelled as “treason” and it provoked the EZLN to declare two years later the creation of the five rebel zones, centred in five Caracoles (or snails in English) that serve as administrative centres. The name Caracoles came to show the revolutionary concept of the Zapatistas – we are doing it ourselves, we learn in the process and we advance, slowly, but we advance. The Caracoles[v] include three levels of autonomous government – community, municipality and Council of the Good Government. The first two are based on grassroots assemblies whereas the Councils of the Good Government are elected but with the intention to get as many people as possible to participate in the Government over the years through a principle of rotation. The autonomy has its own educational system, healthcare and justice, as well as cooperatives, producing coffee, cattle, handcrafts etc.
We learn as we make things, we did not know about autonomy and that we were going to build something like it. But we learn and improve things and learn from the struggle– told me my Zapatista guardian Armando, when I visited the autonomous territory at the end of 2013. Freedom could only be practiced here and now and revolution was a process of constantly challenging the status-quo and building alternatives to it.
The Rojavan cantons indeed resemble the autonomy in Chiapas. They were proclaimed by the dominant PYD in 2013 and function through the established popular assemblies and democratic councils. Women participate equally in the decision-making and are represented in all elected positions, which are always shared by a man and a woman. All ethnic groups are represented in the government and its institutions. Healthcare and education are also guaranteed by the system of democratic confederalism and recently the first Rojavan university, the Masepotamia Academy, opened it’s doors with plans to challenge the hierarchical structure of education, and to provide a different approach to learning.
Just as it is in the case with the Zapatistas, the Revolution in Rojava envisions itself as a solution to the problems in the whole country, not as an expression of separatist tendencies. This genuine democratic system, as claimed by the delegation of academics from Europe and North America [vi], that visited Rojava recently, points to a different future of the Middle East, based on direct participation, women’s emancipation and ethnic peace.
Gender has always been central to the Zapatista revolution. The situation of women before the spread of the organization and the adoption of women’s liberation as central to the struggle, was marked by exploitation, marginalization, forced marriages, physical violence and discrimination. This is why Marcos claims that the first uprising was not the one in 1994 but the adoption of the Womens’ Revolutionary Law in 1993, setting the framework for gender equality and justice and guaranteeing the rights of the women in the rebel territory to personal autonomy, emancipation and dignity. Today women participate in all levels of government and have their own cooperatives and economic structures to guarantee their economic independence. Women were and still form a large part of the ranks of the Zapatista guerilla force and take high positions in its commandment. The takeover of San Cristobal de las Casas, the most important city the Zapatista troops captured during the uprising in 1994, was also commanded by women, headed by comandanta Ramona, who was also the first Zapatista to be sent to Mexico city to represent the movement.
It is not difficult to compare the mass involvement of indigenous women in Chiapas in the Zapatista ranks to the participation of women in the defense of Kobane and in the YPJ – the Women’s Protection Units, both depicted in a sensationalist manner[vii] by the Western media in the last months. However, their bravery and determination in the war against ISIS is a product of a long tradition of women participation in the armed struggle for social liberation in Kurdistan. Women have played a central role in the PKK and this is undoubtedly connected with the importance of gender in the Kurdish struggle. The Rojava revolution has a strong emphasis on women’s liberation as indispensable for the true liberation of society. The theoretical framework that puts the dismantling of patriarchy at the heart of the struggle is called “jineology”, a concept developed by Abdullah Ocalan. The application of this concept has resulted in an unseen empowerment of women not only in the context of the Middle East but also in the context of western liberal feminism. The women’s assemblies, cooperative structures and women’s militias are the heart of the revolution, which is considered incomplete if it does not destroy the patriarchal structure of society, which is one of the fundamentals of capitalism. Janet Biehl, an independent writer and artist, wrote after her recent visit to Rojava that women in the Kurdish revolution have the ideological role of the proletariat in the XXth century revolutions.
The ecology of freedom
The Ecology of Freedom is probably the most important among Bookchin’s works and his concept of social ecology has been adopted by the revolutionaries in Rojava. His idea that “the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human” links patriarchy, environmental destruction and capitalism and points at their abolition as the only way to a just society. Such a holistic approach has been advocated and implemented by the Zapatistas as well. Sustainability has also been an important point of emphasis, especially after the creation of the caracoles in 2003. The autonomous government has been trying to recuperate ancestral knowledge, related to the sustainable use of the land and combine it with other agro-ecological practices. This logic is not only a matter of improving the living conditions in the communities and avoiding the use of agrochemicals, it is a rejection of the whole notion that large-scale industrial agriculture is superior to the ‘primitive’ way the indigenous people work the land and as such it is a powerful defiance of the logic of neoliberalism.
The road to Autonomy – the new revolutionary paradigm
The similarities between the system of democratic confederalism that is being developed in Western Kurdistan and the Autonomy in Chiapas go far beyond the few points I have stressed in this article. From slogans such as Ya Basta, adapted in Kurdish as êdî bes e to the grassroots democracy, communal economic structures and participation of women, the similar path the Kurdish movement and the Zapatistas have taken demonstrates a decisive break with the vanguardist notion of Marxism-Leninism and a new approach to revolution, which comes from below and aims at the creation of a free and non-hierarchal society.
Although both movements have received some bitter criticism[viii] from sectarian elements on the left, the very fact that the only major and successful experiments in radical social change originate from non-western, marginalised and colonised groups, comes as a slap in the face to the white and privileged dogmatic “revolutionaries” of the global north who have hardly been successful on challenging oppression in their own countries but tend to believe it is their judgement what is and what is not a real revolution.
The revolutions in Rojava and Chiapas are a powerful example for the world, demonstrating the enormous capacity of grassroots organisation and the importance of communal links as opposed to capitalist social atomisation. Last but not least, Chiapas and Rojava should make many on the left, including some anarchists, trash their colonial mindset and ideological dogmatism.
A world without hierarchy, domination, capitalism and environmental destruction or as the Zapatistas say, the world where many worlds fit, has often been depicted as “utopian” and “unrealistic” by the mainstream media, education and political structures. However, this world is not some future mirage that comes from the books – it is happening here and now and the examples of Zapatistas and Kurds are a powerful weapon to reignite our capacity to imagine a real radical change in society as well as a model we can learn from in our struggles. The red stars that shine over Chiapas and Rojava shed light on the way to liberation and if we need to summarize in one word what brings these two struggles together, it would definitely be Autonomy.
[i] Dicle, Amed (2015) Kobane Victory, How it Unfolded
[ii] Dirik, Dilar (2015) Whi Kobane Did Not Fall
[iii] International Brigades Form in Rojava (2014)
[iv] Marcos (2003) I Shit on All Revolutionary Vanguards on This Planet
[v] Oikonomakis, Leonidas (2013) Zapatistas Celebrate 10 Years of Autonomy With Escuelita
[vi] Joint Statement of the Academic Delagation to Rojava
[vii] Dirik, Dilar (2014) Western Fascination With “Badass” Kurdish Women
Anarchist Federation Statement on Rojava (2014)
As they have driven ISIS back in northern Syria / Rojava the Kurdish YPG and their allies in the SDF have won increasing visibility in western media. While such reports often mention the key role in this fight played by women in the YPJ, there is otherwise little examination of the revolution happening behind the front lines in Rojava. That revolution is why they stood and fought ISIS rather than fleeing. This can be true of a lot of alternative media coverage. In part this is due to the limited amount of information on what this revolution involves. but it’s also in part because photographs of women with guns are judged to be more striking than women workers in a co-operative bakery or a community assembly.
Originally published by Anarchist Writers
We’ve tried to address this imbalance somewhat, both in our coverage and through bringing a number of Kurdish and other speakers over to talk at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair. They spoke about what is happening behind the front lines. What is it that is being constructed that so many have judged is worth going to the front lines to defend against ISIS? Our speakers this year included Erjan Ayboga author of ‘Revolution in Rojava’ and US academic Janet Biehl who has visited the region twice since the revolution to investigate what is happening on the ground.
The attached video are the segments from the bookfair panel that most directly addressed the economic and decision making structures of revolutionary Rojava. The text that follows summarises what is said in the video but also outlines the broader context, both in terms of the situation on the ground and similar historical anarchist experiences. If you’ve little knowledge of anarchism you should get a lot from the facts contained below, and perhaps the analysis that compares what we know with anarchist experiences of revolutionary transformation will whet your appetite.
What is the economic structure now in Rojava? Well let us start by sayings it’s not the ‘full communism’ without bosses that anarchists would aim for but rather a mixed system that includes private businesses alongside the co-ops.
As Erjan says in the video, today the situation is private business is not forbidden. People can do it if they wish, but it is not supported in the way the co-op system is supported.
In anarchist terms is this not that different from the way things worked in a lot of anarchist controlled areas of revolutionary Spain. Small landowners were often allowed to continue to work their own land even if the rest of a village decided to collectivise. The large enterprises that were taken over were state owned and those of owners who had fled the revolution. Things went further in the areas where the anarchists were very strong (e.g. the Woodworking Industry in Barcelona that collectivised all workplaces) but that represented a high tide mark rather than what was typical everywhere.
In Rojava the Assad regime kept the area under-developed, as an agricultural breadbasket for Syria, so there were not that many large businesses to start with except state owned utilities. Of the few other privately owned big businesses the owners seem to have mostly fled the region. There is a huge multinational cement factory but its location is near the front line and it’s been the scene of combat, so it appears not to be currently in production. The exception we heard was land ownership – although some large landlords fled many are still in place. Below we look at how this is probably related to the tribal-feudal structures that sit alongside capitalism in the region.
The comparison we make above with Spain 1936-7 is important because the Spanish revolution of 1936 still represents a high point of workers self-management. And in that context it’s quite relevant that a section of ultra-left Marxists in the 1930s also refused solidarity with anarchist Spain because, as they correctly pointed out, capitalism had not yet been abolished and compromises had been made. Anarchists, in Spain and internationally, criticised the compromises but still remained in solidarity with the revolution, including fighting on the front lines.
Another important aspect to keep in mind is that although anarchists now know a fair bit about the Spanish collectives this wasn’t true at the time they were functioning. Gaston Leval’s massive study didn’t appear in English until 1945 and even his briefer article on the collectives in Aragon was only published two years into the revolution. During the period from 1936 to early 1937 when the collectives were strong, only fragmentary information was available about them outside Spain, much of that hostile.
Importantly, unlike Spain – where millions of workers were self described anarchists at the start of the revolution and so were prepared to take over their workplaces – in Rojava it would appear that only a small minority were ideological revolutionaries at the beginning. If we think of the scene in the Ken Loach film Land & Freedom, where the liberated village debates whether to collectivise the land, the importance of this becomes clear. The impulse for collectivisation in that scene mostly comes from within the village due to the already existing anarchist presence, it’s not imposed from without. In a Rojava equivalent we could expect that the impulse at least initially would be dependent on the arguments of the militia who had liberated the village rather than its inhabitants.
By 2014 in Rojava we are told in the video that there were many co-ops but now (early 2016) there are three to four times more, probably thousands. Many of these appear to be small, we are shown photos of a textile co-op and a women’s bakery co-op. Given the blockade on Rojava we know it’s hard to import machinery and impossible to import large machinery so it’s a question of building co-ops with what is already to hand, these are going to be small and labour- rather than capital-intensive.
Individually we are told that while these small co-ops are working well the challenge is networking them to work together. For this reason there is a new distribution co-op formed, that is a higher level one that brings together many co-ops. This has upwards of 10,000 members.
What’s important, we are told, is that the co-ops are initiated and controlled by the communes, i.e. the community assembly structures. Co-ops are not individual or completely independent, they are very connected with the assembly process.
A detailed diagram gives an overview of how decision making in Rojava works. It has three columns. [Note: This text was origianlly posted on FB with the video where there was no easy way for the reader to be presented with the diagram itself, so its described here. We’ve inserted the disgram below.]
On the left side see the four tiers of decision making from
– the local Commune (a village or city district) which may contain from 30 to 400 households
– neighbourhood councils comprising 7 to 30 such communes
– District Councils comprised of each city and its surrounding villages
– People’s Council of West Kurdistan (PCWK, but more normally referred to as Tev-Dem) which is the entire region but because of the war had been meeting as the 3 separate cantons rather than a single body.
We are told that when the structures described were declared in January 2014 there were 1,500 communes, but now there are 4,000. That the communes bring people into the political process and empower people. The reason for the growth from 1500 to 4000 communes over this period is not explained, it seems unlikely the increase is simply more territory being held, since January 2014 was before the big ISIS assaults on Kobane canton that overran the entire countryside and was only pushed back after the months-long siege of Kobane. So it seems the increase in the number of communes, at least in part, is an outcome of the methodology spreading. Perhaps the outcome of lots of ‘Land & Freedom’ local discussions?
In the middle of the diagram there are the 7 standard committees that exist at each district level (Defence, Economics, Political, Civil Society, Free Society, Justice, Ideology) plus the Women’s Council.
On the right of the diagram is ‘Democratic Self-Administration’ which is a more conventional government structure of legislative and executive bodies as well as municipal administration. We are told 40% of the seats in the parliament come from the PCWK / Tev-Dem, the rest from political parties, including other Kurdish parties. So the parliament is a blend of direct and representative democracy. We are also told that this system was established two years ago.
The population of Rojava isn’t all Kurdish, so as well as the different Kurdish political parties there are also parties that are largely Arab, Assyrian and Yazedi. In the last months, as ISIS have been beaten back, the picture presented in this talk has become more complex as the new areas liberated are majority non-Kurdish. So we’ve seen the emergence of the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ as the umbrella organisation for all those fighting alongside the YPG and, as areas are liberated, the formation of local military councils overseeing that process. When ISIS are kicked out of Manjib and hopefully Raqqa what governance structures will come into being in those majority Arab towns and how will they interact with the rest of Rojava and Tev-Dem? There is no reason to assume any strong pre-existing ideological affinity with the Tev-Dem project or a commitment to the organisational methods being used. How is that contradiction handled?
In anarchist terms this is where the greatest contradictions lie, in the conflict between the delegate based democracy of the communes and the mostly representative system of the ‘Democratic Self-Administration’. This contradiction has been a feature of many revolutions, sometimes called ‘dual power’, and the defeat of the revolution is tightly connected to conventional government structures using their control of the police & military to repress workplace & community assemblies.
This is what happened in the Russian revolution, with the positive gains of the revolution being defeated as the Bolshevik party used government power to repress soviets and workplace assemblies. The anarchists faced the same problem in Spain in 1936: although a large minority of workers were anarchists not all were, leading some to fear an ‘anarchist dictatorship’ if the anarchists took power. Like Rojava this led to parallel systems of community and workplace assemblies, one seeking to federate upwards and the other a standard representative government issuing commands downwards. In Spain as in Russia this ended with the police & military being used to repress the assemblies, long before the republic was defeated by Franco.
There was a lot of debate in the anarchist movement in Spain about what to do and the solution reached wasn’t great, it was individual ‘anarchist ministers’ taking posts in the republican government. A similar but even more complex problem exists in Rojava. The PYD is not the only political organisation in Rojava and not everyone agrees with its goals and methods. So what do you do with other political organisations that are more conventional? Suppress them or create this sort of unstable dual power structure? The magical solution would be to somehow go over/around the leadership of the other parties to organise their supporters in the communes already described, but, even if successful, that would be a process that takes time, not a moment that can be brought into existence.
The PYD is in a far more difficult situation than the CNT was in Spain. Not only did the PYD organise a much smaller part of the population before the revolution, but Rojava is much more divided by ethnic and religious differences than Spain was. It’s worth noting that those most critical of the dual nature of these structures are often also those most suspicious of the ideology of the PYD (and PKK). Which leads them to the contradictory position of simultaneously demanding the suppression of other parties (the reality if all power goes to the communes) but also warning against the danger of the PYD suppressing other parties. Of course the PYD suppressing other parties but retaining the parliamentary structure would simply be the equivalent of how the Bolsheviks undermined the revolution in Russia.
The best solution advocated in Spain was that put forward by the small minority who organised as the Friends of Durruti. They wanted a revolutionary council comprised of mandated recallable delegates from the anarchist and socialist trade unions to replace the function of the government. Almost all workers were members of one of the unions so it was seen as a structure that answered the need for coordination, particularly in the war effort, but only excluded business owners.
But there isn’t a parallel solution for Rojava since, unlike Spain, most workers are not members of an anarchist or socialist union. Indeed it’s likely that a lot of work takes place outside the formal economy so even if such unions did exist they would probably only organise a minority. In any case there isn’t a clear equivalent demand to the one for a union based military council advanced by the Friends of Durruti as a workable alternative to conventional government. Anarchists could advance ‘all power to the communes’ but that inevitably suggests the de facto suppression of political parties and so only becomes workable when large majorities are won for such a position overall in each of the ethnic and tribal groups.
We are told in the video that the basic structures described in the slide are the same in Bakur, and that Rojava had the advantage of being able to learn from the experiences in Bakur since 2007. ‘Bakur’ means North Kurdistan and is the preferred term for the area of Kurdistan under the rule of the Turkish state. ‘Kurdistan’ is the term used for the regions that have a majority Kurdish population but are currently part of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
There is no real surprise here as the influence of the Bakur based Kurdish freedom movement on the PYD is more than obvious, indeed hostile critics want to write off the PYD as no more than a PKK puppet. The PKK being the military, and to a large extent ideological, element of what’s often called the Kurdish Freedom movement in Bakur. From the obituaries of YPG/J volunteers killed defending Rojava, we already know that a fair number of people came from Bakur to help the revolution in Rojava. This we can assume would extend into areas other than armed defence and be part of the process of transferring knowledge and influence. This is why ultra left marxist criticism of Rojava is so heavily based on criticism of the PKK’s history in Bakur, and in particular of Ocalan, the jailed PKK ideological leader.
The influence of the Kurdish freedom movement in Bakur, including the ideological and military influence of the PKK is tricky to have an open discussion of because the PKK are on the global terror watch list and brutally suppressed in Turkey. And the Turkish state has long refused to make any distinction between the PKK and any person of a movement that shares a similar ideological perspective. To frame it in an Irish context, it’s the equivalent of suppressing every republican activist by treating them as if there were members of the IRA.
Even before the failed coup thousands of Kurdish political activists, including many elected mayors, had been jailed in Turkey. Alongside that state action there is also the danger of Turkish nationalist lynch mobs attacking individuals and organisations. At times of tension, including around elections, such attacks become very common. This means it’s literally impossible for core participants to have an open discussion about ideological and organisational influences in Turkey. Internationally there is even the odd situation where Facebook (and now, it appears, Twitter) has an automatic ban for even posting images of the jailed PKK leader Ocalan. For that reason conversations very often need to be coded in ways that somewhat reduce the possibilities of prosecution or social media bans.
To return to the video, we are told that if the ideas implemented in Rojava initially came from Bakur, from 2014 because of the concrete experience gained they started to flow in the opposite direction. Although a decade old, the attempt to set up similar parallel power structures in Bakur have led to the jailings of thousands of activists over the last decade including many town mayors. That must have had an enormously disruptive effect on how grassroots organising experiments worked out. For instance making it very hard to know if a specific failure was due to some inherent internal problem or the fact that key organisers had been jailed.
Rojava is under economic blockade and military assault, and, even far behind the front lines, the constant danger of ISIS suicide attacks. But in the areas and times where there is relative peace the experiments in assembly democracy and co-ops have much more freedom from interference.
The video then switches to Janet Biehl, an eyewitness who has a very high ideological affinity with the theoretical process but who, not being Kurdish, doesn’t have such affinity on the basis of a shared nationalism. She talks about witnessing assemblies in progress in the largest city and how they involved women and non-Kurds.
She describes the same structure of street level communes sending delegates to a neighbourhood council, which sends delegates to the district council (of the city and surroundings) and then the district sends delegates to the council for the canton. She very clearly specifies that the delegates are mandated and recallable, in other words that this is a system of decision making entirely compatible with anarchism. She confirms the figure of 4,000 communes and talks about the Rojava social contract that guarantees human rights including gender equality. This is used as a reference point to resolve disagreements, something akin to a constitution in a non-state setting.
In the video extract we’ve also included one of the questions from the floor and summaries of the response to it below. This clarifies some of the discussion of co-ops that we’ve had above.
Question – To what extent is it a competitive market economy, how do the assemblies relate to the organisation of the economy?
Janet – co-ops are accountable to the assembly system.
Erjan – Every commune has an economic committee and they initiate the co-ops. A few communes often come together to talk about what is produced in the area and how a co-op can be formed around this.
After the revolution land that belonged to the state was taken and given to the poorest people who then mostly organised in co-operatives. Then farmers were encouraged to come together and from co-operatives.
Distribution / Trade
The big co-operatives that handle distribution have an effect on limiting prices as otherwise the supply of goods is dependent on smugglers and because of the war their prices are high.
The large state companies that were taken over initially as public companies and now being transformed into co-operatives, slowly and carefully.
There are some areas where private companies are still dominant, changing this needs a process of making the co-operatives bigger.
There isn’t really class conflict in terms of companies as there are not really higher bosses [they have fled? because there were no big companies outside the state sector?] but there are some big land owners still in the area. The TEV-DEM policy is not to seek direct confrontations with land owners as this would create other social problems, and in any case is not needed as there is a surplus of agricultural land, even over-production of some goods. So there is a process of diversifying agriculture which means it’s possible to feed the population better and have food sovereignty.
Some interpretation of these answers.
It’s likely the ‘other social problems’ referred to in relation to large landlords who have remained are a product both of tribal feudalism on the one hand and ethnic diversity and division on the other.
It’s common to see both Kurds and Arabs in the region being referred to as belonging to one of a number of tribes. Sometimes other terms are used. At the time of writing Turkey has jaken took control of the border town of Jarablus from ISIS without any apparent fight but their advance ground to a halt when they tried to take the small village of Ayn-al-Bayda. The defence was credited to local fighters of the Al-Jadir family. When Amnesty suggested the YPG were displacing Arabs as they advanced a statement contradicting this was released by the ‘Ruspîs Assembly of Arab Tribes in Cizîr Canton’ said to include “El-Cihêş, El-Begara, El-Niêm, El-Şerabî ve El-Şeme”
Under tribal feudalism the heads of these tribes are often large land owners, think of them as very large extended families, who can therefore potentially use tribal loyalties to generate a defence, including armed defence of those holdings. For a long explanation of these structures and their importance in shaping the reality of radical politics in the region see https://youtu.be/y4NMASjaGRQ
In this context, what might be intended to be a restructuring on class lines (i.e. a conflict between those working the land and the landlord/owner) carries the very real danger of instead creating a cross class resistance along the lines of tribal loyalty if it’s imposed from outside. And of course the fact that for now in Rojava the initial ideological influence is overwhelmingly Kurdish makes this a much larger problem if the landowner and his tribe are Arab. What starts as a conflict over land on that basis can very quickly turn into something that looks like ethnic cleansing. Indeed the accusation that the YPG is engaged in ethnic cleansing surfaces from time to time, presumably in part because newly liberated regions will include tribal groups where the patriarch for one reason or another had aligned with ISIS.
Add to this that this is not a region that has seen long term stability between the different ethnic groups and the tribes that compose them. Rather, particularly in the aftermath of world war one, it’s defined by vicious programs, expulsions and genocides, where both western powers and domestic rulers exploited existing divisions to arm one group against another as part of the break-up of the former Ottoman empire. And this was a process that extended into the 1970s and beyond, the regime had a policy of removing some Kurdish villages and moving Arabs into them in order to create an ‘Arab belt’ in particular along the border. The current civil war has been marked by sectarian massacres, the most infamous being the attempt by ISIS to genocide the Yazidis out of existence. This is a context in which any suggestion of ethnic conflict has to be avoided.
This underlines that the Rojava revolution is important not simply because it is an experiment that approaches direct democracy and economic egalitarianism but also because the alternative is horrific. At a moment when ISIS, Trump & PEGIDA strive to set ethnic and religious groups at each other’s throats under their common ‘clash of civilisations’ ideology, Rojava offers a very different set of answers. Ones that we should pay close attention to.
WORDS & VIDEO recording: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter)
The following speech by the political organisation SYPG, and Komîteya Kedkarên trade union was givenas Michael Israel’s remains were sent back to the US