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Rojava’s democratic confederalism: the experiment of an American theory

By Osamah Golpy 22/4/2016
George Howarth MP (left), Janet Biehl (middle), and Rahila Gupta
George Howarth MP (left), Janet Biehl (middle), and Rahila Gupta
LONDON, United Kingdom--American social theorist Murray Bookchin gave birth to the theory of democratic confederalism and imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) Abdullah Ocalan raised it to a child, said Janet Biehl, an American political writer and biographer of Bookchin. 

Biehl was speaking at a public forum dedicated to discussing the origins and developments of democratic confederalism, the Kurdish case in Turkey, and its experiment in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan.

Rojava declared the Federation of Northern Syrian on March 16 of this year. It includes three predominately Kurdish territories, namely the cantons of Kobane, Cizre, and Afrin.  

Janet Biehl was the partner of Bookchin, a radical Marxist revolutionary, and collaborated with him for his last 19 years.

Biehl began her speech talking about Bookchin in the late 1930s and 1940s. She said he thought that the Second World War would give birth to a proletarian revolution against capitalism, as did the First World War. But to his disappointment, and that of many revolutionaries, it did not happen. 

Bookchin, unlike many of his likeminded contemporaries, refused to give up his revolutionary ideas and join mainstream politics in America. For him, she said, it was either socialism or the barbaric capitalism, and he was not ready to give in to barbarism. 

If the misery of the working class was not the limit of capitalism, he asked, then there should be something else. 

It was after the Second World War that American society rapidly developed industrialized farms, introduced chemicals in agriculture and the food industry, and built large cities which needed energy like never before. The result of all this, Bookchin noticed, created a threat to the very survival of life on the planet. He thought that all of these developments have to be undone.

Instead of big cities, he advocated for towns where people live in smaller communities and have their own decentralized source of energy coming from the sun and other natural sources, and grow their own food. 

But for all this to happen, he needed a political formula. He believed the nation states model is oppressive in its nature and it turns citizens into passive tax payers. 

Bookchin looked at the ancient Athenian polis where citizens met at face-to-face assemblies to decide on their own affairs. He thought “if it has been done once, it could be done again”. But the Greek model worked on a much simpler, smaller scale. That is why he added the idea of confederation between the smaller communities to cover broader regions.

Following the introduction of his social ecology model, which he called libertarian municipalities, Bookchin spent most his life vainly trying to convince the American left, and on a wider scale, the European left, to put his model into practice. 

The only good thing that came out of his writing, thanks to anarchists who showed great interest in his ideas, is that people started to translate his books into different languages, including Turkish. It was during this time that Abdullah Ocalan started reading Bookchin’s books while serving time in prison on charges of treason. 

Ocalan soon began corresponding with Bookchin, exchanging a total of six letters. “He said that he considers himself a social ecologist, a good student of Bookchin, and had the intention to create the first polity based on his ideas,” said Biehl.

“By 2002, Ocalan thought this idea of citizens’ assembly and confederation was potentially very suited to the Kurds, the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. If they cannot have a top down state, then a bottom up self-rule made a lot of sense.” Biehl said, “The way I think of it, Bookchin gave birth to the baby, and Abdullah Ocalan raised it to a child.”

By this time Bookchin was old, sick and tired, and he realized he was not ready for this dialogue with the eager Ocalan. Bookchin wrote to Ocalan that “the Kurdish nation is in good hands with him as leader.” 

Bookchin died in 2006—before being able to see the realization of his model in Turkey’s Kurdistan and Rojava. 

Ocalan altered some of Bookchin’s original model. Bookchin was an anarchist, and as such “he was opposed to all hierarchies, of race, of sex, of gender, of domination by state, of interpersonal relations. Mr Ocalan emphasised gender hierarchy and the importance of the liberation of women. [That is] one of the biggest theoretical changes I can see,” Biehl noted.

It was the role of women in Rojava’s revolution that inspired freelance journalist Rahila Gupta to visit Rojava. The co-president system, she observed, where a man and a woman share every position has already weakened the patriarchy system in Rojava. 

Gupta spoke of Hediye Yusuf, the Co-President of Cizre Canton who had shared her position with an Arab man for the last two years. Gupta noted that Yusuf’s male counterpart has now realized she is capable of taking on her responsibilities.


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Muraz Adzhoev | 22/4/2016
"The ONLY GOOD THING that came out of his writing, thanks to anarchists who showed great interest in his ideas, is that people started to translate his books into different languages, including Turkish". But the bad thing that came out of the Turkish translation was that "sick and tired" Ocalan and PKK anarchists decided to use Kurds so as "Guinea pigs" in their experimental project of "social ecology" to "resolve successfully" the Kurdish national issue in favor of enemies.
Sluth | 22/4/2016
OK I agree that “The way I think of it, Bookchin gave birth to the baby, and Abdullah Ocalan raised it to a child.” The next stage is the emergence of an adolescent model as promoted by Saleh Muslim but to grow to a workable ADULT model .... we need to be FLEXIBLE. FLEXIBILITY, OPENNESS and TOLLERANCE ARE KEY. As posted, nothing is set in stone and from the Communist perspective .... I note the importance that Maoists place on bending and flexing political constructs to suit LOCAL requirements. Key questions must focus on what needs to be added or stripped away from the model to allow sustainable long term workability in a ME setting. But before that lets go back to the Industrial Revolution as observed by Marx, Engels and Mill (the senior and junior). The so called "class struggle" and implied conflict between the European Middle to Upper "Classes" and the "Working Class / proletariat" DOES NOT APPLY to the contemporary ME. Nor does the common Communist assumption that religion need necessarily be the poison of the masses. Nor is a more recent assumption that secularism necessarily opposes to faith ..... arguably a secular construct can herald a golden age of faith BECAUSE it can facilitate mature religious dialogue, discussion, understanding and learning in a manner that can never be possible under a totalitarian / self serving theocracy or some bastardised Baathist dictatorship model that applies the window dressing of religion to retain control. The saying attributed to Jesus .... "render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar" is particularly apt in this context. In plain language what am I getting at?? Maybe this ... 1.) Replace any anti capitalist/ anti US / and anti West styled rhetoric with commentary on excessive greed, corruption along and commentary on how to mitigate these risks from the ground up. 2.) GUARANTEE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM and the support of peaceful religious dialogue ..... noting that generations of work maybe needed to undo the past influence of dictatorships and despots who to politicised religious understanding merely to secure their personal political status and wealth. 3.) Add strong conduits for multi-party participation within provincial elections and 4) just focus on the basics ... Education, health, trade, law and order and transparent/open governance. Good government is invisible govenment.
Biji Kurdistan | 22/4/2016
Many people foolishly think the Rojavan government is a communist one-party system, but in reality, it is a bottom-up style democracy, where local citizens are given the ability to decide how their communities are run, this works by protecting the rights of women and religious/ethnic minorities under an inclusive constitution. This is why many local Arabs,Christians,Yezidis and Turkmen are supporting this system, because it ensures that everyone's voices are heard, no matter where they're from, or who they pray to. The democratic confederalist system also heavily encourages self-reliance and environmental conservation,this is to keep Kurdistan's natural beauty intact and to ensure that its citizens don't have to rely on foreign powers, who want to take advantage of Kurdistan's resources.
thurgood bardico | 22/4/2016
Viva Rojava!
Sheri Laizer | 22/4/2016
Alas, idealistic in practice as what is practised by the PKK offshoot in Syrian Kurdistan is not egalitarian but follows the PKK dictatorship model. Syrian Kurds that oppose the model are threatened and risk being attacked. The PKK and PYD have no place for criticism of their conduct. Gender equality is superficial - Kurds are brought up with patriarchal values and Ocalan whom I know very well at first hand is no different. He used to boast "I am a very different kind of leader" not like Barzani and Talabani. He enjoyed numerous concubines including the unwilling. Rojava is far from a successful 'child' of Bookchin's model. Go deeper, please

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