Lessons from the Rojava Revolution
Source > LeftEast
What is the Academy of Democratic Modernity?
The perspective of Democratic Modernity is coming from the Kurdish movement as an alternative system to Capitalist Modernity. It was developed by Abdullah Öcalan. The aim of the Academy of Democratic Modernity is to contribute to the building of this alternative by spreading the ideas of the Revolution of Rojava and Kurdistan and by building connections to discuss, reflect, and share experiences with different democratic, anticapitalist, antifascist, feminist and ecologist forces from the whole world, to connect struggles and develop revolutionary perspectives in the XXI century.
A part of our work is spreading information, explaining the paradigm of the Revolution, which includes social education, formation, organizing academies, translations in different languages, holding seminars, publishing books, publishing texts. And another part of the work is to build connections, to build up exchanges with other organizations all around the world.
Can you sketch out what Democratic Confederalism is?
It is a concrete proposition of an alternative to the current nation-state and capitalist system, based on three pillars: 1) radical democracy, i.e. non-state democracy based on people’s self organization through a federation of communes; 2) women’s liberation, considering that there cannot be a liberated society without the liberation of women and that it is a central part of the struggle for the freedom of society; and 3) social ecology, a holistic understanding of the relationship between human beings and the rest of nature.
What are the political aims of the Kurdish movement? How does it see the path towards that change?
We can talk about short-term, middle-term and long-term goals of the movement. The Kurdish liberation movement is fighting for the independence of Kurdistan in the frame of Democratic Confederalism, which means it doesn’t pursue the goal of building a nation-state. The state has been seen as a tool of liberation, both by the oppressed class and by colonized people. However, the history and the revolutionary experiences of the 20th century teach us that states are the opposite: a tool of oppression, and cannot be used to build an alternative to capitalist modernity. So the proposition of Abdullah Öcalan is to build the alternative from below and not to impose it through a state, by building a system of communes, cooperatives, women’s and youth organizations, and self defense structures… until the state is progressively made obsolete. The approach is one of self defense, which means there is no will for an offensive against the state or other reactionary forces. If the state, or fascism, or DAESH (ISIS) for example, attack the revolution, then there is a right of the people to defend themselves and the revolution. The system of Democratic Confederalism can connect different democratic and revolutionary struggles beyond the existing borders. There is also the understanding that there cannot be independence in Kurdistan without a democratization process in the four occupying states, Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Democratic Confederalism is a system that can be used all over the Middle East to overcome the nation-state ideology and all the oppression and war it creates. This is consistent with the principal aim of the Kurdish movement. In the long term, Democratic Confederalism can also be a revolutionary perspective for the whole world to solve the huge problems humanity is facing today.
What are the guiding principles of democratic organization in the Autonomous Administration?
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria includes Rojava (Western Kurdistan, the territory in the borders of the modern nation-state of Syria) and the Arabic populated areas on the east of the Euphrates. The Autonomous Administration recognizes Democratic Confederalism and the thought of Abdullah Öcalan as its political paradigm. It is following the values and the practices of Democratic Confederalism with the aim to put in place a system of federation composed of communes in every area, to reinforce people’s self-autonomy, to encourage and help the people as much as possible to self-organize.
What does radical democracy mean in practice?
Radical democracy is the idea of democracy as it is understood by the Kurdish movement, the way it was developed by Abdullah Öcalan, who has been living in isolation in a Turkish jail for the last 24 years. In our understanding liberal and bourgeois democracy is not democracy. Real democracy can only exist when there is no state. State and democracy are two opposite concepts. So the objective is to have any decision that can be taken, any problem that can be solved on the ground level, on the commune level which constitutes the basic political entity in democratic confederalism; to be solved by the people directly. It can be an assembly of a neighborhood, of a village. Everything that they can solve, they will solve it by themselves, without adding a monopolistic structure above them that will be imposing a decision. However, whenever something cannot be solved on the commune level, a delegate will be sent to the federal structure. For instance, if a problem cannot be solved by a neighborhood, it will be discussed on the city level, to be solved through the federal system. For example, if a road needs to be made, it requires more coordination, and therefore it will require federal coordination.
What are the tenets of Jineology?
Jin means woman in Kurdish, and it has similar etymological roots as Jiyan, which means life, and also to Civak, which means society. So Jineology is the science of women, society and life. It is a proposition of an alternative science to build a free society and free relationships. For any detailed explanation about Jineology it would be better to ask a women comrade working in this field. The website of Jineology has many very good articles written in English about Jineology and the Kurdish Women’s movement.
How do the principles of gender equality apply in the self-governing regions?
The women’s liberation struggle in North and East Syria is one of the most determinant and fundamental aspects of the Revolution. In a few years, the life of women and of society changed in many important ways. Everybody knows about the YPJ, the women autonomous armed self-defense unit that played a major role in the fight against DAESH, but also one of the big achievements of the women’s movement is the co-chair system. In every institution of the Autonomous Administration, from the communes to the municipalities, there is systematically one male and one female who is co-responsible. Both in the frontlines and the councils, women are playing a central and leading role in the revolutionary process. A lot of efforts are also being made to fight against the marriage of underage girls and polygamy. The importance of women’s liberation is taught in school and Jineology is a course in the universities.
There is the will to develop free and sincere comradeship relations, especially between men and women, not as a dominant and dominated, and not as subject/object. So the movement is developing an approach where relationships are based on comradeship, on friendship, with a political perspective. the goal is to transform society, to make a revolution. There is for sure still a lot of work to be done, but in the middle of the Middle East, in a quite conservative society such as the Kurdish one, you have a movement that managed to bring together young women and young men that are fighting together for the Revolution on the basis of comradeship, responsibility, and respect for each other – not on the basis of relationship of husband and wife, or sister and brother, dominator-dominated. This is the essence of the alternative to liberal and capitalist relationships that speak of humanity all the time and oppress and exploit it everywhere.
The ideology of Rojava is also rooted in social ecology as a guiding principle. Can you elaborate on that?
Of the three pillars of the Revolution, this one is the most challenging in Rojava, partly because of the war situation. Since the beginning of the Revolution there have been constant attacks from state forces and non-state actors like DAESH, Turkish proxies, etc. So the war has been a difficult environment to develop ecological measures within, with regard to both practical and in changing the mentality. It is very difficult when you don’t know at which moment your house will be blown up. Despite this, there have been several efforts. For example, there have been reforestation campaigns going on. On the economic level, a colonial type of economy has dominated until the Revolution, so in all of the Kurdish areas the Ba’ath regime imposed monocultures of cotton, wheat, and other grains, which is an ecological disaster and also economically unsustainable. When the Revolution happened, you had wheat, cotton. And you don’t feed the people with this. So there have been a lot of efforts from cooperatives, including women’s cooperatives, to diversify agriculture and to produce food for the people that doesn’t rely on much water or pesticides, such as chickpeas and lentils and others that can grow in this environment without harming nature. The other sector that was exploited by the regime was oil. There is oil in the region, and now all the infrastructure has been destroyed by the war. Because there are no materials to fix it due to the embargo, this has become an ecological disaster. For example there is oil leaking in some places, and all of the oil extraction infrastructure is in a bad condition, these are all ecological problems that the Autonomous Administration is trying to face. But the conditions actually are difficult. I know a lot of efforts have been made to try to overcome this contradiction, but there is still a lot to do.
How do the principles of cultural, religious and political plurality work in practice?
The question of how all the different people can live together is a necessity for the Revolution to overcome in order to reach a real peace, not a pacification based on domination, fear or slavery. And this is extremely difficult because for hundreds of years all of these people have been pitted against each other by the colonialist, imperialist and state forces. The state and the imperialists have pitched Kurds against Arabs, Turks against Kurds… So to build a system where all these people collaborate is a big and also a necessary task. And it is a big achievement that inside the Autonomous Administration Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Assyrians are living and working together. So every community has the opportunity to organize under the umbrella of the Autonomous Administration. If you have a city, you would have the assembly of the city. And if you have a quarter with Armenian, Circassians or Turkmen, or whatever minority, and they decide to co-organize, they can have their own commune, their own assembly, where they can discuss their own problems, and they are also still part of the big structure. Also, they have the right of self-defense. There is the example of the Yazidis, who have been facing genocide by ISIS and were rescued by YPG/YPJ and PKK guerillas: when they went to Sinjar (historical Yazidi homeland) to stop DAESH, one of the first thing they did was to help Yazidis build their own commune and their own self-defense forces, to give them the training, the weapons, the means to defend themselves. They told them “Ok, you cannot count on anyone to defend you, you need to do it yourself”. By this you also build bonds between people. In the fight against ISIS, in the fight against Turkish colonialism there have been Arabs, Turk, Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrien who gave their lives. Common sacrifices are creating a very strong connection between the different communities.
Rojava has been criticized for instances of Kurdification and oppression of Arabs. How are those accusations reflected in the Autonomous Administration?
We need to keep in mind that this revolution is at its core a decolonial struggle, a liberation struggle for the Kurdish people. It’s a fight against decades and decades of colonialism, massacres, humiliations. This leaves deep wounds in the society, and in some cases this anger leads to unfortunate acts and tensions. But if we compare it to other decolonisation and revolutionary processes, we see that in the revolution in Rojava there are very few of the uncontrollable violent and bloody rageful events that often happen in similar situations. This is because the movement is pushing to overcome the division between the people of the regions, for a brotherhood of peoples; to bring the understanding that the enemy is not the other, but the state that has maintained its power by setting up the people against each other. So the accusations of Kurdification are often coming from propaganda efforts of the Assad regime, Turkish state or Islamist factions. The reality is very different and the participation of members coming from all the communities in the Autonomous Administration as well as in the armed forces are proof of it. In the councils you can find Kurds working together with Turkmen, Arabs, Yazidis, Syrian or Armenian people. If you look at the cemetery of the martyrs, you will see that all the different peoples of Northern Syria gave blood for the Revolution.
Can you talk about the concept of justice? How does the justice system work in Rojava?
In every commune you can have different committees – of youth, women, ecology, education, self-defense, health, economy, beliefs, family of martyrs, and justice. The justice committee of reconciliation would intervene when there is a conflict in the community, to solve it by their own means. To listen to the different stories and to try to find a reconciliation agreement. We call it reparative justice. Again, the same approach – everything that can be solved directly by the people is solved directly by the people. If it is a case that is too big or too difficult, or they cannot solve it, there is a system that is a bit more traditional, a system of trials that is closer to the common system, but every time that it is possible there will be an effort to solve it at the commune level. The long term goal is to overcome the system of law which comes from the state, by reinforcing the ethic of society, but for now there are still some laws existing, for example forbidding child marriage.
How is production and social reproduction organized in Rojava?
The traditional Middle Eastern and Kurdish family is very broad – you have the mother, the father, the cousin, the uncle, the children, grandchildren… Often everybody is living in the same house and there are no elder homes – the elderly stay with their children. I heard that there are some projects to create collective care for children, but I have to say I don’t have much knowledge about that.
For the sphere of production – the goal is to replace the capitalist economy with the cooperative economy. But again, like the democratic system, it cannot be imposed from above, from a state position. The goal is to build an alternative from below, to diminish the power of capitalists and the state, to create a dual power system of sorts. You have capitalism existing, but you try to diminish it, to end it by reinforcing the collective economy, cooperatives. It is huge work, because it means that you have to convince the people while you are refusing to use the tool of the state to impose it. Because we don’t believe it can work in the long term, the movement tries to convince the people of the benefits of collectivizing the economy and building cooperatives. So yes, you have this dual system in Rojava. Part of the economy is cooperative economy and a part consists of small rural family businesses. You still have in part a capitalist economy, while the Autonomous Administration is trying to fight against the monopolies and to develop cooperatives. One example: in the communes you have a committee that goes to the shops and checks whether the prices are normal. Sometimes some sellers take advantage of the lack of goods, caused by the embargo and the war, and put a very high price, to make a profit. So the committees are checking if the prices are normal and if they are not normal they will try to convince the shop owner to lower them, or if they don’t succeed, they would organize the collectivity to boycott and force them to stop this kind of practice. The end goal is abolition of capitalist economy and the establishment of a communal economy. But this takes time, so in the meantime you have this dual system.
What about the land?
A big part of the land was owned by the State before the Revolution and now it is under the control of the Autonomous Administration, which has been redistributing big parts of it. A part of the land has been collectivized, and a part of it is still in private hands. The approach is not collectivization by force. Of course there is theoretically the possibility to go and collectivize the land by force, but the reflection is that the movement is not doing it because it would not have a long term influence if it’s not coming from the society. The goal is through education, through realization and development of a particular morals in society, to have people take the decisions to collectivize the economy by themselves. This work of formation, of education, of discussion, of organization, has been done in different places, and in some places people have been deciding to take the land from the land owner and to collectively organize the land. In other places no, because people were not convinced of its positive value. So the system of the Revolution is working only as much as you can organize the people around its ideals. If you haven’tt organized the people, to convince them what we believe – that collectivizing the land is positive – then it is not happening. So it takes a lot of time, a lot of discussions, and a lot of examples. Because if one village does this, the others can see it is working. But it is a long-term process.
And what about domestic labor?
A big part of the Revolution is also how it changes people’s daily life. This change also depends on how much people have been exposed to the ideas of the movement. Regarding domestic care, some families that have been exposed to the ideas for years are far more conscious of this and there has been far more sharing roles and responsibilities. Some families, for example, developed rotation for cooking. But even if huge steps have been made (imagine before the Revolution women could not go out of the house, and now you could find women in every aspect of the struggle, on the armed self-defense as well as on the political front – everywhere you will find women also taking leadership positions) – but there is still a lot of work to be done and the traditional family where women have taken a lot of the weight of domestic care is still present. The goal of course is to fight against this, to overcome it, and in some parts there has been a lot of progress, but in others there is a lot more to be done.
Do you have any overview of the state of queer people there?
The question depends on which parts of Kurdistan we are talking about. In Turkish-occupied Kurdistan, Bakur (North), you have some groups of queer people who organize within the HDP, the legal party, and who are a part of the struggle and because of this they can put the queer question on the agenda. In Rojava, this has not been the case until now. There is no organized queer group calling themselves like this and pushing for this question.
How does the process of democratization coexist with the Syrian Democratic Forces?
The Syrian Democratic Forces are a coalition of different forces, mainly YPG and YPJ, (the People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units), mostly Kurdish militia and different Arabic forces, some Christian forces, Assyrians for example, and different Turkish leftist organizations. It was created during the war against DAESH. Syrian Democratic Forces are the armed forces of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Often in history, the Revolution is very close to war, because when you try to change the system you will face very powerful enemies who don’t want you to oppose their imperialist project and their capitalist interests. You will need to defend yourselves. And that is what happened in Rojava, very soon after the revolution started you had Islamic State attacking, you had Turkey attacking, different gangs of jihadis more or less close to Al-Qaeda, the regime of Assad… So to survive this, the Revolution had to defend itself very quickly. This is why the Syrian Democratic Forces were created.
It’s a policy of the movement, that before learning how to use weapons, one has to learn about ideology. Volunteers first learn about Democratic Confederalism, about women’s liberation, about the importance of radical democracy, and then they get military education. This is bgecause self-defense cannot be only made with weapons. The biggest part is ideology, understanding what are we fighting against and what are we fighting for. To understand what is DAESH: what is Turkish fascism, but to also understand what we are fighting for, to defend these ideas.
So what happens to those communities that oppose the system?
This is a very important question. In these cases the approach is to try to convince the people as much as possible. And also always trying to leave the door for communication open as much as possible. If someone starts to harm the community, or takes weapons in this goal, or helps invading forces such as the Islamic State or Turkish state, then there is the need to intervene to stop them. That’s self-defense. But if they are not trying to harm the society, the movement is trying to discuss with them. Of course, it is difficult for example to change old men and convince them of the autonomous system. So the focus is on women and the youth. They are the most active part in society and the vanguard for revolutionary change. And in every community in between the young people and the women there will be some who can be convinced because they can identify themselves within this new system and they are more open to new ideas. In the recent years for exemple, many young Arabs have been joining the revolution and more and more Arab women are participating in the different structures of the Autonomous Administration.
What are the main internal threats to the system of the confederation?
One of the biggest threats that caused big failures in past attempts of revolutionary change in society is underestimation of capitalism as an ideological system. Yes, capitalism is an economic system, but it is also an ideology, it is inside the minds of the people, like the state. It is not only a structure, it is in the brain of everyone, of you and me as well. So if you don’t take care of it, don’t build a new understanding of how society should be organized and what the human relations should be, then the result is very weak somehow, and capitalism can come back at any moment. So you need to fight this, to fight the state mentality, the capitalist mentality and the patriarchal mentality, and this is work that can only be done through the processes of political formation, discussion, practice, critique and self-critique, and constant reevaluation of the situation and constant process of critique and self-critique. Never be satisfied, always look for more revolutionary change.
What are the main external threats?
Right now, the main threat is the Turkish state that is trying to totally destroy the Revolution and the Kurdish movement in general. Since 2015 there have been very serious attacks from the Turkish state against the Revolution: in Rojava, first by supporting ISIS, training them, giving them weapons, and then by carrying out direct invasions – in Afrin in 2018, in Sere Kaniye and Gire Spi in 2019, and now through constant low-intensity warfare, through shelling, cutting water supplies, making targeted drone assassinations. This year alone more than 70 people have been killed in Rojava by a Turkish drone strike – they are sometimes targeting civilians, young people, women leaders, military commanders. Recently, they made an air campaign that destroyed many civilian infrastructures and killed dozens. In Bakur, Northern Kurdistan, which is occupied by Turkey, they have intensified repressions. Thousands of people have been thrown in jail, cities have been destroyed. In Bashur, Iraqi Kurdistan, they have invaded as well in the north, where the base of the PKK guerilla forces is, using chemical weapons against the guerillas. They are in a full war to smash the revolutionary movement and they are trying everything they can to reach this goal. But they will never break the will of the people. The Turkish state is seeing the Revolution as fundamentally opposed to its interests, because it is an alternative to the idea of the nation-state. And the division of the different ethnic groups, which is the main game nation-states have been playing–putting them against each other– is being challenged. This is an existential threat both for the project of the imperialists like the US and also for local states. That is why there are so many attacks from Turkey now, but who is behind Turkey? The Western states, NATO. All the weapons that the Turkish state is using have been provided by NATO and mainly the US. And all of these weapons, without which those wars would not be possible, have been provided by the US and European countries.
How do you see the role of the international left in defending and assisting the revolution in Rojava?
The role of the democratic forces – leftist, antifascist, anticapitalist, anti-patriarchal, ecologist, and feminist forces in the world – is strategic, it is fundamental. Because in the end that is all we have as revolutionary people. The forces of capitalist modernity have the technology, they have the weapons, they have the money, they have everything. What do we have? We have solidarity! That’s what we have – organized solidarity, and our belief of a better society, and that is what we are fighting for. The victories and the resistance of the Revolution in Rojava is directly linked to the strength of leftist forces all around the world – of how they can also develop revolutionary alternatives in their countries and also support the Revolution in Kurdistan and North and East Syria by different means. The main solidarity campaigns are called #RiseUp4Rojava! and Women Defend Rojava – that expose and denounce the Western states weapons industry and the war in Kurdistan and the economic, military and political support that the Turkish state is getting from the West. And it is only through solidarity in Kurdistan and all over the world that we can succeed.
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