[Marxism] Power to the people: a Syrian experiment in democracy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Oct 25 11:23:24 MDT 2015

FT, October 23, 2015 6:20 pm
Power to the people: a Syrian experiment in democracy
by Carne Ross

Perhaps the last place you would expect to find a thriving experiment in 
direct democracy is Syria. But something radical is happening, little 
noticed, in the eastern reaches of that fractured country, in the 
isolated region known to the Kurds as Rojava.

Just as remarkable, perhaps, is that the philosophy that inspired 
self-government here was originated by a little-known American political 
thinker and one-time “eco-activist” whose ideas found their way to Syria 
through a Kurdish leader imprisoned upon an island in the Sea of 
Marmara. It’s a story that bizarrely connects a war-torn Middle East 
with New York’s Lower East Side.

I visited Rojava last month while filming a documentary about the 
failings of the western model of democracy. The region covers a 
substantial “corner” of north-east Syria and has a population of 
approximately 3m, yet it is not easy to get to. The only passage is by 
small boat or a creaky pontoon bridge across the Tigris from Iraq.
Turkey has closed its borders with Rojava, preventing all movement from 
the north, including humanitarian supplies to Kurdish-controlled areas. 
To the south, in Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government does not make 
access easy; permits for journalists are not straightforward and, we 
were told, repeat visits are discouraged.

The isolation is not only physical. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd YPG 
militia that is fighting the jihadi organisation Isis in Rojava as 
synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a longstanding enemy 
inside Turkey. The YPG’s advance against Isis along Syria’s northern 
border has been halted by the declaration by Turkey of a so-called “safe 
zone” to the west of the Euphrates between the front line and the 
Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in the north-west. For the Kurds, the 
motive seems transparently clear: to prevent the formation of a 
contiguous area of Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border.

The KRG, which collaborates with Turkey against the PKK, has also been 
reluctant to support the YPG, even though they share a common enemy in 
the shape of Isis. Turkey has likewise pressured the US to eschew the 
Syrian Kurds, although in the past few days Washington has come out in 
more open support, including delivering arms supplies to the YPG. 
Meanwhile, the Kurds maintain an uneasy truce with the Syrian regime, 
which keeps two small bases in Rojava but otherwise has no military 
presence here — a tacit deal whereby the Kurds control the territory in 
return for not fighting the regime.

Those journalists that do get here naturally gravitate to the front 
lines like the devastated city of Kobani; similarly, images of the 
photogenic young women who make up the female Kurdish militia, the YPJ, 
are more eye-catching than the village hall meetings that comprise the 
reality of an innovative grassroots democracy. But it is in those dusty 
assemblies across Rojava that a democratic revolution is taking place.
The onset of the Syrian revolution in 2012 saw the collapse of the Assad 
regime’s authority across much of Syria. When this vacuum opened in 
Rojava, the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD) sought to fill it by 
building a new form of democracy from the bottom up.

In this radical new dispensation, authority is vested primarily in the 
communal level — the village. At one assembly I attended, villagers 
gathered in a spartan town hall to debate their affairs. An old man 
began by retailing all the decisions of the previous meeting. The 
audience grew restive with boredom until a very young co-chair gently 
stopped him. Then, others took turns to voice their concerns. These were 
the stuff of day-to-day village life: anxiety about deliveries of 
medical supplies; celebration following the announcement of the opening 
of a small new factory for laundry powder. But the rocketing prices of 
bread and other basics were lamented at length. The prosaic found its 
voice, too: someone complained about children riding their bikes too 
fast around the village.

Not all decisions can be made at the most local level. Those that need 
broader discussion go to district or cantonal assemblies (Rojava is 
comprised of three cantons). Here, as in the villages, care is taken to 
give non-Arab minorities and women prominence. Every assembly I 
encountered was co-chaired by a woman. In one town, a very young Kurdish 
woman enthused to me that never before had people like her — “the youth” 
— been included in actual government. At meetings across the region I 
was struck by the sense of a population trying to get used to methods of 
self-government that were entirely unfamiliar after generations of 

I was repeatedly told that special efforts were made to include the 
Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen minorities. Some Arabs confirmed this to me 
directly, with something resembling bewilderment. In Jazira canton, the 
two co-chairs of the district’s “institutions of self-government”, as 
this collective system is awkwardly named, consisted of an aged Arab 
sheikh and another young Kurdish woman. Accustomed to the traditional 
hierarchies of the Middle East at such gatherings, I unthinkingly 
addressed the senior-looking man. Without speaking, he turned to the 
young woman to speak for the group. She then spoke Arabic for the 
benefit of non-Kurdish participants.

The Arab sheikh’s guards wore black uniforms and long beards, a 
resemblance to Isis that suggested sympathies that may have only been 
conditionally suspended. Indeed, I learnt later that the sheikh had been 
on the Isis side until the extremists massacred members of his tribe. 
Inevitably, in a country where ethnic groups and allegiances are 
thoroughly scrambled together, the front lines are not always well defined.

A report released by Amnesty International recently claimed that the YPG 
has forcibly removed some Arab families from towns captured from Isis. 
The YPG’s response was that these examples are very few among the mass 
displacement of tens of thousands, and inevitable in areas of extended 
combat with Isis, which routinely conceals its fighters among the 
civilian population.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the democratic experiment in 
Rojava is the justice system that has been established alongside 
self-government. In Jazira, one chair of the justice committee (again a 
young woman) explained that since courts and punishment represented the 
coercive dominance of the state, such institutions had been replaced by 
a kind of community justice, where “social peace”, and not punishment, 
was the objective.

Intrigued, though a little baffled by these slogans, I asked to see what 
this meant in practice. The next day, I attended a mass lunch where one 
family hosted another. A member of the first family had killed a man 
from the second: lunch marked the families’ reconciliation, the 
culmination of a collective process of compensation, apology and 
forgiveness, where the perpetrator, briefly imprisoned, publicly 
acknowledged his crime. In turn, this act of contrition, supported by 
his family by means including the ceremonial meal, was accepted by the 
victim’s relations.

I asked the brother of the murdered man why he didn’t want the killer to 
face further punishment. His eyes moist with grief, he replied, no: 
“social peace” was more important than punishment. This was a better 
way, he argued: what good would be served by a long punishment of the 
perpetrator? I was staggered and moved. I thought of the barbarity of 
Rikers Island prison, which I would fly over on my way home to the US. 
No one in that country would claim that a system premised on punishment 
over reconciliation has achieved “social peace”.

Throughout the visit I met officials and ordinary citizens who enthused 
about the virtues of participatory, non-hierarchical self-government. I 
was amazed to find such a widespread consciousness of political ideas 
barely discussed in the rest of the world. In one town, I found myself 
debating the finer distinctions of anarchist philosophers — Kropotkin, 
Bakunin — with a youth organiser who was fluent in the discourse of 
people power. Where on earth had these ideas sprung from? The answer is 
New York City.

The reason for the strange emergence of communal self-government in 
Rojava became clear during my visit. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the 
banned PKK party, is seen by Kurds in Syria, as well as those in Turkey, 
as the leader of Kurdish liberation. This despite — or in defiance of — 
the fact that, for the past 16 years, he has been held in a Turkish 
prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara.

Öcalan, 67, was once a devotee of Marxism-Leninism but came to believe 
that, like capitalism, communism perforce relied upon coercion (in 
capitalism’s case, coercion is necessary inter alia to enforce the 
exploitative contract between capital and labour). By chance, one book 
passed to him in jail was the masterwork of a New York political thinker 
named Murray Bookchin. Like Öcalan, Bookchin rejected communism when he 
became disillusioned with Stalinism’s authoritarian bent. A passionate 
believer in equality and freedom, he spent years teaching and arguing 
about anarchist philosophy in the bars and radical political groups of 
the city’s Lower East Side. Bookchin believed that true democracy could 
only prosper when decision-making belonged to the local community and 
was not monopolised by distant and unaccountable elites. In books such 
as The Ecology of Freedom (1982), he looked back to democracy’s origins 
in ancient Greece, where all citizens — although not, he noted, women or 
slaves — took turns to make political decisions.

Outside of the radical and bohemian circles of 1970s New York, 
Bookchin’s ideas have remained obscure, despite their pertinence today. 
Bookchin married what we now call environmentalism with anarchism. He 
believed that anarchism’s fundamental precept, the rejection of power of 
one over another, should apply to mankind’s relationship with the 
natural world. Entrapped in concrete cities, people were alienated from 
themselves and nature. The disasters of pollution and pillaged resources 
would persist as long as the false hierarchy of mankind over nature endured.

Bookchin ultimately eschewed the term “anarchist”, which he saw tainted 
by those who vaunted mere selfish individualism, “lifestyle anarchism”. 
Some kind of organised administration was, he believed, necessary to 
make collective decisions, as long as it included everyone: government 
can only be for the people when it is truly by the people. Bookchin 
called it “communalism”.

On his prison island, Öcalan saw that Bookchin’s concept of government 
without the state was ideal for the Kurds — a people who had been denied 
their own state. In pamphlets and books, he interpreted Bookchin’s 
communalism for the Kurdish context and termed it “democratic 
confederalism”. If you wanted a society freed of coercion, you must 
abolish the ultimate practitioner of coercion, including violence: the 
state itself. In 2004, Öcalan wrote to Bookchin and invited him to 
Kurdistan, but Bookchin was by then too unwell to undertake such a 
journey. He died two years later.

Öcalan’s new ideas were distributed across the PKK and, through them, to 
the Syrian Kurdish PYD. His influence in propagating a system of 
democracy without hierarchy presents one of the ironies of the situation 
in Rojava: a system that emphatically rejects all authority was inspired 
by a singular leader who has in the past used harsh methods to enforce 
organisational discipline.

In meeting after meeting I attended in Rojava, one issue generated 
particular emotion: emigration. My visit coincided with the tragic 
drowning of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy whose picture is now the symbol 
of the refugee crisis. That child came from Kobani, a city levelled by 
fighting. In the assemblies I attended, by far the loudest sentiment was 
frustration that people were leaving because of the desperate economic 

There were many complaints that the Turkish “embargo”, as it is 
universally termed in Rojava, has made life impossibly difficult. 
Reconstruction of devastated towns recaptured from Isis, like Kobani, 
was all but impossible. There was no choice but to leave. Local 
democracy can only fix so much when the international constraints are 

To these people, the west’s acquiescence in the treatment of Rojava by 
Turkey and the KRG, both western allies, is bewildering. For them, these 
radical ideas on self-government offer a democratic model for all of 
Syria. One man argued to me that the centralised state, which he named 
the “ziggurat”, had been a catastrophe for Syria and Iraq in recent 
generations, an argument hard to dispute. It was self-evident, he 
contended, that a decentralised and inclusive structure of democracy had 
a better chance of producing stability — woven from the bottom up rather 
than imposed from the top down.

Murray Bookchin, American anarchist/political writer
If and when there is ever a political deal to end Syria’s hideous war, 
this option must surely be on the table. Recent examples of Middle 
Eastern “state-building”, after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, 
however, are not encouraging. Outside states continue to prefer to 
construct other states that resemble themselves: the model of top-down 
government with its illusory offer of control is deeply ingrained. 
Decentralisation, particularly in the fullest sense advocated by 
Bookchin, threatens those used to authority — and particularly those who 
wield it.

One irony of Rojava’s democratic experiment is it was only made possible 
by the rupture of war and the effective collapse of state authority. 
What is happening in the west is less dramatic, but is a crisis 
nonetheless. The model of supposedly “representative” but hierarchical 
democracy as manifested in western capitals is seen as less and less 
representative by the people it is supposed to answer to. The fissure 
between the power of the wealthy and connected and everyone else is 
painfully evident. The desire to take power back is growing.
Rojava may seem exotic and its democratic experiment radical, but that 
word means a return to the root, and that is exactly what is happening 
in this remote corner of Syria: rule by the people; democracy returning 
to its roots.

Carne Ross is a former British diplomat and author. He visited Syria for 
the documentary film, ‘The Accidental Anarchist’, produced by Hopscotch 
Films and Mentorn Media with support from the Sundance Institute for 
release in 2016

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