From Chiapas to Rojava: Seas Divide Us, Autonomy Binds Us
Despite being continents apart, the struggles of the Kurds and Zapatistas share a similar purpose: to resist capitalism, liberate women and build autonomy.
From Chiapas to Rojava: Seas Divide Us, Autonomy Binds Us
By Petar Stanchev /

Power to the people can only be put into practice when the power exercised by social elites is dissolved into the people.

― Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism

Only six months ago very few people had ever heard of Kobani. But when ISIS launched its futile attack on the town in September 2014, the little Kurdish stronghold quickly became a major focal point in the struggle against the religious extremists. In the months that followed, Kobani was transformed into an international symbol of resistance, compared to both Barcelona and Stalingrad for its role as a bulwark against fascism.

The brave resistance of the People’s and Women’s Defense Units (YPG and YPJ) was praised by a broad spectrum of groups and individuals — from anarchists, leftists and liberals to right-wing conservatives — who expressed sympathy and admiration for the men and women of Kobani in their historical battle against the forces of ISIS.

As a result, the mainstream media was soon forced to break its silence on the plight of the Kurds of Northern Syria, who had declared their autonomy in the summer of 2012. Numerous articles and news stories depicted the “toughness” and determination of the Kurdish fighters, often with a dose of romanticization. Nonetheless, the media attention was often selective and partial. The very essence of the political project in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) went unreported and Western journalists generally preferred to present the resistance in Kobani as an inexplicable exception to the supposed barbarism of the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, the victorious flag of the YPG/YPJ brandishing the iconic red star was not a pleasing image to the eyes of the Western powers. The autonomous cantons of Rojava represent a homegrown solution to the conflicts in the Middle East, focusing on gender equality, environmental sustainability and horizontal democratic processes including all different ethnic and social groups, while simultaneously resisting the terror from ISIS and rejecting both liberal democracy and capitalist modernity.

Although many in the West preferred to stay silent on the issue, the Kurdish activist and academic Dilar Dirik has rightly claimed that the ideological foundations of the Kurdish movement for democratic autonomy are key to understanding the spirit that has inspired the Kobani resistance.

Enough is enough!

As the battle for every street and corner of the city intensified, Kobani managed to capture the imagination of the global left — and of left-libertarian groups in particular — as a symbol of resistance. It was not without reason that the Turkish Marxist-Leninist group MLKP, which joined the YPG/YPJ on the battlefield, raised the flag of the Spanish Republic over the ruins of the city on the day of its liberation while calling for the formation of International Brigades, following the example of the Spanish Revolution.

It was not necessarily the battle for Kobani itself, but the libertarian essence of the cantons of Rojava, the implementation of direct democracy at the grassroots, and the participation of women in the autonomous government that gave grounds to such historical comparisons. But Rojava was not just compared to revolutionary Catalonia. Another striking comparison — with the struggle of the Zapatistas for autonomy in the south of Mexico — might in fact be key to understanding the paradigm of the revolution in Kurdistan and what it means for those who believe that another world is possible.

Ever since it first appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, the Zapatista movement has probably been one of the most symbolic and most influential elements of the revolutionary imagination worldwide. In the morning of January 1, 1994, an unknown guerrilla force composed of indigenous Mayas took over the main towns of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. The military operation was carried out with strategic brilliance and combined with an innovative use of the internet it resonated around the globe, inspiring international solidarity and the emergence of the Global Justice Movement.

The Zapatistas rebelled against neoliberalism and the social and cultural genocide of the indigenous population of Mexico. Ya Basta!, or ‘Enough is Enough!’, was the battle cry of the rebellion which was the “product of 500 years of oppression,” as the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle stated. The Zapatistas rose up in arms right as global capital was celebrating the presumed end of history, and the idea of social revolution seemed to be a romantic anachronism that belonged to the past. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was soon forced out of the cities after intense battles with the federal army that lasted for twelve days. However, it turned out that the deep horizontal organization of the indigenous communities could not be eradicated by any state terror or military campaigns.

The masked spokesperson of the rebel army, Subcomandante Marcos, challenged the notion of the historical vanguard and opposed to it the idea of “revolution from below,” a form of social struggle that does not aim to take over state power but rather seeks to abolish it. This conceptualization of autonomy and direct democracy then became central to many of the mass anti-capitalist movements we have seen since — from the protests at Seattle and Genoa to the occupations of SyntagmaPuerta del Sol and Zuccotti Park.

A shared historical trajectory

The roots of the struggle for democratic autonomy in Rojava can be found in the history of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the organization that has been central to the Kurdish liberation movement ever since its creation in 1978. The PKK was established as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group in Northern Kurdistan (Southeastern Turkey) combining a form of Kurdish nationalism with the struggle for social emancipation. Under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan it grew into a substantial guerrilla force that managed to withstand the attacks of NATO’s second biggest army in a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 40.000 people over the course of thirty years.

The Turkish state displaced hundreds of thousands and reportedly used torture, assassination and rape against the civilian population. Yet it did not manage to break the Kurdish resistance. Since its inception, the PKK has expanded its influence both in Turkey and in the other parts of Kurdistan. The leading political force in the Rojava revolution — the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — was founded as the PKK’s sister organization in Syria after the former had been banned in the late 1990s. Currently, the two organizations are connected through the Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK), the umbrella organization that encompasses various revolutionary and political groups sharing the ideas of the PKK.

The ideology uniting the different civil and revolutionary groups in the KCK is called democratic confederalism and is based on the ideas of the US anarchist Murray Bookchin, who argued in favor of a non-hierarchical society based on social ecology, libertarian municipalism and direct democracy. After Öcalan was captured by the Turkish state in 1999 and sentenced to life imprisonment, he rejected the PKK’s Marxist-Leninist past. Instead, he turned towards Bookchin, leading to a conviction that local and regional autonomy for Kurdish communities is in fact the most viable solution.

Although the Zapatistas are famous for their autonomous self-governance and rejection of the notion of a historical vanguard, the roots of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation were similarly Marxist-Leninist in nature. Just like the PKK, the Zapatistas’ ideas of self-governance and revolution from below were a product of a long historical evolution.

The EZLN was founded in 1983 by a group of urban guerrillas who decided to start a revolutionary cell among the indigenous population in Chiapas, organize a military force and eventually take state power through guerrilla warfare. Soon they realized that their vanguardist ideological dogma was not applicable to the cultural realities of the local communities, and they started learning from the indigenous peoples’ traditions of communal governance. Thus Zapatismo was born as a fusion between Western Marxism and the experience and knowledge of the native American population that has been resisting the colonial Spanish state and the federal Mexican state for five centuries.

This shared ideological trajectory of the two guerrilla organizations demonstrates a historical turn in contemporary understandings of the revolutionary process. The Zapatista uprising and the construction of autonomy in Chiapas marked a break with the traditional strategy of foquismo, inspired predominantly by the Cuban Revolution. The rejection of vanguardism was made very clear in a letter Subcomandante Marcos wrote to the Basque liberation movement ETA, wherein he clearly stated: “I shit on all revolutionary vanguards on this planet.”

In Chiapas, it is not the vanguard that leads the people — it is up to the people themselves to build the revolution from below and sustain it as such. Now this is the logic the PKK has been shifting towards in the last decade under the influence of Murray Bookchin, demonstrating its transformation from a movement for the people into a movement of the people.

Cantons and Caracoles

Probably the most important similarity between the revolutions in Rojava and Chiapas is the social and political re-organization that is taking place in both regions on the basis of the libertarian socialist worldview of the PKK and EZLN.

The Zapatistas’ struggle for autonomy originated from the failure of the peace negotiations with the Mexican government after the uprising in 1994. During the peace negotiations the rebels demanded that the government adhere to the San Andres accords, which gave the indigenous people the right to greater self-determination over education, justice and political organization based on their traditions as well as communal control over land and local resources.

These accords were never implemented by the government and in 2001 President Fox backed an edited version that was passed by Congress but that did not meet the demands of the Zapatistas and the other groups of the indigenous resistance. Two years later, the EZLN created five rebel zones, or Caracoles(“snails” in English), that now serve as administrative centers. The nameCaracoles represented the particular revolutionary temporality of the Zapatistas: “We are doing it ourselves, we learn in the process and we advance. Slowly, but we advance.”

The Caracoles include three levels of autonomous government: the community, the municipality and the Council of Good Government. The first two are based on grassroots assemblies; the Councils of Good Government are elected but with the intention to get as many people as possible to participate in the councils over the years through a principle of rotation. The Caracoles have their own education, healthcare and justice systems, as well as cooperatives producing coffee, creating handicrafts and rearing cattle, among other things.

In some way, the cantons in Rojava resemble the Caracoles. They were proclaimed by the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) in 2014 and function through the newly established popular assemblies and People’s Councils. Women participate equally in decision-making processes and are represented in all elected positions, which are always shared by a man and a woman.

All ethnic groups are represented in the different councils and its institutions. Healthcare and education are also guaranteed by the system of democratic confederalism. Recently the first Rojavan university, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy, opened its doors with plans to challenge the hierarchical structure of education and to provide a different approach to learning.

Just as is the case with the Zapatistas, the revolution in Rojava envisions itself as a possible solution to the problems of the whole country and the region as a whole. It is not just an expression of separatist tendencies. As a delegation of academics from Europe and North America that visited Rojava recently claimed, this genuinely democratic system points to a different future for the Middle East — a future based on popular participation, the liberation of women and a just peace between different ethnic groups.

A women’s revolution

Gender has always been central to the Zapatista revolution. Before the dissemination of autonomous forms of organization and the adoption of women’s liberation as central to the struggle, the position of women was marked by exploitation, marginalization, forced marriage, physical violence and discrimination.

This is why Subcomandante Marcos claims that the uprising started not in 1994 but already one year before, with the adoption of the Women’s Revolutionary Law in 1993. This law set the framework for gender equality and justice, guaranteeing the rights to personal autonomy, emancipation and dignity of the women in rebel territory. Today women participate at all levels of government and run their own cooperatives and economic structures to guarantee their economic independence.

Women still form a large part of the ranks of the Zapatista guerrilla force and take high positions in its military command. The takeover of San Cristobal de las Casas, the most important city the EZLN captured in the 1994 uprising, was headed by Comandante Ramona, who was also the first Zapatista to be sent to Mexico City to represent the movement in negotiations with the government.

The mass involvement of indigenous women in the political project of the Zapatistas is easily compared to the participation of women in the defense of Kobani and in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) more generally.  The bravery and determination of Kurdish women in the war against ISIS is a product of a long tradition of women’s participation in the armed struggle for social liberation in Kurdistan. Women play an important role in the PKK and gender liberation has long taken central place in the Kurdish struggle.

The Rojava revolution has strongly emphasized women’s liberation as indispensable for the liberation of society as a whole. The theoretical framework that puts the dismantling of patriarchy at the center of the struggle is referred to as “jineology” (jîn meaning woman in Kurdish). The application of this concept has resulted in an unprecedented empowerment of women — a remarkable achievement not just in the context of the Middle East but also in comparison to Western liberal feminism.

The women’s assemblies, cooperative structures and women’s militias are the beating heart of the Rojava revolution, which is considered incomplete as long as it does not destroy the patriarchal structures at the basis of capitalist society. As Janet Biehl wrote after her recent visit to Rojava, in the Rojava revolution women fulfill the role that the (male) proletariat fulfilled in the revolutions of the 20th century.

The road to autonomy 

The Ecology of Freedom is probably the most important among Bookchin’s works, and the concept of social ecology developed in this book has been actively adopted by the revolutionaries in Rojava. Bookchin was convinced that “the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.” By connecting capitalism, patriarchy and environmental destruction, he identified their combined abolition as the only way forward towards a just society.

A similar holistic approach has been advocated and implemented by the Zapatistas as well. Sustainability has been an important point of reference in Chiapas, especially since the creation of the Caracoles in 2003. The autonomous government has been trying to recuperate ancestral knowledge about sustainable land use and combine it with newer agro-ecological practices. This logic is not only a matter of improving the living conditions in the communities and avoiding the use of agrochemicals, it also constitutes a rejection of the idea that large-scale export-oriented industrial agriculture is superior to the “primitive” way the indigenous people work the land.

The similarities between the system of democratic confederalism that is being developed in Western Kurdistan and the autonomy being constructed in Chiapas go far beyond the few points I have stressed in this article. From slogans such asYa Basta! — adapted in Kurdish as êdî bes e! — to the development of grassroots democracy, communal economic structures and the participation of women, the similar paths of the Kurdish movement and the Zapatistas both demonstrate a decisive break with the vanguardist notion of Marxism-Leninism and a new approach to revolution — emerging from below and aiming at the wholesale liberation of society and its reorganization into a non-hierarchical direction.

Although both movements have received some bitter criticism from the more sectarian elements on the left, the very fact that the only major and successful experiments in revolutionary social change originate from non-Western, marginalized and colonized groups, should be considered a slap in the face of the white and privileged dogmatic “revolutionaries” of the global North who have hardly been successful in challenging oppression in their own countries but who still believe it is their judgment to decide what revolution looks like.

In reality, the struggles in Rojava and Chiapas are powerful examples to the world, demonstrating the vast potential of grassroots self-organization and the importance of communal ties to counter the social atomization wrought by capitalism. Moreover, they are forcing many on the Western left — including some anarchists — to reconsider their colonial mindsets and ideological dogmatism.

A world without capitalism, hierarchy, domination and environmental destruction — or as the Zapatistas would say, a world in which many worlds are possible — has often been depicted as “utopian” and “unrealistic.” Yet this world is not some future mirage that comes to us from the books: it is already being constructed by the Zapatistas and the Kurds, allowing us to re-imagine what radical social change looks like and providing a possible model for our own struggles back home. The red stars that shine over Chiapas and Rojava shed light on the way to liberation. If we need to summarize in one word what brings these two struggles together, it would definitely be autonomy.

Main Image: Tierra y Libertad by Matt Verges (can be ordered as a poster here).

Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four years. This article was originally published at Kurdish Question and has been edited and republished with the author’s permission.

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From Chiapas to Rojava: Seas Divide Us, Autonomy Binds Us