(Fédéchoses pour le Fédéralisme, n° 190, décembre 2021)

Pierre Bance

During the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Paris Commune, it was common to read or hear that the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas and the Kurdish revolution in Rojava were its heirs. Certainly, in Mexico as in northern Syria, the revolutionaries have in common, with the Communards of 1871, the search for emancipation through communalism and federalism. However, to achieve this, each insurgency takes contrasting paths.

Before going any further, it is certainly worth keeping in mind the demographic and geopolitical differences between Chiapas and Rojava. While they have a surface area comparable to that of Belgium, their population goes from a few hundred thousand inhabitants in Chiapas (250,000 at most), to more than three million in Rojava; As for the Democratic Federation of North and East Syria, which brings together Rojava and four predominantly Arab regions freed from the yoke of the Islamic State, this area and population have doubled. Moreover, if Chiapas presents an ethnic unity, the Indians, and religious, Christianity, the Federation is a mosaic of peoples (Kurds, Arabs, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Turkmens, Armenians, Caucasians …) and beliefs (Yazidis, Muslims and Christians of various persuasions). The first act of the Kurdish revolutionaries will moreover be to affirm the equality of all peoples, all cultures, all religions … Finally, if in Chiapas, after a short war, provocations, threats and interventions of the national or regional government, of the capitalists or of rival peasant organizations, in Rojava the war is total. Against the Islamic State which, territorially defeated, is far from being dead, against Assad’s secret services which stir up discord between Kurds and Arabs, especially against the Turkish invader and his jihadist mercenaries. A war fought under the watchful eyes of an unflinching ceasefire, Russia, and an equally treacherous ally, the United States. Two states that have shown during the three Turkish invasions (2016, 2018 and 2019) that they are more concerned about their interests than about supporting the democratic ambitions of the Kurds.

It should also be understood that neither the Indians of Chiapas nor the Kurds of Rojava claim to build models (1). Only experiences, pockets of resistance to globalization, the lessons of which will feed our own reflection and, one day perhaps, our journey towards a federation of autonomous municipalities.

The Zapatistas in Chiapas are firmly committed to a project of direct democracy. In Rojava, the resolve of leaders and activists is no less, but the process of achieving a

1. Jérôme Baschet, « La construction de l’autonomie zapatiste », Fédéchoses, n° 189, juin 2021.

stateless society, at least reduced to a functioning state, is slower and more complicated. War forces adaptations that may not be understood if one does not ask the question: can they do otherwise? This is why, without ever losing sight of this reality, it is interesting to compare the institutions set up to achieve a society of autonomy, then ensure its efficiency and sustainability, because as Jean Monnet thought, “nothing is possible without people, nothing is sustainable without institutions (2)”.

Principles of a policy against the State and Capital

Political autonomy is the will and capacity of a community to govern itself over a territory, the municipality, and, as necessary, to federate with other municipalities, according to a procedure guaranteeing municipal autonomy as the autonomy of each federal formation. “The center is everywhere, the circumference nowhere”, said Proudhon (3). This old idea of abolishing the separation between the governed and the governing, of continually moving away from any state, patriarchal, religious, economic or other power, runs through the Zapatista adventure like the Kurdish tragedy. Autonomy, as understood by these two epics, is not independence. The Zapatistas do not intend to separate from Mexico, not without a degree of patriotism and the paradoxical belief that the nation-state is a bulwark against neoliberalism. The Kurds of Rojava, applying a long-term federalist strategy, ignoring borders, do not claim to separate from Syria. In truth, diplomatic realism forces them to come to terms with the state recognized by the international community, and each presents their political system as an opportunity for their country.

It is not January 1, 1994 when the inhabitants of Chiapas rise up, or July 19, 2012 when those of Kurdistan of Syria, seizing a politico-military opportunity, proclaim their autonomy, that both of them discover the autonomous municipality and federalism. From the 90s, in Chiapas as in Kurdistan (4), the revolutionaries questioned themselves and arrived at the same observation, followed by the same questioning of what was for a long time a certainty: Marxism-Leninism is not an ideology emancipatory, nationalism leads to replacing the colonial state by a nation state which is hardly better for the people, even if it is socialist. They look elsewhere and, after a long evolution, the Zapatistas, in 2003, federated their autonomous municipalities, the Kurds, in 2005, adhere to democratic confederalism. Communalist and federalist ideology conceived by the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, himself inspired by the libertarian municipalism of the American philosopher Murray Bookchin, father of social ecology. Both the Zapatistas and the Kurds wish to overcome the historical divide between Marxism and

2. Jean Monnet, Mémoires (1976), Paris, Le Livre de poche, 2017, 826 pages, citation page 441.

3. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Confessions d’un révolutionnaire (1849), dans Œuvres de P.-J. Proudhon, Antony, Éditions Tops/H. Trinquier, 2013, 352 pages, citation page 197.

4. Kurdistan, during the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, was divided, by the French and the English, between four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria (Rojava).


anarchism, but while the former refuse to make any explicit reference – Zapatism does not exist – the latter theorize their autonomy and their federalism, plan change according to their own. new political thought and proclaim a universalism of multiplicity. On this last point, they agree with the desire of the Zapatistas to unite global logics and local particularities.

In order to administer themselves, the Zapatistas refuse any constitutive text, any law, any planning, any semblance of a state. They intend to adapt their political system by walking the path opened up by autonomy and do as they say. The insurgent Chiapanecos nonetheless have landmark political statements. The most important are the sixth declaration of the Lacandon forest of June 2005, updated by the Sexta of January 2013. The sixth declaration and the Sexta stick to three fundamental principles:
‒ an explicitly anti-capitalist position;
‒ a political project outside the state sphere, its parties and its electoral calendars;
‒ direct democracy led by grassroots communities.

The Kurds will, on the contrary, quickly adopt a “constitution”, the Rojava Charter in 2014, then the Social Contract of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria in 2016. This incorporates the principles of communalism, federalism and direct democracy. Like a classic state constitution, it lists in a first part the human rights and fundamental freedoms which we can say that they are respected, even if some slippages are reported as, moreover, in all democracies. In a second part, he deals in detail with the institutions of a proto-state.

Before discussing the institutions and their functioning, and because it is not a minor point to understand them, let us specify that capitalism is not treated from the same angle in Chiapas and Rojava. While the Zapatistas condemn, beyond neoliberalism, capitalism in general and pursue the objective of self-sufficiency as a factor of autonomy, the Social Contract regulates it over time so that, like the communal movement will replace the state, the social economy will replace the capitalist economy. Even if Chiapas and Rojava rely on cooperatives, there too the comparison has its limits. Chiapas is a company of small individual or community properties and it limits its “foreign trade” with the merchant company to the strict minimum. Rojava is Syria’s breadbasket and the Northern Syria Federation is rich in oil reserves. Also, shamelessly, because we have to feed the populations, Kurds and Arab allies trade with any buyer of their wheat and their oil, Damascus first. Likewise, because their survival is at stake, they call on outside skills to maintain their oil and hydroelectric facilities, and on foreign investment to develop their economy and rebuild their infrastructures.


The institutions of direct democracy

Denying constitutionality does not mean that you do not have a constitution and institutions. The latter may not be completed or recorded on a parchment, but they are nonetheless in existence and may take a form which is almost obligatory by virtue of custom. So it is in Chiapas when North Syria refers to the written word, the Social Contract. In these two autonomous territories the institutional structure is comparable, although in Syria a centralizing tendency is felt.

Both the community of Chiapas and the municipality of Rojava are places of collective organization driven by a search for consensus for decision, action and conflict resolution. Also, alluding to the advice of elders, sages or others, it is argued that the communalist organization is only the product of the ancestral traditions of community life of Indians, Kurdish or Arab tribes. If these have been able, like other historical, religious or ideological factors, to influence in what they have of good the development of the two political and social systems of self-organization, these do not remain. less, in America as in Mesopotamia, new ideas which are confronted harshly with the patriarchal order of the caciques and the sheiks.

In Chiapas, the initial number of twenty-seven Zapatista rebel autonomous municipalities rose to thirty-one in 2019. Each municipality includes several dozen communities (villages). In an affinity way, municipalities join together to form a zone. There are now twelve zones (regions called caracoles – snails) compared to five originally. Autonomy is therefore expanding, it being specified that in the Zapatista territories live non-Zapatistas. North and East Syria is made up of seven autonomous regions, three regions in Rojava (Cizîrê, Euphrates, Efrin) each divided into two cantons, and four predominantly Arab regions (Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor ). There are some seven thousand municipalities in Rojava, without the entire territory being covered. In the Arab regions, the establishment of communes sometimes clashes with traditional institutions, tribes and clans. If the twelve zones of Chiapas are completely autonomous, the seven Syrian regions are federated within the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria while in the Rojava Charter of 2014, the three regions of Rojava were, they too, totally autonomous. We therefore note a tightening of federalism, presented not as a concern for centralization but as a need for coordination and solidarity between the regions.

In Chiapas, direct democracy flourishes

In Chiapas, at the base, is therefore the community (village) organized with a community assembly and community agents. The communities are federated into autonomous municipalities with a municipal council. The communes send three to four representatives to the zone general assembly which, meeting only for a few days every two or three months, appoints a permanent council of good government. This, made up of ten or twenty members depending on the area, is divided into teams that


take turns, for example every two weeks. The link with the municipalities and villages therefore remains strong. The council of good government is responsible for the coordination and implementation of collective decisions relating to the management of resources, education, health, justice, etc. He can intervene as a conciliator in interpersonal conflicts or between institutions which have not found a solution at a lower level (community or commune). He also represents the community to the Mexican authorities.

For each of the assemblies, the mandates are of short duration, two or three years, non-renewable. The rotation of the charges prevents professionalization, everyone being able, in front, to take part in the political life. A constant back and forth is established between the council of good government, the general assembly of the zone and the communes and villages on a draft decision. The ratification process can take a long time. In the absence of consensus, the decision is put to a vote, the minority position is not ruled out but retained to possibly complete or replace the majority choice which would prove to be inadequate. All delegates must strictly adhere to their mandate and consult the grassroots if they do not feel they have a mandate on the issue raised. They are revocable and unpaid, the mandating community taking charge of the family and professional obligations of the mandatary. Once the decision has been taken, the decision-making bodies apply the principle of “governing by obeying” (mandar obedeciendo). That is to say that the organ which commands, including the good regional government, only obeys the mandate given by the assemblies, which can call it to order at any time, even a village assembly. . There is also a control body, the supervisory commission, which mainly checks the monthly, semi-annual or annual accounts drawn up by the council of good government.

Thus, can we speak of a stateless society with a governance that is nonetheless solid and structured, of a complete direct democracy where the legislature and the executive are merged in the assemblies of autonomies and in the council of good government, which does not exist. It is precisely not a government but a self- government. Here, the concept of self-government in Rojava is said to be more expressive than that of self-government used in Chiapas. The fact remains that, without a written constitution or body of laws, but rather with customary law in perpetual adaptation, the Zapatistas are advancing towards the best way to make autonomy live.

In Rojava, direct democracy is being built

Institutions and administration are much more complicated in northern and eastern Syria. The Social Contract is a completely original “constitution” and is not the faithful transcription of democratic confederalism. Rather, it translates an intermediate phase called “the democratic nation”. Hadiya Yousef, the President of the Constituent Assembly, puts it this way: “It is at the same time a pure communalist system and a


real parliamentary system (5). “. For many, there are two incompatible political systems here. Communalism, inseparable from direct democracy, cannot coexist with parliamentarism. For the Kurds, it is about finding the right path in a hostile environment. The Social Contract, which was not approved by referendum, but only by delegates appointed by consensus, applies to the three regions of Rojava and serves as an “ethical” benchmark for the four Arab regions.

The autonomy of the municipality is proclaimed in Article 48 of the Social Contract: “The municipality is the fundamental organizational form of direct democracy […]. At all levels of decision-making, the municipality functions as an independent assembly. “The territorial commune is the gathering of the inhabitants of a village, a neighbourhood, a street … where everyone can express themselves freely. However, the Social Contract does not give it the means to exercise direct democracy beyond itself. So that the municipalities of Rojava, if they are schools of political training, if they solve a number of local problems including conflicts, from an institutional point of view, they remain places of expression of the demand addressed to the municipality. for infrastructure maintenance or supply, or to the Autonomous Administration for administrative matters. They are not centers of law making and approval as they are with the communities of Chiapas. There is indeed a grand coalition of civil organizations, the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM), but which is not the federation of municipalities since it also brings together political parties, unions, various associations and communities. religious, etc. He is often the “government” relay to the populations, sometimes its spur, rarely its opponent.

The parliamentary apparatus is very comprehensive. Each administrative unit of Rojava (municipality, district, canton, region and federation) has an executive and an assembly, on a gender basis, made up of 60% elected by universal suffrage and 40% of representatives. of civil society appointed by consensus. A constitutional council oversees the proper application of the Social Contract; as of yet, it has not been implemented. At the federal level, the Congress of Democratic Peoples, a true national assembly, was to sit. Under the aforementioned conditions, three hundred elected officials were to sit there for four years, renewable once. However, the elections to the regional assemblies and to the Congress, scheduled for January 2018, never took place for, it is argued, security issues linked to the war. Instead, without delay, in September 2018, to coordinate public action and unify the law, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria was created. It is made up of a General Council of seventy members – forty-nine delegates from the regions and twenty-one technical administrators – appointed according to local procedures that are not really transparent, but which respects the diversity of ethnicities, religions and egalitarian representation. women. It meets twice a month and as often as neces- sary. On the basis of the consensus between the regions, an executive council is appointed, a real government of about twenty “ministries”. The Autonomous


5. Washington Kurdish Institute, WKI Weekly Digest, September 27, 2017

Administration takes legal or regulatory measures which apply, in principle, to the entire Federation, with the regions retaining a margin of opportunity in their implementation. This is the case with the law on military service of June 10, 2020, to quote only the last major text.

One can wonder about the revolutionary character of the theoretical system of the Social Contract and the practical regime of Autonomous Administration. Seen in detail, they turn out to be bureaucratic, far removed from democratic confederalism. One can even question the legitimacy of the Autonomous Administration in the absence of an election or clear designation methods. However, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, like nowhere else in the Middle East, makes it impossible to say that this is a dictatorship. We are in the presence of a revolutionary democracy grappling with a multitude of problems, a permanent state of emergency which prevent the normal functioning of institutions and the construction of a liberated society.

Politico-military interference

In Chiapas as in Rojava, the revolutionary army plays an important role given the circumstances of the birth of these autonomous entities and the threats weighing on them.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is a politico-military organization. It is she who established autonomy, ensures its sustainability and security. As such, it enjoys strong moral influence, but sometimes indulges in intrusions into the autonomy game in place of elected civilian authorities. According to the Zapatistas themselves, the EZLN is not democratic because an army is not by nature. Also, civil society never fails to remind him of it as it does in the Sixth Declaration: “Above the politico-democratic who commands and below the military who obeys. And maybe even better, nothing up high and all flat, no military. This ambition comes with concrete measures, for example, an EZLN commander cannot occupy a civilian charge of autonomy.

Different is the situation in northern Syria where there is a political party and an army. The party is the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its political platform the Syrian Democratic Council (CDS). The army is made up of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), Kurdish revolutionary militias which have integrated, while constituting the backbone, into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), coalition of all the Kurdish, Arab and Christian revolutionary militias, intervening in the north and east of Syria.

Without the PYD, there would have been no revolution in Rojava, no innovative political project. Through TEV-DEM, it was he who promoted the municipalities. It was he who pushed for the drafting of the Rojava Charter, then the Social Contract,


which provided the political frameworks for the new institutions. It was he who valued the principle of equality, particularly with regard to women who preside over all civil and political institutions with one man. It was he who organized the YPG-YPJ and led them to victory against obscurantism. The PYD is everywhere, it’s a fact. It is a vanguard which, unlike the Leninist vanguards, does not claim to be domineering, but an educator of autonomy.

More delicate is the situation of the army, and more particularly of its chief of staff, Mazloum Abdi. This general, trained by the PKK, insinuates himself, without a mandate, into the powers normally devolved, in democracy, in civil power, in particular, but not only, for international questions. However, Abdi is close to the Americans. His positions, his interventions, aligned with Washington, are not to everyone’s liking even within the highest levels of the PYD. Fighters, politicians like part of the Kurdish and Arab population also accuse him of transforming the SDF into private police in the service of the United States in its fight against the Islamic State rather than preparing the reconquest of the territories occupied by Turkey. These questions are not – yet – openly raised in the public debate.


There would be many other comparisons to be made between Chiapas and Rojava on the economy, diplomacy, justice, finances, ecology, health, education, rights and freedoms, the place of women , religion, cult of personality, etc. Limiting ourselves to institutions, it is nonetheless understandable that two different paths are taken to achieve a society of direct democracy, based on the autonomous municipality and federalism:
‒ that of Chiapas refuses any ideological reference other than “below and to the left”, does not constitutionalize, does not plan, puts in place all the cogs of autonomy and refines its project as it goes;
‒ that of Rojava refers to the democratic nation, an ideology preparatory to democratic confederalism, draws up a constitution in this sense, establishes a general policy program each year, draws up a budget; it is equipping itself with transitional institutions, in particular a proto-government, far from direct democracy but without giving up on achieving, when peace has returned, a communalist and libertarian society.

Both, because they are glimmers of emancipation in a hallucinated world, because they are models of political probity, deserve to be supported. Critical support, freed from all romanticism and dogmatism. For democrats or revolutionaries looking for a way to another future free of state and capital, they are contemporary and unique sources of inspiration and reflection. They refer to this fundamental question: after a successful federalist revolutionary process, what organizational hypothesis should be adopted to prevent the state from coming back to life, either because the absence of


solid autonomous institutions leaves it free, or because the new democratic institutions, by replacing the old ones, keep it alive?

For further:

• on Chiapas, Jérôme Baschet, La Rébellion zapatiste. Insurrection indienne et résistance planétaire, 3e édition revue et augmentée, Paris, Flammarion, « Champ histoire », 2019, 400 pages ;
• on Rojava, Pierre Bance, La Fascinante Démocratie du Rojava. Le Contrat social de la Fédération de la Syrie du Nord, Paris, Éditions Noir et Rouge, 2020, 600 pages.