The Difficulty of International Solidarity: from Wallmapu to Rojava
By John Severino
Some time has already passed since the web-scandal surrounding Petar Stanchev's unfortunate article, “Mr. Anarchist, we need to have a chat about colonialism”. All the better. We need cool heads to examine the underlying questions of international solidarity. Through the course of this article, I wish to tackle the problem on the basis of actual experiences of international solidarity, both personal and collective, referring to revolutions past and to relatively successful efforts of international anarchist solidarity with the Mapuche struggle.
Solidarity Cannot Be Based on Moralizing and Manipulation
First, it would help to review why Stanchev's article, and other texts surrounding it, were so unhelpful. “Mr. Anarchist” is almost exclusively directed at Gilles Dauvé's “Kurdistan?”. The text also mentions a criticism of the Rojava Revolution by the Anarchist Federation of London, but without giving any specifics.
The most obvious problem has already been pointed out in most of the responses. Dauvé is not an anarchist. Some supporters of Stanchev have tried to smooth this discrepancy over by relegating it to a question of terminology (Dauvé is an anti-state communist) but I would go further: Dauvé is in fact something of a kneejerk anti-anarchist who uses this and other texts to make sweeping and inaccurate generalizations about anarchists in an apparent bid to discredit them, since he seems to view them as ideological competitors.
Dauvé's article on Kurdistan does suffer from ideological rigidity, a lack of consideration of real cultural differences, and a markedly armchair perspective; however he raises a number of important questions that Stanchev crassly dismisses as “privileged.” Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I am quite sure that Petar Stanchev is also a white male, and an academic to boot, and how it does rankle when the well-to-do white boys sit around arguing who is more privileged and who is the better ally!
Is it a simple mistake that Stanchev labels Dauvé an anarchist? I think not. He also makes the astounding intellectual effort to reach back more than a decade to a single article published in the long defunct Green Anarchy that denounces the Zapatistas, incidentally the exact same maneuver used by Chris Hedges in his own manipulative tirade against the anarchists.
Stanchev uses the Green Anarchy article, which was widely criticized in anarchist circles and, if I am not mistaken, even in the pages of Green Anarchy, to argue that anarchists have a colonial tendency. I believe that Western struggles everywhere are imbued with a colonial tendency, though the anarchist movement, or at least sectors thereof, have done more than most to challenge colonialism internally and externally. Of course, it is non-Western, anticolonial struggles themselves that are at the forefront, both in terms of ideas and practices, but anarchism is characteristically non-dogmatic and open to learning from such struggles, and anarchists have played an important part in solidarity movements, generally without trying to manipulate these struggles for their own ends as Leftists typically do. There are also a number of anticolonial struggles, from Bolivia to Nigeria to Indonesia, with an explicitly anarchist participation.
Stanchev attempts to create the sensation, on the sole basis of an unpopular article more than ten years old, a statement by a miniscule and politically archaic anarchist “Federation” and another article written by an anti-anarchist, that anarchists are failing in their solidarity with the Kurdish struggle, and that the reason for this failing is internalized colonialism.
On the contrary, I have seen far more anarchists express support for the Rojava revolution than dismissal or rejection, and I also know of anarchists who have traveled there to support and take part, who have organized solidarity protests, and who participate in structures that disseminate information and translations, and raise money for the Kurds struggling in Rojava. It is this widespread solidarity among anarchists, in fact, that Dauvé is writing against.
Given Stanchev's tone and the manipulative way he marshals facts and fictions, I think it is fair to assert that he is trying to establish a moral duty for anarchists to support the PYD and the Rojava Revolution, and the fundamental feature of a moral duty is that it cannot be questioned. I strongly believe that this prohibition on reflection and critique is fatal to real international solidarity. Solidarity with other struggles will always be a tricky matter. Above all, we need to be able to discuss and debate critically, and freely decide whether or not we feel comfortable taking part. The premium, of course, should be on action rather than a disguised comfort politics justifying inaction, but in the absence of clarity, inaction can be better than blind action.
Two Formats for Colonial Solidarity
Petar Stanchev is absolutely right when he points out that it is a colonial attitude to expect struggles carried out by other people to be anarchist, to correspond to our preconceived visions and theoretical expectations. Even moreso to attempt to censor or pressure other struggles to conform to our perceived needs.
But there is a second format, just as common and pernicious, for colonial pseudo-solidarity, and this is a format that he is unwittingly encouraging. It is the alienated romantization of the struggles of Others, uninformed appreciation from a distance that also involves the projection of one's own images and expectations on a faraway struggle. Its primary impulse is to nod, smile, and ask to whom one can write out a check.
I have seen the effects of this type of false solidarity firsthand, along the Andes where the Mapuche are struggling to regain their land and their way of life. The Mapuche struggle is also heavily populated by NGOs and political parties, some foreign and some autochthonous, that are one of the most effective mechanisms of continued colonization on hand, forcing all forms of rebellion and protest into channels that regenerate the imposed Western institutions. It is these organizations that have the easiest time fund-raising and doing outreach abroad, where they can present an easy message that conforms to the expectations of charitable Westerners who have not bothered to inform themselves about the inner conflicts and difficulties faced by the Mapuche in struggle.
A Model for Establishing International Solidarity
The model that we used to establish bonds of real solidarity with Mapuche communities in struggle involved making contact with and getting invited by a few Mapuche comrades, visiting their communities and sharing our differences in order to construct a common language and a mutual understanding, and looking for projects where we complemented one another and in which we, the outsiders, could be of some aid. The guiding philosophy was reciprocity, solidarity, mutual recognition of each other's struggles and selfhood, and—for our part—humility and an attempt to be aware of colonialism. Critical reflection was a vital part of building the relationships we made. After the first trip (so far there have only been two, as it is a slow process, and we also have our own commitments and struggles to engage in), we shared what we learned as widely as possible, so that everyone in our own networks could share in our experiences and relationships.
This process is much slower, perhaps a good sign that it is more valid. But to undertake the risk and commitment that international solidarity entails, in the face of all the difficulties arising from distance, language, and cultural difference, it is crucial to have a basis of trust and familiarity, even if it is not firsthand. If a friend and comrade, or a friend of a friend, can vouch that a faraway struggle for liberation is as it seems and that my efforts of support will be helpful, that is a much more reliable foundation for action than an alienated article I might read on the internet, or the assurances of an anarchist celebrity who takes a nine day official tour of the revolution in question.
Though I don't doubt their motivations, I think David Graeber and company did a minor disservice to the cause of international solidarity with Rojava by forming a delegation to visit the unfolding revolution. The delegation format is problematic for a number of reasons. It is mediatic, the content of the visit is overshadowed by the personalities of the delegates, and it is absolutely useless in terms of providing reliable information about a given struggle. It is no coincidence that it was the preferred format of the Communist Party in Russia, early in their assault on all their former comrades in the revolution. In order to cement their control over the international anti-capitalist movement, the Bolsheviks invited delegates from all over the world, and on the whole they were able to hoodwink these delegates and broadcast the impression that a true revolution had taken place.
This isn't ancient history. Communists and other authoritarian leftists have been manipulating international solidarity for their own aims for decades. In the Crossfire, written by dissident communist Ngo Van based on his experiences during the revolution in Vietnam, reveals many of the dirty tricks used by Ho Chi Minh's party to maintain power and win international support while stamping out dissent.
I seriously doubt that Graeber and company saw the parts of the unfolding conflict that the PYD did not want them to see, or that in the few days they were on the scene, they were uable to get an independent sense of what was going on and form meaningful, long-term relationships with people at the base, or dissidents to the PYD's view of things.
My own misgivings regarding the Rojava Revolution stemmed from a lack of information. I found it highly worrisome that the available accounts of what was going on in Rojava all hailed an amazing revolution, but mentioned very few actual transformations. It's all good that there are “communes,” but what do these communes do in practice? How do they function? Were they created by the party or from the ground up? How has life changed and what are the possibilities for someone who is not a member of the PYD?
Obviously the PYD is better than ISIS, but is that the moral logic we want to use to guide solidarity? Throw in to the mix some allegations that the PYD has been disappearing dissidents, and you have reasonable grounds for doubt.
Many of my doubts were assuaged after I attended a thoroughly researched presentation by some anarchist friends who support the struggle in Rojava. They were able to find detailed information about organization and decision-making (beyond just the names of different structures, as listed in other accounts), about private property versus the expropriation and collectivization of land, about the activity of the communes, about the feminist practices and the parallel women's organizations, about the extent to which the oil industry remains in operation, and so on.
Now I feel more confident about supporting the struggle in Rojava, though I still have many doubts and questions about the relationship of the PYD with the rest of the struggle, and if I participate in fundraising, where that money is going to end up. It would help if more comrades from our side established direct relationships with comrades over there, unmediated by any political parties or academic celebrities. If only Graeber and Biehl had given the money they spent on plane tickets to fund a non-academic comrade who speaks Turkish or Arabic, if not Kurdish, to visit Rojava for a longer period of time.
Always Mistrust Marxist-Leninists
I think it's necessary to say a few things in defense of my skepticism. International solidarity is often manipulated, as I've already mentioned. This isn't a trivial affair. Time and again, brutal, bloody, authoritarian organizations have ridden waves of popular protest into power, killing anyone who gets in their way. The Khmer Rouge massacred over a million. Castro executed many non-Party members of the labor movement, and jailed queer people. The FLN in Algeria was responsible for numerous atrocities. Allende nationalized Mapuche lands and used the military to wipe out the radical wing of the very anti-capitalist movement that put him in power (in fact, he put Pinochet in charge of the operation). The Sandinistas carried out genocidal actions against the Miskito. The list goes on.
This phenomenon doesn't invalidate the grievances and aspirations that lie at the root of these struggles, nor the heterogeneous participation of common people in such struggles. It doesn't justify the flippant dismissal made by many an armchair anarchist that “such-and-such revolution is bullshit”. But it does justify caution. If, for lack of better options, all we can do is support the authoritarian organization that has come to control a revolution, it is better to do nothing, because support in this case only empowers those who are suffocating the struggle for their own gain.
I insist that it is not dogmatism to systematically mistrust Marxist-Leninists and other authoritarian leftists. It is commonly accepted that fascists can be ostracized and spurned, but Marxist-Leninists are responsible for even more murders and a great deal more manipulation and conniving, and from the very heart of our movements for liberation, no less.
In the '80s and '90s, the PKK (the Kurdish liberation organization, based in Turkish Kurdistan, that is in many ways the parent of the PYD in Syrian Kurdistan) mutilated and assassinated thousands of opponents. We're not talking about figures in the Turkish government and military, but non-aligned members of the Kurdish liberation movement and even members of the PKK itself who were purged in Party congresses.
It's possible that the PYD has put this dirty, authoritarian mode of struggle behind it, but we would be unforgiveably remiss if we did not make an effort to be sure before supporting them. And, in spite of the moralizing of the likes of Stanchev, we should respect the choices of anyone who decides not to support an organization with such a pedigree, or to never support any political party in any circumstances.
I myself am opposed to political parties on principle, and I am wary of vague assurances that a political party in the Kurdish cultural context is different from one in the Western context. However, I strongly advocate building alliances with non-anarchists.
Elsewhere I have written about the anarchist movement in Chile. The comrades there are famous internationally. Does anyone count it as a mark against them that basically all the anarchists in Chile over a certain age used to be Marxist-Leninists? People change, and struggles evolve collectively. Certainly in Europe and North America there is no shortage of skeletons in the closet and oppressive ideologies that we are still trying to leave behind. I imagine that in Kurdistan it is no different.
Beyond Third World Essentialism
So, then, who do we support? If we accept the ineluctable reality that there will be differences within the Kurdish movement, there will be authoritarian and anti-authoritarian elements of various stripes, how can we avoid tokenizing? I think it starts by accepting that there is no objective answer to the question “who is the real Kurd?” We have to leave essentialism behind and acknowledge that no matter what we do, we are always projecting our own desires. If we are honest about it, we can reject the false neutralism, the cynical selflessness of “ally politics,” and recognize that we have to make choices about who we want to support, who we want to fight alongside, and these choices will arise from our own subjectivity, our own need to struggle, our own vision of freedom.
For those raised in the West, there is no safe path free of colonial attitudes. It is not so simple as “following the leadership of oppressed people,” in fact this formulation is a manipulation, because not all oppressed people are going in the same direction. Before we can start following, we first choose who we want to follow, and once again projection and colonial attitudes come into the equation.
Solidarity can only exist between individuals or groups in struggle. Someone who is a mere follower cannot build solidarity, and anyone who actively claims to be a mere follower, a pure ally, is probably a manipulator.
The only way forward is to express our own histories and viewpoints, embrace our own struggles, search for comrades we are compatible with, listen to them and accept their difference, be humble and open to change, constantly reflect on how colonialism has affected us, and accept that mistakes are inevitable.
The romanticism and simplicity with which the Kurdish struggle is sometimes presented constitutes an obstacle to real solidarity. Is it important to understand how their particular history and culture shapes the Kurdish struggle, and to admit that our reality is different from theirs? Absolutely. Perhaps constructs like “the proletariat” that Dauvé rigidly clings to do not apply there. I know that many Mapuche people in struggle who are far more anticapitalist than Dauvé bristle when anyone tries to include them in the proletariat.
But this open-mindedness is a far cry from the Third World essentialism often at play. The Kurds live in a different reality from the one that a U.S. citizen, for example, lives in, but I seriously doubt theirs is a homogenous reality any more than ours is, or that their world is completely non-intersecting with our own. Any people that has been colonized, that has embraced Marxist-Leninism (or liberalism, or democratic confederalism, or what-have-you), and that establishes political parties is at least in part westernized. It's not up to me to say to what extent—I have no clue, and I don't doubt that they have much better prospects for halting and reversing their Westernization, their colonization, than my own society does, since we are completely westernized and they are not. But I am willing to risk making such a controversial remark because I strongly believe that if someone shuts down a critical discussion about the Kurdish struggle with a broad claim that, for example, “political parties are not authoritarian in Kurdistan because it's a different context,” they are not being entirely honest.
Solidarity is a Relationship
Without a doubt there are local dissidents critical of the PYD, Kurdish anti-authoritarians who for the most part probably do not call themselves anarchists. How do we get in touch with them? It would mean a great deal to know whether they decide to participate in organizing efforts with the PYD or if they opt for an independent line of action. Once we have a relationship of trust, we can decide to accept and to follow another's strategic decisions in a situation that we cannot fully understand, and we can also let them challenge us and shape our own evolving ideas on revolution.
That personal relationship is at the root of all the good experiences with international solidarity I have had. An emphasis on real relationships allowed a group of us Westerners to be invited into several Mapuche communities and to support their struggle, while we grew immensely in the process, demonstrating the reciprocity of the relationship. It also allowed friends of ours who did not personally go on the trip, or Mapuche friends of the comrades we met, who never personally got to know us, to benefit from our link of solidarity and the resources and experiences we each bring to the table.
Also, numerous times when revolts broke out in other parts of the world I had never visited, it was unspeakably useful and empowering to have friends, or friends of friends, from those areas or who had been there and made deep and lasting relationships. During the rebellions in Oaxaca, Brazil, Turkey, and Egypt, large circles of anarchists were able to get accurate, firsthand information about what was actually going on, unmediated by the press or by NGOs, via informal networks based on friendship. Such contacts helped them position themselves strategically, know what forms of aid were actually needed on the ground, and whether the different elements in revolt were cooperating in a spirit of solidarity or whether some sectors were trying to dominate the movement. Most importantly, the nature of these contacts provided an emotional connection that motivated more committed and quality forms of support, and that subverted the borders and barriers that are always put up around revolts.
The alienated form of solidarity based on celebrity delegations and web articles cannot hope to provide a similar quality of action.
Another advantage that this model of international solidarity displays is the important role it gives to immigrants. Marginalized and oppressed by capitalist society, immigrants can play a vital role in our struggles for freedom thanks to the international connections they embody. The very act of crossing a border can be subversive, perforating the divisions the powerful fabricate to contain us, and bringing people in struggle across the world closer together. This dynamic is especially relevant to anarchists, because we constitute perhaps the only transversal movement that in various countries or at various times throughout our history has been comprised largely and even primarily of immigrants.
Solidarity based on personal relationships might seem impractical, but the fact that it takes longer to develop demonstrates how it is in fact a more realistic practice, given the immense tasks before us. And personal relationships are not as limiting as they may seem, given that we move within circles that are expansive and solidaristic. If I extend my trust to friends of friends, I can enjoy the experiences, connections, and resources of thousands of people spread across dozens of countries.
Kurdistan, for the moment, remains outside of my ken, but in most of the recent rebellions in the Americas, Europe, Northern Africa, and parts of Asia, many anarchists using this model of solidarity have been able to establish personal links with those who had risen up.
The fact that many parts of the globe remain beyond our personal horizons only demonstrates the obvious: that much remains to be done in order to make our struggles truly global. May we use methods befitting a struggle for freedom based in healthy, horizontal relationships, and not the very methods of alienation used by the authorities.