Workers Hammer No. 222

Spring 2013


Revolution and the right to bear arms

From the archives of Spartacist

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution

Excerpted from Spartacist no 43-44, Summer 1989

It’s really not news that guns were invented to kill people. And in this class-divided society, it has more than occasionally been necessary for “law-abiding” citizens to defend themselves with violence, even against the so-called legally constituted authorities. Are memories really so short? Recall the bloody Ludlow, Colorado massacre of 1914 in which 21 men, women and children, families of striking miners, were killed by the machine gun fire of the state militia, who were really Rockefeller’s hired guns. But the workers were armed by the United Mine Workers, and to the bosses’ horror for ten days some 1,000 strikers fought back bullet for bullet.

Recall as well the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel in South Chicago. On May 30 of that year, in the midst of a national strike against the “little” steel companies (i.e., all the companies except the giant United States Steel Corporation), 1,500 protesters, mostly strikers and their families, marched in a holiday mood toward the Republic Mill. They were met by a solid line of 200 cops and a sudden volley of tear gas shells. As the marchers broke and ran, the cops charged with blazing guns and swinging clubs. Ten workers were shot dead, and another 40 were wounded — all of them shot in the back. An additional 101 protesters, including an eight-year-old child, were injured by clubs. In this case the strikers had been politically disarmed by their union misleaders with the line that the cops, sent to keep order by the Democratic “friends” of labor, should be “welcomed.”

We also remember the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, in which five leftist civil rights workers and labor organizers were gunned down in cold blood by a Klan/Nazi group. An FBI informer led the fascists to the murder site, and an agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showed them how to use and transport the semiautomatic weapons. Or in the Philadelphia of black mayor Wilson Goode, where the cops in 1985 raked the MOVE commune with 10,000 rounds in 90 minutes, using fully automatic M-16s and M-60 machine guns, and incinerated eleven black people, including five children, in a fire ignited by C-4 plastic explosive provided by the FBI. But of course none of the “concerned” anti-gun lobbyists are advocating taking away guns from the cops.

White middle-class liberals preach total pacifism from the relative safety of their condos and suburban ranch houses — they don’t expect the cops to come bursting into their homes. But the ruling class does not believe in pacifism and has carefully armed its state to the teeth. The whole issue of gun control revolves around the question: do you trust this state to have a monopoly of arms? And the answer is refracted through the deepening class and racial polarization of this society. The core of the state, after all, is “special bodies of armed men,” as Lenin explained in his 1917 pamphlet The State and Revolution, commenting on the writings of Marx and Engels. And this is not our state, but the capitalists’; they assert the state’s monopoly of armed force in order to maintain their class rule.

To Disarm the People

The whole history of gun control is the story of the ruling class trying to disarm the population, particularly in periods of social struggle. The ban on automatic weapons is usually linked to gangsters like Al Capone, but it never stopped them from getting their hands on Thompson submachine guns, just as the mob today has its Uzis. More to the point, the 1934 ban on automatic weapons came in the Great Depression when the spectre of working-class revolution haunted Washington (in fact, that year saw three citywide general strikes led by ostensible communists). The federal gun control act of 1968 came at the peak of black ghetto upheavals. And the perennial push to ban the cheap handguns known as “Saturday Night Specials” is just an attempt to make guns more expensive and hence less accessible to the poorer classes.


In Europe and America it was the struggle against absolutist, reactionary tyrannies which produced the revolutionary principle of the “right to keep and bear arms.” One of the first acts of the French Revolution was to seize weapons and ammunition from the arsenals. And every subsequent revolutionary upsurge has been accompanied by similar actions. The right to bear arms was codified by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What’s going on today is a calculated counterrevolutionary attack by a decaying ruling class on these constitutional guarantees.

The Second Amendment’s Revolutionary History

The clear intent of the Second Amendment (ratified in 1791), as expressed in its language, was not sport or hobby but a people’s militia:

“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.”

The constitutional right is not about hunting or target practice; the American colonial revolutionaries wanted the whole people armed, centering on military arms — in today’s terms something like the AK-47 — in order to be able to kill British soldiers, and to forestall the threat of any standing army, which they rightly regarded as the bane of liberty and the basis of tyranny. Indeed, what triggered the American Revolution were attempts by the British army, in particular General Thomas Gage, to force colonialists to surrender their arms. As noted in a recent article by Stephen P. Halbrook:

“The Revolutionary War was sparked when militiamen exercising at Lexington refused to give up their arms. The widely published American account of April 19, 1775, began with the order shouted by a British officer: “‘Disperse you Rebels — Damn you, throw down your Arms and disperse’.”

American Rifleman, March 1989

There is a continuum between the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the American Civil War. The question of the standing army and the king’s attempts to raise taxes to finance it against the opposition of Parliament and the emergent bourgeoisie was central to the outbreak of the English bourgeois revolution. Oliver Cromwell beheaded the king in 1649 and the revolution gave birth to democratic principles, codified decades later in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 when the revolution was already ebbing and after a renewed drive to absolutist reaction under James II. As a guarantee against the Catholic/royalist threat, the English Bill of Rights listed “true, ancient and indubitable rights,” including:

“6. That the raising or keeping a standing Army within the Kingdom in Time of Peace, unless it be with Consent of Parliament, is against Law.

“7. That the Subjects which are Protestants, may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Condition, and as are allowed by Law.”

— quoted in Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed (1984)

This principle was reiterated in the 18th-century Blackstone’s Commentaries, still regarded as a definitive bourgeois statement on the English Common Law. The 1689 Scottish Claim of Right reiterated an identical point about the right to bear arms. In Scotland this assertion was underpinned by a widely accepted custom of bearing arms. This reflected among other things the recognition that the ability to mobilize forces of equipped and experienced fighters at short notice had often been the margin between independence and English invasion and conquest. In addition the Scottish Reformation had faced the challenge of attempts to impose French-backed Catholic absolutism.

Carrying forward the English tradition, the American revolutionaries expanded on this right, in light of their own experience in struggle against the British king, when they drew up the Constitution in 1787. In the state conventions which ratified it, a “militia” was understood to mean the armed people, not a “select” militia like the present-day National Guard (which can be federalized and keeps its arms stored in armories controlled by the government). The right to “keep and bear arms” was universally recognized as an individual right. As Patrick Henry summed it up, “The great object is, that every man be armed.”

As in any class society, there were some big, categorical exceptions to these “universal” rights. The Second Amendment assumed it was English-speaking white Protestants that had the guns, to be used against Indians, black slaves, Spanish, Dutch and French invaders and, needless to say, the British former colonial masters who continued to threaten the young republic. Thus in South Africa today the white population is individually heavily armed as one of the means to maintain their status over the black majority. Similarly in the English Revolution the right to bear arms was directed against Catholics as perceived and frequently real representatives of reaction. Applied in Ireland this was an instrument of exploitation and terrible oppression. In Ireland after 1688, among other anti-Catholic measures, no Catholic could serve in the army or possess arms. In the later 18th century armed militias were raised in Ireland and Britain. In Ireland these mainly Protestant “Volunteers” took up the struggle for reforms. Then an “Arms and Gunpowder Bill” was passed requiring the Volunteers to turn in their arms. The radical wing, inspired by the American and French Revolutions, and led by Wolfe Tone, took up the call for universal suffrage and the removal of all laws against the Catholics. The United Irishmen uprising of 1798 was Ireland’s failed bourgeois revolution.

Despite these limitations on the concept of “universal rights,” the American War of Independence released a world-shaking democratic spirit, reflected in the military sphere by the arming of masses of civilians who could be trusted, out of ideological conviction, to fight for their government in loosely controlled guerrilla-type units. As was noted by Friedrich Engels, who was no mean soldier himself (being a heroic and able officer on the revolutionary side in 1848):

“While the soldiers of European armies, held together by compulsion and severe treatment, could not be trusted to fight in extended order, in America they had to contend with a population which, untrained to the regular drill of line soldiers, were good shots and well acquainted with the rifle. The nature of the ground favored them; instead of attempting manoeuvres of which at first they were incapable, they unconsciously fell into skirmishing. Thus, the engagement of Lexington and Concord marks an epoch in the history of infantry.”

— “Infantry,” an article for The New American Cyclopaedia (1859)

Abolition of Slavery by Arming the Slaves

But the Americans’ so-called democracy accepted slavery, written into the Constitution itself. It was generally recognized that if the slaves got guns it would mean the end of slavery, so they were denied this legal right through the device, juridically approved by the Supreme Court in the infamous Dred Scott case in 1857, of claiming that “the people” meant only “citizens,” and “citizens” did not include black slaves. Chief Justice Taney noted with horror that if blacks were citizens they would be entitled to a long list of rights, including the right “to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

John Brown was among a small vanguard in the 1850s who saw that only force of arms would put an end to slavery, and he became a prophetic martyr for leading the famous raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Meanwhile, ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a close friend of Brown, openly defended a man’s “right of self-defense” when fugitive slaves were being hunted by agents of the slaveholders, even if this meant “shooting down his pursuers,” as occasionally happened. “Slavery is a system of brute force,” he said. “It must be met with its own weapons.”

Thus when the Civil War came, and the Northern bourgeoisie became so militarily desperate in 1862-63 to crush the slaveholders’ rebellion against the Union that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and agreed to the forming of black regiments, Douglass seized on this historic opportunity. “Men of Color, To Arms!” was his slogan as he campaigned for black volunteers for such famous regiments as the 54th Massachusetts. And it wasn’t only in the army that blacks fought — during the racist anti-draft riots in New York in 1863, according to one black newspaper of the time:

“The colored men who had manhood in them armed themselves, and threw out their pickets every day and night, determined to die defending their homes.... Most of the colored men in Brooklyn who remained in the city were armed daily for self-defense.”

— quoted in James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War (1965)

In the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, the central struggle in the South was between the newly emancipated blacks seeking to exercise political power and the remnants of the slaveholders’ government seeking to put the former slaves back “in their place.” This struggle pivoted on black people’s possession of arms. Hence the reactionary “black codes” passed in various Southern states tried to outlaw possession of firearms by blacks. An 1865 Florida statute, for instance, made it unlawful for “any Negro” to possess “firearms or ammunition of any kind,” the penalty for violation being the pillory and the whip. In response, the federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau widely distributed circulars which read in part, “All men, without distinction of color, have the right to keep and bear arms to defend their homes, families or themselves.” But the question would be decided by military power: the racist white state militias, aided by the private Ku Klux Klan, were already disarming blacks, whose only defense was their own arms and/or the occupying Union Army. What was going on in the South was graphically described in one letter cited in Congressional hearings in 1871:

“Then the Ku Klux fired on them through the window one of the bullets striking a colored woman...and wounding her through the knee badly. The colored men then fired on the Ku Klux, and killed their leader or captain right there on the steps of the colored men’s house....”

In this case, as in many others, the Klan leader turned out to be “a constable and deputy sheriff.”

While Congress adopted all sorts of paper measures protecting blacks, including the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees “equal protection of the laws,” it betrayed the promise of black liberation in the Compromise of 1877, when Union troops were withdrawn from the South. Because they could not defend their rights by force of arms, black people were denied all their rights. It took a long and often bloody struggle for the civil rights movement 80 years later to restore some of the blacks’ rights won in the “Second American Revolution” which was the Civil War.

Disarming the Population

In the 19th century Karl Marx had expressed the hope that America would be one of the few countries where working people could take power more or less peacefully because the ruling class had virtually no standing army but relied on militias. Yet by the turn of the century the U.S. had entered the imperialist club and quickly developed a standing army. And over the years Second Amendment rights, supposedly inviolate, have been increasingly constricted by layer upon layer of laws which made gun-owning and armed self-defense more and more of a class privilege.

The most notorious example is New York State’s Sullivan Law, which makes it illegal to carry a pistol for self-defense, unless you’re one of a handful of well-connected people who can get a license to “carry” from the police department, people like real estate mogul Donald Trump and New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger (“Businessmen Opt to Pack a Gun,” New York City Business, 11 March 1985). The law was passed back in 1911 after a man who felt he had been unjustly fired from his city job as night watchman shot the mayor with a revolver. Hizzoner survived, but the incident was seized upon by “prominent” citizens such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (the same one responsible for the Ludlow massacre) to launch a campaign for gun control. And the New York Times led the pack.


The Turning Point: 1848

As the call for a people’s militia was adopted by the rising proletarian movement, the bourgeoisie abandoned its own slogan that “every man be armed.” As noted by Friedrich Engels, the workers’ demands for social equality contained “a threat to the existing order of society”:

“...the workers who put it forward were still armed; therefore, the disarming of the workers was the first commandment for the bourgeois, who were at the helm of the state. Hence, after every revolution won by the workers, a new struggle, ending with the defeat of the workers.

“This happened for the first time in 1848.”

— Engels’ 1891 introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France

With the appearance of the proletariat as an independent actor on the scene, “the armed people” became archaic as the population was polarized along class lines. 1848 marked the beginning of the modern world in which we still live, and the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat remains historically unresolved to this day.

The defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe was followed by a bloodbath revealing the “insane cruelties” of which the bourgeoisie is capable, wrote Engels. “And yet 1848 was only child’s play compared with the frenzy of the bourgeoisie in 1871,” when the workers of Paris rose up and formed the Commune. One of the Commune’s key decisions came on 30 March 1871, when it “abolished conscription and the standing army, and declared the sole armed force to be the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled.” When the Commune fell in May 1871 before the troops of the French government, behind whom stood the more substantial forces of the Prussian army, the disarming of the working class was followed by a massacre of defenseless men, women and children in which some 30,000 died.

Legislation against the possession of arms and for gun control precisely correlates with the social situation. Besides the seminal events of 1848 and 1871, the whole history of France since 1789 demonstrates the way in which the ruling class has resorted to firearms control in accord with the felt threats to its position. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1816, Louis XVIII sought to disarm the population by ordering all arms turned in. Louis Philippe in 1834 and Napoleon III in 1858 passed laws to restrict access to arms. A 1939 emergency decree of the Daladier government remains the basis for all subsequent French gun control laws, and new restrictions were imposed in 1958, 1960 and 1961, during the crisis surrounding the Algerian war for independence. However, the memory of the armed insurrection of the Communards remains alive in the French working class. And the Resistance during WW II, despite the Communist Party’s nationalist, class-collaborationist role, did not exactly leave a pacifist anti-gun legacy.

* * *

The Bolshevik Revolution

It was an armed working class which made the Bolshevik Revolution, in accordance with Lenin’s call:

“Following the path indicated by the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1905, the proletariat must organise and arm all the poor, exploited sections of the population in order that they themselves should take the organs of state power directly into their own hands, in order that they themselves should constitute these organs of state power.”

— “Letters from Afar, Third Letter Concerning a Proletarian Militia” (March 1917)

The Soviet Red Guard workers militias fought the first battles of the ensuing civil war. Like all militias, the Red Guards were not much good at first, but in war one’s strength is always relative to the enemy’s, and the Whites suffered from low morale. Militiamen can become professional fighters if they survive long enough to gain experience. As the founder of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, commented in December 1921, “In the initial stages we learnt manoeuvring from them [the Whites].” And the Soviets eventually triumphed over the combined strength of 14 imperialist/Allied expeditionary forces and the tsarist White Guards.

Though the Bolsheviks advocated a socialist militia “in connection with the abolition of classes,” they were forced by the fight against counterrevolution to build a standing army. Trotsky explained in the foreword to the fifth volume of his military writings (How the Revolution Armed, 1921-23 [1981]) that the problem was rooted in the poverty and backwardness of Russia, wherein “the Red barracks constitutes an incomparably higher cultural setting than that to which the Red Army man is used at home.” But when Stalin usurped political power at the head of a conservative bureaucracy, he made the standing army into a fetish, going so far as to mimic the Western capitalist armies’ ranks and privileges. Trotsky denounced this:

“No army...can be more democratic than the regime which nourishes it. The source of bureaucratism with its routine and swank is not the special needs of military affairs, but the political needs of the ruling stratum.”

The Revolution Betrayed (1936)

Having restored the officer caste 18 years after its revolutionary abolition, Stalin then beheaded the Red Army on the eve of Hitler’s invasion.

In the shadow of the oncoming world war, Trotsky’s Fourth International insisted in its 1938 Transitional Program: “The only disarmament which can avert or end war is the disarmament of the bourgeoisie by the workers. But to disarm the bourgeoisie the workers must arm themselves.” Its program for revolutionary struggle against imperialism and war included the call for: “Substitution for the standing army of a people’s militia, indissolubly linked up with factories, mines, farms, etc.” Its demands for military training and arming of workers and peasants under the control of workers’ and peasants’ committees were coupled with the demand for “complete independence of workers’ organizations from military-police control.”...

Having guns is no magic talisman, but an unarmed population faces merciless slaughter at the hands of this vicious ruling class whose state is armed to the teeth. For as Karl Marx summed it up in Capital (1867), “Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with the new.”