What is Democratic Confederalism?
By Karl Singarvelan Raha
Karl dedicates this article to a friend at the University of Leeds who is working for a Democratic and Free Iran and campaigning against the forced hijab and theocratic male chauvinism in Iran. Democratic Confederalism combines participatory democracy with larger state structures. It prioritises grassroots decision-making and decentralization, allowing communities to shape their own destinies and work towards a better future.
When I consider the pages of history, I am struck by the persistent suffering of common people and proletariats who have often been oppressed by the politically powerful, the upper caste, the so-called ‘higher races’, and dominant religions. Despite many attempts to bring about change, those who rose to power often became oppressors themselves. Even systems like democracy have flaws, with oligarchy often emerging as a result. Likewise, communism can devolve into totalitarianism, and right-wing governments can become theocratic fascist regimes.
Despite its flaws, I am a strong believer in democracy. As Abraham Lincoln once said, it is a system of government "by the people, of the people, and for the people." While imperfect, it provides a framework for citizens to have a say in their own governance, which is a fundamental aspect of freedom and human dignity.
'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.' Karl Marx
'If you look into history, what is so great? It is all about suffering, bloodshed, plundering, and poverty.' Srirangam Srinivasa Rao, an Indian poet and lyricist popularly known as Sri Sri.
Can a 'common person' - be they a professor, student, homemaker, or activist - be a candidate in council, provincial, and central elections? The answer is often a resounding 'no'. Democracy has become concentrated in the hands of a select few, with costly elections and distant decision-making processes leaving the government far removed from the people it is meant to serve. Government should empower people to make decisions about policies that affect their lives. It should not interfere in matters such as sexual orientation, relationship preferences, pregnancy, and clothing. In a particular street, for example, residents know best how much funding is required for development and maintenance of their area, and they should have a say in how those funds are used. Decision-making power and policy discussions should lie in the hands of the people, who have intimate knowledge of the challenges and opportunities in their communities. Students may need libraries or study spaces, while older individuals may require benches to rest, and dog walkers may need more bins to dispose of waste. Women may need more streetlights to feel safe at night. These concerns and needs should not require excessive bureaucracy and form-filing, but rather they should be addressed through an empowered citizenry.
Democratic Confederalism may be a viable form of government to address these challenges. This system, first suggested by the American social theorist Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) and advocated for by Kurdish freedom fighter Abdullah Ocalan (born 1948) in his political thought, involves empowering local communities to make decisions and govern themselves through participatory democracy, while still being connected to the larger state structure. This system prioritises grassroots decision-making and decentralization, allowing communities to shape their own destinies and work towards a better future.
Murray Bookchin was a visionary thinker who championed humanism and rationality. He developed a libertarian philosophy that synthesised the best aspects of Marxism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the New Left and Hippie movements were gaining momentum in America, Bookchin's writings became a driving force behind the American Green Movement.
One of Bookchin's key ideas was Communalism, a system that emphasises direct democracy through highly participatory popular assemblies. In this system, municipal communities would plan and manage their affairs, decentralising power and promoting autonomy and self-reliance. Bookchin envisioned a higher degree of organization, including community planning, voting, and institutions, that would create opportunities for face-to-face democracy.
Bookchin saw the link between ecological crises and social structure and advocated for an economic system that prioritised human-centric forms of production. He vehemently opposed any form of domination, hierarchy, centralised state politics, and capitalist systems. Through his philosophy, Bookchin sought to promote a society that prioritised individual and collective freedom, mutual aid, and social and ecological harmony. He was a visionary thinker whose ideas continue to inspire new generations of activists and thinkers seeking to build a more just and sustainable world.
The Kurdish movement under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan was initially inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology. However, Öcalan later adopted the principles of Murray Bookchin and developed the concept of Communalism into a particular form known as Democratic Confederalism.
As a humanist, I firmly oppose any form of violence or killing, regardless of the cause or the circumstances. While I support the idea of Democratic Confederalism and a free Kurdistan, I believe that violent revolutions rarely achieve positive results. The example of Lenin and the USSR serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of weaponised revolution and the potential for power to corrupt even well-intentioned leaders.
In his book Why I am an Atheist (written in jail in 1930), the Indian humanist, Marxist and anarchist Bhagat Singh argued that "revolution does not mean bombs and guns; it is the present order of things that display injustice which must change." I believe that lasting change can only be achieved through non-violent means that prioritise justice, equality, and the well-being of all people.
In the context of Syria, which is plagued by fundamentalism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, jingoism, and theocratic rule, Democratic Confederalism offers a promising alternative that could bring about significant positive change in the region and beyond.
Theory and principles of Democratic Confederalism
Democratic Confederalism is a political philosophy that prioritises decentralisation, direct democracy, and feminism. It rejects authoritarianism, nationalism, environmental destruction, sexism, economic inequality, the bureaucratism of state socialism, and capitalism. It involves a non-state political administration that provides the framework for autonomous organisation for every community, group, gender-specific collective, and other minority groups. This model of participatory democracy involves both direct and representative democracy, with citizens playing a key role in decision-making and political organization. Öcalan emphasised the importance of building the self-government of local communities through open councils, local parliaments, and larger congresses. This philosophy emphasises the democratization and decentralization of every part of the country. The Kurdish movement and Democratic Confederalism prioritise feminism and consider it a main pillar. Women play an important role at all levels of organization and decision-making, as equals to men, which is a significant shift in a region dominated by orthodoxy and male dominance. Democratic Confederalism also prioritises peaceful coexistence between nations and states, multiculturalism as to different religions, political ideologies, ethnicities and cultures, and the protection of individual freedom of expression, choice, and information. It proposes a sharing economy where economic resources belong to society, unlike Marxism which proposes that they belong to the state. The economy should be committed to satisfying the basic natural needs of all people, rather than relying solely on the capitalist-style of profit and production. Other principles include a commitment to health systems, the right to speak native languages, environmental protection, self-defence, and internationalism.
'I offer Turkish society a simple solution. We demand a democratic nation. We are not opposed to the unitary state and republic. We accept the republic, its unitary structure and secularism. However, we believe that it must be redefined as a democratic state respecting peoples, cultures and rights. On this basis, the Kurds must be free to organise in a way that they can live their culture and language and can develop economically and ecologically. This would allow Kurds, Turks and other cultures to come together under the roof of a democratic nation in Turkey. This is only possible, though, with a democratic constitution and an advanced legal framework warranting respect for different cultures. Our idea of a democratic nation is not defined by flags and borders. Our idea of a democratic nation embraces a model based on democracy instead of a model based on state structures and ethnic origins. Turkey needs to define itself as a country which includes all ethnic groups. This would be a model based on human rights instead of religion or race. Our idea of a democratic nation embraces all ethnic groups and cultures.' — Abdullah Öcalan, War and Peace in Kurdistan, 2008
Democratic Confederalism has only been implemented in the Autonomous Region of North and Eastern Syria. This is currently a disputed region, and because of this it has faced economic challenges and has not received extensive coverage from international news channels. However, despite economic setbacks, the philosophy has made significant social progress. Women are being integrated into every field, education has become more inclusive and welcoming, there is no longer a forced dress code for women, girls have access to education, and art is being encouraged. Multilingual education has been introduced, and intra-school sports competitions are conducted for girls. These developments have helped to promote a more equal and just society. The region is also making efforts to establish ties with the US, which could bring about greater recognition for Democratic Confederalism and have positive implications for the democratic world as a whole.
Democratic Confederalism is a new philosophy that has yet to be fully established in any country or province. I believe it could be effective in making the 'common person' a crucial part of democratic society by giving them both rights and responsibilities. Unlike the Communist Manifesto, which aimed at European centralisation, Democratic Confederalism aims at decentralisation and adaptability to changing times and regions without straying from its foundational principles.
Democracy and voting rights were historically limited to white men and landowners, but over time, everyone’s right to democratic participation has been recognised regardless of colour, caste, status, class, religion, gender, and other demographic factors. Building on this, Democratic Confederalism could be established via a ‘cognitive revolution’ led by people through democratic means, rather than by armed revolution, authoritarian leaders, or autocratic processes. Cults of personality or charisma, such as those seen in leaders like Lenin, Mussolini, or Stalin, would be rejected as antithetical to this democratic revolution.
Democratic Confederalism is a ‘new age’ philosophy that can bring about revolutionary change, but its success ultimately depends on capable leaders. What happens in the future will determine whether Democratic Confederalism becomes a new path accepted by all parts of the world or another failed form of government.
Democratic confederalism article in Wikipedia