A Commune in Rojava?

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by Alex de Jong
New Politics
Winter 2016 Vol:XV-4 Whole #: 60

The siege of Kobani by Islamic State (ISIS) brought worldwide attention to the Syrian Kurdish PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, Democratic Union Party), the leading force in the Kurdish-majority areas in northern Syria. The PYD calls this region Rojava—literally meaning “land of the sunset” but also translated as “West Kurdistan.”

The discourse of the PYD, revolving around terms like democracy and equality and stressing women’s rights, exercises a strong attraction on the worldwide left. Likewise, the struggle of the YPG/YPJ fighters (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, People’s Protection Units/Yekîneyên Parastina Jinê, Women’s Protection Units), organized by the PYD against ISIS, receives widespread sympathy.

Different initiatives to support the “Rojava revolution” have sprung up worldwide. A German campaign unapologetically named Waffen für Rojava (Weapons for Rojava) raised over US $135,000; other initiatives focus on humanitarian aid and political support.

In Rojava, the PYD says it is realizing a democratic society with equal rights for women, in which different ethnic and religious groups live together; political power is supposed to be organized through structures of autonomous councils. The PYD maintains that in Rojava a unique revolution is taking place, inspired by the thought of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan, PKK). Even after his arrest in 1999, Öcalan remained the political leader and the movement’s “philosopher.” To begin to understand the experiment in Rojava, and the attitude of the left towards it, one must consider Öcalan’s ideology and compare its claims with developments on the ground.1

Roots of the PKK

Öcalan was born in 1949 as a son of a Kurdish peasant family. The Kurdish provinces of Turkey were always the poorest parts of the country, partly because of racist state policies that discriminated against Kurds. Speaking Kurdish was a crime, and use of the letters x, q, and w—which exist in the Kurdish alphabet but not in the Turkish—could be prosecuted; even publications that mentioned the word “Kurd” were banned. The state tried to assimilate the Kurdish minority into the Turkish majority.

Öcalan laid the groundwork for the PKK when, in the early seventies, he built the “Kurdish Revolutionaries” (Soresgeren Kurdistan, SK). This group adopted the notion of Turkish sociologist İsmail Beşikçi that “Kurdistan” was an international colony, occupied by Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. When in 1977 the group was reorganized as the PKK, it had won modest support among Kurdish workers who had moved from the countryside to the cities to earn a living. The SK was a product of the New Left in Turkey but had some important distinctions. In contrast to other Kurdish groups, the PKK was “the only organization whose members were drawn almost exclusively from the lowest social classes—the uprooted, half-educated village and small-town youth who knew what it felt like to be oppressed, and who wanted action, not ideological sophistication.”2 The PKK was also exceptional in making armed struggle an urgent task.

Strands of Maoism and Third-Worldism were strong among the Turkish left at the time, and the early statements of the PKK clearly show such influences. They declared that the immediate goal was a “national-democratic” revolution for an “independent and democratic Kurdistan.” The struggle would take the form of a peasant-based “people’s war” led by a PKK claiming to be the representative of the working class. Allies of the revolution were “socialist countries”—although the ruling parties of the Soviet Union and China were criticized as “revisionist”—as well as “working class parties of capitalist countries” and “the liberation movements of oppressed peoples of the world.” After the “national-democratic” revolution, the struggle would proceed to a socialist revolution.3

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