Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Poster reads: Join your local commune, defend the confederal system.
In 2012 the PYD, a Kurdish political party connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) based in Turkey, took advantage of the spiralling chaos of the Syrian civil war to eject regime forces from large parts of Northern Syria (Rojava – West Kurdistan) and lead a social revolution. Despite being in open conflict with ISIS and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, and under embargo from Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, the PYD are leading the struggle for an ambitious series of social changes through TEV-DEM; an alliance of political and civil society organisations. These objectives are based on the ‘New Paradigm’ of the PKK and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Jailed for life in Turkey, Öcalan has led his party away from classical Marxism-Leninism to a set of politics with an emphasis on democratic confederalism (a decentralisation of political power with an emphasis on smaller scale assemblies), a women’s revolution, and the importance of ecology. These three elements are the official central planks of the social revolution in Rojava.
Organised in three non-continous cantons, with ISIS and Turkish backed forces separating two of them, the revolution has seen massive leaps forward in terms of women’s liberation and the spreading of the confederal model into non-Kurdish majority areas and communities. In the face of decades of under-development, and the current embargo, tentative steps have also been made to develop a more social economy through the encouragement of workers co-operatives, the development of trade unions, and the socialisation of what little industry (primarily oil) that exists. However, it should be noted that at this stage in the revolution a change in economic system is not the primary focus – contrary to what some may believe we are still using money here and private property still exists!
A revolution is not a final destination, but another step in building a society beyond capitalism, a step which, once taken, changes the responsibilities and challenges facing revolutionaries. Having overcome the Regime and achieved control of a large part of the north of Syria, the cantons are facing two sets of problems. The first are security problems; the cantons need to be physically united and solutions to the currently hostile forces in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey must be found. Simultaneously the revolution needs to be developed and deepened. Like all revolutions, this one does not enjoy universal support. Whilst large land owners and business owners are never likely to support the revolution, the members of the non-Kurdish communities in the region are slowly becoming more supportive of what is happening.
While the revolution has its roots in the Kurdish liberation movement it aims to provide a political blueprint for all the communities in Northern Syria. Since the revolution, wider and more inclusive political structures are being built here and plans are being made for the long term. Whilst the confederal model, with its layers of people’s assemblies and democratic structures, is not yet as widespread as some in the West would think, the neighbourhood assemblies which make up its lowest level, are spreading. Being only a few years old the confederal system here is looking towards the 11 years of progress that have been achieved north of the border in Bakur (Turkish occupied North Kurdistan). A large amount of emphasis is being placed on education as a tool to develop the peoples understanding and support for the revolution. The revolution initially began from within the Kurdish community but building support across the other communities that exist in the region – Arabs, Syriacs, Chechens, Armenians, etc. – is a political priority. Working with these different communities, some unsure or even critical of the revolution, to build support for the revolution is hard work and takes time.
As part of my work I am helping TEV-DEM here in Qamishlo organising around this issue. A campaign has been launched under the slogan “join your local commune. Support the confederal system” focused at the lowest levels of the confederal system, the neighbourhood communes and the mala gel (people’s houses), the assemblies and commissions which operate here feed ideas and delegates up the political system, and serve as community centres offering education and civic services. These structures are not yet as widespread as they could be and many people only use them when they have personal problems they need solving. We are running seminars and public events about the importance of the confederal model, as well as visiting different community centres, and speaking with people on the street and in their homes.To fundamentally change this society an emphasis is being placed on education in order to empower women
As we criss-cross the city to flyer or attend meetings, navigating a checkerboard of differing checkpoints along the way, we encounter varying levels of support for the communes and the revolution in general, often along ethnic lines. The Christian Syriac community here, for example, is divided into two: one half supporting the revolution the other half the regime. The division in the Syriac neighbourhood is clear – two security forces and two sets of competing murals and flags. As I spend more time here the regime neighbourhoods are becoming easier to spot, they are (or were pre-revolution) mainly the more upper class neighbourhoods with nicer housing and shops that even now are always full of things to buy.
The lack of many basic necessities across the revolutionary areas of Rojava is a stumbling block for many people in supporting the revolution. Whilst oil and bread are fairly abundant owing to the regime’s historic ‘development’ policies for the region, there is a lack of other basic necessities due to the embargo. Without a material improvement in people’s lives many people will not view the revolution as a successful one. A major task for the international solidarity movement must be to pressure Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government to repeal their embargo.
The women’s revolution which is well underway here also has deep roots and did not spring out of nowhere. The PKK made women’s liberation a central plank of their politics in the 1990s and the Yekîtiya Star (Star Union) in Rojava, the predecessor to Kongreya Star, had been organising women in the face of Regime repression since 2005. Beyond the massive participation of women in the YPJ and security forces, the women’s movement is achieving great things in civil society. As well as achieving legislative change, for example passing laws banning forced marriages and legalising abortion, at the grassroots level a whole series of women’s centres, educational programmes, organising groups, and newspapers and radio stations have been created. The revolution is being institutionalised through requirements for a parity of speakers and a minimum 40 per cent representation of women in all structures. Kongreya Star estimate that women’s participation rates in the commune system ranges from 50-70 per cent.
When seen in the context of the deeply conservative society upon which this revolution is being built, one in which a strictly gendered separation of social roles and violence against women was common, these developments are even more impressive. To fundamentally change this society an emphasis is being placed on education in order to empower women. Kongreya Star run weekly education sessions for their members for example, and re-education programmes exist for men who show consistent problematic behaviour.
Obviously the Rojava revolution has not emerged fully formed in spontaneous response to the horror of the Syrian conflict. It builds on the experiences and practices of other parts of the Kurdish liberation movement. Over 40 years its leading organisation, the PKK, has resisted huge amounts of state violence to develop from a small Marxist-Leninist guerilla force into become a huge hybrid movement whose extensive civic organisations are tangibly woven into the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The PYD and its allies were busy in the years before the revolution began, spreading their ideas, and building the assemblies and self-defence forces which would be needed later on. Now the Regime has been evicted the organisations here are still taking a long term view: building the institutions and infrastructure needed to further develop the revolution and placing faith in education and diplomacy to communicate this political vision across the different communities.
Whilst organisers in the West might be tempted to project their dreams of a perfect, spontaneous revolution onto Rojava this isn’t the case. The revolution here is being built slowly upon long term planning, structures, and education.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going