A police force elected from the working class will still oppress the most marginalized. That’s why socialists should support abolishing the police.
It is easy for principled socialists to fall into the trap of taking a historical idea from the past and applying it directly to modern contexts without criticism or proper analysis. Andrew P. wrote an article in the Activist recently that alienates us from the movement for black lives by incorrectly analyzing the capitalist state. We seek to correct this in a thorough way with an extensive history of his formulation, the errors of it, and what a powerful program in response can be.
Andrew argues that we can realize the demand to “abolish the police” by demanding a system of democratically elected police, based on workplaces. His argument is incorrect from the point of view of contemporary abolitionism, the goal of which is to change conceptions of crime and punishment, as well as the Leninist-Marxist understanding of the police as inherently oppressive.
The origin of police in the U.S. is slave patrols; then they evolved into professional strikebreakers. Abolitionists, in contrast, have long understood “the role of the police at their core, as merely a hyper-militarized bottom of the barrel armed force of the ruling class … their role has always served to disrupt (radical) political activity by any means necessary.”
If we as Marxists understand that the capitalist state is built to oppress, we can already see that there is no way to reform the police to take away its oppressive purpose. Many liberals, however, try to derail movements against police violence with technocratic reforms such as body cameras, banning techniques, or whatnot. Black and brown organizers have long known and contributed to an abolitionist orientation toward police. James Baldwin knew in the ’60s “the real attitude of the white world… no matter how many civil rights commissions are made,” No matter how many socialist-like police are proposed, no reform can overcome the inherently oppressive and white supremacist nature of the police.
A “replacement” of police while maintaining their role under capitalism would result in similar subjugation and oppression. While social workers replacing paramilitary police forces is a vast improvement, to say that it achieves abolition or resolves the contradiction of the capitalist state needing to oppress people is naive at best. The example of involuntary institutionalization makes one of the strongest cases for this. In Massachusetts for example, this is found in Sections 11 and 12 of MA General Law. Section 12 specifically gives physicians the right to institutionalize someone by force for 72 hours. It also states that in an emergency where an examination by physician is not available a police officer can do the same.
Andrew’s argument is not made spuriously but rather off of a larger misapplication of Jean Jaurès’ position, a refusal to criticize Jaurès’ attempted use of the capitalist state to achieve his aims, and a failure to analyze later programs developed by Lenin and Trotsky not ten years later. Before we can show an alternative program, we must analyze thoroughly how exactly this position was theorized and why it is dangerously wrong.
What stops the democratically elected “socialist” police, with all their new training and deployment reforms, from having to enforce the laws of capital?
How confusing to the working class it must be to elect a co-worker who will arrest, however nicely, militant strikers or protesters when the capitalist state causes yet another recession! Will they then go on to jail— with great solidarity of course! — someone for property damage after their nine months of training to “create a pool of reserve labor?” There is a unique Strangelove-esque humor in the idea of the imagined proletarian nouvelle police Andrew envisions, especially as he himself admits that it is an incomplete idea.
Jaurès wrote L’Armée Nouvelle, translated in 1916 into English in an abridged capacity, Democracy and Military Service. The situation in Jaurès’s France was that of rampant militarism, entrenched reactionary officer corps, forced conscription and an overall spirit of revanchism after the Franco-Prussian War. Jaurès wanted to create a new and organized army made up of workers to make sure that a revanchist officer corps could not order the mass numbers of working people into a veritable meat grinder.
Yet Andrew goes further and takes a massive leap by presuming that Jaurès’s system of conscripted reserves and a voluntary police force are even remotely similar. The police are closer to the officer corps of Jaurès’s time, as they make up a small subsection of the population, elect to go into the field, and are designed to be a reactionary force to maintain the violent status quo. The officer corps that Jaurès was trying to abolish.
Andrew’s prescription of “socialist” policing is closer to a strange permutation of the idea of increasing police funding to allow for “community policing.” The socialist police he proposes would need a massive amount of funding to train new elected workers constantly, especially if they are police only part-time. Even then, the same issue of self-selection would arise, as the job is based on volunteers that are elected to the position. How does this get us any closer to any attempt at demilitarization?
Lenin wrote specifically about what he called “bodies of armed men” and their use of prisons. What he noticed is that these bodies of armed men are often used by a state to more inconspicuously oppress their subjects. They acted as an occupying army without overtly doing so, resulting in the current cultural mindset many have today which sees our militarized police as normal or necessary. In response to this Lenin suggested that workers, if able to defend themselves, would actualize the same goal of defense and show the contradictions of the state’s oppression of the working class with their state.
Trotsky later wrote about workers’ militias in his 1938 pamphlet The Transitional Programme. In reaction to sit-down strikes, paramilitary gangs of fascists and reactionaries would terrorize workers. Trotsky suggested that “[i]n connection with every strike and street demonstration, it is imperative to propagate the necessity of creating workers’ groups for self-defense.” Trotsky never suggested that these groups come about from a strict order or out of the vague notion of spontaneity, but by “systematic, persistent, indefatigable, courageous agitational and organizational work always on the basis of the experience of the masses themselves.” Couldn’t this serve to defend ourselves from violent criminals?
By focusing on the type of police and not the nature of the institution itself, Andrew’s position has the potential to alienate the broader BLM movement and the people who regularly suffer police violence. Proposing “socialist” police is incredibly tone deaf when so many socialist across the country are putting in work to defeat the carceral state. The fight for Black lives will not be won by alchemical ‘considerations,’ but by building a new society from the ashes of the old. Abolish the Police!
Sonia Kandall is the Chair and a founding member of UMBC YDSA in Baltimore, MD. Ruy Martinez is a founder and member of Harvard College YDSA in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zachary Lee is a founder of the University of Arkansas YDSA chapter, currently serving as the treasurer, and an education major at the U of A.
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