Howie on Guns: One Comrade’s Criticisms

7 min read

“Fractured” is the word most people, both inside and outside of it, would use to describe the socialist movement. The joint Socialist Party – Green Party Hawkins/Walker 2020 campaign represents one of the most substantial efforts to rectify this situation in living memory. There is a potentially historic opportunity to unite the independent left and become a more potent force for the working class. This especially makes sense in terms of the Socialist Party and the Green Party, whose platforms and principles – and in many areas, even membership- align and overlap in numerous ways. The coming together of these two parties in support of this campaign, of this project of building left unity, has a quite natural feeling for many on both sides. Now is the time to build on these connections, to deepen them, and foster a culture of non-sectarian, multi-tendency collaboration.

There is a tremendous opportunity in this election through the Hawkins/ Walker campaign to bring the message of socialism to a national audience. We must seize it. Only Howie and Angela are running on a platform that rises to the level of the challenges we face. We are facing several converging crises from police brutality and systemic racism, to appalling wealth inequality and climate change. And, only sweeping structural transformation of the economy and society can put our country on a path to a better future. Neither of the parties of the ruling class are offering anything besides more of the same, band-aids and half-measures, austerity, imperialism, et cetera. Lesser-evilism must be rejected. A vote for Hawkins/Walker is a vote for socialism, for the future we deserve. This is the moment for us, those who agree that the only way forward for the working class lies outside of, and indeed in opposition to, the Democrats and the Republicans to come together.   

This unity is not being built for this election only. We are at the beginning of a project to build a real durable multi-party coalition of anti-capitalist parties. Going forward, this unity, and the collaboration it entails, will make the socialist movement stronger. All of this is true, and yet multi-tendency organizing will still be challenging at times and will require compromises from many. We should not shy away from our disagreements. Only open and comradely discussion suits democratic organizations. It is in this spirit that I want to point out one, in my view, significant disagreement with Howie’s platform. I want to be clear that despite this disagreement, it is my view that voting for Hawkins/Walker is the correct decision for all socialists in the 2020 election. The disagreement I have with Howie’s platform is on the very controversial subject of guns and gun control. Of course, this will provoke some amount of consternation in certain quarters as passions run high on this subject. We should strive for unity, but a unity predicated on sweeping disagreement under the proverbial rug will be a shallow unity.  

From its principles, the Socialist Party, “recognizes(s) and supports(s) the right of the working class to own and bear arms.” This is because guns are an indispensable means of self and community defense and socialist revolution. The capitalist state inflicts a variety of forms of violence on the working class, and it is their inalienable right to take all necessary measures to defend themselves, their families, and their comrades from that violence. To liberate themselves from the yoke of capitalist exploitation will require the working class to utilize a variety of forms of violence, from civil disobedience to armed struggle. This is at odds with Howie’s platform, which is to “Ban and buy back military assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and bump stocks.” The Socialist Party’s platform does not support bans on types of firearms or buy-backs, whether voluntary or mandatory.     

Howie’s stance on firearms is profoundly misguided and simply not tenable for revolutionary socialists. Marx, could not be any more clear on this subject, with three simple words serving to summarize his view; “under no pretext.” Why is Howie’s stance so misguided? In my view, it is so because the practical outcome of it would be to create a permanent qualitative superiority of the armed forces of the capitalist state, both military and police, over those that could be mustered by the revolutionary working class. One might argue for Howie’s stance if his platform also included disarming the police of its military equipment. Yet his platform calls only for cutting off their access to military equipment, not repossessing what they already have. To ban law-abiding citizens from owning modern firearms would thus only serve to increase the ability of the forces of the capitalist state to brutalize their opponents without fear of repercussions.  

That socialists have serious reasons to be concerned to defend themselves should be beyond question by objective observers of the current moment. Police are murdering innocent unarmed black citizens with near total impunity, even when caught on video; far-right fascists are resurgent and committing acts of violence; Border Patrol kidnap squads are abducting citizens off the streets for exercising their alleged constitutional rights through non-violent political protest; a National Security apparatus exists with unfathomable ability to track and monitor citizens in near total secrecy; the ranks of the military and police are replete with white nationalists; rabid anti-feminist “incels” are committing acts of violence; and, the list could go on. This all takes place within a context of well-documented history in this country of state-sanctioned extrajudicial anti-communist, and anti-labor paramilitary violence. The reality of the present moment is that as the Socialist Rifle Association’s (SRA) slogan goes, “only we will protect us.” The institutions of liberal democracy are frayed and faltering. The police see us as their enemy. Many of our fellow citizens on the political right do not see us as part of the American social contract. Thus, for socialists, defending ourselves and our comrades could not be of greater urgency. That a group like the SRA is now the second largest socialist organization in the country testifies to the fact that I am not alone in this understanding. 

More than that, we must take seriously the duty to defend the communities we are trying to organize with and for. The marginalized have an even more difficult time accessing firearms and training than others. It is the responsibility of those in our movement who can, to acquire firearms and training so as to be able to pass on that knowledge to the revolutionary working class. In a situation where our enemies, not mere political opponents, are armed to the teeth and waiting only to be let off the leash to commit pogroms, to deny the working class the means to defend itself is a catastrophic mistake. To allow for the racist police to have a qualitative superiority in weapons only leaves those already suffering under their heel even worse off.    

The most fundamental problem with this entire approach is that gun-control cannot solve the problem of gun violence. The best it can do, as events in Europe make very clear, is to shift the means of violence. All gun-control will achieve is transforming gun-violence into knife-violence or truck-violence. Running over those perceived to be political enemies with automobiles is not unknown in this country. Indeed, it is increasing in frequency. It is simply not possible to address the roots of the problem of the various phenomenon carelessly bundled together under the aegis “gun-violence” through restrictions on gun ownership. Banning so-called “assault-style weapons” ignores the fact that most shooting incidents involve handguns. It also prioritizes the kind of gun violence experienced at schools in wealthier predominantly white communities over that experienced in neighborhoods dominated by Black and Latino communities. It is also to neglect the history of racist paramilitary terrorism perpetrated against these communities.  

More specifically, this kind of approach is dangerous for our movement. We know that a violent confrontation with the forces of the ruling class will be necessary in order to win proletarian liberation. How do we know this? We know it because we know that no ruling class ever has or ever will voluntarily give up its position of power without a fight. Socialism, as the saying goes, will not be voted into existence. We will not vote away the power of the ruling class. We will have to seize it from them. In light of this, to allow the working class to be disarmed, to be deprived of the essential means of defending itself, is nothing other than a complete abdication of revolutionary responsibility. Revolution is not a game. As Che Guevara said, “in a revolution, if it is a real one, one wins or one dies.” If we are not organizing to win, and by every means at our disposal, we are only preparing to get ourselves and or our comrades killed.

None of this should be taken as a reason not to vote for Hawkins/Walker in November. This disagreement is not an insuperable obstacle to the project of building left unity through the Hawkins/Walker campaign. The broader goals of both parties are best served through collaborative work, and even as a firm proponent of armed self- and community defense I believe in fully supporting the campaign of the only socialists in the race. For now, it makes sense to support the campaign despite this error. The fact is that the campaign is unlikely to win the White House, so it is not realistic to think Howie would get a chance to implement this very bad idea. And, even less likely, it would be able to get passed through Congress. So, those that support a policy of armed self- and community defense on the socialist left can support the Hawkins/ Walker campaign without feeling as though they are compromising on a core political conviction. There is far more to be gained in the present moment from working to build left unity through the campaign, than in rigid sectarianism.           

Those comrades who favor a policy of armed self- and community defense are not extremists. They are not bloodthirsty, nor adventuristic, nor provocateurs. They are sober-minded socialists who do not want to see their comrades become more defenseless victims of the violence of the capitalist state and its hired goons. There is no one who would like to be proven wrong more than me. I would be thrilled if power could be seized from the bourgeoisie without a violent struggle. But, it is not sensible to base one’s political strategy and tactics on wishful thinking or hopes and dreams. Only a rigorous materialist analysis, scientific and unsentimental, should ground our decisions about adopting policies. Armed self and community defense will continue to be a controversial topic that divides comrades. In building unity among the independent left, it will be necessary for those on both sides to find ways to agree not to let their disagreements divide them.

Brian Wendle has been a Socialist Party member for several years and is active in his local chapter. He is also a member of the Socialist Rifle Association. Brian grounds his political outlook and activity in Marxist-Leninist principles.