The youth of today have grown up with the threat of mass shootings as a permanent fixture of life in America. The proper names Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland – and now, Uvalde – evoke a frightening and unpredictable pattern of terrorism at school. The rise of Trump and far-right populists around the world encouraged more spontaneous violence of the right-wing extremist variety, by both “lone wolf” actors and organized militias. In the wake of each new mass shooting, we see attempts to explain the logic of the violence and its perpetrators: politics, mental illness, misogyny, a random act of terror…but how can we explain the phenomenon of mass shootings from a revolutionary and proletarian perspective?
More than 50% of mass shootings (defined as an event in which 4 or more victims are murdered with guns in a public location) have occurred since 2000, and the three deadliest years were 2018, 2017, and 2019. Families and friends of victims are still reeling from the recent massacres in Highland Park, Buffalo, and Uvalde, desperate for answers and solutions. In their research, scholars James Densley and Jillian Peterson have identified several factors that the perpetrators of mass shootings have in common, like childhood trauma, personal crises (the loss of a job or family member), access to weapons, etc. They argue that the stated political motivation of mass shooters is typically not the root cause, but just a surface-level explanation masking a history of struggle and trauma. Their proposed solutions include increased access to mental health care, suicide prevention programs, and gun control. Beyond these immediate reforms, they gloss over the political question of how life in an imperialist country produces the conditions that lead individuals to commit mass murder.
While the Uvalde shooter had no discernible political motivation, the Buffalo incident was only the latest in a long string of shootings linked to the far right, including infamous incidents in Norway, New Zealand, Texas, and South Carolina. The shooters in many of these attacks provided explicit justifications for their actions, in manifestos and social media posts upholding white supremacist ideologies. As we have written about before, these ideas give an outlet to the vague discontent caused by the difficult conditions of life under capitalism. Extremist and conspiratorial ideologies become popular during periods of economic crises and social unrest, when the ruling class and its state institutions are eager to direct any mass discontent away from themselves and in the direction of antagonism among the masses. The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto relied heavily on the “Great Replacement” theory – a racist and anti-Semitic myth that claims a cabal of Jewish elites are trying to destroy the white race through immigration and intermarriage. Elements of this conspiracy have been popularized through mainstream media outlets like Fox News and embraced by a new wave of Republican politicians and candidates.
These extreme forms of conservative reaction are rooted in the particular conditions of the petty-bourgeoisie; a middling class stratum caught between the big capitalists and the working masses – largely made up of small business owners, professionals, intellectuals, and students – who suffer under capitalism. Small capital is crushed by monopoly capital, totally unable to compete. Economic crises and deteriorating conditions make it harder for professionals and graduates to find well-paying jobs. This broad section of society is confronted with a mystified sense of doom in the absence of a rational explanation for their situation.
In response to these conditions, the political perspective of the petty bourgeoisie varies; among urban intellectuals and students, it often takes the form of “progressive” radicalism, embodied in various reformist or utopian trends. This is the basis for the Bernie Sanders movement and the growth of DSA. Among other (especially rural, and especially white) sections, this takes the form of far-right ultra-reaction.
The targets of petty-bourgeois ultra-reaction reflect the confused perspective of this stratum. Imperialism has drawn and driven people from every corner of the globe to the US, searching for work. This process of internationalization, from the perspective of the proletariat, is progressive because it breaks down national distinctions and increases the possibility of multi-national working-class unity. But to the petty bourgeoisie of the majority nationality, immigrants and minorities are viewed as a threat to their historic position. Far-right hatred of LGBTQIA+ people comes from a similar ideological rationale that fears a disruption of the “traditional” bourgeois family structure and male supremacy.
Stochastic and spontaneous forms of violence reflect not only the objective conditions of the petty-bourgeoisie, but also the balance of subjective class-forces. The petty bourgeoisie, as a transitional class, historically vacillates between allying itself with the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. Today, the working class suffers from a profound lack of organization. A movement without an organized center – a Party – cannot provide the necessary leadership required to form broad class alliances. For this reason, we see progressive elements among the petty-bourgeoisie, who might otherwise rally to a proletarian banner, turn to adventurist street-brawling or suicidal attempts to take on the imperialist state alone. Similarly, the far-right is alienated from the conservative wing of the ruling class, and thus have turned to mass shootings, political riots, and other individualistic forms of violence.
The purpose of considering these two strains within the petty bourgeoisie on the same basis is not to render them equivalent. As a student organization, we self-consciously seek to rally progressives from among the petty bourgeoisie to the socialist, proletarian politics articulated in our program. The fight against spontaneous and ultra-reactionary movements requires energetic and conscious revolutionaries – we seek to align with all those who see the need for a revolutionary transformation of society, toward the abolition of class-distinctions and all forms of social oppression.
The present disorganization shared by both camps of the petty bourgeoisie is only temporary. We recognize that the growing phenomenon of mass shootings, while still rare and marginal, is a product of the very nature of imperialism, and will not be solved by gun control or electing more Democrats. For this reason, we have a sober message for all revolutionary-minded anti-fascists: should we fail to build our own organized revolutionary movement, there is no guarantee our adversaries will do the same.
 The Violence Project: How to Stop a Mass Shooting Epidemic