Community control of police: reformist trap or transitional demand?

By Levi Rafael

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, anti-communist propaganda, as well as the reactionary experiences of revisionism. 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” to the capitalist system except “oppression under a Communist regime.”

It is our task as Marxists and revolutionary communists to challenge this reactionary anti-communism. We must explain, using Marxist analysis, the real causes of revisionism 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 some critics make 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 #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators to a revolutionary level. Critics are 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, New York, Cleveland, Oakland, Milwaukee, North Charleston, Madison etc, 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 #BlackLivesMatter movement could become convinced, through practical action, of the need for a worker’s state.

Critics also make the case that practical experiences with community control over the police have resulted in failure. They argue that community control of police has only amounted to “citizen review boards” that can only review cases after the fact. While this is certainly true, these critics fail 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 oppressed communities 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.

Levi is an organizer with Fight Imperialism – Stand Together (FIST) in Louisville, KY


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