Now is the time
Abolition of the police and army is a basic democratic demand with a sudden relevance, writes Eddie Ford
Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the demand to defund the police has gained widespread popularity. Sensing an opportunity to revive his flagging campaign, Donald Trump accused “radical left democrats” and “socialists” within the Democratic Party of pulling “sleepy” Joe Biden to the left - “remember that when you don’t want crime, especially against you and your family”. Vote Trump if you want more money for law enforcement.
Of course, the movement to stop financing the police has been around for decades in some shape and form. Indeed, in 1935 WEB Du Bois wrote about “abolition-democracy” that wanted to scrap institutions rooted in racist and repressive practices, including prisons and “white police forces”. Basically, advocates of defunding want local governors and mayors to divert the money to other institutions and policy measures to lower crime and maintain order: social services, youth services, housing, education, employment programmes, community projects, etc. Some activists seek relatively modest reductions, whilst others argue for full defunding that would effectively abolish the police. Ultimately, the problem is not about police training, diversity or various restraining techniques. Yes, in the US there is an incredibly militarised and violent police force that has no problem with attacking peaceful demonstrators. But the problem is policing itself.
Feeling the pressure, even thoroughly mainstream legislators in the US are now supporting significant decreases in police funding. The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, who previously had been pushing for a 7% increase in the police budget, now says he wants to make cuts of up to $150 million to reinvest in “black communities”.1 His move comes after a coalition convened by Black Lives Matter called for a “people’s budget” that will only spend only 5.7% of its general fund on law enforcement, but 44% on “universal aid” and “crisis management”. Garcetti also said the city will impose a moratorium on listing people in a state-wide database for identifying and tracking gang members and would back the creation of a “special prosecutor” to review officer misconduct cases - something else demanded by BLM and other activists. The Minneapolis city council has already pledged to disband the city’s police department on the basis that it is “irredeemably beyond reform”, and instead build an alternative model of “community-led safety”.
Like us, the Socialist Workers Party can see that the establishment wants to incorporate BLM - neutralise any potential threat to the system. And, typically, the SWP wants to pose as really radical in front of this movement.
In this context, an article in last week’s Socialist Worker caught the eye.2 We learn that the comrades want to go further than defunding by abolishing the police “altogether”, making the correct observation that your average constable deals mainly with those at the bottom end of society - whether they call them hooligans, chavs, paddies or black scum. The article rightly describes as nonsense the idea that the main purpose of the police is to protect ordinary people from crime, pointing out that the proportion of crimes solved by police fell to the lowest level ever recorded last year, with only 7.8% of reported cases seeing someone charged or summonsed. And the police close nearly half of all cases, because no suspect could be identified. Of course, though it goes unmentioned, the police do exist to combat theft and protect the persons and property of citizens. But the ruling class, we read, needs an organised body of people prepared to use physical coercion to uphold the system and, “once we acknowledge that the police don’t exist to stop crimes aimed at ordinary people, but instead protect the system, it follows that they cannot be reformed”. The article is ended with a rather strange quote from The ABC of communism by Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, to the effect that “when the proletariat is in power, it cannot permit the enemies of its class to become judges”. More relevant would have been their remarks about the role of the police in strikebreaking, arresting revolutionaries and acting as agent provocateurs.
Keen to buff up its radical image, the latest issue of the paper (June 23) mentions Angela Davis, describing her as an “activist and author” - not mentioning her history of revolutionary communist politics or previous long-time membership of the Communist Party of the Unites States of America. Anyway, Socialist Worker reports Davis as saying that “hopefully this action will influence other unions to stand up and say no to racism - and yes to abolishing the police, as we know them”. An equivocal formulation which the SWP appears to support.
More than that though, we discover that the SWP’s abolition of the police is only going to happen under socialism, or, in the words of the article, in “an alternative society” - one in which “people are not exploited, and where there is no need for oppression, because people collectively had power to decide how resources are allocated”. Here, “there would be no need for a state police”. Everything is delayed to the future. In other words, abolition of the police is not a demand for now - something we actively fight for in today’s Britain. Like most liberals and left reformists, the SWP seems to consider the police a fact of life – almost as if it has been around forever.
But communists do not subscribe to this ahistorical notion. The modern police force was invented by Robert Peel in 1829, with the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force for London (‘peelers’). This became a model that was copied elsewhere, thanks to an insecure bourgeoisie that was terrified of proletarian unruliness and the threat of ‘mob rule’.
Unlike the SWP, communists call for the abolition of the police force in the here and now - the same goes for the army. We call for the arming of the people instead. Contrary to how it might seem, that is not a specifically socialist demand, but a democratic demand. We do not want bodies of armed people separate from the general population: communists believe in local self-administration. This is not the same as vigilantism, as some will stupidly allege no doubt, which is desperate action by an alienated minority. In the same way, we do not want a professional army standing above society - communists want a people’s militia.
Of course, with a lot of our leftwing comrades we see a confusion that is born of Leon Trotsky’s Transitional programme and the so-called ‘transitional method’ - which has become a dogmatic article of faith. This was perfectly illustrated in the letters page of last week’s Weekly Worker by Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight (June 18).
As well as talking the usual tiresome nonsense about Lenin in 1917 junking his previous strategic orientation, comrade Downing also tells us that the call for a people’s militia is a miserable reformist demand - his grouplet is far too revolutionary for such fripperies. Even as a reformist demand, apparently, it has no traction. He should have a look at Black Lives Matter and the widespread call to defund the police. But trapped in his own bubble, comrade Downing informs us that demanding a people’s militia has no importance today - it is “an ultimatistic, ultra-left demand to hide its reformist essence, not at all applicable as an agitational demand now ... in this time of reduced class conflict, though still necessary as propaganda”.
What a muddle. The demand for a militia is as relevant today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. As for ultra-leftism, even Labour’s first general election manifesto in 1900 included the demand for a people’s militia - true, a far cry from 2017’s For the many not the few.
The call for a people’s militia was precisely the demand of the French and American revolutions - a basic democratic demand that, of course, all Marxists must support. Mercy Otis Warren - the mother of the American revolution - in 1788 denounced the standing army as “the nursery of vice and the bane of liberty” - and the US constitution states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Of course, today the first part of that sentence is completely ignored. Nevertheless, those who made the American revolution - above all the urban and rural masses - saw a standing army as an existential threat to democracy. They were right.
What we have seen, of course, is the steady historical retreat of the bourgeoisie away from democracy - merely paying lip service at best. The left should learn from this and once again take up the cudgels of consistent democracy. That must include the demand for a popular militia and the abolition of the police - both necessary not only to programmatically equip the working class in the here and now, but also for the achievement of socialism.