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. The US hasn’t outright won a war since WWII, is in the process of beingthrown out of Iraq, has been functionally defeated in Afghanistan, outright lost in Vietnam; and had to accept a draw in Korea. So let’s just lay that to rest right now.
That said, we (leftists) probably cannot beat the US military in a straight up war. And very few of us would even want to try. Attempting to do so would be stupid and cost far too many lives. Even if we could, violence and conquest just re-creates the State, which we ultimately need to abolish. Thinking that’s what Revolution is or has to be is a failure of imagination.
For people seeking fundamental change the right to bear arms isn’t lone wolf actions or even conquest, it’s about collective community defense. That includes both defense of vulnerable members of community (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.
This is the essence of an 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 but in a modern setting it’s got to be much bigger. The mis-named anti-globalization movement, community relief efforts after Katrina and other natural disasters, and #Occupy are all precursors – glimpses of how large-scale efforts can be organized from the bottom up.
But 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 ruling class will crush us via terrorism.
And, if and when our counter-institutions become strong enough to move from dual power to directly challenging the state, as the CNT did in ’36, we will need arms to defend ourselves and our communities. If we’ve done our jobs right there will be no war, no conquest.
But if you believe for a moment Bosses & State will just give up, you’re delusional. They will use all the classic tactics of right wing terrorism that the US has deployed all over the world for a century+. Our militias (NOT standing armies) will obviously need to be armed.
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 – fuck hollywood* – but as communities in resistance that can mobilize to defend the world we are building.
And we need to be aware that those arms are necessary to safeguard the revolution not just against our capitalists, but against authoritarian socialists who may well claim to be our allies – right up until they betray us. And there can be no doubt they will betray us if we are foolish enough to make an alliance with them! Marxists have proven over and over again that they cannot be trusted to safeguard revolution and every alliance with them for a century has ended with betrayal and murder.
Weber argued that the defining characteristic of the State is its monopoly on “legitimate” violence within a given territory. At root, all State power comes back to that capacity for violence, and in authoritarian systems all state violence is deemed legitimate by default.
The ability to legitimize violence is the great appeal and pitfall of seizing State power as part of a Revolution. In a revolutionary situation where the State has even more leeway to use violence against citizens than normal, this tendency is amplified even further. So a marxist State becomes an instrument of organized murder, a weapon used by a minority to force the majority to conform. This is why Marxist revolutions always result in tyranny. The State cannot liberate us, and revolutions that rely on the State as their instrument of change will be forced to choose State power over working class power whenever the two come into conflict. That’s why the Bolsheviks abolished the Soviets (workers councils) shortly after seizing power and why they drowned Krondstadt and the Ukraine in blood. In the incredibly unlikely event of a Marxist revolution in North America, we must be prepared to resist it by any means necessary – just as we would resist any other Statist coup.
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 seeking to achieve human 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.