200 Kurdish NGOs closed down by decree

This statement was issued by REPAK, the Kurdish Women’s Relation Office, on November 12, 2016:

To the press and public,

Yesterday evening the Turkish ministry of interior decreed that 370 NGOs and associations  in Turkey will be closed down. 199 of them are accused of being affiliated to the PKK, 153 to the Gulen movement, 18 to the DHKP-C front, and only 8 to Islamic State.

A short time after the announcement, the first associations were raided. The doors of the affected associations are even now still being sealed. All this is happening under the mantle of the emergency state and so-called “struggle against putschists,” so the associations have no legal way to respond to these unlawful, arbitrary, and antidemocratic attacks. They are being committed by the Turkish AKP government, which aims to totally gag the democratic public and especially the Kurds as the main force for democracy and freedom.

One of the 199 Kurdish associations closed by decree today is the Free Woman’s Congress (KJA), the largest umbrella organization of the Kurdish Women’s Liberation Movement in Turkey and Northern Kurdistan. Two weeks ago Ayla Akat Ata, its kja-imagespokeswoman, had been detained while she was protesting the detention of Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city.

Other associations that have been closed to date are the Selis Women’s Association, the Kurdish Writers Union, the Mesopotamian Culture Centre, the Mesopotamian Lawyers Association, the Libertarian Lawyers Association, the Peace Association, the Association to Fight Poverty Sarmasik (which provides monthly help for 5,000 families), the Free Journalist Union, the Seyr-i Mesel Theater Company, the Solidarity Association for Families of Prisoners, the Rojava Association, which was coordinating help for Rojava, and the Politics Academy of the Kurdish Party of Democratic Regions (DBP).

The closing of more or less all Kurdish registered legal associations follows the detention and arrest of 10 HDP MPs (5 of them women), including their co-chairs Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas. Sebahat Tuncel, co-chair of the DBP,  was also arrested. Within a single year 5,389 members of the DBP have been detained, and 2,574 of them remain in prison.

Within the last year the Turkish state has killed hundreds of Kurds, destroyed tens of thousands of houses, displaced millions of people, detained dozens of elected Kurdish mayors, replaced them with trustees, closed down all Kurdish and alternative media in Turkey—from TV stations to newspapers and journals—and arrested their political representatives. Now it is closing down the last remaining places where Kurds organize themselves.

Meanwhile the Turkish army is constantly bombing Kurdish cities in Rojava, killing dozens of civilians and self-defense forces.  Afrin Canton is currently under military siege by Turkish soldiers and elements of the so-called Free Syrian Army, who are preparing to create a second Kobane there. Furthermore last night news reached us that Turkish tanks are crossing the border into Iraqi Kurdistan to launch an unlawful offensive against PKK forces there.

The current Turkish government, with support of nationalist and ultranationalist parties and forces, is establishing a fascist dictatorship. What is happening today is not comparable to the military coup of 1980 or the ‘dirty war’ against the Kurds in the 1990s. The fascist regime under the leadership of Erdogan is repeating genocidal history, taking Nazi Germany as its example and reiterating exactly the same policy of Hitler after his seizure of power. This is reality that cannot be whitewashed.

We call on you to support the Kurdish people in their resistance against this fascist regime and show active solidarity. This regime is not only threatening the Kurds and democratic forces in Turkey, but following a very dangerous policy whose effects will not stop at the borders of the Turkish state.

Unite against fascism, for freedom and democracy!
Stop Turkish fascism! Join the resistance!

Kurdish Women’s Relation Office – REPAK
12 November 2016

Sulaymaniyah – South Kurdistan / KRG

The Free Women’s Congress mentioned above, KJA Diplomacy, issued this letter to friends:

Dear Women and Friends,

On November 12, 2016, at 8:30 am, Turkish state security forces surrounded the KJA (Kongreya Jinen Azad, Free Women’s Congress) center in Diyarbakir and at 11:00 am, based on a statutory decree article issued under the State of Emergency rule, Turkey’s Ministry of Interior suspended the KJA activities and sealed and shut down its building.

KJA has been raided four times by the Turkish police forces in the past six months. During the last raid, its member registration book and minute/decision book were seized.

These state assaults on us women will never discourage us! We have been waging the women’s freedom struggle for forty years now. With our democratic, ecological, and women-liberationist paradigm, we the women are strongly present in every sphere of life, in each house, in each village, in each town and city.

We know by heart that when the male-domination mentality brutally attacks the women’s struggle, it is because they are threatened by it. And you, male-dominated AKP mentality—you should indeed be afraid of us! We belong to the women’s struggle tradition of Sakine Cansız (massacred in Paris in 2013), which resisted the fascist military coup of September 12, 1980. You will never manage to confine us to our homes. You cannot suppress our struggle by shutting KJA down!

The seal on the KJA building is a dark seal of shame and disgrace imprinted by AKP and Erdoğan on the political history of Turkey.

As KJA, we will not step back. We are angrier and more organized than yesterday now. It is our promise to our people who have paid enormous prices and to all women that we will continue our resistance with escalating determination and steadfastness!

With solidarity!

Jin, Jiyan, Azadi!

Both documents lightly edited by Janet Biehl. 

Mesopotamian Ecology Movement

 The Mesopotamian Ecology Movement recently issued a declaration of social-ecological aims. 

Final Declaration of the First Conference of the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, April 23-24, 2016, in Wan (Van), North Kurdistan

On April 23 and 24, 2016, the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement (MEM) held its first conference in the city of Wan (Van). One hundred delegates participated, coming from the provinces Amed (Diyarbakir), Dîlok (Gaziantep), Riha (Sanliurfa), Merdîn, Muş, Wan, Elih (Batman), Siirt, Dersîm, and Bedlîs (Bitlis) in Turkey.MEH_1.Konf_Foto_2

Activists from the following movements and groups also participated: Gaya magazine, Anti Nuclear Platform, Green Resistance, Green Newspaper, Green and Left Party, Black Sea in Rebellion, Defense of North Forests, Water Rights Campaign, and Dersîm-Ovacik Municipality; and from the German group International Coordination of Revolutionary Parties and Organizations (ICOR) and the East Kurdistan group Green Chiya.

In addition, representatives of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), Free Women of Kurdistan (KJA), Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were present. Taken together, a total of 170 people joined the first large gathering of the MEM assembled since its founding.

The conference was organized during a period of intensive political struggle on the part of people in Kurdistan for freedom and self-governance, a struggle that may significantly change the future of the region but that also demands many victims.

Based on the trinity of city, class, and state and using the method of domination–capital accumulation, capitalist modernity creates a suffocating and unproductive society even as it presents nature with every kind of destruction. On behalf of the existing hegemonic system, the nation-state und its governments disperse the solidaristic character of society and instead impose unemployment, poverty, unhealthy nourishment via industrial agriculture and GMOs, and the cultural-social devastation on the people. Huge destructive projects like the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), the Ilisu Dam, the Munzur dams, Green Way, and Cerattepe Mining and Kanal Istanbul have been developed with the aim of clearing forests for construction, commercializing the waters, commodifying the land, controlling nature and people, and promoting the consumption of fossil fuels, all of which alienates people from original nature and from social life.

Currently, the ruling regime in Turkey is carrying out a campaign of brutality in Kurdistan that is incomparable in the recent history of the Middle East. In a new, perfidious dimension, it has forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of people from Sur, Nusaybin, Hezex, Kerboran, Farqin, Şırnak, Gever, Silopi, and Cizre, cities that are systematically being destroyed. Yet the international public remains silent on the destruction of nature and cities and on all the massacres of people.

The nation-state’s monist and denialist mentality and capitalist modernity’s unlimited profit-, competition-, and domination-seeking character have brought the world to its current grave state. Social disasters become ecological disasters, and vice versa. Society and humanity must put a stop to this development, for if it continues, we will reach the point where a turnaround is no longer possible. Therefore the mobilization of an ecological resistance is crucially important.

Despite the mentality and practices of destruction, a turnaround is possible. To achive it, we must mobilize the ecological struggle against wars and against the numerous dams, coal plants, and mines that are poised to eliminate our life-areas and our cultural and social values. We have to spread the ecological struggle using the maxim “Communalize our land, waters, and energy and set up a free, democratic life.” We must defend the democratic nation against the nation-state; the communal economy against capitalism, with its quick-profit-seeking logic and monopolism and large industries; organic agriculture, ecological villages and cities, ecological industry, and alternative energy and technology against the agricultural and energy policies imposed by capitalist modernity.

Since the ecological struggle is the touchstone for the liberation of all humanity, every action may bring us closer to a free individual and a free society. Our struggle to reach our natural and societal truth, the fundamental justification of our existence, is an important contribution to the liberation of people and nature on our planet. With great excitement, which we feel deeply, we assume our role in this struggle.

Our paradigm, which heralds a bright age in the twenty-first century and coming millennia, is a radical democratic, communal, ecological, women-liberated society. The ecological struggle goes beyond any single struggle to encompass the vital essence of the free life paradigm. Without ecology, society cannot exist, and without humanity and nature, ecology cannot exist. Ecology, as the essence and self of the millennia-old universal dialectic of formation, interweaves all interconnected natural processes as like the rings of a chain.

The struggle against capitalist modernity is the struggle to develop a democratic, social, and liberatory mindset, and the struggle against state-sovereignty is the struggle to become a social subject. This can develop only through a social movement, through a struggle for freedom that takes a stand against the system that jeopardizes nature, society, and the individual in the interests of capitalist profit and state hegemony.

In the Middle East, the history of ecology has not yet been written. To achieve the liberation of women, it has been necessary to learn the history of woman; just so, to achieve an ecological society, it is necessary to know the history of ecology. By opening up ecology academies, we can bring ecological consciousness as an essential component to programs of study in all social spheres and all academic curricula. Bringing ecological consciousness and sensibility to the organized social sphere and to educational institutions is as vital as organizing our own assemblies.

In relation to the construction of a democratic and ecological society, our conference passed several important resolutions that we hope will constitute an intellectual, organizational, and operational contribution for the global ecological movements. Some of the resolutions are:

– To establish a strategic intellectual, organizational, and operational coordination with national and international ecology movements in order to enhance common discussions and actions against ecological destruction and exploitation.

– To struggle against the mental, physical, and ideological destruction of energy, water, forests, soil, cities, agriculture seeds, and technology; and based on the approved policies of the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, to mobilize a struggle for the construction of a new life.

– To fight the system that demolishes urban settlements and burns forests in Kurdistan; to publicize the ecological devastation experienced in Kurdistan and to map the devastations occurring within the war.

– To plan actions, in coordination with other ecology movements, against the destruction of cities in Kurdistan; to ensure our active participation in solidarity platforms that have been established in these cities.

– To continue struggles to preserve cultural and natural sites in Kurdistan that face extinction—such as Hasankeyf, Diyarbakır-Sur, the Munzur Valley, and “Gele Goderne”—due to the energy and security policies.

– To develop an ecological model suitable for Kurdistan.

– To build a greater and more regular presence in print and digital media and to establish ecology academies.

– To carry out legal struggles parallel to ongoing actions and campaigns.

-To expand the own organizational structures throughout Kurdistan and Middle East.

Lightly edited by Janet Biehl. If your group would like to connect with the MEM, please write to mehdiplo@riseup.net.

 

 

Act Like a Friend

by Janet Biehl

The United States excels at sustaining friendly relations with dictatorial regimes, especially those that control oilfields and other resources. Such exploitative ties are useful for enhancing the profits of wealthy elites but contradict the country’s stated values of democracy and secularism. Normally the contradiction can be smoothly overlooked by our governing professionals, as US policy accommodates powers that are inimical to those values.

But now a situation has arisen in which a people friendly to the United States not only shares those values but actually attempts to put them into practice. Where the US says it favors democracy, Kurds in Syria have created an innovative and progressive form of democracy. Where the US favors separation of church and state, the Kurdish system emphasizes ethnic and religious toleration and inclusiveness in way that embodies it in practical terms.

The Kurdish defense forces YPG and YPJ are certainly the US-led coalition’s most valued allies in the war against ISIS, having amply demonstrated a unique military prowess against the jihadists.

And ever since the battle for Kobani in 2014-15, the US-led coalition has provided weapons and air support for them and, more recently, for the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), of which the YPG and YPJ are the chief components. Despite the insistent objections of its NATO ally Turkey, the US has deployed 50 Special Forces on the ground to assist the SDF, and recently it added another 250. Such aid is crucial for the SDF’s continued military success against ISIS and an in broad terms an act of friendliness.

The US military cooperation with the SDF is “very good,” PYD co-chair Salih Muslim told a gathering at the National Press Club in Washington on April 29.

But US support for Kurds stops there, and indeed in other respects accommodates the interests of enemies not only of Kurdish aspirations but also of Kurdish identity as such. This restraint raises alarms that the friendliness is based on Kurdish military usefulness to the coalition, and that once it has passed, the US will abandon them. Salih Muslim, for example, had to speak to the gathering via Skype since he is not permitted to enter the US.

To have a friend, one must behave like a friend. How would the US–and indeed the international community as a whole–behave if it were to choose to be a friend to Kurds?

Kurds in Syria

A US that acted like a friend would, for one thing, provide the Syrian Kurds with political and diplomatic support as well as military aid. The fact that it does not is “wrong,” said Salih Muslim.

A US that acted like a friend would not obstruct the participation of the Syrian Kurds in the Geneva talks on the future of Syria. This exclusion is an error on many counts, not least because the democratic system that they have been creating in northern Syria since 2012 is highly relevant to the future of the rest of the country.

That system, known as democratic autonomy or democratic confederalism, is a social and political framework that formally decentralizes power to localities so that diverse ethnic and religious groups—Kurds, Arabs, Chechens, Syriacs, and Turkmens—have autonomy, enabling them to coexist in. Women enjoy full political and social rights. It’s “not top-down democracy,” Muslim pointed out, “but democracy coming from the people themselves” in assemblies and councils.

Indeed, Muslim attributed the YPG and YPJ’s military success precisely to the democratic system. At Kobani and elsewhere, “we defeated IS because we have a democracy.” he says. How? Because “everyone feels the threat is his or her problem. They feel they have to do something against it.”

Not only is democratic autonomy progressive, but in geopolitical terms the power-sharing inherent to decentralization, as analyst David Phillips pointed out to the same gathering, is essential to stability. The Kurds have recently formed the North Syrian Federation to advance this system in the rest of Syria. “We want all of Syria to be democratic,” says Muslim.

Yet the US advocates the resuscitation of a unitary state in Syria. Were it to act like a friend, the US would drop the illusion that the erstwhile dictatorial, ethnically homogeneous system of Baath Syria can be revived and instead recognize the legitimacy of the North Syrian Federation, support the expansion of the democratic autonomy system into the rest of Syria, and admit the Syrian Kurds to the Geneva process.

Lamentably, it has failed to date to do any of this, because it yields to the irrational demands of the state lying immediately to Syria’s north.

Kurds in Turkey

The Turkish state legally denies the existence of ethnic minorities within its borders; the Kurds, the largest minority, have resisted such denial for four generations, demanding at minimum basic linguistic and cultural rights. Since the 1980s the Turkish state has waged war on the Kurdish resistance Decades of fighting have proved only that a military solution to the conflict is impossible: the Kurds can never defeat the far stronger Turkish armed forces, yet Turkey cannot suppress the wishes of a 20-million-strong minority, not even by demonizing the PKK and, increasingly, anyone who regards it positively, as “terrorist.”

Yet the US, as a NATO ally of Turkey, affirms Turkey’s right to try to suppress the “terrorists” within by using brute force.

The Turkish state’s war against the Kurds is increasingly cruel, having escalated to a level that surpasses basic human rights standards. Starting in the summer of 2015, Turkish forces imposed sieges and 24-hour shoot-to-kill curfews on cities and neighborhoods in the southeast, such as Cizre, Silopi, Sur neighborhood of Diyarbakir, and many others. It used and continues to use heavy weapons against civilian areas, killing even children, and in the process displacing almost half a million people.

The US, if it were a friend to Kurds and to human rights as such, would by now have grown hoarse with protest at this appalling human-rights criminality. It would at the very least insist that Turkey investigate the security forces that committed these crimes, or failing that, insist that an international fact-finding commission be permitted to do so.

Moreover the Turkish state is increasingly authoritarian and Islamist, cracking down on newspapers, shutting down TV channels, and persecuting academics and journalists. On May 2 it decided strip the pro-Kurdish, peace-advocating Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of diplomatic immunity and prosecute its members as supporters of “terrorism.” The US and the rest of the international community must raise their voices in vigorous objection.

Behind the scenes, journalist Amberin Zaman told the National Press Club meeting, the US has been pressuring the PKK to lay down its arms, but it is pressuring the wrong party. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would instead pressure the Turkish state to resume peace talks with the PKK as the legitimate representative of the Kurdish people in Turkey; to free the Kurds’ spokesperson, Abdullah Öcalan, from 17 years of solitary imprisonment; and to negotiate with him for peaceful solution to the Kurdish question.

The US cooperates with Turkey by placing the PKK on the State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would grasp that given the Turkish state’s failure to accommodate their will, the Kurds have every reason to object to their treatment, and it would discard the notion that the PKK is terrorist and remove it from this list.

That solution, when it comes, will no longer be a matter of achieving Kurdish linguistic or cultural rights alone. The longer the war grinds fruitlessly on, and the longer the Turkish state persists in ignoring the will of 20 million citizens, the more obvious it becomes that the Turkish state has forfeited its legitimacy to govern the mostly Kurdish southeast. The US, were it a friend to Kurds, would recognize this fact and press for Kurdish autonomy.

Indeed, the very nature of the Turkish system of government should be in play. Two contrasting proposals for a new system have been floated. The AKP proposes to create a presidential dictatorship, a neo-Ottoman caliphate, featuring authoritarian structures, ethnic homogeneity, the suppression of dissent, and traditional roles for women. The Kurdish proposal, by contrast, calls for the democratization and decentralization of Turkey, along the lines of democratic autonomy, with acknowledgment of ethnic diversity, freedom of expression, and gender equality. The US, if it were a friend to Kurds and true to its stated ideals, would raise its voice in support the Kurdish proposal.

The US, if it were truly a friend of human rights, let alone the Kurds, would rethink its entire alliance with Turkey as a member of NATO. “If NATO were established today,” said David Phillips, “Turkey would not meet criteria of membership.”

Kurds in Iraq

The United States and much of the international community still harbors the notion that Iraq is a unitary state. President Obama insists that the Kurds of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have to work with Baghdad. But Iraq, like Syria, is fragmenting, and the unitary state centered in Baghdad increasingly belongs to history. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would accept this reality and adjust its policy.

Iraq’s 2005 constitution promised decentralization and autonomy for the KRG, but those promises remain unfulfilled, as both the Al-Maliki and Al-Abadi governments have failed to implement provisions for regional control of new oilfields as well as devolution of certain powers to the regions. Al-Maliki even cut the KRG’s proceeds from oil sales.

KRG president Massoud Barzani has called for a referendum on independence in September or October. The US, as a friend to Kurds, should support independence for Iraqi Kurdistan and, further, a devolution of powers for local autonomy along the lines of democratic autonomy.

One group of Kurds in northern Iraq, the Ezidis of SInjar, require special attention. If the US were a friend to Kurds, it would acknowledge that in August 2014 ISIS committed genocide against them, massacring thousands, some by beheading, and selling women into sexual slavery. The KRG’s peshmerga, the force that was supposed to protect them, failed to do so, forcing the PKK to come and rescue those who survived. The US and the international community, as friends to Kurds, must acknowledge the genocide and intervene to protect their rights according to international laws. They should open an investigation into the genocide through international institutions and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The US as a friend to Kurds should aid Ezidi resistance forces, tasked with protecting the people against further attacks from ISIS. The US as a friend to Kurds would work to create democratic autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan, a confederal system in which Ezidis could continue to live in Sinjar as they have for millennia.

* * *

During the week of April 23, a delegation from the HDP visited Washington. afterward co-chair Selahattin Demirtas was asked about his expectations on this visit.

“We don’t ask anything of anyone,” he replied. “Rather we have proposals for a solution, and that’s what we focus on. We just explain our views, so that people know what they are firsthand, directly, so that they can avoid misconceptions when formulating policy. Our position doesn’t change in different circumstances.”

He urged people in every country where the government has influence over Turkey—the United States, Europe, and Russia—to pressure that government on behalf of democratic autonomy for Kurds and their allies. And where information about the Turkish conflict is shut out of the mainstream media, alternative media can step in and provide “mass education” so that people “can pressure the government to change policy.”

“Organized people can do everything,” co-chair Muslim told the gathering. He was referring to the creation and defense of democratic autonomy in North Syria, but the same principle applies to international solidarity work. And friendships, however inadequate at present, can be developed. US policy toward the Kurds, says David Phillips, “is evolving,” and “to the extent we raise our voices we have an opportunity to shape it.” Continued organizing, he believes, can pressure the US government to finally act like the friend that the long-neglected Kurdish people deserve.

May 2, 2015 2016

 

 

 

Joint Statement of the International Peace Delegation, February 2016

Judge Essa Moosa

Judge Essa Moosa

 

Joint Statement of the International Peace Delegation

 Istanbul, February 15-16, 2016

 

INTRODUCTION

The situation in Turkey today is critical. The recent escalation of conflict surrounding the Kurdish question is most dangerous. The war in Syria has already spilled over into widespread hostilities across the Southeast of Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government is committing human rights’ atrocities in Cizre and other towns and cities, and there is a very real threat of a further spiraling of violence throughout the country. The state’s repression and intimidation of Turkish academics and journalists who have spoken out against its war-mongering reveals the intimate connection between the struggle for a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish question and the struggle for democracy in Turkey more generally.

ISOLATION OF ABDULLAH ÖCALAN

The escalation of conflict has coincided with the total isolation of the leader of the Kurdish freedom movement, Abdullah Öcalan, who from his lonely prison cell on the island of Imrali has been a crucial role-player and a consistent voice calling for peace.

Yet the very fact that Öcalan is in prison was a problem even during the talks that occurred for two years starting in March 2013. His condition of imprisonment forces him to negotiate with his captors – an inherent disadvantage. Moreover, in prison he cannot consult with his constituency. Before substantive negotiations can start, the state must first release him, as Nelson Mandela was released before – not after or during – the South African negotiations. Until Öcalan is freed, only talks about talks, and not actual negotiations, can take place. Mandela emphasized that only free persons and not prisoners can negotiate, on behalf his people, for a political solution.

THE TEN-MEMBER INTERNATIONAL PEACE DELEGATION

On February 14 a ten-member international delegation assembled in Istanbul to try to help restart the Kurdish-Turkish peace process, which has been suspended since the spring of 2015. The leader of the delegation, Judge Essa Moosa of the High Court of South Africa, on behalf of the delegation, wrote a letter to the Turkish Ministry of Justice on February 3 to request two meetings: one with the Ministry, to discuss ways and means to resume the peace process between the Turkish government and Ocalan; and one with Abdullah Öcalan on Imrali to discuss the same issue. We requested that the meetings take place on February 15, which coincided with the seventeenth anniversary of Öcalan’s capture and detention. Judge Moosa formerly acted for Nelson Mandela, while imprisoned on Robben Island and elsewhere and was involved in the negotiation process in South Africa.

THE ONLY VIABLE SOLUTION

Convinced that neither the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) nor the Turkish military could ever decisively prevail in a war that would only exacerbate the severe humanitarian crises in the country, we believe that the peace process offers the only solution and that Öcalan, as the chief spokesperson for the Kurdish movement, is essential to that process. No progress toward a solution can be achieved, we believe, without Öcalan’s participation.

REQUEST FOR AUDIENCE

Unfortunately our delegation was granted neither of the two meetings that we requested. On February 15, the ministry acknowledged receipt of the letter but did not bother to formally accept or reject our request. Beyond that mere acknowledgment, it gave no response at all by the time we left Turkey. We are extremely disappointed that we were not afforded an opportunity to engage the Minister of Justice and Öcalan on the question of the resumption of the peace process.

MEETINGS

The delegation meanwhile met with representatives from a variety of political and social organizations who briefed us on the country’s most disturbing situation. We also met with lawyers and lawyer’s organizations, who have been deeply involved in the defense of members of the Kurdish freedom movement against criminal charges, and who have themselves been the subject of much intimidation and persecution by the state.

FROM PEACE TO WAR

All these representatives recounted to us that during the current period of Öcalan’s isolation, from April 2015, the Erdoğan government has shifted from a peace footing to a war footing. The shift from peace-making to war-making has coincided with the total isolation of Öcalan. As he enters the eighteenth year of his detention, he leads a solitary life. Two other prisoners of the five who were formerly present on Imrali have now been transferred to other high-security prisons. Öcalan’s only human contact is with his guards or, if so permitted, with the remaining three prisoners. Not even his family can visit him. His lawyers, who have not been able to visit him since 2011, apply to visit at least once a week, but they have applied 600 times now and are repeatedly turned down, given absurd excuses that the boat is broken. No one at all has been permitted to visit since the last HDP delegates left on April 5, 2015. No communication from him has been received since then. He is suffering from poor health and his access to medical care is limited.

Meanwhile the situation in the country deteriorated rapidly after the elections and the peace process decisively came to an end. We are informed that cities are becoming war zones, pounded with heavy artillery and tank fire. Children are being killed. People’s parents and grandparents are shot dead in streets, but because of the curfew, their bodies cannot be retrieved for extended periods. We are told that certain police forces are licensed to shoot anyone with full impunity, with no fear of consequences. These Special Forces are not commanded by local governors but are directly linked to the government.

In Cizre, people, many of them civilians who took refuge in three different basements have been killed, even burned alive, and now the state is destroying the buildings to eliminate the evidence. Violence against women is on the rise. Women are killed, then stripped and humiliated. These constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. It violates the Third Geneva Convention, to which Turkey is committed and it meet United Nations criteria for genocide.

ANGER

On the Kurdish side, anger against the government is rising, and many are moving away from Turkish society altogether. The Kurds sense that the war on the cities is linked to the election outcome. Even as war crimes and atrocities are being committed, however, the EU and the US are averting their eyes. Internationally, the AKP controls the flow of refugees into Europe, and it uses that leverage to intimidate European powers. European governing parties fearing what increased immigration might do to their electoral prospects, stay silent as massacres are under way in Turkey. As for the United States, it repeatedly affirms its military alliance with Turkey in the war against IS, despite the fact that Turkey’s prime enemies in the conflict are not IS (which it even supports) but the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, as well as Bashar al-Assad.

TURKISH EXTENDING WAR-ZONE INTO SYRIA

The Erdoğan government continues to bombard the Kurdish forces in Syria, the very forces who have proven to be the US-led coalition’s only effective ally in the struggle against IS. There is even talk of a ground invasion by Turkey into the Kurdish region of Syria, which could well trigger war with Russia, with unfathomable consequences for the region and the world. The fate of the Kurds depends in large part, then, on people in the rest of the world calling on governments and international institutions to change their policies toward Turkey and stand up for the beleaguered Kurds.

THE ATTITUDE TO THE PEACE TALKS

Our last meeting was a round table with around fifty Kurdish and Turkish intellectuals, journalists, human rights leaders, and academics. Some emphasized the urgent necessity to resume the peace talks, while others despaired that talks are no longer relevant when people are being burned alive.

THE RESOLUTION

In the light of circumstances, we, the undersigned, the members of the International Peace Delegation, unanimously resolve as follows:

  • We call upon the Turkish Government and Abdullah Öcalan to resume the peace process as a matter of urgency. In December 2012, the Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu as the Chair of the Elders, which was founded by Nelson Mandela, in a personal note to the then Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “Peace is better than War” and appealed to the Prime Minister to resume the peace process with Abdullah Öcalan.
  • In order for genuine Peace negotiations to take place to resolve the Kurdish issue in Turkey that Abdullah Öcalan, who is a crucial role-player, be released unconditionally from prison, to enable him to take his rightful place at the negotiating table for the lasting resolution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey and for the democratization of Turkey.
  • We call upon the Turkish Government to level the playing field by, amongst other, legitimizing PKK and other banned organizations, releasing of all political prisoners and permitting exiles to return to the Turkey to participate in the peace process.
  • We resolve to lobby our respective governments and non-governmental organizations to put pressure on the Turkish government to resume the peace process as a matter of urgency and in those countries where PKK is listed as a terrorist organization and Abdullah Öcalan is listed as a terrorist that pressure is put on such government to remove them from such list as they are a liberation movement and a freedom fighter in terms of the International Human Rights Instruments.
  • We call upon the international human rights organizations to investigate, as a matter of urgency, the human rights abuse perpetrated by the Turkish authorities against the civilian population in the areas of conflict and to assess and determine whether such abuses constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and/or contravention of the Geneva Convention.
  • We call upon the Committee for the Protection against Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of the Council of Europe (CPT), as a matter of extreme urgency, to visit Abdullah Öcalan on Imrali Island Prison in order   investigate the violation of his rights, in terms of the European Convention for the Protection Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms as a political prisoner in that (i) his right to have access to his lawyers have been violated for the last 5 years; (ii) his right to have access to members of his family have been violated for the last 14 months; (iii) his right not to be completely isolated from social contact which has been violated for an unknown period; and (iv) his right to have access to medical doctors and/or treatment. The CPT is called upon to report urgently on their findings after its visit, to the Council of Europe, to the Turkish government and to Abdullah Öcalan and his lawyers.
  • We call upon the international academic fraternity to come out in support of the dissident academics in Turkey in the interest of academic freedom and give them moral, material, physical and academic assistance.
  • We call upon members of our delegation to distribute this Report as widely as possible to heads of state, foreign ministers, ambassadors, officials, the media, both electronic and print, human rights organizations and non-governmental organizations in our respective countries.

 

Signed:

Andrej Hunko, MP of Left Party, Aachen, Germany

Dimitri Roussopoulos, co-founder of Transnational Institute for Social Ecology, Montreal, Quebec, Canada;

Eirik Eiglad, writer and publisher, New Compass Press, Norway

Dr. Elly Van Reusel, medical doctor, Belgium

Judge Essa Moosa (head of delegation), International Peace and Reconciliation     Initiative, South Africa

Federico Venturini, School of Geography, University of Leeds; advisory board member of Transnational Institute for Social Ecology, UK

Francisco Velasco, former Minister of Culture, Ecuador

Janet Biehl, independent author; advisory board member of Transnational Institute for Social Ecology, US

Joe Ryan, chair of the Westminster Justice and Peace Commission, UK

Dr. Thomas Jeffrey Miley, lecturer in political sociology, Cambridge University, UK

 

For more information on the delegation please contact:

Kariane Westrheim of the EUTCC (EU Turkey Civic Commission):

E-mail: Kariane.westrheim@gmail.com

Essa Moosa (Head of the International Delegation)

E-mail: Essa.moosa1@gmail.com

Estella Schmid
E-mail: estella24@tiscali.co.uk

 

Coordinator Elly van Reusel: imralivisit2016@gmail.com, +32-3-487-285075

 

This edition of the statement, published February 25, has been slightly modified since the version published a few days earlier.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Rojava

Once an assembly and council democracy is in place, in which power flows from the bottom up through confederal councils, the possibility lurks that the councils can become vehicles for top-down rule. How can people in a democracy keep that from happening? This question was on my mind in Rojava last October, so when Zanyar Omrani asked me about it, I explained my ideas and others’ in “Thoughts on Rojava” In ROAR Magazine.

“The places are hermetically sealed”

For the past few weeks, special forces of Turkish police and military have been cracking down on rebels in the country’s southeast. Journalists are being kept out of the closed-off towns and cities.  Ercan Ayboga, on the scene in Diyarbakir (Amed), was interviewed by Marcus Staiger for Junge Welt, December 30, 2015. Translated by Janet Biehl.

Q. For weeks we’ve been hearing about fighting in Turkey’s southeast and about numerous fatalities. Who is dying in the streets of Cizre, Silopi, Dargecit, and Sur?

A. On one side, Turkish security forces—police, soldiers and special forces. On the other, mainly civilians. It depends on who’s making the statement. The Turkish government says that from the beginning of the operation till now, it has killed more than 200 terrorists. But the Youth Organization YDG-H, which participates in the fighting, says most of those killed have been civilians, and that they themselves have lost no more than ten fighters. I think the YDG-H number is closer to the truth, because otherwise we would have had more public funerals. What I can confirm is that civilians are dying. In Cizre, a woman was shot and lay in the street for several days, severely wounded, and her family couldn’t come and get her because they too would have been shot. The woman finally died, in sight of her family. Such things happen here every day.

Q. The media report that curfews are being imposed on the besieged cities. What does that actually mean?

A. The curfews are in effect indefinitely, until the governor announces something else. No one is allowed to go into the streets, and there are also no times when people can go outside and get supplies. In Sur this curfew has been going on for twenty-eight days. In Cizre and Silopi, for sixteen. After the military coup, in the 1980s, there were also curfews, but only during nighttime. Now the towns and villages are hermetically sealed by the police and the army, so no one from outside can enter.

Q. How are the inhabitants reacting to such a long blockade?

A. People probably stockpiled provisions in advance, expecting something like this to happen. After all, these aren’t the first such curfews. In Cizre and Silopi, they’re on the fourth one this year. Here in the old city of Amed it’s the sixth. Most of the residents here say, We’ll stay here in our neighborhood and resist alongside with the armed units. The officials always say that the fighters are PKK cadres, coming in from outside. That could be true in some cases, but mainly they are people from the affected neighborhoods. So the inhabitants stand with the fighters and support them. The fighters have set up barricades all over and have dug ditches so that the security forces’ armored vehicles can’t enter the quarter. Up to now it all seems to be succeeding in preventing the politic and military from significantly penetrating these neighborhoods—and as a result, the shooting from the government side has become wilder and more indiscriminate.

Q. What are the rebels’ goals?

A. The goals of the Kurdish freedom movement are a democratic Turkey, with autonomous institutions, and a new constitution, and gender equality. It’s trying to achieve those goals legally and politically through organizations like the HDP. The YDG-H, on the other hand, wants the same thing but says that in the cities and neighborhoods where it’s strong, it will create free spaces and defend them, keeping the police out. In the cities, which are now so embattled, people have built grassroots-democratic institutions that are stronger and have now called for self-government and autonomy. All these developments have coincided, and you have to realize that now people themselves decide what to do in these legal and democratic institutions They have their own dynamic—and that begins a whole different discussion.

Q. What chance do they have of achieving these goals?

A. I’d say fifty-fifty. It’s very hard to estimate, but people are willing to fight for them, and if the Turkish state wants to block them, then there will surely be a very large massacre.

 

 

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.

#

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).

 

2006: PKK’s salute to Bookchin

After Murray Bookchin died on July 30, 2006, the PKK (“PKK assembly”) saluted him in a moving tribute. It was forwarded to me by two intermediaries. It’s been on my hard drive ever since. Here it is in its entirety, edited slightly for spelling and syntax.

“One of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century, Murray Bookchin, has passed away. We extend our condolences to his family and friends together with all those who struggle for freedom and democracy. His thoughts, struggle, and passion for freedom shall continue through the freedom and democracy struggle of humanity.

Murray Bookchin, c. 1989

Murray Bookchin, c. 1989

“Bookchin broadened the consciousness of humanity: the ecological consciousness. He introduced us to the thought of social ecology, and for that he will be remembered with gratitude by humanity. Through his thesis a great service has also been provided to humanity to achieve a better understanding of itself.

“Social ecology is not only a product of ecological consciousness, it is also a philosophical and an ideological method which helped to overcome the shortcomings of socialist theory. Therewith important shortcomings of the 19th and 20th century socialism have been completed.

“Bookchin was an intellectual who was militantly devoted to his ideals of freedom, equality and democracy. He will be remembered as an intellectual who has completed his militancy with science. It is precisely this characteristic that enabled him to continuously approach things that are wrong and/or incomplete. Hence he was an intellectual from revolutionary circles who criticized the shortcomings and the errors/mistakes of Marxism as well. Through his critical method he made a great contribution to the ideals of freedom, democracy, and socialism.

“He showed the ability to analyze capitalism, which has brought humanity to the point of possible extinction, in great detail; demonstrating that it is the worst of all systems in the history of humanity thereby opening new horizons in the struggle against capitalism. His definition of capitalism, as a cancerous disease effecting humanity and nature, proved without doubt that the struggle for the development of freedom, democracy, and socialism was an obligation and not a matter of choice.

Abdullah Öcalan

Abdullah Öcalan

“Contrary to those who claim that serious criticism of Marxism and socialism was an attack on Marxism and/or has weakened socialism, we believe that he helped to develop socialist theory in order for it to advance on a firmer basis. Hence socialists owe a lot to Bookchin for the ideas he developed. Despite certain shortcomings of his theoretical thesis and repetitions of ‘real socialism’s’ errors, nothing minimizes the importance of his contribution.

“One of Bookchin’s most important findings is that democracy, freedom, and socialism can only be realized in a system outside of the state machine. This may have been said before by others, especially the anarchists; however Bookchin showed how this will become reality and hence opened up new horizons. In order to establish a nonstate formation and democracy, he proposed the concept of ‘confederalism,’ a model that we believe is creative and realizable.

“He held a revolutionary theory which says that without a proper analysis of state, power, and hierarchy one cannot struggle for democracy, freedom and socialism. He showed that this was one of the biggest mistakes of Marxism and hence helped to improve our understanding of this issue, in order for socialists not to fall into the same trap in future. Those who hold to the ideals of democracy and socialism should take seriously his analysis and thesis if they want to avoid falling victim to another denomination of oppressive systems.

“Bookchin was not only an intellectual but at the same time an organizer and an activist. He has also aspired to practice the important work he had done on ecology and local administration. His contribution to the development of such work around the world through his thesis and efforts are immense.

“It is well known that Bookchin went through difficult and adverse periods of struggle throughout his life. The general dogmatic and incorrect approaches of Marxists, together with their intolerance to alternative thinking, impeded Bookchin from expressing himself and those who have freedom, democracy and socialism ideals to benefit much earlier from his thoughts.

“Ecological movements not able to detach themselves from the system and being integrated into the system is another factor why the importance of his ideas and actions have not been understood well. The experience of his struggles has shown him how human beings can be integrated simply by the capitalist life style hence keeping them away from the struggle. At the same time his personal experience taught him that not being organized is equivalent to not being able to struggle and thus surrender to the system. And that is why he always focused on the theoretical and practical measures against it.

“Bookchin’s theoretical thesis and struggle shall be discussed even more and become a part of the history of freedom in the future. His devotion to the scientific method, his principles and sincerity and morality, which failed to corrupt his mind, are some of his personal characteristics that could be taken as an example.

“Bookchin has made his contribution for the 21st century to become the century of socialism. Those who struggle for freedom and democracy will continue to gain strength from his life and morals. His thesis advances the development to freedom, democracy, and socialism more than ever.

“The PKK has also learned from Bookchin. His contributions to our leader’s thesis on social ecology will always be remembered. To attain the democratic socialism that we envisage, his contributions to the ideas of “confederalism”, his thesis on the state, power and hierarchy will be implemented and realized through our struggle and hence will continue to make its impact.

“We undertake to make Bookchin live in our struggle. We will put this promise into practice this as the first society which establishes a tangible democratic confederalism.

“We hope that all social scientists and revolutionaries will attain the characteristics of Bookchin; principles, consciousness, revolutionary moral values, and most of all that they practice this in life.

“Bookchin has not died, he will live through his work and through the work of others.

“PKK ASSEMBLY

“August 2006”

 

 

 

 

 

The Revolutionary Moment

by Janet Biehl

Today Rojava has become the epicenter of popular desires for radical democratic change. Like Paris in 1789, St. Petersburg in 1905 and 1917, and Barcelona in 1936-37, it crystallizes an era’s aspirations for social and political revolution.

The last book that Murray Bookchin authored before his death in 2006 was a history of such revolutions, with emphasis on the popular movements: The Third Revolution (4 vols., 1996-2004). The book’s title is the key to its meaning. The First Revolution is the preindustrial revolution, in which the people rebel against feudalism, as in 1789, when the French peasantry rose up against the aristocracy and monarchy. In 1792-93, working people in Paris created neighborhood assemblies and all but governed the city through them. But the First Revolution failed to liberate the people, because authoritarian figures (Jacobins) emerged and harnessed the movement for liberty into a dictatorship, destroying the liberatory assemblies and paving the way for Napoleon’s counterrevolution. The bourgeoisie was the ultimate beneficiary of the first revolution.

The Second Revolution is typical of the industrial age, the revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The working class, as Marx described it, was exploited and when its misery became extreme, it would seize control of the means of production and create socialism. But the Second Revolution, too, failed to liberate the people, as its driving forces were harnessed into a tyranny, which that once again instituted a dictatorship, this time in the name of the proletariat. In 1917 the workers of St. Petersburg demanded democratic soviets, by which they meant soldiers’ and sailors’ councils. They wanted to create a council democracy, with several tiers, in which power flowed from the bottom up. But once the Bolsheviks came to power on the revolutionary wave, they transformed the flow of power through the layers of soviets from bottom up to top down, transforming them from democratic expressions of the popular will into instruments of dictatorial rule. The totalitarian states of Stalin and his imitators were the ultimate beneficiary of the second revolution.

The Third Revolution–the one Bookchin advanced—would be the revolution of the people against dictatorships, a libertarian revolution against domination by the state and capitalism, but also against all social hierarchies, especially sexism and racism. In this anarchistic revolution, once again, people create democratic institutions–neighborhood assemblies and the councils—to empower themselves. But this time they have learned the lessons of history. They know not to let the bourgeoisie capture society’s wealth, or to let vanguards create dictatorships in their name. The assemblies become the institutions of the new society, and by confederating they wage a struggle against the forces of capitalism and the nation-state. For Bookchin, the libertarian revolution was inspired by the Spanish revolution of 1936-37.

Bookchin’s lifelong project was to try to bring the revolutionary tradition into the postwar period. The era of proletarian revolutions was over, he knew, and the new revolutionary agent would be the citizen; the arena of the revolution would be not the factory but the city, especially the urban neighborhood. New social movements—feminism, antiracism, community, ecology—were creating a new revolutionary dynamic. Modern technology was eliminating the need for toil, so that people would soon be free to participate in the democratic process. Hence his ideology of libertarian municipalism—the creation of face-to-face democratic institutions in urban neighborhoods, towns, and villages.

Had Bookchin lived to see the Rojava Revolution, he would surely have considered it emphatically part of the Third Revolution. In July 2012 the Assad regime simply let go of power there. Freed of that brutal yoke, people in the three cantons, following the principles of Democratic Confederalism, went on to create people’s assemblies and tiers of confederal councils, very much as Bookchin envisioned.

Bookchin had not foreseen it happening so nonviolently. In the United States, for example, the federal government in Washington would not simply roll over and abandon New York and Chicago and Los Angeles to people in assemblies. It would fight hard with its powerful high-tech military. So he thought the confederated assemblies would have to form a counterpower to the nation-state, or a dual power (in Trotsky’s phrase). Acting a dual power, the confederation would express the people’s will and constitute a lever to force a transfer of power, initiating a revolutionary conflict. The people would form people’s militias, but it would be crucial, he thought, for the existing armed forces to cross over from the side of the state to the side of the people.

But one thing he emphasized repeatedly in his later years. Revolutionary moments do not come around often in history; for a revolution to succeed, history on must be on the side of the revolution, and such “revolutionary moments,” as he called them, are relatively uncommon. Too often, when a revolutionary moment appears, the people are not ready. A social and political crisis explodes, and people pour into the streets and demonstrate and protest—but they are an angry crowd, wondering what to do. By the time the revolutionary moment occurs, it is too late to create revolutionary institutions.

It was crucial, Bookchin told his students, to begin to create the institutions of the new society within the shell of the old. In the United States, he said, people could create town meetings like those of New England throughout the country, and gradually, as more and more people began to use them to express their will, they could become powerful institutions of self-government, and through confederation could mobilize against the nation-state.

The more I read about the Rojava Revolution, the more I am struck by the fact that its architects understood clearly the need for organizing in advance, even with no foreknowledge of when the moment would come. Yekitiya Star and the PYD began organizing clandestinely under the brutal Assad regime. Then in March 2011 the conflict that began at Dara’a opened up space for more overt organizing, and they plunged ahead in full force. The MGRK and Tev-Dem created councils in neighborhoods, villages, districts, and regions. People began to pour into the institutions, so much so that they a new level was needed, the residential street, which became the home to the commune, the true citizens’ assembly.

By the time the revolutionary moment occurred in July 2012, this process had been underway for over a year, and the movement was more than ready. The democratic council system was in place and had the support of the people. The next challenge will be not only to survive in the war against the jihadists, but to ensure that power continues to flow from the bottom up.

For the rest of the world, the Rojava Revolution offers many important lessons, but the most important may be the one about advance preparation. It is crucial to build popular institutions in advance, long before the revolutionary moment comes around, so that when it does, they will be ready to take power. While Western activists often face repression, they face nothing like the brutality of the Assad dictatorship, and they have the relative freedom to begin to create new institutions now.

Will they be ready, on the day their revolutionary moment comes around?

 

Citizens’ Assemblies: From New England to Rojava

Presentation by Janet Biehl to the conference “Challenging Capitalist Modernity II,” Hamburg, April 3-5, 2015. NetworkAQ_Logo_IPlease visit the conference website, http://networkaq.net/

For a few hundred years now, town meetings have been the local government of towns in northern New England, including the state of Vermont, where I live. On the first Tuesday in March of every year, in all 240 Vermont towns, citizens come together at a local school or other large meeting place to make decisions for their community. It’s the last gasp of winter, and a sure sign that spring will come is the annual flowering of grassroots democracy.

In some important ways the town meetings are like the communes of Rojava. They are face-to-face democratic assemblies. They take place at the most local level: in Vermont the towns are mostly under 2500 people, perhaps the equivalent of villages in Rojava.

But they also differ. In Rojava, commune assemblies also exist in city neighborhoods. But in Vermont they are only in the towns–city neighborhoods do not have assemblies, except in the city of Burlington, where Murray Bookchin helped create them in the mid-1980s.

In Rojava, the communes are the basis of the self-government and thus have sovereign power. The communes share power in a sense, but they share it horizontally, with one another. In Vermont, towns have sovereign power only for local matter; power is divided vertically, among the towns, the state of Vermont, and the federal government in Washington.

In Rojava communes meet frequently, being the basis of the self-government. The town meetings assemble only once a year, although they may meet more often if they wish.

In Rojava, you have several tiers of confederal councils through which the communal assemblies collectively self-govern in broader areas. In Vermont, the town meeting’s don’t confederate, except in loose nongovernmental associations.

In Rojava, decisions made by citizens in the communes move upward through the city, region, and cantonal levels. In Vermont, town decisions don’t, although towns can make nonbinding resolutions about national or international issues if they choose. Most famously, in 1982, more than 150 Vermont towns voted simultaneously in favor of a freeze on nuclear weapons testing. Those decisions were all nonbinding—they had moral force but no legal force. Nonetheless their moral force was strong—it initiated a whole movement across the United States that culminated that June in a million-strong demonstration against nuclear weapons in New York’s Central Park.

* * *

We can trace the difference back to their origins. Rojava’s communes are brand new; the town meetings are centuries old, older than the United States as a country. In Rojava, the communes and their confederations originated in Ocalan’s Democratic Confederalism, and consciously modeled themselves on a specific program. New England’s town meetings date back to the first settlements in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, by Puritans from England. Notably, Ocalan was influenced by Bookchin, who studied the town meetings closely and was inspired by them to create libertarian municipalism.

In the seventeenth century, Europe was undergoing the Protestant Reformation , and there were different kinds of Protestantism– some groups demanded more reform than others. The Puritans’ version very extreme: they rejected the validity of all ecclesiastical hierarchy, to mediate between the congregation of believers and god. That was very radical at the time.

The result was that Puritan congregations were autonomous religious bodies, claiming that they and only they could interpret Scripture for themselves. Once they settled in New England after 1629, founding towns after, it must be said, driving out the Native Americans, that religious autonomy extended into the civil world and became political autonomy. The god-worshipping congregation became the self-governing town meeting. They made regulations about their religious practices, and they made laws for their communities.

In the years before the American Revolution, town meetings spread outside of New England, as far south as Charleston, South Carolina. And in the 1770s they were engines of revolutionary activity against British rule, especially the Boston town meeting. But after the U.S. gained independence, conservative forces carried out counterrevolution against the institutions of popular power. They ensured that in most places town meetings were replaced by incorporated forms of municipal government, in which urban wards elected city councilors and mayors. Only northern New England towns held on to their democratic assemblies.

* * *

They continue to meet, and can make a few generalizations about them. They meet on first Tuesday in March, starting in the early morning. A moderator runs the meeting. All adult citizens of a town can attend and participate.

The agenda consists of a variety of items, to which citizens can contribute in advance; the agenda is announced thirty days before the meeting. concrete items, like whether to repair a road or buy a new fire truck. The most compelling item is the town budget, inevitably the subject of much discussion, as how much a town spends on something in a given year reflects its priorities—a budget, paradoxically, is a moral document. When the discussion of a particular item is finished, the citizens vote by a show of hands, then move on to the next one. They also elect town officers who will oversee the execution of the decisions over the next year.

The townspeople sit on hard metal folding chairs (as I saw in Rojava!) that become uncomfortable, but they continue anyway, and the meeting usually last for three to four hours. They break for a lunch of home-cooked food.

These features of town meeting are more or less the same as they were a century ago. And historically, we know what decisions they made, and what officers they elected, because they are recorded in the minutes in town records.

Stories about town meeting have passed into Vermont lore. They have been much admired–the philosopher Henry David Thoreau called town meeting “the true congress … the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States.” At other times they have been mocked, by mainstream politicians, as the dithering of uneducated rural dolts. Murray Bookchin argued that they are a rare instance of assembly democracy, in the tradition of ancient Athens, and a tradition that Rojava has recently joined.

But from a social science perspective, we don’t know very much about town meetings historically, because no one really studied them. To know what happens in a town meeting, how the discussion runs, for example, you have to be there in person. But they all meet at the same time, once a year, and you can’t divide yourself into 240 people.

So we don’t know, for example, how many people attended–what proportion of the residents of town actually came to the meeting. How many of them spoke, and how many were silent? Did more of them speak when the meeting was small or large? When it was crowded or sparse? How often did a given speaker speak? How many women participated, and how many spoke, and how many were silent? How has any of this changed over time? Did wealthier communities’ town meeting run differently from poorer communities? What about mixed communities—did the rich and educated speak more than the poor and less educated?

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That is, we didn’t know these things until recently. In 1970 a political science professor at a Vermont university decided to study this very important subject. He had grown up with the town meetings and was frustrated that conventional political science didn’t talk about town meetings when it talked about democracy. Three wasn’t even a single book dedicated to the subject.

In 1970 Frank Bryan had a brilliant idea. He assigned his students—maybe thirty or so– the task of going to the meetings. Each one would sit with a notebook with a grid and count the number of people there, identify gender and perhaps something about socio-economic status. The students would write down when the meeting started and ended. When someone spoke, the student would write on the grid “bald man in plaid shirt.” “Brown-haired woman in green vest.” They would note the agenda item they spoke to, and how many times, and for how long. By the end of the meeting, the student would have all this data and bring it back to Frank Bryan. Being a social scientist, he would put all the data together and crunch the numbers and come up with hard information. He did it for almost thirty years, from 1970 to 1998, and published the results in his 2004 book Real Democracy, which I highly recommend.[1]

He filled in our knowledge. In 2004, on average, around 20 percent of the townspeople participated, which is a decent showing, for a daylong meeting. On average, out of every 100 participants, 44 spoke. The most talkative 10 percent made up 50 or 60 percent of the total speech acts. Usually they speak for a minute or two at a time. Some just state their opinion and that’s it; others are more conversational, with dialogue among several. The smaller the number of people at the meeting, the more equally their speech was distributed among those present.

Wealthier towns and poor towns don’t differ much in meeting length or participation. Back in the eighteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written that in town meetings in Concord, Massachusetts, “the rich gave council, but the poor also; and moreover the just and the unjust.” The same is true today, Bryan found: within a given community, class status doesn’t make a difference in participation. Educated people and affluent don’t dominate public talk. Everyone has opinions. In fact, participation goes up when there’s a conflict.

As for women: on average, between 1970 and 1998, they made up 46 percent of attendance at town meetings. But they constituted only 36 percent of the citizens who spoke out and were responsible for only 28 percent of the acts of speech. They speak more in small towns than in larger ones.

But women’s participation increased in those thirty years. In 1970, the second wave of feminism was just getting under way, and many women must have felt initially that political participation was a men’s zone. But by 1998, they attended in greater numbers than at the beginning, and they were much more talkative.

Still, even at 46 percent, women’s participation exceeds the 40 percent gender quota at Rojava; and at 46 percent it exceeds women’s participation in other parts of government in the United States. From city councils to the government in Washington, women’s participation is much lower. The U.S. Senate is only 20 percent women. Women’s participation in town meetings documents the importance of assembly democracy for women, and women for assembly democracy.

Towns had been meeting for centuries before Frank Bryan get the idea to record this kind of information. I hope Rojava doesn’t wait that long to document its assemblies. What a grand project it would be for students at the Mesopotamian Academy in Qamislo to document participation in the Rojava communes! How useful that would be, for Rojava to know what’s going on in its own society, and to be able to defend and explain the democratic self-government to outsiders.

 * * *

Beyond the numbers, the town assemblies of northern New England provide important experiences that transcend culture.

First of all, citizen assemblies are not only venues for political participation, they are also schools for political participation. For many people, speaking in public is hard, even frightening. It’s even more frightening in an assembly, because your acts of speech are connected to action—to voting, decision-making—which affects how people will live in your community. It’s even more nerve-wracking for out-groups—women, minorities—who may feel self conscious by virtue of their identity.

But in town meeting you learn to build up the courage to speak. You learn not to be afraid to inadvertently say something trivial or foolish, because everyone else does it from time to time. That gives people confidence, and they develop civic skills and leadership skills.

A second experience: people in town meetings learn civility. It’s easy to criticize someone you disagree with from afar—from the behind your computer over the internet, for example. But in town meeting you sit down with people you disagree with, who are also your neighbors. On the Internet we can just skip the sites we don’t agree with, but in town meeting you have to sit and listen to your neighbors express their points of view. That leads to better information, better understanding. You learn to express your disagreement in civil terms—as Bryan points out, in town meeting you forbearance. You learn not to insult them, or let your contempt or intolerance show, because that person is also your local dog-catcher or emergency medical technician or the parent of your child’s best friend at school. Who knows, you may modify your view, or they may modify theirs after they listen to you. Or maybe you work out a way for both views to be accommodated.

But whatever the outcome, that process is healthier for the community as a whole. It teaches civic cooperation and sociability and trust. And it makes for better decisions.

* * *

Murray Bookchin, who grew up in New York City, was always fascinated by urban processes, by the ways strangers are incorporated into community life, by the rich texture of close-knit neighborhoods as well as towns and villages. He savored sociable discourse among people who live in the same place, in local networks, clubs, guilds, popular societies, associations, and especially cafés—even in neighborhood streets. Such sociability, he thought, was the nucleus of freedom: it provided a refuge from the homogenizing, bureaucratic forces of the state and capitalism and embodied the “material, cultural, and spiritual means to resist.”[2]

That’s why he wanted to revive the citizens’ assembly and multiply it, so that they existed not just in the towns of New England but in urban neighborhoods as well. By proliferating assemblies, then coordinating them in confederations against the centralized state, he said, we can decentralize power into viable community groups.

In most times of social upheaval, Bookchin wrote, “people have turned to assembly forms as a way of . . . taking control of their destiny. … Apparently, we have something at work here that has abiding reality…. Something in the human spirit … demands systems of governance based on face-to-face decision-making, a personalistic as well as a participatory politics. It is as though the need for community and communing … emanates from the human spirit itself.”[3]

[1] Frank Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[2] Murray Bookchin, “The American Crisis II,” Comment 1, no. 5 (1980), p. 7.

[3] Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1986), p. 257.