Radical Reading: A Small Key Can Open a Large Door
This is the first in a series focused on reading and discussing radical books on the left and right.
The war in Syria and the surrounding region is multifaceted and complicated; it feels daunting to even approach the conflict as an outsider with any hope that my mind can be wrapped around it. I have started many an article related to the war in the Syria only to scrap it. What do I really know of the region that hasn’t been said? I spent a short period with the IDF in Israel and traveled to Egypt during the revolution, but the activists on the ground are the voices that should be getting attention. What I did know about Syria was this: you have democratic and counter-revolutionary forces, religious extremism, fascist and communist parties from last century, geo and power politics at play, terrorism and internationalism present, and a slew of other cultural and historical variables that I could only hope to understand.
In addition to the use of technology to connect forces on each side of the conflict with their respective allies around the globe, media from Syria and Iraq is made available almost immediately after its creation. You can literally watch the war unfold in real-time via forces on your ideological side. One of the most interesting developments from the Syrian conflict has been the radical social project taking place in Rojava. Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, an anarchist publishing house, has recently compiled essays and interviews on the anarchist revolution that is taking place among millions of people in this northern Syrian region, titled A Small Key Can Open a Large Door. The book is an admirable introduction to the massive social changes happening in the middle of a war zone between Islamist ISIS and the authoritarian Assad regime. In addition to a brief overview of Democratic Confederalism (the term used to describe the social-economic system in Rojava), the book includes discussions on the role of women in the movement, how the West has muddled into Kurdish self-determination historically, and what this revolution means for socialists and anarchists trying to build a new society within the existing one.
(Vice News – Rojava: Syria’s Unknown War)
The most stimulating aspect of this text for outsiders is the focus on the aforementioned concept of Democratic Confederalism, an ideology pioneered the PKK’s leader and founder, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) is an odd group for anarchists to support. Built on a cult of personality around Ocalan, the organization came into existence to fight Turkey over autonomy for Kurdish people in Southeast Turkey. As noted in the text,
“There was little to differentiate the PKK from the dozens of Mao-inspired militant liberation groups of the late 1970s and 1980s” (p.20).
When its founder was captured and imprisoned by Turkey in 1999, and communism as a radical ideology fading from the world stage, many assumed the PKK would dwindle in size and influence, much as similar Maoist insurgencies around the globe. Something rather different occurred. The editors write:
“In his first months of imprisonment, Apo had a “crisis of faith” regarding doctrinaire Marxist ideology and its ability to free the Kurds. Ocalan, who spent most of his life espousing a hard-line Stalinist doctrine, started to reject Marxism-Leninism in favor of direct democracy” (p.22).
Ocalan came under the influence of American anarchist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin was well known in libertarian-socialist circles for his support for a concept called communalism. This libertarian municipalism advocates for voluntary cooperation between people at small, localized levels, producing a face-to-face democracy between its citizens. Building on Bookchin’s ideas, the YPG (Kurdish Defense forces, often connected or related to the PKK) have instituted a tiered council system to govern the region’s affairs. It works as follows:
“In Rojava, neighborhood assemblies make up the largest number of councils. Every person can participate in an assembly where they live. In addition to those neighborhood assemblies, there are councils based on workplaces, civic organizations, religious organizations, political parties, and other affinity-based councils (e.g. Youth)” (p.26)
What is striking is how decision-making is conducted. Unlike the federalist tradition, the lower local councils are not required to adopt the rulings of higher regional assemblies. Thus, when a regional council decided that security forces would be permitted to carry weapons while on patrol, three of the local assemblies rejected this ruling, and so when security personnel enter those areas, they must refrain from having arms (p.27). Higher councils simply act as coordinators for the myriad of smaller, local councils. While some of the text’s claims are hard to substantiate due to the chaos surrounding the region, its glowing account of the revolution and its enthusiastic call for anarchists and socialists to support the Kurdish cause is understandable. Many radicals on the Left and Right bemoan the state of their revolutionary movements, arguing that real social change is something for a distant, hypothetical future. The rebels of Rojava have carved out a pluralistic, multicultural, socialist experiment amidst existential threats from barbarous theocrats. While the US-backed Iraqi Army is unable to hold territory against the IS onslaught, the people of Rojava have held their own, all while implementing radical change. The following excerpt is a report by an anonymous Turkish anarchist who traveled to the region.
“Against all odds, the region has maintained this form for over a year now, and proves much stronger than anyone expected. When ISIS marched on Kobane, everyone assumed that the city would succumb in a few days. But the population is resisting. Everyone has armed themselves, everyone does guard duty. And now ISIS is retreating; more and more parts of Kobane are being retaken” (p.130-131).
Although there is good reason to be skeptical of groups claiming to build utopia on earth, the successful revolutionary modesty of Rojava’s goals should give pause to even the most jaded activist. One does not need to be an internationalist to support their cause. Liberals, libertarians, and freedom-minded ideologists of all stripes will likely find something in the revolution in Kurdish Syria to respect and admire. This text should provide a fine introduction to their cause.