Community Control Over Police: Reformist Trap or Transitional Demand

Community control over police shouldn't be categorically rejected, argues Levi Rafael

Bureaucratic sop or empowering goal?

Comrade David May [of the Workers International League – Ed.], in his recent article The Struggle in Ferguson Continues1 makes a big mistake in dismissing the demand for community control over the police. The comrade argues that “(d)emands like ‘community control of the police’ may therefore be well intentioned, but in practice can only serve to disorient and mislead those who are trying to find an alternative.” As an alternative solution, he argues that what revolutionary Marxists must do is to explain to people that what we need instead is a worker’s state, with democratic control over the economy and government, including the police. He argues that, under a capitalist state, the police will always remain functionaries of the capitalist system and that any effort to exert democratic control over them will lead to support for the capitalist state, and therefore of the same system which perpetuates the racism and violence that led to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Comrade May is incorrect to dismiss “community control over the police,” and to not recognizing it as a transitional demand and slogan that could serve the move the working class and oppressed masses to the establishment of an actual worker’s state.

May’s error is in misunderstanding the value and role that transitional demands play in the struggle for the establishment of a worker’s state, and the transition to socialism. Of course, it is true that revolutionary Marxists understand that no lasting solution to the fundamental social problems of our day, including racism and police brutality, can be solved within the framework of a capitalist state that is based on private property in the means of production. To overcome this, we must organize the working class to overthrow the capitalist state, nationalize the means of production, reorganize the economy on a democratic socialist basis, and institute governmental forms based on the democratic rule of the working class in alliance with all other oppressed and working groups in society.

Unfortunately, there is a gap in consciousness and practical action between the establishment of a socialist worker’s state and the situation that the working class and oppressed finds itself in today. For one thing, many workers and ordinary people are apprehensive and even sometimes hostile to the idea of a worker’s state because of Cold War, anticommunist propaganda, as well as the reactionary experiences of Stalinism. On top of that, working people are told that there is “no alternative” to the capitalist state that we live in; that we have reached the “end of history” and that the only way that people can have any control over their own lives is to work within the system as it is. They are told by the capitalist media and education system that capitalism is the most efficient way of organizing the economy, and that in the end workers must be willing to sacrifice to it to keep it functioning because, after all, “there is no alternative” except Stalinist oppression.

It is our task as Marxists and revolutionary communists to challenge this reactionary anticommunism. We must explain, using Marxist analysis, the real causes of Stalinism and how it could be prevented in a future worker’s state. We must explain how capitalism is based on the exploitation of the working class, and that it’s continued existence hampers the development of the human species and perpetuates our existing social problems. But as Marx said, it is not enough to interpret the world: we must also seek to change it. We have to be able to show the working class and oppressed masses, through practical demands and action, just how a worker’s state can be built, and why it is necessary for humanity. This is where the necessity of including a system of transitional demands is important for a revolutionary party’s program for action.

The communist method of advancing transitional demands came out of the experience of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and was codified in the third and fourth congresses of the Communist International (Comintern). Previously, socialist programs had been divided into a minimum and a maximum program. The minimum program advanced basic demands for reforms that could be accomplished, through struggle, within the framework of the capitalist system to increase the standard of living, economic power and political freedom of the working class and the oppressed. The maximum program demanded the expropriation of the capitalist class and the advancement to a socialist society, in effect the forming of a worker’s state and the transition to socialist and then communist society.

But, as Trotsky argued in his 1938 Transitional Program, between these two programs “no bridge existed,” and there was no way for the masses to understand how their struggles for day to day needs could lead to the overthrow of the capitalist system. The system of transitional demands was meant to serve as this bridge, by raising demands that, by their definition, facilitated the practical transition from a non-revolutionary situation (where the working class and its allies struggle only for day to day, reformist issues, if at all) to a revolutionary situation (where the working class and its allies are organized and actively mobilize to overthrow the capitalist system and state and establish their own).

The most important goals of these demands have an economic and political content to them. In the economic context, transitional demands lead to worker’s control of the capitalist economy. In the political context, it means the establishment of a worker’s government to take over the capitalist state apparatus and to direct its resources to arm the working class, and to take the necessary political measures to clear the way for a full scale worker’s revolution. These transitional demands, however, take place within the framework of the capitalist economy and state. It is not yet the establishment of a worker’s state based on the expropriation of the ruling class. The means of production still remain the private property of the capitalist class, and so long as this system exists the state has a capitalist character in preserving capitalist property. However, with the leadership of a revolutionary communist party, based on a program for revolutionary socialism, the working class can use these demands to go beyond the limits of the capitalist system entirely when they realize that, if the working class wants to keep its economic and political power gained through the struggle for transitional demands, it will have to get rid of the capitalist system and state entirely.

This is where comrade May makes the fundamental error of rejecting the call for community control of the capitalist police. As a transitional demand, it could be quite effective in raising both the consciousness and the organizational forms of the Ferguson demonstrators to a revolutionary level. Comrade May is right to argue that, no matter how democratic, the capitalist state, and therefore its police, will always serve the capitalist system and its needs, and will crush the working class and oppressed to do this. But if the masses in Ferguson today raise this slogan, community control over the police could lead to new forms of community power that could serve as the basis of a new, democratic security system run directly by the communities themselves. This is because, objectively, the experience of community control over the police will present the masses with two solutions in the long run: either allow the capitalist state and its economic foundations to remain intact, and therefore end up losing all real community control, or fight to preserve this control by overthrowing the capitalist police system entirely and establishing new forms of enforcing public safety based on democratic community control. Via the transitional demand of “community control over the police,” the Ferguson movement could become convinced, through practical action, of the need for a worker’s state.

May makes the case that practical experiences with community control over the police have resulted in failure. He argues how “(c)oncretely, in those cities where something like what some have called ‘community control’ has been won, these have mostly been ‘civilian review boards.’ However, there is not much genuine “control” with these boards because they only are able to ‘review’ cases after the fact.” While this is certainly true, comrade May fails to see in this a political opportunity to move the struggle forward, or at least educate people on what forms “community control” can take, and ultimately what their logical conclusion must be. For example, a revolutionary party could serve its purpose well by campaigning for:

  • the complete independence of these civilian review boards from the apparatus of the police and government 
  • for transparency in all police activities 
  • for absolute control over all activities and arrests made by the police, 
  • for the civilians of this board and the community to be armed, and the right to use physical force for public safety, including against the police
  • for community control over the police budget, and what weapons they’re allowed to have
  • the boards to be able to make dismissals and arrests of officers, and to have the power to take over law enforcement duties when possible and necessary

In The Transitional Program, Trotsky argued how worker’s control over capitalist industry would serve as a “school for planned economy” by giving the workers practical experience in the democratic managing of an economy, and preparing them organizationally and consciously to administer a nationalized economy after the revolution. The same analogy could be drawn with community control over the police: not only will it provide a channel for the community of Ferguson and others to address the pressing issues of racism and police brutality today, but also to give the community practical experience in the democratic administration of law enforcement, preparing them for how they will run their state and police force in a worker’s state. For this reason, it is important that Marxists support the call for community control over the police as a transitional step towards actual control over politics and law enforcement, which can only be accomplished in the framework of a worker’s state in the process of building socialism.



(From The Red Vine.)


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