Freedom is a Collective Project

Spring 2021 #33
written by
Jo Taylor
illustration by
Ritchie Xavier

Lessons from the Rojava Revolution of North and East Syria

The Rojava Revolution began in 2012 in the northern regions of Syria – home to a large Kurdish population – in the midst of the Syrian ‘civil’ war. But this revolution has far deeper roots than the current Syrian conflict. To maintain a revolutionary process throughout years of devastating war, economic embargo, and crippling sanctions in the hotspot of all geopolitical conflicts, relies on strong organisation, deeply rooted values, and a commonly held vision. 

The Kurdish liberation movement is arguably one of the greatest social movements, not only of our time, but in history. It has withstood the full spectrum of state brutality – bloody wars, massacres, forced disappearances, targeted assassinations, and cultural genocide – from multiple nation states simultaneously, for over four decades. Yet it has made enormous gains in perhaps the strongest municipalist movement in the world in the Kurdish regions of Turkey – now brutally suppressed with most elected representatives behind bars – and birthed the Rojava Revolution in the region now known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. 

Over the course of 40 years, the Kurdish liberation movement has won the hearts and minds of millions of Kurdish people and an ever growing number of supporters all over the world. In the early 2000s, the movement successfully transitioned from a Marxist- Leninist national liberation movement in a party structure to a vast tapestry of civil society organisations – communes, councils, committees, parties, unions, women’s houses, co-operatives, and more – aiming to democratise the whole of society and create a means for everyone to participate: a democracy without a state. 

Over the past decade and a half I have been part of many social movements for ecological sustainability and against destruction of the natural world; against patriarchy and for the liberation of women and oppressed genders; for freedom of movement and against borders, walls, and a racist immigration system; for housing, education, healthcare, and livelihoods that meet human needs and are in harmony with the wider ecosystem; and against privatisation of prisons, the health system, the military, and more. 

The political understanding and vision developed by the Kurdish liberation movement contains all of this and more, and sees not separate topics to campaign around, but as all inseparable parts of the same broad internationalist struggle for a free and equal life, against oppression in all its forms. To struggle against the old system while creating the new – a new world in the shell of the old, as the old slogan goes – is vital.

This paradigm is based on an understanding of the state and patriarchy as the 5,000 year-old system at the root of all oppression. Everything is inherently interconnected. The trauma we experience in our lives is inherently connected to ecological devastation in Brazil, genocides of the Yezidi people in Iraq and Syria, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and indigenous peoples all over the world. It’s intrinsically tied to the displacement of Palestinians, the neoliberal agenda in Latin America, and the continued plundering of the African continent, as well as the everyday struggles of that comatose man you pass on the street corner, and that single mum trying to make ends meet on Universal Credit. 

If you have read something about Rojava or the broader Kurdish liberation movement you might know that the political theory is based on three pillars: democracy (in its most radical sense), gender liberation, and ecology. You may also know that co-operatives and other projects we might understand as part of the solidarity economy are being set up, not only across North and East Syria, but also in southeastern Turkey (North Kurdistan), parts of north Iraq (South Kurdistan), and in the Kurdish diaspora in Europe. 

The Solidarity Economy Association has been running a project called Co-operation in Mesopotamia for a few years now, raising awareness about the Rojava Revolution and building solidarity and relationships between Solidarity Economy movements in the UK and Europe and the budding co-operatives in North and East Syria. In 2020 we initiated the Water for Rojava Fund in collaboration with local organisations in North-East Syria and a couple of small NGOs, which raised more than £110,000 for water-related projects and women’s co-ops in the region. 

The Turkish state continues to detain water flow into Syria, but the water crisis isn’t the only challenge, as you might imagine. International and regional powers block the import of advanced technologies into Rojava, impose crippling sanctions and economic embargo, and close the borders at will. The international banking system throws up constant obstacles to transferring funds into Syria, and we expect yet another new Turkish military invasion at any time. Even now there are daily bombardments. ISIS sleeper cells are gaining ground again and have been carrying out targeted assassinations on women and Arab tribal and religious leaders who have aligned themselves with the revolution. 

One of the biggest hurdles in our work, though, is communication and the translation of ideas. The difficulty lies in translating the paradigm. Those of us who have grown up in advanced capitalist systems, like in Northern Europe or North America, have been socialised into a particular way of thinking without even realising it. Our whole understanding of reality, the lens we see the world through, and the assumptions that are generated from this make it really difficult to see and understand a different reality. 

It’s difficult to describe, for example, how a social movement organised across multiple territories for over four decades, that has hundreds, if not thousands, of social and political organising structures and physical spaces and engages millions of people, is working to transform every facet of life, from the way we think about justice and deal with domestic abuse, to how we work, produce food, learn, and educate, to how we live and organise society – and to make this sound real, believable, and relevant to someone living in the UK. There are millions of tiny assumptions we make without even noticing. 

In order to understand this better, we need to understand something about ideology. 

We are brought up in capitalist nation states like the UK or the USA to view the word ‘ideology’ with suspicion. We do not have ideology – we are told – ideology is something for authoritarian ‘communist’ countries whose despotic rulers don’t allow scientific facts and economic progress to reach their citizens. We, instead, are rational. We base our understanding on the facts, on science. 

The ideology that those of us born and raised in Northern Europe and North America have been socialised into is called Liberalism. Part of the ideology of Liberalism is to claim that it is not an ideology at all, and the worldview it is part of is merely objective fact: the historical development towards a globalised neoliberal capitalist system is just a determined march toward progress; a natural and obvious evolution. 

This corrosion of our imaginative potential not only creates enormous barriers to building social movements big enough, strong enough, and imaginative enough to transform our social and political systems and bring a new world into being, but also stops us from noticing when it’s already happening. 

Liberalism also affects how we understand freedom. We are all just individuals, and what we need is individual freedom. Freedom to choose. Free speech. Free market. Everyone believes in freedom! But what if freedom is a collective project, a road we travel together?

Co-operatives in Rojava, though autonomous, are not separate from society. For a start, they are usually connected to the communes – neighbourhood assemblies which form the base of the democratic system of self-governance – and often are started by communes in order to meet their own needs. Far from the kind of commune which may be evoked in the mind of someone from the Global North – at best a utopian bubble – this comes from the Kurdish word komîn (“komeen”), meaning to gather or bring together. This is a commune which organises the whole of society at the most local level, rather than attempting to build a safe haven for a few like-minded individuals or families. It’s made up of the few hundred families who live in a particular area, and is the smallest unit of self-governance in the broader Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) .

A commune in Rojava may decide to open a bakery, collectively purchase an electric generator, or form an agricultural project to meet the needs of the local community. They might also receive support from, and often are initiated by, various bodies of the AANES, such as the Women’s Economy committee. The communes, co-ops, committees, and other organisational structures are part of a broader tapestry, a social fabric which is also deeply political. This can be hard to grasp for someone in a workers’ co-op in the UK, whose work life and private life might well be entirely separate. 

Co-operatives in Rojava, like in many other revolutionary social movements around the world from the Zapatistas to the Black liberation struggle, are part of a broader strategy for liberation, rather than an end in themselves. This is not just about democratising livelihoods and building a new system, it’s also about self-defence. The way the Kurdish liberation movement understands self-defence is very broad and relates to every facet of life, not just the war and attacks from ISIS and the Turkish state. To speak one’s own language is self-defence against cultural genocide; to learn together and to understand history is also self-defence.

A word the Kurdish Women’s Movement like to use is xwebûn (‘khwaboon’), meaning ‘to be-’ or ‘to become oneself’. It’s often paired with the reflexive word for defence: Xwebûn– Xweparastin. Self-becoming–self-defence. 

Kurdish political theorist and imprisoned leader of the Kurdish liberation movement Abdullah Ocalan – often referred to as the Kurdish Nelson Mandela, now entering his 22nd year in isolation – encapsulates this idea in his ‘theory of the rose’. Just as a rose defends its flowers with its thorns, a society must defend its existence and values. The beauty of the flower owes its existence to its self defence; the flower and the thorns are not separate. 

We have only begun to touch the surface of the difference in understanding and shift in vision and perception needed to understand not only the world we are living in and how to transform it, but also the changes already taking place. 

The vision and ideology of the Rojava Revolution is based on an understanding of a 5,000 year-old system and how it has evolved and manifests in the world today. The Kurdish liberation movement sees all movements and attempts to create freedom throughout history and all over the world as a part of its own development. 

For these reasons and more, we believe that we have more to learn from Rojava than we have to teach if we really want to co-create a radically different future.

We want to work with co-operatives in the UK to understand and learn from these ideas. Get in contact with SEA if your co-operative is interested in workshops to learn from the experiences and understanding of the Rojava Revolution: 

You can also still donate to the Water for Rojava Fund via Paypal:

Jo Taylor is a worker member of the Solidarity Economy Association (sea) and co-ordinator of their project Co- operation in Mesopotamia, building solidarity with co-operatives in North and East Syria (Rojava) and Bakur (southeastern Turkey / North Kurdistan). Jo has been active in grass-roots political, ecological and community organising for over 14 years.

Spring 2021 #33

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