In recent weeks, the US has come closer to an outright revolutionary upheaval than at any time in living memory. The racist murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police has ignited a movement of enormous proportions, unleashing decades of accumulated discontent, and even reaching insurrectionary levels in many cities. The wave of protests has multiplied exponentially over the last two weeks, with nearly 1,400 cities, towns, and suburban areas seeing rallies and demonstrations.
This unprecedented, elemental, mobilization of ordinary workers—and above all, the youth—will leave a lasting imprint on the consciousness of the workers and youth of the world. After living through the events of 2020, nobody can deny that we live in an epoch of revolution—or that the masses in the US are capable of rising up to overthrow the system.
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This realization has shaken the capitalist class to its core. President Trump deepened the ruling-class divisions and provoked discord within the Pentagon itself by threatening “total domination” with a violent military crackdown. Then, after a handful of protesters got too close for comfort, he was pitifully forced to scurry into an underground bunker below the White House.
As for the Democrats, they are frantic to derail the movement and to get the masses off the streets. They have resorted to a classic maneuver they hope will do the trick: come out in favor of the movement and its demands, and then twist their meaning beyond all recognition, to empty them of any revolutionary content.
In spite of the lack of an organization, mass party, or leadership, the movement has begun to find its voice, organically coalescing around demands to “Defund” or “Abolish the Police.” These slogans can now be seen on signs at demonstrations across hundreds of cities. What this means for the majority of the protesters is that they no longer think the police can be reformed but must instead be removed root and branch. However, the unstructured spontaneity of the movement, and the absence of a consistent program for the transformation of society, gives these demands a vague character, open to many interpretations. This has provided the ruling class with the opening they need.
A handful of major cities have been compelled to come out in favor of modestly cutting their bloated police budgets. The New York State legislature has passed a bill making it illegal for police to use a “choke hold.” And although Marxists support all real reforms that are won as a by-product of struggle, banning choke holds will not necessarily end this practice. After all, murder is illegal, and yet the police killed George Floyd. And even if they did stop using these methods, they still have plenty of other ways to inflict violence on protesters and detainees.
All the forces of the bourgeois press have been mobilized to aid in this deception, as the mass media from across the mainstream political spectrum interprets the “real meaning” of the demand to “Defund the Police.” They assure the public that it doesn’t actually signify the abolition of policing, only a rethinking of public safety.
At the head of this campaign is the Democratic Party-dominated Minneapolis City Council, which, after presiding over a deadly reign of police terror for decades, has suddenly “seen the light” and is now on board with “dismantling” the Minneapolis Police Department. But the Council has so far provided no details as to what this would mean. And let us be clear: they haven’t actually passed any legislation to this effect. They merely made a public declaration of intent. In the same breath, they praised the current chief of police. In the words of Democratic council member Phillipe Cunningham, “We have to work alongside our amazing Police Chief Rondo and our community to build these new systems [of public safety] and plan to transition to them.” This is a classic “bait and switch” maneuver intended to confuse and divert the movement into safe channels.
What is clear is that there will still be some kind of armed force, along with the legal prerogative to use it against the city’s residents, regardless of what it is called or even if it is used less often for fewer tasks for a period of time. We can rest assured that the capitalists will find someone to do their dirty work, even if that takes the form of private security firms unaccountable to the city’s government. They are not about to let the means to defend and protect their wealth and power slip from their fingers so easily.
As the conditions for revolution rapidly mature in the US, there is an urgent need for the movement to grapple with some serious questions: What role do police play under capitalism? What will it take to abolish this institution?
Armed bodies of men and institutional racism
Homo sapiens sapiens have lived in societies without classes or the state for more than 95% of the time we have existed as a species on the planet. Life may not have always been idyllic, but broadly speaking, people had to work together in a cooperative manner to survive—and they did so without the need for prisons or special repressive bodies standing above the rest of society.
Over the millennia, labor productivity rose and an increasingly complex division of labor developed as humans extended their mastery over nature. At a certain stage, due to a variety of contingent and convergent factors, society was divided along class lines. In a class society, an exploiting minority at the top lives off the labor of those on the bottom. In order to defend the power, wealth, and privileges of the ruling minority, the institution known as the state evolved.
Friedrich Engels explained that in essence, the state is “bodies of armed men” in defense of the property interests of the ruling class. Under capitalism, this includes a vast bureaucracy, the courts, prisons, police, and the military. All of this exists to maintain “law and order”—bourgeois laws and bourgeois order. This means that the state defends and perpetuates a situation in which the capitalist class owns the means of production, i.e., the key productive levers of the economy.
In the US today, just 500 corporations account for roughly two-thirds of GDP with nearly $14 trillion in annual revenues and over $1 trillion in profits. Although the majority of these riches go to stuff the already bursting pockets of the top 1%, the workers are the real “wealth creators” of society, as it is their labor, expended upon nature, which is the source of all value.
“The rule of (bourgeois) law” isn’t the only tool used to maintain the division between the richest 1% and the working class. The ruling class has created all sorts of additional divisions among the workers: urban versus rural; white-collar versus blue collar; skilled versus unskilled; women versus men; immigrant versus native-born.
Due to the especially poisonous legacy of slavery, and given the country’s immigrant melting-pot past and present, one of the biggest divisions pushed by American capitalism is race and color. The bloodstained history of the last few hundred years shows that once the ugly genie of racism gets out of the bottle, it’s not so easy to get it back in. The ruling class knows that if the workers are busy fighting each other, they can more easily maintain power. Financier Jay Gould, a “robber baron” of the Gilded Age of US capitalism, once bragged that he could hire “one-half of the working class to kill the other half.” In fact, the American ruling class has used divide and rule since before the American Revolution—as early as Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.
When big movements like this occur, those at the top seek to tamp things down. But under the pressure of the ongoing crisis and of the mobilized masses, the US ruling class is more divided than at any time since the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. They are unsure how best to proceed. The carrot or the stick? The problem with both of these options, from the perspective of the ruling class, is that there aren’t enough of either of them to go around.
The capitalist class has two major parties. Most of the Republicans, and especially Donald J. Trump, cynically and cunningly lean on racism to achieve their political ends. They don’t realize that pursuing their immediate political interests continues to weaken their system and its state apparatus as a whole. For their part, the Democrats are trying to get out ahead of the movement to co-opt it, injecting political confusion and raising illusions in legalistic solutions. Like the Republicans, their aim is to defend the system and its state apparatus, only their methods of doing so differ.
Marxists seek to bring political clarity to these issues and show a clear way forward. In order to stop the racist terror of the capitalist state, the working class must have its own party, its own government, and organize for its own self-defense. This may not be a quick and easy solution—but there is no other path forward.
You can’t have capitalism without racism—and a state apparatus
Laws, social inertia, ideology, propaganda, religion, “divide and rule,” and all the rest are not sufficient to keep all of the people in line all of the time. To maintain the status quo and to make an example of all those who question or act against this obscene set up, the full repressive force of the state is brought to bear on this or that part of the population, sometimes selectively, sometimes indiscriminately.
There is no way a small minority can exploit a large majority without “armed bodies” to enforce their rule. This is especially true when living conditions for the majority are already bad and deteriorating fast. To truly eliminate an institution like the current police force, the question of which class holds political and economic power is key. Furthermore, you cannot disband the police in a single town or state: the police must be dealt with on a national level.
There is a vast web of law enforcement agencies in the US. On the federal level, there is the DEA, ATF, FBI, ICE, Treasury Police, US Marshals, Secret Service, and more. On top of that, each branch of the military has its own police force. The National Guard is really a highly militarized auxiliary police force, albeit on a part-time basis. Each of the 50 states have at least one state-level law enforcement agency, and there are more at the county and municipal levels, and in the courts, prisons, etc.
In fact, as of 2018, there were nearly 690,000 full-time law enforcement officers employed in the United States. The capitalist class will never give this up—and they are not even claiming that they will do so. Hypothetically, if a city were to eliminate its police force, the state or county police could move in, or new agencies with different names and uniforms could be created to carry out policing functions. The National Guard could also be called in, and when push comes to shove, even the active duty military could be called in under the Insurrection Act of 1807.
How can we actually abolish the police?
History shows that all meaningful reforms are a byproduct of revolution, or the threat of revolution. But as long as the ruling class remains in power, any reforms won by the masses will always be limited in nature and in danger of being rolled back. As explained above, even if they are forced to make this or that modification, the capitalists require a state to defend their fundamental interests.
In the final analysis, racism and the police are symptomatic ills of a deeper social disease: the historic impasse of the capitalist system, which has exhausted any potential for promoting general human progress. Private ownership of the key means of production has become incompatible with the wellbeing of the majority. This is the root cause for the wave of social upheavals that has swept the globe in recent years, and the driving force that will continue to propel every country—including the US—toward a socialist revolution.
Up until last month, such a statement might have appeared outlandish to the average observer, but events have proven that even the world’s most powerful capitalist country is not immune from this process. A historic knot is being retied between the revolutionary traditions and mass struggles of the past, and the new generation of workers and youth, millions of whom are wide open to revolutionary ideas.
Millions of people have come to understand that uprooting an institution like the police is not as simple as passing legislation or issuing an executive order within the limits of the status quo. To kill the weed, you need to dig out the taproot. The law enforcement apparatus cannot be abolished while leaving the laws being enforced intact—and the class society which they were designed to uphold. Private appropriation of the socially produced surplus wealth—and the need to defend that wealth and the power it confers through overwhelming force, intimidation, incarceration, and the terrorization of entire populations—is the basis of capitalist rule.
Understandably, many ordinary people think that the police are a necessary evil in a world full of criminals, poverty, and inequality. But the real criminals are the big capitalists who play with the lives of millions of people just to make an extra buck. Petty crime is, in the main, the result of a society divided into classes, and in a world of artificial, profit-driven scarcity, people will do whatever they need to in order to feed their families and to survive. Furthermore, under capitalism, a system in which people are treated like commodities, extreme alienation leads to distorted relations between humans. In a socialist world, in which all the necessaries of life—and much more—are available to all, interpersonal relations will flourish on a truly human basis and petty crime will melt away along with the society that engendered it in the first place.
It is also worth noting that during socialism—the transitional period between capitalism and classless, stateless communism—the workers in power will need some way of ensuring the safety and security of the general public. However, these bodies would serve in the interests of the majority, not of the capitalists, and would be under the democratic control of working people themselves. The neighborhood watch committees that have sprung up in many areas are an anticipation of what this might look like.
This is why any truly meaningful effort to disband or disarm the police can only result from a mass struggle to form a workers’ government. Neighborhood self-defense committees, made up of union workers, unorganized workers, the unemployed, and students would be an essential component of this struggle. These would mark the beginnings of what Marxists refer to as dual power—the embryo of a future workers’ power in opposition to the state of the capitalists.
In an incipient form, we have already seen such committees emerge organically in places like Minneapolis and Seattle. These must be generalized, given democratic and accountable structures, and linked up at the local, regional, and national levels. Only by mobilizing the full force of the labor movement and the broader working class can the workers take on the power of the state, other hired capitalist thugs, and right-wing militias.
The US working class has created mass organizations in the form of unions—over 14-million strong. Organized labor, with its vast network of members, meeting spaces, media, and more, is in a unique position to help facilitate and coordinate the extension of such committees everywhere. Already, many union workers have played a role in the struggle by refusing to drive buses filled with police or arrestees. The Transport Workers Union has backed up its members in this. Some longshore workers and Teamsters are also organizing work stoppages to commemorate George Floyd. And many individual union members have played an active role in the protests and in neighborhood defense.
However, the leadership of the labor movement has done nothing even approximating the role it could and should play in this movement. The leaders of the major unions and the AFL-CIO should be at the forefront of this struggle. As an example, organized labor has the power to organize and carry out a general strike—we can be sure that would get the attention of the ruling class! And in the context of the United States, a general strike would do more than that—it would clearly pose the question of which class should rule society.
Labor can also shatter the rotten two-party system by breaking immediately from both capitalist parties and building a workers’ party. All of this could be accompanied by campaigns to organize the unorganized. Given the mood in society, and the recent polling that shows that around half of the US nonunion workforce would readily join a union if given the chance, a militant nationwide organizing campaign could swiftly swell the ranks of organized labor and lay the basis for an all-out offensive in the class struggle. Unfortunately, most of the current labor leaders limit themselves to mere platitudes and throw their support behind Biden and the Democrats. And let’s not forget that not only Biden, but also Bernie, have come out publicly against defunding police—something they can agree on with Donald Trump.
As for the police “unions” affiliated with the AFL-CIO, it is clear that they have long defended and covered up the rampant racism and abuse of power within their ranks. These organizations function more like rackets or cartels, using their importance to the ruling class as leverage to “defend their own”—including many racist sociopaths. As the movement to fight police brutality continues to broaden, the police unions are clearly playing an overwhelmingly reactionary role in holding back the unleashing of organized labor’s energies on the right side of history.
Could the inclusion of these organizations have represented a potential point of pressure by the broader working class on the capitalist state apparatus? This was undoubtedly one possibility in the course of a dramatic escalation of the class struggle. After all, there have been numerous examples of the ranks of the police fracturing or being partially immobilized under the pressure of the broader class struggle in the context of revolutionary situations around the world.
But the starting point of the Marxist method is the living reality of the class struggle as it actually unfolds, not abstract formulations or one-size-fits-all positions, regardless of time and place. A tipping point has been reached, and if we are to harness the massive untapped potential of the working class, the national and local labor leaders should take action and unceremoniously show these entities the way out the door.
However, even if the police unions were to be ejected from the AFL-CIO, it wouldn’t absolve the labor leaders of their negligence and class-collaborationist policies. Instead of using their power and resources to mobilize their millions of members fully behind the protests, they have issued tepid proclamations of abstract solidarity. Instead of filling the streets with the heavy battalions of the working class to defy the curfews and defend the demonstrations from the police, provocateurs, and extreme-right militias, they have pinned all their hopes on the November elections. Instead of helping to facilitate the extension of neighborhood self-defense committees across the country, they have issued abstract condemnations of the violence and destruction of property—without explicitly pointing out who is responsible for the vast majority of these actions. And instead of painstakingly preparing for a successful all-out general strike, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka merely decries the “forces of hate” and calls for “justice” in the abstract.
In the final analysis, the main reason the labor leadership is playing such a cowardly and passive role is that they see no alternative to the capitalist system—and have absolutely no confidence in the working class winning political and economic power. The Marxists, on the other hand, are more filled with confidence than ever in the power of the working class to fundamentally change society.
For a workers’ government to eliminate the basis of racism!
Racism and the reactionary ideology of white supremacy have been an abhorrent problem in the US since before the country was formally founded. This poison was consciously fomented to support and justify chattel slavery, then perpetuated and evolved for the maintenance of the capitalist system as a whole. Capitalism has racism in its very foundations. The working class can only trust its own forces to sweep away this garbage.
A mass working-class socialist party, once it comes into being, will represent a historic leap forward in the class struggle. A genuine political vehicle of the working class would lead and coordinate even larger demonstrations. It would reach out to the workers on the street and those observing the movement from their workplaces or homes. It would combine the demand for a workers’ government with action—such as a general strike. The process of building for a successful nationwide strike would itself build working-class confidence and unity in the fight against racism.
However, the demand for a workers’ government and for the replacement of the capitalist police with neighborhood self-defense committees must be combined with the broader struggle for improvements in the majority’s quality of life. After all, the fight against the daily threat of police violence is a most basic democratic demand—the right to go about our lives without being singled out for spurious reasons to be harassed, tortured, or even murdered.
The capitalist system threatens black lives in countless ways—it is not only through direct police violence that it makes life impossible for millions of people every day. That is why the movement must fight for socialism—a society of full employment, higher wages with a dramatically shorter workweek, quality housing for all, as well as free universal healthcare, education, and more.
A workers’ government would launch a massive program of useful public works, at union wages, starting in the neighborhoods of highest unemployment, where people could be hired to build quality homes, parks, recreation areas, schools, hospitals, etc. Overnight it would eliminate wage discrimination of every type. Today, for every dollar a white worker makes, a Latino worker makes $0.90 and a black worker makes just $0.73. And for every dollar a white male worker earns, a black female worker makes a mere $0.64. These are cold, hard examples of capitalist inequality and its policy of divide and rule.
In the last three weeks we have witnessed an extraordinary movement by hundreds of thousands braving brutal police repression and the threat of military intervention. This shows the enormous power of the working masses once they start to move. At the same time, we must be clear that mass protests alone are not enough to fundamentally change society. If we do not build political representation and assert our power to withhold our labor, the movement will inevitably slow down at a certain point—and the ruling class will be emboldened for a counterattack, in whatever form that may take.
The way forward is clear. The working class has enormous potential power and can turn the world upside down in the next historical period if it mobilizes and acts as a class in and for itself. This is the perspective the IMT is fighting for. Join us and help us lay the foundations for a mass working-class socialist party armed with Marxist ideas!
- To fight killer cops, fight capitalism!
- For working-class unity—we can trust only in our own strength and organizations! An injury to one is an injury to all!
- Build democratically elected and accountable neighborhood self-defense committees everywhere!
- Organized labor must join the movement, facilitate the linking up of the neighborhood committees, call a general strike, and bring the country to a halt!
- Down with Trump, the Republicans, and the Democrats!
- For a mass working-class socialist party and a workers’ government to replace the capitalist state, its police, and institutions!