This module was put together by our Kurdistan Cluster to provide an in-depth overview to the Kurdistan Freedom Movement’s theory and practice, both in general and in Rojava. The movement’s political paradigm is known as Apoism, after the affectionate nickname for its founder, leader and central political philosopher, Abdullah Öcalan. Apoism draws on various revolutionary traditions, from Marxism-Leninism to feminism, anarchism and social ecology, uniquely combined with the movement’s own thought and consciously developed into a new political paradigm for liberation beyond patriarchy, capitalism and the state. We give links below to the key texts where Öcalan lays out his political philosophy, and important websites where the Apoist movement is explored from different angles.
In this module we focus on what radical Leftists in the UK and across the world can learn from the Kurdistan Freedom Movement and Rojava’s rich revolutionary process. As a revolutionary organisation that’s been in practical solidarity with the Kurdistan Freedom Movement for several years, with members both going over to North-East Syria as civil volunteers and organising closely with the movement in Europe, this is where we feel we’ve got the most to contribute. It also fits the perspective of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement: they have developed this political paradigm out of a global heritage of revolutionary traditions, and are now offering it back again to movements worldwide as a call to common struggle for a free life everywhere. How we answer is up to us.
An essential first step is understanding how Apoism works in practice, and beginning the long work of translating its lessons into our own context, so we’re excited to release recordings of talks given by internationalists doing civil volunteer work in northern Syria/Rojava. They were recorded for different actions and events, from festivals to action and protest camps, picket lines and workshops, and each draws lessons from the revolutionary struggle in Kurdistan and northern Syria for the particular struggle and audience in question. They address a broad range of issues, including what it means to struggle, the meaning and practice of internationalism, the importance of organising all society, the absolute centrality of critical political education, the process of developing a revolutionary personality, and more besides. Covering all the movement’s essential pillars, they provide both in-depth discussions and important provocations for political organising everywhere.
- The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan, which is made up of four chapters: Democratic Confederalism; Democratic Nation; Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution; and War & Peace in Kurdistan. See also Öcalan’s other works, especially the five-volume Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, the first three of which have been translated into English.
- The three-volume autobiography of Sakine Cansız, one of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement’s founding figures and first organiser of the Women’s Movement which now leads the struggle. Volumes One and Two have been translated into English.
- Make Rojava Green Again, written by the Internationalist Commune for their campaign to plant trees across North-East Syria, and detailing the movement’s development of Murray Bookchin’s social ecology
- Komun Academy is the central website for the movement’s history and ideology, and for Apoist analysis of culture and current affairs.
- Women Defend Rojava and Jineoloji offer perspectives, reports, analysis and explorations of the new science of liberation being developed by the Women’s Movement.
- Internationalist Commune of Rojava, a website for the civil internationalist movement in Rojava with lots of articles on the movement’s theory and practice.
- Cooperation in Mesopotamia, a movement to build connections between the cooperative movement in Rojava and across the world, with lots of information about how they work in North-East Syria.
- In this talk for Fast Forward 2019, Viyan at the Internationalist Commune of Rojava explores in depth the question of organising with and as part of society, as opposed to focusing on particular “communities”, and what this means in practice. As part of this she emphasises the importance of working with ideological and political differences, but knowing clearly who are allies in the struggle and who enemies. Viyan goes on to discuss the new meaning given to vanguardism in the Kurdistan Freedom Movement, and the key role of education, even and especially in times of crisis. Central to revolutionary education is the concept of developing militant personality through both criticism and understanding. In this way we can develop the necessary ambition and hope to build a movement, as well as the confidence to do this outside of the state and capitalist system, while recognising our political arenas and organisations as the places where we struggle the most, rather than seek validation, but also therefore take the most collective responsibility to care for each other.
- In this talk for Fast Forward 2019, Berivan and Arin at the Andrea Wolf Institute and Academy discuss the organisation they’re part of, and the role it plays in the women’s movement. They discuss a recent series of education seminars they had, in particular the idea of developing ‘militant personalities’ through analysis of ourselves. Berivan and Arin also go into the principles of internationalism, how we’re embedded in and so reproduce society (intersecting with social reproduction feminism), the practice of women’s autonomy, and the idea of Jineoloji, the science of women’s liberation. They end with a call for action against the UK governments attempted designation of North-East Syria as a terrorist hotspot, punishable with up to ten years in prison simply for visiting.
- In this recording for a Kurdistan Solidarity Network workshop Earth First’s summer meeting 2019, Berivan from the Andrea Wolf Institute discusses women’s autonomous organising in North-East Syria, outlining the co-chair system, and the confederation’s autonomous structures, and emphasising how women are both centred and valued in both struggle and social life. She goes on to discuss the role that internationalists play in the movement, before giving an overview of Jineoloji, the science of women’s liberation, and the way it reframes both understandings of knowledge and our relationship to nature. Berivan ends on the role of education in developing alternatives to the current system, the threat to the revolution from the Turkish state, and the connections between our struggles here and there.
- In this talk for a Kurdistan Solidarity Network workshop at Earth First’s summer meeting 2019, Viyan at the Internationalist Commune of Rojava discusses her personal and political motivations for going to Rojava, and draws lessons for organising in the UK. She focuses in on the Kurdistan Freedom Movement’s ideology, and insistence on organising the whole of society rather than the bubbles of activism and movement-building in the West. Developing this idea, Viyan discusses how we need to understand and reclaim the concept of society, to give it real meaning in our organising, as well as having a clearer image of the enemy. All this comes together then in the centrality of building up movements through education, and so the importance of ideology, at the same time as learning to become comfortable with contradictions and disagreements, focusing on what we’re fighting for and so the need to overcome fragmentation, rather than just saying what we’re against.
- This recording, made for a Kurdistan Solidarity Network workshop on the climate day at the DSEI arms fair protest camp in September 2019, gives an overview of the ideology of the Kurdistan Freedom Movement and Rojava Revolution. It discusses the revolution’s three pillars, women’s liberation, direct democracy and social ecology, and emphasises the importance of ideology in general for building a revolutionary process. Political education is key to this, of course, but the kind of knowledge we learn and teach has to be revolutionised too, especially of the patriarchal world-views that are hegemonic in the system’s education – making the perspectives of Jineoloji essential.
- For this talk, recorded for the Kurdistan Solidarity Network’s workshop at Power Beyond Borders action camp in August 2019, Viyan first gives a brief introduction to Rojava and the Autonomous Administration of North-East Syria. She then turns to the importance of internationalism as a practical expression of solidarity, and an approach that breaks down the barriers between my struggle and yours. This means moving away from a fear of power imbalance through structural privilege, towards trusting one another enough to be able to offer and receive criticism. This also means being comfortable with often major political disagreements, with an emphasis instead on the necessity of commitment and continuation in our struggle together
- In this recording, made for Brighton Kurdistan Solidarity’s #RiseUp4Rojava festival on November 2nd 2019, Arin first summarises the political situation in Rojava after the “ceasefire”, and the renewed insurgency of Jihadi militants backed by the Turkish state. They then discuss the changing role of internationalists during the crisis, as they adapt to new conditions of struggle which necessarily involve working with other political groupings and actors in order to unite against the common enemy. But this is only expansion of the revolution’s general approach: building democratic society requires us to reach out and encompass a broad range of people. As long as we’re comfortable and ground in our own ideology, theory and practice, then difficult moments such as this can be used to bring together and build understanding between groups on the radical left. Most importantly, this is an urgent task, since nation-states will always throw people under the bus when necessary, so it’s up to us to unite effectively against the enemy.
- In this talk, recorded for the International Day for Ending Violence Against Women, Berivan outlines how the Turkish state’s attack on North-East Syria is an attack on the Women’s Revolution. This makes it an act of gendered violence, but in this it’s no different from every act of colonisation, every assault on society that intends to break up communities and divide the population. This is the essence of patriarchal violence, it’s not about bad individuals committing individual acts, but a system. This means overcoming it requires collective organising aimed squarely at the system as a whole, rather than individualising the problem in particular people. She ends by discussing the three women martyrs who fell against the Turkish state, and symbolise this gendered violence and women’s resistance, and the inherent connection between all international anti-patriarchal struggles. #WomenDefendRojava
- In this recording, prepared for a picket line teach out in the 2019 UCU strikes, Berivan from the Andrea Wolf Institute discusses the role of education in the Kurdistan Freedom Movement and Rojava Revolution. She emphasises how real, revolutionary political education takes time, effort and struggle, but is worth the effort. This means we need to support each other in making this effort in all our organising, as we develop militant revolutionary personalities in ourselves and each other. A central part of this is the idea of knowledge with purpose and values, rather than for the sake of it as in the system’s version of intellecualism. This means that we need to develop our own intellectualism and to take this task seriously, and not dismiss it out of hand, as this will only leave us open to the system’s ideological “special warfare”: the way liberalism attacks our personality and worldview, and so our ability to struggle. Revolutionary education helps us build our mental self-defence against this special warfare, and jineoloji is an example of an alternative approach to knowledge that builds these capacities. Jineoloji is the form of knowledge that recognises how the liberation of women is necessary for the liberation of society, and approaches knowledge with this purpose and value front and centre, looking to liberate knowledge from its patriarchal distortions with a new science, program of research and self-education. Berivan ends with discussing how in times of crisis education can’t be put on hold, and instead becomes more important.
- In this recording for a meeting of the Queer AF Collective in Brighton, an event organised by Brighton Kurdistan Solidarity, Berivan discusses the importance of centring the struggle against patriarchy in our movement. This requires us revolutionising our relationships, since these are the places where patriarchy sits and is reproduced – in short, we need to kill the dominant male within ourselves, whatever our gender. She then goes on to discuss the different ways in which gender and sexuality are understood in Rojava, and the role queer people in the Middle East must play in shaping these understandings. This has to happen alongside their autonomous organising, as must all those who patriarchy places into oppressed positions, but this can’t be in the form of liberal and individualist “identity politics”. The diversity of opinion means we must develop a sense of exchange and respect: no one is disposable, and leaving the struggle is not an option. Instead those leading the struggle need to be able to cope with and learn from difficulty, and approach contradictions with the commitment to improve ourselves and each other.
- In this talk, recorded for Brighton Kurdistan Solidarity’s #RiseUp4Rojava Festival on November 2nd 2019, Xweza discusses how in the liberated regions of Rojava/North-East Syria there is space to grow, as the structures of state, capital and patriarchy are thrown open. Yet, being surrounded by people and having no time alone, it’s also a space where internationalists are confronted by their feelings, behaviours, wants and needs. This interplay between the individual self and the whole of society opens up the question of what aspects of ourselves bring society together, and which tear it apart. We need to both understand our sense of who we are, in Kurdish ‘xwebun’, and also what we represent to others and society as a whole, our gender, and our given and chosen social roles, from mother to revolutionary. Essential to this process is losing the fear of being criticised, this in itself brings us closer to freedom, and this can then be developed through the five key points of women’s liberation as laid out in the Kurdish Freedom Movement’s ideology. Ultimately the best way we can support the revolution is to practice its ideas.
More on the history & development of the movement:
- For the movement’s early history and development up to today we really recommend Joost Jongerden’s work, which is both readable and detailed. His articles on the movement’s emergence from Turkey’s post-68 New Left are particularly good. More recently he published a groundbreaking article on the transition from the old Marxist-Leninist paradigm to the current libertarian socialist one.
- This article makes clear what a tumultuous and divisive struggle this was, and provides important context for Aliza Marcus’ Blood & Belief, written in this period with a lot of interviews from ex-participants and very sympathetic to the struggle, but very critical of lots of aspects of the movement. It is one of the best narratives of the movement up to Ocalan’s imprisonment, has important details and should be engaged with by anyone serious about supporting the movement. But it should be read with the understanding that it was written at a time when the movement was close to breaking apart, and many members were leaving in frustration at the new direction.
- For the development over the 2000s and up to the Rojava Revolution, Joost Jongerden again has several important articles, exploring the movement’s continuity, contractions and conflicts over gender and the new paradigm, and the reinvention of democracy in a radical form, especially as a new way of conceiving the movement’s long-held goal of Kurdistan’s self-determination and independence.
- Several books have now come out detailing the movement’s experience implementing the new paradigm. For North Kurdistan (Bakur, South-East Turkey) we recommend TATORT Kurdistan’s Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan from 2011, and Struggles for Autonomy in Kurdistan, written by comrades at Corporate Watch during the Turkish state’s new war on the movement from 2015 – a struggle depicted beautifully in the short documentary Voices of Bakur. Struggles for Autonomy covers the Rojava Revolution too, but for books focused on the topic we recommend Revolution in Rojava, written by supporters and members of the movement, as well as Thomas Schmidinger’s Rojava, an academic work broadly sympathetic but also including some criticisms. Schmidinger has also written a book about Afrin in particular, invaded and occupied by the Turkish state in early 2018. Most recent is Harriet Allsopp and Wladamir van Wilgenburg’s The Kurds of Northern Syria, released just before the invasion in October 2019 and comprehensive. For the most up to date and comprehensive study of Rojava’s democratic system see the report from December 2019 by Rojava Information Center.
Plan C articles related to this topic:
- 2016 Interview with YPJ spokeswoman Nisrîn Abdullah.
- 2017 Statement from a Plan C member on arriving in Rojava.
- 2017 Report from a Plan C member in Rojava.
- 2017 Interview with a Plan C member in Rojava.
- 2019 Perspective on the Turkish invasion written by the Kurdistan Cluster, and outlining a revolutionary people’s internationalism against all empire.
- 2020 Perspective on internationalism written by a Plan C member at the Internationalist Commune.