Cops in the six counties (‘Northern Ireland’) block activists from the revolutionary movement éirígí in Newry.

Below we’re running an article by the Irish revolutionary-socialist group Socialist Democracy.  While parts of it deal with the particularity of the cops in the two statelets on the island of Ireland, it also makes wider points about the role of the cops, applicable in all capitalist societies, including here in New Zealand.  We’ve very slightly edited it and provided an explanation of several terms to make it more accessible to non-Irish readers.

The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker – Leon Trotsky. 

It is not surprising, given the constant stream of propaganda that daily reinforces bourgeois ideology, that some workers should become convinced that the police are somehow above the demands of the class struggle. Revolutionaries see the police and army as the repressive organs of the state but reformists see the police as simply a group of ‘workers in uniform’, that will be driven by objective economic contradictions towards ‘revolutionary’ change. All that is required is to maintain ‘comradely’ relations with the rank and file of the state forces. Engels, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were under no such illusions. 

For Engels there was no ambivalence about the role of the police and the state, particularly in The origins of the Family, Private Property and the State where he explains the state as relying upon “special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc., at their command”. Marx also left no doubt that the state had to be overthrown and not ‘reformed’ by his 1872 preface to The Communist Manifesto, following the experience of the Paris Commune, where he states that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Also in The Civil War in France Marx refers to “the standing army and the police” as “the physical force elements of the old government”. Marx and Engels’ view of the state and the method necessary for its overthrow was positively confirmed and clarified by the Russian October revolution and negatively by the collapse into opportunism of the Second International led by Karl Kautsky. 

State and Revolution 

In The State and Revolution, Lenin, resisting the intellectual collapse of the Second International, reaffirms Engels’ position on the state: “Like all great revolutionary thinkers, Engels tries to draw the attention of the class-conscious workers to what prevailing philistinism regards as least worthy of attention, as the most habitual thing, hallowed by prejudices that are not only deep-rooted but, one might say, petrified. A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power.” 

Lenin commented: “The state is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. The state arises where, when and insofar as class antagonism objectively cannot be reconciled. And, conversely, the existence of the state proves that the class antagonisms are irreconcilable.” 

For the leadership of the German SDP in 1914 this reality had slipped from their view but what distinguished the political collapse was that it was couched in the language of “Marxism”. Lenin argued against the subtlety of this ‘Kautskyite’ distortion of Marxism where, “theoretically”, it is not denied that the state is an organ of class rule, or that class antagonisms are irreconcilable. But what is overlooked or glossed over is this: if the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society and “alienating itself more and more from it”, it is clear that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of state power which was created by the ruling class. . . it is this conclusion which Kautsky has “forgotten” and distorted.” 

Recognition of the essential part played by the ‘special bodies of armed men’ in the functioning of the bourgeois state does not mean that they cannot be broken up, or fragmented by acute political attacks coupled to working class insurrection. The Bolsheviks did this very effectively. But it would be a mistake to believe that this happened spontaneously. During the Russian revolution sections of the army and navy came over to the side of the revolution, but this followed the most thorough democratisation of the ranks and a most acute political struggle among the soldiers and sailors to overcome bourgeois consciousness and break them from their role as state functionaries. The soldiers’ and sailors’ social background would have counted for nothing had the Bolsheviks not penetrated the army. They never for a moment compromised their revolutionary objectives to accommodate a backward ideology among the soldiers and campaigned against notions that the state, which the soldiers were a part of, could be reformed. 

Enemy within 

Differences exist between sections of the state forces. While the army rank-and-file is made up of short-term recruits, or in some cases conscripts, who face outwards towards the ‘enemy without’, the army officer class, elite troops and the police force is a lifelong career. Police forces also enjoy better pay and conditions as they face inwards towards the ‘enemy within’ and they participate in and are conditioned by the daily battles of the state to discipline and suppress the working class. It is more difficult for the bourgeoisie to maintain discipline among the army rank-and-file, unaccustomed to a ‘policing’ role, when workers are in revolt and they are subject to revolutionary agitation. 

Trotsky’s view of the role of the police was clear and unambiguous. He not only saw them as an essential arm of the oppressive state but also heavily criticised those who constantly called on that state to reform itself. In The German Cops and Army, he remarked:

“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.” 

The practice of the daily suppression of workers, especially when the class struggle heats up, conditions the consciousness of these ex-working class recruits to the state’s repressive regime: “such training does not fail to leave its effects. And above all: every policeman knows that though governments may change, the police remain.” 

Philistinism 

The philistinism that today seeks to accommodate police and jailers as a whole, with their organisations intact, into the working class movement are guilty of those same ‘deep rooted’ prejudices which Engels tried to confront by explaining the nature of the state. 

It is the responsibility of these defenders of the bourgeois state to secure the day-to-day stability of bourgeois society, to defend property rights and to control the working class, most especially any section of it that is in revolt. In the North of Ireland that was the nationalist working class, in Britain in 1984 the mining areas, more recently it was during the momentary upsurge in anger across Britain following the killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham. 

As the police gear up for war the illusion that they are independent of the state, or are guarantors of justice tends to be stripped away. However, by their day-to-day involvement in the oppression of the working class, the police express both the element of force through which capitalist rule is continued and also the other aspect of class rule – the ideological element. So endless links exist with education, local government, civic society, policing boards, schools and so on to convince workers that the police are there to serve and protect them. 

For anyone opposed to imperialism in the North of Ireland over the last fifty years there is the glaring reality that the police are an oppressive arm of the state. Most people in working class areas, not exclusively limited to nationalist areas, are aware that the police are untouchable. It is true. They have not been touched for their many crimes and have enjoyed the best wages, the most handsome pay-offs and the best redundancy and retirement packages of any police force in the world. 

Elite 

The oppressive nature of police work is clear when it comes to a full-blown revolt but in periods of relative calm the police also protect the elite as the long list of scandals reveal. The abuse that took place in Kincora boys home was known to the security services and likewise the paedophile ring that operated out of Westminster apparently went ‘unnoticed’ by the police while large dossiers of evidence went missing. There is a long list of sex offenders that remained ‘undetected’ among the celebrities who frequently were knighted or appeared at Royal Variety performances. Investigations of course would later find that there has been a failure in policing, on the odd occasion a commander would have to fall on his sword and accept a generous pension as ‘punishment’ but the routine work of covering up or turning a blind eye to the crimes and abuses of the bourgeoisie continues. 

When “reform” of the RUC in the North was initiated through the Patton Report it focused not on the crimes of the police but on the perception of those crimes. The police did not have to be fixed, it was the negative attitude of the victims that needed work. Sinn Fein helped by inventing a new vocabulary. Imperialism and the capitalist state were not the enemy, but individual “securocrats” inside the state apparatus were the problem. “Political policing” by the securocrats was evil, but the police themselves could be supported unconditionally. 

Policing success 

In the South of Ireland the abuse occurring in children’s homes and the horrendous crimes of the Catholic clergy as well as the abuse of the ‘slaves‘ in the Magdalene laundries went ‘undetected’. The murder of Father Molloy in an inheritance row was covered up by Gardai* to benefit the accused, the friend of a judge, and deals to conceal evidence were struck with the notorious criminal Martin Cahill. The penalty points scandal in the south, exposed by whistleblowers from within the Gardai, led to those same informants being described by Commissioner Martin Callinan as “disgusting”, leaving any potential future informants in no doubt that the ‘work’ of the police must not be disrupted by any misguided notions of justice.

At the same time the toothless Ombudsman’s office, set up to give the appearance of ‘independent’ oversight, was bugged on the off-chance that they would display even a modicum of independence.

The Irish police defended the role of the Irish bourgeoisie in facilitating every requirement of the imperialist structures that dominate the country, no matter how corrupt. The arrogance of the Gombeen leadership,** the corrupt planning laws and the ‘brown envelope’ culture flows from this. It is not a policing ‘failure’ but a policing success.

Moreover, so strong is the ideology of the friendly local guard that even when the lid is lifted on endless corruption there is nothing that can be done. The various political forces, with a few honourable exceptions, express shock and quickly move next business. The reformist left, with a policy of democratising the police or making them more accountable, are left speechless. Even though workers know the reality of the Gardai through everyday experience there is no movement to express that reality. 

In the US whistleblowers are treated mercilessly and murder after murder is committed by the police in their daily work of suppressing the working class, with African-American working class people, who are seen as the greatest threat, taking the cruelest punishment. Yet still for some on the ‘left’ the police are just ‘workers in uniform’, to the extent that a socialist elected in Seattle approves of the ‘judicious’ use of riot police. For revolutionaries there should be no equivocation: the police are the most active organ of state oppression. Trotsky was right, they are bourgeois cops, not workers!

* The southern Irish police.
** Gombeen was a derogatory term for shady small business-people such as money-lenders, but these days is often used, especially by socialist-republicans, to refer to the southern Irish capitalist class as a whole.  It refers to the supine and corrupt nature of southern Irish capitalism and its various political expressions.

Further reading on Redline blog: Capital and the state

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