The second in my series of looks at the writings of socialists. This piece looks at the comments of Trotsky regarding the police that he makes in “Stalin’s Gangsters” a compilation of his articles that were published just before his assassination in Mexico in relation to a previous attempt. I also want to briefly comment upon the passage in What Next? Vital Question for the German Proletariat too.
The most bandied about quotation from Trotsky on the police is the one from What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat which goes “The worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state, is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.” This quotation is used by some ultra-left sects to put forward a blanket argument of the complete reactionary nature of all policemen. I don’t think this is necessarily the case as readers of this blog may have noticed, indeed the very sentence before this explains “Consciousness is determined by environment even in this instance”. Rather than saying that the police were wholly a reactionary mass at all times, what Trotsky was actually saying here is that the Prussian police which the SPD technically had control over couldn’t be relied upon as a bulwark against Hitler, indeed concretising that sentence he says “Of late years these policemen have had to do much more fighting with revolutionary workers than with Nazi students. Such training does not fail to leave its effects.”
But I am talking about another period, when Trotsky was in Mexico and the GPU was attempting to murder him. Here Trotsky touches upon a different element to the police – that of trying to catch perpetrators of crimes (that is infringements of the law that are reported to them) and take reasonable precautions to prevent crimes from occurring. Discussing this is frankly tricky – mostly because the police’s role as part of the state defending capitalism can often blend in with this so you get arbitrary controls to defend the capitalist state interests portrayed as vital measures to prevent crime (when fairly often they are nothing of the sort). Because the comments are so scattered I will not use quotations as I’m trying to draw the general line of thought in relation to this from a pamphlet that is mainly concerned with a political expose of the methods of Stalinism.
That there could be potential benefits from the police guarding him in Mexico, Trotsky was in no doubt. Otherwise he would have denounced them for doing so in this pamphlet. However, following the points made above, he also supplemented them with his own guard. During the investigation into the attempt on his life he also cooperated with the investigation and court proceedings. Again he supplemented this by collecting material, which as well as supplementing the political points he wished to make in regards, also added to his defence in court. What is the point I am trying to make? Well, in this respect of dealing with crime, a proportion of the actions of the police are socially useful. This is why I defend the idea of democratic control over the police – to give working people the decision on how the resources of the police are to be used.
Indeed whilst I would argue that a socialist society would cut away at the causes of crime, it is a little utopian to expect all crime to diminish and there be no need for investigative procedures to examine facts in relation to something. Expertise in this area would be something we would need to draw out of the police as it exists presently, and perhaps dedicated investigators may be initially necessary. But let us be clear – this would be on a completely different social and organisational basis – it would need to be clearly separated from security and guarding and be thoroughly democratised.
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