Lessons for the West from the East: the Kurdish democratic experiment

Back from a women’s delegation to northern Syria in 2018, Sarah Glynn reports on her visit

A common defence of liberal democracy is that other systems are worse. Most people’s engagement in the political process is limited to putting a cross in a box every few years, but inability to affect the forces that shape our lives has come to be seen as inevitable. At the same time, isolation is accepted as the twenty first century normality. So, when we learn of a system that enables people to take control of their lives and work together to build up their communities, we naturally look for lessons.

The mainstream media isn’t very good at publicising alternative systems, but events have made the autonomous Kurdish-dominated region of Syria hard to ignore. And so, increasing numbers of people are hearing about democratic confederalism, the system of bottom-up democracy being established by those who follow the political ideas of imprisoned Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan. This is a system that expects the mechanisms of daily life to be run as locally as possible. At its foundation are communes consisting of a village or a few streets. These send representatives to neighbourhood committees that make decisions that affect larger areas, and so on and so on up a chain. At each level, committees focus on different aspects, such as economics and justice. Requests for resources are transmitted upwards and funds are distributed down from the level of the cantons that make up the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria. (While there is no personal taxation, the system is funded by income from public enterprises and by fees for development and services.)

Two objective factors have facilitated the development of this community-based system. Kurdish culture still retains strong community ties and memories of clan-based organisation; and the lack of other resources and expectations of help make communal self-sufficiency something of a necessity. Indeed, the civil war also saw a flowering of local councils in other parts of Syria, though without the wider organisational network. However, the thinking behind the system was firmly set out by Ocalan, and the main subjective factor has been the organised Kurdish movement based around his ideas. In Syria, this largely takes the form of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD. When I interviewed Saleh Muslim, then co-chair of the PYD, in 2016, he stressed that he saw the main role of his party as political education. PYD cadres work hard at all levels, spreading both ideas and organisational methods.

Ocalan has moved a long way from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)’s founding position as a Marxist-Leninist liberation movement. Since his CIA-aided capture in 1999, and incarceration on a Turkish island, he has studied a variety of political theorists, and he has drawn on their ideas – including, notably, Murray Bookchin’s ideas on communalism – to develop the political philosophy that we can see being put into practice in northern Syria. Ocalan’s political philosophy has inspired a millions-strong Kurdish movement that stretches from the PKK guerrillas in the Iraqi mountains to the parliamentarians of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, from the PYD in Syria to the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran.

Like Bookchin, Ocalan argues that this system of bottom-up autonomy should, ultimately, supersede the oppressive structures of the state. Pragmatically, this allows Kurdish leaders to claim that they pose no immediate threat to the integrity of the states in which they live. The PYD argues for radical change within Syria – though many Kurds have not given up on the idea of an independent Kurdish state.

The contradictions posed by the national question have proved remarkably productive. The PKK was established because the Turkish left failed to understand the additional oppression suffered by the Kurds, or to value their desire for cultural expression, but the nurturing of Kurdish cultural freedom has been extended to encompass the freedom of all ethnic groups. For the Kurdish movement following Ocalan’s philosophy, that philosophy has even become a new form of Kurdish identity that can be shared with the whole world. On our first day in Syria, one of our hosts commented: ‘Kurdishness is no longer an ethnicity, it’s defence of humanity’.

In the original cantons of Rojava (West Kurdistan), and in the areas liberated from Daesh (ISIS), care is taken to ensure that all ethnic groups participate in the new organisational structures. In a region long accustomed to ethnic discrimination, and recently subject to brutal violence carried out in the name of religion, this inclusiveness is hugely valued. Its importance was demonstrated on our visit to Manbij, where we met women from four different ethnic groups working together to build cultural bridges and to widen the outlook and prospects of their sisters from all backgrounds. However, just as with liberal multiculturalism in Britain, care needs to be taken to avoid this welcoming of cultural difference becoming a means for strengthening ethnic boundaries and traditional ethnic leaders.

Perhaps, the most remarkable achievement of the Kurdish movement has been the change in women’s lives and mobilisation. The liberation of woman has become pivotal to Ocalan’s writings, and his ideas on ‘jineology’, or the science of women, are a subject of popular and academic study; but this ideological shift is ‘a result of a dialectical process between women’s struggles within the movement and the support of Ocalan’ according to writers Nadje Al-ali and Latif Tas. It is not a paradox of women being liberated by a man, but an example of genuinely responsive leadership (though Ocalan is often given all the credit, even by women themselves).

At issue is not simply the acceptance of women as fighters and campaigners for Kurdish freedom. The nature of the battle itself has changed to incorporate the fight against patriarchy as a foundational force. Attitudes remain hard to shift – even among otherwise-progressive activists – but new freedoms are clear to see. Every important organisation has both a female and male co-chair, and there are quotas for female representation, as well as a comprehensive system of separate women’s organisations. Our delegation met women active at all political levels, from the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, which oversees the whole federation, to the feisty women in long dresses and headscarves who are taking control of their own lives through their neighbourhood commune in the backstreets of Kobane.

Among the Syrian Kurds, these ideas have long been nurtured in secret, but, as we saw in Manbij, the drive for women’s rights is also being brought to other communities. A Kurdish friend told me of his pleasure at seeing an Arab woman in Raqqa lose her fear of speaking up for herself, and then arguing back at him. The attack on patriarchy affects all of society, and we were able to observe relaxed and mutually respectful relations between male and female activists.

While achievements for women’s rights have been remarkable, some of the ideas encompassed in ‘jineology’ risk ossifying gender distinctions and burdening women with impossible expectations. Ideas that have been vital in encouraging freedom could end up constraining thought within new limits. I am assured that this is a political movement that welcomes constructive criticism, but there is a tendency to accept Ocalan’s ideas without question – just as some Marxists treat Marx as gospel. Ocalan is undoubtedly a hugely inspirational leader, but the level of devotion shown towards him sits rather oddly within grassroots democracy.

An underlying logic to this system is opposition to ‘capitalist modernity’. This doesn’t disrupt the busy bazaars, but suggests economic decisions should be made in the interests of the community. A lot of hopes have been invested in the establishment of co-ops, though this sector is still very small, and its most significant impact has been to help women gain economic independence. However, I was told that some attempts by foreign capital to establish large-scale businesses have been rebuffed. Disappointingly, there has been no land reform – disproportionate landownership by Arabs makes this an ethnically sensitive issue – but there are controls on house prices and rents, and a lot of agricultural land was already in public ownership.

The other core thread in Ocalan’s philosophy is ecology. With the economy focussed on defence and reconstruction, this is currently more talked about than acted on, but the wider rejection of the insatiable demands of capitalism is the best hope for a more sustainable future.

It would be hard to overestimate the difficulties of establishing a new organisational system, even without the added pressures of war and boycott. It helped that the Kurdish movement already had strong underground networks, but all involved accept that this structure is a work in progress, and not without compromises and contradictions. These include the establishment of, more conventional, top-down authorities at the level of the cantons and to oversee the whole federation. This was felt necessary in order to interact in a world of nation states and as a way of bringing in other parties and ethnic groups. They are formed of representatives from different organisations and are bound by a progressive social contract (or constitution) that itself was the product of extensive discussions. These authorities work closely with the councils, but they have introduced potential for conflicting power centres.

Although the PYD are keen to increase democratic participation and legitimacy by encouraging different groups to get involved at all levels, some don’t accept the new political formations: most notably, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the feudal, neoliberal, ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan. With their support of the embargo on Rojava, of Kurdish fifth columnists in Turkish-occupied Afrin, and of Turkey generally, the KDP are regarded by the PYD as ‘saboteurs’. Reaction to KDP leaders can extend beyond the political, but I would be very wary of taking KDP complaints about mistreatment at face value. Maintaining judicial standards is important, so it was encouraging to discover that a fellow guest at the official guest house in Amude was a consultant advising the administration on the Geneva Convention.

In fact, a total rethinking of the systems of justice and law and order has been central to the democratic project. Disputes of all kinds are dealt with by assemblies of local people, where the emphasis is on reconciliation and rehabilitation, and prison is a last resort. Only cases that can’t be resolved locally are passed up the chain.

A sketch of systems, as given here, cannot portray the liberational, life-affirming, community-strengthening impact of it all; but it was this that stood out in everyone we met. They were taking an active part in building a better world for their families and neighbourhood, for North-East Syria, and – they hoped – beyond; and they were part of a system that, despite huge external difficulties, was there to support them. In the places we visited, political activism wasn’t something to be fitted in, if and when there was time, but an integral part of life that gave it purpose.

Could we build a similarly inspiring system here in Scotland? In Syria, new structures were established in the vacuum created by the civil war. In eastern Turkey, Kurdish organisations attempted to set up their own structures parallel to the state, and found themselves repeatedly and brutally crushed. While Scotland should provide a safer environment, we can’t afford to forget that existing powers will be just as reluctant to give up control, and especially to concede to anything that would restrict the ‘freedom’ of capital. People are reluctant to take on problems they feel should be sorted by government, but there are still plenty of Scottish examples of what can be achieved when communities do come together and organise. Most are isolated, determinedly ‘apolitical’, and not linked to processes of wider change. But if we are serious about transforming society, we can’t leave the politics to others. The Kurds have shown us how to build a politics by – and for – the people.

Sarah Glynn is an activist, academic and architect, and a committee member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan (www.sskonline.org.uk). For another report on her visit to Northern Syria, see https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/13202/women-life-freedom-what-i-found-my-visit-womens-revolution-northern-syria