Socialism and Self-Defense
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.”
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.”
Alas, most avowed socialists are, at best, very coy in defending the right to bear arms. Some may tepidly argue against gun control measures, especially because of its racist history, but avoid making the positive case for the right to bear arms because they find it divisive, unnecessarily provocative, or dangerously off-putting. At worst, others are positively hostile to it, endorsing liberal arguments for gun control, and even advocating the reactionary agenda of repealing the Second Amendment altogether.
Let me put my cards on the table: The right to keep and bear arms is indeed a fundamental political right. Why? Because the political principle at stake is to deny the state from having the total, utter, and indisputable monopoly of armed force vis-à-vis the citizen. It is to empower the citizenry and to distribute the power of armed force among them. The right to keep and bear arms is not fundamentally about target practice, recreational shooting, collection, or hunting — all perfectly legitimate, by the way — but about empowering the citizenry, ensuring their right of self-defense against state and/or criminal aggression.
This is hardly a conservative or reactionary view. The notion that an armed demos should have a measure of power against state aggression is a revolutionary principle. It is a firm assertion of popular sovereignty against the state and a principle that has historically been part of the revolutionary democratic traditions of the socialist movement. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is the clearest legal/constitutional expression of both the individual and collective right of the people to keep and bear arms. It was instituted in the context of a revolutionary armed struggle to overthrow the tyranny of King George III and establish a federal republic. It is thus one of the most radically democratic statutes in history. As Christopher Hitchens once observed, “there is something truly admirable in a country that codifies the responsibility for self-defense. Pity it doesn’t make use of it.”
Part of the problem with arguments against the Second Amendment is the mind-blowing ignorance of the history behind the political principle of the right to bear arms. Like other modern rights, it originates in the bourgeois revolution, expressed in the then revolutionary philosophies of republicanism and classical liberalism and in the struggle of the Third Estate against monarchy, absolutism, and feudalism.
What is less appreciated about the Second Amendment, if one looks at it in whole (and both sides of the gun debate do not, as they do not understand it), is that the impulse behind a “well-regulated militia” was a fear of the monarchic imposition of standing armies, which were synonymous with tyranny and dynastic warfare. By contrast, militias composed of armed citizens were exalted. This has a long tradition in republican thought which articulated an intimate connection between an armed citizenry, civic virtue, and freedom. This started with Machiavelli, who created the militia of the Florentine Republic looking back at the Roman Republic and its decline into tyranny due to Caesar’s imposition of standing armies. It was later taken up in the 17th century by the English republicans and radical Whigs in their struggle against the Stuart monarchy. The direct precursor to the Second Amendment was, after all, Article Seven of the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which restored the right of Protestant subjects to keep and bear arms after efforts by the monarchy to disarm them through various Game Acts during the Restoration.
Even in the French Revolution, despite it not being codified in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, arms and citizenship were joined at the hip. “To arms, citizens! Form your battalions” was the battle cry refrain of “La Marseillaise.” The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women agitated for women to keep and bear arms in their campaign for sexual equality, thus bolstering the relationship between citizenship and arms. The transformation of the unarmed feudal subject into the armed citizen was one of the effects of the new era of bourgeois freedom. In classical liberal philosophy, the right to bear arms was closely related to the right of the individual to defend her own personal liberty, security, and property. For John Locke, the right to life was a fundamental natural right. This right to life entails in others a moral obligation not to harm you. Should anyone attempt to do so, you have a right directly to defend yourself. “One may destroy a man who makes war upon him,” as he put it. William Blackstone, whose Commentaries on the Laws of England was particularly influential on the Founding Fathers, stated that one “of the absolute rights of individuals” is “that of having arms for their defense,” because it ensured “the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”
Laws that disarm citizens are not only an infringement upon personal liberty but, as the Italian Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria put it, “These laws. . . make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants,” because “an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.” Echoing similar sentiments, Thomas Paine believed, “the peaceable part of mankind will be continually overrun by the vile and abandoned, while they neglect the means of self-defense.” For Paine, “arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property.”
Marx and Engels, who saw this republican tradition as part of their political heritage, carried on the preference for a “well-regulated militia” over standing armies. Clause four of the Marx-Engels Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (1848) is emphatic: “Universal arming of the people. In future armies shall at the same time be workers’ armies, so that the armed forces will not only consume, as in the past, but produce even more than it costs to maintain them.” In his 1893 pamphlet, Can Europe Disarm?, Engels — a “gun nut” and nerd for military history — advocated gradually transforming the standing armies of Europe into a “militia based on the universal principle of arming the people.”
This demand was echoed in the 1880 program of the French Workers’ Party, co-authored by Marx and Jules Guesde, clause four of which called for the “abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people.” In the programs of the German, Austrian, and Russian Social Democratic Parties, this was also the case.
Moreover, the working class themselves have exercised their right to bear arms as means of collective self-defense while in struggle against both the state and the bosses. Amongst the first decrees of the 1871 Paris Commune was the abolition of the standing army, “separate from the people,” and its replacement by the national guard, “the bulk of which consisted of working men.” In 1913, Irish workers set up the Citizen Army, which drew its volunteers from the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, to defend striking workers from police violence. British workers also formed defense corps during the 1926 General Strike. “Such a development,” Rob Sewell observed in In the Cause of Labour, “was in no way regarded as foreign or alien to our traditions, as can be seen from the history of Chartism.” Eugene Debs explicitly invoked the Second Amendment in defending the right of American workers to own arms to use against Pinkerton gangs who were determined to kill them for striking.
The other great example of popular armed self-defense against oppression is of black Americans against racism in America. Because of the sanitized mythology of the “non-violence” of the Civil Rights Movement, the “black tradition of arms,” which goes back to at least Reconstruction, is very often relegated to the margins. Black Americans frequently used arms to defend their rights both individually and collectively, for instance, in deterring lynchings and protecting the civil rights of workers against racist violence. A. Phillip Randolph, the great socialist and trade unionist, when recounting an instance of his armed father standing guard at a jail all night to ward off a white mob, was left with a vision “not of powerlessness, but of the salvation which resided in unity and organization.” As Charles E. Cobb in his illuminating, This Non-Violent Stuff Will Get You Killed has demonstrated, black Americans took full advantage of the South’s permissive gun laws as part of their activism. And, while political non-violence was important, desegregation of the South and voting rights “could not have been achieved without the complementary and still underappreciated practice of armed self-defense.”
In a class society then, the concentration of the means of production and of armed power in the sole hands of the ruling class is not good. Indeed, the relationship between the two is very intimate, something Louis Auguste Blanqui intuitively understood (even if his violent adventurism was a dead end that should be rejected) when he said, “he who has iron, has bread.”
On the other hand, liberals and progressives have a different understanding of the state. For them, of course, the capitalist state is a neutral force that mediates social conflicts fairly and sincerely tries to look out for everyone’s lives and well-being equally. Because they see the state as the supreme tool of social reform, they trust or at least have enormous faith in it to respect the rights of individuals and to protect society against crime and disorder. Thus they see no role for civilian gun ownership under the rule of law, regarding it as inappropriate, a sign of cultural backwardness, and a recipe for disaster.
On the issue of gun control, many socialists simply jettison the core understanding of the state as, among other things, an instrument of class rule. Instead, they fall back on the progressive liberal view that accepts the state’s monopoly on armed force as a natural fact. They also don’t recognize that when you ban guns, you are not just infringing on a right, you are creating a criminal offense and a whole set of new crimes. One that will give more powers to the state. A potential “War on Guns,” no matter how liberal in its propaganda, will end up, in reality, across many American towns and cities, very much like We Own This City. That is, it will result in more curtailment of rights, more repression, more surveillance, and more police lawlessness and corruption — all in the name of “getting guns off streets.”
What all gun-control proposals seek to do, by the logic of their own necessity, is to reduce and eventually eliminate the right of ordinary citizens to possess firearms. The armed power of the state is always assumed to be reasonably benign. What makes gun control so mind-numbing is that it is clear implication that guns are so bad that only the state and criminals get to have a duopoly on them. The common people, those most vulnerable to state and criminal aggression, on the other hand, can’t be trusted to have them. Only the wealthy, who can get around byzantine regulations for personal ownership of a gun or hire private security, can adequately shield themselves from crime and violence. For working people, their lives will be ever more dependent on the state to defend them, a state whose police functions less as a force to prevent crime, as Alex Gourevitch has argued, and more as a tool of social control and discipline.
But what about mass shootings?
First, we must be clear on what we mean by a “mass shooting.” Colloquially, “mass shootings” are understood to be indiscriminate massacres in public places by a lone, highly misanthropic individual. But often they are defined in the broadest way possible such that any incident anywhere, including a gang fight in which four or more people are wounded, is a “mass shooting.” So, for instance, the Sacramento gang shootout in April, where six were killed and 12 injured, is included in statistics as a “mass shooting,” though that is not what most people mean by that phrase. When, in the aftermath of the Uvalde and Highland Park shootings, you see headlines or viral tweets without any context saying, “there have been 300 mass shootings in America in 2022,” it is propagandistic. It is subtly insinuating that there is a Stephen Paddock or a Salvador Ramos wreaking havoc every day in the United States. Dare I say, it borders on “misinformation,” a favorite liberal watchword of the moment.
Mass shootings of the kind that happened in Uvalde are a shoddy barometer for measuring the social problem of American gun violence. It’s convenient for liberal gun controllers to lump together different types of violence, each with different causes, each requiring different solutions, under general rubrics of “gun violence” or “gun deaths.” It allows them to say that the common denominator is guns and the solution is to restrict or be rid of them. What makes gun control on its face so convincing is that it disguises itself as a simple solution to what is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon.
Still, even with these qualifications, indiscriminate mass shootings in public places — while still “rare” — have become more frequent in American society. They are not something to be flippant about. Like terrorism, they reveal just how easy it is to cause mayhem and spread fear in an open, urban society. Their seemingly random and inexplicable nature are why they are so terrifying. But to address the issue one must understand its roots, which do not lie in popular gun ownership or America’s “gun culture.” America has always had a “gun culture,” gun laws were always “permissive” relative to other countries, and gun ownership has always been pervasive yet banal throughout American society. As late as the 1960s, one could order a gun, including semi-automatic rifles, from a catalog and have it delivered to one’s house without any background check. (Lee Harvey Oswald put an end to that.) Students brought their own guns into schools, even on the subway, if they were part of a rifle club. Yet, mass shootings were rare. You didn’t have young men shooting up schools and other public places. What has changed? Why have mass shootings and the social pathology that undergirds them become more ubiquitous in the past thirty years? The presence of guns, even many more of them, is not sufficient to explain it.
There are no simple answers and a fully fleshed-out explanation is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is clear that most high-profile mass shooters fit into a certain mold: an atomized, socially disengaged young man fueled by deep misanthropy and nihilistic rage. Violence isn’t a means to an end for them, but an end in itself. Killing for killing’s sake. They are products of the atomization of society, the intensification of anomie, the narrowing of people’s sense of attachment and belonging, the crumbling of the institutions of civil society that socialize individuals, and the withering of organizations and institutions that helped give social grievance a political form. In this sense, there is a kinship between the American mass shooter and those who participate in jihadist and far-right terroristic violence (some mass shooters have come from both ideologies). Tackling such problems isn’t as sexy or soothing as “Get Rid of the Guns” or “More Guns = Less Crime,” but they do take us beyond the superficial and counterproductive and into the real depth of the problem.
There are roughly four hundred million guns in America. Since the pandemic, the lockdowns, and the unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, gun purchases have skyrocketed, many of them powered by first-time buyers, women, and racial minorities. Support for a national ban on handguns (which is what it would take for gun control to be even semi-effective on its own terms) is at its lowest point ever. A firearms-free future is simply not on the cards. Liberals typically scold Americans for buying guns in response to fears of rising crime and social crisis. Of course, on its own, buying a gun in this manner is often a desperate primal gesture that may make owners feel safe, but, without sufficient training in safety and use, they can become a potential danger to themselves. But this is less of an argument against gun ownership than for better instruction in the care and use of guns.
In an America that is littered with corrupt, bloated, and militarized police departments that are more adept in repression than crime prevention, it isn’t surprising that people will put their faith in their own capacity to defend themselves. Yet, what we have is not the confident, self-reliant armed bourgeois citizen, or a sovereign republican demos, as the Founding Fathers imagined, but a mass of atomized, fearful voters and consumers, pessimistic about the future, whose guns are an insurance policy for whatever catastrophe hits. On occasion, they will discharge the odd desperate salvo à la Kyle Rittenhouse in defense of their property. The relationship between the individual and collective right of the people to keep and bear arms and collective struggles for social transformation has been ruptured. It is one a socialist movement would need to repair.
This defense of the right to keep and bear arms shouldn’t be taken as a facetious call for adventurism. In fact, both positive and negative gun fetishism must be dispensed with. An armed society isn't necessarily a polite society; a disarmed society isn't necessarily a safe society. On their own, guns neither guarantee freedom nor sow moral corruption and generate unrestrained social violence. At certain moments, within a revolutionary context, they can be useful, even decisive. When society is in decay due to other factors, they can seriously exacerbate the crisis. Their overall effect is only determined by the political and social context in which they are used and the character of the agents who use them. In the hands of a Klan member or Buffalo shooter, they are undoubtedly reactionary and tools of barbarism; in the hands of the Deacons of Defense, a Haitian slave, a Son of Liberty, or a Ukrainian proletarian defending his home from invasion, they can be tools serving the cause of emancipation and democracy.
Guns carry a limited but real measure of inherent power — and, therefore, danger — that demands respect and shouldn’t be taken glibly or abused. Indeed, it is precisely because of their power and danger that the right to keep and bear arms is an important political right. But guns are not the agents of history. Humans are. We must never forget that.
If socialism is to win in America, then the right of the people to keep and bear arms must be defended and upheld. There is nothing progressive about depriving people of a liberty and the means through which they can defend themselves. The task is not to deprive people of fundamental rights, but to persuade them to think about and exercise them in different and more effective ways. Maybe American socialists can once again even raise the banner of “a well-regulated militia” and the “general arming of the people” as an alternative to the militarized police force and the exorbitant standing armies of the military-industrial complex. To echo Christopher Hitchens once more, “Of course guns kill people. That’s why the people should take control of the guns.”