The US constitution famously states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”; historically, revolutionary democrats insisted on this right as a guarantee against arbitrary state power and the development of tyranny.
But the early United States was a society composed predominantly of independent small farmers, with only a small urban population. It is obvious that carrying a gun around your farm is different from carrying a gun in the hot house of a big city packed with people, full of social tension and with numerous potential flashpoints for violence.
Nonetheless, in recent history too, some socialists in the US have opposed gun control on the class grounds that the working class movement should not endorse — even when it is not strong enough to decisively challenge — the bourgeois state’s monopoly of force.
This was the position of the James Cannon and the American SWP, for instance. As Trotsky put it in the Transitional Programme, socialists must dispute the reformist idea “that the sacredness of democracy is best guaranteed when the bourgeoisie is armed to the teeth and the workers are unarmed.”
The working class and oppressed groups may need arms for self-defence, as in the late 1960s when the Black Panthers armed themselves for protection against the police. In a revolutionary situation or even major class struggle, this becomes more important still — how can we even begin to prepare the ground for a workers’ militia if we have supported laws which prevent anyone except the state from acquiring weapons?
The problem, of course, is that the current beneficiaries of guns being freely available will not be revolutionary workers’ organisations but petty criminals, not to mention the kind of disturbed individuals who have carried out numerous shootings in American schools.
Gun-related crime is a massive problem in US and increasingly some British cities (for instance Nottingham); and the victims of it are almost always working-class (and again often black working-class) people. Moreover, in Britain the situation is somewhat different from the US: although we generally oppose the police having guns, there is not a threat to the workers’ movement and the oppressed from armed police and right-wing vigilante militias in the way that there at least has been historically in the US. It therefore makes a lot less sense to highlight the right of citizens to be armed.
In addition, the police are not the only threat working-class people face, and there is nothing progressive about communities being flooded with weapons. This suggests a case for some kind of gun control, but the question is how this can be done without strengthening the repressive powers of the state and disarming — ideologically and, in the end, physically — the workers’ movement.
Perhaps the solution is what we understand some socialists in Australia have advocated: gun control administered not by the police but by the labour movement. In any case, there is an urgent need for a debate on these issues, and first of all among the revolutionary left.
The pro-gun lobby and right wing libertarians tend to ignore what the Second Amendment actually says (though I note the important words are underlined in the graphic at the top of this piece):
"A *well regulated Militia*, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" (my emphasis).
Interestingly, many of these people also quote George Orwell, writing about "that rifle on the wall" of a worker's house, being a guarantee of our liberty. I eventually tracked down where this quote actually comes from, and it's from something Orwell wrote in WW2 about the Home Guard ("Don't let Colonel Blimp run the Home Guard"), which again seems to emphasise the point about being part of a "well regulated militia."
Further to my last comment:
Bernard Crick in his book “George Orwell A Life” has the following quote in Chapter 12 The Challenge and Frustration of war (1939-41).
“Even as it stands, the Home Guard could only exist in a country where men feel themselves free. The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER’S COTTAGE, IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY. IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE THAT IT STAYS THERE.”
Crick correctly attributes the quote to an 8 January 1941 article Orwell wrote for Evening Standard. The article was titled “Don’t Let Colonel Blimp Ruin the Home Guard”
A smart contribution to the conversation.
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