Debbie Bookchin Talks About Direct Democracy, Building Community, and How We Can Fight for Rojava

In the weeks after the U.S. committed one of its most profound betrayal to the people of the autonomous region of Northeastern Syria, often known as Rojava, organizers started scrambling across the world. This was an open invitation for Turkey, by way of proxy forces, to start invading the area, resting their strength on their willingness to engage in war crimes and crush the Kurdish attempt at self-governance.

Journalist and organizer Debbie Bookchin, the daughter of the anarchist Murray Bookchin whose ideas were instrumental in forming the ideology of the Rojava project, began a tour to raise the need for international solidarity with the Kurds. The organization she works with, the Emergency Committee for Rojava, is an international solidarity organization that is fightin desperately to protect the community in Syria that is facing opponents on all sides and is fighting for survival.

Interview Debbie Bookchin about what it will take to protect Rojava from the imperialist actions of its neighbors, what the legacy of the Rojava revolution is, and what it would mean to bring these ideas home.

What’s your assessment of what people are going through right now?

They are suffering tremendous hardships. It is a situation in which, really, hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee. Hundreds of people have been killed, people are wounded. Innocent people, including many, many children are losing their lives. And, in many cases, their legs, their arms. They are suffering burns. The situation is very, very grave right now, and it’s really imperative for anybody who considers themselves a progressive to do whatever they can to intervene.

What do you think the significance of Rojava experiment is?

I think that the incredible strides that the Kurds have made in achieving a society that is feminist, egalitarian, non-sectarian, ecological, is such an extraordinary accomplishment and provides such a unique model, in particular in direct democracy, that it is something that everyone who, again, considers themselves a progressive or an activists should seek to preserve. And also look to as a model of how we can build a social movement in this country that actually goes beyond protest and beyond voting for a good Democratic Socialist candidate, and starts to really empower people on the local level. 

And the Kurds have shown us exactly how this can be done. By creating local assemblies, assembly democracy where power is devolved to the local level. Where politics is re-invented. Where politics is not something that is done by a professional class who you have to put your faith in and hope they do the right thing or make the right decision, but politics is a thing which is done by ordinary people in their everyday lives. Who build a dual power, a new society within the shell of the old. 

And that means not only the things that have already been done on multiple levels successfully by the left like creating alternative educational institutions or co-ops or tenants rights organizations, but also getting involved politically at the local level to send people into city councils so they can further use that position to further strengthen the local assemblies so that we really give people a sense of empowerment and create a sense of community and build a society based on mutual aid and cooperation. All values you can experience in the process of these kind of face to face, local assemblies. 

Do you think that Rojava is a full realization of your father’s ideas? Being able to see them move from paper or a small scale into a society wide program?

Obviously I am very proud that my father’s ideas have played a role in influencing the Kurdish project. Their ideas about direct democracy and non-hierarchy and about the fact that the state is simply not an option anymore. Even the things the state claims to do well it doesn’t do well. Disaster relief, anything the state does, its incompetent on pretty much every level. I think that it's really exciting that my father’s ideas have had expression there. I wish they would find a greater expression right here in the united states.

What do you think it would take to do that? You mentioned focusing on regionality, a mix of counter-institutions and local politics.

I think people should take the local issues they are working on, whether it is immigrant rights or opposition to gentrification, for example, and form a nucleus of activists around those issues. And then, in addition to working on the issues themselves, start to meet in a more generalized way in what I would call a local assembly. A neighborhood assembly. And talk, not only about, for example, how to preserve immigrant rights, but talk with each other about all the ways that capitalism is destroying the quality of everyday life and start to reach out to other people. Talk to people as neighbors and fellow citizens. Come up with bylaws, and start actually presenting a program with literature, with organizing behind that. Whether it's going door to door or printing leaflets or appearing at local conferences and getting people involved locally at the neighborhood level. And that includes doing things that are fun. Having spaghetti dinners together. Getting together to talk about what’s going on in the neighborhood. What can be made better. 

And then eventually choosing people, based on a bylaw situation, to run for the local city council. But not as representatives, people self-chosen who say they want to run for city council, but rather having the assembly itself select somebody who essentially operates as a delegate. Even though you can win an election and serve whatever the term is, two years or four years, unencumbered, these people should promise to represent the will of the assembly and in effect be recallable if they don’t do that. Which means they should take the assembly’s decision forward into the city council and use their position in the city council to help strengthen the neighborhood assemblies. 

Whether it is increasing funding for them or further empowering them so, little by little, we build up an assembly democracy that can eventually take over the city councils locally and can use that clout and that position to basically form a countervailing power to the nation state. To slowly contest the power of the nation state. And ultimately usurp that power by continuously using the power of a confederated group of assemblies to press against the local, for example, state legislatures.

Is this different than, or run contrast to, what people think of as a revolutionary program? One where we wouldn’t participate in the functions of the state?

I think it runs a bit in contrast to what you might consider a traditional anarchist approach of organizing outside the halls of power. My experience, and I’ve lived through decades now of social movements, my experience is neither the option of seizing state power, from the top down, nor the option of staying outside of all these institutions has proved effective. 

And, for me, and I’ve said this before, there will always be power, and the question is in whose hands will it reside. In a centralized state authority, which can be as oppressive even as a socialist state as any capitalist state can be, and we certainly have many historical examples of how oppressive socialist states can be. Or whether you are going to really re-empower people, which means re-inventing politics altogether. 

So it is something people do for themselves. Part of the reason why I feel particularly sympathetic to this point of view, aside the fact that it is obviously an ideology that my father espoused for many years, is because nothing else has worked. What I see happening even in municipality efforts that you would not consider super radical, like in Barcelona, is nonetheless much more exciting to me politically than the old fashioned ideologies that we go back to. Like expecting that the working class is going to suddenly rise up and become the hegemonic class and seize state power. I just don’t see that happening. The working class today is not what it was over a hundred years ago in Marx’s time, and there is no way that Marx could predict what would happen. The direction of capitalism. There is no way he could have predicted. 

So we have to move forward with a new paradigm. And it's not enough just to form alternative co-ops and do all this work outside political institutions because then the political institutions retain the power. And you have to, somehow, find a way to bring that power back down to the people, and that’s never going to happen if you remain completely outside political institutions. On the other hand, going and voting for a presidential candidate isn’t going to do the trick either. People were very optimistic about Obama, and look at where we ended up with him. I have nothing against these candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but to me the promise of a $15/hr minimum wage, or even universal healthcare, it's just not enough. I want to have complete self-government, self-rule. I want people in their own communities to make decisions about what gets built, what housing their is, and how resources are distributed. And we have to build a countervailing force to capitalism, and capitalism is really enforced by the nation state. And I think the nation state has run its course. It is an obsolete concept and its time to do away with it. And that means finding new forms of organizing that don’t depend on seizing power of the nation state, but rather depend on devolving that power back down to the local communities. 

What are the most effective things that people can do in solidarity with Rojava?

There’s two levels. One is the most critical moment, right now, we have to stop the invasion of Turkey and we have to do that by recognizing that the people who have the power to do that are in the United States Congress and, to some extent, the administration. But the administration is unsympathetic. We have to raise our voices by contacting all our Congressional representatives and telling them that we demand and end to Turkish genocide. That the U.S. has to stop sending military aid to Turkey. We have to insist on a “no fly zone.” And that it has to push Turkey to the bargaining table with its own Kurdish population. Also, the Syrian Kurdish people should have a place at the bargaining table as they start talking about a new constitution. I’m sure you know they have been excluded.

So that is one thing, it seems so old fashioned, but we have to pick up the telephone and really make a concerted effort and insist that our Representatives take a moral position against this invasion and stop the slaughter. That’s one thing.

The other thing we have to do is organize on the long-term level, both in terms of finding ways to divest in companies that do business with Turkey, but also we have to start taking the politics of Rojava into our own communities and talking to people about Rojava and what that model represents and how a direct democratic model can work in the United States. That was one of the things they told me they wanted most from the people of the West. Take these politics back into your own communities. Do what we’re doing. Emphasize feminism. Emphasize ecology. Emphasize direct democracy. 

Become a patron to

Unlock 147 exclusive posts
Be part of the community
Listen anywhere
Connect via private message