Against all militarism

Why an antimilitarist perspective is important for all social movements

The World Social Forum is now 6 years old. Since its beginning in Porto Alegre in 2001, it grew, it inspired regional processes, and it changed. With the success of the World Social Forum came interest from the traditional left, and from leftist governments. Brazil's president Lula spoke at the World Social Forum, and the Venezuelan government made use of the "polycentric" forum in Caracas to promote the "Bolivarian revolution". So is the WSF embracing old-fashioned traditional left politics, and does it abandon its own principles? Does the WSF fall into the old trap of opposing one side of the political spectrum - (US) imperialism - and turning a blind eye on human rights violations and militarism when they occur on the left side of the political spectrum, according to the simple principle "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"?

The principles of the World Social Forum

The Charter of Principles of the World Social Forum [[1]] goes back to 2001. The first paragraph of this charter sets out the basis of the WSF: "The World Social Forum is an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among Humankind and between it and the Earth."

Paragraph 5 states: "The World Social Forum brings together and interlinks only organizations and movements of civil society from all the countries in the world", and it thus excludes governments and militaries. Paragraph 9 even spells it out, though a bit weaker: "Neither party representations nor military organizations shall participate in the Forum. Government leaders and members of legislatures who accept the commitments of this Charter may be invited to participate in a personal capacity."

Paragraph 10 is about important values: "The World Social Forum is opposed to all totalitarian and reductionist views of economy, development and history and to the use of violence as a means of social control by the State. It upholds respect for Human Rights, the practices of real democracy, participatory democracy, peaceful relations, in equality and solidarity, among people, ethnicities, genders and peoples, and condemns all forms of domination and all subjection of one person by another." And paragraph 13 mentions as one of the objectives to "strengthen and create new national and international links among organizations and movements of society, that - in both public and private life - will increase the capacity for non-violent social resistance to the process of dehumanization the world is undergoing and to the violence used by the State".

The Bamako appeal [[2]], which is somewhat a departure from these principles, was passed at the polycentric WSF in Mali in January 2006. The Bamako appeal is full of the old-fashioned rhetoric of the left, and puts a special emphasis on the working class - in fact, it almost seems as if the term "civil organizations" used in the Charter of Principles disappeared from the language of the Bamako appeal. For example, the Bamako appeal uncritically calls for widening "the solidarity campaigns with Venezuela and Bolivia, since these are places where people are building new alternatives to neoliberalism and crafting Latin-American integration". However, the Bamako appeal recognises "that the failures of the Soviet system and the regimes that arose from decolonization resulted largely from their denial of freedom and their underestimation of the value of democracy. The development of alternatives must integrate this fact and give pre-eminence to building democracy".

However, most strikingly, in both the original Charter of Principles and in the Bamako appeal, any analysis of militarism in itself is completely absent. Anti-militarism is seen as anti-imperialism, and is limited to opposing US and NATO military action, but does not expand to other actors.

Why antimilitarism?

In its 1990 statement "Nonviolence and armed struggle" [[3]], War Resisters' International writes: "In our view, liberation movements are authentic to the extent that they strengthen popular self-reliance and self-organisation and reflect the aspirations of the excluded. They may contain many different social groups and political tendencies, but they depend on the participation of the powerless.

The liberation they seek cannot entail the oppression of others but should respect the rights of all: we are only too aware of the danger that today's liberators could become tomorrow's oppressors."

"There is nothing romantic about the experience of war, including revolutionary war. We can understand the reasons for resorting to armed struggle, but we warn against its consequences. No matter how just the cause, no matter how much armed struggle is a method of last resort, warfare degenerates. Discriminating sabotage tends to blur into indiscriminate attacks killing non-combatant civilians and bringing reprisals. Local conflicts erupt into self-perpetuating feuds beyond any political control; violence becomes a pattern for handling conflict.

If the military struggle is to bring ultimate victory, then an army is required - an army of soldiers willing to kill to order, operating with firm chains of command, and dependent on weapons suppliers who wish to exploit the struggle, either for political influence or profit. Military necessity comes to take priority over human or social considerations."

There are plenty of examples, and there is not enough space to analyse them here. So some "snapshots" will need to be sufficient:

  • After the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979, the US launched a campaign of low-intensity warfare and supported the contras. As a response, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua introduced conscription, in order to be able to recruit sufficient numbers of youth for a military struggle against the contras.
  • The armed independence struggle in Angola which began in the early 1960s led to political independence in 1975, but was immediately followed by a civil war that lasted until 2002. In this war, outside actors - apartheid South Africa; the USA; the Soviet Union; and Cuba, which sent its military to support the MPLA - played an important role.
  • Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia after decades of armed struggle by the EPLF which ended in 1991. However, since formal independence in 1993, Eritrea has embarked on a policy of militarisation and human rights violations. All Eritrean youth - boys and girls - are subject to military service prior to leaving school, and penalties for draft evasion or desertion include torture, death, imprisonment, and even imprisonment of relatives.

This list could be extended.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez demanded in 2005 that the WSF needs to "add a strategy of power" to its agenda [[4]]. I don't agree with Chavez very often, but here I do. But a strategy of power requires an analysis of power, and in this analysis antimilitarism differs greatly from Chavez' populist anti-imperialism.

Power is central. Power not only in the sense of power over - the power of one group of people to dominate another group of people (structural violence). An understanding of power is also crucial to fight power over and violence: power with as the power of people acting together in co-operation, to achieve things they won't be able to achieve on their own; and power to do something, based on skills, knowledge, conviction. An analysis of power needs to include an analysis of the state.

According to Gustav Landauer, "the State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently." [[5]] This is even more important for anti-militarists. Landauer puts it quite bluntly: "War is an act of power, of murder, of robbery. it is the sharpest and clearest life expression of the state. The struggle against war is a struggle against the state; whoever gets involved in politics of the state, even from the standpoint of revolution, is a party to the war."

The World Social Forum and antimilitarism

The Charter of Principles of the World Social Forum is open to antimilitarist perspectives, but such a perspective is not yet part of it. The Bamako appeal lacks any anti-militarist perspective, and thus leads in the wrong direction.

The anti-globalisation movement, the radical gay/lesbian movement, the feminist movement, the anarchist movement, are some of the places to explore and build new relationships, where we aim to overcome structural and cultural violence. Affinity groups, community groups, nonviolent direct action, but also the development of alternatives - squats, food co-ops, alternative housing, etc - are places where we can contract other relationships, behave differently, not with the aim to become part of the state, but to dissolve this form of organising human relations which is based on (structural) violence, and which creates violence - within society and globally.

In doing so, we "will increase the capacity for non-violent social resistance to the process of dehumanization", as the World Social Forum aims to do, and learn to practice "real democracy, participatory democracy, peaceful relations, in equality and solidarity, among people, ethnicities, genders and peoples, and condemns all forms of domination and all subjection of one person by another."

In its 1990 statement, WRI writes: "There may be times when it seems that nonviolence has failed. However, we are convinced that, if active nonviolence brings repression, armed struggle will provide a pretext for even more ruthless repression. If active nonviolence cannot bring change rapidly, no other form of popular resistance will bring victory in the short term. A new strategic framework will be needed, based on building up the confidence and cohesion of the people through activities rooted in local communities." [[6]]

We are convinced that a perspective of nonviolence and antimilitarism is crucial for all social movements engaged in the social forum process.

Andreas Speck



[5] Gustav Landauer, For Socialism. St Louis, Missouri, 1978 (German: Berlin 1911)