Ciliary neurotrophic factor (CNTF) is a leading therapeutic candidate for several ocular diseases and induces optic nerve regeneration in animal models. Paradoxically, however, although CNTF gene therapy promotes extensive regeneration, recombinant CNTF (rCNTF) has little effect. Because intraocular viral vectors induce inflammation, and because CNTF is an immune modulator, we investigated whether CNTF gene therapy acts indirectly through other immune mediators. The beneficial effects of CNTF gene therapy remained unchanged after deleting CNTF receptor alpha (CNTFRα) in retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), the projection neurons of the retina, but were diminished by depleting neutrophils or by genetically suppressing monocyte infiltration. CNTF gene therapy increased expression of C-C motif chemokine ligand 5 (CCL5) in immune cells and retinal glia, and recombinant CCL5 induced extensive axon regeneration. Conversely, CRISPR-mediated knockdown of the cognate receptor (CCR5) in RGCs or treating wild-type mice with a CCR5 antagonist repressed the effects of CNTF gene therapy. Thus, CCL5 is a previously unrecognized, potent activator of optic nerve regeneration and mediates many of the effects of CNTF gene therapy.