“Democratic Communalism” in Kurdish Syria

Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and author, recently visited Syria in connection with production of a documentary film, ‘The Accidental Anarchist’, produced by Hopscotch Films and Mentorn Media (with support from the Sundance Institute, scheduled for release in 2016). He visited Syrian Kurds in the region known as Rojava and discovered that they were engaged in a remarkable, and totally surprising, democratic experiment in governance. Ross’ observations are written up in an exceptionally interesting article, “Power to the People,” published in the Life & Arts section of the Financial Times/Weekend.

Rojava is an autonomous region in Syrian Kurdistan to the east of the Kurdistan Regional Republic, and north of ISIS-occupied Mosul. Rojava has a population of about 3 million. To the west of Rojava is the Turkish-U.S. safe zone. Just before that, on the Turkish border, is Kobani where, in January 2015, Kurdish forces ended a five month siege of the city, leaving the city mostly destroyed and many residents joining the flow of refugees to Europe. Southwest of Kobani is the ISIS frontline and further west is Raqqa, the ISIS HQ. in Syria. In other words, Rojava is in the midst of and surrounded by a violent war zone that makes its experiment in democracy all the more remarkable.

Most surprising for Ross was that the political philosophy behind this Kurdish experiment in “communalism” came from a relatively obscure Jewish New York City radical and political writer, Murray Bookchin (January 14, 1921 — July 30, 2006). How did it happen that the writings of an American anarchist, a pioneer in the ecology movement before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, who founded his own libertarian socialist ideology, shaped political and civic life in Kurdish Rojava? Bookchin’s writings on what he called “libertarian municipalism, a theory of face-to-face assembly democracy, probably has had its purest form in the “democratic confederalism of Rojava”. (For those interested in Bookchin’s history, see here)

Credit for bringing face-to-face, assembly democracy to Rojava goes to Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founding members of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978 in Turkey. Arrested in 1999 by the Turks (with assistance from the CIA), and taken to Turkey where he was sentenced to death, Ocalan has remained in prison ever since. Reading Bookchin while in prison, Öcalan wrote about his ideal society of “Democratic Confederalism” in which land, enterprises, and all goods are placed in the custody of citizens in free assemblies that manage and make decisions about their distribution in ways that protect the environment. The needs and interests of the community, and not the state, are paramount.

The following is a brief excerpt from “Power to the People”:

Perhaps the last place you would expect to find a thriving experiment in direct democracy is Syria. But something radical is happening, little noticed, in the eastern reaches of that fractured country, in the isolated region known to the Kurds as Rojava.
Just as remarkable, perhaps, is that the philosophy that inspired self-government here was originated by a little-known American political thinker and one-time “eco-activist” whose ideas found their way to Syria through a Kurdish leader imprisoned upon an island in the Sea of Marmara. It’s a story that bizarrely connects a war-torn Middle East with New York’s Lower East Side…
The isolation is not only physical. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd YPG militia that is fighting the jihadi organization ISIS in Rojava as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a longstanding enemy inside Turkey. The YPG’s advance against Isis along Syria’s northern border has been halted by the declaration by Turkey of a so-called “safe zone” to the west of the Euphrates between the front line and the Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in the north-west. For the Kurds, the motive seems transparently clear: to prevent the formation of a contiguous area of Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border. (Also see NexGen Coin, Chap. 14 Kurdish Wild Cards)
The onset of the Syrian revolution in 2012 saw the collapse of the Assad regime’s authority across much of Syria. When this vacuum opened in Rojava, the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) sought to fill it by building a new form of democracy from the bottom up.
In this radical new dispensation, authority is vested primarily in the communal level — the village. At one assembly I attended, villagers gathered in a spartan town hall to debate their affairs. An old man began by retailing all the decisions of the previous meeting. The audience grew restive with boredom until a very young co-chair gently stopped him. Then, others took turns to voice their concerns. These were the stuff of day-to-day village life: anxiety about deliveries of medical supplies; celebration following the announcement of the opening of a small new factory for laundry powder. But the rocketing prices of bread and other basics were lamented at length. The prosaic found its voice, too: someone complained about children riding their bikes too fast around the village.
Not all decisions can be made at the most local level. Those that need broader discussion go to district or cantonal assemblies (Rojava is comprised of three cantons). Here, as in the villages, care is taken to give non-Arab minorities and women prominence. Every assembly I encountered was co-chaired by a woman. In one town, a very young Kurdish woman enthused to me that never before had people like her — “the youth” — been included in actual government. At meetings across the region I was struck by the sense of a population trying to get used to methods of self-government that were entirely unfamiliar after generations of dictatorship.
I was repeatedly told that special efforts were made to include the Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen minorities. Some Arabs confirmed this to me directly, with something resembling bewilderment. In Jazira canton, the two co-chairs of the district’s “institutions of self-government”, as this collective system is awkwardly named, consisted of an aged Arab sheikh and another young Kurdish woman. Accustomed to the traditional hierarchies of the Middle East at such gatherings, I unthinkingly addressed the senior-looking man. Without speaking, he turned to the young woman to speak for the group. She then spoke Arabic for the benefit of non-Kurdish participants.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the democratic experiment in Rojava is the justice system that has been established alongside self-government. In Jazira, one chair of the justice committee (again a young woman) explained that since courts and punishment represented the coercive dominance of the state, such institutions had been replaced by a kind of community justice, where “social peace”, and not punishment, was the objective.
The reason for the strange emergence of communal self-government in Rojava became clear during my visit. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the banned PKK party, is seen by Kurds in Syria, as well as those in Turkey, as the leader of Kurdish liberation. This despite — or in defiance of — the fact that, for the past 16 years, he has been held in a Turkish prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara. (For those interested in Ocalan’s history, see here)
By chance, one book passed to Ocalan in jail was the masterwork of a New York political thinker named Murray Bookchin. Bookchin believed that true democracy could only prosper when decision-making belonged to the local community and was not monopolized by distant and unaccountable elites. In books such as The Ecology of Freedom (1982), he looked back to democracy’s origins in ancient Greece, where all citizens — although not, he noted, women or slaves — took turns to make political decisions.
On his prison island, Öcalan saw that Bookchin’s concept of government without the state was ideal for the Kurds — a people who had been denied their own state. In pamphlets and books, he interpreted Bookchin’s communalism for the Kurdish context and termed it “democratic confederalism”. If you wanted a society freed of coercion, you must abolish the ultimate practitioner of coercion, including violence: the state itself.
In the assemblies I attended, by far the loudest sentiment was frustration that people were leaving because of the desperate economic circumstances. There were many complaints that the Turkish “embargo”, as it is universally termed in Rojava, has made life impossibly difficult. Reconstruction of devastated towns recaptured from ISIS, like Kobani, was all but impossible. There was no choice but to leave. Local democracy can only fix so much when the international constraints are intractable.
To these people, the west’s acquiescence in the treatment of Rojava by Turkey and the KRG, both western allies, is bewildering. For them, these radical ideas on self-government offer a democratic model for all of Syria. One man argued to me that the centralized state, which he named the “ziggurat”, had been a catastrophe for Syria and Iraq in recent generations, an argument hard to dispute. It was self-evident, he contended, that a decentralized and inclusive structure of democracy had a better chance of producing stability — woven from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down.