Democratic Assemblies from Bookchin to Öcalan

Janet Biehl gave this presentation to the New World Summit in Derik, Rojava, on October 16, 2015.

The American social theorist Murray Bookchin was a profoundly original thinker, fertilizing the left with ideas about assembly democracy, ecology, and opposition to hierarchy, long before those ideas were popular, and providing it with new bases for opposing capitalism and the nation-state. He grew up as a young Communist in New York in the radical 1930s, but in the late 1940s he rejected Marxism-Leninism as not only authoritarian but fallacious—the proletariat was not revolutionary after all. But rather than abandon radical politics, as many of his friends did, Bookchin stayed on and chose to rethink the revolutionary project for a new era.

By the 1950s he realized that a new left would have to be democratic and ecological. His study of ancient Athens taught him people are capable of governing themselves in democratic face-to-face citizen assemblies. Inspired, he concluded that the present nation-state could be eliminated and its powers devolved to citizens in such assemblies. If people had governed themselves that way in the past, they could do so again.

He also realized early on that that capitalism’s fatal flaw was its conflict with the natural environment, which would ultimately result in a crisis; he wrote the first manifestos of radical ecology, advocating that cities be decentralized, so people could live at a smaller scale and grow food locally and use renewable energy and manage their own affairs. Over the next decades Bookchin would elaborate these ideas into a program for an ecological, democratic, nonhierarchical society called “social ecology.”

In the 1960s he tried to persuade the New Left—the revolutionary student and black and antiwar movements—to call for citizens’ assemblies. But the movements were more interested creating an international proletarian revolution, in solidarity with Castro, Guevara, Ho, and Mao.

The 1970s saw the flowering of an ecology-minded counterculture that created cooperatives and organic farms, stood for peace, and protested nuclear power. Anarchism was newly popular, largely thanks to Bookchin himself, and he tried to persuade anarchists that citizens’ assemblies were their natural political institution. But anarchists didn’t like democracy because it involved voting and accepting the will of the majority.

In the 1980s, despite these setbacks, Bookchin elaborated his democracy program, now called libertarian municipalism. The urban neighborhood and the town, he said, could become a revolutionary arena. He advocated democratizing municipalities into citizen assemblies and then mounting a municipalist revolt against the nation-state and capitalism. The city’s physical form could be decentralized as well. By rescaling cities into neighborhood communities and rescaling technological resources along ecological lines, libertarian municipalism proposes to bring town and country into a creative balance.

Over broader areas, Bookchin recommended that the assemblies confederate, at the municipal and regional levels and beyond. They would send delegates to confederal councils to coordinate and administer the policies. Power would flow from the bottom up. The confederations would expropriate major economic assets and “municipalize” the economy—place it under community ownership. Economic life would be part of the public business of the confederated assemblies, which would distribute the material means of life for the benefit of all.

As more municipalities democratized and confederated, they would become powerful enough to constitute a dual power to the state and to the capitalist system. Expressing the people’s will, the confederations would become levers for the transfer of power.

In the 1980s as Green movements emerged in North America and Europe, Bookchin tried to persuade them to accept this program. But they turned out to be more interested in forming conventional top-down political parties.

Finally, late in life in the 1990s, he appealed once again to anarchists, arguing that the ideal of collectively self-managed communes, joined together in confederations, was part of their history. But once again they rejected the idea, saying that municipal governments were nothing more than nation-states writ small, and there was nothing potentially liberatory about them. Bookchin didn’t belong in their movement, he was told–he was a “square peg in a round hole.”

Feeling his powers failing, Bookchin retired from political life, hoping that sometime in the future a movement would emerge that would take seriously the idea of citizens’ assemblies. If it ever did, his writings would be ready and waiting.

It was at that moment that Abdullah Öcalan wrote to him from his solitary prison on Imrali island.

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Öcalan had been concluding that the Kurdish people had to respond to the historical moment and reassess their hitherto Marxist program. In 1999, at his trial, he called for the democratization of the Turkish republic, ensuring every citizen the right to participate equally in Turkish political life, regardless of ethnicity. His call was ignored, and he was convicted of treason.

In solitary confinement, he was permitted visits only by his lawyers for an hour a week. During those visits in the early 2000s Öcalan would often ask the lawyers to ask friends for recommendations on books to read. The lawyers brought him books on social theory and much else, and Öcalan was soon generating manuscripts based on his studies.

One of the lawyer’s associates in Istanbul, Oliver Kontny, translated some of the new manuscripts and “discussed some of the philosophical and political implications.” They tried to think of more books to recommend to Öcalan, such as Foucault. “Then somebody came up with a book by Murray Bookchin that had been translated into Turkish,” Kontny recalled. It’s unclear which one it was.

The lawyers brought the book to Imrali, and reading it, Öcalan seems to have recognized in its author a kindred spirit. In 2002, in his prison notes, he wrote, “I recommend this book for the municipalities.” Thereafter Öcalan asked for more books by Bookchin, and got them. Soon it became clear that he was working on “a paradigm change” based on social ecology and libertarian municipalism. He initiated a discussion within the PKK, and the new ideas were not initially accepted.

In 2004 Kontny and his then-colleague Reimar Heider wrote an email to Bookchin, expressing Öcalan’s interest in his work and soliciting an exchange of ideas. Bookchin was surprised to be approached by the convicted PKK leader. But responding a few days later, he expressed pleasure at hearing from Öcalan and recommended his books that had been translated into Turkish, not realizing that Öcalan had already read them.

The two intermediaries transmitted this letter to Öcalan. About a month later, in May 2004, Kontny and Heider wrote a second letter to Bookchin, saying that Öcalan “emphasized that he thought he had acquired a good understanding of your ideas” and “spoke of himself as ‘a good student’ of yours.” He “elaborates on the concept of an eco-democratic society and the practical implementation of libertarian municipalism in Kurdistan.” And he said that “the Kurdish freedom movement was determined to successfully implement your ideas.”

A few days later, Bookchin responded, telling the intermediaries: “I am pleased that he finds my ideas on libertarian municipalism to be helpful in thinking about a future Kurdish body politic. . . . I am not in a position to carry on an extensive theoretical dialogue with Mr. Ocalan, as much as I would like to. . . . My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free, rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. They are fortunate indeed to have a leader of Mr. Ocalan’s talents to guide them.”

We sent the email to Kontny and Heider. When Kontny got it, he told me, he was in a hotel in Jordan, en route to the Kurdistan People’s Congress in the Qandil Mountains. While awaiting his flight to Baghdad, he printed out Bookchin’s letter. When he reached the mountains, he showed it to the congress’s steering committee, suggesting that the letter be read aloud to the delegates. A heated discussion ensued. One man objected, saying, “We have much more powerful potential allies in the US. Who cares about some marginal anarchist with 50 followers?“ Kontny responded that Öcalan himself had asked Kurdish activists to read Bookchin, so why not read Bookchin’s message to the congress?

Then a women’s movement delegate took the initiative to translate Bookchin’s message into Kurdish and Turkish. She happened to be chairing the opening session, and so when the moment came, she read the letter aloud. The delegates’ applause was warm and enthusiastic.

A few months later, on October 27, Öcalan wrote again in his prison notes, “For the municipalities, I suggested that Bookchin must be read and his ideas are practiced.” On December 1, he wrote, “The world view for which I stand is close to that of Bookchin,” and recommended that his adherents read Urbanization and Remaking Society.

Öcalan went on to develop a base-democratic program for the Kurdish movement. In March 2005, he issued the “Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan” that called for “a grass-roots democracy … based on the democratic communal structure of natural society.” It was to “establish village, towns and city assemblies, and their delegates will be entrusted with the real decision-making, which in effect means that the people and the community will decide.” These democratic institutions would spread, he proposed, so that all of Turkey would undergo democratization. The assemblies would then cross national borders, bringing democratic civilization to the region and producing not only freedom for the Kurds but a democratic confederal union throughout the Middle East.

When Bookchin died in July 2006, the PKK assembly saluted “one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century,” saying that Bookchin “showed how to make a new democratic system into a reality.” The resolved to “put this promise into practice this as the first society that establishes a tangible democratic confederalism.”

In 2007,in Syria, the PYD issued its “Project of Democratic Self-Governance in Western Kurdistan,” and began to organize clandestinely to put democratic confederalism into practice. In July 2011 an extraordinary congress at Diyarbakir declared “democratic autonomy.” Soon in Kurdish towns and cities democratic institutions and civil society organizations were emerging: assemblies, councils, committees, and cooperatives. It amounted to emergent self-government on the local level, an incipient dual power to the Turkish state.

Four years later, in March 2011, the Syrian uprising began, and the Kurdish movement plunged ahead, creating councils in neighborhoods, villages, districts, and regions. By the time the Assad regime evacuated in July 2012, a system of assemblies and confederal councils was in place and had gained popular support.

I think Bookchin would have been gratified to see these developments in both parts of Kurdistan, as I was when I visited Rojava in December 2014. Be it in the Middle East or anywhere else, the assembly, for Bookchin, was an ethical process. As he wrote in Urbanization Without Cities in the mid-1980s, “Our freedom as individuals depends heavily on community support systems and solidarity. . . . What distinguishes us as social beings, hopefully with rational institutions . . . are our capacities for solidarity with each other, for mutually enhancing our self-development . . . and attaining freedom within a socially creative and institutionally rich collectivity.”

 

For more information: 

For a full account of Bookchin’s life, see Janet Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

For more on the overlapping ideas in Bookchin’s and Öcalan’s writings, see “Bookchin, Öcalan, and the Dialectics of Democracy,” New Compass, Feb. 2012.

Bookchin’s books translated into Turkish in the mid- to late 1990s include:

  • Toward an Ecological Society (1980), translated as Ekolojik bir topluma doğru (Istanbul: Ayrinti, 1996);
  • The Ecology of Freedom (1982), translated as Özgürlüğün Ekolojisi (Istanbul: Ayrinti, n.d.);
  • The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (1987), translated as Kentsiz Kentleşme (Istanbul: Ayrinti, 1999);
  • Remaking Society (1989), translated as Toplumu Yeniden Kurmak (Istanbul: Metis, n.d.); and
  • The Philosophy of Social Ecology (1990, 1994), translated as Toplumsal Ekolojinin Felsefesi (Istanbul: Kabalci, 1996).

 

Paradoxes of a Liberatory Ideology

Since 2014 solidarity activists, independent leftists, and others have been crossing the Tigris to study the developments in Rojava, the independent multiethnic enclave in northern Syria. Here the Kurdish people, whose aspirations have been stomped on for generations throughout the Middle East, are building a society structured institutionally around an assembly / council democracy and a commitment to gender equality. Most remarkable of all, they do so under conditions of brutal war (defending their society against the jihadists Al Nusra to Daesh) and economic and political embargo (from Turkey to the north).

Anyone searching for a utopia on earth is bound to be disappointed, given the nature of human beings. But Western visitors who admire the remarkable accomplishments they witness in Rojava quickly also notice something that many find disquieting: seemingly every interior space (a notable exception being the self-government buildings) features an image of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, affixed to the wall. The disquiet arises from memories of assorted twentieth-century dictators—Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong—whose images, in the many nations they long tormented, were similarly ubiquitous.

Visitors with personal experience of tyrannies may be especially uneasy. A Cuban-born delegate, on my October 2015 visit, said the images called to her mind those of Castro, while a delegate from Libya was rudely reminded of the omnipresent images of Gaddhafi.

Visitors’ unease may deepen as their visitors frequently praise the charismatic Öcalan. The Tev-Dem co-leader Aldar Xelil notes that “the philosophy of our administration is based on the thought and philosophy of the leader Öcalan. His books [are] the basic reference for us.” Pamyan Berri, co-headmaster of the Kurdish Literature and Language Academy in Qamislo, told my recent delegation, “Öcalan is the most important person. We depend on his books to teach history, language, everything.” His writings are integral to the curriculum there and in the other academies, as the local educational institutions are called. (And terms at these academies last only a few weeks or months—not long enough for in-depth research and evaluation and critique, but long enough to inculcate a belief system. Is this education or indoctrination? one begins to wonder.) One of the delegates took to calling the many invocations of Öcalan’s ideas “received pronouncements.”

The general reverence is particularly startling because of Rojava’s commitment to democratic self-government. But then, the source of this grassroots democracy was Öcalan himself, who conceived it in prison and recommended it to the Kurdish freedom movement, which after several years of debate committed itself to it and began to implement it, both in Syria and in Turkey A bottom-up system generated from the top down: by now the paradox is enough to have the visitor’s head spinning.

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Hadiya Yousef (photo by Joost Jongerden)

Hadiya Yousef (photo by Joost Jongerden)

But the earnest high-mindedness of the people of this tiny, beleaguered society gives the visitor pause as well. No signs of dictatorship, of gulags, are in evidence—on the contrary, the prevailing ideology, the one prescribed by Öcalan, abhors the state as such. At the New World Summit in Derik in October, the Cizire canton co-governor Hadiya Yousef summarized the dominant ideology for us: it rejects capitalist modernity because it values money and power over people and because its overlord class enslaves the majority, replacing community with exploitation and domination. It imparts messages of “anti-community, individualism, money, sex, power. It is Leviathan, she told us, the monster.

On the premise that human life is indelibly social, Yousef continued, Rojava seeks to build an alternative. Against Leviathan, it mobilizes people for self-empowerment. Against Western individualism and anomie, it prizes communal solidarity; against colonial rule and racism, it supports the self-determination of peoples and inclusiveness. Against the state (including constitutional republics and allegedly representative “democracies”), it teaches the practices of democratic deliberation and decision-making; against capitalist competition, it teaches economic cooperation. Against the capitalism’s “enslavement” (as she put it) of women, it teaches gender equality.

Sheikh Humeydi Denham (photo by Joost Jongerden)

Sheikh Humeydi Denham (photo by Joost Jongerden)

And indeed women play an extraordinary role in the revolution, socially, politically, organizationally; leadership is dual, one male and one female in every position, and meetings have a 40 percent gender quorum. Women’s centers in villages and cities show all women in this society that they are not doomed to patriarchal domination. the system (which has three official languages, Kurdish, Arabic, and Assyrian) embraces Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Kurds and Syriacs and others. Sheikh Humeydi Denham, co-governor of Cizire Canton, wearing the red and white Arab headgear, told the summit that he accepts “cultural and religious diversity” and that “this administration is our salvation and that of the region.”

At the root of this emancipatory dispensation in a highly circumscribed society is the Öcalan-derived ideology, which is the driving force of the revolution. Given that Rojava is all but cut off from the world by the embargo and by war, the revolution itself is a triumph of will over circumstances. It is a testament to what the sheer force of will can accomplish. What Rojava lacks in an economy, it makes up for in consciousness, will, and ideology—or the Philosophy, as Yousef calls it.

The image and the Philosophy embody the society’s shared commitment to the new system. “Portraits in other countries aren’t like with us,” says Yousef. “For us, it’s not a link to him as a person or as an individual. It’s a link to the Philosophy, the mentality to re-found the society.” Certainly the people respect Öcalan’s individual struggle, she said, but it was also because of him “that we have been able to advance our society and defend ourselves, our autonomy. It’s been possible only with his ideas.”

And the very strength of the society’s ideological conviction, as Cambridge lecturer Jeff Miley pointed out recently, gives power to its military mobilization. YPG commander Hawar Suruc affirms that in the defense of Kobanê in 2014-15, the US-led coalition’s “airstrikes helped, but . . . the philosophy and spirit of Leader Apo is the biggest accomplishment of the Kobanê resistance. It was the loyalty of the martyrs to the movement and its leader Apo that enabled” the defense forces to defeat of Daesh.

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But then, consciousness is a prerequisite for any revolution. Generations of Marxists to the contrary, no inevitable, historically determined social forces will necessarily propel fundamental social change while people sit back and wait. “The most important developments in history,” as Öcalan himself observed, “have come about as a result of effective thoughts and mentalities.”

The consciousness that makes the Rojava revolution possible is moreover an ethical consciousness, one that seeks to reshape the people’s ways of thinking and behaving in accordance with the Philosophy’s high social and political aspirations. The Philosophy is thus necessarily a moral force as well, as Yousef told us, providing “standards by which all issues are to be decided.” Here she echoes Öcalan, who recognized, in the book called Roots of Civilization in English, that “a new ethics” is necessary for “a new beginning. . . . New ethical criteria have to be formulated, institutionalized and entrenched in law” (p. 256).

Most notably, the Philosophy is an ethical force against capitalism. Murray Bookchin, the American radical social theorist who influenced Öcalan, once called for a “moral economy” against the market economy and identified ethics with socialism. Öcalan concurs: “socialism [is] to be seen as something to be applied in the moment as the ultimate ethical and political lifestyle. . . . Socialism . . . is the ideology of an ethical and collective freedom.”

Hence in Rojava, as Yousef puts it, “the common, communal life constitutes the moral basis of the society.“ The education system, she told us, “aims to establish community spirit.” At the Kurdish Literature and Language Academy in Qamislo, I saw a schoolbook for eight-and-nine-year-olds that instills the communal values of the society—the importance of caring for each other, of nature, of women. Obviously to remake people along moral lines, you have to start with children.

But a few days after I left Rojava, while I was in London, I met a young Byelorussian named Boris and mentioned this schoolbook to him. He told me that he had grown up with morally instructive books like that in the early 1990s, left over from Soviet Union days—and they made him determined to be the exact opposite of what they intended.

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For human nature is intricate and complex, and conscious purpose easily goes awry. High-minded programs to remake people have foundered, as Boris’s story reminded me, on the shoals of unintended consequences. Indeed, social orders constructed according to political ideologies have more often than not diverged from the founding vision, even becoming the opposite. Witness the various tyrannical outcomes of Marxism’s original emancipatory vision; witness how the idea of individualism, which was liberatory in the time of John Locke, today takes the form of amoral rapacious selfishness; witness how Adam Smith’s ideal of a free market embedded within moral constraints has resulted in a yawning cleavage between rich and poor.

As for teaching morality, it seems not to be a simple proposition. Some people will accept it enthusiastically, as True Believers, some will endorse it, some will passively accept it, some will disagree but keep quiet, and some will actively dissent. Even in a utopian society, some people just will not agree with consensus reality, and to my mind that is their right.

So any society organized according to a communal ideology must address the question of individual autonomy with respect to the community as a whole. How does the collective society handle individual free will and dissent?

Obviously societies consciously constructed according to emancipatory ideologies have turned out to be profoundly illiberal. The twentieth-century Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once even commented that “the devil . . . invented ideological states, that is to say, states whose legitimacy is grounded in the fact that their owners are owners of truth.” Because “if you oppose such a state or its system,” he continued, “you are an enemy of truth” (in Modernity on Endless Trial, p. 189).

In Rojava, if Öcalan ideology is held to be the truth, we must ask, what happens to those who dissent? Yousef, for one, places the community over everything else, presumably including individual autonomy. “Nothing in human life is more important than community,” she said, sounding like one of the True Believers. “Giving up community means giving up our humanity.” For her, “individuals join the commune with their free will as long as it has moral value.” For her, free will seems to mean freely choosing to give oneself over to the community.

Berivan Xalid

Berivan Xalid (photo by Janet Biehl)

I encountered another moment of doubt during a discussion of book publishing, which is just now getting under way in Rojava. The new publisher produced one book last year, a book of Kurdish poetry hat never could have seen the light of day under the regime. Two more books are in press, Cizire’s culture minister Berivan Xalid told us, and quite a few more are planned for next year, with print runs of a thousand copies each.

But while I was reading a book of recent statutes (which I got at the office of Cizire’s legislative council), I came across a new law on book publishing. It says that all publishers have to be licensed; that a committee from the Culture Ministry must decide which books are published; and that this committee will determine a book’s “suitability for deployment and its compatibility with the general legal system and its suitability to the morals of society.” What did “the morals of society” mean? I wondered, recalling that the Philosophy upon which Rojava has been built is a moral one.

Culture Minister Xalid was nearby, so I asked her what the phrase meant. She said it means that no book can be published that promotes teen sex before marriage. “That’s our culture,” she explained. But the phrase doesn’t explicitly say teen sex, so I asked whether someone could publish a book that argues that “the state is good” or “capitalism is good.” She said (through our translator, of course), “We should respect traditions in our society. Teenagers can’t sleep with each other. Nothing promoting sex between teens before marriage.”

Setting aside the question of teen sexuality, I think it would strengthen the Rojava revolution to clarify the meaning of that clause or else remove it. It’s potentially a loophole for suppressing the individual autonomy of writers and hence individual autonomy and dissent. Criticism, in my view, should be allowed to flourish. Let books about capitalism be published—as well as books criticizing those books. Let dissent be recognized and acknowledged. Paradoxically, the path to democratic solidarity lies in upholding the legitimacy of dissent. Let Rojava embrace pluralism and diversity not only at the ethnic level but at the granular level of the individual.

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But perhaps I am being self-righteous, and my concern is overblown. Öcalan himself, in his prison writings, has written favorably of individualism. In Roots of Civilization, he laments that since time immemorial religions have persecuted and killed off freethinkers. “Strengthening the individual—and thus effecting a just balance between individual and society—can release considerable power. This power can play a revolutionary and liberating role in times when conservative and reactionary societies, societies which suffocate the individual, are dissolving. This is the progressive and justified position of individualism in history” (p. 191).

Nor is Öcalan’s Philosophy always consistent. Over the years he has been in prison, he has changed his mind about various things. In Roots, for example, he even praised capitalism: “Despite these negative characteristics, we have to acknowledge the superiority of capitalist society. Its ideological and material framework ahs surpassed all past systems” (p. 197). And: “In spite of all its visible deficiencies, capitalism as clearly preferred to socialism [meaning real socialism] exactly because of its sensitivity towards individual rights and its established standards of individual freedom” (p. 238).

I think the presence of inconsistencies in Öcalan’s Philosophy is beneficial for Rojava as a society,. An ideology that is self-contradictory is less likely to become Kolakowski’s devil, since different views can find endorsement there, and since both sides can reflexively quote scripture people have to think about issues and discuss them and hash out their differences themselves.

I can’t help but observe that some in prominent participants in Rojava’s democratic self-government don’t in entirely accordance with the Philosophy as Hadiya Yousef presents it. During my two visits, I’ve heard two official people talk about the economy in ways that are not wholly anticapitalist. In December 2014, Abdurrahman Hemo, then Cizire’s economic development adviser, told the academic delegation that the cantons needed outside investment in order to survive. Legally, he explained, that investment would have to conform to the rules of the social economy and be channeled into cooperatives. But would that work in practice? I wondered.

Akhram Hesso (photo by Janet Biehl)

Akhram Hesso (photo by Janet Biehl)

And this past October Akhram Hesso, Cizire’s prime minister, told the New World Summit delegation that Rojava has a “mixed economy,” with “private and general economics at the same time.” It’s like the “social market economy” in Germany, he said approvingly, but with equality between owners of factories and workers. Curiously, this ideologically anticapitalist society has at least one leader who dissents from the anticapitalist program. That Hesso is a member of the opposition coalition ENKS rather than the Philosophy-oriented PYD is also testimony to Rojava’s political diversity.

Doubtless in the years to come, Rojava’s economy and many other issues will be much discussed, both internally and abroad. My hope is that the society’s esteem for Öcalan will always include esteem for remarks like this one: “One of the important elements of contemporary democracy is individuality—the right to live as a free individual, free from dogmatism and utopias, while knowing about their strengths” (Roots p. 260). And I hope that as people in Rojava, as well as visitors, consider the images of Öcalan on the walls, they also think of his call for “an ongoing discussion about the contradiction between the individual and society,” without which “the growing crisis of civilization cannot be solved,” and his affirmation of the necessity to “achieve a balance between these two poles” (p. 207).

Invoking Öcalan in favor of the individual’s freedom to dissent: it’s one more head-spinning Rojava paradox. So be it.