Revolution in Rojava: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

KURDISH-FUNERAL-KOBANE-FIGHTER

Another May 1st has come and gone. Sometimes I post material from the Chicago anarchists and Haymarket Martyrs around May Day, whose executions on November 11, 1887 helped to cement May 1st as an international day of solidarity and protest for workers around the world. I have set up a Haymarket Martyrs page, with selections from the speeches they made at their trial. This year I have decided to go with something more topical, excerpts from a recent article by Andrew Flood on the revolution in Rojava, where people with left libertarian ideas are fighting a life and death struggle, published in the WSM (Workers’ Solidarity Movement) Irish Anarchist Review, No. 11. I included some of Andrew’s writings on the Zapatista (EZLN) and Occupy movements in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

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Revolutionary contradictions in Rojava

The revolution in Rojava is being pushed by a separate organisation, the PYD [Democratic Union Party] but it’s very clear that it is at least deeply influenced by its strong connections with the PKK. The successful defence of Kobane was greatly bolstered by PKK fighters crossing the border, perhaps more dependant on that then it was on US airpower or weapon drops.

The PKK is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which fought an often brutal armed struggle against the Turkish state from 1984 to 2013. It’s political origins in the late 1970s fused Kurdish nationalism with the Marxist Leninism of the New Left coming out of the 1960s in the fight for an independent Kurdish state. It’s armed struggle which included many bombings and armed conflict with other Kurdish forces as well as the Turkish state inevitably has left many of the Turkish left in particular deeply suspicious of it.

As recently as 2012, 541 people died in the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state; the current peace process across the border in Turkey is fragile. Prolonged military conflicts brutalise even the most political of activists and unchecked tend to see ‘hard men’ rise to positions of control. Those who strongly dislike Rojava because of the PKK influence have proven hard to debate as for the most part all they do is cite the history of bad things that were done in order to insist both that change is impossible and that any change reported has to therefore be a trick.

From an anarchist perspective the additional fact that the PKK has been led since its inception by Abdullah Öcalan and that a personality cult surrounds him raises problems. Anarchists have not been immune to the tendency to raise particular fighters to cult status, the Spanish anarchist Durruti being one example. But Öcalan whose face dominates most mobilisations is still alive and presented as directing at least the ideological development that influences Rojava from his prison cell in Turkey.

However the mindset that sees Öcalan as an all powerful puppet master should be challenged. Like other movements the PKK contains other voices and like other movements existing in conditions of intense conflict sometimes this isn’t so visible to outsiders due to the need [for] both organisational loyalis[m] and the need to maintain discipline in the face of an enemy eager to exploit weaknesses. But it’s an open enough secret that a push for change also came from the base, and in particular from women demanding a distinct women’s military command,

It’s significant that the first women’s organisation had to be founded in exile in Germany in 1987. The official history of the women’s movement is perhaps required to give credit to Öcalan but even it suggests a struggle from below in talking of how “the impact of feudal society created difficulties in women’s organization due to lack of self-confidence.”

However, the faith in freedom, their own strength and self-organization that Kurdish women gained by their practical experiences in the freedom struggle contributed to a quick progress of their ideological, military, political and social organization. Women gained their self-confidence thanks to their successful march into many areas of struggle which traditionally were regarded as “belonging to men”. Hereby women have changed the mentality and structures of male domination and thus the mentality of Kurdish society, life, social organization, liberation and democracy as part of the qualitative change in revolution. This also led to a serious change in the traditional, ruling perception and mentality of men towards women. (Footnote http://www.kjk-online.org/hakkimizda/?lang=en)

rojava women

The importance of the question of top down military discipline becomes clearer when you consider the nature of power in Rojava. The council system as described owes much to the work of PYD cadre operating as TEV-DEM [Movement for a Democratic Society]. But as well as being essential to the construction of grassroots democracy the PYD also forms a more conventional government structure.

The left talks about situations of dual power when you have in existence at the same time the top down government of the state and a bottom up self government of the people. Each of those structures can make very different decisions and this brings them into conflict. The historical development of such conflicts is that the conventional state government comes to control the armed forces and as serious disagreements develop deploys them against the grassroots democracy to ‘defend the revolution’. The Russian revolution was destroyed when the Bolsheviks used such state power to suppress the workers’ councils and soviets. The Spanish revolution was defeated by fascism in 1939 but in 1937 the republican government took significant steps to crush the power of the sort of assemblies and co-ops that are developing in Rojava.

Of course this history is also known to the PYD/TEV-DEM cadre and to an extent they address this contradiction [in terms of] them deliberately holding both sides of the dual power equation to protect the grassroots democratic structures. The councils are constructed so that the state holds a minority of positions and can be easily outvoted by the delegates from below. But the real test of that will only develop if and when the grassroots democracy decides on a different approach to that of the PYD leadership.

The second major contradiction is the military one. In their fight against ISIS the YPG/J were dependent on US air support to destroy the armor and heavy weaponry ISIS had captured off the US supplied Iraqi army. Of course you could suggest that was simply the US cancelling out the effects of its own intervention, an intervention that had also created the conditions from which ISIS arose. But clearly any continued military support would be conditional on the US thinking the Rojava revolution was not going to represent a significant threat to its considerable interests in the region.

As soon as the US have ISIS contained it’s likely that not only will support be cut off, but the US will be encouraging Turkey & Barzani in Iraq to destabilise and overthrow the PYD and wipe out TEV-DEM. The PYD have to be aware of that [creating] considerable additional pressure to prevent the grassroots democracy going too far within Rojava or encouraging the spread of its methods into Syria or Iraq. Perhaps the PYD leadership might reason if it stays localised and low key the US might overlook the threat it represents, the threat of a good example.

As I updated the final draft of this article what may be a key event in answering these questions took place. The YPG recaptured the massive La Farge cement plant. This is important not simply because cement is essential for reconstruction but because it was built by a French owned company only 7 years ago and was the second biggest foreign capital investment in Syria. How will Tev-Dem deal with that, seize control of the plant, seek a partnership deal or hand it back? How will that decision be made and much more importantly how and by who?

Some have reacted to these contradictions by refusing to defend the revolution at all and accusing anyone who does as some sort of sell out. This approach is ‘safe’ if the purpose of your organisation is to seldom take a risk or support movements that turn out to be less than they promised. But such a perspective is a useless one if you want to see a revolutionary transformation of society as that will always involve taking risks and working with real world movements that will always be less perfect that a small ideological group might desire.

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What can we learn?

Many of the people on the ground in Rojava would not care much about what some anarchist group in Ireland thinks of them: a moment’s curiosity perhaps that some group so far away had produced a commentary. And we are not particularly interested in presenting ourselves as some sort of panel of judges of whether other movements around the work are revolutionary enough. What we are interested in is what lessons can we learn from the difficult experience in Rojava:

1. The first lesson is the unexpected nature of such a profound attempt in such difficult circumstances. Particularly for those of us in the West it’s a strong reminder not to fall into the sort of lazy orientalist thinking that assumes new revolutionary ideas can only emerge from the global cities where the academic left has its strongest roots. As with the Zapatistas, ordinary people in what are viewed by outsiders as isolated backwaters can suddenly leap far ahead not only in theory but also in practise.

2. Solidarity that is limited to a movement identical to your own desires is not real solidarity at all. Real solidarity means recognising and respecting difference; that doesn’t require the suspension of critique but it does require an attempt at positive engagement with new ideas and new methods. That is both difficult and risky whereas intellectual denunciation is both easy and safe.

3. The fight for the progressive nation state is over. Here this is visible by the explicit declarations of the PKK that this is no longer their goal but really this is just a particularly clear instance (the EZLN being another) of a direction to history imposed perhaps by the rise of globalisation and the end of the USSR but reflecting a deeper reality that developed across the 20th century.

4. Gender liberation is not an add on to the revolutionary process but a central part of creating it in the first place. Movements that reproduce patriarchal divisions of power in their ranks, because they say to oppose the ‘natural’ influence of outside society would be too difficult or divisive, are movements that are going nowhere in the long term.

For all its contradictions the Rojava revolution is a bright beacon that demands we consider again what our picture of revolution is and how we think such a process might play out. It is a very fragile moment in a very hostile sea, surrounded by the most ruthless enemies. It may not survive, it may degenerate but it demonstrates once more the ability of ordinary men and women to seize the world and try to remake it even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Andrew Flood, April 2015

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Police Violence

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With the latest police murder of an unarmed black man in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to reproduce excerpts from two recent articles on the police. First, a few excerpts from an article by Sam Mitrani, a professor of history at the College of DuPage, regarding the historical role of the police. For the complete article, click here. Then some thoughts from Christopher Hobson on the need to turn the struggle against police violence into a broad based struggle for social justice, taken from the Utopian: Journal of Anarchism & Libertarian Socialism, December 2014, No. 13.

Police attacking strikers - Homestead Strike 1892

Police attacking workers – Homestead Strike 1892

The True History of the Origins of Police: Protecting and Serving the Masters of Society

Before the 19th century, there were no police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world. In the northern United States, there was a system of elected constables and sheriffs, much more responsible to the population in a very direct way than the police are today. In the South, the closest thing to a police force was the slave patrols. Then, as Northern cities grew and filled with mostly immigrant wage workers who were physically and socially separated from the ruling class, the wealthy elite who ran the various municipal governments hired hundreds and then thousands of armed men to impose order on the new working-class neighborhoods.

Class conflict roiled late-19th century American cities like Chicago, which experienced major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886 and 1894. In each of these upheavals, the police attacked strikers with extreme violence. In the aftermath of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization, by which they meant bourgeois civilization, from the disorder of the working class. This ideology has been reproduced ever since — except that today, poor black and Latino people rather than immigrant workers are the main threat…

There was a never a time when the big city police neutrally enforced “the law” — nor, for that matter, a time when the law itself was neutral. Throughout the 19th century in the North, the police mostly arrested people for the vaguely defined “crimes” of disorderly conduct and vagrancy, which meant that they could target anyone they saw as a threat to “order.” In the post-bellum South, they enforced white supremacy and largely arrested black people on trumped-up charges in order to feed them into convict labor systems…

Much has changed since the creation of the police — most importantly, the influx of black people into Northern cities, the mid-20th century civil rights movement and the creation of the current system of mass incarceration in part as a response to that movement. But these changes did not lead to a fundamental shift in policing. They led to new policies designed to preserve fundamental continuities. The police were created to use violence to reconcile electoral democracy with industrial capitalism. Today, they are just one part of the “criminal justice” system that plays the same role. Their basic job is to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system — in our society today, disproportionately among poor black people…

Sam Mitrani

Workers battle Pinkertons at Homestead

Workers battle Pinkertons at Homestead

The Need for Utopia

No movement to curb police violence alone can curb police violence. The reason is that police are never more corrupt or brutal than the society they are rooted in and serve. Anyone with a reasonably open mind knows the profile of police, as a social group, the world over: fawning and subservient to those they perceive with power; careful and polite to the middle class (good clothes and speech); arrogant and edgy at best, brutal and trigger-happy at worst, toward those they see as their inferiors; enraged and violent when they feel defiance or opposition…

And everywhere, in all countries, the arrogance and brutality are worst toward whatever ethnic group is outcast and despised—one always is. In this structure police are the petty enforcers and in most cases are linked both to the local ruling elites and also to the local criminal bosses. But the particular groups they push around are supplied by the structure of the society.

So, the people the police brutalize are always those already brutalized. The Black body that is “rag and stone / is mud / and blood” (Clifton)* was already pushed down in school, in jobs, in the medical clinic, in the street. There is no police injustice that is not already social injustice. So to end police injustice against the African American, the Latino, the bums, the street people, the higglers, the petty criminals, the outcasts, has to mean ending social injustice.

And this means expanding the fight for street justice to one for economic justice, educational justice, health justice, immigration justice, and a just and equal social structure. And these goals, seemingly so utopian and so far beyond the possibilities of the moment, will arise naturally and inevitably if a new movement for justice gets off the ground. Then, as half a century ago, all the basic questions will be on the table and all questions open for discussion.

Many years ago the founding statement of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1960) declared that organization’s aim to be “a social order of justice permeated by love.” The words were written in a reform context—the struggle against segregation and for voting rights—but went beyond that context into a utopian context, as the then-young activists well knew. They are beautiful words still, in their simplicity and sweep.
Getting even to the beginning of a movement that can fight for this vision will not be simple. It will mean confronting the weariness and cynicism that bear down when protest follows protest with no tangible change. It will mean avoiding the seductive call for an easy change through the electoral system—through electing the right people to forget the people’s needs for those of managing the system (Obama!).

And it will involve interminable debates over goals, strategies, methods—between liberals, anarchists, remixed Marxists, and others—that can themselves be wearisome and alienating to ordinary people who don’t breathe politics and want to live their lives. But the words, and the utopian change they envision, are worth calling to our minds now. Nothing less than this is what we should be dreaming of, and working for.
*Lucille Clifton, from “4/30/92 for rodney king”

Christopher Z. Hobson

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The Fight for Kobane Continues

Turkish anarchists in support of the Rojavan Revolution

Turkish anarchists in support of the Rojavan Revolution

Previously, I posted material by David Graeber and Janet Biehl on the libertarian social revolution in Rojava, the region in northern Syria where the city of Kobane was under attack by ISIS militants. Here, I reproduce an edited version of a January 2015 radio interview with members of the Turkish revolutionary anarchist group, DAF (Revolutionary Anarchist Action), regarding the situation in Rojava and the support Turkish anarchists have been providing there. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included material by Kurdish anarchists from the 1990s proposing a social revolutionary anarchist approach for the Kurds, and an interview Janet Biehl did regarding the movement for “communal democracy” among the Kurds.

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The people living in the [Rojava] region are mostly Kurds, who have been living there for hundreds of years. This region has never been represented by a state. Because of that, the people of the region have been in struggle for a very long time. The people are very diverse in terms of ethnicity and religion: there are Kurdish people, Arabic people, Yazidi people, and more. One of the major Kurdish people’s organizations in Turkey and Iraq is the PKK, and the PYD in Syria is in the same line with the PKK. As for military organizations, there are the YPJ and YPG, the men’s and women’s organizations. Against these organizations stand ISIS, the Islamic gangs, in which Al Nusra is involved. These are the radical Islamists. There is also the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of many different groups; they are supported by the capitalist system, but they are not as radical as ISIS. And there is the Turkish state, and Assad’s Syrian state, who are on the attack. In northern Iraq, there is also a Kurdish state, under the KDP of Barzani, which is ideologically the same as the Turkish state, but ethnically a bit different.

The PKK has a bad reputation in the West because of their past. Twenty years ago, when it was founded, it was a Marxist-Leninist group. But a few years ago, it changed this completely and denounced these ideas, because the ideas of their leader changed and so did the people. They went towards a more libertarian ideology after reading the works of Murray Bookchin and on account of some other factors in the region. To understand the situation today, it is also important that in the beginning, the PKK was not so ideological. It did not grow up as an ideological movement, but as a people’s movement. This is another factor explaining how it has developed in this direction.

The Rojava revolution was proclaimed two years ago. Three cantons declared their independence from the state, from Assad’s regime. They didn’t want any kind of involvement with any of the internationally supported capitalist powers. This successfully opened up a third front in the region. It was a moment when the states in the region lost power.

This began as a project of the Kurdish struggle. It involves directly democratic practices like people’s assemblies, and it is focused on ethnic diversity, power to the people, and women’s liberation, which is a big focus of the Kurdish movement in general, not just in Rojava. They formed their own defense units, which are voluntary organizations just made up of the people who are living there.

DAF

DAF [Revolutionary Anarchist Action] advocates a revolutionary perspective; we call ourselves revolutionary anarchists because we want anarchism to be socially understood in our region, because in this region anarchism doesn’t have any tradition or history. Our first aim is to spread the ideals of anarchism into the social fabric of our society, and for us the practice is more important than theory. Or rather, we build our theory on our practice as revolutionary anarchists.

We are against all forms of oppression. We focus on workers’ movements and people’s movements that are oppressed due to ethnicity, we stand in solidarity against women’s oppression, and we are active in all of those movements. In Rojava, we were in touch with participants in the revolution since it started; when the resistance began in Kobanê, we immediately went to the region; our comrades organized solidarity actions on both sides of the border. We still have people there on a rotating basis, and we are still organizing actions. For example, recently, our women’s group organized an action in which they called for conscientious objection in support of the Kobanê resistance.

The Turkish state has been attacking Kobanê from the west. In their discourse, the Turkish state sounds like they are against ISIS, but in practice it permits material resources, arms, and people to pass through the border, and it has been attacking the villages on the border. These villages are not very separate from Kobanê; it’s the same families and a lot of people from Kobanê pass through there when they are injured or if they want to join the struggle from the Turkish side of the border. So our comrades are staying in the villages and participating in all the actions in the communes, doing logistical support for the refugees and for injured people.

Lately, other parts of Rojava have been attacked. If you remember months ago when ISIS first attacked the Yazid people, the Yazids were forced to flee from their cities, and they were saved by the YPD fighters. Afterwards, ISIS was repelled. Last week, the Yazid people have formed their own defense units, similar to those in Rojava. So the struggle is growing in the region, with self-defense and the idea of direct democracy gaining more support.

Also, on the Turkish side of the border, the war is getting harsher. The government is using more violence against the Kurdish resistance. Again, last week, the police attacked and murdered a 14-year-old kid. This shows that the struggle will continue in a more violent way. This matter is not just limited to this region; you can see from the recent attacks on the journalists in France that this has to be taken very seriously on the international level, especially by revolutionaries. This also shows the importance of the Rojava revolution against ISIS and radical Islamism. I think that international support would mean taking more actions locally against the real powers that are supporting ISIS.

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DAF has been in solidarity with the Rojava Revolution since it was declared over two years ago. Our comrades have been there since the first day of the Kobanê resistance, in solidarity, to the best of our ability, with the peoples’ struggle for freedom. We always knew that Kobanê would not fall and it didn’t fall, contrary to what mainstream media reported a hundred times since the resistance began. One month ago, ISIS controlled 40% of Kobanê, now it’s 20% and they are backing off. [Since this interview was conducted, ISIS has been completely driven out of Kobanê.] Given that ISIS is losing their battles with other forces in the region and getting weaker, we can say that the Kobanê resistance was successful.

The resources and skills would be different for every specific struggle. The level of oppression and violence are different in every region and the skills for resistance are best built on direct experience. However, the skills of organization and the culture of sharing and solidarity are at least as important as any particular skills for resistance. These are almost universal. DAF has built its own experience on the culture of the commune and struggle against oppression as well as a long-term relationship of mutual solidarity with the Kurdish people and other struggles for freedom in Anatolia and Kurdistan…

The Turkish state has had to take steps backward in relation to the resistance in Kobanê. It has stopped openly supporting ISIS, although it is still supporting ISIS behind the scenes. It had occupying plans in the name of creating a “security region,” which included military intervention to weaken the Kurdish struggle and also attacking Assad’s forces in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria. These plans have failed.

The solidarity actions carried out by social movements for liberation spread around the world to an extent that was unseen in recent years. This international solidarity was an important factor in the success of the Kobanê resistance. Rojava is another example proving that people can make a revolution without a vanguard party or a group of the elite, even where there is no industry. And this can happen in a place like the Middle East, where struggling for freedom means fighting against all kinds of oppression, including patriarchy as well as massacres based on ethnicity and religion.

It is obvious that the actions of Islamic State benefit the powers (economic and political) that have goals in the region. These could be direct or indirect benefits that strengthen the hand of these powers. For example, a radical Islamist group is useful for Western economic or political powers to make propaganda about defending Western values. Islamic terror is one of the biggest issues that Western countries make propaganda about. Moreover, it is also a political reality that some countries, including the US, have agreements with these fundamentalists. This is the 50-year-running Middle East policy of Western countries.

DAF in Kobane

DAF in Kobane

The Turkish state expressed a negative view of the Islamic State in every speech of its bureaucrats. But we have witnessed real political cooperation of the Turkish state with the Islamic State in relation to the resistance in Kobanê. So in this situation, it appears that they are supporting Islamic State but they are claiming that they are not supporting it.

The Turkish state has been providing large amounts of arms, supplies, and recruits to ISIS ever since the time when it was part of the globally supported Free Syrian Army. This support continues surreptitiously, since politically the Turkish state had to seem to be against ISIS after the resistance in Kobanê succeeded. Our comrades at the Turkish border with Syria are still reporting suspiciously large transports crossing it. The Turkish state has strong relations with the Muslim Brotherhood, and their joint long-term goal is to gain more power in the region by eliminating Assad’s authority. ISIS is their ally in this respect also…

US airstrikes began very late, after it was evident that Kobanê would not fall, and they were not critical. The bombings also hit the areas in YPG control “by mistake.” And some ammunition landed in the hands of ISIS also “by mistake.”

The success of the Kobanê Resistance can only be attributed to the self-organized power of the people’s armed forces. Because of this strong resistance, as well as extensive international solidarity, the US and its allies had to take steps backward. The bombings and media coverage are part of the political maneuvers against the revolution that will try to destroy it by including it. However, the Rojava Revolution is part of a long history of Kurdish people’s struggle for freedom. Its insistence on being stateless, its gains in the liberation of women, etc. are not coincidences. The challenge is to communicate the values created in the Rojava Revolution and the political reality of wartime conditions…

The people’s self-defense forces in Rojava include all ages, both men and women (who are already legendary fighters) from all ethnic and religious backgrounds in the region. The hierarchy created in the armed struggle of the guerrilla [army] does not necessarily mean an exclusive authority in the social structures created by the revolution. This awareness is a part of the Rojava peoples’ struggle for freedom…

The importance of the Rojava Revolution is the revolutionary efforts that are becoming generalized. This is a mutual process in which the people of Rojava are becoming aware about social revolution and at the same time are shaping a social revolution. The YPG and YPJ are self-defense organizations created by the people. The character of both organizations has been criticized in many texts as authoritarian.

Similar discussions took place among comrades in the early 2000s in reference to the Zapatista movement. There were many critiques of the EZLN’s authoritarian character in the Zapatista Revolution. Critiques about the character of the popular movements must take into account the political reality. As DAF, we would frame critiques on the process that are based on our experiences, and which are far from being prejudgments about the Kurdish movement. So there is no cooperation with any authoritarian structure, nor will any authoritarian structure play a role in social revolution.

The Rojava Revolution is indeed made by peoples with at least four different ethnic and three different religious backgrounds, who are actively taking part equally in both military and social fronts. Also, the people of Rojava insist on being stateless, when there is already a neighboring Kurdish state in place. Kurdish ethnic identity has been subject to the denial and oppression policies of all the states in the region. Raising oppressed identities is strategically important in peoples’ struggle for freedom, but not to the extent that it is a device of discrimination and deception. This balance is of key importance and the Rojava Revolution has already proved itself in this respect. DAF also finds that the values that the people of Chiapas have created in their struggle for freedom align with anarchism, although “culturally anarchist” would not be a term we would use.

The Rojava Revolution has been developing in a time when many socio-economic crises appeared around the world: Greece, Egypt, Ukraine… During the first period of the Arab Springs, the social opposition supported this “spring wave.” After a while, these waves evolved into clashes between fundamentalists and secular militarist powers. So the revolution in Rojava appeared at a conjuncture when the social opposition had lost their hopes in the Middle East. Its own international character and international solidarity will spread this effort—first in the Middle East, then around the world…

[O]ne of the biggest issues to understand the political culture of the Middle East is to recognize its unique character. Religion has a unique effect in the political agenda of the East. Not just for the Rojava Revolution, but across the board. DAF’s perspective on international politics is based on an understanding of relations of domination between social, economic, and political forces which cooperate and clash from time to time according to convenience, all of which are useless for oppressed people.

Interview with a member of DAF on the Slovenian anarchist radio show Črna luknja in early January 2015
Link: http://www.ainfos.ca/en/ainfos30977.html

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The Open Road Goes Ever On

Open Road

The Open Road newsjournal was an anti-authoritarian paper founded in Vancouver, Canada, in 1976 by a group of anarchists, yippies, feminists and environmentalists who had come out of the new left, student, radical youth, anti-war and counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the 1970s were not the lost “me decade” but a decade when people organized a variety of direct action campaigns in many different areas: campaigns against nuclear testing and nuclear power, destruction of local neighbourhoods, parkland and wilderness, sexism and patriarchy, violence against women, drug prohibition and homophobia. People all over North America started community controlled food co-ops, women’s health collectives, workers’ co-ops and progressive credit unions.

OR Cover #3

OR Cover #5Eschewing more traditional approaches of the sectarian left (including old-style anarcho-syndicalism), Open Road embraced an approach in the spirit of Emma Goldman’s remark about not wanting to be part of a revolution that didn’t include dancing. The name of the journal, Open Road, was the name that Emma Goldman had wanted to use for her paper, inspired by the Walt Whitman poem, “The Open Road,” but for which she had been denied permission by the Whitman estate (with the result that she ended up calling her paper Mother Earth). 

OR Cover #4

OR Cover #11One of the original founders traveled around North America, with the help of Yippie mailing lists, connecting with people of similar views and establishing a distribution network, with Open Road‘s circulation peaking at around 18-20,000 with its 11th issue in 1980. Previously, I posted Kytha Kurin’s article from that issue, “Anarcha-Feminism – Why the Hyphen,” as well as the interview with Murray Bookchin from OR Issue No. 13. Although circulation then started to drop, Open Road continued to publish until the final issue in 1990.

Now you can access old issues of Open Road at this website: http://www.zisman.ca/openroad/. Entire issues have been and are being scanned, so you can not only read the articles, but you can also see some of the great artwork, including the “OR posters” at the centre of most issues. I also included some material from Open Road in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

OR Poster Sacco & Vanzetti

OR poster Emma Goldman

Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin and the Ecological Imperative

bookchin next revolution

Below, I reproduce some comments by Ursula Le Guin on Murray Bookchin, taken from her preface to a new collection of some of Bookchin’s writings on libertarian municipalism, communalism and direct democracy, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, edited by Debbie Bookchin (his daughter) and Blair Taylor. In Volumes Two and Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included several excerpts from Bookchin’s anarchist writings on ecology, popular assemblies, direct democracy and direct action. Murray Bookchin has been in the news recently as one of the ideological inspirations for the experiment in direct democracy now being undertaken in Rojava in northern Syria, under attack by the Islamic State and threatened by Turkish intervention. Ursula Le Guin is a well known science fiction writer who has often dealt with ecological and anarchist themes in her books, particularly in The Dispossessed, which is about an anarchist society in exile on a moon orbiting an Earth like planet, the strains within that society and the need for a social revolution on the planet below.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

Direct Democracy and the Ecological Imperative

What all political and social thinking has finally been forced to face is, of course, the irreversible degradation of the environment by unrestrained industrial capitalism: the enormous fact of which science has been trying for fifty years to convince us, while technology provided us ever greater distractions from it. Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.

Yet we can’t stop the process. A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

Murray Bookchin spent a lifetime opposing the rapacious ethos of grow-or-die capitalism. The nine essays in “The Next Revolution” represent the culmination of that labor: the theoretical underpinning for an egalitarian and directly democratic ecological society, with a practical approach for how to build it. He critiques the failures of past movements for social change, resurrects the promise of direct democracy and, in the last essay in the book, sketches his hope of how we might turn the environmental crisis into a moment of true choice—a chance to transcend the paralyzing hierarchies of gender, race, class, nation, a chance to find a radical cure for the radical evil of our social system.

Reading it, I was moved and grateful, as I have so often been in reading Murray Bookchin. He was a true son of the Enlightenment in his respect for clear thought and moral responsibility and in his honest, uncompromising search for a realistic hope.

Ursula Le Guin

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Maintaining the Struggle in Greece

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Below I reproduce excerpts from a CrimethInc. piece on the situation in Greece following Syriza’s electoral success. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a CrimethInc. analysis of the Egyptian revolution. Here, the authors warn against complacency in response to the Syriza electoral victory in Greece, given past experience with political parties affiliated with broader based social movements achieving power.

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Syriza and Pacification

It is too early to predict what the precise relationship will be between the new governing party and the movements that put them in place. We can only speculate based on past precedents.

Let’s return to the Brazilian example. After Lula came to power, the most powerful social movement in Brazil, the 1.5-million-strong land reform campaign MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra), found itself in a considerably worse position than it had faced under the preceding conservative government. Although it shared considerable membership and leadership with Lula’s own party, the necessities of governing precluded Lula from assisting it. Though the MST had managed to compel the previous government to legalize many land occupations, it ceased to make any headway whatsoever under Lula. This pattern has played out all across Latin America as politicians have betrayed the social movements that put them in office. This is a good argument for building up strength we can use on our own terms, autonomously, rather than trying to get sympathetic politicians into office—for once they are in office, they must act according to the logic of their post, not the logic of the movement.

Syriza came to power by courting votes and watering down demands. Representative democracy tends to reduce politics to a matter of lowest common denominators, as parties jockey to attract voters and form coalitions. Indeed, Syriza’s first move after the election was to establish a coalition with Independent Greeks, a right-wing party. In order to preserve this coalition, Syriza will have to make concessions to their partners’ agenda. This will mean, first, forcing unwanted right-wing policies past its own membership—and then enforcing those policies on everyone else. There’s no getting around the essentially coercive nature of governing.

Many anarchists hope Syriza will put the brakes on state repression of social movements, enabling them to develop more freely. Didn’t Syriza essentially support the riots of 2008? But back then, they were a small party looking for allies; now they are the ruling elite. In order to retain the reins of the state, they must show that they are prepared to enforce the rule of law. Though they may not prosecute minor protest activity as aggressively as a right-wing government would, they will still have to divide protesters into legitimate and illegitimate—a move out of the counterinsurgency handbook that guides governments and occupying armies the whole world over. This would not be new for Greece; the same thing happened under the social democrats of PASOK in the early 1980s. Even if Syriza’s government does not seek to maintain the previous level of repression, their function will be to divide movements, incorporating the docile and marginalizing the rest. This might prove to be a more effective repressive strategy than brute force.

In these new conditions, the movements themselves will change. Syriza has already become involved in many grassroots social programs; they will probably offer the most cooperative of these projects more resources, but only under the mantle of the state. It will become harder and harder for grassroots organizers to remain truly autonomous, to demonstrate the difference between self-organization and management from above. Something like this has already occurred in the US non-profit sector with disastrous effects. We may also cite government involvement in supposedly grassroots neighborhood organizing in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez.

This kind of assimilation into the logic of the state is essential to parties like Syriza. They need movements that know how to behave themselves, that can serve to legitimize decisions made in the parliament without causing too much of a fuss. Indeed, the mere prospect that Syriza might come into power has kept the streets of Greece largely empty of protest since 2012, intensifying the risks for anarchists and others who continued to demonstrate. Parties on the Syriza model can pacify the public without even entering office.

So what happens to the rest of the movement, to those who continue to assert their autonomy, seeking to build power on their own terms outside the institutions? That is the question before us…

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Fighting Harder, Wanting More

If Syriza’s victory succeeds in lulling those who once met in the streets back into spectatorship and isolation, this will close the windows of possibility that opened during the uprisings, rendering Syriza themselves redundant and offering a new model by which to pacify social movements around the world. But they are playing with fire, promising solutions they cannot deliver. If their failure could open the door for fascism, it could also create a new phase of movements outside and against all authoritarian power.

“In my opinion, a possible government of SYRIZA, taking into account that its life will be short, should serve as a challenge for the people of the struggle. With action that will be what we call ‘anarchist provocations’ against the leftist rhetoric of SYRIZA, we should force them to reveal their true face which is none other than the face of capitalism that can neither be humanized nor rectified but only destroyed with constant struggle by all means.”
Nikos Romanos, writing from prison in Greece

For this to be possible, anarchists in Greece and everywhere around the world must differentiate themselves from all political parties, inviting the general public to join them in spaces beyond the influence of even the most generous social democrats. This will mean facing off against the opportunistic politicians who once joined them in the street. It will not be easy, but it is the only way. If nothing else, now that the elections are over and Syriza stands on the other side of the walls of power, the lines are clear.

Abolishing capitalism and the state is still unthinkable for most people. Yet, as Greece has seen, the measures that could stabilize capitalism for another generation are still more unthinkable. In the day-to-day practices of Greek anarchists—the occupied social centers and university buildings, the self-defense patrols against Golden Dawn, the social programs and assemblies—we can see the first steps towards a world without property or government. If these practices reached an impasse in 2012, it was partly because so many people abandoned the streets in hopes of a Syriza victory. These are the examples to emulate from Greece, not the Syriza model. Let’s stop dallying with false solutions.

CrimethInc.

Greek anarchists

Anarchist Prospects in Greece with Syriza in Power

Micropolis - Free Social Space in Greece

Micropolis – Free Social Space in Greece

The Anti-Authoritarian Current is an anarchist organization with sections in several cities in Greece. Below one of their members explains what Syriza in power is likely to mean for the social movements from which it emerged. Mention is made of ex-PASOK members playing a role in the newly elected Syriza government. PASOK is a conventional (and some would say corrupt) socialist party that has previously formed the government in Greece. The right wing ministers in the Syriza government are members of the “Independent Greeks,” an anti-European Union party. The text is extracted and edited from the interview, “Syriza and social movements: between big risks and some opportunities. Interview with AK Athens.” The original interview, which also looks at the question of the threat from fascism, can be read at http://www.infoaut.org/…/13796-syriza-and-social-movements-…

Alpha-Kappa Greek Anti-Authoritarian Network

Alpha-Kappa Greek Anti-Authoritarian Network

Syriza in Power and the Anarchist Project

Syriza is a result of both the struggles and their defeat at the movement level. The movement failed to pose a serious counterattack against the conservative attack at all levels, attacks which also had the EU support.

Syriza was elected by the votes of the people of the movement and this is reasonable because it posed a realist choice in various matters in which the movement has failed (for example a defence of the taxation attack, the abolition of Sunday labor, the abolition of the high security prison law).

On the other hand, we all know that there is no “libertarian” government and no one will apply measures that promote or secure freedom and the interests of the lower classes, unless they struggle for those interests. The participation of populist Right ministers in the government and ex PASOK members supports this argument.

So, the movement has to take into consideration the new political landscape and create a new strategy. I would imagine three important elements that should characterize this:

1. the first is to blackmail the government to enforce the common agenda that it shares with the movement (to shut down detention camps for refugees and grant citizenship, abolition of high security prisons, abolition of anti-terrorist laws etc) and ensure that the movement will be the strongest opposition;

2. the second is to occupy, expand and create new social spaces for the movement; and

3. last, but most important of all, to create a common ground, a common center, a common universe against and outside the state and capital control.

Social centres must focus on serving social needs, but they must also build institutions of mutual support and sharing (a social bank that will promote the projects, solidarity economies and distribution networks etc). Anti-fascist initiatives have to work together to promote anti-fascist discourse and anti-fascist street vigilance.

The seizure of space and the transformation of the metropolis into a galaxy of social spaces and initiatives of self management requires a level of coordination and organization that the Greek scene hasn’t even imagined so far.

The biggest threat to the context of all these is the danger of integration within the state, and the biggest challenge is to secure total autonomy and also the viability of the antiauthoritarian project.

There is also a fourth element, that of international coordination and support. The Greek autonomous/ anarchist/ anti-authoritarian movement always declares that the solution can only be international but hasn’t done much to promote this. It is time to create a permanent, effective and ambitious common space of struggle between the European and Mediterranean autonomous and anti-authoritarian initiatives that will enforce our discourse and praxis.

All these four factors require a lot of thinking, debate and recomposition on behalf of the a/a/a movement and, as far as I can tell, there are a lot of people that share this ambition.

The nearer SYRIZA got to the chance of seizing parliamentary superiority the more it distanced itself from the movement. The adoption of a lot of ex PASOK populist politicians into the party made clear that SYRIZA is a product of the defeat of the squares to pose a direct democratic alternative rather than a dialectic bloom of a socialist movement.

The members of SYRIZA behaved as true inheritors of the Stalinism that characterizes all the left parties in Greece, defending every absurdity of their leadership, instead of criticizing and promoting a more movemental agenda.

There is an estimation that 10,000 governmental and ministerial positions are the critical ones, that every government has to put its own people in to to produce sustainable politics. It is very clear that, since SYRIZA has 35,000 members, one out of three will take a place in the state apparatus, it will be a party that will quickly become a party of the State, adopting all the bureaucratic reflexes that this entails.

So, a lot of SYRIZA affiliated forces will face the dilemma of either returning to the movement or making a permanent divorce with it. One thing is for sure: state and movement are two elements whose only dialectical relation is one of conflict. If not, their relation becomes integration and bureaucracy.

Greek Townhall

Greek Townhall

 

The Assembly Movement in Greece

The assembly movement in Greece

The assembly movement in Greece

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included a selection from an anarchist in Greece on the Greek anarchist movement and their struggle against capitalism and the state. Here, I reproduce excerpts from an interview with a Greek activist regarding the popular assembly movement there, inspired in part by similar movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Mexico, Turkey and Argentina. Volume Three also includes selections on the “horizontalidad” movement in Argentina, the revolution in Egypt and the Zapatista movement in Mexico. On my blog, I have posted reports regarding the assembly movements in Turkey and, more recently, in Rojava, as well as material from Brazil. The full English translation of this interview can be found at: http://libcom.org/library/greece-state-collapses-neighborhoods-organize-interview-member-athenian-assembly-movemen.

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The Assembly Movement in Greece

The idea of neighborhood assemblies spread massively after December 2008. The death of Alexis and the weeks of revolt, confrontations and occupations that followed, as well as the acid attack on the transit worker, Konstantina Kuneva, were the events that really shook society. The broad characteristics of that revolt are, on the one hand, the absence of any demands or petitions for reforms and, on the other hand, the aspect of decentralization in all the neighborhoods of Athens and, immediately thereafter, in the whole country. After December 2008, the dynamic of the actions and confrontations in the city centers reached its limit and then shifted to the neighborhoods. With the assemblies, the idea at first consisted in obtaining places for meetings, without having anything particular in mind, except the will to engage in collective inquiry. It was a way to prolong the relations that had been created during the revolt. Many of the assemblies were formed at that time, but only four of them continued to function continuously. The others reappeared when the social movement broke out again, as is taking place today or as happened in 2011, when there were approximately forty assemblies in Athens.

The assembly of Vyronas, Kaisariani, Pangrati (VKP) was formed in neighborhoods that have a long history of popular revolt: one of them was the old red neighborhood during the Resistance, the neighborhood that the Nazis were never able to conquer. This tradition was interrupted with the passage of the years as a result of the bourgeoisification of the population, but also because the State built a barracks there for armed police. Today these three neighborhoods have a heterogeneous population, but in general they are rather well-off districts. There were assemblies in VKP before 2008, created amidst struggles over public space. The first one was formed to oppose the project to construct a theater in the middle of a park. Besides the paving and cement this implied—Athens is one of the cities in Europe with the fewest green spaces—the inhabitants knew that the theater would be rented to private companies that would raise the price of tickets through the roof. Thanks to this mobilization, the project was cancelled and the assembly continued to exist, and even still exists today, organizing activities for children, basketball tournaments and a free café in the park on the first Sunday of each month. It is also very active in participating in the life of the neighborhood, distributing militant propaganda in the schools, organizing open festivals with the immigrants and also engaging in solidarity actions with people who were arrested in the demonstrations during the general strikes. And there was another struggle that attracted a lot of people: the opposition to the tunnel and highway overpass project that was slated to destroy part of the Hymettus mountain, one of the last green spaces in the city, located to the east of the city center. There were many demonstrations in the vicinity of the mountain, blockades of the highway bypasses, and actions at the toll booths, which caused the project to be abandoned. In VKP the people had these experiences as a starting point. Later, during the revolts of December 2008, they occupied a municipal youth center for a few days and rapidly convoked the assembly. After the weekly assemblies in the three neighborhoods, the people decided to rent a place to meet. At this time about thirty persons participated in the assemblies, a figure that has remained more or less stable to this day.

We are involved in two types of action: on the one hand, we are defending ourselves against the attacks of the system and, on the other hand, we are elaborating projects and ways of life that seem desirable to us. For example, in 2010 there was an initial attempt to coordinate with other assemblies and libertarian collectives that participated in the struggles in their neighborhoods against the fare increases in public transport. We arranged for each assembly to simultaneously organize demonstrations in the subway and bus stations. Pamphlets were distributed, the ticket machines were vandalized, and we proposed self-reductions in order to question the discourse of the authorities, which consisted in saying that public transport was just another commodity that had to be profitable. We made an attempt to link up with the workers in public transport, but this was difficult. The people from Golden Dawn—the Greek neo-Nazi party—have a lot of influence among the bus drivers trade union.

Later, we participated in all the general strikes since 2010, which were severely repressed. During the course of one of these strikes, the pigs attacked the march of the neighborhood assemblies, sending one person to the hospital in a coma, who almost died, and others were seriously injured. These experiences brought us together and strengthened our determination. We blockaded the supermarkets and shopping centers of the neighborhood in order to turn the strike into a real strike, so that no one would be able to consume. We also attempted to encircle the Greek Parliament when the deputies were voting on the second round of austerity measures. The neighborhood assemblies played an important role in this demonstration. We also tried to maintain a permanent presence in the neighborhood, organizing demonstrations and a collective kitchen and cultivating an occupied garden for the purpose of attaining food self-sufficiency. We also hold a barter market once a month in different squares. We also have a meeting hall with a library that is open to the neighborhood, in which we organize various activities, debates and talks.

Greek anarchists in Athens

Greek anarchists march in Athens

All these actions are undertaken for the purpose of breaking with the individualism and the pessimism that have seized Greece with the onset of the crisis, to fight against the social cannibalism that the State is indirectly promoting as a solution to the crisis. By way of these practices, we are attempting to encourage the development of relations based on equality and solidarity. The neighborhood is a very fertile space for this, all the more so insofar as in Athens the city districts are still socially quite mixed, which allows us to establish unexpected relations.

We had to deal with this problem [of getting enough food] ever since we opened the collective kitchens. We made contact with the other assemblies that had similar problems and, during that time, a large area in an adjacent neighborhood was occupied: a villa with cultivable land. We decided to convoke a new assembly entirely dedicated to this question. This same assembly is now responsible for cultivating the land for the purpose of supplying the collective kitchens of the four neighborhoods that are cooperating on this project. We are still a long way from being self-sufficient with regard to food, but it is a first step. Having said this, the garden is being threatened with eviction. Expulsions from the occupied spaces, such as, for example, at Villa Amalias and Skaramagas, have multiplied in Athens since the beginning of 2013.

Certain people have spoken at the assembly to express their view that there are too many immigrants in the neighborhoods and that something must be done about this. This is a risk we have to take when participating in open movements. Sometimes there are even outbursts of sexism during actions. The only way to fight against this is by talking to people. Usually, they understand, and if not, they go away. Once, however, at a neighborhood assembly convened to oppose the construction of cell phone towers, two fascists showed up without saying that they belonged to Golden Dawn. But we knew about them because in a small neighborhood everyone knows everything. The only thing we could do was to tell them that they were not welcome.

Since they obtained seats in Parliament, and thanks to the support they have received as a result, Golden Dawn has opened offices throughout Greece. Whenever they open a new office, protests and demonstrations are held that often result in confrontations with the police. Without police protection, the fascists would not be able to maintain a presence in the neighborhoods. Fortunately, at least for now, they only have two really active neighborhood committees in Athens. In some working class neighborhoods such as those in western Athens, near the Piraeus, they have a certain amount of influence. In those districts, however, the neighborhood assemblies openly confront them. In our neighborhood there is neither a fascist presence nor any immigrant hunting, but this is due, in part, to our presence and constant vigilance. In my opinion, the antifascist struggle consists more in building our own structures and the kind of world we want—which is basically antifascist in essence—than in denouncing them with speeches.

In May 2011, following in the footsteps of the movement of the indignados [in Spain] and the occupation of Syntagma Square, there was a second wave of assemblies in Athens. In our neighborhood, militants from one part of the radical left called for the creation of another assembly in which we also participated. Soon, however, major differences arose among us. If you want to create a space for dialogue with people who act in a paternalistic and condescending way, like leaders, you will necessarily have conflicts. During this period the assemblies were inundated with demands such as a proposal to nationalize the Bank of Greece. People who wanted an open debate soon lost interest and this second wave did not last very long. The assemblies controlled by the leftists could not, or did not want to, propose concrete demands concerning health, education or food security. In short, they did not try to promote another way of life, beyond the capitalist system which is collapsing all around us. Do we need to nationalize the Bank? This is not the correct question, in my view.

A third wave of assemblies took place when the State implemented a special extra tax on everyone’s electricity bills: “those who do not pay the tax, will have their electricity cut off”. The tax and the attempts to fight against it have accentuated the differences between the assemblies. Some of them were composed of people who were concerned about having their electricity cut off and simply asked the more politically active participants to solve the problem for them. Some accepted this role, although this implied the abandonment of horizontal organization in favor of the logic of delegation.

Our assembly also issued an appeal to organize around the issue of these special taxes. It is very dynamic and is actually quite radical: our neighborhoods do not have to undergo electricity cut-offs, whether because of non-payment of the tax or for any other reason. For us, electricity is a vital good.

The assembly went to the tax offices and forced the company that was contracted to implement the electricity cut-offs to leave the neighborhood. Later, we went to the local headquarters of the electricity company to cut off its electricity. Today, we have established neighborhood patrols to prevent the technicians from the electric company from cutting off our electricity. At the present time, along with the antifascist struggle, this is the main fight that the assemblies are waging.

greekanarchists

The assembly movement owes a great deal to what took place in Argentina. Although there is no direct connection, the influence is real. During the first general strikes, we were inspired by the Argentinian experience, and later also by the Tunisian and Egyptian events. Another important influence was the self-reduction movements in Italy during the seventies: groups organized to not pay rents, electric bills or transport fares. In our assembly, particularly, many people were inspired by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and its quest for autonomy. We participate in solidarity actions with these struggles in our neighborhood.

One factor that all these different sources of inspiration have in common, which is present in the assemblies, is the will to organize horizontally, without political parties: although there are party militants in the assemblies, they only participate in the assemblies as individuals, without labels. The political foundations of the assemblies are autonomy and the will to create structures outside capitalism, based on sharing and solidarity. In our assembly, there are basic positions that have been arrived at after long discussions. We are always seeking a consensus in order to find a way to move forward together.

In Greece, there is much less belief in institutions, in the idea of the social contract and representation, than in France. It is fertile ground both for anti-authoritarian ideas as well as for hyper-authoritarian ideas. Here, it is much easier than it is in France to associate on common bases with people from diverse political backgrounds. On the other hand, however, the danger of becoming a closed group also exists: finding a way to keep the assemblies open to recent arrivals is a never-ending task.

After the revolt of 2008-2009 we were continuously trying to keep abreast of what was happening. What the neighborhood assemblies have once again contributed, as a possibility, was precisely not to restrict our demands to things that were taken away from us and instead to move towards the world we want to create. But the obstacles are numerous and the repression suffered by the political militants, the rise of Golden Dawn, the explosion of unemployment and the constant violence against immigrants prevent us from devoting ourselves to a program as if nothing else was happening.

One of the weak points of the movement is the fact that the moments of resurgence have never obtained any concrete results. The general assembly of the neighborhood assemblies was one of those moments. In November 2011 all the existing assemblies convened in one assembly: forty in Athens, with four hundred representatives and a good dynamic. But it quickly ran out of steam. It obtained no concrete victories and this was a source of discouragement, creating a feeling of defeat that is very acute at the present time. This feeling is also in part caused by the fact that the neighborhood assemblies do not appear to be viable solutions for the organization of everyday life.

The will to create structures based on self-organization and autonomy poses numerous questions: how can they be built while simultaneously going beyond the logic of charity and philanthropy? How can we create our own autonomy in an environment in which everything has been stolen, where we cannot produce anything for ourselves, especially in the urban setting? What do we have to do to get people to really participate? When we organize collective kitchens or barter markets, we have to constantly explain that they are not ordinary distribution services.

I do not think there is a really convincing answer to these problems, we have to be patient. The way I see it, in the very large assemblies people are inclined to delegate tasks to others and to accept the representation of a small group, whereas when there are more personal relations and more contacts, there is correspondingly greater equality in participation. It is a question of relations. There are not many people who think that we can live without anyone’s help, without a basis of consensus and dialogue, and that we can reclaim our lives on an individual basis.

I get the impression, however, that, as the State and the economic system decline and fall, more “grey zones” will arise and other modes of organization and relations will become possible. The role of the assemblies will be crucial in this. Not only do we have to keep the home fires burning, but we also have to make the fire last longer. New structures appear in Greece with each passing month. From this perspective, the movement is on the right path.

Translated in December 2014 from the Spanish translation published in the Spanish journal, Argelaga, No. 5, Fall 2014 (Available online at: https://argelaga.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/en-grecia-el-estado-se-hunde-los-barrios-se-organizan/).

Originally published in French under the title, “L’etat s’effondre, les quartiers s’organisent”. Retour sur le mouvement des assemblées de quartier. La revue Z, No. 7, 2013. Dossier Grèce: Thessalonique dans la dépression européenne. Bricolages quotidiens et résistances insolvables.

Greek-protests-Athens_714579

Janet Biehl: Further Reflections on the Revolution in Rojava

YPJ fighters

YPJ fighters

Continuing my coverage of the situation in Rojava with eyewitness reports from Janet Biehl and David Graeber, here I reproduce an edited interview with Janet Biehl where she provides some more detailed information regarding what is happening there. The unedited interview can be found at: http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/poor-in-means/. Biehl continues to highlight the influence of Murray Bookchin and the similarities between his ideas and what is being accomplished in Rojava. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included selections from Murray Bookchin and David Graeber on direct democracy, as well as excerpts from an earlier interview Janet Biehl did with a member of the Kurdish movement for communal democracy and autonomy.

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Poor in Means But Rich in Spirit

Rojava seemed to me to be poor in means but rich in spirit. The people are brave, educated and dedicated to defending their revolution and their society. Their revolution is grassroots-democratic, gender equal, and cooperative. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The people of Rojava are showing the world what humanity is capable of.

Rojava’s system is similar to Bookchin’s ideas in the most crucial way: power flows from the bottom up. The base of Bookchin’s system is the citizens’ assembly. The base of Rojava’s is the commune. One of my questions before arriving was whether Rojava’s communes were assemblies of all citizens or rather meetings of their delegates or representatives in a council. But I found out that the communes are made of up a neighborhood’s households, and that anyone from those households may attend and participate in a meeting. That’s an assembly.

Another similarity is that in both systems power flows upward through various levels. Citizens’ assemblies can’t exist in isolation–they have to have a mechanism by which they interconnect with their peers, yet one that remains democratic. Rojava’s solution is the people’s council system that rises through several tiers: the neighborhood, the district, the city, and the canton. Bookchin, by contrast, spoke of towns and neighborhoods confederating. Murray called the broader levels “confederal councils,” where as in Rojava they are called people’s councils at every level, or even “house of the people.”

In both cases they are made up of mandated delegates, not representatives as in a legislature. Rojava’s delegates–called co-presidents–convey the wishes of the people [at] the next level up–they don’t act on their own initiative. So that’s another similarity. In Rojava, the people’s councils aren’t made up only of co-presidents from the lower levels; they also comprise people elected to enter at that level. The councils seem to be quite large. I think that’s a good idea.

In addition to the council system, Rojava has a transitional government in place as well, a built-in dual power. The council system is separate from it but also carries the wishes of the people into it, through various mechanisms.

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

Bookchin wrote extensively about the revolutionary process, in his histories of revolutionary movements. You can’t make a revolution just any day, he would point out; history has to be on your side; only at times does a “revolutionary situation” develop, when it’s possible to change the system. He lamented that all too often, when a revolutionary situation came around, the revolutionaries weren’t ready for it. They longed for an opportunity to make change, but they did not organize in advance, and so when the revolutionary situation developed, they missed their chance.

Rojavans did not make the common mistake. They prepared for decades before the revolutionary situation happened,building counterinstitutions, creating a structured counterpower. The Qamislo massacre of 2004 taught them that they had not prepared sufficiently, so they intensified their preparations. So when the revolutionary situation came in 2012, they were ready. When the regime collapsed, leaving a power vacuum, the counterinstitutions were in place to take power, and they did.

Rojavans understand something else Murray argued too, about power. The issue is not to abolish power–that can’t be done. The issue, is rather, to define who has the power: will it be a regime, or will it be the people? Rojavans understood when the moment arrived that power was theirs for the taking, and they took it. He would have applauded heartily.

And finally, I think he would have commended the work of Tev-Dem, a movement of civil society organizations established in order to create the council system–communes and other institutions of democratic self-rule. I think he would have commended Rojavans’ imagination in inventing a movement whose purpose is to create democratic self-government…

Rojavan women

Rojavan women

Misogyny is deeply rooted in the Middle East. Women have fewer rights there than almost anywhere else in the world. Their intelligence and value are denigrated. They may be married while still girls. Their husbands can beat them with impunity, and husbands can have plural wives. And when a woman is sexually abused, her male relatives blame her and may commit an honor killing or even coerce her into committing an honor suicide. She is often excluded from education and from working outside the home, and she is certainly forbidden to participate in public life.

In Rojava this grim condition is undone, as the whole society is committed to creating equality for the sexes. Girls are educated along with boys. They can choose any profession. Violence against women is forbidden. A woman who experiences domestic violence can bring the problem to a public meeting, where it is discussed and investigated. Above all they may participate in public life. In Rojava’s democratic self-government, a meeting must consist of 40 percent women. The institutions have no individual heads–they must always have two co-presidents, one man and one woman. An elaborate series of women’s councils exists alongside the general councils. Women’s councils have veto power over decisions that affect women. Rojava’s defense forces consist of units for men and units for women.

In many places we were told that Rojava’s revolution is a women’s revolution; that a revolution that does not alter the status of women really isn’t a revolution at all; that transforming the status of women transforms the whole society; that freedom for women is inseparable from freedom of society; and even that women are “the main actors in economy, society, and history.” Such ideas are taught not only in the women’s academies and the Mesopotamian Academy but also in, for example, the academies that train the defense and security forces. At the Asayis academy in Rimelan, we were told that half the educational time is dedicated to equality of the sexes…

rojava commune

Rojava’s social contract affirms the inclusion of all minorities, by name. When we met with Nilüfer Koc, co-president of the KNK, she defined Democratic Autonomy not in terms of democracy but expressly as “unity in diversity.”

We met a group of Assyrians in Qamislo, who explained to us that the Baath regime had recognized only Arabs as the sole ethnicity in Syria. Like Kurds, Assyrians had no cultural rights and were barred from organizing a political party. But in the summer of 2012 the revolution founded the self-government, and since then the Assyrians have experienced both improvements in their condition. The revolution established three official languages; Kurdish, Arabic, and Soryani (the Assyrians’ language). Assyrians even have their own defense unit, the Sutoro.

Of course, our delegation couldn’t examine the whole society under a microscope. But we asked the group of Assyrians what difficulties they experienced with the self-government. They responded that they have no difficulties. They participate in the people’s councils at all levels. We learned that in the transitional government each minority must have 10 percent of the seats in parliament, even when they don’t have 10 percent of the population. That’s positive discrimination.

Most important, the Assyrian women have organized themselves. They believe that women are essential to democracy, and that democracy is essential to women. “Self-government means,” said one Assyrian woman, “that women are more effective and can participate and can learn to become leaders. … We have in common with Kurdish women the wish to defend the society. … We have relations with Kurdish and Arab women … The Assyrian Women’s Organization also includes Arab women. We want to improve the condition of all women in this area, not only Assyrian women.”

It is one further splendid aspect of this “women’s revolution”: women of all ethnicities share the same problems from traditional society. In Rojava the equality of the sexes ties women together across ethnic lines, bringing everyone closer together.

a female Asayis

a female Asayis

Rojava has been fighting a long, grueling war of self-defense against ISIS, and to that end the self-government maintains defense forces (YPG, YPJ) and security forces (Asayis). Arming these men and women, providing them with food and uniforms, and meeting other military needs consumes 70 percent of the budget. The remaining 30 percent goes to public services. Rojava considers health and education to be basic human needs, and on that slim budget, it finances public systems for both.

The main economic activity in Cizire is agriculture. With its fertile soil and good growing conditions, the canton is rich in wheat and barley. Before the revolution it was the breadbasket of Syria. Notably, the Baath regime declined to build processing facilities in Rojava, even flour mills. The self-government built one only recently, at Tirbespiye, and now provides flour for the whole canton. Bread remains the staff of life–each household gets three loaves of bread a day, which the self-government provides at 40 percent below cost.

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

For the last two years the self-government has supplied seeds to the farmers, and diesel for their machinery, so they can continue to cultivate their lands. The self-government has also created local companies to develop infrastructure and to build roads. And it finances the refugee camps in the Kurdish areas. Humanitarian institutions are present there too, but only symbolically–they don’t finance electricity, water, or education, because Rojava is not internationally recognized; the agencies have to work through the KRG and Damascus, which doesn’t allow it. So Rojava must provide for them. The result is an economy of survival. Electricity and clean water are in limited supply.

Some Rojavans earn wages, but many work on a voluntary basis; still others just make their living, say, from a cow. “We consume bread together,” Hemo said, “and if there is no bread, we do not get bread.”

A sewing co-op in Rojava

A sewing co-op in Rojava

Still, at the top of the economic development agenda is the creation of cooperatives, in Rojava’s “community economy.” “Our political project and our economic project are the same,” said Abdurrahman Hemo, an adviser for economic development in Cizire canton. For two years Cizire has been promoting cooperativism through academies, seminars, and community discussions, and is building them in different sectors. Most of the cooperatives are agricultural, but others are springing up in trades and construction.

Rojava collects no taxes from its people, and receives a small income from the border crossing at Semalka. But most of Rojava’s income by far comes from Cizire’s oil. The canton has thousands of oilfields, but at the moment only 200 of them are active. Once again, the Baath regime exploited Cizire’s raw materials but refused to construct processing plants. So while Cizire has petroleum, it had no refineries. Only since the revolution has the self-government improvised a large refinery to produce diesel and benzene, which are sold cheaply in the local economy. Diesel is now cheaper than water–it fuels the small generators that provide power in much of Cizire. But the canton exploits petroleum only for its own use…

Rojava shares a long border with Turkey, and several border crossings exist. But they are officially closed now, since Turkey embargoes Rojava both politically and economically. The KRG observes Turkey’s embargo, although it has relaxed in recent months to allow trade through the Semalka crossing. But because of the virtually complete embargo, Rojava must build everything itself from local materials. It gets no investment from outside–all production and all consumption are domestic. Self-sufficiency is not ideology–it’s an economic reality.

The principles of democratic autonomy are anti-capitalist, but Rojava has in any case no economic surplus that can be used to develop the economy. The economic development adviser, Hemo, is seeking outside investment. “We want to be self-sufficient,” he told us, “but to develop quality of life, we need some kind of industry.” Rojava needs a power plant and a fertilizer factory. But the cooperative economy can’t finance industry at that level, he told us. “We need help from outside, private or public, so we can build our social economy together.”

In what is called the “open economy,” outside investment is welcomed as long as it conforms to the social nature of Rojava’s “community economy.” Without outside investment, Hemo believes, Rojava can survive maybe only another year or two. But although Rojava must industrialize, it must not create a state economy, or a centralized economy. Even with outside investment, it should remain locally organized: “We need a common economy, and factories should be communally owned.”

But outside investment is lacking, because Rojava’s existence is not internationally recognized. Potential investors have no legal access–they have to go through the KRG and Damascus. And they have no physical access–the absence of border crossings with Turkey. To survive, Rojava needs openings to the outside world. It seems clear that Turkey must open its borders and allow this noble and high-minded project to continue.

Janet Biehl, December 2014

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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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