Chris Harman


The ruling class, its police
and the left

(July 2006)

From Socialist Review, July/August 2006.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One of the most disgusting spectacles last month was that of Ken Livingstone defending Ian Blair, head of the Metropolitan Police, after his force shot the second innocent person in 11 months

For Livingstone, it seems, the man who oversees such things is a “progressive” chief constable.

But Livingstone is not alone in confusion over the role of the police. Even people who have not made their peace with New Labour were sometimes slow to back up Yvonne Ridley when she said Muslims should withdraw cooperation with the police so long as they continued to behave like that.

Some of us felt much more sympathy with her position. We remember when the police killed Kevin Gately in 1974, Blair Peach in 1979, the vicious attacks on pickets at Bryant Colour Printing in 1974, Grunwick in 1977, Orgreave in 1984 and in 1985, the framing of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and many others.

Still, that in itself is not enough to deal with all the arguments. After all, people say, there are situations where anyone would need the police. And there seems to be an element of truth in this. Recently I served on a jury at a rape trial. I could hardly take the attitude that the police are the enemy and that therefore the accused should be released regardless of the evidence.

The issue of the police cannot be dealt with through immediate impressions alone. It requires a rigorous theoretical examination. A good starting point is Karl Marx’s insights in the early 1840s. Marx was influenced by the liberal democratic ideas of the French Revolution, but in reading the philosopher Hegel he discovered a contradiction. Hegel argued that a society brought into being by liberal democratic ideas could only be held together by a powerful authoritarian structure.

Marx interpreted this to mean that because the market divides people against each other, a powerful and oppressive state is required to prevent capitalist society tearing itself apart. The other side of its much vaunted “freedom” is the police, secret police and armies.

Frederick Engels further developed these ideas in the 1870s and 1880s. Studies of a supposedly “primitive” people had shown that there existed societies without a state. People were more or less equal and could live together cooperatively, relying on the strength of opinion to minimise anti-social actions, without any coercive bodies. States, Engels concluded, only arose at the point in history when privileged ruling classes that exploited the rest of society emerged.

These ruling classes were determined to maintain their own domination of society’s resources – as their “property” – even when the mass of people no longer accepted it. That meant establishing armed bodies subject to their orders, imposing their will on everyone else.

The state provided the framework within which the mass of people would keep labouring to produce wealth exploited by the ruling class. To be really effective also meant using that force to impose “order” on the day to day relations of the members of the exploited classes with each other.

The squabbles between people were a necessary by-product of the hardships caused by exploitation. They had to be kept under control lest they interrupt the production of wealth. So the state abrogated to itself the role of minimising thievery, violence and homicide among the exploited classes.

This development reaches its furthest extent under modern capitalism, where the ups and downs of the market continually create divisions between people. The state holds a fragmented society together in the interests of the capitalist class.

By saying they stand for the “protection of life and property” those who run the state encourage the notion that it serves everyone equally, although in reality the rich have many times more property than the poor and so get many times more assistance from the state.

The structures of modern police forces reflect those of the wider class society. At the top, they are integrated into the world of wealth and privilege. The chief constables socialise at country clubs, not workingmen’s clubs, and when Ian Blair retires he will expect to be offered company directorships.

The lower ranks of the police are drawn from the working and lower middle classes, and some recruits are genuinely motivated by a desire to help other people. But the institution is structured so as to inculcate into them a hard, bullying attitude to other people from their own class. Some may use the language of community. But they all have to be ready to show that they are in charge and to use force against anyone who objects. It is hardly surprising that bullying and racism characterise their “canteen culture”. They are part of the structure of existing society and reflect all its rottenness, even as they claim to be the only way to allow people to live peaceably.

This does not mean that we can simply wish in every situation that the police would just disappear. It is a harsh reality that in this society there are no other mechanisms apart from the police and the prison system for dealing, for instance, with child molesters, rapists or serial killers. But in all these cases, the police are at most providing a short term and usually ineffectual response to symptoms of the alienation produced by a class society of which they are an important pillar.

The task of the serious left is to explain this to people, and not to apologise for the police or to pretend that giving them more power will end social ills.

Last updated on 27 December 2009