Since 2011, one of the most important revolutionary projects of the twenty-first century has been taking roots in the north of Syria. In this region most commonly known as Rojava, a group of Kurdish revolutionaries and their various allies have been trying to establish a new and alternative way of governing our collective lives. Rojava has broad political implications, both theoretically and practically, which is why it was one of the cases for my dissertation. Yet I was also fascinated – for reasons I will discuss below – by the rather swift success of revolutionaries in taking power. After all, the PYD – the political party behind the movement – and the YPG/J – its military arm – were able to fill in the void left by the central government in a manner of months, and I was convinced that this had critical implications for revolutionary struggles everywhere. This eventually led me to explore how the PYD and YPG/J managed to outrival everyone else so quickly in Rojava, resulting in the article Competing Revolutionaries: Legitimacy and Leadership in Revolutionary Situations.

In this article, I essentially argue that what helps a revolutionary organization to outrival contenders for power, and therefore a key factor for revolutionary success, is gaining legitimacy through various legitimation processes. The first element of legitimation I observed is ideological/normative congruence. This is about achieving a level of congruence between the ideological articulations of a movement and normative/ideological expectations of the population at least at a higher level than contenders.  There is a dialectical process here. On one hand, a revolutionary movement tries to spread its own ideological articulations throughout the population. On the other hand, people already have certain ideological and normative convictions. The trick is neither imposing an ideological project wholesale on the population nor capitulating to reactionary tendencies. It is rather to sublate the existing values of people in a way to adjust and still further the revolutionary project. One of the most striking examples of this process in Rojava is the implementation of gender ideology. It is well known at this point that the revolutionaries in Rojava attach extreme importance to women’s liberation. True to their ideology, one of the most consistently implemented aspects of the revolutionary program has been elements such as women’s centers, co-presidency systems, women’s autonomous control over means of production and violence, etc. Yet despite how central women’s liberation is to the revolutionaries’ overall project, their strategy for implementing it has been peculiar. Specifically, they have been utilizing a mixture of remaining steadfast in their commitments, pushing forward whenever expedient, and engaging in sometimes painfully long deliberation sessions to convince people instead of forcing them to adopt revolutionary principles. This arduous yet ultimately more successful strategy has also an important lesson for the left everywhere: having the most correct ideological position and wagging fingers at people for ideological impurity or to feel morally superior ultimately mean nothing if they lead to a rift between leftists and people they are supposed to convince.

The second element in achieving leadership, and the one I find most important for purposes I will elaborate below, is effective organizational capacity. Especially compared to its contenders, the PYD has a well-established and effective organizational structure like a well-oiled machine. This helps the party and movement with several important issues:

First, it enables the revolutionaries to mobilize resources and seize opportunities much faster and efficiently than their contenders. This is one of the key reasons why they were able to quickly fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the central government and establish themselves as the main authority in the region in a manner of months. When such opportunities present themselves, if a movement or group was mostly based on loose networks or online chatter without tightly knit forces and deep ties in key constituencies, it would simply not be able to act in a manner required by concrete conditions.

Second, this organizational capacity also enables the revolutionaries to establish “governmental” structures in place of the old regime. The literatures on both state and organizational legitimacy clearly show that the provision of a population’s needs is essential for legitimation. Ideology and values would go a long way in certain cases, but as many revolutionary organizations that managed to seize power quickly realized, people’s affection can swiftly turn sour if daily necessities and higher needs are not met by the new system. Realistically speaking, such a system of provision at a mass scale is very difficult to be created and sustained without good organization and some level of central decision-making, because, to echo a debate I once witnessed on social media, people needing glasses will not receive them just because there might be someone finding fulfillment in the labor of making glasses. The PYD’s superior organizational capacity helps in this regard as it is able to establish and sustain large-scale governmental structures much more efficiently than its contenders.

Third, the organizational capacity allows the revolutionaries and people to withstand existential threats. In the case of Rojava, this threat was at an extreme level in the face of the genocidal assaults of the Islamic State. Simply put, there would have been an enormous cost if the YPG/J had not existed as the organized military force of the party/movement. Any revolutionary opening would similarly involve existential threats both before and after seizure of any political power.

The final element in achieving leadership is accumulation of prestige. Charismatic leaders, although important, are only part of the story here. I find that symbolic actions constitute an enormous source of legitimation. In the case of Rojava, the most important among these is the martyrdom for defending the people. With a high number of fighters sacrificing themselves against the Islamic State, and a culture of martyrdom touching every household in the region, the YPG/J has an unmatched prestige in the eyes of many. While the actual content of symbolic actions would certainly depend on specific revolutionary situations, it can safely be said that such public and collective actions for the people constitute a potentially strong source of legitimation for any revolutionary movement.

My arguments in this article follow my previous work with Alexander Kolokotronis. In our article, Alex and I analyze the revolutionary praxis in Rojava with a simple question in mind: what kind of organizational structure it is based on. We particularly look at how revolutionaries in Rojava simultaneously employ a vanguard party and push for decentralization of power. On one hand, there is a strong political party/movement that is clearly carrying the role of a vanguard in pushing forward the revolution. Indeed, in line with my arguments about effective organizational capacity, the superior organizational power of the party/movement has been one of the most important factors behind successful implementations so far. On the other hand, the ideological and political project has been mostly about decentralization of power, especially along gender and ethnic lines. We theorize this hybrid praxis to be a form of “decentralist vanguardism”. In other words, a vanguard formation that seeks not further centralization but rather decentralization of power and property relations.

Together, these papers speak to an important political problem that I, like many others, have been agonizing over for quite some time: how to wage a broad political struggle that will meet the systemic challenges of our century. It could be argued that we are currently in a period of deep systemic crises all around us. First, an enormous level of economic and political inequality exists between those who control property – in a broad sense – and those who do not. Whereas billions are effectively powerless, a handful of capitalists exercise a terrifying amount of power over our collective lives. From public health to supply chains to space travel to AI, we seem unable to stop the massive concentration of power in a few private hands.

Moreover, the American-led global capitalist system that has made the extraction of imperialist rent possible is now showing serious signs of a terminal crisis. Yet it would be premature to celebrate this. The American Empire is increasingly more combative, signaling that it would rather have potentially nuclear war with rising powers instead of relinquishing its dominant position. In their threatened position, the Empire and its dependent states are now discarding even their rhetorical commitments to things like universal freedom and human rights; a development very clearly observed in their willingness to fund and defend the Israeli genocide of the Palestinians rather than giving an inch to their enemies. Yet Russia, as another pole in an increasingly multipolar world, is no friend of revolutionary and liberation movements. China, despite some corrective course at home and unlike the Soviet Union of the past, has been mostly reluctant to be an active sponsor of revolutionary movements elsewhere. Potential outcomes of a terminal crisis like this involve several unsavory options under these circumstances, such as another world war and further rise of fascism.

On top of all, we are now facing the climate crisis as one of the largest extinction risks that humanity has ever seen. Everything indicates that the crisis will hit faster and harder than we wanted to believe. Even if not immediately threatening to lead to human extinction, it is bound to exacerbate other crises we are dealing with such as world-spanning conflict, increased number of refugees, and rising fascism. The combined effects of this vicious cycle will make already-precarious revolutionary struggle exponentially more difficult.

Back in 2018, I and Alex were lucky to be placed in the same ASA panel with late Erik Olin Wright. His talk was about how to play the long game in the West, where conditions for revolutionary struggle appeared not very favorable, by patiently building bottom-up structures. We were looking forward to meeting Erik in person to discuss his position and make the case for a vanguard formation to push forward instead of playing the long term. This was not possible unfortunately as Erik was unable to join in person. Today, I am even more convinced of the arguments Alex and I wanted to make back on that day.  Under the conditions I described above, revolutionary movements simply must contend with the fact that we do not have all the time in the world. As climate crisis accelerates, fascism becomes bolder and bolder, and the Empire is increasingly desperate to ignite another world war, the stakes are very high and the response time to any opportunities as well as numerous threats will be short. Although a true revolutionary success will always depend on popular mobilization, it seems inevitable to me that a core formation able to act quickly and decisively and lend its organizing hand to popular mobilization needs to be an integral part of revolutionary struggle under these circumstances. I believe, therefore, that our collective revolutionary struggle in the twenty-first century must involve a serious debate about forming vanguard formations while also exploring different frameworks to gain legitimacy in the eyes of people as well as to correct the mistakes of the past.

Huseyin Rasit is an Associate Professor at the College of Global Liberal Arts of Ritsumeikan University, Japan. His research interests include revolutions and revolutionary struggles, state-building, ideologies, and media and propaganda. Rasit is currently working on a computational research project supported by a JSPS grant, which studies mainstream media and propaganda in relation to imperialism and capitalism.

Image: YPJ fighters in Kobani, December 8, 2014 (Biji Kurdistan / Flickr)