In Kobanê, Syrian Kurds were not only defending a strategic Middle Eastern outpost. They were also defending a utopian concept of government. One they are putting into practice. It is called democratic confederalism. Öcalan is no stranger to it.
The Syrian Kurds describe it as a space in which decisions are taken at the neighborhood level, one were gender equality and ethnic inclusiviness are mandatory and prescribed by law, and where barter will become more important than a “national” currency.
As already mentioned in my preceding article, this political utopia did not fall out of the sky, and may appear surprising to many. Leaders of the Kurdish movement who developed this guiding philosophy did so following a joint exploration of Murray Bookchin’s ideas, one that welds together marxism and libertarian ideas, in a world vision in which popular assemblies would supplant State bureaucracy, and where ecology along with the fight against patriarchy fully occupy the space they deserve.
Bookchin, who described himself as a socialist libertarian, died on July 30th 2006. His death was commemorated throughout the Kurdish regions. And today (at Abdullah Öcalan’s instigation from his prison) Syrian Kurds are building a society which is the antithesis of the Islamic State and its worst enemy. This political substrate, most apparent within the YPG and the YPJ, plays a role in the tenaciousness of these fighters one might consider “poorly organized” from the viewpoint of a traditional military hierarchy.
Yet it is they who are at the forefront of the fight against ISIS, with support from the coalition of course, but a very variable support that oscillates according to the whims of international geopolitics. Up until now, no government backs the entity of Rojava in the political utopia it defends in daily life, despite the ongoing war.
Kobanê and two other small “cantons” comprise the territory on which 1,5 million Syrian Kurds have launched this social experiment – facilitated by the 2011 waning of Bachar el-Assad’s repressive forces. The experiment keeps on growing. The recent victory of Manbij over ISIS, achieved at the cost of a bloodbath among the Kurds and allied fighters (in the SDF, Syrian Democratic Forces) has reinforced the ongoing process.
The close relationship between the Syrian Kurds and the tutelary figure of Öcalan, the PKK’s historical leader still branded internationally as “terrorist” enrages Turkey, the United States’ one remaining important ally in the region.
“Democratic confederalism” is also in radical opposition to Turkish nationalism. For this reason, it creates dissensions within the current political majority of Iraki Kurds, who are favored by Washington – even if their leader Barzani claims to agree with the political vision contained in democratic confederalism (while defending the contradictory notion of a Kurdish nation-state.) Defending the idea of democratic confederalism in words, while simultaneously taking advantage of military reconquests over ISIS in order to resettle – including by expropriation – territories that were traditionally occupied by non-Kurdish populations, is a typical construct toward the building of a Kurdish nation-state that can only lead to new conflicts in the foreseeable future.
Rojava’s growing autonomy since the victory in Kobanê and the reticence of the Syrian Kurds to launch an all-out offensive against Assad (which would only saddle them with a needless additional enemy) also upsets regional relationships with Syrian Arab nationalist rebels the United States has been wooing against Bachar for years. Barzani’s political project in Irak is hardly designed to lower existing tensions.
Bachar is now in military control again following the Russian intervention in Syria that culminated in the Aleppo massacres. With the Turkish intervention begun in Jerablus with the aid of Djhadist groups ( part of which flowed out from the above-named Syrian Arrab rebels) ; and with the perspective of massive aid from the “anti ISIS coalition” in support of an offensive against Mosul in Irak, Rojava has never found itself in so many simultaneous military crossfires.
Despite its isolation, the Turkish blockade and the shortages, Rojava’s political and social organization allows it to hold on and maintain a place of welcome for Kurds as well as for populations other than Kurdish. In this, alliances born within the FDS spread out into civilian society thanks to a political project and an utopia that allows for forward thinking to a regional future beyond the war.
And yet, the threat is great, with Rojava subjected to blackmail for aid, for weapons, for military logistical support, according to the whims in the geopolitical winds followed by regional and international powers. It finds itself constantly denigrated, with negative media campaigns conducted not only in Turkey, where Rojava is feared because of the possible contagion of its ideas to all of Turkish Kurdistan, placed under the repressive boot of the Turkish state for over a year now.
Here is a look at the role played in the Kurdish movement by a political and philosophical meeting in the recent decades. A correspondence between a Marxist-Leninist drawing a bitter assessment of the past, and an activist libertarian philosopher, drawing lessons from the triumph of neo-liberalism now vastly overshadowing the libertarian movement…
The notion of democratic confederalism winds its way forward on a tortuous and treacherous path through an intellectual meeting between two men, the reflections inspired by the energy of Kurdish political movements, of the guerilla, and through the major role played by women through all these strands of thought….
Democratic confederalism throws into light the political backwardness of European “progressive” movements in understanding and integrating these lessons. A European Left whose communist wing evolved very differently after the end of the Cold War, found its political salvation in the “revaluation of the nation-state and of the Republic”, trading in the hammer and sickle for integration alongside the old social democratic tendencies, or even melding into them, at a time when these same tendencies gave themselves over to neo-liberalism in the “European project”. The reconstruction periods that followed the Second World War led the Left to “roll up its sleeves” and reintegrate the lap of the nation-states, including participation in their management within large “popular fronts” of varying geometries. And yet, the history of Turkey provides practical lessons in the dismantling of the sacred tryptich combining People-State-Nation which has been at the root of all the regional massacres in the Middle East, during and following the disintegration of the Ottoman block and the workings of colonial imperialisms.
Thrown into the Second World War, then followed by the Cold War, the European Left turned its back on a political reflection that became frozen in marxist dogma and ideology cut off from social practice. It failed to integrate thinkers and intellectuals conducting a constructive and positive criticism of it. Bookchin – who was far from being the only one – had taken on this task worthy of Sisyphus. This thinking now emerges as the political and social experiment of Rojava.
Perhaps it is more than time to shatter the ideological immobilism of the Leftist parties, sometimes accompanied by the worse kind of opportunism, and sometimes by a total transfer into neo-liberalism – as is the case in Greece – in light of what is coming out of the Middle East. A bit less of the “nationalist” viewpoint would also help in advancing the emancipation movements, and keep them from flag-waving competitions with the sorriest of the identitarians…
Solidarity expressed for the Kurdish movement in a compassionate mode for the sake of the gallery is useless if it comes with a stifling of its political thought or, even worse, with its corruption. In France, with the approaching elections, attempting to give one’s self a Leftist “international” label in order to flatter the electorate and the Kurdish diaspora would turn into a desertion rather than a meaningful advance forward.
The best way to provide support to the Kurdish movement is to listen, to read, to show interest and to offer real aid to the endangered implementation of what they are offering us politically : what appears as a post-marxist utopia to some, and which is nonetheless so real in Rojava.
It invites us to act, to seize anew on the word utopia, in order for a clean sweep of the past…
A fundamental libertarian precept :
Every human being is competent in the management of the affairs of society, and more specifically of the community of which he is a member. No policy has democratic legitimacy if it was not proposed, discussed and decided directly by the people and not by some representatives or substitutes. Only the administration of these political directives may be entrusted to councils, commissions or collectives of qualified persons, elected eventually to execute the popular mandate under public control and with an obligation to render accounts to the decisionary assemblies…
Excerpts from Akbar Shahid Ahmed
Bookchin died in Burlington in 2006, and he grew up speaking Russian. His parents were Russian Jews, activists in the movement against the tsar. “I learned English in the streets of a multi-ethnic city, New York”, Bookchin said.
Bookchin was a communist in his youth, but realized early on he would not follow a party line. He quit the Young Communist League in his teens because he feared that his Leftist colleagues would “collaborate” with the bourgeoisie. Bookchin remained involved with the Communist Party in the United States until the end of the Spanish Civil War in which he said later he would have participated, had he been older. Graduating from High School, he adopted Leon Trotsky’s views on the Russian Revolution. He worked for a while as a foundry worker in New Jersey.
After ten years in the unions, Bookchin abandoned orthodox marxism following the Second World War. “The war that ended without a revolution”, he explained in an interview in 2001. Bookchin started “thinking everything over” as he saw automobile industry workers “reclassifying” too passively for his taste and the place of “work” in post-war America shifting rapidly.
Bookchin began to deam of a future in which machines might replace human effort and where free individuals could develop as they wished. But he also believed that, along with social problems, a greater problem would arise (“the struggle between the power of the industries and the better interests of humanity”) from the waste thrown back into the natural environment. “The notion of progress, once considered as an article of faith for the evolution of a greater human cooperation and caring is now identified as constantly representing more competition and irresponsable economic growth”, Bookchin then stated.
He then pioneered “social ecology” advocating the use of human innovation at the service of populations and the planet, rather than at the service of capital.
According to Bookchin, “Utopia isn’t only a dream in slow motion, but something that could really happen”, according to his biographer and longtime companion, Janet Biehl.
Bookchin proposes remodeling the capitalist world by putting in place systems at the micro-level of local popular assemblies. Such a political structure would consist, in his opinion, in a marriage between the best aspects of two intellectual traditions. “We must move beyond the economism of Marx and beyond the individualism which is sometimes latent and sometimes explicit in anarchism.”
Bookchin’s political structure rested on communalism or “a commune of communes” that had little to do with the notion of a nation-state.
This may be what makes it so attractive to the Syrian Kurds – a people who have never had their own “country”.
Contrary to the Iraki Kurds (the partners of the West since 1991, who are skeptical of the PKK and are currently satisfied with an autonomous region within the Iraki nation-state), Syrian and Turkish Kurds take their ideological bearings from Öcalan.
So when he argued that ancient Kurdish aspirations for structures that would guarantee them political autonomy could best be obtained if Kurds adopted the philogophy of a mustachioed Russo-American Jew born in the Bronx, they listened.
Öcalan was a marxist-leninist “true believer”. But in 1999, at the time when the United States and Syria helped Turkey capture him, he had expressed his doubts concerning the viability of orthodox communist thought. The PKK had abandoned the objective of establishing a Kurdish nation-state as early as 1995. When Öcalan was abducted, the Kurdish movement had already started on its attempt to identify the next steps in the political process.
Turkey imprisoned Öcalan in 1999 on an island 35 miles south of Istanbul, the same T-shaped territory where the military responsible for the 1960 coup d’état had executed the Prime Minister they had replaced. They rebuilt a prison Palace of Justice for the express purpose of holding Öcalan’s trial there. Afterwards, they left him in isolation for years, a sole detainee in a 140 square foot cell. There is a military base in close proximity.
In prison, Öcalan plunged into radical, post-communist literature, in search of a new path. He began devouring Murray Bookchin’s works. In 2004, Heider and others pleading Öcalan’s cause considered the time had come to establish contacts between him and Vermont (Bookchin). Establishing some kind of dialogue was essential for them, because conservatives in the Kurdish movement were pushing for a total break with Leftist thought.
They wrote to Biehl.
On April 11, five days after receiving Öcalan’s letter, Bookchin answered with Biehl’s assistance.
Bookchin had long expressed interested in knowing the Kurds and had written about their struggle in his personal diaries. He told Öcalan he wasn’t familiar with all aspects of the PKK’s struggle, that he was getting old, that writing was a struggle, but that he was glad to be in contact…
“In my own fashion, I am a history of the XXth century on the march and I have always tried to look beyond the ideas people freeze into dogmas”, Bookchin wrote to Öcalan. “I beg for your patience with an old radical.”
Heider passed on Bookchin’s message to Öcalan’s lawyers. The jailed Kurdish leader sent a reply in May. In the new letter, Öcalan’s intermediaries mentioned that “he spoke of himself as the attentive student of your thought.”
Öcalan said he disagreed with Bookchin on a few topics and that non-Occidental philosophy helped him shape his vision in this manner. But he told his intermediary to transmit to Bookchin that “the Kurdish liberation movement will be determined in successfully applying his ideas.”
Bookchin responded on May 9. “I won’t be able to pursue an in-depth theoretical dialogue with Mr Öcalan”, “But the Kurds are ‘most lucky’ in having Öcalan as their leader.”
Biehl later told the intermediary that Öcalan “became a beacon for (Bookchin) in his final years.”
From his prison, Öcalan quickly had the new ideas he’d developed in reading Bookchin implemented.
In 2005, he formulated the PKK declaration stating that Kurdish liberation would not come about through the institution of a new nation-state on ethnic grounds. The nation-state leads to oppression. The declaration maintained there had to exist less centralized approaches for the Kurds’ ultimate access to self-government. This constituted an astonishing indictment of the socialist past, coming as it did from one of the XXth century’s most committed hardline marxists.
The announcement consecrated Öcalan’s main idea for the Kurds and the other communities living in zones with Kurdish majorities, that of “democratic confederalism”.
Taking advantage of the relatively peaceful period between the PKK and the central state, Kurdish regions in southeastern Turkey put the Öcalan-Bookchin philosophy to the test by setting up “democratic assemblies” at the neighborhood and village level. Because women were longtime active fighters within the PKK and because Öcalan adopted Bookchin’s thoughts on “abolishing hierarchies and breaking down patriarchism” these assemblies opted for the even more radical move and non-negotiable requirement of including women at all levels of governance.
When Bookchin died in 2006, a PKK assembly saluted him in a resolution : “We pledge to maintain Bookchin alive through our struggle.”
But it took the real collapse of one the regions most centralized nation-states (Assad’s Syria) for Öcalan’santi-state vision to fully manifest.