Syria for Leftists

YPG solidarity flyer. Turin, January 2019.

In Kurdish areas in the north of Syria, an implicit popular (i.e. trans-class) alliance was first formed after 2011 to self-manage a territory deserted by the Syrian authorities, and then in 2014 to defend it against the deadly threat from ISIS. The resistance combines former traditional ties and new movements, women’s particularly, in a working community of proletarians and middle-class elements, cemented by an emphasis on a common Kurdish nation.

An autonomous hinterland has been established: Rojava (‘West’ in Kurdish), made up of three non¬ contiguous cantons (Afrin, Kobane and Cizire) in northern Syria, along the Turkish border. It is about 18,300 square km, with a population estimated at 4.6 million in 2014. (By comparison, Wales is 20,700 square km, with over 3 million inhabitants.)

After the official Syrian military left, some fighting occurred between the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds, who repelled them. There is now “a sort of unwritten agreement whereby the Syrian regime leaves the Rojava some autonomy in exchange for Syrian Kurdish neutrality in the on-going civil war”.

In those areas, a Kurdish majority coexists with various other “ethnic” groups, all repressed in the past by the Iraqi state. The disintegration of official law and order in the region created a power vacuum in northern Syria and has given birth to a grassroots people’s organisation, coordinated under the name Tev-Dem (Movement of the Democratic Society.)

“A vast cloud of “movements” — armed and unarmed, and oscillating between social banditry and organized guerrilla activity — act in the most wretched zones of the global capitalist junkyard, presenting traits similar to those of the current PKK. In one way or another, they attempt to resist the destruction of already marginal subsistence economies, the plundering of natural resources or local mining, or the imposition of capitalist landed property that limits or prevents access and/or use. (..) we can randomly cite cases of piracy in the seas of Somalia, MEND in Nigeria, the Naxalites in India, the Mapuche in Chile. (..)

It is essential to grasp the content they have in common: self- defence. A self-defence that may also be considered vital, but which does not differ in its nature from what is expressed in any industrial action aimed at protecting the wages or working conditions of those who animate it. Just as it would be a sleight of hand to pass off a wage struggle, even if extremely fierce and broad-based, as a “revolutionary movement”, it is equally fallacious to overload this type of self- defence practised by exhausted populations with an inherently “revolutionary meaning”.

What we have in Rojava is: “(..) a real movement against state plunder and coercion, fighting militarily on its borders and inwardly through the diffusion of power within them. The limits of the struggles in Rojava in this sense are those of struggles everywhere where the relation between labour power and capital has become a matter of repression and struggles that take that repression as a starting point. These struggles take place far from the strongholds of capital’s reproduction and are not directed at overturning relations of exploitation.” (Ed note: no citation given)

The whole question is whether self-defence in Rojava has been – or could become – the way to an overturning of production relationships. But first, a little on nationalism.

21st-century national liberation movements greatly differ from what they used to be when colonialism was coming to an end and the Cold War erupted in local wars by proxy, with a rich array of shifting alliances and millions of deaths.

The Kurdish people paid the price for it even more so as the Kurds are torn between four countries. Yet the deep change in the nationalist agenda is not due to humanitarian considerations, a commitment to non-violence or a reading of authentic critical theory. More matter-of-factly, its former plank had become obsolete.

In a nutshell, once in power, a typical national front programme was to cut off ties with the dominant power (in the Middle East, Britain until the 1940’s, the  US later), to seek assistance from its rival ( the USSR) and to develop a state-run indigenous growth program based on collectivised agriculture and heavy industry. At least that was the plan.

Wherever there was no adequate bourgeoisie or a feeble one, national liberation opted for a bureaucratic instead of a bourgeois capitalism, looked for recipes in Marx and Mao, not Adam Smith and Keynes, and installed a dictatorial regime led by a supposed worker or people’s party. It achieved more dictatorship than development, but that is another story.

Anyway, with the demise of the USSR and the advent of globalisation, this became impractical. The discredit of socialist nationalism led to ethnic nationalism which in the PKK’s case morphed into a call for a multiethnic nation. Logically, this new line was also endorsed by the PKK’s branch in Syria, the PYD.

Like any political movement, national liberation gives itself the ideology, the allies and the targets it can aim at, and modifies them when it suits its interests. In 1903, at the Sixth Zionist Congress, dubbed the Uganda Congress, Zionism was still debating whether a Jewish homeland could be found in Africa.

In 1914, Pilsudski did not choose between right and wrong: he supported what he thought best for Polish independence, and changed sides with the fortunes of war. The loyalty of a nationalist is not to a class or creed, simply to what he regards as “his people” and his own role as this people’s leader. Allegiances fluctuate and doctrines too.

On the ground, PKK cadres will support a landowner or a boss because he has influence in the area. They will also defend strikes or organise protests if it helps them to rally the local people. Here they will side with rigid forms of religion, and there with tolerance. Today they will appear as traditionalists, tomorrow as modernists.

This is politics: the PKK upholds what increases its power base. In the days when it claimed to be part of world socialism, it had no time for heretics like Pannekoek or Mattick, and went for successful Marxism-Leninism. When it espouses libertarianism, it does not take after Makhno, and prefers an acceptable version, probably the most moderate of all today, the Bookchin doctrine, that spices 19th-century municipal socialism with self-administration and ecology.

Quite a sensible choice. The PKK has had to scale down its ambitions and confederal municipalism is the only political ideology available to a party that has to make do with states and borders because it cannot hope to create its own state with its own borders, which would mean forcefully redrawing the boundaries of at least two neighbouring countries.

Making a virtue of necessity, the PKK has ditched “class” and “party” references, and promotes self-management, cooperation, communalism (not communism), anti-productivism and gender.

David Graeber was rejoicing over the fact that in Kurdistan people might now be reading Judith Butler. A spot-on remark. Deconstruction of the political subject (i.e. of the proletariat as an historical agent), prioritisation of identities, class replaced by gender… the PKK has doubtlessly swapped Marxism for postmodernism.

Speaking of a “non-state” is playing on words. The PKK has not given up the objective of every national liberation movement.

Though it takes great care to avoid using a word that sounds too authoritarian, it is still aiming at creating a centralised decision-making political apparatus on Kurdish territory, and what better word for this but ‘state’?

With the rider that this state would be so democratic under its citizens’ control, that it would no longer deserve the name of ‘state’. So much for ideology.

Adapted from Organise! 84 (Summer 2015.) Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.