The police and standing army too

The SWP is bad, but the CPB is worse. Jack Conrad critiques the cowardly, tailist, opportunist left and stands by what used to be the uncontroversial call to establish a popular militia

A few years ago, and not only in the United States, millions joined Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations. Many, very many, unconsciously echoing the classic Marxist programme, carried ‘Defund the police’ or ‘Abolish the police’ home-made placards. Excellent. They were being spontaneously communistic. There is every reason to be confident about the future.

Naturally, president Donald Trump branded BLM as treasonous. Naturally, Nigel Farage compared BLM to the Taliban. Naturally, Sir Keir Starmer took the knee, only to stress his “strong support for the police”.1 Naturally, the opportunist left desperately tailed what was suddenly fashionable.

However, still reeling from the comrade Delta rape scandal, the Socialist Workers Party found itself caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, there was the determination to keep respectable left Labourites gracing its Stand Up To Racism popular front platforms: eg, Diane Abbott and her Bell Ribeiro-Addy sidekick. On the other hand, in front of BLM activists, the SWP was more than keen to pose as very revolutionary. “The police”, it declared, must be abolished “altogether”. Upon closer examination, though, this turns out to be under socialism, after the overthrow of capitalism, in “an alternative society”.2 So not very revolutionary at all.

Socialist Resistance, official section of the so-called Fourth International, likewise tried to sound bold, even re-re-revolutionary, but could not quite manage anything more than a faint - a very faint - subBLMism: “We need to move beyond reform,” declared Susan Pashkoff. After that, though, it was rapidly downhill all the way: “Listening and hearing the protestors’ demands is essential. We must support the campaign for defunding the police and support the movement that is arguing for a transition towards a more just society.”3 All fully in the spirit of the woolly liberal.

Members of the Socialist Party in England and Wales marched on BLM demonstrations carrying Malcolm X ‘You can’t have capitalism without racism’ placards, which also featured the re-re-revolutionary-sounding slogan: ‘Build a mass movement to smash racism’. Programmatically, however, SPEW backs immigration controls and is rooted in the mildest of mild-mannered re-re-reformism and the call for “police accountability”.4 A pusillanimous formula doggedly repeated by Socialist Appeal and the more recent Socialist Alternative breakaway.5

Then we have Martin Thomas of the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. He wrote in the spirit of the frightened liberal. Warning against the demand for the “abolition” of the police, Thomas says, “it would lead not to liberty, but to selected ‘police’ functions being operated instead (and worse) by mafias or private security forces, as they were against strikes and unions by the Pinkerton Agency in the late 19th-century USA.”

As if BLM, or anyone else for that matter, can vanish the police like David Copperfield supposedly vanished the Statue of Liberty. No, in politics - real politics, that is - we are not dealing with some magician who can do away with the police in a blink of the eye. On the contrary, we suppose mobilisation, organisation and prolonged, often bitter, struggles.

With Thomas we are dealing with a foreign-office socialist who is undergoing a further degeneration into becoming a home-office reformist. His wretched perspective showed all the morbid symptoms: “push back the scope and powers of the police, to demilitarise it, to decriminalise areas of life, to improve mental-health and school provision, etc, and to cut police funding as a result”. What happens, though, if capitalism refuses to become peace-loving, generous and ever so nice? What happens if capitalism extends and extends again police powers (against free speech, against free association, against the right to protest)?

Reformism inevitably leads to complicity: “a low-paid police in the same class structures will probably just be more corrupt”. So, presumably, an AWL MP would vote to increase the already generous police salaries and pension provisions: constables get paid £26,199 after initial training, rising to £41,130, while sergeants get between £41,499 and £46,227 (salaries designed to buy loyalty).6

The whole approach stinks of reformism. Hence we read that the AWL’s “general formula” is, first, the “struggle to impose democratic checks on the police under capitalism, and then, to replace it under a workers’ government by a public-safety service, democratically controlled by communities”.7

Evidently, the AWL’s perspective of imposing “democratic checks” on the police under capitalism leads not to ‘replacing’ the police, but merely to the police in a different guise or form (well, at least in the imagination). Meanwhile, explicitly, the AWL actually opposes those who call for the abolition of the police and those who advocate a popular militia … under capitalism.

If the AWL exhibits stage-three home-office reformism, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain must be classified as a terminal case. The existing armed forces (the police included) are simply taken as a given. All that is required when it comes to the “taking of state power” is replacing “key personnel”.8 Not the smashing-apart of the existing institutions and their replacement by alternatives. Facing a wave of youthful rebellion, part-time general secretary Robert Griffiths even banned members discussing the question of the popular militia. Towards that end the CPB issued this strange, but all too revealing, decree:

it is essential that the party and its members do not publish or post anything that could be interpreted as support for the possession of weapons in Britain or for armed struggle at home or - except when explicitly endorsed by our party - abroad. Party members should make themselves aware of the home office list of proscribed terrorist organisations.9


Compare and contrast this horrible modern-day collection of tailism, posturing and cringing timidity with Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. They actively encouraged workers, students and peasants to violently resist the police. Advice was given on street-fighting tactics and how to obtain weapons.

What about defunding? In 1908 we find the 5th Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party instructing its deputies in the tsarist duma not to vote for government budgets - specifically not to vote for items in government budgets which “sanction expenditure on instruments for the oppression of the masses (the armed forces, etc) … [the] point of departure should be the principle of our programme that social democrats reject reforms involving tutelage of the police and the bureaucracy over the working classes”.10 Hence, in April 1917 Lenin unequivocally calls for the “abolition of the police, [the standing] army and the bureaucracy”.11 He makes the exact same call a few days later in a Pravda article:

the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves.12

And again and again throughout 1917 till the October Revolution itself. This is a key lesson Lenin draws from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their most famous writings on the Paris Commune (1871, 1872 and 1875). Lenin’s suggested revision of the RSDLP programme contains this splendid formulation:

The party of the proletariat cannot rest content with a bourgeois parliamentary democratic republic, which throughout the world preserves and strives to perpetuate the monarchist instruments for the oppression of the masses: namely, the police, the standing army and the privileged bureaucracy.13

Nor, as we have seen, is Bolshevik opposition to the police confined to the Russia of Nicholas II and Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government. Lenin sets out the charge sheet:

In all bourgeois republics, even the most democratic, the police (like the standing army) is the chief instrument of oppression of the masses, an instrument making for a possible restoration of the monarchy. The police beat up the ‘common people’ in the police stations of New York, Geneva and Paris; it favours the capitalists either because it is bribed to do so (America and other countries), or because it enjoys wealthy ‘patronage’ and ‘protection’ (Switzerland), or because of a combination of both (France). Separated as it is from the people, forming a professional caste of men trained in the practice of violence upon the poor, men who receive somewhat higher pay and the privileges that go with authority (to say nothing of ‘gratuities’), the police everywhere, in every republic, however democratic, where the bourgeoisie is in power, always remains the unfailing weapon, the chief support and protection of the bourgeoisie. No important radical reforms in favour of the working masses can be implemented through the police. That is objectively impossible.14


It is often argued by opportunists - the more ‘sophisticated’ citing the so-called ‘transitional method’ and the ‘existing consciousness of the working class’ - that the demand to abolish the police and the army, and replace them with the armed people, is only applicable in a revolutionary situation. No, obviously not - this is evidently a rotten excuse for abandoning what ought to be an elementary programmatic principle.

It should be stressed, therefore, that, when it comes to opposing standing armies and demanding a people’s militia, Marxists stand as part of a long tradition.

The Florentine bourgeois republic of the 15th and 16th centuries deserves particular mention. Having overthrown the Medici dynasty and experienced the failure, incompetence and betrayal of the professional (mercenary) army, the republic adopted a system of district militias. In the humanist mind, the militias of ancient Rome served as the ideal - an ideal spread throughout renaissance Europe via the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli (The prince chapters 12, 13 and 14, Discourses on Livy and The art of war). Machiavelli, of course, himself helped create the Florentine militia. Between 1498 and 1512 he served as a senior official in the republic.

English radicals, such as James Harrington (Commonwealth of Oceana 1656), and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon (Cato’s letters 1720-23), took up the militia ideal. From England it travelled the Atlantic to America. Militia units helped trigger the 1776 revolution.

Anti-Federalists - a very diverse political grouping - feared that the US presidency could easily evolve in the direction of a monarchy. There were those - eg, Lewis Nicola - who wanted George Washington crowned king. To guard against such an outcome, guarantees were demanded against the “establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty” (Eldridge Gerry, 1789).15 The camp of plebeian and middling democracy saw in the militia their best defence against another tyranny.

Ratified to popular acclaim in 1791, the second amendment to the US constitution is justly famous: “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.”16

Marx and Engels considered Machiavelli, English radicalism and the second amendment part of their heritage.17 Clause four of the Marx-Engels Demands of the Communist Party in Germany (1848) is unequivocal:

Universal arming of the people. In future armies shall at the same time be workers’ armies, so that the armed forces will not only consume, as in the past, but produce even more than it costs to maintain them.18

The Marx-Engels team never wavered. Read Can Europe disarm? (1893). Here, in this pamphlet written by Friedrich Engels 10 years after the death of his friend and collaborator, we find a concrete application of Marxism to the dawning epoch of universal suffrage and universal conscription. Engels concluded that the key to revolution was mutiny in the armed forces. His pamphlet outlined a model bill for military reform in Germany. Engels was determined to show that the proposal to gradually transform standing armies into a “militia based on the universal principle of arming the people” could exploit the mounting fears of a pending European war and widespread resentment at the ruinously costly military budget.19

For propaganda purposes, Engels proposed an international agreement to limit military service to a short period and a state system in which no country would fear aggression, because no country would be capable of aggression. Surely World War I would have been impossible if the European great powers had nothing more than lightly armed civilian militias available to them.

Not that Engels was some lily-livered pacifist. He supported universal male (!) conscription and, if necessary, was quite prepared to advocate revolutionary war on the model of the Napoleon’s grande armée. Needless to say, his Can Europe disarm? was not intended to prove the undoubted military superiority of a militia over a standing army (it can fully mobilise very large numbers with incredible speed, provide defence in depth and is, therefore, capable of successfully surviving a whole series of initial defeats). No, Engels wanted a citizen army within which discipline would be self-imposed. An army where rank-and-file troops would, if necessary, turn their guns on any officer tempted to issue orders that ran counter to the vital interests of the people.

Subsequent Marxist writers took the militia for granted. Though his L’armée nouvelle (1910) was marred with various reformist assumptions, Jean Jaurès elaborated upon the whys and hows of a militia system. Work and military training had to be brought close together, full-time army cadre would be confined to instructors, etc.20

What went for Marxist writers went for Marxist parties too. Eg, the 1880 programme of the French Workers’ Party, the 1891 Erfurt programme, the 1889 Hainfeld programme of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, the 1903 programme of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, etc. In the ‘political section’ of the programme of the French Workers’ Party (Parti Ouvrier), authored jointly by Karl Marx and Jules Guesde, we find the demand for the “abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people” (clause 4).21 A proposition faithfully translated by the Germans: “Education of all to bear arms. Militia in the place of the standing army” (clause 3).22 The Austrians too are adamant: “The cause of the constant danger of war is the standing army, whose growing burden alienates the people from its cultural tasks. It is therefore necessary to fight for the replacement of the standing army by arming the people” (clause 6).23 Then the Russians: “general arming of the people instead of maintaining a standing army” (clause c9).24 The newly formed, though hardly Marxist, Labour Party in Britain too: in its first general election manifesto, 1900, there is this call: “Abolition of the standing army, and the establishment of a citizen force”.25


Besides the word, there is the deed.

We have already mentioned the 1871 Paris Commune. Amongst its first decrees was the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by the national guard - “the bulk of which consisted of working men” (Marx). By actually constituting a new state, based on a repressive force that did not sit outside the general population, the Commune opened a new chapter in global politics. And Russia took what happened in Paris to new heights.

With the virtual collapse of the old tsarist state machine in 1917, the Bolsheviks strove to prevent the “restoration of the police”. Following the February revolution, two rival militias arose: a civil militia, organised under the municipal dumas; and a workers’ militia, largely brought into being by groups of factory workers. They were overseen by factory committees and served to maintain law and order locally. Workers did not give up their jobs. They served in the militia according to an agreed rota.

The Menshevik- and Socialist Revolutionary-dominated executive committee of the soviets voted in favour of merging the civil and workers’ militias. This, in effect, was an attempt to revive the professional, full-time police force. Only the Bolsheviks denounced the decision, but it was a position fully in accord with rank-and-file sentiment.26

In May 1917 a conference of workers’ militias took place in Petrograd. It denounced the attempt to impose on the population a western European police force “hated throughout the world by the majority of people, the poorer classes”. The conference agreed a Bolshevik motion for reorganising the workers’ militias as a “transitional stage towards the general arming of the population” - a position which found wide support in factory committees, including many dominated by Mensheviks and SRs.

From the start there were those groups of armed workers who called themselves Red Guards. They saw their task as defending the gains of the revolution. Over April-June 1917, more and more workers’ militias voted to transform themselves into Red Guards - a development denounced by the Mensheviks. After Kornilov’s attempted counterrevolutionary putsch in September 1917, the Red Guards grew into a mass force and proved crucial to the success of the October Revolution.

And there are other instructive examples. Beginning in the early 1920s, the two main workers’ parties in Germany built their own non-state militias. The SDP dominated the soft-left Reichsbanner, while the Communist Party formed the much more militant Rotfrontkämpferbund (at its height it boasted 130,000 members). In Austria, despite its 1923 founding statutes emphasising ceremonial paraphernalia, marches and band music, the Schutzbund served as a kind of “proletarian police force”.27 When it came to strikes, demonstrations and meetings, this workers’ militia maintained discipline and fended off Nazi gangs. Though hampered by a dithering social democratic leadership, the Schutzbund heroically resisted the February12 1934 fascist coup.

Workers formed defence corps during the 1926 General Strike in Britain. American workers did the same in 1934. There were massive stoppages in San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis. In Spain, anarchists, ‘official communists’, the Workers Party of Marxist Unification (Poum), etc, likewise formed their own militias in response to Franco’s counterrevolutionary uprising.

Then, more recently, in 1966, there was the Black Panther Party. It organised “armed citizen’s patrols” to monitor and counter the brutal US police force.28 Even the “non-violent” civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, included within its ranks those committed to “armed self-defence” against Ku Klux Klan and other such terrorism.29


As we have seen, the Bolsheviks opposed funding the police under tsarism. We have also seen that the Bolsheviks opposed attempts to establish a western-European-type police in 1917. And yet today’s fake Bolsheviks - along with mainstream liberal and conservative opinion - take the police for granted. They appear to believe that the police have been around forever. But, of course, today’s police force was invented by home secretary Sir Robert Peel, beginning in 1829, with the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force for London (Peelers). It is worth stressing that he drew heavily upon his experience of being chief secretary - read chief oppressor - of colonial Ireland.

The British bourgeoisie was terrified by what had happened in France, especially with 1793 and the sans culottes briefly imposing their will upon society. The emergent radical and working class movement posed the same sort of threat. The ideas of Tom Paine, Robert Owen and James Morrison gained a mass audience and took material form with corresponding societies, insurrectionary conspiracies and revolutionary trade unionism.

Before 1829 there was nothing like a centralised police force. Various local bodies financed night-watchmen (Charlies). There were also unpaid constables, supervised by justices of the peace. In theory every able-bodied male householder was expected to serve as a parish constable for a one-year term. In practice this duty was passed onto others in return for a small payment. Corruption was endemic.

What first evolved in the 15th century could not serve the fully-fledged capitalism of the early 19th century. The use of untrained constables - often dissolute, old and in poor health - proved useless when faced with mass meetings, demonstrations and even the everyday pilferings of bully bucks, moochers and snick fadgers. Not that the military were much of an answer. Troops were unreliable - they had sympathy for those whom they were ordered to attack. On occasion rank-and-file soldiers actively took sides with radical protestors. This explains why the yeomanry - a mounted force officered by the upper and middle classes - was formed. Hopeless in military terms, its main purpose was to suppress local ‘Jacobinism’. Something it did with “enthusiasm and unfailing brutality”.30 The Peterloo massacre of 1819 saw 11 peaceful demonstrators killed and 400 wounded, just because they were calling for parliamentary reform. In other words, the yeomanry applied too much force. So in 1829 the army was placed in reserve and a strong body of professional, trained, paid police was put on the front line. The truncheon was to prove more effective than the sabre.

Popular pamphlets attacked “Peel’s bloody gang” and called for unity around the demand, “Abolish the new police”. Showing the hostility of the general population, when, in the early 1830s, a policeman was fatally stabbed during a meeting of the National Political Union - a thoroughly moderate reform organisation - the inquest jury returned a verdict of “justifiable homicide”.31

As the Metropolitan police model was applied to other areas, local big wigs lost their customary powers. The growth of the central bureaucracy provoked objections from the landed gentry. However, with the rise of Chartism, that evaporated. The police were in the forefront of the fight against revolution. Hence, the passing of the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act was opposed not so much by Tories, but the Chartist movement and Radical MPs. The Herald newspaper expressed its outrage at what was in effect a move to establish a national police force:

The Centralised Police Bill is unconstitutional in its very essence; in its operation and effects it will prove the most frightful instrument of despotism - of money despotism - ever introduced into England.32

Over the years, while there has been the attempt to give the appearance of local control - eg, the election of police and crime commissioners - the fact remains that the police still operate as a single national force for operational purposes under the overall direction of the home office.

The official account insists that the main reason for the creation of the modern police was crime prevention. A dubious proposition. True, the police function to protect the property and persons of ordinary citizens. But the evidence strongly shows that the police have little effect on reducing crime. Economic booms and slumps, government social provisions and the organised strength or weakness of the working class movement - all are far more important factors. Clear-up rates are undoubtedly pathetic. In 2019 police forces in England and Wales reported that just 7.8% of offences saw someone charged or summonsed - down from 9.1% the previous year. Only to be expected from a force set above and apart from society.

No, the police exist primarily to maintain order and to protect the state. Towards that end the police force - not just top personnel - must be thoroughly imbued with loyalty to the monarch (queen or king) and the country.

The top echelons of the army and civil service are still heavily recruited from the public-school intake into universities. Not the case with the police. Though there has been the introduction of fast-tracking for university graduates, since 1958 and Sir Joseph Simpson, all Met Commissioners have joined as constables. There is, in other words, no officer caste. Nonetheless, there is natural conservatism. Most recruits join the police not with especially reactionary views: in general they appear, on entry, to share the problematic outlook and moral values of the respectable end of the working and middle classes. But experience of the police being the police produces especially reactionary and especially racist notions and ideas.33 There can be no doubt that the great majority of serving police men and women despise, look down upon, fear, striking trade unionists, the left, black-rights protestors, statue topplers, etc.

For our part, we support the right of the police rank and file to join a genuine trade union. But communist MPs would certainly not vote for police budgets. They would either abstain or vote against. Programmatically we are committed to abolishing the police and all standing armies, and replacing them with a popular militia.

  1. labourlist.org/2020/06/watch-defund-the-police-demand-is-nonsense-says-starmer.↩︎

  2. Socialist Worker June 16 2020.↩︎

  3. Socialist Resistance June 15 2020.↩︎

  4. L Walsh, ‘The police’ The state London 1983,  p59.↩︎

  5. See: socialist.net/changing-consciousness-within-the-police.htm and: www.socialistalternative.org/marxism-and-the-state/role-police.↩︎

  6. www.policeoracle.com/pay_and_conditions/police_pay_scales.html.↩︎

  7. Solidarity June 24 2020.↩︎

  8. Britain’s road to socialism Croydon 2020, pp35-36.↩︎

  9. CPB members’ bulletin Unity!: www.communistparty.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/September-2021-Unity_.pdf.↩︎

  10. VI Lenin CW Vol 15, Moscow 1977,  p326-27.↩︎

  11. ibid p23.↩︎

  12. ibid p39.↩︎

  13. ibid p471.↩︎

  14. ibid p352.↩︎

  15. S Cornell The other founders: anti-federalism and the dissenting tradition in America, 1788-1828 Chapel Hill 1999, p161.↩︎

  16. usconstitution.net/const.html#Am2.↩︎

  17. Marx, writing to Engels, describes Machiavelli’s History of Florence as a “masterpiece” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 40, London 1983, p187). In his Dialects of nature Engels praises Machiavelli as the “first notable military author of modern times” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 25, London 1987, p319).↩︎

  18. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 7, Moscow 1977, p3.↩︎

  19. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p371.↩︎

  20. As far as I am aware L’armée nouvelle remains untranslated into English. An abbreviated translation was published in 1916 and can be found on the excellent Marxist Internet Archive: marxists.org/archive/jaures/1907/military-service/index.htm (though I think the 1907 dating given is mistaken).↩︎

  21. marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/05/parti-ouvrier.htm.↩︎

  22. marxists.org/history/international/social-democracy/1891/erfurt-program.htm.↩︎

  23. I am grateful to Ben Lewis for his translation of the Hainfield programme.↩︎

  24. marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1902/draft/02feb07.htm.↩︎

  25. I Dale (ed) Labour Party general election manifestos 1900-1997 London 2002, p9.↩︎

  26. See SA Smith Red Petrograd: revolution in the factories 1917-18 Cambridge 1983, pp199-201.↩︎

  27. M Kitchen The coming of Austrian fascism London 1980, p116.↩︎

  28. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Panther_Party.↩︎

  29. See CE Cobb This nonviolent stuff’ll get you killed New York NY 2014.↩︎

  30. AL Morton A people’s history of England London 1974, p349.↩︎

  31. Quoted in R Reiner The politics of the police Brighton 1985, p14.↩︎

  32. Quoted in J Harvey and K Hood The British state London 1958, p134.↩︎

  33. See R Reiner The politics of the police Brighton 1985.↩︎