The largely unknown until recently Kurdish city of Kobane managed to attract the attention of the world with its fierce resistance[i] against the invasion of the Islamic State and became an international symbol, compared to the defence of Madrid and Stalingrad. The bravery and heroism of the People’s Defence Units and the Women’s Defence Units (YPG and YPJ) were praised by a large spectrum of groups and individuals – anarchists, leftist, liberals and even right-wingers expressed sympathy and admiration for the men and women of Kobane in their historical battle against what was often seen as IS “fascism”. The mainstream media was forced to break the silence over the Kurdish autonomy and soon numerous articles and news stories were broadcasted and published, often depicting the “toughness” and determination of the Kurdish fighters with a certain dose of exotisation, of course. However, this attention was very often selective and partial – the very essence of the political project in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) was left aside and the media preferred to present the resistance in Kobane as some weird exception to the supposed barbarism of the Middle East. Without surprise, the red star, shining on the victorious flags of the YPG/J was not a pleasing image in the eyes of the Western powers and their media. The autonomous cantons of Rojava represent a home-grown solution to the conflicts in the Middle East, encompassing grassroots democracy, ethnic, social and gender rights and all this in rejection both of IS terror but also of liberal democracy and capitalist economy . Although the West preferred to stay silent on this issue, this ideological foundation is the key for understanding the spirit that wrote the Kobane epopee and fascinated the world, as the Kurdish activist and academic, Dilar Dirik, claimed recently[ii].
As the battles for every street and corner of the city were intensifying, Kobane managed to captivate the imagination of the left and specifically of the libertarian left as a symbol of resistance and struggle and soon it was placed on the pantheon of some of the most emblematic battles for humanity, such as the defence of Madrid against the fascists in the 1930s. It was not by accident that the Turkish Marxist-Leninist group MLKP, which joined the YPG/J in/on the battlefield, raised the flag of the Spanish republic over the ruins of the city in the day of its liberation and called for the formation of International Brigades[iii], following the example of the Spanish revolution. It was not the battle for Kobane itself, but the libertarian essence of the cantons of Rojava, the implementation of grassroots direct democracy, the participation of women and different ethnic groups into the autonomous government that gave ground to the comparisons with the Spanish revolution. Another association was mentioned briefly in several articles – the revolution in Rojava and its autonomous government were compared to the Zapatistas and their autonomy in the south of Mexico. The importance of this comparison might be crucial in order to understand the paradigm of the revolutionary struggle in Kurdistan and what it means for those who believe another world is possible.
The Zapatista movement is probably one of the most symbolic and influential elements of the revolutionary imaginary in the world after the fall of the state-socialist regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the morning of January 1, 1994, an unknown guerrilla force, composed of indigenous Mayas, took over the main towns of the southern-most Mexican state – Chiapas. The military operation was carried out with strategic brilliance and combined with the innovative back then use of the internet to spread the message of the revolutionaries, it echoed around the globe to inspire international solidarity and the emergence of the Alter-Globalisation movement. The Zapatistas rebelled against neoliberal capitalism and the social and cultural genocide of the indigenous population in Mexico. Ya Basta, Enough is enough, was their war cry that emerged from the night of “500 years of oppression”, as the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle stated. The Zapatistas rose up in arms when global capital was celebrating the “end of history” and the idea of social revolution seemed to be a romantic anachronism that belonged to the past. The Zapatista Army for National Liberation was forced out of the cities in twelve days of intense battles with the federal army but it turned out that the deep horizontal organisation in the indigenous communities could not be eradicated by any military intervention or terror. The masked spokesperson of the rebel army, Subcomandante Marcos, challenged the notion of historical vanguard as opposed to revolution from below, which does not aim to take power but to abolish it and this concept became central to the most mass anti-capitalist movements since – from Seattle and Genoa to the Syntagma and Puerta del Sol occupations and even the Occupy Movement.
Where are the similarities with the Rojavan revolution?
The roots of the democratic autonomy in Rojava can be understood only through the history of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), the organisation, which has been central to the Kurdish liberation movement since its creation in 1978. The PKK was established as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organisation in Northern Kurdistan, part of the Turkish state, combining the ideologies of national and social liberation. It grew to a substantial guerrilla force under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan and managed to challenge the second biggest army in NATO in a conflict that claimed the lives of more than forty thousand people. The Turkish state displaced hundreds of thousands and reportedly used torture, assassination and rape against the civilian population but did not manage to break the backbone of the Kurdish resistance. Since its inception, PKK has expanded its influence both in Turkey and in the other parts of Kurdistan. The leading political force in the Rojavan revolution – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is affiliated with it through the Kurdistan Communities’ Union, KCK, the umbrella organisation that encompasses various revolutionary and political groups sharing the ideas of the PKK. The ideology, which unites 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 favour of a non-hierarchal society based on social-ecology, libertarian municipalism and direct democracy.
Although the Zapatistas are famous for their autonomous government and rejection of the notion of historical vanguard, the roots of the organisation were also related to Marxism-Leninism and just like in the case of the PKK, the idea 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, predominantly Marxist-Leninists, who decided to start a revolutionary cell among the indigenous population in Chiapas, organise a guerrilla force and take power through guerrilla warfare. Soon they realised that their ideological dogma was not applicable to the indigenous realities and started learning from the communal traditions of governance of the indigenous people. Thus, Zapatismo was born as a fusion between Marxism and the experience and knowledge of the native population that has been resisting both against the Spanish and later the Mexican state.
This shared ideological trajectory demonstrates a historical turn in the understanding of revolutionary process. The Zapatista uprising and establishment of the autonomy in Chiapas marked a break with traditional guerrilla strategies, inspired predominantly by the Cuban revolution, this was made more than clear in the letter EZLN spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos wrote to the Basque liberation organisation ETA:
“I shit on all revolutionary vanguards on this planet.[iv]”
It was not the vanguard to lead the people now; it was the people themselves to build the revolution from below and sustain it as such. This is the logic PKK has been shifting towards in the last decade under the influence of Murray Bookchin and this shift demonstrates an evolution of the organisation from movement for the people to a movement of the people.
Probably the most important similarity between the revolution in Rojava and the one in Chiapas is the social and political reorganisation that is taking place in both places that is based on the libertarian ideology of the two organisations.
The Zapatista autonomy in its current form originates from the failure of the peace negotiations with the Mexican government after the uprising in 1994. During the peace negotiations the rebels demanded the government to adhere to the accords of San Andres, which give the indigenous people the right to autonomy, self-determination, education, justice and political organisation, based on their tradition as well as communal control over the land and the resources of the areas that belong to them. These accords were never implemented by the government and in 2001 president Fox backed an edited version that was voted for in congress but did not meet the demands of the Zapatistas and the other groups in resistance. This event was labelled as “treason” and it provoked the EZLN to declare two years later the creation of the five rebel zones, centred in five Caracoles (or snails in English) that serve as administrative centres. The name Caracoles came to show the revolutionary concept of the Zapatistas – we are doing it ourselves, we learn in the process and we advance, slowly, but we advance. The Caracoles[v] include three levels of autonomous government – community, municipality and Council of the Good Government. The first two are based on grassroots assemblies whereas the Councils of the Good Government are elected but with the intention to get as many people as possible to participate in the Government over the years through a principle of rotation. The autonomy has its own educational system, healthcare and justice, as well as cooperatives, producing coffee, cattle, handcrafts etc.
We learn as we make things, we did not know about autonomy and that we were going to build something like it. But we learn and improve things and learn from the struggle – told me my Zapatista guardian Armando, when I visited the autonomous territory at the end of 2013. Freedom could only be practiced here and now and revolution was a process of constantly challenging the status-quo and building alternatives to it.
The Rojavan cantons indeed resemble the autonomy in Chiapas. They were proclaimed by the dominant PYD in 2013 and function through the established popular assemblies and democratic councils. Women participate equally in the decision-making and are represented in all elected positions, which are always shared by a man and a woman. All ethnic groups are represented in the government and its institutions. Healthcare and education are also guaranteed by the system of democratic confederalism and recently the first Rojavan university, the Masepotamia Academy, opened it’s doors with plans to challenge the hierarchical structure of education, and to provide a different approach to learning.
Just as it is in the case with the Zapatistas, the Revolution in Rojava envisions itself as a solution to the problems in the whole country, not as an expression of separatist tendencies. This genuine democratic system, as claimed by the delegation of academics from Europe and North America[vi], that visited Rojava recently, points to a different future of the Middle East, based on direct participation, women’s emancipation and ethnic peace.
Gender has always been central to the Zapatista revolution. The situation of women before the spread of the organization and the adoption of women’s liberation as central to the struggle, was marked by exploitation, marginalization, forced marriages, physical violence and discrimination. This is why Marcos claims that the first uprising was not the one in 1994 but the adoption of the Womens’ Revolutionary Law in 1993, setting the framework for gender equality and justice and guaranteeing the rights of the women in the rebel territory to personal autonomy, emancipation and dignity. Today women participate in all levels of government and have their own cooperatives and economic structures to guarantee their economic independence. Women were and still form a large part of the ranks of the Zapatista guerilla force and take high positions in its commandment. The takeover of San Cristobal de las Casas, the most important city the Zapatista troops captured during the uprising in 1994, was also commanded by women, headed by comandanta Ramona, who was also the first Zapatista to be sent to Mexico city to represent the movement.
It is not difficult to compare the mass involvement of indigenous women in Chiapas in the Zapatista ranks to the participation of women in the defense of Kobane and in the YPJ – the Women’s Protection Units, both depicted in a sensationalist manner[vii] by the Western media in the last months. However, their bravery and determination in the war against ISIS is a product of a long tradition of women participation in the armed struggle for social liberation in Kurdistan. Women have played a central role in the PKK and this is undoubtedly connected with the importance of gender in the Kurdish struggle. The Rojava revolution has a strong emphasis on women’s liberation as indispensable for the true liberation of society. The theoretical framework that puts the dismantling of patriarchy at the heart of the struggle is called “jineology”, a concept developed by Abdullah Ocalan. The application of this concept has resulted in an unseen empowerment of women not only in the context of the Middle East but also in the context of western liberal feminism. The women’s assemblies, cooperative structures and women’s militias are the heart of the revolution, which is considered incomplete if it does not destroy the patriarchal structure of society, which is one of the fundamentals of capitalism. Janet Biehl, an independent writer and artist, wrote after her recent visit to Rojava that women in the Kurdish revolution have the ideological role of the proletariat in the XXth century revolutions.
The Ecology of Freedom is probably the most important among Bookchin’s works and his concept of social ecology has been adopted by the revolutionaries in Rojava. His idea that “the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human” links patriarchy, environmental destruction and capitalism and points at their abolition as the only way to a just society. Such a holistic approach has been advocated and implemented by the Zapatistas as well. Sustainability has also been an important point of emphasis, especially after the creation of the caracoles in 2003. The autonomous government has been trying to recuperate ancestral knowledge, related to the sustainable use of the land and combine it with other 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 is a rejection of the whole notion that large-scale industrial agriculture is superior to the ‘primitive’ way the indigenous people work the land and as such it is a powerful defiance of the logic of neoliberalism.
The similarities between the system of democratic confederalism that is being developed in Western Kurdistan and the Autonomy in Chiapas go far beyond the few points I have stressed in this article. From slogans such as Ya Basta, adapted in Kurdish as êdî bes e to the grassroots democracy, communal economic structures and participation of women, the similar path the Kurdish movement and the Zapatistas have taken demonstrates a decisive break with the vanguardist notion of Marxism-Leninism and a new approach to revolution, which comes from below and aims at the creation of a free and non-hierarchal society.
Although both movements have received some bitter criticism[viii] from sectarian elements on the left, the very fact that the only major and successful experiments in radical social change originate from non-western, marginalised and colonised groups, comes as a slap in the face to the white and privileged dogmatic “revolutionaries” of the global north who have hardly been successful on challenging oppression in their own countries but tend to believe it is their judgement what is and what is not a real revolution.
The revolutions in Rojava and Chiapas are a powerful example for the world, demonstrating the enormous capacity of grassroots organisation and the importance of communal links as opposed to capitalist social atomisation. Last but not least, Chiapas and Rojava should make many on the left, including some anarchists, trash their colonial mindset and ideological dogmatism.
A world without hierarchy, domination, capitalism and environmental destruction or as the Zapatistas say, the world where many worlds fit, has often been depicted as “utopian” and “unrealistic” by the mainstream media, education and political structures. However, this world is not some future mirage that comes from the books – it is happening here and now and the examples of Zapatistas and Kurds are a powerful weapon to reignite our capacity to imagine a real radical change in society as well as a model we can learn from in our struggles. The red stars that shine over Chiapas and Rojava shed light on the way to liberation and if we need to summarize in one word what brings these two struggles together, it would definitely beAutonomy.
[i] Dicle, Amed (2015) Kobane Victory, How it Unfolded
[ii] Dirik, Dilar (2015) Whi Kobane Did Not Fall
[iii] International Brigades Form in Rojava (2014)
[iv] Marcos (2003) I Shit on All Revolutionary Vanguards on This Planet
[v] Oikonomakis, Leonidas (2013) Zapatistas Celebrate 10 Years of Autonomy With Escuelita
[vi] Joint Statement of the Academic Delagation to Rojava
[vii] Dirik, Dilar (2014) Western Fascination With “Badass” Kurdish Women
[viii] Anarchist Federation Statement on Rojava (2014)