Why we need Marxist-Humanism now by Robert Spencer

Today, anti-humanism is a dominant, even definitive, feature of contemporary theory, whereas humanism is dismissed as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘old-fashioned’, even a precept of Right-Libertarianism. For Humanism demands a reappraisal of humanist humanism2thought, establishing the historical context that resulted in humanism’s eclipse, critiquing anti-humanism, and conceptualising humanism in light of post-structuralism, queer theory, feminism and postcolonialism.

Whilst narrativising his humanist awakening,  editor and contributor, Robert Spencer, encapsulates the aims of For Humanism. He defends humanism against its outright rejection by certain strands of anti-foundationalist thought (namely postcolonialism and queer theory), and, in rebuking anti-humanism’s chief proponents, Foucault and Heidegger, proposes a humanist methodology of resistance, whilst demonstrating that Marxism has a place in humanist thought.

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When I first went to university to study English Literature I was interested to discover that words didn’t always mean what I thought they meant. It was a useful lesson, not least because among the many benefits of a literary education is the realisation that language, the main means by which humans encounter, experience and shape their world, is changeable as well as contestable. There are struggles taking place all the time over the meanings and uses of words. There were words that I liked that I learned to be suspicious of. In conversations with Marxists, I learned that it was not a good thing to be an ‘idealist’, the word did not mean what it appeared to mean to the eighteen-year old me. As I discovered that struggles over social, economic and political power played an equally prominent part in human history as the battle of ideas did, I realised that an idealist, was somebody who exaggerated the latter and downplayed the former. I was happy to accept that claim and I still am. However, I had much greater difficulty when one of my seminar tutors responded to a comment I made in class about David Copperfield with the disapproving remark that “that, Rob, was a very humanist thing to say”.

Puzzled by her disapproval, my interest in humanism began. This ongoing struggle over humanism’s meanings resulted in For Humanism, the book that my friend David Alderson and I have put together. To be a humanist or, still worse, a liberal humanist was evidently a bad thing; the belief in the distinctive value of the human individual was irretrievably bourgeois, akin to the Right’s belief in the inviolable private self. Now I had little truck with this objection. Anybody who has spent time in the company of Trotskyists will have seen the force of Oscar Wilde’s famous remark that the problem of socialism is that it takes up too many evenings, and for me the point of socialism was not to sacrifice the self to the collective but to fashion a society in which everybody had the time and the resources required to do their own thing. Collective struggle was required in the short term, granted, but only in order to make collective struggle unnecessary in the long term.

To be fair to the folk in SWSS, a few of them, it seemed, were quite happy to describe themselves as humanist, thus I was introduced to a bone of contention on the Left that has interested me ever since. I wanted to know how to be a Marxist and a humanist. The anti-humanist Marxists thought that humanism was bourgeois. Humanists preferred privacy to the collective, the individual to the working class, beauty to struggle, and so on. Anti-humanist Marxists distrusted humanism because it extolled the whole rights-based ideology of capitalism and therefore had a whiff of revisionism and political compromise about it. The Marxists I hung about with saw themselves as revolutionaries not as conciliators or coalitionists; one of them confessed to me that he had suspicions about a comrade who, he suspected, would have moral reservations about stringing somebody up from a lamppost! Not a predicament – I reflected to myself in a pub just off Norwich’s Dereham Road – any of us were likely to face any time soon.

Lenin notoriously told Maxim Gorky that he daren’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata too often because it ‘makes you want to say stupid nice things and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty… And now you mustn’t stroke anyone’s head – you might get your hand bitten off. You have to hit them on the head, without mercy.’ I haven’t hit anybody on the head since I was about ten years old, and I’ve always had a suspicion about insurrectionary rhetoric of this kind. For me, the socialist revolution should not, in societies like ours at least, be an insurrection, but the concerted entrenchment and expansion of forms of democratic empowerment that will confront and supplant the overweening regime of capital and authoritarian state power. Let’s call that a ‘long revolution’, to borrow Raymond Williams’s term, provided that as much emphasis is placed on ‘revolution’ as on ‘long’, as Williams once added.

David Alderson and I, in For Humanism, wanted to remind readers of the value and strength of a specifically Marxist humanism that sees its’ social, political and economic goals as extensions and not blanket rejections of the liberal or bourgeois tradition of democracy, rights and freedoms. In other words, Marxism is a humanism. Granted, talk about democracy, rights and freedoms is usually employed as an ideological smokescreen to conceal the oppressions and exploitations of rapaciously capitalist dispensations such as ours. Most of us are free every five years or so to put a cross on a ballot paper, but the rest of the time our representatives take their orders from big business. Every human being on the planet has an inalienable right to things like a decent pension and free healthcare, but the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is hardly worth the paper it’s written on. When these rights confront the right of capital to travel, suborn and exploit, force decides. But, as Adorno says somewhere, it’s not ideology that’s at fault here, but rather ideology’s pretension to correspond to reality. The ideals of freedom, democracy and rights are not wrong. What is wrong is the naïve liberal faith that they can be realized under present conditions.

We wanted to think about the reasons why anti-humanism had become such a dominant, even definitive, feature of cultural theory. What has made those who teach literary criticism and cultural theory grimace or recoil when they thought somebody was doing or saying something humanist? The answer is that they have relied on humanism’s enemies to tell them what the term means. The humanist tradition, with all its richness and complexity, its secularity, its commitment to democratic socialism, feminism and anti-imperialist struggle, its restlessly critical sensibility, its militant repudiation of every political and philosophical effort to define or control human beings, was simply written off on the basis of hatchet jobs done by dubious figures like Martin Heidegger and self-serving half-truths peddled by Michel Foucault.

In his lamentable ‘Letter on Humanism’ of 1947 Heidegger dismissed the human as just the latest impertinent effort to harass or constrain ‘Being’, the mystical invocation of ‘Being’ leading Heidegger’s work variously to Zennish otherworldliness, reactionary anti-modernism or the blood-and-soil mysticism of German fascism. Foucault, who was politically a very changeable figure, dismissed humanism as an antiquated and reactionary faith in the inviolable human subject. Humanism’s most influential post-war exponent, Jean-Paul Sartre, was described by Foucault as ‘a man of the nineteenth century trying to think through the problems of the twentieth century’. Foucault was similarly dismissive (and wrong) about Herbert Marcuse’. Undeterred by the fact that none of Sartre’s work makes any such claim about human subjectivity being static or exceptional or normative (indeed, it painstakingly makes the opposite claim), Foucault and his epigones presented all humanism as a sterile faith in the normative nature of subjectivity.

It’s my view that Foucault’s critique of humanism has been most influential and most damaging. For cultural theorists inspired by Foucault’s work, which is a large proportion of those working in the sub-disciplines of postcolonial theory, queer theory, feminism, ‘the human’ is just another reprehensible norm to be queered and subverted. For postcolonialists, for example, ‘the human’ is synonymous with European colonial power and its legacies. The aim of postcolonial criticism is then to ‘resist’ that power and to show how texts ‘hybridise’ the normative identities of nation, empire, sexuality, race, subjectivity and so on. The problem with this way of proceeding is that cultural theory and cultural criticism are thus locked into a repetitive pas-de-deux, the power of the human or of race becoming a formative principle that we are called upon to resist but not finally to overthrow. ‘Wherever there is power there is resistance’, says Foucault, which sounds comforting enough until one realizes that this little maxim works the other way too: where there is resistance there is power and always will be. It has always struck me that the notion of hybridizing identity or subverting the normal isn’t analogous with the purpose of the radical project: to become the dominant in its own right, take power and seek the political, cultural and institutional change that would make it impossible for prescriptive identities and norms to be imposed. The ubiquitous Foucauldian rhetoric of resistance is too imprecise. It says nothing about strategy and goals. It connotes the fending off of an adversary not the triumph over that adversary. Anti-humanism rose to prominence in the era of the ‘class war conservatism’ of neoliberalism. It represents a parasitic dependency on a system of ‘power’ that it despairs of being overturned. Anti-humanism is a pragmatic adjustment to a period of history that saw the organized forgetting of the revolutionary horizons of the Marxist or socialist humanism that we wish to rehabilitate.

So the purpose of our book was to show that the Marxist humanist tradition shows a way out of these dead ends. Humanism names a principle, the rights and capacities of human beings, that is being suppressed by systems of power and in the name of which transformative (rather than merely local or defensive) political projects might be launched. Humanism’s detractors have misrepresented it. It does indeed identify specifically human attributes and needs: for shelter, nourishment and any number of other physical provisions and for creative self-expression. But it does not identify the human as a ‘kingdom of values’, to use Sartre’s phrase, separate from or superior to the animal world and to nature. It does not impugn but esteems diversity, the infinitely varied creative capacities of human communities and individuals. It rejects the self-defeating notion that some sort of ‘will to power’ is an inviolable element of our political life. Its political principles are anchored in the vision of a society that conforms more exactly to the kind of beings that humans unalterably are: multifarious, creative, somatic creatures that feel pain and seek pleasure, dependent mammals capable of transforming that fact of mutual dependency into the value of solidarity. For Humanism ransacks the resources of a half-forgotten tradition. But it has no sterile reverence for the past, for bourgeois or colonial or patriarchal humanisms. Nor is it satisfied with cultural theory’s pragmatic rapprochement with the neoliberal present. It seeks a radically different kind of future. The plutocrats, mobsters and little Hitlers don’t scare us. We’re not here to ‘resist’ them, to organise in the margins or absorb power’s blows. We know what we’re fighting for.

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For Humanism: Explorations in Theory and Politics is edited by David Alderson, Robert Spencer.

It includes essays by the editors, in addition to, Timothy BrennanKevin Anderson and Barbara Epstein.

Neoliberalism: An American love story by Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson

Trump’s declaration of an economy ‘for the people’ lead many to incautiously declare the end of neoliberalism. Such declarations were at variance with subsequent news of his plans for market deregulation, corporate tax cuts and his instating of the richest cabinet in U.S. history. Why do tired neoliberal economic policies, proven to be an abject failure, dominate the economic landscape?  In their new book, The Profit Doctrine, Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson set to found out, critically examining the key proponents of neoliberalism; their flawed ideas and their flawed characters. In this exclusive essay, the authors look at America’s romance with Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and Robert Lucas and their theories and look to the future. 

In Donald Trump’s inauguration speech he boasted that his administration would take power from Washington and give it back to “you, the people.” As usual, President Trump’s headline is appealing but his analysis is appalling. While he is correct that economic policy in the US has turned against most of “the people,” it is not Washington that is the problem, at least not in the manner that Trump or his cabinet of business executives would have you believe.

In fact, contrary to what friedman-and-bushPresident Trump suggests, economic policy since 1980 has worked against most people in the US because of its dedication to corporate profits and the wealth of the business class. An economy that actually worked for the people would create stable growth, price stability, full employment, and the efficient allocation of resources. Some might even add to this list an environmentally sustainable economy and a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth and income. However, with the exception of price stability, the US after 1980 has delivered none of these things.

According to inequality experts, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, between 1973 and 2000 the average income of the bottom 90% of US taxpayers fell by 7%. Incomes of the top 1% rose by 148%, the top .1 percent by 343%, and extremely well off in the top .01% rose by an amazing 599%. Economic Policy Institute economist Lawrence Mishel calculated that in 1965, the average pay of the CEOs at the top 350 US firms (ranked by sales) stood at about 20 times the average compensation of their workers. By 2011, CEO income was over 200 times that of their average worker.

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“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear” The Islamophobia machine by John L. Esposito

In the last week we have witnessed the fatal shooting of six Muslims in Quebec and Trump’s trump-exec-orderMuslim ban and the Islamophobia first espoused by conservative bloggers, right-wing talk show hosts and evangelical religious leaders has found a home in the White House. The decision of thousands of people to stand up to racism and protest this week is encouraging, but as intolerance becomes government policy uncovering the scare tactics, revealing the motives and exposing the ideologies that drive this Islamophobia machine becomes increasingly important. 

This essay, written by John L. Esposito, is taken from Nathan Lean’s ‘The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims’, which seeks to challenge the narrative of fear that has for too long dominated discussions about Muslims and Islam, Esposito offers a historical perspective on this ever-rising tide. The second edition, scheduled for publication in September 2017, will include new material on the Trump victory, exploring the new government that is currently coming to shape in the US, emphasising that this book is now more relevant than other.

Islamophobia did not suddenly come into being after the events of 9/11. Like anti-Semitism and xenophobia, it has long and deep historical roots. Its contemporary resurgence has been triggered by the significant influx of Muslims to the West in the late twentieth century, the Iranian revolution, hijackings, hostage taking, and other acts of terrorism in the 1980s and 1990s, attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe.

WHAT ARE THE ROOTS OF THIS MODERN EPIDEMIC?

Most Americans’ first encounter with an unknown Islam occurred with the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and the taking of hostages in the American embassy, which resulted in an explosion of interest and coverage of the religion of Islam as well as of the Middle East and the Muslim world that has increased exponentially over the years. Today, Islam and the Middle East often dominate the negative headlines. Despite the fact that Islam is the second largest religion in the world and the third largest religion in the United States—as well as the fact that American Muslims are an integral part of the American mosaic in the twenty-first century—the acts of terrorists over the last three decades have fed the growth of Islamophobia in this country.

THE POST 9/11 CLIMATE:

The catastrophic events of 9/11 and continued attacks in Muslim countries, as well as in Germany, France and London, have obscured many positive developments and have exacerbated the growth of Islamophobia almost exponentially. Islam and Muslims have become guilty until proven innocent, a reversal of the classic American legal maxim. Islam is often viewed as the cause rather than the context for radicalism, extremism, and terrorism. Islam as the culprit is a simple answer, easier than considering the core political issues and grievances that resonate in much of the Muslim world (that is, the failures of many Muslim governments and societies, American foreign policy of intervention and dominance, Western support for authoritarian regimes, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or support for Israel’s wars in Gaza and Lebanon). It is not difficult to find material that emphasizes selective analyses of Islam and events in the Muslim world, material which is crisis-oriented and headline-driven, fuelling stereotypes, fears, and discrimination. Islam’s portrayal as a triple threat (political, civilizational, and demographic) has been magnified by a number of journalists and scholars who trivialize the complexity of political, social, and religious dynamics in the Muslim world.

The result has been to downplay the negative consequences of Western support for authoritarian regimes, and the blowback from American and European foreign policies in the Middle East, from the Palestinian–Israeli conflict to the invasion of Iraq. Anti-Americanism or anti-westernization (which has increased significantly among the mainstream in the Muslim world and globally as a result of these policies) is often equated simply with Muslim hatred of our western way of life.islamophobia

Today, Islamophobia distorts the prism through which Muslims are viewed domestically. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes proliferate. Legitimate concerns in the United States and Europe for domestic security have been offset by the abuse of anti-terrorism legislation, indiscriminate arrests, and imprisonments that compromise Muslims’ civil liberties. Mainstream Islamic institutions (civil rights groups, political action committees, charities) are indiscriminately accused of raising money for extremism by individuals and sometimes governments without the hard evidence that would lead to successful prosecution.

Significant minorities of non-Muslim Americans show a great tolerance for policies that would profile Muslims, require special identity cards, and question the loyalty of all Muslim citizens. A 2006 USA Today-Gallup Poll found that substantial minorities of Americans admit to having negative feelings or prejudices against people of the Muslim faith, and favour using heightened security measures with Muslims as a way to help prevent terrorism. Fewer than half the respondents believed that US Muslims are loyal to the United States. Nearly one-quarter of Americans—22 percent—said they would not like to have a Muslim as a neighbour; 31 percent said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim man on their flight, and 18 percent said they would feel nervous if they noticed a Muslim woman on their flight. About 4 in 10 Americans favour more rigorous security measures for Muslims than those used for other US citizens: requiring Muslims who are US citizens to carry a special ID and undergo special, more intensive, security checks before boarding airplanes in the United States. When US respondents were asked, in the Gallup World Poll, what they admire about the Muslim world, the most common response was “nothing” (33 percent); the second most common was “I don’t know” (22 percent). Despite major polling by Gallup and PEW that show that American Muslims are well integrated economically and politically, a January 2010 Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies report found that more than 4 in 10 Americans (43 percent) admit to feeling at least “a little” prejudice toward Muslims—more than twice the number who say the same about Christians (18 percent), Jews (15 percent) and Buddhists (14 percent). Nine percent of Americans admitted feeling “a great deal” of prejudice towards Muslims, while 20 percent admitted feeling “some” prejudice. Surprisingly, Gallup data revealed a link between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, that contempt for Jews makes a person “about 32 times as likely to report the same level of prejudice toward Muslims.”

The extent to which the religion of Islam and the mainstream Muslim majority have been conflated with the beliefs and actions of an extremist minority can be seen not only in major polls but also in opposition to mosque construction, in locations from Manhattan and Staten Island to Tennessee and California, which has become not just a local but a national political issue. In the 2008 US presidential elections and the 2010 Congressional elections, anti-mosque and anti-Sharia hysteria have shown that Islamophobia has gone mainstream. islamophobic-tweet

Across the US, a major debate erupted over the building of an Islamic community centre a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Centre. A June 22, 2010 New York Post editorial said, “There’s no denying the elephant in the room. Neither is there any rejoicing over the mosques … because where there are mosques, there are Muslims, and where there are Muslims, there are problems… .” The author warns of New York becoming “New Yorkistan,” just as London has become “Londonstan,” “degenerated” by a Muslim community “into a launching pad for terrorists.”

Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, will not be eradicated easily or soon. Islamophobia is not a problem for Muslims alone; it is our problem. Governments, policymakers, the media, educational institutions, and religious and corporate leaders have a critical role to play in transforming our societies and influencing our citizens and policies to contain the voices of hate and the exclusivist theologies (of militant religious and secular fundamentalists alike) if we are to promote global understanding and peace. As we know from the history of anti-Semitism and of racism in America, bigots and racists aren’t born. As the lyrics from the musical South Pacific remind us: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

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The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims by Nathan Lean is available from Pluto Press here.

‘Even the President of the United States has to stand naked’: Trump Strips America’s Corrupt Democracy

‘How Corrupt is Britain?’ edited by David Whyte is a collection of powerful and punchy essays that shine a light on the corruption embedded in UK politics, policing and finance. In this article,  David Whyte extends his study of corruption to the U.S., turning his eye to President – Elect Trump’s recent appointments and the continued love affair between the U.S. government and private interests.

Donald Trump’s pitch to the people on the eve of the election in November was that only he could overturn the “years of sordid corruption” in the Washington establishment.   But his earliest appointments are beginning to line up like a familiar identification parade of establishment crooks.

His nominee as Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, a company currently embroiled in a major Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation for publishing false reports about its assets.  The ‘white nationalist’ Steve Bannon, appointed as White House chief strategist has been exposed for channeling millionaire donor funds through a ‘charity’ to fund his work for the extreme right-wing Breitbart News. nude-trump-1  And Trump’s newly crowned head of manufacturing, is Andrew Leveris, the CEO of Dow Chemicals who was also investigated by the SEC for fraud, although the case has apparently now been concluded.  Perhaps the icing on the cake is the appointment of the climate change-denying corporate lawyer Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the alleged frauds that tie those appointments together is really not the headline story.  The headline story is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, they all have a long track record of rabidly opposing any regulation that gets in the way of business.

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Protesting the Capitalist University by Henry Heller

The University of Manitoba is on strike. Since 1st November, more than 1,200 faculty members took to the picket line to protest the lack of funding for education, a need for workload protection and safeguarding for fairer tenure and promotion procedures, in addition to addressing several job security issues for instructors and librarians. Author of ‘The Capitalist University’, Henry Heller is a professor of History at the University of Manitoba, he writes here of the strike and how the walkout resonates with the themes of his book. 

Authors don’t often get to live out the denouement of their books. Yet that is what is happening to me as I blog.  On 20 October Pluto published  The Capitalist University: The Transformations of Higher Education in the United States, 1945-2016. Its last chapter deals with university-of-manitoba-faculty-on-strikethe development of the neoliberal university and the growing resistance to it on the part of faculty and students and other workers. Two weeks have gone by  and I find myself on a picket line at the University of Manitoba on a faculty strike against the neoliberal university. As we stand vigil at the gates of the University the days are rapidly shortening and getting colder. Overhead the geese are quickly and excitedly fleeing to the south. But each morning since 1 November I find myself on the morning shift defying the university’s attempt to impose total control over the work of professors and librarians at our university. We are an important part of a rising tide of class struggle developing both inside and  outside of universities across the globe against the ravages of neoliberal capitalism.

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Hezbollah, Syria and the Arab uprisings

We recently published ‘Hezbollah: The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God’, Joseph Daher’s analysis of the Lebanese party argues that Hezbollah are misunderstood and to understand them better we must position them within socio-economic and political developments in Lebanon and the Middle East. In this comprehensive article, written exclusively for the Pluto blog, Daher examines the changing tone of Hezbollah’s support for people’s movements in the Middle East, arguing that their continued support for the Assad regime in Syria has been the main determinate on their opinion.  More broadly, this article seeks to disprove the theory that Hezbollah’s political activity is grounded in revolutionary spirit and is imbued in the economic and political apparatus of the Middle East.

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In the last few weeks, the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has reiterated his vow to maintain Hezbollah’s “jihad” in neighbouring Syria and declared that “there are no prospects for political solutions” in the country, “the final word is for the battlefield”. All this, in spite of the human and material costs of bombing by Russian and Assad’s regime airplanes in Aleppo. This rhetoric is matched by Hezbollah’s military activity. Currently, Hezbollah fighters are participating in the offensive against the liberated neighbourhood of Aleppo,[1] alongside regime forces and Shi’a fundamentalist militias sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).

In spite of this, Hezbollah is still considered by large swathes of people as defending the “oppressed” throughout the region, it is even believed to be advancing the revolutionary processes of the Middle East and North Africa. This is an illusion we must challenge. It is imperative that we accurately see the record of the Lebanese Islamic Shi’a movement (Hezbollah) towards various uprisings and pay close attention to Syria where Hezbollah played a determinant role in support to the authoritarian Assad regime.

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The uprisings are part of the resistance project

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In early 2011, Hezbollah officials were claiming that the Arab uprisings were part of their project of resistance. During a massive rally in support of the Arab uprisings, organised by Hezbollah in Dahyeh, Nasrallah made a speech in which he voiced his support to the Arab people and their revolutions and sacrifices, but failed to mention the first demonstrations, occurring a few days before, that would become the Syrian uprising. The uprising would be severely repressed by the Assad regime with the support of Hezbollah.

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Witnesses to the Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava is the first book-length account of the unique and extraordinary political situation in Rojava, Syria. In this article, Janet Biehl talks to the authors and discusses how and why the new society in Rojava so inspired them.

For decades, three million Syrian Kurds have lived under brutal repression by the Assad regime, Revolution in Rojavatheir identity denied, access to education and jobs refused, imprisonment and torture a way of life for those who dared object. Yet resistance has grown. By developing organisations, after the Arab Spring arrived in Syria in March 2011, the Kurds seized the moment to create a pioneering, democratic revolution. The liberation of northern Syria—Rojava—began at Kobanî on July 19th 2012, and the global history of social and political revolution would never be the same again.

In May 2014, three Kurdish solidarity activists from Germany and Turkey decided to visit Rojava. ‘I wanted to see it, to learn from its practice’, says Michael Knapp, ‘to understand the contradictions and research the system’s difficulties. Because we can learn a lot from it for revolutionary projects in Western countries.’ With their combined language skills, contacts, and extensive knowledge of the movement, they were able to do close fieldwork and interview many people.

Upon their return, they compiled their observations into a book, Revolution in Rojava, which has just been published in English.

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