The right to bear arms in the US is one of the great dividing lines in america between conservatives and liberals. People often seem to believe that if you own guns or believe in an armed working class, you must be a conservative.
Imagine their surprise learning that socialists since the first internationale have been almost unanimous in supporting the right of the working class to bear arms! After all, it’s difficult to organize a revolution if you have no means to fight back!
In response, liberals often reply with some variation of “lol, you can’t possibly beat the US military! They have drones & tanks! Give up!” they believe it’s an obvious irrefutable argument. It’s also complete nonsense that misses the point.
First of all, anyone who thinks the US military is some awesome unbeatable fighting force in anything but hollywood movies needs a reality check. Despite outspending every other major world military combined for decades, the US hasn’t actually won a war since WWII. So let’s just lay that to rest right now.
That said, a guerrilla insurgency would come at tremendous cost in terms of loss of life for the working class. The American military can’t win a war but they are very very good at slaughtering civilians so very few of us would even want to try. Even if we could win, a guerrilla war to seize or establish a State just gives the victor license to deploy that same violence more broadly and would result in a dictatorship no matter who won. Thinking that’s what Revolution is or has to be is a failure of imagination. There are many better theories of change available.
We also need to disregard the Hollywood-driven idea that a single hero or protagonist can save the world. That’s just not how things work! We create change by working together towards a shared vision. We need a movement for the self-emancipation of the entire working class – not a Vanguard or superhero who shoots their way to freedom. In this context, gun rights aren’t about conquest or aggression, they’re about collective community defense. That includes both defense of vulnerable members of our communities (LGBTQ+ folks and people of color in particular) and collective defense of our institutions.
Emma Goldman said that the more organized the working class is, the less violence is necessary to make a revolution. She was right. A real Revolution isn’t war and mayhem, it’s collective action – strikes, neighborhood councils, creating worker-owned collective businesses, and so much more.
This is the essence of a Libertarian Socialist dual-power strategy. We build counter-institutions that enable and extend working class power and self-management, contest and delegitimize Statist and Capitalist institutions, and then abolish them. In classic anarchosyndicalism that strategy was based on labor unions and in mutualism it was collective credit unions and worker cooperatives, but in a modern setting it’s got to be both of those and more. In order to build those institutions, we have to be able to defend them. Anyone who knows labor history knows when unions get strong, bosses resort to murder and intimidation. I could list examples all day long. From Pinkerton thugs assassinating workers to having the National Guard machine gun strikers to jailing and killing organizers on false charges.
THAT is why we have to have guns. For the same reason why civil rights organizers in the South who used nonviolence as a tactic were virtually all armed – to defend against lynchings. An unarmed left can never build power because the Statists** will crush us via state terrorism.
You simply cannot make revolution without arms. At every stage of the process we must be able to defend ourselves and each other. Not as isolated lone wolves, but as communities in resistance that can mobilize to defend the world we are building.
As Malatesta pointed out, the ends we seek to achieve must be reflected in the means we use to achieve them. In other words, anarchists and libertarian socialists seeking to achieve liberation must only ever use violence as a last resort. BUT we must have that last resort available.
Self defense is legitimate.
Community defense is legitimate.
Defending our counter-institutions against State terrorism is legitimate.
Revolution is a process, not an event, and we must be able to defend ourselves at every step.
*Hollywood pushes the narrative of lone wolf changing the world on their own because it’s hard to write coherent movies with lots of characters. But it’s a fantasy. Real change is ALWAYS about collective action. No one changes the world alone.
** We also need to be aware that arms and organization are necessary to safeguard the revolution not just against capitalists, but against authoritarian socialists who may well claim to be our allies – right up until they betray us in an attempt to seize the State. And there can be no doubt they will betray us if we are foolish enough to make an alliance with them! Every alliance between authoritarian and libertarian leftists for a century has ended with betrayal and murder.