The round of articles, replies, and further replies about Kurdistan continues to roll on and on. We now have Stefan Bertram-Lee’s “Dear Mr. Anarchist, you aren’t listening”, which (for those who haven’t been paying attention) is a reply to Peter Storm’s reply to Petar Stanchev’s reply to GD [Gilles Dauve] and TL’s article on Kurdistan. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin…
Bertram-Lee’s case is essentially a restatement of the central theme of Stanchev’s article, which is that paying attention to the social experiment happening in Rojava is of vital importance for Western anarchists, not because of any solidarity we can offer, but because of the lessons we can learn from it… lessons that Bertram-Lee, like Stanchev, politely refuses to actually elaborate on.
What’s immediately noticeable about Bertram-Lee’s article is that, for all it’s meant to help refute the perspective that GD&TL have outlined on Rojava, large chunks of it actually confirm it. Most glaringly, on the issue of cultural relativism, the GD&TL article on Kurdistan stated
“If some people in Europe and the US see in such goals the announcement of social revolution, fault lies without doubt in “cultural relativism”. In Paris, this program would only provoke mockery among the radical milieu, but “over there, it is already not bad…”.”
This observation is entirely backed up by the Bertram-Lee argument that
“The social reality of the Kurds, (And the history it is constructed from) is decidedly different to that of those who have grown up in the west, and so their perception of what a revolution is (and so what their revolution was) is very different. To a western Anarchist who first crossed blades with his oppressor during the Anti-Globalisation movement the idea of a free territory asking for foreign investment stinks of nothing less than counter-revolution, but our experience is not the experience of all.”
That’s not a counter-argument to GD&TL’s point, that’s a paraphrase.
But all this is secondary to the main point: the malaise Bertram-Lee and Stanchev have diagnosed in the UK anarchist movement, and their proposals, however vague, to cure it. On the symptoms, at least, we can all agree: the UK anarchist movement, whatever else you can say about it, is not terribly impressive. It’s not so terrible that I’m about to give up on anarchism and embrace one of the various get-communism-quick schemes that get peddled around, but I can’t say that I expect it to go anywhere tremendously fast either. In fact, I’d say it’s more or less entirely as impotent and marginal as you’d expect a group of people brought together by a dedication to the experiences and lessons learnt from the high points of past collective struggles to be, in a situation where the very memory of those struggles, as well as the cultures and traditions that made them possible, have been under a ferocious, concentrated, and very successful, attack from the state and the ruling class for decades now. If we’re ever to escape from this rut, it can only be as part of a broader shift within the working class away from the current norms of more or less individualised powerlessness towards a culture of solidarity and direct action.
But according to Bertram-Lee, there’s a shortcut that will help with this: learning (unspecified) lessons from the PYD. The problem is, without any explanation of what these lessons are and how they can be put into practice, it’s hard to say how worthwhile they are. Here, once again, it’s worth returning to the GD&TL text:
“Today it is much easier to get excited about Kurdistan (as 20 years ago it was for Chiapas) while militants despair over Billancourt.. “Over there”, at least, there are no resigned and drunken proles who vote for the FN [Front Nationale] and dream only of winning the Loto or finding a job. “Over there” there are peasants (even though the majority of Kurds live in cities), the mountain people in struggle, full of dreams and hope….”
For the sake of our friends in Essex, let’s replace Billancourt with Billericay and FN with UKIP, and the point stands. If Bertram-Lee and friends want to convince UK anarchists, and, more importantly, non-anarchists, of the wisdom to be learned from the PYD, they need to explain what the actual content of that wisdom is. It’s not enough to just say that things in Kobane are more exciting than in Billericay, they need to explain exactly what it is that people “over here” need to do to become more like the exciting folk “over there”.
For the next PYD supporter who wants to write an article about how learning from the experience of Rojava will help us to start winning, a few questions: how will your new approach help me to organise together with other public transport users to demand better services? How would the insights of democratic confederalism help benefit the social movement over housing that’s currently emerging in London? How would the teachings of Uncle Öcalan have helped the Doncaster care workers to win their epic dispute? In their ongoing fight against Caffé Bar Italia, what are the “Western anarchists” of Brighton SolFed doing wrong, and how could learning from Rojava help them do better? What teachings of the PYD could help us to come up with a more adequate response to the mass child abuse scandals? What would this perspective contribute to the ongoing fight against the gutting of the benefits system and the spread of forced unpaid work? When one of my friends is threatened with illegal eviction, when I ask a friend how they’re doing and they say something like “not great, I’m sort of dreading going to work tomorrow, my manager’s been really disrespectful to me lately and it stresses me out”, when someone I work with gets that tap on the shoulder from a manager and a request to speak to them quietly outside and I only have a few seconds to process what’s going on and react before they’re both out the room – what does your fresh new perspective have to say that would help me in those situations, that will set me right where “tired old anarcho-syndicalism” will fail? Not that I think “tired old anarcho-syndicalism” automatically has all the answers to these situations, but at best it manages to at least ask the right questions.
If Bertram-Lee and co. can manage to come up with convincing answers to these questions, and better yet to demonstrate the superiority of their approach in practice, I would be very interested to see the results. When they’ve started putting the wisdom of Uncle Öcalan into practice to solve real problems of everyday life, and other anarchists still stand aloof from their experiments, then will be the time to rebuke us for refusing to learn from new approaches, not before they’ve provided the basic outline of what those approaches even look like.
As it happens, the Bertram-Lee article ends with a point I’d pretty much totally agree with:
“Subcomdanate Marcos says that when he first went to Chiapas all he could do was talk, and not listen, and so he failed. The peasants did not listen to those who could only talk. It is only when he learnt to listen that he was able to move forward, and this lesson is one that must be learnt by all Western Anarchists. We are not winning, and we need to listen to those who are.”
There’s a lot of truth in that, and in some ways it reminds me of the perspective of the IWCA – a group whose priorities are, to put it mildly, quite different from the Essex Zapatista Solidarity Group. It’s important to listen. But I’m not convinced that listening to voices from Rojava needs to take precedence over listening to voices from Montreal or Dublin, and particularly those of pensioners in Barnsley or construction workers on Crossrail. Perhaps our friends in Essex should stop despairing over Billericay and Basildon, and start paying more attention to the concerns and needs of the people who live there.