The Rojava Revolution is one of the most important revolutionary struggle of recent years. In the context of civil war and great power intrigue, the Kurdish movement evolved into a multi-ethnic and non-sectarian autonomous administration that governs approximately two million people in Northeastern Syria. These liberated areas have produced important experiments in direct democracy, cooperative and ecological development, and community self-defense and conflict resolution.
The Revolution is also the liberatory counterpoint to the Islamic State. In 2014 and 2015, Rojava’s militias received international attention for breaking the Islamic State’s siege of the city of Kobani and creating an evacuation corridor for some 50,000 Yazidis who were fleeing the Islamic State. Given the Syrian Civil War is also a climate conflict, the great political question of the 21st century may well be the socialism of Rojava or the barbarism of the Islamic State.
It’s no surprise the Rojava Revolution has been a point of inspiration for radicals across the world and, particularly, abolitionists and others on the libertarian-left. In their manifesto, Burn Down the American Plantation, the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement, an anarchist organization with chapters in Philadelphia, New York Chicago, New Haven, and California’s Inland Empire, considers Rojava to be a blueprint for organization elsewhere: “The Rojava Revolution, the anti-state revolution in northern Syria, provides us with a successful example of the strategies of organization and resistance we need to apply in the US today.”
It’s also no surprise that the Rojava Revolution may soon be over. The revolution developed in a power vacuum created when Assad government unilaterally withdrew from the Kurdish regions in Northeast Syria to focus on the developing civil war in Western Syria. The United States made a pragmatic alliance with Rojava during the campaign against the Islamic State but what that support meant going forward was never clear. Turkey, Syria’s neighbor to the north, is keen to both see Assad out and the Kurdish movement crushed. Between Turkey and the Trump administration, it was only a matter of time before the precarious balance of political forces shifted against Rojava. In October 2019, the US withdrew troops from Syria, clearing the way for Turkish invasion. This threat, in turn, forced Rojava to reconcile with Damascus for short term survival. What this means for the future of the Revolution is far from clear but it’s hard to feel encouraged.
What does this tragedy mean for our understanding of political struggle today? Does the seeming twilight of the Rojava Revolution mean that it is just another failed one? The Rojava Revolution could not defend itself against the state. It’s unclear how similar strategies could prevail in the United States, where the openings for the type of democratic autonomy seen Rojava are much smaller (or perhaps fundamentally different).
These questions, I contend, can only be answered if we confront them on the level of political strategy and opportunity, rather than political philosophy and identity. Abolitionists and anti-authoritarians are right to be inspired by example of Rojava but translating the lessons of the Revolution to a wildly different political context like the United States is no simple task. To better understand the Rojava Revolution, I return to the fundamentals of historical materialism. My recent article published Social Justice, “Histories of Abolition, Critiques of Security,” considers Rojava in relation to the debates abolition in the nascent US left: the rejection of abolition as fanciful and its defense as an area of non-reformist reformism in the struggle for 21st century socialism and strategy of insurrection. The impasse between a rejection of abolition and the tired revolution/reform binary can be resolved by returning to fundamentals of historical materialism, and particularly, W.E.B. Du Bois’ analysis of “abolition democracy” in his seminal work, Black Reconstruction.
Histories of Abolition
Abolition democracy refers to the social forces that led the “Reconstruction of Democracy” after the Civil War. It was revolutionary experiment made possible, first, by the direct action of black workers, a General Strike, and, later, advanced through continual mobilization (including armed self-defense) and the non-reformist reforms of Radical Reconstruction. While the antislavery struggle provided the political content of abolition democracy, this revolutionary project existed in precarious conditions, the temporary alignment of black workers, middle class abolitionists represented in Congress by the Radical Republicans, and, eventually, northern industrialists and poor southern whites. It was a revolutionary moment that was never fully consolidated and, as result, its gains were rolled back.
Despite this seeming failure, the moment held a deeper significance that middle class Abolitionists (and many subsequent scholars) largely missed. Abolition democracy challenged the fundamental class relations upon which historical capitalism stood: a racially stratified global division of labor, which, starting the in the sixteenth century, tied Europe, West Africa, and the Americas together in a capitalist world-economy. Black workers were the most devalued and exploited laborers, what Du Bois called “the foundation stone not only of Southern social structure but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-scale.”
By striking at the root of global capitalism, the American Civil War that produced the cataclysm and change that created the possibility for radical change. This possibility was lost because the Abolitionists never confronted capital and the labor movement never embraced abolition. When politics shifted, the temporary class alliances that enabled radical reconstruction gave way to what Du Bois called a “counter-revolution” or “dictatorship of property.”
On a more general level, Du Bois establishes the need to understand abolition in relation to the (1) social relations and (2) historical processes that define a particular historical moment, while also considering (3) social movement clusters that were contesting these relations of forces. In Black Reconstruction, then, Du Bois analyzes the abolition democracy in relation (1) the class composition of the antebellum United States, (2) the consolidation of an industrial economy, and (3) the interaction of the budding labor movement with the anti-slavery actions of black workers and Abolitionists.
In this way, Black Reconstruction offers a different understanding of abolition, beyond the tired revolution-reform binary. As an analytic and organizing concept, abolition democracy becomes the liberatory politics embedded within struggles of historically-specific mobilizations of popular forces. It is the struggle for freedom from violent regulation and subjectification. Du Bois shows that it is organically tied up with the related fights to secure conditions for social reproduction, distribute the social product, shape shared institutions, and set collective priorities. In other words, abolition—or socialism, for that matter—is not a political program we can define in the abstract and implement. It is a process of liberation tied to broader clusters of emancipatory movements as they emerge and exist within specific historical moments. The question, then, is not revolution or reform but who is fighting for abolition—or socialism—what does that even mean in the contemporary United States and what will it take to win.
Du Bois provides a historical materialist understanding of abolition as interplay of disruptive direct action and incremental change within a historically informed understanding of a particular social struggle. This holistic approach highlights the specific social relations that constitute the exploitative and oppressive social formations in which we live. In this way, Du Bois can provide the necessary perspective to ask what kind of interventions could be “non-reformist,” while also creating space to understand direct action and insurrection in terms of political strategy, rather than philosophy.
Abolition, Socialism and Political Strategy
This approach undermines some of the common slogans made about nature of structural violence today. Mass incarceration is not the New Jim Crow nor is it a direct a simple outgrowth of slavery. What Angela Davis terms “the prison of slavery and the slavery of prison” are different arrangements. Slavery, convict leasing, and Jim Crow were systems to marshal and mobilize labor. Mass incarceration is a system to warehouse surplus populations. These differences, moreover, speak to tremendous structural transformations in the world-economy and the American state. If we want to be politically effective, we, unlike abolitionists of the 1860s, must appreciate the specificities of our moment.
This means acknowledging that, as Julia Sudbury does, “the slavery-prison analogy tends to erase the presence of non-black prisoners.” It means recognizing that an exclusive focus on anti-black racism threatens to dismiss the experiences of Latinx and indigenous people with imprisonment, policing, and state violence. It means admitting that the incarceration rate for white people in the United States, while much lower than that of historically marginalized groups, is still grotesque in comparison with the rest of the world. In the words of Angela Davis, it means understanding that the prison “has become a receptacle for all those human beings who bear the inheritance of the failure to create abolition democracy in the aftermath of slavery,” while also recognizing that “this inheritance is not only born by black prisoners, but by poor Latino, Native American, Asian and white prisoners.” It means it thinking about revolutionary strategy in way that appreciates the historical forces that create our moment, without being unthinkingly tied to anachronistic ideas and strategies that today may be ineffective.
Most importantly, this perspective allows us to situate powerful moments of revolutionary breakthrough in their historical context and derive the appropriate conclusions from them. In this regard, we should not dismiss the way Burn Down the American Plantation highlights the experience of Rojava Revolution. Rather, we should understand the social processes and social relations that surround this important event, namely the collapse of the state during Syria Civil War and the trajectory of the Kurdish Movement.
Contextualizing the Rojava Revolution in this manner is not the same as dismissing its relevance. Instead, it allows us to usefully interpret its lessons from the vantage point of particular time and place. Recognizing that the Rojava Revolution took place amidst civil war and state collapse raises doubts about the applicability of the model in areas where the state is strong. Burn Down the American Plantation advocates “placing self-defense at the center of our revolutionary movement” and calls on existing anti-fascist groups and cop watches to model themselves on the self-defense forces of Rojava Revolution. Specifically, the manifesto calls on these organizations to “Develop…the capacity to begin launching offensive actions against fascists and the regime.” This advocacy for armed insurrection is misguided. It fails to appreciate the conditions that made Rojava possible, while also neglecting to mention the awesome coercive powers of the American state and the weakness of the nascent American left.
Moreover, contextualizing Rojava gives us the possibility of translating the lessons of the Revolution into our context. The continually high numbers of “police involved shootings” in the United States, the breakthrough of white supremacist movements, the escalating confrontations at protests, and mounting incidents of political violence all underscore the urgent need to community self-defense in this political moment. This is need is structural as evinced by the recent emergence of armed left formations in the United States like the Socialist Relief Association and the Red Guards of the Party for Socialism and Liberation that joined older groups like Red Neck Revolt.
More generally, there is a budding muncipalist movement in the United States that, in part, draws on some of the same intellectual currents that also inform Rojava. In this United States, this movement is best exemplified by Jackson-Kush Plan associated with Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Cooperation Jackson. The plan has three pillars building cooperative economy, creating participatory structures at the city level, networking progressive political leaders. Moreover, this electoral road to libertarian socialism at the city level has already delivered some concrete results. In 2013, Jackson, Mississippi elected Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who campaigned on the promises of to implement the Jackson Plan. Although Lumumba died less than year into office, his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, successfully won the mayoral race in June 2017. Already, the new administration pursuing an economic development strategy based around promoting cooperative businesses and putting in place a participatory process, empowering popular assemblies organized by to develop a budget proposal/
Notably, however, Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s young administration has been remarkably conventional when it comes to criminal justice. While the Mayor Lumumba has repeatedly drawn the link between crime and poverty, he’s also pledged to be “tough on crime.” Moreover, the new administration has maintained conventional police force and made no moves toward instituting community control of the police. Here, in a city where political power is held by radical administration, the self-defense experiments of the Rojava Revolution may make an instructive example, albeit not a simple blueprint. If grassroots alternatives to police existed in Jackson, could it pressure Lumumba to adopt more radical positions like community control of police or—better—disband the police department and replace it with community controlled self-defense forces and restorative justice bodies? The point here is not outline a political platform or provide a detailed analysis of contemporary attempts to create municipal socialism in Jackson but rather to demonstrate the way the holistic and historical conception of abolition advanced by Du Bois expands our expands our political parameters, allowing us to both make sense our current conditions and relate them to other powerful instances of abolitionist organizing.
Taken together, this approach to abolition allows us to both learn for the past and appreciate how previous struggles shaped the specificities of the present moment. If abolition can be usefully described as the liberatory politics immanent within the historically specific social struggles, one should be able to find abolitionist tendencies, abolitionist demands, abolitionist practices, and abolitionist institutions in most emancipatory movements. This approach can allow us to consider these moments relationally and learn the historical lessons of other moments of “abolition democracy.” This is how we learn what it takes to get free.
Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor at University of Southern Maine and author of Pacifying the Homeland. This commentary is adapted from a longer article published in Social Justice.
Image: Kurdishstruggle (CC BY 2.0) Flickr