Their militia and ours

Workers should not take the second amendment as their starting point when establishing a militia. No, fighting to repeal the second amendment and nationalising guns comes first. Daniel Lazare responds to Jack Conrad

In his article, ‘Their army and ours’ (Weekly Worker April 20), Jack Conrad deals with the question of a working class militia in a way that is basically sound (although a bit static and apolitical around the edges). But he hops the rails in the final third, when he comes to the United States and the infamous second amendment: “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 errors start small, but build steadily. Imagining the glorious day when two-thirds of each house of Congress plus three-fourths of the states vote for repeal, Conrad writes:

Subsequently, the president signs it into law and the Supreme Court rules against the many and various legal challenges mounted by Texas, Florida, Alabama, West Virginia, North Dakota and Oklahoma. Here is our act of heaven.

But presidents do not sign constitutional amendments the way they do ordinary bills. Instead, Congress promulgates them on its own authority. Indeed, when it mistakenly sent the 13th amendment to Abraham Lincoln for his signature in 1865, the US Senate passed a resolution declaring that “such approval was unnecessary” and “inconsistent with the former practice in reference to all amendments heretofore adopted, and being inadvertently done, should not constitute a precedent for the future”. As for legal challenges mounted by individual states, it is unclear that the judiciary could even hear them, since the amending power trumps that of the judiciary. But repeal in any event would never reach the two-thirds/three-fourths threshold without the support of Texas, Florida and other gun-crazy southern and western states in the first place. So the question of a legal challenge is moot.

Democratic gain?

But this is mainly a technical issue. Much more serious is Conrad’s view of the second amendment as “an early modern democratic gain that needs to be defended and realised - given a new form - by organising working class militias”.

This is profoundly misguided. The right to bear arms is not a democratic gain. On the contrary, it is a vestige of a pre-democratic stage of development that a working class militia should abolish forthwith.

At issue is the political character of the American Revolution, which was far less democratic than all too many Marxists assume. The best‑known example is Lenin’s 1918 ‘Letter to American workers’, which states:

The history of modern civilised America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars, of which there have been so few, compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these ‘civilised’ bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt and all parts of the world.1

As much as one hates to disagree, Leninist methodology rests on the most stringent criticism, which is why it must be said that, in this regard, the great man is incorrect. American settlers did not groan under a yoke of “colonial slavery”. On the contrary, they were freer, more democratic and more prosperous than just about any other people on earth, the British included. Virtually every property-owning white male had the vote, governors rarely exercised the royal veto, there was nothing of a hereditary aristocracy, and manners were plain and simple. When a highborn Venezuelan revolutionary named Francisco de Miranda visited the infant US on a fund-raising tour in 1784, he had a hard time getting innkeepers to seat his servant at a separate table.2 Americans could understand a hired hand, but a servant was beyond their ken. (Slavery, of course, was another story.) Colonisation was an outgrowth of the English Revolution, and America was therefore a revolutionary society - in the 1640s sense, that is.

Conditions began going downhill with the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, when a heavily indebted imperial government decided for the first time to use the colonies as revenue pumps, in order to put its own financial house in order. But the furious reaction to British taxation testifies to the high degree of democracy that was already in place. Americans were outraged that parliament would bypass the colonial assemblies that they regarded as essential to self-government. A certain Captain Preston, the last surviving veteran of the Battle of Concord, summed up such attitudes in an interview in 1842:

Q. Did you take up arms against intolerable oppressions?

A. Oppressions? I didn’t feel them.

Q. What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?

A. I never saw one of those stamps. I certainly never paid a penny for one of them.

Q. Well, what then about the tea tax?

A. I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.

Q. Then I suppose you had been reading Harrington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty?

A. Never heard of ’em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.

Q. Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?

A. Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.3

The goal was not to advance to a brave new world, in other words, but to return to a golden age that lay firmly in the past. As I pointed out in a recent article on the socialist website, Cosmonaut, restorationism of this sort was typical of the period leading up to 1789, but not after.4 In Holland, the ‘patriot movement’ of the 1770s and 80s stood “for ‘restoration’ of an older and freer Dutch constitution”, to quote the historian, Robert R Palmer. In Hapsburg-owned Belgium, a “revolution against the Enlightenment” erupted in 1787 when Austrian emperor Joseph II - the original enlightened despot - tried to impose modernisation on a political structure that had barely budged since the 14th century. In Switzerland, democracy was represented by primitive upland cantons, in which menfolk gathered in annual assemblies that were unchanged since the days of William Tell.5

French Revolution

Indeed, the event that the American Revolution perhaps resembles most is not the French Revolution, but a pre-revolutionary upsurge in France that began two years earlier, when the nobility tried to use regional law courts known as parlements to roll back royal absolutism. The aristocracy had been gaining power since the death of Louis XIV in 1715, and the goal, according to Palmer, was now to turn the clock back to pre-absolutist days, when

the King ruled over a confederation of provinces, each guarding its own liberties and exemptions in taxes and administration, and each carrying on its own affairs through its own churchmen, its own nobles and gentry, and its own opulent dignitaries of the King’s good towns.6

It was an early states-rights movement, in which “both nobles and non-nobles rallied to the parlements against the crown” and every bit as conservative as the term suggests.7 This is not to say that the struggle was not serious. On the contrary, peasants and townsfolk in Grenoble rose up in defence of the local parlement in June 1788, raining down roof tiles on the royal soldiers below. Troops fired back, killing one protestor and wounding another.

The French Revolution thus unfolded in three stages:

The American Revolution corresponds with stage one, since it began with Boston sans-culottes (led by the printer and journalist, Sam Adams) driving out the royal governor - only to defer to Virginia’s slave-owning gentry, once the rest of the country entered the struggle. George Washington - the richest man in the colonies and commander of the Continental Army, together with his fellow planter, Thomas Jefferson, drafted the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson owned 175 slaves, when he wrote that “all men are created equal”, while James Madison - also a major Virginia slaveholder - became the chief architect of the Constitution. Just as French commoners rose up under the nobility against Louis XVI, their American equivalents rose up under the plantocracy against George III. It was not until the expropriation of the planter class “four score and seven years” later that Americans even began to approach stage three.

The right to bear arms was thus a product of a period that is no more than proto-democratic. Approved in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, it represented a reaction to a central government that, contrary to a long tradition of faux-radical historiography, represented the first stirrings of democracy on a national scale. As a result, nothing like it exists anywhere else in bourgeois-democratic literature. To be sure, the 1689 English Bill of Rights says that “subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law”.

But arming the people under the law is very different from arming them against a new lawful authority. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, adopted in 1789, says nothing about an individual right to bear arms and neither does the French constitution of 1791. Consistent with the concept of the levée en masse, the French constitution of 1793 says that “the general military power of the republic consists of the whole people”, that “all Frenchmen are soldiers” and that “all shall be exercised in the use of arms”. But it specifies that “the general military force ... acts only on a written requisition of the constituted authorities”.8

Rather than a brake on centralised power, the most democratic constitution of the day saw an armed populace as an extension, a means of strengthening the state vis-à-vis a growing counterrevolutionary threat both within and without. Rather than a continuation of the American tradition, the French Revolution represented a departure.

Not democracy

The second amendment is no less undemocratic today. Indeed, due to its grotesquely anachronistic character, it is infinitely more so. The amendment that we now know is actually a second coming - one that rose from the dead in the 1960s, when black radicals seized on it as a justification for armed self-defence; and then underwent a second resurrection in the 1970s, when conservatives began viewing it as an instrument of rightwing radicalisation.

The first was of limited value. While black radicals have an unqualified right to defend themselves against lynch mobs and racist police, guns were not what was going to win racial equality. The answer, rather, was mass mobilisation - the millions of people who took to the streets in the civil rights movement that began in 1954; the masses of inner-city blacks who rose in revolt in the mid-1960s; powerful strike waves that repeatedly shook post-war US capitalism; plus revolutionary movements that roiled the third world. Next to upsurges like that, a lone individual with a gun was little more than a pinprick.

But the amendment proved highly useful for the ultra-right. The reason has to do with what might be called its radical indeterminacy. What, for example, does “well-regulated” mean - regulated from above, below, or what? How about “militia” - does it refer to the branch of the US military known as the US National Guard or to middle-aged white guys parading about with AR‑15s on their own authority? What is “the security of a free state” that the amendment supposedly protects - the security of the United States in general, the individual states or the racially segregated towns and suburbs in which militia members make their homes?

The questions go on and on, each one more and more explosive. Since no-one can say for sure which textual interpretation is correct, rightwing militias increasingly have a free hand. Conrad is right when he says that “guns in and of themselves tell us nothing” about why US citizens kill one another in such numbers. Instead, it is the politics of guns that are so destructive. Instead of reducing crime, a flood of unregulated weaponry exacerbates it by placing guns in the hands of 15-year-old drug dealers, muggers and petty thieves. Yet the only message that the second amendment imparts is to arm up in response. The upshot is millions of middle class Americans huddling in fear in their individually-owned fortresses, convinced that ‘gangbangers’ are about to break through their front door.

This is not democracy but the opposite: ie, anarchy and atomisation, coupled, paradoxically, with a high degree of capitalist regimentation. Members of the great American petty bourgeoisie are free - except when they are loaded down with debt, working long hours at high-pressure jobs, living in terror that some maladjusted teenager will gun down their kids at school, or simply stuck in traffic. (Americans drive more than twice as much as Brits, spending an average of 333 hours - the equivalent of eight working weeks - behind the wheel per year.) The goal of socialism is not to compound the problem by throwing more guns into the mix, not to mention more ‘McMansions’ and privately owned automobiles. Rather, it is to put an end to such madness by nationalising guns and seeing to it that children are safe at school. The aim is not to arm everyone to the hilt, but to make it possible for ordinary people to go out for a stroll or sit at a cafe without fear of being caught in a drive-by shooting.

Swiss gun ownership is estimated at between 276 and 412 per thousand people - high by European standards, as Conrad points out, although still as much as 74% below US levels.9 But if gun violence is minuscule - just 16 gun homicides per year for a population of eight million as of 2016 - it is because guns are so highly regulated that they might as well be nationalised in the first place. Swiss citizens need permits to purchase firearms, to purchase ammunition, to carry (unloaded) hunting rifles in public, or to take part in a shooting competition. Concealed weaponry is for the most part verboten. Meanwhile, an 18-year-old who cannot even buy a beer in the US can walk into a gun shop and purchase an AR-15 with no questions asked. Thanks to a pro-gun Supreme Court, the same 18-year-old will soon have a constitutional right to carry a concealed handgun onto a crowded subway as well. What next - outfitting kindergartners with six-shooters, so they can repel an armed invader? It’s hardly unthinkable.

A working class militia is the opposite of the version that the second amendment puts forth. Ownership is not vested in the individual, but in the working class as a whole. Instead of distributing guns ever more widely, the aim is to impose a socialist monopoly. This does not mean banning private ownership in toto, at least not necessarily. But it does mean that socialist democracy in general will have sole and exclusive responsibility for determining what form of ownership is best for society and what is not.

Socialists do not seek to arm the working class individually, but democratically and collectively. That is the key difference between our militia and theirs.

  1. . www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/20.htm.↩︎

  2. . RR Palmer The age of the democratic revolution: a political history of Europe and America, 1760-1800 Princeton 2014, p746.↩︎

  3. . SE Morison The Oxford history of the American People New York 1972, vol 1, p284.↩︎

  4. . cosmonautmag.com/2023/02/america-as-conservative-democracy.↩︎

  5. . RR Palmer op cit pp261, 510, 679.↩︎

  6. . Ibid p343.↩︎

  7. . Ibid p341.↩︎

  8. . oll.libertyfund.org/page/1793-french-republic-constitution-of-1793.↩︎

  9. . The US has an estimated 1,065 guns in circulation for every thousand people. See www.thetrace.org/2023/03/guns-america-data-atf-total; and www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/switzerland.↩︎