Communalism = social-ecological movement inspired by the ideas of Murray Bookchin.
"I wish to propose that the democratic and potentially practicable dimension of the libertarian goal be expressed as Communalism, a term that, unlike political terms that once stood unequivocally for radical social change, has not been historically sullied by abuse. Even ordinary dictionary definitions of Communalism, I submit, capture to a great degree the vision of a "Commune of communes" that is being lost by current Anglo-American trends that celebrate anarchy variously as "chaos," as a mystical "oneness" with "nature," as self-fulfillment or as "ecstasy," but above all as personalistic.7
Communalism is defined as "a theory or system of government [sic!] in which virtually autonomous [sic!] local communities are loosely in a federation."8 No English dictionary is very sophisticated politically. This use of the terms "government" and "autonomous" does not commit us to an acceptance of the State and parochialism, let alone individualism. Further, federation is often synonymous with confederation, the term I regard as more consistent with the libertarian tradition. What is remarkable about this (as yet) unsullied term is its extraordinary proximity to libertarian municipalism, the political dimension of social ecology that I have advanced at length elsewhere.
In Communalism, libertarians have an available word that they can enrich as much by experience as by theory. Most significantly, the word can express not only what we are against, but also what we are for, namely the democratic dimension of libertarian thought and a libertarian form of society. It is a word that is meant for a practice that can tear down the ghetto walls that are increasingly imprisoning anarchism in cultural exotica and psychological introversion. It stands in explicit opposition to the suffocating individualism that sits so comfortably side-by-side with bourgeois self-centeredness and a moral relativism that renders any social action irrelevant, indeed, institutionally meaningless.
It is important to emphasize that libertarian municipalism--or Communalism, as I have called it here--is a developing outlook, a politics that seeks ultimately to achieve the "Commune of communes." As such, it tries to provide a directly democratic confederal alternative to the state and to a centralized bureaucratic society. To challenge the validity of libertarian municipalism, as many liberals and ecosocialists have, on the premise that the size of existing urban entities raises an insurmountable logistical obstacles to its successful practice is to turn it into a chess "strategy" and freeze it within the given conditions of society, then tally up debits and credits to determine its potential for "success," "effectiveness," "high levels of participation," and the like. Libertarian municipalism is not a form of social bookkeeping for conditions as they are but rather a transformative process that starts with what can be changed within present conditions as a valid point of departure for achieving what should be in a rational society.
Libertarian municipalism is above all a politics, to use this word in its original Hellenic sense, that is engaged in the process of remaking what are now called "electoral constituents" or "taxpayers" into active citizens, and of remaking what are now urban conglomerations into genuine communities related to each other through confederations that would countervail and ultimately challenge the existence of the state. To see it otherwise is to reduce this multifaceted, processual development to a caricature. Nor is libertarian municipalism intended as a substitute for association as such--for the familial and economic aspects of life--without which human existence is impossible in any society.9 It is rather an outlook and a developing practice for recovering and enlarging on an unprecedented scale what is now a declining public sphere, one that the state has invaded and in many cases virtually eliminated.10 If the large size of municipal entities and the decline of the public sphere are accepted as unalterable givens, then we are left with no hope but to work with the given in every sphere of human activity--in which case, anarchists might as well join with social-democrats (as quite a few have, for all practical purposes) to work with and merely modify the state apparatus, the market, and a commodity system of relationships. Indeed, on the basis of such commonsensical reasoning, a far stronger argument could be made for preserving the state, the market, the use of money, and global corporations than could be made merely for decentralizing urban agglomerations. In fact, many urban agglomerations are already groaning physically and logistically under the burden of their size and are reconstituting themselves into satellite cities before our very eyes, even though their populations and physical jurisdictions are still grouped under the name of a single metropolis." (http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/CMMNL2.MCW.html)
What is Communalism?
"Communalism is a revolutionary political ideology, with long historical roots in progressive tendencies, ideas, and institutions. It is deeply embedded in the democratic heritage, which first emerged as a conscious political expression in the Athenian polis some 2 500 years ago, with its remarkable set of institutions of face-to-face democracy, its concept of citizenship and the conscious formation of its citizens through a lifelong civic education of paideia and the existence of everyday civic duties. This communal democratic tradition broadened its scope in the communes of the European Middle Ages, which had communal systems of resource-allocation and formed far-reaching leagues of free cities, then it played a prominent role in the revolutions that shook Europe and North America in the eighteenth century. An equally important root from which Communalism has developed is the revolutionary tradition, that constitutes a continuous legacy of freedom – forgotten by much of the Left today in its generalized state of confusion – in which popular movements have fought injustice, oppression, and exploitation of all kinds, while expanding our ideals of social and political freedom. The struggle for rights and freedoms, as well as a healthy secularism, has above all been planted and cultivated by this revolutionary tradition, while its fruits have been harvested by social development as a whole. Communalism seeks to continue this legacy of freedom by enlarging upon the revolutionary tradition’s most advanced theories and demands and creating the organizations necessary to embody them. Rooted in the Enlightenment, Communalism offers generous prospects for human education and rationality as well as for the practical achievement of historical progress.
Communalism has recently found its coherent theoretical expression, in the works of the radical thinker Murray Bookchin, whose writings on social ecology give Communalism a revolutionary practice of libertarian municipalism, as well as a historical analysis, a dialectical philosophy of nature and society, an ethics of complementarity, and a political economy. Above all, Communalism is a revolutionary political ideology that aims at creating a rational society and ethical norms of production, innovation, and distribution through direct democracy.
The word Communalism first came into use around the time of the Commune of 1871, when in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War the highly centralized and bureaucratic French state all but collapsed and the citizens of Paris established a revolutionary government, boldly challenging other French communes to confederate and to form an alternative to the state. The historical importance of this challenge must not be understated: it pointed to a confederalist alternative for Europe at a time when its modern nation-states were still in the making. Ever since Karl Marx published his pamphlet, The Civil War in France, only two days after the last resistance of the communards was crushed, radicals of all sorts have tended to glorify the Commune. Friedrich Engels described the Commune as the first demonstration of the “dictatorship of the proletariat," while anarchists have used the Commune as a symbol of the “spontaneous expression" of a “bold and outspoken negation of the state," to use Michail Bakunin’s words. But not only did the Commune fail to immediately socialize property, its actual structure was little more than an extremely radical city council. Marxists went on to create “proletarian" states that did not even remotely resemble the revolutionary Commune of Paris, while anarchists got immersed in syndicalism, assassinations, and essentially communitarian enterprises. But in its essence, the Commune of 1871 envisioned a new political system based on municipal democracy, and if it had lived longer than its hectic two months it could have given tangible meaning to the radical demand for a “social republic" that had been raised in the Parisian revolutions of 1848, indeed transcending this demand with its call for a “Commune of communes."
The French word commune signifies a town, a city, or even a moderately small territorial unit that has political and administrative tasks, and it is derived from the Latin adjective communis, which means “common" or “communal." It refers to a local government and local authorities, or what is usually known as a municipality in English. Commune has a richer meaning: it embodies a constellation of rich civic values, loyalties, rights, and duties. As Bookchin has pointed out, the municipality is the most immediate sphere people all enter as soon as they cross the doorstep of their homes. It is a unique public sphere in which they can communicate in a face-to-face manner. The commune gives to human community not only form, but also a new human content, based on solidarity and shared responsibilities that go beyond family life. Potentially, at least, it is a realm of reasoned secularity – of politics – that extends beyond the blood tie of the family, clan, or tribe. Communalism attempts to actualize these potentialities and nourish them by advancing the markedly progressive aspects of Western civilization – that is, a “realm of cities." Through its libertarian municipalism it seeks to recover this sphere of real politics – the full engagement of all citizens in public affairs – as distinguished from bureaucratic forms of public life that usually marks the state. Communalism singles out the truly democratic commune as the rational form of politically organizing society.
Communalists maintain that confederations of free municipalities or communes constitute the political components of a future rational society. To really understand the uniqueness of the Communalist approach we have to recognize how fundamentally it focuses on the municipality. But, for Communalists, it implies not only a territorial administrative unit; it is also potentially a free municipality in the form of a self-conscious political community, and it is this historical goal that informs the Communalist project, whether we deal with Spanish municipios, German gemeinden or Scandinavian kommuner. This historical goal informs the Communalist understanding of the municipalities we are dealing with not only in the future but here and now. Many radicals criticize libertarian municipalism from a purely instrumental viewpoint – either complaining about the gigantic size of many cities today, or the fact that municipal councils run cities like corporations, or the fact that they in many ways are extensions and copies of the nation-state. Undoubtedly, this is true, and these problems will remain real and indeed probably worsen in the years to come. Still, they do not disqualify the Communalist approach, but merely points to challenges confronting anyone who seek to fundamentally change society. Communalists are by no means content with the municipalities as they appear today, and our ideal city does not exist, nor has it existed earlier in history. Accordingly, we seek to engage ourselves fully in rooting out state-like and market-based features of present municipalities – radically expanding their communal dimension." (from: ISSUE # 1 | OCTOBER 2002 of Communalism journal)
" Communalism, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is ”a theory or system of government in which virtually autonomous local communities are loosely bound in a federation.”10
Communalism seeks to recapture the meaning of politics in its broadest, most emancipatory sense, indeed, to fulfill the historic potential of the municipality as the developmental arena of mind and discourse. It conceptualizes the municipality, potentially at least, as a transformative development beyond organic evolution into the domain of social evolution. The city is the domain where the archaic blood-tie that was once limited to the unification of families and tribes, to the exclusion of outsiders, was—juridically, at least—dissolved. It became the domain where hierarchies based on parochial and sociobiological attributes of kinship, gender, and age could be eliminated and replaced by a free society based on a shared common humanity. Potentially, it remains the domain where the once-feared stranger can be fully absorbed into the community—initially as a protected resident of a common territory and eventually as a citizen, engaged in making policy decisions in the public arena. It is above all the domain where institutions and values have their roots not in zoology but in civil human activity.
Looking beyond these historical functions, the municipality constitutes the only domain for an association based on the free exchange of ideas and a creative endeavor to bring the capacities of consciousness to the service of freedom. It is the domain where a mere animalistic adaptation to an existing and pregiven environment can be radically supplanted by proactive, rational intervention into the world—indeed, a world yet to be made and molded by reason— with a view toward ending the environmental, social, and political insults to which humanity and the biosphere have been subjected by classes and hierarchies. Freed of domination as well as material exploitation—indeed, recreated as a rational arena for human creativity in all spheres of life—the municipality becomes the ethical space for the good life. Communalism is thus no contrived product of mere fancy: it expresses an abiding concept and practice of political life, formed by a dialectic of social development and reason.
As a explicitly political body of ideas, Communalism seeks to recover and advance the development of the city (or commune) in a form that accords with its greatest potentialities and historical traditions. This is not to say that Communalism accepts the municipality as it is today. Quite to the contrary, the modern municipality is infused with many statist features and often functions as an agent of the bourgeois nation-state. Today, when the nation-state still seems supreme, the rights that modern municipalities possess cannot be dismissed as the epiphenomena of more basic economic relations. Indeed, to a great degree, they are the hard-won gains of commoners, who long defended them against assaults by ruling classes over the course of history—even against the bourgeoisie itself.
The concrete political dimension of Communalism is known as libertarian municipalism, about which I have previously written extensively.11 In its libertarian municipalist program, Communalism resolutely seeks to eliminate statist municipal structures and replace them with the institutions of a libertarian polity. It seeks to radically restructure cities’ governing institutions into popular democratic assemblies based on neighborhoods, towns, and villages. In these popular assemblies, citizens—including the middle classes as well as the working classes—deal with community affairs on a face-to-face basis, making policy decisions in a direct democracy, and giving reality to the ideal of a humanistic, rational society.
Minimally, if we are to have the kind of free social life to which we aspire, democracy should be our form of a shared political life. To address problems and issues that transcend the boundaries of a single municipality, in turn, the democratized municipalities should join together to form a broader confederation. These assemblies and confederations, by their very existence, could then challenge the legitimacy of the state and statist forms of power. They could expressly be aimed at replacing state power and statecraft with popular power and a socially rational transformative politics. And they would become arenas where class conflicts could be played out and where classes could be eliminated.
Libertarian municipalists do not delude themselves that the state will view with equanimity their attempts to replace professionalized power with popular power. They harbor no illusions that the ruling classes will indifferently allow a Communalist movement to demand rights that infringe on the state’s sovereignty over towns and cities. Historically, regions, localities, and above all towns and cities have desperately struggled to reclaim their local sovereignty from the state (albeit not always for high-minded purposes). Communalists’ attempt to restore the powers of towns and cities and to knit them together into confederations can be expected to evoke increasing resistance from national institutions. That the new popular-assemblyist municipal confederations will embody a dual power against the state that becomes a source of growing political tension is obvious. Either a Communalist movement will be radicalized by this tension and will resolutely face all its consequences, or it will surely sink into a morass of compromises that absorb it back into the social order that it once sought to change. How the movement meets this challenge is a clear measure of its seriousness in seeking to change the existing political system and the social consciousness it develops as a source of public education and leadership.
Communalism constitutes a critique of hierarchical and capitalist society as a whole. It seeks to alter not only the political life of society but also its economic life. On this score, its aim is not to nationalize the economy or retain private ownership of the means of production but to municipalize the economy. It seeks to integrate the means of production into the existential life of the municipality, such that every productive enterprise falls under the purview of the local assembly, which decides how it will function to meet the interests of the community as a whole. The separation between life and work, so prevalent in the modern capitalist economy, must be overcome so that citizens’ desires and needs, the artful challenges of creation in the course of production, and role of production in fashioning thought and self-definition are not lost. “Humanity makes itself,” to cite the title of V. Gordon Childe’s book on the urban revolution at the end of the Neolithic age and the rise of cities, and it does so not only intellectually and esthetically, but by expanding human needs as well as the productive methods for satisfying them. We discover ourselves—our potentialities and their actualization—through creative and useful work that not only transforms the natural world but leads to our self-formation and self-definition.
We must also avoid the parochialism and ultimately the desires for proprietorship that have afflicted so many self-managed enterprises, such as the “collectives” in the Russian and Spanish revolutions. Not enough has been written about the drift among many “socialistic” self-managed enterprises, even under the red and red-and-black flags, respectively, of revolutionary Russia and revolutionary Spain, toward forms of collective capitalism that ultimately led many of these concerns to compete with one another for raw materials and markets.12
Most importantly, in Communalist political life, workers of different occupations would take their seats in popular assemblies not as workers—printers, plumbers, foundry workers and the like, with special occupational interests to advance—but as citizens, whose overriding concern should be the general interest of the society in which they live. Citizens should be freed of their particularistic identity as workers, specialists, and individuals concerned primarily with their own particularistic interests. Municipal life should become a school for the formation of citizens, both by absorbing new citizens and by educating the young, while the assemblies themselves should function not only as permanent decision-making institutions but as arenas for educating the people in handling complex civic and regional affairs.13
In a Communalist way of life, conventional economics, with its focus on prices and scarce resources, would be replaced by ethics, with its concern for human needs and the good life. Human solidarity—or philia, as the Greeks called it—would replace material gain and egotism. Municipal assemblies would become not only vital arenas for civic life and decision-making but centers where the shadowy world of economic logistics, properly coordinated production, and civic operations would be demystified and opened to the scrutiny and participation of the citizenry as a whole. The emergence of the new citizen would mark a transcendence of the particularistic class being of traditional socialism and the formation of the “new man” which the Russian revolutionaries hoped they could eventually achieve. Humanity would now be able to rise to the universal state of consciousness and rationality that the great utopians of the nineteenth century and the Marxists hoped their efforts would create, opening the way to humanity’s fulfillment as a species that embodies reason rather than material interest and that affords material post-scarcity rather than an austere harmony enforced by a morality of scarcity and material deprivation." (http://www.social-ecology.org/2002/09/harbinger-vol-3-no-1-the-communalist-project/)
Comments by Christian Arnsperger
"As a practical basis for implementing subsidiarity-guided, nested decisions with a view to creating a truly participatory economy that can stand up to the ecological crisis, Bookchin has proposed and expounded a model he calls "libertarian municipalism," embedded in a philosophical doctrine called Communalism. This is no wide-eyed, bucolic dream inspired by some neo-Luddite fantasy of a little house in the prairie, or of a Walnut Grove that is small, hence beautiful. It is an entirely concrete proposal for new democratic governance structures, rooted in the conviction that (a) our current ecological problems are really the visible side of much deeper social-structure and human-relations problems (Bookchin calls this position "social ecology"), and that (b) since Man's domination over nature is really rooted in Man's domination over Man, non-parochial local structures of decision-making need to replace the large-scale, over-sized economic and political structures of capitalist social democracy. This, according to Bookchin, implies a network of bio-regionally embedded communes oriented towards reasonable frugality -- which is, of course, precisely what the "first-world de-growth" portion of the global de-growth compact will eventually require:
"Logistically, 'free nature' [that is, a reasonable articulation between free human agency and the evolutionary fact that humans are an integral part of nature] is unattainable without the decentralization of cities into confederally united communities sensitively tailored to the natural areas in which they are located. Ecotechnologies, and solar, wind, methane, and other renewable sources of energy; organic forms of agriculture; and the design of humanly scaled, versatile industrial installations to meet the regional needs of confederated municipalities -- all must be brought into the service of an ecologically sound world based on an ethics of complementarity. It means, too, an emphasis not only on recycling but on the production of high-quality goods that can, in many cases, last for generations. It means the replacement of needlessly insensate labor with creative work and an emphasis on artful craftspersonship in preference to mechanized production. It means the free time to be artful and to fully engage in public affairs. One would hope that the sheer availability of goods, the mechanization of production, and the freedom to choose one's material lifetsyle would sooner or later influence people to practice moderation in all aspects of life as a response to the consumerism promoted by the capitalist market." (Murray Bookchin, Social Ecology and Communalism, pp. 47-48, © 2007, AK Press)
One of the key ideas underlying Bookchin's thought -- although he doesn't express it in those words -- is that while many goods need indeed to be considered as public and/or global instead of private and subject to international trade flows only, it's of little use to have large, supranational entities profer "ex cathedra" lists of goods to be considered global public goods. What is to be considered a public good is dependent on many local preferences, cultural options, life choices, and so on -- and what is to be considered a global public good should, it seems, emerge from a near-unanimous consensus between cultures, local options, and preferences -- always, of course, subject to certain large-scale constraints such as, in our case, the economic and environmental Kyoto protocols. Of course -- and this will be crucial when we investigate the "Next-Step Economy" in Part 5 later -- Bookchin's approach relies on his confidence that, under favorable circumstances, human beings will actually switch to more frugal ways of life because they will have discovered within themselves a desire to do so. (A desire which, perhaps, under current circumstances, is stifled and even censured by the systemic constraints we are all facing.)
The communalist structure of governance is based on the idea that, as Bookchin puts it, the city or "commune" is organic to human life in a modern society: It strikes the right balance between openness and universality, on the one hand, and human scale and manageable size, on the other. Municipalities, or neighborhoods in larger cities, are the adequate places from where the upward movement of citizen-generated information can begin. This certainly does not mean that the process should also end there, as if we could count on the "blind" emergence of a new economy from merely parochial, uncoordinated decisions made at municipal level. Bookchin is adamant that there should be a confederative logic at work -- and I believe that this confederative logic should, in fact, be induced from the top down in an "optimal social engineering" perspective. The WTransO and the national representatives inside it should be instrumental in pushing for confederalism in all regions and nations, so that each municipality is embedded in a region structured as a "commune of communes" where regional-level assemblies perform the role of coordinating communal information into regional data on desired goods and services, working conditions, investments, and so on. It is fundamentally a matter of pulling all communes into a broader logic where universal constraints of a human as well as environmental nature are taken into account -- and this requires interdependence, not independence. Here is how Bookchin conceives of the rationale for confederalist communalism:
"Any self-managed community (...) that tries to live in isolation and develop self-sufficiency risks the danger of becoming parochial, even racist. Hence the need to extend the ecological politics of a direct democracy into confederations of ecocommunities, and to foster a healthy interdependence, rather than an introverted, stultifying independence. Social ecology would be obliged to embody its ethics in a politics of libertarian municipalism, in which municipalities conjointly gain rights to self-governance through networks of confederal councils, to which towns and cities would be expected to send their mandated, recallable delegates to adjust differences. All decisions would have to be ratified by a majority of the popular assemblies of the confederated towns and cities. This institutional process could be initiated in the neighborhoods of giant cities as well as in networks of small towns. (...) a truly ecological society would open the vista of a 'free nature' with a sophisticated eco-technology based on solar, wind, and water; carefully treated fossil fuels would be sited to produce power to meet rationally conceived ends. Production would occur entirely for use, not for profit, and the distribution of goods would occur entirely to meet human needs based on norms established by citizens' assemblies and confederations of assemblies. Decisions by the community would be made according to direct, face-to-face procedures with all the coordinative judgments mandated by delegates. These judgments, in turn, would be referred back for discussion, approval, modification, or rejection by the assembly of assemblies (or Commune of communes) as a whole, reflecting the wishes of the fully assembled majority." (Murray Bookchin, Social Ecology and Communalism, pp. 49-50 and p. 51, © 2007, AK Press)
Surely, Bookchin is too much of an anti-Statist -- and of an anti-centralizer -- to give enough weight to planet-wide macro-constraints such as those which the WTransO would have to impose. But he can inspire an interesting vista: that of a WTransO which would not only distribute differentiated "growth quotas" to countries, but which might also serve as the Commune of communes at a planet level -- with (as we saw) third-world countries having a disproportionate say in order to create incentives for first-world countries to renounce time-honored power plays." (http://eco-transitions.blogspot.com/2011/05/what-transition-part-4-renewing.html)
Janet Biehl conducted this interview with Ercan Ayboga on April 16 and September 20, 2011:
" —Does assembly democracy have roots in Kurdish history?
—Assembly democracy has limited roots in Kurdistan history and geography. As I’ve said, the society’s village character was and is still fairly strong. Some villages had hierarchy and aghas (feudal big land owners), but in others, where these factors were absent, villages organized common meetings in the kom (village community) in which they made decisions. In many cases, older women participated in these meetings, but not young women.
In past centuries, tribes sometimes held assemblies with representatives from all families (or villages) in order to discuss important issues of the tribe or the larger society. The tribal leader carried out the decisions that the assembly accepted.
During their long history, Kurdish tribes used from time to time and from region to region a confederal organizational structure for facing political and social challenges. It was based on voluntariness, so not all tribes of a certain participated in the confederal structure. But in most of Kurdistan, many non-Kurdish tribes or societies were not much involved in the confederal system.
In the 1990s, as the Kurdish freedom movement grew stronger, an effort was made to build up assemblies in “liberated” villages. PKK guerrillas promoted village assemblies, and in villages where the guerrillas were strong, most of the people accepted them. But just as they were getting under way, the Turkish army destroyed 4,000 villages and their political structures. Thereafter the repression intensified. Since 2005, in some of the villages that were close to the freedom movement, this idea has been developed again. Some villages organize regular democratic assemblies, fully including women and all parts of the society.
—How did communalist ideas become known among Kurds? How important are the writings of Murray Bookchin? Does communalism have other intellectual sources?
—The Kurdish freedom movement had its ideological sources in the 1968 student movement and the Turkish left’s Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Maoist, Trotskyist, and other communist theories. At the end of the 1980s, the Kurdish freedom movement embarked on a critique of the actually existing (state) socialist model, and in later years it would be deepened. The critique of the 1990s said, among other points, that it’s important to change individuals and society before taking the power of any state, that the relationship between individuals and state must be organized anew and that instead of big bureaucratic-technocratic structures, a full democracy should be developed.
In 1999, when the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and the guerrilla forces were withdrawn to Iraqi Kurdistan, the freedom movement underwent a process of comprehensive strategic change. It did not give up the idea of socialism, but it rejected the existing Marxist-Leninist structure as too hierarchical and not democratic enough. Political and civil struggle replaced armed struggle as the movement’s center. Starting in 2000, it promoted civil disobedience and resistance (the Intifada in Palestine was also an inspiration).
Further, the movement gave up the aim of establishing a Kurdish-dominant state, because of the existing difficult political conditions in the Middle East and the world; instead, it advanced a long-term solution for the Kurdish question within the four states Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria: democratic confederalism. It now considers it more important to have a democratic, social and tolerant society than to have one’s own state. For Turkey, it has proposed the foundation of a second or democratic republic.
During this process of strategic change, the freedom movement activists read and discussed a new literature that supported and could make contributions to it. It analyzed books and articles by philosophers, feminists, (neo-)anarchists, libertarian communists, communalists, and social ecologists. That is how writers like Murray Bookchin, Michel Foucault, and Immanuel Wallerstein came into their focus.
The Kurdish freedom movement developed the idea of “democratic confederalism” (the Kurdish version of communalism) not only from the ideas of communalist intellectuals but also from movements like the Zapatistas; from Kurdish society’s own village-influenced history; from the long, thirty-five-year experience of political and armed struggle; from the intense controversies within Turkish democratic-socialist-revolutionary movements; and from the movement’s continuous development of transparent structures for the broad population.
—Have those factors and the Declaration of Kurdish Confederalism, published in March 2005, led to the creation of democratic, decision-making assemblies?
—This declaration was the first step in developing communalism in Kurdistan. Since then, Abdullah Öcalan wrote three comprehensive Defenses, the first in 2001 in two volumes, the second in 2004, and the last and most comprehensive in 2009 in five volumes, all of which has further developed the content of the communalism idea.
We foresee communalism as developing first in Turkish Kurdistan. Since 2007 the freedom movement has created democratic and decision-making assemblies in neighborhoods of cities where it is strong, particularly in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt, Mardin, Diyarbakir, Batman, and Van. The assemblies were established to make decisions on all common problems, challenges, and projects of the respective neighborhood according the principles of a base democracy—the whole population has the right to participate. In some of the assemblies, non-Kurdish people are participating, like Azerbaijanis and Aramaic people.
In Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkish Kurdistan, there are assemblies almost everywhere. They are stronger in the city than in the rural areas. There are even some assemblies in faraway Istanbul.
There are assemblies at several levels. At the bottom are the neighborhood assemblies. They choose the delegates that constitute the city assembly. In Diyarbakir, ideas are discussed in the city assembly, of which the city council is part—not officially, not legally, but in our system. If the city assembly makes a certain decision on an issue, then the city council members who are part of the city assembly will promote it. (But the city council also has members from the other parties, like the ruling AKP, which don’t agree with it.) The city council has the legal power to make decisions that become laws. But for the people, the city assembly is the legitimate body.
When decisions on a bigger scale have to be taken, the city and village assemblies of a province come together. In the provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak, the experience has had very positive results. The state authority has no influence on the population—the people don’t accept the state authorities. There are two parallel authorities, of which the democratic confederal structure is more powerful in the practice.
At the top of this model is the DTK (Democratic Society Congress), which brings together all Kurds in the Republic of Turkey. It consists of more than five hundred civil society organizations, labor unions, and political parties—they make up 40 percent of its members; 60 percent of its members are delegates from village assemblies.
The DTK provincial assemblies were crucial in electing the candidates for the Turkish parliament of the legal pro-Kurdish party, the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party). For the last elections, the Diyarbakir provincial assembly decided on six candidates chosen by the DTK—those selected became candidates of the BDP for parliament. (Six of 36 elected candidates are now in prison—the court did not release them. We don’t know when or whether they will be liberated.)
Slowly but surely, democratic confederalism is gaining acceptance by more Turkish Kurds. Recently, the DTK presented a draft paper on democratic autonomy for Turkish Kurdistan. At a big meeting in Diyarbakir in July 14, 2011, the DTK declared itself in support of “democratic autonomy.” It seeks to realize democratic autonomy step by step, by Kurds’ own means, and especially where the Kurdish freedom movement is strong. Much of Kurdish society approved, but the idea was controversial in Turkish society.
—What are the peace villages?
—One result of the discussions of democratic confederalism has been an objective to found new villages on the communalist idea or transform existing villages whose conditions are suitable for that. Such villages are to be democratic, ecological, gender equal, and/or even peace villages. Here peace not only refers to the armed conflict; it expresses the people’s relationships among themselves and with the natural world. Cooperatives are the economic and material base of these villages.
The first peace villages were developed in 2010. In Hakkari province, which borders Iraq and Iran and where the freedom movement is very strong, several villages decided to develop a cooperative economy. The new political and social relationship of the population and the economy are suitable for that, as the freedom movement is very strong there, with direct support from 90 percent of the society. Close to the city of Weranshah (Viranşehir), the construction of a new village with seventy households based on the idea of peace villages just started. In Van province, activists have decided to build a new ecological women’s village, which would be something special. This would enforce the role of women in the society. Women who have been victims of domestic violence will be accepted. These small communities could supply themselves with all or almost all the necessary energy.
—How widespread are the assemblies in Turkish Kurdistan?
—In reality, the assembly model has not yet been developed broadly for several reasons. First, in some places the Kurdish freedom movement is not so strong. Almost half of the population in Turkey’s Kurdish areas still do not actively support it. In those places there are no few or no assemblies.
Second, the discussions among the Kurds on democratic confederalism have not proceeded everywhere as well as they might.
And third, the repression by the Turkish state makes further development very difficult. About thirty-five hundred activists have been arrested in the past two and a half years, since 2009, which in many regions has significantly weakened the structures of democratic confederalism. There have been trials for two years. The military clashes between Turkish Army and the Kurdish guerrillas are once again on the increase. Seven days ago [c. September 20] they arrested seventy people from a city assembly in a province near the Iraqi border. The state simply says these assemblies are coordinated by the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan), the umbrella structure of the leftist Kurdish freedom movement in Middle East ,of which today PKK is a part, which is an illegal structure, and that becomes the pretext for arresting them.
—Do these ideas have support in the Kurdish regions of Iran, Iraq, and Syria?
—In Turkey, the Kurdish freedom movement is in implementation phase, but in the three other parts, the Kurds are in the first stage of discussing democratic confederalism. The existing Kurdish parties and organizations that are not part of the Kurdish freedom movement give no importance to it. They support either full independence for Kurdistan or a classical model of autonomy and federation.
But organizations that are part of or close to the KCK, and intellectuals and small groups, promote democratic confederalism as well as the democratic autonomy project of the DTK. The thirty-five hundred activists arrested since 2009 have all been members of the KCK which is an illegal organization. Every two years they have meetings with delegates from all four countries—they meet secretly—in the mountains.
In Iranian Kurdistan, the PJAK (Party for Free Life in Kurdistan), which is part of KCK, promotes democratic confederalism. Especially young Kurds have started to discuss this idea, as it is different from the past perspectives of an independent state or a federation. Iran, with its very rich cultural diversity (here there were no massacres or displacements of Kurds, as in Turkey), is a state where a confederal structure would make much sense. More than the other states, Iranian society is ready for such a political structure.
In Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is also part of the KCK, promotes democratic confederalism. Many Syrian Kurds have supported the freedom movement since the 1980s and now promote the idea of confederalism. The PYD became active politically in the last five to six years. Since the start of the broad protests in Syria in March 2011, this perspective has become very powerful. The Kurds join the protests and have become a crucial factor in the whole struggle. They demand not only autonomy but democracy for all of Syria and democratic autonomy for the Kurdish regions, and the right to organize and defend themselves against attacks.
Iraqi Kurdistan also has a party that is part of the KCK: the Party for a Democratic Solution in Kurdistan (PCDK). But this party cannot work legally, as some years ago the regional Kurdish government forbade it. So democratic confederalism is discussed very only in a very limited way by intellectuals, the media, or the population and is not (yet) a big subject. Only in the regions close to the borders, which are under the control of the PKK guerrillas, is democratic confederalism discussed openly and deeply.
But Iraqi Kurdistan has its own constitution and parliament—a more or less autonomous state in its own right!
Iraqi Kurdistan has no elements of communalism because the regional government is conservative, authoritarian, and non-ecological, and does not support women's rights. It superficially has a representative democracy, but in reality the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (YNK) share the power fifty-fifty and are very corrupt. Since the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, all the small progressive elements of these two parties have been lost.
But in the mountainous areas in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KCK/PKK guerrillas—which control those areas--have brought a very different understanding. Today in the 60 to 70 villages where the guerrillas are dominant, the population has started to establish democratic assemblies that include women. The people have started to learn to organize by their own means and to make decisions based on specific democratic procedures.
As a result we have a very contradictory situation. The region governed by the PDK and the YNK does not have even the basic elements of a normal Western representative democracy, and in the region controlled by PKK there are growing elements of democratic confederalism.
The political development in Iraqi Kurdistan shows that even in an oppressed culture, a broad, base-democratic organization is necessary. It would not help much the Kurds to have their own state or even autonomy if democracy, participation, tolerance, and ecological orientation are missing from the political structures and decision-making processes." (http://new-compass.net/article/kurdish-communalism)
Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1995
For an overview of the ideas of Murray Bookchin, see The Murray Bookchin Reader, ed. Janet Biehl (London: Cassell, 1997) and Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989). For the Communalist political approach, known as libertarian municipalism, readers should particularly consult Bookchin’s From Urbanization to Cities: Toward a New Politics of Citizenship (London: Cassell, 1995), and Janet Biehl’s clear exposition in The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997).