“Bolshevik Bobbies”? You’ve Got to Be Kidding
Her Majesty’s Social Democrats
in Bed with the Police
Britain: The Logic of Labourite Reformism
Police attack demonstrators outside the Bank of England in the City (financial district) of London,
April 1, as thousands protest against the G20 summit. (Photo: Chris Ison-pa/AP)
On April 1 and 2, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown played host to delegations of politicians and bankers from 19 other leading capitalist powers at the Group of 20 (G20) summit in London. While “world leaders” huddled to plan new rounds of slashing cuts to public services and trillions in handouts to the biggest banks, tens of thousands of protesters attempted to assemble to voice their opposition to the plans of the rulers. Instead the “forces of order” gratuitously beat, slammed, shoved, manhandled and “kettled” the demonstrators. Clearly the intention of this orgy of cop violence was to “teach them a lesson.” The police murdered a man, Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor, who wasn’t even demonstrating, just trying to walk home from work.
The resulting outcry is still reverberating as commissions “investigate,” “reforms” are floated and “guidelines” rewritten. But cosmetic changes will not alter the fact that the police are the guard dogs of capital, whose job is to keep us down. In mobilizing the workers movement and all defenders of democratic rights to protest every new atrocity, the only solution to cop terror is a fight for socialist revolution.
That the police action was named “Operation Glencoe” (the 1692 massacre of the Macdonald clan in Scotland engineered by the English crown) speaks volumes. The Metropolitan Police brought in an army of 4,700 cops, in uniform and plainclothes disguise, deployed to the streets with shields, clubs, electric shock weapons and dogs, an equal number waiting in reserve. The protesters, gathered under a number of liberal, anarchist and trade-union coalitions, were subject to 122 arrests and vicious beatings that left many bloodied. Police from the Territorial Support Group smashed demonstrators outside the Bank of England with their heavy riot shields, bashed their heads with batons, kicked them, slapped and punched them in the face.
The Climate Camp, a street festival for harmless eco-liberals, was attacked by repeated baton charges as protesters chanted “This is not a riot.” They were then held for four hours in a “kettle”– surrounded by impenetrable police phalanxes and not allowed to exit – until about midnight when more police with dogs and armored vehicles were brought in for the final assault on the picnic. The next day the police attacks resumed early in the morning with raids on two anarchist communal houses. The Earl St. Convergence Center and Ramparts “squat” in Whitechapel were surrounded by police wearing baklavas (ski masks). Later, armored cars were brought in as riot police smashed down the door with a battering ram and stormed into the buildings to flush out the counter-culture activists and protesters.
The bourgeois press did its part: while the tabloids screeched “Blood on the Streets” (Daily Star) and “Anarchy Does Not Rule UK” (Daily Express), the more respectable Guardian (2 April) wrote that “a man died” during the G20 protests as “bottles were thrown at police medics trying to help him.” They quoted “Commanders at the Met, who are said to be among the best public order officers in the world.” Yet a video showed that Tomlinson was clubbed from behind by a Met cop and shoved to the ground for no reason at all; he died hours later of internal bleeding. Several videos show officers in “Police Medic” uniforms being particularly aggressive in hitting demonstrators. And some months later it was revealed in a report by the chief inspector of the constabulary that “Metropolitan police commanders at the G20 demonstrations ordered officers to clear the streets of protesters using ‘reasonable force’ if necessary, minutes before a police constable attacked the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson” (Guardian, 7 July).
Britain’s ostensibly socialist left naturally condemned the cop violence, but how to stop it is another matter. The initial response of the Socialist Workers Party was vague calls like “Don’t let the police off the hook,” and “keep the pressure on” through “campaigning and mass pressure” (Socialist Worker, 18 April). This was followed by “Disband the riot squads,” saying the Territorial Support Group should be “abolished immediately” (Socialist Worker, 25 April). That’s already been tried once: the notorious Special Patrol Group was disbanded following the uproar over the police murder of protester Blair Peach in 1979. The SPG was replaced by the TSG, and they’re still up to their old “dirty tricks.”
The Socialist Party of England and Wales, the leading section of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) led by Peter Taaffe, called for investigations and changing police “tactics”: “What is needed is a genuinely independent inquiry into policing demonstrations, which includes representatives of protesters and trade unionists…. At the same time, the oppressive tactics of ‘kettling’ and other attempts to infringe upon our right to protest must be revoked” (The Socialist, 22 April). The idea that the capitalist state would countenance a “genuinely independent” inquiry including protesters, or that any change of tactics in “policing demonstrations” it would implement would not infringe the right to protest, is the purest bourgeois-democratic illusion.
“Steps need to be taken to ensure this never happens again,” wrote the Socialist Appeal group in the Labour Party, the mother group of the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) led by Alan Woods. But how is this to be accomplished? “Bringing the police to accept responsibility,” they suggest. Lots of luck with that. They add: “The death of Ian Tomlinson has proved yet again that the forces of the state are not neutral, but hostile – sometimes murderously so – to the working class movement. The sooner this fact is appreciated the better” (Socialist Appeal web site, 9 April).
Yes, indeed, the police are the armed fist of the capitalist state. Every worker who has been on a picket line, every resident of predominantly black or Asian neighborhoods knows what kind of “work” the cops do. They are the essential force that guarantees the capitalists freedom to exploit labor by neutralizing or destroying any potential opposition among those they exploit and oppress. Police herd scabs and break up protests. They spy on activists, framing and sometimes assassinating them. They oppress the Catholic population of Northern Ireland. They enforce the oppression of racial minorities and immigrants: in Britain, the police help deport 20,000 immigrants each year.
“Bolshevik Bobbies”? Hardly.
Richard Barnbrook (cricled), London
leader of the neo-Nazi British National
Party, marching in front ranks of 23
January 2008 Police Federation march for
higher pay. (Photo:
London Evening Standard)
Yet barely a year earlier, the same “Marxists” published an article titled “Bolshevik Bobbies” (Socialist Appeal web site, 28 January 2008). “There is rebellion in the air. A pillar of the state is in a mutinous mood,” swooned the IMT. They were ecstatic when they “got a phone call from the ‘Police Review’ asking for permission to republish an article from our website on the police strikes of 1918-19.” This was a sign, they wrote, that “we are heading for explosive times.”
That January 23, 25,000 British police officers paraded through London to demand a retroactive pay raise. The Labour government had cut the Met police pay increase from a scheduled 2.5 percent to only 1.9 percent, and the police thought they deserved better for their services to Her Majesty’s government. Some “mutiny”! For its part, the CWI cheered the march as “a momentous occasion” (The Socialist, 31 January 2008) and took pride in the success of its sales team (five copies in 20 minutes!).
Police “Unions” – Enemies of Workers
“Bobbies” is an affectionate nickname for the police named after Sir Robert Peel, who founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Even as they swear that the state is “not neutral,” reformist British socialists have an abiding concern for “their” bobbies. The most egregious are the offshoots of the former Militant Tendency led by the late Ted Grant, which for decades was buried deep in the Labour Party (where Socialist Appeal/IMT remains). Back when Woods and Taaffe were Grant’s deputies, Militant Labour published a pamphlet, The State: A warning to the Labour movement (1983), which declared in its introduction: “While opposing the repressive role of the police, however, Militant has always rejected the crude anti-police attitude of some groups which claim to be Marxist.”
Militant Labour also “rejects the idea put forward by pseudo-Marxists that the police ranks are ‘one reactionary mass’.” Cops “are inevitably influenced by wider events in society. In periods of the radicalisation of the working class the police too have been radicalised.” So how did Militant propose to “radicalize” the police? “Particularly by taking up the issue of trade union rights for the police ranks, the labour movement could have a decisive influence on the way the police move.” In particular they supported (and support) police demands for better “pay and conditions.” Yet a few pages further on in the same pamphlet, Taaffe himself admits that “the big wage increases to the police and army granted by Thatcher” showed the capitalists’ concern that they may need to use “the same brutal methods as in the past – i.e. the police and army – to curb the movement of the working class.” No matter how much bloody evidence cops serve up to the contrary, the CWI and IMT persistently raise their “trade union rights” and lobby the labor movement to admit these deadly enemies of labor with open arms.
Genuine Marxists have a very different view. For us, Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin’s dictum that the state consists of “special bodies of armed men” is not abstract words or an empty formula. Lenin spells it out for anyone who cares to read: “A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power.” The CWI and IMT (as well as the SWP and a host of other “socialist” reformists) claim to agree, but then add a treacherous “however.” In reality, when police demonstrate for higher pay and “union rights,” it is not in the interest of class-conscious workers to support them. The cops, whether they get their pay raise or not, will attack those who fight for the least bit of economic or social justice – not to mention, social revolution.
On 15 October 2008, the Police Federation reached a three-year compromise deal on pay for cops in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The agreement improved on Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s original offer, which had led to the January protests. And with their pay and pensions secured, the “bobbies” were soon back at work, beating up “anti-neo-liberal” protesters! Faced with mounting criticism over the police violence, Simon Reed, the Vice Chairman of the Police Federation, defended the cops and blamed lenient courts that “do not always convict,” as well as ten years of “under-investment” in the forces of Law and Order (Observer, 19 April). “Bolshevik bobbies”? Not hardly.
The cops are not merely interested in higher pay. They have a well-developed political program. Police unions and semi-union organizations, like the British Police Federation or the Fraternal Order of Police in the U.S., are anti-working class political organizations whose programs represent a grave danger to the workers and the oppressed. The Fraternal Order of Police in the U.S. has been the loudest voice clamoring for the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an innocent man whose “crime” was to be a black radical who spoke out eloquently against racist police brutality. In Britain, the Police Federation calls for harsher sentences for marijuana smokers, heavier arming of the police, and less “bureaucratic” oversight of warrant-less arrests.
Socialist Appeal and The Socialist politely leave out these other concerns of the “bobbies” when they write articles yearning for a police strike. In particular, they cover up the police defense of the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes, an electrical worker from Brazil, who was shot dead by a squad of London Met police on 22 July 2005 in the Stockwell tube (subway) station. De Menezes was unarmed, was not wanted for any crime, did not flee from the police and did not match the description of any “suspect.” Police shot him seven times in the head and once in the shoulder after physically restraining him. They justified the killing in terms of the “war on terror.”
“If (the public or others) make those decisions [to shoot] harder for us to make, we’ll have less people wanting to make them and that means the terrorists will win,” Police Federation president Jan Berry, who later led the 2008 pay protests, told the New Zealand Dominion Post (9 August 2005). The Federation launched a campaign to discredit and impede the investigation into the shooting by the Independent Police Complaints Commission – a toothless government body meant to shield killer cops by binding and gagging victims of police brutality with bureaucratic red tape. And when the murderers were reinstated over protests from the De Menezes family, the Metropolitan Police Federation celebrated their return.
The murder of Jean Charles de Menezes was not an accident or an exceptional circumstance. The “socialists” who would later tag along after the London police march termed the seven shots to De Menezes’ head a “blunder” (The Socialist, 25 August 2005) and called for an end to “shoot to kill.” A Socialist Appeal editorial (9 September 2005) urged a change in policing protocols. But all the procedures that led to his murder – the police dragnet against immigrants that made suspects of De Menezes’ neighbors, the stake-out of his apartment, the undercover cops who followed him to the train station, and the execution of the unarmed man who was already in their custody – are standard operating procedure of the U.S./U.K. imperialist terror war, from Basra to Bogside and Brixton.
Oppressed blacks, Irish Catholics and immigrants know the daily injustice of racist police harassment. But the capitalist Labour government with its “kettling” police traps and “shoot to kill” cops is Socialist Appeal’s government. These “Marxists” voted for it and remain in the governing imperialist war party. Rather than bring it down through revolution, they would modify the government’s policies. But no “reforms” can or will change the nature of the police, an essential pillar of the capitalist state.
The 1918-19 Police Strikes in Britain
For the CWI and IMT epigones of Ted Grant’s Militant tendency, the strikes by British police in 1918 and 1919 are the touchstone of their appeals for unionization of the cops. The CWI article on the January 2008 police march for higher pay noted that “the last time they took any action over pay was 1919.” In his history of Liverpool (where Militant Labour led the city council in the early-mid 1980s) Socialist Party/CWI leader Peter Taaffe devotes 15 paragraphs to the “remarkable” one-day police walkout of 1 August 1919 (compared to three brief paragraphs on the impact of the Russian Revolution). Saying that the police were “infected with the spirit of revolt,” he writes: “The National Union of Police and Prison Officers was founded in August 19181 to fight for the interests of ‘workers in uniform’.”
That phrase, “workers in uniform,” sums up the Militant view of the police. While accurate when applied to soldiers conscripted into the army, it is dead wrong when applied to the police, which is a body of professional agents of repression.
Woods’ Socialist Appeal/IMT waxes even more enthusiastic about the 1918-19 police strikes. Its “Bolshevik Bobbies” article starts off: “‘The spirit of Petrograd,’ cried [the left socialist leader] Sylvia Pankhurst on hearing the news of a police strike in 1918. ‘The London police on strike. After that, anything can happen’.” The IMT has produced two lengthy articles on the NUPPO strikes. The first, published on the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, began breathlessly: “The revolution had begun: or so it seemed when the very sentinels of the State revolted in the late summer of 1918.” Rather than saying forthrightly that Pankhurst’s enthusiastic exclamation of anticipation was illusory, the IMT feeds the illusion.
The National Union of Police and Prison Officers was formed in October 1913 to defend constables disciplined for unlawful arrest of an innocent man. NUPPO carried out two walkouts: a London strike in 1918 that gained higher wages and less autocratic discipline, and a strike for recognition in 1919 when only a small minority of officers walked out and were immediately fired. The authorities set up the Police Federation, which includes commanding officers, and proscribed NUPPO, effectively breaking the “union.” Hardly a heroic event, except to those who are desperate to link the police to the labor movement (and vice versa).
The IMT quotes remarks where police “union” officials sought support by mouthing some regrets about the strikebreaking role of the cops. But Woods & Co. then elaborate: “NUPPO militants aimed to sever the connection between police and State in favour of the labour movement, which in [and] of itself had revolutionary implications” (“The ‘Spirit of Petrograd’? The 1918 and 1919 Police Strikes in Britain,” Socialist Appeal website, 7 November 2007). This is a conscious distortion.
Even in their speeches to garner the support of organized labor, “radical” NUPPO leaders were explicitly against “severing the connection between police and the State.” The Night the Police Went On Strike (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968) by Gerald W. Reynolds and Anthony Judge, a history written with great sympathy for the police “union” cause, quotes the speech by NUPPO president James Marston to the Labour Party conference of June 1919:
“I know that the history of the police stinks in the nostrils of the majority of the community. It has not been easy for us to convince you that we now stand in the ranks of the worker, but it is so. At the same time, the Union is fully conscious of our duty to the public and the Government, for we are looking forward to the day when Labour shall be in charge of this country.” [our emphasis]
Socialist Appeal cites Reynolds and Judge among its sources. Note that when NUPPO officials looked forward “to the day when Labour shall be in charge of this country,” they were not talking of a workers government, but a capitalist government administered by the same Labour fakers that had supported Lloyd George’s imperialist coalition government throughout World War I.
Marston’s statement that the NUPPO was fully conscious of its duty to the government gives the lie to the IMT’s effort to sidestep Karl Marx’s stern warning to communists, that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” As Marx wrote at the time of the Paris Commune, the task of the coming revolution will not be “to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it” (letter to Kugelman, April 1871).
Another aspect of the 1919 police strike is that rank-and-file workers were none too eager to support the police, despite the urgings of their bureaucratic leaders. The IMT chides them for not showing proper solidarity:
“The police were hated by much of the working class community on Merseyside. This was because of the role they so often played during strikes, in effect acting as stooges for the bosses by defending scabs and strike breakers under the guise of safeguarding law and order. To their credit, some local trade union leaders urged their members to show solidarity with the striking police, but they had decades of accumulated bad memories to overcome.”
– “A policeman’s lot; the police and industrial action,” Socialist Appeal website, 4 June 2008
Here the worker ranks had a clearer vision of the nature of the police than their bureaucratic leaders or the “Marxists” who scold them nine decades later for their healthy class instinct. To the Labourite opportunist, police brutality against the working class is an unfortunate incident, a “bad memory to overcome,” not, as Lenin insisted, the very essence of the state itself: an organized force of ruling-class violence against the oppressed.
“Socialism” By Parliamentary Enabling Act
It is important to understand why the British “left” social democrats, particularly the remnants of the Militant tendency, are so heavily invested in the illusion of the police as “workers in uniform” and their treacherous efforts to bring the cops into the workers movement. The Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal group are appendages of the Labour/trade-union bureaucracy whose stock in trade is peddling Labourism with a thin “Marxist” veneer. They are deeply wedded to the notion of the peaceful transformation of Britain by a Labour government coming to power committed to “socialist” policies. They made this clear in the 1983 pamphlet on The State cited previously.
Peter Taaffe writes that labor militants must call for “measures to make the state more accountable to the labour movement.” What kind of anti-Marxist drivel is that – making the capitalist state “accountable” to labor! He then goes on:
“Experience has shown that only a decisive change in society can eliminate the danger of reaction and allow the ‘democratisation of the state machine’ to be carried through to a conclusion with the establishment of a new state controlled and managed by working people.”
And what kind of “decisive change in society” might that be, which would “democratize” the state machinery? Certainly not a revolution:
“If the next Labour government introduced an Enabling Bill into Parliament to nationalise the 200 monopolies, banks and insurance companies which control 80 to 85 per cent of the economy, a decisive blow would be struck against the 196 directors of these firms who are the real government of Britain. By the economic power they wield, they dictate the course to be followed by both Tory and Labour governments.”
Lest anyone think that he is talking of expropriation, Taaffe assures the bourgeoisie: “They would be compensated for the nationalisation of their assets on the basis of ‘proven need’.” He sums up:
“Such a step, backed up by the power of the labour movement outside parliament, would allow the introduction of a socialist and democratic plan of production to be worked out and implemented by committees of trade unions, the shop stewards, housewives and small businessmen....”
“A peaceful socialist transformation of society, would be entirely possible if such bold steps were to be taken by a Labour government,” Taaffe wrote, but the Labour leaders will only provide half-measures. So there you have the Militant program: “peaceful socialist transformation” by a parliamentary Enabling Act!
When Marx, Engels and Lenin insisted that the workers cannot simply lay hands on the existing state machinery and use it for their own purposes, they were attacking the fundamental conception of reformists like Militant.
Militant and the Police: Democratic Illusions
So where do the police fit in this social-democratic, Labourite utopia? In another article in the same 1983 pamphlet (which Taaffe’s Socialist Party reissued in 2006), Lynn Walsh writes of “the contradictory character of the police.” While they are admittedly “an arm of the state” and “make up the capitalists’ repressive apparatus,” Walsh writes, “the police, like the armed forces, are composed of men and women drawn overwhelmingly from the working class, and they have their interests and demands as workers.” But the cops’ interest “as workers” is to be better paid and better armed for their work of beating up workers, minorities and the poor. There is nothing contradictory about the class character of the police, who are at the core of the capitalist state.
Splitting the army along class lines, between the lower ranks of workers (and peasants in semi-colonial countries) and the bourgeois officer corps, particularly in conscript armies, is a crucial task for Marxists. Police forces on the other hand are made of career oppressors. That the occasional cop may harbor leftist ideas or sympathies does not change the class character of these supposed “workers” who “produce” violent repression. That cops desire more money is not a “contradiction.” Top-level MI6 and CIA employees would also like to earn more. Should socialists demand union rights for anti-communist assassins?
Walsh points to episodes in history when the police seemed to be wavering, when individual police expressed discontent with their role in capitalist society, when the workers movement hoped or believed that the police would take its side. But in the end, Walsh is only able to point to hopes, speeches, what-ifs. The police never took the side of the workers, not in Paris in May 1968, not even in Berlin in 1919, when Emil Eichhorn, a member of the centrist Independent Social Democrats (USPD), was the police chief!
To be sure, Walsh writes that in a “fundamental change of society” (got to avoid that “r word”), “all the existing institutions of the state will be shattered and replaced by new organs of power under the democratic control of the working class.” Sounds almost like something a Marxist would say, but then comes the inevitable “however”:
“While basing itself on the perspective of the socialist transformation of society, however, the labour movement must advance a programme which includes policies which come to grips with the immediate problems posed by the role of the police.”
For Trotskyists, a program to “come to grips with the immediate problems posed” by the police would include intransigent defense of democratic rights, such as the right to demonstrate, and transitional demands for militant labor defense of oppressed immigrants, racial minorities and class war prisoners, for union defense guards to protect picket lines, steps toward the arming of the proletariat – the first steps towards workers military organization to counter the organized violence of the capitalist state and prepare the way to revolution. However, that is not what Walsh had in mind.
Marxists say the police are the armed fist of the capitalist state, therefore the workers and oppressed must organize to resist and defeat their attacks. Social democrats say, “yes, of course, socialist transformation of society, etcetera, etcetera. However....” However, they hold dear their illusions in “their” bobbies and the “democratic” façade of the capitalist class dictatorship, and therefore Walsh advances a reformist fantasy of democratic control of the police, which will check police brutality and “ensure that any racist elements or fascist sympathisers within the police are weeded out of the force.” And of course, the police must be allowed “an independent, democratic trade union organisation to defend their interests as workers.”
Liverpool, the Police and the 1984-85 Miners Strike
Walsh’s Labourite daydream continues:
“Through such police committees, the labour movement, in areas where Labour controlled the local councils, would be able to establish democratic checks and controls on the role of the police.”
Ah, yes, the Labour-controlled local councils, there’s the tip-off. Now you see what Militant is driving at. They’re talking about the “Liverpool city council, led by Militant” from 1983 until they were purged by the Labour Party tops in 1987. For both the CWI and IMT, this is their claim to fame, when they were playing in the big time. So how did “democratic control” of the police work out there? The test was soon to come.
In 1984, miners in Britain went on strike, challenging the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher. Crack squads of police were dispatched to the coal pits and power stations; mass preemptive arrests were made of suspected strikers. Police worked overtime arresting flying pickets, attacking strike rallies and shepherding scabs. In Merseyside, the county including Liverpool, the Labour government and police authority ordered Chief Constable Ken Oxford to stop budgeting overtime for his cops. Police magazine (March 2009) reports: “When the police authority ordered Oxford to withdraw the force from the NRC2 arrangements, he said that obeying such an order would be an abrogation of his legal responsibilities.” The chief constable simply refused, and that was that. So much for Militant’s “democratic control” of the police.
Police magazine is the voice of the Police Federation, whose aspirations for union rights are hailed by the CWI and IMT. The passage cited above is from its historical review of the role of the police and their Federation in the great miners strike of 1984. At the time, the Police Federation criticized the right-wing Thatcher government for failing to take a hard enough line against the miners union! Police reports:
“Leslie Curtis, the chairman of the Police Federation, called on several occasions for the government to implement its own laws, designed to prevent mass picketing and intimidation, but he never received an answer from the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary. For months, it was left to the police to confront the hordes of pickets. In these clashes, some 1,300 officers sustained injuries. A total of 11,000 miners were arrested; 7,000 injured and eleven people died during the strikes, according to the NUM [National Union of Miners]. Only towards the end of the strike did the government go to court and obtain orders to sequester the entire funds of the NUM. This led to the eventual collapse of the strike.”
In South Yorkshire, the heart of the miners strike, the Labour-controlled police authority proposed to disband the mounted police and canine units. The police went to court to overturn this, and “democratic control” evaporated. At the 1984 Labour Party conference a motion was passed calling for a future Labour government to disband the Police Support Units and to stop Special Branch spying on trade unionists. This was nothing but a blustering gesture to obscure Labour’s actual betrayal of the strike. “Leslie Curtis made a public statement saying that if this became party policy, the police would have difficulties in working with a Labour Government,” Police reports. But Labour leader Neil Kinnock said he would never implement the Labour Conference motion and the row was over.
The short report in Police magazine about the 1984 miners strike can teach more about the nature of the capitalist state and its armed detachments than whole volumes of fake-Marxist ditherings about the “contradictory” character of “working-class” cops and their “unions.”
CWI, IMT and Prison Guards: “Socialist” Screws?
In his fundamental work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels was quite clear about the role of prisons: “This public power exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons, and institutions of coercion of all kinds....” Police officers, prison guards, private police and security guards: they are all part of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist ruling class. They are enemies, not friends or potential allies of labor. But that doesn’t deter the ex-Militant “Marxists.”
While the relationship of these Labourite socialists to the police and their “union” organizations is generally confined to starry-eyed admiration from afar, the CWI in particular cultivates a cozy relationship with the Prison Officers Association (POA). The Socialist runs friendly interviews with POA General Secretary Brian Caton, who spouts vague liberal rhetoric about prison “reform” and complains about the underfunding of prisons and the consequent overwork of the guards. Perhaps we will see the Socialist Party, or their U.S. affiliate, Socialist Alternative, chanting at anti-war demonstrations, “Money for prisons, not for war!”
John Hancock, the branch secretary of the Prison Officers Association at the notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison, was a keynote speaker at the annual Socialist Party conference in March 2008, where the first ever national job action of “screws” was celebrated. Not two years earlier, a scandal broke over torture of prisoners by guards at that same prison. Over 160 Wormwood Scrubs prison guards were implicated in “a regime of torture which saw savage beatings, death threats and sexual assault inflicted on inmates” (Guardian, 13 November 2006):
“In one incident, an Irish inmate was choked as eight officers beat him, with one shouting for him to call him ‘English master’. Others were left with broken bones; one was so terrified that he slashed his wrists. On several occasions officers psychologically tortured prisoners by threatening to hang them.”
Peter Quinn, the whistleblower who leaked the report of“the worst case of prisoner abuse in modern history with 164 officers involved from 1992 to 2001,” told the Guardian that at least 50 of the officers involved were still employed at Wormwood in 2006.
The London Independent (4 March 1999) reported on earlier revelations: “The allegations include claims that inmates at Wormwood Scrubs in west London were beaten, burnt with cigarettes, forced to eat paper and subjected to obscene abuse about members of their families…. Most of the original complaints were by black prisoners. One said he was forced to eat a ‘Black is Beautiful’ poster that was taken from his wall. Many white prisoners have also now come forward claiming they were brutally treated.” The POA disputed the allegations and defended the guards. While both Socialist Appeal and The Socialist carried numerous articles praising POA job actions and supporting “union rights” for cops and screws, we have not found a single article from either the IMT or CWI about the racist torture at Wormwood Scrubs prison.
Besides agitating for higher pay for the bosses’ racist thugs, the POA, like the police “labor” organizations, lobbies for political changes, like replacing minimum-security “open” prisons with fortified, fenced-in jails. The POA also represents members in Northern Ireland, who have threatened to strike if Irish Republican prisoners are granted separate accommodations and other rights due to them as political prisoners. Recall that IRA prisoner Bobby Sands led a hunger strike to protest brutal treatment and demand that Republican inmates have their status as political prisoners be reinstated. Sands was elected to parliament from his cell in H-Block, yet died a painful death as the British state refused to give in.
Revolutionaries stand with Bobby Sands, while the IMT and CWI stand with the screws who made his life and that of his comrades hell. We call for freedom for all imprisoned Irish Republicans. We defend the oppressed Catholic population, calling for all British troops to get out of Northern Ireland, and for the sectarian police (formerly Royal Ulster Constabulary, now called the Police Service of Northern Ireland) to stay out of Catholic neighborhoods. As for the prisons, the plebeian masses of Paris showed the way during the great French bourgeois revolution of 1789 when they marched on the Bastille to free their comrades and fellow workers.
Labourism or Leninism?
We have concentrated on the heirs of Ted Grant’s Militant Labour tendency, the Socialist Party/CWI and Socialist Appeal/IMT, but they are hardly the only ones defending trade-union organization of the police and prison guards. The August 2007 Prison Officers Association walkout for higher pay, for example, was also supported by Workers Power, Socialist Worker, Weekly Worker and Permanent Revolution. The pernicious illusions in the nature of the cops and the capitalist state of which they are the backbone are part of the common heritage of Labourism which permeates and corrupts the British left, of Fabian3 conceptions of achieving “socialist transformation” of Britain according to Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution4 and through peaceful “democratic reforms” rather than revolution.
The First World War marked the end of British world domination. Britain’s bourgeoisie rose to wealth and power largely on the basis of its dominance of the trade in African slaves and gave birth to modern imperialism, but has long since degenerated into senile decrepitude only capable of acting on the world stage as a junior partner of U.S. finance capital. Leon Trotsky analyzed the contradiction between the decline of British imperialism and the potential power of the large and well-organized trade unions in his 1925 pamphlet Where Is Britain Going? Even should a Labour Party government, under pressure from a working class in rebellion, touch off a confrontation with the British bourgeoisie; even if this bourgeois workers party (as Lenin characterized it), contrary to every inclination of its pro-capitalist leaders, should attempt to carry out a program of nationalizations of key industries, Trotsky warned: “The police, the courts, the army, the militia, will be on the side of the disorganizers, the saboteurs, the fascists.”
The co-organizer of the October Revolution had no illusions in “democratic” control of the police, not did he equate cops with soldiers. Trotsky described the attitude of revolutionary crowds in Petrograd in the February 1917 Revolution:
“The police are fierce, implacable, hated and hating foes. To win them over is out of the question. Beat them up and kill them. It is different with the soldiers: the crowd makes every effort to avoid hostile encounters with them; on the contrary, seeks ways to dispose them in its favor, convince, attract, fraternize, merge them in itself.”
–History of the Russian Revolution (1930)
“But that was barbaric, tsarist Russia, while this is civilized, democratic England!” exclaims the Labourite social democrat, convinced that Met police “bobbies” and prison screws would not treat him or her as British troops treat the population they oppress in Iraq and Afghanistan, or as SAS5 commandos did to Catholics as they were marauding in Northern Ireland.
Just as Militant Labour argued that a radicalization of society would produce a radicalization of the police, on the eve of the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, the Social Democratic Party took solace in the fact that many police chiefs and even more policemen were card carrying “socialists”: surely they would side with the workers and resist a fascist putsch. Leon Trotsky urgently warned otherwise:
“In case of actual danger [from the fascists], the Social Democracy banks not on the ‘Iron Front’ [a popular front with minor ‘republican’ bourgeois parties] but on the Prussian police. A deceptive calculation! The fact that the police was originally recruited in large numbers from among Social Democratic workers is absolutely meaningless. Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance. The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker. Of late years these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remain.”
– What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat (1932)
If Taaffe’s crowd doesn’t like quotes from Trotsky, how about Friedrich Engels? “Because the English bourgeois finds himself reproduced in his law, as he does in his God,” observed Engels, “the policeman’s truncheon which, in a certain measure, is his own club, has for him a wonderfully soothing power. But for the working-man quite otherwise!” (The Condition of the Working Class in England ). Of course, that was the 19th century. But does the baton of a unionized “Bolshevik Bobby” seeking higher pay land more lightly on protesters heads today? Whether it’s Engels, Lenin or Trotsky, Marxist class analysis gets tossed out the window in the reformist wonderland of British social democracy.
Cops Out of the Unions! Build a Trotskyist Party!
The entire chummy family of Her Majesty’s Right and Proper Socialists accepts the framework of Britain’s imperialist “democracy.” It’s no accident that the Socialist Party invited the top thug at Wormwood Scrubs to its national conference, while passing over the horrendous abuse committed on workers and the poor by his “union” brothers. Nor is it coincidence that the CWI’s U.S. section, Socialist Alternative, has published in its paper only one article in five years on the world’s foremost class-war prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal (Justice, June-August 2008). Moreover, this article which limply calls to defend Mumia reflects the views of various liberals and reformists in neither asserting his innocence nor calling for his freedom!
A Bolshevik party in Britain must be founded on intransigent combat against Labourism. During a wave of strikes and union militancy inspired by the Russian Revolution and the post-war economic crisis, Lenin and Trotsky urged the fledgling British Communist organizations to enter the nascent Labour Party, and to “support” Labour candidates “like a rope supports a hanged man.” Their aim was to destroy the reactionary, petty-bourgeois Fabian leadership and win the workers to Bolshevism. This is light-years from the Militant tendency’s half-century coexistence in the bowels of the decrepit Labour Party of Cold War anti-Communism, a bankrupt policy that Woods’ IMT continues to this day while Taaffe’s CWI seeks to recreate the Labour Party of old. Their history is the very antithesis of Trotsky’s fight for an independent Bolshevik vanguard party of the working class.
Police violence against workers and the oppressed is inherent in capitalism. No amount of legalistic “reforms” or toothless inquiries will change that. Today Britain, if not (yet) a police state, is certainly headed in that direction as demonstrators are subjected to the tender mercies of the TSG and tens of thousands of blacks and Asians are “randomly” searched under the Terrorism Act, although not a single person detained has ever been convicted of an offense under that law. Meanwhile, it has already become a “surveillance society” with pervasive closed-circuit TV cameras (4.2 million of them watching public places in Britain as a whole in 2005, largely in London, and many more now). It’s not a policy but a system. The answer to racist, anti-working-class cop terror must be to fight for socialist revolution.
Likewise, the wholesale attacks on unions, wages, and benefits currently being carried out by the Labour government in Britain are not a neo-liberal “policy” that can be countered by reformist demands and narrow trade-union struggles for higher pay. Nor can they be defeated by forming a “New Workers Party,” as the CWI is campaigning for, that seeks to recreate the old Labour Party, before the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown “New Labour” gang took over. The vicious assault on working people, minorities, immigrants and democratic rights is the common program of Labour, Tories and the entire British bourgeoisie.
Having succeeded in carrying out counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and the bureaucratically deformed workers states of Eastern Europe, the imperialist rulers now seek to beat down and discipline the working class to gain a higher rate of exploitation and profit than their imperialist rivals. Together with police-state attacks on civil liberties, massive deportation and racist attacks on immigrants, and bloody colonial occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, these are preparations for the next inter-imperialist world war.
The League for the Fourth International (LFI) seeks to win militants in Britain who fight to cohere the nucleus of an authentically Trotskyist party. Forging a revolutionary working-class leadership requires unyielding struggle for “complete and unconditional independence of the trade unions in relation to the capitalist state,” as Trotsky wrote in 1940. That includes driving the cops and prison guards, key components of the repressive apparatus of that state, out of the unions. Such a struggle will generate fierce resistance, from the cops themselves and also from their “left” apologists. We can speak of this from our own experience in Brazil, another country where numerous pseudo-Trotskyists embrace police “unions” (see box page 38).
A genuine revolutionary workers leadership in Britain would campaign against anti-immigrant chauvinism, raising the demand for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. In contrast, Socialist Appeal and The Socialist supported and built racist, anti-immigrant strikes at the Lindsey Oil Refinery whose objective was to secure jobs for “British” workers at the expense of “foreign workers.” (Naturally the fascist BNP also supported these reactionary strikes.) Trotskyists in Britain would call for workers action to defeat “their own” imperialists in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that such a defeat would strike a powerful blow against the racist, anti-labor police state measures being implemented by the Labour government.
Those who maintain
that police and prison guards who beat up and
shackle anti-war demonstrators and union
pickets, who stop blacks on the street in
“random” searches seven times as often as they
stop whites, who enforce the oppression of
Catholics in Northern Ireland, are “workers in
uniform” who could be subject to “democratic
control” are incapable of forging a
Leninist-Trotskyist party in Britain as a tribune
of all the oppressed. ■
To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org