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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.