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reviewed by Tim Barton
Revolution in Rojava
by Knapp, Flach, & Ayboga
£16.99, published by Pluto
The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan
by Abdullah Öcalan
£12.99, published by Pluto
Welcome to two new books on, arguably, the most important radical movement in Eurasia since the Spanish Anarchists. Like them, it seems likely that Rojava will be 'shot by both sides', but, also like them, they are currently an unlikely seeming beacon of hope.
Abdullah Öcalan has been leader of Kurdish revolutionary groups for decades. In the west, the perception of many was that he was a died in the wool unrepentant Stalinist. The evidence here suggests he was always much more savvy than that, but that, since his western 'democracy'-backed rendition and subsequent incarceration by the Turks in 1999, he has moved very far from that. My first awareness of him, beyond anti-PKK propaganda, was in the early 2000's, when he began to publish work that overtly channelled thinkers like Murray Bookchin and Immanual Wallerstein. His selected political writings here relate directly to developments on the ground in the Turkish-Syrian borderlands of Rojava. The subtitle of the collection is 'Kurdistan, Women's Revolution and Democratic Confederalism'. The book 'Revolution in Rojava', meanwhile, is an excellent introduction to what is happening there: it's subtitle is 'Democratic Autonomy and Women's Liberation is Syrian Kurdistan'.
Both books give excellent background on the plight of the Kurds, and of the ethnic divisions in the region. They clearly give a central place to women's liberation as key to change, Öcalan also taking an interesting, if not wholly objectively convincing, walk through possible neolithic matriarchy in the region. To an extent, this builds on Bookchin's work in 'The Ecology of Freedom'. In the foreword to Öcalan's book, Nadje Al-Ali says “it was mind boggling for me to hear Kurdish women's rights activists tell us that nationalism was bad for women, whether Turkish nationalism or Kurdish nationalism.' Indeed, it is overtly not a goal to have a 'state', the movement is overtly concerned with self-determination and autonomy with no 'stare' structures to coerce them, flattening hierarchies and resisting domination of all kinds.
The Rojava movement is inclusive of a high percentage of Muslims, yet is secular, and feminist, directly democratic and alert to ecological issues as well. It is an important example to counter the knee-jerk narrative presumptions of the right-wing and anti-Muslim press. It is a threat not just to conservative religious culture, but also to patriarchy and capitalist culture. Öcalan's book gives a very detailed background to the theoretical background to the movement. This theory is intertwined at all points with his practical experience. Like the communities of Rojava, his work is explicitly self-critical, allowing dialectical thinking to be exposed on the page. His experience with the PKK is critiqued in a very clear-eyed and self-critical manner: 'the PKK had been conceived as a party with a state-like hierarchical structure similar to other parties. Such a structure, however, causes it to contradict dialectically the principles of democracy, freedom and equality […] Although the PKK stood for freedom-oriented views, we had not been able to free ourselves from thinking in hierarchical terms.'
Öcalan sees the nation-state as explicitly NOT 'concerned with the fate of common people', but as 'a vassal of capitalist modernity [..] a colony for capital', that only 'serves the capitalist process of exploitation'. His alternatives are explained in detail, aiming for flexibility, multiculturalism, anti-monopoly and consensus oriented forms, with ecology and feminism as central pillars. His confederated councils owe much to thinkers such as Kropotkin and Bookchin. The rejection of a traditional state solution for founding a balanced and socialistic society, one that resolves 'the ethnic, religious, urban, local, regional and national problems caused by the monolithic, homogeneous, monochrome, fascist social model implemented by modernity's nation-state', explicitly criticises the Marx/Engels line of thought, and, most importantly, is practically expressed I action, through the KCK (Union of democratic Communities in Kurdistan).
'Revolution in Rojava' is a fine introduction to the practical expression of this approach. It is not Öcalan's dictated plan, but a live flowering of complex and highly contested evolving political community. The role of women as fully free actors in Kurdistan is discussed in detail, warts and all. An explicit belief amongst the women's militias (who are actively and often successfully fighting ISIS/Daesh) is that 'you can't get rid of capitalism without getting rid of the state. And you can't get rid of the state without eliminating patriarchy'. David Graeber, author of 'Debt: the first 5000 years', writes, in the foreword, 'if one had told almost anyone who wasn't part of the Kurdish movement in 2010 that by 2015 there would be an armed feminist uprising demanding direct democracy across a significant swath of the Middle East, they would probably thought you were insane. Yet there it is'. After a great background analysis, the authors relate their direct experience and report through interviews the experience of many actors on the ground in Rojava, and provide copious maps and photographs. They talk through the cultural diversity of the region (and the Turkish and Syrian attempts to destroy it), and have excellent chapters on democratic confederalism and autonomy, women's revolution and the realities of the liberation and defense. They detail the developing justice system, democratisation of education, health care and the social economy, and, not least, the ecological issues facing a desert culture in an oil-rich area contested by the great powers. Neoliberalism, as a particularly vicious strain of capitalism, is clearly identified as the biggest global threat.
The final chapters look at more immediate threats: Islamisation of neighbouring states, Turkish moves towards a virtual genocide of Kurdish culture, and prospects for the future. As with Spain, my prognosis for them is poor, but they are not even close to giving up - '”we know every day will be a little better,” Asya Abdullah, PYD co-chair,has written. “Our society will continue to resist out of sheer conviction that it must take its fate into its own hands. The longer the resistance continues, the more experience we will accumulate in this struggle. Currently the people of Syria are undergoing great difficulties, but we see those troubles as the price of freedom.”''
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