This is the story of comradehood, fatalism and contradictions within the revolution. Hannes Dove is an anarchist from Germany. In general he spent several years in Rojava. First he came as a volunteer of People’s Self-Defense Units (YPG) in 2015. Then he participated in different sectors of social life. Hannes worked for economic and education commetees of autonomous regions. Hannes Dove shares with us his deep reflections on key problems, contradictions and perspectives of Rojava revolution. His story enlightens the meaning of this revolutionary process for libertarian revolutionaries around the world.
The main contradictions and confusions in understanding the nature of contemporary struggle of the Free Life movement (Kurdistan Communities Union/PKK and their affiliates) arise from the preformed narratives in which any report or story about this movement is nowadays cast, and their respective origins and purposes. This discussion thread gives a good overview of the main narratives dominating perception of the war in Syria for example.
As such, I will try not to claim any absolute truth in telling the things, rather I hope to add some maybe less prominent perspectives to the discussion and suggest some new links between existing slabs of information, so that another, possibly more complete, picture can become visible.
For the sake of brevity we will jump straight ahead to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish-majority territory along the Syrian-Turkish border in Summer 2012. The revolutionaries were far from being a mass movement in Rojava at that time. Their main organization, the PYD, was a minority compared with other Kurdish parties in the region, the women’s movement struggled with rising misogyny especially among some of the groups in opposition to the Regime, and the YPG was seen as a bunch of delusional youths with antiquated weapons donated by villagers, utterly ill-equipped and unexperienced.
It was the talent of these groups to organize people on the local level, create civil administration, and establish a popular defense force, along with the confidence, clarity and empathy which their members showed everyone, even to those who were indifferent or hostile toward them, that gained them growing support and influence.
Finally the YPG’s and YPJ’s ability to defend the land and its people against the various enemies that tried to invade, without ever sparking mass aerial bombardments and destruction which most other areas of Syria saw at some point, generated mass support for the revolutionaries in the autonomous territories, amongst more nationalist Kurds otherwise more loyal to Barzani as well as with Arabs and Christians who had earlier been led to believe that the “rule of the Kurds” would repress their ethnicities, religions and customs and drive them from their lands.
As such, the mass social consensus of the autonomous regions was not based in freedom, ecology, women’s liberation or overthrow of state and capitalism, but one of mutual defense against physical extermination by enemies such as Daesh, Cebhet en-Nusra, and the Regime which was by then known to cruelly punish any community that had dared to ever challenge its rule. YPG gained legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of the population because it was the sole force able to achieve this, and because many people at one point or another were fighting in its ranks themselves when their towns and villages came under attack.
In 2013 YPG and YPJ were able to retake Serekaniye and Til Temir after invasions by the heavily armed and in many ways far superior troops of the en-Nusra Front, and in fall drove it out of Til Koçer and Rabia on the Syrian-Iraqi border. In those days YPG barely had any weapons beyond Kalashnikovs, almost all equipment was captured from the enemy and training was many times not possible so that quite a few people learned to shoot a rifle the moment they came under fire themselves.
Accounts of the time are often romanticized of course, but those were also the days, long before any international power gave any support to YPG, when the revolutionary spirit was most alive in the society. Villagers set up communes that took over the former state-owned estates, women came out to speak publicly and take up arms, committees began devising new education and health care systems, and an elaborate civil administration developed based entirely on unpaid volunteers. Despite the many hardships experienced many people today fondly remember these times and ask where that spirit has gone.
Today the big enemy is defeated, the territory controlled has grown from a narrow strip along the border to more than a quarter of Syria’s entire territory, and its armed forces are a formidable army with countless heavy weapons, backed and trained by France and USA. Life is safe and economically stable for the majority of people, better than in any other part of Syria and also than in many regions beyond the national border. The hope of creating a new and truly just and free society however has diminished in front of a kind of fatalist pragmatism.
While conditions got more and more stable, they were all too depending on allies who – as everybody new – could disappear or turn against the revolution in the blink of an eye. Thus, in the absence of political agreement total annihilation remained an immediate possibility, and political decisions were pragmatic and short-term. It is as if the benevolent force that in 2015 seemed to relentlessly carry the revolution onward and everywhere had turned into something dark and sinister, acting not in our favor but in that of the great states, serving as always the oppressors of a wretched earth, and carrying us not toward revolution but into the abyss.
The mistake is of course right there, in the belief placed in the higher power, that once made us overconfident, and now is generating fatalism and defeatism. It is a contemporary form of the messianic idea, that the revolution will come from somewhere else, that we will just be swept along by it and some divine authority will let us know what to do at the right time. To have faith is not wrong in itself – but do we place it in some external power, physical or metaphysical, that is entirely beyond our control, or in our comrades, living and fallen alike, and our shared ideas?
As libertarians studying the Rojava revolution and the politics evolving around this topic, one of the first core factors we need to regard is the moral-ideological integrity of the movement’s militants. Its roots can be found with the PKK. Without neglecting or rationalizing the crimes committed inside and/or in the name of this party, it is a fact that distinguishes it from many other militant movements with which it otherwise shares parallels. Indeed, despite the internal struggles that have played, and to some extent still play, a role in the history of the movement, an undeniable quality of true comradeship, selflessness and compassion has always been at the core of the relationship of its militants with each other and with people around them. Many fighters, sympathizers, civilians, even former members and adversaries, attest to this fact.
Among the international volunteers who in recent years joined the ranks of the movement’s armed wings in the fight against Daesh and the Syrian and Turkish states, virtually everyone has given this as their primary reason to stay with this movement and possibly give their lives for the struggle, regardless of their often widely varying initial motivations and political positions. This feeling of sincere and and empathic comradeship with people who you maybe just met a minute ago is not just experienced at the front (where it is arguably the most pronounced) but in all areas and activities of the revolutionary movement. It goes far beyond the bond that people naturally develop who together face difficult circumstances, beyond the confidentiality of family or romantic relationships. This comradeship, or hevaltî, is a deep and conscious approach to put revolutionary ethics into practice, build the world to come between one another, live the free life. It arises out of a common philosophical understanding, mutual trust, and methodology of conflict resolution and constant personal analysis and development.
Hevaltî has not realized some utopian harmony or abolished all hierarchy between comrades. Authoritarianism, dogmatism and propertarianism are serious problems in the revolutionary praxis which we will discuss more later on. But hevaltî has remained a fundamental guiding principle over decades, counterbalancing the mentioned reactionary tendencies and allowing for a continuity of revolutionary praxis until the present day. The struggle of the PKK deeply influenced the Kurds in Syria and gave them both identity and direction in their own resistance against the Baath state. I cannot stress enough the importance of this early development of militancy in the Kurdish movement for the unfolding of Rojava revolution, its present condition, and its future.
We can summarize that the Free Life revolutionaries, those following the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan, were nonetheless a minority at the onset of the revolution, that they gained growing support through relentless community work while at the same providing practical solutions to infrastructure, commodities and other social needs, and that the implementation of revolutionary policies such as council democracy, women’s autonomous organization or land redistribution, if in many places supported by a popular majority, was directly linked with the successes of YPG in the war, and initiated by professional militants.
The economic policies included the transfer of expropriated state land to local councils and the creation of cooperatives, but the main economic activity was ensuring stable supply of essential goods, which was done by hierarchically organized economic and financial committees mostly made up of militants. Policies included price controls, building mills, giving out grants or loans for the creation of cooperatives or other local businesses, regulating and sometimes restricting large-scale merchandise, while otherwise keeping interference to a minimum, leaving private property intact (with the exception of state-linked estates and businesses) and allowing smaller businesses to operate without taxation and very few restrictions otherwise.
This model has sometimes been called war communism; however it has little to do with the Soviet example. It is clear it served a pragmatic purpose, and it served it well – to prevent famine and keep the society provided while the vast part of economic and material effort was required at the frontlines.
Even though there were voices inside the movement denouncing the too soft and liberal approach and declaring that “the war can only be won if the social revolution advances”, the pragmatic approach definitely has been the more pronounced so far, while cooperatives and other forms of communal economy remain relatively marginal.
A similar observation can be made regarding the political transformation, where the push for radical bottom-up council democracy has become less of a priority in favor of establishing a unified political entity that could gain recognition by nation states.
It is a common statement among the revolutionaries that “only two percent of the goals of the revolution have been realized”. The program by which this is measured is arguably the Parezname or Manifesto of Democratic Civilization, the 5-volume writings of Abdullah Öcalan where he lays down his social analysis and vision of a free society and which as political-revolutionary theory is commonly referred to as the New Paradigm. While the Parezname is not a step-by-step-guide to social revolution, it does carry heavy critiques against all institutions of coercive power, positivist materialism, patriarchy and individualism and elaborates, sometimes in general terms and sometimes very detailed, the workings of a free communal society organized in a confederal way and creating political, social and economical bodies according to its needs, replacing state institutions and using proactive self-defense to prevail against reactionary counterattacks. Studying the Parezname it becomes clear very quickly that the autonomous territories in Syria are far away from implementing these ideas.
This spring the critical voices have become louder and more numerous again. After Daesh has been territorially defeated in the battle of Baghuz and the Turkish invasion appears to have been averted for the foreseeable future there are no more excuses for the stalling of the social revolution.
At the same time it does not simply have to pick up a thread from a few years ago, but must challenge dynamics of dogma, bureaucracy and institutionalized power that have grown over the recent years as part of the revolutionary organization but pose a serious obstacle to it. The use of Öcalan as a symbol to justify conditions at odds with his philosophy, militants exercising control over civilian councils without proper accountability, social institutions resorting to moralism instead of encouraging critical thinking – these are but a few examples of what the next wave of social revolution has to tackle. For the revolutionaries this means retracting from just managing the things as they are, but to find meaningful solutions to the many continuing problems the society faces today.
Social inequality based in property (although sometimes portrayed as ethnic in nature) is rising while many people are wary of the assemblies and other direct democracy institutions and participation is stagnating or dwindling.
The majority of women still succumbs to roles and restrictions imposed by family members and patriarchal dogma in general.
The ecological crisis is intensifying through the drying-up of the ground water reserves, the erosion and depletion of arable soil, desertification of former farm land and overall more extreme weather conditions.
Moreover, the political isolation of Rojava will inevitably force it into increased dependence on imperial powers like the USA or regional regimes such as Damascus without new initiatives in the surrounding regions and countries.
You may think that I have been overly critical so far, that I have not given any credit to the incredible achievements of the revolution. I am aware of them – were I not, indeed, I wouldn’t take the trouble to write this. You may think that I have been too selective, focusing on a few issues and leaving other great contradictions unmentioned. I won’t deny that, but again, I do not have the ambition to summarize the Rojava revolution or objectively describe it. As revolutionaries, as any student of Öcalan will agree, we have to be the most critical not of our enemies but of our comrades and ourselves. We cannot destroy or negate our contradictions, and we shouldn’t, for in understanding and overcoming them dialectically lies a fundamental motor of mental development and revolutionary change.
It is wrong to attach labels of Western political thought to the Rojava revolution, because it is part of a struggle with its own specific history, culture and aesthetics. It is however part of the global and historical movement of socialism, striving to realize freedom and equality as the true human condition. As libertarian communists and anarchists, we may not always use the same terminology, but but we can recognize the same fundamental ideals and moral-philosophical premises in the Parezname that constitute the basis and ends of our struggle.
In the West we may have come to see revolution as an overly abstract or faraway process, disconnected from our present social reality, even more so can we observe and learn from the revolutionary praxis of comradeship, communal life and militant organization in Mesopotamia today.
Regardless of the attention the Free Life movement has got around the globe since the battle of Kobanê, too few outside its ranks have studied its theory or made an active effort to grow with its praxis. Among Western anarchists who positively refer to Öcalan (and often tend to idealize Rojava as some mythical utopia) his name is always followed by a mention of Bookchin, many times with the claim that Öcalan’s theory is an “adaptation of Bookchin’s ideas to the Middle Eastern situation”. Such statements reveal a deep-seated intellectual chauvinism within Western socialist movements.
While Bookchin is a remarkable theoretician and comrade in his own right and one of many authors who inspired Öcalan in his deliberations toward the new paradigm, the Parezname go far beyond the thought of Bookchin and convey meaning, method and perspectives not just to people in Kurdistan and the Middle East but to all those questioning the current social order.
Presenting Bookchin as a more accessible and original version of Öcalan is reminiscent of how Franz Fanon was only taken seriously in the West after Sartre in his function as White intellectual had given The Wretched of The Earth his blessing by writing the preface.
Broadly speaking there are three main approaches worldwide to the Free Life movement. The first neglects that it is revolutionary, depending on political background claiming it is coopted by Russia or the USA, nationalist, opportunist or otherwise unworthy of support. The second one is positive yet pragmatic; it sees Rojava as an image to use for propaganda to reawaken sentiments of earlier great revolutions or as a place to gain practical experience and military skills, yet regards the contradictions and supposed differences as a reason to keep some distance. The third approach finally embraces the most dogmatic wing of the movement, hails it as the vanguard of world revolution and uncritically supports its statements and practices, viewing them as a definite truth to be obediently followed and reproduced around the world.
None of these approaches have learned from the New Paradigm. Its message, and the deeper meaning of the Free Life struggle beyond regional and contemporary circumstances, is nothing less than the beginning of a new stage in humanity’s fight for freedom. For sure the Parezname are incomplete or contradictory in many ways, they may be too vague on issues of property, class, race or material relations. But they deliver a deep critique of previous liberatory struggles and theories, analyze the failure of the revolutionary movements of the 20th century and give metaphysical methods and concrete perspectives that have been absent from the classical schools of European revolutionary thought, to approach the social realities of the 21st century and undertake a new venture on the road toward the freedom for all.
Comrades in the Middle East have begun to make this new struggle a historical reality. They are pioneers, but we must not expect them to be a vanguard. Who complains today that Northern Syria is on the way to become a liberal statelet, while it is isolated and without serious revolutionary support from any other part of the world, is ignoring the lessons of history. There is no doctrine of Democratic Confederalism in one country.
Returning to the state of affairs in Western countries, people there are faced with growing poverty and erosion of their lives’ social and economic foundations. Unbridled liberalism has waged an assault of mental and physical colonization at the core of its own empire that has ripped wide open again the festering wounds inflicted upon Europe’s societies by nationalism and annihilation in the previous centuries and exaggerated old and new material and identity conflicts toward a looming tipping point.
Movements considered part of the New Right and Islamist radicals have so far been much better at analyzing and anticipating these developments than anyone on the socialist political spectrum. The Left has largely ignored or dismissed the question of identity as something standing in the way of social change. As such their critique has become empty and they merely apologists for the hegemonic efforts of selective assimilation. They are ignoring the social and spiritual emptiness experienced by people reduced to cogs in the modern machine with no hope to escape the suffocating yoke of financial imperatives and docile conformity. They have accepted the liberal claim that the state is the best arbitrator of otherwise irreconcilable social contradictions.
Those who are true revolutionaries have not neglected these dire circumstances, for they are part of society and feel and suffer the same things as the people they wish to liberate. For them, confederal organization can be a way to overcome the divisions within the struggling classes and devalidate the assimilationist and supremacist projects, prioritizing gender liberation and ecological struggle can achieve mass support for radical social change, and philosophy and methods of hevaltî can build militant strength and strategical unity to prevail against the reaction of empire.
Socialists are notorious nostalgics and like to reminisce in the glory of past revolutions. For libertarian communists and anarchists the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Spanish Revolution of 1936 are maybe the most popular memories symbolizing their dearest aspirations. But in both cases the actual social revolution lasted mere months. In Spain the collectivization of land and factories and liberation of social life was being reversed already months before the Stalinists began openly repressing the organizations of social revolution, and there were serious contradictions within the anarchist movement that inevitably contributed to its downfall.
Today we can easily imagine the defeat of Rojava. How Daesh would have been victorious in Kobane and proceeded to crush all resistance to it in the rest of Northern Syria. Then we would now speak with bitterness and compassion of the fleeting glimpse of utopia that had been lived there. We would tell each other that it had just been to good to be allowed to exist, we would blame Erdogan, Obama or Baghdadi for its demise. We would sing its songs and shout its slogans. And we would not have learned a damn thing.
Rojava is not a myth but a reality. It is people who have resisted for over seven years, defeated enemies of far greater material strength and broken previously untouchable divisions of nation and gender. It has a lot to teach to those who have come to live it, and to those who have decided to take up again the banner of social revolution in other places of the world. It is not over yet.