Self-Defense: The heart of revolutionary transformation


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Societies have always adapted and changed in order to defend themselves against attacks. However, with the emergence of the nation-state, self-defense has become part of the monopoly of the State. This monopoly of self-defense includes both military and society. The State has taken on the responsibility of defending its citizens against famine, sickness, poverty and war, but often fails in these duties. Even worse, the State itself is often the main perpetuator of violence against its citizens… [6]

–Krongeya Star

The Legacy of Militant Struggle in the Americas

Self-defense is the central pillar of our resistance. The State tries to consolidate its monopoly on violence by claiming to have the unique ability to protect its “citizens,” but it has become clear, there is no such thing as protection that one does not provide oneself. Self-defense is not only the barricade against an oppressive force, but also the means for the collective development that is an integral part of revolutionary change. From the bloody inception of the American State, every attempt to subject people under its hegemonic rule has been met with fierce resistance. From the early legacy of indigenous resistance and slave rebellions to later eruptions at Wounded Knee to the rise of the BLA, the drive for liberation has been the central desire of the oppressed.

Maroon societies, in the US South, were autonomous communities of indigenous people, self-freed slaves, and poor whites. They were collective and uncompromisingly committed to defending each other’s freedom from slave catchers and bosses. The maroon communities prevented anyone from going without food and protection, and to ensure this, they conducted risky incursions into surrounding areas. Due to the relentless attacks from the government and the planter class, they relied on a fierce backbone of armed defense to maintain their autonomy. Cooperation with nearby maroon communities allowed multiple teams to join together against bigger enemies to create a fluid and powerful fighting force. It was this very decentralized nature of the militias that ensured their autonomy, as well as gave them fighting prowess against a bigger enemy. In fact, during the Civil War they used the same hit and run tactics against the Confederate Army and the plantations.

While the maroons demonstrate the usefulness of localized self-defense of an autonomous region, the resistance in Haiti during the revolution shows the benefits of building a decentralized fighting force from within an imperial society. The history of the resistance consisted of debilitating switch-backs between the two formations that Russell Maroon Shoatz refers to as the “hydra” and the “dragon.” When the decentralized forces (the hydra) were unleashed, the resistance enjoyed military success. When a leader centralized the militia and grabbed power (the dragon), they would either be executed by the slavers or imperialists or, as occurred in later years, killed by their own people’s resistance due to their despotic behavior.

What is perhaps the most recent example of successful autonomous resistance to the State in the American context was the Black Liberation Army in the early 1970’s. Their version of the ‘maroon’ was an underground network, allowing them to use offensive tactics and prevent infiltration. At their height, they skillfully liberated numerous captive insurgents from state bondage. Against a hegemonic enemy, camouflage was essential. The longer fighters maintained their anonymity, the longer they were able to sustain attacks without taking crippling casualties.

If the Black Liberation Army had been thoroughly tied to a political body before going underground, the political movement in general could have recruited new members through an above-ground organization. By linking such a group with public, council-based organizations founded on liberatory practices, the movement can be built through simultaneously constructing a new way of life and enacting revolutionary justice.

Moreover, the underground model ought to be combined with a visible, aboveground network that delivers both tactical and strategic advantages. Revolutionaries can attract wider community support without forfeiting the benefits of underground organization. The Anti Racist Action (ARA) network in the US in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s carried on the legacy of fighting fascism through a decentralized, militant, above-ground network. Its chapters were grounded locally, with local, anonymous participants driving its activities on the streets. Anti-fascist tactics – focused primarily around the use of physical force—proved effective in forcing neo-Nazi groups out of entire neighborhoods. The tactics were simple, if they came upon a neo-Nazi, they would use sufficient force to drive them away. The network was so successful that it eventually grew to 100 chapters. By joining in a nationwide network, they were able to help spread and strengthen the model while still maintaining local control over each chapter. This model shows the effectiveness of decentralized, locally based activity, reinforced by connective networks across a larger region.

Self-Defense in a Revolutionary Society

Successful self-defense must incorporate revolutionary values and practices. In Rojava, combatants are trained both in fighting techniques and the benefits of creating a feminist, egalitarian society. They put these values into effect through their relationships. For example, to dismantle the lingering effects of patriarchy, no man can give a woman an order; to maintain participation and egalitarian relationships, all fighters contribute to decision-making within units, particularly by selecting their own leaders for specific missions.

The relationships between comrades, born from their own liberation and participation in a bottom-up system, allows them to be very effective militarily. This is hardly surprising, as fighters who believe deeply in the liberatory society they are fighting for, as well as have a profound trust in those around them, are more likely to consistently advance the struggle forward. This strength sustains the integrity of the revolution against its enemies. Through this conscientious method they have built a 50,000-strong militia that has proven to be the most effective force against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The training of these new militants is the revolutionary heart of the Rojava Revolution. The long-term intentions of the training programs are to ensure that everyone can participate in self-defense. To that extent, there are also localized training programs that arm the public for a second tier of neighborhood defense. The Self Defense Forces (HPC*) were formed for this purpose. While specific armed groups, such as the People’s Protection Units and Asayîş (YPG** and YPJ*** respectively), have been formed to fight external enemies, the HPC are civilians that get arms training with the specific goal of maintaining autonomy against internal forces that might seek to consolidate power. They are volunteers who receive both political education and self-defense training.

These armed groups are able to defend their communities from attacks without compromising revolutionary values. As the YPG and YPJ liberate ISIS territory new communities become incorporated into their political project. Rather than establish a top-down system of governance, the revolutionary movement establishes new neighborhood councils and communes, feminist education programs, and decentralized local-based militias within each liberated town. To implement this form of political organization, there is undoubtedly a give and take. While the towns receive the infrastructure necessary for self-governance, such as weapons and training from the YPG to set up their own, local defense groups, they agree to uphold certain social principles like feminism and social ecology.

Due to this egalitarian political organization and the relationship engendered through the process the Rojava revolution has not only defended its decentralized political system but has even expanded the council system to neighboring regions.

The core tenets of Rojava’s self-defense project are as follows:

Enhancing Our Struggle

Across the United States, there are currently groups that are committed to the principles of self-defense, from left-wing armed groups to anti-fascist brigades to copwatch organizations. These groups use a variety of tactics and strategies depending on the local conditions, yet they share common enemies: fascists, right-wing militias, and State forces. The groups who have combatted these reactionaries have a proven commitment to defending oppressed communities; they are the foundation upon which we can build a political movement.

Thus, we propose that the existing militant anti-fascist and anti-police movement can be further developed according to the following guidelines:

Our proposal is to grow locally, while connecting, politically and materially, to similar groups regionally. By placing self-defense at the center of our revolutionary movement, we can protect the development of our political projects and centers. This will allow the values and practices that we are trying to implement to have the opportunity to expand. We propose connecting self-defense groups to the smallest unit of self-governance possible: the neighborhood. This places the capacity for self-defense in the hands of those who need it.

To summarize, we argue:

Next: The Neighborhood Council


* HPC or Hêza Parastina Cewherî translates to Civilian Defense Forces.

** YPG or Yekîneyên Parastina Gel translates to People’s Protection Units.

*** YPJ or Yekîneyên Parastina Jin translates to Women’s Protection Units.