Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 31, 2017

Don’t take your guns to town

Filed under: Fascism,ultraleftism — louisproyect @ 6:35 pm

After writing a CounterPunch article last Friday on the black bloc and Richard Spencer getting suckered punched, I thought I had said everything that needed to be said about counterproductive ultraleft tactics but an article by Eric Ruder in the ISO newspaper convinced me otherwise.

Titled “How we made Montana Nazis back down”, Ruder explains how the left organized against a January 17th march in honor of James Earl Ray, the racist who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., that was to be held in Whitefish, Montana where Richard Spencer lives part-time and that was a project of Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the openly neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website.

The neo-Nazis called off their march for a variety of reasons but primarily because they realized that there was massive opposition in rural Montana and particularly within the town of Whitefish itself that despite its “red state” aura had been mobilizing against such groups for a long time.

I urge you to read Ruder’s entire article but want to call attention to something I found pretty disturbing:

Montana is an open-carry state. Consequently, when antifascist forces started talking about armed direct action, it created a real sense of panic. As I repeatedly explained to them in long-distance midnight calls, these antifascists had not laid any groundwork in introducing, much less, explaining themselves or their tactics. I could easily envision a confrontation between armed Nazis on one side and armed non-local anarchists on the other. Obviously, that would have been an unbelievable disaster in every respect.

The last time there was a confrontation between armed leftists and armed ultrarightists in the USA, the results were an “unbelievable disaster”. I am very glad that Eric and the ISO were on the spot to defend a mass action perspective and persuade the anarchist comrades to avoid such tactics.

In fact, it was not anarchists that came out on the losing end of a past confrontation. The victims were self-described Marxists of the Communist Workers Party—a Maoist sect that was founded in 1973 as the Asian Study Group by Jerry Tung, a former member of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). When I was a member of CISPES in the early 80s, I worked alongside an African-American CWPer named Ron Ashford who frankly admitted that they had made a terrible mistake by bring guns to an anti-Klan rally in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979.

Another Maoist group named the Amilcar Cabral/Paul Robeson Collective that I know nothing about wrote an analysis of what went wrong that I urge you to read on the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line  (ie. Maoist) section of the Marxism Internet Archives.

On November 3, 1979 members of the Workers Viewpoint Organization, the name of the group at the time, had gathered near a predominantly Black housing project for a “Death to the Klan” rally. At 11:20 a caravan of cars and trucks filled with Klan members came driving by slowly. As the vehicles passed by, CWP members began beating them with sticks obviously spoiling for a fight. The Amilcar Cabral/Paul Robeson article described what happened next:

Meanwhile the Klansmen and Nazis pile out of their cars; some of them wave handguns in the air and then begin shooting into the milling crowd of demonstrators. Other Klansmen get rifles and shotguns from the van and the trunk of a car and begin firing into the crowd. A few WVO members have small handguns. While the onlookers, press and some WVO members have taken cover by this time, a number of WVO members make no attempt to take cover even though they are heavily outgunned. The Klan is able to fire repeatedly into this group of WVO members with high powered rifles and shotguns at distances of several yards or less.

Four CWP members died that day, and another a few days later. Others were wounded. Meanwhile, the police arrested two CWP’ers for inciting to riot and interfering with the police.

The CWP chose tactics just as inappropriate to the struggle in the period leading up to this disaster. On July 8th, the Klan, which was trying to build up a following in this part of North Carolina after the fashion of the alt-right in Whitefish, was showing the pro-KKK film “Birth of a Nation” in China Grove, a town not far from Greensboro. The Maoists launched a surprise attack on the screening and sent the Klan scattering. Afterwards, the CWP’ers returned triumphantly to their cars, got their guns, and marched up and down the streets of the small town.

Bob Avakian’s RCP cult-sect was operating in the area as well, competing with Tung’s group for who could come up with more adventurist tactics. When four of their members showed up to confront 50 or more KKK’ers at a library exhibit about the Klan in nearby Winston-Salem, the cops narrowly prevented another massacre. The people who went on to form the Cabral/Robeson collective had been in the RCP at the time. The library confrontation made them decide to leave the group after witnessing “the utter degeneration of the RCP into a band of ultra-left idiots”, something that led them to decide that “the struggle we had been waging to correct its line from the inside for almost a year was hopeless.”

In March, 1979 the CWP began building a “Death to the Klan” conference in Greensboro by passing out this leaflet. Get their proclamation about being opposed to both non-violence and racism, as if the two were equally evil? Sheer madness:

We are against Non-Violence and Racism and for Armed Self-Defense. We should beat the hell out of the Klan wherever we find them! These Dogs have no right to exist! The Klan has no support among the people, only hatred and disgust. In China Grove, the People, helped by the Workers Viewpoint Organization, drove the scum Klansmen into a building and burned their Confederate Flag before their eyes.

Summing up the Greensboro massacre, the Cabral/Robeson Collective wrote words that should be uppermost in the mind of anybody foolish enough to consider emulating the November 3rd disaster:

November 3rd and the sequence of events leading up to it was an exercise in “left” adventurist suicide. Entranced by their fantasies of themselves as revolutionary heroes, the WVO engaged in a wild escapade that was just as successful in achieving their own murders as if they had set out with that purpose in mind. In fact, many people in the Black community as well as the press have raised the possibility that the WVO leadership did have in mind achieving the murder of some of their members either in order to gain publicity or because some of the leaders were police agents.

While I am the last person to urge following Lenin’s party in a dogmatic fashion, it is useful to consider how they dealt with the Black Hundreds, which arguably was the very first fascist organization of the 20th century. This Czarist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and clerical party was very much in the mold of Italian and German fascism even if it made no effort to adopt “national socialist” rhetoric. They had a militia called the Yellow Shirts that anticipated the Brown and Black shirts of Italy and Germany.

It should be noted, by the way, that the Black Hundreds were vehemently anti-Ukrainian and were just as prone to breaking up meetings of Ukrainian cultural associations as in organizing pogroms against the Jews. It is no coincidence that a newly formed Black Hundreds group exists in Eastern Ukraine, holding rallies that denounce Jews and call for the reestablishment of the Czarist Empire.

Is there any indication that the Russian Social Democracy, either the Bolshevik or Menshevik factions, ever formed militias to take on the Yellow Shirts in the way that the CWP took on the KKK? I invite you to check the Marxist Internet Archives, where you will find nearly zero evidence of that. The Russian Social Democracy fought the Black Hundreds politically in the same way that the good people of Whitefish, Montana took on the alt-right except when the objective conditions had ripened to the point of open revolutionary struggle. In 1905, which was a dress rehearsal for 1917, the socialists of Borisoglebsk circulated a leaflet that stated it was: “starting a subscription for the organisation of armed self-defence, and invites all those whose sympathies do not lie with the government and the Black Hundreds to help in the organisation of self-defence groups with money and arms.”

Of course, those who are operating under the illusion that 2017 USA is similar to Russia in 1905 might try the same approach. However, if you can’t tell the difference between the first month and the ninth month of a pregnancy, you are likely to end up with an abortion.

Speaking of yellow, black and brown shirts, we had a group in the USA during the 1930s that was called the Silver Shirts in homage to the fascist groups that preceded it.

In chapter eleven of “Teamster Politics”, SWP leader Farrell Dobbs recounts “How the Silver Shirts Lost Their Shrine in Minneapolis”. It is the story of how the Trotskyist-led Local 544 of the Teamsters union defended itself successfully from a fascist expedition into the city. Elements of the Twin Cities ruling-class, alarmed over the growth of industrial unionism in the city, called in Silver Shirt organizer Roy Zachary. Zachary hosted two closed door meetings on July 29 and August 2 of 1938. Teamster “moles” discovered that Zachary intended to launch a vigilante attack against Local 544 headquarters. They also discovered that Zachary planned to work with one F.L. Taylor to set up an “Associated Council of Independent Unions”, a union-busting operation. Taylor had ties to a vigilante outfit called the “Minnesota Minute Men”.

Local 544 took serious measures to defend itself. It formed a union defense guard in August 1938 open to any active union member. Many of the people who joined had military experience, including Ray Rainbolt the elected commander of the guard. Rank-and-filers were former sharpshooters, machine gunners and tank operators in the US Army. The guard also included one former German officer with WWI experience. While the guard itself did not purchase arms except for target practice, nearly every member had hunting rifles at home that they could use in the circumstance of a Silver Shirt attack.

Events reached a climax when Pelley came to speak at a rally in the wealthy section of Minneapolis.

Ray Rainbolt organized a large contingent of defense guard members to pay a visit to Calhoun Hall where Pelley was to make his appearance. The powerful sight of disciplined but determined unionists persuaded the audience to go home and Pelley to cancel his speech.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the defense guard members had left their guns at home.


  1. Louis, this is a more complicated issue I believe than you make it out to be. It was an excellent essay, let me say. And generally I agree with you. If one says “Kill the Klan” one had better be able to do it or shut the fuck up.

    The Bolsheviks, for much of their existence, did have militias, especially during the 1906 through 1912 period. You won’t find this in *Lenin’s* writings but you will on histories of the Bolshevik Party. Moreover, the social-democratic organizations DID in fact organize armed self-defense against the Black Hundreds. If turn to another section of the MIA, on titled “Jews and the Worker’s Movement” at https://www.marxists.org/subject/jewish/index.htm you will see a photo on top of the page of a Jewish Socialist Bund militia in Odessa organized to defend the Jewish community there against the Black Hundreds. In fact, this occurred all over the Pale of Settlement and, especially, in Poland. Of course it this was *combined* with the political views articulated by someone like Lenin who represented most social-democratic thought on the question.

    I think another aspect of any armed self defense, such as the example you used with Local 544, the Trotskyist lead Teamsters local, is that these actions, like the previous ones in Russia, had an *imprimatur* of the community they were defending. It was not an outside group coming in, as the Maoists did, totally alien to the community who they claimed, likely sincerely, they were “defending”.

    I think your essay timely for another reason. Having written informally, but extensively, on *how* arm and under what conditions, I’ve been contact by a number of young leftists over this question. With the rise of Trumpism, many leftists have gone out and armed, at least individually. Most socialists I actually personally know already owned guns in any event. But this came to noticeable head when a group of aspiring young Maoists in Austin showed up at an anti-Trump rally prior to the election armed with a variety of assault rifles and wearing red-neckerchief hammer and sickle bandanas. Texas, like Montana, is an open carry state so you can walk around with an AK-47 if the mood grabs you to do so. This group, called the “Austin Red Guard” is part of a spate of youthful new Maoists collectives springing up around the US. I won’t even get into what I consider their fanciful ideology of “Prolonged People’s War”.

    Anyway…the four “Red Guards” with weapons totally inappropriate to defend a picket line…were confronting a dozen or more and obviously better trained right-wing racist militia members, with uniform rifles, with a whole lot more discipline. I hate to think what would of happened had a car backfired and they started shooting anything that moved.

    I’m for armed self defense when it’s appropriate *politically* and when it’s practical after weeks of training and understanding that if you carry a gun, you’d better be able to pull the trigger and do so without hesitation in a manner that is totally and unquestionably justified.

    Comment by David Walters — January 31, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

  2. Your sstory about what happened in Minneapolis in 1938 is missing something. You talk about some guy named Pelly but I went back and re read that part of the story several times and I did not see any where were he had been introduced and his role in the stoory given.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — January 31, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

  3. I just read this article, and I have to say, I find your depiction of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre to be factually inaccurate and in some ways, offensive.

    To begin with, your account of the Massacre — which is based on a contemporary article written by a Maoist group that undoubtedly saw the CWP as *competition* — portrays this incident as being an *armed conflict* between the Klan/Nazis and the CWP. As you put it, the Massacre was “a confrontation between armed leftists and armed ultrarightists.” In reality, the Massacre was not a “confrontation” — it was, in fact, a *massacre*. Specifically, the Greensboro Massacre took the form of a pre-planned ambush against the CWP carried out by members of the Klan and Nazis, who were acting in collusion with both local and federal law enforcement agencies. What’s more, historical evidence suggests that, in carrying out the Massacre, the Klan/Nazis intentionally targeted and assassinated leading members of the CWP, most of whom were prominent, well-respected activists in the local labor and Black liberation movement. (For one thing, one of the Massacre victims was the president of an ACTWU union local at a Cone Mills textile plant in Haw River, NC.)

    Connected to this, the article falsely depicts the CWP protest that was targeted by the Klan/Nazis as being an *armed protest*, supposedly in the same vein as the type of demonstration that various anarchists had hoped to stage in Whitefish, Montana on January 17 of this year. In reality, at the CWP’s 1979 protest, members of the CWP were overwhelmingly unarmed. As multiple memoirs by Massacre survivors have since detailed, the CWP actually made a decision not to attend the protest with openly-displayed weapons as they believed that doing so would put them at risk of being targeted by police. Only a few members of the group actually brought guns to the protest, and these were small, concealed pistols.

    Finally, and most egregiously, your article neglects to mention the fact that the Greensboro Massacre was, as I mentioned above, actually carried out in collusion with (or, at very least, tacitly aided and abetted by) local and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Greensboro Police Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. (The Greensboro Police Department had a paid informant, Klansman Eddie Dawson, in the Klan/Nazi contingent that carried out the Massacre. Notably, as substantial court testimony and other historical evidence has indicated, Dawson played a central, pivotal role in organizing the Massacre.) In 2005, the high-profile Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an independent investigative group that conducted hearings on the 1979 Massacre, provided the following assessment of the Greensboro Police Department’s culpability for the Massacre:

    “Since intelligence from multiple sources indicated that violence was likely, police clearly were negligent because they took no action to prevent it. However, nearly all commissioners further believe that the totality of evidence reasonably suggests to the layperson that mere negligence alone is not an adequate explanation. No evidence has been found that indicates there was any conspiracy between the police or between the police and the Klan/Nazis to kill the demonstrators. However, the knowledge and subsequent deliberate actions (and failures to act) on the part of key police officers directly contributed to the violence that the police knew was reasonably foreseeable. Even though no legal basis for law enforcement involvement in a conspiracy was found in the trials, the majority of commissioners believe there was intentionality among some in the department to fail to provide adequate information or to take steps to adequately protect the marchers.”


    Click to access exec_summary.pdf

    For what it’s worth, one of the reason why I think it’s so important to emphasize these facts is that — in North Carolina, where I live and work — the historical memory of the Greensboro Massacre is a very contentious, political issue. It took decades of struggle for the survivors of the Massacre, their families, supporters, and the local Left, to force the City of Greensboro to acknowledge the fact that the Massacre was, in fact, a “massacre,” and not a “shootout” as the bourgeois press falsely depicted the incident at the time of its occurrence.


    Comment by Ben — February 1, 2017 @ 6:26 am

  4. Here is what I think that you left out. At least I did not find it anywhere. But then I often have to ask for help in finding things in the grocery story because I walk past it what ever it is that I am looking for 5 or 6 times and do not see it until someone points it out to me. The omission is that Roy Pelly was the founder of the Silver Shirts which he founded in 1933. Your Welcome

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 1, 2017 @ 10:53 am

  5. Ben, whatever else you want to say about this incident, unless you understand that the CWP’s rally was an ultraleft adventure, then you just don’t get the main purpose of my article.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 1, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

  6. You’re doing a great service with these articles, Lou. Many young activists these days are unfamiliar with this history.

    Comment by John B. — February 1, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

  7. It’s a good thing your audience is so small — you could do a lot of damage with your shoddy reporting.

    Comment by Max Power — February 3, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

  8. Max, what are you saying? That the CWP was not carrying out an ultraleft adventure? Yes, I understand that classical Marxism is only upheld by a small minority on the left but that’s what you’d expect from a blog titled the Unrepentant Marxist. If you want something more geared to your politics, you might try Global Research or Moon of Alabama. I confess, however, that I have no clue what your politics are.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 3, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

  9. You reveal your new york city viewpoint and lifestyle with this. Workers are for the most part armed in the United States, most especially the 50% who don’t live in NYC, Chicago, DC, Philly or Los Angeles. Absolutely in Montana of all places!

    We don’t rely on the government to protect us because we know better. And the black and other minority among us have an even better reason to be armed, against both klan and government terror!

    Some of you guys are so isolated in your enclaves that it’s like we ain’t even in the same country. This is a reason Trump won the working class vote outside of the coasts.

    Just because you gave up your most important democratic right doesn’t mean we will follow in giving up ours. You’ll take our arms from our cold dead hands, and the fact that the right wing NRA knows this while you don’t is a big part of the problem today.

    By the way, Marx, Engels and Lenin were 100% for the workers to have and bear arms. You can find it in the minutes of the first, second and third internationals (until Stalin).

    Comment by George Klingman — February 6, 2017 @ 10:52 am

  10. Dear George,
    I do not favor a disarmed citizenry. But those people that think that people in Montana or Alabama or anywhere else for that matter are goint to be able to protect themselves from the goverment because they have M16s and M14s then they are complete fools. What happens when “the people” run out of ammunition? What good will their guns be to them then? What happens when “the people” suffer casualties? Whose hospital will they go to?
    When it comes down to it the chances that you guns are protecting you at all are really very very small. What are the chances that if you live in Missoula or Mobil that you will be attacked by a moutain lion or a grizzily bear? What are the chances that you will be at the scene of a mass shooting when it takes place?
    When the constitution was signed a well trained American, if he owned a gun, could fire 6 shots per minute. Unless he had happened to serve in the Prussian Army before immigrating to the US then 9 shots per minute would have been possible. Therefore I have to ask the question why would any well trained citizen need more? To put it in modern terms, why would any citizen need more than a breach loading double barrel shotgun or rifle or pistol for self defense or even hunting purposes?
    Ordinary criminals are interested in making money not taking even a small risk of getting shot. Furthermore if the criminal is far enough away that a citizen might miss his target, then the citizen is far enough away that he can run. Lets say that you end up at the scene of a mass shooting. Then other than the shooter 10 people start pulling out modern guns, like AKs and Uzis and M16s. How do you know who is just trying to stop the shooter and who is trying to help the shooter? So think about this, if good citizens have guns that can only fire two shots before reloading then it would be easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
    If there is only one shooter why should a citizen need more than two shots? Perhaps the citizen has very bad vision. Well should blind people be licenced to fire a weapon?
    Yes there are some rare exceptions. There are some people, other than that police, that have a legitimate reason to have a fire arm with a capacity to fire more than two rounds before reloadiing. It would be reasonable to let the local sherrifs office decide who these exceptions are.
    I can understand that some African Americans might think differently about being limited to weapons that can only fire fwo shots before reloading. Well I would agree completely if the KKK is running around with M16s. But if two shot weapons are what the members of the KKK have I think that even the Black Panthers should be willing to accept such a limitation as well.
    One thing that the right wingers do not understand is that in the not to distant future if the government does not want them to have firearms the government will be able to take the firearms from their cold dead fingers at no risk what so ever. The government would simply order its army of robocops to go out and confiscate all guns. With 100% information(al) awareness these robo cops will know exactly where to go. These robo cops will have been produced by the very people that they are killing to take the guns from because getting a job at a robo cop factory will be the only job left in the USA that they are qualified to do that will give them a livable food ration.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 6, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

  11. Wanting to avoid getting into the nitty gritty…Curt…you haven’t stated a singe reason above not to own a gun that can fire more than “two rounds” without reloading (they don’t actually make rifles like that…it’s either single shot of 5 round magazines. Just say’n…). So more nitty-gritty not completely relevant to Louis’ post:

    Most KKKs DO in FACT run around with “M-16s”. They are for sake of accuracy, not M-16s but AR-15s, the civilian version, the difference being ‘select fire’ capability on the M-16 (and most of these are called “M-4s” or the shorter variety, known as a SBR). The ‘select fire’ gives the owner of the M-16 the ability to fire on fully automatic, turning it the M-16 into a light machine gun….and in some states like Texas, Utah, Nevada, the AR-15 is legal to convert to a M-16 if one pays a $200 ‘tax stamp’ to the Feds. But I digress. “Everyone has” an AR-15 (not exactly true but 10s of millions do) means, well, everyone has one. When the Feds come across armed civilians like this, they actually do tread lightly. Same with the cops, especially, because they are *legal* and civilians have them, they tend not to go in guns blazing anymore. Looks bad and works out badly for them at times.

    The large capacity magazines are useful beyond self-defense against the nefarious forces of darkness. Even in a home defense scenario…of which there are far more incidents than people being gunned downed by large-capacity magazine assault rifles…the larger magazine is far more useful than the smaller one. That should be obvious. But wait, there is more: in many forms of hunting, especially the south, where elimination of the pest, the wild pig, is paramount, hunting with large capacity magazines to kill as many of these destructive invasive beasts is necessary.

    The point is that the debate over ‘reloading’ is a phony one. Be it AR-15s or large magazines, the number of people dead from these weapons simply doesn’t justify their banning. They were used in only %.25 of all violent acts with fire arms. Hand guns account for 90% of all such deaths and injuries. So why the focus on “assault rifles”? I think it’s a major deflection of the underlying causes of all kinds of violence. It helps avoid the discussion of class struggle and improvement, alienation and war. Folks, the issue of owning an “assault rifle” is…irrelevant politically and is a game liberals play precisely because they thing this cures crimes. It does not.

    As noted by a commentator above, the working class already owns firearms. Most of self protection, some for hunting, others because they simply enjoy the sport of target practice. I’m one of them. More and more, Black and White, are buying them. Having the State step in is *political* question that should be opposed by all socialists simply because the state will do this rather uneven handed and create far more problems than it is worth.

    Comment by David Walters — February 6, 2017 @ 6:12 pm

  12. After writing that I thought to myself that Paineted to harsh a criticism of technology. I should write something a bit more positive about the benifits of the technologies that the government is doing research on. The first is DNA recognition technology. The military wants this technology and so do I. I want it for different reasons though. What I envision is that when a person goes in to a (nationalized) casino, like they have in Sweden, whose gamming industry should be a template for the USA, a person will insert a chip card in to the slot machine and then breath in to the machine. The machine will then do a DNA analysis that will take about 30 seconds and confirm that the card belongs to the person who inserted it. The card will have that persons entire financial information, and gambling history. The card will tell the slot machine how much this person is allowed to win or lose before he gets cut off for the day. That way no one can loose so much money legally gambling that they become financially disabled, or make so much money that they could make a living at it. Of course the system would be modified for the black jack and roulette tables and other games of chance that might be available.
    This DNA recognition would also be applied to the purchase of Alcohol and any othe narcotics that the government may see fit to legalize. It would set a non transferable quota for everyone when legally purchasing such products.
    The other technology that holds a future in the USA is trains. Yes that 19th century technology that has been updated to the 21st century in the rest of the world Will be making a huge comeback in the USA. Trains will be used to transport just about everything for distances of over 200 miles. The trucking Unions might not like to hear that. But it will not be as bad as they fear. There will be more unionized government jobs in the rail industry. There will be more unionized short haul trucking jobs. That means most truck drivers will be home with their families every day. I hope.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 6, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

  13. Yes I was aware that handguns kill far more people than assault rifles. Therefore it is true that banning them will not save many people. Therefore I do not think banning them is really all that important. I do think there there is something wrong with a society that worships the M16 and the right to own one.
    First of all the US Constitution is NOT a holy document inspired by God. Second of all the desire by most people to own an M16 is actually a symptom of something that is unbalanced. So just as I do not think that a lot of emphasis needs to be placed on banning assault rifles I think that it is just as unreasonable for people to put a lot of emphasis on wanting to keep them.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 6, 2017 @ 6:48 pm

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