The politics of the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) in western Kurdistan/Syria (Rojava) and the nature of governance there has been debated on the revolutionary left with some anarchist, autonomist Marxist and libertarian communists seeing more or less enthusiastically welcoming the democracy taking root there.
Workers’ Liberty backs the Kurdish struggle the YPG defence of Kobane against the Islamic State; but we do not back the politics of the forces on the ground.
The YPG (Democratic Union Party) are closely linked to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Historically the PKK was a Stalinist and cult like organisation that has engaged in a long running war with the Turkish state. Some western activists have argued the PKK has shifted from its Marxist Leninist (Stalinist) roots and adopted something akin to a “democratic confederalism” first propagated by the anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin.
Roarmag.org has been most enthusiastic about the supposed evolution of the PKK. An article by Rafael Taylor of the Australian Anarcho Syndicalist Federation, claims, “The PKK/KCK appear to be following Bookchin’s social ecology to the book.” And that the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCB), which Taylor describes as the, “broader revolutionary leftist coalition in Syria of which the PYD [affiliate of the PKK] is the main group, has now embraced the project of democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism as a possible model for Syria.”
But the NCB is widely viewed as the tolerated official Syrian opposition to President Assad so such enthusiasm for its revolutionary leftist credentials seem misplaced. The PYD have had an opaque relationship with the Syrian state; previously Syria supported the PKK in the war against neighbouring Turkey, but the relationship has cooled. Syrian state troops left Rojava without much of a confrontation with the PYD.
Taylor also makes a point of the PKK’s involvement in an international gathering of anarchists in St Imier Switerland in 2012. A speaker from Fekar, the Federation of Kurdish Associations in Switzerland stated that, “[the PKK ] is now a model for forms of ‘communal’ social life… in which there is respect for differences and where the aim is to achieve a good ecological balance in nature.”
Many of those who support Fekar's and Roarmag's view have emphasised the apparent shift in the PKK as explained in this conference and also documented by Murray Bookchin’s biographer, collaborator and partner Janet Biehl. However others in the same milieu such as the International Communist Current, Anarchist Federation and others have taken a different view.
Historically the anarchist left have been hostile to the concept of self-determination for oppressed nations and view national liberation struggles as a distraction from the class struggle and/or the immediate abolition of the state and its institutions. The sectarian stance of democatic rights has led them to be dismissive of the current struggle against IS and to reject calls to arm the Kurds, unless it is done independently of the PYD. However, much of their analysis of the PKK and PYD is worth reading and there is a healthy scepticism in the idea that there has been a decisive political break from the past.
The Anarchist Federation rightly preaches caution on the nature of the popular assemblies in Rojava. The PYD is both the largest organisation and also in effect the state there, as it controls the food, financial resources and all the guns and weaponry. They quote Zafer Onat, a libertarian communist from the region,
“First of all we must identify that the Rojava process has progressive features such as an important leap in the direction of women's liberation, that a secular, pro-social justice, pluralist democratic structure is attempting to be constructed and that other ethnic and religious groups are given a part in the administration. However, the fact that the newly emerging structure does not aim at the elimination of private property, that is the abolition of classes, that the tribal system remains and that tribal leaders partake in the administration shows that the aim is not the removal of feudal or capitalist relations of production but is instead in their own words 'the construction of a democratic nation'.''
Unlike AFED we are not hostile to the aim of 'a democratic nation' its entirety but it is right that activists recognise that the PYD is not moving beyond this goal, and that a “pluralist democratic structure” can also be under threat from its authoritarian and Stalinist origins, including the shutting down of an independent radio station and an attack on demonstrators in Amuda in 2013.
AFED also quote Shiar Neymo a Syrian-Kurdish anarchist,
“This political pragmatism and thirst for power are two important factors in understanding the party’s dealings with the regime, the revolution, the FSA, and even the Kurds themselves…The PYD’s forces have also assaulted members of other Kurdish political parties and arrested some of them under a variety of excuses; they have been controlling food and financial resources in the Kurdish areas and distributing them in an unjust manner on the basis of partisan favouritism, and so on and so forth. Such practices remind people, rightly, of the oppressive practices of the Assad regime.”
Such a view contrasts with that of Zaher Bayer of the Haringey Solidarity Group who states that during a meeting between the PYD and other opposing parties,
“The answer to every single question was positive. No arrests were made, no restrictions on freedom or organizing demonstrations. But all of them shared the point that they do not want to take part in the DSA (democratic self-administration). The reasons were that, the Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society) which is a PKK initiative compromised with the Syrian state and replicates some of the same practices as experienced under Assad.”
In an interview from 2012 with the Kurdish Anarchist Forum carried by anarkismo.net KAF there is a comment on the PKK and its ideas,
“We are aware that Ocalan’s ideas have changed since he has been in prison. But we are not very optimistic about these changes. Also these changes have not, at least for the time being, been reflected in practice or organisationally…It is certainly true that the PKK has got many followers among the Kurdish people and have a big impact on Kurdish mass movements. They also talk about federalism. But none of this makes them in any way Anarchist organisations. They are, in fact, as far as one can get from Anarchists and Anarchism because Ocalan, first has not given up his authority and dominance over the mass movement.”
The best way to support democratic and working class forces in Rojava is to be honest about the political alliances and groups that currently exist. We do no favours to these forces by promoting the PYD uncritically or failing to examine the different experiences of Kurdish groups and activists who support the struggle against ISIS.