Editorial from the October 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
When members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary fire plastic bullets into a crowd of demonstrating workers; when miners are truncheoned to the ground by police-uniformed men of violence; when "suspected criminals" are beaten up in police vans and those doing the beating will only be investigated by their own colleagues if a complaint is lodged; when trade unionists are stopped on the roads and forced to drive home because they are suspected of travelling to a picket line; when black youths, who are roaming the streets because poverty deprives them of a place to go, are frequently stopped and subjected to racist abuse by police officers who are bigoted and inexperienced; socialists are forced to answer the question, Are We Anti-Police? To that question we give an emphatic answer: No; we will not be driven into the simplistic analysis of hating workers in uniform who constitute the police force, when we are attacking the system which forces them to respond to its violent needs.
The police force is made up of members of the working class. In other words, police officers are dependent on selling their labour power for a wage or salary in order to live. As wage slaves, the police have to do what their employers — the state — order them to do. It the interest of property conflicts with that of workers who own little or no property, the role of the police is to defend what belongs to their masters. In short, police are members of the exploited class doing arduous and dirty work for the exploiting class.
If socialists were to fall into the trap of being anti-police we would be attacking the symptoms instead of the cause. Those on the Left who see the police as the enemy, rather than as the hired agents of the enemy, put themselves in the absurd position of blaming workers for doing what they are paid to do. But why stop with the police? Why not condemn all teachers as class enemies because of the nonsense which many of them teach or insist that civil servants are non-workers because they administer the dirty work of the capitalist state? If socialists were to follow the foolish logic of the confused Left we would be splitting the working class and attacking our brothers and sisters whose work we dislike instead of attending to the cause of their anti-social activities.
The capitalists need the police to defend their laws and their order. Against whom is the defence needed? Not the "enemies" about whom we are told regularly in the press: the Russians or the Chinese. In fact, while the capitalists are telling the workers about what evil enemies the latter are, they are busy doing multi-million pound trade deals with the Russian and Chinese ruling class. No, the police are employed to protect the capitalists from what Margaret Thatcher called "the enemy within" — that's us, the working class. The capitalists pay for the upkeep of the state in order that their system can run smoothly, without interference in the legalised robbery process by unofficial thieves, picketing trade unionists or dissidents.
The average policeman joins the force because he needs the money to live. That is why most of us do the unpleasant jobs which most of us end up doing. Of course, the police do have certain independent powers and socialists would be the last to understate the extent to which these can be, and often are, abused. But it is not in the interest of the state to have racist police or police officers who act beyond the violence permitted by the law. In fact, the bent or sadistic or racially prejudiced cop is as much a problem for the capitalists, who want their hirelings to do what the law says, as for the workers who have to bear the brunt of anti-social police behaviour. After all, there are plenty of bent civil servants and sadistic school teachers and racist DHSS clerks; why pick on one section of the working class, as if the police are the source of our problems?
Most police officers want to earn their wages and keep as far away from trouble as they can. Because we are living under a capitalist state the function of the police is to carry out the actions which will defend the political and economic interests of the owners and controllers of the means of wealth production and distribution — even though this frequently means hurting workers who are in conflict with capitalist interests. The use of the police in the current miners' strike is a classic example of the police having to attack workers in order to support their pay-masters. As the Daily Mirror rightly commented, the strike has been turned into "a war started by a government which is using the police as weapons". (29 August 1984)
The socialist case is presented to all workers, whatever their occupations. Capitalism is not and never can be run in the interest of the working class. To workers in the police and armed forces we say that it is foolish to be used as the tools of class privilege when, united with the rest of the working class, there is the far greater mission to be accomplished of winning the world for its inhabitants. The establishment of a society which will know no need for police or soldiers or courts or prisons or bombs of any description might seem strange to those who have never thought about the idea. But why not think about it — and why not let thought give rise to the excitement of realising that there need be no plastic bullets or picket line violence or authoritarianism? For, with the conscious establishment of socialism by the workers, the epoch of property and the state will be over.