The Role of the Police

Michael focuses much of his criticism on our position on the police, referring in particular to several articles published in Militant in 1981. He considers that our position on the police is based on “reformist methodology” and reflects “congealed illusions” in the possibility of “establish[ing] a workers’ state through electoral activity”. Our mistake, according to Michael, was in not putting forward our full programme based on the idea that the capitalist state “must be broken up, smashed, and replaced by a new workers’ state”. Instead, our intervention in the events of 1981 was primarily based on immediate, democratic demands on the police put forward in a transitional way.

Michael quotes from Militant articles first published in 1981 at the time of the riots in Brixton, Toxteth, Bristol, and several other British cities. They were also reprinted in 1983 in the Militant pamphlet, ‘The State: A Warning to the Labour Movement’.

The three articles on the police quoted were a small part of the material we produced in relation to the riots, which were really uprisings of some of the poorest inner-city areas. The economic and social decay of these areas, aggravated by the slump after 1980 (intensified by the policies of the Thatcher government) created the conditions for the upheaval. However, it was the aggressive and provocative methods used by the police that provided the trigger, and we continually emphasised the responsibility of the police at the time (see the section on ‘The Riots’ in ‘The Rise of Militant’, by Peter Taaffe, pp163-166).

Young people, both black and white, were to the forefront of these events, and right from the start supporters of Militant (the predecessor of the Socialist Party) were present to help organise the defence of the areas from further police attacks and (as opposed to merely ‘rioting’) to win young people to socialist ideas.

We called for an end of police harassment and for the disbanding of the Special Patrol Group, the most aggressive section of the police at that time. We related the role of the police to the social situation. Our key demands were: “An urgent labour movement enquiry, step up the fight for socialist solutions to the social and economic crisis underlying the explosion [and for an] enquiry into the police.” (Militant 548, 17 April 1981)

We stressed the need for the young people of the area and the wider community to organise to defend themselves against police harassment and a clampdown on the areas through prosecutions and vicious prison sentences in the aftermath of the upheavals. We set up the Labour Committee for the Defence of Brixton, which played an important part in exposing the role of the police, defending those facing charges, and calling mass meetings at which our policies were put forward.

Among our policies were the demand for a thorough-going enquiry into the police (going beyond the limits of the slow-moving Scarman enquiry set up by the Thatcher government) and measures to establish democratic checks on the police through elected committees involving labour-movement representatives.

Michael considers such demands to be irredeemably reformist. Nowhere, however, does he say what demands he thinks we should have been putting forward. From what he writes we can only conclude that he would have been advocating demands on the following lines: Smash the state! Fight the police! Form workers’ militias!

Such slogans might be appropriate in a revolutionary or at least an immediate pre-revolutionary situation, when conditions were ripening for a mass movement of the workers to take power into their own hands. Even then, slogans on the state would have to be formulated much more skilfully and concretely than suggested by Michael. Lenin and Trotsky frequently explained the need for a ‘defensive’ approach, in the sense of putting the responsibility for revolutionary action (e.g. forming workers’ militias or disbanding capitalist bodies) on state aggression or counter-revolutionary violence by auxiliaries of the ruling class (such as fascist bands).

Would Michael argue that there was a revolutionary or even a pre-revolutionary situation in Britain in 1981, even in some of the inner-city areas in which there were upheavals? For a few days, the clashes on the streets between the police and local residents, especially the youth, had some features of an insurrection. But the clashes involved a minority of the communities affected (though there was wide sympathy for action on common grievances). They were not organised, but a spontaneous outburst of anger, and the level of political consciousness was low, though a section of young people were quickly being radicalised and were responsive to socialist ideas.

Moreover, it would be absurd to argue that there was a pre-revolutionary situation in Britain as a whole. The working class suffered a setback as a result of the defeat of the Labour government in 1979. The Wilson-Callaghan government had introduced monetarist economic polices and launched attacks on workers’ living standards, especially low-paid local authority workers. That had produced the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979, a wave of public-sector strikes. In the absence of a mass alternative on the left, however, Labour’s defeat brought Thatcher to power and the assault on the working-class rights and living standards was redoubled. There was a bitter struggle of print workers on The Times, and other mainly defensive battles. There were many important workers’ struggles in which we intervened, but it would be completely fanciful to describe the situation on Britain at that time as pre-revolutionary.

In our publications and discussions we explained the Marxist theory of the state and our programme for the socialist transformation of society. This was done then, as it is now, on the lines of the ‘What is the State?’ section of the ‘What is Marxism?’ pack quoted by Michael. Many discussions were based on Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ and other Marxist classics (e.g. Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State).

But for our intervention on the streets of Brixton, Totexth, Bristol, etc, we needed a programme of immediate demands that corresponded to the situation and pointed in a transitional way towards a socialist transformation. Calls to ‘Smash the capitalist state! For a new workers’ state’ would have got no echo. We would have been very isolated – suffering severe ‘social ostracism’ – in a situation in which we were in fact able, with a correct approach to demands and slogans, to win a layer of youth to our ranks and get a favourable response for socialist ideas among a much wider layer.

Some of the ‘front-line’ youth might well have welcomed the idea of an armed militia – but not necessarily for progressive political motives. Had a ‘militia’ emerged at that point, it would not have been a democratic defence organisation responsible to democratic workers’ organisations. There was neither the level of consciousness nor organisation necessary for the formation of a defence force. Any call for an armed defence force would have been far in advance of the consciousness of even the most politicised sections of organised workers.

Democratic control of the police

However, there was widespread condemnation of the police for the aggressive, paramilitary methods they had been using, especially the provocative ‘stop and search’ tactic aimed mainly against black youth. At the same time, in areas like Brixton and Toxteth people wanted something done about the high levels of crime, especially violent, drug-related crime, which blighted their lives. There was a broad demand for accountability and control of the police. To have called for the abolition of the police, however, without the realistic possibility of alternative workers’ organisations to protect the community, would have been a serious mistake.

The Thatcher government responded to the broad public mood of criticism of the police with the Scarman Enquiry. Lord Scarman’s report confirmed that a section of the police had been systematically harassing black youth. He recommended reforms in police practices, but naturally wanted to ensure that they were implemented within the framework of capitalist institutions and legal procedures. For a time, the police adopted more low profile methods in inner-city areas, though the Scarman reforms did not prevent them from assuming emergency powers and acting as a paramilitary force against the miners during their titanic strike of 1984-85, a strike that had many features of a civil war in the coalfields.

In 1981, however, we raised demands for control of the police that went far beyond anything proposed by Scarman. The key element of our demands was democratic control by local government police committees – elected bodies involving the working class through representatives from trade unions, community organisations, etc. We demanded that elected police committees should have the power to appoint and dismiss chief constables and senior officers, and would be responsible for ‘operational questions’, that is, day-to-day policing policies. Police committees should ensure a genuinely independent complaints’ procedure, and should be responsible for weeding out any racist elements or fascist sympathisers within the police. We called for the abolition of the Special Patrol Group and other similar units, as well as the abolition of the Special Branch and destruction of police files and computer records not connected with criminal investigations.

Local authority police committees, such as the Greater London Council committee, had become quite prominent in the period before the riots. They played a progressive role in opening up the police to greater public scrutiny, exposing their worst methods, and trying to assert some influence over policing priorities or policies. (The recent sycophantic comments of Ken Livingstone on the head of the Metropolitan police, in spite of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell and the outrageous Forest Gate raid, are an indication of how far the political situation regarding the police and civil rights has been set back since the 1980s.) However, they were ultimately toothless bodies that had no power to assert any effective control over police policies or day-to-day operations.

Our demand was for bodies that would reflect organised pressure from the working class, pressure that would be used to check police activities and impose limits on their methods. The degree to which the police would be checked would depend on sustained organised pressure from the working class through elected, representative bodies. Of course, the ruling class (and their political representatives, including Labour leaders) were bitterly opposed to any such development, which they regarded as a potential encroachment on the prerogatives of the bourgeois state.

In opposing any steps to democratise control of the police, police chiefs, supported by many Tory and Labour leaders, argued that increased democratic accountability would subject the police to ‘political control’: “They try to perpetuate the myth, important for gaining public acceptance of their role in the past, that the police are an arm of a ‘neutral’ state. They are, according to this view, ‘above’ politics and sectional interests, and ultimately answerable to the equally ‘neutral’ and ‘independent’ judiciary.” (The Police, Lynn Walsh – in The State…, p52)

To answer this line of argument we related some of the history of the police in Britain, particularly in relation to the development of watch committees. In the nineteenth century, “the control of the watch committees [over the police] was absolute”. (TA Crichley, History of the Police in England and Wales) Our approach is: Regarding the police, things were different in the past and they can be different in the future. There was no question, as Michael asserts, of arguing that there had been an “organic development of police accountability” and that this should be extended by the working class. Our references made it clear that past ‘democratic accountability’ of the police was to the bourgeois ruling class, and our demands were to challenge capitalist control on the basis of working-class struggle.

Our line of argument was: If democratic control of the police was good enough for them (i.e. the bourgeoisie) why is it regarded as taboo now? Of course, it is a rhetorical question, we know the answer. But we cannot assume that everybody automatically sees through the ideological arguments used by the bourgeoisie to legitimise their class role. Michael seems to assume that it is all self-evident. There is no need for this kind of argument. Experience shows, however, that such arguments – combined with action – are vital to changing consciousness.

“In the past, before the working class had emerged as an independent political force, the spokesmen of big business and the middle class insisted that the police were democratically accountable. Now, the labour movement, which represents the overwhelming majority in society, must demand that democratic accountability is extended to cover this force which, it is claimed, exists to protect the interests of the public.” (The State…, p54)

Reform and revolution

We were putting forward democratic demands, but demands that go to the heart of the role of the police as an instrument of the bourgeois state and raise the need for the working class to defend its own interests in the current battle over the role of the police. Were we (as some will no doubt argue) pandering to the current consciousness of the working class and failing to defend the Marxist programme on the state?

On the police, we were putting forward immediate, democratic demands, which are always part of a transitional programme. They corresponded to the consciousness of the advanced layers of the working class, who wanted a democratic check on the police. The setting up of democratic police committees cannot be ruled out in a future period of heightened class struggle. Whether they will be achieved, how far they will go, will be determined by the strength of working-class struggle. An element of democratic accountability over the police would help create more favourable conditions for working-class struggle. But such an element of ‘workers’ control’ could not last indefinitely. Either the workers would move forward to a socialist transformation of society, or the ruling class would move to destroy the elements of democratic control.

The concession of elected police committees under pressure from the working class would be a progressive development. However, if this gave rise to illusions that, as Michael puts it, the police are “an isolated entity which can become removed, or extracted, from the clutches of the bourgeois state through working-class control of local watch committees” that would be a negative development.

During the 1918 German revolution (as noted in the section on the police in The State: A Warning to the Labour Movement, pp46-47) the Berlin police were in fact “extracted from the clutches of the capitalist state”, and the revolutionary workers appointed Emil Eichorn, a leader of the Independent Social Democrats, as police chief. This was a positive step, so far as it went, but could only be a very temporary situation. The failure of the workers to consolidate power through new proletarian organs of state power meant that the Berlin police, together with other ‘revolutionised’ institutions, succumbed to the bloody counter-revolution (for which the right-wing Social Democratic leaders provided a political cover).

With regard to democratic police committees (or a new form of watch committees), we clearly warned against any illusion in the step by step reform of the police or other state bodies into socialist institutions:

“If the working class is to preserve the economic gains and the democratic rights that it has wrested from the capitalists in the past, it must carry through the socialist transformation of society. Past gains cannot be preserved indefinitely within the rotten framework of a crisis-ridden capitalism. In transforming society, it is utopian to think that the existing apparatus of the capitalist state can be taken over and adapted by the working class. In a fundamental change of society, 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. 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.” (The State…, pp53-54)

Michael quotes this passage. But how (he asks) can we, on the one side, advocate democratic police committees while, on the other, warn that the police cannot be reformed into a worker-friendly institution? He sees this as a “contradiction [that] is too great to ignore”.

But it is no more contradictory than demanding any other reform under capitalism. Reforms can be won through struggle, but we warn that they will not be lasting gains under capitalism. In the field of democratic rights do we not defend the right to jury trial, legal aid, procedural safeguards for defendants, and so on? Clearly, such legal rights do not guarantee real ‘justice’, which is impossible on a juridical plane without a deeper social justice, which is impossible in capitalist society. But it would be absurd to argue that such legal and civil rights are of no consequence for the working class. Such rights have been won, clawed back by the bourgeoisie, re-established for a period, and so on. Demands for social reforms and democratic rights will always remain an important part of our transitional programme. Legal and civil rights, like the right to vote, freedom of political association, etc, create more favourable conditions for working-class struggle. Demands for democratic control of the police are no different, in principle, from demands for other democratic rights. Doesn’t the demand for universal suffrage, for instance, reinforce the illusion that an elected parliament can control the executive of the capitalist state?

The demands that we put forward on the police in 1981 corresponded to the situation in Britain at that time. Since then, the situation has obviously changed in many respects, especially since the 9/11 attacks in the US which have provided the political pretext for an enormous strengthening of the powers of the state and a broad clawing back of legal and democratic rights conceded in the past. The methodology of our programme remains the same, but we naturally have to take account of recent changes. But it would be a fatal mistake to abandon a programme of transitional demands in relation to the state, the police, etc, in favour of bald denunciations of the ‘repressive capitalist state’ and calls for ‘workers’ power’. This is all the more important given the general setback to working-class consciousness in the period since the collapse of Stalinism. There will be many struggles to recoup past gains that have been lost in the recent period. As we have always done, we will link our immediate and transitional demands to the need for the socialist transformation of society.