Mr. Anarchist, we need to have a chat about colonialism

  • April 1, 2015

Anarchism & Autonomy

The dogmatic criticism of popular struggles for autonomy in Chiapas and Rojava reveals a colonial mentality that should be stamped out of our movement.

Back in 2002, the US journal Green Anarchy published a critical article of the Zapatista movement, including a judgment that seemed to express the author’s worst fears: “The EZLN are not anarchist!” In the piece, the Zapatistas were depicted as “vanguard nationalists” and “reformists” who were denied the privilege of calling themselves anarchist by the anarchist license commission — even if the indigenous rebels never asked to be called such.

The EZLN responded to the article — although, as Subcomandante Marcos made clear, few Zapatistas are willing to engage in arguments with “insignificant elements along an ideological fringe” and even fewer of the EZLN’s militiamen and -women are concerned with the judgments of “people whose greatest virtue is spreading their lack of understanding and knowledge around in newspapers and magazines.” But Marcos decided to reply to the article anyway as it was a clear example of “good old colonialism”:

This attitude, though hidden behind thin veils of objectivity, is the same attitude that we have been dealing with for 500 years, where someone else in some other country from some other culture thinks they know what is best for us, more than we do ourselves.

Positions as the one taken by Green Anarchy are neither an exception nor a thing of the past. Certain elements in the “anarchist” milieu still like to criticize in a similarly short-sighted, poorly informed, dogmatic and sectarian manner the struggles of the peoples in the Global South, wittingly or unwittingly reproducing the logic of colonialism in the process.

I am writing this piece in response to a recent article by Gilles Dauvé, who slanders the Kurdish movement in Rojava in much the same way. A similar piece, based on equally dubious ethical and logical grounds, was published by the Anarchist Federation in London. It is important to emphasize that, although I will be responding specifically to the poorly informed critiques of the aforementioned articles, the issues I am raising here are far more important for the anarchist movement in the West than for the Kurdish or Zapatista movements themselves, which do not need any judgment or approval from some privileged ideological purists elsewhere.

[Editor’s note (05/04/’15): As several people have rightly pointed out in the comments, we would like to emphasize that Dauvé does not self-identify as an anarchist but as a left-communist.]

My main concern in writing this article is that the colonial mentality and profound dogmatism of certain individuals and groups in Western anarchist circles are symptomatic of a deeper crisis in the organizational and imaginative capacities of parts of our movement. This issue should therefore be a matter of serious debate. If we fail to have such a conversation, we risk marginalizing ourselves and transforming our movement into a self-centered subculture that is incapable of connecting to the outside world. This, in turn, would make Western anarchism fade away as a historical relic that proved to be mostly impotent in its efforts to challenge the status quo.

Not to judge, not to lose our heads

This is the presumption Dauvé’s article starts with: we are not to judge the Kurdish movement, but we should not lose our heads admiring it either. So far, so good. But despite this claim of objectivity, the author ends up doing precisely what he tells us not to do: he applies the concepts and standards of Western political thought to the Rojava revolution and rules that it does not fit into his preconceived category of a “social revolution.”

Those anarchists (and they are not just a few) who do support the struggle for democratic autonomy in Kurdistan are reminded not to “lose their heads.” Their support is depicted as a sign of “spineless” radicalism because it does not adhere to God-knows-what puritan dogma. This is an interesting form of “anarchism,” I would say, if we consider the richness and diversity of the anarchist tradition. Apart from the patronizing discourse, it’s interesting to examine the facts and claims of these supposedly righteous and clear-headed armchair revolutionaries.

Dauvé’s claims can be summarized as follows:

  1. The struggle in Rojava is being waged by a population that “does not interest anyone” and that is left by the great powers to play its game of autonomy because it doesn’t really disturb the capitalist order.
  2. The Rojava revolution, in the most generous reading, is a struggle based on the principles of Western liberalism. It is not a social revolution, it has not affected the deeper structures of society, and it is not explicitly anti-capitalist.
  3. There is no challenge to the state apparatus and the struggle is inherently nationalistic.
  4. The emancipation of women is a farce and an exaggeration, and the revolution is not a feminist one.

As the same criticisms are often leveraged at other movements of similar character, including the Zapatistas, challenging these particular points has a relevance that extends far beyond Rojava.

The dignity of the nobodies

“Never again a Mexico without us,” is one of the slogans marking the ideological essence of the EZLN. The indigenous people in Chiapas were unknown, unimportant and forgotten, left by the wayside for hunger and disease to finish them off. This is why the Zapatista uprising of 1994 is often referred to as “a war against oblivion.” This oblivion was never and still isn’t an accidental one: it is a deliberate product of racism and colonialism, both external and internal, which devalues the life and the suffering of the people of the Global South to the extent that they often do not exist for the rest of the world.

When this silence was broken in 1994, the Mexican government and the mass media realized the power of information and imposed a media blockade that was relatively successful in erasing the presence and achievements of the Zapatistas from mass consciousness in Mexico and abroad. In a similar vein, the revolutionary struggle of the Kurds was largely omitted from the global media (at least until the iconic struggle for Kobani), and the repression and aggression they face from powers other than ISIS continues to go unmentioned.

Both the Zapatistas and the Kurdish movement are a threat to the status quo because they offer and put into practice alternatives that are actually working. The danger that stems from the very existence of such successful examples has led to their persistent elimination from the mainstream media and the public debate — and, indeed, to a constant assault by reactionary forces on the ground. To claim that these movements exist by the grace of greater powers simply because they do not bother anyone is ludicrous.

Moreover, to state that these movements are left to do what they want because they are not a threat to state and capital is extremely offensive to the memory of all those who have been killed, prosecuted and dispossessed by the Mexican, Turkish or Syrian governments over the years. Both movements have been vigorously persecuted and remain so. Tens of thousands have been displaced. Dirty warfare and direct military confrontation were and continue to be used against them. Since both Rojava and Chiapas are rich in natural resources, Dauvé’s claim that they do not really interest capital and that this is why they are left to themselves is directly contradicted by the facts on the ground.

The revolution that reinvents itself

Image by Devrimci Anarsist Faaliyet (Revolutionary Anarchist Action), showing comrades from the DAF marching in Kobani holding a banner that reads: “We are all Kawa in the fight against Dehak,” referring to the Kurdish legend about the uprising of the oppressed.

“Walking and asking questions” is the core principle that the Zapatistas defined in their effort to move beyond predetermined and narrow conceptualizations of revolutionary struggle. The Zapatistas see revolution as a process in which the people build their freedom from below and learn to govern themselves in the process.

This principle rejects the traditional Marxist-Leninist notion of the historical vanguard and immunizes the revolutionary process from authoritarian tendencies “in the name of the revolution” — a contamination that was all too common in the state-socialist regimes of the 20th century. In the very same way, the revolution in Rojava is construed as a process, not an application of ready-made formulas.

The eager use of Western terminology and the attempt to classify the Rojava revolution accordingly end up giving the impression that the real reason why these supposedly critical “anarchists” are skeptical is simply because some unknown brown people are refusing to follow the instructions of their Cookbook. Of course, all this is done without any practical evidence because it turns out that these “anarchists” might have read the Cookbook but are somehow awful cooks.

To take just one important example, Dauvé’s analysis of what he calls the “liberal” structure of the Rojava cantons is based purely on his narrow reading of the Social Contract — the framework law of the cantons — but fails delve deeper into the parallel system of direct participation that accompanies it. Interestingly enough, he claims that the social structure in the Kurdish cantons has not changed, which contradicts all factual evidence and direct observation by journalists, scholars and activists who have actually visited the cantons.

Without any doubt, these structures of democratic self-governance are under development, with many issues still to be addressed and plenty to learn. However, they do reaffirm the basic principle that true liberation can only be lived and applied here and now through the self-organization of the people.

State, nationalism and capitalism

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), as the leading force in the Rojava revolution, has recognized the integrity of the Syrian state and proposed democratic confederalism as a preferable model for the country as a whole after the overthrow of the regime and the defeat of ISIS. This is a reflection of the ideological shift that has taken place within the Kurdish movement over the years, away from its initial emphasis on the creation of an independent Kurdish state. In Öcalan’s own words:

The call for a separate nation state results from the interests of the ruling class or the interests of the bourgeoisie, but does not reflect the interests of the people, since another state would only involve the creation of additional injustice and would curtail the right to freedom even more.

The Kurdish liberation movement now considers the state to be a patriarchal, hierarchical and exclusionary set of institutions. There can be no better evidence for the PYD’s real intentions than the granting of equal rights to all ethnic groups in the three cantons, as well as their representation on all levels of government and their active participation in grassroots democratic structures. As the Kurdish activist and scholar Dilar Dirik explained in her speech at the New World Summit in Brussels last year, the solution of the Kurdish issue was not to set up a new state, as the state was the very problem to begin with.

Dauvé argues that, secretly, the Kurdish movement has not abandoned the idea of a nation state at all, but simply rephrased it to sound less authoritarian. Yet a strange paradox remains at the heart of this argument: it is not at all clear why the Kurdish movement would adopt a libertarian anti-statist disguise in order to achieve the secret objective of founding an independent Kurdish state — taking on the extremely difficult task of organizing popular power while it would probably have been much more easier to acquire recognition from the international community as an actual nation state than as a decentralized system of confederated communes.

As for the anti-capitalist nature of the Rojava revolution, the economic system of the cantons is based on three main pillars: the cooperative economy, the open economy, and the private economy. The cooperative economy, which focuses mainly on agriculture and small-scale production, is central. It is based on communal ownership and self-management and often operates outside the monetary economy. Some of the lands were collectivized after the big land-owners left the region following the PYD takeover. Private companies are allowed, but they have to work together with the administration and abide by the social principles of the revolution.

The so-called open economy is based on foreign investment, which unfortunately remains necessary for the development of the region’s scarce infrastructure. There are, for example, no oil refineries in Rojava, even though the Cizire canton has large reserves of petrol. The idea is to attract foreign investment — but only at the price of respecting the social nature of the cantons. The local economy will be developed on the terms set by the inhabitants of Rojava and their assemblies, not by Western capitalists. The industry that will eventually be developed in Rojava should be under direct workers’ control, or at least this is the expressed intention of the PYD officials.

According to Dauvé, the revolution in Rojava is not anti-capitalist because the “proletarians” have not seized the means of production and private property is still allowed. This is a laughable statement, considering that the “proletariat” in the classical Western sense does not exist in Rojava. Here the author once again illustrates the limitations of a purist class analysis based solely on the outdated and inapplicable realities of 19th century industrial Europe.

Not a women’s revolution?

“The subversive nature of a movement or organization cannot be measured by the number of armed women — nor its feminist character,” states Dauvé, who goes on to claim that the whole idea that the revolution in Rojava is also a women’s revolution is based purely on the image of the all-female YPJ militias that became famous during the heroic defense of Kobani.

Of course it is true that we cannot measure the feminist character of a movement simply by the participation of women in armed conflict. Yet this is precisely why Dauvé should have done more research before slandering the Rojava revolution for not being feminist enough. He briefly mentions that women are guaranteed 40% participation in the communes and that all public positions have a dual character — one man and one woman. But what the author misses is the social analysis that is actively transforming gender relations in the whole of Kurdistan.

In his book, Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution, Abdullah Öcalan emphasizes patriarchy as the central element of oppression that has produced all forms of hierarchy and domination. He argues that our civilization is based on three forms of domination over women: through ideology, through force and through the seizure of the economy: “From this relationship stem all forms of relationship that foster inequality, slavery, despotism and militarism.”

The practical expressions of these ideas in Rojava are numerous, and they include the ban on forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence and discrimination, and most importantly, putting women’s issues solely in women’s hands. Women have their own assemblies that have power over women’s issues and that can impose their decisions on those of mixed assemblies if they believe they concern or negatively impact women.

The international human rights lawyer and advocate for women’s rights in conflict, Margaret Owen, describes the developments in gender rights under the PYD administration in a very positive light. She highlights the all-woman party Star Union and the guaranteed equal participation of women in all spheres of public life, including “associations, political, educational, medical, military, police, social and financial services.” With the so-called Women’s Houses, the movement has also developed a system of protection against male violence.

From sectarian impotence to revolutionary creativity

Blinded by frustration with their own marginality and isolated by the incapacity to adapt their ideas to reality and to build a social force that is actually capable of challenging capitalist modernity and the nation state, some Western anarchists still prefer to retreat into their own ideological ivory towers and claim superior knowledge and righteousness through empty statements about the “spineless” radicalism of other people — especially those in the Global South.

Clearly, such sectarian positions negatively affect the ability of “anarchist” groups in the West to actually produce radical and meaningful alternatives to capitalism and the state. It ends up restraining the revolutionary anarchist ideal in the chains of an arrogant self-serving dogma that ultimately renders these groupuscules impotent in their supposed ideological purity.

This is the crisis we face in the West — and it does not promise a better future if sectarian elements in our movement remain incapable of reinventing themselves and finding new and creative forms of struggle and organization. The latter, I believe, is much more important than the flamboyant “revolutionary” rhetoric that, in some Western anarchist circles, seems so sadly separated from practice.

Petar Stanchev

Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four years.

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