Tag Archives: films

The Oscars, Academy Awards, Hollywood Heroism: From ‘Citizen-four’ and ‘Selma’ to ‘American Sniper’; Martin Luther King, Edward Snowden and Chris Kyle and America’s Addiction to Violence.

23 Feb


The United States’ addiction to violence is partly evident in the heroes it chooses to glorify. Within the last few months, three films appeared that offer role models, however flawed, to young people while legitimating particular notions of civic courage, patriotism and a broader understanding of injustice. I am less concerned in this inquiry with the historical accuracy or artistic merits of the films than with the identifications they mobilize and the narratives they unfold about valor – still a solely masculine trait in Hollywood.

Citizenfour is a deeply moving film about former NSA intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden and his admirable willingness to sacrifice his life in order to reveal the dangerous workings of an authoritarian surveillance state. It also points to the courageous role of journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Julian Assange. These are the brave journalists and cultural workers who occupy the alternative media, refusing to become embedded within the safe parameters of established powers and fiercely challenging the death-dealing war-surveillance machine Snowden reveals both in the film and in later revelations published by The Guardian, Salon and The Washington Post, and later summed up in Greenwald’s book, No Place to Hide.

At one point in Citizenfour, whistleblower Snowden makes clear that his revelations carry extraordinary political weight, particularly when he states that the United States is “building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind” – this despite the lies and denials of the government and politicians on both sides of the ideological aisle. Snowden’s sense of political and moral indignation is captured in his belief that the United States had crossed over into a totalitarian politics that it now shares with the infamous Stasi, the ruthless and feared official state security service of the former German Democratic Republic. According to Snowden, the United States has morphed into a colossal digital update of the Stasi, and has fully retreated from any notion of democratic values and social responsibility. As the surveillance state grows, the United States is increasingly obsessed “by a creepy intoxication with what is now technically possible, combined with politicians’ age-old infatuation with bullying, snooping and creating mountains of bureaucratic prestige for themselves at the expense of the snooped-upon taxpayer.” This piece first appeared at Truthout. Posted on Feb 23, 2015 By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

Moral and political courage is in short supply these days and rarely represented in any form in the Hollywood celluloid universe.




In the documentary, Snowden comes across as a remarkable young man who shines like a bright meteor racing across the darkness. He is calm, unpossessing and almost nerdy in his demeanor, appearing utterly reasonable and believable. In many ways, despite some political shortcomings and omissions in the film, Snowden embodies the best of what US leadership has to offer given his selflessness, moral integrity and fierce commitment to both renounce injustice and to do something about it. But the film is not without its flaws. By omission it leaves out the countless additional acts of heroism of other whistleblowers and in doing so erases the crucial role that WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Sarah Harrison played in providing the conditions for Snowden’s eventual escape to a safe haven. The film comes close to decontextualizing Snowden’s actions in light of the erasure of the mounting acts of resistance against government surveillance and state violence that have been intensified since the end of the Vietnam War.

Snowden comes across as a nice guy, a poster boy for the liberal press when in actuality he is a radical in the best sense of the term and is far from interested in simply reforming the empire. Moreover, the film adds to its own depoliticization by focusing exclusively on the whistleblower and not situating Snowden’s action within a broader context of struggle. As mentioned above, there is no reference to the crucial role of Jeremy Scahill, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in revealing and challenging the various acts of spying, violence, widespread illegal surveillance and ruthless militarism at the heart of a number of authoritarian regimes, not to mention the corruption and crimes committed by the financial elite in a number of countries. At the same time, as important as these omissions are, what is compelling for me, despite the film’s shortcomings, is the incredible courage and commitment of a young man who is willing to risk his life in exposing the dark secrets of the deep state. Moral and political courage is in short supply these days and rarely represented in any form in the Hollywood celluloid universe.

Selma focuses on a three-month period in 1965 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others organized and planned to challenge the racist power structure in Alabama by eventually marching from Selma to Montgomery as a nonviolent act of civil defiance in order to secure equal voting rights. The strength of the film lies in its attempts to reveal not only the moral and civic courage of King in his fight against poverty and racial oppression, but also the courage and deep ethical and political commitments of a range of incredibly brave men and women unwilling to live in a racist society and willing to put their bodies against the death-dealing machine of militarized state force (eerily anticipating Ferguson) in order to bring it to a halt. It is this representation, however limited, of civic courage, collective struggle and the violence at the heart of US history that redeems Selma. The film offers up not only a much needed form of moral witnessing, but also a politics of confrontation that serves as a counterpoint to the weak and compromising model of racial politics offered currently by the Obama administration. It is in this representation of collective courage, popular struggle and daring resistance against the exercise of visceral racist violence that Selma‘s oppositional narrative, however flawed, offers the possibility of a more complete understanding of valor and heroism in the interest of justice, and the educative nature of a politics in which nonviolence and vast social movements struggle for radical change. Selma may have buried a number of historical and political truths, but there is a kernel of visionary politics in the film waiting to be rescued.

Selma represents Hollywood’s attempt to rescue public memory, albeit as dozens of critics have already revealed, it’s a deeply flawed attempt. While the film provides a historical snapshot of a particular moment in the civil rights movement that offers a horrifying, visceral portrayal of a vicious and brutalizing racism, it compromises itself by distorting and underplaying the crucial role of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the movement. Not only does it downplay the important role of James Forman in the movement, it also infantilizes his role in the events of Selma by depicting him as a petulant and immature young boy, when in fact at the time he was older than King. As is well known, the film also constructs a self-serving and disparaging image of President Johnson’s relationship with King, one that is completely at odds with the historical record. The film “depicts Johnson authorizing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to smear King and – as King himself suspected – try to drive him to suicide. It is a profoundly ugly moment.” This is more than a gross distortion. As Glen Ford makes clear, it was “the Kennedy brothers who were the ones who authorized the bugging of Dr. King’s phones and office and hotel rooms.”

The liberal retreat into the fog of low intensity battles, a quick willingness to compromise rather than fight and the habit of ignoring embarrassing truths are also evident in the way in which Selma whitewashes history not only with regard to the role of SNCC and President Johnson in the civil rights movement, but also in the way in which King is portrayed as a kind of compromising liberal, surely a nod to legitimize the politics of President Barack Obama. This might also be viewed as a capitulation to the false purity of liberal political intentions, if not obsessions. Omissions of this sort add up to a kind of liberal amnesia evident in the fact that the actual journey of a more radical King is undermined by portraying him in the film as a pragmatist intent on compromising with the white power structure in order to get black people the right to vote and to ensure them a place in the electoral process. King was not a liberal and that may be why he was assassinated. Near the end of his life, King had developed into a full-fledged democratic socialist who was more than willing to connect the violence of war, militarism, poverty, inequality and racism with the scourge of a ruthless, punishing and dehumanizing capitalism. I think that the movie critic Steven Rea is right in insisting that “Selma may be flawed, even spurious at points. But in its larger portrait of a man of dignity, purpose, and courage” the film succeeds in making visible a courageous movement exhibiting the best of collective resistance and heroism in its quest for racial and economic justice.


Selma and Citizenfour invoke the courage of men and some women who oppose the violence of the state in the interest of two distinct but intersecting forms of lawlessness, one marked by a brutalizing racism and the other marked by a suffocating practice of surveillance.


Available Now

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While Selma makes clear the viciousness of racism during this moment in the civil rights movement, the film echoes the liberal ideology that structures its politics. More specifically, Selma echoes Oprah Winfrey’s stripped down liberal ideology, which can only focus on individual agency at the expense of larger structural forces rooted in a racist capitalist state. After all, the fact that Selma was produced by Winfrey, who plays, unsurprisingly, the role of one of the most militant characters in the film, all but guarantees that any hint of a radical politics will constitute a present absence in the film. What most positive commentaries on the film fail to acknowledge is that any viable politics for addressing racism then and now in the United States will not come from Winfrey’s brand of celebrity liberalism or her Selma, but from the lessons learned from King’s eventual theoretical and political turn to repudiating a society bounded by militarism and racism on one side, and inequality and financial capital on the other. Selma offers no hint of such a struggle.

The third film to hit US theaters at about the same time as the other two is American Sniper, a war film about a young man who serves as a model for a kind of overconfident, unreflective patriotism and defense of an indefensible war. Chris Kyle, the subject of the film, is a Navy Seal who at the end of four tours of duty in Iraq is heralded a hero for killing more than 160 people there – the deadliest soldier in that military conflict. Out of that experience, he authored an autobiographical book that bears a problematic relationship to the film. For some critics, Kyle is a decent guy caught up in a war he was not prepared for, a war that strained his marriage and later became representative of a narrative only too familiar for many veterans who suffered a great deal of anguish and mental stress as a result of their wartime experiences. This is a made-for-CNN narrative that deals in only partial truths. Other critics have labeled the film as a “piece of myth-making and nationalistic war porn.”

A more convincing assessment and certainly one that has turned the film into a Hollywood blockbuster is that Kyle is portrayed as an unstoppable and unapologetic killing machine, a sniper who was proud of his exploits. Kyle is a product of the US empire at its worst. This is an empire steeped in extreme violence, willing to trample over any country in the name of the war on terrorism and leave in its path massive amounts of misery, suffering, dislocation and hardship. It is also an empire built on the backs of young men and women – though only men are featured – who are relentlessly engaged to buy into the myths of US military masculinity. Chris Kyle was the quintessential “army of one,” able to triumph over all enemies thrown in his way, including a former Olympic rifleman.

Of the three films, Selma and Citizenfour, however flawed, invoke the courage of men and some women who oppose the violence of the state in the interest of two distinct but intersecting forms of lawlessness, one marked by a brutalizing racism and the other marked by a suffocating practice of surveillance – though we see early histories of the surveillance state in Selma, and racism can hardly be detached from the war in Iraq. American Sniper is a film that erases history, spectacularizes violence, and reduces war and its aftermath to cheap entertainment, with an under explained referent to the mental problems many veterans live with when they return home from war. In this case the aftermath of war becomes the main narrative, a diversionary tactic and story that erases any attempt to understand the lies, violence, corruption and misdeeds that caused the war in the first place.




Under a regime of neoliberalism, a persistent racism and politics of disposability are matched by a theater of cruelty in which more and more individuals and groups are considered throwaways.


American Sniper hides the fact that behind the celebrated image of the heroic vigilante sniper lies a number of secret killer elite squads and special operations teams formed, under the George W. Bush administration, as part of a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The JSOC includes elite troops from a variety of US fighting units and has grown “from fewer than 2,000 troops before 9/11 to as many as 25,000 today.” In Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill describes JSOC as a global killing machine, running covert wars and allowing its special operations units to function as unaccountable death squads. JSOC has a budget of more than $8 billion annually and constitutes the infrastructure that suggests that American Sniper is less about a lone wolf vigilante than it is symptomatic of a much larger and more secret killing machine.

Of course, while it may be redemptive for Hollywood to link targeted assassinations with US heroism, what it erases is that the real global assassination campaign is not the stuff of military valor, of “man-to-man” combat, but is being waged daily in the drone wars that have become the defining feature of the Obama administration. Many critics, including Noam Chomsky, have commented on Chris Kyle’s memoir in which he calls the enemy he has been fighting “savages.” There is more here than a trace of unadulterated racism; there is also an indication of how violence becomes so palatable, if not comforting, to the US public through the widespread ideological and affective spaces of violence produced and circulated in the United States’ commanding cultural apparatuses.

This is not surprising since under a regime of neoliberalism, a persistent racism and politics of disposability are matched by a theater of cruelty in which more and more individuals and groups – such as immigrants, low-income whites, poor blacks, the unemployed and the homeless – are considered throwaways and hence are tarred with the label of being less than human and hence are all the easier to evict from any sense of social responsibility or compassion. Extreme violence has become an American sport that promotes delight in inflicting suffering on others. But it does more. It also ups the pleasure quotient when the Other is entirely reified and demonized, making it easier for the US public to escape from any sense of moral responsibility for a war that was as immoral as it was illegal.

In the end, American Sniper is both symptomatic of and serves as a legitimation for the savage struggle-for-survival ethic that dominates US life and resonates throughout the narrative. Moreover, violence becomes a kind of safety valve to protect individuals against the perils of a solidarity based on care rather than fear. Politics becomes an extension of war. This becomes crystal clear in the dinner table scene in American Sniper when Kyle lectures his kids about how there are three types of people in the world: “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs.” In this pernicious worldview, wolves are brutal killers who threaten an innocent public both at home and abroad. Abroad they can be found in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, or wherever Muslims live. At home, the category is quiet fluid and includes groups ranging from drug dealers and urban thugs to threatening black youth and criminal street gangs. The sheep are a metaphor for God-loving, patriotic, innocent Americans while the sheepdogs are those patriotic and vigilant Americans whose role is to protect the sheep from the wolves. The sheepdogs include everyone who inhabits the warrior culture, a wide range of groups that extend from the paramilitary police forces and vigilante super patriots along the nation’s borders to the gun-loving soldiers that protect US interests overseas.


The stories a society tells about itself are a measure of how it values itself, its children, the ideals of democracy and its future.




The analogy is not just pernicious; it is also transparent rationale for a hyper-masculine gun and militarized culture that feeds on fear and racist hysteria. It also offers a rationale for killing those dangerous racial others (wolves) who, in light of recent killings of unarmed black men by the police, appear to be fair game for the sheepdogs. I don’t believe this analogy is far-fetched. It is evident in the discourse of prominent politicians such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani who has argued that the white cops in black communities are necessary because of the high numbers of black on black crime. This is more than a false equivalency since black people are not armed by the state and many go to jail for the crimes they commit (or increasingly for not committing any crime at all). But more importantly, the disproportionate rate at which the police kill blacks rather than whites speaks to a not so hidden order of racial aggression and violence. According to recent data collected by ProPublica, “young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police.” What this discourse evokes is one of the central principles of neoliberalism – a survival of the fittest culture in which violence, unchecked self-interest and a militant individualism merge.

At the same time, American Sniper evokes sympathy not for its millions of victims but exclusively for those largely poor youth who have to carry the burden of war for the dishonest politicians who send them often into war zones that should never have existed in the first place. Amy Nelson at Slate gets it right in stating that “American Sniper convinces viewers that Chris Kyle is what heroism looks like: a great guy who shoots a lot of people and doesn’t think twice about it.” But American Sniper does more than inject the horror of wartime violence into the instrumental logic of efficiency and skill; it also offers young people a form entertainment that is really a species of right-wing public pedagogy, a kind of “teachable moment.” Its decontextualization of war serves as a recruiting tool for the military and reinforces a sickening rite of passage that suggests that one has to go to war to be a real man. This is a death-dealing myth wrapped in the mantel of US heroism. Moreover, it is a myth that young, vulnerable, poor youth fall prey to, especially when their everyday existence is steeped in despair and precarity, and their identities are shaped in an endless number of cultural apparatuses that thrive on the spectacle of violence. There is no context, truth or history in this film, just the passion for violence and a hint at the despair that leaves its subjects and objects in a nightmarish world of despair, suffering and death. In that sense, as Dennis Trainor Jr. points out, the film is dangerous pedagogically. He writes:


History has borne that fact out, and that lack of context makes “American Sniper” a dangerous film. Dangerous because kids will sign up for the military because of this movie. Dangerous because our leaders have plans for those kids. Some will kill. Some will be killed. Or worse. There is no narrative existing outside the strict confines of “American Sniper’s” iron sights that allows for the war on terror to be over. It’s like a broken record looping over and over: attack, blowback and attack.





Citizenfour and Selma made little money, were largely ignored by the public and all but disappeared except for some paltry acknowledgements by the film industry. American Sniper is the most successful grossing war film of all time. Selma will be mentioned in the history books, but will not get the attention it really deserves for the relevance it should have for a new generation of youth confronting new forms of racism and state violence. There will be no mention in the history books regarding the importance of Edward Snowden because his story not only instructs a larger public, but indicts the myth of US democracy. Yet, American Sniper resembles a familiar narrative of false heroism and state violence for which thousands of pages will be written as part of history texts that will provide the pedagogical context for imposing on young people a mode of hyper-masculinity. Such pedagogies will be built on the false notion that violence is a sacred value and that war is an honorable ideal and the ultimate test of what it means to be a man. This is the stuff of Disney posing as pure Americana while beneath the pretense to innocence, bodies are tortured, children are murdered, villages are bombed into oblivion and the beat goes on.

The stories a society tells about itself are a measure of how it values itself, its children, the ideals of democracy and its future. The stories that Hollywood tells represent a particularly powerful form of public pedagogy that is integral to how people imagine themselves, their relations to others and their relationship to a larger global landscape. In this case, stories and the communal bonds that support them in their differences become integral to how people value life, social relations and visions of the future. American Sniper tells a troubling story codified as a tragic-heroic truth and normalized through an entertainment industry that thrives on the spectacle of violence, one that is deeply indebted to the militarization of everyday life.

Courage in the morally paralyzing lexicon of US patriotism has become an extension of a gun culture both at home and abroad. This is a culture of hyper-masculinity that trades in indulgent spectacles of violence and a theater of cruelty symptomatic of the mad violence and unchecked misery that is both a byproduct of and sustains the fog of historical amnesia, militarism and the death of democracy itself. Maybe the spectacular success of American Sniper over the other two films should not be surprising to anyone in a country in which the new normal for anointing a new generation of heroes goes to billionaires, politicians who sanction state torture, and other leaders of the corrupt institutions and bankrupt celebrity culture that now are driving the world into political, economic and moral bankruptcy, made visible in the most venal vocabularies of stupidity and cruelty. War machines, the mainstream, corporate controlled media and the financial elite now construct the stories that the United States tells about itself and in this delusional denial of social and moral responsibility, monsters are born, paving the way for the new authoritarianism.










The Spread of Anarchism and the 1905 Russian Revolution; Global Anarchism’s, No Gods, No Masters and No Peripheries

23 Feb


In the latest installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the spread of anarchist ideas and movements at the beginning of the 20th century, and the significance of the 1905 Russian Revolution. I refer to Kropotkin’s perceptive analysis of the significance of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the full text of which can be found here. Before the 1917 Russian Revolution, as the Marxist historian E.J. Hobsbawm himself admitted, “the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist, or at least much closer to the ideas and the mood of anarcho-syndicalism than to that of classical marxism.”



The Spread of Anarchism

Prior to the First World War, anarchism had become an international revolutionary movement, with the largest anarchist movements in countries with anarcho-syndicalist trade union organizations, such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay, or like minded revolutionary syndicalist movements, as in France. In the early 1900s, anarchist ideas were introduced to Japan (Volume One, Selection 102) and China (Volume One, Selections 96-99). Anarchists and syndicalists, despite the efforts of the Marxists and social democrats to exclude the anarchists from the international socialist movement, formed the extreme left wing of the socialist and trade union movements. Anarchist ideas regarding direct action, autonomous social organization, anti-parliamentarianism, expropriation, social revolution and the general strike were gaining more currency, particularly after the 1905 Russian Revolution, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910.






 The 1905 Russian Revolution

In January 1905, Czarist troops massacred scores of protesters at a demonstration in St. Petersburg, precipitating a general strike and the formation of the first “soviets,” or workers’ councils in Russia (Voline, 1947: 96-101). Following Russia’s defeat in its war against Japan in February 1905, unrest spread throughout Russia, culminating in a countrywide general strike in October 1905. The Czar was forced to promise constitutional reforms, which he soon reneged upon. Nevertheless, the great general strike of October 1905 made a deep impression on workers and revolutionaries around the world, giving renewed credence to anarchist ideas, for it was the anarchists who had been advocating the general strike as a revolutionary weapon since the time of the First International (Volume One, Selection 27). The Marxist social democrats had been dismissing the general strike as “general nonsense” for years (Joll: 193).

Kropotkin observed that “what exasperated the rulers most” about the general strike “was that the workers offered no opportunity for shooting at them and reestablishing ‘order’ by massacres. A new weapon, more terrible than street warfare, had thus been tested and proved to work admirably” (1905: 280). Despite this practical vindication of anarchist ideas, Malatesta was careful to point out the limitations of the general strike. Instead of “limiting ourselves to looking forward to the general strike as a panacea for all ills,” Malatesta warned, anarchists needed to prepare for the insurrection or civil war which would inevitably follow the workers’ seizure of the means of production. For it is not enough for the workers to halt production; to avoid being forced by their own hunger back to work, the workers need to provide for themselves (Volume One, Selection 60).



The Anarchist International


As the anarchist pacifist Bart de Ligt (1883-1938) put it in the 1930s, “the workers must not strike by going home or into the streets, thus separating themselves from the means of production and giving themselves over to dire poverty but… on the contrary, they must stay on the spot and control these means of production” for their own benefit (Volume One, Selection 120). Maurice Joyeux (1910-1991), following the May-June 1968 events in France, described such action as the “self-managerial” general strike, by which the workers directly take control of the means of production (Volume Two, Selection 61).

No revolutionary group could claim credit for the 1905 Russian Revolution. As Kropotkin noted, the October 1905 general strike “was not the work of any revolutionary organization. It was entirely a workingmen’s affair” (1905: 278). What the anarchists could do was point to the 1905 Russian Revolution as a practical vindication of their ideas, enabling them to reach a much broader audience inspired by these events. Robert Graham




From Chiapas to Rojava: Seas Divide Us, Autonomy Binds Us; Zapatistas: 20 years of reinventing revolution. Ecosocialism, Ecoanarchism

19 Feb


Power to the people can only be put into practice when the power exercised by social elites is dissolved into the people.


Despite being continents apart, the struggles of the Kurds and Zapatistas share a similar purpose: to resist capitalism, liberate women and build autonomy. Petar Stanchev is finishing a degree in Latin American Studies and Human Rights at the University of Essex. He has previously lived and studied in Mexico and has been involved in the Zapatista solidarity movement for four years. 





Only six months ago very few people had ever heard of Kobani. But when ISIS launched its futile attack on the town in September 2014, the little Kurdish stronghold quickly became a major focal point in the struggle against the religious extremists. In the months that followed, Kobani was transformed into an international symbol of resistance, compared to both Barcelona and Stalingrad for its role as a bulwark against fascism.

The brave resistance of the People’s and Women’s Defense Units (YPG and YPJ) was praised by a broad spectrum of groups and individuals — from anarchists, leftists and liberals to right-wing conservatives — who expressed sympathy and admiration for the men and women of Kobani in their historical battle against the forces of ISIS.

As a result, the mainstream media was soon forced to break its silence on the plight of the Kurds of Northern Syria, who had declared their autonomy in the summer of 2012. Numerous articles and news stories depicted the “toughness” and determination of the Kurdish fighters, often with a dose of romanticization. Nonetheless, the media attention was often selective and partial. The very essence of the political project in Rojava (Western Kurdistan) went unreported and Western journalists generally preferred to present the resistance in Kobani as an inexplicable exception to the supposed barbarism of the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, the victorious flag of the YPG/YPJ brandishing the iconic red star was not a pleasing image to the eyes of the Western powers. The autonomous cantons of Rojava represent a homegrown solution to the conflicts in the Middle East, focusing on gender equality, environmental sustainability and horizontal democratic processes including all different ethnic and social groups, while simultaneously resisting the terror from ISIS and rejecting both liberal democracy and capitalist modernity.

Although many in the West preferred to stay silent on the issue, the Kurdish activist and academic Dilar Dirik has rightly claimed that the ideological foundations of the Kurdish movement for democratic autonomy are key to understanding the spirit that has inspired the Kobani resistance.



Enough is Enough!

As the battle for every street and corner of the city intensified, Kobani managed to capture the imagination of the global left — and of left-libertarian groups in particular — as a symbol of resistance. It was not without reason that the Turkish Marxist-Leninist group MLKP, which joined the YPG/YPJ on the battlefield, raised the flag of the Spanish Republic over the ruins of the city on the day of its liberation while calling for the formation of International Brigades, following the example of the Spanish Revolution.

It was not necessarily the battle for Kobani itself, but the libertarian essence of the cantons of Rojava, the implementation of direct democracy at the grassroots, and the participation of women in the autonomous government that gave grounds to such historical comparisons. But Rojava was not just compared to revolutionary Catalonia. Another striking comparison — with the struggle of the Zapatistas for autonomy in the south of Mexico — might in fact be key to understanding the paradigm of the revolution in Kurdistan and what it means for those who believe that another world is possible.

Ever since it first appeared on the scene in the early 1990s, the Zapatista movement has probably been one of the most symbolic and most influential elements of the revolutionary imagination worldwide. In the morning of January 1, 1994, an unknown guerrilla force composed of indigenous Mayas took over the main towns of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. The military operation was carried out with strategic brilliance and combined with an innovative use of the internet it resonated around the globe, inspiring international solidarity and the emergence of the Global Justice Movement.

The Zapatistas rebelled against neoliberalism and the social and cultural genocide of the indigenous population of Mexico. Ya Basta!, or ‘Enough is Enough!’, was the battle cry of the rebellion which was the “product of 500 years of oppression,” as the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle stated. The Zapatistas rose up in arms right as global capital was celebrating the presumed end of history, and the idea of social revolution seemed to be a romantic anachronism that belonged to the past. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was soon forced out of the cities after intense battles with the federal army that lasted for twelve days. However, it turned out that the deep horizontal organization of the indigenous communities could not be eradicated by any state terror or military campaigns.

The masked spokesperson of the rebel army, Subcomandante Marcos, challenged the notion of the historical vanguard and opposed to it the idea of “revolution from below,” a form of social struggle that does not aim to take over state power but rather seeks to abolish it. This conceptualization of autonomy and direct democracy then became central to many of the mass anti-capitalist movements we have seen since — from the protests at Seattle and Genoa to the occupations of Syntagma, Puerta del Sol and Zuccotti Park.



A Shared Historical Trajectory

The roots of the struggle for democratic autonomy in Rojava can be found in the history of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the organization that has been central to the Kurdish liberation movement ever since its creation in 1978. The PKK was established as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group in Northern Kurdistan (Southeastern Turkey) combining a form of Kurdish nationalism with the struggle for social emancipation. Under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan it grew into a substantial guerrilla force that managed to withstand the attacks of NATO’s second biggest army in a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 40.000 people over the course of thirty years.

The Turkish state displaced hundreds of thousands and reportedly used torture, assassination and rape against the civilian population. Yet it did not manage to break the Kurdish resistance. Since its inception, the PKK has expanded its influence both in Turkey and in the other parts of Kurdistan. The leading political force in the Rojava revolution — the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — was founded as the PKK’s sister organization in Syria after the former had been banned in the late 1990s. Currently, the two organizations are connected through the Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK), the umbrella organization that encompasses various revolutionary and political groups sharing the ideas of the PKK.

The ideology uniting the different civil and revolutionary groups in the KCK is called democratic confederalism and is based on the ideas of the US anarchist Murray Bookchin, who argued in favor of a non-hierarchical society based on social ecology, libertarian municipalism and direct democracy. After Öcalan was captured by the Turkish state in 1999 and sentenced to life imprisonment, he rejected the PKK’s Marxist-Leninist past. Instead, he turned towards Bookchin, leading to a conviction that local and regional autonomy for Kurdish communities is in fact the most viable solution.

Although the Zapatistas are famous for their autonomous self-governance and rejection of the notion of a historical vanguard, the roots of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation were similarly Marxist-Leninist in nature. Just like the PKK, the Zapatistas’ ideas of self-governance and revolution from below were a product of a long historical evolution.

The EZLN was founded in 1983 by a group of urban guerrillas who decided to start a revolutionary cell among the indigenous population in Chiapas, organize a military force and eventually take state power through guerrilla warfare. Soon they realized that their vanguardist ideological dogma was not applicable to the cultural realities of the local communities, and they started learning from the indigenous peoples’ traditions of communal governance. Thus Zapatismo was born as a fusion between Western Marxism and the experience and knowledge of the native American population that has been resisting the colonial Spanish state and the federal Mexican state for five centuries.

This shared ideological trajectory of the two guerrilla organizations demonstrates a historical turn in contemporary understandings of the revolutionary process. The Zapatista uprising and the construction of autonomy in Chiapas marked a break with the traditional strategy of foquismo, inspired predominantly by the Cuban Revolution. The rejection of vanguardism was made very clear in a letter Subcomandante Marcos wrote to the Basque liberation movement ETA, wherein he clearly stated: “I shit on all revolutionary vanguards on this planet.”

In Chiapas, it is not the vanguard that leads the people — it is up to the people themselves to build the revolution from below and sustain it as such. Now this is the logic the PKK has been shifting towards in the last decade under the influence of Murray Bookchin, demonstrating its transformation from a movement for the people into a movement of the people.


The Kurds new PKK: unleashing a social revolution in Kurdistan; Bookchin’s specific brand of eco-anarchism, anarchist internationalism, A strategy aimed at greater regional autonomy http://wp.me/p1lJ77-1ni



Cantons and Caracoles

Probably the most important similarity between the revolutions in Rojava and Chiapas is the social and political re-organization that is taking place in both regions on the basis of the libertarian socialist worldview of the PKK and EZLN.

The Zapatistas’ struggle for autonomy originated from the failure of the peace negotiations with the Mexican government after the uprising in 1994. During the peace negotiations the rebels demanded that the government adhere to the San Andres accords, which gave the indigenous people the right to greater self-determination over education, justice and political organization based on their traditions as well as communal control over land and local resources.

These accords were never implemented by the government and in 2001 President Fox backed an edited version that was passed by Congress but that did not meet the demands of the Zapatistas and the other groups of the indigenous resistance. Two years later, the EZLN created five rebel zones, or Caracoles (“snails” in English), that now serve as administrative centers. The nameCaracoles represented the particular revolutionary temporality of the Zapatistas: “We are doing it ourselves, we learn in the process and we advance. Slowly, but we advance.”

The Caracoles include three levels of autonomous government: the community, the municipality and the Council of Good Government. The first two are based on grassroots assemblies; the Councils of Good Government are elected but with the intention to get as many people as possible to participate in the councils over the years through a principle of rotation. The Caracoles have their own education, healthcare and justice systems, as well as cooperatives producing coffee, creating handicrafts and rearing cattle, among other things.

In some way, the cantons in Rojava resemble the Caracoles. They were proclaimed by the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) in 2014 and function through the newly established popular assemblies and People’s Councils. Women participate equally in decision-making processes and are represented in all elected positions, which are always shared by a man and a woman.

All ethnic groups are represented in the different councils and its institutions. Healthcare and education are also guaranteed by the system of democratic confederalism. Recently the first Rojavan university, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy, opened its doors with plans to challenge the hierarchical structure of education and to provide a different approach to learning.

Just as is the case with the Zapatistas, the revolution in Rojava envisions itself as a possible solution to the problems of the whole country and the region as a whole. It is not just an expression of separatist tendencies. As a delegation of academics from Europe and North America that visited Rojava recently claimed, this genuinely democratic system points to a different future for the Middle East — a future based on popular participation, the liberation of women and a just peace between different ethnic groups.


The Social Revolution Takes Off


A Women’s Revolution

Gender has always been central to the Zapatista revolution. Before the dissemination of autonomous forms of organization and the adoption of women’s liberation as central to the struggle, the position of women was marked by exploitation, marginalization, forced marriage, physical violence and discrimination.

This is why Subcomandante Marcos claims that the uprising started not in 1994 but already one year before, with the adoption of the Women’s Revolutionary Law in 1993. This law set the framework for gender equality and justice, guaranteeing the rights to personal autonomy, emancipation and dignity of the women in rebel territory. Today women participate at all levels of government and run their own cooperatives and economic structures to guarantee their economic independence.

Women still form a large part of the ranks of the Zapatista guerrilla force and take high positions in its military command. The takeover of San Cristobal de las Casas, the most important city the EZLN captured in the 1994 uprising, was headed by Comandante Ramona, who was also the first Zapatista to be sent to Mexico City to represent the movement in negotiations with the government.

The mass involvement of indigenous women in the political project of the Zapatistas is easily compared to the participation of women in the defense of Kobani and in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) more generally.  The bravery and determination of Kurdish women in the war against ISIS is a product of a long tradition of women’s participation in the armed struggle for social liberation in Kurdistan. Women play an important role in the PKK and gender liberation has long taken central place in the Kurdish struggle.

The Rojava revolution has strongly emphasized women’s liberation as indispensable for the liberation of society as a whole. The theoretical framework that puts the dismantling of patriarchy at the center of the struggle is referred to as “jineology” (jîn meaning woman in Kurdish). The application of this concept has resulted in an unprecedented empowerment of women — a remarkable achievement not just in the context of the Middle East but also in comparison to Western liberal feminism.

The women’s assemblies, cooperative structures and women’s militias are the beating heart of the Rojava revolution, which is considered incomplete as long as it does not destroy the patriarchal structures at the basis of capitalist society. As Janet Biehl wrote after her recent visit to Rojava, in the Rojava revolution women fulfill the role that the (male) proletariat fulfilled in the revolutions of the 20th century.



The Road to Autonomy 

The Ecology of Freedom is probably the most important among Bookchin’s works, and the concept of social ecology developed in this book has been actively adopted by the revolutionaries in Rojava. Bookchin was convinced that “the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.” By connecting capitalism, patriarchy and environmental destruction, he identified their combined abolition as the only way forward towards a just society.

A similar holistic approach has been advocated and implemented by the Zapatistas as well. Sustainability has been an important point of reference in Chiapas, especially since the creation of the Caracoles in 2003. The autonomous government has been trying to recuperate ancestral knowledge about sustainable land use and combine it with newer agro-ecological practices. This logic is not only a matter of improving the living conditions in the communities and avoiding the use of agrochemicals, it also constitutes a rejection of the idea that large-scale export-oriented industrial agriculture is superior to the “primitive” way the indigenous people work the land.

The similarities between the system of democratic confederalism that is being developed in Western Kurdistan and the autonomy being constructed in Chiapas go far beyond the few points I have stressed in this article. From slogans such asYa Basta! — adapted in Kurdish as êdî bes e! — to the development of grassroots democracy, communal economic structures and the participation of women, the similar paths of the Kurdish movement and the Zapatistas both demonstrate a decisive break with the vanguardist notion of Marxism-Leninism and a new approach to revolution — emerging from below and aiming at the wholesale liberation of society and its reorganization into a non-hierarchical direction.

Although both movements have received some bitter criticism from the more sectarian elements on the left, the very fact that the only major and successful experiments in revolutionary social change originate from non-Western, marginalized and colonized groups, should be considered a slap in the face of the white and privileged dogmatic “revolutionaries” of the global North who have hardly been successful in challenging oppression in their own countries but who still believe it is their judgment to decide what revolution looks like.

In reality, the struggles in Rojava and Chiapas are powerful examples to the world, demonstrating the vast potential of grassroots self-organization and the importance of communal ties to counter the social atomization wrought by capitalism. Moreover, they are forcing many on the Western left — including some anarchists — to reconsider their colonial mindsets and ideological dogmatism.

A world without capitalism, hierarchy, domination and environmental destruction — or as the Zapatistas would say, a world in which many worlds are possible — has often been depicted as “utopian” and “unrealistic.” Yet this world is not some future mirage that comes to us from the books: it is already being constructed by the Zapatistas and the Kurds, allowing us to re-imagine what radical social change looks like and providing a possible model for our own struggles back home. The red stars that shine over Chiapas and Rojava shed light on the way to liberation. If we need to summarize in one word what brings these two struggles together, it would definitely be autonomy.


Ecosocialism, eco-anarchism or Barbarism there is no third way Ω  This is why greens must be red and reds must be green!



Earth First! We Need a System Change to Stop Climate Change; Capitalism vs. the Climate! The Battle for the Planet is a Class Struggle! Workers and Environmentalists of the world, Unite! http://wp.me/p1lJ77-1qi


Onkwehón:werising.wordpress.com An Indigenous Perspective on Third Worldism & Revolution!


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