On Prefiguration, Diversity of Tactics, and a New Anti-Militarism

The second post in our symposium on Chris Rossdale’s Resisting Militarism: Direct Action and the Politics of Subversion (Edinburgh, 2019), currently discounted with use of the code NEW30 at the EUP site. Today we feature Erica Chenoweth, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, where they research and teach on international politics, social movements, and political violence and its alternatives. Erica directs the Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, where they study how people can create transformative social and political change using creative, disruptive, people power. They are currently writing a book with Zoe Marks on the role of women’s frontline participation on the outcomes and aftermath of mass movements over the past 120 years. Erica is the author of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2021), co-editor of Civil Action and the Dynamics of Violence (Oxford, 2019) with Deborah Avant, Marie Berry, Rachel Epstein, Cullen Hendrix, and Timothy Sisk, co-editor of the The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism (Oxford 2019) with Richard English, Andreas Gofas, and Stathis Kalyvas, co-author of The Politics of Terror (Oxford, 2018) with Pauline Moore, and co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works (Columbia, 2011) with Maria J. Stephan. Erica also co-hosts the blog Political Violence @ a Glance and is an occasional contributor to The Monkey Cage, where they publish regular reports about trends in US protest, counter-protest, and state response based on data collected with Jeremy Pressman through the Crowd Counting Consortium. Further posts and a rejoinder will follow this week; all will be collected for future perusal here.


I thank Chris Rossdale for the opportunity to read his excellent book, Resisting Militarism: Direct action and the politics of subversion, and I am glad to engage with his ideas here. The book recounts the current state of the UK’s anti-militarism movement, as well as debates and faultlines within the movement. This is also a book written for a movement by one of its protagonists. Rossdale is motivated to study the anti-militarism movement as a participant and observer of the movement so as to better resist militarism (p. 8). It is a critical read for those concerned with anti-militarism, the peace movement, and broader debates within progressive and radical left movements more generally.

At the outset of the book, Rossdale defines militarism as “ ‘the social and international relations of the preparation for, and conduct of, organized political violence’ ” (p. 3, quoting Stavrianakis & Selby 2013). Rossdale views anti-militarism as “a particular politics which seeks to reveal, disrupt, and subvert the social processes through which violence is made possible. It is an ethic of resistance, which recognizes that its task is never complete, and that it must adapt to new forms and sites of militarism just as militarism adapts to new constellations of resistance” (p. 270). The book therefore emphasizes prefigurative politics—the process of creating and negotiating intentional relationships between those involved in the movement to experiment with new and equitable political realities.

Rossdale’s autoethnographic approach adds credibility to the work, and it provides numerous avenues for engaging directly with key fault lines and movement dynamics that might otherwise be easy to overlook from a distance. The book is chock-full of useful reflections about what motivates (and what ails) the contemporary anti-militarism movement in the UK in ways that resonate far beyond the anti-militarism struggle in this case. The book is important and well-researched. Rossdale should be commended for his thorough citation practices, as well as his engagement with a variety of critical approaches—particularly those of queer theory and feminist theory. The book makes numerous productive critiques about the anti-militarist movement’s need to overcome its perpetual whiteness and to center the most vulnerable in the movement’s articulation of its vision and in participants’ relationships with one another. It is also very productive that Rossdale keeps the focus on the largest sources of violence—state-led violence and the military industrial complex—while advocating for the interpretation of violence in context.

Taking Rossdale on his own terms, I first make one general observation, and then I engage with three unresolved issues that arise over the course of the book.

The observation is that one could easily transport his reflections about the UK anti-militarism movement to Occupy Wall Street, the environmental movement, antifascist movements, indigenous rights movements, and the relationship between the Movement for Black Lives and white antiracist organizing in the United States. The movement’s main faultlines—regarding its whiteness, disagreements about the acceptability and utility of nonviolent or violent tactics, the question of whether and how to use white privilege to expand the movement’s leverage without reinforcing racial hierarchies, and the question of how to organize at all without recreating patriarchal, hegemonic politics—are not at all unique to the anti-militarism movement, nor are they unique to the UK.

Instead, these same faultlines are omnipresent among movements in the new left. For instance, many left-radical movements have likewise embraced “diversity of tactics”—the philosophy that people engaged in resistance against state violence should be able to determine for themselves which tactics are appropriate. Diversity of tactics is also understood as suggesting that people should be able to employ nonviolent and violent tactics in trying to end the hegemonic production of state, corporate, and structural violence. Rossdale describes how many within the anti-militarism movement see strict pacifists as reproducing violence because of a dogmatic commitment to nonviolent methods. Diversity of tactics is seen as a way to resist the internal hegemony that results from an uncompromising insistence on nonviolence. Rossdale therefore portrays many within the movement as more concerned with resisting internal policing and the struggle against internal inequalities and hierarchies among members than with prefiguring a revolutionary praxis that centers nonviolence.

But if we can see these same fault-lines across many movements within the new left, one wonders what remains genuinely “anti-militarist” about the anti-militarism movement. Indeed, if we accept Rossdale’s interpretation, the contemporary anti-militarism movement in the UK shares more in common with movements seeking to resist hegemony than with those seeking to eliminate violence in all its forms. The peace movement, for instance, emerges from the book as more of an estranged cousin than a sibling of the contemporary anti-militarism movement, since so many peace activists oppose militarism but also center nonviolence in doing so. The book puts forth various reasons for this but does not engage with the literature on how pacifism as a paradigm was subjugated by numerous political forces—including those on the left—during the postwar period.

Three Unresolved Issues Regarding Diversity of Tactics

Rossdale conveys some certainty that diversity of tactics is consistent with the anti-militarism movement’s commitment to meaningful change. He sees the diversity of tactics approach as striking the right balance between avoiding hegemony and fragmentation. It is clear that accepting diversity of tactics also meets a particular prefigurative goal, in that it allows for significant autonomy, flexibility, and individual agency. This is important, particularly in addressing the concern that people with access to privilege often dictate to others what forms of action are “acceptable.” Participation is more accessible, Rossdale argues, when people are free to react to situations as they please, and when movements privilege solidarity over tactical agreement or disagreements. Rossdale also argues that allowing for diversity of tactics makes new coalitions possible, although it surely does so at the expense of other coalitional possibilities, particularly with regard to the expansion of a mass political following (p. 192).

It has indeed become a standard—or even hegemonic—norm in left politics to embrace both meanings of diversity of tactics: (1) avoiding criticizing people for using whatever tactics they think are appropriate to liberate themselves, and (2) accepting that people aligned with one’s movements should be able to use both nonviolent and violent tactics to secure collective liberation.

The first meaning is standard even among most pacifists. Most experienced left activists today see it as fundamentally incoherent (or at least politically suicidal) to be a proponent of strategic nonviolence against militarism while handing over other activists to the police. It is also seen as fundamentally counterproductive to publicly threaten, shame, denounce, or attack comrades for deviating from agreed-upon community guidelines centered on nonviolence. Most prominent figures within liberation movements that centered nonviolence—Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela—knew this well. Numerous pacifist thinkers have articulated similar ideas without abandoning pacifist ideals themselves. For instance, the pan-African pacifist Bill Sutherland often said that the job of people with privilege is not to opine on the tactics of people seeking their own liberation but to get the government’s boots off of their necks. Feminist lesbian pacifist Barbara Deming similarly refused to criticize those who rejected nonviolence, attributing their denunciations to the movement’s own failures. In 1968, she wrote: “Those of us who believe in nonviolent action should listen closely to the words of those who mock it. For if the portrait the latter draws of it is a caricature…it reveals, too, a great deal about our own failure to carry experiments with it far enough. We had better look hard at what it is men and women seek when they turn away from us.”

The second meaning of diversity of tactics is where difficulty arises. Among leftist circles today, the hegemony of diversity of tactics leaves open three important questions, which Rossdale declines to address: the first is the question of the limits of violence, the second is the question of accountability, and the third is the cost of aligning with coalition partners only on the basis of shared tactics rather than on shared goals.

The first issue is that proponents of diversity of tactics rarely spell out generalized boundaries or limits on what level of violence is appropriate. This is a tendency which many would-be coalition partners find unsettling. So does the broader public, which is often eager to ascertain a movement’s appetite for violence before deciding whether to support it. Rossdale acknowledges that the discomfort among pacifists (or those who center nonviolence) with the diversity of tactics norm is generally due to the unanswered question of what the boundaries of such violence ought to be (pp. 194-5). Unfortunately, Rossdale declines to pursue an inquiry regarding the limits of violence, which he describes as beyond the scope of the book (p. 204). But this critical question is what creates such unfinished tangles between advocates of diversity of tactics, pacifists, and proponents of strategic nonviolence—and therefore makes this faultline so persistent and intractable for many contemporary movements.

The second issue is that proponents of diversity of tactics privilege individualistic autonomy and tactics- or identity-based coalitions over collective accountability. But the political reality is that the actions of individuals tend to affect the entire movement and its constituents, and there is little sense of how individuals acting autonomously will be held accountable to those communities for the results of their actions. This reminds me of a more general, parallel debate regarding the ways to create accountability in feminist movements seeking to counter hegemonic and oppressive systems. In her 1970 essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” feminist Jo Freeman points out the fact that hierarchies always emerge within groups. They are either seen or unseen. Freeman suggests that unseen or unnamed hierarchies are what make movements both toxic and ineffectual. Not only do movements largely become spaces for self-reflection, relationship-building, and consciousness-raising, but also they do this on an increasingly exclusionary basis, stigmatizing those who don’t use the right nomenclature, who don’t agree with the most influential members of the group, or who don’t conform to expectations. Freeman argues that it is better to name these tendencies, formalize the group’s structure, and establish widely-agreed upon accountability practices to make such structures as equitable and democratic as possible. But it is a futile pursuit to disqualify all structures, rules, and hierarchies as hegemonic or oppressive.

Within movements, authority can be delegated in a way that creates both equal representation and direct accountability. Countless movements over the past century have practiced internal governance in ways that establish clear accountability mechanisms in one form or another—such as queer and feminist communes, Black mutual aid groups in the United States, indigenous communities that have reclaimed cultural and political practices nearly destroyed by settler colonialism, various spiritual communities who have experimented with utopian pacifistic ideals, and liberation movements establishing economic cooperatives and self-sufficiency in defiance of colonial rulers. Many have done so by imagining different communal systems wherein inhabitants agree to a series of shared guidelines produced by consensus – and they voluntarily submit to those guidelines even when inconvenient or costly because they serve the common good, including just and peaceful outcomes for all in the community. Gandhi’s vision of satyagraha, in which practitioners would both refuse to cooperate with oppressive systems and simultaneously create constructive alternatives, is one such experiment.

The third and related tension that arises relates to the status of those advocating diversity of tactics compared to the communities they purport to represent. In the U.S. context, it is often the case that those arguing for diversity of tactics—and those street fighting with police, attacking counter-protesters, or engaging in other physical attacks—justify such actions on the basis of postcolonial theory, Black feminism, and other approaches that insist on the liberation, autonomy, and agency of people who have been oppressed. Rossdale does so here, appropriately centering such perspectives in the discussion. But when it comes down to it, in the context of mass mobilization, it is often privileged groups—particularly white males—who are overrepresented among those engaging in riskier confrontations, while marginalized and oppressed communities pay the price in terms of repression, delegitimation, and discrediting, with or without their collective consent. These dynamics—which view vanguard actions by the privileged few as sufficient to bring about collective liberation, with or without clear accountability structures—have upended the ability of many recent movements around the world to expand their bases of support and power. Rossdale argues that embracing diversity of tactics can help to guard against dogma, broaden coalitions, and allow for anti-hegemonic collective action, but It is important to recognize the costs of an airtight commitment to diversity of tactics as well. Uncritically accepting particularly destructive tactics can reinforce some of the militaristic core beliefs that Enloe (2004) identifies—particularly the ideas that “armed force is the ultimate resolver of tensions,” and that ‘ ”patriarchy needs men in peace movements who think they know best’ ” (Cockburn and Enloe 2012 p. 70).

Accepting or endorsing diversity of tactics can also heighten many of the dynamics that Rossdale critiques of direct action more broadly:

  • it has a tendency to valorize individual militant actions, which tend to draw attention to performative acts rather than to the movement’s claims;
  • it tends to reinforce violent or militaristic practice;
  • it tends to prioritize improvisation over strategic planning;
  • it tends to silence and sideline those within the movement who cannot reconcile the perpetration of violence with anti-militarism;
  • it tends to elicit state violence against the most vulnerable people in the movement or passersby;
  • it complicates attempts at creating accountability for unintended consequences of one’s actions, such as the provocation of overwhelming state violence against one’s comrades, because of the privileging of individual “autonomy”;
  • it tends to limit coalitional possibilities with people who share the same motivations but center nonviolence in their praxis;
  • it tends to reinforce both masculine and ableist expectations of participants that exclude others.

These are all critiques that Rossdale wages against direct action more generally (nonviolent or otherwise): it is “too swiftly a space for heroes, more accessible for those who enjoy certain forms of social privilege, easily fetishized over less immediate forms of action, and in other ways frequently shaped and conducted by those very social relations which constitute militarism” (p. 7). Yet he comes down on the side of diversity of tactics because it salvages one prefigurative priority—individual agency and resistance to hegemonic dogmas—over the oppressive expectations of a principled or strategic commitment to nonviolence.

The moral cost of this tradeoff is not obvious. This is important, because the struggle against anti-militarism relies fundamentally on a moral claim of justice. Rossdale is right that we must take violence in context—and that there is no moral equivalence between those using violence to resist systems of oppression and those using violence to further and reinforce those systems. But neither is there a moral exemption for those who are struggling against injustice, if their claim is that their vision would create a more equitable and accountable future worth struggling for. A more explicit and imaginative engagement with both means and ends is therefore to be expected of those struggling against militarism. This is—unfairly but explicitly—the burden of dismantling systems of oppression by prefiguring its alternatives.

Imagining a New Anti-militarism?

In prefigurative politics, the aim is to generate something new—to act as an agent of a society one wants to create before it exists. As Rossdale puts it, “prefiguration rests on the idea that the means used to achieve political change should correspond to the ends that are desired, so that ‘there is no distinction between how we fight and what we fight for’ ” (p. 33, citing Maeckelbergh 2009, p. 66).

For all the discussion about prefigurative politics, Rossdale does little to imagine a social arrangement in which groups involved in an anti-militarist movement can adopt a commitment to nonviolent action while also avoiding the violent or oppressive hierarchies that Rossdale perceives in such a commitment. Perhaps this is because, like many movements, the anti-militarist movement defines itself more by what it is against rather than what it is for. In Rossdale’s interpretation, the movement is against patriarchy, but it does not necessarily suggest a feminist alternative rooted in developing systems of care. The movement is against the military industrial complex, but it does not see a possibility of significantly disrupting it. And in its overarching quest against militarism and political violence, the movement is not for peace or nonviolence. To be sure, in Rossdale’s account, the movement is clearly for diversity, autonomy, and for centering the most vulnerable—these are aspirations of most movements fighting against oppression in any form. But it is hard to understand precisely what is being prefigured in these relationships: it does not appear to be the destruction of militarism, if political violence itself remains part of the toolkit. In numerous passages, Rossdale insists that the contradiction is only a superficial one, if one understands the real hegemonies that the anti-militarism movement is up against.

One could more readily accept the seeming contradictions of accepting limited amounts of violence to destroy hegemonic militarism if such a commitment paid off in the long term. We would want to know whether the movement has led to far fewer lives lost, fewer bombs, fewer arms sales and purchases, less influence of the military on the government, broad shifts in public opinion against military spending or hawkish foreign policies, the interruption of racist policing and border control, the rewriting of textbooks or films to narrate wars as avoidable tragedies made by misguided elites, the creation of a mass political movement to dismantle the military industrial complex. We would want to know whether it has begun to generate widespread acceptance of newly imagined alternatives for how to relate to one another without political violence being an ever-present part of the human experience.

Therefore, we are left with one question—whether the anti-militarist movement in the UK has indeed curtailed or limited British militarism as a process, hegemonic discourse, or material outcome, or whether militarism has become further entrenched. Rossdale cites some occasional tactical successes, but largely dodges the question: “I argue that what is often most important about direct action is less the action itself than the relationships, debates and ideas that give rise to and are expressed through such action” (pp. 19-20). He pushes back on the idea that we should measure tactical successes, suggesting that doing so might displace “more intangible processes of social change” by focusing only on “small victories” (p. 42). Or, more directly: “I have criticised the idea that anything can be straightforwardly demilitarised, and argued that we should guard against the sense of good conscience such accounts risk…it is perhaps unhelpful to think about a world beyond militarism” (269). To Rossdale, what is important is that the anti-militarist critique exists—not whether it succeeds in disrupting the process, hegemonic discourse, or material outcome. This is presumably because holding the movement to account for such outcomes is too militaristic a goal for the contemporary anti-militarism movement—it would establish a counter-hegemony, rather than resisting hegemony (p. 29).

Rossdale is clear that militarism is hegemonic—that it roars onward with a vengeance, paying little attention to its detractors and critics. But if winning is not an option—and if, as Rossdale suggests, prefiguration is the only space where genuine tangible and intangible social change is possible—then it seems crucial to imagine and create a world beyond militarism in all of its forms, too.

One thought on “On Prefiguration, Diversity of Tactics, and a New Anti-Militarism

  1. Pingback: Seeding Territory | The Disorder Of Things

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