Reflections on the Left’s Relationship to Guns, Self-Defense & Revolution

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers

“When guns are outlawed, only the Government will have guns. The Government — and a few outlaws. If that happens, you can count me among the outlaws.”Edward Abbey, Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast

You don’t have to be a pacificist to be a leftist. There’s no such requirement. That said, nonviolence is preferable to violence. Most people would agree with that, including most leftists. But that doesn’t answer the question of when, if ever, violence (behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something) is justified or preferable to nonviolence.

Here, I must be very clear: I do not in any way, shape, or form support the notion of a leftwing insurrection (a violent uprising against an authority or government) in the context of the United States of America. In recent years, I’ve started to question the very concept of revolution (a forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system) in our modern world.

Marxist geographer David Harvey best summarized my view on the topic of leftwing revolutions (as we traditionally understand the term) and the contradictions of living in the modern world last summer during the global uprisings:

But the other part of the problem is this: that in Marx’s time if there was a sudden collapse of capitalism, most people in the world would be able to feed themselves and reproduce. Because most people were self-sufficient in their local area with the kinds of, you know, things they needed to live on — in other words, people could put breakfast on their table irrespective of what was going on in the global economy. Right now that’s no longer the case. Most people in the United States, but increasingly, of course, in Europe, and in Japan, and now increasingly in China, and India, and Indonesia, and everywhere are dependent entirely upon the delivery of food to them, so that they get the food from the circulation of capital. Now, in Marx’s time, like I say, that would have not been true but now this is a situation where probably around 70 or maybe 80 percent of the world’s people are dependent upon the circulation of capital in order to assure their food supply, in order to deliver them the kinds of fuels which are going to allow them mobility, going to actually deliver them all the necessities to be able to reproduce their daily life.

So this is a, I think, a situation which I can really summarize in the following kind of way: that capital right now is too big to fail. We cannot imagine a situation where we would shut down the flow of capital, because if we shut down the flow of capital, 80 percent of the world’s population would immediately starve, would be rendered immobile, would not be able to reproduce themselves in very effective ways. So we cannot afford any kind of sustained attack upon capital accumulation. So the kind of fantasy that you might have had — socialists, or communists, and so on, might have had back in 1850, which is that well, okay, we can destroy this capitalist system and we can build something entirely different — that is an impossibility right now. We have to keep the circulation of capital in motion, we have to keep things moving, because if we don’t do that, we are actually stuck with a situation in which, as I’ve said, almost all of us would starve.

And this means that capital in general is too big to fail. It is too dominant, and it is too necessary to us that we cannot allow it to fail. We have to actually spend some time propping it up, trying to reorganize it, and maybe shift it around very slowly and over time to a different configuration. But a revolutionary overthrow of this capitalist economic system is not anything that’s conceivable at the present time. It will not happen, and it cannot happen, and we have to make sure that it does not happen. But at the same time, the other side of the coin is capital is too big, too monstrous, too huge to survive, that it cannot survive in its current form. So on the one hand, we can’t do without it; on the other hand, it is on a suicidal path. So this is, if you like, what I think the central dilemma is.

Many people who consider themselves leftists will not like Harvey’s statement or reflections, but I think it’s a challenging position to oppose. Essentially, Harvey is saying that there’s no easy way out of this central dilemma: the fact that capital is destroying the world, and yet, our lives depend on the flow of money. That’s an honest take. Leftists can daydream or fantasize about violent insurrections or revolutions (overthrowing capital) all they wish. Still, the repercussions of successfully doing so could have profoundly destructive and horrific unintended consequences—few people who understand how the global economy functions would argue otherwise.

Interestingly, for me, this gets back to fantasies leftists (and right-wingers) have about their supposed disconnection from the global economy (back to the land leftists/right-wing survivalists). These people seem to believe that they could survive if the global economy collapsed tomorrow. 99% couldn’t. Plus, those who could, well, they would quickly be overrun by large bands of organized people from the cities and suburbs that further encroach on rural lands. Then again, what the hell are we discussing? Is this the future we seek to imagine: large bands of roving militias overrunning family farms? That’s what a violent overthrow of the existing system would look like. No one wants that.

Any suggestions to destroy, dismantle, collapse or abolish the existing social, political, and economic order should be quickly critiqued and often dismissed. I do get the sense that years of apocalyptic television shows, movies, and novels have poisoned peoples’ imaginations. It’s as if the only thing people can imagine is violence and chaos. How sad. The left must articulate a positive vision, a possible horizon beyond what we oppose. And that vision must include everyone, not just a small number of like-minded individuals who barely form a collective. 7.8 billion people live on the planet. We need a vision that takes all of them into account. It’s the only way forward.

Perhaps most importantly, the existing left in the United States does not have the social, political, cultural, or economic base to develop a genuinely revolutionary force: no left parties, few militant unions, and no control over the police or military. Our society is exceptionally alienated, especially after twelve months of pandemic hell. And the U.S. left remains relatively small, fragmented, and incoherent. Now, that’s not to say we haven’t experienced some gains in recent years (most notably Democratic Socialists of America, of which I’m a member), but we’ve got a long, long way to go. Most of us understand that.

What’s unhelpful is the suggestion that people should arm themselves in preparation for some leftwing insurrection or revolution. Such a proposal is suicidal to the bone and hands the right the ammunition it needs to paint the left in a bad light. Plus, right now is a great time to portray the right as the unreasonable, violent, and unhinged thugs they genuinely are. Following the events of January 6th, it’s clear most Americans don’t prefer violence and instability to relative stability and peace. The opinion polls showed that.

That brings us to the concept of self-defense: the defense of one’s person or interests, primarily through physical force, permitted in some instances of violent crime or assault. When is self-defense justified? According to the law:

the use of reasonable force to protect oneself or members of the family from bodily harm from the attack of an aggressor, if the defender has reason to believe he/she/they is/are in danger. Self-defense is a common defense by a person accused of assault, battery or homicide. The force used in self-defense may be sufficient for protection from apparent harm (not just an empty verbal threat) or to halt any danger from attack, but cannot be an excuse to continue the attack or use excessive force. Examples: an unarmed man punches Allen Alibi, who hits the attacker with a baseball bat. That is legitimate self-defense, but Alibi cannot chase after the attacker and shoot him or beat him senseless. If the attacker has a gun or a butcher knife and is verbally threatening, Alibi is probably warranted in shooting him. Basically, appropriate self-defense is judged on all the circumstances. Reasonable force can also be used to protect property from theft or destruction. Self-defense cannot include killing or great bodily harm to defend property, unless personal danger is also involved, as is the case in most burglaries, muggings or vandalism.

Obviously, under the law, lethal force is justified under specific circumstances, and yet, lawyers and judges subjectively interpret those circumstances. Hence, we must do the same. If we use the essential criteria above, it becomes evident that self-defense in our current context isn’t a primary concern for leftists. As far as I know, right-wing groups are not actively terrorizing, torturing, assassinating, or murdering left-wing political organizations and individuals. They’re not stopping us from holding meetings. They’re not coming to our homes or workplaces. They’re not attacking our relatives or friends. Have there been individual acts of violence? Yes, but not in a coordinated manner. Most of the violence we’ve seen has been in the form of minor isolated incidents (Charlottesville, Charleston, etc.) — primarily at rallies, demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, and during uprisings.

That doesn’t mean, however, that things couldn’t quickly escalate under the right conditions. While some leftists downplay the events of January 6th, I took them very seriously. The line between order (albeit an oppressive and repressive one) and complete chaos is fragile (and there are many shades of grey between the two). Yet, even an imperfect order is preferable to anarchy. Political violence tends to distort and warp civil society and individuals — always for the worse. Again, we should do our best to avoid it and develop organizations and movements capable of dealing with it when or if it comes. Hence, self-defense.

It’s hard for me to believe that most leftists haven’t seriously considered purchasing or learning how to use weapons over the past four years, let alone the past twelve months. First, people experienced four years of Trump, a white supremacist authoritarian who coddled neo-fascist organizations, movements, and individuals. That alone forced people to imagine a world in which the government unleashes its militarized arm on vulnerable populations or allows non-state actors to do the same.

Then, people experienced the pandemic (third largest uptick of first-time weapons purchases in U.S. history), followed by the George Floyd Uprisings in the summer of 2020, which led to the second most significant increase in first-time gun purchases and applications for concealed carry permits in U.S. history. The most popular weapons? The Glock 19 (semiauto pistol), Colt Python (revolver), and the Smith and Wesson M&P 15 (assault rifle).

According to the FBI, January 2021 now holds the record for the most NICS background checks (4.3 million) ever processed in one month in the history of the U.S. 2020 now has the record for the most NICS background checks ever performed in a calendar year: 39.7 million. The previous record year was 2019: 28.3 million. The FBI has conducted more background checks in the first three months of 2021 than during the entire years of 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, or 2005.

Now, to be clear, I support virtually all of the gun reforms most Democrats and liberals support: extensive background checks, closing the gun-show loopholes, and so on. All of that makes a lot of sense. In fact, I would add a reform: mandatory training (something I’ll return to later). But I don’t support a ban on assault weapons.

Let me explain my position: I think law-abiding citizens and leftists should be able to purchase/keep (some Democrats have proposed mandatory buybacks) assault rifles until right-wing militias, conspiracy theorists, bike gangs, drug cartels, white supremacist cops, and treasonous military personnel no longer have theirs. Since I don’t see a full-demilitarization of U.S. society happening anytime soon, calls for an assault rifle ban are a non-starter for me. Reforms? Sure. Bans? Nope. I want our people to have the same weaponry as our enemies.

Plus, I’m sorry, but we can’t simultaneously “defund/abolish the police” and ban assault rifles. That doesn’t make any sense. Unless, of course, you somehow conclude that if we abolish the police and get rid of assault weapons (for law-abiding citizens), the world will magically become a beautiful, peaceful place. I don’t think so. Suppose we don’t trust (I don’t) that the police and military's current composition will protect us. We know that criminal organizations and right-wing groups have become increasingly militarized and violent — what’s the plan for self-defense?

Shaping and developing a state apparatus and economy that’s capable of providing everyone housing, healthcare, childcare, meaningful employment, free education, and debt relief, and one that’s far less militarized and far more humane is our first and most important line of defense against right-wing political violence. Vibrant, interconnected, creative, and solidaristic communities, organizations, unions, student clubs, youth groups, political parties, and progressive religious institutions are forms of self-defense.

Knowing who’s meeting, where, why, and with what intentions in one’s community or city, block, or housing complex, would provide more security than individuals owning weapons. When I think of self-defense, I think of a politically active community that shares information about right-wing political actors and organizations and a society that meets its population's basic material needs. That’s how I envision political self-defense.

In my view, the left should spend as little time as possible developing security forces. More solidarity, economic security, and collectivity would make people feel safer than weapons. However, until then, poor and working-class people should keep (and learn how to effectively and safely use) their AR-15s.

Poor and working-class people, leftists, liberals, and progressives who don’t expect the state to protect them from right-wing terrorists and militias should go through an extensive arms-training program, much as we did in the United States Marine Corps. Many Americans grow up shooting weapons, but most picked up bad habits along the way. People watch too many movies and hold too many myths about what gun violence, war, and shooting look like in the real world. We must break all of those misconceptions.

Safety is paramount. Before shooting weapons, people must learn how weapons work, how to assemble, disassemble, and clean their weapons — how to aim, adjust fire, deal with malfunctions, indicators, and apply corrective actions. Or, something as simple as the cycle of operations, a step-by-step guideline that’s seared into the memories of every infantry marine:

[USMC Instructor’s Guide | Corrective Action with a Service Rifle]

Cycle of Operations: Any deviation from any of these steps can cause a malfunction or deficiency in the weapons ability to fire the round. The cycle of operations for the service rifle is:

a. Firing: The hammer releases and strikes the head of the firing pin, driving the firing pin into the round’s primer. The primer ignites the powder in the cartridge. Gas generated by the rapid burning of powder propels the projectile through the barrel. After the projectile passes the gas port, a portion of the expanding gas enters the gas port and gas tube. The gas tube directs the gas rearward into the bolt carrier key and causes the bolt carrier to move rearward.

b. Unlocking: As the bolt carrier moves to the rear, the bolt cam pin follows the path of the cam track located in the bolt carrier. This causes the bolt assembly to rotate until the bolt-locking lugs are no longer aligned behind the barrel extension locking lugs.

c. Extracting: As the bolt carrier group continues to move to the rear, the extractor claw withdraws the cartridge case from the chamber.

d. Ejecting: The ejector, located in the bolt face, is compressed into the bolt body by the base of the cartridge case. The rearward movement of the bolt carrier group allows the nose of the cartridge case to clear the front of the ejection port. The cartridge case is thrown out by the action of the ejector and spring.

e. Cocking: Continuing its rearward travel, the bolt carrier overrides the hammer, forces it down into the receiver, compresses the hammer spring, and causes it to disconnect or to engage the lower hammer hook.

f. Feeding: Once rearward motion causes the bolt carrier group to clear the top of the magazine, the expansion of the magazine spring forces a round into the path of the bolt. After the buffer spring overcomes and absorbs the rearward motion of the bolt carrier group, it expands and sends the buffer assembly and bolt carrier group forward with enough force to strip a round from the magazine.

g. Chambering: As the bolt carrier group continues to move 5 forward, pushing a fresh round in front of it, the face of the bolt thrusts the new round into the chamber. The extractor claw grips the rim of the cartridge case. The ejector is forced into its hole, compressing the ejector spring.

h. Locking: As the bolt carrier group continues to move forward, the bolt-locking lugs are forced against the barrel extension and the bolt cam pin is forced along the cam track. The bolt rotates and aligns the bolt locking lugs behind the barrel extension locking lugs. The weapon is ready to fire.

Or, the five weapons safety rules:

Suppose you break one of the above rules. In which case, you will promptly face a screaming drill instructor or senior marine who will make you feel about as small as an ant. Then, they’ll dish out some physical punishment (a slap to the head, a brim of the cover to the nose, or some mandatory pushups). And eventually, remind you that any mistake with a weapon could result in your best friend’s brain matter exploding in the air and his body lying on the dirt. You wouldn’t want to live with that, would you? Neither would I.

Marines don’t pick up weapons until Week 8 of boot camp. Think about that: eight weeks of eating, shitting, sleeping, training, and bathing side-by-side with the same 60–80 people, then you finally shoot live ammunition together, and only under direct and intense supervision. Are leftists prepared for such training? Current left-wing ideology and values don’t mix well with a disciplined training atmosphere. Indeed, the USMC waits that long to give people live ammunition because it understands that people must be developed and trained as a collective unit capable of following orders before handing over weapons to teenagers. And even then, it’s not like the U.S. military is the bastion of disciplined warfighting (a bit of an understatement).

Right now, some leftists are starting Socialist Rifle Clubs and similar efforts. I’m not against those ideas, but I think we must implement them with care, discipline, and extreme accountability. Some of my combat veteran friends have helped with those efforts, which makes me feel better about their prospects, but they’ve also expressed their concern that many of the socialists getting involved with the rifle clubs don’t comprehend the amount of training that’s necessary to become a reliable marksman, let alone a well-oiled combat/self-defense tactical unit. It takes tremendous hard work, sacrifice, and, again, discipline — both individual and collective.

The problem is that everyone who’s currently active in political organizing and mobilizing efforts is overly committed when it comes to capacity, time, and resources. It’s hard enough to get people engaged in meaningful workplace organizing efforts, housing campaigns, and electoral projects. Too often, it seems like many leftists would rather play revolutionary instead of building the institutions necessary to implement the political reforms we seek, the sort of reforms that might bring millions of Americans into socialist organizations.

For instance, Sergio and I are the only individuals I know of in Northwest Indiana who openly identify as leftists whom I would trust with such an effort. And we don’t have the time. Currently, we’re producing a podcast that’s released multiple times a week. Sergio’s working on his documentary. We’re helping organize with the recently formed Northwest Indiana Democratic Socialists of America and anxiously awaiting the day when we can safely reopen the PARC community center. Plus, part-time jobs, family, friends, and interests (writing, film, working out, painting, socializing).

If we had the time, would our capacities and resources be better spent organizing a Socialist Rifle Club or setting up a city-wide softball league hosted and coordinated by NWI-DSA? Probably the latter. Should we spend our time teaching leftists how to use weapons or spend our time hosting organizing workshops and seminars at the community center? Likely the latter. You know, these are the real-world considerations we have to take into account.

In the end, I believe the question about the left’s relationship to weapons and violence gets back to questions concerning the left’s connection to the state, its vision for the future, its theory of change, and whether or not the left believes civil society will last in perpetuity. Again, many shades of grey exist between the order we’ve grown accustomed to and a total breakdown of society. Ask the people of Mexico. Ask the people of Syria. Ask the people of India. In contexts across the world, people live in a state of being somewhere between civil society and utter anarchy.

That doesn’t mean we should spend all of our time preparing for something virtually impossible to prepare for — it simply means that leftists would be wise to think about what it might look like to live in an actual failed state. In such a scenario, I don’t want criminal elements, right-wing paramilitary groups, and corrupt/militarized state actors to be the only ones holding assault weapons.

It makes sense for individuals to learn how to defend themselves, both with or without weapons. Mixed martial arts is an excellent place to start. If leftists can muster enough discipline to attend 2–4 classes per week, they’ll quickly pick up the sort of personal discipline needed to engage in more intense training atmospheres. They might also pick up the work ethic and sense of collectivity required for more substantial organizing efforts.

Either way, my position on this topic is unequivocal: the left must reexamine what it means by revolution and drop any notions of violent insurrection. Additionally, the left should spend most of its time on political organizing efforts (workplace, housing, universities, neighborhoods), which should always be nonviolent (no offensive posturing). And to the extent that the left believes it’s helpful to develop self-defense units, leftists must coordinate such efforts in a disciplined, accountable, and collective manner and never detached from the broader goals and aims of left-wing organizations and movements.

Vincent Emanuele is a writer, antiwar veteran, and podcaster. He is the co-founder of PARC | Politics Art Roots Culture Media and the PARC Community-Cultural Center located in Michigan City, Indiana. Vincent is a member of Veterans For Peace and OURMC | Organized & United Residents of Michigan City. He is also a member of Collective 20. He can be reached at vincent.emanuele333@gmail.com

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