Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy in Kurdistan

The Kurdish people are the largest stateless nation in the world. An estimated 40 million Kurds live in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Despite their common origins and cultural practices, these four states have denied the Kurds recognition of their identity or autonomy as a distinct minority with their own culture and language. At different times and places, the Kurds have resisted this oppression through armed struggle or political organization. The most recent example of this is in northern Syria where Kurds make up about ten percent of the population. In 2012, inspired by the Arab Spring but also by armed conflict with the Syrian government, Kurds there formed People’s Councils to mobilize politically for greater autonomy from Damascus and other regional powers like Turkey that might seek to exploit a weakened Syria. They also created local councils called “mesh’ets” to decentralize control over schools, healthcare centers, and municipal services throughout Rojava (or “Western Kurdistan”), which is home to about 30% of all Syrian Kurds. Lastly, inspired by Murray Bookchin and libertarian socialism more broadly—as well as by the anarchist fighters of the Spanish Civil War—the People’s Councils adopted a third council called “the Revolutionary Youth” as an ideological vanguard to educate young people about democratic autonomy and what it means to be a revolutionary socialist in both word and deed.

Anarchists are anti-authoritarian radicals who believe in direct democracy, horizontal forms of organizing, and cooperative economics. They reject all forms of the state, dominating forms of capitalism, and social hierarchies like racism, sexism, and speciesism. They believe in the freedom of all people to determine their own destinies free from coercion by majorities, elites, or states. Their primary tool for achieving this is democratic self-governance through horizontal, cooperative organization and mutual aid. There are many types of anarchism. Anarcho-syndicalism focuses on workers’ control of the means of production. Anarcha-feminism focuses on women’s liberation through anti-capitalist direct action. Social ecology focuses on environmental sustainability. Mutualism focuses on workers’ control of the means of distribution through cooperatives. And libertarian municipalism focuses on the self-governance of communities.

Libertarian socialism is an anti-authoritarian political philosophy that envisions an egalitarian, cooperative, and anti-capitalist society. It emerged in the early 20th century as a critique of both state socialism and capitalism. Some of the major thinkers behind libertarian socialism include Peter Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus, Norman Bethune, Gustav Landauer, Erich Fromm, and – most importantly for the Rojava Revolution – the American philosopher and eco-socialist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin is the modern father of libertarian socialism. He was an eco-socialist in that he believed that capitalism’s endless pursuit of profit results in unsustainable resource use, social conflict, and environmental degradation, unless it was replaced by eco-friendly, sustainable, decentralized, democratic, and cooperative production (not profit, there is a difference). There are many libertarian thinkers who believe that this is an example of a non-state based society that should serve as an inspiration to others around the world. Murray Bookchin was one such thinker who strongly advocated this idea. He believed that people should be free to make their own choices in society without government intervention. He also believed that decentralized societies were more likely to be peaceful than centralized states because they could better address local needs and grievances without having to go through government officials or powerful elites who might try to use them for their own gain. Therefore, he argued that decentralized societies could be more sustainable over time because they would not rely on fossil fuels or other unsustainable. Bookchin’s  anti-authoritarianism is expressed in his belief that people could come together in their communities to govern themselves through direct democracy. 

Socialists have historically argued that the working class is central to achieving a revolution and a new society based on collective ownership of the means of production. In the past, this manifested as a vanguard party taking control of the state and imposing socialism from above. The Rojava Revolution is different in that it envisions an egalitarian, democratic, decentralized, and anti-capitalist revolution from below. It does not begin with workers seizing the means of production—as in the Russian or Chinese revolutions—but with people taking control of their own communities through the self-governance of democratic councils. The councils form a network of direct democracy that is representative of the people’s interests in a given territory. This “bottom-up” approach to socialism has become known as “democratic confederalism.”

The Rojava Revolution is about achieving autonomy for all the peoples of Syria, not only the Kurds. Ethnic minorities like Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, and Arabs have their own People’s Councils and their own councils in Rojava. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the primary political organization behind the revolution, has been open to non-Kurdish participation in the running of Rojava’s self-governing councils. Even so, the PYD remains the largest Kurdish political organization in the region and has gained more support than its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The Rojava Revolution is also about feminism. Women’s oppression has proven more enduring than most revolutionaries had hoped—and even today remains a central problem in the world. In Rojava, women make up 40% of the People’s Councils and 30% of the Revolutionary Youth. They have their own Free Women’s Associations that are critical to spreading democratic confederalism throughout Rojava.

As the Revolution has progressed, it has created a network of self-governing “councils”: decentralized assemblies that govern the region’s diverse peoples based on their unique needs and identities—and not their ethno-religious categories. These include the aforementioned People’s Councils, which govern the majority Kurdish population; the Assyrian Council, which governs the Assyrian minority; and the Women’s Council, which governs the minority Yazidi people and other ethnic groups. There are also Economic Councils, which govern cooperatives and other economic organizations that are owned and operated by the people of Rojava in a bottom-up, cooperative fashion, since a model of a communal society that works in the context of mutual consent of people who lack a state and stick together for their mutual benefit may be considered bottom-up. And finally, there are Administrative Councils, which govern Rojava’s diverse regions and cities. All of these councils work together in a system of “Democratic Confederalism” to create a bottom-up system of direct democracy that empowers all people in Rojava and challenges ethno-cultural hierarchies.

Rojava’s councils are an example of democratic confederalism in practice. They are not state-run, top-down political organizations like the Soviet Union or modern-day China; they are decentralized, self-governing assemblies that bring people together in their communities to solve problems and make decisions collectively. The councils are also not religious institutions like most of the Middle Eastern countries that are functioning as nation-states; they are secular. They recognize religious freedom and do not require people to participate in religious activities to participate in the councils. The councils have three main functions. First, they govern the people of Rojava through direct democracy. Second, they are the organizational force behind the revolution. Finally, they are an answer to the ethno-cultural hierarchies that have plagued the Middle East. People believe that Arabs, Kurds, and Turks cannot get along because of the prejudices that the nation-state system has fostered. This is what the idea of Rojava brings a solution to.

The first function of the councils is governance through direct democracy. The councils hold regular public meetings where people come together and discuss the problems they face in their communities and decide how to solve them together. While these meetings are open to all people, the councils encourage people to come together in groups of six to discuss more intimate issues. Every two weeks, the councils hold general meetings open to all people. Rojava’s councils use this system of direct democracy to address problems like environmental sustainability, economic cooperatives, and healthcare access. They also use it to decide on topics like military conscription, foreign policy, and criminal justice. The second function of the councils is as the organizational force behind the revolution. The councils have formed a network of self-governing organizations that govern Rojava’s diverse ethno-cultural groups. This network is called the “Revolutionary Council” and is the organizational force behind the Rojava Revolution. It is this network of councils that gives the people of Rojava the power to pressure their government to make democratic decisions.

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