“i got out of Folsom and one of the first things i got was a kalashnikov ak-47, 7.62×39… Needless to say, without the requisite consciousness, the gun & i soon parted company. The gun fell into the hands of invading pigs and i fell in the same hands. Was sent back to a cell… That’s when i got at the ‘rad Atiba Shanna [aka James Yaki Sayles] and told him i’d been captured and why. He said, ‘I’d rather have one cadre free than 100 ak-47s.’ It took me years to overstand and appreciate that one sentence.” — Sanyika Shakur
The common discourse recently on the question of gun control in leftist politics has surrounded a lack of real revolutionary struggle (or any solid revolutionary foundation of institutions) today. It has grown out of a kind of macho gun-fetishism which has produced a discourse similar to the NRA on the bill of rights. We seem stuck on the question of gun control as if revolutionary struggle is dependent entirely on legal access to a wide selection of firearms. Disarmament is a real threat, however are we adequately addressing the real methods by which it takes place in the oppressed communities? The left is, in many regards, thinking of the problem in an otherwise backward fashion—thinking of guns before struggle, and ammunition before institutions. The left’s discourse on weapons and arming the masses is becoming more of a struggle-absent discussion on the 2nd amendment “rights.” Where can we place the discourse of what is looking more and more like the Left wing of the NRA?
This is not a condemnation of the idea that the oppressed and revolutionaries should be armed against the advances of the imperialists; that is an absolute necessity. Rather, there is a lack of serious discourse going on with regards to “arming the masses,” leaving us with more questions than answers. What should we be armed with? Many would take this point to discuss the technical differences between a shotgun and an assault rifle, but we are missing the point when we do that. The real answer should be institutions. This seems to be a rather obvious answer, however it could surprise you how little it enters into the discussion; the guns are the important part for many. To them, the institutions are the natural outgrowths of the presence of weaponry in the hands of the oppressed and the revolutionaries. However, even the democrats raise a good point on this question: “Do you really think you will defeat the United States government with an assault rifle?”
Institutions as Armaments
It would seem like a petty insult to the very serious matter of arming the masses of oppressed people to ask this question. Though, I think they have a point that they did not even know they had. A 100 round magazine and a red-dot sight will not out-match an M1 Abrams tank, or a Predator Drone—that much is obvious. However, was that ever the point of the game? We have our priorities wrong, and it is starting to affect the logic of our movement. We will never outgun an imperialist military, but even if we could, arms alone do not translate to revolution. The revolutionary institutions are what give these weapons their real power. To illustrate this: alone, an armed oppressed person may be able to defend themselves, maybe their home, perhaps their family. However, does this alone really propel the advancement of the revolutionary movement? That is not to say we should discourage the self-armament of oppressed people, they have valid reasons for doing so. Though it is a question as to what our discourse provides that any individual logic cannot already give them. Institutions of the revolution and of revolutionary struggle are where we pick up the slack in this regard.
This is the ideological and strategic leap which turns our discourse from the general logic of self-preservation held by the people, into a revolutionary one. We should expect more from ourselves here. The role of the revolutionary left is to push our logic and practice forward into a new territory where we can begin to interrogate the roots of society and how to break it down and eventually remold it. So when we discuss the concept of armaments and the process of arming the masses, first and foremost we should be thinking in terms of revolutionary institutions. While one person can defend themselves, only a revolutionary defense network can defend the community. And while this revolutionary defense network can defend the community, only institutions of revolutionary leadership can mobilize it.
On the left, this highly individualized view of being armed is often indistinguishable from the right-wing ‘libertarian’ one. We expect that through armament comes organization, when in fact these weapons are useless without organization. Though, that is not without admitting that these institutions are ultimately powerless without the presence of weapons, it is the difference between an arm without a sword, and a sword without an arm. In both instances we can see there is an imbalance in the equation, however in this crude metaphor, without the arm (revolutionary institutions) there is no force behind the sword, making it ultimately harmless. The imbalance is ultimately greater when the movement is stripped of the force and organization to wield these weapons. At the same time we see the force and organization of the movement is dulled and unable to overcome the entirety of the capitalist system without the tools with which to engage it. In the end, building the movement and the organization to direct struggle is the most difficult part, obtaining the weapons with which to engage in the decisive struggle against reactionary forces is quite easy in comparison.
Escaping—for the moment—any more bad analogies, we have to be aware of the political implications carried with it by discourse on weapons and institutions in this manner. Not only do we risk a poor strategy for expanding on the logic of individual self-preservation into a revolutionary movement, we also risk erasing the reality of many of these people we seek to arm. In this light, the very simplistic demand of gun ownership by the oppressed people, demonstrates how overlooked the conditions of some can be. For example, the enormous suicide rates among queer youth makes a simplistic call for “guns for queers” inappropriate. What this helps to demonstrate is that not everyone must necessarily engage with firearms on such a personal level, however when armed with institutions that represent them and their political program, this can be resolved.
In order to break from this individualist methodology we must arm the oppressed with institutions, of which guns are just one component of many. This is what brings us farther than the knee-jerk reactions of people who have been thrown onto the flame, and what gives us the ability to lead the mobilization of the oppressed people in a resistance against imperialism. The oppressed can accumulate as many weapons as they need, however this will never end capitalism. It cannot, by itself, contend with the social forces themselves which keep the oppressed people in chains.
A Hollow Replacement for Struggle
We must recognize the fact that this individualized idea of “being armed” is absent of the real roots of struggle. It has brought us to believe that we could more effectively work backwards from the ownership of weapons. We have now been forced, because of this individualist notion, into the unnecessary championing of bourgeois legality. We talk about it in the frame of exploiting bourgeois legality for our own ends, however when we have allowed it to become a hollow replacement for real struggle, we have lost control of the situation. This is precisely what has begun to happen in the more liberal discussions on firearms in the left. There is nothing to gain from an individualist discourse on the important question of arming ourselves and the oppressed peoples.
One of the most startling examples of this is over the issue of “open carry” specifically. There is a great debate amongst the left which has, for better or worse, taken the side of the NRA and many of the right wingers who represent the open carry movement. The push for the preservation of open carry laws is being forwarded not only by the far right, but the far left as well, with the hope that it will mean the empowerment of the oppressed youth and function as a tool for their own safety. However, this is reliant on too many assumptions about the colonial nature of bourgeois legality in the united states. Namely, that the presence of an open carry law, will protect the colonized youth from being shot dead in the streets for carrying a gun in their defense. The defense of these laws by the right-wing makes sense, because these laws were created for them, not for the radicals or the oppressed.
This is still a point of contention to many, the idea that open carry laws could represent a possibility for legal and open organizing with a militant flare, though what is it but a hollow mock-up of an armed struggle? The open carry laws do nothing to embolden the development of our own revolutionary institutions, and only truly benefit those who defend the status quo, more specifically, the colonizers who take up arms against the colonized people on the border, or who occupy indigenous land in Oregon. The networks of self-defense and revolutionary organization can and will be organized with or without the permission of the state for there already is no permission for the colonized and oppressed people to defend themselves, nor there is there any permission for the armament of radical movement to defend itself or its legitimate gains.
The question now is not whether the oppressed people can legally carry rifles for their defense against reactionary oppressors and killers or not, we already know that it is not the case. We have seen time and again that without question, a black boy with a gun will be murdered by police. Just as Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy with a toy gun, was murdered without a second thought; just as we have seen in comparative videos of white vs. black open carriers, that there is no right to self-defense among the colonized and oppressed people. So to defend so vigorously, the right primarily expressed by white men carrying assault rifles into grocery stores, impacts nothing at all in the sphere of organized resistance to white supremacy, patriarchy and imperialism.
There is a point where the pursuit of firearms among the left has become almost a hollow aestheticism, a kind of activist branding. The extent of our practice and struggle is now being determined by how similar we can look to doing real militant work; how we can emulate armed struggle and radical militancy without challenging the social relations. Though this has misplaced the focus of our pursuit of armed self-defense, it has placed the political urgency on defending those laws which do not actually enable radical struggle; only a cheap mock-up of it. This is something which more often than not, plays into the hands of the reactionaries. While it is obvious to us now that an assault rifle cannot contend with a predator drone, we also know that the most advanced weapon systems cannot so easily crush a revolutionary movement which has viable and defendable institutions for the mobilization of the oppressed people.
We should undoubtedly and stubbornly resist the disarmament of the revolutionary movement, and of oppressed people. However, the avenues by which the oppressed and the radicals are being disarmed are not through the abolition of open carry laws, or the banning of 100-round magazines; it is being committed through the reactionary structures which have preyed upon the unorganized oppressed peoples and those who lack the institutions necessary for their defense. We have spent too much time and effort shoring up the defenses for the NRA and those people who use the intentional “loopholes” of bourgeois legality to murder the oppressed people, and uphold the status quo. We cannot open carry our way to socialism. If we are to truly prepare ourselves against the attempts at disarmament, and forced vulnerability, we must double our efforts to build institutions of struggle with which to give these weapons purpose in the defense of the revolutionary movement.