As the social experiment in Rojava continues, so the mountain of statements, counter-statements, and counter-counter-statements from Western radicals analysing the situation continues to grow higher. One of the latest offerings is Petar Stanchev’s “Mr. Anarchist, we need to have a chat about colonialism”, as published in Roar Magazine recently, which is itself a reply to GD [Gilles Dauve] and TL’s text on Kurdistan (see also alternative version here). As it happens, many of Stanchev’s key points have already been addressed by Peter Storm here, but I thought it was worth adding yet another reply in order to try to refocus attention on the elephant in the room, something that literally provides the final word of Stanchev’s text but is glaringly absent from the main content: practice.
To explain, backing things up a bit: when reviewing the debate between the “cheerleaders” and the “purists”, an obvious disparity emerges: in general, the worst the “purists” accuse the “cheerleaders” of is having a mistaken analysis, or a “spineless radicalism”. Not much is said about the practical consequences of these errors, perhaps because it’s quietly recognised that there aren’t really likely to be any. From the other side, the view is quite different: those with a more critical perspective are not just mistaken, they are gravely, dangerously wrong, and headed for ruin unless they mend their ways. For instance, according to Stanchev, the fact that anyone would try to explore both pros and cons of the situation in Rojava is “symptomatic of a deeper crisis in the organizational and imaginative capacities of parts of our movement”, and the consequences of this attitude “negatively affect the ability of “anarchist” groups in the West to actually produce radical and meaningful alternatives to capitalism and the state.” If only Western anarchists were less willing to say bad things and more willing to say good things about the PKK, capitalism would probably be on its knees by now.
To Stanchev, failure to have a conversation about the deep crisis he’s diagnosed is to “risk marginalizing ourselves and transforming our movement into a self-centered subculture that is incapable of connecting to the outside world.” That’s a big claim, and it would be nice for him to unpack it a bit. If, by “the outside world”, he means people struggling on the other side of the world, in places like Chiapas and Rojava, he may have a point, but it would be a curious one to make considering how keen he is to establish that the people in those movements “do not need any judgment or approval from some privileged ideological purists elsewhere”. On the other hand, if he means people living and working near us who aren’t part of the tiny self-centered activist subculture he diagnoses… it’d be hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the idea that, to really help us connect with the people around us, what we need is not a better solution to housing problems, shitty public transport situations, stagnating or declining real wages, the victimisation of workplace militants, the difficulties of navigating an increasingly harsh benefit system or mass child abuse scandals like those in Rotherham or Oxford – no, what will really help us connect to other people outside the activist subculture is having the correct line on an obscure social movement thousands of miles away.
If anyone reading this recognises themselves in Stanchev’s description of a self-centered subculture that can’t connect with the outside world, and wants to change this, then please, please: stop reading this. Stop reading articles about Rojava. Listen to the new Kendrick Lamar album, watch some Game of Thrones, go to that curry house in town that does really good biryanis, or do one of the hundreds of other things less insular and more interesting to other people than paying attention to a debate between different anarchist and communist interpretations of the situation in Kurdistan.
As I’ve mentioned above, Peter Storm’s reply does a good job of taking apart many of the central fallacies of Stanchev’s position, like the claim that Dauve’s analysis is flawed because it fails to recognise that “the “proletariat” in the classical Western sense does not exist in Rojava.” Of course, this claim itself depends entirely on how we define “the proletariat”; if Stanchev had paid a bit more attention to the positions of the people he aims to criticise, he might have encountered the following “classical Western” definition of the proletariat:
“A large part of the world’s population must sell its labour power in order to live, since it has no means of production. Some sell their labour and are productive. Others sell it and are unproductive. Still others cannot sell it: capital only buys living labour if it can hope to valorize itself at a reasonable rate (the average rate of profit); they are excluded from production. If one identifies proletarian with factory worker (or even worse: with manual labourer), or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition. The proletariat is the negation of this society. It is not the collection of the poor, but of those who are desperate, those who have no reserves, who have nothing to lose but their chains; those who are nothing, have nothing, and cannot liberate themselves without destroying the whole social order.”
It seems unlikely that Stanchev genuinely believes that there are no dispossessed people with no control over the means of production in Rojava (or at least that there weren’t any at the start of the experiment), so it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he just genuinely doesn’t know what he’s talking about on this subject.
While it makes a number of useful points, Storm’s reply fails to pick up on the single most damning silence in Stanchev’s text, the failure to reply to Dauve and TL’s strongest point, which is worth quoting at length (splicing together wording from the two different versions):
“During Parisian demonstrations in support of Rojava, the banner of the united anarchist procession demanded “Arms for the Kurdish resistance.” Considering that the average proletarian does not have assault rifles and grenades to clandestinely send to Kurdistan, from whom do we demand such weapons? Should we rely on international arms dealers or NATO for weapons deliveries? Such deliveries have cautiously begun, but anarchist banners have nothing to do with them… So, when voices call for military support to help Rojava face the jihadist onslaught, what exactly are they talking about? Either it is empty talk, or it can only mean asking for more Western air strikes… Mass slaughter is obviously not what those who call for “Arms for the Kurdish resistance” really want. So it is empty talk. An attitude. That’s perhaps the worst part of the story: that in the Middle East an effort at self-organisation and self-defence, genuine but unable to transcend itself because of hostile circumstances, should serve in Europe and north America as a pretext for mobilisations and slogans that nobody seriously expects to be acted upon.”
Considering how crucial Stanchev sees this issue as being for libertarian practice at home, you’d expect him to outline how, far from just consisting of “mobilisations and slogans that nobody seriously expects to be acted upon”, the correct kind of solidarity with Rojava will unlock a new kind of effective, creative praxis. Instead, for all his bewailing of the empty rhetoric impotently spouted by Western anarchists divorced from practice, his practical suggestions, much like those of the earlier Anarkismo statement, amount to… nothing. Ironically, the AFed statement that he bewails as an example of “short-sighted, poorly informed, dogmatic and sectarian” criticism of the movement in Rojava actually ends with a list of suggestions that, while still somewhat vague and imprecise, are still far more concrete and constructive than any practical proposals Stanchev has to offer.
Stanchev complains about anarchists (and, indeed, non-anarchists such as Dauve & TL) locked into a dogmatism that leaves them unable to do anything other than issue “empty statements” but doesn’t offer any specific constructive alternative. It’s hard to say what he would prefer: if someone rewrote the AFed and Dauve/TL articles to remove all the most critical parts and add a bit more glowing praise, would they stop being abstract statements and suddenly become a great practical contribution? For my part, I find myself very sympathetic to the criticisms put forward by Dauve/TL and Peter Storm. I also remain very interested and open to any suggestions for practical action that could be taken to sabotage ISIS, the Turkish state, or the various other reactionary actors that pose a threat to any attempt at positive social change in the region.
Since I don’t want to repeat Stanchev’s hypocrisy, I’ll close by suggesting some practical steps that UK anarchists can take that might have some actual effect on something: support Shilan Ozcelik*. Write to her while she’s locked up, turn up to her court dates to let her know she’s not alone, get in touch with her defence team to find out if there’s anything else that might help, do whatever lobbying activities you feel would be useful to get the charges dropped. That won’t do much, but it’s something, and it’s something that can be done without requiring any unconditional acceptance of the more excitable claims made by the PKK or PYD’s boosters. It’s also far more concrete and practical than anything that’s come from any of the various polemics bewailing do-nothing armchair theorists in their ivory towers. Insisting on serious critique doesn’t make you unable to act, and refusal to offer any serious critique won’t make your abstract statements any more relevant or practical.
* a canny reader might raise an objection at this point: since everything that’s best about revolutionary (anti-)politics involves acting together with other agents who’re already capable of taking action in their own right, and what’s most disempowering about traditional leftist activism tends to involve acting on behalf of passive victims who’re seen as unable to act in their own right, championing an engagement with the case of Shilan Ozcelik (who, whoever capable she may have been of independent action as an alleged volunteer for the Kurdish resistance, certainly comes across as more of a passive victim when being held in a prison cell) over the social experiment taking place in Rojava as a whole (where, whatever other criticisms can be made of “democratic autonomy”, those taking part are certainly capable of acting for themselves) can be seen as pointing back towards the miseries of martyr politics, representation and all the rest of it. There may well be something in this criticism, and I’m all ears if anyone can suggest a more practical way that we can make a genuine, active contribution to the Rojava experiment.