[Article Peter Storm]/Dear Cheerleaders, we need to have a chat about imperialism

Saturday, 4 April, 2015

Written for Libcom, and just published on my blog there.

In Rojava, in the North of Syria, Kurdish fighters are struggling against IS, Islamic State. That struggle deserves out interest, because it is not just a fight between armed groups fighting for territory but at the same time a struggle for a different social and political order, called Democratic Confederalism. Direct democracy, a central rol of women in the fight and in the running of society, space for people of different ethnic backgound to express themselves and co-determine their own fate, libertarian socialist inspiration and a clear break with the Marxist-Leninist and nationalist orthodoxies of the Kurdish movements involved , the PYD in Syria, the PKK in Turkey with which the PYD is connected… all this gives many people reason to cheer the events as an important revolution – the Rojava Revolution. Others, however, are less convinced, some – myself not excluded – have serious reservations. Exchanges of opinions, sometimes furious ones, have been going on for months now. What follows is a contribution to this polemic.





Those of us expressing reservations on the Rojava process of change are often promptly accused of sectarianism or worse. A rather shocking example of this put-down attitude appeared in ROAR Magazine, in general a very useful publication that sheds lights on many encouraging struggles against neoliberal capitalism the world over, but also a publication that, in its boundless enthusiasm, sometimes veers into the direction of cheerleading for a particular fight: that of Rojava. ROAR has published valuable pieces on that struggle, but its general attitude seems a bit over the top to me. And when other radicals express their doubt on Rojava, such doubt is met with scorn. In this case, that scorn is expressed by Petar Stanchev.

Target of his article is Gilles Dauvé, who wrote a piece on Rojava in which he tries to show that the movement in Rojava, however courageous, can best be seen as a radical form of liberal democracy, not a form of proletarian, anticapitalist revolution. I think many of his arguments have a lot of merit, but what I am more interested in here, is Stanchev ‘s ferocious reaction. For him, Dauve’s attitude is an example of the “short-sighted, poorly informed, dogmatic and sectarian manner” in which “the struggles of the peoples in the Global South” are criticized – criticism which “(is) wittingly or unwittingly reproducing the logic of colonialism in h the process.” Further on in the article, he warns us about the danger of “the colonial mentality and profound dogmatism of certain gropups and individuals in Western anarchist circles.” Hence, his warning, and the title of his piece: “Mr. Anarchist, we need to have a chat about colonialism”.  The warning fails on at least three points, a minor one, and two rather more serious ones.

First failure: Mr. Anarchist is no anarchist

The first failure is polemicizing against Dauve as “Mr. Anarchist”. Gilles Dauve does not speak or write as an anarchist. He does not claim to be an anarchist. Rather, he stands in the tradition of Left Communism: those basing themselves on Marx’ revolutionary critique, while rejecting both Social Democracy and Leninist orthodoxy. The fact that Left Communists reject the state and either reject any form of party, or understand by ‘party’ something totally different from the power-grabbing organizations usually meant by that name, brings them quite close to anarchist positions. But that does not give anybody the right to either claim them for anarchism or dismiss them as anarchist. I agree that ‘Mr Left Communist’ or ‘Mr. Communization Theorist’ would make for a less attractive title. But that does not justify addressing someone you criticize by a name that is not hers or his.

Second failure: relying on evidence from on high

The second failure is the evidence that Stanchev puts forward. He counters the scepticism of Dauve and others by pointing us to two kinds of sources. One is: the Works of Comrade Öcalan! Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader who was captured in 1999 by the Turkish state and was in jail ever since, was the one who developed the concepts of Democratic Confederalism after reading texts by libertarian socialist theoretician Murray Bookchin. He still is the guiding light of both the PKK and the PYD. Ocalans portrets are to be seen in abundance in the Rojava area where Democratic Confederalism holds sway. And quotes by this Ultimate Leader now are to be found in a text defending the Rojava experience from criticism. And they are being used to show how wrong this criticism is. Imagine how we would react of someone countgered criticism of Mao by quoting that Chairman himself. What’s so ‘anti-colonial’ in basing or defending your point of view on a Supreme Leader?

The other form of evidence Stanchev points to, is the content of eyewitness accounts. Of course, that is much better than quoting The Leadership. However, the accounts often originate from a visit by an academic delegation that travveld through parts of the area ain a kind of semi-official visit. Participants, among which Janet Biehl and David Graeber were prominent, were led around by officials and received by at least one minister of the regional authorities.

Reading, for instance, “Impressions of Rojava: a report from the revolution”, the account of Janet Biehl, also on ROAR, I was struck by the way she presents a more or less official view by the movement. For instance, on the Öcalan portrets that even she will not deny: “Images of Abdullah Öcalan are everywhere, which to Western eyes might suggest something Orwellian: indoctrination.” Only to Western eyes?! However, be not afraid, ye faithful. “But to interpret those images that way would bem to miss the situation entirely.” How do we know? “ ‘No one will gove you your rights’, someone quoted Öcalan to us, “you will have to struggle to obtain them.’” We need not fear Öcalans overwhelming presence, because that same Öcalan Himself says we should trust our own powers… Here, we come full circle: even the evidence on the ground that Stanchev bases himself on points to Öcalan as a point of reference. It is a classic belief system where truth comes from on high. What is ‘colonial’ about pointing out and criticizing that top-down-dynamic?

All this does not mean that there is nothing encouraging going on in Rojava. Reports of serious efforts to build directly democratic strtuctures, and on the role of women in the struggle, are credible. But so are the reports on its limitations; the adulation for Öcalan, the repressive practices of the PYD against opponents. And then, there is the economy. Dauve claims that you cannot seriously argue that workers in Rojava are in control. Duh, replies Stanchev, “the ‘proletariat’ in its Western sense does not exist in Rojava”. Be that as it may, Dauve ‘s point stands.

But if proletarians are not in control of producing and distributing goods and services, who is? Well, there is a “cooperative economy”, which sounds good, and probably is. “It is based on communal ownership and self-management and often operates outside then monetary economy.” Excellent! “Some of the lands were collectivized after the big land-owners left the area after the PYD takeover”. That indeed points towards a bit of social revolution. Maybe there are some proletarians active after all in this process, proletarians in the sense of propertyless people who have to sell their labour power to make a living. The idea that only factory workers in blue overalls are proletarians, may be ‘Western”. But the whole concept of proletarians as working class people in the broadest sense, may be less alien for Rojavan realities than Stanchev admits. I fail to see what ś so ‘colonial’about asking some critical questions about its presence and role.

Unfortunately, the cooperative sector is not the only one. There is the “private economy” bound by the “social principles of the revolution”, and obliged to cooperate with local administrative organs. And then there is the “open economy”. That means: “foreign investment, which unfortunately remains necessary for the development of the region ‘s infrastructure”, in, for instance, refineries. “The idea is to attract foreign investment – but only at the price of respecting the social nature of the cantons. The local economy will be developed on the terms set by the inhabitants of Rojava and their assemblies, not by Western capitalists.” And what if local desires clash with capitalist demands, in a situation where foreign investment is considered essential? Who will win out, the assembly of a Rojava village, or Shell ‘s board of directors, possibly backed by military threats? There is a word for this kind of relationship between big capitalist firms based in powerful Western countries on the one hand, and the population in impoverished regions in the Global South. That word is ‘colonial’. Okay, let ‘s have a chat on colonialism then, Mr. Stanchev, shan ‘t we?

Let me make one thing clear at this stage. My anger is not directed at the PYD, even though I criticize their position. They do their thing, in extremely unenviable circumstances. They make choices, right ones and wrong ones, under duress. They express a political goal that is only partly mine, but that is their right. My annoyance is directed at those radicals – some fellow anarchists, some quite close to my own views – who present the process of change as an anticapitalist revolution, which it is clearly not.

Yes, there is the claim, again expressed by Stanchev, that “(t)he industry that will be developed in Rojava should be under direct workers control, or at least this is the expressed intention of the PYD officials.” Note, first, how it is the view of officials, not of the people at the grass roots, whose desire is here presented as central. And note, second, how this is presented as something far into the future. Note, third, how this ambition necessarily clashes with the desire to encourage Western capitalists to do business in Rojava. You can have workers controlling and running the factories. You can have capitalist running factories and exploiting workers and local natural resources. You cannot have both things at the very same time. The PYD trying to balance these things off in a tricky game, is bad enough. Cheerleaders finding excuses for this balancing act and refusing to side with one side of the equation is inexcusable.

Third failure: imperialism left out of the picture

The third failure may be the most devastating of all three. It is the failure to see imperialism’s role for what it is: a deadly threat to any autonomous revolutionary effort. Rojava ‘s existence as a zone of autonomous cantons, more or less run on democratic confederalist lines, has come to depend on American military force. Complaining about colonial prejudice amongst the PYD ‘s critics, while ignoring imperialism ‘s almost open colonial role, that is what we have in Stanchev ‘s case.

The PYD is now in open military alliance with the US empire. And Petar Stanchev is silent about that alliance and what it may imply. Janet Biehl does not give it a mention either in her report. Neither does David Graeber. This is a disastrous distortion: presenting a process of social change as much more self-reliant and independent than it really is. But how can you talk about ‘autonomy’ – a word frequently and glowingly used by radical fans of Rojava democratic confederalist change – when your sheer survival has come to depend on US bombing raids?

Before I present some of the evidence, let me state this: proving that the PYD is part of an imperial alliance is not the same as denying that there is a serious process of social and political change going on in the area. The Rojava revolution and the PYD organization are not exactly the same thing, even if I find the epithet ‘revolution’ a bit much for the process. Criticizing the PYD – but more importantly, criticizing its Western fans! -is not the same as dismissing the process.

The fact of alliance and dependency can be easily established, even if Graeber, Biehl and now Stanchev prefer not to. We have provided coalition forces with the coordinates of IS targets on the ground and are willing to continue providing any help they will request”, Asya Abdullah, part of the PYD leadership said, according to the BBC on 9 October 2014 .  On 14 October an interview appeared with Polat Can, spokesperson of the YPG,  the fighting force connected to the PYD. Some information from that interview: “For the last few days, the air strikes have been numerous and effective. We can clearly state that, had these attacks started a couple weeks ago, ISIS would not have been able to enter Kobane at all. ISI would have been defeated 10-15 kilometer away from the city, and the city would not have turned into a war zone.” Turkey did not cooperate at first, and there were logistical issues, but after that was solved, the attacks began to work. Contacts with the US were going on earlier, but after the attack on Kobane, things begin to move forward.

To the question, “Can we say there is an official relation between the YPG and the coalition?” his answer was affirmative. “Yes, we are acting in concert with the international coalition forces. We are in direct contact with them, in terms of intelligence, on a military level, and in terms of air strikes.” The contact is rather direct. “YPG representative is physically ready in the joint operation command center and transmits the coordinates.” That is again about the locations that the US subsequently bombs. For clarity’s sake: ISIS is what is also known as IS, Islamic State. “Coalition forces” refers to the US-led military alliance, with the YPG as de facto ground forces.

Not yet convinced that the PYD and its armed wing is part of the US-led coalition? A piece on the website Rudaw.net (1) on 5 November 2014 had the following: “Muslim, who traveled from Kobane to Erbil for a conference, said the People’s Protection Units (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish militia, now considered itself part of the international coalition battling ISIS.” Muslim refers to Anwar Muslim, head of the Kobane administration, the one in charge (apart from Öcalan, of course).

This is much more than coincidentally fighting the same enemy at the same time. This is active collaboration. And in such collaboration, between a local guerrilla force and the bigges military empire on earth, who will call the shots? And what was Muslim doing in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where US oil companies abound, and where a US consulate is located? By the way, YPG and the Peshmerga s– part of conservative Kurdish movements in Iraq – are fighting quite nicely together. “We are more acting like a single army than as two forces in coordinated way. The Peshmergas are endeavouring to carry out what is asked from them in a self-sacrificing way”, says Mahmud Berxwedan, commander of YPG forces. There may be diplomatic friendly exaggeration at work here. Still, the enthusiasm for this kind of cooperation with the US and with pro-US Kurdish forces, is clear. This is cooperation with ruthless enemies of any kind of serious revolution, even if they are willing to tolerate bits of democratic confederalism for the moment..

One of the most dangerous of these enemies has made an appearance in the unfolding tragedy. His name is Zalmay Khalizad, former (?) US diplomat and one of the neoconservative functionaries in the Bush administration. Andrew Cockburn tells the story in “The Long Shadow of a neocon”,  a 12 June 2014 article on the website of Harper’s Magazine. The story has some relevance for the matter at hand.: US imperialism and the PYD.

Khalilzad once was presidential envoy and then US ambassador to Afghanistan, after US intervention overthrew the Taliban in 2001 he promoted Karzai to the presidency. Later on, after the US invasion of that country, he was ambassador to Iraq, where he promoted Maliki to become prime minister of that country. It was Maliki ‘s policy of of Shia sectarian rule that pushed Sunni communities to protest, and even to grudgingly support ISIS against the onslaught of Maliki ‘s Iraqi army in 2013-2014. However, corruption was all around., alarge part of the Iraqi army mainly consisted on paper, a large part of the rest ran away as fast as possible when ISIS came close. Maliki ‘s military onslaught collapsed. ISIS rose to power in Mosul and other Iraqi cities, Maliki was pushed aside in political intrigue in Bagdad.

These disasters are part of the heritage for which this Khalilzad is co-responsible. He is “now an obscure businessman seeking crumbs from the table as an ‘international consultant’”, in Cockburn’s 2014 description. But what is this? “The co-leader of Syrian Kurds met with former US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Kalilzad, reportedly to discuss further military coordination to push out the Islamic State (ISIS) from the embattled city of Kobane”, according to an news article on Rudaw.net on 9 December 2014.

The “co-leader of Syrian Kurds” happens to be Salih Muslim, from the PYD leadership. And you can besure that Kalilzad is not there on purely private consultancy business. If Kalilzad sees fit to meet somebody from the PYD leadership, you can be sure that evil is afoot, with that leadership either being trapped or becoming partners-in-crime, or something in between. Khalizad, in his times in office in Afghanistan and Iraq, operated as a kind of colonial governor. The PYD apparently,is now prepared, willingly or grudgingly, to operate as part of that neocolonial order. Is it really the ones who are not buying Graeber ‘s, Biehl ‘s and now Stanchiev ‘s admiring attitude towards that PYD that need chats on colonialism? Or is the noble threesome itself in need of some anti-colonial enlightenment?

As if working together with the US empire is not bad enough, Great Britain is in the picture as well. On 25 March,pydrojava.net, a PYD-related webside, announced:  British foreign minister receives Saleh Muslim and tomorrow will deliver a speech to the British parliament”. Reading further, we see that Muslim actually met, not the minister himself but Gerrit Baily, apparently some lower functionary of the department. “Also yesterday on 24-3-2015 Saleh Muslim had a speach (sic) in a closed session at the Royal institute of research services”. Whatever that is exactly, it does not sound as an initiative to introduce democratic confederalism to the British Isles. These talks and similar others are all about “recent developments in the region and Rojava and cooperate to eliminate then terrorist Desh from the region.” Daesh is another word for ISIS or IS. PYD is a junior partner in this latest episode of the War on Terror, and seems mighty proud as well to be taken serious by the bigwigs in that war.

US imperialism’s role around Rojava is clear for all to see, that is, for all who are willing to look. Of course, this does not make the US and the PYD friends. They share a common enemy, and not much else. But that is how empire often uses all kinds of forces. Carter did not need to ‘like’ the Afghan Mujaheedin in order to use them against a pro-Russian Afghan government. Reagan did not need to ‘like’ them in order to use them against Russian invading forces, there to support the government that felt threatened by the Mujaheedin armed struggle. Obama did not need to ‘like’ the Libyan militias NATO used to get rid of Khadafi. Obama does not need to like the PYD either. Pentagon and White House probably distrust the left-wing politics of that organization, just like they distrusted Islamism among their auxiliaries in Afghanistan, Lybia, Syria.

Right now, however, the PYD plays a useful role for the US. They are rather good at something that other military forces are rather bad in: killing ISIS fighters, and helping the US kill more. And the US sees ISIS as a threat to their oil protectorate in Iraqi Kurdistan and other allied and pro-US regimes. Just bombing them may not be enough to defeat them, sending ground forces is politically risky for any US president. So why not use PYD fighters willing to play that role? You can always discard them as soon as they get in the way, as the US did with Kurdish guerrilla fighters against the regime of Saddam Hussein in 1975-76 and again in 1991.

This is how empires work. Cortez and his 508 Spanish conquistadores probably would not so easily have conquered the Aztec empire if he hadn’t allied with tens of thousands of Taxlacans, another Mexican nation with plenty of reasons to hate the oppressive Aztec rulers, and willing to let themselves be used by the Spanish invaders. Not much remains of the Aztec empire. Not much remains of Taxlacan independence either. Substitute ‘ISIS’ for ‘Aztecs’ ,’PYD’ for ‘Taxlacans’, ‘USA’ for ‘Spain’ and ‘oil’ for ‘gold’ , and allow for some differences because history never plays out exactly the same way(1). Still, the logic is clear.

What about social radicalism in Rojava? I do not believe the US leadership cares very much if there are a few mountainous areas where people experiment in direct democracy, as long as they do not expand these efforts towards Istanbul, Baghdad or Cairo. The fact that the PYD, the main force in the area, is willing to open the area to multinational capital will ease Obama ‘s mind even further. Things are not half as radical as they look. Villages and towns with a leadership that cooperates with the US may as well govern themselves as they see fit. That saves the cost of direct colonial rule.

And now that Kobane is saved from IS, in large part by US air attacks. And the war goes on. Rudaw reports on 2 February:  “In their advance against ISIS, the YPG fighters are supported by Peshmerga artillery and coalition air strikes.” The PYD can be grateful: if not for US bombs, Kobane might have fallen to ISIS. That creates dependency. You might argue that this dependency cuts both ways.: PYD owes its survival to imperialist intervention, just like the US owes some of its success to the assistance PYD fighters have given US forces. But things are not in balance. A small force allied with the biggest capitalist power is not an alliance of equals. The result of such an alliance for the weaker partner usually is not enhanced autonomy, but enhanced dependency.

PYD, to put it bluntly, is being used. They are not in control of their destiny, and we should not operate under the presumption that they are. Heroic their fight certainly is. But is the PYD waging an autonomous social revolutionary struggle? As part of an big power alliance led by the USA? Something is not right here. Dear Cheerleaders, we need a chat about imperialism.


(1) Rudaw.net, which I quote several times, is in its own words “a Kurdish media network”, which “aims to impart news and information about Kurdistan and the Middle East in a professional manner”. It is based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. How close it is to the authorities there – no friends of the PYD, though now in alliance with them – I cannot say. They seem well-informed on what happens behind the scenes, though obviously care is needed in using their information.

(2) For instance, the Taxlacans – 150.000 tot 200.000 thousands of them – were relatively stronger compared with the few hundred Spaniards. Even so, it was Spain, not Taxlaca, which came out on top. The US is much much stronger compared to the PYD than Spain compared to Taxlaca. Another difference: Cortez fought with hardly any direct back-up from Spain itself. He was basically freelancing. The same cannot be said about the US bombers.

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