By Jim Kavanagh
“That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.”
As can be expected, in the aftermath of the horrific mass murder committed in Las Vegas by Stephen Paddock, the issue of “gun control” and “gun violence” comes to the fore again. Reprising some of the points I made in an essay on the subject after the Sandy Hook shooting, I want to argue against the impulse to use this event to eliminate what the Marxist and socialist left has historically recognized as an important right.
Let’s start with the basic difference in principle: Some people consider the citizen’s right to possess firearms a fundamental political right.
The political principle at stake is simple: to deny the state the monopoly of armed force, and, obversely, to empower the citizenry, to distribute the power of armed force among the people. The “sub-political” concerns—weapons collecting, target practice, individual self-defense—are valid in themselves, but they are not as important to the gun rights question as the political concern about the distribution of power in a polity.
This is not a right-wing position. Only in the ridiculous political discourse of the United States, where Barack Obama is a Marxist, can citizens’ right to gun ownership be considered a purely right-wing demand. The notion that an armed populace should have a measure of power of resistance to the heavily armed power of the state is, if anything, a populist principle, and has always been part of the revolutionary democratic traditions of the left.
Per George [Orwell], above, and Karl [Marx], here: “The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition… Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.”
That’s because left socialists who hold a Marxist analysis of capitalist political economy have a particular understanding of the state—including our American capitalist state; for them, it’s an apparatus whose main purpose is to protect class rule and its accompanying injustices, and to project compliance-inducing aggression on behalf of the American elite and its favored allies — locally, nationally, and internationally. They understand that any mitigations of these injustices and aggressions are not the products of the liberal state’s inherent neutrality and altruism. They are the hard-won, always-precarious, fruits of social movements that scare the liberal capitalist state into forgoing particular wars, advancing particular minority and civil rights, establishing remunerative social welfare policies, etc.
From a left-socialist perspective, then, the concentration of wealth and the concentration of armed power in the hands of a few, are both bad ideas—and the one has everything to do with the other. Thus, though far from revolutionary, insofar as it supports this principle—explicitly denying the state the monopoly of armed force—the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is one of the most radical legal statutes in the world.
If you hold this position, you will consider whatever regulations on gun ownership are necessary (because some will be) with circumspection, because those “regulations” are limitations on a right, and rights, though never absolute, are to be valued. You won’t seek, overtly or surreptitiously, to eliminate that right entirely, and your discourse will reflect all of that. If you understand gun ownership as a political right, then, for you, if there weren’t a Second Amendment or something like it, there should be.
Some people, on the other hand, including most self-identified liberals, and, in the United States today, most self-identified socialists, do not consider the right to possess firearms a fundamental political right. In fact, they consider it some kind of peculiarity, and, as represented by the Second Amendment, an embarrassing anachronism.
That’s because these liberals and leftists are working with a different understanding of the state. For liberals, of course, the state—our American capitalist state—is a neutral force that mediates social conflicts fairly, and actually does, or at least sincerely tries to, look out for everyone’s lives and well-being equally.
And, on this issue alone, many left-socialists simply forget the core understanding of the state as an instrument of class rule enunciated above, and fall back on the traditional liberal view. Though they righteously protest rampant police brutality against minorities and the poor, the mass-incarceration state, the increasing restriction of rights in the name of surveillance and security, and the thoroughgoing purchase of the American political system by a corrupt oligarchy that oversees it all, when it comes to this issue—well, it’s fine for that state to have a monopoly of armed force. . .