In Solidarity 191 Sofie Buckland asked whether socialists should back police fighting cuts in their service, concluding we should not (http://alturl.com/nzcz8). A debate on this has developed on our website — extracts below.
[The police] are workers in uniform. To say so is an objective statement, not a political position.
The fact that we can all tell angry stories about how crap the cops treated us doesn’t alter the currently necessary work that the police also do every day — roles that will still need to be fulfilled in a society where working-class interests finally rule.
“Winning over individual police is a case of persuading them not to be police any more” is just lazy, short-sighted and useless. You want to get any cop who is prepared to discuss socialist ideas seriously with you to leave his job? You want to remove a potential ally from the police until you’ve whittled the service down to just the hard-nut anti-working-class Express readers who are its reactionary back-bone? It is more intelligent to make any links we can with politically progressive cops and encourage them to organise for an independent, rank and file union. I don’t mean that we should trust cops or support them when they play an oppressive role in our communities.
You can also come up with proposals for how working-class communities might organise to defend their own homes and businesses against theft and violence in the here and now.
Sure if someone nicks my car, I’ll probably phone the police. Proving what?
What a worker does, while they are at work, is not of no consequence. The police are used by the ruling class against the working class, not only on our protest marches and during strikes, but routinely — brutally, often randomly — on the estates and streets. The police understand their social role, and its consequences.
We don’t want decent young people to join a force that requires them to be routinely unpleasant and (perhaps) violent towards workers, youth and the poor. We know that they will either be spat out or, if they stay for any length of time, become corrupted.
In the normal course of events being a policeman/woman is not compatible with membership of our group — it puts you on the wrong side of the class struggle.
It also means that police unions should not be thought of as part of the labour movement. We would oppose POA motions for bringing back the death penalty; we would also oppose demands from police unions for better wages. Why? Because we don’t want to improve the morale of the people who will line up against us!
In special circumstances we might change tack. The Sandinistas supported a pay claim of the vile Nicaraguan police force in 1979 — not because they had changed their view of the police as torturers and thugs — but because they wanted to split the state, or paralyse part of it.
When I say socialist I mean just a working-class person who recognises class society and would prefer a more democratic and egalitarian one.
I can think of four cops like that who I’ve met. Interested to know where you draw the line though: soldiers? Court workers? Prison officers?
I didn’t say we should support their Police Fed demands or have illusions of any kind about them. But we should encourage the best elements in the ranks to split from their bourgeois commanders.
In the context of our discussion, it is necessary to exclude at least two groups from the category of “real workers”. First, real managers, i.e, people with substantial control over the labour process.
Second, people who are a direct part of the repressive functions of the state. Benefits workers, firefighters, MoD staff etc., are workers; police, army, prison officers, and immigration officials who are directly responsible for throwing people out of the country are capitalist cops.
Gradations? Yes. Police are the last, often, to break in times of big struggle. Conscript armies are weaker than professional. And in some countries police are nearer to being “normal” workers than in the UK (i.e. the norm is shorter stints, less professionalised than UK).
Class divisions are replicated in the state forces, such that rank and file operatives — squaddies and PCs — have a working-class experience in relation to their commanders, and are recruited from the working class.
They are also treated as expendable pawns by their employers and they also experience solidarity within their ranks. Although isolated from their communities by their special role, many of them still keep important links with friends and family. There is a contradiction in their position.
Some are recruited because they already have bullying, reactionary tendencies, but many join for much more mundane or even initially idealistic reasons.
The hearts and minds of rank and file cops are ground that we can contend, without compromising our own safety or clarity. At present, “they” are not actually one homogenous, monolithic entity which we must all fear.
When two comrades from the Scottish Socialist Party stood in front of the pushing crowd at the Gleneagles G8 Summit shouting “Leave the police alone! They are workers in uniform!”, I was one of the people pushing. But I also told riot cops in quieter moments that when they took our side the rule of the rich parasites they were defending would end, and I urged them to start organising.
The basic demands of the left run in flat contradiction to the sort of things rank and file police might well want.
For example, abolish special police units like the TSG; abolish Special Branch; abolish the secret state (MI5, MI6, etc); disarm the police (take their guns, CG gas, tazers from them); direct election of boards with operational and budgetary control over police forces; making sacking police guilty of racism or corruption much easier.
That flat contradiction must tell you something about the nature of the police.