Above photo: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY TROY DUNHAM. STOCK FROM GETTY / SHUTTERSTOCK.
ISTANBUL — Last fall, Islamic State fighters launched a coordinated, large-scale assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani on Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Fresh from victories that granted them an aura of invincibility, the extremists were about to remove the single irritant on a wide swath of the border they otherwise controlled.
The world watched in resignation. The lone superpower said it would not help. U.S. officials grimly predicted the city would fall. Yet the small band of Kurds held on for days, then weeks. The U.S.-led coalition against the self-described Islamic State began to help, first with a smattering of airstrikes then with daily assaults. And by January, in a stunning turnabout that has been called a contemporary Stalingrad, the Kurds won.
In succeeding, the Syrian Kurds defended not just a strategic outpost in the Middle East, but also a utopian idea of government they’re putting into practice — what they talk about as a space where decisions are made at the neighborhood level, where gender equity and ethnic inclusion are legally mandated, and where barter is becoming more important than currency.
The Kurds’ inspiration? Survival, sure. But also the ideas of one specific Bronx-born, Vermont-based philosopher. Their leaders developed their guiding philosophy out of a long engagement with Murray Bookchin, who fused Marxist and anarchist ideals into a vision of a world where citizens’ assemblies supplant state bureaucracy and environmentalism is king. A contemporary of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, Bookchin considered the socialist politician far too conservative.
Bookchin, who described himself as a libertarian socialist, died nearly a decade ago. His passing sparked a celebration of his life in the Kurdish regions. And now, Syrian Kurds have — at the urging of Abdullah Ocalan, an imprisoned Kurdish icon — built a Bookchin-inspired society that is the antithesis of the Islamic State.
The territory where the 1.5 million or so Syrian Kurds have launched this social experiment, carved out of the wreck of Bashar Assad’s police state, includes Kobani and two other small “cantons,” or regions. They call it all Rojava — “Western Kurdistan” in Kurdish, the language the Syrian Kurds have only been able to use freely since Assad’s control loosened a handful of years ago.
Washington sees the Syrian Kurds’ success defending Kobani — and other parts of Rojava — as the chief example of how U.S.-led air power and partnerships with forces on the ground can effectively defeat the Islamic State.
But this is an especially odd partnership. The Syrian Kurds’ ties to Ocalan and the PKK, the designated terrorist organization he leads, enrage Turkey, the most important U.S. ally in the region. And the Rojava vision is dramatically at odds with the more feudal nationalism of another group of Kurds who are used to being Washington’s favorites — those in Iraq. The Syrian Kurds’ growing autonomy and unwillingness to launch an all-out offensive against Assad has also upset the Syrian Arab nationalist rebels that the U.S. has courted for years.
A quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall suggested the taming of the left, the U.S. is providing air cover for radical Marxist-inspired militants its closest allies can’t stand.
Welcome to Rojava.
Bookchin, who died in Burlington, Vermont, in 2006, grew up speaking Russian. His parents were Russian Jews who were active in the movement against the Tsar — “Russian revolutionaries,” he called them in a 2001 interview. “I learned English in the streets” of a multi-ethnic New York, Bookchin said.
Bookchin was a young communist, but he knew early that he would not be following any party line. He left the Young Communist League in his teens because he wasworried that his fellow leftists were collaborating with the bourgeoisie and becoming less militant. Bookchin remained involved in the U.S. Communist Party through the end of the Spanish Civil War, which he later said he would have participated in personally had he been older. But he left the party again before he graduated from high school, adopting Leon Trotsky’s view that the Soviets had the right idea but were implementing it wrong, and got a job as a foundryman in New Jersey.
After 10 years as a labor organizer, Bookchin ditched orthodox Marxism altogether after the World War II — disappointed, he explained in the 2001 interview, that “the war ended without a revolution.” Bookchin set out to “rethink everything,” he said, as he watched fellow workers in the auto industry become too passively middle class for his taste and labor’s role in post-war America shift rapidly.
Bookchin began to dream of a future in which machines could replace most human effort and free individuals could develop themselves as they saw fit. But he believedthat in the interim, social problems — the biggest among them the struggle between amoral corporate power and humanity’s best interests — would lay waste to the natural world. “The notion of progress, once regarded as faith in the evolution of greater human cooperation and care, is now identified with ever greater competition and reckless economic growth,” Bookchin argued.
So he began to pioneer a brand of thinking called social ecology that advocated using human innovation to serve populations and the planet rather than capital.
“I wrote about alternative technology, arguing that technology should be as humanly scaled as possible,” Bookchin recalled in the later interview.
In Bookchin’s view, “utopia was no longer just an idle dream, but something that could happen,” according to his biographer and longtime companion, Janet Biehl.
“Murray’s contribution to that was to figure what is going to be the institution,” she said.
Bookchin proposed reshaping a capitalist world by setting up micro-level systems of local popular assemblies. Such a political structure would, he believed, marry the best of both the intellectual traditions he valued. “We have to go beyond the economism of Marx and beyond the individualism that is sometimes latent, sometimes explicit in anarchism,” Bookchin said in 2001. He argued that true freedom and economic equity could only exist as products of democratically run, self-governing and non-hierarchical communities. Bookchin highlighted societies that he said enabled both freedom for the individual and social cooperation without relying on hierarchy.
“He’s trying to do with hierarchy what Marx did with class,” Biehl said. “It’s no mistake that he ended up living here in Vermont, the land of the New England town meeting.”
Debbie Bookchin, his daughter, told HuffPost her father insisted “we could only heal our relationship with the natural world when all forms of hierarchy were abolished.”
The political structure Bookchin foresaw — his approach to the revolutionary dream of establishing communalism or a “commune of communes” — had little to do with the nation-state.
Perhaps that’s what made it so appealing to the Syrian Kurds — a people who have never had their own country.
The Syrian Kurds owe their Bookchin obsession to their chief guide: Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, a Kurdish revolutionary group in Turkey that has fought the Turkish government on and off since the early 1980s.
The European Union and the U.S. consider the PKK, which has killed thousands of Turkish security personnel and civilians, a terrorist organization. They support their NATO ally Turkey in its anti-PKK actions.
Unlike Iraqi Kurds — partners of the West since 1991 who are skeptical of the PKK and are content for now with an autonomous region inside the nation-state of Iraq –Syrian and Turkish Kurds take their ideological cues from Ocalan. So when he argued that longstanding Kurdish aspirations for political structures and societies of their own would be best fulfilled if Kurds adopted the philosophy of a mustachioed Russian-American Jew from the Bronx in New York City, they listened.
Ocalan was once a Marxist-Leninist true believer. But by 1999, when the U.S. and Syria helped Turkey capture him, he was signaling his doubts about the continued viability of orthodox communist thought. The PKK had abandoned the goal of establishing a Kurdish nation-state by 1995, according to Reimar Heider of Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan, a Germany-based nonprofit. By the time of what Ocalan supporters call the “abduction,” the Kurdish movement was trying to identify its next steps.
Turkey imprisoned Ocalan in 1999 on an island 35 miles south of Istanbul, the same T-shaped speck where soldiers who took over in a 1960 coup executed the prime minister they replaced. It built a courthouse for the express purpose of hosting Ocalan’s trial. It arrested fisherfolk who it believed got dangerously close. And then it left Ocalan alone for years in a 140-square-foot cell as the only inmate in a jail that once housed the American author of Midnight Express. A military base loomed nearby.
In prison, Ocalan dove into radical, post-communist literature, looking for a new way forward. A famously voracious reader whose book selections were regularly leaked in the Turkish and Kurdish press, he began to devour Murray Bookchin. By 2004, Heider and others advocating for Ocalan’s cause felt the time had come to connect him with the aging Vermonter. Establishing some form of dialogue was critical to them, Heider told HuffPost, because conservatives in Kurdish circles were pushing for the movement to completely abandon leftist thought.
They wrote to Biehl.
On April 11, five days after he received Ocalan’s missive, Bookchin wrote back with Biehl’s help.
Then 83, Bookchin had long been curious about the Kurds and written about their struggle in his personal journals, his daughter said. He told Ocalan he wasn’t familiar with all aspects of the PKK’s fight — he blamed the U.S.’s “parochial press” — and he was so old that writing was a struggle, but he was happy to be in touch.
“I am a walking history of the twentieth century in my own way and have always tried to look beyond ideas that people freeze into dogmas,” Bookchin wrote to Ocalan. “I ask you to please be patient with an old radical.”
The existence of Bookchin’s correspondence with Ocalan has been previously reported, but HuffPost obtained the full cache of preserved documents and is publishing them for the first time with permission from the Murray Bookchin Trust, Biehl and Heider. (None of those sources had the initial message from Heider and Oliver Kontny, another Ocalan advocate.)