The revolution in Rojava is often described as “utopian,” due to its secular, democratic dream in “a region like the Middle East.” Commentators point to the revolution’s assertion of inter-group coexistence, women’s liberation, a communal economy model, and so forth. By taking a supposedly objective position, these accounts usually equalize the Kurdish-led revolution and ISIS through their confronting “utopian dreams.” Similarly, many accounts reduce the Rojava revolution to having emerged from a geopolitical opening enabled by the Syrian war. Or, it is ideologically reduced to Öcalan’s reading of Bookchin, not only by liberal/orthodox approaches but also by some of its friends. As a result, a number of crucial issues needed to understand the Rojava revolution are silenced, intentionally or unintentionally. The tenth anniversary of the Rojava revolution presents a good occasion to revisit some of these issues.
Focusing on the utopian thinking underlying the revolution, I advance two arguments: the utopianism of the Rojava revolution results from historical exigency which, in turn, bridges the gap between the realness of the revolution and the utopian freedoms that it promises.
The revolution in Rojava and the ensuing socio-political system result from a utopia, an imagination of liberation that is interactively integrated into the history of Kurdistan. For Fredric Jameson, there is no utopia outside the ideology because it is built on social class positions. The meaning of utopia changes according to inferior or superior power positions. For the hegemonic visions—such as the liberal-mainstream vision of the Rojava revolution—those who can imagine, and fight for, a radically different future are simply daydreamers. The hegemonic “non-utopian reality” is registered in an ideological closure or a continuous present free from history and the future. From their historically privileged positions, they constantly invite us to be realistic about the ultimate limits of imagining and achieving a radically different society. What seem like “unrealistic dreams” to them, however, are a result of a truth that is removed from sight by the ideological arrangements of the hegemonic order of state and capital, a truth that was shaped through and against the violent experiences of neutralized political order. The utopia, as a historical exigency, is a claim for the truth by the dominated against domination. It underpins the ideology of liberation against the hegemonic ideologies of domination. Utopian thinking against historical dominations that underlies the revolutionary agency in Rojava is the precondition of a radically different society under construction.
Utopianism—in the sense of unrealistic dreams developed by liberal orthodoxy—is often confronted with the concreteness and realness of the idea being constructed. My second argument is that the concreteness of the revolution should not divert us from the fact that a revolution is not a terminated process. Another way in which Jameson explores utopia is through the gap between the empirical present in which the utopian demands are made and the utopian arrangements of the imagined future. The Rojava revolution is placed right in this gap, and it should permanently be so: it is no longer only an imagination without any concrete application because the conditions of realizing the utopia in the concrete have been made through the revolution itself. But, rendering a utopia fully functional would mean the end of it, because any radically different imagination of society requires continuous reflections and engagements—which would otherwise lead to another ideological closure. The struggle for freedom is a movement and, therefore, a process that cannot be finished. As I elaborate on in the second part, the self-defense of what has been achieved (the revolution itself) and continuous critical engagement with what is lacking (its imperfection) bridges the gap between the realness of the revolution and the utopian freedoms that the revolution promises.
The Rojava revolution was under construction in three historical processes, and through each of which, its revolutionary agency was formed. In each of these historical processes, a central constituent of the revolution emerged against temporally specific forms of domination. The utopian thinking underlying the Rojava revolution emerged precisely to overcome these historical forms of domination.
The historical constituent of the Rojava revolution is the broader Kurdish question. The Kurdish question is embedded in the problematic construction of the region through colonial treaties, such as the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, which underlies the arbitrary division of peoples and lands in the region, including the Kurds and Kurdistan. The main dynamic of the century-long Kurdish question is rather straightforward: the respective states wanted to naturalize the domination of the Kurds and ontologically securitize them for their own survival, while the Kurdish actors struggled for ultimate liberation. In Syria, too, there have always been various Kurdish parties that fought for Kurdish rights, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since 1979. These movements fought against the Arabization policies in the region. For example, in Syria, they fought against the policy that stripped citizenship from one third of Kurds and rendered them alien in their homeland, and they fought against “the Arab belt” policy, which replaced the Kurds with Arabs in the historically Kurdish-inhabited lands. In 2012, the Rojava revolution’s agency built on the memory, struggle, and experiences of the Kurdish movement in Syria, against historical dominations.
The ideological constituent of the Rojava revolution is the transformation of the PKK from a national liberation movement to a radical democratic movement. The imagination of liberation by the broader Kurdish movement in Syria, or their utopia, was not beyond a Eurocentric nation- and state formation. The nation-state, however, has become a graveyard for liberation movements, given the current reproduction of colonial modernity by postcolonial states. Building on this overall background, the PKK’s transformation accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union through strongly questioning two central struggles encoded in real socialism: class against class and national liberation against imperialism. This transformation altered the organizational structure of the PKK from a Leninist party model into a network of different movements, parties, CSOs, or guerrilla groups. All of these entities follow Öcalan’s ideology, with a certain level of autonomy to respond to requirements in their respective political setting. Along with the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran, and (former) PÇDK in Iraq, Democratic Union Party (PYD) is a result of this transformation. Ideologically, too, almost anything that is associated with the Rojava revolution, such as women’s liberation, ecological thinking, peaceful coexistence in diversity, and more, are the results of this transformation.
Despite several aspects of this transformation, many Western commentators from the left or right, liberal or anarchist, have the tendency to reduce the ideology of the revolution to Öcalan’s reading of Bookchin. It is imperative to highlight that Bookchin’s municipalism is extremely important to the experience of radical and direct democracy in North and East Syria. This, however, should not obfuscate some of the intellectual sources and historical experiences that underlie the revolution. Öcalan’s political thought is very much contextualized within the state system and hierarchies in the region, and their global lineages. For instance, Öcalan’s earlier critique of the nation-state, which is primarily subversive of the regional hierarchical structures, appeared well before he read Bookchin. Öcalan’s writings draw important elements from the religious leaders and philosophers of the region, the “hegemonic continuity” explored by world system thinkers such as Andre Gunter Frank. Similarly, the intrinsically decolonial standpoint of xwebûn (or becoming the self) and hevaltî (or comradery), a new kind of relating to one another that is inherently embedded in the historical experience of the PKK, and many other ingredients of the revolution are barely represented in these accounts. As these few examples—among many others—show, by reducing the Rojava experience to an application of Bookchin’s ideological framework, they do injustice to the historical experience and intellectual depth of the Kurdish movement. Excluding some people, like Janet Biehl, the way this question has been handled in the West often smells like orientalism, to say the least.
The geopolitical constituent is the geopolitics of the Syrian revolution. The revolutionary agency in Rojava was constituted against a double denial of its agency. In the early days of the Syrian uprising, both the government and mainstream opposition wanted to instrumentalize the Kurdish opposition. Initially, the government was happy with the Kurds’ confrontation with increasingly radicalizing Islamists backed by the Turkish government, among others, while protecting the centers like Damascus or Aleppo—a policy that effectively resulted in its withdrawal from the northern regions. The (predominantly Islamist) armed opposition wanted the Kurds to mobilize with them against the regime without compromising on anything related to Arab nationalism, such as the name of the state, or the possibilities of a federal solution. The common thread between the regime and mainstream opposition was basically that they wanted to have Kurds under their control without even genuinely discussing their demands. This denial of agency resulted in a third-way political strategy that led to the Rojava revolution. It meant non-alignment with the regime or the mainstream opposition; rather mobilizing another opposition group with other excluded political and identity groups.
There has been an overall tendency to suffocate the analysis of the post-revolutionary era in the limited geopolitical perspectives, such as through the confrontation between Russia and US. This confrontation has been a permissive geopolitical balance for the regional actors since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. The United States has been withdrawing from the region after a failed liberal peace program that ruined the region, while Russia has been re-entering the region after recovering from the Soviet past. Had the United States been the only hegemonic force, they would probably continue supporting the mainstream opposition together with Turkey, which would paralyze any Kurdish-led development. Had Russia been the only hegemonic force, it would have likely supported the regime, and any Kurdish-led development, once again, would be impossible. That is why this confrontation is permissive, not constitutive. Without an already mobilized party with an ideological vision and the historical experience of resistance to domination, such a geopolitical opening would not result in a revolution.
The emergence of the revolutionary agency is key to understanding the utopia as historical exigency. In long historical terms, it is inscribed in the fact that the Kurdish movement in Syria had to resist both internal and external dominations. Ideologically, it emerges from the unavoidable necessity to go beyond the nation-state. Geopolitically, it is about the political option against the denial of the agency both by mainstream opposition and the Assad Regime. Combined in engendering the revolutionary agency in 2012, these constituents are the historical exigency that shape utopian thinking behind the Rojava revolution.
When Bashar Assad withdrew his forces from the north, the revolutionaries of Rojava assumed power ten years ago, on 19 July 2012. The revolution might have created the conditions for utopia. But it is not, and it should not be seen as, a terminated process. The utopian freedoms, as “barely audible messages from the future,” blossom within permanently imperfect conditions of the present. Bridging the gap between the post-revolutionary imperfection and the revolution’s utopian promises is possible only through its self-defense against external aggressions and a continuous critical engagement with its practices of freedom.
Until the US involvement, self-defense was a matter of local mobilization and international solidarity campaigns. The rest of the world (with the exception of some already connected groups) heard about the revolution during the defense of Kobane against Daesh in 2014. The revolution was fighting the jihadists backed by Turkey, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, from the very beginning. But later, with the participation of other jihadist groups, ISIS grew much stronger. The threat that the jihadists posed was not considered, if ignored, in the West until ISIS carried out attacks on Western capitals. That was the moment that the Kurdish-led struggle hit the headlines of Western mass media and connected to the emotions of the Western public. During the heydays of the battle of Kobane, in almost every country in the West, but also elsewhere from Africa to Asia and to the Americas, demonstrations were organized in support of the Kurdish-led resistance. It was a moment of unprecedented international solidarity despite all its misconceptions. Among many other remarkable developments, tens of thousands of people were gathered all around the globe, for the first World Kobane Day on 1 November 2014. Moreover, many volunteers from all across the world went to join the resistance. This pressure ensured by international solidarity and related mass media coverage brought the US-led coalition against ISIS to provide aerial support to Kurdish-led fighters.
After the United States became involved in the war against Daesh, the self-defense was confined to a new geopolitical status quo: Russia dominated the west of the Euphrates River (with the exception of Manbij), and the United States dominated the east of the river. The Erdogan regime’s eagerness to discredit and put an end to the globally resonating Kurdish-led revolution was exploited by Russia to cause problems between Turkey and NATO and, in this way, weaken the alliance. In this context, Turkey had the green light from Russia to invade Afrîn in the northwest in January 2018, and the Kurdish YPG/YPJ forces had to withdraw in mid-March after three months of self-defense resistance. The situation was different east of the river, where the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces initiated an offensive to liberate this land, including Raqqa, its capital, from Daesh. Immediately after Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw from Syria, the Turkish army invaded Rojava in October 2019 and occupied a strip of territory to a depth of 35 km along a 120 km stretch of the Turkey-Syria border. Although US troops have not withdrawn fully (due mainly to the objection of the American establishment), the US betrayal has pushed the Kurdish-led forces towards the Assad regime. Currently, given the approaching elections in Turkey, Erdogan once again threatens Rojava with an invasion to recover some part of his dramatically dropping popularity internally and carry out daily drone attacks to destabilize and further securitize the region. Defending the revolution against continuous aggression has been, and continues to be, the primary condition for enabling the revolution’s utopian promises.
Such a defense, however, does not only refer to external threats but also to possibly fatal internal issues. Three of them stand apart. The question of revolutionary avant-guard, which ultimately led to a top-down militaristic setting rather than a bottom-up direct democratic control is a central issue that the revolution needs to deal with.[10' Secondly, the question of military collaboration with the US, the world’s number one imperialist force, remains to be a security obligation for the inevitable defense against external aggressions, particularly Turkish invasions; but also an image breaker both regionally and among internationalist circles, and a challenge to the principles underlying ideological vision. Finally, the problem of re-organizing cooperative economy relates to a double process of internalization. That is, the internalization of cooperatives by the capitalist economy, the giant against which it tries to stand, and the internalization of the capitalist economy by the actors of the revolution, a common threat to many autonomous or autonomy-seeking movements.
The Rojava revolution has, according to its actors, achieved much, but there is still much to be done. This imperfection is the precondition for the utopian promises of the revolution. The geopolitics continuously destabilize the region, as I showed, due to the military invasions and embargoes. Sustaining the revolution is undoubtedly related to legal/international recognition of North and East Syria. Internal challenges are manyfold, which could bring an end to the revolution or, even worse, create another tribal fiefdom under the control of the Barzani family. But ignoring the gigantic power possessed by hegemonic forces based on an anti-imperialist romanticism will equally mean a quick end. The revolution cannot afford this overall situation, not anymore; and this is where solidarity comes in.
19 July 2022 was the tenth anniversary of the Rojava revolution, a utopian crack within the domination-based, sexist, nationalist, and orientalized regional continuity. Resulting from the historical exigency of the domination-based regional order, this utopian crack is situated in a gap between the realness of the revolution and its promises. Defending this revolution is as much related to its self-defense as to engaging with its utopian promises in its imperfection. That is why Rojava needs to globalize and to be globalized. The former refers to the necessity of enriching Rojava’s projects with the experiences of global struggles while the latter means whispering the Rojava revolution’s message in global ears. Instead of symbolic solidarity actions, these messages and practices can be built into, and through, a global movement for (radical) democracy—within the framework of the democratic confederalism of the peoples of the world. Although limited in scope, some inspiring examples already exist, such as the experiences of Serhildan, the internationalist commune, or the message that the revolution conveyed across the globe through “jin, jiyan, azadî” (women, life, freedom). Rojava is far from being perfect. But its imperfection is a guide to growing the utopian crack through globalizing radical democratic inspirations.
 See, for example: A.I. Ahram, ‘On the Making and Unmaking of Arab States’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 50 (2018): 324.
 F. Jameson, ‘The Politics of Utopia’, New Left Review 25 (2004): 46–7.
 See, for example: P. Stanchev, ‘From Chiapas to Rojava: Seas Divide Us, Autonomy Binds Us’, Roar, 2015.
 Jameson, ‘The Politics of Utopia’, 38.
 A.H. Akkaya, ‘The Palestinian Dream’ in the Kurdish Context’, Kurdish Studies, 3:1, 2015, pp. 47–63.
 J. Tejel, Syria’s Kurds. History, Politics and Society. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.
 M. Mamdani, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2020
 A. Öcalan, Sosyalizmde Israr Insan Olmakta Isrardır (Weşanên Serxwebûn, 1998), pp. 31–41.
 See: Öcalan, Sosyalizmde Israr Insan Olmakta Isrardır.
 See: C. Hammy and T.J. Miley, ‘Lessons From Rojava for the Paradigm of Social Ecology’, Frontiers in Political Science 3 (2022), pp. 815338.
 A. Aslan, Economía Anticapitalista En Rojava. Las Contradicciones de La Revolución En La Lucha Kurda (Cátedra Jorge Alonso, 2020), pp. 26–7.