"You mean they taught you how to use a firearm?" They ask, incredulous.
"Yep," I answer. "And my dad taught me how to shoot a handgun."
They are amazed that the "imperialist American state" would permit its citizens so casual an association with firearms. What should really amaze them is that between a fifth and a fourth of all Americans own some kind of gun, without any consequent threat of social unrest let alone revolution. Even though I know how to use a gun, I've never owned one. Don't intend to either. More often than not, confidence in a gun means paying less attention to your surroundings, your behavior, your life, not to mention your own reason, skill and creativity.
The California Assembly was debating gun control legislation sometime in 1967, when some anti-gun control protesters showed up in Sacramento to oppose the bill. These weren't exactly your usual "good ol' boy" NRA redneck types.
Not by a long shot.
I remember that the grainy black and white screen panned along a line
of young black men wearing black leather jackets and black berets, all
proudly displaying their rifles and shotguns. The Black Panther Party was
in the house. The news crew cut to a picture of a handsome Panther named
Huey P. Newton as the news reporter asked him why he was protesting gun
"So long as the pigs have guns, the Black Panther Party opposes taking guns away from the people." He spoke with confidence and determination. "The right of the people to bear arms in self defense is further guaranteed in the US Constitution..."
At which point Newton pulled out a well-worn pocket-sized American flag decorated copy of the constitution from his jacket pocket and proceeded to read the Second Amendment on camera. An electrifying demonstration, to be sure. Yet it also probably guaranteed the passage of that gun control bill.
I was 16 years old in 1969 when a cop first pointed a gun at me. Five of us took off on spring break from Ventura, California to San Francisco for a "youth liberation/anti-skool" conference in Carmen's barreling, barely legal '58 Chevy. On the way back, we drove Highway 1, cruising with the windows open, rolling joints from a large glass jar stuffed with marijuana, playing rock'n'roll 8-track tapes at full volume. Back then an ounce cost $10 and we were all so fucking high.
We were south of Pismo Beach when we saw a CHP car on the side
of the highway, the cop giving someone a ticket. Without having to say
a word, we rolled down what windows weren't wide open and in unison we
yelled "sooooweeee" at the top of our lungs as we passed the cop and the
motorist he'd caught. Then we burst into uproarious laughter. We returned
to joking, toking and singing along to Spirit as we drove until, fifteen
minutes later, the driver Carmen glanced in her rear view mirror.
"Ah shit," she said just as we heard the dopplering police siren. "That pig's coming up fast behind us."
The rest of us looked back at the CHP car's flashing lights.
"Hide the dope under the seat." Tom yelled at me from shotgun, then promptly ate the smoldering joint we'd been passing around. The car's ashtrays were quickly emptied of roaches. I sat behind Carmen, so I put the jar of pot under her driver's seat and clamped it down with my tennis shoes. She then pulled over at the next scenic rest area, and we all prayed that the wind had blown away any trace of marijuana smoke.
The CHP car squealed spitting gravel to stop perpendicular to our car. The cop leapt out behind his swinging car door and crouched, two hands aiming his service revolver at us. Aimed at Carmen and me on the driver's side of the car.
"Don't anybody move." The cop yelled. "Now, what seems to be the problem?"
"N ... no problem sir," I stuttered out to the armed officer of the peace when Carmen seemed speechless. I've always been the polite sort, something that usually appeases most cops. He realized soon enough that we were five really scared long-haired kids. He then stepped out from behind the car door and approached our vehicle, brandishing his gun.
"You folks shouldn't yell things out your window. Thought somebody might be in trouble. Could have shot one of you if you'd made a wrong move."
He walked around the car, gun still leveled. He ordered Tom and Jack on the passenger's side to get out. Stan sat between me and Jack in that long Chevy back seat. He clambered out too but I didn't move, sweat suddenly flushing my back and beading my forehead, my feet desperately holding that marijuana jar. The cop made my three friends go through a kind-of Chinese fire drill, probably to figure out if they were stoned. When he'd repositioned Tom next to me and Stan next to him, with Jack up front, he strutted around the back of the car.
"Driver's license and registration young lady."
The cop still flourished his gun, directing it alternately at Carmen and me as she dug through the cluttered glove compartment. I didn't like staring down the barrel of his weapon, but when I tried to reposition myself back further in the seat, behind the back door strut as far as I could squeeze myself, I lost my footing on the jar of contraband. It rolled out behind Carmen's feet just as she plopped a pile of junk from the glove compartment into her lap to search for the registration.
"I can't seem to find it," she hastily waved fistfuls of papers and receipts at the cop as she kicked the jar back under the seat. I managed to get my feet on the slippery glass once again, even with my heart racing. My t-shirt was soaked from fear. The cop did holster his revolver to write Carmen a ticket, which of course we all agreed to help pay once we were back on the road, glad he'd only wanted to scare the shit of us.
He'd certainly done that.
"Wanna fight a revolutionary war, get yourself a rifle." A Vietnam vet once succinctly summarized gun usage to me. "Wanna protect your home, get yourself a shotgun. Wanna commit homicide, get yourself a handgun."
Don't ask me about drugs and guns; about buying kilos of primo Mexican
or Colombian weed from dealers who kept handguns at the ready; about friends
who'd been robbed, hog-tied at gunpoint going for one such deal calling
me in Santa Cruz at two in the morning from somewhere in San Jose begging
me to get them home.
The Santa Cruz mountains had the reputation as a wild zone in 1972-74. Anything could happen in their dense dark forests; from rape and murder to drug and gun running. I used to buy weed in quantity and mushrooms in personal doses from a remote cabin of ultra-left revolutionaries rumored to have ties with the Weather Underground who collected way too many guns and snorted way too much coke.
Talk about paranoia.
"Don't ever drive off the road when you come up here," Andy, the red-haired guy with pupils the size of dimes once told me while fondling a clean, well oiled Armalite AR-18 rifle seated beneath a large Viet Cong flag. "If your car breaks down, don't try cutting through the woods to get to the cabin. Always stick to the road and the driveway. We've booby trapped the woods for miles around. Just like the NLF. You also might accidentally wander onto one of our firing ranges."
It was cops the only other time I had guns drawn on me. San Diego, 1979. I was driving a friend's car, an old Ford with expired tags and a busted driver's side door. I'd developed the practice in the early 1970's of getting out of the car I was driving whenever I was stopped by the police, leaving the vehicle closed and locked as I stepped away from it. In those years this action gave the cops less of an excuse to claim "probable cause" to search the car. Old habits die hard, so when an SDPD car pulled me over, I rolled up the window, locked the broken door and slid across the broad seat to exit the Ford on the passenger's side.
"Halt!" one of the cops yelled. "Hands away from your body! Turn around! Slowly!"
Both cops were out of their car, one behind the passenger door, the other behind the car, both with their revolvers leveled on me. I stood very, very still, even though adrenaline revved through my veins. After one cop patted me down and searched the car while the other cop kept me targeted, they ticketed me for driving a vehicle without current registration.
"Don't ever get out of your car like that," the cop told me when he handed me my copy of the ticket. "You could have grabbed a gun from the glove compartment and come out shooting. You're just lucky we didn't drop you."
One of the most incisive working class revolutionary memoirs I've read is Michael "Bommi" Baumann's Wie Alles Anfing/How it all Began. Baumann was a West German urban guerrilla during the 1970's, and he had some interesting things to say about guns. Describing how it felt to rob a bank he writes: "First of all, you feel insanely secure, it's logical because you have this weapon. Of course, it's horrible, a little pistol like that, a weapon, it has its own dynamics. You just feel insanely secure because you have a thing like that in your hand." Later, in a more reflective mood, he comments: "It's crazy what you do, always running around with a gun. A man who runs around with a gun anchors his center on the weapon—where you carry it, that's your center, you move so that you can always pull it out any time, anywhere. Today, I can tell with anyone if he's got a gun on him, and where he has it, because you can see how he moves."
I've played my share of war games, not fanatically but I have dabbled in everything from chess to paintball. Chess is still the clearest game to teach the difference between tactics and strategy and how to think strategically. Yet taking out pawns doesn't even hint at the physicality of the military conflict chess symbolizes. By contrast a game like paintball is far too artificial to teach much "military science." Teams are usually thrown together from the yahoos who show up, there's no team structure—hierarchical or cellular—let alone team decision-making, the fields of action are restricted and each game is severely limited in time, the goals such as capturing the flag are stupid, everybody has way too much ammunition, you can cheat by wiping off the paint or not reporting a hit, and you know you can't die so you do far riskier things than you would if you were really under fire. Still and all, crawling and sweating through hot, dusty, scratchy brush and jumping up to surprise someone of the opposite team, only to get plugged 27 times from every direction in an ambush gives your average believer in revolutionary violence some interesting second thoughts.
As folks who follow this column know I'm not against good ol' mass working class violence. But I've always had mixed feelings about guns. On the one hand, guns are a fact of life in this country, and I do know how to use them. I certainly don't want the police and the military to be the only ones who can legally possess guns. On the other hand I think that using a gun is pretty stupid, even for "self defense" let alone for "making the revolution." Guns are rarely used against the state in this country; we're most likely to use 'em against each other. Finally, guns really do have their own dynamic which changes not only personal psychology, but also the wider social context.
Let's imagine a society boiling over with popular unrest. Broadbased social movements fill the streets with protestors, workers' strike business and industry, and riots rock campuses and urban areas. This scenario describes a revolutionary situation, the assertion of social power at the base. If the powers-that-be cannot repress or coopt this situation, but instead demonstrate important divisions or weaknesses, this volatile mass social power might just kick it all over with an actual social revolution. The very uncertainty of this chain of events however has prompted a number of revolutionary tendencies to advocate some type of armed struggle in order to guarantee or force the revolution.
Armed struggle in a widely dispersed rural population can actually help to create social power, as Makhno (Ukraine, 1918-21) and Mao (Yan'an, 1935-1946) showed. But in societies that are mainly urban, armed struggle acts to polarize society and decimate any broader social struggle between the power of the state and the terror of the armed struggle group. Baumann's book mentioned above describes how a broad political and countercultural rebellion among West German youth during the late 1960's and early '70's was pushed into ever more violent action when the Red Army Fraction inappropriately "took up the gun." Somewhat earlier Weatherman emerged in the United States from the shambles of SDS with an implicit strategy of forcing violent confrontations with the police and the state in order to bring down the power of both upon the whole movement so as to radicalize their fellow New Leftists. Poor and working class movements in Peru's cities have to contend not only with the authoritarian Fujimori regime, a brutal military and rightwing death squads, but also with the assassinations and violent thuggery of the Peruvian Communist Party, also known as the Sendero Luminoso/Shining Path. The IRA in northern Ireland often acts as a similar "political mafia" within the broader Catholic social struggle. The intent of armed struggle groups to either radicalize a wider social movement or to force the state to become more repressive in order to reveal its true nature frequently narrows the options for social struggle between the false dichotomy of "taking up the gun" or acquiescing to the violence unleashed by the state against the movement as a whole. If the state is toppled under such conditions it is not by genuine social revolution from the base but invariably by the highly militarized armed struggle organization substituting for a mass uprising.
Occasionally revolutionary situations based upon mass social power do advance all on their own to full-scale honest-to-Marx social revolutions. And there's no doubt about it that a social revolution often involves large parts of the population taking up arms or seizing arms in a popular uprising that rather quickly overthrows the powers-that-be. Most such social revolutions are actually not that violent or bloody, but they often generate a new problem involving guns. Unless the revolution is virtually universal (as in Hungary in 1956 or Cuba in 1958-9) the social revolution is quickly overwhelmed by civil war as the deposed ruling class mounts its counter-revolution.
Thus the historical regularity with which ebullient social revolution becomes bloody civil war raises what's known on the Left as the "military question." When social revolution gives way to civil war, social dialectics give way to military tactics and strategy. Needless to say, bullets are not subject to dialects. Being a socialist does not make one immune to bullets or guarantee military victory, any more than being a fascist makes one a magnet for them and insure military defeat. Lenin himself barely survived an assassination attempt and believe me it wasn't his correct proletarian ideology that made the difference. The accused assassin, Fanny Kaplan was just a bad shot. In 1919 when Smirnov's "Military Opposition" criticized Trotsky's methods in creating the Red Army—special forms of address and salutation, special living quarters and other privileges for officers, severe traditional military discipline, retention of Tsarist officers as military specialists—Trotsky harshly dismissed the idea of "proletarian military strategy" and vigorously insisted that military matters must not be subject to politics. Trotsky ruthlessly suppressed a couple dozen soldiers' mutinies in the Red Army during the civil war, culminating with Kronstadt, in order to maintain military discipline and protect Bolshevik rule. Nor is it clear that the anarchist experience, from Makhno's armies to the Spanish anarchist militias, has answered the "military question" in any more qualitative, liberatory a way.
Taking up the gun makes military action preeminent over social action. Social revolution gets displaced by "military science." Again unlike people, bullets aren't subject to social dialectics. As I said I have very mixed feelings about guns. In a mode very uncharacteristic of "Lefty" Hooligan however, I'll admit I don't have an answer to the "military question."
All I got now is...
...ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS...
INDEPENDENT MEXICAN LABOR is on the move according to Labor Notes
#233 (8.5x11, 16 pgs., newsprint; $20/1 year sub-12 issues; published by
Labor Education & Research Project, 7435 Michigan Ave., Detroit, MI
48210). Delegates from 132 unions formed an independent labor federation,
the National Union of Workers (UNT), covering some 1.5 million workers
on August 22-23. The UNT is up against both the PRI-dominated Confederation
of Mexican Workers (CTM) and the state-affiliated Congress of Labor (CT).
Another independent labor federation and a member of the UNT, the Authentic
Labor Front (FAT) represents only some 50,000 workers, yet its Metal, Steel
and Allied Workers Union ousted a company-dominated union in a Tijuana
maquiladora factory by vote on October 6 according to the 10-8-97 SF Chronicle.
Another version of this story is provided by the 10-7-97 SD Union-Tribune
under the headline "Workers rebel at maquiladora." The state's labor board
has overturned the independent union's election as of 11-14-97 (11-15-97,
SF Chronicle) in the apparent hardening of the government's attitude toward
independent labor as well as in violation of NAFTA. Karl Koons submitted
the latter piece and writes: "We'll see a strange rash of 'accidents' start
to happen soon..."
CONTRADICTIONS? Many columns ago I criticized Love & Rage for their tacit acceptance of the idea of developmental stages as I declared Marx's theory of historical stages and human progress highly suspect. Yet two columns ago, I seemed to endorse Marx's stage theory by promoting social revolution as the mechanism through which society moves from one mode of production to another. No contradiction, because I don't see this as a linear process. Marx grasped how things worked within a particular mode of production —the interaction of forces of production with relations of production—but once the former has outstripped the latter and social revolution is imminent there's no historical necessity that society must "advance" to the mode of production "next in line." Not only do I think that you can skip Marxist stages, I think that any pre-capitalist mode of production (barbarism, savagery, feudalism) can go directly to communism via social revolution. I also think that society can go backwards in the Marxist scheme of things. Many an SF story has as its setting a humanity reduced to primitive conditions through atomic war, a war that might come about with international social revolution. Even as you read this, Afghanistan's Taliban has largely succeeded in erasing that country's "socialist" past with a return to feudal theocracy after prolonged war, guerrilla war and civil war. Just one more thing to think about when considering the "military question...."
PERSONAL PROPAGANDA... I can be contacted at email@example.com. My book, End Time, can be purchased from AK Press (POB 40682, SF, CA 94140-0682) for $10. Keep sending me your newsworthy items and interesting news clippings c/o MRR.