Libertarian Revolution in Rojava

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In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from an interview that Janet Biehl, longtime companion of Murray Bookchin, conducted in 2011 with Ercan Ayboga, a Kurdish “democratic confederalist.” More recently, I posted an appeal from David Graeber for support for the mainly Kurdish people fighting in Rojava, an area in northern Syria under siege by the Islamic State (ISIS), where people are trying to establish a form of direct democracy based on popular assemblies, which share some similarities with the “libertarian democracy” of the anarchist collectives in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. This December, Biehl, Graeber and several other people went to Rojava to see for themselves what was going on there. Here I reproduce some of Janet Biehl’s initial observations.

kobane solidarity

Impressions of Rojava

Rojava consists of three geographically non-contiguous cantons; we would see only the easternmost one, Cezire (or Jazira), due to the ongoing war with the Islamic State, which rages to the west, especially in Kobani. But everywhere we were welcomed warmly…

After Tunisian and Egyptian opposition groups mounted insurgencies during the Arab Spring in 2011, rebellious Syrians rose up too, initiating the civil war. In the summer of 2012, the regime’s authority collapsed in Rojava, where the Kurds had little trouble persuading its officials to depart nonviolently.

Rojavans ( …while they are mostly Kurds, they are also Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens, and others) then faced a choice of aligning themselves either with the regime that had persecuted them, or with the mostly Islamic militant opposition groups.

Rojava’s Kurds being relatively secular, they refused both sides and decided instead to embark on a Third Way, based on the ideas of Abdullah Ãcalan, the imprisoned Kurdish leader who rethought the Kurdish issue, the nature of revolution, and an alternative modernity to the nation-state and capitalism… Drawing eclectically from sources in history, philosophy, politics, and anthropology, Ãcalan proposed ‘Democratic Confederalism’ as the name for the overarching program of bottom-up democracy, gender equality, ecology, and a cooperative economy. The implementation of those principles, in institutions not only of democratic self-government but also of economics, education, health and gender, is called Democratic Autonomy.

Women defending Kobane

Women in the YPJ

A Women’s Revolution

Under their Third Way, Rojava’s three cantons declared Democratic Autonomy and formally established it in a ‘social contract’ (the non-statist term it uses instead of ‘constitution’). Under that program, they created a system of popular self-government, based in neighborhood commune assemblies (comprising several hundred households each), which anyone may attend, and with power rising from the bottom up through elected deputies to the city and cantonal levels.

When our delegation visited a Qamishlo neighborhood (Qamishlo being the largest city in the Cezire canton), we attended a meeting of a local people’s council, where the electricity and matters relating to women, conflict resolution and families of martyrs were discussed. Men and women sat and participated together. Elsewhere in Qamishlo, we witnessed an assembly of women addressing problems particular to their gender.

Gender is of special importance to this project in human emancipation. We quickly realized that the Rojava Revolution is fundamentally a women’s revolution. This part of the world is traditionally home to extreme patriarchal oppression: to be born female is to be at risk for violent abuse, childhood marriage, honor killings, polygamy, and more.

But today the women of Rojava have shaken off that tradition and participate fully in public life: at every level of politics and society. Institutional leadership consists not of one position but two, one male and one female official for the sake of gender equality and also to keep power from concentrating into one person’s hands.

Representatives of Yekitiya Star, the umbrella organization for women’s groups, explained that women are essential to democracy — they even defined the antagonist of women’s freedom, strikingly, not as patriarchy but as the nation-state and capitalist modernity. The women’s revolution aims to free everyone. Women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century. It has profoundly transformed not only women’s status but every aspect of society.

Even the traditionally male-dominated strands of society, like the military, have been profoundly transformed. The people’s protection units (YPG) have been joined by the YPJ, or women’s protection units, whose images by now have become world famous. Together, the YPG and the YPJ are defending society against the jihadist forces of ISIS and Al-Nusra with Kalashnikovs and, perhaps equally formidably, a fierce intellectual and emotional commitment not only to their community’s survival but to its political ideas and aspirations too.

When we visited a meeting of the YPJ, we were told that the fighters’ education consists not only of training in practical matters like weapons but also in Democratic Autonomy. ‘We are fighting for our ideas,’ they emphasized at every turn. Two of the women who met with us had been injured in battle. One sat with an IV bag, another with a metal crutch–both were wincing in pain but had the fortitude and self-discipline to participate in our session.

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Cooperation and Education

Rojavans fight for the survival of their community but above all, as the YPJ told us, for their ideas. They even put the successful implementation of democracy above ethnicity. Their social agreement affirms the inclusion of ethnic minorities (Arabs, Chechens, Assyrians) and religions (Muslims, Christians, Yezidis), and Democratic Autonomy in practice seems to bend over backwards to include minorities, without imposing it on others against their will, leaving the door open to all.

When our delegation asked a group of Assyrians to tell us their challenges with Democratic Autonomy, they said they had none. In nine days we could not possibly have scoured Rojava for all problems, and our interlocutors candidly admitted that Rojava is hardly above criticism, but as far as I could see, Rojava at the very least aspires to model tolerance and pluralism in a part of the world that has seen far too much fanaticism and repression, and to whatever extent it succeeds, it deserves commendation.

Rojava’s economic model is the same as its political model, an economics adviser in Derik told us: to create a ‘community economy,’ building cooperatives in all sectors and educating the people in the idea. The adviser expressed satisfaction that even though 70 percent of Rojava’s resources must go to the war effort, the economy still manages to meet everyone’s basic needs.

They strive for self-sufficiency, because they must: the crucial fact is that Rojava exists under an embargo. It can neither export to nor import from its immediate neighbor to the north, Turkey, which would like to see the whole Kurdish project disappear.

Even the KRG, under control of their ethnic kin but economically beholden to Turkey, observes the embargo, although more cross-border KRG-Rojava trade is occurring now in the wake of political developments. But the country still lacks resources. That does not dampen their spirit: ‘If there is only bread, then we all have a share,’ the adviser told us.

We visited an economics academy and economic cooperatives: a sewing cooperative in Derik, making uniforms for the defense forces; a cooperative greenhouse, growing cucumbers and tomatoes; a dairy cooperative in Rimelan, where a new shed was under construction.

The Kurdish areas are the most fertile parts of Syria, home to its abundant wheat supply, but the Baâath regime had deliberately refrained from industrializing the area, a source of raw materials. Hence wheat was cultivated but could not be milled into flour. We visited a mill, newly constructed since the revolution, improvised from local materials. It now provides flour for the bread consumed in Cezire, whose residents get three loaves a day.

Similarly, Cezire was Syria’s major source of petroleum, with several thousand oil rigs, mostly in the Rimelan area. But the Baâath regime ensured that Rojava had no refineries, forcing the oil to be transported to refineries elsewhere in Syria. But since the revolution, Rojavans have improvised two new oil refineries, which are used mainly to provide diesel for the generators that power the canton. The local oil industry, if such it can be called, produces only enough for local needs, nothing more.

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A DIY Revolution

The level of improvisation was striking throughout the canton. The more we traveled through Rojava, the more I marveled at the do-it-yourself nature of the revolution, its reliance on local ingenuity and the scarce materials at hand. But it was not until we visited the various academies, the women’s academy in Rimelan and the Mesopotamian Academy in Qamishlo, that I realized that it is integral to the system as a whole.

The education system in Rojava is non-traditional, rejecting ideas of hierarchy, power and hegemony. Instead of following a teacher-student hierarchy, students teach each other and learn from each other’s experience. Students learn what is useful, in practical matters; they ‘search for meaning,’ as we were told, in intellectual matters. They do not memorize; they learn to think for themselves and make decisions, to become the subjects of their own lives. They learn to be empowered and to participate in Democratic Autonomy.

Janet Biehl, December 2014

kurdish fighters

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  1. Reblogged this on Fahrenheit 451 Used Books and commented:
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  2. […] Libertarian Revolution in Rojava | Robert Graham's Anarchism Weblog […]


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