Kobane Under Attack

ISIS attacks Kobane

ISIS attacks Kobane

Alarming news from Kobane – an ISIS attack that has likely resulted in the massacre of around 200 hundred people. While it appears that the armed forces in Kobane have repelled this latest ISIS assault, the situation remains very dangerous. The people of Kobane and Rojava need our support now more than ever. Below, I reproduce excerpts from a recent report by Zaher Baher from the Haringey Solidarity Group and Kurdistan Anarchists Forum on the possibility and need for an independent economic path in Rojava. Previously, I posted reports by David Graeber and Janet Biehl on social reconstruction in Rojava. In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included selections from Kurdish anarchists and Janet Biehl on the possibilities of a libertarian social revolution in Kurdish areas in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society)

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society)

Kobane and its Reconstruction

The war and sanctions indeed made life in Kobane and the rest of Rojava miserable for a long time but in my opinion both factors played a major role in [the survival of] the whole of Rojava.

The war there introduced Rojava to the world and particularly leftists, communists, socialists, trade unionists, anarchists and libertarians. It brought love, support and solidarity to Rojava and its people. Hundreds of people from different countries travelled there to be in the front line against ISIS and a few of them lost their lives. Hundreds more went there as journalists and aid and community workers to show their support and solidarity.

[S]anction[s] against Rojava by Turkey, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the regional countries all also played a role in Rojava[‘s survival]. [These factors] prevented corruption, money [and] capital [entering], and hindered exploitation by businessmen and landowners. The simple life of the region managed to go on. People had to rely on themselves, work voluntarily and collectively. The true natural relation between the people continued.

Now Kobane and the whole of Rojava enter the economic test which is difficult indeed. Many countries can resist military occupation but cannot survive an economic one. Launching an economic war by the big corporations and the international financial institutions can be devastating. This may start with the reconstruction of Kobane. Rebuilding it could bring death or the survival of Rojava as a whole by initiating its social revolution.

In my opinion rebuilding Kobane may take one of the following [routes]:
• Either through the work of big corporations and financial institutions, like [the] IMF, WB and ECB. This [would] no doubt benefit the big corporations in particular and the capitalist system in general as happened, by imposing so many dramatic conditions, in Africa and South America.
• Or through international support and solidarity of leftists, communists, trade unionists, socialists, anarchists and libertarians. This of course is a slow process but it is the only way that Kabane can be rebuilt solidly… avoiding the influence of the big corporations.
• It could also be done by contracting out some of the projects to some companies to supply materials and expertise but the actual work to be done collectively by the people… provided a close watch and scrutiny [by] the DSAs [Democratic Self-Administration] and the Tev-Dem [Movement for a Democratic Society] could be imposed.

There is currently a big discussion among the politicians, academics and economists about the rebuilding [of] Kobane and the future economy of Rojava. In fact a big conference was held in Amed in early May regarding rebuilding Kobane but so far no decision has been taken. While I was in Bakur I spoke to many people in important positions. They all rejected the big corporations and explained that this is their own official and firm view.

[Deciding not to rebuild] Kobane through the big corporations and the international financial institutions is [an] excellent decision against the interests of the US and the Western countries and keeps their powers out. In the meantime it is our duty to help and support whatever we can to participate in [the] reconstruction of Kobane in order to protect this shining experiment. We should not let the blood of thousands of people who [sacrificed] themselves to liberate Kobane and protect the social revolution in Rojava to go in vain.

Zaher Baher, June 2015

kobane solidarity

Do Not Fear Anarchy – Available Soon

We Do Not Fear the Cover

In anticipation of the forthcoming publication on June 16, 2015 by AK Press of my latest book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, AK press is selling it in advance at the introductory price of only $15.75 USD. That’s for my 275 page history of the origins of the international anarchist movement from the debates and struggles within the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), the so-called First International, which was founded at a congress of predominantly English and French workers in September 1864. Previously, I posted excerpts from the Introduction. Here, I provide some excerpts from the concluding chapter, “The End (of the International) and the Beginning (of the anarchist movement).” Order your copy now, before it goes back up to its regular list price of $21.00.

The International

The International

From the International to an international anarchist movement and beyond

By the turn of the century, anarchist ideas and movements were spreading across the globe, with significant anarchist movements in Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico and Peru, smaller but noteworthy movements in England, the United States, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Holland and Belgium, and emerging anarchist movements in Japan and China. Even the Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm had to concede that before the 1917 Russian Revolution, “the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist, or at least much closer to the ideas and the mood of anarcho-syndicalism than to that of classical marxism.”

The anarchists within the International played an important role in establishing anarchism as a worldwide movement. It was the anarchists in the International who debated and developed the leading ideas of modern anarchism. The issues they raised continue to reverberate to this very day.

One of the key points made by the anarchists in the International was the need for revolutionary organizations to mirror the society which they hoped to achieve. In order for any revolution to succeed in liberating people and to avoid one ruling class simply replacing another, the organizational structures used to transform society must be voluntary, non-hierarchical, non-coercive and self-empowering. Hence the anarchist insistence that means be consistent with ends, and that everyone should have an equal voice. Instead of party or governmental type organizations with bureaucratic hierarchies and “representatives” who at best represent the interests of a few, the anarchists insisted on individual autonomy, voluntary association and the use, only when necessary, of recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates with no independent policy making powers of their own.

Tensions and disagreements arose among the anarchist themselves within the International regarding exactly which types of organization, if any, were conducive to achieving an anarchist society (or “anarchy,” in a positive sense). Bakunin, and since his time, the Platformists, have argued in favour of “dual organization,” with dedicated groups of anarchists sharing a common platform or program forming their own organizations which then work within broader based organizations or movements, such as the International itself, to steer those movements and organizations in an anarchist direction. Others, particularly the anti-organizationalists, objected that such organizations created an elite group of revolutionaries, or vanguard, that would act as the de facto leadership of these broader based movements and organizations, assuming control of them instead of fostering the self-empowerment of the people.

A middle course was sketched out by Malatesta, who was critical of the Platformists but rejected the extreme position of the anti-organizationalists. Malatesta also developed a perceptive critique of the International itself, and the anarchists’ role within it. The rapid ideological evolution among the various delegates to the International’s congresses, Malatesta later wrote, “quickly turning mutualist, collectivist, communist, revolutionary, and anarchist,” was not “reflective of any actual and simultaneous evolution in the vast majority of members” of the International, which was originally formed as an international association of workers for the purpose of providing “a broader base for the economic struggle against capitalism,” not as a revolutionary organization.

IWMA membership card

IWMA membership card

All of the various factions within the International, whether Proudhonist, Marxist, Blanquist or anarchist, “tried to force events rather than relying upon the force of events.” The International could not be “simultaneously a society for economic resistance, a workshop of ideas, and a revolutionary association.” While Malatesta clearly saw a role for specific anarchist organizations, he felt that the workers’ own organizations should be independent of any particular political group, including anarchist ones. It was up to the workers to find their own path, with anarchists fighting alongside them instead of dragging them along behind them. The adoption of an anarchist approach should “happen freely and gradually, as consciences expand and understanding spreads,” rather than the anarchists striding ahead alone under “the illusion that the masses understood and [were] following them,” or, worse, trying to foist their views on others.

Malatesta also pointed out the limitations of workers’ congresses and majority rule. In practical terms, “congresses are attended by whoever wishes and can, whoever has enough money and who has not been prevented by police measures.” Consequently, they are not even truly representative bodies. The only congresses compatible with anarchist values are those which do not attempt “to lay down the law;” any decisions emanating from them must not be “obligatory rules but suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved,” and which “do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and [only] for as long as they accept them.”

When decisions are made by a majority vote of delegates to a congress, at best the decisions are made “by the majority of a majority, and these could easily, especially when the opposing opinions are more than two, represent only a minority.” Although “it is often necessary for the minority to come to accept the opinion of the majority” because “there is an obvious need or usefulness in doing something and to do it requires the agreement of all,” such “adaptation on the one hand by one group must on the other be reciprocal, voluntary and must stem from an awareness of need and of goodwill to prevent the running of social affairs from being paralyzed by obstinacy” rather than being “imposed as a principle and statutory norm.”

As for the use of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, as the experience of the Hague Congress demonstrated, this can lead to abuses. Delegates can act contrary to their mandates, supporting measures that the group they represent rejects. After such measures are passed at the congress, the group must then accept them against their wishes, or repudiate them at the risk of being expelled from the organization for going against the so-called will of the “majority.” Delegates who remain true to their mandates cannot vote on issues for which they have no mandate, giving free rein to delegates of opposing views and those who do not wish to conform to the mandates which they have been given.

With respect to specifically anarchist organizations, Malatesta was of the view that anarchists would be able to exert more influence over the course of events by associating together, whether for the purposes of propaganda, agitation or revolutionary action. He also argued that the rejection of public organization to avoid police prosecution actually made it easier for the authorities to suppress the anarchist movement by isolating anarchists and cutting them off from broader public support. Yet he also recognized that people have differing views, such that the creation of a unified anarchist movement, as envisaged by the Platformists, was a chimera. Instead of trying to achieve ideological uniformity, Malatesta suggested that anarchists of different tendencies simply organize their own groups, which was consistent with the general anarchist view in favour of voluntary association.

The Workers Themselves

The Workers Themselves

But what should the relationship be between anarchist groups and broader based social movements? Recalling the International slogan that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves, Malatesta reminded his fellow anarchists that they were “not out to emancipate the people; we want to see the people emancipate themselves.” What anarchists therefore needed to do was to foster “all manner of popular organizations” in order to accustom people to act for themselves, without relying on people in positions of authority to act for them.

Within the anti-authoritarian International there had been differing views regarding whether the anarchists should strive to create mass based organizations that would become powerful enough to sweep away the existing social system and whether these should be exclusively working class organizations. Some anarchists focused on the idea of the revolutionary commune, and others advocated interlocking federations of producer, consumer and communal or geographical groups. Still others came to adopt Malatesta’s view that what anarchists should be doing is working with people in their own organizations, such as trade unions, encouraging them to take direct action and to work towards the social revolution.

The two most prominent anarchist currents that emerged from the anti-authoritarian International were anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist communism, with the anarcho-syndicalists advocating the transformation of society by means of revolutionary trade unions that would provide the basis for a post-revolutionary society, and the anarchist communists advocating interlocking networks of ever changing voluntary associations to meet people’s multifarious needs and wants. For the most part, the disagreements between the anarcho-syndicalists and the anarchist communists were not over libertarian communism, as most of the anarcho-syndicalist organizations eventually adopted programs in favour of communism as opposed to collectivism. The disagreement was over how to achieve anarchist communism and what an anarchist communist society would look like.

As Malatesta pointed out, the problem with mass based trade union organizations is that many of their members were not anarchists, nor even revolutionaries. To maintain or increase their membership, the unions had to represent the interests of all of their members and achieve immediate improvements in working conditions. While a useful means for demonstrating the value of solidarity and sometimes increasing class consciousness, the unions either tended toward conservatism, as in England, or, like the International, had a leadership far more radical than most of its members.

Kropotkin’s views were similar to Malatesta’s. Although he believed that the “syndicate is absolutely necessary,” being “the only form of workers’ association which allows the direct struggle against capital to be carried on without a plunge into parliamentarianism,” he recognized, as did Malatesta, that the syndicate “does not achieve this goal automatically, since in Germany, in France and in England, we have the example of syndicates linked to the parliamentary struggle, while in Germany the Catholic syndicates are very powerful, and so on.” Kropotkin believed, with Bakunin, that it was necessary for anarchists to work within the unions in order to spur the workers on to revolution.

While Malatesta advocated working within unions, he advised anarchists against assuming any positions of authority within them. Anarchists needed to preserve their independence in order to keep the workers on a revolutionary path, avoiding the inevitable compromises that all but the most dictatorial of leaders must make when representing a broad based constituency with conflicting views and interests, and when having to work within the existing economic and political systems.

Malatesta quote 2

Other anarchist communists preferred to work within small affinity groups, but these different forms of organization were not mutually exclusive. In Spain, for example, the most dedicated anarchists maintained close knit affinity groups while at the same time working within the broader based anarchist workers’ federations. Today, many anarchists advocate not only working within broader based social movements, but helping to establish popular movements that from their inception adopt decentralized, affinity group based organizational structures that form horizontal networks and popular assemblies where power remains at the base, not in a hierarchical administration, bureaucracy or executive.

But this concept can also be traced back to the International, for it was the federalists, anti-authoritarians and anarchists in the International who insisted that the workers’ own organizations, including the International itself, should be directly democratic, voluntary federations freely federated with one another, for they were to provide the very basis for the future free society. Contemporary anarchists have simply developed more sophisticated ways of implementing these ideas and preventing movements from being co-opted and transformed into top down organizations.

Gone is the “inverted” pyramid of the 19th century anarchists, with smaller scale groups federating into larger and more encompassing federations, ultimately resulting in international federations composed of groups from lower level federations, such as national or regional federations. The problem with these kinds of federations is that the higher level federations can be transformed into governing bodies, particularly in times of crisis, as Marx and Engels attempted to transform the International’s General Council into an executive power after the suppression of the Paris Commune.

Instead of federations organized “from the bottom up,” many contemporary anarchists advocate interlocking horizontal networks like those used in various global movements against neo-liberalism, the “horizontalidad” movement in Argentina and the Occupy movement, networks with no centres, not even administrative or “federalist” ones. These contemporary movements have been able, at least for a time, to break out of the isolation to which autonomous anarchist communist groups in late 19th century Europe were prone prior to the renewed involvement of many anarchists in the workers’ movement in the mid-1890s, which gave rise to various revolutionary and anarchist syndicalist movements in Europe and the Americas.

What is different about contemporary anarchist approaches to organization is that they bridge the gap between the affinity group, popular assemblies and broader networks of similar organizations and movements in a way that 19th century anarchist communist groups were unable to do, without relying on the more permanent forms and institutions utilized by the anarcho-syndicalists in their federalist organizations. Syndicalist organizations were always in danger of being transformed into top down bureaucratic organizations, as eventually happened with the French CGT during the First World War and even more so after the Russian Revolution, when the CGT came under the control of the Marxists. Under the pressure of the Spanish Civil War, even the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in Spain began turning into a bureaucratic organization.

In many ways, these contemporary forms of anarchist organization mirror the anarchist communist vision of a society in which, in Kropotkin’s words, “ever modified associations… carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all.” By making these kinds of organizations, like affinity groups, the basis of their horizontal networks, contemporary anarchists have created non-hierarchical organizations that not just prefigure, but realize in the here and now, the organizational forms consonant with an anarchist communist future, within the context of broader movements for social change.

Robert Graham, June 2015

volume-3

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.

tev-dem1

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.

rojava people

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

kurds

Police Violence

walter_scott

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

Occupy-utopia94

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.

greece-assemblies

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.

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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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David Graeber: There is a Real Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava

In this post I reproduce an edited version of an interview with David Graeber that was recently published in Turkish by the daily paper, Evrensel. Graeber was part of the group that included Janet Biehl which recently visited Rojava to eyewitness what is happening there. I have already posted some of Biehl’s initial impressions, and previously reproduced Graeber’s call for support for the people of Rojava. In this interview, Graeber emphasizes that a genuine anti-capitalist libertarian revolution is taking place in Rojava, and criticizes those on the left, including the more sectarian anarchist groups, who can only criticize what is going on, when the people of Rojava desperately need our help. I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and anarchist alternatives to representative democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included several selections from Murray Bookchin in Volumes Two and Three, where he developed his ideas regarding a libertarian form of direct democracy based on community assemblies. The unedited version of the interview with David Graeber can be found here.

Revolutionary Women in Rojava

Revolutionary Women in Rojava

A Genuine Revolution

If anyone had any doubt in their minds about whether this was really a revolution, or just some kind of window-dressing, I’d say the visit put that permanently to rest. There are still people talking like that: This is just a PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) front, they’re really a Stalinist authoritarian organization that’s just pretending to have adopted radical democracy. No.

They’re totally for real. This is a genuine revolution. But in a way that’s exactly the problem. The major powers have committed themselves to an ideology that says real revolutions can no longer happen.

Meanwhile, many on the left, even the radical left, seem to have tacitly adopted a politics which assumes the same, even though they still make superficially revolutionary noises. They take a kind of puritanical ‘anti-imperialist’ framework that assumes the significant players are governments and capitalists and that’s the only game worth talking about. The game where you wage war, create mythical villains, seize oil and other resources, set up patronage networks: that’s the only game in town.

The people in Rojava are saying: We don’t want to play that game. We want to create a new game. A lot of people find that confusing and disturbing so they choose to believe it isn’t really happening, or such people are deluded or dishonest or naive.

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I find it remarkable how so many people in West see these armed feminist cadres, for example, and don’t even think on the ideas that must lie behind them. They just figured it happened somehow. ‘I guess it’s a Kurdish tradition.’ To some degree it’s orientalism of course, or simple racism. It never occurs to them that people in Kurdistan might be reading Judith Butler too. At best they think ‘Oh, they’re trying to come up to Western standards of democracy and women’s rights. I wonder if it’s for real or just for foreign consumption.’ It just doesn’t seem to occur to them they might be taking these things way further than ‘Western standards’ ever have; that they might genuinely believe in the principles that Western states only profess.

The reaction in the international anarchist communities has been decidedly mixed. I find it somewhat difficult to understand. There’s a very substantial group of anarchists–usually the more sectarian elements–who insist that the PKK is still a ‘Stalinist’ authoritarian nationalist group which has adopted Bookchin and other left libertarian ideas to court the anti-authoritarian left in Europe and America.

It’s always struck me that this is one of the silliest and most narcissistic ideas I’ve ever heard. Even if the premise were correct, and a Marxist-Leninist group decided to fake an ideology to win foreign support, why on earth would they choose anarchist ideas developed by Murray Bookchin? That would be the stupidest gambit ever. Obviously they’d pretend to be Islamists or Liberals, those are the guys who get the guns and material support.

Anyway I think a lot of people on the international left, and the anarchist left included, basically don’t really want to win. They can’t imagine a revolution would really happen and secretly they don’t even want it, since it would mean sharing their cool club with ordinary people; they wouldn’t be special any more. So in that way it’s rather useful in culling the real revolutionaries from the poseurs. But the real revolutionaries have been solid.

There were so many impressive things [in Rojava]. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anywhere else in the world where there’s been a dual power situation where the same political forces created both sides. There’s the ‘democratic self-administration,’ which has all the form and trappings of a state–Parliament, Ministries, and so on–but it was created to be carefully separated from the means of coercive power.

Then you have the TEV-DEM (The Democratic Society Movement), driven bottom up by directly democratic institutions. Ultimately–and this is key–the security forces are answerable to the bottom-up structures and not to the top-down ones.

One of the first places we visited was a police academy (AsayiÅ). Everyone had to take courses in non-violent conflict resolution and feminist theory before they were allowed to touch a gun. The co-directors explained to us their ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police.

I think most movements, faced with dire war conditions, would not nonetheless immediately abolish capital punishment, dissolve the secret police and democratize the army. Military units for instance elect their officers.

Rojava-10

The President of Cizire canton is an Arab, head of a major local tribe in fact. I suppose you could argue he was just a figurehead. In a sense the entire government is. But even if you look at the bottom-up structures, it’s certainly not just the Kurds who are participating. I was told the only real problem is with some of the ‘Arab belt’ settlements, people who were brought in by the Baathists in the 50s and 60s from other parts of Syria as part of an intentional policy of marginalizing and assimilating Kurds. Some of those communities they said are pretty unfriendly to the revolution.

But Arabs whose families had been there for generations, or the Assyrians, Khirgizians, Armenians, Chechens, and so on, are quite enthusiastic. The Assyrians we talked to said, after a long difficult relation with the regime, they felt they finally were being allowed religious [freedom] and cultural autonomy.

Probably the most intractable problem might be women’s liberation. The PYD and TEV-DEM see it as absolutely central to their idea of revolution, but they also have the problem of dealing with larger alliances with Arab communities who feel this violates basic religious principles. For instance, while the Syriac-speakers have their own women’s union, the Arabs don’t, and Arab girls interested in organizing around gender issues or even taking feminist seminars have to hitch on with the Assyrians or even the Kurds.

It is absolutely true that the US and European powers will do what they can to subvert the revolution. That goes without saying. The people I talked to were all well aware of it. But they didn’t make a strong differentiation between the leadership of regional powers like Turkey or Iran or Saudi Arabia, and Euro-American powers like, say, France or the US. They assumed they were all capitalist and statist and thus anti-revolutionary, who might at best be convinced to put up with them but were not ultimately on their side.

Then there’s the even more complicated question of the structure of what’s called ‘the international community,’ the global system of institutions like the UN or IMF, corporations, NGOs, human rights organizations for that matter, which all presume a statist organization, a government that can pass laws and has a monopoly of coercive enforcement over those laws. There’s only one airport in Cizire and it’s still under Syrian government control. They could take it over easily, any time, they say. One reason they don’t is because: How would a non-state run an airport anyway? Everything you do in an airport is subject to international regulations which presume a state.

[ISIS] can’t be seen to lose. Their entire recruiting strategy is based on the idea that they are an unstoppable juggernaut, and their continual victory is proof that they represent the will of God. To be defeated by a bunch of feminists would be the ultimate humiliation. As long as they’re still fighting in Kobane, they can claim that media claims are lies and they are really advancing. Who can prove otherwise? If they pull out they will have admitted defeat.

It seems [Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader] has shifted from an anti-Kurdish, anti-Assad policy to an almost purely anti-Kurdish strategy. Again and again he has been willing to ally with pseudo-religious fascists to attack any PKK-inspired experiments in radical democracy. Clearly, like Daesh (ISIS) themselves, he sees what they are doing as an ideological threat, perhaps the only real viable ideological alternative to right-wing Islamism on the horizon, and he will do anything to stamp it out.

Rojava-Car-MAIN

At the moment things look surprisingly good for the revolutionary [Kurdish] forces. The KDG even gave up the giant ditch they were building across the Rojava border after the PKK intervened to effectively save Erbil and other cities from ISIS back in August. One KNK person told me it had a major effect on popular consciousness there; that one month had done 20 years worth of consciousness raising. Young people were particularly struck by the way their own Peshmerga fled the field but PKK women soldiers didn’t. But it’s hard to imagine how the KRG territory however will be revolutionized any time soon. Neither would the international powers allow it.

I think the Kurdish struggle is quite explicitly anti-capitalist in both [Turkey and Rojava]. It’s their starting point. They’ve managed to come up with a kind of formula: One can’t get rid of capitalism without eliminating the state, one can’t get rid of the state without getting rid of patriarchy. However, the Rojavans have it quite easy in class terms because the real bourgeoisie, such as it was in a mostly very agricultural region, took off with the collapse of the Baath regime.

They will have a long-term problem if they don’t work on the educational system to ensure a developmentalist technocrat stratum doesn’t eventually try to take power, but in the meantime, it’s understandable they are focusing more immediately on gender issues. In Turkey, well, I don’t know nearly as much, but I do have the sense things are much more complicated.

I’ve spent my life thinking about how we might be able to do things like this in some remote time in the future and most people think I’m crazy to imagine it will ever be. These people are doing it now. If they prove that it can be done, that a genuinely egalitarian and democratic society is possible, it will completely transform people’s sense of human possibility. Myself, I feel ten years younger just having spent 10 days there.

There were so many striking images, so many ideas. I really liked the disparity between the way people looked, often, and the things they said. You meet some guy, a doctor, he looks like a slightly scary Syrian military type in a leather jacket and stern austere expression. Then you talk to him and he explains: ‘Well, we feel the best approach to public health is preventative, most disease is made possible by stress. We feel if we reduce stress, levels of heart disease, diabetes, even cancer will decline. So our ultimate plan is to reorganize the cities to be 70% green space.’ There are all these mad, brilliant schemes. But then you go to the next doctor and they explain how because of the Turkish embargo, they can’t even get basic medicine or equipment, all the dialysis patients they couldn’t smuggle out have died. There’ a disjuncture between their ambitions and their incredibly straightened circumstances.

The woman who was effectively our guide was a deputy foreign minister named Amina. At one point, we apologized that we weren’t able to bring better gifts and help to the Rojavans, who were suffering so under the embargo. And she said: ‘In the end, that isn’t very important. We have the one thing no one can ever give you. We have our freedom. You don’t. We only wish there was some way we could give that to you.’

I am by temperament an optimist, I seek out situations which bear some promise. I don’t think there’s any guarantee this one will work out in the end, that it won’t be crushed, but it certainly won’t [last] if everyone decides in advance that no revolution is possible and refuse to give active support, or even devote their efforts to attacking it or increasing its isolation, which many do.

If there’s something I’m aware of, that others aren’t, perhaps it’s the fact that history isn’t over. Capitalists have made a mighty effort these past 30 or 40 years to convince people that current economic arrangements–not even capitalism, but the peculiar, financialized, semi-feudal form of capitalism we happen to have today–is the only possible economic system. They’ve put far more effort into that than they have into actually creating a viable global capitalist system. As a result the system is breaking down all around us at just the moment when everyone has lost the ability to imagine anything else.

I think it’s pretty obvious that in 50 years, capitalism in any form we’d recognize, and probably in any form at all, will be gone. Something else will have replaced it. That something might not be better. It might be even worse. It seems to me for that very reason it’s our responsibility, as intellectuals, or just as thoughtful human beings, to try to at least think about what something better might look like. And if there are people actually trying to create that better thing, it’s our responsibility to help them out.

David Graeber, December 2014

kobane solidarity

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

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Assembly Democracy in Kurdistan

Kurdish Woman Defending Kobani

Kurdish Woman Defending Kobani

As the Kurds continue to defend Kobani from the ISIS assault, with very limited support (in fact, Turkey at first used the movement of Kurdish fighters into the area as an excuse for bombing Kurdish targets), I reproduce from Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas Janet Biehl’s 2012 interview with Ercan Ayboga,  in which he describes the development of a confederal democratic assembly movement among the Kurds, inspired in part by Murray Bookchin’s writings. Biehl has since translated into English a book of writings by members of the movement, Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation and Ecology (New Compass Press), available from AK Press.

Kurdish Democratic Society Congress

Kurdish Democratic Society Congress

The Democratic Assembly Movement in Kurdistan

Until the 1980s the Kurdish society was completely patriarchal. There were no women’s rights or feminist groups, not even among the more liberal Alevi Kurds. The most important dynamic in overcoming the patriarchal structures became the Kurdish freedom movement. And without women’s participation, the movement could not possibly have achieved broad popular support. By around 1990 women were participating widely in this movement, and between 1990 and 1992 women were leading demonstrations, which started to change the situation significantly. In the middle of 1990s a broad ideological discussion started in the movement, in which patriarchal structures in the whole society were criticized systematically. Since then, many women’s organizations have been founded in all areas of the struggle…

Today women are present in all the political structures, at all levels, in the Kurdish freedom movement, which is a result of the long gender discussion and of women’s struggle within the movement and in the democratic assemblies. For instance, in the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party], all chairperson positions must be held by a man and a woman, and there is a 40 percent requirement for both sexes in all management boards, public parliaments, and elected councils. As “gender liberation” is one of the three main principles used by the freedom movement besides “democracy” and “ecology,” a social perspective without women’s liberation is unthinkable.
Assembly democracy has limited roots in Kurdistan history and geography. …[T]he society’s village character was and is still fairly strong. Some villages had hierarchy and aghas (feudal big land owners), but in others, where these factors were absent, villages organized common meetings in the kom (village community) in which they made decisions. In many cases, older women participated in these meetings, but not young women.
In past centuries, tribes sometimes held assemblies with representatives from all families (or villages) in order to discuss important issues of the tribe or the larger society. The tribal leader carried out the decisions that the assembly accepted.
During their long history, Kurdish tribes used from time to time and from region to region a confederal organizational structure for facing political and social challenges. It was based on voluntariness, so not all tribes participated in the confederal structure. But in most of Kurdistan, many non-Kurdish tribes or societies were not much involved in the confederal system.
PKK Fighters

PKK Fighters

In the 1990s, as the Kurdish freedom movement grew stronger, an effort was made to build up assemblies in “liberated” villages. PKK [Kurdish Workers Party] guerrillas promoted village assemblies, and in villages where the guerrillas were strong, most of the people accepted them. But just as they were getting under way, the Turkish army destroyed 4,000 villages and their political structures. Thereafter the repression intensified. Since 2005, in some of the villages that were close to the freedom movement, this idea has been developed again. Some villages organize regular democratic assemblies, fully including women and all parts of the society.
The Kurdish freedom movement had its ideological sources in the 1968 student movement and the Turkish left’s Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyist, and other communist theories. At the end of the 1980s, the Kurdish freedom movement embarked on a critique of the actually existing (state) socialist model, and in later years it would be deepened. The critique of the 1990s said, among other points, that it’s important to change individuals and society before taking the power of any state, that the relationship between individuals and state must be organized anew and that instead of big bureaucratic-technocratic structures, a full democracy should be developed.
In 1999, when the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and the guerrilla forces were withdrawn to Iraqi Kurdistan, the freedom movement underwent a process of comprehensive strategic change. It did not give up the idea of socialism, but it rejected the existing Marxist-Leninist structure as too hierarchical and not democratic enough. Political and civil struggle replaced armed struggle as the movement’s center. Starting in 2000, it promoted civil disobedience and resistance (the Intifada in Palestine was also an inspiration).
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Further, the movement gave up the aim of establishing a Kurdish-dominant state, because of the existing difficult political conditions in the Middle East and the world; instead, it advanced a long-term solution for the Kurdish question within the four states Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria: democratic confederalism. It now considers it more important to have a democratic, social and tolerant society than to have one’s own state. For Turkey, it has proposed the foundation of a second or democratic republic…
The Kurdish freedom movement developed the idea of “democratic confederalism” not only from the ideas of communalist intellectuals but also from movements like the Zapatistas; from Kurdish society’s own village-influenced history; from the long, thirty-five-year experience of political and armed struggle; from the intense controversies within Turkish democratic-socialist-revolutionary movements; and from the movement’s continuous development of transparent structures for the broad population…
We foresee communalism as developing first in Turkish Kurdistan. Since 2007 the freedom movement has created democratic and decision-making assemblies in neighborhoods of cities where it is strong, particularly in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt, Mardin, Diyarbakir, Batman, and Van. The assemblies were established to make decisions on all common problems, challenges, and projects of the respective neighborhood according the principles of a base democracy–the whole population has the right to participate. In some of the assemblies, non-Kurdish people are participating, like Azerbaijanis and Aramaic people…
There are assemblies at several levels. At the bottom are the neighborhood assemblies. They choose the delegates that constitute the city assembly. In Diyarbakir, ideas are discussed in the city assembly, of which the city council is part—not officially, not legally, but in our system. If the city assembly makes a certain decision on an issue, then the city council members who are part of the city assembly will promote it. (But the city council also has members from the other parties, like the ruling AKP, which don’t agree with it.) The city council has the legal power to make decisions that become laws. But for the people, the city assembly is the legitimate body.
When decisions on a bigger scale have to be taken, the city and village assemblies of a province come together. In the provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak, the experience has had very positive results. The state authority has no influence on the population–the people don’t accept the state authorities. There are two parallel authorities, of which the democratic confederal structure is more powerful in practice.
 Rojava_cities
At the top of this model is the DTK (Democratic Society Congress), which brings together all Kurds in the Republic of Turkey. It consists of more than five hundred civil society organizations, labor unions, and political parties—they make up 40 percent of its members; 60 percent of its members are delegates from village assemblies.
The DTK provincial assemblies were crucial in electing the candidates for the Turkish parliament of the legal pro-Kurdish party, the BDP. For the last elections, the Diyarbakir provincial assembly decided on six candidates chosen by the DTK—those selected became candidates of the BDP for parliament. (Six of 36 elected candidates are now in prison—the court did not release them. We don’t know when or whether they will be liberated.)
Slowly but surely, democratic confederalism is gaining acceptance by more Turkish Kurds. Recently, the DTK presented a draft paper on democratic autonomy for Turkish Kurdistan. At a big meeting in Diyarbakir in July 14, 2011, the DTK declared itself in support of “democratic autonomy.” It seeks to realize democratic autonomy step by step, by Kurds’ own means, and especially where the Kurdish freedom movement is strong. Much of Kurdish society approved, but the idea was controversial in Turkish society.
One result of the discussions of democratic confederalism has been an objective to found new villages on the communalist idea or transform existing villages whose conditions are suitable for that. Such villages are to be democratic, ecological, gender equal, and/or even peace villages. Here peace not only refers to the armed conflict; it expresses the people’s relationships among themselves and with the natural world. Cooperatives are the economic and material base of these villages.
PKK Rally

BDP Rally

The first peace villages were developed in 2010. In Hakkari province, which borders Iraq and Iran and where the freedom movement is very strong, several villages decided to develop a cooperative economy. The new political and social relationship of the population and the economy are suitable for that, as the freedom movement is very strong there, with direct support from 90 percent of the society. Close to the city of Weranshah (Viranşehir), the construction of a new village with seventy households based on the idea of peace villages just started. In Van province, activists have decided to build a new ecological women’s village, which would be something special. This would enforce the role of women in the society. Women who have been victims of domestic violence will be accepted. These small communities could supply themselves with all or almost all the necessary energy.
In reality, the assembly model has not yet been developed broadly for several reasons. First, in some places the Kurdish freedom movement is not so strong. Almost half of the population in Turkey’s Kurdish areas still do not actively support it. In those places there are no few or no assemblies. Second, the discussions among the Kurds on democratic confederalism have not proceeded everywhere as well as they might.
And third, the repression by the Turkish state makes further development very difficult. About thirty-five hundred activists have been arrested in the past two and a half years, since 2009, which in many regions has significantly weakened the structures of democratic confederalism. There have been trials for two years. The military clashes between Turkish Army and the Kurdish guerrillas are once again on the increase… The state simply says these assemblies are coordinated by the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan), the umbrella structure of the leftist Kurdish freedom movement in Middle East ,of which today PKK is a part, which is an illegal structure, and that becomes the pretext for arresting them…The Turkish Kurds’ legal party, the BDP, proposes “democratic autonomy” for the whole republic… Generally it envisages a fundamental democratization in the Turkey’s political and administrative structure, achieving it through democratic participation by incorporating people into processes of decision-making. The essential vision is not to create smaller structures with characteristics of the nation-state; rather, the democratic decision-making structures in the societies should be developed through a combination of base democracy and council democracy.
And rather than being a purely “ethnic” and “territorial” conception, democratic autonomy proposes a regional and local structure through which cultural differences are able to freely express themselves. Thus it proposes to establish twenty to twenty-five regions in Turkey with major autonomous rights. These autonomous regions and their assemblies would also assume major responsibilities in fields like education, health, culture, agriculture, industry, social services and security, women, youth and sports. The central government would continue to conduct foreign affairs, finance and external defense services.
In addition, the Kurdish freedom movement demands that Turkish Kurdistan have control over its own “security,” or self-defense; and the right to manage the natural environment and natural resources. At the same time it demands that Turkish Kurdistan be able to establish specific social, cultural, economic and political ties with the other three parts of Kurdistan, in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Democratic Society Congress (DTK)

Democratic Society Congress (DTK)

In Turkey, the Kurdish freedom movement is in implementation phase, but in the three other parts, the Kurds are in the first stage of discussing democratic confederalism. The existing Kurdish parties and organizations that are not part of the Kurdish freedom movement give no importance to it. They support either full independence for Kurdistan or a classical model of autonomy and federation.
But organizations that are part of or close to the KCK, and intellectuals and small groups, promote democratic confederalism as well as the democratic autonomy project of the DTK. The thirty-five hundred activists arrested since 2009 have all been members of the KCK which is an illegal organization. Every two years they have meetings with delegates from all four countries—they meet secretly—in the mountains…
The Kurdish freedom movement has declared that it is not against existing state boundaries and does not want to change them. But at the same time the movement expects that the states respect all decisions of the population. The movement speaks of two authorities, the state and the population. In democratic confederalism, two different regions of neighboring states can come closer, for instance in terms of culture, education, economy, without challenging the existing states. But in a system of democratic confederalism, the Kurds of different states, or any other suppressed culture in more than two different states, would come closer after decades of separation. This aspect is still not defined well und needs to be discussed deeper.
The Kurdish freedom movement proposes democratic confederalism for all countries and cultures of Middle East, as it is more appropriate than the existing centralized, half-decentralized, or totalitarian political structures there. Before the twentieth-century foundation of nation-states in the Middle East, the structures did not control the societies deeply; the different regions had certain freedoms and self-government, and the tribal structures were dominant. Here many local structures are still strong and resist the state influence.
Further, in the Middle East the cultural diversity is so high that a communalist society could much better consider this richness. It would allow ethnically or religiously nondominant groups to organize themselves and contribute significantly to a dynamic cultural diversity. Direct democratic structures may make sense here too: in the recent uprisings in many countries, new democratic movements were born or have been strengthened. We would like to object to opinions that consider Arabs or other populations incapable of democratic thinking.
Excerpted from Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume Three: The New Anarchism (1974-2012), ed. Robert Graham
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David Graeber: Support the Kurds in Syria!

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In the piece below, David Graeber asks why the world is ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria, drawing a connection with the situation in Spain during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939), when the so-called democracies imposed an arms embargo on Spain, while Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist dictatorships not only provided the Spanish military and Falangists with the most up-to-date weapons, but even supplied some of their own armed forces, bombing civilian targets like Guernica, which provoked Pablo Picasso into creating one of his greatest art pieces in protest. The situation in Kobane is also reminiscent of the situation of the Paris Commune in May 1871, when the reactionary armed forces of the Versailles government attacked the revolutionary Communards, massacring 30,000 Parisians while the world looked on and the Prussians ensured that no outside help would arrive, much as Turkey is doing to the Kurds in Kobane.

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

Mujeres Libres in the Spanish Revolution

I included some selections by David Graeber on the “new anarchism” and democracy in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I also included a statement from Kurdish anarchists, and an interview that Janet Biehl conducted with PKK members regarding their adoption of a libertarian communalist approach inspired by Murray Bookchin. Volume One of the Anarchism anthology included several selections regarding the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and the Mujeres Libres group Graeber refers to below.

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) Meeting in Qamishli

Why is the world ignoring the revolutionary Kurds in Syria?

In 1937, my father volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic. A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.

Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow. Instead, world powers declared a policy of “non-intervention” and maintained a rigorous blockade on the republic, even after Hitler and Mussolini, ostensible signatories, began pouring in troops and weapons to reinforce the fascist side. The result was years of civil war that ended with the suppression of the revolution and some of a bloody century’s bloodiest massacres.

I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women’s and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the “YJA Star” militia (the “Union of Free Women”, the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.

How can something like this happen and still be almost entirely ignored by the international community, even, largely, by the International left? Mainly, it seems, because the Rojavan revolutionary party, the PYD, works in alliance with Turkey’s Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a Marxist guerilla movement that has since the 1970s been engaged in a long war against the Turkish state. NATO, the US and EU officially classify them as a “terrorist” organisation. Meanwhile, leftists largely write them off as Stalinists.

But, in fact, the PKK itself is no longer anything remotely like the old, top-down Leninist party it once was. Its own internal evolution, and the intellectual conversion of its own founder, Abdullah Ocalan, held in a Turkish island prison since 1999, have led it to entirely change its aims and tactics.

The PKK has declared that it no longer even seeks to create a Kurdish state. Instead, inspired in part by the vision of social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, it has adopted the vision of “libertarian municipalism”, calling for Kurds to create free, self-governing communities, based on principles of direct democracy, that would then come together across national borders – that it is hoped would over time become increasingly meaningless. In this way, they proposed, the Kurdish struggle could become a model for a wordwide movement towards genuine democracy, co-operative economy, and the gradual dissolution of the bureaucratic nation-state.

Since 2005 the PKK, inspired by the strategy of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, declared a unilateral ceasefire with the Turkish state and began concentrating their efforts in developing democratic structures in the territories they already controlled. Some have questioned how serious all this really is. Clearly, authoritarian elements remain. But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution. In the Middle East, at least, these efforts have been noticed: particularly after PKK and Rojava forces intervened to successfully fight their way through Isis territory in Iraq to rescue thousands of Yezidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar after the local peshmerga fled the field. These actions were widely celebrated in the region, but remarkably received almost no notice in the European or North American press.

Now, Isis has returned, with scores of US-made tanks and heavy artillery taken from Iraqi forces, to take revenge against many of those same revolutionary militias in Kobane, declaring their intention to massacre and enslave – yes, literally enslave – the entire civilian population. Meanwhile, the Turkish army stands at the border preventing reinforcements or ammunition from reaching the defenders, and US planes buzz overhead making occasional, symbolic, pinprick strikes – apparently, just to be able to say that it did not do nothing as a group it claims to be at war with crushes defenders of one of the world’s great democratic experiments.

If there is a parallel today to Franco’s superficially devout, murderous Falangists, who would it be but Isis? If there is a parallel to the Mujeres Libres of Spain, who could it be but the courageous women defending the barricades in Kobane? Is the world – and this time most scandalously of all, the international left – really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?

David Graeber, October 12, 2014

Picasso's Guernica

Picasso’s Guernica

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