How will the police be abolished? A Marxist perspective

Jul 11, 2020

12 points on the U.S. state and the necessity of revolution

1. The Party for Socialism and Liberation stands for the overthrow, dismantling and complete replacement of the core institutions of the capitalist state, which are the “special bodies of armed men,” namely the police, prisons, military and courts. This core of the capitalist state cannot be reformed into a neutral body. It must be abolished by means of a revolution.

2. The centrality of these violent institutions in capitalist governance is reflected in their gargantuan scale. Combined, the state institutions far outpace any other part of government spending. The sprawling U.S. prison system is the largest in the world, accounting for 25 percent of the world’s prisoners with only 5 percent of the world’s population. It includes 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, as well as military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and other institutions. There are more than 790,000 armed officers across local, state and federal police agencies. The U.S. military is one of the largest employers in the world and even in “peacetime” the United States maintains more than 2 million active-duty service members. The National Guard numbers around 450,000.

3. This vast and sophisticated network of organized violence and coercion exists to defend the private property interests and power of the capitalist class. It is not designed to maintain “personal safety” or “fight crime,” as claimed by the media, school system and political elite. It ensures stability through force and intimidation, and is specially focused on putting down any challenges to their highly unequal and oppressive social order. Every poor or working-class person who has ever engaged in a serious struggle for even the most basic things — a strike for better wages, housing for the homeless, better conditions for students, a protest against police brutality, etc — immediately runs into the forces of the capitalist law and the capitalist state. The essence of these institutions cannot be reformed. No law or executive order can change their fundamental class character from institutions on the side of the capitalists to institutions on the side of the poor, working class and oppressed. 

4. U.S. capitalism and the numerically small capitalist class developed on the basis of the theft of the land of the original inhabitants of North America and the unpaid labor of enslaved African peoples. Police and military power in North America was foundationally premised on racism and brutal class oppression, and putting down the triple threats of armed resistance from the Indigenous people, the rebellions of enslaved Africans and the restless, mainly immigrant, working classes of growing urban centers. Over time, special forces and agencies were developed to repress the fighting organizations of the working class and nationally oppressed communities. This is not a story of “way back when.” On the contrary, police operations in Black, Native and Latino neighborhoods still follow the logic of an armed occupation force. The capitalists carried out the greatest expansion of policing, the military and the prison system starting in the 1960s and 1970s as a weapon against the growing challenges to the imperialist system from within and without. This included vast counter-intelligence operations, directed from the federal to the local level, with the explicit objective to subvert and divide people’s movements, and kill or falsely incarcerate its leaders. 

5. The nature of the state cannot be transformed under capitalism; the only solution is a revolution. In a socialist revolution, the capitalist state would be overthrown, not just reformed, and its core state institutions smashed and replaced with new state institutions that answer to poor and working people and serve their interests. A revolution will create new socialist laws and norms, and new state institutions of a new class character will be created by the working class in power to defend the revolutionary state and protect that new social order. This process of dismantling the old state and building a new one from the ground up has been confirmed by history as a feature of every thoroughgoing socialist revolution. 

6. We unite with the sentiment of those who are demanding “abolish the police.” It is a rejection of the whole capitalist state apparatus. It is a rejection of the bourgeois propaganda about “a few bad apples” and the notion that the police “solve” crime. So how can the capitalists’ police be abolished? The capitalist state will not abolish its own front-line protectors. To do so would be suicide for the ruling class. At most, the capitalist politicians will move around some funding and enforcement responsibilities to new, or less hated agencies, or turn towards private mercenary forces. But the abuses, violence and racism of the police derive from their social function in this system — their behavior towards the people does not principally derive from the agencies by themselves, and that same behavior would be reproduced in any new armed institution tasked with defending this vastly unequal and racist system. 

To abolish capitalist law enforcement would therefore require first to abolish capitalist law itself. The struggle to eliminate the existing police forces thus must be approached as part of a revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism and class society, and to replace the existing state with a socialist government and system. Under the name of abolitionism there are many valuable endeavors to transform interpersonal relations, to reconceive of state and activist responses to different forms of harm, to divest from police budgets and invest in social needs, among others. But the abolition of the capitalist state also requires a program for revolution, where the oppressed seize and hold power and the oppressors lose power.

7. Under socialism, the working class and oppressed gain real power, abolish capitalist law and create a new set of rights and laws. The new power creates its own public safety, penal and national security institutions from the ground up to enforce those laws, to defend its revolution, and to repress the violent exploiters who have been overthrown. The social roots of so much of what constitutes “crime” would be rapidly addressed. Freedom would be granted to the vast majority of those currently incarcerated. A revolution in the political and economic sphere would immediately begin to address poverty and inequality and would be deeply connected to a revolution in values and culture. This in turn would lead to fewer crimes driven by poverty and need and progressively fewer crimes of random violence, of patriarchy and of racism.  The empowered, armed and organized working class would constitute a state in which the “special body of armed men” would not be used to repress the working class but used instead to repress the remnants and resistance from the old capitalist class. So, the class character of these new institutions would be wholly different.

8. In a workers’ state the goal is to shrink special bodies of force over time to the point of their dissolution. Socialism is a transitional phase to communism, and under communism there are no special bodies of repression whatsoever — no police, no prisons, no military. Communism is our goal.

Marxists differ with anarchists not so much on the end goal, but in the methods to achieve it. In the final analysis the state is synonymous with force. It is a question of power. The state manages social antagonisms to the benefit of the ruling class, and under socialism the class struggle does not disappear overnight, because social classes and their vestiges do not disappear overnight. Rather, the working class becomes the ruling class. The practical problems of a massive social transformation will involve complicated challenges — the resistance of the deposed classes and their hired guns, the enduring prevalence of bourgeois and reactionary patterns of behavior, and so on. A revolution does not proceed according to playbooks and formulas but rather consists of developing new forms of struggle to overcome class society; it does not just consist of victories but of setbacks, compromises and retreats.

Ultimately to set up any system of rules and consequences (laws) that everyone has to follow is coercive. The sea change under socialism is that the exploited and oppressed are on the applying-end, not the receiving-end of the state. This means, “contradictions among the people”’ will be handled in the polar opposite way the capitalist state addresses the same issues. For instance, there is a wide array of known and effective alternatives to policing and prisons, which could be implemented on a mass scale and immediately to handle different contradictions. Embryonic examples of these are already observable under capitalism. These are quite marginal in scale at present but could be greatly expanded and improved with government support.

But to eliminate police and prisons — to eliminate the state — means eliminating antagonistic social contradictions. Abolishing the police is a constituent part of abolishing capitalism, and establishing communism is a process mediated by a socialist transition. Communism is premised on the advancement of the productive forces and the elimination of human want and poverty as well as the end of classes and thus class antagonisms. That lays the material foundation for the withering away of the state — the withering away of special armed bodies that rule over society. Problems in society, including “individual excesses” or personal violence against others, under communism can be addressed by society and by the community without need or recourse to a specialized armed police force and prisons. Moreover, the elimination of exploitation, poverty and want would eliminate the chief cause of “individual excess.”

9. As far as what can be done under capitalism, all of the promises to fundamentally transform the cops’ relationship with the oppressed and working class via administrative reforms, reorganizations, technical and sensitivity trainings, always end up selling an illusion. In particular, the state’s approach to rebellions, workers’ strikes, insurrections and revolutionary organizations — things that challenge the power structure — will never be reformed because repression of these is their core function. But we support the fight for reforms while in the current capitalist system that curtail the scale of the capitalist state forces, that reduce their funding and that create additional obstacles to their everyday use of torture and violence. These reforms do not change the fundamental character of the police or prisons. In fact, even when reforms are won, agencies of the state usually ignore new prohibitions. They frequently ignore the new laws or find other ways to undermine them. Still, we support those reforms that put up roadblocks to everyday repression, and which therefore make it easier for working people to survive, and give them tools to fight the state’s abuse politically and legally. We call for, for instance:

  • any reform that alleviates the suffering of prisoners. 
  • the immediate release of large classes of inmates in this country’s hyper-inflated and tortuous prison system 
  • the end of three strikes and other grotesque sentencing guidelines
  • amending the 13th Amendment to eliminate the clauses that allow for slavery and “involuntary servitude” for people who are convicted
  • the end of qualified immunity for officers
  • the repeal of federal programs that send military equipment to local police
  • the end of Broken Windows policing tactics, including stop-and-frisk and other police harassment tactics
  • the prohibition of no-knock entry, among other necessary reforms. 
  • reforms that make it harder for the police to obstruct free speech activity. This would include the elimination of sound permits and protest permits, limitations on the use of riot gear at protests; and the prohibitions of mass arrests for those engaged in free speech activity. (Such reforms were introduced for protests in Washington, D.C. because of civil liberties litigation).

The above list is not all-inclusive and many other important measures to curtail police presence have been proposed by community members and abolitionist-minded activists alike.

10. We support the demand of oppressed peoples for community control insofar as it represents a progressive yearning for self-determination, a way to create police forces separate from the oppressor state. But it must also be acknowledged from historical experience that every scheme to put the police under “civilian” or community control with hiring and firing powers — any measure to disrupt the chain of command of the capitalist state — has never been even partially won and implemented in the United States after many decades of organizing along these lines. The capitalist state will not accede by referendum or legislative reform in normal “peacetime” to liberated zones within its own metropolitan centers. There are examples of small liberated urban zones, as well as some universities, in other capitalist countries, where the state’s regular police forces cannot easily enter. But these were not won through legislative measures but through heightened clashes between classes. The desire for community control for oppressed people can be satisfied only through the overall struggle for political power and self-determination. 

11. We affirm the demand to “Jail Killer Cops” as one of many necessary slogans in this struggle against police violence. The cry to “Jail Killer Cops” is a justified demand rooted in the centuries-long struggle against white supremacist impunity of the cops and lynch mobs who have stolen Black lives and were never punished. The desire for justice, and the outrage at the double standards for murder, were the driving sentiments of this nationwide rebellion and so many rebellions in decades past. More precisely, the capitalist state’s repeated refusal to prosecute racist killers — its instinctive protection of them — is what gave the rebellion such immediate resonance, breadth and depth.

Those who are demanding punishment for racist killer cops are generally under no illusions about the nature of the police or the incarceration system and do not develop illusions about that system if the killer cops are charged with murder. Some police officers are now being charged with murder because of the people’s movement. This is a far cry from the full justice and social transformation that are needed but to refuse this limited retribution attainable under capitalism is to let murderous cops off free.

In the here and now, before a socialist revolution that smashes the capitalist state and empowers the oppressed and working class, the capitalist legal process unfolds with a series of binary choices: the killer cop will either be arrested or not arrested, charged severely or lightly, convicted or found innocent, and sentenced lightly or harshly. The vast majority of oppressed people in struggle, the backbone of any revolutionary movement, will demand at each step the cops receive the strongest punishment possible, and the cops will wage the most desperate struggle to avoid any form of accountability, punishment and consequences. The desire for justice and punishment represents a legitimate aspiration on the part of the exploited to power, to impose their will over the bosses’ racist cops and their reign of terror. The important thing about a demand is not how inherently revolutionary it is but whether it helps draw the masses of people into struggle with the class enemy. The state’s failure to meet those demands which the masses of people hold to be necessary and achievable is what can create a highly combustible, even revolutionary situation.

12. The task of revolutionary politics and agitation is to link the most immediate demand, that which is drawing people into the streets, with other slogans that deepen the movement’s revolutionary orientation and advance the struggle to the next stage. We combine the slogan of “Jail Racist Killer Cops” with other slogans of this nature that highlight the present injustice as a symptom of a racist, capitalist and imperialist system. At different junctures, these have included “Stop the War on Black America,” “The People United Can Stop Racist Police Terror,” “Racism is the Disease — Revolution is the Cure.” The democratic demand for equal justice under the existing state must be linked to a revolutionary struggle to overthrow, smash and replace that state. 

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