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Foco feminism?: Rethinking the ethics of feminist anti-militarism

Originally published: Progress In Political Economy (PPE) on December 12, 2023 by Sara Meger (more by Progress In Political Economy (PPE))  | (Posted Dec 23, 2023)

I was recently invited to contribute a paper to a special issue on the legacy of Che Guevara, published by Globalizations. As a feminist working at the intersection of international security and global political economy, I wanted to use the opportunity to seriously engage with Che’s normative contribution to theories of resistance. The call prompted me to think about the ethics of feminist anti-militarism and whether my feminism left room for support for the type of revolutionary violence we associate with Che.

For over a century, feminism has been critical of men’s wars and of the ideology of militarism that both reinforces patriarchy and normalizes the idea of lethal violence as “politics by other means.” They have pointed to the way the military operationalizes misogyny to normatively construct ‘good soldiers’ and wider social values about what it means to be a man. They argue that the logic of militarism requires all men to be socialized into a readiness to fight and die for the protection of their women. The cultural glorification of military service and armed violence is, for feminists, a key part of the social totality of patriarchy—this is true whether the organized lethal force is used for war or in so-called ‘peace operations,’ which, rather than addressing root causes of social conflict have tended to operate more as ‘wars of extraction’ and port with them all the same violent and patriarchal logics of war. These logics of militarism result in increased rates of gendered violence, environmental degradation and ecological destruction, reduced social spending and increased reliance on domestic economies, and, of course, increased risk of war.

But this raises two key questions for me regarding feminist ethics of anti-militarism: first, does it necessitate rejection of all forms of organized lethal violence (ie. radical pacifism)? Or, second, can and should feminism ever condone revolutionary militarization?

For many feminists, their reluctance to support revolutionary violence is tied to a concern that engagement with military means (eg. guerrilla warfare) would lead to a reinforcement of a culture of militarism. The question we must grapple with is whether the instrumental use of military means (militarization) necessarily supports or produces militarism. Or does Che’s revolutionary militarization reproduce the problems feminists recognise as associated with the cultural valorisation of militarism?

What I found from my engagement with Che Guevara’s oeuvre is that these very same questions had been robustly debated within Marxism. Marxists of the early twentieth-century were strongly anti-militarist, and viewed the military elite as producers of a “vile and poisonous militarism” that caused suffering to the working class and ultimately advanced the capitalist project. This argument is perhaps most forcefully made by Rosa Luxemburg, who argued that the very logic of capital accumulation—requiring the perpetual expansion of the market into non-capitalist spaces—necessitated militarization in order to force open new markets and to absorb surplus capital, since the state could buy mass products produced under industrial capitalism for use in its expansionary agenda.

In spite of their antimilitarist ethics, early twentieth-century Marxists were nonetheless supportive of the use of armed violence to achieve socialist revolutions and national liberation. Luxemburg herself argued strongly against a solely reformist approach to realising socialism. Thus, the way that Che and other revolutionaries reconciled their use of armed violence with their antimilitarist ethic was by centering emancipation and the well-being of each individual in their humanist ethical belief system. The foundations of Che’s revolutionary humanism were principles of sovereignty, equality, and unity that required concrete action.

For Marxist revolutionaries, because class oppression was a form of war, it made sense that the means of organized lethal violence could be used to resist. Che argued that “Violence is not the monopoly of the exploiters and as such the exploited can use it too and, moreover, ought to use it when the moment arrives.” Che, like Marx, consistently maintained that, while revolutionary militarization was an essential means to defeat the ancien regime, revolutionaries could avoid militarism precisely by taking away the legitimacy of the use of violence from hierarchically organized standing armies with their ties to propertied bourgeois elites and instead put it in the hands of the people. It wasn’t the use of military means that Marx and his successors opposed, but the ideological integration of military officers and military institutions within a state-capitalist system that serves primarily propertied class interests. If wrested from the hands of elites, the militarization of revolutionaries need not contradict the principles of the movement.

This is clear from Castro’s eulogizing of Che:

When we think of Che, we do not think fundamentally of his military virtues. No! Warfare is a means and not an end. Warfare is a tool of revolutionaries. The most important thing is the revolution.

In this way, Che was following a longer ideological tradition in Marxism that saw war as a political act, and believed that it could be leveraged from ruling elites and used as a weapon against elite forces. Lenin himself specified,

we are opposed to imperialist wars, but we have always declared it to be absurd for the revolutionary proletariat to renounce revolutionary wars that may prove necessary in the interests of socialism.

Perhaps the reason, though, that the ethical challenge has been harder for feminists to resolve is because, historically and cross-culturally, militarism has privileged certain forms of masculinity and has frustrated the advancement of women’s rights. Even revolutionary and liberation movements have been fraught with problematic gender politics, with these movements rarely translating into greater gender equality or systematic changes to patriarchal arrangements post-conflict.

There is a paternalist logic inherent in revolutionary movements—that a knowledgeable and heroic vanguard of revolutionaries acting to protect and liberate the wider social group from their oppressors. However, this paternalism places the ‘protectee’ in the position of passivity, or feminization. Masculine logics, many feminists have argued, will necessarily undermine any feminist project. Or, to quote the black radical feminist Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” If militarization is a patriarchal tool, then this reasoning suggests that pacifism is the only logical resistance feminism has to patriarchal militarism.

However, it is here that I think returning to a distinction between militarization as material practice and means to an end from militarism as ideological desire for war and military activity can provide a cautious pathway to resolution. It is not necessarily the case that all acts of revolutionary militarization support militarism. Given that revolutionary, emancipatory movements share with feminists a critique of militarism as sustaining of oppressive social hierarchies, their debates can offer revolutionary feminism a means by which to reconsider dogmatic commitment to pacifism.

While radical and revolutionary feminists have showcased the role of men’s violence against women in the maintenance of patriarchy, they eschew biological determinist arguments about violence as inherent to manhood. What makes violence (and for our considerations here, militarized violence) patriarchal is not the act, but rather its relationship with existing social forces: patriarchy, class exploitation, and racism.

Decoupling militarism as ideology from militarization as material means allows us to understand revolutionary violence as the seizure of a particular mode of reproducing oppressive relations. It is literally using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

To answer, then, the question of whether feminism can ever use the tools of militarization in advancement of women’s emancipation from patriarchy, my answer is a cautious “yes.” For it to be revolutionary of patriarchy, it must consciously reflect on the reasons to militarize and whether this violence is both just and necessary to achieve emancipatory ends for all. It also must be done for the purpose of women’s liberation. As Che argued, sovereignty is a precondition for the realisation of independence and self-actualisation. Revolutionary feminism is similarly an attempt to achieve emancipation for women as a social class as a precondition for their sovereignty.

Sara Meger is Senior Lecturer in international security in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on the political economy of global security, using a critical feminist lens. She is the author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2016) and editor of the blog The Gender and War Project (https://www.genderandwar.com).

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