Gabriel Kuhn's Blog

Tales from Rojava

By Gabriel Kuhn

Both the ideological changes within the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, its resistance against the Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Murray-Bookchin-inspired “democratic confederalism” nowadays propagated by its jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan, and, in particular, the struggle of the progressive forces in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) are much discussed issues among the left in the Global North. Some celebrate the Kurdish movement as a beacon of hope in the midst of a global crisis of the left, realizing democratic socialism, or even anarchism, under the most difficult of circumstances. Others accuse them of collaboration with US imperialism and a cult-like devotion to Öcalan, commonly referred to as Apo (uncle) by his followers. Few, however, venture into the region, and even less share their experiences with a broader audience.

An exception are the makers of the German Lower Class Magazine, an online project dedicated to “low budget underground journalism”. LCM reporters have visited Kurdistan several times. In 2016, articles about their encounters in Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan) were collected in the book Hinter den Barrikaden. Eine Reise durch Nordkurdistan im Krieg (Behind the Barricades: A Wartime Journey through Northern Kurdistan). Two of the texts appeared in English translation on this blog: “Freedom in the Mountains: Visiting the PKK in the Qandil Region”, and “We will intensify the guerrilla’s activities”, an interview with Bese Hozat, co-chair of the Group of Communities in Kurdistan, KCK.

Now, the same people have brought us Konkrete Utopie. Die Berge Kurdistans und die Revolution in Rojava (Concrete Utopia: The Mountains of Kurdistan and the Revolution in Rojava), chronicling, for the most part, an excursion into war-torn Syria. The book contains articles written during the journey and interviews with local fighters and organizers. The result is a combination of political reporting and travel diary, complete with a “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Kurdistan”, listing the top-five things to carry if you make this your next travel destination. Even if the list is not straght-edge-certified, I’ll share it here for the record: 5. Şal (traditional Kurdish pants). 4. Pen and paper. 3. Tobacco. 2. Keffiyeh (Arab scarf). 1. E-book reader.

For the LCM authors, there is no doubt that they found a revolution in the making. To summarize what they’ve seen, they quote Karl Marx: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

It would probably be easy to criticize the texts assembled in Konkrete Utopie for romanticization. But to criticize is always easy. Throughout the book, fighters in Kurdistan accuse the Western left of irrelevant intellectual musings: “The left in other countries talks in big words about the revolution at their meetings – then they go back to their apartments or to a bar,” says one of them. Another adds: “What irritates me about parts of the German left is that they always read a lot and think they understand everything but do not act on it. Revolution is not just theory.”

LCM reporter Peter Schaber, who contributes the majority of the texts, draws provoking conclusions, not least with regard to what he calls “revolutionary culture”:

“What revolutionaries in Kurdistan call ‘liberalism’ – egoism, excessive alcohol and drug consumption, the inability to live collectively, lack of discipline, the division between the private and the political, careerism – are far more widespread in the West. If we don’t overcome these tendencies, or even mistake them for ‘freedom’ in line with bourgeois ideologies, we reproduce the very mechanisms that tie us to the capitalist system. Our ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ politics will then remain an exercise of harmless rebellion that poses no threat to the dominant order in any way.”

Equally provoking – at least for anarchists and autonomists – are some of the political observations he offers:

“The Western left sees Rojava as the realization of a democracy ‘from below’: communes, councils, a confederation; no hierarchies, no party, a spontaneous mass project. Anarchists and ‘libertarian’ communists wax lyrically about the dawn of a direct-democratic Shangri-La. In order to support this thesis, one anarchist author even invents the myth that YPG commandants are elected by their units. Yes, the change in Rojava comes ‘from below’. It is based on the power of the people, no doubt. Communes and councils are at the heart of decision-making, that is true. But as essential is the following: None of this would be happening if it wasn’t for a vanguard leading the way. The revolution in Rojava proves that Leninist vanguardism is correct, not false. … No matter how much liberal circles try to deny it: without the PKK, nothing of any relevance for the left would exist in Rojava today.”

Schaber’s personal Kurdistan story provides the book with a narrative beyond the impressions and voices gathered. After several months in the region, he decides to join the YPG as a fighter and partakes in the liberation of Raqqa. He recalls the experience in the final chapter of the book, titled “Love in a hopeless place”. Although Schaber is disappointed that many in the ranks of the YPG “hardly know, and even less live by, the ideals of the movement for which they fight”, he comes away with the following lesson: “We cannot escape the struggle for a new life. It awaits us everywhere we go. And unless we fool ourselves, retreat to an insignificant social bubble of peers, or become traitors, it will accompany us throughout our lives. Raqqa prepared us for this.”

We can hold whatever opinion we want on the Kurdish liberation movement. What is beyond doubt is that the developments in Bakur and Rojava are unique in an age of political darkness. The least we can expect of self-declared radicals anywhere is to pay attention to it. Efforts like those of the LCM authors certainly help, and this is something they deserve much credit for.

(January 2018)

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