Anthropologist and activist David Graeber was an early and committed supporter of the Kurdish freedom movement and the revolution in Rojava. He insisted that the international community, and the international left, in particular, recognise and defend what he described as “a remarkable democratic experiment” right up until the time of his death, in Venice last week.
He visited the autonomous region in northern Syria several times and stood with Kurdish activists abroad when they worked to make people aware of their struggle.
Drawing parallels with Spain in the 1930s, he pointed out in a Novara Media interview last year that Rojava represents “one of the few occasions where people have actually had an extensive stretch of territory to actually see if libertarian socialist ideas can actually work on the ground,” going on to describe the “startling success” of the project.
Based on the ideas of the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish freedom movement Abdullah Ocalan, Rojava consists of three predominantly Kurdish provinces that gained autonomy amid the Syrian civil war that started in 2011. It is governed based on principles including social ecology, direct democracy and women’s liberation.
After he was captured and arrested in 1999, Ocalan began to reevaluate the movement’s political programme, which had previously sought the creation of a Kurdish state in the tradition of other Marxist-Leninist national liberation movements. He arrived at a new paradigm that saw the nation-state itself, not simply the nation-states that oppressed and erased the Kurdish people, as an obstacle to freedom.
Writing from an isolated and militarised island prison, Ocalan proposed that only a society based on direct democracy, decentralisation and the freedom of women could overturn the nation-state system and capitalist modernity. He referred to this system as democratic confederalism – “the contrasting paradigm of the oppressed.”
Graeber credited Ocalan for being open to adopting the ideas that underpin the autonomous region. He saw early on how democratic confederalism could be an alternative for people oppressed by capitalism and the nation-state everywhere, one that addressed the failings of more mainstream radical programmes on the weak and disjointed international left.
He also understood and put into practice something that is integral to the Kurdish cause, and yet often erased by those who seek to reduce it to geopolitical concerns and strategic developments: that the struggle for existence in Kurdistan is also a struggle for the freedom of humanity.
For thousands of years in the region that was divided up into the modern Middle East, people have risen up against tyranny. From the earliest rulers of the first states and empires to the modern capitalists and imperialists who imposed new borders on the region, every escalation of oppression has been met with people willing to fight and sacrifice their lives to prevent it.
People around the world know more of these stories than they think they do – some as mythology, some as religion, some as modern history. In Ocalan’s philosophy, they are all part of one great refusal to abandon human freedom – one that was not always successful, but that continued anyway.
It is hard not to see the Kurdish freedom movement’s fight against Isis as part of that same tradition. The great battles of 2014 in Kobane and Shingal looked unwinnable. Tens of thousands of civilians were facing massacres and brutal Isis rule. The armies of regional states, more used to cracking down on their own civilians than defending them from armed enemies, had crumbled or fled.
The women and men of the YPJ, YPG and PKK were heavily outnumbered. They had few weapons, few resources, and fewer allies. But they won anyway – because Isis was fighting to die and destroy, and they were fighting to exist.
In the areas they liberated, they set up a system based on Ocalan’s ideas – promoting gender equality, coexistence between different religious and ethnic communities, and bottom-up democracy. They had not only stopped the advance of a terror group that threatened the world, but proven to people everywhere that a system could be built to ensure that such oppression never returned.
Graeber was one of a handful of Western intellectuals to see what Rojava meant to the people of the region and people everywhere— at a time when the revolution there was at its most radical and fragile. In 2014, when the victory in Kobane was still uncertain, he compared the battle to the Spanish Civil War, pointedly asking: “Is the world – and this time most scandalously of all, the international left – really going to be complicit in letting history repeat itself?”
When the region came under attack by Turkey last year, with the full support of the same Western states that had praised the Kurdish fight against Isis, he called on people in Europe and the US to reject the actions of their governments and stand in solidarity.
Today, as compounding crises make people around the world more aware of the unsustainability of a system based on exploitation and division, we must be able to learn from other struggles without presuppositions and to make commitments to solidarity that go beyond words. With Graeber’s passing, we have lost a man who lived those universal principles every day. What we have not lost is the example he set and the ideas he defended. We can remember him the way he remembered the people of Rojava who gave their lives in the fight against Isis – by living out those ideas in practice.
Giran Ozcan is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) representative to the US. The HDP is a pro-Kurdish, pro-minority political party in Turkey.