Kobane, Syria, 7 February 2015. Picture by: Sebastian Backhaus/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. During the Syrian revolution in 2011, the PYD (Democratic Union Party) party-- which has strong support among the Kurds-- took the third way. This meant supporting neither the Assad regime nor the opposition, for both have had the same mentality by denying the Kurdish right to self- determination.
The ideological project of the PYD is Democratic Confederalism --a project that was advanced by Abdullah Ocalan, a political theorist and ideological leader of the PKK-- which aims to empower people socially and politically at the grassroots level in popular communes, assemblies, and councils. In this project, feminism, ecology, and radical democracy are celebrated. This project proposes itself as an alternative to the nation-state.
Busy with suppressing the armed groups-- under the name of the Free Syrian Army-- the Assad regime withdrew its forces from the Kurdish cities in 2012. The Kurdish cities, in north Syria, were run by the Kurdish freedom movement.
The formation of the commune
“The Canton system does not entirely follow my vision. Communes must be built,” a PYD member read Abdullah Ocalan's letter from Imrali among a few other members of PYD in the Kobane canton in 2014. The member paused for a bit after closing Ocalan's letter and addressed his friends, “We have a new task to do, friends.”
This story was narrated by Ferhad Hemmi, a journalist and one of the participants who took part in establishing the first commune in Kobani, during an interview. Hemmi was one of the attendees when Ocalan's letter was read in the center of PYD.
Ocalan proposed that demand in order to empower people at the grassroots level by making decisions through direct democracy institutionalized first in communes and then assemblies, council and a confederation of councils at a higher level. In democratic confederlism, commune is the smallest organizational and decision- making base. Ocalan's dissatisfaction with the Canton System comes from its hierarchal nature which resembles the State in its structure.
After Ocalan's call for establishing communes in Rojava, some members of PYD and other civil people came to gather to initiate the first commune in Kobane. The group was comprised of 10 people -- 4 women and 6 men-- varying in terms of age and social status.
The group knew each other since the beginning of the Rojava Revolution in 2012. The members of the group had a strong connection with each other socially and politically. However, there were disagreements in regards to the notion of establishing of a commune among the members from the very beginning. The members were swinging between the State and market mentality on the one hand, and ethical and political society and friendship on the other. This disagreement involved a long discussion in order for all members to agree to establish communes along free, rational and ethical lines. Then the members took the decision to start the commune and met twice a week to talk about it.
The formation of a commune started with a study group to discuss how the commune should be formulated philosophically and politically. According to Hemmi, the members commonly formed a framework. This means that the framework was not already prepared, but rather, was formed through a long process of discussion and consultation. The framework was based around political and ethical society, using the books of Ocalan as a reference.
In the first commune, as some participants told me, the mechanism of criticism and self-criticism was highly developed through continuous discussion. The mechanism functioned in the framework of political and ethical society.
The members of the commune started to make criticisms against the State, capitalism, and market mentality that negatively affected the communal fabric of society. Therefore, the members primarily aimed at redefining and recreating communal and social concepts and terms that have been statified--absorbed and defined by the State and the epistemology of rule based on command and obedience (Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom) or what Michel Foucault called a “regime of the truth”.
While the epistemology of rule dominates the way people think and act, it cannot entirely erase free and libertarian traditions that people created through long histories of resistance and struggle under the name of Amargi”, meaning “freedom” in Sumerian. The legacy of freedom dialectally stands at odd with the epistemology of rule and hierarchy’s legacy of domination (Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom). However, the legacy of freedom is hidden-- due to the domination of the official history—and needs to be recovered. Thus, Ocalan sees in his book In Defense of the People, that unwritten history is more meaningful and valuable than the written one. In this sense, Herbert Marcuse asked his readers to search for “authentic language” the language of negation as the Great Refusal of rules. He continues, “The absent must be made present because the greater of the truth is in that which is absent.”, (The Essential Marcuse, A Note on Dialectic, pp. 67). Based on that, it is an urgent task for any revolutionary movements to revolutionize the language that is close to local and libertarian traditions and away from the State.
In a phone call with, Nuri Mahmud, who was a participant in the first commune and now works as a spokesman of the YPG, Mahmud stated:
“since the State, capitalism, and market mentality, have invaded all spheres of society, we started to educate ourselves on redefining terms and concepts in a more societal way.”
Terms like politics, power, administration, law, ethics, democracy, language, civilization, and culture were discussed in the study group of the first commune. For example, under the influence of Arendtian politics, Mahmud distinguished between the organic societal and State meaning of the word “politics”:
“For us, politics is radical education, protection of ethics and creative self-realization in order for society to manage its affairs. It means the good life and action to live well. While politics in the State is the art of deception and manipulation and means to an end.”
For Hannah Arendt, a philosopher and political theorist, politics is conceived as free action that is oriented towards the common world and the public sphere of life. Drawing on Aristotle's definition of politics as " the work of man", Arendt sees that “work” is not a means to an end but rather an end in itself. In other words, politics is what happens during action. It is actuality. As she put it in her book The Human Condition:
“… the 'work of man' is no end because the means to achieve it—the virtues, or aretai—are not qualities which may or may not be actualized, but are themselves 'actualities'.” (pp. 207)
Reviving and democratizing of libertarian traditions
The social and cultural structure of Kobane is represented by a mixture of the tribal system and libertarian Sufi Islam; an Islamic tradition which is societal and against the State in its nature. Historically, both these structures --tribalism and libertarian Sufi Islam-- were mostly in constant resistance to the State-Civilization and authoritarian Islam. In Kobane, these structures have administrated society without going back to the State. Each tribe and village has an Ode “a public room” which was mostly run by the wise and experienced men. In some cases, women also could take part in it.
The function of the Ode was to resolve social and political problems within the tribe and with other tribes through consultation and discussion among their members. The tribes were mostly dominated by patriarchy. The role of tribes in management and solving affairs communally took place away from the central State's institutions. The Ode itself was a place preserving Kurdish history through stories, poetry, songs, and epics which were sung by Dengbêj (singers). In this sense, Ode was a place of local education. This was how life was administered in Kobane city. In this context, Ocalan explains, “The life of tribes is very close to communalism. The tribe is a societal unit in which political and ethical society strongly thrives.” ( Sociology of Freedom, pp. 312)
In dealing with this, the first commune worked to revive and democratize the structure of tribes. As Sherin Ahmed, a teacher and female participant, put it, “In our commune, we knew that Kobane has communal traditions and we delved deeply into the mechanism of democratization, gender equality, and the role of the youth in the communal life of tribes.”
After educating themselves for 6 months on the system of the commune, the members went to visit some villages to educate villagers on how the commune system should function. The members explained the meaning of the commune in empowering villagers at the grassroots level in a local language. Unfortunately, in 2014, ISIS attacked Kobane and the commune was dissolved.
In analyzing democratic confederalism in Rojava-North Syria, one should take the historical and geographical context into consideration. By doing so, it is clear that democratic confederalism faces objective and subjective challenges.
The objective factors lie, obviously, in war and an embargo imposed on Rojava by the surrounding nation-states and the undemocratic forces that impede democratic confederalism to reach its potentiality and realization. Furthermore, there remains a strong influence of the State and legacy of hierarchy on the mentality and sensibility of society.
“It is hard for a society which was under the Baathist regime for decades, to activate communes in its original sense in a short time. Because of the state mentality, the communes have not reached a stage to do collective consultation, free discussion and decisions,” says Nuri Mohammed reflecting on the difficulties facing the communes.
For Nuri Mohammed, the main obstacle facing the commune lies in what he calls a "save and implement mentality" which means the State and bureaucratic mentality of getting orders from above and applying them without question. Because of this mentality, Nuri says, “one cannot be brave enough to freely think and be creative in doing politics in a free way and this deprives communes of playing their free, ethical, and political role.”
Since the State is ingrained in society, many people, who work in the institutions of Rojava- North Syria are plagued with parasitism and opportunism. Such people seek authority and position rather than building a democratic project. According to Nuri, these people represent the vast majority.
Revolution does not only mean to destroy or replace the State with another form of institutions but also to destroy the mentality that the State generates in society and instead reclaim ethics and politics to people to run themselves and make their own decisions.
The revolutionary vanguards or the cadres of the Kurdish movement are to be criticized for the subjective factors. The cadres are well- trained and dedicated politically in order to supposedly bring about democratic confederalism in practice.
Though the Kurdish movement adopts democratic confederalism and stands for freedom and democracy, it still retains hierarchy and some leftist authoritarian traditions within its structures, namely the centralization of the party in making decisions. Moreover, the party is structured around the system of command and obedience. This contradiction is the outcome of the old paradigm of the Kurdish movement that was structured in accordance with the Marxist-Leninist principles and a vanguard political party, and the new model of democratic confederalism developed later by Ocalan.
Ocalan, while in prison, went through deep self-criticism and criticism, criticizing orthodox Marxism and the State, thereby abandoning the nation-state as the answer for the Kurdish question and embracing the model of democratic confederalism based on direct democracy, social ecology, and radical feminism.
In this sense, the cadres who work in these structures, do not enjoy full freedom. For they are, also, relatively disempowered in the face of top-down decisions made up from the peak of the party.
In the commune system of Rojava, the cadre who initiates building communes, is confined between two choices: democratic confederalism as a communal and horizontal system on the one hand and the party-- in which the cadre functions-- as a vertical and centralized structure. In fact, the cadre chooses the party line over the new model democratic confederalism in practice.
In the same vein, Ocalan explains the tendency of the cadres and activists in the party of seizing power for themselves rather than working to democratically empower the people on the grassroots level:
“Activists of any such party tend to orient themselves by superiors rather than by the society, or as the case may aspire to such positions themselves.”(War and Peace in Kurdistan, pp.29)
Hemmi, who was active in building the commune, shares his experience about these challenges:
“While the role of cadre is important in educating people about managing themselves, the cadre, sometimes, tires to partify and centralize communes.”
On this subject, Murray Bookchin in his article “Listen, Marxist!” elucidates how the party drifts toward dominating structures by strengthening centralization, “The party becomes less efficient from a revolutionary point of view the more it seeks efficiency by means of hierarchy, cadres and centralization.”
Ocalan defines revolution, in his volume IV of Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, as a reclamation of politics and ethics back to society from the paws of the State's institutions. In other words, revolution reaches its fullest realization when people freely activate their rich potentiality and have full control of their lives. Thus, any attempt to disempower people is anti-revolutionary.
While the role of vanguard and the cadres is important in organizing people at the time of revolutions, they can easily slide to the centralization and authoritarianism of the party over society. The vanguard and the cadre system is only useful when it is accountable, answerable and recallable, functioning in a confederal leadership and challenging the hierarchical and statist institutions.
Despite the challenges and shortcomings of the commune system in Rojava- North Syria, it still remains the best model in Syria that relatively offers the only space for peace, feminism, coexistence and democracy. It is a seed of democracy that should be supported to grow in the middle of the fascism of nation-states.