This text outlines an analysis of the role played state’s repressive forces, particularly the military and police, as well as deriving tactics and strategies for how a revolutionary organization should orient around them.
1. The police are a core part of the capitalist state apparatus and its forces of repression.
The police are nothing more than, as Engels put it, “special bodies of armed men,” separated from the working class and accountable to the ruling class with a monopoly on lawful violence. Police, like the state, are a product of class society, and while they “seemingly stand above society,” they always defend the interests of the social class that holds power.
The police are one part of the larger apparatus of state repression in the U.S. which also includes the National Guard, the military, the military police, the Border Patrol, ICE, the FBI, the NSA and the judicial and prison systems. The basic function of this constellation of state institutions is to maintain, through the use of force, the established system of exploitation and oppression of working people, and to protect private property and profits. The police and the army, however, are presented by the bourgeois democratic state as “neutral” bodies tasked with welfare services, such as “protecting” civilians, and fighting crime.
For the Black and Brown working populations in the US, the inherent racist and class character of the police is clearer, for it corresponds to their daily lived experience. For many white workers though, and especially for middle class layers, the inherent nature of the police is not apparent. However, the true nature and real politics of the police are always revealed during any class conflict, such as when they unleash their violence during BLM, immigrant rights or anti-war protests, or when they come out in force to break strikes and boycott pickets. As Farrell Dobbs put in in Teamsters Rebellion (1972):
Under capitalism the main police function is to break strikes and to repress other forms of protest against the policies of the ruling class. Any civic usefulness other forms of police activity may have, like controlling traffic and summoning ambulances, is strictly incidental to the primary repressive function. Personal inclinations of individual cops do not alter this basic role of the police. All must comply with ruling-class dictates. As a result, police repression becomes one of the most naked forms through which capitalism subordinates human rights to the demands of private property. If the cops sometimes falter in their antisocial tasks, it is simply because they—like the guns they use—are subject to rust when not engaged in the deadly function for which they are primarily trained.
2. Marxists stand for the complete dismantling of all state forces of repression and the core institutions of the capitalist state, namely the police, the army, the prison system, detention centers, and the court system.
As Marxists, we believe that the capitalist state cannot be reformed, it must be abolished by means of a revolution led by the working class and the oppressed. When we state that the police force cannot be “reformed”, we mean that it cannot abandon its inherent class character as long as it serves an imperialist state, therefore it cannot cease to be violent, racist, sexist or anti-worker etc. Bourgeois forces of repression cannot be effectively transformed from within, even with a different government. They need to be completely disbanded and replaced by new organizations led, and democratically controlled, by the working class and the oppressed.
Our analysis of the police is not based on a judgement of the moral character of individual police officers, but the class nature and social relations which bind the police force together under the rule of capital. All police officers employed in the force are there to protect the rich and private property, as well as borders, and the existing classist, racist, and sexist laws and institutions of class power. Key historical experiences, such as the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution, have shown that it is not possible to change the nature of the state and its institutions by putting progressive or “socialist” people in charge. Instead, “the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery’, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.”
3. Our program is the replacement of state forces by a workers’ militia
The Marxist programmatic alternative to the police and other forms of state control is the establishment of a workers’ militia. A workers’ militia is a strategic goal that develops our class’s physical ability to self-govern and prepares us to take power from the capitalists. In 1917, the Bolsheviks raised this programmatic demand to, in the course of an ongoing revolution, build an alternative to the existing police and army: “The police and standing army to be replaced by the universally armed people; workers and other employees to receive regular wages from the capitalists for the time devoted to public service in the people’s militia.” It was the Bolsheviks’ success at winning over the rank and file of the Czarist army and forming them into workers’ militias that made the workers’ and peasants’ seizure of power in October relatively bloodless and destroyed the possibility of a right-wing coup in August 1917.
Workers’ militias, are fundamentally different from and opposed to the existing police forces in two key ways: in their social origin and in their social function. The social origin of a workers’ militia is the working class, which needs to protect itself from external violence by the ruling class and, less frequently, from internal, anti-social violence. This is contrasted against the police, which are hired by the bourgeoisie to protect their property and the dominant social order, and which stand above the working class with greater legal rights and privileges. In terms of function, the key features of the workers militia are:
- Its universal character. Arms and training are open to all sectors of the working class, requiring in turn the representation of all oppressed sectors with equal rights.
- Its bottom up, and democratic character. Officers are elected by the rank and file soldiers, and can be replaced by them.
- In the event that the militia is professionalized, militia members will receive a compensation that is equal to the average of the rest of the workers to prevent bureaucratization.
A workers’ militia will not replicate all functions of the existing police, for it will not be a separate force from the working class that “polices” or “controls” the class. A workers’ militia is to be conceived as a peace-keeping force inside of the class, as well as a force of self-defense and protection of the working class and oppressed against our class enemies. It allows us to defend ourselves against existing threats, to defend our current mobilizations and organizing spaces from the state and vigilantes, to prepare for bringing the working class to power, and to defend the revolutionary process once it is underway. In direct contrast to the violent approach employed by the police, when deployed internally to resolve issues between working class people, the militia’s goal will primarily be to deescalate conflict while remaining responsive to the needs of the people. In keeping with abolitionist demands regarding police reform, many such “emergency services” roles could be fulfilled by individuals who are not armed or otherwise prepared to respond to violence. We do not have a formal position on whether or not individuals playing such roles should be organized directly as part of self-defense militias or as a separate body, but we mention them here as a component of our vision of how we will replace the existing institution of the police.
As Lenin put it:
The workers do not want an army standing apart from the people; what they want is that the workers and soldiers should merge into a single militia consisting of all the people…. The people need a republic in order to educate the masses in the methods of democracy. We need not only representation along democratic lines, but the building of the entire state administration from the bottom up by the masses themselves, their effective participation in all of life’s steps, their active role in the administration. Replacement of the old organs of oppression, the police, the bureaucracy, the standing army, by a universal arming of the people, by a really universal militia, is the only way to guarantee the country a maximum of security against the restoration of the monarchy and to enable it to go forward firmly, systematically and resolutely towards socialism, not by “introducing” it from above, but by raising the vast mass of proletarians and semi-proletarians to the art of state administration, to the use of the whole state power.
Public service through a police standing above the people, through bureaucrats, who are the most faithful servants of the bourgeoisie, and through a standing army under the command of landowners and capitalists—that is the ideal of the bourgeois parliamentary republic, which is out to perpetuate the rule of Capital.
Public service through a really universal people’s militia, composed of men and women, a militia capable partly of replacing the bureaucrats—this, combined with the principle of elective office and replaceability of all public officers, with payment for their work according to proletarian, not “master-class”, bourgeois standards, is the ideal of the working class.
Types of workers’ militia can emerge in particular oppressed sectors, such as self-defense guards in the union movement, or the Black or Latino sectors of the class, elected and controlled by their communities. The U.S. SWP has a rich history of developing and applying this tactic during peak moments of struggle and other instances where there is a clear need for self-defense. We need to study their history on this question further.
Given the increase in physical attacks against our movements, the state of our forces, and our long-term objective as a revolutionary party, we believe there are steps that would increase the security and accountability of our organizing spaces which we can consider:
- The consolidation of “frontline” groups of comrades from various left-wing, community, and union organizations who will receive technical and political training on the hows and whys of self-defense. Political principles would include, defending democratic rights and fighting fascism through mass mobilization, as well as combating oppression within our own ranks and our class. We should begin with the existing militant minority in the streets today, and bring in co-workers and comrades in building a united front.
- Disciplined training in the use of firearms so that, when confronted by armed racists/fascists, we can deter them from using violence. On this point we can learn from the history of the Black movement in the U.S. As it defended its struggles and saved lives, it has clearly demonstrated the value of armed self-defense as the central deterrent from state and racist attacks. The goal of these tactics is to avoid violence, not to cause it. At the moment, there are disparate left-wing gun clubs, but they are not unified in any political or organizational sense.
- Form working-class self-defense groups with appropriate arms training dedicated to defending strikes and holding the spaces we take in the course of the struggle. As the class struggle intensifies and strike activity grows, we need to be prepared to defend these strikes from physical attacks. As both the Occupy movement and the CHAZ in Seattle demonstrated, our class’ ability to take over and expand our control will require a higher level of self-defense organization than exists today.
At this time, we believe that our task is to bring discussions about the necessity of forming workers’ militias into our organizing spaces, as opposed to initiating gun clubs or self-defense groups on our own. This is because we want to create a true workers’ militia that is of the working class, and not merely a Marxist paramilitary organized by our party on behalf of the working class.
4. The triple origins of the police in the United States.
As many historians have shown, the police force has a triple origin in the United State which is linked to the history of capitalism and state formation in the context of slavery, brutal colonization and genocide of the native populations. Capitalism was imposed and developed in the U.S. through sheer violence and the establishment of institutions that sustain systematic racism. The institutionalized racist character of the police structure puts all cops — regardless of nationality or race — in the position of enforcing a racist social order.
As Alex Vitale reminds us: “The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviors of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements…This can be seen in the earliest origins of policing, which were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the eighteenth century: slavery, colonialism, and the control of a new industrial working class.”
The police emerged as bands of hired guns, employed by different sectors of the ruling class to enforce their interests through violence. They were transformed into “permanent forces” throughout the 19th century, and were later “professionalized” in the context of the colonial occupation of the Philippines (where the key “police reformers” were trained) as well as the occupations of various countries in Central America in the early 20th century. This professionalization was carried out in a decentralized way, without the formation of a national police force. Instead, police departments were designed to function as local occupation forces at the disposal of corporations and big landowners, as well as to enforce Jim Crow laws and the racist policing of borders and reservations.
5. The police are not part of the working class.
There are more than a million police officers today in the United States spread over more than 18,000 police departments. Most of these police officers, much like the lower ranks of the military, are recruited from the working class. Today there are more and more Black and Brown people joining the forces of repression because they offer good salaries and benefits. Nonetheless we do not consider the police to be part of the working class, nor to be “workers in uniform”.
From the standpoint of Marxist theory, the working class is not just a sociological or economic category defined by a form of exploitation (the wage system), it is also a political category which is defined by its relation to the means of production. The key question is the social position people occupy in the class structure, that is, their relation to the means of production and to the state which sustains the structure of exploitation and oppression. Those who are dispossessed of the means of production, who only have their labor power (or sometimes their body) to sell, and who are not part of a system that directly enforces or “manages” class relations are part of the working class.
Managers and administrators with supervisory functions, corporate executive officers, judges, police, prison guards all receive wages, but their social function or role is to directly enforce the rule of capital and the state. They make a living and earn their wages at the direct expense of the working class.
Therefore, police officers, as long as they have not broken with the discipline of the police and continue to serve as officers, cannot be considered as part of the working class or as allies of the working-class struggle. In the 1930s, Trotsky gave the following characterization of the police which is still quoted by many Marxists today:
The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by the environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remain.
Finally, the so-called police “unions” —as well as the “unions” of prison guards, border patrol agents, etc. — are class enemy institutions. As a social and political force, police “unions” are among the most reactionary institutions in the country. For instance, it is not a coincidence that such “unions” as the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Border Patrol Council, the International Union of Police Associations, and others, endorsed and emphatically promoted the candidacy of Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020. These “unions”, were drawn to Trump based on his unqualified support for the police crackdown on popular demonstrations this summer and his racist and anti-immigrant scapegoating. In a revolutionary situation, it is quite likely that police “unions” —alongside more “grassroots” fascist organizations— will play a vanguard role in the organization of a counterrevolutionary forces.
In terms of their day-to-day social role, police “unions” exist to lobby for increased funding for police budgets. This helps police departments purchase military gear used to terrorize and occupy Black, Brown and working-class communities. The success of the “unions” in this task has also allowed departments to hire increasing numbers of officers, further staffing the already bloated police force, while paying exorbitant wages, benefits, and overtime to officers. Police officers thus, have a far higher standard of living than the residents of the working-class communities which they are paid to terrorize, criminalize, and control. The “unions” also step in following incidents of police terrorism, working to shield police departments and officers from public outrage and providing them with legal and political protection.
6. The evolution and class differentiation in the U.S. military
The forms of recruitment used by the armed forces have changed throughout the 20th century in most imperialist countries. Initially, they relied on conscription policies to supply the manpower needed for continued imperialist war. Between 1940 and 1973, the U.S. military used a draft for this end, and during that period rank and file soldiers could be considered part of the working class, for they were forced to serve, and their most immediate perspective was to return to their jobs and civilian life. In 1973 however, the draft was abolished, and the U.S. armed forces moved to an all-volunteer military model. The U.S. military has become increasingly professionalized, and since the Afghanistan war also increasingly privatized. This does not, however, preclude the existence of an “economic draft”, where the poorest layers of the working class are disproportionately incentivized to join the military.
Many working-class people join the military on a temporary basis, to pay for college or pay off debt, and not with the goal of developing a life-long military career. A poll conducted in 2017 by the Department of Defense found that 49 percent of Army recruits enlisted to pay for their education. The U.S. Army even openly credited rising college debt for their success in meeting their 2019 recruitment goals. Teens in poor school districts are disproportionately targeted by recruiters. Working class youth, caught between the school to prison pipeline and the lack of opportunities for well-paying jobs or a college education are likely to choose the stability promised by the military. Furthermore, soldiers are only deployed or on duty during limited periods of time (ranging from 4 months to one year) and return to civilian life. There are around two million active-duty service members during “peacetime” and around 450,000 National Guard troops.
Privatization within the military has also represented a key transformation of the armed forces. During the 21st century, especially with the beginning of the Afghanistan War (2001-present), the U.S. military has increasingly come to rely on Private Military Contractors (PMCs) instead of regular U.S. troops. According to a report of the Congressional Research Service, during WWII roughly 10% of America’s armed forces were privately contracted. However, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that proportion has grown to a staggering 50%. According to other sources the percentage is as high as 75% in Afghanistan. In many cases, a significant number of the mercenaries hired by these companies are non-US citizens. For example, in Afghanistan only 33% of the US contractors are US citizens. Many of these mercenaries also come from working class backgrounds. The turn towards PMCs was driven by several factors: the neoliberal turn of predatory capitalism (which transformed many state-run institutions into for-profit industries, such as education, and prisons as well as the army), a need to reduce the domestic “cost of war”, and the objective difficulty of recruiting U.S. citizens to voluntarily serve in failing and discredited wars.
For these reasons we believe the military has a different relation to U.S. civilians and the domestic class struggle than the police. The key difference between state forces of repression is not their class origin, but instead their respective forms of socialization, service, and perspectives. The difference between a force which is mobilized on a daily basis against U.S. civilians and one that is not is also key. We need to do a careful analysis of the class composition of the different sectors of the armed forces to identify what our orientation to them should be. We believe the SWP strategy of focusing on doing political work among the veterans is still correct.
However, in our publications, we must continue to print our analysis of the reactionary and criminal role that the American military plays in the rest of the world. We must also be ready to support demands for the defunding of the military if a large-scale grassroots movement in the U.S. were to emerge. The U.S. military is essentially a colonial police force that is deployed to terrorize, oppress, and kill working-class people abroad in order to uphold the genocidal interests of U.S. imperialism. Our solidarity is with the people in the Middle East and throughout the world — from Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria to Somalia and elsewhere — that are the victims of U.S. imperialism.
7. A successful revolution will require the division of the forces of repression along class lines
A mass uprising and the destruction of bourgeois power is only possible if the forces of repression crumble, at least to a certain degree. Any revolution that has resulted in a deep change in the relation of class forces included as a component the mass defection and division of the forces of repression, from below, and along class lines. With the encouragement of revolutionaries, the lowest rank of officials must refuse to repress workers, or otherwise support the revolutionary movement turn their weapons against their top commanders, who usually come from higher social strata. The Bolshevik Revolution wouldn’t have triumphed if revolutionaries had not organized Soviets of Soldiers, next to the Soviets of Workers and those of peasants, who intervened in the struggle for power in a united and coordinated way.
As Trotsky wrote, “the first task of every insurrection is to bring the troops over to its side. The main ways of accomplishing this are the general strike, mass processions, street encounters, battles at the barricades. The unique thing about the October revolution was that the proletarian vanguard had won over the garrison of the capital before the moment of open insurrection. It had not only won them over, but had fortified this conquest through the organization of the Garrison Conference. It is impossible to understand the mechanics of the October revolution without fully realizing that the most important task of the insurrection, and the one most difficult to calculate in advance, was fully accomplished in Petrograd before the beginning of the armed struggle.”
The Thesis on the Organizational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work, voted in the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921 is very clear on their strategy:
As regards propaganda in the armies and navies of the capitalist states appropriate methods must be sought for each separate country. Anti-militarist agitation of the pacifist variety is extremely harmful. It only assists the bourgeoisie to disarm the proletariat. The proletariat opposes on principle all military organizations of the bourgeois state and of the bourgeois class and fights consistently against their influence. Nevertheless, these institutions (army, rifle clubs, territorials, etc.) can be used to further the military training of the workers in preparation for the revolutionary struggle. This means that intensive agitation must be directed not against the principle of military training for young people and workers, but against the military regime and the autocratic rule of the officers. Every opportunity of getting weapons into the hands of the proletariat must be exploited as vigorously as possible. The rank and file must be made aware of the class antagonisms underlying the material privileges of the officers, the insecure social position of the ordinary soldiers and the rough treatment meted out to the rank and file. The agitation carried out among the soldiers must make clear to them how closely their whole future is bound up with the fate of the exploited class. At a time of growing revolutionary ferment, agitation for the democratic election of all commanding officers and sailors and for the establishment of soldiers’ Soviets can be very effective in undermining the foundations of bourgeois class rule. Careful and vigorous agitation has to be conducted against the special troops employed by the bourgeoisie in the class war and in particular against its armed volunteer bands. The Communists must choose the right moment to undermine morale and encourage the break-up of the ranks, wherever the social composition and conduct of the troops indicates that such a campaign might be successful. When these troops are all of the same class as, for example, in the officers’ corps, they must be denounced before the whole population so that, becoming the objects of universal hatred and scorn, their discipline crumbles and their cohesion evaporates.
8. On pacifism
As revolutionary socialists, we learn from history in our struggle to overcome the capitalist system and establish a socialist society based on workers’ democratic self-government. We believe in the self-defense of our class, and we would contend that in a revolutionary situation, the forces of state repression will be mobilized against working people in action.
We reject the embrace of pacifism as an overriding principle, including the pacifism espoused by a sector of the abolitionist movement. This sector is a reformist tendency which refuses to adopt a materialist view of history or acknowledge the deep connection between the state institutions and capitalism. Pacifism is a moral stance that avoids analyzing the political use of violence which the ruling class exercises every day against working people, especially its racialized sectors, women, and the LGBTQI community. As Marxists, we are not advocates of violence, and we want to minimize it as much as we can in our struggle. However, we believe in self-defense, and that capitalism itself is the main source of violence today. In a revolutionary situation, the best way to avoid a civil war, mass violence and casualties is to build a broad revolutionary movement that represents the whole of the working class, and to win over the rank and file of the forces of repression to support this movement.
Our propaganda should address the troops without illusions about their role as part of the repressive forces of the state. While members of the military or the national guard may come from working class backgrounds, they may also be used to break strikes. Revolutionaries need to get our message out to the troops to win them over or get them to stand down. In this sense, a revolutionary program should include demands specifically to protect their democratic rights, their right to speak out, and their right to organize unions.
9. Strategy and tactics in relation to the state forces of repression
We think it is important to clarify the difference between our strategy (or end goal) towards all the state forces of repression and the different tactics we might employ to reach that goal. Today, we propose different tactics in relation to differences between the police and army. We want to distinguish here between our strategy, which is long-term, and our tactics, which always need to be adjusted according to our analysis of the concrete situation. We cannot elevate our current tactics in relation to the police to permanent positions, i.e. to a strategy. Our long-term strategy for the police is the same as for the military and all other bodies of state repression: we want to weaken them, and divide them when possible, for they are the backbone of the state. Our tactics should be chosen based first on the characterization of the different kinds of forces and the social nature and the class position of their composing elements, and secondly based on the moment of the class struggle, and the role and each of these state forces of repression plays in that struggle.
Our theses draw from several historical examples that support our position that the police, as a force, cannot currently be divided from within, and can only be abolished through external pressure. Our current position and orientation towards police officers who are expressing “solidarity” with the BLM protests, by taking a knee or through other symbolic actions, is that they must refuse to follow orders and immediately quit the police force. We believe it is progressive when the lower ranks of police break the chain of command and refuse to attack protesters, but that does not mean that it is our role today to politically organize the rank and file of the police, nor to support the demands they are putting forward that reinforce the mechanisms of policing, such as increased funding. We are not proposing this as a matter of principle, that is, we are not saying that we will never under any circumstances support any demand put forward by the ranks of police or engage with them politically. Instead, we say that given the dynamic of struggle today, the nature of the existing police in the U.S., and the mild nature of the internal acts of dissent, it would be wrong to support those police officers who want to “reform” the police forces.
If we say that our tactics should be chosen according to a concrete analysis of the present situation, we mean that ultimately our different treatment of the police and the military is not linked to a crystalized characterization of an immutable essence of these two bodies, but instead to how their social and historical constitution causes them to play different roles in the class struggle. Regarding the ongoing rebellion in the U.S. today against police violence, the defining factor to develop our tactics is the dynamic of the class struggle. In relation to the present situation, these are the major trends of the current rebellion against police violence:
- This is a rebellion against police and state violence and prisons more broadly. Today’s main axis of class conflict is between working class people of color, especially the Black community, and the police; this is a rebellion against the police and the state apparatus of repression because of its recurrent violence against a sector of our class. There has also been a great deal of hostility to the National Guard when it is deployed to repress and silence the demonstrations.
- We must not only contemplate, but rather prepare for the possibility that if this anti-police conflict was to grow and intensify, other secondary class conflict could emerge inside the class forces of repression. However, all tactics in relation to internal cracks in the forces of repression must be subordinated to the dominant element noted above. Tensions inside the police force today are primarily caused by the mass rejection and social pressure they are experiencing from the outside, and not from an internal conflict which is developing on its own. Of course, the situation has accentuated internal conflicts, but what has generated this internal conflict is the organized power of the working class clashing with these forces.
- Today, even the most “advanced” sectors of the police that are dissenting from the top have not broken politically with the key defining features of their social role as police in the U.S. which is fundamentally anti-working class and racist. Their acts of protest, so far, have remained symbolic. They have not switched sides to join the protesters, nor have they risked their jobs and privileges to “do the right thing” (which in our view will take a greater level of mass protest).
For the reasons noted above, we believe that our current tactics are correct, and that it would be a grave mistake for us to do otherwise. Yet, beyond our concrete politics for the U.S. today, we want to make sure that comrades don’t draw mechanical conclusions and crystallize the current situation into rigid categories based on essential characteristics of these two forces: i.e. the military is always a force we can infiltrate from within, the police is rotten to the core and can only be destroyed from the outside. One reason to avoid such rigidity is that there already exist historical examples of revolutionary situations where the alignment of state forces of repression were different from what we see today in the U.S. During the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, the army largely sided with the bourgeois government, and the police with the MNR (Nationalist Revolutionary Movement) against the reactionary coup.
10. For a Marxist strategy towards the dismantling of the police
When we say that we support abolishing the police, we need to explain what we mean. We are calling for the construction of a mass working class movement that is able to suppress and overcome the need for a separate organization of armed people to solve our problems. As a class, to address these problems we need to address, first and foremost, the social and material roots of crime and violence.
We support the dismantling of all state forces of repression; however, we think there are some strategies put forward in the movement that despite aiming to abolish the police, are not capable of achieving this goal. Abolitionist demands, tactics, or even strategies, cannot be isolated from a broader strategy to build independent workers’ power and dismantle capitalism and its state. The abolition of the police, or even better, the abolition of policing and repressive functions carried out by state and private forces, requires the abolition of capitalist law enforcement. That is to say, the enforcement of laws designed in opposition to working populations, which sustain exploitation and reinforce all forms of political oppression in our class (racism, sexism, homophobia).
A key strategic difference between Marxist and non-Marxist supporters of police abolition is whether we believe police, prisons, and other state institutions of repression, can begin to “wither away” under capitalism. We believe that they cannot, and that all efforts geared towards the elimination of a particular state body of repression, without the defeat of capitalism, will end with the establishment of another body, whether public or private, which will enforce the same policing function as the original body. The structural need for repression and policing is a function of the capitalist system itself, and it will not go away if we merely eliminate one of the particular bodies in charge of that function.
This is why, in the course of our struggle against all forms of repression and racism, we need to be constantly educating and pointing out the social and material origin of violence, crime, and oppression: the capitalist system and the bourgeois state.
Total abolition will only be possible with a working-class revolution. This is because it is impossible for our class to address today the totality of the forms of violence, poverty, and oppression that surround us while keeping intact the social and economic system that produces them. Our strategy is to struggle to build a mass movement that can accomplish this comprehensive social transformation, which requires that we prepare our class for self-government and continue educating our class in clear anti-racist and anti-sexist principles. The center of our strategy is not to build today comprehensive alternatives to replace the police, nor to advance reforms towards decarceration and against policing in general. We need to intervene in the struggles against racist police violence, for defunding the police and police abolition by advocating at all times the need for mass action and the independent organization of our class.
However, we do support, to the extent we are able to do so, building the confidence of our class to deal with internal conflicts without relying on the state forces (police and courts) or the bosses as mediators. We think that it is critical to build workers’ committees to deal with these matters instead. When we build such committees, we do so as part of a process of struggle, with the goal of increasing our anti-oppression consciousness and practices, and developing mass action and the independent organization of our class.
While we do not trust or rely on state institutions, we do occasionally demand that those who attack our class be punished by the state, calling for the trial and imprisonment policemen who kill Black and Brown youth or workers on strike, millionaires and billionaires who defraud public money, the leaders of corporations who are guilty of labor violations or environmental crimes, corrupt public administrators, serial rapists, and military leaders who have tortured or commanded soldiers to torture. However, we have no illusions that the capitalist political system will concede to our demands and indict these individuals in any widespread or meaningful way. We also understand that the current criminal justice system is designed to fail working-class people when they are victims and survivors of these crimes, whether it be sexual violence, environmental crimes, or financial fraud, wage theft, and money laundering by the super-rich. Yet we still call for the perpetrators of these crimes to go jail in order to mobilize our class around the repeated failure of this system. The state’s failure to heed our just demands, will further radicalize the working class and lead our class to the conclusion that we must take power into our own hands.
11. How we relate to “police reforms”
From the Revolutionary Socialist Network Programmatic Document on Police
How our analysis informs our attitude toward reforms
Within the movement for Justice for George Floyd, there are various currents. More middle class and middle class-oriented currents stress reform of the police while leaving the function of policing intact. Some of these currents stress the “bad apples” approach. Others who see institutional racism as pervasive in the police and criminal injustice system believe these can be overcome by better training of police, including implicit bias training. They do not question the very function of policing for capitalism as the problem. When capitalist institutional racism disproportionately impoverishes people of color, it is inevitable that policing under capitalism will be inherently racist. There is no amount of training that can overcome this. This applies to cops of color as well as to white cops. These efforts at better training are misguided and are either aimed at or have the result of reconciling the community with the police and improving the community’s perceptions of the police, rather than actually putting an end to police violence. On the other hand, some on the Left take an ultra-left position that the only demand that Marxists can raise is police abolition. We reject both the accommodationist and ultra-left positions: the police cannot be reformed, and we cannot defend a revolution without an armed body.
We oppose these accommodationist solutions:
- Better police training, including implicit bias training.
- Community policing (a “soft cop” strategy of winning community support for the police).
- Community advisory boards that give input to the police about how to perform their jobs better but don’t challenge their very job.
- Civilian review boards: There is nothing magical about an election to a civilian review board that would make it different from city council elections. In these cases we are talking about community control of the existing police, and not its abolition and replacement with something different.
There is no reason to believe that an elected civilian review board would end up being more independent from the capitalists than current city governments are, especially because the class and racist nature of the police cannot be changed if we leave the state structure intact. There is a related limitation on the effectiveness of a civilian review board. In a non-revolutionary situation: the standards for evaluating police behavior are capitalist standards. Though openly racist policing will be officially condemned, actual racism is implicit in policing and will remain no matter how many review boards they have to go through.
A Civilian Review Board will be bound to apply “reasonable” capitalist standards to policing. It will not be set up to challenge the very basis of policing. This means that Marxists must be very critical of the demand for civilian review boards. We need to point out the faulty assumptions the demand rests on. Marxists need to evaluate each proposal critically. If a specific demand will bring tactical advantages to help foster more effective organizing against the police, Marxists should support it, even if it is not perfectly aligned with our long- term strategy. In evaluating whether to support a demand, Marxists should decide if it will have a tendency to rehabilitate the police or weaken the police. Revolutionaries should not raise civilian review as a general demand.
We support demands that weaken the ability of the police to fulfill their functions:
- Disarmament of the police: This can take many forms. In recent years the Federal government has given excess military equipment to local police departments. In some cases they now have equipment that is only appropriate for full scale warfare such as armored vehicles! But even when the provisioning of police does not go that far, we oppose any militarization. We support bans on chemical weapons, choke holds and even the use of guns. Any weakening of the police’s ability to threaten the lives of ordinary people is positive.
- Making it easier to prosecute and sue police: Right now police act like they’re James Bond with a license to kill. Only recently have killer cops been fired at all for murdering Black people, and only due to pressure from the anti-racist movement. Still, only rarely are they indicted and even less frequently are they punished. When judgments for wrongful death are levied against the police, the individual cop does not pay them! It is not even the police budget that is docked! Usually a judgement against the city for police brutality comes out of the operating budget of the city. This means that the victims of police brutality are first the people killed and their families and second the people of the city. Suits against police now end up cutting social programs that benefit the working class! The solution is not to further victimize the families by restricting their ability to sue. Instead, any judgement against a cop should come directly out of the cop’s finances, or at very least out of the police budget, not the social service budget. This would make cops think twice before killing their victims and would restrain brutality. End immunity!
- Defunding police: This is now a very popular demand. It is, however, very ambiguous. In city after city, liberal Democratic mayors and council members are supporting this demand in response to the uprising against the murder of George Floyd. In many cases their supposed support for defunding is smoke and mirrors. In NYC they cut the general police budget by around one billion dollars but shifted that to police in the schools. In Seattle, the mayor proposed a 5% cut as her response to the movement demand of a 50% + cut. That a cut was made at all was mostly a response to the austerity induced by the Covid-19 crisis. The RSN supports actual significant cuts in police funding as a way to weaken the police and as a step towards abolition. We oppose smoke and mirrors and the deceptions perpetrated by the Democratic mayors. Within the defunding movement, we push the farthest steps possible toward total defunding.
- Police out of the labor movement! We support efforts to expel police “unions” from the general labor movement. Labor support of police “unions” undercuts labor’s ability to support working-class interests. They act as a reactionary brake on the labor movement, often blocking progressive actions and resolutions. Labor support for police “unions” implicates the labor movement in the racism and class repression carried out by the police. It divides and weakens the working class. We do NOT support police winning better wages or working conditions. Police collective bargaining contracts often prevent oversight and make it harder to fire and prosecute killer cops. More money for police takes money away from the social programs that can undercut the conditions that cause social conflict. Since police are not workers, cutting their pay does not have a negative impact on the pay of other public workers.
- Police out of our schools! The idea of police arresting or threatening students for discipline violations in schools is repugnant. Reliance on punishment, especially by the police and court system is an abdication of the schools’ responsibility to encourage conflict resolution and restorative/transformative justice. It reinforces the authoritarian training that schools impart. It makes democratic control of schools by students and teachers more difficult. It feeds the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Too often a life of criminal jeopardy for people of color starts with criminalization of school infractions. This criminalization is on a basis of racial oppression, but also on the basis of class.
- End austerity/fund social needs. Capitalism creates social conflict. It creates the basis of class struggle when workers try to re-take some of the value that they have created and that capitalists steal from them on a daily basis. Its failure to meet the needs of ordinary people creates conflicts within the working class and poor communities. Crime is defined in class-biased ways under capitalism. War that kills thousands or millions is legal. Killing of one person is murder and can result in execution or life imprisonment. Stealing food for survival is a crime. Stealing millions or billions from the public is rewarded with high office and new contracts. As Anatole France put it: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
However, beyond capitalist hypocrisy, there is real destructive social conflict within the working class. This cannot be prevented by repression. It can only be ameliorated by rooting out the causes of conflict. The more the fundamental needs of people are met, the less will be the pressure to engage in interpersonal violent conflict. We support all efforts to meet the needs of the population: Free health care, food, utilities, education, housing, decent paying jobs etc. We oppose all efforts to make the workers and poor pay for the social crises of capitalism. This means in part supporting massive taxation of the rich and a slashing of the military and other repressive budgets.