Socialism and Self-Defense

Ralph Leonard

July 24, 2022

“An oppressed class which does not strive to learn to use arms, to acquire arms, only deserves to be treated like slaves.”

V.I. Lenin


It was inevitable that in the aftermath of the recent cluster of horrific mass shootings in Buffalo, Uvalde, and Highland Park, as well as the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down New York’s restrictive concealed carry gun laws as unconstitutional, the fraught issue of “gun rights” and “gun control” in America would be brought to the fore again. Clearly, the argument is broader than the specific issue of mass shootings by nihilistic, misanthropic young men, or (mainly far-right) terrorists.

Always lurking in the background, of course, is a debate on the Second Amendment (“A well-regulated militia being necessary for the defense of the free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”), which constitutionally guarantees firearm ownership as an individual right of the citizen and a collective right of “the people.” In a debate often characterized by technocratic squabbling over “bump stocks,” magazine capacity, and moralistic faux pacifism, the political dimension of the debate on gun rights is very often ignored or simply dismissed.

Of course, one’s view of “gun rights” will depend on whether you see them as a fundamental political right or a frivolous hobby. Should citizens have access to firearms, or should their access be restricted to a select few in the police, military, and “approved” private security? If you believe in the former then, obviously, such rights will be inscribed with a strong positive value and you will treat whatever “regulations” you think are necessary (because inevitably some are) with the greatest prudence and the greatest reflection as to their implications and consequences. While rights are never absolute, they are to be guarded. Any regulation is, therefore, by definition, a restriction of a right. You wouldn’t seek to regulate this right to the point of it being meaningless.

If, in contrast, you reject the idea that possession of firearms is a fundamental right, if you think it is a contingent luxury, then, of course, it doesn’t matter how restricted this non-right is or whether it is nullified altogether. The idea of a common civilian being able to purchase and own a firearm relatively easily is simply madness and a harbinger of social anarchy. For you, the Second Amendment was a mistake, a dangerous anachronism of the 18th century, inappropriate for our age, and a license for “toxic masculinity.” If you felt it was possible, you would repeal it instantly.

This vehement rejection of “gun rights” is the consensus that binds most American liberals and progressives. Socialists, by contrast, should unconditionally uphold the right to keep and bear arms as much as other civil liberties. Fundamentally, socialists reject (or should reject), in Trotsky’s words, the reformist delusion that “that the sacredness of democracy is best guaranteed when the bourgeoisie is armed to the teeth and the workers are unarmed.”