Talking about Rojava
For all who are looking for an alternative to capitalist greed and ecological destruction, Rojava provides a real existing source of hope. If we want to build on that hope, then we need to show support not just through our enthusiasm, but also through our questions and criticisms.
Over twelve hundred people gathered in the University of Hamburg over the Easter week-end for three days of talks about the revolutionary changes being implemented by the Kurds in the autonomous area of Rojava in Northern Syria, and – where possible – in South East Turkey. A great majority of the people there were young. A fair number were Kurds living in Germany, but there were people from across the world for whom Hamburg’s Kurdish community had opened up their homes to make them welcome. This impressive show of enthusiasm for and solidarity with what, for many, is a distant part of the world, reflects the importance of the experiments in secular community-based democracy that are taking place there.
Inspired by the developing ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, and building on decades of leftist (as well as nationalist) resistance and organisation, the Kurds of Syria and Turkey have been turning their back on capitalist structures and capitalist values to build a new kind of society. This is based on the concept of communalism elaborated by the late American political theorist, Murray Bookchin, who envisaged confederated communities of active citizens engaged in a bottom-up direct democracy.  In a region known for patriarchal traditions and inter-religious and inter-ethnic dispute, they aim to be gender-equal, politically secular, and – despite their movement’s Kurdish origins – inclusive of all peoples. And they want to work with nature rather than conquer it.
This new society is being forged in the midst of oppression and war, which have provided both terrible opportunity and appalling danger. Many of us, me included, only woke up to what was happening in 2014, when ISIS threatened the newly autonomous Rojava, and the people of Kobanî defied the odds to hold out against the siege of their city. Among the endless photographs of Kurdish women fighters, were scraps about another, even more significant, battle; a battle to change the nature of society in both its organisation and its values so as to create a politics by and for local communities. Since then I have got involved with Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, and so I found myself in Hamburg, inspired but also questioning.
It is, of course, relatively easy to sit behind a computer and criticise an actual revolution for not following our prescribed revolutionary path; and when that criticism becomes aloof disengagement it deserves to be ignored. But if we are serious in our support for what is happening, then constructive questioning can serve as a contribution to the cause, and it is in this spirit that I submit the following observations. I am aware that what I am writing about is a work in progress, but criticism is an essential part of revolutionary process, which by its nature is never complete. An engaged criticism is needed both for the future of this actual experiment in grass-roots democracy and for those of us looking for inspiration for our own politics in different parts of the world. I am concerned that deference to the magnitude of what has been achieved, and acknowledgement of the magnitude of the forces stacked against that achievement, can allow enthusiasm to mask our more critical faculties. This applies both to the revolutionary achievements in Rojava, and also to the writings of Abdullah Öcalan. These should be the beginnings of debate and not the final word, despite the aura of his living martyrdom, shut away in a Turkish jail.
I will begin with the pivotal role given to women, because that was an almost unquestioned overarching theme of many of the speakers, reflecting its position in Öcalan’s writings. The achievement of the Kurds in both Syria and Turkey in liberating and mobilising women is truly inspiring and I wouldn’t want to detract from the importance of what is happening, or from the need to celebrate it and consolidate it. Practical structural changes ensure that women have a full role in social organisation (including through a co-chair system) and in the armed forces. However, I am concerned that this is being given a theoretical significance that could ultimately prove damaging.
Patriarchy has been a major and fundamental source of inequality and oppression, but it is dangerous to regard it as the fundamental source. While it has etymological origins in the Greek word for father, and the term can refer to dominance by senior men, patriarchy is commonly given a more fundamentally feminist definition, and is used to refer to a general and systemic subjugation of women by men, socially, politically and economically. This overarching vision can obscure the complications of actual social reality, with its interacting systems of hierarchy and power, which are associated with control of material resources. A person’s economic situation or class can be a much more significant factor than their gender; and, in addition, the significance of gender difference (as also of ethnicity) can vary with class position. No revolution is complete so long as any group is oppressed, and ending patriarchy is necessary: but it is not sufficient.
Of course the Kurds are clear that their aim is not just to make women equal with men. They want to change the whole nature of society away from capitalism towards communalism, or, to use their preferred term, democratic confederalism. But somehow this has all become subsumed under the heading of jineology – the study of woman, jin. Jineology takes its lead from the second wave feminism of the 1960s, which regarded violence, hierarchy, racism, and environmental destruction as all stemming from an intrinsic male need for dominance, and which created movements such as the Greenham Common women’s peace camp. Observation of post sixties more liberated societies and of spaces where men are absent do not support such a clear cut view, and we all know individuals of both sexes who promote these destructive concepts, and others who reject them. Why should they be linked to gender, and why is such linking acceptable to theorists who claim to reject dualisms? Similarly, why should communalism have any more logical claim to femininity than does, say, a French table or a German knife? A history of oppression does not endow a group with moral superiority, as Zionism so sadly demonstrates.
Jineology looks back, for support and inspiration, to the thesis that early forms of society were matriarchal. This is an idea that is still the subject of academic dispute and was taken up by Engels in The Origin of the Family, published in 1884. For Engels, the ‘defeat of the female sex’ was a result of the development of rights to material property that emerged alongside agriculture, but jineology tends to ignore such materialist arguments. Instead, jineology relies on an essentialised vision of gender difference, where dominant, hierarchical and mechanistic man contrasts with the idealised woman, who is in tune with nature and communal values by virtue of her sex. Thus, for the woman fighter who addressed us by video link from the Kurdish mountains, class society was a male paradigm while ecological society was female, and women embodied the essence of life itself. As Nina Berger observes in her Marxist critique of the women’s struggles in Rojava, these ideas leave women carrying a huge burden, which opens them up to potential blame if things go wrong. In some renderings jineology’s world view approaches a mirror image of the fall from Eden, where it is man that has forced (not tempted this time) woman from the path of natural harmony. As Eden is often identified with Mesopotamia, even the geography is the same.
This is not to dispute that motherhood generally awakens our caring instincts, or that, even in the relatively liberated West, women disproportionately fulfil a whole range of caring duties; but not all women are mothers and many would seek to avoid perpetuating such gendered roles. And while women have often built up better support networks than their male contemporaries, these may be as much a reaction to a relatively weaker position in society rather than to anything intrinsic. Cultural norms also value male self-reliance, but in certain situations, such as war, this can be overridden by a shared brotherhood. Women can also be intensely competitive. And most modern Western women have long severed their links with the land. All this is without even broaching the question of non-binary gender identities.
Framing the broader social question in terms of gender is not only wrong conceptually, but potentially dangerous. It obscures other fundamental sources of division in the unequal distribution of wealth and power. A focus on the oppression of women can leave other power divisions intact, whereas a focus on power as a whole can and must include its expression through gender relations. Worse, focusing primarily on women can serve to weaken resistance to those other power structures by dividing it along gender lines, so that poor and working-class women find it harder to recognise the oppression that they share with poor and working-class men.
This theoretical marginalisation of the wider origins of power inequality, and of its basis in the distribution of material resources, can have very serious practical consequences. Take land ownership. This is an important source of wealth and power, but despite all that has been achieved in Rojava, taking on private land ownership appears not to be a priority. A large part of the land had been nationalised by the Syrian Baathist regime (in an earlier, more state-socialist phase), and that is being shared out to community-run co-operatives. But despite the momentum of the revolution, no attempt has been made to bring the remainder of the land into public ownership. I realise that the people’s councils may be reluctant to make more enemies, but a community take-over could become more difficult in the future. In the current situation of war and trade embargo, the land owners have little opportunity to invest in using their wealth to support an alternative political system. However, if Rojava thrives and nothing has been done to restrict private land ownership, they might be tempted to use the power that this gives them, and even to indulge in the kind of economic sabotage carried out by business elites in Venezuela.
Öcalan’s prescription for taking over control from below leans on Bookchin’s writings on dual power, which give few clues on how to resist the inevitable reaction from existing power structures. The Kurds are only too aware of the powers lined up against them – it was even pointed out that many of the speakers from previous conferences are now in prison in Turkey – but how these powers can be successfully resisted is still an unresolved question. The Rojava revolution has been able to achieve fundamental social change because the Syrian war created a power vacuum. A bottom-up movement that was long-established and well-rooted was able to take control of local state and municipal structures with only minimal bloodshed. In Turkey the situation has been very different. There the organisations of dual power that were being painstakingly constructed in the predominantly Kurdish South East have been brutally destroyed by the Turkish army. Whole districts have been razed to the ground, thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands have lost their homes and become internal migrants. And although Western democracies are more careful of their liberal credentials, this doesn’t mean that creating an alternative system would be easy here. Any attempt to establish effective dual power structures in the UK, or any other Western country, would soon come up against the state at many different levels, both covert and overt.
Within the Kurdish areas of Northern Syria and South East Turkey, the ideas behind this grass-roots revolution have been nurtured for decades. Even so, many Kurds retain less cerebral traditional loyalties; and the success of the Kurdish organisations and their fighting forces has brought new regions and cultural groups within the revolution’s orbit. Regions that have been liberated from ISIS have become part of a federation of autonomous areas. This is meant to be as a result of free choice, though it is difficult to see how this can be organised in war conditions; but, however it is done, the liberated peoples need to be quickly brought on board with the new ideas and structures. In a part of the world where ethnic differences have been manipulated to catastrophic effect, this requires especial sensitivity. Care is taken that all groups have representatives in the local assemblies, and that minorities are represented at least in line with their proportion in the wider community. As a temporary measure, this makes sense, though it is bound to be more complicated than it sounds in practice; but unless it is seen only as a staging post, this arrangement could be storing up problems for the future. It is a strategy that brings up all the old arguments that were made against the concept of cultural-national autonomy and against the separate organisation of the Jewish Bund in Russia, and these arguments repay a re-visit.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Austrian Socialists responded to national tensions within the Hapsburg Empire by proposing a federation of self-governing regions. They debated including autonomy for non-territorially based groups, and although they rejected this, the idea was taken up by the Bund, who argued for separate Jewish political organisation, including within the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party. For Lenin, and other key figures in the party, this separatism was regarded as dangerously divisive. They argued that it cut across working-class unity, consolidating partitions and perpetuating chauvinism. Julius Martov, himself a Jew who eight years previously had made the pragmatic argument for a separate Jewish labour organisation, told the RSDLP’s 1903 Congress:
we cannot allow that any section of the party can represent the group, trade, or national interests of any sections of the proletariat. National differences play a subordinate role in relation to common class interests. What sort of organisation would we have if, for instance, in one and the same workshop, workers of different nationalities thought first and foremost of the representation of their national interest? 
As an internationalist, Lenin criticised cultural national autonomy for introducing the ‘most extreme nationalism’. He was particularly concerned about its central tenet of segregated education, making comparisons with segregated schooling in the southern USA. At the same time he acknowledged that ‘under real democracy’ – which ‘can be achieved only when the workers of all nationalities are united’ – ‘ it is quite possible to ensure instruction in the native language, in native history, and so forth, without splitting up the schools according to nationality. And complete local self-government will make it impossible for anything to be forced upon the people’. The practical details could be debated, but the point was to avoid compulsory compartmentation and the encouragement of special interest groups.
Ideas of cultural national autonomy have re-emerged in modern debates on ethnic diversity and minority rights, and similar principles underpin liberal multiculturalism. But, while the homogenisation resulting from globalisation has given us an awareness of the value of local cultures than was rare a hundred years ago, the principles of bringing people together and not institutionalising division remain as important as ever. Left critics of political multiculturalism point out that racism is a product of capitalist development and power politics and will only be side-lined by addressing the socio-economic and political structures that created and thrive on the divide and rule of racialised distinctions.
Ethnic-based organisation and representation can serve to concretise differences and encourage people to understand the world through the prism of their own group. Rather than come together to take on major structural imbalances of power and resources, they can find themselves pursing sectional interests in competition with other groups. Ethnic based organisation can thus act against a greater unity of all oppressed people and leave space for existing power structures to reassert themselves. It also raises issues about who ‘represents’ a group in a non-representative democracy; how group values are chosen, defined, and defended; and what pressures this may place on those who do not wish to be defined by group norms. Just as associating certain roles with womanliness can serve to trap people within gender stereotypes, so defining people through cultural identity can make it difficult for them to escape traditions they do not want to be part of, and also difficult for those traditions to evolve. There is a big difference between enabling and enjoying cultural diversity, and making cultural difference the basis of politics. Some of the potential contradictions within cultural autonomy were brought home by another live video link, this time from a leading fighter in the Yazidi women’s Self Defence Force. Yazidis were persecuted and massacred by ISIS and many Yazidi women were taken as sex slaves, so the existence of this force represents a double liberation, physical and personal. This brave woman told us that she is fighting to protect her ‘ancient people and religion’; but cultural protection will need to be undertaken critically to avoid reproducing such traditions as Yazidi patriarchy, hereditary princely and priestly families, and the prescription against marrying out.
My final concern relates to another immediate solution that may cause future problems. This is the creation of an overall top down organising structure. David Graeber has pointed out (in his introduction to the recent book on the Rojava revolution published by Pluto Press,  and again at the conference) that some type of overall structure is necessary for interactions with external international organisations that think in terms of state governments, but that it risks coming into conflict with the bottom up democracy. A central decision-making body is also essential for making decisions related to the on-going military conflict, but such a body can morph into assuming state-like powers, especially as many people have not moved away from wanting a separate Kurdish state. Everyone involved will need to remain alert to these dangers.
While many of the conference speeches were more suited to a rally than a discussion, there was scope to exchange ideas and experiences and ask more difficult questions in the workshops, which are intended to continue outwith the conference. The workshop that I went to, on social ecology, demonstrated what a wide range of experience from different places and movements there was in the room. Links with, and lessons from, other groups were a constant conference theme and these could help resolve some of the issues I have highlighted. In fact, one of the most powerful speeches at the conference was by an activist from the Landless People’s Movement in Brazil, who are also experimenting with ecological and social organisation through co-ops. But they first have to seize the land through mass squats, which ensures that recognition of the economic struggle for ownership of the means of production is central to their understanding.
Kurdish political activists are very aware of their ideological debt to Bookchin – whose daughter spoke at the conference – so, when it comes to the prioritising of gender or other forms of identity politics, perhaps his warnings could have an impact. Bookchin’s criticism of identity politics was unequivocal. In a recorded interview made in 1994, he talked about groups fighting over which is most oppressed and so the more primal movement; and he described the resulting chaos that, rather than challenge capitalism, deflects attention from the underlying social question of hierarchy and class oppression.  Bookchin also provides a good antidote to lifestyle politics, or to any tendency to romanticise superstition and be superstitious of reason.
Revolution is an ongoing dialectical process, and what we are observing in Rojava is a work in progress. It is not a finished solution to life there, nor can it provide an off-the-peg template for movements in other places. It generates new questions as fast as it answers the old ones, and we need to remain alert to potential problems, and ready to search out solutions from other thinkers and other places. But this revolutionary experiment is demonstrating to the world that it is possible to create a social system organised on the principle of direct democracy and around the concept of common good. For the sake of all our futures, we need to give it genuine and critical support.
 Not to be confused with the separatist ethnic-based ‘communalism’ espoused by groups in South Asia, such as India’s BJP
 Berger, Nina (2017) ‘Against Repression, Patriarchy and War: a Marxist critique of the women’s struggle in Rojava’, https://cooperativeeconomy.info/against-repression-patriarchy-and-war-a-marxist-critique-of-the-womens-struggle-in-rojava/ p8
(first published in German in Revolutionary Marxism 47, September 2015)
 Congress Minutes, quoted in Woods, Alan (1999) Bolshevism: The road to revolution (London: Wellred), p. 139 The Bund wouldn’t accept this view, and when their motion was defeated their delegates walked out of the congress.
 Lenin, VI, ‘The Nationality of Pupils in Russian Schools’, Proletarskaya Pravda 7, 14 December 1913, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/dec/14.htm
 Miles, Robert (1993) Racism after ‘race relations’ (London: Routledge); Glynn, Sarah (2010) ‘Marxism and Multiculturallism: Lessons from London’s East End’, Human Geography 3.1, http://sarahglynn.net/images/Marxism%20and%20Multiculturalism.pdf; Glynn, Sarah (2014) Class, Ethnicity and Religion in the Bengali East End, Manchester: MUP
 Knapp, Michael, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga (trans Janet Biehl) (2016) Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, London: Pluto Press
 ‘Murray Bookchin – Reflections of a Revolutionary’, interviewed by Doug Morris, 1994, Burlington Vermont. 5/9 episodes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnLP543uTJE&t=534s
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