Revolution in Rojava
By Alex Reinsch-Goldstein
When George Orwell travelled to Catalonia in 1936, in the midst of the civil war between the Spanish republicans and Franco’s fascists, he found Barcelona in a state of revolution--governed by socialists and anarchists and syndicalists, fractious communist parties and trade union worker’s councils. The workers of Catalonia had power that has rarely been equaled before or since: they cut down the capitalist state whose foundations were felt to be indissoluble. Orwell said that what he saw in Catalonia convinced him of the necessity of the reorganization of society in the way that the workers of Catalonia understood it. He emerged from Spain with a deepened commitment to socialism. “The Spanish War and other events in 1936–37, turned the scale. Thereafter I knew where I stood.” Orwell wrote. “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”
The fascists won in the end, and the revolutionary experiment in Catalonia went down to defeat along with the rest of the Republican cause. And yet what happened in Catalonia between 1936 and 1939 is a reminder of a certain truth: mass chaos enables experiments in government and society which would never otherwise be allowed to take place. On any given Tuesday, it would be impossible for workers, in Catalonia or anywhere else, to rise up and build a new system from scratch. But in the crucible of a civil war, such experiments become possible.
Few wars in the 21st century may fairly be painted as wars of ideology. Wars for oil or geopolitics, interventions here and there to protect “interests,” hardly carry the same moral weight as the old righteous conflicts. If Orwell were alive today, he would likely be very disenchanted with what he saw--the tall, gangling Englishman who came to Spain to fight fascism may well have trouble finding any causes worth taking up arms for. This century has hardly been an ideological one, and as far as experiments in democratic reorganizations of society go, it can scarcely hold a candle to the colossal struggles of the 20th. The global order is set in its ways; neoliberalism and capitalism firmly established and seemingly impervious to challenge.
But cracks do show. If there is one struggle today which may be placed in the company of the old ones, the equal of the revolution in Catalonia, it is the war in Rojava.
What most Americans have heard of Rojava is limited by what the media is willing to tell them. This is no surprise, of course--the coverage of the civil war in Syria, of which the struggle in Rojava is a part, is heavily slanted by what is considered to be in the US government’s best interest. In talking about the Syrian Civil War, the US media makes frequent mention of the “moderate opposition,” the people who oppose Assad and the jihadists who have been able to eat vast portions of the country in the absence of centralized authority. But the media never mentions that the character of this opposition besides that it is against Assad and jihad--they will not tell you that they have formed a state, an autonomous and socialist one. That state is called Rojava.
The origin story of Rojava goes back to the remarkably swift collapse of the authority of Assad’s government in northeastern Syria. Home to a hodgepodge of ethnic groups, including the independent-minded Kurds, control over the region became tenuous the minute that Assad’s government began to be challenged openly. Government forces withdrew in 2012, only a year after the war began, and two years later the cantons of northern Syria declared autonomy, and in 2015, the formation of a state--the Democratic Federation of Rojava-Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the Rojavan militia, drove out ISIS and Assad’s army and established the Syrian Democratic Council to begin reorganizing the freed territory. The Rojava which came out of the furnace of civil war is very different from what it was before.
It is polyethnic and egalitarian. Every position of authority in government is occupied by two people--one man and one woman. The government is decentralized and direct democracy prominent. Worker’s cooperatives and collective farming are common. Control of the industrial means of production is being brought under the control of worker’s councils, and the legal system is composed of a mix of trained judges and citizens elected to people’s courts. Men and women, people of all religions and backgrounds, are mixing on terms of equality, and the economy is run by those who do the work. One looks around for people ruling over others, politically, economically, socially, religiously--and one cannot find such a thing. Everywhere, the old hierarchies are being undercut.
If I may return to the Catalonian example I discussed earlier, I think it is worth noting that the conditions in Spain and Syria are much the same. The struggle carries the same ideological tint; a conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, the establishment and socialist revolution. It is also worth noting the international fighters who joined the war in Rojava--Americans, Britons, and others, for much the same reasons George Orwell went to Spain in 1936. But moreover, the attempts to apply democracy to every aspect of civil life in Rojava--from the farm to the courtroom--is the kind of radical experiment that would equal even the most rousing days of upheaval in Catalonia. Rojava is the experiment of our century. It is indicative of the choice we face now, as was the choice faced in Catalonia in 1936: if we believe in democracy, as many of us say we do, then ought we not to apply it wherever it may be applied? If we can live without a king or caudillo, can we live without a boss or executive? Can the people rule--not just in a representative government, but in popular control of the economy? I will leave the answer to those questions to you. But the people of Rojava have made it clear where they stand, and in essence what they say is this: democracy is a good thing, we need more of it, and the principle of rule by the many rather than the few should be implemented wherever it can be.
It is indisputable that a good deal of hierarchy is present in everyday society, much of it without us even noticing: bosses and workers, clergy and laypeople, rich and poor. We do not have as many kings as we used to, but many states do function as autocracies--monarchy without the heredity and hemophilia. Even in the states which are said to subscribe to “western democracy,” there is a great deal of oligarchy--control of the economy by a few wealthy men, control of the media and the accompanying monopoly on truth, control of the political system by the few. What is happening in Rojava is a true revolution in that it commits itself to the overthrow of these hierarchies. Other revolutions replace a Tsar with a Stalin, a Louis XVI with a Napoleon, a Bautista with a Castro--knock down the head at the top but fail to change the system. Rojava’s revolution is far more systemic--comparable to America’s in 1776 in its commitment to building a new society from scratch.
Meanwhile, where does Rojava go from here? A lot has been made in the news lately about Turkish attacks on Kurds in northern Syria, enabled by President Trump’s withdrawal of US special forces from that region. Turkey, which has been battling a Kurdish insurgency of its own and does not take kindly to the Kurds now or ever, launched the invasion on the grounds that Rojava is a safe haven for Kurds fighting the Turkish government. With the Turks wanting to create a buffer zone dozens of miles across between Rojava and the Turkish border, and Assad’s forces still armed to the teeth down south, Rojava is stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The US media covers the Turkish actions extensively and decries Trump’s withdrawal of US troops which enabled it--but only because it is viewed as a betrayal of the allies who fought alongside the US to defend its “interests,” i.e. to defeat ISIS. The media will never make mention of Rojava--that it is a state at all, much less that it is a socialist one. Listening to the news or reading the papers, you will see the American media clamoring about Turks and Syrians and Kurds, but one name escapes them--Rojava. They will never call it what is: a socialist state, an experiment in all sorts of things corporate media regards as unsavory. It is better to focus on America’s “interests” and critique the President for abandoning a counterterrorism ally, rather than the broader nature of what Rojava is and what it stands for. With that being the case, the experiment in Rojava will not only be under attack from the Turkish leviathan, but unknown to the world--a paradox in that it is hangs on at the edge of destruction, the world does not know what is about to be destroyed.
Experiments often do not last. The deck is stacked against Rojava; perhaps it will be too much to overcome and the state will be forced to dissolution. But the ideas behind the experiments are more important than their endurance: experiments are ephemeral, but the ideals that guided them are eternal. The revolution in Catalonia failed in the end, but what George Orwell saw there convinced him of where he stood. Rojava, even if it should fall, has the potential to do the same for our generation--all the people who do not know where they want this world to go, whether and how to put ordinary people in power, may turn to Rojava’s revolution as a model of what is possible. Whether you agree with its principles or not, it is undeniable that Rojava has the ability to be thought-provoking. The world deserves to know about it. The only thing worse than its destruction is that Rojava should die in darkness, like a meteor that flashed in the sky while all the world was asleep.