The Freedom to Oppress


We now have a more equal military. Following along the path embarked upon by the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which barred gays from openly serving, women may now be deployed into combat positions. This was, naturally, lauded as “groundbreaking” in the liberal press; AP’s Robert Burns, who broke the story, reported, “ [the decision comes] just days after President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech, in which he spoke passionately about equal rights for all.” But is this something to be celebrated–and does it truly serve the dual ends of equality and liberation?

On one hand, the move can be looked on in a positive light if we view the military as simply a workplace where women will now be able to more easily climb the ladder–the Pentagon’s decision was influenced by lawsuits filed by female soldiers who claimed the ban was holding their careers back. There is also the the view that the combat ban was part and parcel with the wider societal stereotyping of women as the “fairer sex,” that is, weaker and less able bodied–less suited to rigorous conditions demanded by war. Furthering this, the AP report was quick to point out that no women has successfully been able to complete the Marine Corp’s tough infantry course. But does this decision necessarily right the wrongs of workplace equality and gender stereotypes? To answer such questions, we need to understand how change–liberation–is achieved, and possibly more importantly, what role the military serves in an imperialist nation.

In Engels’s introduction to Marx’s Class Struggle in France–what would be his final work–he was quick to affirm the Marxist position on revolution, writing “Further insurrections would… be carried out by large masses of the people in a stormy offensive against the military authority of the enemy.” The essay was heavily censored by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), itself the breeding ground for the revisionist tendency that would lead to the breakup of the Second International during World War I. Rosa Luxemburg fought for the militant position from within the party, and the leaders–particularly Eduard Bernstein and later Karl Kautsky–became the targets of the writings revolutionaries in other sections of the international, notably Lenin, whose Bolshevik party led the initially peaceful, but eventually bloody Russian revolution. In the indispensable Reform or Revolution, written in 1900 as a response to the SPD’s, and particularly Bernstein’s, position, Luxemburg makes it clear:

Either the socialist transformation is, as was admitted up to now, the consequence of the internal contradictions of capitalism, and with the growth of capitalism will develop its inner contradictions, resulting inevitably, at some point, in its collapse, (in that case the “means of adaptation” are ineffective and the theory of collapse is correct); or the “means of adaptation” will really stop the collapse of the capitalist system and thereby enable capitalism to maintain itself by suppressing its own contradictions. In that case socialism ceases to be an historic necessity. It then becomes anything you want to call it, but it is no longer the result of the material development of society.

Continuing later:

In the clash between capitalist development and the interest of the dominant class, the State takes a position alongside of the latter. Its policy, like that of the bourgeoisie, comes into conflict with social development….This contradiction becomes progressively sharper. For on one hand, we have the growth of the functions of a general interest on the part of the State, its intervention in social life, its “control” over society. But on the other hand, its class character obliges the State to move the pivot of its activity and its means of coercion more and more into domains which are useful only to the class character of the bourgeoisie and have for society as a whole only a negative importance.

Putting this framework to use to interpret our current dilemma, the oppression of women in a military workplace is no longer of service in order to sustain the class system of society as a whole. But, given the military’s role in society, we can not look to the lifting of the combat bad and expect anything drastic to change about the militaristic society.

Indeed, today’s military, based more and more on the advanced weaponry and tactics, relies less on the supposed superior physical prowess of men than it does superior technological prowess of drones, intelligence gathering systems, and torture. While it may grant some social reforms, this advanced neoliberal state is sure to leave the existing class system, that dooms poor, often rural, working class people to the military as the employer-of-last-resort, in place. Luxemburg herself was subjected to the division of labor in the times in which she lived. Unable to readily get work, she was certainly not to be employed in the mines of her hometown in Upper Silesia. Even within the SPD, her arguments were hard fought, having to first overcome sexist boundaries in the male dominated sect, before being able to argue against revisionism and opportunism.

Engels’s prediction would be realized more than once in the first quarter of the 20th century. In Russia, the triumphant revolution, lead by the Bolsheviks, led to a bloody civil war, which saw the new revolutionary state fending off not only the counter-revolutionary forces loyal to the former Russian ruling class, but also forces of over a dozen other nations over the course of several years on multiple fronts. Tragically, Luxemburg herself would die in the failed Sparticist uprising in 1919, when the newly formed German Communist Party, of which she was a leading member, was unable to unite the social democratic forces against the well armed and organized counter revolutionary forces. These circumstances provide a lens from which to view the American military in a time of war and global upsurge.

What was different about the Russian revolution that made it successful? Most importantly was the understanding of the members of the army as members of the working class. This led many within the army to side with the Bolsheviks–against the Czar (and the provisional government), bringing with them arms and ammunition. In essence, they had the forces that were required to bring down the state on their side. Interestingly, the division of labor in the American ilitary is quite similar to that of the military under the government in Russia prior to the October Revolution. Women could, and did, serve in special ranks–so-called “Death Battalions”–but were relegated well behind the lines. John Reed described this dynamic in his landmark Ten Days that Shook the World, relaying a conversation he had with someone loyal to the provisional government after the storming of the Winter Palace:

“We had a review this morning early…The women battalion decided to remain loyal to the Government.”

“Are the women still in the Palace?”

“Yes, they are in the back rooms, where they won’t be hurt if any trouble comes.” He sighed, “It is a great responsibility.”

It is worth noting that another section of the Russian female working class were actually the catalyst for the February revolution, striking against societal conditions on International Women’s Day in February 1917.

Lenin knew the role of the army, along with the police, well; in The State and Revolution, written in 1917, after the Czar was ousted, but prior to the fall of the provisional government, he asked, “A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power. But how can it be otherwise?” Alluding to Engels’s position, he affirmed that the state relies on its “special bodies of armed men” to hold steady its control, stressing the need for a wholly new formulation:

every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organization of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters.

A revolutionary army, created alongside the new state, is one that can serve the needs of the majority, a reversal of its role in a bourgeois state. Certainly women are among this majority, and their full liberation will come as a result of the revolution, which will also once and for all rectify the ills of racism, homophobia and all the ugly faces of chauvinism that exist under bourgeois rule that are supported by the bourgeoisie’s armed bodies. These are all, along with the end of classism, revolutionary goals. At best, the rectification of some of the sexism within the world’s most aggressive imperialist nation (never mind the sexism perpetrated by it) is a paltry reform. The army of the bourgeois state is not a liberator, but an oppressor. It is not the forward looking body in service of the exploited, but rather exists as the main purveyor of exploitation worldwide. The revolutionary milieu is necessarily the negation of this oppressive scheme.

What does this new development do for women who are among those targeted in the war on terror? What does this new development do for the millions of women who struggle to raise their children or keep a home, tasked with all the majority of domestic duties in the capitalist system? What does it do to liberate women from the bonds of sexism in America, where, 40 years after Roe v. Wade, their reproductive rights are assailed as often and readily as the countries that the American military bombs? What of the women in this country who, on average, make 25% less than their male counterparts in the same job?

Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution was not meant to be a binary question–she concluded that measures of reform can contribute to revolutionary ends in many circumstances. The gaining of the eight hour workday and the ability to unionize were very important in establishing class consciousness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The civil rights movement, it wins now degraded, was unmistakably a positive movement that led to reform, knocking out the old jim crow laws and ensuring equal rights that the 14th amendment was apparently not clear enough to grant uniformly. These reforms importantly challenged the power structure–the apparatus of democracy was called into question. But not all reforms fall into this category, Luxemburg writes:

Work for reform does not contain its own force independent from revolution. During every historic period, work for reforms is carried on only in the direction given to it by the impetus of the last revolution and continues as long as the impulsion from the last revolution continues to make itself felt. Or, to put it more concretely, in each historic period work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution.

Thus, the struggle for women’s liberation, insofar that it calls into question the social fabric of the bourgeois state, is a bourgeois struggle when it exists by itself–a tendency not unlike that of the vulgar-Marxists of the early 20th century who fetishized economic issues as central and reduced the rest of the contradictions down solely to class, an albatross Marxists still struggle to shed. Feminism be part of a holistic approach to the issues plaguing the oppressed. Luxemburg stressed that the struggle for democracy as the single most important reform that can be strived for within the currently existing framework and this is the case “because only through the exercise of its democratic rights, in the struggle for democracy, can the proletariat become aware of its class interests and its historic task.” Women’s liberation is an indispensable part of that struggle. But a fighting movement for women must simultaneously include demands for black liberation, queer liberation, and all the others, such that all the contradictions in the bourgeois state can at once be rectified. The army itself, in its role as the protector of bourgeois rule, represents a challenge to this, but this only stresses the need for a well organized, democratically controlled proletarian movement. And, while the military is certainly one of the largest employers of working class people, as has been made clear by the United States’s wars to make the world “safe for democracy,” it can be neither the catalyst for, nor the protector of, democratic rights.

An examination of similar struggle for equality for a people makes contradictions obvious. Freed during the civil war to fight for their own liberation from slavery, blacks were not fully integrated into the army until the end of World War II. Their eventual integration was not necessarily the result of a society becoming more equal, but rather a response to harsh conditions which required more soldiers to fight–and die–against a troubling enemy. However, this integration was not a significant equalizing force for the rest of society, as was made quite clear by the continued oppression of blacks in both the North and South under de facto and de jure segregation. Speaking about his opposition to fighting in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali bravely stated, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

Every day the images of black who have challenged the systems of power are corrupted and co-opted for increasingly troubling causes. Laila Ali, Muhammad’s daughter, recently starred in a troubling reality show that paired celebrities and members of the military’s elite forces in mock-training exercises. The show never called into question the legitimacy of the actions of the military, but rather championed them. More recently, on Martin Luther Kings day this year, the Air Force put out a press release claiming, “Dr. King would be proud to see our Global Strike team – comprised of Airmen, civilians and contractors from every race, creed, background and religion – standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the US arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense.” Surely we have not forgotten King’s principled stance against wars of any kind, and especially violence perpetrated by the American state. And after 150 years of military service blacks continue to be discriminated against–today in America, there are more blacks wrapped up in the criminal justice system in some fashion than there were slaves immediately prior to the civil war.

This is not a simple question and this argument should not be interpreted to be opposed to gender equality in the army or any other place, rather, it is an argument against the celebration of this “groundbreaking” victory. Change needs to be fought for, not handed down (in this case by a group of men in the Pentagon), and this victory is not one that contributes to the liberation of women, not in America and certainly not globally. The celebration of this action cheapens the real victories that have occurred as the result of mass movements, movements that challenged the very basis of capitalist rule, that have made democratic demands. The celebration misdirects the movement of the working class from the tactics it knows to be successful, celebrating being voluntarily granted rights over real movements and tending more towards Bernstein’s shameful opportunism than Luxemburg’s inspired militancy. We should not expect the ruling class to simply give us what we want. We have to fight for it. The ongoing struggle for women’s liberation is one that will challenge the militarism of the American state, its tentacles ever farther reaching. And it is a fight that takes place in a different arena altogether, outside of the bourgeois apparatus, and must occur in defiance of the state and its army.