Over the last few months, events in Rojava, where autonomous Kurdish communities have come under attack from the Islamic State, have attracted an ever-growing amount of attention, not least from various anarchist and leftist factions trying to define what the “Rojava revolution” actually means. On one hand, forces more or less supportive of the “Kurdish movement” represented by the PKK and PYD have urged solidarity with Kobane and its defenders; on the other, those holding a hard-line internationalist position have stressed the dangers of being sucked into taking sides in any war, and discussed various negative aspects of the PKK.
Apart from one quick and fairly indecisive article written this summer, I’ve mostly stayed out of these debates, for a number of reasons. For one thing, I don’t want to be one of those people who, whenever dramatic events flare up on the other side of the world, suddenly declare themselves to have been an expert in the intricacies of the region’s politics all along. A lot of the argument seems to consist of competing factual claims about what is actually happening in the area, and that’s an area where I just don’t have enough knowledge to judge. Another reason why keeping up with the various arguments has been fairly low on my list of priorities is that I really can’t see what the practical consequences are: I don’t deny the importance of what’s going on, but for all the actual impact we’re likely to have on the situation, we might as well be arguing about events in 1917 or 1936. ISIS are definitely a horrific reactionary force, and one that “should” be opposed, but issuing abstract verbal denunciations of their wrong-doing seems a bit pointless compared to making real interventions in actual situations where we might be able to have some impact.
Still, for all my reservations, I’ve done my best to keep up with some of the ever-increasing mountain of words that have been written about Rojava, and to try and form some of my own opinions about what’s going on. I think that good points have been made on both the more supportive and more critical sides of the debate, and, as someone with relatively limited knowledge of the subject, I haven’t read much that’s struck me as obviously, definitely wrong.
Having said all that, I thought the arguments put across in “An Anarchist Communist Reply to ‘Rojava: An Anarcho-Syndicalist Perspective’” by the Anarkismo group were seriously flawed, not just in terms of their interpretation of what’s happening in Rojava right now, but also in the general political method underlying their analysis. Despite the title, I think the logic informing “An Anarchist Communist Reply” is one that points back towards the terrain of representative Politics with a capital P, a logic that the best of the anarchist communist tradition has always opposed.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not by any means an expert on Kurdish politics, and so I can’t find too much to criticise about the opening sections of the Anarkismo article, which mainly concentrate on rebutting claims made in the more critical analysis offered by KB. Having said that, I did spot one definite untruth, when they claim that “Nationalism is an ideology aiming at multi-class unity and class society: in its Marxist and now its democratic confederalist phases, the PKK never really fitted this mould.” As Zafer Onat’s article “Rojava: Fantasies and Realities” has made clear, the project being undertaken in Rojava is precisely one where “class society will remain and there will be a federal political system compatible with the global system and the nation state.”
Disagreement about how to interpret the PKK’s programme is a fairly specific issue, and might not indicate a principled difference in and of itself. But when the Anarkismo group move on to drawing broader theoretical points, a more general difference in approach becomes clear. The key section here is worth quoting in full:
“At another level, the methodology also reveals itself: if something is not purely anarchist, it is deemed beyond support. The problem is that most major movements today are not anarchist, or purely anarchist. To say anarchists can never work with other currents – nationalists, Marxist-Leninists, liberals etc. – simply means saying that anarchists will not engage with anyone at all, besides other anarchists.
But since most people are not – whether we wish it or not – anarchists, this means the anarchists will isolate themselves, and do so proudly.”
This is a worldview that only has room for anarchists and other politicos, where people can only be acknowledged once they’ve first affiliated themselves with one organised political tendency or another. Of course, I don’t wish to defend the strawman position that anarchists should never work alongside other activists from a different political background, but I do feel that, while it is sometimes necessary and useful, this kind of work – organising as political activists alongside other political activists – should always be secondary to our major priority, organising with the people closest to us around our immediate practical interests. Sometimes it might be necessary for anarchists to work as anarchists in coalition with other organised political groups, but our aim should always be to work as anarchists in our everyday lives, organising around our interests as workers – or, indeed, as benefit claimants or tenants or pensioners or students or women or queers or as people affected by ethnic oppression.
I don’t want to generalise too far from the conditions of early 21st century England, with its particularly low levels of political mobilisation and organisation, and I understand than in other places, with more active political cultures and a stronger left, the gap between political activism and day-to-day life may be smaller. But in any environment, there will always be people around us who are not actively involved in any organised political current, but who we share common material interests with, so the idea that the only way to engage with anyone else besides other anarchists is to work in organised coalitions with Leninists, nationalists or whoever is plainly false. It’s a view where people only become visible once they’re already part of a movement, so all the hard and important work of organising that movement into being in the first place disappears from sight.
When the Anarkismo group go on to expand further, it becomes clear that their fixation on other “popular forces” leads them to simplistically equate struggles with the formal, organised political forces claiming to represent and lead those struggles. Arguing for support of the PKK, they write:
“Kurds from the popular classes are oppressed as workers and peasants, but as Kurds they face additional oppression. The fight against that oppression is progressive, and is surely an important fight that any anarchist can support. This does not mean blank cheque endorsement of the PKK; it simply means that even if the PKK etc. were ethno-nationalist, but were fighting for an end to national oppression, anarchists should and could still support that fight – critically, of course – simply because the Kurds are oppressed as a people, and anarchists oppose all forms of oppression.”
The logic of this position – that supporting a particular struggle means supporting the dominant political forces in that struggle – may appear superficially attractive when looking at a distant and unfamiliar movement like that in Kurdistan, but it can be quickly exploded by examining other examples closer to home. For instance, in the UK over the last few years, the fight against austerity has been an important priority for anarchists, but no-one with any familiarity with the situation could think that means coming up with a sliding scale whereby we can measure our support for the TUC, the Labour Party, the Greens, the SWP, the SP, the People’s Assembly and the various other organised forces claiming to represent the movement; at its best and most effective, anarchist involvement in anti-austerity struggles has meant taking an active part in struggles alongside workers, claimants or tenants, the majority of whom do not have a fixed affiliation to any particular group, and the rare occasions when such struggles have achieved anything resembling a “mass” or “popular” character are precisely the moments when organised political currents have been furthest from having a monopoly on the movement.
To take an even more specific example, some of the high points of struggle in the UK in the last few years have come out of the student movement, but only someone completely unfamiliar with the situation could imagine that “taking sides” between students and the government means supporting the National Union of Students. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the organisation that officially called for most of the large days of action, may have a better claim to represent the movement, but it’s still the case that, in those moments when the student movement has been most impressive, it’s been so as a result of its ability to mobilise people with no permanent formal connection to any of the organised political groups, NCAFC included. Equally, it might be the case that anarchists could not “remain neutral” between rioters and the state in August 2011, but anyone looking for the organisation representing the rioters in order to send communiqués of support to them would be looking in vain. In all these cases, the vital ingredient has been more-or-less spontaneous forms of self-organisation on a mass scale, and it’s dubious whether any perspective that doesn’t recognise this crucial factor deserves the name of anarchist.
Of course, Rojava is not the UK, and it’s possible, and indeed likely, that the connection between popular struggles in Kurdistan and the Kurdish nationalist parties is much closer than the connection between the organised political left and struggles here. But it’s still the case that the relationship between a struggle, or a group of people, and the political forces seeking to represent them, is never an exact correspondence, and the task of anarchists should be to look for the cracks between forms of popular self-organisation and the political organisations offering leadership, not to take the claims of such representatives at face value. After all, if it was reasonable for the Kronstadt sailors to demand soviets without Bolsheviks, why not democratic confederalism without the PKK?
It is also the case that the closer we are to a movement, the more we’re able to understand these kinds of complexities, and as our relationship becomes more and more distant and mediated, the more we’re forced to rely on official figureheads and representatives for our understanding of what’s going on. But, far from disproving my point, this just calls the claims of the Anarkismo group to “making our own views clear, pushing our own project, and seeking our own influence” into further question: if we’re so distant from a struggle that we can’t engage with it directly other than by going through its official representatives, how ambitious is it to hope to have any real influence on the situation?
The Anarkismo line is presented as a matter of “practical politics”, but it seems more like the consequence of a distant, mediated approach that relies on abstractions like “critical support” to compensate for the lack of real engagement in struggle – after all, the Workers’ Solidarity Movement in Ireland have been able to make a real, practical intervention in the movement against the water tax, and it’s precisely because they have a real connection to the situation that they’re not reduced to relying on absurdities like “critical support for the Socialist Party”.
After all the insistence that they’re really engaged with the situation, making practical interventions unlike the purists who’re detached from reality, the conclusion is presented as
“we support the struggle for the national liberation of the Kurds, including the right of the national liberation movement to exist; second, we oppose the repression and threats meted out by forces ranging from the Islamic State, to Iraq, Syria, Turkey and their Western and Eastern allies; our support moves on a sliding scale, with Kurdish anarchists and syndicalists at the top, followed by the PKK, then the PYD, and we draw the line at the KRG; in practical terms, we cooperate around, and offer solidarity (even if only verbal) on a range of concrete issues, the most immediate of which is the battle to halt the ultra-right Islamic State and defend the Rojava revolution; within that revolution, we align ourselves with the PKK model of democratic confederalism against the more statist approach of the PYD models, and, even when doing so, aim at all times to propose and win influence for our methods, aims and projects: we are with the PKK against the KRG, but we are for the anarchist revolution before all else.”
Reviewing this list, one thing is immediately obvious: for all their boasts of hard-headed practical engagement with real struggles, all they have to offer is a set of principles, every bit as abstract as the most abstentionist left communist position. The actual, real-world implementation of their approach boils down to “in practical terms… on a range of concrete issues” they “offer solidarity (even if only verbal)”. Having spent the entire article blasting more principled internationalists for not being really engaged in the struggle, their grand conclusion for how they can be really, practically engaged on a concrete level turns out to consist of issuing statements. Their statements of critical support for the PKK don’t actually do anything practical to assist any Kurds any more than the most hardline internationalist ones do. I doubt any “purist anarchists” could object to practical suggestions for how to carry out specific projects of sabotage and resistance against specific reactionary forces like ISIS or the Turkish state, but the practical, engaged pro-PKK position doesn’t seem to offer any of those.
In conclusion, despite all the claims that the platformist approach of critical support for the PKK is the realistic way to engage with struggles and have a real, concrete influence on them, this approach doesn’t reflect the complexity that inevitably accompanies genuine, active involvement in struggle: it’s the cheerleading of distant spectators, not a strategy for real engagement with, and influence, over a situation, but a substitute for its absence. It may be unpleasant to accept that we’re unlikely to have any real influence over events in Rojava, but starting from a sober understanding and acceptance of our weakness is a more realistic perspective than deluding ourselves into imagining that “aligning” with the PKK will lead to influence over its supporters. A real anarchist communist perspective has to start from everyday life, organising with the people who share our material conditions, whatever their ethnicity or ideological preference; a vision that can only see “political forces” and their supporters, treating the working class as interchangeable with its movements, and those movements as interchangeable with the most visible formal political organisations claiming to represent the struggle, is worthy only of politicians.