Debbie Bookchin: Kurds are practicing the most democratic form of government there is on the planet

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Claudio Gallo's interview with Debbie Bookchin was first published in La Stampa.


(Debbie Bookchin at Left Forum 2015.)


Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurds fighting in Kobani abanonded Marxism to embrace your father's philosophy, Communalism. What is Communalism?

Communalism is the idea that democracy works best when citizens make decisions together on the local level in assemblies. They meet face-to-face with their neighbors and discuss issues of importance to their communities. They send recallable delegates to councils to make regional decisions but power always resides at the local level, rather than with the nation-state. My father believed that these local assemblies would transform, and be transformed by, an increasingly enlightened citizenry. People could reclaim and redefine politics as something we do for ourselves rather than just voting for someone and hoping for the best. Communalism also envisions what my father called a “moral economy” in which people make collective decisions about how to use natural resources for economic production with the ecological impact in mind. 

A world without money or markets: how it is possible?

Today we take capitalism for granted. But God didn’t ordain capitalism. In much of human history societies functioned without it. As my father first pointed out in the early 1960s, capitalism is on a collision course with nature that threatens our survival as a species. Capitalism’s “grow or die” ethos demands the ceaseless exploitation of natural resources. The rapacious growth and individualism that it has fostered has led to global warming that is on the verge of making our planet uninhabitable for our grandchildren. Is capitalism so sacred that we are willing to destroy the planet for future generations? There are many examples in history of people working cooperatively to make decisions for the benefit of a community without using money – from primitive societies, to large Israeli kibbutzim. Communalism assumes that in a free society, people with different skills, interests, and desires, will contribute their labor to the wellbeing of society. And given the advanced technology of the modern age, it means that we would all have to work less and have more leisure time than we do today.

How did Communalism make its way to the Kurdish land? 

When Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan was sentenced to life imprisonment, he was brought many books by his lawyers, including some of books by my father like The Ecology of Freedom and From Urbanization to Cities, which had been translated into Turkish. Öcalan had become increasingly disillusioned with a Marxist-Leninist approach that had led to two decades of warfare with the Turkish state; he believed that by employing my father’s ideas Kurds could achieve self-rule and true democracy even while remaining within the borders of Turkey. But while Öcalan’s concept of Democratic Confederalism incorporates my father’s thinking, Öcalan has contributed many original ideas, for example, particularly emphasizing the role of women. 

What is the strongest criticism that you father had against to Marx?

My father had enormous respect for Marx, but he felt that modern day Marxists were living in the past and that we had to go beyond “class analysis,” and the tactics employed by revolutionaries in the 1930s, and examine why workers had not, in fact, made a revolution. He rejected the idea of workers or the proletariat as the “hegemonic class,” and argued that social change today will only come about if we appeal to people as citizens of their communities who share a common desire not just for income equality but for clean air and water, safe food, and an end to all forms of hierarchy and oppression, be it of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. He also saw that socialism hadn’t led to freedom in the Eastern European countries and felt that power had to be decentralized and located at the municipal level, not in a centralized party apparatus.

What do you think is so remarkable about Rojava?

The Kurds have created a society that fully empowers women and people of every ethnic and religious plurality to work together in charting the future of their communities. Their economic planning is ecologically sensitive and they are practicing the most democratic form of government there is on the planet, all under conditions of war. It is truly inspiring.

In 2015, the Syrian Kurds were accused by Amnesty International of destroying Arabs' houses: you wrote an article in which you questioned those charges.

I think that as exciting as it is to see the remarkable social project unfolding in Rojava, under conditions of war mistakes will be made; they must be acknowledged and corrected. But there were a number of questions raised about the evidence they cited, including the veracity of those they interviewed and the failure to corroborate some anecdotes. Many people felt it lessened the credibility of that report.

Communalist Kurds and Washington together against the IS: a strange coalition, isn't it? 

It should be a natural coalition because the USA and EU promote themselves as champions of democracy. However, while the West recognizes that the Kurds are their best ally in fighting Isis, the USA and EU are also fearful that Turkey will open its doors and allow migrants to enter Europe. So they bowed to Turkey and have excluded Rojava representatives from the Geneva talks about the future of Syria. They have turned a blind eye to the ways Turkey assists ISIS and to the Turkish military bombardment of the Kurdish towns of the southeast — in which the military has killed hundreds of innocent civilians, including children, under the pretense of searching for PKK terrorists. If they really believe the democratic values they claim, the US and EU should invite Rojava representatives to the Geneva talks and encourage the expansion of the Rojava model throughout Syria so that a peaceful, democratic solution can be reached which will allow people to stay in their homes instead of having to flee.

Autonomous Rojava has to face Turkish hostility: there will be another war in the near future?

I am a journalist, not a Middle East analyst, so it’s hard for me to predict if there will be an all-out war. My personal feeling is that people are very justified in worrying that President Erdogan is heading down the path of dictatorship. An authoritarian regime will only spark more unrest and instability, which is bad for the people in the region and harms our efforts to defeat ISIS. It is my deepest hope that Western leaders will use the substantial leverage they have to demand an end to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s violence against the Kurdish people and insist on a return to peace negotiations. It is clear that the “Kurdish Question” cannot be solved militarily and that the sooner Erdogan resumes negotiations the better it will be for all of Turkish society and the rest of the world. 

The Next Revolution is available from Verso.

On May 21st, Debbie Bookchin will speak at Left Forum 2016's Saturday Night Plenary.

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