Friend or Foe? Marxism and the Police

Political events regularly tend to bring the question of the role of the police in society to the fore. In the period heading up to the September 11 attack, a rash of police brutality cases throughout the world had created a situation where many important cities where rocked by protests against general police violence or individual rogue cops. Since then, under a heavy barrage of bourgeois patriotic propaganda, police have been literally promoted as self-sacrificing defenders of civilisation and every poor orphan and grandmother on the planet. Liberal and even radical "copwatch" activity is at low ebb; ironically perhaps nowhere more than in New York City, previously the site of a good number of large police violence protests. (1) Open pro-police propaganda is having a real effect.

That the role of police is regularly brought to the centre of things is testimony to the crucial and apparently contradictory role they play in this society. Within the line of their work, they accomplish some seemingly positive things. For example, they may break up fights, arrest insane serial killers and if we are to believe modern televised mythology, help fragile old people cross hazardous city street corners. Then again, any striking worker that has had to deal with them knows they always defend the bosses interests, anybody who has any knowledge of the judicial system knows that they literally all lie under oath and anybody who was brought up in a poor working class neighbourhood has witnessed or experienced their abuse. Of course capitalists, politicians and media propagandists refer only to the former activities to actively promote the police in any way they can. Copwatch liberals and other critical apologists for the police will generally dismiss the latter activities and denounce "isolated cases", rogue cops and call for community control commissions or enquiries on individual incidents.

Both of these analyses are of absolutely no help in identifying what is the role of the police in this society and thus what attitude the working class and revolutionaries must adopt towards them. The question is not professionalism or abuse. The issue is not "good cop versus bad cop". This is an attempt to whitewash the role of police in society based solely on emotional and moralistic definitions. Trying to understand a political institution by analysing one person at a time is like trying to understand the geology of a sector by analysing a few grains of sand or a few shovels of dung. There can of course be nice individuals that happen to be cops. They might even be agreeable neighbours or relatives. But that is totally irrelevant. These same people when called to order will break a strike and bash you on the head just as readily as the bad cops, for that is their function.

The real function

As Marxists, we always try to base our intervention on class analysis. So in the case of the police, we must first try to situate them in the class structure of society. Again, we do not base our conclusions by analysing any one person at a time. The best way to make this analysis is to evaluate how they relate to capital. Many so-called progressives and labour fakers present the police as ordinary workers doing a dangerous job (2) with no capital at their disposal and hence a part of the working class. This begs the question of: What is the working class?

The working class is an immense group of people who must sell their labour as a means of survival. Any attempt to better its situation or even keep up in life comes into direct conflict with the interest of the capitalists who exploit them. These capitalists also constitute a class, even though it is constituted by a much smaller group of people. As Engels wrote over a hundred years ago,

society is in an insoluble contradiction with itself,

being constituted as it is by two fundamental economic classes, both having opposing economic interests. This is where the State comes in and... the police. As Marx wrote:

The State is the machine that saves the domination of a class. (3)

It is not the creation of a particular class but evolves from the absolute necessity that class society has of dealing with the class oppositions that divide it. For most people, the concept of State is associated with legislatures and politicians. This is a very partial view of its content. Besides these institutions must be added the bureaucracy, the judicial apparatus, the clergy, the media, the army, and... the police. The police are the first line of the “bodies of armed men” (4) that are intended to defend the interest of the ruling class. If their real function was to stop crime, they would arrest every capitalist on the planet, as these are the true criminals and their regime the real source of all crime.

Unlike the worker whose interest is to get rid of the boss’s rule, the existence of the police is directly tied to the maintenance of the State and capitalist property relations. In this sense, in no way can cops or prison guards be seen as members of the working class as the trade unions would want us to believe. (5) Unfortunately, the trade unions are not the sole promoters of this misconception.

The "Left" and the cops

At many times in the past we have seen so-called progressive militants entertain the foolish notion of holding a dialogue with the police. For example in Quebec we have the social-democratic pacifists (particularly active in the schools) of Operation SalAmi who peddle the lie that the police share a common interest with the "general population". Their colleagues of the petit bourgeois ATTAC organisation push the same line. For example, at the recent founding of the German section of ATTAC, a Greenpeace representative called Sven from Wiesbaden, who was conducting the direct action workshop had this to say in his presentation:

In a demonstration, the policeman is not our enemy; he is not a beating machine but a victim of the system who, as us, has badly eaten and is missing sleep... (6)

Obviously our friend Sven must be talking of demonstrations on another planet.

Then again, we have the disgusting example of the Stalinist and Trotskyist groups supporting the recent wave of police strikes in France. Nothing surprising there as both tendencies supported State Capitalism and its cops in the old USSR and continue to do so in Cuba and elsewhere. They have betrayed Marxism and the working class for decades, so why expect them to change now?

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum we have what can be described as the "radical democratic" critiques of the police. These people, often based on street youth and its life style lead a "single issue" type of campaign against the cops which can only lead to two dead-ends: either the struggle for some kind of police reform and an illusory "community control" of the police or the more "left" case of isolated street confrontations with the cops, an understandable but sterile activity because devoid of general class struggle content and mass leverage.

Police: friend or foe? We think this article has made the case that they are nothing but a tool of an unjust society’s rule. So if we are to get rid of the tool, we must rid ourselves of the rule. The fight against repression and oppression will only succeed if it is intrinsically linked to the fight against capitalist exploitation.


(1) Among the most famous cases of the last few years, there were those of Patrick Dorismond, a worker shot and killed by police at the end of an anti-police brutality rally, Amadou Diallo shot 41 times while trying to identify himself and Abner Louima who was openly sodomized in a police station with a toilet plunger to the point of having his intestines pierced.

(2) All labour statistics show that police work is far from being as dangerous as the bourgeois media pretend it is. Dozens of types of ordinary working class jobs are greater causes of death, work related illness and sheer exhaustion but it is the cops who get the early pensions, good wages and "public" recognition.

(3) On the historical development of the State, we strongly recommend reading Engels’ "The Origin of Family, Private Property & State".

(4) Today, we must add that women are now an integral part of these "armed bodies of men".

(5) Read the disgusting material published in Nouvelles CSN on the accomplishments of that union in prison guard recruiting or look at the QFL’s record of signing up security agency guards.

(6) Le Monde, 22 October 2001.