On The Faults of ‘Revolutionary Pacifism’ and the Weapons Question
By Adam Powell
“Pacifism, the preaching of peace in the abstract, is one of the means of duping the working class.”
The Weapons Question – most simplistically summed up as the disagreement over whether or not the possession, maintenance, and practical use of firearms is a legitimate strategy for preparedness and agitation – has divided the radical left for years immemorial and continues to leave its stain even today. Even within the Socialist Party (SP), only a corner of the revolutionary map in this country, the question divides comrades as sharply as any other topic and causes divisions which, if not resolved properly, will inevitably cause splits within the party that will never be mended.
Within this question even rests controversy on whether or not the use of “violence” in any form – against brutal state police forces; against bourgeois property; against fascist and neo-Nazi sympathizers – is an acceptable tool to be pulled from the revolutionary toolkit. This “violence” often doesn’t even require the use of traditional weapons, or any weapon at all, but we will consider it as part of the Weapons Question in this context – because the use of unconventional “violence” is just as widely condemned by those within the modern revolutionary fray as the practical use of firearms, and much for the same reasons, it has to be considered little more than the opposite side of the same coin.
To be sure, pacifism – specifically the belief that the results of non-violent means of resistance are equal to or greater than their more militant counter – is the prevailing sentiment within the SP, not only as a matter of majority support for the policy but as a matter of officially stated beliefs. In fact, it is codified in our Statement of Principles in the following manner:
“We recognize the right of self-defense in the face of attacks; we also support non-violent direct action in combating oppression…Our tactics in the struggle for radical democratic change reflect our ultimate goal of a society founded on principles of egalitarian, non-exploitative and non-violent relations among all people and between all peoples.”
Thus, one can hardly allege that our organization promotes violence of any kind or puts much stock in the viability of “violence” as a means of pushing for or achieving a socialist revolution. And, as previously stated, this policy isn’t only used as a way of pushing back against more militant elements within the party but celebrated by those within who see no need for the use or ownership of firearms. In fact, there are those within the party who fear state reprisals if we even discuss the notion of owning and learning to use firearms in an organized fashion – fear of repression and censorship; fear of retaliation and harassment … fear. And, despite the fact that their policy of non-violence is enshrined in party doctrine, that it must be agreed upon as a basis for membership in this organization, these revolutionary pacifists feel they are attacked and looked down upon by the minority of comrades which make up the more militant contingent of the organization. The fact that more militant voices are stifled within our party’s official publication, their ideas widely slandered, belittled and demeaned by the majority of comrades, makes the assertion of these pacifist victims even more humorous to those who have actually had their revolutionary militancy disregarded as unrealistic adventurism.
I am but one such comrade – on multiple occasions, both before and after joining the democratically-run Editorial Board, my literary work has been censored or wholly rejected on the grounds that it “promotes violence;” in my capacity as Executive Editor, I have been forced to remove a comrade’s article from our publication’s webpage for the same reasons. And, to be fair, it is neither the whole of the Editorial Board that is to blame for this and, in fact, it was my decision to both delete my comrade’s article and withdraw my own from further consideration – I opted to do so rather than dilute the message in my comrade’s piece or remove the most inflammatory sentences from my own. This stubbornness likely makes me difficult to work with – both as a member of the Editorial Board, the National Committee, and my own local chapter – but my hardline convictions often leave little room for compromise within my own mind. This is not an indictment of those pacifist comrades now serving on the Editorial Board – their decisions are made with the best interests of the party and the guiding light of its Principles and Platforms at heart – but an indictment of a multi-tendency organization, which claims to recognize no official doctrine, that has allowed the single ideology of pacifism to take control of its ideas, actions, and strategies and is slowly and diligently pushing the more militant elements of our party into the arms of other organizations.
In the 1840’s, long before his and Engels’ masterpiece The Communist Manifesto was even considered, Karl Marx was writing for the radical newspaper Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. His articles often took on hot-button issues of the time, and Marx grew increasingly frustrated with his colleagues’ queasiness over promoting more militant methods of addressing the crushing poverty and inequality of the day. After the newspaper was banned and its editors and contributors jailed for a time, Marx was more convinced than ever that the harmony so heartily subscribed to by his earlier colleagues, and indeed many later ones which he would brusquely and brutally chastise into oblivion, was an idealist’s construct and that no revolution could happen without militant action on the part of the dispossessed. That this idea would become the cornerstone of The Communist League and the manuscript which guided its actions, a manuscript whose ideas inspire and guide revolutionaries all over the world even today, should come as no surprise to those who’ve studied Marx’s work and the work of those he inspired. Most frequently pointed to in regard to Marx’s belief that militant action was necessary on the part of the oppressed is the following quote:
“Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.”
But Marx was by no means the only socialist theorist to harp on this fundamental requirement for revolutionary preparedness: our own Eugene V. Debs held much the same opinion. In September 1914, Debs penned an article entitled “The Gunmen and The Miners” for the International Socialist Review. In it, Debs not only reinforces his belief in the necessity of the working class to own weapons and undergo training in order to be prepared to properly use those weapons, but calls on the United Mine Workers and the Western Federation of Miners to create a fund which would pay for a rifle to be placed in the hand of every miner and Gatling and machine guns to be installed in every district. In this article, Debs said the following:
“Recollect that in arming yourselves, which you are bound to do unless you are willing to be forced into abject slavery, you are safely within the spirit and letter of the law.”
But, such concentration on the words and ideas of earlier thinkers is precisely one of the arguments made by pacifists in order to substantiate their non-violent approach to battling forces which legitimately seek our elimination – either through direct methods, as employed by Nazis and fascists, or by subversive tactics, as employed by capitalists and imperialists across the globe. We live in different times and conditions, they cry; a call to militant preparedness is a call for state repression, they wail; what worked in Russia, Cuba, China, Vietnam, Venezuela, and countless other nations cannot work here, they shout. And, to be sure, they are not wrong – the conditions of the modern United States are like nothing before ever seen and the revolutionary tactics of the past cannot work ‘here and now’ as they did ‘then and there.’ Likewise, the modern car has changed dramatically since its first inception in 1796, much like the modern airplane or water vessels, yet wrenches and hammers are still effective tools in repairing a broken engine, just as they were in repairing its primitive ancestor. To believe that electoral action and peaceful demonstrations (“non-violent direct action” as it is often referred to by its proponents) alone will overturn the entrenched capitalist powers keeping us all under heel is to believe that the lessons of the past have no bearing on the future. If electoral action and peaceful demonstrations were enough, then we would have already realized the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who employed these tactics masterfully during the Civil Rights movement – yet here we are, more than half a century later, and racial inequality and injustice continue to plague our society. To subscribe to the tenets of pacifism, and advocate that the enemies of injustice and oppression remove from their revolutionary toolboxes the hammer of militant agitation, is to ask one’s comrades to do the same job without all of the needed equipment. Indeed, pacifism is the politics of privilege.
However, the assertion that militant agitation has out-lived its viability is but one talking point turned to by the advocates of pacifism. Almost as commonly heard, yet more cowardly and unfounded, is the fear that if we advocate for members of the revolutionary left to learn the skills of militant preparedness, then we are opening ourselves up to persecution from government agencies – persecution which, depending on the voice making the claim, ranges from harassment in the home to a lifetime of imprisonment. In my opinion, this argument is weak on a number of grounds, not the least of which is the fact that our right to organize and train as militias, just like our right to say anything we’d like in the pages of the press, is protected by the highest document in the land. If it is legal to own a weapon and take courses to learn to properly use that weapon; if it is legal to organize gun clubs alongside fellow gun owners; if it is legal for those clubs to train together, to learn the skills of basic combat preparedness; if it is legal for us to openly carry those weapons in public or receive a permit allowing us to carry that weapon under concealment – what fear have we that legal recourse can be taken against our party or its members? In fact, somewhat contradictory to earlier statements, the SP’s 2018 – 2019 platform says the following:
“We recognize and support the right of the working class to own and bear arms. We support community-based public training for gun owners.”
And certainly, I am not naive enough to believe that the system we oppose will uphold our rights as citizens beneath its banner or think twice before unjustly imprisoning those within our ranks. However, there is little gray area in this regard – if we conduct ourselves in the above manner, within the letter of the law, the state has no leg to stand on should they decide to unjustly prosecute one of our comrades.
The legal argument aside, other comrades like to use neoliberal talking points in order to combat the advocacy of militant methods of agitation, opining that “American gun culture” benefits only white males and the system of imperialism we purport to oppose. That toxic masculinity has in large part contributed to the firearm fanaticism in this country cannot be denied, nor can the assertion that those same firearms are used by agents of imperialism to oppress disenfranchised and exploited communities be denied, but to assert that the two are one in the same is to perform mental gymnastics which my mind has not the flexibility to endeavor upon. If such an assertion had any basis in reality, then surely it could be extended to all facets of American life and would thereby preclude that, because the enemy has these tools in its possession and uses them against the populace, we should avoid using any of these tools or tactics. Quite to the contrary, it is specifically because weapons are by and large in the hands of the state and used for our oppression that one should endeavor to own one and learn inside and out the most effective ways for utilizing it. Pacifism in the face of state violence is surrender and, above all else, comrades within the revolutionary movement should avoid surrender at all costs. Though George Orwell, famed author of Homage to Catalonia, which detailed his time fighting alongside communists during the Spanish war against Franco, is a controversial figure among many socialists, he made the following evaluation which still holds true:
“That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or the working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.”
Above the theoretical assertion that militant action is no longer a viable method of system change, or the worry that a militant stance in words will attract state harassment, or that owning and using firearms within the limit of the law will result in government persecution, or that weapons are strictly tools of the oppressor, the most common reason for comrades’ unwillingness to take up the banner of militant action – either in word or deed – is simple faintheartedness. I often turn to the words of the historic abolitionist Frederick Douglass when confronted with the protestations of these revolutionary pacifists:
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…”
The belief that we can make revolution – defined in the dictionary as “an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed; a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence” – without learning to use the tools made to build that revolution is the radical idea that one can build a home without wooden beams or bricks; to believe that those in power will simply fade into oblivion if we only properly utilize the ballot box and peaceful demonstration is to believe that those who hold the keys to the world’s gold reserves will simply hand them over if we ask politely enough. Pacifism does not beget revolution and those who advocate for it, in any form, are not advocating for revolution but evolution – pacifism believes that we can slowly and incrementally make changes to a system designed for and hellbent on our destruction and, that through those changes over time, the entire system will eventually be overturned and made into something new. If the belief in militant action is unrealistic adventurism, then surely the pacifist ideal can only be described as utopian idealism – no revolution of any sort has ever been made and sustained by peaceful voices and political elections, and none ever will be.
I have before laid out what I believe to be the methods by which we might effectively utilize firearms, militancy, and “violence,” but those ideas can only be shared in vague sentences or hushed conversations for fear that the revolutionary pacifists might take offense. Let us hope that, should the persecution they so deeply fear come – despite our forced subscription to the ideals of pacifism and our official abandonment of militant preparedness – these revolutionary pacifists will be able to vote or peacefully demonstrate our opponents out of existence and peacefully lead us into capitalism’s collapse and socialism’s dawning. Otherwise, we will have laid down our arms and our lives in vain and surrendered our movement to those prepared to do what’s necessary to survive and thrive in the face of a violent enemy determined to eliminate us and our cause.