Gun control & workers’ militias: How socialists view the issues

March 2018 Daniel Shays

Daniel Shays appears on the left of this newspaper drawing made after his capture in 1787.

By GARY BILLS

We are republishing an article that appeared in the print edition of Socialist Action newspaper in May 2007. The article is pertinent to the widespread discussion on gun control today, when some are calling for repeal of the Second Amendment.

After a horrific gun crime like the one at Virginia Tech [32 people were killed in a shooting there on April 16, 2007], it is inevitable that many people start calling for gun control. At such times, it is important that socialists weigh in on this debate.

Socialists would love to see a society free of violence—but we live today in a world steeped in violence. We believe that the fountainhead of violence is the ruling class, which must resort to force and violence to maintain its minority rule. They seek a monopoly on that force and violence.

Socialists see “guns” as an important issue but as a secondary one when seeking tools for social change. Throughout U.S. history it has been massive, action-oriented social movements that have served as the real mechanism for the defense of the oppressed—and such movements are generally designed to be peaceful, as a necessity.

In the future, however—as happened in certain periods of extreme social crisis in the past—the oppressed will most likely need access to guns for defense, since the ruling class can be counted on to use all manner of violence to prevent any revolutionary change that would mean their overthrow. Socialists believe in the inalienable right of exploited and oppressed people to self-defense “by any means necessary,” as Malcolm X put it.

Quite understandably, the ruling class really wants “gun controls.” But the overwhelming majority of those who express the desire for gun controls, as reflected in the media, are liberals—including people who hold progressive positions on many other social issues.

Nevertheless, the changes they want to see put them squarely up against the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This amendment was the product of revolutionary times. Because of the fight against British domination that was undertaken by local militias, as well as the popular Revolutionary Army, the issues around guns and who wielded them were keenly honed.

The Second Amendment reads, “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.”

We can note two items in this amendment that are compatible with the thinking of socialists. The first is that of an undiluted right of the people to have access to arms and to use them. The second is the principle of the people in arms as a militia.

This second principle is the one the gun controllers always screw up. Being a little legalistic for a moment, we can see that the right of the people to keep and bear arms is supposedly in consequence of the need for a “well regulated militia,” necessary for the “security of a free State.”

Liberals pounce on this interpretation to say, “See, citizens do not have a right to keep and bear arms unless they are part of a “well regulated militia!” Socialists reply, “Fine! Let’s take a real look at what constituted a militia, well regulated or not, in the revolutionary times that shaped the Second Amendment!”

As you read the Second Amendment, you may be struck by the clumsy wording of it. It’s clumsy because it is the product of many committees. There was an intense debate over this Amendment —as there was over the Constitution as a whole. This debate reflected a terrific clash of competing class interests involving the wealthy merchants, large landowners and slaveholders, small farmers, urban craftspeople, and others in the early republic.

The class structure of the United States in the late 1700s was much different than it is today. Only about 5 percent of the population consisted of wage labor, whereas today it is upwards of 90 percent. The colonial ideal was to be your own boss and have your own farm.

Among small property owners, farmers in their huge mass, there was a rough equality, which led to a measure of democracy. It followed, therefore, if an armed force needed to be mustered to meet a threat, the armed force would have a democratic character. This was the character of a true citizens’ militia.

However, those with more means and ambitions, the emerging ruling elite, kept pushing for the formation of a coercive force to further their interests. They wanted to collect taxes for the repayment of the public debt incurred during the Revolutionary War, debt which they held, and for “public works”; they wanted to protect their property; they wanted to mediate all manner of commercial conflicts. In short, they wanted governmental power and coercive power that they controlled!

Howard Zinn, in his “Peoples’ History of the United States,” has a great section that talks about how the urban interests, through tax courts, would form armed bodies to go into the countryside to shake down the small farmers. The small farmers weren’t too happy about this and mustered to form militias to confront the tax courts’ armed bands. Shays’s Rebellion (1786-87) took place when one of these ad hoc militias even went into Boston.

Shays’s Rebellion

Daniel P. Shays had been a captain in the Revolutionary Army. He was motivated to form a rebellious militia when he and other local leaders were angered by the tax courts’ seizure of small farms and the throwing of small debtors into prison.

Taxes were supposed to be paid in money, but the economy of central and western Massachusetts at the time was a barter economy. If a farm was seized, the farmer lost his right to vote, leaving him no political way to fight back. Many small farmers like Shays knew the injustices done to them were coming from urban, eastern, rich speculators led by Massachusetts Gov. James Bowdoin.

Shays’s Rebellion shut down the tax courts in a number of towns, and the movement spread throughout the state. Militias called up by Bowdoin and his backers refused to fight Shays’s forces or failed even to muster.

Meanwhile, anti-Shays forces throughout the colonies misrepresented the grievances and aims of the rebels, claiming they were radicals, inflationists, levelers who were out to cheat their creditors and redistribute property. Shays’s forces, which were popular, volunteer militias, were finally defeated when Governor Bowdoin and Boston-area bankers paid 4400 thugs to attack them with weapons of war such as artillery.

Guerrilla warfare against the rich went on for a while as Shays and other leaders of the rebellion sought sanctuary in other states. But the rebels had the last laugh as supporters of the rebellion were later elected to office, such as John Hancock as governor, and they were given amnesty.

Popular rebellions like this deeply terrified the rich elites, and they started to demand federal armed forces that could suppress small farmers or any other group of citizens that challenged their growing power and wealth. George Washington was especially alarmed, and he and others used their influence to push for a new Constitution to supersede the Articles of Confederation.

But there was no way that the Constitution—which had its advantages for uniting and streamlining a growing new nation, at least commercially—would be accepted by the population without a Bill of Rights attached to it that spelled out protections for citizens against their government.

High on the list of rights the public wanted to protect was the right to keep and bear arms, a right they already believed they possessed by common law and by some state constitutions. The best the privileged interests could do was to try to moderate that right with the phrase in the Second Amendment about a “well regulated militia.”

The common understanding about the character of a militia at the time was that it was composed of ordinary citizens who voted on their “mission,” to use a current term, and was “officered by men chosen from among themselves,” as James Madison noted. It had nothing in common with the National Guard and the standing armed forces of today.

“Well regulated” did not mean that the democratic character of a citizens’ militia could be regulated right out of it for the class purposes of the rich!

Armed force against workers

A question for the liberal gun controllers of today is this: why don’t you want guns? Sure you don’t want guns in the hands of individuals who might threaten you, but why do you feel you have nothing to fear from the armed powers of the state?

Randi Rhodes, a prominent talk-show host on the liberal radio network Air America, has stated that she believes guns belong in the hands of the police powers of the state. She says that the National Guard is the militia that the Second Amendment speaks of.

Rhodes evidently does not recognize in those armed powers the ultimate class power of the ruling rich, which has often used force to defeat strikes and other struggles of the labor movement. Many workers have died at the hands of the police, the National Guard, the Army and privately hired goons.

Sometimes this use of violence by the state and employers has backfired badly; the result has been like pouring gasoline on a fire. Workers come to the defense of other workers instinctively and under certain conditions they see the necessity of taking up arms for their self-protection, unlike Rhodes.

The ruling class has made a quiet determination to allow workers to have small arms and to accept the ugliness of gun crime if the working class will refrain from asking for democratic militias for defense—instead of the National Guard and standing armies, set up to maintain the capitalist state and to fight its wars abroad.

Meanwhile, liberal gun controllers continue to whine about gun violence on a small scale while refusing to demand democratic control of the huge forces of force and violence that carry out U.S. foreign policy and that can be used against us domestically at any time if the ruling class only dares.

POSTSCRIPT

In a Jan. 4, 1990, speech, Fidel Castro stated: “To some of the Western countries that question democracy in Cuba, we can say: There can be no democracy superior to that where the workers, the peasants, and the students have the weapons. They have the weapons. To all those from countries that question democracy in Cuba we can say: Give weapons to the workers, give weapons to the peasants, give weapons to the students, and we’ll see whether tear gas will be hurled against workers on strike, against an organization that struggles for peace, against the students….

“I believe that the supreme test of democracy is arming the people! When defense becomes the task of the entire people and weapons become the prerogative of the entire people, then they can talk about democracy. Until then, they can talk about specialized police forces and armies; to crush the people whenever the people protest against the abuses and injustices of the bourgeois system, whether in a Third World capitalist country or in a developed capitalist country.” —G.B.