Open letter to the IMT on the class character of the police
In a recent Socialist Appeal article on the brutal murder of Sarah Everard (allegedly by a police officer), the subsequent attack by police on the vigil held for her and the Tory government’s draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, we were pleased to learn that you now characterise the police force as a “rotten institution [which] cannot be reformed”:
“The reality is that the police as an institution of capitalist society play a role and serve interests that demand it to be the way it is–racist and sexist to its very core.
“This institution cannot be reformed. It has to be abolished. But that can only be done by abolishing the capitalist system that it defends and protects.”
–Socialist Appeal, 18 March 2021
The PCSC Bill is a vicious attack on democratic rights which is designed to repress future social unrest. It specifically targets the Black Lives Matter movement with the provision for punishing anyone defacing a statue with a sentence of up to ten years in prison. While we welcome the International Marxist Tendency’s (IMT) current tack in the direction of adhering to the historic attitude of the Trotskyist movement to cops and screws, we note your failure to clearly repudiate your previous characterisation of police as ‘workers in uniform’, a position long advocated by supporters of the Militant Tendency. This social-democratic position was the basis for a variety of reformist fantasies about democratising the capitalist police:
“Senior officers should be democratically accountable to the rest of the police force, and all police officers should be democratically accountable to the public. Working class communities should be able to oversee, judge, and democratically control the police locally, through the election of oversight committees from the labour movement, with elected representatives from the trade unions and local councils.”
–Socialist Appeal, 14 August 2013
Marx famously asserted that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” because the core of the capitalist state is made up of “special bodies of armed men” (i.e., cops, prison guards, military officers, etc.) who are committed to defending private property. These defenders of the bourgeoisie are not “workers”–they are capitalist thugs who should be driven out of the workers’ movement. One of the key tasks of a socialist revolution is to break up these agencies of capitalist repression and replace them with bodies of people committed to serve and protect the interests of the exploited and oppressed.
The IMT traditionally rejected this Marxist position, carried out by the Bolsheviks in 1917, in favour of a reformist scenario where the racist and repressive police are peacefully transformed, perhaps by a parliamentary ‘enabling act,’ from the oppressors of working people into their defenders:
“However, for all that you can democratise the police as an institution, you cannot chance [sic] the fundamental nature of the police as a force in society. The function of the police force cannot be fundamentally changed without changing society itself. The main function of the police force is law enforcement, so if we’re going to change the way the police behave a big part of that will be changing the nature of the laws that they enforce. As long as our legislative bodies defend capitalism, the laws that they pass will attack the working class. Only on the basis of the socialist transformation of society will you have laws that genuinely reflect the interests of working people.”
The IMT’s reformist position on the police reflected its strategy of promoting the illusion that the parliamentary activity of the Labour Party represented a potential road to socialism. This sort of anti-Leninist wishful thinking is currently out of fashion, so the IMT, without any explanation or self-criticism has flipped its position. It is, for example, using the inquiry into the blacklisting of trade unionists to warn of the pernicious, anti-working class role of the police:
“Over the coming months (and years) the inquiry will no doubt hear much more evidence about how the state–through the police and other organisations, such as MI5–has sought to spy on trade unions, in order to undermine workers’ struggles.
“We should be clear: under capitalism, the examples exposed in this inquiry are the rule, not the exception.”
–Socialist Appeal, 25 November 2020
While some newer members of the IMT may be unaware of their organisation’s historic view of police and prison guards as ‘workers in uniform,’ they should be familiar with more recent statements in defence of police unions as part of the workers‘ movement:
“While we support police unions linking up with the rest of the labor movement insofar as this can, in certain instances, weaken the bourgeois state, we do not support making any reactionary concessions to the police unions in order for them to remain within the broader umbrella of organized labor.”
–marxist.com, 18 October 2019
Revolutionaries oppose unions for police or prison officers as well as any strikes or other actions they carry out to win higher pay and better equipment with which to smash up picket lines and terrorise inmates.
A 2013 wildcat strike by prison guards in Alberta, Canada provided a particularly egregious example of the logic of the IMT’s reformism. In an article entitled, “Alberta prison guards’ wildcat: a lesson for the entire labour movement,” the IMT’s Canadian section declared:
“Some on the left found themselves uncomfortable during the prison strike, and had no straight answer to the question: ‘Should the prison guards and sheriffs be supported?’ We did not share their confusion. The workers in uniform were in conflict with the ruling class who uses them to oppress the rest of the working class. Why should we not have supported them in their struggle?”
–Fightback, 3 May 2013
Neither the IMT nor any of the various fragments of the former CWI (Committee for a Workers’ International) are pushing the notion of cops as “fellow workers” too hard in the U.S. these days in light of the recent mass protests against murderous police racism which have resonated with broad layers of the population, particularly youth and workers, many of whom have first-hand experience with police brutality. The recent change in the UK can similarly be traced to widespread outrage over the Met Police attacks on young women, as well as the violent police assault on the national protests against the PCSC Bill.
Opportunist groups have a tendency to adjust their programme in accordance with currently popular attitudes. But serious people who may still identify with the politics of Ted Grant and the Militant Tendency, should be prepared to explicitly and consistently repudiate their group’s longstanding promotion of the idea that cops and screws are part of the workers’ movement, rather than its deadly enemies.
Dáire Mag Uidhir,
For the Bolshevik Tendency