Kurdistan and Cherán: Revenge against the nation-state

Alberto Colin and Ali Cicek write about the experiences of struggle in Cherán, Mexico and Kurdistan, in order to compare similarities and differences in both revolutionary processes where democracy, ecology and the role of women are the pillars of a new society.

The revolution in Kurdistan and its paradigm of democratic modernity have become an important point of reference for many democratic forces all over the world. The Kurdistan Freedom Movement’s struggle for freedom, which celebrates its 44th anniversary this year, teaches us not only how to successfully resist the brutal attacks of capitalism’s wars, but also how to construct an alternative way of living beyond the state and power. The revolution in Kurdistan situates itself in a perspective that sees construction and resistance as simultaneous. Whilst the struggles and protests against fascist regimes continue in Northern Kurdistan (Bakur) and Eastern Kurdistan (Rojhilat), in regions like Rojava, Sengal and Maxmur, for example, the structures of local councils are being reinforced in order to push forward with the construction of democratic confederalism.

The revolution in Kurdistan does not wait to be attacked, it does not limit itself to reacting, but is instead an active subject organising across all areas of life, whether that be in the economy, health, education or culture. With this approach it tries to include all the key sectors of society. In doing so, the Kurdistan Freedom Movement considers its resistance in an international context, and the pillars of its paradigm (radical democracy, women’s liberation and ecology) are central principles for constructing an anticapitalist alternative. The nation-state’s politics of genocide and assimilation are not limited to the Middle East, in fact it has a global dimension.

Leading Kurdish theorist Abdullah Öcalan, highlights how the 400-year history of capitalist modernity is at the same time the history of a form of genocide in the name of the homogenous nation against multi-ethnic and multicultural society with its diverse political units, and of self-defence against this. This can be understood as processes of cultural genocide and at times physical genocides. Öcalan’s definition of these societies is as follows: “Democratic confederalism is the history of the insistence on self-defense, multi-ethnicity, multiculturalism, and diverse political forms that opposes this history” (Öcalan, 2020, p. 258). The democratic confederalist system is democratic modernity’s counterpart of the nation-state, the main state form of official modernity. We can define this as a form of non-state political governance” (Öcalan, 2020, p. 256). In this sense, the nation-state in its desire to homogenise society, has tried to destroy many traditions and cultures through genocide or assimilation into an ethnicity, religion, sect, or other form of group domination. Thousands of tribes and peoples have been practically eliminated along with their languages, dialects, and cultures. Many religious practices and beliefs were prohibited, folklore and traditions were assimilated and those that refused such assimilation were expelled and marginalised; that is to say, their social cohesion was broken. According to Öcalan, this means that all historical forms of existence were sacrificed to “a meaningless nationalism in the context of historical-society, based on ‘one language, one flag, one nation, one fatherland, one state, one anthem, and one culture’” (Öcalan, 2020, p. 303).

Wherever there is exploitation and oppression, however, resistance begins to form. Öcalan defines this resistance in the following manner: “The resistance of cultures is reminiscent of the flowers that blossom, piercing rocks to prove their existence, and this is evidenced by the fact that they continue to reach daylight by smashing through the concrete of modernity poured over them” (Öcalan, 2020, p. 304). Moreover, he considers the autonomous administrations in cities, towns, and regions, which have existed in great numbers over time, to be an important cultural tradition which has been the victim of nation-statism. According to Öcalan, these different urban, local and regional autonomies have maintained their existence because centralised governments have not been able to impose or fully realise complete homogeneity across all continents: “The most active and current issues related to autonomy and autonomous work are found in areas stretching from the Russian Federation to China to India through the entire American continent (the US is a federal state, Canada has a high degree of internal autonomy, and South America has significant regional autonomy) to Africa (in the absence of traditional aşirets and regional governance, states can neither be formed nor govern). Rigid centralism, a disease of the nation-statism, is implemented only in a limited number of states in the Middle East and some dictatorships around the world” (Öcalan, 2020, p. 305).

From the perspective of Öcalan, a liberation of the city, the local and the regional is an inevitable part of liberation from the disease of the nation-state. Such liberation has not only taken place in Kurdistan, but in other places too. In such places not only do we see resistance but also the construction of democratic autonomy. The indigenous p´urhépecha community of Cherán, located in the West of Mexico in the state of Michoacán, is fighting an ecological struggle through self-governance and women’s resistance. The Uprising began on the 15th of April 2011 to defend local pine forests from illegal logging by loggers associated with criminal groups protected by the state police force. The inhabitants of Cherán have calculated that around 20,000 hectares of forest have been cut down over five years in a territory that possesses 27,000 hectares of forest. The magnitude of this devastation was vast.

Since 2009, around twenty citizens from Cherán have been killed, disappeared or imprisoned by armed groups involved in this illegal logging. Groups who spread fear throughout society by means of armed violence. The municipal government through its political party, in turn never offered guarantees of justice in the face of such events, its corruption was evident. Cherán’s inhabitants soon realised that the same local authorities were colluding with the criminal organisations in control of the area. On the 15th of April 2011, women, young people, teachers, peasants, street vendors, artisans and resin collectors from Cherán decided to confront the loggers to stop the plundering of the forest and put an end to abuses of power, to the extortions of organized crime, to imprisonment, and to all the violence which affected the community.

In the face of this situation, the community (with women and the youth taking the lead) launched a tenacious struggle involving a diversity of strategies: at first, they reacted with a direct and armed confrontation with “the bad ones”, the name Cherán’s inhabitants use for the criminals, this was followed by the expulsion of the local police and the municipal government. After this confrontation, a strategy of institutional negotiation was employed in order to create agreements with the state government to achieve a solution to the conflict through political advocacy. In this case, the counter-hegemonic use of law as a tool to solve conflicts by peaceful and legal means was of the utmost importance. This meant that Mexico’s Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary recognised the community of Cherán’s right to set up their own system of representation and municipal government. By appealing to their rights as an indigenous people, the indigenous community of Cherán won a historic recognition of their own form of government; this is to say, their political autonomy with respect to relations with the Mexican state (1).

During the first year of the uprising, the community which includes around 20,000 inhabitants, built 189 campfires in the streets of Cherán, which were the first nucleus for organisation within neighbourhoods and at the same time a mechanism of self-defence. Neighbours gathered around the campfires in every street to keep watch twenty-four hours a day, to prepare their daily meals and to collectively protect themselves from the “bad ones”. This protection was carried out through the revitalisation of the Ronda Comunitaria (Community Round in English); a community organisation ensuring security and vigilance which operated with the rotating participation of neighbours from every neighbourhood. The campfires remained active in the streets for almost a year, this allowed the inhabitants to re-establish their social bonds and reinforce communal relations in order to organise themselves politically. It was this space around the fire where they talked about, reflected on and constructed their project of political autonomy which maintains the community to this day. For example, through the discussions and agreements of the campfires the decision to create a communal government lead by a Council of Elders was taken. The council includes twelve elders (three members from each of the four neighbourhoods, the K´eris, which in the p´urhepecha language means big/great) chosen by an assembly through a vote by show of hands. This forms a collective body which is governed by two fundamental principles: to serve others and to serve society. This system’s governmental structure is organised through eight Operational Councils which assume the tasks related to the town’s social co-ordination. This includes: the Council for Communal Properties, the Council for Local Administration, the Council for Neighbourhood Coordination, the Council for Carrying Out Justice and Conciliation, the Youth Council, the Women’s Council, the Council for Civil Affairs, and the Council for Social, Economic and Cultural Programs. These councils are also made up of men and women from every neighbourhood, chosen in a general assembly to serve for a period of three years. Currently, Cherán continues to exercise its right as an indigenous community to govern itself and maintain its own community security organisation made up of members of the very same inhabitants of Cherán. Inhabitants who are taking their political destiny into their own hands, turning radical democracy into an everyday reality, and keeping alive the slogan: Por la Seguridad, la Justicia y la Reconstitución de Nuestro Territorio (For security, justice and the reconstitution of our territory), (Concejo Mayor de Gobierno Comunal de Cherán, 2017).

There are many parallels between the Kurdistan Freedom Movement and the project of autonomy in Cherán that are worth highlighting. Both revolutionary processes were initiated a decade ago (the revolution in Rojava), revealing how similar forms of violence are employed by nation-states and capitalist warfare against different peoples within the world-system. In the case of Cherán, extractivist violence tried to turn Cherán’s forests into a commodity for illicit trade, whilst the people of Cherán tried to maintain their means for reproducing life and, in this sense, the forest-guards and the ronda communitaria played an essential role in their armed defence. In Kurdistan, it is evident that various imperialist and colonial powers have tried to dispossess the Kurdish people, to rob them of their culture and their ways of life, through genocidal strategies. Strategies like the use of chemical weapons to eliminate Kurdish guerrillas or blocking the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to halt the growth of non-state society. In this case, various defence units play the role of protecting civilians’ lives and reacting against enemy attacks.

Another aspect is related to the integral role of women in these resistances, as leading figures in their respective organisations, positioning themselves as the vanguard of revolutionary processes. The women of Cherán were the first to organise themselves to defend the trees around the community’s nearest waterhole, the site where the revolt began. With respect to the Kurdish people, it has been quite clear that the women’s revolution is the revolution of Kurdistan. Their role in this revolutionary struggle has been active since practically the beginning of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). A role which was complemented by the creation of parallel women’s structures across all Kurdish political organisations, and by women’s current position in all spheres of social life in which they have a presence. Likewise, in the two revolutionary experiences discussed here, the fight against patriarchy within and outside their own structures of governance is constant, a fight which transforms them into the protagonists of anti-patriarchal struggle.

In both Cherán and Kurdistan, a redefinition of democratic politics can be seen. This means that radical democracy is not an abstract notion, but instead it is materialised in the daily lives of men, women, children and the elderly through the composition of institutions for collective deliberation and agreements that generate a participative, proactive and critical political culture. Factors which work to push forward social life without the intervention of state society or manipulation by the institutions which characterise capitalist modernity. This allows peoples to construct their own path from below, taking into consideration their own cultural strategies, the methods and temporalities of this being determined by constructing a politics which values diversity as a principle of organisation and the expresses itself across all areas of social, cultural, political and economic life.

Finally, it is interesting how the idea of organising society through councils has been reclaimed by both revolutionary processes. In the case of Kurdistan, councils organised by the populace of the regions’ various peoples are the central unit of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, where the experience of democratic confederalism is taking place. Rojava is a living example of these councils which looks to address every one of the confederal system’s dimensions: politics, justice, education, health, the economy, self-defence, culture, the youth, ecology, diplomacy and of course, women. The Kurdistan Freedom movement is therefore betting on an organisation model based in a network of councils, with their respective co-leadership by at least one woman. These councils inter-connect to constitute the autonomous subject of liberated areas. In Cherán, the councils function similarly, so that they articulate the structure of the communal government and operate with a certain autonomy in the administration of social life. They also help to resolve society’s problems and collaborate to develop different aspects of autonomy. Thanks to the fact that they receive monetary compensation for their work, these councils can dedicate themselves fully to their organisational work for the community’s benefit. Work which is considered to be more like a service by its differentiation from the western notion of salaried work.

Without knowing of each other, both experiences of community organisation in defence of life, culture and dignity represent concrete evidence that democratic modernity emerges despite capitalism’s wars. From Cherán to Kurdistan, peoples engaged in struggle advance towards an emancipatory horizon with political practices from below that, with democratic and ecological focuses, subvert the colonial and patriarchal order which has historically oppressed peoples. In this sense, Öcalan argues that: “Just as the historical conditions in the nineteenth century generally favored nation-statism, current conditions – the realities of the twenty-first century – favored democratic nations and strengthened urban, local, and regional autonomous governance at all levels” (Öcalan, 2020, p. 310-311). This prediction written by the Kurdish leader firmly plants the possibility of another world at the margins of capitalism, since we see now the existence of the “conditions for ensuring that the fate of the confederal structures destroyed by nation-statism in the mid-nineteenth century is not repeated in the twenty-first century are present, instead the conditions to turn it into a victory for democratic confederalism are quite promising” (Öcalan, 2020, p. 311).

Of course, the challenges for these experiences are numerous and at times they may be very persistent because we are talking about constructing free societies as a counter-current to capitalist domination. The liberalism that characterises the nation-state always tries to corrupt and absorb these democratising tendencies which emerge beneath its ideological and material hegemony. A process which has succeeded in multiple contexts and periods in the history of the last century. We must recover these learnings from previous revolutionary processes to reunite the current of historical society that is expressed in urban, local and regional political entities in a new ideological and political structure which is constantly articulating and composing itself, in order to create an emancipatory potential which does not fall into the trap of the nation-state. This is the most important strategic task of democratic modernity, just as it is for all those peoples and processes which oppose the system of colonial and patriarchal domination.

  1. For more information about this experience of self-governance you can watch the documentary Cherán: The Burning Hope https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xr1hapswLd0

References:

Concejo Mayor de Gobierno Comunal de Cherán (2017). Cherán K´eri. 5 años de autonomía. Por la seguridad, la justicia y la reconstitución de nuestro territorio. En cortito que´s pa´largo.

Öcalan, A. (2020). Sociology of Freedom: Manifesto of the Democratic Civilization, Volume III. PM Press.

Picture taken by: Francisco Cucue