Monday, 5 October 2009

Branch Meeting: Workers in Uniform

Without much fanfare, the 15th September edition of The Socialist announced Brian Caton, the militant general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, had joined the Socialist Party. Anticipating this will prove controversial to the SP's opponents on the far left, Stoke branch decided to hold a discussion to clarify the traditional Marxist position on the state, what attitude socialists should have to prison officers, the police and the army and whether they should be permitted to join a revolutionary socialist party.

Brother P began with setting out a thumbnail view of the classical Marxist position of the state. He said that despite there being a wide variety of state forms, capitalist states all have something in common - be they liberal democracies, dictatorships or theocracies. And this commonality is the existence of a repressive apparatus, what Engels famously called 'armed bodies of men' that exist to defend private property and property relations. Other functions, such as the army's "humanitarian" work or the police's 'policing' are, from this viewpoint, secondary to the real reason for their existence. To emphasise these points, P read out a quote from Trotsky's
History of the Russian Revolution:
Toward the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred. They routed the mounted police with whistles, stones and pieces of ice. In a totally different way the workers approached the soldiers ... The police are fierce, implacable, hated and hating foes. To win them over is out of the question.
Do those who wear the state's uniform have a place in the struggle for socialism? Do their occupations place them in irreconcilable antagonism with that struggle?

Brother J said that, like other workers, prison officers, the police and soldiers are selling their labour power in return for a wage. This means they can be open to similar pressures as anyone else. Brother A concurred. None of these arms of the state are homogenous, nor are they immune to being contaminated by the class struggle. In some ways their organisation can prove to be especially susceptible to them. For example, there are few institutions in capitalist society where class privilege and power is as clear cut as the army, and this is the case even among the more privileged elite units. For example, the Bolsheviks were able to split and win over the Cossacks during the Russian Revolution - despite their historically being Tsarism's battering ram against the people. Similarly, the police can be won over to class struggle politics. In 1918-19 the police strike on Merseyside so frightened the ruling class that they called the army out on to Liverpool's streets to confront them. P also noted it was the sympathetic chief of Helsinki's police who hid Lenin during the
July Days.

Clearly neither are a homogenous reactionary mass, and to pretend they are - especially at moments when their interests contradict those of the state (such as the recent debacle over police pensions, or the discontent over inadequate equipment in Afghanistan) - risks driving them further away from the labour movement and firming up their support for the state. A key objective for socialists to weaken them as a defence of bourgeois interests is to establish relationships and encourage fraternisation. Generally speaking the police would find it harder to spy on, harass and batter labour movement mobilisations if their representatives had to regularly sit down with them. Furthermore, in preparation for a future period when the system is thrown into general crisis and socialism is back on the agenda it's in the interests of the labour movement that the police and army do not stand in its way. To this end socialists call for the election of officers, the right to form independent trade unions, and the right to take strike action to
break them from their historic functions.

Brother G argued recent history of police deployment to pursue government's class struggle objectives demonstrated the uneveness of their character. It was not for nothing Thatcher drafted in police battalions from outside areas at the forefront of the miners' strike. Village coppers were too embedded in miners' communities to ever be effective as a means for repressing their families, friends and neighbours. Similarly A added the police already fraternise with a well-organised workforce everyday: the civilian back room staff you can find in any police station.

P returned to the theme of weakening the police as guarantors of capitalist property relations. He suggests no one joins the police because they want to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. While it is true some are little better than thugs in uniform, most join up out of a commitment to the ideology of the thin blue line. The SP's historic call for democratisation of the police is about limiting the purview of the police to their crime-fighting functions above high profile stunt busts and protecting the powers that be. Because it asks the police to live up to their official ideology, it's quite possible reforms and demands of this character could win support from within the force.

Rounding off the discussion, A added there is only one set of criteria that matters for any party member, and that's their commitment to building the party, the labour movement and fighting for socialism. If this is the case then membership is entirely justified, regardless of whether they're a copper, a soldier, or a screw.

Also, it turns out Medway SP were simultaneously having the same discussion. A report can be read


pluralprogressive said...

A really interesting post here, Phil. I would disgaree with one thing however, the 'armed bodies of men' are themselves all different, despite them being tools of the state in one way or another.

For instance, I would argue upon the basis of experience, that the armed forces usually attract the most reactionary sections of society, regardless of which class they come from. I do believe individuals have a choice over whether or not they wish to support the establishment and put a gun in their hands, or to reject any notion that they should be put into a position where in order to make a living and to have a career that they to use that gun on someone somewhere. Everyone who goes into the armed forces has that choice.

Secondly, there is also a difference between the police force/service and the prison officers. The police force enforce the state's intenal legislation, the prison officers are simply the caretakers. They will have a different understanding of their respective jobs and responsibilities and would view their allegiances slightly differently.

I personally believe a career in either the armed forces or the police force is more brutalising for an individual than a job as a police officer. I believe all three have similar concerns regarding their labour but their training and the way they view their own job or duty (remember, there is a huge difference in both of these)has a profound influence on their allegiances.

For instance, a member of the armed forces or the police force are much more likely to view their labour as a 'duty' rather than a job. A prison officer is perhaps more likely to view their labour as a job, and is perhaps in a better position to utilise their own class consciousness in the form of taking industrial action, albeit illegally.

However this is all very simplistic and far too generalised to really apply across the board.

Arthur Bough said...


Great that you had htis discussion. I would like to have taken part as it fits nicely with the discussion of these issues I undertook in my blog Proletarian Military Policy .

As set out there though, I think I would disagree with the "Workers in Uniform" approach set out here, and which was the position of Militant too. On one elvel of course, the majority of Police, Gaolers, Soldiers etc are workers - though the higher ranks come from the middle and ruling classes. Yes, because they sell their Labour Power the same kinds of economic pressures that affect all workers apply. But, to simply base a politcal approach on that is economic determinism. It completely misses out the function of these organisations.

As Marxists we have to defijitely distinguish between the organisation and its fucntion, and the individual workers that make it up, but for so long as that organisation remains, and its fucntion remains those workers will themselves be constrained in their actions by it. Our task is to fight here and now to loosen those constraints, but our real task is to dismantle the organisation, and to replace it with an organisation udner the control of workers.

Its precisely because the fucntion of a Trade Union is to fight for economic improvements within the existing system - which for these bodies means also within their existing function - that Marxists cannot argue in favour of Trade Unions for them, becaus that imnplies acceptance of their continuation as organisations whose function is to oppress workers - including those that work wihin them.

We can and should argue for their democratisation, because that is a means of loosening those constraints, and undermining their function as an oppressive arm of the state, we should demand that all of the protections afforded to other workers such as in relation to health & Safety are applied, which means that other workers should demand and take action to secure adequate training and equipment for soldiers, but our task is not to simply make these organisations more bearable for those that work in in them, but to undermine them as Capitalist institutions, and where possible to replace.

Just as we say not just an improvemnt in wages, but abolition of the system based on wage labour, so we say not just reform of the State, but abolition of the Capitalist State. That is why I propose the development of existing workers organisations such as TRA's and even where appropriate Neighbourhood Watch Schemes into local self-policing forces, and their further development into Workers Self Defence Squads, and a Workers Militia.

Mark P said...

My understanding, Phil, was that the Socialist Party doesn't use the term "workers in uniform" because it's one-sided.

It accurately reflects that soldiers, cops, prison officers, etc are working class people who have to sell their labour to survive, but the term tends to gloss over their role as the repressive apparatus of the state.

I actually agree with the content of the post, but don't think that the title is appropriate.

SamG said...

I have to agree with Arthur. We need to abolish the state, especially where law and order are concerned. We need to extend the powers of neighbourhood watch schemes as Arthur indicates. The recent case of the mother and daughter being driven to suicide and other incidents tells me that this isn't just an ideological demand but a practical necessity.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

Just a quick post, may comment more substantially later.

I think its important to examine police, army and prison force/service in context - the make up of these will undoubtedly influence our approach to any of these organisations. For example, the difference between a conscript and non-conscript army is hugely important.

In Britain one important feature has been the massive expansion of criminal justice related activities as official crime rates have increased massively over the last 50 years, thuis we have a much larger police force and prison service than then which effects who is joining them.

As for the role of trade unions in the prison service, of course they want to keep their members in work - but that doesn't necessarily mean in that particularly job - what would be wrong with arguing like I would about nuclear power workers that they should be employed in a more socially useful industry on the same terms and conditions as present? (the POA has actually argued for prison officers to play a role in reform of prisoners)

ajohnstone said...

Check out a 1971 article from the Socialist Standard - All Coppers Are Workers .

The SPGB position has always been to say that the working class is composed of all those who are excluded from ownership and control of the means of production and who are consequently forced, in order to live, to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary, irrespective of the job they do. The working class thus includes office workers and civil servants as well as factory workers and miners and, yes, policemen and members of the armed forces. Indeed, it is partly because we know that the state machine is manned largely by members of the working class that we are confident that the socialist working class majority will be able to establish socialism peacefully. For, when socialist ideas begin to spread among the working class it is most unlikely that those in uniform will remain unaffected. When a majority of workers generally are socialists, so will most of their fellow workers in the armed forces and the police forces be.

max watts said...

Very belated comment - but the subject will not go away !
(NB I have little knowledge of prison warders.. but quite a lot about "soldiers(sl) (1)
(1) this term here appplying to all rank and file members of the armed services (army, navy, air farce, marines) but not to commissioned officers.

When we (2) first started working with - then - American GI's opposed to the green machine, the Vietnam war, some of our friends objected - particularly when they found out that despite the then (1966-) still existing draft, conscription, the majority (over 80%) were volunteers. In fact, almost all Americans stationed in Britain (I think this is a Brit discussion ?) - (almost all US Airforce) were volunteers. Often we heard: but if they volunteered, why would they resist? This shows little about the military, but a lot about the lack of contact between the speaker and any soldier/airperson.
If of interest, we could elaborate.. Mox nix Max Watts
a Frita (Friend of Rita, the Resistance inside the Armed Farces)