When I was going through my hate campaign from the NRA, there was a weird set of internet anarchists also hoping I would lose my job. Calling myself and others who were defending me “statist leftists,” they thought guns were central to their hope of fomenting their fantasy revolution and that leftists who supported gun control were delusional defenders of state oppression. As a symbol of that state oppression through opposing uncontrolled gun ownership, I was part of the oppressive machine that needed to be overthrown.
I recalled this oddity reading this Truthout essay by Arun Gupta where he tries to distance himself from the gun fetish of a certain sector of lefty.
Before you equate radical with bomb-thrower, realize Americans, with few exceptions, support state violence. Yet some support gun rights and some oppose it. Many leftists are in the former camp. To confirm this, I asked a couple thousand Facebook “friends” if they opposed gun control and their reasons why. The responses came pouring in:
“Is a state monopoly on arms in the best interests of the working class?”
“Gun laws, much like drug laws, are used to oppress the poor and people of color.”
“We can’t have a revolution without them.”
“Governments already have too much of a monopoly on violence and we will one day have to bring this one down.”
“I’ll be damned a cop can have a gun but I can’t.”
“Gun control laws … are another step down the incline to a full-fledged police state.”
“[I support] the right to bear arms – because I’m horrified that racist whites are heavily armed in areas of the country that oppose democratic rights.”
Judging from these comments, many leftists agree with the right that the biggest threat to society is not mentally ill shooters like Adam Lanza. It’s the state. The implication is that the solution to a society with too many guns is more guns. That’s why leftists tend to shrug off gun control. They see it as impinging on their freedom, or at least as something that doesn’t affect them.
We’ve all known these people, wearing their Che shirts, talking a big game about revolution and the need for violence, even though they’ve probably never held a gun themselves. There’s a romanticization of violence among many on the far left, a line that starts with Lenin, goes to Castro and Che, the PLO and Mao, and then back to the United States through Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and the American Indian Movement.
Although a lot of these leftists would claim (perhaps rightfully) a commitment to gender equality, there’s a strongly masculine ideology behind the leftist using violence to overthrow a state. Che’s sexiness and Malcolm’s rhetoric reinforce highly masculine cultures of the left, a gendered division of revolutionary labor that most certainly flowed through the movements themselves at the time.
The left’s embrace of violence today is largely held by its anarchist side, which unfortunately makes up a large percentage of younger activist leftists. Here, the individual has the right to engage in violent behavior outside of a chain of authority and can not be concerned about the consequences. We’ve this in real time, both in the WTO protests in Seattle and Occupy protests in New York and Oakland.
The moral case for using violence in complex and contingent upon the situation. We can all think of cases where violent resistance was not only justified and necessary. There is some history of success against a colonial power whose real interests and will to fight to death in a place far from the home country may be limited. Within the United States however, it’s a total disaster. We might make an argument that the Black Panthers were justified in embracing violent self-defense. Urban African-Americans in the 1960s were completely ignored by the state, received almost no social services, and most importantly suffered from massive and sustained police violence. The same goes for Native Americans in the cities; AIM began in Minneapolis as a reaction to police brutality.
But the reality was that threatening violence was a complete disaster. It not only led to the state suppression of these movements. It led to a tremendous amount of violence and death from intra-movement conflicts. Resisting violence “by any means necessary” might have meant the white state, but Malcolm also came out of a movement more than happy to use any means necessary to eliminate dissenters in its own ranks, including Malcolm himself. The Weather Underground was a complete failure. In Germany, the Baader-Meinhof gang were sociopaths who did nothing good for society.
Ultimately, the problem with violent tactics within the United States today is fairly simple (outside of the rather obvious point that while the US might be messed up in very real ways, it’s hardly bad enough to convince any more than an extreme fringe to use violence). You will lose. Leftists might point to Castro in 1958 as an example of a romantic violent revolution overthrowing a corrupt state, but the US in 2013 is a very different place than Batista’s Cuba. Surveillance technologies are far superior to any time in the past. So are ways of co-opting a population. Who is really going to commit to revolution if they can afford cable television? Even if you managed to gain enough weapons and not have your movement infiltrated before you managed to do something, the federal government has something called air power. You don’t.
There’s simply no good strategic argument for using violence. Who knows what the future holds. But supporting gun control in 2013 is not going to stop your fantasy revolution from coming true. Largely because if you use your gun against the state, you are going to die very quickly or be put in a deep dark hole for the rest of your life. If we really believe in emancipating people from the shackles of oppression, one really good way to do that is to help keep them alive. Another is to help make them not scared of being shot.