La police nouvelle: Jean Jaurès and the End of America’s Police

Andrew P. of Illinois State University uses the French socialist movement of the early 1900s to argue for a police of, by, and for the working class — not the capitalists.

Between 1907 and 1910, Jean Jaurès, leader of the SFIO (Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière, the forerunner to the current French Socialist Party) and editor of l’Humanité, was confronted with one of the fundamental problems of building socialism in the French Third Republic. Following the Dreyfus Affair, –  in which the French military wrongly convicted a Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, of espionage and, after being confronted with the real spy, refused to overturn Dreyfus’ conviction because of his Jewishness –  the French officer corps had demonstrated its refusal to negotiate with any group that would challenge its authority. Socialists, who were some of the most active Dreyfusards, faced military opposition to all their demands. Despite his pacifism, Jaurès would not promote the total abolition of the French military (lest the Germans invade a second time);      rather, he promoted its restructuring on radical and democratic lines in keeping with his democratic and socialist vision for France.

He articulated these principles for a new French army in L’Armée nouvelle. This new army was to replace the reactionary and antisemitic standing army with an army of militias resembling the citizen-soldiers of ancient Greek city-states. Jaurès argued that military units should be based on productive units (farms, factories, etc.). Employees would spend part of their workweek on the drill ground rather than at the workbench, creating not only an army of the working class but an army designed with workplace solidarity at its core. Isaac Deutscher summarized Jaurès’ ideas in his biography of Trotsky, The Prophet Armed: “The militias should therefore be so originally integrated into the civilian community that no ambitious general or military clique [my italics] could use them as a political instrument.”

This new army would be incapable of making imperialist war, its sole purpose being the defense of the republic. Its organization would also be able to counter the greatest threat to a socialist France, the reactionary officer corps. By selecting soldiers from the factories and removing them from the barracks, the militarist “barrack mentality” would be replaced by workplace solidarity, integrating the reactionary officers and professional soldiers into the new socialist society.

In light of recent events, we should revive this idea as a solution to America’s racist and reactionary police.

After George Floyd’s murder and the massive ongoing protests against continued and systematic police brutality, the call has been made to abolish the police. This call has often been countered by disingenuous right-wing voices demanding to know what will happen if someone is robbed and there are no police. For millions of Americans of color, the police have already ceased to exist, having been replaced by an occupying army that treats Powderhorn Park like Fallujah. Our lack of a coherent explanation of what a post-police world would look like leaves us in a weak position. Many people simply see the police as a necessary part of life, as many French people saw the Army of the Republic at the turn of the century. Fortunately, Jean Jaurès has provided the outline of a militia that can be readapted for a democratic and socialist police force.

America’s police lack democratic accountability. In a new police force, every officer would be democratically elected. Unfortunately given the number of sheriffs and other local officials who run for office unopposed, this is not a sufficient solution. I argue that the answer lies in the workplace as the basic unit. 

Every workplace should, after reaching a certain number of employees in a location, be required to elect from its ranks a number of co-workers to serve as police officers for one year subject to recall by a simple vote at any time. Making an officer’s colleagues normal working people would break up the police “solidarity” centered around semi-fascist organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police. It would mean that citizen-officers who committed acts of brutality would be accountable to working-class people and face social and economic repercussions for acts of violence.

In keeping with Jaurès’ dream of a workplace militia, being elected as a police officer does not mean leaving one’s old job behind. One would spend one or two days a week continuing one’s normal work while the rest is spent at a police academy or in the streets. This amateur force would need to be trained, of course, but this provides the opportunity for a constantly rotating force of elected officers so that a permanent force would not evolve. Police academies often last up to six months. With this part-time force spending one to two days a week on the shop floor we could add another three months of training (nine months total) before these citizen-officers would spend three months as police officers. This long lead-in and quick turnaround would create the need for more simultaneous officers (i.e. that newly elected officers will be finishing their training at the same time that current officers are finishing their terms). Since abolishing police departments as they currently exist entails abolishing the jobs of 700,000 people, this would create a pool of reserve labor that would depress the wages of those we seek to liberate. Therefore, this new police force would serve not only as a reformed police department but as a jobs creation program.

One of the most important factors would be the location of these police. In our current system the vast majority of officers do not live in the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. Those elected to be officers for their one year would, however, serve within the community in which they are employed, with local repercussions for misbehavior. Of course, most Americans do not work and live in the same town according to the American Community Survey, however, having the police be employees of a local shop rather than being hired in a process completely independent of democratic oversight is a start and creates a better possibility for community integration.

This is, fundamentally, a tradeoff between the idealized professional police force as seen on TV procedurals. We would be trading the rough mustachioed police sergeant who is getting too old for this sh*t for a democratic militia-police force who might be less adept at solving murder mysteries and other high-profile crimes. It is a trade-off, however, that I am comfortable with. The vast majority of police violence is committed by local police departments, and while state police and the FBI are equally guilty, it is the local police that we, as socialists, are in the strongest position to abolish and replace with something better.

This is a vision that cannot be pursued in a vacuum, it must coincide with workplace democracy, unionization, and a radical reimagining of what policing is. Much of what a police department does can be better handled by social workers. These democratically accountable police would not be the occupying force in black neighborhoods that serves as the army of the owning class but a genuinely positive force that does not protect property, but people. 

There are still questions. How do we prevent the same people from being elected year after year, creating an ersatz police department?  How do      we incentivize people to run for these positions? I do not have an answer to these questions yet, but as we continue to be beaten and gassed in our streets, I think we should consider Jaurès’ democratic army as a model for a new socialist and democratic police force.

Andrew P. is a member of Bloomington-Normal DSA and YDSA at Illinois State University.  He researches modern European history between 1789 and 1949 and plans to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in interwar financial history.

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