Below we publish translated, reworked and updated versions of two articles originally published in German in the issue 26 of the quaterly magazine of SAV (German section of the CWI), sozialismus.info. The first article, written by Claus Ludwig, deals with the ideas of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan from a Marxist point of view. The second article, written by Sascha Stanicic, examines the recent developments in the cantons of Rojava, in the north of Syria.
Democratic autonomy or socialism?
A Marxist view of Abdullah Öcalan’s political theory
Claus Ludwig, Sozialistische Alternative (CWI Germany)
The Kurdish self-government in Rojava in Syria explicitly bases itself on the ideas of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan, also known as “Apo”, who has been imprisoned in solitary confinement on the island of Imrali since 1999. In recent years, Öcalan has comprehensively revised the theory and practice of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The PKK, while not pro-Beijing, was founded around Maoist-influenced ideas in the mid-1970s with the immediate goal of a ‘national-democratic’ revolution leading to an ’independent and democratic Kurdistan’. Now he has moved away from the idea of a Kurdish nation state and the classic model of guerrilla warfare, and advocates “democratic autonomy” (also called “democratic confederalism”) as a vision for the coexistence of the peoples of the Middle East. Öcalan’s main work is the book “Bir Halkı Savunmak” (published in German as: “Jenseits von Staat, Macht und Gewalt” – “Beyond the state, power and violence”) which he wrote in prison in 2004 as a political defence against the prosecution by the Turkish state.
Öcalan does his work extensively. He deals not just with the practice of the Kurdish movement, he begins with the interpretation of history. At this point, he breaks with what he regards as the Marxist view of history. He rejects historical materialism – the idea that the class society in the various successive forms it took came about through the development of the productive forces and the struggle over the growing surplus product. He does not regard class rule as historically inevitable: “The reason for the emergence of hierarchy and class rule was not inevitability but force.”
Öcalan continues to describe himself as a socialist. But while Marxism defines socialism as the phase after capitalism, based on an enormous development of technology, science and production, Öcalan regards it as an ideal, a human necessity without having a programme to achieve it. Thus he ignores the material basis that socialism needs and argues that, in his opinion, a society free from exploitation and repression could have been created much earlier. This leads to Öcalan’s view that history’s “detour” via the route of class societies was actually not necessary.
Öcalan’s efforts to understand and describe the history of the Middle East, starting with the Sumerian culture, probably the earliest developed class society, are noteworthy and he develops some interesting thoughts about the role of authorities and ideologies in the time predating class society.
But there are startling gaps in his account. The economy seems simply not to interest him, neither in ancient Sumer nor in the current times, when he speaks about how “democratic autonomy” can develop in opposition to the repressive state. This is no mere theoretical question, it has consequences in practice. Öcalan says he wants to overcome capitalism, but his sort of socialism does not seem to require the expropriation of private capital owners and the taking into public ownership of the means of production.
Questions such as how productivity is increased, where the surplus product comes from, what effects the unjust appropriation of it have, seem only of secondary importance to Öcalan. While he mentions the effective irrigation system of the Sumerian priestly dictatorship and the “enormous surplus” which it produced and which was the basis of the systems claiming to be “divine”, he apparently remains of the opinion that it would have been possible to maintain the old, free but less productive system.
He claims that slavery was a hindrance for science and art, but he does not pose the question of why there was no progress in these fields in the long millennia of the ungoverned primitive societies, while there was a veritable explosion of progress in them with the establishment of class society, with a further acceleration accompanying the growing intensity of exploitation of man and nature.
Öcalan describes how the “barbaric” Germanic peoples, whose society retained strong egalitarian remnants, destroyed Roman slavery, but missed the opportunity to build a democratic society on the foundations of their own traditions and instead accepted a new feudal class society. He claims that the Germanic people were deceived by their leaders and that a democratic Europe would have been possible. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that this “betrayal” came about because the society was producing too much for an egalitarian subsistence society, but not enough to be able to offer a good life to all.
Rejecting class struggle
It is no injustice to Öcalan to say that he is returning to pre-Marxist utopian socialism – the likes of Babeuf, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen and Lassalle, who saw socialism or a society free of a ruling elite as a moral necessity, not as the result of class struggles.
He points to the destructive effects of “analytical intelligence”, displays a scepticism towards science, emphasises “emotional intelligence” and, to use a modern term, the traditions of grass-roots democracy which in his opinion always existed in the “Fertile Crescent”, the area between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. He emphatically rejects class struggle, claiming that there is a threat of dictatorship when the interests of one class are put above those of another.
Öcalan’s notion of socialism has a strong similarity to the agrarian socialist ideas of the Narodniks, the nineteenth century Russian populists, who regarded the Russian village community as the starting point for a just society. From quite early on in the book, Öcalan sounds like a Narodnik; later on he even mentions himself that the PKK is most comparable to this movement.
He does not consistently stick to his idea that the new class societies were not better than the previous ones, but had rather merely intensified the exploitation. There are some passages where he sees positive aspects to the introduction of capitalism. According to Öcalan, capitalism asserted itself first of all in Western Europe, because this region was less dogmatic than the Middle East.
The real reason why the capitalist mode of production asserted itself was not this mentality, but rather, above all, the class structure of European feudalism, which aided the formation of a dynamic, aggressive bourgeois class, while the Middle East (and Asia and Latin America) were dominated by the so-called ‘Asiatic’ mode of production, and large centralised empires hindered the development of effective class struggle among the peasants as well as the development of a bourgeois class and petit-bourgeois intermediate layers. The lack of intellectual flexibility in the Middle East was a result of this rigid form of feudalism, which did not bring forth an urban class.
It seems as though Öcalan wants to ignore at all cost the significance of classes and class struggles, because they do not fit into his concept of a “natural classless society”, which always existed as a counterweight to class rule and to the state, and which should reassert itself in a natural manner.
While Öcalan argues against “vulgar materialism”, upon which Marxism allegedly bases itself, he himself has an extremely simplistic and vulgar image of it. His woodcut-like idea of Marxism is probably an expression of the Stalinist ideas that dominate in the Turkish and Kurdish left, which turned Marxism from a living method into a collection of simple articles of faith.
For example, he speaks of an alleged “inevitable development towards communism” and accuses Marxism of being obsessed solely with questions of economy and inevitability. Coming from a Stalinist background, Öcalan does not seem to be familiar with Lenin’s work on the national question, or Trotsky’s on culture or on the analysis of the bureaucratic dictatorship in the Soviet Union, nor with the writings of Luxemburg or Gramsci.
Abolish capitalism! Or not?
Öcalan gives a lively description of how capitalism destroys human relationships and values and the natural basis of human existence. In some passages of his book, he reaches a level of militant anti-capitalism which we can only agree with.
He sees the capitalist system in crisis, in a “chaotic phase” since the 1970s. He points to the enormous aggressiveness of the system, to the dangers of war and nationalism: “That the system has been in crisis for a long time does not mean that it is becoming weaker. The crisis brings with it the danger that it will abide even less by the rules, that it will become even more aggressive.”
For him, the crisis of the system is coming to a head in the Middle East, and it is there that it must be solved. His fixation on the Middle East sounds somewhat mystical at times, but in view of the dramatic situation in Iraq and Syria and the possibility of ethnic and religious conflicts spreading even more, it is entirely justified to see the alternative of “socialism or barbarism” coming to a head in this region.
His description, written in 2004, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq, sounds very current. “Against the terror of those in power”, the “terror of tribes and clans” is developing. This kind of resistance, on a narrow ethnic and religious basis, makes the problems worse. The “American empire of chaos” is causing states to break up, particularly in the Middle East and the Balkans. The Middle East is the “main geopolitical contradiction of the US-led system”.
According to Öcalan, the time of national despotisms is over, and at the same time there is no perspective for a “liberation nationalism” which strives to create new states. New solutions are necessary. He hints at the coming “Arab Spring”, but at the same time fears a deepening of the chaos if no new solutions can be found.
Moving away from the PKK’s original idea of a peasant based “people’s war”, Öcalan deals with the question of armed struggle in a different way. Instead of carrying out a war of conquest, he advocates self-defence, defining the tasks of armed units as “creating guarantees for democratic efforts” and foresees in quite a concrete fashion the political and military practice of the YPG/YPJ in the defence of Rojava. The establishment of self-defence units is something which he regards as necessary due to the “increasing uncertainty”.
The PKK has until now managed to overcome crises and assert its position as a strong force in the region. Öcalan and the entire Kurdish movement may be miles from developing a socialist strategy, but the PKK sees many of the dangers in the Middle East and has managed to effectively fight IS, equipped with a certain amount of left and vaguely anti-capitalist ideas. This is by no means a guarantee for the future. The cooperation with US forces and with pro-imperialist Kurdish groups like Barzani’s KDP, and the ambivalent attitude vis-à-vis Assad’s dictatorial regime, are severe political errors. In addition, Öcalan gives the impression that he is prepared to make too many political compromises in order to achieve a successful conclusion of the peace negotiations with the Erdoğan regime. These developments show that the PKK is in danger of not being able to unify in action the region’s working people, poor and youth while also being dragged, as a largely Kurdish based force, into the region’s ethnic and religious civil wars.
Öcalan does not maintain his militant anti-capitalist stance throughout the whole book. At times, his arguments somersault at breakneck speed. For example, he states that capitalism is “not to be rejected outright” and that the system can repair itself.
Regarding the perspectives for the Middle East, there are also statements which stand in stark contrast to the clear words quoted above. At one point, he leaves the question open whether the situation in the region has become better or worse through the US-led invasion of Iraq. He speaks of the possibility of a “second Marshall Plan” for the region.
While at one point he emphasises the dangers of war and nationalism that are inherent to capitalism, he claims elsewhere that the USA wants to “overcome” the nation-state. The danger of war in Europe has, in his view, been banished by an EU which is allegedly peaceful and conducive to creating understanding between peoples.
Öcalan seems to counterpoise capitalism to an alternative inspired by humanism and socialism, but he does not define how capitalism can be overcome and how a socialist society would differ from it. In this respect he is not too far away from the classical social reformist interpretation, which sees socialism as a guiding idea and thinks that its realisation can be recognised in each reform within the confines of capitalism.
State vs. Democracy
The central slogan of the left Kurdish movement in Turkey as well as Rojava is “democratic autonomy”. Öcalan places the terms “State” and “Democracy” at the centre of his thoughts. In his opinion, the state is “probably the most dangerous instrument in history”. Revolutionaries who aim to create a different, better state – a workers’ state, do not, in his opinion, break with the logic of repression and exploitation; they merely add new aspects to it. Not using the analysis of the Trotskyist movement, Öcalan lumps together Marxism with Social Democracy, “Real Socialism” (his term for Stalinism,) and national liberation movements which, in his opinion, all went this way and in doing so actually prolonged the lifetime of the capitalist system.
As he has no programme for workers’ democracy, this sounds as if Öcalan had become an anarchist, regarding the smashing of the state and the immediate introduction of the free association of production as central tasks of the revolution. But he clearly distances himself from this idea, saying that the capitalist state should not be smashed, instead it should die off slowly.
Not applying a class analysis the vague idea that “the alternative to the state is democracy”, is one of Öcalan’s central tenets. “The people” forms the antipode to the “state-supporting layers”. In his historical descriptions, state and democracy, oligarchs and the people sound like pairs of irreconcilable opposites. But the more concrete things become, the clearly it emerges that this is not his view at all. The state and democracy may be opposites, but they can coexist according to Öcalan, stating that it is “not about confrontation”, but rather about “acting in parallel”. An extension of democracy would limit the state, there may be “compromises” between the two, in a manner which is “true to principles”, although he does not state which principles he means. This would “increase the possibilities for freedom and equality”.
Öcalan assumes that a dangerous, destructive capitalist system with its repressive state will continue to exist, but that its violent and repressive character will increasingly fade away due to the extension of “democracy”, before being finally overcome completely. He calls for “equilibrium” between the collective and the individual, between “public and private economy”.
In the end, the peoples are supposed in this way to overcome nationalism without fundamentally restructuring the system, which is merely “reduced in size”. Therefore it is alleged to be possible to make the transition from what Öcalan himself describes as a highly destructive capitalist class rule to a “global democratic civilisation” without any kind of revolutionary break. In a democracy, there would be no repression, no “unjust exploitation” and no “extreme greed for profits”.
“In place of deadly rivalry we have competition. Democracy reduces to a minimum the main causes of crises such as the imbalance of supply and demand, prices, inflation and similar financial playthings”, says Öcalan of his vision of capitalism tamed by democracy.
According to Öcalan, “Democracy” should organise the fields of education, health, art and sport. In addition, political-social organisational forms of “houses of the people” all the way to a “people’s congress” of all sectors, would play important roles. Even in these very concrete passages of the book, there is no talk of planning the economy for society as a whole.
What Öcalan describes as “democracy” is not a new form of society, nor even the seed of such a society within the old, nor a form of dual power. Rather it is a mixture of the formation of a political, social and civil society and the grassroots organisation of social services -which in Turkey are organised only in a very repressive form, if at all. With a view on the practice of Kurdish self-determination in south-eastern Turkey and in Rojava, it should be added that in these regions there is a democratisation of local administration, a comprehensive programme for the advancement of women and a strengthening of small cooperatives and small businesses, in what would probably be most accurately described as a locally based or solidarity wartime economy, while attempting to apply ecological criteria, within capitalism.
These are by no means unimportant questions. These are reforms for which many people in Kurdistan are prepared to fight. But without a radical change of society, including the economic structures, it will not be possible to secure these reforms. Such an alternative society to capitalism is not even described in Öcalan’s writings. The council democratic elements merely consist of the statement that elected office holders should put themselves up for re-election after one year. This is not even foreseen in the constitution of Rojava.
Between the lines
Öcalan gives a radical impression – almost an anarchist one, condemning the social democratic and Stalinist adaption to capitalism and rule, creating the impression of a new and revolutionary idea – only for its political practice to boil down to merely wanting to fight for more democratic rights within capitalist states.
Öcalan has correctly abandoned the idea of using classic guerrilla warfare to create a viable Kurdish nation-state. He is right to place no more faith in regional despots such as Assad, and to recognise their destructive role – even though some of his co-thinkers in Syria do not seem to fully share this view. But on the other hand, in an attempt to reach agreement with the Turkish ruling class, he has also pushed aside any claim to pursue an alternative revolutionary course. He advocates the self-organisation of the oppressed to build a kind of civil society counterweight, and in this way create pressure in order to achieve compromises with the rulers. He puts his faith in this coexistence bringing forth reforms which will lead to capitalism being tamed in a social and ecological manner.
Looking at his description of democracy as an antipode to the state, it becomes clear that his written defence is not first and foremost a reappraisal of the philosophical and political principles of the PKK, aimed at activists. The book is aimed also, perhaps even first and foremost, at the rulers of Turkey and the imperialist states of the West. In his book, Öcalan states his conditions for the integration of the Kurdish movement into the existing system.
He did not write the book in freedom, but rather as a prisoner of the Turkish state. His written defence is not just a peace offer in a military sense, but also in a political sense. Öcalan seeks to argue – sometimes overtly, sometimes between the lines – that he neither wants to topple the existing social order nor chance national borders, and that those in power therefore need to fear the PKK.
His message between the lines is: “Give us democratic rights and possibilities of participation at local level. Stop persecuting us. Then we will no longer threaten your rule. We neither want a war, nor do we lay claim to a nation-state of our own.”
His warnings regarding the dangers of nationalism and violence in Middle East and the destructive effects of the state and class rule are of burning importance and relevance in these times, but their main purpose is to hold up the mirror to those in powers and to show them scenarios of horror, effectively saying: “If you do not change, things will end badly, so reform your system and you will avoid these terrors”. He also appeals to the USA to tolerate Kurdish self-rule and to look for reliable allies in the region.
The message of this book raises the question of whether Abdullah Öcalan arrived at his reform-oriented views due to his distancing himself from Marxist influenced positions in terms of economy and philosophy, or whether his historical discourses are the consequence of a tactical adaptation to a reform within the confines of capitalism. This question cannot be definitively answered, but it is of secondary importance in terms of politically assessing his ideas.
However, we do advocate taking Öcalan and the political debates within the Kurdish movement seriously and taking part in them.
The opening of the PKK which he has pushed forward has been an opening to the “right”, in the direction of a reformist accommodation of capitalism, but at the same time this opening has allowed room for manoeuvre for the unity of working people and the poor across ethnic and religious lines. The rejection of national oppression and the strengthening of democratic rights, particularly women’s rights, are central messages of the Kurdish movement.
The heroic defenders of Rojava, the hundreds of thousands of supporters of the movement in Turkey, Iraq and Iran are important sources of potential for the building of a multi-ethnic, multi-faith movement of the oppressed and exploited. Marxists argue that such movements should adopt a strategy which bases itself on the mobilisation of the masses, democratic discussions and decision-making structures, the perspective of overthrowing capitalism and the creation of a voluntary socialist federation of states in the Middle East.
In the end, capitalism in Kurdistan will not be brought down by a Narodnik-like organisation, but rather by a socialist workers’ movement, through a still-to-be-built working class based revolutionary organisation in the region.
All quotes are taken from the German version of Abdullah Öcalan’s book “Jenseits von Staat, Macht und Gewalt” (Beyond the state, power and violence).
The Rojava model
Democratic autonomy or socialist revolution?
Sascha Stanicic, SAV (CWI Germany)
“Rojava” means “the west” and describes the western part of the Kurdish populated area, which lies on Syrian territory. Rojava is the Syrian part of Kurdistan. It consists of the three cantons of Cizîrê, Kobanî and Afrîn. Since July 2012, a kind of self-government known as “democratic autonomy” exists there, established after the armed units of the Syrian state withdrew.
The leading political force in Rojava is the PYD, the Syrian-Kurdish sister party of the PKK. Rojava came to worldwide attention due to the successful resistance against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in the defence of the city of Kobanî (capital of the province of the same name) and for the saving of the Yezidis who were encircled by ISIS in the Sengal Mountains in Iraq in July 2014. Since then, many on the Left have presented the democratic autonomy in Rojava as a kind of anti-capitalist revolution, have compared it to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and have called for more or less uncritical support for Rojava, the PYD and the People’s Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Defence Units (YPJ).
The Kurds in Syria
The Kurds are the largest people without a state of their own. Around 4.5 million Kurds live in a mainly contiguous area in the present-day states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Only in northern Iraq has Kurdish self-rule been introduced as a result of the disintegration of Iraq following the war of aggression by the USA and the fall of Saddam Hussein, who brutally oppressed the Kurds during his reign. But the self-governments there, financed by the rich oil reserves, is dominated by corrupt, tribally based pro-capitalist parties: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Masud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani. Both parties cooperate closely with the USA and the Erdoğan regime in Turkey. In Iran and in Turkey, Kurds are denied important national and democratic rights and are subject to national oppression.
Within Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan has led the struggle for national liberation since the late 1970s. For many years, this struggle was pursued as a guerrilla war, which employed methods of individual terrorism. In recent years, a so-called peace process has taken place between Turkey and the PKK, but this was terminated by the Turkish military’s air strikes on PKK positions from July 2015. While the PKK spent many years fighting for an independent Kurdish state, it has moved away from this demand in the course of a political realignment since Öcalan’s arrest in 1999 and now advocates a political solution to the conflict, using terms such as “democratic autonomy” and “democratic confederalism”. These would include forms of democratic local self-rule within the existing national borders and within the capitalism system. In Turkish Kurdistan, aspects of “democratic autonomy” were realised in the form of underground or parallel structures within the Turkish state.(i) In Rojava, an opportunity to put these ideas into practice has existed since July 2012 – under the conditions of civil war and siege.
All of this occurs against the backdrop of decades of oppression of the Kurds in Syria, which led to a massive migration towards the main Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo, while a very large number of Kurds were denied Syrian citizenship – and basic civil and human rights. Since the early 1960s, this oppression has intensified. Up to 350,000 Kurds were stripped of their citizenship, many were imprisoned, Kurdish landowners had their property confiscated and their land given over to Arab settlers. The Kurdish language and music were banned.(ii)
Revolution in Syria
In the course of the “Arab” Spring, particularly the revolutionary mass movements in Egypt and Tunisia, mass protests and a revolutionary popular movement emerged in Syria against the dictatorial regime of Assad, which had been responsible for a neoliberal restructuring of Syrian society in the previous years.
These protests also gripped the Kurdish regions. For example, the protests in the city of Amûdê in March 2011 were among the first in the entire country.(iii) Under pressure, the Assad regime made some concessions to the Kurds. In April 2011, some of them were given the right to claim Syrian citizenship, which led to a weakening – but not to an end – of the protests.(iv) When the prominent Kurdish opposition politician Mishal at-Tammu was assassinated on October 7th 2011 – it is still unclear who was responsible for his killing – new mass protests emerged in Syrian Kurdistan.(v)
In Syria, the revolutionary mass movement became very much an ethnic and sectarian civil war, which was de facto a proxy war between imperialist powers. While Russia and China on the one hand supported the Assad regime, the West and Turkey backed first the Free Syrian Army and then the Islamist Al-Nusra front in order to topple the Assad regime -which represents one of the positions of support for the Iranian regime they were in conflict with.
In the Kurdish regions, the PYD managed to build up structures which were akin to parallel self-rule. In July 2012, Syrian state security forces largely withdrew from Rojava and the PYD-led self-government was able to assume control. There are differing accounts of the exact circumstances how this came about. While the PYD speaks of a revolution and claims that the population of Rojava surrounded Syrian army positions, leading to an evacuation without resistance, other Kurdish political forces claim that there was a deal between the Assad regime and the PYD.
The latter view is supported by the fact that military installations of the Syrian army continue to operate in Rojava and it retains control of important strategic points such as the airport and train station in Qamişli, and that public sector employees still receive their salaries from Damascus.(vi) The PYD justifies this situation by claiming that the acceptance of a limited presence of the Assad regime serves to prevent a civil war breaking out in Rojava itself. The party points out that there have indeed been armed clashes between the YPG/YPJ and the Syrian army in other situations, but that they are sticking to a strict policy of “legitimate self-defence”, i.e. that they are carrying out no offensive military actions.(vii)
Yet, capitalising on their military successes against ISIS, the YPG/YPJ have not only protected their front lines but have also carried a number of offensive operations this year that enlarged the territory under their control. But this has not been without complications in the areas with a majority Arab population where the YPG/YPJ, seen as a Kurdish force, has not gained the same popular support that it has in the Kurdish majority districts.
Most reports from Rojava point towards a broad activation and participation of sections of the population, despite the strong dominance of the PYD.
For Marxists, the main thing about revolutions is that they are events in which the masses, as an independent factor, influence the course of history. Of course, political forces led the movement in classical revolutions, such as the Bolsheviks, who assumed this role in Russia during the course of 1917. But the process in Russia was to a much greater extent a mass movement from below, which created its own instruments of power in the form of workers’ and soldiers’ councils, where all parties struggled for influence and where after six months the Bolsheviks won a majority in free elections, leading to the armed uprising of November 7th (according to the new calendar). In Rojava, the process seems to have been directed by the PYD from the beginning to a much greater extent, but they have succeeded in involving sections of the population – not just the Kurdish population.
The events in Rojava mark the beginning of a revolutionary process, which has led to a change of the balance of political power, but has left the economic basis of society in Rojava untouched. This process is at risk not just from external enemies, but also from its internal structures, as we seek to explain in this article.
“Democratic autonomy” in Rojava
Without a doubt, Rojava boasts conditions which most people in the region can only dream of - despite the hostile external conditions – and which represent an attraction for young people, workers and the oppressed.
There is a democratisation of administrative structures and the formation of organs at local level – known as “councils”, which according to many reports involve not insignificant sections of the population in processes of discussion and decision-making. At the same time, there are without doubt strong efforts to involve the ethnic minorities in the three cantons of Cizîrê, Kobanî and Afrîn in the running of society and to end discrimination. Cooperatives are supported. And particularly women are playing a special role: there is a quota of 40% women in most administrative bodies and an active struggle is being waged against oppression and patriarchal structures. All of this seems like the only ray of hope in a region marred by ethnic and sectarian civil wars, the terror of ISIS, imperialist military interventions and war, dictatorial regimes, national oppression and discrimination of women.
Of course all democratic and social progress in Rojava must be defended, just as the three cantons themselves must be defended against attacks by ISIS or, as is likely to occur, from Turkey. But the question is whether Rojava really is a model for the whole region in terms of overcoming oppression, war, terror and exploitation, as claimed by the PKK and PYD? Is “democratic autonomy” a means of overcoming capitalism and stopping sectarian civil wars? We dealt with this question in detail from a theoretical point of view in the article “Democratic autonomy or socialism? A Marxist view of Abdullah Öcalan’s political theory” and answered this question in the negative.(viii) The practical reality in Rojava seems to confirm our verdict.
The actual conditions as they exist in Rojava should be viewed in a sober fashion instead of being romanticised. A comparison to the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s is misleading, because Spain at that time was in the midst of a social revolution, with occupations of land and workplaces, expropriations and a wide mobilisation of the working class with a clear socialist aim.
Rojava sees itself as a cross-class rather than classless project and claims to not overcome capitalist economic relations (specifically: private ownership of the means of production, profit-oriented production, competition and market relations), but rather to put these in the service of society as a whole.(ix) As such, the Social Contract of the three cantons, the “constitution” of Rojava, speaks of protection of private property and the toleration of “legitimate” competition. This is in tune with the economic ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, who does not advocate a publicly owned and planned economy, but rather replacing competition with contest.(x) This is an illusion, slightly more understandable in a mainly rural society like Rojava, but incapable of being a model for industrialised states like Turkey or Iraq, to say nothing of Europe or North America.
A clear expression of the attempt to reconcile the interests of the rich, of businesspeople and land owners with those of the poor masses is the fact that Akram Kamal Hasu became Prime Minister of Cizîre canton. He is one of the wealthiest businessmen in Syria.(xi)
But Rojava is also a part of an imperialist-dominated world economy. It is, in the long term, impossible to build self-sufficient islands which can withstand the pressure of the world market and allow economic rebuilding, a rising standard of living and progress. Every element of social change beyond capitalism must extend internationally in order to be able to survive.
In order to be able to defend against this pressure, at least for a time, a break with the structures of the market economy is necessary. This is only conceivable on the basis of a nationalised and democratically organised economy, economic planning and a state monopoly of foreign trade. The “democratic autonomy” in Rojava does not envisage the ending of market relations in the economy. Paradoxically, under the existing conditions of economic embargo, siege and danger of civil war (and actual ongoing civil war in the country to which the three cantons belong) this model has better chances of surviving for a certain period of time. Peace and economic trade with the capitalist states of the region would expose the cooperative-based economy of “democratic autonomy” to competition from cheap products and destroy it.
Many on the left, including the PYD itself, describe the administrative structures of Rojava as a council system of direct democracy. Reading the Social Contract of the three cantons, it contains many progressive aims. Particularly, as already mentioned, the multi-ethnic character and the role assigned to women. The right to strike and to hold demonstrations are also enshrined, as is the right to political asylum and a blanket ban on deportation of asylum seekers. The creation on monopolies is banned – however, this is also the case on paper in Germany and the EU.
However, the administrative system has more in common with a bourgeois parliamentary democracy with a high level of local self-government rather than a socialist, council-based workers’ democracy. Elections for positions at all levels take place every four years, and there is no right of immediate recall. In the book “Revolution in Rojava”, Ercan Ayboğa mentions a right of recall in local councils, but this is not explicitly included in the Social Contract. There is also no earnings limit on election representatives, which would be a decisive prerequisite to prevent bureaucratic structures and to achieve real social equality. Even if these structures are called “councils” and “commissions”, they give the impression of an effectively classical capitalist parliamentary electoral system rather than genuine direct democratic rule of the working masses and poor. Some eyewitnesses’ reports also refer to members and leaders of local councils being directly appointed or selected by PYD officials. The “councils” seem also to be less involved in making important political decisions, instead their task seems to be mainly of an administrative nature. All in all, the real decision-making authority seems to remain heavily in the hands of the PYD leadership, with few genuine checks and balances from below.
In recognition of the fact that these structures only reach a section of the population, preparations for parliamentary elections are underway, which should lead to a dual structure of leadership in society and administration, but will probably reinforce the representative character of the administrative structures. (xii)
No state in Rojava?
Advocates of the concept of “democratic autonomy” like to distinguish between their own social model and social models of states. They create the impression that there is no state in Rojava.
All reports from Rojava must be taken with caution. This applies to reports from the PYD and those close to them, as well as reports for example from the Barzani-controlled Rudaw news agency in northern Iraq. The probability that information and accounts of events are coloured by vested interests is too great. Of course, the situation must be seen in a historical context too. No revolution could leave behind all vestiges of the old society overnight, as regards attitudes, traditions, patterns of behaviour etc. This is even more true in a society dominated by economic backwardness and by a situation of war or siege.
But unfortunately there is also evidence that not everything in Rojava is as good as it is claimed to be. For example, the British journalist Patrick Cockburn has reported ethnically motivated attacks by YPG units. These could be isolated incidents which can be explained in view of the history of the region and may have targeted parts of the Arab population which was sent to settle on Kurdish-owned land in this region in the 1960s and later. It is problematic that the PYD does not seem to have a clear position as regards these Arabs. While the PYD always emphasizes the involvement of all layers of society in their social project, PYD leader Salih Muslim has been quoted as saying “One day these Arabs who were brought into Kurdish areas will have to expelled”. (xiii)
There are also reports of repression against political demonstrations by other parties, such as the Yekîtî party (Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in Syria).(xiv) Even if such reports are difficult to assess from a distance, they must be taken seriously.
At least one thing seems clear: If one looks at the state from a Marxist point of view, as a formation of armed people upholding certain power and property relations, then it is obvious that a still capitalist state dominated by the PYD and the YPG exists in Rojava – not a socialist project of self-government transcending the structures of a state. An army (YPG, YPJ), police (Asayîş), prisons and a separate legal apparatus – what is this if not a state? Perhaps it is a state which is more democratic than others. But local self-government and real self-rule for a whole society including the economy, the organs of the state, foreign policy etc. are two different things.
The fate of Rojava will not solely nor even mostly be decided in Rojava itself. The course of the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the military conflict between Turkey and the PKK and above all the class struggles in the region will be decisive for the small territory and its perspectives for survival. The building of independent forces of the working class and poor is the decisive prerequisite to stopping the advance of ISIS and overthrowing the regimes that hold power now, as well as driving out the forces of imperialism. Members and supporters of the PKK and the PYD should do everything to create unity of working people and the poor in the region, across all ethnic and religious boundaries. The multi-ethnic aspiration of Rojava can play an important role in this respect. But the fact that the PKK and PYD leaders have co-operated with US imperialism and with the pro-capitalist Kurdish parties of Barzani and Talabani since the battle for Kobanî and that there are many signs that the emphasis is being shifted from attempting to maintain a multi-ethnic Rojava towards a Kurdish national liberation struggle (which could be further reinforced by attacks by the Turkish military on the PKK), seems to threaten that this chance will be missed.
The current suicide attacks by the PKK, which also target Turkish conscripts, and the cooperation between the PYD and the anti-ISIS alliance led by US imperialism, are obstacles on the way to creating this unity, because they play into the hands of reactionary forces striving to deepen ethnic divisions. It may be understandable to have accepted the help of US forces in the battle for Kobanî, but accompanying this with political statements that created the impression that the PYD and the USA were following the same goals is a grave mistake.(xv) ISIS has managed to create a base for itself among a part of the Arab Sunni population as a result of the latter’s suffering under US interventions and domination for many years. Every airstrike by the US in the region, while perhaps destroying ISIS positions, potentially drives more Sunnis into the arms of the terrorist gang.
Now the USA is supporting Erdoğan’s attacks of the PKK and distanced itself from the PYD. These recent events have been accompanied by public declarations by PYD leaders which put a question mark over the alleged opposition of the PYD to Assad’s regime, suggesting a possible political partnership. Any such arrangement would prevent the possibility of building support for Rojava among the other communities suffering from Assad’s rule, including some sections of the Kurdish population, while also strengthening the jihadist opposition. It also confirms our warnings regarding cooperation with US imperialism and the necessity of building an independent multi-ethnic and socialist workers’ movement. It may be the case that the US airstrikes were helpful in the immediate term in order to drive ISIS back from Kobanî militarily, but now the danger is greater than ever before that Kobanî will be crushed between ISIS and a Turkish-American alliance.
The region needs a socialist perspective. Unity of the working people and the poor, a struggle against all reactionary forces, be they Islamist or Baathist, and opposition to imperialism must be the principles of this perspective. Rojava is a ray of sunshine in the “Arab” winter, but it must make the transition to a genuinely democratic council democracy and socialist policies, if it is to survive and show the region a way out.
This article is largely based on the books „Krieg und Revolution in Syrisch-Kurdistan“ by Thomas Schmidinger (Vienna, 2014) and „Revolution in Kurdistan“ by Anja Flach, Ercan Ayboğa und Michael Knapp (Hamburg, 2015). It was not possible to check whether all questions raised were still pertinent in the summer of 2015 or whether they had been superseded by more recent events.
i Demokratische Autonomie in Nordkurdistan, Mesopotamien Verlag, 2012
ii Flach, Ayboğa, Knapp – Revolution in Rojava, Seite 44ff., Hamburg 2015
iii Schmidinger – Krieg und Revolution in Syrisch-Kurdistan, Seite 111, Wien 2014
iv Ebd., Seite 112
v Ebd., Seite 114
vi Ebd., Seite 120
vii Flach, Ayboğa, Knapp – Revolution in Rojava, Seite 194ff, Hamburg 2015
viii Claus Ludwig – Demokratische Autonomie oder Sozialismus: Apos Zeitreise in die Utopie, in: sozialismus.info Nr. 24
ix Artikel 41 und Artikel 42 im Gesellschaftsvertrag der Kantone Cizîrê, Kobanî und Afrîn
x Zitiert in: Ebd.
xi Schmidinger – Krieg und Revolution in Syrisch-Kurdistan, Seite 141, Wien 2014
xii Flach, Ayboğa, Knapp – Revolution in Rojava, Seite 109/110, Hamburg 2015
xiv Schmidinger – Krieg und Revolution in Syrisch-Kurdistan, Seite 144, Wien 2014