Radical Reading: A Small Key Can Open a Large Door

This is the first in a series focused on reading and discussing radical books on the left and right. 

The war in Syria and the surrounding region is multifaceted and complicated; it feels daunting to even approach the conflict as an outsider with any hope that my mind can be wrapped around it. I have started many an article related to the war in the Syria only to scrap it. What do I really know of the region that hasn’t been said? I spent a short period with the IDF in Israel and traveled to Egypt during the revolution, but the activists on the ground are the voices that should be getting attention. What I did know about Syria was this: you have democratic and counter-revolutionary forces, religious extremism, fascist and communist parties from last century, geo and power politics at play, terrorism and internationalism present, and a slew of other cultural and historical variables that I could only hope to understand.

In addition to the use of technology to connect forces on each side of the conflict with their respective allies around the globe, media from Syria and Iraq is made available almost immediately after its creation. You can literally watch the war unfold in real-time via forces on your ideological side. One of the most interesting developments from the Syrian conflict has been the radical social project taking place in Rojava. Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, an anarchist publishing house, has recently compiled essays and interviews on the anarchist revolution that is taking place among millions of people in this northern Syrian region, titled A Small Key Can Open a Large Door. The book is an admirable introduction to the massive social changes happening in the middle of a war zone between Islamist ISIS and the authoritarian Assad regime. In addition to a brief overview of Democratic Confederalism (the term used to describe the social-economic system in Rojava), the book includes discussions on the role of women in the movement, how the West has muddled into Kurdish self-determination historically, and what this revolution means for socialists and anarchists trying to build a new society within the existing one.

(Vice News – Rojava: Syria’s Unknown War)

The most stimulating aspect of this text for outsiders is the focus on the aforementioned concept of Democratic Confederalism, an ideology pioneered the PKK’s leader and founder, Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) is an odd group for anarchists to support. Built on a cult of personality around Ocalan, the organization came into existence to fight Turkey over autonomy for Kurdish people in Southeast Turkey. As noted in the text,

“There was little to differentiate the PKK from the dozens of Mao-inspired militant liberation groups of the late 1970s and 1980s” (p.20).

When its founder was captured and imprisoned by Turkey in 1999, and communism as a radical ideology fading from the world stage, many assumed the PKK would dwindle in size and influence, much as similar Maoist insurgencies around the globe. Something rather different occurred. The editors write:

“In his first months of imprisonment, Apo had a “crisis of faith” regarding doctrinaire Marxist ideology and its ability to free the Kurds. Ocalan, who spent most of his life espousing a hard-line Stalinist doctrine, started to reject Marxism-Leninism in favor of direct democracy” (p.22).

Ocalan came under the influence of American anarchist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin was well known in libertarian-socialist circles for his support for a concept called communalism. This libertarian municipalism advocates for voluntary cooperation between people at small, localized levels, producing a face-to-face democracy between its citizens. Building on Bookchin’s ideas, the YPG (Kurdish Defense forces, often connected or related to the PKK) have instituted a tiered council system to govern the region’s affairs. It works as follows:

“In Rojava, neighborhood assemblies make up the largest number of councils. Every person can participate in an assembly where they live. In addition to those neighborhood assemblies, there are councils based on workplaces, civic organizations, religious organizations, political parties, and other affinity-based councils (e.g. Youth)” (p.26)

What is striking is how decision-making is conducted. Unlike the federalist tradition, the lower local councils are not required to adopt the rulings of higher regional assemblies. Thus, when a regional council decided that security forces would be permitted to carry weapons while on patrol, three of the local assemblies rejected this ruling, and so when security personnel enter those areas, they must refrain from having arms (p.27). Higher councils simply act as coordinators for the myriad of smaller, local councils. While some of the text’s claims are hard to substantiate due to the chaos surrounding the region, its glowing account of the revolution and its enthusiastic call for anarchists and socialists to support the Kurdish cause is understandable. Many radicals on the Left and Right bemoan the state of their revolutionary movements, arguing that real social change is something for a distant, hypothetical future. The rebels of Rojava have carved out a pluralistic, multicultural, socialist experiment amidst existential threats from barbarous theocrats. While the US-backed Iraqi Army is unable to hold territory against the IS onslaught, the people of Rojava have held their own, all while implementing radical change. The following excerpt is a report by an anonymous Turkish anarchist who traveled to the region.

“Against all odds, the region has maintained this form for over a year now, and proves much stronger than anyone expected. When ISIS marched on Kobane, everyone assumed that the city would succumb in a few days. But the population is resisting. Everyone has armed themselves, everyone does guard duty. And now ISIS is retreating; more and more parts of Kobane are being retaken” (p.130-131).

Although there is good reason to be skeptical of groups claiming to build utopia on earth, the successful revolutionary modesty of Rojava’s goals should give pause to even the most jaded activist. One does not need to be an internationalist to support their cause. Liberals, identitarians, libertarians, traditionalists, and ideologists of all stripes will likely find something in the revolution in Kurdish Syria to respect and admire. This text should provide a fine introduction to their cause.


Staff Writer
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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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20 thoughts on “Radical Reading: A Small Key Can Open a Large Door

  1. I’m going to show some prejudice here and damn the Rojava system with faint praise:

    They’ve been able to resist ISIS for a year now. Because people one the ground who face ISIS incursion have gathered weapons and self-organized into a local defense militia. And their opponent is ISIS, which prides itself on its ability to detonate bombs in unsuspecting nightclubs three thousand miles away from anywhere a death will do them any tangible good, and on its ability to capture unarmed civilians and lop off their heads on camera after they’ve been restrained. They have some social media savvy, give good speeches, and have somehow managed to figure out how to sell oil, the most valuable and useful commodity on Earth, for one quarter of its market price — but for all that, they’re still thugs with small arms.

    I’m pleased that the people of Rojava have been able to keep the wolves at bay for a year. Truly, I am. But the credit for this achievement rests with not with the bottom-up system of government. Rather, this demonstrates the power of people obliged to use weapons for actual self-defense in an emergency situation. (Topically for today, that is what guns are for, after all.)

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    • This is horribly unfair. On the one hand, you underestimate the level of training that has gone into the YPG and YPJ (a system of militia training has been in place for some time), but more importantly, you vastly underestimate ISIS. They came to Kobane with not only the ubiquitous AK47s and RPG 7s, but with heavy American armor and weaponry, including tanks, Humvees, armored personnel carriers, heavy machine guns, artillery, night vision equipment, etc., and were held off by a vastly numerically inferior Kurdish force fighting almost exclusively with squad-level weapons and improvised armor (e.g., pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and steel siding for armor). And you know how ISIS got those tanks and Humvees and heavy machine guns and artillery? By routing the large and American-supplied Iraqi army in Mosul and elsewhere. They’d swept through pretty much every territory they’d gone into, including those held by the better trained and equipped Peshmerga in Iraq, and until they got to Kobane, had not really tasted defeat in fighting on multiple fronts in two countries (and more) against two state armies, two groups of highly motivated and battle-hardened ethnic militias (the Iran-backed Shia in Iraq and the various Kurdish forces across the two countries, particularly the Peshmerga), and god knows how many smaller militant or rebel forces in Syria.

      And they they not only held off several waves of ISIS assault, essentially destroying whole units as effective fighting forces (with the eventual help of U.S. air power), but have since spread out and taken back large areas of ISIS-held territory. It may not be Thermopylae, as some have made it out to be, but it is a truly remarkable feat, and offers many valuable lessons in organization and motivation, if not training and tactics.

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      • I wish to sneer at Daesh; you would deny me this pleasure?

        I shall read the article in depth later this evening, but I am less interested in the military dimension of the struggle (the Yazidi have a good militia, well-organized, it seems, and apparently well-led too) than I am in the social dynamics of how a secular proto-government in such a culturally traditional part of the world can find purchase. That sounds fascinating; I am interested in whether Turkish secularism, facets of the Yazidi religion, or what else might lead to people facing very serious life-and-death questions choosing to tie their fates to such a star.

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        • I find those aspects more interesting, too. It’s actually what initially drew me to the struggle in Kobane.

          Kurdish politics in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria have been socialist since the Cold War, perhaps unsurprisingly given the historical animosity between their primary enemy — Turkey — and the Soviet Union, but this turn to social anarchy is new. We’ve had an interesting relationship with them, too, treating allied groups as allies in Iraq and enemies, even terrorists, in Turkey, at the same time, for decades. And Turkey’s approach to ISIS, including a de facto open-border policy to foreign fighters pouring into Syria, is largely a result of their relationship with their own Kurdish population and the Kurds on the other side of their borders with Iraq and Syria.

          The whole thing is perhaps the most interesting mess in the world today.

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        • From my reading of informed sources – Western, Middle Eastern, eyewitnesses among the Kurds – Chris exaggerates the role of Iraqi-via-American arms in the IS assault on Kobane, and greatly underestimates the importance of direct U.S. air power and of military aid in enabling the Kurds to hold off IS when it seemed on the verge of seizing control of the city, and then to push IS out of the city and to secure outlying areas. In short, Chis is, as ever, inclined to blame American policy as much as possible for whatever goes wrong, and to minimize whatever credit to Americans or – Fanon and Che preserve us! – “intervention,” but, all the same, he is much closer to the facts than Burt.

          IS may be many of things Burt calls them, but, especially during their 2014 sweep through Iraq, they or their commanders showed considerable tactical sophistication. More to the present point, many observers much more knowledgeable than anyone likely to comment here predicted the imminent fall of Kobane. The courage and determination of Kobane’s defenders eventually compelled the U.S. to reverse policy and intervene on their behalf, when up to that point the American line had been that Kobane was just one of many places IS was advancing, without unique strategic significance.

          Whether the language was intended to soften the blow when Kobane fell, or represented sincere beliefs – and, arguably, misjudgments – will likely have to remain something for historians to sort out. To say that the Rojavans very likely could not have achieved their eventual victory without the help of Americans and others doesn’t take anything away from their accomplishment, or any more than the eventual success of American revolutionaries, long ago, in acquiring support from France takes something away from the American Revolution – except for those determined to believe in miracles.

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          • Many ISIS leaders were former Baathist military so they had experience. One could look at why so many ex Iraqi military leaders ended up in ISIS as relating to the de-bathifying of Iraq during our occupation.

            It is true our airstrikes and support were important to aiding them. Darn that Obama for not helping them and being so weaky weak and not doing anything until those brave Ruskies and French took the lead.

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            • Obama was very strong on Syria, compared to radical non-interventionists – neo-isolationists, classic far left anti-imperialists, pacifists, and so on – but he or his administration’s policy was “weak” (your word, not mine) even in comparison to Obama. The fiasco of his reversal after the East Ghouta atrocity was rather decisive in this respect. After two years of trying to play both tunes – or, a supporter might say, preserve flexibility – his refusal to get ahead of lacking popular support for intervention confirmed that American involvement in Syria would be as little as America could get away with. I don’t blame Obama. He was elected to be the anti-W, and has done a good job of playing out the withdrawalist experiment – not that history ever allows for a pure test of competing hypotheses.

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              • I’m not sure what you mean by O was very strong even in comparison to O.

                You throw out a lot of labels but all they do is obscure things. O has not been the withdraw from everything prez some R’s somehow see. His aversion to a major effort in Syria/Iraq has a lot of wisdom and rationale. I know people disagree but frankly most of the people who disagree don’t seem able to work through the various complications and complexities of Syria/Iraq/ISIS. They still aren’t an existential threat and the lower key response (ie; no or minimal US troops, focus on providing air support and weapons) has led to a slow, grinding push back of ISIS.

                In any case all those labels you throw out say more about where you are coming from then an actual description of O’s polices and apparent beliefs.

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                • greginak: I’m not sure what you mean by O was very strong even in comparison to O.

                  I said just the opposite. I said that O was weak even in comparison to O: Even after he reversed himself at the end of August 2013, and decided not to order strikes against Assad following the famous crossing of the red-line, he was still trying to take both positions. He told the nation that he still believed we “should” have responded militarily, but that he was acceding to what he took to be a collective reluctance to respond. It was an amazing performance, and I don’t mean in a good way. Much of the rest of O policy toward IS and toward Syria has this same schizoid “let’s not, but say we did” (or the reverse) quality. Such diffidence is about all that the American polity can manage – so I’m not singling O out anymore than his being president of a diffident nation already singles him out.

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                  • His public statements have been mixed but his policy has been fairily consistent. The O is “weak” is a common argument on the right and one i’ve never been able to take seriously. It implies a lack of knowledge about how often we have been bombing countries throughout his admin. We still have troops in many many countries and have been actively fighting in all sorts of places. The weakness argument leans far to much on O not making a lot of aggressive speeches and sable rattling. That isn’t his style and a good thing i would say. Aggressive spechifying is usually more for domestic consumption that actual policy making. In many places throughout the mideast and in Pakistan our constant drone flights and occasional attacks are a major issue. We simply aren’t’ nearly as passive or lacking in use of force as some want to see.

                    Re: Syria. O clearly saw Assad as the far bigger issue for several years. You can disagree, but that makes a lot of sense. He is a long standing dictator and ISIS is a new bunch of just as evil MFr’s. He is limited in what he can do to get Assad out since Syria has been a client state of russia since they were the soviet union. That is an obvious limit on what we can do there.

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                  • so I’m not singling O out anymore than his being president of a diffident nation already singles him out.

                    So he’s a victim of the times he lives in?

                    I don’t see how the above claim differs from the view that people disagree about stuff, for a multiplicity of reasons. It surely doesn’t get us to a definitive answer regarding what action actually should be pursued (since the analysis takes place only at the meta-level). And somewhat trivially, it only supports the conclusion (again, at the meta-level) that no matter what’s pursued, lots of folks will disagree with it anyway, for a multiplicity of reasons.

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          • The U.S. focus on Kobane, aside from its obvious propaganda potential, was likely a result of the fact that ISIS was pouring so many men into such a small area. As you note, no one saw any real strategic value to Kobane, but it became one of the best places to do real damage to ISIS’ fighting forces. They were pretty exposed in and outside of the city, and they wanted the win to maintain their image as an unbeatable force, so they couldn’t stop sending their soldiers to be slaughtered. Perhaps it didn’t cause damage that would significantly impact their ability to fight elsewhere, but by all accounts the fighting there was incredibly demoralizing for ISIS forces, and they sent many of their foreign units into the area, so that demoralization almost certainly would have a wider impact.

            And I said nothing to minimize the impact of the U.S. air raids, though those raids came well after the start of fighting, and the aid in the form of weapons and supplies even later. ISIS were likely a few days from taking Kobane completely when the air raids began (if I remember correctly, they had about 75% of the city at the time, and had surrounded it on 3 sides, with only the border crossing to the north still in Kurdish control), and while they were still likely to take it even after the raids began, it is undeniable that the YPG/J could not possibly have held the city without them.

            Also, they used tanks in Kobane, especially early before the bombing began. They also used artillery and Humvees (both as troop transport and as armored suicde bombs). Even after receiving American supplies, the YPG/J fought with mostly small arms and mortars, though the Peshmerga did bring some truck-mounted heavier weapons when Turkey finally let them in after the bombing had begun and the world was watching.

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            • Chris: As you note, no one saw any real strategic value to Kobane, but it became one of the best places to do real damage to ISIS’ fighting forces.

              “No one” would be those with a narrow concept of “strategy.” Many observers – including I suspect many within the Obama Administration – thought that the very same strategic argument that seemed to make sense after the policy reversal had also made sense prior to it. The real problem was, I believe, the Turks.

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  2. The rebels of Rojava have carved out a pluralistic, multicultural, socialist experiment amidst existential threats from barbarous theocrats.

    The current filter that preoccupies my thoughts on society is the whole “high trust, high collaboration/cooperation” thing. How can we move from lower levels to higher levels? What do we need to abandon in order to move in a good direction? What lies, if any, do we have to tell ourselves in order to move in a good direction?

    How in the hell are they maintaining high trust in these circumstances?

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    • I imagine one of the things you need is the sort of common goal that they currently have (I took that to be Kolohe’s point above). It will be interesting to see what happens when the fighting stops. May we get to see it as soon.

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