Gun control: the Marxist-Leninist view
Currently, there is a wide ranging debate, originating among the ruling-class parties, about gun control. This is nothing new, but since the more recent epidemic of school shootings and other terrorist acts, such as the recent white chauvinist mass shooting in August 2023 at the Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida, the issue of what to do about gun violence has become an ever-present issue. It is not an issue that people interested in revolution and socialism can avoid weighing in on. Indeed, it is only through revolution and socialism that it can truly be solved.
It has to be acknowledged that this is a touchy subject. But we should try to look at this question objectively, with an eye towards transforming society and putting an end to the root causes of gun violence.
Capitalism is the root cause of the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. U.S. capitalist society is an utterly militarized society. The U.S. Defense Department budget in 2023 was over $700 billion. In the 2024 fiscal year it will be over $800 billion. Since the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the widespread rebellions that followed, police budgets are also on the rise. In 2022, Biden’s budget sought $37 billion for policing. In many cities, these are militarized police with high-tech weaponry. The U.S. military and police kill with impunity, unleashing untold violence on anyone, especially people of oppressed nationalities, who stands in the way of profit maximization by the monopoly capitalist class.
All of this goes to promote an omnipresent culture of violence in the United States. This culture of violence comes from the top down, where it blends with the alienation inherent in modern capitalism, the hopelessness of sharpening economic stagnation, and the hateful white chauvinist ideology promoted to prevent the strategic alliance between the multinational working class and oppressed nationalities. This poisonous brew gives rise to the toxic situation in which we find ourselves. Everyone asks, “What is to be done?” And there is not an easy answer. Unfortunately, the liberal demand for increased gun control will not solve the problem, and we can look at history to understand why this is the case.
What are the origins of gun control in the United States? The United States “founding fathers'' were advocates of revolutionary violence. But after they used revolutionary violence to overthrow the British and gain independence for the U.S., they also advocated state violence, especially against workers, indigenous people, and enslaved Africans. The right to bear arms was formalized by the Bill of Rights, which included the Second Amendment, though in practice this only applied to white citizens, and was driven primarily by fear of slave revolts.
In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled that citizenship didn’t apply to people of African descent. Chief Justice Roger Taney, in arguing against equal citizenship to African Americans in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, worried that it “would give to persons of the negro race” the right “to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”
During the U.S. Civil War to end slavery, Black regiments, including liberated slaves, were armed to aid the Union army in overthrowing the Southern planter slavocracy. After this, during Reconstruction, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868 granted African Americans formal equality as citizens, but by 1877 this was reversed in practice by the Hayes-Tilden betrayal of Reconstruction. This was followed by the removal of federal troops from the South, and the rise of the white-supremacist Redeemer governments. The institution of Jim Crow and lynch terror saw African Americans stripped of their hard-won democratic rights, including the right to bear arms, as they were thrust back onto the plantations as sharecroppers. During this period, African Americans were forged into an oppressed nation, subject to super-exploitation in both agriculture and industry. This was enforced by the Dixiecrat Jim Crow laws and the paramilitary terror of the Ku Klux Klan.
The democratic right to bear arms was denied in practice to Black people in the South, though some still armed themselves. Indeed, throughout the Jim Crow period, there is a tradition of armed resistance in the Black Belt South that includes the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, the Deacons of Defense, and the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP leader Robert F. Williams.
The Mulford Act, banning the open carry of loaded firearms, was passed in California in 1967 (with the noteworthy support of the NRA) in a direct attack on the Black Panther Party, to roll back the rights they exercised in arming themselves in defense of their communities. Before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. was denied a firearm permit after his house was firebombed. Indeed, disarming oppressed nationalities to prevent self-defense has historically gone hand in hand with their oppression. Thus, we have to understand that the question of gun control in the U.S. is tied to the question of national oppression.
Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, in his article from June 20, 1967, “In Defense of Self Defense,” quoted Mao Zedong: “We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.” This is an important point, and one that Mao Zedong drew from Marxist theory about the nature of the state. Mao understood that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun,” meaning that the state power of the ruling class is enforced and held by violence.
This was a lesson Karl Marx also emphasized, saying, “Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.” Again, we can look at history to understand this concretely. In fact, this is exactly what happened in Chile after the election of the President Salvador Allende, who was a Marxist. The U.S. funded a military coup in 1973 and installed the fascist Augusto Pinochet. The coup was successful largely because the Chilean people were not armed to resist it. A 1972 gun control law put civilian arms under military supervision, that is, under Pinochet’s control. As a result, more than 3000 Chileans were executed or disappeared.
Indeed, Lenin writes in “The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution” from late 1916, “An oppressed class which does not strive to learn to use arms, to acquire arms, only deserves to be treated like slaves.” He goes on to say that “We cannot, unless we have become bourgeois pacifists or opportunists, forget that we are living in a class society from which there is no way out, nor can there be, save through the class struggle.” Further, Lenin drives home the point, saying,
“A bourgeoisie armed against the proletariat is one of the biggest fundamental and cardinal facts of modern capitalist society. And in face of this fact, revolutionary Social-Democrats are urged to ‘demand’ ‘disarmament’! That is tantamount of complete abandonment of the class-struggle point of view, to renunciation of all thought of revolution. Our slogan must be: arming of the proletariat to defeat, expropriate and disarm the bourgeoisie. These are the only tactics possible for a revolutionary class, tactics that follow logically from, and are dictated by, the whole objective development of capitalist militarism. Only after the proletariat has disarmed the bourgeoisie will it be able, without betraying its world-historic mission, to consign all armaments to the scrap-heap. And the proletariat will undoubtedly do this, but only when this condition has been fulfilled, certainly not before.”
Lenin writes, “To put ‘disarmament’ in the programme is tantamount to making the general declaration: We are opposed to the use of arms. There is as little Marxism in this as there would be if we were to say: We are opposed to violence!” Lenin’s point is a simple one. Though we want peace, Marxists are not pacifists. We need to be able to defend ourselves and our movements from potential reactionary violence. The path to peace must pass through revolution.
The problem of gun violence in the United States is primarily rooted in capitalist alienation, the drive for profit from the gun manufacturers, the culture of militarism, ongoing racist national oppression, and the accompanying ideology of white chauvinism. It is only by doing away with capitalism, which stands at the root of all of this, that we can solve this problem.
This is why Marxist-Leninists have always opposed gun control. We live in a time when violence is ubiquitous. It is everywhere, all around us. We see it on the news as the U.S. wages war all over the globe. We see it in the streets where police murder Black and brown people with impunity. We see it from far-right militias and reactionary, lone terrorists. We even see it in our schools and workplaces. The military and the police are armed, and the reactionaries of all stripes are armed.
It can’t be said clearly enough: we Marxists want nothing more than peace. But we do face objective facts. And, unfortunately, it is inevitable that reactionary violence against the masses of working and oppressed people will continue to keep pace with the threat posed to the capitalist system by the growth and development of the movements for socialism and national liberation. We’ve seen this again and again. The U.S. ruling class always resorts to violence to preserve its interests, at home and abroad. So even today, when generally legal mass organizing is the task at hand, we should not allow ourselves to be disarmed and made defenseless in the face of the increasing repression that is sure to come.
J. Sykes is the author of the book “The Revolutionary Science of Marxism-Leninism”. The book can be purchased by visiting tinyurl.com/revsciMLbook.