Workers Hammer No. 201

Winter 2007-2008


"Socialists" embrace cops and prison guards

What kind of “socialist” organisation would invite a prison guard — a front-line enforcer of the bosses’ brutal, racist “justice” system — as a featured speaker at its own public meeting? To anyone familiar with the history and practice of Peter Taaffe’s wretchedly reformist Socialist Party — notorious for its line that police are “workers in uniform” and for its chauvinist indifference to racial oppression — the answer comes as no great surprise. Thus, those attending the Socialist Party’s “Socialism 2007” weekend in London in mid-November were witness to the grotesque spectacle of Prison Officers’ Association (POA) leader Brian Caton addressing an avowed “leftist” audience as a supposed “trade union” representative.

Outside the event, a Spartacist League placard protested that prison guards are not part of the workers movement. We also called for immigration cops out of the PCS, the civil service union. From the point of view of the multiethnic working class, it is a scandal that this union includes immigration police who are deadly enemies of the working class and particularly of immigrants. But the presence of immigration police and prison guards in the workers movement is perfectly legitimate for the Socialist Party, whose members form a majority on the executive of the PCS, because of the Taaffeites’ position that police are “workers in uniform”. Immigration police out of the PCS! Prison guards out of the trade union movement!

When thousands of prison officers in England and Wales staged a dramatic strike over pay and conditions on 29 August 2007, defying a court injunction, the Socialist Party gushed: “This united and determined action will be applauded by socialists and trade unionists throughout the labour movement and stands as an example of how to treat the anti-union laws” (Socialist, 6-12 September 2007). Prison officers — like the police — are not part of the working class, but part of the armed fist of the capitalist state.

Virtually the whole spectrum of British “left” groups supported the prison officers’ strike. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) said in an online-only article dated 1 September 2007 that prison officers “should have the right to strike and to a union”, even while stating the blindingly obvious fact that “many officers have a proven record of racism and violence”. But what do strikes by prison guards mean? Better conditions to carry out their “job”, which is to repress and brutalise the prison population that in capitalist society is derived overwhelmingly from the poorest, most downtrodden sections of society. In Britain the rate of incarceration is disproportionately high for blacks, Asians and immigrants.

One group peddling its wares at the Taaffeites’ “Socialism 2007” event was the dubious International Bolshevik Tendency (BT). Distributing a weaselly leaflet titled “Which Side Are You On? Screws Out of the TUC!” (10 November 2007) the BT sagely counselled the Socialist Party that “the POA is not a workers’ organisation” and that “it is a mistake to view their action as a blow against anti-trade union laws”. A mistake? The Socialist Party’s obscene courting of the most irreconcilable enemies of the working people is merely the logic of its thoroughly reformist worldview and programme. The BT also seized the occasion to air its very own version of the line that the cops are “workers in uniform”. In a BT fringe meeting titled: “Prison Officers: ‘Courageous heroes’ or bosses’ screws”, the speaker put forward the line that Marxists seek to split the police in a revolutionary situation.

In a revolutionary situation Marxists certainly seek to split the army into its class components, winning the “workers (and peasants) in uniform” to the side of the insurrectionary proletariat. But in sucking up to the Socialist Party the BT wilfully obscures the gulf between soldiers, who are used as cannon fodder in the capitalist rulers’ wars and the cops who hire themselves out to break strikes and to break the heads of minority youth. Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky described the enormous hatred of workers towards the cops in Russia during the February 1917 Revolution, saying: “Toward the police the crowd showed ferocious hatred. They routed the mounted police with whistles, stones, and pieces of ice. In a totally different way the workers approached the soldiers.” Later he added “The police are fierce, implacable, hated and hating foes. To win them over is out of the question” (History of the Russian Revolution).

We have noted elsewhere (see “Social chauvinists under the skin: Dubious BT hawks its wares to Socialist Party”, Workers Hammer no 198, Spring 2007) that the BT shares a great deal in common with the Socialist Party — both organisations are saturated with anti-communism and chauvinist indifference to racial and other special oppression. For more than four decades the Socialist Party, formerly known as the Militant tendency, and then Militant Labour, was buried deep inside the Labour Party. Throughout its history it has been characterised by social-democratic anti-communism and abject capitulation to British imperialism. Over the years this organisation has refused to call for British troops to get out of Northern Ireland and today capitulates to the Labour government’s racist “war on terror”. The notion that police belong in the unions goes hand-in-hand with class-collaborationist politics, as shown in the rotten sell-out deal the Socialist Party-dominated PCS Executive negotiated for its members, requiring new entrants to the civil service to work five more years to qualify for a pension.

Marxists understand that the state is not a neutral institution standing above society, but an instrument of class oppression. In his seminal work of 1917, State and Revolution, Bolshevik leader VI Lenin reiterated the Marxist understanding of the state as consisting at its core of “special bodies of armed men which have prisons, etc., at their command”. Under capitalism the army, the police, the courts and prison service, as well as the state bureaucracy all exist to protect the wealth and power of a tiny minority of capitalists who exploit and live off the labour of the working masses. This state cannot be reformed or pressured into becoming an instrument of working people and the oppressed. The elimination of capitalist exploitation and oppression and the building of a classless, socialist society requires that the capitalist state be smashed through workers revolution and replaced by a workers state, based on organs of proletarian rule such as workers councils.