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A Legacy of Autonomy & the Kurdish Freedom Movement

May 15, 2023

Many different alternative movements around the world simply refused to stop imagining that another world is possible: Öcalan and the Kurdish freedom movement belong to this category.”Havin Guneser

Throughout human history there has been a clash between two societal paradigms. The dominant one is heteronomy – a condition in which society does not recognize that it itself is the source of the laws that govern it. Instead, in such societies, power is concentrated in the hands of only a tiny fraction of the population, which justifies its authority over the great majority by appealing to higher, extra-social forces such as gods, historic determinism, and natural laws etc. Absolute monarchs of the past presented themselves as chosen by God, while proponents of contemporary capitalism invoke deterministic “laws of the market” or an “invisible hand” to present their preferred project as supposedly the final developmental stage of human history. In these aforementioned cases those in power conceal their privileged, exploitative, and parasitic position behind some sort of supposed inevitability and/or necessity.

But there is resistance from the grassroots that seeks an alternative to the dominant situation. Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, who many consider to be the ‘thinker of autonomy’, suggests that the opposite of heteronomy is autonomy. According to him, autonomy is people’s conscious direction of their own lives. As it becomes clear from this definition, the autonomous legacy has direct democracy at its core. Castoriadis insisted that autonomy is:

“the project of a society in which all citizens have an equal, effectively actual possibility of participating in legislation, in government, in jurisdiction, and, finally, in the institution of society.”

Within this core direct-democratic element Castoriadis detects two main dimensions. The one is the local, since he writes, “Participation has to be rooted, first of all, in sites where people are led to associate with one another whether they want to or not.” The other, however, is what we can call the trans-local, and Castoriadis warns that in highly closed societies there is nothing that prepares people to challenge established institutions (in other words, to become autonomous), and furthermore, everything is constituted therein to make any challenge unthinkable. Thus, autonomy requires the establishment of interconnected relations that transcend communal and social borders, in order for the democratic values of constant interrogation and critical thinking to thrive.

The Direct-Democratic Politics of Autonomy

Throughout history many communities and movements were inspired by this autonomous perspective, and gave fights to plant its seeds into the here and now. Castoriadis suggests that our freedoms and rights: “Are sediments of popular struggles[…] that have gone on for centuries, struggles that begin with the fights led since the tenth century by the communes in order to obtain a relative degree of self-government.” We can argue that the Kurdish freedom movement, the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), and the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES) in Rojava not only belong to this legacy, but are among its main contemporary expressers.

The main vision of how direct democracy can be implemented into practice has been in the form of a federation of communes. Mikhail Bakunin, for example, insisted:

“that equality must be established in the world by the[…] spontaneous federation of communes, to replace the domineering paternalistic State.”

Likewise, Peter Kropotkin believed that social revolution must begin within the commune in order to put an end to the ignoble system of exploitation, to rid the people of the tutelage of the state, to inaugurate a new era of liberty, equality, solidarity in the evolution of the human race. But for him this revolutionary process doesn’t just replace the large scale state with a local one – the commune, but it also implies the replacement of parliamentary rule with free federal relations, writing:

 “[F]ree groups of workers […] will federate with like-minded groups in other cities and villages not through the medium of a communal parliament but directly, to accomplish their aim.”

Karl Marx too, in his The Civil War in Francespeaks of the commune as the political form of even the smallest country hamlet, with rural communities of every district were to administer their common affairs by an assembly of delegates in the central town, and these district assemblies were again to send deputies [revocable and bound by the formal instructions of his constituents] to the National Delegation.

In the same line of thought Errico Malatesta equated revolution as the destruction of all coercive ties through the autonomy of groups, communes, and regions, suggesting that the establishment of free federation between the latter is brought about by a desire for brotherhood, by individual and collective interests.

One significant attempt at implementing this direct-democratic project into practice was done by the Makhnovist movement during the first half of the 20th century in the Gulyai Polye region of today’s Ukraine. A mass popular mobilization and insurrection led by the revolutionary Nestor Makhno established a free federation of local self-managed communes. This social experiment has come to be known as Makhnovschina, and Peter Arshinov, direct participant in it, described it as follows:

“For more than six months — from November 1918 to June 1919 — they lived without any external political authority. They not only maintained social bonds with each other, but they also created new and higher forms of social relations — free workers’ communes and free councils of working people. […] The commune was based on anti-authoritarian principles. […] But what was most precious was that these communes were formed on the initiative of the poor peasants themselves. The Makhnovists never exerted any pressure on the peasants, confining themselves to propagating the idea of free communes.”

AANES & the Legacy of Autonomy

The political system advanced nowadays in Rojava by the AANES fits neatly within this popular strive towards autonomy. Although there might be certain shortcomings, there have nonetheless been numerous reports by the likes of David Graeber and Janet Biehl, on the reality of a large society that self-manages its public affairs through a confederal network of communes.

After a radical political shift, the Kurdish freedom movement began building grassroots institutions of self-governance, inspired by the project of Democratic Confederalism that was developed by Abdullah Öcalan. In a letter from 2014, which Öcalan wrote from his isolated prison cell, he suggests that the Canton system does not entirely follow his vision and that communes must be created. In other words, he understands that federalism on its own is not enough: as we already have enough examples of federations of mini-states that are as bureaucratic as any Nation-State. Instead, he suggests, new institutions of real self-management must be established within a confederal framework.

And the people of AANES indeed took Öcalan’s words seriously. Xebat Andok, Executive Council member of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the political organization committed to implementing Öcalan’s project of Democratic Confederalism – describes the system in the region as follows:

“It is a system in which thousands, maybe tens of thousands of communes and assemblies are involved, all of them discussing all their problems in their own living space and trying to find solutions. But at the same time, all of them are interconnected. Therefore, to put it another way, Democratic Confederalism is also a system of assemblies. It is a system of direct democracy. It is a system where no one governs anyone else. It is a system where everyone governs themselves and each other.”

The establishment of federative type of structures has another important aspect to it as well: it helps in the preservation of agreed-upon principles such as gender equality, political participation, and solidarity etc. If one local community decides to join a given federation or confederation, it must agree to its framework of values, and once it does, it cannot easily violate them. This does not mean that such types of structures are an absolute safeguard – there are no absolute safeguards – but an invaluable help in preserving the universal values won by popular struggles. And it seems that the Kurdish freedom movement understands well this significance, because as Kurdish academic Dilar Dirik informs us about this aspect of the AANES system:

“Each of the communes is autonomous, but they are linked to one another through a confederal structure for the purposes of coordination and the safeguarding of common principles.”

Moving Beyond Nationalism

Overcoming nationalism is absolutely essential for laying the foundations of a social and individual autonomy. The National is inherently connected with the State, and as such, it serves the logic of heteronomy. Nationalism tends to homogenize various communities, omitting their unique customs and traditions, into one national entity whose purpose is to serve and preserve its statist bureaucracy. It is clear that there is no space for such type of imaginary constructions within a society that strives towards autonomy.

One way to break the logic of nationalism is by deconstructing bureaucracy, along with its homogenizing effect on society, and replacing it with the structures of direct democracy that promote and encourage diversity and political participation. In one such democratic system the individual is no longer part of a mystical national “whole”, but a citizen that is fully aware that the fate of his/her community depends on their participation in the management of public affairs. It is indicative that during the popular meetings preceding the Paris Commune, Parisians began referring to one another not with the bourgeois “madame et monsieur”, nor with the national “patriot”, but with the democratic “citizen”. As Murray Bookchin suggested,

“when at length free communes replace the nation and confederal forms of organization replace the state, humanity will have rid itself of nationalism.”

This is yet another lesson that the Kurdish freedom movement seems to have learned. Since the very beginning it has made it clear that the political system on which the AANES is built is not about one nationality, but about giving space to cultural diversity to thrive. Andok from the KCK insists that:

“Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Circassians, Armenians, Assyrians and Syriacs are all autonomously organized within the existing system. A Kurd is not superior to an Arab. An Arab is not superior to a Circassian. They organize as autonomously as they want on the basis of their own communes and assemblies.”

This has important implications for the further development of the preconditions for autonomy as it creates environments where different cultures thrive and coexist peacefully, allowing people to think beyond established truths. This, as noted in the beginning of this article, is of great significance.

Laying the Foundation

Marx once said that the great social measure of the Paris Commune was its own working existence, as it could but betoken the tendency of a government of the people by the people. Today we can say with confidence that the same holds true for the AANES and its democratic achievements under TEV-DEM. Although there is still much to be done on the path towards autonomy, it has nonetheless been confidently developing the grassroots basis on which a truly autonomous society can emerge.

AANES has allowed people around the world to imagine that things can be instituted differently. With all its specifities, it has inspired confidence in activists everywhere that if a direct democracy can be initiated in such a harsh environment like the war-torn Middle East, then it can also be done in other places as well. And the Kurdish freedom movement has taught us that this is not something that happens overnight, it takes decades of determined labor. This is in line with the cautionary advice that Castoriadis gave us several decades ago: “

There are moments in history in which all that is feasible in the immediate term is a long and slow work of preparation.”

It is for all these reasons that we must do our best to protect Rojava and the AANES from the schemes of the imperial centers and the expansionist appetites of regional big powers, so that it can remain a bright beacon for democratic aspirations worldwide.

Source: The Kurdish Center for Studies

Teaser photo credit: A demonstration in the city of Afrin in support of the YPG against the Turkish invasion of Afrin, 19 January 2018. By Voice of America Kurdish – https://www.dengiamerika.com/a/4215410.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65693826

Yavor Tarinski

Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher, activist and author. He participates in social movements around the Balkans, as well as in transnational organizations, dedicated to the production of grassroots knowledge. He is a member of the administrative board of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, of the editorial board of the Greek digital journal & publications Aftoleksi, as well as bibliographer at Agora International. Among his books are "Concepts... Read more.

Tags: building resilient communities, democratic autonomy, democratic confederalism, direct democracy, Rojava