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




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.

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).


Paradoxes of a Liberatory Ideology

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Hadiya Yousef (photo by Joost Jongerden)

Hadiya Yousef (photo by Joost Jongerden)

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

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

Sheikh Humeydi Denham (photo by Joost Jongerden)

Sheikh Humeydi Denham (photo by Joost Jongerden)

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

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

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

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

* * *

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.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Berivan Xalid

Berivan Xalid (photo by Janet Biehl)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Akhram Hesso (photo by Janet Biehl)

Akhram Hesso (photo by Janet Biehl)

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

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

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

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,

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?

* * *

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.

Municipalization of the Economy

As the Rojava revolution continues, the nature of its economy has been much discussed. As I have written previously, Rojava aspires to a social economy based on cooperatives. In recent weeks, several people have asked me for Murray Bookchin’s ideas about the economy: what are the economic aspects of libertarian municipalism? I’ve put together a summary of his thinking here, based on the sources listed at the end of this article. –Janet Biehl

In a capitalist economy, the means of production—industry—as well as land, raw and finished materials, financial wealth are concentrated in private hands. The alternative is a social economy, in which ownership of such property—wholly or in part–is shifted to the society as a whole. The intention is to create an alternative society, to put economic life directly into the hands of the men and women who are vitally involved with it. An alternative system would be one that has both the desire and the ability to curtail or eliminate profit seeking in favor of humanistic values, practices, and institutions. As Murray Bookchin pointed out, a social economy can take several forms.


Cooperatives are small-scale enterprises that are collectively owned and operated. They may be producers’ cooperatives, or they may be the collectivized and self-managed enterprises such as are advocated by anarcho-syndicalists. Their internal structures of sharing foreshadow the emergence of sharing in the wider society

In the 1970s, many American radicals formed cooperatives, which they hoped could constitute an alternative to large corporations and ultimately replace them. Bookchin welcomed this development, but as the decade wore on, he noticed that more and more those once-radical economic units were absorbed into the capitalist economy. While cooperatives’ internal structures remained admirable, he thought that in the marketplace they could become simply another kind of small enterprise with their own particularistic interests, competing with other enterprises, even with other cooperatives.

Indeed, for two centuries, cooperatives have too often been obliged to conform to marketplace dictates, regardless of the intentions of their advocates and founders. First, a cooperative becomes entangled in the web of exchanges and contracts typical. Then it finds that its strictly commercial rivals are offering the same goods it offers, but at lower prices. Like any enterprise, it finds that if it is to stay in business, it must compete by lowering its prices in order to win customers. One way to lower prices is to grow in size, in order to benefit from economies of scale. Thus growth becomes necessary for the cooperative—that is, it too must “grow or die.” Even the most idealistically motivated cooperative will have to absorb or undersell its competitors or close down. That is, it will have to seek profits at the expense of humane values. The imperatives of competition gradually refashion the cooperative into a capitalistic enterprise, albeit a collectively owned and managed one. Although cooperation is a necessary part of an alternative economy, cooperatives by themselves are insufficient to challenge the capitalist system.

Indeed, Bookchin argued, any privately owned economic unit, whether it is managed cooperatively or by executives, whether it is owned by workers or by shareholders, is susceptible to assimilation, whether its members like it or not. As long as capitalism exists, competition will always require the enterprises within it to look for lower costs (including the cost of labor), greater markets, and advantages over their rivals, in order to maximize their profits. They will tend ever more to value human beings by their levels of productivity and consumption rather than by any other criteria.

Public Ownership

A truly socialized, alternative economy would be one, then, in profit seeking must be restrained or, better, eliminated. Since economic units are incapable of restraining their own profit seeking from within, they must be subjected to restraint from without. Thus alternative economic units, to avoid assimilation, must exist in a social context that curtails their profit seeking externally. They must be embedded in a larger community that has the power not only to bridle a specific enterprise’s pursuit of profit but to control economic life generally. No social context in which capitalism is permitted to exist will ever successfully curtail profit seeking. The expansionist imperatives of capitalism will always try to overturn external controls, will always compete, will always press for expansion.

Such a society must be one that “owns” the economic units itself. That is, it must be one in which socially significant property—the means of production—is placed under public control or, insofar as ownership still exists, public ownership.

The notion of public ownership is not popular today, since its most familiar form is state socialism, as exemplified by the Soviet Union. The nation-state expropriates private property and becomes its owner. State ownership, however, led to tyranny, mismanagement, corruption—to anything but a sharing, cooperative economy.

The phrase “public ownership” implies ownership by the people, but state ownership is not public because the state is an elite structure set over the people. The nationalization of property does not give the people control over economic life; it merely reinforces state power with economic power. The Soviet state took over the means of production and used it to enhance its power, but it left the hierarchical structures of authority intact. The greater part of the public had little or nothing to do with making decisions about their economic life.


Real public ownership would have to be ownership by the people themselves.

That was precisely what Bookchin proposed as an alternative: a truly form of public ownership. The economy is neither privately owned, nor broken up into small collectives, nor nationalized. Rather, it is municipaized—placed under community ownership and control.

Municipalization of the economy means the ownership and management of the economy by the citizens. Property would be expropriated from the possessing classes by the citizens’ assemblies and confederations (acting as a dual power) and placed in the hands of the community, to be used for the benefit of all. The citizens would become the collective “owners” of their community’s economic resources.

Citizens would formulate and approve economic policy for the community. They would make decisions about economic life regardless of their occupation or their workplace. Those who worked in a factory would participate in formulating policies not only for that factory but for all other factories—and for farms as well. They would participate in this decision-making not as workers, farmers, technicians, engineers, or professionals, but as citizens. Their decision making would be guided not by the needs of a specific enterprise or occupation or trade but by the needs of the community as a whole.

The assemblies would rationally and morally determine levels of need. They would distribute the material means of life so as to fulfill the maxim of early communist movements, “From each according to ability and to each according to need.” That way everyone in the community would have access to the means of life, regardless of the work he or she was capable of performing.

Moreover, the citizens’ assemblies, Bookchin wrote, would consciously ensure that individual enterprises did not compete with one another; instead all economic entities would be required to adhere to ethical precepts of cooperation and sharing.

Over wider geographical areas, the assemblies would make economic policy decisions through their confederations. The wealth expropriated from the property-owning classes would be redistributed not only within a municipality but among all the municipalities in a region. If one municipality tried to engross itself at the expense of others, its confederates would have the right to prevent it from doing so. A thorough politicization of the economy would thereby extend the moral economy to a broad regional scale.

As Bookchin put it, in a municipalized economy, “The economy ceases to be merely an economy in the strict sense of the word—whether as ‘business,’ ‘market,’ capitalist, ‘worker-controlled’ enterprises. It becomes a truly political economy: the economy of the polis or the commune.” It would become a moral economy, guided by rational and ecological standards. An ethos of public responsibility would avoid a wasteful, exclusive, and irresponsible acquisition of goods, as well as ecological destruction and violations of human rights. Classical notions of limit and balance could replace the capitalist imperative to expand and compete in the pursuit of profit. Indeed, the community would value people, not for their levels of production and consumption, but for their positive contributions to community life.


For more on the municipalized economy, please refer to these sources:

Murray Bookchin, “Municipalization: Community Ownership of the Economy,” Green Perspectives 2 (1986)

Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and Decline of Citizenship (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987), pages 260-65. (This book was later republished under the titles Urbanization Against Cities and Urbanization Without Cities.)

Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), chapter 12.



Rojava’s Threefold Economy

A Presentation by Abdurrahman Hemo, adviser for economic development in Cizîre Canton, Dêrîk


On December 2, the academic delegation to Rojava visited the economic center in Dêrîk. There we heard a presentation on Rojava’s economy from Abdurrahman Hemo, the adviser for economic development for Cizîre canton. Hemo explained what he called Rojava’s three parallel economies: the community economy, the war economy, and the open economy. 

I. Social Economy

Hemo: Our economic project is the same as our political project. We call it “social economy,” and all parts of society participate. It’s cooperative. We have started to build cooperatives in all different sectors: we have trade cooperatives, company cooperatives, construction cooperatives. The organizational model for our economy is the cooperative. Our aim is to be self-sufficient. If there is just bread, then we will all have a share. This is the main principle of cooperatives.

For two years now, we have tried to develop this economy. Before [the revolution] the culture was different, so now we have academies to promote the cooperative mentality. We’ve organized seminars and discussions, so that the community can be convinced this kind of system is better. Currently participation is at a good level.

The main economic activity here is agriculture, and so the majority of cooperatives are concentrated in agriculture. That is our social economy. The other cantons function in the same way.

Cudi Ossi of the economic office shows us a cooperative greenhouse

Cudi Ossi of the economic office shows us a cooperative greenhouse

Let me explain that in all three cantons we are surrounded—we are embargoed. Rojava is rich in natural resources and agriculture, but we receive no infrastructure investment. Internationally there’s no investment here. Internationally Rojava isn’t recognized—it doesn’t exist. If we want to develop in Rojava, we have to build everything ourselves.

So in the revolutionary process we created companies to develop agriculture economy, and to supply seeds to the peasants so they can continue to cultivate their lands. And we supply them with diesel for the agricultural machinery.

And we created companies to refine oil, produce diesel and other products. To produce diesel is actually less expensive than water. Water costs 25 cents a half-liter, while a liter of diesel costs 25 cents. Water is twice as expensive as oil. In Cizîre canton we have thousands of oil fields. But at the moment only 200 of them are active, because where would we send the oil? We are embargoed—we can’t trade with the outside world. So we just exploit the oil for our own use here in Cizîre.

Jack pumps in Rimelan

Jack pumps in Rimelan

Some oil fields are under the control of ISIS—one emir owns five or six oil fields. ISIS can sell their oil to Turkey–they have contacts with Turkish side and trade with Turkey. We have thousands of oil fields, but we can’t exploit them even for the use of the rest of Syria. We exploit oil only for our own use, for our own income.

We have also created companies to develop infrastructure and to build roads, with asphalt. All these are local companies—we get no assistance from outside.

Q: Who decides how much to produce, of what, and how to distribute surplus?

Hemo: The situation is complex. The democratic self-government, the committees for agriculture and finance, and the companies are all involved.

Q: Who owns the companies?

Hemo: Some of companies are private—the canton self-government has no control over them. Some of them made agreements with the self-government so they can cooperate. For instance, an oil company can be privately owned, but it has an agreement with the self-government. We own the oil, they give us diesel. The energy committee decides how pure the product has to be and how to price it. It’s similar for agriculture—there are private companies that have agreements with the self-government.

The new flour mill in Dirbespiye

The new flour mill in Dirbespiye

Q: How do individuals and people with families make money to live? What occupations are there? Have women and men changed in relation to the economy?

Hemo: There’s no division of labor. Agriculture is the main occupation. This is an economy of survival. There are no wages. Some people just make their living from a cow.

II. War Economy

The second big part of Rojava’s economy is the war economy. Under the democratic self-government, 70 percent of the budget is spent for defense—for the YPG, YPJ, and Asayiş. The war costs us $20 million each year. We buy all our weapons, and weapons are very expensive. We have an army that needs clothes and food. The need to finance the army forces us to centralize the war economy—otherwise it’d be impossible for fighters to live in these conditions.

The rest of the budget is used by the self-government provide public services and to finance itself. It finances all the costs of the schools in Rojava. We give the schools diesel. Before the revolution, the regime financed them, but now we are obliged to. We finances heat for the buildings.

And we finance bread. Every family can get three breads a day. [They are yeasted flatbreads.—ed.] Each bread costs us 100 Syrian lire, and we give it to the people for 60 Syrian lire. And we have to finance this. Just for supply bread to the population for a month, we take a loss of 20 million Syrian lire.

The staff of life

The staff of life

Q: You say 70 percent of the budget goes for defense, and 30 percent goes for public services. But where does the money come from? You can’t export the oil, and you consume your own vegetables.

Hemo: The income comes from selling oil products in the local economy.

Q: People have to pay for oil?

Hemo: Yes. Everything we get is just for us.

Q: But there’s just one source, oil, for domestic income? That’s all?

Hemo: And we also have some income from the border crossings.

Q: There must still be some people from the old days here who have more money than others, some wealth. Can’t you ask some kind of tax or contribution from them?

Hemo: We plan to ask for that. But most of the population is very poor. We decided not to collect taxes from the people. If we did, it would all be over. So we get no fixed income in the form of taxes to finance the system.

Since we are under an embargo, we get no outside help. Everything we produce goes for our own needs. We have limited electricity, clean water, the necessities of daily life. We used to get electricity from Raqqa, but not anymore—ISIS controls it. All we have to rely on is the diesel generators.

A lot of displaced people come here, to the Kurdish areas, and they live in very basic conditions. In this war situation, the UN agencies should supply electricity and access to clean water. Education and health are basic needs. Some international humanitarian institutions are in the refugee camps here, and they should help us provide such services, but their presence is just symbolic.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime has received billions of dollars in humanitarian help from the UN, the United States, and the European Union. But the Kurdish areas get no assistance from international humanitarian organizations.

A baklava shop

A baklava shop

No state helps us defend ourselves, and no one provides assistance. We consume bread together, and if there is no bread, we do not get bread.

III. Open Economy

The economy in Cizîre/Rojava is functioning on a survival basis. The other cantons, Afrin and Kobanê, depend on the wealth of Cizîre. Our economy is vital for the others.

We are paying all costs for institutions of self-government and public services.

We have no surplus to reinvest. We don’t have the means to develop our economy. We need it to invest in other areas, but we can’t. We’re not able to create an environment where everyone can a chance to work, where professionals can get jobs, because we don’t have the means to create companies.

The social economy income is all we have. The costs are growing because of the war. And the self-government’s administration, which we have to finance, has more members now.

If we get no opening to the outside world, our economy will stay the same, and there will be no development. But we need outside investment. To organize it, the government has passed a law called “open economy” to organize it. Any outside investor would have to respect the economy.

But there’s been no development. The resistance in Kobane has been discussed in the world, but officially Rojava doesn’t exist. International organizations that want to act here are told that they have to go through the KRG or Damascus.

There is a political embargo against us. The Turkish state sees nothing good happening here. Our boundary with Turkey is 900 kilometers long. In Afrin there is a border crossing, but it’s closed. Kobanê had a crossing, and Cizîre had three. They’re all officially closed.

When Al Nusra was occupying Sere Kaniye [in 2012-13], the border crossing was open. But after Al Nusra was expelled, Turkish officials closed the border—with a concrete wall. We need to open the Turkish border, so that all our cantons have access to the outside world. Within Syria, our neighbor is ISIS. With Iraq, we have just a small border. Three months ago, after ISIS occupied Sinjar Mountain, the KRG opened the border gate, but unwillingly. For now we have only the border crossing at Semalka with Iraq. What we call our brothers in KRG, in South Kurdistan, they just act in their own interest to open their borders; if it weren’t in their interest, they’d close it.

A greenmarket

A greenmarket

We need to change this situation internationally, to be recognized by the international community, to force Turkey to open the border crossing.

Q: It sounds like you are calling to the outside world invest in the existing system. You say you can’t be self-sufficient, but autonomy, as in “democratic autonomy,” means self-sufficiency. Yet you are asking for outsiders to help. Also contradicting democratic autonomy: you spoke about a centralized economy, which would be an economy founded on a state. Isn’t there a big contradiction between the political and economic paradigms?

Hemo: Yes, even in this war situation, we want to be self-sufficient. But let’s have no misunderstanding. To raise the quality of life as a whole, we need some kind of industry, we need electricity. Our oil industry is very primitive–we can just barely produce diesel. We need to build a refinery, but we need $300 million for that. Unfortunately the community cooperatives can’t pay for it.

We need electricity. To build ourselves a power plant would cost us $400 million, but we don’t have it. Community cooperatives can’t finance it. Yet we still need electricity. So we need help from outside, private or public.

We don’t have any factories to produce fertilizer for the farmers. We have all the raw materials to produce fertilizer, but don’t have the factories. We have to buy fertilizer from Iraq now. We need $5 million to build a fertilizer factory. Community cooperatives can’t provide have that money.

But we need them to come here so that we can build a kind of social economy together.

That’s why I described the system in terms of the three different economies. All three together constitute our economy, and we have to develop all three of them. The main activity will remain the social economy, but it cannot stand alone. If we were to insist on social economy alone, it’d last maybe one or two years. We have to finance the war. If the war situation becomes stable enough that we can develop industry, we will open to the outside world, in the open economy. If there is any opening, we have to develop industry.

Q: How big is the open economy? How is it implemented?

Hemo: We passed a law for it, but up to now we’ve had no investors. They have no access to our country. No one from outside has come and invested here. All the investment is local. The private companies are all local.

Shopkeepers in Qamislo

Shopkeepers in Qamislo

Q: What about the Kurdish diaspora? Can it link to the open economy?

Hemo: We are open to them, but no one is active. There’s no direct help. Perhaps it’s possible. Please organize it.

Q: Could other oil-producing countries, like perhaps Venezuela, help with refineries?

Hemo: We have some ties, and some people promised things, but practically they have done nothing. There’s been some communication, but … if you know of a company, please help.

Q: What about the airport?

Hemo: The Qamişlo airport is occupied by the regime. Building an airport could be a project to develop the economy here, if someone is willing.

Q: How would you like the economy to work ideally?

Hemo: Our main focus for development would be on the social economy. But it will coexist with the open economy and the private economy. For instance, we need factories related to agriculture. We need processing facilities. We need fertilizer, cotton processing. We produce petroleum, but we need facilities to produce plastics, benzene from it. If there is an opening, we can create facilities. We need some kind of common economy, and factories should be communally owned. But we won’t create a state economy, or a centralized economy. It should be locally organized.

Transcribed and edited for organization and conciseness by Janet Biehl. The translator used the phrase “community economy,” which was what originally appeared in this article. But the correct name is “social economy,” and it has been revised accordingly as of October 2015.




Revolutionary Education

Two Academies in Rojava

by Janet Biehl

“You have to educate, twenty-four hours a day, to learn how to discuss, to learn how to decide collectively. You have to reject the idea that you have to wait for some leader to come and tell the people what to do, and instead learn to exercise self-rule as a collective practice. . . . The people themselves educate each other. When you put ten people together and ask them for a solution to a problem or propose them a question, they collectively look for an answer. I believe in this way they will find the right one. This collective discussion will make them politicized.”—Salih Muslim, PYD co-president, November 2014

After the revolution of July 2012, when new self-governing institutions came to power in Rojava, the need for a new kind of education was paramount. Not that the people of western Kurdistan were uneducated—high school graduation rates were and are very high there, as the Academic Delegation learned during our December 2014 visit. But education was crucial to creating the revolutionary culture in which the new institutions could thrive. It is a matter not for children and youths alone but for adults as well, even the elderly.

As Aldar Xelîl, a member of the council of Tev-Dem, explained to us, Rojava’s political project is “not just about changing the regime but creating a mentality to bring the revolution to the society. It’s a revolution for society.” Dorşîn Akîf, a teacher at the academy, agreed: “Perception has to be changed,” she told us, “because mentality is so important for our revolution now. Education is crucial for us.”

The first issue that the revolution had to confront was the language of instruction. For four decades under the Assad regime, Kurdish children had had to learn Arabic and study in Arabic. The Kurdish language was banned from public life; teaching it was illegal and could be punished by imprisonment and even torture. So when the Syrian Kurds took their communities into their own hands, they immediately set up Kurdish language instruction. The first such school to open was Şehîd Fewzî’s School in Efrîn canton, followed by one each in Kobanê and Cizîre. By August 2014, Cizîrê alone had 670 schools with 3,000 teachers offering Kurdish language courses to 49,000 students.

Mesopotamian Academy, Qamislo

On December 8 the delegation visited Rojava’s first and only institution of higher education, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamislo. The Assad regime had permitted no such institutions in the Kurdish areas; this one opened in September 2014 and is still very much under construction.


Mesopotamian Academy

Teaching and discussions are mostly in Kurdish, although the sources are often in Arabic, since many essential texts have not yet been translated into Kurdish.

We met with several members of the administration and faculty, including the rector, Rojda Firat, and teachers Adnan Hasan, Dorşîn Akîf, Medya Doz, Mehmod Kalê, Murat Tolhildan, Serhat Mosis, and Xelîl Hussein.

One challenge the academy faces, they told us, is that people in northeastern Syria think they have to go abroad to get a good education. “We want to change that,” said one instructor, dismissing it as a notion instilled by hegemonic forces. “We don’t want people to feel inferior about where they live. In the Middle East there is a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom, and we are trying to uncover it. Many things that have happened in history happened here.”

The school year consists of three terms, each lasting three to four months, progressing from overviews of subjects to specialization to final projects. The curriculum comprises mainly history and sociology. Why those subjects? we asked. They are crucial, we were told. Under the regime, “our existence [as Kurds] was disputed. We are trying to show that we exist and have made many sacrifices along the way. . . . We consider ourselves part of history, subjects of history.” The instruction seeks to “uncover histories of peoples that have been denied, . . . to create a new life to overcome the years and centuries of enslavement of thought that have been imposed on people.” Ultimately its purpose is “to write a new history.”

Photo by Janet Biehl in Rojava

Two academy instructors

The sociology curriculum takes a critical stance toward twentieth-century positivism and instead seeks to develop a new, alternative social science for the twenty-first century, what Abdullah Öcalan calls “sociology of freedom.” For their final projects, students choose a particular social problem, then research it and write a thesis on how to resolve it, in connection with this alternative. So the learning practical as well as intellectual, intended to serve a social good.

Unlike conventional Western approaches, the academy’s pedagogy rejects the unidirectional transmission of facts. Indeed it doesn’t strictly separate teachers and students. Teachers learn from students and vice versa; ideally, through intersubjective discourse, they ideally come to shared conclusions. Nor are the instructors necessarily professors; they are people whose life experience has given them insights that they can impart. One teacher, for example, recounts folk tales once a week. “We want teachers to help us understand the meaning of life,” we were told. “… We focus on giving things meaning, being able to interpret and comment as well as analyze.”

Photo by Janet Biehl. At the Mesopotamian Academy. in Rojava

Two more academy instructors

Students take exams, but those exams don’t measure knowledge–they’re “more like reminders, like dialogues.” And teachers themselves are subject to evaluation by students. “You did not explain this very well,” a student can say. A teacher who is criticized has to talk out the issue with the student until they both feel they understand each other.

In many ways, the academy’s approach reminded me of the educational ideas advanced by the twentieth-century American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Like the Rojava instructors, Dewey was critical of traditional approaches, in which teachers transmit facts unidirectionally to passive students. Instead, he regarded education as an interactive process, in which students explore social issues through critical give-and-take with their teachers.

Dewey would likely have approved the fact that the academy, rather than requiring students to memorize, teaches them to “claim,” or overcome separateness. “We emphasize that everyone is a subject.” Moreover, it instills habits of lifelong learning: “Our goal is to give students the ability to educate themselves,” beyond graduation Dewey too thought learning should address the whole person, not the intellect alone; that it should highlight our common human condition; and that it should continue throughout life.

The academy seeks not to develop professionalism but to cultivate the well-rounded person. “We believe humans are organisms, they can’t be cut up into parts, separated into sciences,” an instructor told us. “One can be a writer or a poet and also be interested in economy, understand it, because human beings are part of all life.”

For decades, the schools of the Baath regime, with its nationalistic focus, had aimed to create an authoritarian mentality. The Mesopotamian Academy is intent on overcoming this grim past by “helping create free individuals and free thoughts.” Once again I was reminded of Dewey, who also rejected the notion that the purpose of education is to create docile workers for hierarchical workplaces. Rather, he thought, education should help students fulfill the full range of their human potentiality.

The Mesopotamian Academy does not encourage professionalism; least of all does it show students how to maximize their economic self-interest. In the United States, far too many top students nowadays head to Wall Street for careers as investment bankers, but education in Rojava is not about “building a career and getting rich.” Rather, academy students are taught to “ask themselves how to enrich society.”

John Dewey thought the ultimate purpose of education was to create reflective beings who participate ethically as citizens in the democratic community; and that education should thus be a force for social reform. As if echoing this thought, one of the instructors remarked to our delegation, “When we do science of society, what we are trying to do is struggle for social freedom.”

None of the Mesopotamian Academy teachers mentioned John Dewey, and I have no reason to think that they knew his approach; surely they arrived at it independently. But the similarity was striking.

I was also struck by a further coincidence. In the mid-twentieth century, Dewey’s ideas influenced several experimental schools in the United States. Most notable was Goddard College, located in central Vermont, which in the 1960s and 1970s was a trailblazer in Deweyite education. During most of the 1970s, one of the teachers at Goddard College was Murray Bookchin, who taught his ideas under the name “social ecology” there. Bookchin did not write much specifically about education, but his writings on democracy and ecology would go on, in translation, to influence Abdullah Öcalan and Democratic Confederalism, the overall ideology to which Rojava is committed.

Yekitiya Star Academy, Rimelan

The women’s academy (Yekitiya Star Academy) in Rimelan pushes the educational approach of the Mesopotamian Academy further. Founded in 2102, its purpose is to educate female revolutionary cadres, so naturally its emphasis on ideology is more pronounced. The Academic Delegation visited on December 3, 2014.

Over the past thirty years, instructor Dorşîn Akîf told us, women participated in the Kurdish freedom movement, first as fighters, then in women’s institutions. Three years ago Kurdish women produced Jineolojî, or “women’s science,” which they regard as the culmination of that decades-long experience. At the academy in Rimelan, students are first given a general overview of Jineolojî, “the kind of knowledge that was stolen from women” and that women today can recover. “We are trying to overcome women’s nonexistence in history. We try to understand how concepts are produced and reproduced within existing social relations, then we come up with our own understanding. We want to establish a true interpretation of history by looking at the role of women and making women visible in history.”

Photo by Janet Biehl

Inspirations at the Star Academy

Jineolojî, said Dorşîn, considers women to be “the main actor in economy, and economy as the main activity of women.” Yet capitalist modernity defines economy as man’s primary responsibility. But we say this is not true, that always and everywhere women are the main actors in the economy.” Because of this basic contradiction, it seems, capitalist modernity will eventually be overcome.

The way people interpret history affects the way they act, said Dorşîn, so “we talk about pre-Sumerian social organization. We also look how the state emerged historically and how the concept has been constructed.” But power and the state are not the same. “Power is everywhere, but the state is not everywhere. Power can operate in different ways.”

Power, for example, is present in grassroots democracy, which has nothing to do with the state. And Jineolojî regards women as quintessentially democratic. The Star Academy educates students (who are still mostly women) in Rojavan civics. “We look at the political mechanisms— women’s parliaments, women’s communes; and the general [mixed] parliaments, general communes, neighborhood parliaments. Here in Rojava we always have both mixed ones and women’s exclusive ones. In the mixed ones, the representation of women is 40 percent plus there is always a co-presidency to ensure equality.”

Photo by Thomas Jeffrey Miley in Rojava

Students at the Star Academy

At the Star Academy, as at the Mesopotamian Academy, students are taught to see themselves as subjects, with “the power to discuss and construct.” “There is no teacher and student. The session is built on sharing experiences.” Students range from teenagers to great-grandmothers. “Some have graduated from universities, and some are illiterate. Each has knowledge, has truth in their life, and all knowledge is crucial for us. … The older woman has experience. A woman at eighteen is spirit, the new generation, representing the future.”

Every program culminates in a final session called the platform. Here each student stands and says how she will participate in Rojava’s democracy. Will she join an organization, or the YPJ, or participate in a women’s council? What kind of responsibility she will take?

We queried Dorşîn about the academy’s teachings on gender (a word that does not exist in Kurdish). “Our dream,” she said, “is that women’s participating and building society will change men, a new kind of masculinity will emerge. Concepts of men and women aren’t biologistic—we’re against that. We define gender as masculine and masculinity in connection with power and hegemony. Of course we believe that gender is socially constructed.”

Moreover, she explained, the woman problem isn’t solely the province of women; “it’s embedded in society, so women’s exclusion is society’s problem. So we have to redefine women, life, and society all together at the same time. The problem of women’s freedom is the problem of society’s freedom.”

She went on to cite a phrase from Öcalan, “Kill the man,” which has become a watchword, meaning “the masculine man has to change.” Equally, women’s colonized subjectivity, or femininity, must be killed. The social ambition embodied by the academy is to overcome domination and hegemonic power and “create an equal life together.”

How much impact do these teachings have on Rojavan society as a whole? That question I cannot answer and will leave it to future researchers to determine.

The quotations from instructors have been edited for conciseness.

The First Kobanê

On December 7, 2014, the Academic Delegation traveled to Serê Kaniyê, where we visited the local YPG command center, the PYD headquarters, a neighborhood that had been a battlefield, and the border crossing to Turkey.

The YPG and YPJ’s astounding success in liberating Kobanê deserved every bit of the universal praise it received. Yet as astounding as that liberation was, Kobanê was not the first place where the Rojava’s defense forces beat back fanatical, murderous armed jihadists. In November 2012, Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda spinoff, attacked and occupied the city of Serê Kaniyê, on the western edge of Cizire canton, and over the next months the YPG threw off that occupation as well.

A city of 50,000 people, mostly Kurds, but also Chechens, Armenians, Aramaeans, and Arabs, Serê Kaniyê lies hard on the Turkish border, across from the city of Ceylanpınar. A century ago the two were actually one, but in the wake of World War I, when the new states of Turkey and Syria were established from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the great powers drew the boundary line between them through the old intact city.


Sere Kaniye residents

The two halves remain divided after almost a century of uneasy Turkish-Syrian relations. “The border separates us from our relatives,” the guide told our visiting delegation. “People here still refer to Ceylanpinar as ‘Serê Kaniyê above the line’ and this part as ‘below the line.’”

The Syrian uprising began in the spring of 2011 and soon degenerated into a brutal civil war, as many the forces opposing the Assad regime emerged as radical Islamists. In the darkness of the morning of November 8, 2012, one of those forces, the Al Nusra Front, entered a residential neighborhood of Serê Kaniyê, the sounds of helicopters and machine guns shattering the silence. The several hundred invaders seized people’s homes for military use.

Although Al Nusra was part of opposition to the Assad regime, its fighters entered Serê Kaniyê not from the south but from the north, from Turkey. In fact, they were able to cross with no problem. As PYD co-president Asiya Abdullah would soon point out, “The attacks are coming from Turkey, and are in violation of international law. We call on all states and organizations and the UN to condemn Turkey for this violation of human rights.“ Nothing would come of her appeal—indeed, the invasion scarcely registered in international media reports.

Aircraft of the Assad regime soon bombed the city, ostensibly to fight the jihadists. But the bombs killed at least ten civilians and wounded seventy others; fifty houses were demolished. Thousands of terrified residents bolted, within a day or two, mostly for the east. The YPG mobilized to defend the city.

Seven days after the initial attack, on November 19, a coalition of Kurdish parties called a march to protest the occupation. Civilians from Dirbespiye, Qamişlo, and Amude—other cities in Rojava—took to the roads leading to Serê Kaniyê. In advance, Al Nusra set up barriers to block them.

The co-head of the local people’s council, Abid Xelil, emerged, accompanied by Kurdish security forces (Asayiş), and demanded that the armed Islamists remove the roadblocks and allow the march. By way of an answer, the jihadists opened fire and shot him to death, along with a young demonstrator.

According to PYD co-president Abdullah, Xelil had been “a symbolic figure for interethnic understanding” in Serê Kaniyê. Here “Arabs, Aramaeans, Armenians, and Kurds live together peacefully. … Turkey is trying to undermine our harmonious coexistence and provoke a war between Arabs and Kurds.”IMG_2451

On November 20 the Turkish army helped Al-Nusra’s invasion by firing short-range missiles from across the border. The jihadists in Serê Kaniyê gave the Turks the coordinates of YPG positions, the better to target them.

As the YPG fought back, observers noticed that injured jihadists were being taken in Turkish ambulances back across the border to hospitals Ceylanpinar, but wounded Kurds were barred from receiving treatment in the same hospitals. It was and is hard to avoid the conclusion that the invasion of Serê Kaniyê was a Turkish operation, ordered from Ankara and coordinated from Ceylanpınar.

On the twenty-first, five Turkish tanks rolled over the border, again on behalf of Al Nusra. Thereupon the jihadists occupied most of the city, except for the districts of Hawarna and Xiraba. But the YPG resisted fiercely, and on the morning of November 23, Al Nusra asked for a truce, which was negotiated. Although broken by intermittent clashes, it persisted for two months.

Two months later, on January 16, 2013, some 1,500 jihadists again crossed the Turkish border into Serê Kaniyê, this time with several tanks. But over the next days, once again, the YPG resisted, destroying three of the tanks and killing 100 to 120 jihadists, losing only a few of their own. Reinforcements arrived for the jihadists, leading to a clash of forces over the police station, the governorate building, and an Assyrian Christian church. But by now the YPG was beginning to liberate neighborhoods, and by January 30 it had mostly driven Al Nusra from the city and retaken the all-important border crossing.IMG_2473

On February 17 the YPG and the Free Syrian Army agreed to a cease-fire, which Al Nusra said it would observe. Under its terms, armed groups were to leave Serê Kaniyê; a civil council, consisting of representatives of various Syrian peoples, was to control the border crossing. Salih Muslim, co-president of the PYD, said, “The Kurdish side is fully behind the agreement … We have to formulate and guarantee the rights of the various ethnic and religious groups as well as women in a democratic constitution.”

But the attackers—and their Turkish underwriters—refused to give up, for on July 16, the jihadists attacked Serê Kaniyê yet again. This time the YPG’s resistance was quick and decisive: after only two days, it repelled the invaders and retook control of the entire city. In areas once occupied by jihadists, YPG fighters found Turkish passports

Consigned to the rural areas around Serê Kaniyê, Al Nusra, now amplified by ISIS, took to looting, abducting, and executing civilians, Kurdish and Arab alike. On November 1-5, the YPG launched an operation to drive the jihadists from the villages. As it liberated villages by the dozen, it recovered weapons, vehicles, ammunition, and logistical material. Stolen goods were returned to their owners. The people’s council distributed bread. The Arab residents were just as relieved to be liberated as the Kurds, expressing their joy with slogans of “Long Live the YPG.”

At the YPG Command Center

By the time my Academic Delegation arrived in December 2014, normal life had mostly returned to the city, although clashes with ISIS continued 25 kilometers the west. At the YPG Contact and Administrative Center in Serê Kaniyê, a spokesman told us that “Daesh [ISIS] is in a defense position rather than offensive. . . . We’ve had an operation against them for the past two weeks. . . . High-level commanders were killed on their side, and we are approaching their center.”

At the YPG Command Center

At the YPG Command Center


The YPG and its female counterpart, the YPJ, call themselves “people’s defense units.” explained the YPG spokesman, Dr. Huseyin Koçer: they defend not a state but the society, for Rojava is self-governed through a popular democracy. “We are here for the people, for the society, that is how we understand ourselves.” Even so, Dr. Koçer emphasized, “the mobilization we have is stronger than ten states.”

Crucial to popular self-defense is interethnic and interreligious cooperation among the Kurdish, Assyrian, Arab, Aramaic, and other ethnic groups. “Only in this way can we defeat those who are attacking us try to displace us and pit communities against one another.” said Dr. Koçer. Rather than discriminating against non-Kurdish minorities, the social will of the self-government, expressed by the YPG, is to protect minorities’ cultural values and traditions.

“Hundreds of Arabs take part in the YPG and YPJ,” Dr. Koçer told us. The Assyrians have an armed militia, Sutoro, under the leadership of the YPG. A Chechen fighter at the command center told us that his people had arrived in this area generations earlier “but we have become people of this region as well. We have come here and we have joined the YPG and YPJ forces, and together with them we protect this region.”

What happens when the YPG and YPJ liberate an Arab village? we asked.

“Many of the Arab villagers support Daesh,” Dr. Koçer replied. But “we don’t try to harm them. … We are sure many of them don’t like Daesh but feel they have to support it out of fear. Daesh loot and rob wherever they go … They are committing these crimes in the name of Islam, but they have nothing to do with Islam. . . . We try to strengthen the Arab villagers’ mobilization capabilities. …We try to create consciousness of freedom and liberation. We try to communicate the need for self-organization, not only to sustain daily life but also politically.”

The YPG, the military spokesman said, is trying to bring democratic self-government to the Arab villages. “In places that we have liberated, the people’s council of Serê Kaniyê goes there and helps organize, and sometimes we go together. . . . We help and support them in creating the councils where they live. . . . We discuss with them and propose to them our [democratic] project and our goals.”

How do they perceive you? we asked. Do they join you out of fear as well?

“We don’t go to places to make them be like us. We want to ensure that they can express their own political will. Through discussions we try to raise liberationist consciousness. Many villages have supported us and joined the YPG as well.”

In the wake of its victory over Daesh in Serê Kaniyê, and the progress being made in Kobanê, the YPG’s morale is very high, Dr. Koçer us. “No matter how many times they attack us, we will no longer accept any occupation … by anyone. … We are prepared to be the graveyard of those who are attacking.

“This is a force that is committing crimes against all of humanity,” he continued. “Daesh is posing a threat to the communities of the world. We are resisting this force. It is here today, but it will be elsewhere tomorrow.”

As fierce as the resistance is, it is plagued by lack of material means, for Rojava is embargoed both politically and economically by Turkey and, with some exceptions, by the KRG. As a result, “we can’t treat the wounded adequately. We have doctors, but we lack medicines. … We really need to lift this embargo. … We want to be neighbors with Turkey, but the Turkish state is actively mobilizing, supporting, and facilitating the Daesh attacks.”

He begged the Academic Delegation to tell the West, to pressure Turkey to relent and at least open a humanitarian corridor to Rojava, so that basic medications as well as arms can get through. Those who are committed to fighting Islamist extremism, indeed terrorism, should indeed do nothing less for these most dedicated of allies, the warrior-democrats of Rojava.

Written by Janet Biehl. The account of the battle is based on reports from Firat, Civaka Azad, and Rojava Report. The comments from the YPG have been edited for conciseness.