1) Introduce yourselves and your motivation to fight in Rojava.
This interview is with R.K., T.C., and G.O. – from Scotland, Ireland and England respectively. Our average age is 28. We all independently wanted to join the fight in Rojava and came together when we met online and in the training camps here. We specifically wanted to join the International Freedom Battalion as we are socialists, and were responding to the call made by the MLKP for an International Brigade like that in the Spanish Revolution. However we would have joined any part of the YPG in what we see as both a straightforward anti-fascist struggle, and a revolution with far-reaching consequences. Now more than ever the struggle to go beyond capitalism and imperialism is a life and death struggle, for the survival of life on the planet itself, so the left must once again think in terms of life and death. By embracing the life or death struggle here, the BCB and the International Freedom Battalion hope to change the way the left is seen and how it sees itself.
2) Why are you named Bob Crow Brigade? Who was he? How is your relation with the IFB and the YPG?
We are some English-speaking friends who are in the IFB, and the IFB is a battalion in the YPG. There is no separation between any of them; if the YPG tell us to go to Raqqa tomorrow, we go. We were trained by the YPG, and we also spend time in YPG taburs as well as the IFB. The IFB project was started to coordinate the left volunteers from abroad, because there were so many of them, so that we could learn from each other and fight together. This is not to say that the YPG is itself not leftist – they state openly they are a socialist movement that is destined to clash with American imperialism, but there is not for instance daily political training and discussion in a regular YPG unit like there is in the IFB, and neither are there the same links to international causes and movements, which our volunteers have brought with them. The idea to call ourselves ‚the Bob Crow Brigade‘ was just to communicate that people from our part of the world are here, in the IFB. It is traditional to name a brigade from a certain part of the world after a local icon – like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from America in Spain; we chose Bob Crow, who was the leader of the RMT trade union during its rapid growth in members and militancy. Rather than a historical figure, we wanted someone who represents our politics today – and that was definitely Bob Crow. He was a huge figure on the left, for his outspoken Marxist-Leninist politics and refusal to accept Blairism and ’social partnership‘ trade unionism. He didn’t mince words – he was a working class guy, with working class politics, delivered in a working class style. The UK media couldn’t accept that, and constantly ridiculed and defamed him, and many feel the stress of dealing with their constant harassment contributed to his early death in 2014. We loved Bob, and love that because of us the media are forced to put his name in their pages once again, for a cause they can’t criticise.
3) How is your behaviour or contact with the local people in Rojava? What do they think about your fight in Rojava?
In the main cities of Rojava, like Kobane and Qamislo we have been celebrated and honoured at events – they see us foreign volunteers as evidence of the significance of their revolution. They also really warm to the fact that we’re just normal guys who’ve left low paid, low level jobs to be with them. In Manbij the people were clearly very happy to be free of ISIS‘ dictates again; in the cities ISIS are tyrannical, in the countryside they are, ironically, more like guerillas, and don’t enforce their full medievalist program. On the Raqqa front, in all interactions the Arab villagers seem to be really happy and cooperative with the YPG, even when we have to check a house for weapons they offer us tea and food – which suggests they see the YPG differently to a regular army. However, some of them liked living under ISIS and still support them, so we have to be careful about attacks coordinated with support from behind our own lines. We couldn’t understand this active support of what is now surely a lost cause – we said to our commander – can’t they at least see that ISIS are beaten and aren’t coming back? He replied, „Yes, but God never leaves.“ For instance the kitchen in our current base is burned black from when the previous unit held it; they had befriended a local villager who would stop by for tea, and one day he detonated a suicide bomb right there in that room.
4) How would you describe a typical day in the brigade?
The day starts in the night because you have an hour’s guard duty some time between 9pm and ‚roj bas‘ at 5.30am. Sport is at 6am, breakfast is at 7am, lunch midday and dinner at 7. Throughout the day we will have another guard duty, military training, informal discussions, and formal meetings – discussing the politics within the Battalion, or more generally. The last political meeting we had was on patriarchy and how we could confront it; men and women participated, but it had been initiated by the men. Here there is an understanding that patriarchy is a deep-seated dysfunction of society, and therefore that dealing with it involves everyone, rather than being solely the concern of women. The rest of the time will probably be spent doing communal work on the camp; we like to make them as nice as possible, with carpets and cushions, even if half of a wall is missing. This happens a lot as we move a lot – we are a mobile unit. There are other specific jobs you get on rotation, like being the cook for a day, being a driver, or going on a small mission; everybody does the different jobs. There is no exception by rank. After dinner we have a team (5 to 10 people) ‚tekmil‘ – a criticism and self-criticism session in which you can acknowledge mistakes you have made or draw attention to other people’s. At night we have one or two camp fires and we mostly get sung at, as our comrades do a lot of singing, but we know very few appropriate songs. Occasionally they use a car stereo to blast music to dance to; again we don’t have any national left wing dances to do in return, so we get stuck in to theirs. Also, we do have laptops and plenty of time to watch everything from documentaries on the Black Panthers to the latest Jurassic Park film (which by the way, is really very bad).
5) What are your duties on the battlefield? Have you been on the front lines?
We have pretty much only been on the front lines, as we are a fighting, mobile tabur. Right now though because of the Turkish backed invasion, plans for the offensive after Manbij have changed, so we are back on the Raqqa line guarding against ISIS attacks on our positions. They attack our current position every few months; it is 50km from Raqqa; beyond us is enemy territory. When the next offensive starts the IFB will join it.
6) Most people in Germany found out about internationals with comrade Ivana Hoffmann. Did you know her? What meaning do the fallen comrades have for you?
None of us knew her, but Ivana Hoffmann’s martyrdom was a huge event for us, both personally in terms of coming here to fight, and choosing to fight with her Party, but also more generally – we feel like she represents a major shift in the relation between the left in the West and the left in the majority world. She is like a bridge between the two, the concrete evidence that the same values unite us across the globe, and should be acted upon across the globe. The meaning we give to the martyrs, and we use the term martyrs consciously, is connected to this; martyrdom is a concept long forgotten by the Western left, but present in all modern struggles elsewhere, and something we think must be taken up again, to defeat the modern Western neo-liberal mindset of inertia and selfishness that says ‚your life is far too important to sacrifice or even risk‘. This support for martyrdom may seem to contradict the value socialists give to all human life, but we do not value a life that is lived in isolation, only in service of your own needs rather than others; the best kind of life is given meaning by a communal attitude and actions that serve others, either specifically, or generally, in building a better collective society. Martyrdom then is the ultimate demonstration of this way of living life, and should be used to inspire people – not only to follow directly in the footsteps of the martyrs and join an armed struggle, which of course only a few people can do, but in day to day tasks, movement-building and ideological development; every progressive should have pictures of people like Che Guevara and Ivana Hoffmann on their walls.
7) What is your point of view on the Turkish occupation of Cerablus and the role of the USA?
Both interventions were inevitable. The YPG resistance in Kobane forced the USA to be seen to be fighting ISIS, so they began to support the YPG along with many other groups – and the rapid progress of the YPG after the battle of Kobane meant that Turkey would have to intervene to prevent the three territories of Rojava uniting into a single land-mass along its border. Now the YPG is playing these two things off each other: American support against Turkish hostility. American support – which is very limited – will not last beyond ISIS. This is one reason why Turkey is now trying to get rid of ISIS itself, having previously aided and abetted them. In the final analysis Rojava wants nothing to do with neither Turkey nor America, but right now the situation demands sophisticated politics. Rojava must try and get as much as it can out of America whilst the relationship lasts, militarily and politically, in the face of the major threat: Turkey.
8) What is your point of view of Russia and the Assad regime?
Rojava certainly doesn’t have a hostile attitude to Assad in the same way ‚the rebels‘ do, it was established in bloodless transfer of power, and has stated it will be part of a new Syria rather than a breakaway state. Whilst it was supportive of the initial protests that led to an uprising, it did not join the FSA and others in the attack on the government, and views the rebels as largely being manipulated by, or agents of, outside forces. As the war developed however, and Russian support was assured, Assad has become more belligerent towards Rojava, more conflicts have broken out, and the PYD has stated they do not see ‚a new Syria‘ as being possible under Assad, and have formed the SDF alliance with Arab groups. This expands their influence beyond Rojava, but has not changed the goal to being the overthrow of Assad; the goal is still to unite the three cantons, and open up the coast to Rojava – and even then this will be a tiny portion of Syria. It is in some ways unfortunate that Assad is an ally of Russia, as this has prevented Russia from being more of an ally of Rojava, which would have drawn much clearer battle-lines of imperialism and anti-imperialism, NATO and its opponents, and cast Rojava in a less complicated light, that of being an anti-capitalist project currently getting support from America, the leader of capitalist imperialism. At the same time though, we have to be revolutionary and not settle for ‚the enemy of America is my friend‘ when there are a range of enemies and a range of friends; we choose Rojava over propping up Assad, and choose it on an anti-imperialist basis: whatever happens in Rojava will have a huge effect on the Kurdish regions of Turkey, and whatever happens there will have a huge effect on the fortunes of revolution within Turkey, the major regional power and a key NATO player.
9) Would you like to respond to some of the criticisms of the Rojava struggle and the role of internationals in it?
These basically fall into three categories: right-wing, pro-Assad left-wing, and ultra-left/libertarian. The right-wing critique is the emptiest; it amounts to downplaying the socialist and egalitarian politics of the PYD and YPG, and the role of communists, socialists and anarchists from abroad. Mostly it comes from disgruntled ex-YPG foreign fighters who don’t want to accept they were involved in a very left-wing struggle that differs fundamentally from joining the U.S. or U.K. army (from which these people have often been rejected or kicked out of). It’s very easy to debunk: the ideological training the YPG now gives all volunteers places the struggle firmly in the socialist tradition, explicitly, and the interview we did with the YPG commander running the training centre states the struggle is anti-capitalist and destined to clash with American interests in the future. The idea that the left is not significant in the foreign volunteers is also nonsense; the very nature of the struggle has meant that volunteers have always come from outside of Rojava, from other areas of Kurdistan mostly, and from the Turkish left that has long supported the Kurdish cause; the vast majority of non-Kurdish martyrs come from this group. The PKK, the PYD’s sister party, has been in an alliance called the HBDH with 10 Turkish communist parties and groups for revolution in Turkey since March 12th 2016; to deny the relationship between the PYD, PKK, and the openly communist groups in the HBDH is a pointless exercise.
The pro-Assad left criticism rests on a rather simplistic „anti-imperialist“ position that assumes that because we are not in support of Assad, then Rojava is part of an effort to overthrow Assad and replace him with a pro-Western figure. In fact Rojava was strongly criticised by the anti-Assad left for not doing this, and refusing to join the FSA uprising beyond securing control of the Rojava region. The list of actors America supports ahead of Rojava is very long indeed, now including both Assad and Turkey – there is no way that Turkey would have been allowed to invade Cerablus without U.S. permission. In the long run, is it really likely America will favour a proto-country the size of Wales over its regional allies Turkey and Barzani’s KRG (which is basically an American protectorate)? Both Turkey and Barzani are committed to the destruction of Rojava, and both of them figure far higher on American interests. Rojava is almost irrelevant to what replaces Assad, which will be the choice of the Great Powers, but could be very relevant to how the new country develops; it hopes to be a beacon of egalitarian politics and progressive policies, that will draw more and more non-Kurdish areas out of the influence of the centre and the imperialist powers, and into its concept of independence and ’self rule‘. No that doesn’t sound like outright Marxism, but it should be of interest to Marxists, as the first steps in a democratic revolution, or ‚bourgeois revolution‘, i.e. what Marx argues comes before a socialist revolution can take place.
This brings us to the last group of critics. The ultra-left and libertarians/anarchists who want to ‚debunk‘ Rojava, such as Gilles Dauvé, have certainly spent the longest time actually looking at the official statements and unofficial reports, and therefore make the most interesting points – with some built-in major flaws, due their own ideological position. They work on the assumption that all foreign supporters are intensely naive and only follow one official Ocalan-tinged view of the project, dropping all our previous beliefs and analytical faculties the moment we act in support of Rojava. Unlike the first two groups they do not deny that Rojava is a left-wing project, but deny that it is ‚a revolution‘ on the basis that the proletariat have not seized the means of production [which would amount to one oil refinery and one cement factory, both now controlled by the PYD]. No, Rojava has not had a ‚full communist‘ revolution, and it hasn’t claimed to; it has had some redistribution of land, and the establishment of a limited number of communes and cooperative workplaces as pilot schemes, and it has not carried out a mass expropriation of the local bourgeoisie, as that would amount to relatively small traders, of which there are thousands: Rojava is an overwhelmingly agrarian region which relies on cross-border trade. It is completely true that in the democratic or ‚bourgeois‘ revolution, elements of the local bourgeoisie are allied with; the clue is in the name. After Rojava’s democratic revolution, now begins class struggle within the revolution itself. One obvious primary task is to create industry and thereby a significant proletariat! Of course, the ultra-left do not accept any kind of intermediary stages. When it comes down to it, for all their rather accurate points of the gaps between „rhetoric and reality“ in some admittedly giddy pro-Rojava literature, the ultra-left do not accept any historical revolutions as genuine at all, with the exception of the Spanish Revolution, which of course, was defeated. In short, if what they are asking for has never happened anywhere, it is unlikely to be happening here in Rojava. This third group is not really concerned with what a revolution might look like in the modern era, and how to develop left-wing analysis, but instead worries that its own postmodern scene that warms to Rojava’s virtues in the areas of direct democracy, autonomy, ecology and feminism, doesn’t become infected with forbidden and unclean ideas, such as support for Parties, stages of revolution, national liberation, vanguards etc. Personally we welcome this infection, and are very glad to see those that are attracted more by rhetoric join us down here in the reality of socialist struggle. To give a summary response to all three schools of criticism: even in the worst case scenario, where the YPG, PYD, PKK, and their allied communist parties have lied to themselves and to us every step of the way, and Rojava doesn’t mean to address the questions of imperialism and capitalism, this was still an undoubtedly legitimate antifascist struggle, and one that the IMF, NATO, Turkey et al got nothing out of, and in some areas definitely had their authority undermined. By taking part, the left has regained a key value: faith. Faith in itself to overcome individualism and cultural isolation to create meaningful internationalism, and faith in itself to take action.
10) Finally what do you want to say to the people of Germany?
The German left and the German workers are inextricably caught up in this conflict due to the relationship between the German and Turkish state, and Erdogan’s use of the threat of ‚a refugee flood‘ if he doesn’t get his way. This makes support for Rojava, the single beacon of progress and equality in this morass, and the dedicated enemy of Turkey, one of the most straightforward choices for your country, and with respect we notice that the majority of left-wing support has indeed come from Germany already. What could happen now perhaps is campaigning pressure to break links with Turkey, and the building of more formal links with Rojava, via Trade Unions and social institutions. The refugee crisis taken alone, however, demands more complex thinking than we have seen so far, not just from Germany, but since we are discussing Germany, then some specifics: the rise of AfD (and movements like AfD) cannot be combatted by traditional ‚Antifa‘ activity, as it is very hard to simply pin the Nazi label on them, and beat them from the political arena. Slogans like ‚No Borders‘ and ‚No One Is Illegal‘ do not address the complexity of the situation, and fly in the face of the experience of the masses at work and in their communities; Marxism has never been about putting the cart before the horse, and demanding an aspect of full communism such as having ’no borders‘, before the groundwork has been laid, which in this case would be worldwide socialism! Denouncing the concerns of the workers as backward and reactionary just because they are Germans, as the ‚antideutsche‘ seem to do, is in fact backward and reactionary. Though it will be hard work, the left must adopt a two-plank policy that attacks imperialism for creating refugee and migration crises through the impoverishment and destabilisation of the majority world, whilst simultaneously championing the concerns of the working class in its own country, and trying to turn them against imperialism. Linking this back to ourselves, being able to say ‚we have sent volunteers to fight ISIS‘ puts the left in a much stronger position to do this hard work. It means being able to say, yes, actually the left is the enemy of Jihadism, the actual enemy to the death; not when it’s petty pogroms motivated by racism that the right carry out. It silences the critics, and emboldens the people. Finally, do not waste your time with the latest Jurassic Park. It really is very bad.