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What to do about the police: How some socialists, decades ago, addressed these issues

 

 

By Richard Fidler

July 21, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Life on the Left — The mass protests and public debate over what to do about the police sparked by the brutal police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis have brought to the fore popular demands to defund, disarm and disband the police. These issues and demands arise at frequent intervals under late capitalism, as deepening neoliberal austerity features increasingly violent attacks on working people and national and ethnic minorities, and their democratic rights, by the repressive forces of the state.

Canada, a colonial-settler state built on the expropriation and oppression of the Indigenous peoples and the marginalization of the Québécois, has been no stranger to such conflicts. In the 1970s, when the RCMP’s Security Service was exposed as engaging in a wave of illegal interventions against the Quebec nationalist movement and its leftist sympathizers, the federal government was led to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP, better known as the McDonald Commission after its chair, Justice David McDonald.

Among those groups that took advantage of the Commission’s proceedings to expose political police activities was a group to which I belonged at the time, the Revolutionary Workers League/Ligue Ouvrière Révolutionnaire. The RWL/LOR had been formed in 1977 through a fusion of four groups in Quebec and Canada associated with the Trotskyist Fourth International.[1] Our brief to the McDonald Commission is published here, and an introductory essay describing the context is published here.

Many of the demands in relation to police powers now being raised by groups like Black Lives Matter parallel those that were raised in the Seventies by community, labour and left opponents of political policing. As the author of the RWL/LOR brief, I had occasion to address these and similar issues in a report I wrote within the League at the time. The text is published below, the only changes being that I have substituted my name for a pseudonym I used at the time, and added a few notes to explain some references for today’s readers.

Why we don’t agitate for abolition of the RCMP

by Richard Fidler

Appendix to Bureau Minutes No. 9, 02/18/78

We have recently received some correspondence from comrades asking why, in our brief to the McDonald Commission and in Socialist Voice, we do not call for abolition of the RCMP.

My position is that we should not advance this demand. Here is why:

1. A confusionist demand

As an agitational slogan the call for abolition of the RCMP does not focus on the particular police activities that are the subject of the current debate.

The RCMP is not just a political police force, although of course political policing is one of its major functions. In eight of the ten provinces, the RCMP is the provincial police force and in towns and villages it is the local police, too. It handles traffic duties and criminal investigations, and enforces a wide range of laws that have little or nothing to do with specifically political functions.

Of course, in the prosecution of these duties the RCMP’s racist, reactionary character is evident. For example, Native people, immigrants, and labor militants are especially victimized, as they are and would be by any capitalist police.

But the RCMP is the police force in many parts of the country, so the slogan for its abolition can be interpreted as a call for the dissolution of the police as such.

That is not the main point we want to make in connection with the current RCMP scandal.

As part of our program for a workers government, and for the transition to socialism, we pose the need to destroy the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state, and the need to replace it through the arming of the workers, the formation of workers’ militias. That’s all in our general propaganda. We also point out that in a workers’ state we won’t need to rely on a political police to deal with political dissent. As the first government that governs in the interests of the majority, our police will not need to repress dissent that does not challenge the constitution and laws of the workers’ state. It will not need to police dissent as such.

But in the current RCMP scandal, the main point we want to make is precisely that the capitalists do need to rely on such practices, repressing dissent in order to retain their rule.

We should focus our agitation on the need to end such practices: to open the files, stop political spying on dissenters, end the harassment and disruption of the left and the mass workers’ organizations by the capitalist state. We also emphasize that the workers’ movement must take the initiative in raising and pressing forward these questions.

On these points, I think our position, as expressed in our newspapers and the brief, has been very clear.

2. Structural reform — a false debate

The call for dissolution of the RCMP gives rise to another false debate, centered on structural reform of the police rather than the need for self-defense and political independence of the working class.

The demand to abolish the RCMP inevitably raises the question, what is it to be replaced with?

Now, most people are not revolutionary. They take for granted the framework of the capitalist state as something given, and they will judge all agitational slogans from that standpoint. They assume there must be some force; so what is to take the place of the RCMP?

The ruling class is now debating what to do about the RCMP. Some sectors are calling for increased parliamentary scrutiny of the force; some urge the formation of a “civilian” security agency; some want to confine the RCMP to federal policing and create more provincial police forces, and so on. Many of those who advance these proposals are seeking to obscure the thought-control role of the RCMP, and even to strengthen the political police function by giving it a veneer of “democratic” parliamentary sanction.

Unfortunately, the reformist leaders of the NDP and the labor movement have a similar position. They support “security” — political — operations by the police; they simply want such operations to be directed against their opponents in the labor movement, and not against them.[2]

Most proposals to reform the RCMP are based on the assumption that the RCMP is not adequately performing the role assigned to it by the ruling class, and that some other police force, or other structure, could carry out these functions more efficiently or more fairly. We reject those arguments. We say the RCMP is not “out of control” of the ruling class; that its political spying conforms to the role assigned to it. We do not want the RCMP to be more efficient. We don’t think it can be more fair.

We also say that the problem is not how citizens can gain some “control” over the RCMP, but rather to challenge and roll back the concept that political dissidence is illegal or illegitimate.

There is no way under capitalism that workers can exert any control over police forces.

So we want to cut across the “reform the RCMP” or “reform policing” argument. It a trap, a diversion.

Instead of trying to reform the police, the workers’ movement should be leading the fight to defend the victims of the political police, through exposing these practices and mobilizing opposition to them.

“Abolish the RCMP” may sound quite radical. But those who advance the demand don’t necessarily have a revolutionary alternative to propose. A bizarre example is the ex-Socialist League (the Dowsonites). They call for abolition of the RCMP. But in its place they propose the creation of provincial police forces. (They tack on the demand “under civilian control.” I’ll deal with that later.)[3]

In failing to focus on the central political question — what’s wrong with political spying on anyone — the ex-SL adapts to all sorts of reformist concepts.

For example, they fall into the trap of urging that a distinction be made between dissent and subversion. At the recent Ontario NDP Convention an ex-SL leader, Harry Kopyto, was instrumental in gaining referral of a motion denouncing Security Service harassment of the labor movement to include a proposal that explicitly accepted RCMP surveillance of “subversives.”

The ex-SL even supports some form of “security” police force — to defend “national security,” they say. Positions like these could cause considerable confusion if and when their lawsuit against the RCMP comes to trial.

This is not to say that the slogan “Abolish the RCMP” is reformist. But it does not combat reformist illusions. It is not our “full” position, as opposed to lesser demands that speak only to some RCMP activities.

Our general answer to police repression is not to issue calls for abolition or reform of the police but rather to point to the need to abolish the capitalist state that stands behind those police forces. That is, we stress the need for independent labor political action. We emphasize that workers can rely only on themselves to defend and extend democratic rights, as to defend and advance all their interests.

Of course, we can and do say we are opposed to the existence of capitalist police forces like the RCMP. But that’s hardly an agitational slogan.

3. Evolution of our position

In this connection, I’d like to explain briefly the evolution of the position of the Trotskyist movement in Canada on the question of the police.

Historically, the position of the LSA/LSO was not free of ambiguity.

With respect to the RCMP and its political role, the only occasion I recall when the LSA/ISO analyzed this question was at the time of publication of the report of the 1960s Royal Commission on Security. An article by John Riddell in the July 14, 1969 issue of Workers Vanguard concluded as follows:

“[NDP leader] T. C. Douglas supported the report’s one suggested reform — a call for a Security Review Board (with limited advisory powers to act as a court of appeal for citizens against arbitrary government actions).

“But it’s high time to challenge the whole concept of a secret-police security force. The main danger to the security of Canadians is not communist spies. It is the continuing subversion of our rights by the giant corporations and their government and police apparatus.... A first step to guarantee these rights should be the outlawing of government “anti-subversive” letter-opening, wiretapping, and electronic snooping, and the abolition of the RCMP’s Security and Intelligence division.”

This article is clear and correct in its two demands: 1) end “anti-subversive” police activity; 2) abolish the Security and Intelligence division (today the Security Service).

But in other respects the LSA/LSO position was not so clear, It tended to slip into “reform the police” demands. This was particularly true on the level of municipal politics, where it is most difficult to pose the question of state power, and where there are the greatest pressures to adapt to reformist positions, simply because of the obvious limitations of municipal government.

In the LSA/LSO’s municipal election campaign propaganda throughout the 1960s, for example, it advanced two incorrect demands: 1) for an elected police commission — a variation of the concept of community control of the cops; and 2) disarm the police.

The LSA/LSO dumped these demands in its 1974 civic election campaigns after a discussion in the leadership that clarified its thinking.

The LSA/LSO rejected “community control” of the cops and its variants like an elected police commission for the same reason that we reject “community control” in general in a class-divided society. It ignores class distinctions, and actual control of the “community” by the bourgeoisie.[4]

Likewise, the LSA/LSO rejected the “disarm the police” slogan because it contributes to the illusion that the bourgeoisie can be disarmed “piece by piece” without destroying their control of the state. The municipal cops may be disarmed, but behind them there is the rest of the repressive apparatus of the state with its army and other police forces. (In the 1969 Montréal police strike, for example, “order” was restored by sending in federal troops and the Quebec Sûreté.)

Instead of calling for disarming the police, we should emphasize the right of the victims of police repression to defend themselves by whatever means are necessary. For example, we oppose “gun-control” laws that would leave Blacks disarmed while white cops and racists assault members of the Black community.

4. Dissolution of the Security Service

Does this mean that we reject all demands for the abolition of particular repressive forces? In the LSA/LSO debate on the question of municipal police, we accepted that we could demand the dissolution of special repressive forces whose specific function is the repression of political dissent, or of activities directed against a particular oppressed section of the population. Examples of such forces are the special “tactical squads” that have been formed in the municipal police forces of many North American cities. Their role is to terrorize the Black, Chicano, and immigrant communities, as well as to suppress labor struggles. 

We might also include the special “anti-terrorist” squads in Montréal or their equivalent in other cities; their function is to harass and disrupt groups like the LOR/RWL, which are not guilty of any violent or illegal activity. We can call for the dissolution of these specialized repressive agencies, at the same time linking the demand to the need for self-defense by the victims against attacks of these official and semi-official police.

By extension, it is correct to call for the abolition of the RCMP’s Security Service, which is the political policing arm of the RCMP. (Some international examples: the comrades’ call for dissolution of the National Republican Guard in Portugal, or of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité in France.)

In the case of these specialized repressive forces, there is a real potential for mass struggle around such demands, while there is not such potential for general demands directed against the capitalist police as such.

Such demands should always be firmly situated in the context of our central political thrust, which is to mobilize the victims of these repressive measures and agencies in struggles around our central political demands — for an end to the repression of political dissent.

The demand for dissolution of the SS can reflect and help concretize our major political demands: open the files, stop spying and harassment against opponents of the government.

In motivating this demand, we explain that the essential function of the SS is to curtail and suppress dissent, not to counter illegal activity as the bourgeoisie claims. (The ruling class tries to encourage the latter view through such means as its current campaign against Soviet “spies.”) 

A caution is necessary, however. The demand for abolition of the SS should be used judiciously. It is clearly supplementary to our key political demands. We want to take the debate over the cops away from the structural questions and into the real political functions of security policing.

5. Slogans in Quebec

The Quebec comrades have raised the demand “RCMP out of Quebec.” That is consistent with our understanding that in relation to Quebec, an oppressed nation, the RCMP as the federal police force plays a special repressive role. In that sense it is correct to call for “abolishing” the RCMP in Quebec. (The LOR does not campaign for dissolution of the Sûreté — the “provincial” police — for the same reason that in English Canada we don’t raise the demand for dissolution of the RCMP.)

At the same time, the comrades of the LOR link the demand “RCMP out of Quebec” with other demands directed against any and all political policing, including by the Quebec government. They call for opposition to any political police or intelligence service, such as the Bourassa government’s “Centre d’Analyse et de Documentation” (CAD), or the Parti Québécois government’s plans to beef up its own security service. (See material below from the LOR internal bulletin and the exchange in the letters column of the February 1, 1978 issue of Lutte Ouvrière.)

Finally, a word on the small side-bar in the February 6 Socialist Voice entitled “SS stifles free speech.” Apparently, some comrades misunderstood its purpose. It was not intended as an explanation of our demand for the abolition of the Security Service, still less to explain why we don’t call for abolition of the RCMP.

The reason to abolish the SS is explained adequately, I think, in the brief to the McDonald Commission, including the excerpts published in that issue of Socialist Voice. The purpose of the side-bar was simply to give a flavor of the exchange between the RWL representatives and the members of the commission following presentation of our brief. Its function was more journalistic than didactic — although the two aspects should never he counterposed!

Attachment 1. Excerpt from the LOR Internal Bulletin, No. 5, January 1978: “Draft Resolution on Campaigns of the LOR”

Our slogans in this campaign [on the RCMP – Tr.] have already been largely developed in the report by Richard to the Political Committee and in the newspapers Socialist Voice and Lutte Ouvrière: Expose all police activities; Open the files of the RCMP, the immigration ministry, the army and any other repressive or information-gathering body; Down with police repression and all police activity directed against opponents of the status quo; Full compensation for all victims of police repression; Reveal the truth about the 1970 War Measures crisis; and Let the workers movement organize opposition to these police measures.

These slogans are valid for the entire Canadian state. In Quebec we add two specific slogans: No to any political police or intelligence service (like the CAD) of the Quebec government; and Army and RCMP out of Quebec! The first slogan is aimed at countering in advance any attempt by the PQ to extablish a “normal” bourgeois state apparatus for its sovereign Quebec. The second is intended to clarify the fact that the RCMP is not just any police force but an imperialist force and one of its most fundamental goals has always been to repress oppressed nationalities within the Canadian state, especially the Native peoples and the Québécois. This slogan concretizes the kind of independence we want.

Attachment 2. A letter to Lutte Ouvrière, and the editors’ reply (Lutte Ouvrière, February 1, 1978)

RCMP out of Quebec?

I have some comments with respect to the slogan “GRC hors du Québec” [RCMP out of Quebec] that appeared in the November 9 issue of Lutte Ouvrière (No. 4). Without denying the actual role that the RCMP plays in Quebec, that is, a police apparatus serving the Canadian confederation with the goal of preventing any form of autonomy or dissension in Quebec, I must say that the theme “GRC hors du Québec” displeases me somewhat.

A slogan should be clear and immediately comprehensible; but this one is too ambiguous. If we say there should be no RCMP in Quebec, does it mean that we want to export our problems to the English-Canadian workers? That we’re not disturbed at the prospect of what might happen in that event?

I think what Lutte Ouvrière is trying to do instead is to demonstrate that the primary purpose of the RCMP is related to the oppression of Quebec. The vast majority of misdeeds by this police force since its history began have taken place on Quebec territory. However, you can’t say “RCMP out of Quebec” as we said “U.S. troops out of Vietnam” or “French troops out of Algeria,” because of our geographical situation and the fact that we are not a colony but a nation.

I would add that it should be called “RCMP” (in French) as it has always been known, and not “GRC,” its Quebec “adaptation.”

André Fortier, Montréal, January 27

Our reader secs ambiguities in the slogan “GRC hors du Québec.” But he agrees that Quebec is an oppressed nation, even if it isn’t a colony, and that the RCMP is a “police apparatus serving the Canadian confederation.” That is why, in our view, defending the right of Quebec to self-determination means saying no to the interventions of the Canadian state apparatus. It meant saying no to the War Measures Act; it meant demanding the withdrawal of the Canadian army.

André Fortier also protests that this slogan suggests we want “to export our problems to the English-Canadian workers.” He has a point. The slogan should always be used in conjunction with others that oppose any political policing, whether in Quebec or in Canada, and whether it is federal or provincial.

In that sense, we were wrong to put “GRC hors du Québec” as the main front-page headline, isolated from other demands. – Ed.


[1] These were the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (LSA/LSO), the Revolutionary Marxist Group and the Groupe Marxiste Révolutionnaire. 

[2] During the Cold War, many labour and social-democratic leaders encouraged the state to curtail the rights of unions allegedly controlled by the Communist party.

[3] Ross Dowson sued RCMP officers in 1978 alleging that poison pen letters they confessed to circulating to members of the LSA/LSO had caused such disruption within the organization that he had been forced to quit his job as its executive secretary. Dowson’s attempts to sue the RCMP failed when the Attorney General intervened to stay proceedings. Dowson had left the League in 1974 and founded what became the Socialist League.

[4] However, some First Nations seeking alternative forms of justice have raised demands for control by their communities of policing, and preferably by Indigenous officers — demands that deserve our support, in my opinion.

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