Black Panther demonstration, Alameda Co. Court House, Oakland, Calif., during Huey Newton's trial. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Double Counterinsurgency

How an American tradition of popular sovereignty gave way to COINTELPRO with a ‘progressive’ face

“By calling attention to “a well regulated militia,” the “security” of the nation, and the right of each citizen “to keep and bear arms,” our founding fathers recognized the essentially civilian nature of our economy. Although it is extremely unlikely that the fears of governmental tyranny which gave rise to the Second Amendment1The Second Amendment to the US Constitution 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.” There is considerable current debate over whether the Constitution protects an individual right to bear arms, though the most common legal reference at the founding of the United States, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England Book 1 Part 139 (Published 1765-1769) refers to the individual right of a subject to have “arms for their defense . . . under due restrictions of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.” Senior American jurists of the early nineteenth century seemed to agree. Writing in his deeply influential Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States Book 3, Chapter 44, Sec 1890 (1833) Joseph L. Story, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court opined that “The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.” However, he goes on to comment that “[h]ow it is practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, is difficult to see.” In modern times, universal citizen militia service is non-existent, as the US has a professional standing military establishment with specialists full- or part-time in the service of the government. Further discussion of the legal status of the Second Amendment and various schools of judicial interpretation are beyond the scope of this article – and to some degree, irrelevant to it. It is easy to get caught up in the legal arguments; but like many inducements to join the cult of the law, there’s little to gain.will ever be a major danger to our nation, the Amendment still remains an important declaration of our basic civilian-military relationships, in which every citizen must be ready to participate in the defense of his country. For that reason I believe the Second Amendment will always be important.”

~”Know Your Lawmakers,” Guns Magazine (April 1960)

In April of 1960, Guns Magazine had a small feature article quoting a number of Congressmen on the topic of the Second Amendment. The quote above – with its emphasis on the individual right to bear arms as a guarantee of civilian democracy – came from a United States Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of whom you might have heard: John F. Kennedy. In November of that year, Senator Kennedy, a staunch liberal, would win the presidential election on the Democratic ticket. 

It seems inconceivable today that a liberal US Senator running for president as the Democratic Party’s candidate would write that the Second Amendment arose from “fears of governmental tyranny” – and in a gun hobbyist magazine, no less. How did the view of civilian firearms ownership as a bulwark against government tyranny go from something so accepted it could be uttered by the crown prince of establishment liberalism, to a view held only by the increasingly authoritarian right (and at most, perhaps, those parts of the left radical enough to be essentially excluded from electoral politics)? 

The story of how this came to pass is a story of counterinsurgency – of the great lengths that the American power elite have taken to cut the legs out from under the left. 


The typical liberal story of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s that emerged in the 1990s goes something like this: once upon a time, non-violent Black activists came together with well-intentioned white students to change America. They acted in the best tradition of American civil society and were doing well making changes – until some came under the sway of armed, aberrant radicals who started destroying any hope of additional progress. These radicals had become transfixed by the utopian promises of foreign ideologies like Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism, causing them to take up arms in a way wholly alien to our civil society and threatening to tear apart its democratic fabric. Luckily, the Democratic Party took a principled stand against such aberrant, un-American behavior, and reasonable people of all creeds and colors rejected armed radicals. In the ensuing peaceful era, the growth of affirmative action and diversity training has allowed us to enter today’s new multicultural America, where racism is over and capitalism spreads prosperity for all, especially the well-educated. 

The liberal story of the 1990s isn’t holding up so well thirty years later for the establishment, with even arch-liberals like President Biden admitting the Republican Party has become “semi-fascist” and living standards collapsing for most Americans. On a closer examination, the idea that armed radicals were inconsistent with the American tradition doesn’t hold up either. On the contrary, the idea of picking up a firearm to fight government tyranny was at least theoretically possible for soon-to-be President Kennedy in April of 1960 – and non-controversially so.

Imagine, if you will, a young junior high student reading that copy of Guns Magazine in the Spring of 1960. If he’s Black, Asian, or Latino, he probably knows that racism is real, but it’s something that adults in his life have told him is a fact of life he’s going to have to live with. If he’s white, he might just think things are pretty good, especially if he’s living in a nice middle-class family in the suburbs. Regardless, he’s a junior high student, and after he reads Kennedy’s quote about the Second Amendment, he files it away without another thought. 

Now fast-forward nine years later to 1969. That same young boy may have been conscripted into an unpopular war; civil rights struggles have exploded onto the scene; and the whole country is reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy in quick succession. 

Women! Free Our Sisters Poster featuring an image of protesting women and a list of demands. This poster was used to announce a protest scheduled for November 22, 1969 orchestrated by the N.E. Women’s Liberation and the Black Panther Party of Connecticut in support of six female Black Panthers who were being held in Niantic Connecticut State Women’s Prison. National Museum of African American History and Culture

If this young man in 1969 suspects that there are overarching, shadowy forces blocking social change (for example, by repeated assassinations), perhaps he might conclude that government tyranny is less an unlikely fear than a very present reality. The idea of picking up a weapon in a struggle for justice against tyranny might suddenly seem like a reasonable option. 

And not only that: a very American one. Far from being a foreign outgrowth whose proponents were just the useful idiots of distant Stalinist-style regimes, the armed Leninist revolutionary movements of the 1960s were (as I will show at great length in this essay) a left-wing, multi-racial, working-class manifestation of a longstanding American tradition of popular sovereignty closely connected to individual gun ownership. As its name suggests, this cultural and legal framework saw “the people” – and explicitly not the government – as being the true political sovereign in the US republic. The right to individual gun ownership was intimately connected to this conception because it alone guaranteed the ability of the people to revolt against the government if it became tyrannical. Popular sovereignty is a politically ambiguous tradition. Historically, it was fundamentally tied to white settler-colonialism, providing a justification for the genocide of Native people and lynchings of Black people by nonstate actors. At the very same time, it also served as a powerful legitimating force for egalitarian and emancipatory social struggles contesting the power of the ruling class and the state. The influence of popular sovereignty allowed these movements (including movements for labor rights, racial liberation, and local democracy) to create a culture of autonomy, where they could confidently create truly independent institutions; self-govern within them; see that self-governance as in some way more legitimate than the state itself; and defend themselves against the attempts of reactionaries, whether inside or outside of the state, to roll back their advances. In the hands of the 60s radicals, this culture of autonomy created perhaps the biggest threat to white supremacy and capitalist rule in US history up to that point – which is why the power elite deployed the doctrine of counterinsurgency to combat it.

As we know, of course, in the end these movements were defeated and the counterinsurgency won. It is easy to see, then, why people in US democratic-socialist circles view the era of the clandestine armed struggle as being over. Often, this understanding flows from an appreciation of just how sophisticated the counterinsurgency mechanisms built by the capitalist elite in the 1960s really were. And the largely fruitless adventurism of groups like the Red Army Faction in Germany and the various Red Army groups in Japan show that in a capitalist liberal democracy with a large amount of buy-in from the population, armed struggle has a vanishingly small chance of achieving much of anything at all, much less the total overthrow of the system. Even if they had won, the experience of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China demonstrates the serious limits of the Marxist-Leninist party-state model as either a source of genuine liberation or a lasting alternative to capitalism.

What is less understood – but in some ways more urgent than ever – is that Democratic Party electoral politics are themselves the less obvious side of a long counterinsurgency against attempts to build any genuine autonomy among the working classes independent of the state. The explicit, well documented counterinsurgency of the US intelligence agencies against New Left movements never truly ended. Instead, a sophisticated apparatus of recuperation and pacification has sprung up – one which has grown only more sophisticated with additional experience of successfully neutralized social movements. Its purpose is to place a truly autonomous working-class politics off-limits; tie people’s sense of personal safety exclusively to the ever-expanding surveillance state and its security forces; channel all anticapitalist dissent into a Democratic Party, which then uses selective recruitment of movement elites to end popular mobilization and dilute demands; remove firearms from acceptable, moral public life; and then, having done all these things, to brutally crush any remaining dissenters far out of the sight of capitalist-aligned mass media and its journalists.

The unfortunate reality is that these methods have proven extremely effective at suppressing radical social movements from the late twentieth century to the present. The consequences of the counterinsurgency remain with us every day, in almost anything we on the radical and democratic Left seek to do. As we will see in various case studies, it is true that the methods of the 60s Leninists were largely quixotic – but unfortunately, conventional electoral politics are likely just as futile as secret armed groups.

Where does this leave us today? I will not seek to answer that question in this essay, exactly. Rather, I will attempt to make the campaign of counterinsurgency legible – its history, its methods, and its consequences – on the principle that the best way to overcome a strategy is to know it well. I will also sketch out some strategic questions that we can keep in mind when thinking about how to overcome the counterinsurgency. 

The Tradition of Popular Sovereignty in America

From the Revolution to the Civil War

Throughout American history, the idea that it could be legitimate and justified for groups of citizens to take up arms against the government was not at all unusual. Such ideas date back to the birth of the United States through the American Revolution against the rule of the British sovereign, King George III. As the legal historian Christian G. Fritz details in his book American Sovereigns: The People and America’s Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War (2008), even after the drafting of the federal Constitution, a significant portion of the American public believed that the ultimate source of the law was the people at large. 

The genuinely revolutionary character of this idea shouldn’t be underrated. In colonial America the sovereign, or ultimate source of the law, had been the monarch seated at the Court of St. James in London. The king stood above the law, and the government ruled in his name – hence “His Majesty’s government.” After the American Revolution, the drafters of the new republic’s highest laws fixed this same sovereignty in the people – hence the famous opening sentence of the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 

Even today, the idea of the people as sovereign is an important part of the American legal system. For example, in California, criminal prosecutions are carried out in the name of the “People of the State of California,” by the deputies of an elected Attorney General. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, prosecutions are carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service in the name of the Sovereign, e.g. “Rex [The King] vs Smith.” 

As not only Fritz but various other historians demonstrate, the ideology and rhetoric of popular sovereignty were present, often quite explicitly, in many political struggles that defined the early republic – much of the time, to justify taking arms against an unfair social order. Such disparate movements as Shays’ Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and even the most radical wing of the early socialistic land reform movements were suffused with the idea that ultimate political and legal legitimacy lay directly with the will of the people, unmediated by whatever political structures happened at any given moment to already exist.2Besides Fritz, readers will find elements of popular sovereignty thinking in the populist, egalitarian social movements of the early United States described in books such as William Hogeland’s Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation (2014), Michael J Klarman’s The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution (2016), and Mark A. Lause’s Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community (2005). –Eds.

As late as the Civil War, many Americans believed that they had a right to form a new constitutional order by calling their own, independent constitutional convention. While this may not have been the majority view, it was strong enough that in 1842 – after their efforts to pass universal white male suffrage in Rhode Island failed in the legislature – white men there organized an independent constitutional convention to overturn the property qualifications for voting in the state. In the ensuing struggle, called the Dorr Rebellion, advocates of universal white male suffrage rose up in arms and unsuccessfully attempted to seize a state arsenal in Providence. The Dorrites, as they were called, eventually backed down in the face of superior state militia forces. A few months later, the state legislature ratified a new constitution that removed property requirements for voting by any native born adult male – retaining the requirement for naturalized male citizens and banning members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe from voting. 

Popular sovereignty in nineteenth-century social movements

Labor struggles

Even after the Civil War, armed local action was a feature of labor struggles across the US, from the multistate railroads to the mines and mills of Colorado to the coalfields of West Virginia to the docks of San Francisco. Right up to the dawn of the New Deal, the movement for basic workers’ rights in the US was violent, bloody, and shot through with the values of popular sovereignty. 

The late nineteenth century was a time of severe economic dislocation in the United States, with a financial crisis in 1873 leading to an economic depression. Starting with railroad workers on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad striking for higher wages, the strike spread to West Virginia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. In West Virginia, although the governor called out the state militia, they were unable to prevail against workers when numbers of militiamen were sympathetic to the strike.3In 1877, West Virginia had only state militia forces that did not receive “popular and legislative support.” Later in 1889, the state legislature renamed the militia to the West Virginia National Guard. In addition to state funding, the new organization could seek federal funding and equipment. In Maryland, the governor called out the Maryland National Guard,4At the formation of the United States, the states had volunteer military forces known as state militias. Though organized under the auspices of the governors, training was notoriously irregular, as was membership. Full-time, federal forces were limited to the US Navy (and its subsidiary, the Marine Corps) and a very small regular US Army force. All the same, state militia forces served, often with distinction, in the Civil War on the side of the Union. By the time of the Great Railroad Strike, some states like Maryland and Pennsylvania had begun to call their state militia forces “National Guard” units. However it was not until after the strike, in 1879, that militia leaders from multiple states came together to form the National Guard Association. The status of the National Guard’s role was still unclear until 1934 when federal legislation defined “the National Guard of the United States” as a reserve component of the United States Army. Afterwards, National Guard units were (and are) administered and commanded by state governments,with funding from the federal government. Under certain circumstances, the President of the United States can “federalize” National Guard units, bringing them under the direct command of the Federal government. One example of this was in 1957 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to stop the segregationist governor of Arkansas from using his National Guard troops to block the integration of Little Rock Schools. who went into battle in Baltimore with striking workers. Armed rioters trapped National Guard troops in a train station. It took several thousand additional troops, a mix of regular Army and Marines, dispatched by President Rutherford B. Hayes, to halt the strike in Baltimore. Strike actions took place in New York State, where workers attacked a train and fought the state militia. However, it was Pennsylvania that had the most clashes. In Pittsburgh, National Guard soldiers fought strikers, killing and wounding dozens. However, the strikers fought back and trapped National Guard units in a railroad building, and then destroyed well over a thousand railroad cars and over a hundred locomotives, as well as dozens of buildings. The fighting continued for over a month, and again required federal troops to end the strike. In a number of other cities there were strikes that shut down the railroads, which were met with the same response – police and National Guard troops, and sometimes federal troops, eventually broke the strikes after considerable bloodshed.

In the great Midwestern hub of Chicago there were also strikes in the rail yards, where people blocked the trains, and these spread to other towns in Illinois. Tens of thousands marched in Chicago, and just as in the other states mentioned above, it was a combination of National Guard, police, and finally, federal troops that stopped the strikers. 

It was not only the railroad workers in the giant cities of the Midwest and Northeast that pursued industrial action. In the mines of Colorado from 1903 to 1904, mining and milling workers represented by the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) fought the capitalists and their security forces in a brutal series of strikes that resulted in dozens of deaths. The Colorado mining country was filled with desperate men, guns, and dynamite. Perhaps it should not be surprising that a conflict between miners (who earned their wages under the earth, in mortal danger, with dynamite as a tool of choice) and their capitalist bosses (who had troops at their command and were desperate to maintain the mines and factories that produced their vast riches of silver and gold) would be an extremely violent one. Given the riches involved, the capitalists had every incentive to seek brutality. And with the extreme danger of working underground even in the best of cases, the minds of the miners must have been concentrated in the way that Samuel Johnson described when he wrote that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Death in the mines was omnipresent, and while not every miner would die on the job, the risk was exceptionally high by all accounts. 

Throughout what historians now call the Colorado Labor Wars, armed miners on picket lines stopped strikebreakers, blew up buildings, and beat scabs. Mine owners hired private security forces – the notorious Pinkertons – and local units to attempt to break strike attempts. When that was inadequate, the governor of Colorado called in the National Guard. General Sherman Bell, commander of the National Guard units, ordered beatings of union organizers whom he held responsible for a lethal explosion in one of the mines. These continued for months. But the strikers were not the only source of labor trouble for the bosses. When the local elites refused to raise money to pay the National Guard troops, General Bell ordered one of his officers to press the mine owners – the officer obliged by firing “fifty or sixty shots” into a key mine building. The next day, the mine owners made the payroll. 

After dozens of deaths across both sides, countless beatings, and at least one false flag attack by the mine owners, the mine owners succeeded in breaking the WFM by deporting and expelling union members from the region and intimidating those who remained into compliance. 

The Colorado Mine Wars were not the last time that a strike by mine workers would turn into a massive armed conflict between the workers and the capitalists. In 1921, one of the largest armed uprisings in US labor history took place in the mining camps and towns of Blair Mountain, West Virginia. Over five days in late August and early September, roughly 10,000 armed workers fought several thousand private security and law enforcement officers in what was later called the Battle of Blair Mountain. Both sides were heavily armed by modern civilian standards, employing crew-served machine guns typically used on a battlefield by military forces.5Illustrative photos can be found on Libcom and the National Parks Service website. Among the photos are what appear to be water-cooled Browning M1917 belt-fed fully automatic machine guns. In 1921, there were no federal laws banning average persons from acquiring true military-grade small arms like the Browning M1917. The only barrier was cost. 

After a unionization drive led the bosses to fire thousands of miners, private security hired by the mining company threw miners out of company housing. The ensuing scuffle resulted in the local police chief, Sid Hatfield, killing some mining company guards in defense of the miners. (Yes – a local police chief sided with labor against management.) Conflict between the miners and the mining companies continued to escalate, with shootings carried out by both sides. Eventually the private security officers gunned down Hatfield and one of his friends. In response, more armed miners joined the struggle. Miners continued their unionization efforts, and mining companies continued to send gunmen to stop it. Many shootings between miners and the company gunmen took place, as well as aerial bombardment from aircraft owned by the mining companies. Miners tried to take the counties of Mingo and Logan, which were non-unionized. However, the miners were unable to break through the combined forces of National Guard and mining company gunmen. When federal troops arrived in early September, the miners withdrew from the battle. The number of people killed in the battle numbered at least four, but with an estimated over 1 million rounds of ammunition fired, there likely would have been other deaths.6Clayton D. Laurie, “The United States Army and the Return to Normalcy in Labor Dispute Interventions: The Case of the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, 1920-1921.” West Virginia History Vol. 50 (1991): pp. 1-24.

Other social movements

In the early twentieth century, armed local action was not limited to labor struggles – it sometimes had an environmental character as well. In the spring of 1908, the residents of the Berkeley neighborhood of Ocean View, on the east shore of the San Francisco Bay, were growing tired of garbage wagons dumping refuse onto parts of the shoreline owned by various landowners.7When the tide came in it pushed garbage right up against people’s fences and attracted flies, along with emitting terrible smells. Dave Gilson, “Albany’s Forgotten Garbage War.Patch (2 April 2012).  Beyond smells and flies, people feared that trash would bring rats, and with rats, the deadly bubonic plague.8Karen Sorensen, “Women, Guns, and Garbage: How the City of Albany Emerged from a Clash with Berkeley and the Fear of Plague.” Albany Historical Society.

After repeated complaints yielded no meaningful changes, the local residents formed the West End Protective Association, and over a few days in March and April they blocked the street and turned away the garbage wagons, culminating in an armed standoff led by some women from the neighborhood. Armed with a variety of firearms and supported by young boys throwing rocks, these women successfully turned away the garbage wagons. Local law enforcement eventually appeared and convinced the crowd to let some wagons through. A local judge temporarily blocked any more dumping in the neighborhood, and not long after, the neighborhood seceded from Berkeley to become the town of Albany, which completely banned trash dumping within city limits. 

A poster advertising a benefit performance presented by Radical Theatre Repertory to raise funds for Black Panther members in jail. In black ink on white background, the poster features a center illustration of silohuetted figures dressed in uniforms and holding long guns. Surrounding the illustration are names of theatre groups and works. Most of the dramatic works are written and/or directed by Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Ed Bullins, Roscoe Orman, and Enrique Vargas. At the top-center of the poster is printed: [BLACK THEATRE FOR / THE BLACK PANTHERS / A BENEFIT FOR ELDRIDGE CLEAVER AND / OTHER BLACK PANTHERS IN JAIL / AT FILLMORE EAST / MONDAY MAY 20 / 8 PM]. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture May 20, 1968

What’s remarkable about this story, looking back on it from 2024, is that none of the women out in the streets with guns got arrested. There was even sympathetic media coverage, and in the end they got what they wanted – a legal stop to the trash dumping, via a combination of judicial action and the formation of a new city government. It’s unimaginable today that a group of women in the Bay Area would stage an armed blockade against an environmental hazard and walk away with everything they wanted in court and electoral politics. On the contrary, not only would they certainly be arrested on a variety of charges; media coverage would be apocalyptic. Hot takes about the collapse of rule of law and the potential for chaos and the collapse of America would flow from every publication above the level of an anarchist infoshop zine. Yet, the United States did not collapse in the aftermath of the spring of 1908 – some local newspaper editors dined out on sensational “women with guns” photos, and life went on in the Bay Area. 

Settler-colonialism, lynching, and the dark side of popular sovereignty

It’s tempting to view the story of armed women stopping garbage wagons as a laudable story of Americans acting as popular sovereigns to stop injustice – and while that is the case, there is something darker lurking in the background. Mrs. H.C. Hanscomb, pictured with a revolver on the front page of a local paper, told a reporter that “My folks are fighters from way back. My grandfather was a fighter in the French and Indian War. Then just tell me why I should not be a fighter.” One wonders whether Mrs. Hanscomb’s grandfather, presumably a white man, viewed Indians as being part of the People who exercise popular sovereignty? It seems likely that he did not – the same way that the Dorrites rejected the franchise for Black and Indian people. 

The white settler polity acted as a sovereign people above the law in another capacity – as judge, jury, and executioner during lynchings. The problem was so serious that anti-lynching organizing was a major part of the formation of the NAACP, as exemplified by the work of journalist Ida B. Wells.9The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the largest and oldest civil rights organization in the US. The NAACP was formed in 1909 by a coalition of white and Black activists. Ida B. Wells, one of its co-founders, was also a supremely talented investigative journalist for the Black-owned Memphis Free Speech. Her muckraking did much to expose the widespread lynching of Black men by vigilante gangs based on false accusations. Much of Wells’s work is anthologized in Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases (1892).

Extra-legal executions were a prominent part of American life through the middle of the twentieth century, predominantly targeting Black, Latino, and Asian Americans (though white people were sometimes victims as well). In 1933, about 50 miles south of Albany, CA, thousands of people gathered in St. James Park to lynch two accused killers, Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes. Authorities had arrested the men in connection with the brutal murder of a local department store heir, Brooke Hart. The young man’s family owned a prominent department store in San Jose. According to contemporary reports, “20 influential friends of the socially prominent Hart family had formed a committee, purportedly to insist on immediate and drastic punishment” for the accused. The Governor of California, James Rolph, declined to call out the National Guard to protect the accused from an attempted lynching, claiming that he would pardon the lynchers. 

Finally, on the evening of November 26th, a crowd of thousands gathered in San Jose’s St. James Park, across from the county jail. Gunshots rang out, and the crowd easily overpowered the fewer than 25 law enforcement officers on guard at the jail and dragged the accused killers of Brooke Hart into the park, where the crowd hanged them both.10See Bob Calhoun, The Murders That Made Us: How Vigilantes, Hoodlums, Mob Bosses, Serial Killers, and Cult Leaders Built the San Francisco Bay Area (2021). No one was ever successfully prosecuted for the killings of Thurmond and Holmes. A grand jury found that no witnesses could identify anyone on scene of the lynching. The morning after, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of the crowd of lynchers that “…here was a sovereign whose rise in invincible power stunned San Jose and will stun the Nation and the world.”11See “WIFE HELD FOR DEATH MATE FEAR LYNCHING SAN JOSE KIDNAPERS [sic],” Madera Tribune Volume LXIII, Number 17 (21 November 1933).

The culture of civilian marksmanship

But the framework of popular sovereignty rooted in individual gun ownership wasn’t just the basis for social movement revolts and lynch mobs. Sometimes, the state would take an active role in cultivating at least particular aspects of it to suit its own military and strategic ends. Of particular importance in this connection was the culture of civilian marksmanship centered on hunting and competitive target shooting. From the turn of the twentieth century through to roughly the start of the neoliberal period,12Although, as we’ll see, many of these programs still exist in abridged form. It was a result of the confrontation in Cuba with Spanish forces. Spain’s forces used the Mauser rifle in 7 x 57, while the US forces went into battle with a mix of black powder single-shot rifles and the Krag-Jorgenson rifle in .30-40. Theodore Roosevelt, among other veterans of action in Cuba, felt that the weapons and training of American forces were poor, with the .30-40 cartridge lacking the range and hitting power of the 7×57 Mauser. So after the Spanish-American War, the US adopted a new rifle (the 1903 Springfield, an unlicensed Mauser copy), as well as a new and more powerful cartridge, the 30-06 (pronounced ‘thirty ought six’). And on top of all this, there was also the rise of what would eventually become the CMP. training in marksmanship and other military skills for ordinary civilians was aggressively subsidized by the government in order to augment its warmaking capacities.

Under the federal Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, the sale of firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment was specially taxed. The tax was not intended as a punitive measure; rather, the funds were by law dedicated to supporting wildlife management and hunting. Wildlife management included habitat preservation and restoration and the acquisition of property to be open to the public for hunting and shooting. Pittman Robertson funds, then and now, could be used to fund hunter education (safety and marksmanship), as well as the building and maintenance of publicly owned shooting ranges. 

Said public ranges often had clubs associated with them, almost invariably chartered by the National Rifle Association (NRA). NRA clubs sponsored competitions with a variety of firearms, including rifle competitions that were modeled on the type of shooting events used in military training and qualification with the standard service rifles and pistols.13In those days, known as Bullseye competition for pistols and Service Rifle for rifles. In the post-World War II era, that meant the M1 Garand rifle and the Colt 1911 pistol. The NRA clubs worked closely with a government agency, the Department of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM). In conjunction with the DCM the NRA organized a yearly national championship match at Camp Perry, Ohio.

The DCM originated in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed a law establishing the National Board for the Promotion of Rifle Practice, as well as the National Matches. The purpose of the Board was to “strengthen our country’s national defense capabilities by improving the rifle marksmanship skills of members of the Armed Forces.”14“About the Civilian Marksmanship Program.” Civilian Marksmanship Program,  By 1916, the Board became the DCM and authorized the distribution of arms and ammunition to authorized clubs.15Patrick A Rogers, “A Nation of Riflemen: Civilian Marksmanship Program.” S.W.A.T. (July 2015). In 1996, at the peak of the neoliberal Clinton era, Congress privatized the DCM into the non-profit Civilian Marksmanship Program, and compelled the new corporation to be self funded. The US Army managed the DCM, and the NRA provided the structure and governance for the clubs. In the post-World War II era, membership in an NRA chartered rifle club allowed one to purchase, among other weapons, a surplus M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, or Colt 1911 pistol along with the related ammunition at a steep discount. In addition to training adults, the DCM worked closely with youth organizations such as Boy Scouts and 4H, providing smallbore (.22 LR) target rifles and ammunition to clubs, with the NRA providing the training curriculum for instructors. As a result, the midcentury United States had a robust public infrastructure that subsidized the development of firearms skills with arms, ammunition, shooting range facilities, trainers, and a variety of nationwide competitive shooting sports disciplines. 

The impact of widespread civilian marksmanship could be felt all across American culture in various ways. For example, although today the San Francisco Bay Area is a liberal haven deeply hostile to the culture of civilian sports shooting, this was not always the case. The press coverage of a scandalous murder that transfixed the Bay Area in 1959 illustrates this point well.

August Norry was a family man murdered in the hills of Daly City. The police caught his killer, Penny Bjorkland, through the type of bullet she used in the killing: a .38 caliber, solid lead wadcutter. Several things stand out in the coverage. First, the sexism: articles in the San Francisco Chronicle focused on the physical qualities, clothing, accessories, and mannerisms of the blond, 18-year-old self-confessed killer. The second is that the coverage of the technical details of the .38 Special ammunition used by Bjorkland is highly detailed and accurate, containing no sensational overwriting – unlike the coverage of Bjorkland’s person that appears in the same issue. The coverage appears to have been written by someone who was very familiar with firearms, unlike almost all modern reporting in Bay Area newspapers. Bjorkland had purchased her ammunition from a man who made ammunition – that is, assembled brass cases, powder, primer, and bullets to make complete cartridges. This practice is known as “reloading,” and it’s often done to save money or make custom ammunition whose characteristics are unavailable from commercial manufacturers, such as higher velocity or greater accuracy. The unknown author of the article describes “shooting enthusiasts” who “reload their own ammunition” in a matter-of-fact way, no different from how one might describe devotees of tropical fish aquariums.16From the San Francisco Chronicle dated 16 April 1958, available at the Chronicle archives.

Today, such an article in a local paper would insinuate that people who made their own ammunition were weirdos who in addition to being dangerous to the public were probably mentally ill, and that the practice should be further restricted. The technical details would almost certainly be inaccurate. Moreover, Bjorkland and her friend took target practice in the hills above Daly City, apparently in the vicinity of San Bruno Mountain. Today, that land is a state park where it is most certainly illegal to discharge a firearm in target practice. Even in the San Francisco Bay Area, guns were common and unremarkable, and space to practice with them was relatively available – just take a quick walk in the hills near your suburban home and you’d be right there. 

Popular sovereignty and the multiracial working class

As we’ve seen, the tradition of popular sovereignty in the US had deep but ambivalent effects. On the one hand, to the extent it was the self-conception of predominantly white and male citizens, it served as a key pillar of genocidal settler-colonialism, anti-Black white supremacy, and the militarism of the capitalist state. On the other hand, to the extent that it was able to influence the working classes and their social movements, it drove these movements to not only create powerful institutions outside the control of the ruling class but to defend them from attack when necessary. In either case, the result was a culture of autonomy: a social framework in which, due precisely to the ability of ordinary citizens to contest power by force of arms, the population felt empowered to take direct action in defense of their rights, to resist legal structures they found oppressive, and to take responsibility for the real or perceived problems of their communities.

Of course, the idea that the people are sovereign has very different results depending on who is included, and who is not, among “the people” – and this contradiction would only intensify in the twentieth century. Leftists generally know the story of how US history in the past century has been fundamentally defined by the class struggle between a growing, immiserated, multi-racial working class against its capitalist rulers. What’s less clearly understood, however, is the intimate connection between this struggle and the culture of autonomy that multiracial working class once had due to the way it deployed popular sovereignty in the fight against white supremacy. Eventually, the struggle to define who exactly counted as part of the people whose force of arms ensured their sovereignty reached a boiling point – one that would, in the end, have dramatic consequences for the idea of popular sovereignty itself.

The Battle of Athens

One might think that by the 1940s, popular sovereignty uprisings were long in the rearview mirror of history. That thought would be incorrect. One incident in particular was an early sign of things to come. 

In 1946, after the close of World War II, recently demobilized soldiers organized an electoral campaign in Athens, Tennessee against a corrupt and capricious local government.

At the head of the machine was the sheriff, Pat Mansfield, and on election day, 1 August 1946, he sent his officers into the polling places to intimidate voters, shooting an elderly Black farmer named Tom Gillespie who had tried to vote. In response, veterans (who seem to have been a majority-white group) armed themselves and moved towards one of the polling places, where the sheriff’s forces shot at the crowd. As the day wore on, confrontations between the veterans and the sheriff’s deputies escalated, with beatings and arrests/hostage taking by all sides. A group of veterans broke into the National Guard armory and stole weapons and ammunition. 

In the evening, after Mansfield and his men had seized ballot boxes and held them under guard at the jail, the veterans, led by Bill White, decided to “whip on the jail.”

A crowd of several hundred to perhaps thousands surrounded the jail, heavily armed with firearms and dynamite. The gun battle that ensued lasted several hours, with at least one sheriff’s deputy dying. The veterans blew up cars in the parking lot (!) and attacked the jail building with improvised dynamite charges. 

In the morning, the veterans recovered the ballot boxes, and the townspeople counted the votes. The “GI Slate” of candidates won, among them Knox Henry, who became the new sheriff. Apparently, neither federal nor state prosecutors indicted any of the veterans who participated in the armed assault on the jail. Once local democracy was restored, political life went back to normal.17For more on the Battle of Athens, see Lones Seiber, “The Battle of Athens. American Heritage 36:2 (February/March 1985), and Chris Derose, “‘Get the Hell Out of Here and Get Something to Shoot With,’” Politico (1 November 2020).

Gun culture and the postwar Black left

Think back to the California stories we’ve just seen of both lynchings and civil disobedience powered by armed popular sovereignty. In light of this then-recent history, the Black Panther Party’s armed police-watching patrols in Oakland – just a few miles from Albany, CA – were not an aberration at all. A little over 50 years after women in Albany stopped trash wagons at gunpoint, and 33 years after thousands of mostly white people lynched two men in San Jose to wide popular acclaim, the Panthers started patrolling the streets of Oakland to keep watch that the police were following the law in their interactions with Black people. They saw what they believed was an injustice in their community and took collective action, like the people of what became Albany, while openly armed. In the eyes of the written law, the Panthers’ armed police watching patrols were legal, as the open carry of loaded firearms was still allowed at that time. 

However, the Panthers were definitely in violation of the unwritten law of white supremacy, which held then as it does now that Black people must bow their heads to those who oppress them, while thanking them for the oppression. Black Panther cop watch patrols were doing what many white people had always done in the United States when they felt that they needed to reconstitute their relationship to the law – grab a weapon, get together with some like-minded people, and go out into the street as the popular sovereign. We usually think of the Panthers’ reach for the gun as a foreign import from Maoism. But Huey Newton had grown up in Oakland and was hanging out in Berkeley; Albany, where the women picked up guns to stop trash wagons, was just a few minutes away by car. It’s totally plausible that Huey and people around him would have heard from someone’s grandmother, “Remember when those crazy white ladies took the road?” What made the Panthers’ picking up of the gun so exceptional wasn’t the guns; it was Black people doing what white people had always done to secure their own autonomy and freedom. 

Before the Panthers emerged from the streets of the Bay Area, though, there was Robert F. Williams and the Black Guard of Monroe, NC. 

In 1955, having finished his service in the US Marine Corps, Williams returned to his hometown of Monroe, NC. According to his book Negros With Guns (1962), after experiencing discrimination during his military service, Williams was determined to join the local branch of the NAACP on returning home.18Robert F. Williams, Negroes With Guns (1962), p. 51. (Note: Page numbers match the 1962 edition, not the version on Libcom. You can use CTRL+F on the PDF to find the quotes’ context. –Eds.) When he discovered that the local chapter had only six members, he launched a recruiting drive and built a mostly working-class group; this was distinct from its previous orientation as a vehicle for what he called “the upper crust” of Monroe’s Black community, consisting of local white-collar professionals and businessmen. Crucially, many of his new recruits were military veterans – Williams describes them as people who “didn’t scare easily.” (If all of this sounds like the opening of an action movie where the hero gathers his team together, just wait, because it gets a whole lot wilder from here.) Williams describes his hometown as a place with no trade unions and the local headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Williams and the local NAACP branch launched a variety of actions designed to secure the civil rights of Black people in Monroe – things like opening access to local public institutions (a library and a swimming pool), freeing a couple kids falsely accused of a sex crime, and pursuing justice for Black women attacked by white racists. As a result of these activities, the KKK launched a counter-campaign against the chapter, which included public rallies, armed motorcades, and shootings. In their urgent pleas to government officials, the Monroe NAACP made reference to the US Constitution and other American legal rules. Despite repeated entreaties to local, state, and federal officials, no state security forces stepped in to protect the Monroe branch. As a result, its members armed themselves for survival. Williams formed the Black Guard to protect Black people from white supremacist violence. He writes:

[W]e started arming ourselves. I wrote to the National Rifle Association in Washington which encourages veterans to keep in shape to defend their native land, and asked for a charter, which we got. In a year we had sixty members. We had bought some guns too, in stores, and later a church in the North raised money and got us better rifles…19Williams, p. 57.

As an NRA-chartered rifle club, the group (as we’ve seen) would have been entitled to purchase surplus US military firearms and ammunition via the Department of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM). Given that the Monroe chapter had a significant military veteran membership, they would have learned how to use the surplus rifles while in the military on active duty. With such experienced members and the pre-existing NRA target shooting curriculum, it would not have been difficult for the veterans (including Wiliams) to teach others how to handle and shoot the surplus rifles. 

In one passage, Wiliams writes that “[w]e had a rifle club with a charter from the National Rifle Association since 1957. We were authorized to have rifles. We did target practice.” Presumably the authorization he speaks of was the ability to purchase surplus rifles and ammunition from the DCM. In late 1957, an emboldened motorcade of armed KKK members attacked the home of Dr. Perry, one of the Monroe NAACP members. The Black Guard members repelled the KKK in a shootout. With a significant number of veterans in the chapter, it seems likely that they helped provide training and shared experience to the group. After that, the KKK attacks stopped. Over the next few years, Williams and the Monroe chapter of the NAACP continued their militant actions. In 1960 during a North Carolina wide sit-in campaign, their own local actions had a distinct character owing to their security measures: 

There was less violence in the Monroe sit­-ins than in any other sit-ins in the South. In other communi­ties there were Negroes who had their skulls fractured, but not a single demonstrator was even spat upon during our sit-ins. We had less violence because we had shown the will­ingness and readiness to fight and defend ourselves. We didn’t appear on the streets of Monroe as beggars depending upon the charity and generosity of white supremacists. We appeared as people with strength, and it was to the mutual advantage of all parties concerned that peaceful relations be maintained.20Williams, p. 66.

With significant successes in local organizing behind him, Williams began publishing a civil rights newsletter called The Crusader, in which he spread the word that government officials in Monroe “were in a conspiracy to deny Monroe Negroes their Constitutional rights.”21Williams, p. 73. Williams and his supporters continued to exchange gunfire with various racist attackers, and ultimately he had to recruit about twenty armed volunteers at his home each night to ward off the attacks. Undaunted, Williams and his comrades Dr. Perry and John W. McDow presented a ten-point program of economic demands to the local county board, which included non-discrimination in hiring by local factories and local government alike. Monroe NAACP members began picketing government offices to pressure the local government into adopting these policies. 

Despite significant controversy in the national leadership of the NAACP over Williams’ methods, some Freedom Riders came to support the pressure campaign.22Freedom Riders were groups of white and African-American civil rights activists who participated in Freedom Rides, bus trips through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals. Freedom Riders tried to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations in Alabama, South Carolina and other Southern states. The groups were confronted by arresting police officers—as well as horrific violence from white protestors—along their routes, but also drew international attention to the civil rights movement.” The Freedom Riders were closely associated with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Williams welcomed their support and asked people in the community to support them. 

Despite the Freedom Riders’ commitment to nonviolence, local white supremacists viciously attacked them with beatings, stonings, and in one case a shooting by a high-powered air rifle. Nonetheless, government security forces refused to intervene to protect them. The local police force, under the direction of its chief, “drove through the county urging whites to come to town to fight the Freedom Riders.” Unlike Sid Hatfield in the Battle of Blair Mountain, who had taken the side of workers, the police chief in Monroe was firmly on the side of the capitalists. When the Freedom Riders went into downtown Monroe, an armed white supremacist mob (including the local police) attacked them. The self-defense guard went in to rescue the Freedom Riders, and got some people out. However, the white crowds started to attack Black people in general. When Williams got word that Freedom Riders were bleeding and dying in the jail, he took another action that reads like an action movie plot point – he phoned the jail to tell them that if they did not provide medical assistance to the wounded within 30 minutes, “we would march on the jail.” As the violence spread towards the Black side of town, people armed themselves to defend their community. Williams and his comrades began planning the defensive lines for what they assumed was going to be a full-on battle. In the midst of beatings and gunfights, the Stegalls, a husband and wife pair who had been driving through town with a racist banner on their car, decided to drive through the Black neighborhood. When people recognized them, there was a massive uproar. Williams rescued the Stegalls from the angry crowd. When he received credible threats from security forces that he would be lynched, he and his wife Mabel left town.23Williams, pp. 83-88. Not long after, the same state security forces that had refused to protect the Freedom Riders indicted him for kidnapping the Stegalls. Robert and Mabel Williams would spend the next ten years on the run across Cuba and China, until they returned to the United States in the early 1970s. 

That was South Carolina, though. Surely, the Black Panthers picking up the gun was totally at odds with the culture in California, especially the liberal Bay Area? 

Not at all. 

As Don Cox, a Black Panther Field Marshal based in San Francisco details in his biography, Just Another N—— (2019), guns were still a normal part of Bay Area life. Cox had grown up a gun enthusiast, hunting for food in Missouri, and he maintained his interest when he moved to the Bay Area in the early 1960s. At the time of the formation of the BPP, Cox was managing a print shop and freelancing as a photographer. He had moved through the bohemian cultural scene in San Francisco, where drugs, leftist politics, the arts, and low-level criminal activity mixed together. 

Cox lived quite a midcentury life: working a straight day job, listening to jazz at clubs in North Beach, forming a chapter of the Panthers in San Francisco, and racing down California backroads to Nevada in his Pontiac GTO muscle car to buy pistols without a background check from a gun dealer. Cox also claims that he was the shooter in a sniper attack on the Inglewood police station in San Francisco. 

The memoir details that when Cox began training Panther recruits in firearms, he took them hunting for jackrabbits as a way of training them to hit moving targets. Cox does not detail where he took his trainees, but it’s possible that they went in the hills of Daly City near where Bjorkland shot Norry. Unlike today, where most publicly accessible open space is owned or controlled by various park districts, at the time the land was owned by the Crocker Estate – the legal entity remaining after the death of its namesake, one of the original railroad oligarchs of California. California law then and now allowed people to enter private land and even hunt on it, so long as the land was unfenced and lacked “no trespassing” signs posted at legally mandated intervals. Today, despite wide open publicly owned spaces and the persistent presence of ever more invasive feral pigs,24Feral pigs spread E. Coli and other pathogens, a health hazard to local water supplies and vegetable crops consumed raw, such as spinach. They also threaten endangered plants and animals. Hunting by humans would not be the only method of control for feral pigs; a land manager I spoke with in one rural California area told me that in his region the feral pig population was brought under control by a combination of hunting and the reintroduction of the California mountain lion. A more broadly rewilded landscape in the park system would definitely bring feral pigs under control. Before the coming of the Spanish and Anglo settlers, California had large mammalian predators in the form of the grizzly bear and wolves, both of which are entirely capable of killing a feral pig. While California again has a wolf population in the far north of the state, the grizzly is entirely absent. There are some tentative research initiatives around grizzly bear reintroduction. Beyond feral pigs, what would grizzly bears eat? As the Alta Online article mentions, California once had far larger populations of deer and elk. While elk species are almost almost nonexistent today, with small herds in areas like Point Reyes, California, before European contact, biologists estimate a population of roughly half a million Tulk Elk alone, not to mention the Roosevelt Elk. Rewilding the parks near urban and suburban California areas would present some challenges given that elk, grizzly, and wolf populations would fundamentally change the parks from areas where humans are unquestionably dominant to areas where humans could face potentially lethal threats. Wolves and grizzly bears can be human-killing predators, and while some claim that the potential for lethal threat has been low in twentieth-century North America, the fact is that wolves and grizzly bears had been mostly extirpated from populated areas here by the 1930s. The extirpation of wolves and grizzly bears happened alongside settler efforts to displace Indigenous people living off the land. Even herbivores like elk can injure or kill people who get too close and piss them off. Thus, the twentieth-century experience with lethal animal encounters may not be dispositive of what will happen as more humans interact with large animals. Recent reports seem to indicate that large predator/human conflict is increasingly a problem. Although some environmentalists claim that wolves do not really attack humans, the historical records provide ample evidence to the contrary: see the Kirov wolf attacks in Russia in the 1950s. For more on wolf attacks in fifteenth-century France, see Chris Newens, “The company of wolves: hunting an ancient predator in the Paris commuter belt,” New Statesman (7 February 2017). The problem is that many people regard all animals as cute pets and feed them accordingly. An extreme version of this played out in San Francisco a few years ago, when a woman fed coyotes in a local park, prompting San Francisco authorities to post signs in parks warning people against feeding coyotes. In regions where many have become accustomed to hiking or backpacking around animals that they see as pets, people may have to reconsider whether they want to allow themselves to be as our unarmed ancestors were at the dawn of humanity – prey for animals with greater strength and much sharper claws and teeth. Moreover, as wildlife consumption of human trash is a known factor for increasing aggression towards humans, sealed, locking trash bins may become necessary everywhere. the discharge of firearms is not allowed in any of the foothills parks in the Bay Area. Neither is bow hunting, despite the fact that safe harvest of game in suburban areas is a normal fact of life in places like Pennsylvania.25See: John Hayes, “Suburban deer hunting requires patience and social skills,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (9 November 2018). 

Naturally, the governing elite of California were not happy to see Cox and his comrades armed in public. By the spring of 1967, a bipartisan group of California state legislators wrote and passed the Mulford Act – signed by none other than then-Governor Ronald Reagan – banning the loaded, open carry of firearms in California. What had been acceptable and even amusing for white people in 1908, and criticized but unprosecuted in 1946, was completely unacceptable for Black people in 1967. That the regime of modern gun control was begun by Ronald Reagan with the explicit mandate of blocking Black people’s access to popular sovereignty gives the lie to the idea that the American right is in any way the guardian of our personal freedoms. But the Mulford Act was only the beginning of the campaign of counterinsurgency waged against the left by both major parties and the coercive apparatus of the state – especially leftist formations led by and for people of color. It is to the details of counterinsurgency that we will shortly turn. 

A Little History of American Counterinsurgency

The Cold War origins of counterinsurgency doctrine

Clearly, the leadership of the American capitalist class was not going to stand by and let people of color act as popular sovereigns. Cedric Robinson famously theorized this intimate connection between capitalist rule and the enforcement of racism. As one writer summarizes in Boston Review:

…[C]apitalism emerged within the feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of “racial capitalism” dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide.26Robin D. G. Kelley, “What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?Boston Review (12 January 2017).

In the racial order of the United States, the continuation of the capitalist system depended (then and now) on the exploitation of racialized groups, i.e. people of color. Even with the end of chattel slavery, African Americans were brutalized by the apartheid-like system of Jim Crow segregation that emerged after Reconstruction. The bosses of racial capitalism suppressed wages in agriculture and household servant jobs, while heavily armed white workers and small business owners disciplined Black people outside the law if they asserted their rights. Settlers displaced Indigenous people of the Americas by stripping away their access to land and natural resources through genocidal and ecocidal policies,27The near-extermination of the bison in North America was done explicitly as a means of weakening the Plains Indian nations. See J. Weston Phippen, “‘Kill Every Buffalo You Can! Every Buffalo Dead Is an Indian Gone.’The Atlantic (13 May 2016). and attempted to eliminate Indigenous languages from those who remained, thereby creating vast trans-American diasporas of agriculture and service workers. Capitalist bosses like Leland Stanford brought in enormous numbers of Asian people as strikebreakers to work in the mines, fields, and timber stands of the West Coast, and when this became inconvenient, he stood by as white-supremacist proletarians carried out ethnic cleansing. This was the racial order that supported capitalists in 1968. 

Before the rise of the armed movements of people of color, there had been years of white worker uprisings, as detailed in previous sections of this article. The elite did not sleep on those movements either. 

The review of nineteenth-century popular sovereign labor actions above shows how strongly workers resisted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In response, capitalists did several things. First, since state militia forces had often been overwhelmed by armed workers during the Great Railway Strike, all over the United States wealthy local elites funded the creation of heavily fortified National Guard Armories such as the Squadron A Armory in New York City (1895), Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore (1901), and many others. In Chicago, a center of the Great Railroad Strike uprising and a growing industrial metropolis, National Guard units built castle-like armories starting in 1890.28Eleanor Hannah, “Armories,” Encyclopedia of Chicago With heavy brick construction, these buildings were strong points from which National Guard troops could do battle even under sustained assault by heavily armed civilians. Well into the twentieth century, states built National Guard armories like fortresses – witness the San Francisco Armory, built in 1912 as a massive castle-like brick building with thick walls to stop gunfire and narrow windows well positioned to serve as firing points for weapons. 

More than physical infrastructure, capitalist elites reconfigured the security services as well. As Alex Gouravitch has detailed, “the major police forces became more militarized when they acquired a new role: strikebreaker.” Well-armed workers had challenged or overcome private capitalist security forces long enough. Gouravitch writes:

Employers and other wealthy individuals conceded that it was time to start paying taxes to fund a well-equipped police force empowered to act repressively.

The challenge was that police forces were nominally democratic, under the control of elected legislatures, and drawn from the population they were supposed to control. The ruling class answer: “professionalization.” 

Professionalization meant transforming the police into a branch of the civil service, less directly accountable to democratically elected city councils. It also meant inculcating a sense that they were a distinct political body from the general population.29Alex Gouravitch, “Why Are the Police Like This?” Jacobin (12 June 2020).

During the labor struggles that led up to the Battle of Blair Mountain, local police chief Sid Hatfield had sided with the strikers. Increased professionalization of security forces meant the chances of another Sid Hatfield emerging to take the side of workers against capitalist forces became less likely. The newly professionalized police could work hand in glove with the new federally funded and more uniformly trained National Guard units to break strikes and keep rioters in line. Castle-like armories provided secure bases of operation and a highly defensible refuge in case of mass uprising. 

The West Coast Waterfront Strikes of 1934 provide a good look at how capitalists and state forces responded to a labor uprising in the years after police professionalization and reinforced National Guard units fully took hold. Longshoremen, the people who moved cargo on and off ships at ports, went on strike for almost three months. While the strike was ultimately successful in unionizing all the West Coast longshoremen, the response by the authorities is illustrative of how far the security forces and capitalist coordination had come in the decade-plus since the Battle of Blair Mountain. When San Francisco exploded in protest, there were pitched street battles between security forces and the strikers in which contemporary reports claim some strikers opened fire. A clash between crowds of armed strikers and the San Francisco police and California National guard at the height of the strike became known as Bloody Thursday, during which two workers died. The castle-like San Francisco Armory served as a strong point for the local National Guard units to assemble behind not only the brick walls but also sand bagged barricades.303 Killed, 31 Shot in Widespread Rioting SCORES INJURED, GASSED AS POLICE BATTLE MOBS; CARGO MOVING CONTINUES,” The Daily News (5 July 1934), republished by Museum of the City of San Francisco. In addition to guarding shipping company convoys through lines of strikers, security forces also aided vigilantes who arrested leftists and destroyed their property.

Framed black and white poster of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in front of the storefront headquarters of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Both men are wearing berets and leather jackets and are armed with guns. Below the image is this quote from Newton: “The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities, cease their wanton murder and brutality and torture of black people, or face the wrath of the armed people”.

In summary, capitalist elites responded to nineteenth-century labor uprisings by building fortresses for better funded and trained National Guard troops, and by professionalizing the police to separate them from the population. 

However, the rise of the Soviet Union and Marxism-Leninism presented new challenges for the capitalist class. For one, the Soviet Union provided a basically impenetrable base of operations/refuge/training ground for various leftist organizers like Bill Haywood and Ho Chi Minh. The Soviet Union also provided clandestine funding for various leftist organizations, leading to the dominance of Marxism-Leninism in left circles for generations.31In Lenin: A New Biography (1994), Dmitry Volkogonov detailed the enormous sums in gold, silver, and dollars that the Soviet Union disbursed throughout the twentieth century to Communist movements all over the world. Volkogonov’s biography of Lenin is based on his unrestricted access to Lenin’s archives during the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Soviet revolutionaries developed a military assistance program for their satellite parties, and also a body of theory on how to systematically seize state power. In Armed Insurrection, a committee of Moscow-based military men, including Ho Chi Minh, writing as “A. Neuberg,” detailed the official strategy circa 1928. The key points on their strategic checklist were to subvert the state security forces, arm the proletariat, and develop an underground Red Guard. To do this, the authors emphasized that Marxist-Leninist organizers should make strong efforts to recruit serving members of the police and military, whether that was done by above-ground organizations or by building secret cell groups in the security forces that would be loyal to the local communist party. Revolutionary political lines developed in local Marxist-Leninist party central committees were to be pushed into the armed forces of the states to subvert them, by hook or by crook. Also on the checklist was arming the proletariat. By this, the authors referred to labor organizations, semi-military associations of ex-servicemen, and sporting organizations such as rifle clubs. The idea there was that when the local Marxist-Leninist party central committee ordered an insurrection, then there would be plenty of party members and sympathizers with practiced skill at arms and access to weapons. Finally, the authors detail the formation of underground “Red Guard” units that would be the combat force of the local Marxist-Leninist party in its seizure of power. The Neuberg committee also detailed training and organization, as well as a number of case studies where Marxist-Leninist forces seized power in cities but failed to hold them against regular military forces. 

A few decades after the Soviet Union clandestinely published Armed Insurrection, the Marxist-Leninist Chinese Communist Party took power in Beijing. The CCP had fought first the Kuomintang (KMT), then the Empire of Japan, and finally the KMT again. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the CCP waged a 20+ year struggle of guerilla warfare. In addition to being the leader of the CCP, Mao was also a brilliant theorist of warfare. Among his most influential works was On Guerrilla Warfare, which detailed the basis for the CCP’s rural-based insurgency.32See Mao Zedong and U.S. Marine Corps, On Guerrilla Warfare (FMFRP 12-18) (1989). Note that this translation was prepared by Brigadier General Samuel B. Griffith for the use of the U.S. Marine Corps, originally circa 1961 and reprinted in 1989. Like the authors of Armed Insurrection, Mao emphasized the importance not just of military organization, but also ideological indoctrination of communist forces. Unlike the Neuberg committee, which devoted most of its attention to cities and streetfighting, Mao emphasized rural areas, and not just as a place of clandestine organization. Mao directed his followers to build base areas, where communist fighters could rest and train out in the open, in preparation to join the fight in areas where the CCP lacked control. Mao’s ideology emphasized disciplined soldiers who would not steal from the locals, unlike warlord soldiers. For Mao, guerrilla warfare emphasized “alertness, mobility, and attack” – in other words quick attacks and then disappearing back into the population. The Maoist guerrillas must work closely with the local population and depend on their sympathy and cooperation, while also agitating the locals against the regime forces. To paraphrase Mao, the guerrilla is like a fish who swims in the sea of the people. To build the sea of the people, Maoists used a variety of social groupings to draw in people from all walks of life, providing a popular base for their struggle against the KMT. In essence, Mao and his followers designed their strategy to enable weaker military forces to defeat stronger ones, by the use of political means and surprise attacks. 

However, Mao’s strategy encompassed more than just hit-and-run guerrilla attacks. Over time, as the guerrillas wear down the regime forces, and regime forces lose morale and withdraw to the cities, the regular army can emerge from the base areas and decisively take power. Thus, the guerrilla forces slowly become one with and merge with regular forces in overt confrontations with the occupying regime. Mao was writing specifically about the occupying forces of Japan, but later his armies would use the same tactics against the KMT after the end of the Second World War. This strategy is often referred to as “surrounding the cities from the countryside.” With popular support in the city and countryside, it became difficult for the KMT to keep its troops in the field, with some units defecting wholesale. 

Marxist-Leninist/Maoist-style movements began to really threaten the capitalist class after World War II, not in the industrial West, but in the former colonies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As a practice, counterinsurgency arose in the immediate post-World War II era, as the imperialist powers responded to the growth of insurgencies in their colonies. The French government fought imperial struggles in Algeria and Indochina, while the British empire successfully prevailed against Communist guerrillas in Malaysia. The colonial powers faced a challenge from Marxist-Leninist (ML) revolutionary parties that combined political action with what they called armed struggle. Political action took a familiar form of trade union activity, protest marches, and the formation of various types of pressure groups. ML parties sought to coordinate their activities with liberals (called a United Front strategy in the Maoist sects) while operating so-called “front groups” that were led by party cadres but incorporated non-Communist members of civil society. ML parties had underground armies that conducted sabotage, assassinations, and bombings in cities, alongside similar actions with larger units in rural areas. Rural areas provided space for guerrillas to establish bases for training as well as refuge from attacks by the central government/imperial forces. In the Maoist theory, over time revolutionary cadres would “swim in the sea of the people,” providing a covert rural government that addressed needs of local farmers, while gathering strength to eventually encircle the cities and launch a conventional military campaign, as described in On Guerrilla Warfare

In response, British and French military theorists developed the doctrine of counterinsurgency. Under intense pressure, French forces ultimately withdrew from both Indochina (1954) and Algeria (1962), where local Communist or Communist-influenced forces emerged as dominant. British forces, on the other hand, successfully excluded the Malayan Communist Party from the post-withdrawal government of Malaysia. The two key figures in French counterinsurgency literature were Roger Trinquier and David Galula, both of whom led troops in the French military campaigns in Algeria, with Trinquier also serving several tours in Indochina. The key architect in the successful British counterinsurgency effort in Malaysia was Sir Robert Thompson.

David Galula in particular went on to author a particularly influential text, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964). Galula saw fighting insurgencies as a problem of politics as much as a problem of straight military force, and in his book he creates a typology of Marxist-Leninist patterns of insurgency and more or less glosses Maoist theory. Galula categorized insurgencies as having hot and cold periods. In the cold period, most insurgent activity is legal and nonviolent. In the hot period, the activity is mostly illegal and violent. The courses of action in the cold period are described as 1) act on the leaders, 2) act on the conditions creating the insurgency, 3) infiltrate the insurgent movement, and 4) build up the regime’s political machine.33Galula, p. 44. 

Once the insurgent conflict goes “hot” as Galula calls it (or as the modern US military would say “goes kinetic”), Galula claims that it is impossible for the regime forces to adopt guerrilla tactics. He lays out four laws of counterinsurgency in a hot war:

  1. The Support of the Population is as Necessary for the Counterinsurgent as for the Insurgent
  2. Support Is Gained Through an Active Minority34Galula never really makes it clear precisely what he means by an active minority, but if you look at what’s happening with the anti-genocide protests on college campuses, it all comes into view. Specifically, though the campus protesters may be a minority in society at large, striking them down is important from a Galulan perspective, to prevent them from becoming an active minority that could change the society around them. 
  3. Support from the Population Is Conditional
  4. Intensity of Efforts and Vastness of Means Are Essential

In an echo of Mao, he emphasizes that the “First Law” is that the support of the population for the incumbent regime is where “the fight has to be.” In his discussion of his “Second Law,” Galula claims that mobilizing the active minority in favor of the regime requires the counterinsurgent to “use the law for his own purposes,” presumably a euphemism for “fuck civil liberties.”35Indeed, the whole idea of a “cold period” in which the counterinsurgency operation feels at liberty to target legal and nonviolent “insurgent” activity sounds to even a mildly critical ear like little more than an excuse to crack down on civil society in peacetime. And indeed it was official anti-communist policy throughout the Cold War for the US to back brutal dictatorships across the developing world in the name of defending precisely those freedoms and civil liberties which they stripped whole countries of in the process. It’s less of a contradiction when you realize the capitalists, spymasters, and generals involved in making such decisions were simply racists who believed only the comfort of the upper classes in the rich Western countries mattered in this calculus – the freedom and civil rights of poor people and people of color in the global periphery simply didn’t count. –Eds. The “Third Law” is almost a corollary to the “First,” in that Galula believes that the anti-insurgent minority will not emerge until they feel safe from the insurgency’s reprisals and believe that the regime is going to win. 

Galula defines victory as the destruction of the insurgent forces and organization in a given area and a “permanent isolation of the insurgent from the population . . . maintained by the population.” This last piece, of “isolation . . . maintained by the population” is important, and we will return to it in a later section. 

To fight ML insurgencies, Galula advocated for policies that can be summarized as the carrot and the stick. The “stick” of counter-insurgency emphasized targeting key revolutionary cadres for torture, assassination, or imprisonment. Given the emphasis of guerrilla forces on rural hit-and-run tactics, both the British and French developed specialized light infantry forces that covered distances by helicopter and trained to counter-ambush and out-maneuver guerrilla forces. The stick side also involved less overtly violent means like extensive intelligence gathering within civil society, as well as co-opting civil society resistance and separating it from any possible Marxist influences. 

The “carrot” side of counterinsurgency was that regime forces attempted to provide security for towns and villages so that the inhabitants would feel comfortable supporting the existing government, vice being vulnerable to insurgent reprisals. Often, government forces would deputize local militias made up of minimally paid loyalists to carry out security functions – including assassinations and torture – at the village level. The carrot side ostensibly also emphasized addressing the problems of rural farmers, through programs like medical assistance, land reform, electrification, and so on. 

While British and French military officers were theorizing and fighting counterinsurgency campaigns, the governing elite of the United States were hard at work attacking the left as well. At the close of World War II, the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) had around 80,000 members. In the dawn of the Cold War, the United States capitalist elite aggressively counterattacked the left by banning unions from general strikes and making membership in the Communist Party illegal. Although courts overturned the ban on Communist Party membership, social pressure to drive Communists or other members of the radical left out of public life was intense. The effect on Hollywood and the arts is famously depicted in the films The Front (1976) and Trumbo (2015). State violence backed up social pressure, as it was routine for the FBI to visit businesses to inform them of their potentially left-wing employees.

Not only did the FBI, the US’s premiere domestic counterintelligence service, visit workplaces; they also infiltrated the CPUSA at its highest levels.36For example, Morris Childs, a leader in the Communist Party, USA who represented the party to Communist Party leadership in the Soviet Union, and also lived a double life as an FBI informant. FBI informants kept the Bureau fully apprised of actions of CPUSA finance operations, as well as top leadership decisions. Through record requests decades after the fact, journalists have discovered that the FBI repeatedly investigated Dr. Martin Luther King’s connection to Stanley Levinson, who turned out to be a former top CPUSA official in their finance operation. Well placed informants gave full details of Levinson’s activities.37David J. Garrow, “The FBI and Martin Luther King.” The Atlantic (1 July 2002).

The US government goes to war against the New Left

The fall of SDS and the rise of the urban guerrilla

While the CPUSA continued to bleed members, a literal New Left emerged in the early 1960s, formed around anti-Vietnam war activism, though also fueled by concerns over gender, racial, and sexual equality. The New Left was in some ways independent of the old CPUSA/Socialist Party USA hierarchies. It had a strong anarchist element among groups like the Yippies, as well. Although he grew up in the old CPUSA/Socialist Worker Party circles, Murray Bookchin had a small but influential following reviving anarchist ideas in NYC. New Left circles overlapped with the rise of various struggles for ethnic liberation such as the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, and Red Guards. 

As repeated street uprisings and mass antiwar protests failed to stop the war in Southeast Asia, some factions of the New Left and ethnic liberation movements increasingly gravitated towards Marxism-Leninism. Elements of the Black Panthers tried to restructure the organization to be a Leninist party, while factions of SDS joined with disgruntled factions of CPUSA and formed parties like the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). All of the Leninist organizations mentioned above were heavily influenced by the Maoist doctrine of people’s war. 

Some groups believed that inner city, heavily POC areas were like internal colonies of the white power structure, with a small comprador class of business owners. The RCP, like the Panthers, had armed cadre groups, acquired weapons, and trained themselves as party militias. It wasn’t all talk either. As the 60s rolled into the 70s, armed groups of all kinds exploded across America. There was a time when bombings by Marxist-Leninist groups were commonplace across the United States.38See Bryan Burrough, “The Bombings of America That We Forgot.” Time (20 September 2016). And for cultural reference points, see (among many others) films of this time period such as Network (1976) and Shaft (1971). 

Large color lithographic poster published by The Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, African and Latin America (OSPAAAL) with the message “Retaliation to Crime: Revolutionary Violence” written in English, French, Spanish and Arabic below an illustration of a red-eyed black panther with its teeth bared and the words “Black Power” inside its open jaw. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture 1968

Urban uprisings featured gun battles between police and insurgents. The United States had been sending tens of thousands of young American men to compulsory service in Southeast Asia. Many of those men experienced sustained infantry combat and learned the latest small unit weapons skills. As those men came home, many of them found places in various armed groups. Surplus military firearms like the US M1 Carbine (used by Malcolm X in the iconic window photo) and the Walther P38 9mm pistol (a favorite of Huey Newton’s and apparently, if photographs are illustrative; Robert F. Williams’s too) were inexpensive, reasonably powerful under 100 yards, and easy to use. In addition to organized revolutionary activity, there were also surges in robberies, murders, and large-scale drug sales. 

All of the above factors contributed to the growth of urban guerrilla groups that seriously challenged the ability of security services to maintain control of inner city neighborhoods. In response, the security services began to deploy counterinsurgency tactics inside the borders of the United States. Mobile police units with more sophisticated weapons and tactics emerged. In Los Angeles, Daryl Gates created the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to respond to bank robberies, hostage situations, and urban guerrilla actions. The FBI managed to develop informants and operatives within groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and Black Panthers. They considered the Panthers a serious threat to national security. Beyond public appearances with openly carried firearms, the Panthers often followed Mao’s philosophy of building popular support through social programs in places that the central government chose to ignore or oppress. For example, the Panthers ran literacy and breakfast programs for school children, which the FBI considered a major threat.39Victoria M. Massie, “The most radical thing the Black Panthers did was give kids free breakfast.” Vox (15 October 2016).

In the case of the Panthers, FBI assets stirred up conflicts between different factions and reported on internal party activity. The FBI program known as COINTELPRO incited various factions of the Panthers to enter into open physical conflict. An FBI informant likely drugged Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in the hours before a Chicago Police tactical team burst into his home and executed him in cold blood.40Flint Taylor, “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: A Short People’s History,” People’s Law Office website (20 January 2021).

FBI infiltration of the Maoist sects

As detailed in the book Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists (2014) by Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher, the FBI successfully had at least one informant on the governing body of one of the largest 1970s New Communist parties, the RCP. As a Marxist-Leninist party, the RCP governed itself with a single body of decision-makers, who chose their own successors and expected to have their orders obeyed by all party members. This is known as the practice of democratic centralism, first advocated by Lenin. Under democratic centralism, a party allows full discussion of a course of action. However, once the central committee makes a decision, then all party members must “fall into line” and carry out the party directive without further discussion. In theory this is supposed to ensure that an organization makes the best use of its resources, with a wise central committee directing all resources to the goals on which “everyone” has agreed. 

Throughout the 1970s, the RCP prepared for armed struggle – that is, the party leadership armed themselves through a variety of means. They also enlisted a husband-and-wife gunsmithing team. The RCP emerged as a merging of various Bay Area leftist/communist groups, centered at the two great universities, UC Berkeley and Stanford. Today the RCP is mostly known as a historical curiosity – its perpetual leader, Bob Avakian, has built a cult of personality around himself. The RCP maintains a chain of bookstores and a small newspaper, as well as various front groups that show up at protests. While today the RCP is considered mostly a figure of fun on the left, in its day, the FBI considered it and other Maoist parties a “threat of the first magnitude.”41Aaron J. Leonard & Conor Gallagher, A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Counterintelligence and Infiltration from the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union 1962 – 1974 (2018). So thorough was the FBI’s infiltration that even the gunsmith couple who aided the RCP turned out to be federal informants, and detailed records of central committee meeting discussions appear in now declassified FBI files. Despite the RCP leadership’s attempt to keep its plans for armed struggle secret, it was all to no avail. The embrace of democratic centralism by New Left secret armies made them in general vulnerable to infiltration. All the FBI had to do was identify the central committee, and then either use wiretaps or human informants to ascertain the plans. Since ML organizations then and now are run in a strict hierarchy from a center, there is a single point of failure for intelligence gathering. Looking back from 2024, it might seem fantastic to think that there could have been leftists trying to build secret underground armies. 

The US security services were certainly worried about this eventuality. In fact they were so worried that they likely suppressed a film about a Black professional who joins the CIA, and after becoming disillusioned with his role as a token “sitting by the door,” then begins to lead an underground cell of revolutionaries in a major city. The film shows a fairly classic Marxist-Leninist uprising that would not seem out of place in the Neuberg committee’s Armed Insurrection. The film was The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), based on a book by African-American author Sam Greenlee. Greenlee knew a little bit about uprisings and revolutions – he spent eight years as a State Department diplomat, receiving an award for bravery for actions carried out during the 1958 uprising in Baghdad.42Gregg Reese, “Radical novelist Sam Greenlee dies at 83.” Our Weekly (22 May 2014).

The movie had a short theatrical release in 1973, marked by allegations that government agents intimidated theater owners against further showings. After the theatrical run ended, all known original prints of the film disappeared. Decades later, in 2004, actor Tim Reid tracked down a copy of the film, which is now available on streaming sites and DVD. 

The 1960s, in short, were a time when leftist revolution seemed more than plausible; it seemed inevitable. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his 1971 novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971): 

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.43Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971). First Vintage Books edition, pp. 67-68. 

Some hints of government meddling in the hippie movement

Thompson, of course, wasn’t a member of one of the New Communist sects. Instead, he fit into the much larger group of left-leaning Americans swept up in political and cultural upheavals. He had expressed some ideological affinity with the libertarian socialist International Workers of the World, but he was apparently unaffiliated with any left political organization. 

However, through his journalism he both participated in and helped create the free-wheeling, sex-drugs-rock-and-roll culture that has become the enduring memory of the 1960s and 1970s. In many ways, the libertarian culture that Thompson represented was always more appealing to the majority of Americans than participation in democratic centralist Marxist-Leninist organizations. As such, the libertarian (in the anarchist sense), hedonistic culture that emerged was a direct threat to continued capitalist domination of an industrial society predicated on a large population of docile, sober workers.

That hippie hedonism which seemed relatively harmless, or even comical, throughout the 1960s, came to be seen as extremely suspect in August of 1969. Over the course of August, a cult group associated with Charles Manson carried out multiple murders throughout the Los Angeles area, including of famed actress Sharon Tate and entrepreneurs Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. After authorities arrested Manson and his followers for the murders, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi depicted them as a cult of drug-crazed hippies intent on starting a race war. 

The Tate-LaBianca murders can be seen as the moment that Thompson’s wave broke, when the good intentions of hippie free love and inner exploration revealed themselves as dangerous diversions from the unchanging wisdom of sober minded Establishment technocrats.44Indeed, the Tate-LaBianca murders are such a turning point in the cultural memory of the Sixties that they still haunt our collective dreams of that era in strange ways. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), for example, turns out in the end to be an elaborate fantasy of a world where they just barely get prevented through a series of highly contingent and violent slapstick gags. What if, the movie seems to ask, the Mansons hadn’t done their awful work? Would the good times have just kept on rolling? It’s a distinctly Boomer fantasy, of course, and politically naive in the extreme – but not unusual in our folk or pop mythology. –Eds. The lead prosecutor of the Manson clan, Vincent Bugliosi, emerged then as a clean-cut Southern California avenger of law and order, ruthlessly litigating the hippies into prison on behalf of the People of the State of California. Bugliosi, it turned out, was the vanguard of a new wave of conservatism emerging from Southern California that would culminate in the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency in 1980, wherein the Moral Majority of law and order would triumph over the obviously degenerate hippie scumbags. 

A pamphlet about the Black Panther Party. The font cover features black print on discolored paper. At top, there is a black and white photograph of members of the Black Panther Party standing in a line. The interior consists of fourteen pages of text. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the family of Dr. Maurice Jackson and Laura Ginsburg ca. 1970

But what if Charles Manson was at the center of a hidden counterinsurgency effort to discredit the incoherent, yet widely popular, libertarian left? Although its boldest claims are not fully proven, investigative journalist Tom O’Neil’s Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties (2019) argues that Manson appears to have been protected by some powerful forces within the security services. 

The premise of the book might seem like the fever dream of an addled conspiracy theorist, but it was favorably reviewed by the Los Angeles Times,45Stephen Phillips, “What really happened in the Manson murders? ‘Chaos’ casts doubt on Helter Skelter theory.LA Times (12 July 2019). the Washington Post,46Greg King, “A 20-year search for the truth behind the Manson Family murders.” Washington Post (1 August 2019). and The Guardian.47Peter Conrad, “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill with Dan Piepenbring – review.” The Guardian (7 July 2019). And for good reason: even if not all its theories about Manson in particular are true, it carefully documents enough disturbing evidence of covert state meddling in the counterculture to at least demonstrate the lengths the ruling class was willing to go to control and put down dissent.

In the years before the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson had repeatedly violated his parole, and yet he was never sent back to prison. On reviewing Manson’s arrest record while on parole, a former Southern California prosecutor related to O’Neill that it was extremely unlikely that Manson could have escaped being sent back to prison without some kind of powerful intervention on his behalf. Moreover, O’Neill connects Manson to a strange cast of security services characters, including Reed Whitson, a man with little visible means of support, and a UCLA psychiatrist Jolley West, who had conducted LSD research first during his military days and then as a professor. Whitson, who was associated loosely with the scene around Tate, seems to have been some kind of ultra-rightist who routinely infiltrated left-wing movements and had knowledge of the Sharon Tate murders before the bodies were discovered. West denied he ever worked for the CIA, but O’Neill discovered evidence in West’s papers at a UCLA archive that seemed to indicate that he had: copies of what appears to be a report that West filed with the CIA where he claimed that he had developed a method for implanting memories in people’s minds through the use of LSD. Somehow, he also found time to be the last person to interview JFK assassination player Jack Ruby before Ruby went clinically insane. West conducted his research out of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco and maintained an apartment where he and his research assistants dosed unwitting people with LSD. The Free Clinic was also where Manson reported to his parole officer, a man who at the time had one client – Manson. As the LA Times reviewer wrote “[i]t’s striking how Manson transmogrified from hardened ex-con to acid-slinging cult leader under the noses of authorities as a drop-in at the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, where he was treated as a research subject, fodder for a later-published commune study.” O’Neill also systematically dismantles Bugliosi’s account of Manson’s motivations, instead uncovering evidence that the Manson cultists staged the Tate-LaBianca murders in a confused effort to provide a cover story for one of their already imprisoned members. 

O’Neill discovers through his research that Bugliosi, far from being an upright and honest prosecutor, was a man who fathered an illegitimate child and terrorized his former mistress using his connections to the justice system.

Though it raises more questions than it answers, O’Neill’s book is a key piece of history because it gives a fuller picture of the scope of counterinsurgency during the 1960s and 1970s. In short, what emerges is the contours of a counterinsurgency effort that sought to undermine all possible opposition to capitalist domination. No area was safe. Neither the Marxist-Leninist parties like the CPUSA and RCP, nor the legions of counterculture hippie kids looking to experience a more spiritual form of liberation. 

The War on Drugs, the consolidation of the counterinsurgency, and the failure of the Leninist model

Ultimately, though, the state security forces were hunting more dangerous game. By 1968, in the wake of the assassinations of various dissident leaders and the resulting waves of riots, many of the left-wing groups mentioned above were getting armed, growing quickly, and openly at war with the government. This phase would prove a definitive test for the Leninist model of covert armed struggle.

Throughout the 1970s, one network of collectives that seemed48At least some of them. As we’ll see later, some Weather collectives were infiltrated – although the decentralized nature of the network allowed others to continue their activities until they were captured or surrendered. to maintain its ability to operate freely was the Weather Underground. While Manson and his followers were culting it up in the LA basin, elements of the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) were organizing themselves into insurgent, underground cells to take direct armed action against the ruling class of the United States. They called themselves the Weather Underground.

In the early 1960s, SDS was a socialist organization for college students, focused on participatory democracy and the creation of a “new left,” breaking the continuity with the older Stalinist formations of the 1930s. Opposition to the war in Vietnam and compulsory male military service swelled the organization’s ranks over the course of the 1960s. SDS chapters on college campuses across the United States became hubs for all types of left organizing, from civil rights to feminism to opposing the American war effort in Southeast Asia. 

During one initiative, SDS members went into poor communities of color and attempted to organize people into democratic pressure groups. However, this effort seemed to stall, while requiring intense effort by the students. In 1968 and 1969, factions within SDS debated the future of the organization and its political orientation. After the smoke cleared, the firmly anticapitalist faction that gained control shut down the national office and went underground. This was the Marxist-Leninist faction that eventually became known as the Weather Underground. Throughout the 1970s, Weather carried out bombings of various government and capitalist facilities. Weather had developed a network of safe houses, weapons caches, and propaganda outlets. Large elements of American society viewed Weather favorably – one faction managed to obtain genuine government identification documents from sympathetic government employees.49See “Nation: Infiltrating the Underground,” Time (9 January 1978), and Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (1973). 

How well developed were Weather’s clandestine operational capacities? In 1971, Weather accepted cash payment from a group of LSD-making drug dealers to organize the prison break of psychedelics advocate Timothy Leary, and using their connections to Black radical organizations, they arranged for Leary and his wife to escape US authorities and seek refuge in Tunisia under the protection of the Black Panthers. 

It was not only white and Black armed groups that emerged from the New Left – among the Chicano movement there were the Brown Berets in California and the Alianza Federal de Mercedes50Some might say that the Alianza was not on the left, given its leader Reies Tijerina’s later political evolution. However, during the 1960s they were enough of a presence that Tijerina appeared with the Panthers.The Alianza also participated as a key delegation in the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington. With the Alianza, Tijerina organized the Hispanic land grant heirs in New Mexico, whose ancestors had received land from the Spanish Crown and then been driven off by Anglo settlers. Tijerina was an itinerant preacher from Texas, who upon taking up the cause of the Alianza also spent years as a fugitive across the southwestern US. While a fugitive he continued to organize, and he crossed into Mexico to do archival research on the claims of the land grant heirs. Tijerina gained a following across the Southwest and was even able to get a meeting with former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas regarding the land grant issue. Eventually, in 1967, he and his followers staged an armed raid on a courthouse intending to arrest the local district attorney for trying to stop them from organizing. In response the state government called out all law enforcement agencies and the National Guard to scour the mountains in search of Tijerina, only gaining his surrender after the authorities took about 50 prisoners and held them without shelter or food to try to gain his compliance. One wonders whether the intense repression campaign waged by the Mexican government against the student leftist movements of 1968, culminating in the Tlatelolco massacre, was not only an effort to maintain their internal control, but serving also the United States capitalist class’s aim of preventing the creation in Mexico of a sanctuary for American revolutionaries of Mexican descent. in the Southwest, and among Native Americans, the American Indian Movement (AIM).51For more on this topic, see John Michael Colón’s interview of Roberto Mendoza, “The Native Freedom Struggle” in Strange Matters (16 February 2024). There were also various Asian American formations, like the San Francisco Red Guard. 

Needless to say, federal authorities stepped up their response to the organized left. President Richard Nixon announced a “War on Drugs” in 1971, ostensibly as an effort to protect Americans from the pernicious health effects of various narcotic substances. In actuality, as Nixon’s assistant John Ehrlichmann admitted decades later, the real aim of the effort was to suppress Black people and the left.52See Dan Baum, “Legalize It All,” Harper’s (April 2016). Leary’s escape was just a prominent example of something that by the early 1970s had become commonplace – the funding of leftist activities via drug sales. In an era when many people from the Bay Area radical scene had fled to the mountains of Northern California and begun growing cannabis, there were ample opportunities for all kinds of leftist projects to receive funding and logistical support from drug operations – and vice versa. It is common to hear rumors that many radical projects of the era were funded via drug networks, and the capitalist class clearly had reason to fear for its continued existence. (But then, the capitalist class was also perfectly willing to fund clandestine operations with drug sales.)53See, for example, the Contra insurgency against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, where Latin American rightist clients of the US government sold cocaine to buy guns, as well as Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972).

Throughout the 1970s, the United States was not the only nation-state to face militant armed underground groups. Armed raids by secret Marxist-Leninist armies happened in Germany, Italy, Japan, South Africa, Israel, Switzerland, and more. Many of these groups received varying degrees of assistance from the USSR. In response, the capitalist countries developed or reinforced specialized military and police units to engage insurgent forces. The major players were the Israeli Sayret Maktal, British Special Air Service (SAS), the French Groupe d’intervention de la Gendarmerie nationale (GIGN), and the West German Grenzschutzgruppe 9 (GSG9). The SAS served as a model for what became known as the US Army’s Delta Force. They developed and spread techniques of close-quarters battle – precision pistol and long gun fire in buildings, with mutually supporting gunfire provided via team tactics. These organizations, which are sometimes called “special mission units,” developed not only overt firearms skills, but also clandestine/undercover/plainclothes techniques. In a sense, the special mission unit personnel became the state security force doppelgangers of their insurgent targets, able to use disguises, shell companies, and false identification to move freely and unseen through urban areas while heavily armed. 

Although insurgent groups carried out raids, assassinations, and so on throughout the 1970s, they were increasingly isolated from any mass organizations or mass support, and their armed actions were increasingly ineffective in the face of determined military/paramilitary special units. Moreover, as the War on Drugs went international, insurgents of all kinds found it difficult to maintain international financing and material supply chains. Increased tracking of all types of personal behavior and movement became normalized and accepted by broad sectors of American society. What’s more, the FBI had by the mid 1970s developed sophisticated informers who were able to penetrate at least one of the Weather splinter groups.54See “Nation: Infiltrating the Underground,” Time (9 January 1978). Over time many of the original Weather militants like Mark Rudd and Bernadine Dohrn turned themselves in to the authorities or were captured by law enforcement. 

As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, the fate of the Black Panther Party is illustrative. The party in its early days pursued a variety of initiatives from mutual aid (the breakfast program), electoral politics (Bobby Seale ran for Mayor of Oakland and almost won), and armed cop watching patrols. By the early 1980s, Party numbers dwindled as various groups split. Some of the splinter groups became active in the drug trade, to the extent that it seems likely that drug sales became their major activity. Huey Newton himself, one of the BPP’s founders, died on an Oakland sidewalk in 1989, in what some said was a drug deal gone wrong.55For example, his fellow BPP leader Bobby Seale, who in an interview decades later said openly that by 1973 Huey was “trying to corner the drug market” in Oakland. See “Bobby Seal says that the FBI didn’t destroy the Black Panthers, He DID!” on YouTube (19 July 2018). –Eds. The effective intelligence gathering of the War on Drugs also meant that most drug gangs were small, easily shattered operations that were forced into the shadows, no longer able to finance spectacular prison breaks by insurrectionaries for hire. 

While 1960s radicals had theorized inner city neighborhoods as potential liberated spaces from which to wage anticolonial struggle, in practice, the peak years of the crack wars revealed that the ability to deny the police ready access to a few square miles of inner city territory didn’t amount to much. Unlike rural Maoist farmers, autonomy through subsistence farming was not possible inside of a city. 

As some people say in Oakland, the Panthers fought a war and lost. Throughout the midcentury period, the United States’ security services developed methods for infiltrating and breaking up the various Leninist sects, such that building a secret army along the Leninist model became effectively impossible.56Besides Don Cox’s memoir, another excellent source for information on how Leninist structures ultimately made the Panthers weaker and more susceptible to the coercive apparatus of the state is a panel given in Brooklyn to a packed crowd at Starr Bar by ex-Panther Jamal Joseph and WBAI radio host/lawyer Michael Steven Smith. The talk was hosted by the Black Socialists in America and the DSA Libertarian Socialist Caucus. See “Black Socialists in America and DSA-LSC Present: A Panel on COINTELPRO” on YouTube (11 January 2019). –Eds.

The Double Counterinsurgency Today

The two faces of counterinsurgency

We’ve looked at how the two faces of counterinsurgency are the carrot and the stick. Let’s examine them in greater detail. 

The stick side of counterinsurgency is of course the work of special mission units and civilian security forces – raids, kidnapping, assassinations, and other types of violent action described by Galula in his works cited above.57The US military often refers to violent operations as “kinetic warfare.” It extends beyond overt violence, however, also encompassing things like disruption of above-ground social movements, recruiting informants, entrapment (the use of undercover elements to induce vulnerable people to commit crimes), all types of technical surveillance (voice or text message interception, remote activation of home microphones, web history etc). 

I would argue that it also includes gun control. We’ve already seen that a key figure in establishing the modern gun control regime was none other than Ronald Reagan; that it was established with the specific purpose of disarming the Black Panthers; and that in the context of the US tradition of popular sovereignty, full as it is of cases where people used their right to bear arms to secure their basic rights, this only makes any sense from the point of view of a racist attempting to preserve white supremacy. 

But today, of course, gun control is the passion project not of the GOP but of the Democratic Party. The San Francisco Bay Area that the Black Panthers lived in – not to mention their predecessors, such as the gun-toting Ocean View women and so many others – feels unimaginable today. This is because in the decades following the 1960s, the Democrats have dramatically stigmatized (far beyond any historical precedent from before the late 1960s) the ownership of firearms and other means of armed force for purposes of autonomy among working-class people – especially if they’re people of color, doubly so if they’re in organized social movements. 

This is a timeline poster about violence and killings against Black Panther members by the police. This rectangular poster consists of rows of squares that mark the days of each month. Various squares are blacked out or filled with color or patterns. These colors and patterns correspond to a legend at the bottom of the poster. Scattered throughout the poster are small black and white vignettes of individuals who were persecuted by the police. Text at the top of the poster reads “Evidence of Intimated & Fascist Crimes by USA/ The war on the Black Panther Party 1968-1969.” On the poster’s bottom margin in the right corner is text that reads “Source: The Black Panther Black Community News Service.” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture 2010

For example, Democrats in California have done this by steadily shrinking the places where a person can have or use a loaded firearm, ostensibly (and in the case of true believers, sincerely) in the name of preventing violent crime and mass shootings. Unlike the majority of states, California has an onerous, expensive, and deeply invasive concealed carry permitting process, further removing guns from daily life. Through zoning and business permit laws that prevent the operation of gun stores and shooting ranges, they attack the ability of people to purchase firearms and train with them. And despite the incredible growth of land purchases for public open spaces around the Bay Area, as well as great strides in wildlife habitat restoration (and constant pressure from feral pigs), the legal regime ensures that no hunting can take place in any of the parks, even the ones in the foothills with thousands of acres of open space. 

A similar situation holds in nearly all the “blue states,” and particularly on the heavily urbanized coasts. By dramatically shrinking the places where firearms are permissible, and by limiting the venues for competitive shooting and hunting, the Democrats have achieved a steady reduction in autonomous possibilities both in the practice and in the minds of people who live in such a constricted environment. From a dialectical-materialist perspective, by changing the physical environment to restrict firearms, the Democratic Party elite have created the material conditions that eliminated legal firearms culture – and with it, the old framework of popular sovereignty. 

The carrot side of counterinsurgency is the harder one to see, but no less vital – and it will be the focus of most of what follows. It consists of the various techniques by which social movement participants (especially leaders) and ordinary working people themselves are recruited into and indoctrinated by the overall counterinsurgency campaign. These methods not only complement the more explicit forms of repression but are vitally necessary in order for them to work. And here, too, the target is the culture of popular sovereignty that posed such a powerful threat for the powers that be in the last century. 

Galula writes of the importance of building support for the incumbent regime ideology. 

Most of the counterinsurgent’s efforts…tend to build a political machine at the grass roots in order to isolate the insurgent from the population forever. 


It may be useful to remember that a peacetime political machine is built essentially on patronage.58Galula, p. 47

Patronage takes the form of providing rewards for supporting the incumbent power structure. Specifically, this includes things like clear career paths for journalists and academics who publicly write in support of the power structure, especially if they disclaim any kind of autonomous social movements that can secure personal safety without immediate recourse to government security forces. Academia and journalism also provide a sort of farm team for politics: as people in these fields demonstrate their disregard of autonomy, the capitalist bosses reward them with advancement and perhaps, for a lucky few, a role in government – or at the very least as well compensated electoral campaign consultants. 

These methods of co-optation and elite recruitment are not just unfortunate aspects of the capitalist system in all its various periods and phases. I would argue that they have been perfected over the course of the last few decades in particular; and furthermore, that they are in fact precisely what Galula described when he proposed in Counterinsurgency that, after attaining victory, the populace would “isolate” insurgents. In the USA of the early twenty-first century, what that means is making sure that the left-leaning portion of the populace never believes that there even can be any real culture of autonomy, any popular sovereignty, any legitimate use of force by anyone but the deputized officials of the state. And one key way to do that is to make sure that those who have a public platform self-police the boundaries of discourse. 

Recuperation – or, the carrot rather than the stick

Even in relatively recent versions of the capitalist system, working-class movements had the kind of autonomy that could only come from something like the tradition of popular sovereignty. Today, by contrast, that culture is almost entirely gone. Although it is difficult to prove with total certainty, many years of experience in social movements have led me to conclude that this is anything but an accident. The two arms of the counterinsurgency targeted, aggressively and with much precision, the key pillars of the popular sovereignty tradition – and succeeded. And I think the loss of that tradition shows itself, tragically, in almost everything we on the left try (and fail) to do.

While it might seem that the armed might of state security forces and their informants is what put down the 1960s uprisings, it would be a mistake to ignore the quieter side of counterinsurgency. The Democratic Party, and the whole cultural and media apparatus surrounding it, has played a key role in the suppression of radical dissent. It’s folk wisdom within the movement that the Democrats are a “safety valve” for public discontent, “sheepdogging” organic social movements through the recruitment of personnel, the co-optation of causes, and the watering-down of demands so that social movements are neutralized and no real change happens. I basically agree with this assessment, but I believe it must specifically be framed as a conscious part of a counterinsurgency strategy against the radical movements of the postwar period – one that was so successful that it was permanently institutionalized as the standard way of dealing with new movements as they arose.

In what follows, I will be looking at various case studies. These aim not so much to illustrate the specific techniques of the counterinsurgency (though there will be some of that) as to show what happens to our movements after it’s been undertaken successfully. I want to look at the symptoms of the anti-autonomous, state-dependent, co-opted forms of consciousness that, across left-wing political tendencies, have become common. These symptoms are many and diverse, but they’re united by their debilitating effect on the ability of radical social movements to truly build alternative poles of power or change society’s fundamental institutions. It might require some patience from a reader – I will be ranging pretty far afield in certain cases – but it is my firm conviction that once you begin to see the fruits of the long counterinsurgency, you can’t unsee it, and it reaches into places that may not be obvious at first glance. 

Case study 1: The 80s-00s generation of POC politicos

Starting in the early 1970s, affirmative action programs and greater representation of POC in positions of political and cultural power became more common.59The arguments in this section have a great companion piece in our city profile of Jersey City from last year. See Sudip Bhattacharya, “The Illusion of a Renaissance” in Strange Matters Issue Two (Spring 2023). –Eds. By the 1990s in any major urban city it was very normal to see Black, Latino, and Asian professionals working in local government and running for office. On the one hand, no true leftist would disagree that diversity is genuinely desirable in political and cultural institutions, and these efforts created many opportunities for some marginalized people to experience upward social mobility for the first time. But from the point of view of the counterinsurgency, they played another, ultimately more insidious role: by shaping the educational and vocational requirements through which these POC could advance in their careers (especially, as we’ll see, by setting limits on what beliefs it was “acceptable” for them to publicly espouse), such initiatives became a key way for the establishment to win over college-educated professionals who might otherwise become leaders of insurgent movements. Patronage makes sure that potential leaders of insurgent movements are overwhelmingly funneled into – and turned into the useful instruments of – the Democratic Party.

How did this come to happen? For one thing, it became clear to many people by the mid 1970s that revolution wasn’t coming any time soon, and that continued attempts at armed struggle were failing to draw wide popular support with the end of the draft. 

For another, Democratic Party machines became adroit at co-opting radical language for neoliberal goals. A good example of this is ethnic studies programs. The ethnic studies programs in the United States emerged from the student strikes at UC Berkeley and SF State in 1968, known as the Third World Liberation Strike. At this time, Asian, Black, Native American, and Latino students came together to demand classes that addressed the history and sociology of people of color living in the United States, along with demands around representation in the student body and among the faculty. Throughout the 70s and 80s, ethnic studies programs spread all over the United States to colleges at all levels. 

Regardless of the radical aims of the student protesters, by the 1990s these programs had become pipelines into Democratic Party politics. Those who live in large metropolitan areas are no doubt familiar with the POC professional with political ambitions who emerges from such pipelines. Skilled at discussing representation and advocating for POC access to elite education and business opportunities, these people are firmly embedded for the most part in the business community, since that is how they raise funds for elections. At the state level, typically it is the real estate developers and small business owners (retail, car dealerships, etc) that are the big donors, though unhappy venture capitalists are starting to be a major presence as well. 

The scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explained it like this:

I think the most significant change in Black life over the last 50 years, since the last generation of the Black freedom struggle, has been the development of the Black middle class. That has many different elements to it. I think that there was an effort at the end of the ’60s to absorb a layer of African Americans into the mainstream of American society to create some success stories. This was in reaction to the massive Black insurgency that took place during the middle part of the 1960s. So from ’63 to ’68 you have almost 500,000 African Americans engaged in open rebellion in 500 cities in the US. So, there’s a recognition from the political establishment that this can’t go on. Part of the strategy is to create some success stories of African Americans who can live out their version of the American dream. Who can become homeowners, middle management types, and can have some level of investment in the current society. I think that was one aspect of it.

I think politically, there was also a need to approach the Black politics and really create a rift between radical elements who were pushing not just for Black political representation, but who were questioning the entire makeup and structure of American society. So, there was a concerted effort I think to really draw Black political operatives into the Democratic Party and to present the Democratic Party as a legitimate place for Black politics.


In a democracy, it’s very difficult for the state to just come out, denounce people and put people in jail – and do that sort of thing. So, there tends to be a sort of multipronged effort. One is from the foundations and funders and nongovernmental organizations [that] always find a way to insert themselves in the middle of political organizations around the question of funding and resource assistance. And that is certainly not a new phenomenon; it’s not something that has just happened just now with Black Lives Matter.


I think that probably the most concerted effort around these sorts of things really took place during the civil rights movement, when there was a concerted effort from funders working in concert with state operators or state actors – to try to warp the effects of the movement – to try to redirect the focus of the movement from a more broad and robust critique of society in general into a single-issue focus on voting. And you know voting is very important in terms of an expression of civil rights, but it’s not something that is going to challenge the basic order of society.60William C. Anderson & Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Achieving Black Liberation: A Conversation With Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.” Truthout (6 March 2016).

One example of someone who took the carrot and channeled his activism into electoral politics is Van Jones. A radical lawyer in his young years, here is how a Bay Area publication described him in the 1990s:

In 1994, the young activists formed a socialist collective, Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, or STORM, which held study groups on the theories of Marx and Lenin and dreamed of a multiracial socialist utopia. They protested police brutality and got arrested for crashing through police barricades. In 1996, Jones decided to launch his own operation, which he named the Ella Baker Center after an unsung hero of the civil-rights movement. Jones wedged a desk and a chair inside a large closet in the back of Paterson’s office. He brought in his home computer and ran cables through the rafters to get the operation humming.61Eliza Strickland, “The New Face of Environmentalism.” East Bay Express (2 November 2015).

In the early 00s Jones refashioned his work around environmentalism and green jobs, which led to a short stint in the Obama administration. His time in the administration ended in a resignation after public pressure over his previously expressed Marxism and some harsh language about Congressional Republicans. After some years in the wilderness, he emerged as a political commentator on CNN, who referred to Donald Trump as the “uniter in chief.”62Michael Harriot, “The Friend of My Enemy Is … Van Jones?The Root (4 March 2019).

Jones is just one example of a type that is all too familiar – an enthusiastic participant in Democratic Party patronage networks. Sure, some of these POC politicos may have put up a Che poster in their younger years or talked about ‘revolutionary’ politics if they were in very left-wing areas like the Bay Area or NYC; but by and large they understood that making it to the next level required shutting the fuck up about such things and sticking to representation politics. 

By the 1990s, the well mannered and educated POC candidate who spoke about ‘community’ and ‘hope’ was definitely the new hotness, and no one represents that better than Barack Obama. After an elite law school education at Harvard, Obama had a fellowship at University of Chicago’s law school, where he socialized with radical figures such as Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Later, hysterical Fox News commentators would use such social connections as proof that Obama was a secret radical Maoist Marxist intent on turning the United States into the Soviet Union under Stalin. Nothing could be further than the truth. When push came to shove, Obama threw Rev. Wright under the bus.

As Obama himself admitted in his biography, he read radical political philosophy as a dating strategy, with not much success.63“Looking back, it’s embarrassing to recognize the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was attempting to get to know: Marx and Marcuse so I had something to say to the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm; Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for the smooth-skinned sociology major who never gave me a second look; Foucault and Woolf for the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black. As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless; I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste friendships.” Barack Obama, A Promised Land (2020), p. 10. By the late 90s, Obama had traded in his leather jacket from his organizer days for a suit, serving for several terms in the Illinois legislature before his meteoric rise to the Senate and two terms in the White House. But in a sense, he had moved far from his days of insincerely reading radical literature to woo over his attractive female dormmates. Instead, he learned to co-opt the language of community organizing and ersatz-revolutionary ‘change’ to woo the American voters. After winning election in 2008 with such language, he promptly shut down the community organizing arm of his campaign and appointed Larry Summers to help with his presidential transition. Then, when the financial crisis hit in 2008, Obama’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner would “foam the runways” for the banks.64“Foaming the runways” refers to a program that was ostensibly to help struggling homeowners but actually was designed to allow “banks to spread out eventual foreclosures and absorb them more slowly, protecting bank balance sheets. Homeowners are the foam being steamrolled by a jumbo jet in that analogy.” David Dayen, “Obama Program that Hurt Homeowners and Helped Big Banks Is Ending” in The Intercept (28 December 2015).

When the carnage of the 2008 financial crisis led to a mass outbreak of street protest with the Occupy movement of 2011, Obama’s Department of Homeland security helped coordinate a multi-city crackdown on Occupy encampments all over the United States. In the following year, plenty of POC Democratic Party politicos oversaw police forces that mopped up what remained of the occupations. They also got out the vote for Obama, such that he easily won election in 2012. At the state and local level, Democratic Party leaders urged people to go to the polls and make real change through voting, trying to channel the energy of Occupy into electoral politics. This narrowing of a social movement into the electoral channel alone is an example of what Yamhatta-Taylor described in the blockquote above. 

Notably, despite Occupy’s focus on economic inequality and Wall Street accountability, Democratic Party leaders made essentially zero concessions to improve the economic situation for average Americans. I’ve seen this myself; at the height of Occupy, a friend who taught ethnic studies attempted to engage his tenured colleagues to get involved with the camp in their city. Despite their revolutionary rhetoric, they turned their backs on him and refused to get involved, leaving an untenured adjunct as the only faculty participant in what at that time was the largest left uprising in decades.

Case Study 2: the Asian Identity movement

For a long time, as someone deeply influenced by ethnic studies departments and the identity-based social movements of the 1960s-70s, it was hard for me to understand how people in an academic department that prided itself on its revolutionary heritage could ignore a massive popular uprising against economic inequality. Yet over time, I came to understand that the rise of the academically sanctioned Asian American identity was itself an act of profound counterinsurgency. It wasn’t perfect at this function, however, and had some bizarre unintended consequences.

In the mid 2010s, I noticed in online Asian American online spaces that the discourse seemed pretty thin – jokes about food, stories of white collar discrimination and laudatory features on media projects that featured Asian American artists. Korean American journalist Jay Caspian Kang felt comfortable asserting in 2017 that ”Asian-­American” is a mostly meaningless term,” in an article about a hazing death in an Asian American fraternity. Despite being a “mostly meaningless” term to Kang, four years later, as journalist Rosemarie Ho observed, he wrote a whole book about it.65Rosemarie Ho, “The Unsure State of Asian America” in The Nation (13 October 2021).

Among the various sketches from the “mostly meaningless” Asian America that fill the roughly 230 pages of his book, Kang covers the emergence of the MRAZN milieu online, centered on a couple of Reddit forums, AsianMasculinity and AznIdentity. These fora are, roughly, hubs of Asian ethnic nationalist discussion, with a big side helping (like most nationalist projects) of misogyny and online harassment. Having said that, there are some interesting things that can be learned from examining the phenomena – namely the strange journey some have taken from being liberal Democrats to Xi Jinping Marxist-Leninists.

Kang details the journey that he and his friend Doug take through the MRAZN world, meeting a number of the players who have expanded off reddit and into real world publishing and activism. In the end he concludes that “[i]t’s not hard to understand the appeal …When you see a ninety-one-year-old Asian man pushed to the ground in San Francisco and watch progressive elites turn a blind eye, where do you turn?”66Jay Caspian Kang, The Loneliest Americans (2021), p. 200.

Yet in Kang’s retelling of the origin of the MRAZN movement on Reddit, he curiously leaves one story out of the narrative. In his discussion of the rise of MRAZN ghost influencer Albert, aka “Al,” Kang mentions that after Albert’s troll army got him banned from Twitter and Reddit, “[i]nternal conflicts within r/AsianMasculinity fractured whatever solidarity remained.” What Kang has left out, however, is the internal struggle within /r/AsianMasculinity between two now-departed subreddit mods and the group that eventually formed /r/AznIdentity, a story of anti-fascist action that both complicates the narrative of the MRAZNs as problematic anti-capitalist warriors, and reveals much about the long counterinsurgency against the left.

Kang quotes Albert on his attitudes towards the other posters on AsianMasculinity at the time of his arrival in the subreddit. Albert says “[they were] trying to analyze [intermarriage and white male-Asian female couples] which I agree is real and it exists . . . then I’d tell them they had just internalized a whole bunch of racist bullshit.”As Kang sees it, Albert “wanted the subreddit to become a political space for men to discuss white supremacy and possible revolutionary action.”67Kang, pp. 185-186. Albert wasn’t the only person radicalizing the AsianMasculinity subreddit. Around the same time, two other posters emerged, DaiLo and noname888. Both wrote decidedly leftist posts that sometimes antagonized the more conservative members of the subreddit. Both also served for a time as moderators. noname888 in particular had a commitment to libertarian socialist politics, while DaiLo emerged more from the critical theory world. 

All the same, one gathers from the forum chatter of that time that the two leftist mods began to suspect some posters of harboring fascist sentiments, in particular the poster known as Arcterex117, now known as Archeology. This is because in private Slack channels that had emerged around the AsianMasculinity subreddit, Arcteryx117 embraced GamerGate catch phrases and beliefs, anti-Black racism, and quoting Adolf Hitler. Given that, the moderators decided to ban Arcteryx117 and an associated group of his followers who had embraced online harassment campaigns. It was this group that founded the AznIdentity subreddit, after they were banned from AsianMasculinity. In a fit of outrage, they compiled a massively unself-aware doxxing attempt featuring a greatest hits parade of their Ls, where they were banned or otherwise sanctioned for fashy behavior.68You can see the fascists complaining about the bans, as well as old posts by the two left-wing moderators explaining them, in this archived link. At no time do the right-wingers ever dispute the substance of the criticism levied against their behavior and beliefs – rather, they are angry about the tone of the messages they received! Arcteryx1127, now calling himself Archeology, remains the chief moderator of the AznIdentity subreddit, where misogyny and resentment of Black people continues to pop up as a theme. That the subreddit at times feints towards intersectionality is unsurprising, given that in the pre-expulsion days, Arcteryx117 liked to talk about how disgusted he was by South Asian women while encouraging a false kind of outreach to women on Reddit, and all the while fawning over Hitler quotes. 

Before the split, in 2015, the Tales from Mangri-La podcast emerged from the subreddit, where moderator RedSunBlue, aka “Kaku” hosted discussions with prominent members of the subreddit, including Albert, an HR manager, and Teen, a Wall Street lawyer. Both Teen and Albert were later profiled by Jay Caspian Kang in his book about Asian America. noname888, one of the two leftist mods, eventually joined the podcast as well. As the November 2016 Presidential election got closer, noname888 advocated strongly for Bernie Sanders. Teen and Albert pushed for the podcast to invite Varun Nikore of the Asian American Victory Fund on the podcast.69 and are archived links to now-removed podcasts that featured Nikore. After inviting Nikore to the podcast, Teen and Albert used identitarian rhetoric against Bernie supporters, and also pushed to have nonanme888 removed from the podcast, presumably so they could demonstrate loyalty to what many viewed as the inevitable Hillary Clinton administration. Noname88 deleted his account on reddit not too long afterwards. 

A few years later, when the inevitable Clinton administration failed to materialize, Kang interviewed Teen and Albert only to find they had become Leninists – and specifically supporters of the Chinese Communist Party. “Many of the MRAZN’s Reddit posts now parrot the language of the leftist Asian American organizations of the seventies,” Kang writes. “They talk endlessly about white supremacy and the need to stand with Black liberation movements. They have also become enamored with Marxism and…Frantz Fanon.” Where their identitarianism had once led them to support one of US imperialism’s key functionaries, just a short while later it led them to support the dictator of its largest imperial rival. While it’s not entirely documented how and why precisely they made this shift, it seems to have to do with a rather simplistic and uncritical analysis of the 60s movements we looked at previously in this essay.

This grim evolution is less contradictory than it seems. The consistent throughline was that they were looking for some outside parental figure to save them. They simply shifted from one to the other as the winds changed – a fundamentally anti-popular sovereignty view. I would argue that this viewpoint came from their socialization as ‘respectable’ white-collar professionals, and was therefore structured by the parameters of the counterinsurgency. Teen and Albert sought access to a patronage network within the Democratic Party to advance their goals. When that failed, they turned to another hegemon, the CCP. In essence, the strange trip of the MRAZNs was an example of blowback — the counterinsurgency produced supporters of a rival state. 

Case Study 3: The right wing of DSA and the Bowman Affair

In the wake of Trump’s election in 2016, many people in social movements – including many libertarian socialists – believed the Democratic Socialists of America were our best hope of creating an independent and autonomous working-class movement in the style of the Old Left and the New Left at their best. But the last few years reveal a darker reality. It has been true for some time that the dominant factions in DSA have all embraced electoral work in conjunction with building labor unions as the “only” way to “build power.” And what’s more, in the face of dissenting voices among the rank-and-file who would prefer to do other sorts of work – direct action, mutual aid, building dual power, etc – these factions would (despite espousing what are effectively social-democratic politics) eschew internal democracy for a stage-managed democratic centralism. They clung to power through controlling communications channels and meeting agendas, censoring conversations, rigging votes, and eventually turning the locals under their control into little despotisms where they are the perpetual bosses. Genuinely democratic caucuses became marginalized and hundreds of good organizers were driven from the organization in the past half decade, probably a driver of DSA’s current fiscal crisis. The factions that remain are a depressing mix: some of them espouse social democracy, some Leninism, but is there really a difference when they all want to focus exclusively on running candidates, employ Leninist methods in the internal scramble for power, and lend support to pseudo-socialists abroad like the CCP? No matter the label, they are authoritarian vultures fighting over the corpse of a once democratic organization.

But what is all that struggling for? In all the existing DSA factions, a real politics of autonomy of the sort we’ve looked at in our historical survey is more or less totally off-limits. Instead, they evince the same mental weakness and lack of imagination as other left-of-center groups since the decline of popular sovereignty. Take a closer look at what their behavior tells you about what they want, and it is far beneath the needs of even a social-democratic program – much less revolution.

Take Bread and Roses for example, perhaps once the most dominant of the electoral factions in DSA. At one point this faction was known for its critiques of the “professional managerial class.” Yet this seems to be some level of projection, given that its cadres have moved into politics where they serve as staffers for elected officials (when successful) and manage political campaigns – literally professional-managerial jobs! And as in the Asian American identity case, this professional formation leads to passivity, cowardice (masked by contempt for those who advocate taking more significant action), and leader-worship. Instead of frustrated IT professionals shut out of management jobs and angry about white supremacy, we have humanities gamer failsons and failed influencer art girls angry that they can’t afford health insurance. The end result is the same though – having failed to interrogate their assumptions about democracy and decision-making, they instead went looking for another Big Daddy to deliver them from their suffering. Different caucuses merely present different flavors of this formula; Bernie makes as good a Daddy as Xi Jinping.

Unfortunately for the electoralists in DSA, it seems unlikely that either the CCP or the Democrats will deliver anything other than the same old shit – environmental destruction and increased class stratification. It’s already conventional wisdom that secret armies of the Marxist-Leninist “parties” in the United States are vulnerable to governments – after all, the security services have had decades of experience following, surveilling, and disrupting people who are essentially using the Soviet/Chinese playbooks last updated in the 1950s. Yet what has the wave of DSA elected officials delivered to us, in a time when the overwhelming scientific consensus tells us we have less than 10 years before the consequences of climate change become permanent? And in the meantime, we witness, in the US alone, massive disruptions from fires, drought, and torrential storms that flood even major cities like New York. In the face of such deteriorating conditions and the scientific consensus, what are the results from DSA elected officials? The Green New Deal trumpeted by AOC and her Squad-mates is dead on arrival. Even Medicare For All, the signature DSA/Berniecrat program, is off the table, with prominent DSA leaders telling us that it’s something that might happen in ten years.70Once it became clear that Medicare For All was off the table, one minority faction of DSA tried to drum up support for a campaign to force a floor vote on the subject, presumably to raise awareness that the Democratic leadership was not actually in favor of single payer healthcare. Weeks of angry podcasting by a few podcast hosts, and the involvement of an alt-right adjacent comedian-turned “activist” yielded nothing more than a couple lackluster protests and no forced vote. Unsurprisingly, a ‘movement’ devoted to an obscure bit of Congressional procedure failed to ignite widespread support.

While the mainstream of DSA continued to promote a variety of efforts to support elected officials like Congressman Jamal Bowman, even that reached a limit. In a prominent scandal, Bowman voted to support an aid package to Israel, over the widespread objection of DSA members. (This feels only more egregious today: as I write this, college students across the country are being attacked by police and persecuted by college administrations for protesting US support for Israel’s brutal genocide of the Gaza strip.) This wasn’t just a matter of differing opinions. The DSA membership had already voted to support Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions during DSA’s national convention in 2017 and 2019, by passing a resolution and establishing a BDS/Palestinian Solidarity national working group. Moreover, as Bowman’s vote in support of military aid to Israel became apparent, numerous DSA chapters passed their own resolutions asking for Bowman’s expulsion for failure to uphold the organization’s stated support for BDS. 

Notably, the house organ of DSA’s dominant faction, Jacobin, came out strongly against the expulsion of Bowman, claiming that “socialists have to recognize that we’re still in a relatively weak position, where most people are either ignorant or only beginning to learn of the reality of Palestine.”71Hadas Thier, “No, DSA Shouldn’t Expel Rep. Jamaal Bowman.” Jacobin (24 November 2021). The BDS working group was even dissolved for speaking out.72Omar Zahzah, “DSA disbands Palestine solidarity working group as furor over Bowman continues” in Mondoweiss (22 March 2022). The fact is however, that Bowman received significant support from DSA, and had been a member for several years before he ever ran for office. If an avowedly socialist organization cannot remove a member who has acted in clear opposition to the organization’s repeated democratically mandated policy positions, then it demonstrates a willingness to subordinate the will of the membership to the electoral career goals of a few – whether the officials themselves or those who surround them as advisers. 

The issue of Bowman’s expulsion is clarifying, in that it is a less complex systemic issue than that of climate change. Addressing climate change requires all kinds of policy decisions and re-allocations of resources in society. It isn’t clear exactly what all of those changes would be necessary or useful. However, the case of a DSA member who has acted against the democratically determined will of the membership by voting to allocate funds for Israeli militarism has a clear cut solution – expulsion or at the very least censure. The fact that DSA’s national political committee could not bring itself to do either tells us that push comes to shove, they will always back down. If they are concerned that socialists in the United States are “too weak” perhaps that is because they’ve chosen to be weak. 

Case Study 4: Anti-Asian hate and social movements without popular sovereignty

Choosing to be weak and afraid is unfortunately the default position of significant sections of the left. Ultimately, it is the result of decades of counterinsurgency that ensures that significant physical safety is something that can only be provided by state security forces, or those who are closely adjacent. This is most clear in higher-stakes situations than discourse or electoral activism, where actual lives are at stake and the left has little safety to offer them.

All this suggests an existential problem for social movements. On the one hand, Leninist secret armies clearly don’t work: in industrialized societies they are easily neutralized through the double counterinsurgency, and in non-industrialized societies they might win but just create Leninist party-states anyway and not socialism. But on the other hand, the New Left’s movements weren’t just Leninist – they were rooted in a tradition of popular sovereignty going back to the origins of the US, closely tied to individual gun ownership but not reducible to it, which gave ordinary people in civil society the confidence and certainty that they could legitimately take direct action (up to and including civil disobedience, whether nonviolent or armed) to reshape their social world. And while this was too often tied to settler-colonialism and white supremacy, in at least a few major cases – the pre-New Deal labor movement, the Battle of Blair Mountain, the New Left – this culture of autonomy was a foundation for the radical Left. Without this culture of autonomy, and particularly under the influence of the double counterinsurgency and its strategy of recuperation, we have clearly been left in a much weaker state. 

So the question then arises: what would it take to reconstitute the culture of autonomy without falling into Leninist adventurism, mutual killing along racial or other lines, cartelization, or other cults of violence? A grim case study that really informs these questions is that of anti-Asian violence in 2020 – and the left’s totally inadequate response to it.

At the outset of the pandemic, Trump and others across the spectrum blamed China for the emergence of the COVID19 virus. Almost immediately, anti-Asian violence skyrocketed across the United States, with attacks on Asian Americans escalating pretty much everywhere. What shocked some was the fact that attacks happened so often in coastal areas with large Asian American populations, like the San Francisco Bay Area and the New York/Tristate area. Those who had been paying attention knew that racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans in working-class neighborhoods were a routine problem – perpetrated by all other non-Asian ethnicities. It’s not surprising, really, when one considers that in the American system of white supremacy, Asians are coded as weak and submissive, and hence seen as easy targets for robbery. Having a bad day and feeling not very tough? Attack an Asian American person who crosses your path, they’ll just take it. That’s clearly the attitude of a not-small number of people from white, Black, and all other non-Asian ethnicities. 

 While racially motivated street-level attacks on Asian Americans have been a fact of life for decades, the escalation was significant, as was the national attention. Some organized rallies to #StopAsianHate and there were an uptick of news stories regarding anti-Asian street violence. In some places, notably in coastal enclaves, a combination of local tv news and online reddit commenters in local subreddits seemed to heavily focus on Black vs Asian American street attacks and robberies. Celebrities Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu offered a $25,000 reward for the identity of an assailant who attacked a 91 year old Asian American man in Oakland Chinatown. Then, in March of 2021, a right wing evangelical Christian man murdered eight people, six of them Asian American women, at several spas in Atlanta, Georgia. Although the shooter claimed his attacks were not racially motivated, as journalists Mia Wong and Garrison Davis have detailed, the victims were racialized by decades of American imperialism in Asia as well as long standing historical American views of Asian American women as both sexually available at all times and corrupting influences on white Christian men.73Mia Wong & Garrison Davis, “The Atlanta Shooting Part 1: Purity and Violence” on the It Could Happen Here podcast (April 2022).

Several years into the pandemic, it seems that the wider political response to the surge of anti-Asian violence is straitjacketed by the mindset that a culture of autonomy is undesirable, immoral, and impossible. That mindset flows from the success of the counterinsurgency in using patronage networks to restrict the boundaries of acceptable discourse. This is because, as discussed above, a key element of counterinsurgency is making sure that acceptable left-wing movements and organizations surrender their autonomy to state security forces. Since organizing that reduces reliance on the security forces would allow autonomy, then the only possible recourse for frightened Asian Americans must come from expanding state capacity, vice, building the capacity for individual or community organized self-protection. At the national level, legislators pushed for increased hate crimes laws and more police. At the local level, media coverage of Asian American calls for stepped up police presence, while local merchants have hired private, armed security to patrol Chinatown. The common thread: a rejection of any non-carceral approaches to crime.74See Yujie Zhou, “SF’s Chinese communities polarized by Boudin recall election.” Mission Local (18 April 2022).

Yet lost in this discussion is a clear-eyed view of who exactly suffers the most from street crime and whose views are promoted by journalists. We should understand that it is those who walk to work in shift jobs – in the restaurant industry and janitorial for example – who are most vulnerable to robberies and random anti-Asian violence, simply because they are exposed while walking or riding public transit. And we should also be clear that in many cases these blue-collar workers are exploited by other Asian Americans – specifically, the Asian American small business owner class, i.e. the petit-bourgeois smallholders. There are countless stories of restaurants and small businesses that underpay or simply refuse to pay their employees for years at a time, while also colluding with local landlords who provide the substandard housing in which their employees live. These are the same people who join merchant’s associations and hire private security. In many cases these will also be the folks who will oppose any attempt to enforce labor standards or housing conditions, because it cuts into their profits. We should also note that failure to pay employees is also a property crime that causes people to skip meals, yet we are not bombarded with stories about hungry Asian Americans who are behind on rent and skipping meals because their scumbag bosses are stealing their wages to pay for their couture fashion, Swiss watches, and Porsche SUVs. Nor do we hear about Asian landlords who persistently refuse to maintain the housing in which blue-collar monolingual Asian immigrants live, exposing them to a variety of illnesses and vermin. 

At any rate, the problem of anti-Asian violence would seem to be an important place for the left to organize a response – after all, here we face a community historically marginalized both by ethnicity and class. Yet, effective responses are lacking. Yes, there have been some efforts at interethnic dialogue, and there have also been voluntary chaperone groups that have 

organized to provide security escorts for vulnerable folks. And there are countless local initiatives to distribute personal security alarms and pepper spray to low-income folks, especially seniors, and to provide various types of martial arts training. These are positive developments. Yet, they also take place within the counterinsurgency environment built in the late twentieth century. 

What this means is that when push comes to shove, if any of these above-ground, publicly visible volunteer groups in places like Boston, the Tri State Area or California face a lethal threat – assailants armed with firearms – they are necessarily going to need to involve either law enforcement or licensed, armed private security. The contradictions here are stark. Those involved in organizing that directly opposes the capitalist class (say labor organizers fighting for stolen wages or to make sure a landlord stops roaches and rats from crawling over children in their sleep) will be forced to give the literal armed guards of capitalism visibility into their operations. This is because in all of the above-mentioned regions, it is functionally impossible due to legally imposed cost and time requirements for working-class people to legally arm themselves in public with firearms, whether exposed or concealed. 

How can a group engage in, say, labor organizing of restaurant workers and then turn around and have to develop a working relationship with the private security that is hired by restaurant owners and other business owners? The answer is that doing so necessarily compromises the effectiveness of the labor organizing. Now, one can say that life and political organizing is always about compromise, and this is true. What is also true is that we should be cognizant of the ways in which those compromises are forced upon us by legal regimes and cultural norms developed to hinder us from effectively opposing the capitalist class, no matter the skin tone of its representatives. Moreover, how can one organize against capitalism and police brutality if one is forced to seek recourse to the police in the face of lethal violence? 

This also seems like the right place to note that counterinsurgency techniques developed by Cold War era French military officers to suppress revolutionaries in Asia and Africa echo those used in 2022 on Asians living in America. The recent controversy over an article in New York Magazine is illustrative of the mechanism of counterinsurgency, specifically the idea of isolating those who would seek physical security without immediate recourse to state security forces. 

In late September 2022, NY Mag published an article by Esther Wang titled “How to Hit Back: The desperate, confused, righteous campaign to stop Asian hate.”

Wang opens the piece covering the brutal murder of Christina Yuna Lee in a Chinatown apartment building, as a way of concrete example of the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes that emerged during the pandemic. As part of her wide ranging reporting, she also visited a self-defense class in New York City Chinatown, called Dragon Combat Club. After attending the training she writes that she 

shoved the tactical flashlight into a drawer. A can of pepper spray I got at a giveaway sponsored by the group Chinatown Block Watch was already pushed into a corner. For a time, I had walked around with a canister tucked in my purse. Far from making me feel empowered, carrying it made me paranoid. Its presence was like a pebble in my shoe, a constant, uncomfortable reminder of the potential for violence and a fear that had increasingly begun to seem counterproductive.75Esther Wang, “How to Hit Back: The desperate, confused, righteous campaign to stop Asian hate” in New York Magazine (26 September 2022).

After the article went live on the web, one of the people that Wang interviewed came forward to assert that she had misrepresented him in the article and distorted the experiences of female students in the class: 

I explicitly told Esther Wang that the strongest means that the media perpetuates anti-Blackness in Asian Americans was not by showing the Black Americans attacking Asian Americans, but by use of victim blaming, virtue signaling on what wasn’t the solution and completely omitting any mention of Black Americans or Latino/a/x Americans helping Asian Americans survive these difficult times even though anybody who volunteers for initiatives such as DCC and TCBUA know this is quite a common experience given the neighborhoods we live in.

Yet as a journalist, any mention she heard from the women more affected by anti-Asian violence than her about how initiatives like ours helped them and gave them an opportunity to better themselves and others. Every voice and sound bite that suggested how we had been helpful to vulnerable people to the community was purposely omitted to vilify a community that was already under siege.

One of my friends, who is like a little sister to me, who also got interviewed admitted to me that she felt weirded out by the Esther, because even after all she told the interviewer, the interviewer was still very weirded out by the fact that we carry defensive tools (even though that was not the case with prior people we’ve worked with in the media). Despite speaking in length about the dangers working class Asian Americans have to face, taking a class of ours where I explained the rationale and reading my book, Esther still told my friend something along the lines of how she would rather not use the training, how she was scared and that she would rather stay home.76While the post is on a very problematic subreddit, the same post was apparently removed from the very progressive friendly /r/asianamerican subreddit. Exactly why the moderators of the largest Asian American subreddit removed the post remains an open question, but it certainly feels like the kind of self censorship that emerges from counterinsurgency – the population itself isolating people who disagree with physical safety that does not require immediate recourse to state security forces.

In the ensuing controversy, the Fung Bros, Asian American Youtubers with 2.1 million followers posted a video criticizing Wang’s article.

The Bros, Andrew and David, disagree with the article and the weird (racist?) cover art, based on their experiences growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood where Asian Americans are beat up, robbed, and bullied, where potentially lethal violence is always on the table. They distinguish these real lived experiences from the NY Mag story, which describes Asians as “confused,” “desperate,” and “crime obsessed.” They accurately describe the dangers that Asian Americans face from street-level violence – that is, it isn’t paranoid for people to fear being attacked. 

David characterizes the author’s viewpoint as “I had my old hyper left self and then I realized the reality on the ground is way more complicated.” Based on David’s comments he seems to associate Nancy Pelosi and AOC as the “hyper left.” The Fung Bros video with Andrew and David, though highly accurate in describing the experiences of Asians in what they call “high-exposure, high-risk” neighborhoods, is problematic as well from a political theory perspective. David characterizes Wang as having a “hyper-left self”, which he associates with Nancy Pelosi and AOC.77This characterization is clearly inaccurate: Pelosi is a self-described capitalist, and AOC’s political program is social-democratic, placing both far to the right of Marxist-Leninists, anarchists, and libertarian socialists. Curiously, David appears to counter-pose Sun Yat-sen and AOC. This is curious because, at the end of his life, Sun was arguably a socialist – he published a long ideological tract that embraced socialist ideas, San Min Zhuyi, which translates to The Three Principles of the People. Sun also received military aid, including trainers, from the Soviet Union, who helped him build the Republic of China’s military academy at Huangpu, commonly known as the Whampoa Military Academy. Sun never shied away from arming his supporters and in fact spent years as an underground revolutionary agitator. 

The entire cycle of discussion shows how the decline of the culture of popular sovereignty as driven by counterinsurgency has dramatically limited the conversation about anti-Asian violence in the United States. Wang’s article relentlessly characterizes tools and practices for self-protection as paranoid and counterproductive. The definition of paranoia is unreasonable fear. Given the explosion of anti-Asian violence, fear of street attacks is reasonable; ergo, Asian Americans tooling up cannot be paranoid for choosing to arm themselves. 

According to Zhang, his female friend who spoke with Wang confirmed that Wang was weirded out by the fact that people in the class carry defensive tools. Despite the response post’s location on a problematic subreddit, in combination with the tone of Wang’s article and the grotesque issue cover art of a woman surrounded by weapons and corny pan-Asian home decor, Zhang’s account seems believable. 

From the point of view of a person trying not to die when attacked, it’s hard to see how a weapon and the skills to use it are counterproductive when the alternative is getting their head stomped into a curb or pushed in front of a subway train. However, from the point of view of the liberal bourgeoisie in 2022, it is of course counterproductive to highlight the way that weapons and training would give someone a measure of autonomy from state-sanctioned security forces. And if a bunch of people who have a measure of individual autonomy come together to make demands collectively, then we’re back to popular sovereignty. 

However, decades of counterinsurgency have made it normative for liberals to show their necks at the first sign of violence; otherwise, how else could the existing state order be protected against another surge of autonomous challenges by popularly sovereign movements? Whatever Wang’s motivations in writing the article, she exists as a writer within a liberal institution that, in order to remain a going concern, must duplicate the morals of the elite, or it won’t be able to keep up subscriptions and advertising. 

Esther Wang is not operating from hyper-left politics when she eschews armed self-protection and the organizations that teach it. Rather, she is operating safely within the liberal counterinsurgency tradition that emerged from the struggles of the 1960s.

The Left’s total lack of a coherent response stems, I would argue, from its lack of a culture of physical autonomy. To a libertarian socialist, it’s clear enough that what’s really necessary to deeply tackle and ultimately abolish intercommunal violence between nonwhite groups is some sort of direct-democratic and restorative political process that would allow these communities to genuinely repair their relationships with one another without appealing to the repressive and carceral apparatus of the state. In the abstract realm of a coffee shop conversation, it’s easy enough to picture. One could imagine, for example, a democratic-confederalist type scheme like Rojava, where neighborhoods are organized into self-governing councils and ethnic groups have representation in recognized self-governing organizations, and these self-managed, multiracial bodies of residents can themselves safely discuss the problem face to face and figure out workable solutions. You could imagine people in councils like this proposing safety patrols by mixed-race groups of able-bodied young people, or opportunities for more mutual understanding through targeted workshops or festivals, or creating youth centers with cool programming and equipment to give young people something to do, or cross-racial escorts for the elderly or other vulnerable people from the victimized group. 

But when you think about how we could ever possibly get from here to there, it’s easy to fall into despair. All that sounds good enough in the abstract but not possible in reality. This is not just because of direct state repression, but also the double counterinsurgency’s effects on ordinary working people’s consciousness.

In practice, when some work like that described above does emerge, it is almost always aligned with either merchant’s associations (made up of merchants who often underpay or simply do not pay their employees, who are often tied to them by kinship bonds) or working with at least the tacit endorsement of state security forces, if not as actual auxiliaries. This is because intervening against street attacks runs the risk of interacting with assailants armed with firearms. In urban areas like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, the strict laws around the carrying of loaded firearms pretty much precludes people participating in work as described above from legally arming themselves in public. Instead, they must work with security forces to provide an emergency response should a community initiative come into conflict with armed assailants. Such closeness also gives state security forces good visibility into any kind of other organizing, be it labor, housing, or against police brutality. What else can one do, however? 

Any radical direct action requires the basic robust confidence people have, when they believe in things like the classical American theory of popular sovereignty, to take direct action to reshape their social world and remake the law itself – in keeping with the possibility expressed by the words of the Declaration of Independence, to “alter or abolish” an oppressive government, all present institutions be damned. This also always at the same time means taking responsibility for your own actions, not relying on someone else (Uncle Sam, Daddy Xi) to swoop down and save you. And yet, there is a reason this culture of autonomy associated with popular sovereignty was also always associated with widespread gun ownership and a demystified, unsentimental view of weapons: it also requires taking responsibility for the power you get when your community truly wields popular sovereignty. 

This leaves us in a bind of contradictions that don’t have any simple or easy solutions. The absurd and farcical response of established (I’d argue, recuperated) journalists and media figures to giving Asian Americans the legal tools to defend ourselves indicates a serious lack of a culture of autonomy. The Dragon Self Defense club was arming people with weapons legal even in the highly nonpermissive environment of New York City – pepper spray and very bright flashlights, not guns – so from one perspective, Wang’s response seems absurd. 

However, perhaps Wang was picking up on something else that she could not clearly articulate – the dark side of the culture of American popular sovereignty. After all, its uses by white settlers to attack Indigenous people, lynch Black people and/or Spanish-speakers,78See Richard Delgado, “The Law of the Noose: A History of Latino Lynching” in Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review (CR-CL), Vol. 44 (2009), U of Alabama Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2533521. and ethnically cleanse Asians – suggests precisely the danger of thinking that just putting guns in people’s hands by itself is enough. You can easily see that taking a very dark turn indeed. Yet, because of how closely self-determination and the means of self-defense are bound up in historical autonomous communities, it’s difficult to imagine the democratic-confederalist proposals I mentioned before emerging in a context where the double counterinsurgency has convinced everyone that the government is both the only legitimate holder of the means of force and the only possible solution to all our social problems. To say the least, this makes our next steps unclear.


There aren’t any easy answers here – though one might be tempted to think that the answer, in California at least, is to roll the clock back before the Mulford Act and bring back organizing in the style of the Black Panthers and the New Communist sects of the 1970s. While leather jackets and M1 carbines certainly remain iconic, we no longer live in the material world of smokestack industry, circa 1967. And given what we know of the evolution of the Panthers into a Marxist-Leninist organization, that path seems a bad one. As Don Cox details in his biography, the emergence of Stalinist methods in the BPP heavily influenced the collapse of the party into madness. 

Outside the US, the history of actual existing Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organizations in the twentieth century is not a successful one. The Marxist-Leninist states have for the most part disintegrated under the weight of their own contradictions, or are economically struggling. Vietnam and China remain exceptions – but both of those have become state capitalist polities where the party elite play the role of red capitalists. So even if building secret armies were possible in the America of 2022, and if we win, we still lose. After all, what would be the point of bringing down the state only to replace it with the same thing, only this time with portraits of Marx and Lenin adorning the Capitol instead of Washington and Lincoln?

When I’ve told people about my counterinsurgency thesis, they often say to me “so the answer is guns?” 

The answer is, not quite. No one knows the answer. I don’t, and the capitalists certainly don’t – all they can offer is more of the same, but maybe with better optics. But what follows are some questions and musings that might help us as we venture into the unknown chaos of political action in the face of ecological collapse that threatens the survival of humanity. These questions are going to be answered one way or the other, whether by us or by circumstances.

It seems that successful political action requires the willingness and ability to defend that political action. However, that willingness comes with risk. Many would say that the fundamental question for anyone who takes up this burden (of knowing the ways of violence) is: how can you make sure that enough people do make this sacrifice to protect the community, without empowering them to chase clout, aggrandize themselves, and become a ruling class based on that burden? In a sense, it is an old problem, posed by the Roman satirist Juvenal, who wrote “quis custodiet ipsos custodes,” i.e. who will guard the guards themselves? We can set this quote from Juvenal against one from David Graeber, who wrote in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004), when discussing the various governing arrangements of ancient Greek city-states, that “[w]hen a man is armed, then one pretty much has to take his opinion into account.” It would seem like the best insurance against empowering a small group to seize power in a community is to spread out the burden of knowledge. In a sense, the best people to take up the burden are those who want it the least. That, ultimately, is your protection. When violence is something you can do and anyone can do it too, then you’re liberated from carrying the burden alone – and discouraged from abusing it.

And who will take up that burden? Graeber writes “when a man is armed” – what about women, and all those who do not identify as male? We know that firearms and heteronormative patriarchy are too often deeply intertwined both in the US and abroad. Encouraging armed autonomous movements could encourage movements of angry men grabbing power and pushing out everyone else. Yet we also know from copious journalistic coverage that in Rojava, the all female units of the YPJ have been an integral part of making women’s rights a material reality.79See for example Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s The Daughters of Kobani: A Story of Rebellion, Courage, and Justice (2021). –Eds. In the US context, we also have to consider the ways that the dominant culture attacks trans and genderqueer people, especially in firearm spaces. 

A pamphlet made of black ink on cream-colored paper. The front cover contains the title and publishing information. The interior has twenty-five pages of text. The back cover has an advertisement for Political Affairs Publishers, Inc. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the family of Dr. Maurice Jackson and Laura Ginsburg 1971

Some might raise concerns that a rise in genuinely autonomous left movements would mean a concomitant rise in right-wing autonomous movements in progressive areas. The fact is, though, that those autonomous movements already exist and they’re called the state security forces.80See for example Alice Speri, “The FBI Has Quietly Investigated White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement” in The Intercept (31 January 2017), as well as Maddy Crowell & Sylvia Varnham O’Regan, “Extremist cops: how US law enforcement is failing to police itself” in The Guardian (13 December 2019). Years after the rise of Black Lives Matter, these are still routinely exposed as havens of overtly fascist bigots – or at the very least, those who will turn a blind eye to bad behavior amongst their peers so as not to get shot in the face like Frank Serpico or locked up in a psychiatric ward like Adrian Schoolcraft. It is well known that in liberal or progressive urban areas, the rank-and-file security forces are often far more right-wing than the rest of the populace, and in fact commute in from great distances. They, and those adjacent to them, are already heavily armed and will continue to have access to weapons due to their proximity to state security forces. Keep in mind too, the high percentage of participants in the January 6th insurrection who were serving security forces members, or retired senior officers – in one case, a former police chief. Do you really want those people to be the only ones with organized access to firearms in public? 

State security forces aside, one might well be concerned by young men involved in the narcotics trade shooting at each other in crowded urban spaces – an all too real problem. Wouldn’t building armed autonomous movements in urban spaces make it all worse? It might not, if those movements created genuine opportunity and belonging for alienated young people who are cynical about the possibilities of advancement in life and eager to participate in the consumer culture around them, at any cost to themselves or others. In speaking with friends who work with youth in these neighborhoods, a lot of young people simply are not interested in any of the programming that the existing non-profit complex puts out. Maybe genuine autonomous movements might be a little cooler than yet another program funded by the county and staffed by well meaning middle-class folks who are checking a box on their way to a professional degree. 

Moreover, perhaps one might look at this from a harm-reduction standpoint – particularly with regard to young men. Some of them are going to go into gang life even when offered alternatives – a wider consciousness around the safe use of firearms might get some to reconsider whether drawing down on one of their ops at a crowded street festival was the right move, vice, waiting for another time without innocent bystanders. 

Having said all that, I admit it seems like a very difficult problem to intervene in culture. This raises another question: what kind of culture do we want to create around firearms in autonomous movements? If we are going to encourage the construction of new autonomous movements, we are discussing the problem of cultural construction. If we want to build such movements then it means an intergenerational shift in attitudes and skills. It would seem important then, to carefully choose the values that we want inside autonomous movements, and doubly so when those movements are armed. The following are some loose reflections on what that could look like.

Instead of building militias and a militaristic culture, perhaps the right course of action is to focus on things like sports shooting competitions with a spirit of fun and camaraderie. The teachers already exist, as there are not insignificant numbers of people engaged in building inclusive, left-oriented training spaces, including ones focused around sports competitions. Sports competition faces its own problems, though, with rampant consumerism and a strong current that likes to show off expensive gear on social media as a way to “flex on the poors,” in the words of some shooting sports participants. 

It will be difficult in the states like California, Illinois and the New York Tri-State Area where the urban centers were targets for the post 1960s counterinsurgency. Today, extremely hostile regulatory regimes there make access to shooting sports difficult and often limit public land access for these anywhere adjacent to urban areas, by closing shooting ranges that are located on public land and/or banning hunting. Maybe one way forward is to consider what Indigenous organizer Roberto Mendoza suggested when he discussed his path from Marxism-Leninism to where he is today:

I realized that we had to decolonize our thinking from capitalist values, and that values were like the foundation of a house. You know, they underlie everything we do. Everything we would do in our life is based on our values – not just our culture, as cultures are different everywhere. But values are more universal. And most Indigenous people around the world lived under Indigenous values, including white folks – because before the Roman Empire and Christians colonized Europeans, before that they were traditional, they were pagans, they were Earth-centered, and they shared similar values around living in harmony with the earth as we did. Same thing with traditional African tribal people: their values are very similar, because they’re basically Earth-based. 


We have to answer Martin Luther King’s call for a radical revolution of values. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I like that the movement is becoming more intersectional and that it’s starting to respect the knowledge of Indigenous people, instead of just ignoring us like they mostly did in the 60s, or idolizing us as Noble Savages or putting us on a pedestal. That didn’t help either. I’m liking the idea that your generation is facing the reality that this country was based on extraordinarily bad things like colonialism, genocide and slavery. Some of the worst things that possibly can happen in the world were happening here, and they created this country and did those murderous genocidal things to black people and to my people.81Colon & Mendoza, “The Native Freedom Struggle”

Doing what Mendoza suggests and decolonizing our thinking from capitalist values can take many forms – and this particular issue presents a perhaps unexpected avenue for it. After all, in many of the same regions where the counterinsurgency has been strongest, there are either unrecognized Native American nations or, when recognized, nations that lack land access. Perhaps autonomous movements should cooperate with existing tribes (federally recognized or not) to rewild public land in and around urban areas with Indigenous animals like elk and deer, even if this also means the return of dangerous predators like the grizzly and wolf. Where the land already has such animals, the task would be opening it to hunting. Doing so would allow Native American people to exercise their treaty rights to hunt, fish, and forage – really, the right to obtain healthy food in areas where healthy food is often very expensive. 

Given the proximity to urban areas one might expect the interest in hunting newly rewilded areas to be high among settlers, and the logical remedy would be to simply do as state wildlife managers do in other regions – issue a limited number of permits for game harvest by lottery. With such a lottery system for settlers and a usufruct right for Native Americans, we could make real non-capitalist values around healthy food. Yes, that is not a scalable system for feeding everyone – but it will materially improve the lives of some of the most oppressed communities in North America, create a boutique but sustainable product line for meat when what seems like the inevitable and necessary degrowth policies will probably make it more expensive,82Many California parks near urban areas are currently set up as subsidized cattle grazing, which is a major reason that there are not more large mammals there – ranchers are afraid of disease and/or the wild animals eating up the grass. For more on this topic, see Lucy Kang, Sam Anderson, & Theresa Harlan, “The Coast Miwok Peoples, Colonization, and the Preservation of Indigenous History (Encore)” on the Making Contact Radio podcast (17 April 2024). and also help the creation of autonomous movements by opening up the space of possibility. Outdoor shooting ranges do present some ecological remediation problems as far as the use of lead in ammunition components (non lead ammunition is often cost-prohibitive), but this is a research problem that if undertaken in good faith might not be impossible.83Major manufacturers like Federal and Winchester have already started to produce ammunition with lead-free primers in common pistol calibers, with coated or totally jacketed bullets that reduce airborne lead. The issue of projectiles is a difficult one, as non-lead projectiles that perform similar to lead are expensive at present. (They’re primarily used for hunting to eliminate lead poisoning in scavenger animals like the California condor – scavengers eat dead animal carcasses left over from the gutting and field dressing process that contain lead particles from expended projectiles – and also by people who are concerned about eating lead particles in their harvested meat.) Efforts to ban all lead in ammunition even for target practice (notably in California) appear set up to be backdoor gun bans, unfortunately. 

Most of the discussion here is about autonomous movements from a libertarian socialist angle – whither our friends, the electoral socialists? Many electoralists are entranced by visions of the early twentieth-century worker movements of craft unions, steel mills, auto factories, and unionized department store workers. They tend to believe that getting friendly politicians into office will somehow legislatively bring back the labor movement through (fill in the blank legal reform), reviving the New Deal. What they forget, often, is that the material world inhabited by those workers was not just one of heavy industry, but the one described in this article, where the armed popular sovereign took to the railyards of the Midwest, hills around Blair Mountain, the gold mines of Colorado, and the streets of the West Coast port cities. Yes, it is true that by the era of the post-World War II golden age of labor, most negotiations happened around a bargaining table. However, we cannot escape the fact that Blair Mountain and the Colorado Mine Wars had happened just a generation and a half before. That was the backdrop to all the negotiation, no matter how peaceable it was around the conference room table in 1950. Maybe the electoralists can reflect on whether their elected officials might have better luck getting the Green New Deal and better labor laws passed into law, if the material conditions of autonomy were opened up in a new cultural movement.

Regardless of the electoralists, for whom we simply cannot wait, a generation of kids would have to be raised in this notional new culture, and it is far from certain that the autonomous left is up to the task of such a cultural shift. Some might be concerned that it is impossible for children to learn to use weapons safely. However curricula for training children in responsible firearms use do exist, and have been used for generations at summer camps, hunter safety, and military cadet programs. Such programs require close supervision by instructors and high teacher/student ratios. As discussed above, the challenge would be to implement such curricula in ways consistent with our values. 

Even if children can be safely trained in such a system, there is also the mass shooting question. Mass shootings or spree killings are often a symptom of social alienation, if not rightist accelerationism. Can revitalized left autonomous movements offer an alternative to alienation within the capitalist system? This might be difficult, and yet, as a pamphlet I read once put it, such spree killings are an incredibly small proportion of gun homicides in an age where crime overall has been dropping for decades. In this context, the pamphlet notes: 

[P]rofessional class liberals react in panic to spree killings with guns because it reminds them that their autonomy and rise to the top were illusions. They have surrendered their agency in their workplace and in their daily life — to their corporate employers and to the police. Yet, for all that surrender, their employers and the police cannot even defend them at all times and places. Every time a firearms spree killing pops up in a social media feed, professional class liberals are exposed to their powerlessness.84Anonymous, “Guns, Agency, And The Lies We Tell Ourselves About Liberal Democracy” on the DSA Libertarian Socialist Caucus website (16 April 2018).

So maybe we can hope that, by rebuilding a true culture of autonomy, we can both actively prevent such horrible events – reducing the number of mass shootings to almost zero – while at the same time helping people not to live in fear of them, by empowering them directly and increasing their confidence in their unalienated communities’ ability to defend themselves.

Tackling material and political alienation in a time of accelerating climate crisis is not an easy task, because so much of our material culture is embedded in an assumption of environmental stability that no longer exists. The great Chinese author, Lu Xun, once wrote that:

I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.85Lu Xun, “My Home” (1921). Selected Stories of Lu Hsun, Foreign Languages Press (1960).

Indeed, as libertarian socialists who seek to build an autonomous social order that does not require being helpless before the state, the way forward is not clear. It seems likely that figuring out what to do next will require us to build autonomous spaces in society. That said, the visible contours of the road that got us here are right behind us, just obscured by carefully planted distractions. It is my wish that this article can clear out some of those distractions so that we might generate some ideas of how to make a road through the deeply uncertain terrain ahead. ~


Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.