Radical democracy and educational experiments: From Rojava to Rio de Janeiro

by Josh Platzky Miller

Josh miller

‘Escola de Luta’ – ‘School of Struggle’. Mural painted by students while repairing their school during the 2015–16 occupations of schools in São Paulo.Image: Josh Platzky Miller

Coming into its own in 2012, the revolution in Rojava (northern Syria) has been ideologically guided by women’s liberation, ecological harmony and a form of anti-capitalist radical democracy. It has provided fertile ground for a profoundly different education system from the models previously imposed in the region. Across the globe in Brazil, following the 2013 mass protests and uprisings, waves of students occupied their schools and universities starting in 2015 in the ‘student spring’. Although these contexts are not strictly similar to one another, they both open space to imagine possible political and educational pathways.



From November 2015, high schools in São Paulo were occupied by their students to challenge school closures proposed under government ‘rationalisation’ plans. Occupations spread to other cities amid claims that the sector had been ‘abandoned’ by the state. Teachers and support staff had not been paid their wages, or had de facto pay cuts, and their strike action had insufficient impact. Students blamed the state for trying to run down public education in order to justify privatisation. Workers faced problems related to outsourcing. The controversial ousting of then-President Dilma Rousseff by Michel Temer in August 2016 brought further austerity measures, including cuts to public education. In October, students at over 1,000 schools and 200 universities responded in protest and occupied institutions across the country. The education protests were deeply entwined with broader socio-political issues.

The occupations were part of a struggle for a more meaningful education – in contrast to what students referred to as ‘shallow and stupid’ education, or training to be cheap labour. Indeed, the occupations themselves were educational. Students, with some sympathetic teachers, ran classes around the formal curriculum and beyond, with topics including their legal rights, indigenous, African and Afrobrazilian history, and feminism and gender issues. Formal classes ran alongside cultural activities and life skills. Students later reflected on how the quality of their education during the occupations was actually better than normal, because they had taken responsibility to learn about what was not usually taught. Simultaneously, they formed better relationships with teachers who worked with them. Teachers were often placed in the role of students, learning about the lives of young people, and even about modes of political struggle. The forms of organisation developed in the occupations thus produced new forms of social relations.

These struggles also changed students’ self-perceptions and political consciousness. Their sense of autonomy and agency manifested in their organising of occupied schools: fully running administrative and domestic tasks, to classes and cultural events, to security and making time to take care of one another. This autonomous self-organisation is particularly significant for students whose identities are regularly marginalised in Brazilian society, such as those identifying as black, women and LGBTI+, precisely because they are often denied agency in the broader socio-political context.

There were multiple forms of politics at play simultaneously: while practising more radically democratic decision-making on their own terms, students also took their demands to the state, engaging with broader political processes and forcing schools and education departments to engage constructively with their demands. Through their struggles, a prefigurative politics was formed which was directed towards creating a new society – within the schools and more broadly. This generated a sense of solidarity, which challenged aspects of the status quo ranging from gendered norms to the individualism that had often previously been inculcated in students. Focused on immediate educational demands, these actions nevertheless extended to a broader future-oriented political framework.



In Rojava (northern Syria), home to roughly 2–4 million people, radically democratic experiments are taking place that prioritise anti-statist, localised self-governance; ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious plurality and inclusivity; women’s liberation; and a social and ecological economy which provides for everyone’s basic needs, even in the midst of war. These approaches draw on an analysis that sees patriarchy, capitalism and the state as interlocking systems of oppression, and rejects the history of oppression – particularly against Kurdish minorities – by nation-states (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran) and the brutality of Daesh/ISIS.

Largely initiated by Kurdish liberation movements, people in the autonomous territories of Rojava have begun experiments in self-defence and the creation of their own terms of liberation. Even so, political activity can be seen in terms of two complementary processes: of autonomous organising alongside institutions operating for all. This exemplifies a kind of pragmatic, hybrid politics in the creation of alternatives that, over time, undermine the need for the state.

Such processes are visible in Rojava’s education sector: the Syrian state schooling system still exists, but its pedagogies of fear, compulsory patriotism and distorted histories are being challenged from within. Meanwhile, people’s alternatives are being constructed through revolutionary academies. Covering a wide range of topics, with regional localisation, academies often focus particularly on learning Kurdish language, history and literature, which were repressed under successive state regimes. Women’s history and experiences are interwoven with ‘general’ topics, while also being the focus of dedicated courses.

Education is not limited to particular institutions, but these produce their own materials and people are encouraged to use these to teach others about what they have learnt. This manifests the principle that education is for everyone, no matter what their age or position in society. Significantly, there is an emphasis on caring for the most vulnerable: even amongst scarce resources, the city of Kobanî reallocated resources in 2016 to build the first school for disabled and special needs students, led by a specialist blind teacher.

These experiments draw on a non-hierarchical pedagogy, in which dialogue is central, and staff and students work together to develop their knowledge collectively. For example, instead of final exams and memorisation, students offer their teachers constructive criticism of their teaching method. Framing these pedagogical approaches is the fact that many of the academies’ courses are run as training sessions in which people live and learn together, and combine book and classroom learning with audio-visual and discussion-based approaches.

The education system and the radically democratic political system are mutually constitutive. The emphasis is on knowledge that is ‘based on understanding, explaining and the shared experiences of life’ for the purposes of people becoming the subjects of their own lives. Rather than being designed for status, qualifications or job prospects, the system develops knowledge based on local social dynamics and is fundamentally oriented towards the question: ‘how does society want to live?’



Students in Brazil and Rojava share a rejection of education being commodified or used to reinforce structures of domination. Moreover, they both move beyond this rejection, emphasising the ways in which students are their own protagonists, drawing particularly on marginalised and liberatory histories. At times, this has involved working through local deliberative, direct democratic structures. Many of these practices have relied on collectively creating spaces for people to be ‘at home’, understood and cared for by those around them – and thus able to chart collective ways forward that encompass everybody rather than a select group.

This kind of educational process is itself a form of liberatory pedagogy that contests the model of knowledge production in the global north and consumption in the global south. Finally, the success of such movements requires challenging the pillars of the system that caused this situation to begin with. The struggles summarised above are not simply about the closure of schools, language rights or any single issue. They call for a reimagining of the relationship between education and society, of ways of engaging with the world and with one another, of thinking and being – of collectively building a more human society. As one YPJ (Women’s Protection Unit) fighter, Amara Cudî affirms: to succeed, it is ‘vital to know what you fight for’.

This is an edited version of a longer article published in the IFAA Critical Review. A version was also published in The Progressive Corner.

About the author

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Josh Platzky Miller is a PhD candidate at the Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. His research topic is 'Education and Imagination in Brazil and South Africa'.
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