Book reviews: To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective

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A small key can open a large door – front cover. Image from Combustion Books.

Something incredible seems to be happening in Rojava. The first revolution ever to be pre-figuratively anti-patriarchy, anti-state and anti-capitalist, and doing all this in the most difficult of circumstances. Of course the Rojava Revolution is not without its contradictions: they have a military alliance with the US, there is the hero-worship of Öcalan, official feminist and libertarian ideology seem to have been decided on by the leadership of a formerly Stalinist Communist Party. But as Marx said, “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes”, the Revolution in Rojava is something real, happening, and it is something to be supported and deserves our solidarity.

The problem I have is getting info on it. The many online resources are great to keep abreast of things. But like a lot of things on the internet while being swamped with updates I don’t really have a clear idea of what is being updated. On the other hand the problem with books is that they take so long to write, publish, distribute, become affordable, and finally to read them that they are hopelessly slow at keeping pace with the situation that changes everyday. And usually long single-author reads are just inappropriate for reflecting a real democratic revolution that is by nature full of diverse and often conflicting viewpoints and is constantly fluctuating.

Two books which kind of address this are To dare imagining: Rojava Revolution by the Autonomedia collective and A small key can open a large door by the Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness collective. Both books are short, accessible compilations of multi-author texts, and published relatively recently. Compiled to specifically address this dilemma outlined above they are aimed at international audiences to raise awareness about what is going on in Rojava and to stimulate solidarity movements.

To dare imagining was motivated by an utter failure on part of the american media “to report on the real story of what is happening in Syrian Kurdistan, i.e. Rojava”, believing that “journalists are literally unable to comprehend the very idea of a social revolution” which they outline as:

“a left-tradition of resistance to oppression, and like those struggles, the Rojava Revolution has identified the State itself – nationalism, hegemony and patriarchal power – as the force to be overthrown. Alone amongst all recent armed uprisings in the world (except that of the Zapatistas), Rojava’s is an anti-authoritarian insurrection” (p7).

Compiled of texts (sometimes new, sometimes ‘borrowed’) written by visitors to Rojava, commentaries on the work of Abdullah Öcalan, and a few excerpts of his work, the collection reflects “a distinct urgency about getting this book out and into the american conversation”. It contains a diversity of viewpoints and is sufficiently coherent yet retaining the rough and ready feel that reflects its role as emerging from an ongoing and changing situation. In short, it is anarchist publishing at its most useful. Among the highlights are a set of interviews with women combatants in the YPJ discussing the experiences and feminist reasons for taking up arms, an essay on the sociology of biopolitical and necropolitical wars – the Kurds are victims of both state/imperial rationalised violence and the communal ritualised violence of the likes of ISIS with the implication that new logics and institutions need to be imagined as appeals for protection on the grounds of citizenship or humanitarianism don’t work – and a great piece by Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist, phd candidate, and one of the editors of the book.

A small keyis similarly motivated by the observation that “Radicals in the West have been mostly silent as regards the Rojava Revolution” arguing that although “it is absolutely true that it is easier for radicals to travel to Chiapas, Greece, Palestine, or Ferguson” because the “danger is greater in Rojava then so too is the necessity of our support” (p41, 42). But beyond supporting the experiment,

“we also need the Rojava revolution for our own work here in the West. Revolutionary politics in the West have been waiting far too long for an infusion of new ideas and practices, and the Rojavan Revolution in all of its facets is something we should support if we take our own politics at all seriously. […] we can not wait for the selective safety of hindsight to analyze the revolution now unfolding. The people of Rojava have chosen to fight and so must we” (p. 42).

Unlike To dare imagining, A small key is built almost entirely on translated statements, documents, or interviews from groups in Rojava or Turkey and not original pieces, apart from a very informative introductory chapter written by the editorial collective and another great piece by Dilar Dirik on what it is that gives the revolution the will to succeed in the face of so many forces against them (“In the midst of war, Rojava’s cantons have managed to establish an incredibly empowering women’s movement, a self-governance system that operates through local councils in a bottom-up grassroots fashion,and a society in which all ethnic and religious components of the region work hand-in-hand to create a brighter future […] the anticipation of such a free life is the main motor of the Kobani resistance”).

If there are drawbacks, the most obvious one is that both are very much oriented to US audiences. A small key compensates a bit being based on translated texts, as mentioned above, from people or groups taking part in the revolution or activists in places like Turkey. This gives it more of a feeling of talking to a friend who has family and friends active there, whereas To Dare imagining feels more like being taken on a tour by a group of Western academics. Added to this, you have to be cautious and aware that both books only contain a very partial view of the revolution. With To dare imagining you have to keep in mind that the writers are themselves being taken on tours, most likely PR tours, by the welcoming committees, drivers, and translators who bring them everywhere. I’m sure there is as much hidden as there is shared with these messengers. And the other drawback, which is generic to this form of communication, is that they are already woefully out of date – A small key was published in March 2015, while although To dare imagining generally feels rushed and hastily prepared, the most recent of pieces date from January 2016.

Despite being dated, there is still a lot to learn from both books. What is going on in Rojava, if these books are in any way accurate, is nothing short of a new way of thinking and doing feminism (undoing male domination of women and society inherent in the birth of ‘civilisation’, hierarchy and the city-state thousands of years ago) and a new way of doing anti-capitalism (through practicing “the peoples’ economy”). It has made me rethink my perspectives on militarism and nationalism: I used to have answers – both were bad; now just uncertainty.

If I had to choose one of them, I would probably go with a small key. It feels closer to the revolution. That said, to dare imagining does convey more of the philosophy which is (apparently) behind it – particularly in terms of feminist theory and Öcalan’s writings on Sumerian roots of civilisation-as-patriarchy-and-hierarchy and on democratic confederalism. And it is that bit more up-to-date.

But I probably would also prefer the newer book, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan which is more up to date and at least written by people who had spent more time there (written by three Germany- and Turkey-based activists who have been working for years with with and in Kurdish groups, they visited Rojava and spent a month there and compiled their notes into the book, which originally appeared in German but has been translated into English recently by Janet Biehl). Hoping to get my hands on a copy of that as soon as I can. But in the end, it is not so important which book or blog you follow. The most important thing is to spread info about what seems to be an incredible struggle that should be supported and learned from as much as possible.