Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part Two

This is a continuation of a previous post. It is a response to Mr. Sam Gindin’s article, We Need to Say What Socialism Will Look Like , where he argues that under socialism the government or state will not “wither away” but will expand as public services expand. Mr. Gindin’s conception of the expansion of public services is, however, largely quantitative and has little to do with fundamental qualitative changes in public services.

The issue has to do with the idea of a “transitional socialist society.” Mr. Gindin assumes that such a society will come into existence through the expansion of public services that already exist. Compare his assumption with the following (from Rob Bryer, Accounting for History in Marx’s Capital: The Missing Link, pages 279-280):

…he [Andrew Kliman] makes a helpful suggestion: “except to say that I have increasingly come to suspect that the very idea of ‘transitional society’ is incoherent, and seems to stand in the way of thinking things through clearly” (Kliman 2004, 11). Rather than opting out, or making a transition from capitalism to socialism, Kliman
(2004, 12) argues “what requires explanation is the essential character of the change, which is not gradual quantitative decrease, but [quoting Hegel’s Science of Logic] the ‘abstract transition of an existence into a negation of the existence,’” Kliman (2004, 14) therefore suggests, “Capitalism . . . cannot ‘become’ a new society; it cannot gradually cease-to-be as the new society comes-to-be. Is it not the case, then, that revolutionary transformation can only be comprehended as absolute liberation that begins the day after the revolution, rather than as gradual transition?”

A transitional mode of production is incoherent, but history shows pre-capitalist transitional societies in which different modes co-existed, where class conflict was driving change in which one became dominant. Changes in the dominance of pre-capitalist modes—slavery over primitive communism, feudalism over free peasants, and capitalism over feudalism— were transitions. In his early work, Marx used the idea of transitional societies, changing from one ‘mode of commercial intercourse’ to another to explain history and, particularly in The Communist Manifesto, argued for a transition to socialism. However, from Grundrisse onward he argued that the
change to socialism was unique because, rather than an unconscious change in dominance from one form of exploitation to another, socialism results from consciously changing the social relations of production, and creating the necessary superstructure, to abolish it. Socialism becomes possible only if all (or the vast majority) of workers understand Marx’s theories of value and history and, when they do, they ‘inevitably’ change society’s social relations of production on Day 1 to abolish all exploitation.

There can, therefore, according to the mature Marx, be no transition to socialism, no ‘transitional society,’ part capitalist, part socialist, but only a once for all, immediate and comprehensive, qualitative change in the social relations of production.

Although history will undoubtedly be much messier than this “once and for all, immediate and comprehensive, qualitative change,” the basic idea of a vastly different kind of society emerging from capitalism than the emergence of capitalism from earlier kinds of society is something which Mr. Gindin ignores. The need for a conscious and organized effort to eliminate classes needs to be explicitly put on the agenda from the beginning in order to make a qualitative change in our lives.

Mr. Gindin does speak of the “transformation” of the capitalist state into a socialist democratic state, but his complete neglect of the repressive aspects of the government and his insistence that “scarcity” and “external motivation” will necessarily characterize socialism means that such a transformation will continue to possess repressive features.

Many members of the working class (especially the precarious members of the working class in Canada since many unionized members of the working class no longer engage in illegal strikes), however, experience the capitalist government or state as repressive. Mr. Gindin simply ignores this feature of working-class experience when he refers to the “transformation” of the capitalist state. The need to abolish a separate police power was formulated long ago, when the Paris Commune emerged in 1871 in France.

Let us continue with the issue of the repressive power of legal system. Last time, we looked at the police. Let us now look briefly at the criminal courts. An accused is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty–so says the rhetoric (rhetoric characterizes much of a society dominated by a class of employers). Is this really the case, though?

From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, page 2:

The whole flavour of the
rhetoric of justice is summed up in the idea that it is better for ten
guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly
convicted. Why then the paradox that the vast majority of cases
processed through a criminal justice system so geared to favouring
the accused results in a finding of guilt?

For they do. According to the criminal statistics for 1978,
conviction rates were as follows: 8o per cent of Scottish cases
involving crimes, 95 per cent of Scottish cases involving offences, 84
per cent of English Crown Court cases, 93 per cent of indictable
cases, 95 per cent of non-indictable cases, in the English magistrates’
courts.3 Some samples show even higher rates-a 98.5 per cent
conviction rate for magistrates’ courts in Sheffield (Bottoms and
McClean, 1976). Conviction depends in court on the plea or the
verdict. If the accused pleads guilty to the charge against him,
conviction follows as a matter of routine. If he pleads not guilty, a
contested trial follows. According to Bottoms and McClean, 72 ·5
per cent of those contesting the case in magistrates’ courts, 55 per
cent of those choosing jury trials, and 71 per cent of those allocated
to the higher courts were convicted on some or all counts (pp. 106,
209). In the rhetoric of justice everyone is entitled to a fair trial; yet
most defendants plead guilty. In the rhetoric of justice any
reasonable doubt should result in acquittal; yet for the clear
majority of cases the court is convinced beyond reasonable doubt,
despite all the rhetorical hamstrings on police and prosecution, that
the accused is guilty. Why?

One answer might be quite simply that the defendants are guilty;
the case against them is too strong to be plausibly disputed; the facts
speak for themselves. Sir Robert Mark has suggested indeed that the
very limitations placed on police and prosecution bringing a case to
court make it highly probable that only the indisputably guilty
come through the process at all….

Mr. Gindin probably has been indoctrinated into the ideology of law, which presents courts as areas where legal due process is dominant–whereas the opposite is the case.

From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, Page 153:

Legal policy has established two tiers of justice. One, the higher
courts, is for public consumption, the arena where the ideology of
justice is put on display. The other, the lower courts, deliberately
structured in defiance of the ideology of justice, is concerned less
with subtle ideological messages than with direct control. The latter
is closeted from the public eye by the ideology of triviality, so the
higher courts alone feed into the public image of what the law does
and how it operates. But the higher courts deal with only 2 per cent
of the cases that pass through the criminal courts. Almost all
criminal law is acted out in the lower courts without traditional due
process. But of course what happens in the lower courts is not only
trivial, it is not really law. So the position is turned on its head. The
98 per cent becomes the exception to the rule of ‘real law’ and the
working of the law comes to be typified not by its routine nature, but
by its atypical, indeed exceptional, High Court form. Between them
the ideologies of triviality and legal irrelevance accomplish the
remarkable feats of defining 98 per cent of court cases not only as
exceptions to the rule of due process, but also as of no public interest
whatsoever. The traditional ideology of justice can thus survive the
contradiction that the summary courts blatantly ignore it every
day-and that they were set up precisely for that purpose.

The real world of courts (and the police) needs more than “transformation”–it needs abolition since they function at the level of real law and not at the level of the rhetoric of justice. From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, pages 154-155:

The rhetoric of justice requires incriminating evidence as the
basis for arrest and search; the law allows arrest and search in order
to establish it. Justice requires that no-one need incriminate himself;
the law refuses to control the production of confessions and allows
silence as a factor in proving guilt. justice requires equality; the law
discriminates against the homeless, the jobless, the disreputable.
Justice requires each case be judged on its own facts; the law makes
previous convictions grounds for defining behaviour as an offence
and evidence against the accused. Justice places the burden of proof
on the prosecutor; the law qualifies the standard and method of
proof required and offers the prosecutor opportunities for making a
case which the accused is denied. Justice proclaims the right to trial
by one’s peers; the legal system ensures that 91 per cent of all
defendants plead guilty, and of the rest most are tried without a

If, then, the process of conviction is easier than the rhetoric of
justice would have us expect-and easier still the lower the status of
the defendant-it is hardly surprising. A wide range of prosecution
evidence can be legally produced and presented, despite the
rhetoric of a system geared overwhelmingly to safeguards for the
accused, precisely because legal structure, legal procedure, legal
rulings, not legal rhetoric, govern the legitimate practice of criminal
justice, and there is quite simply a distinct gap between the
substance and the ideology of the law.

This conclusion has two direct and immediate implications. First
it places the contemporary policy debate over law and order in a new
light. The police demand for more powers, for the removal of the
hamstrings of the right to silence, the limitations on arrest and
search-and indeed the civil liberties camp’s agitated response that
the legal checks of British justice must be upheld-begin to appear
rather odd. Both sides of the debate are framed in terms of the
ideology of civil rights, not in terms of the realities of legal procedure
and case law which, as I hope this analysis has amply shown, have
all too often already given the police and prosecution the very
powers they are demanding. The law does not need reform to
remove hamstrings on the police: they exist largely in the unrealised

Second, more theoretically, this analysis has implications for the
explanation of law-enforcement and its outcomes. A whole range of
excellent sociological studies has pointed out situational, informal,
non-legal factors in police-citizen encounters and courtroom
interaction to explain who is arrested or convicted, and to explain
why the system so often seems in practice to be weighted against the
accused. Their answer lies essentially in the complex nature of social
interaction and motivation; in the fact that people do not merely
administer the law but act upon and alter it as they do so. This study
offers a supplementary perspective, making the law rather than the
activities of its administrators problematic. The conclusion is quite
different. Given the formal procedures and rules of the law and the
structure of arrest, investigation, plea and trial, one could not–even
if human beings acted entirely as legal automatons–expect the
outcomes to be other than they are. If the practice of criminal justice
does not live up to its rhetoric one should not look only to the
interactions and negotiations of those who put the law into practice
but to the law itself. One should not look just to how the rhetoric of
justice is subverted intentionally or otherwise by policemen bending
the rules, by lawyers negotiating adversariness out of existence, by
out-of-touch judges or biased magistrates: one must also look at how
it is subverted in the law. Police and court officials need not abuse the
law to subvert the principles of justice; they need only use it.
Deviation from the rhetoric of legality and justice is institutionalised
in the law itself.

Mr. Gindin’s implicit contention that the “withering away of the state” is utopian expresses his own middle-class experiences and bias. He probably has not experienced the repressive nature of the police and the court system. He vastly underestimates the importance of that repressive apparatus and implicitly idealizes the current state system.

To what extent, for example, is the modern welfare state not only the provision of needed public services but also oppressive? Mr. Gindin has nothing to say on this score. Yet if we consider how social workers are linked to the police and to the courts, then we can see that the modern welfare state is itself often repressive and needs not just transformation but substantial reconstruction as the repressive apparatus of a hierarchy of managers is abolished and work is democratized. What of faculties of education and schools? Would they not need substantial reconstruction as their repressive aspects are abolished in conjunction with the repressive apparatus of employers? And so forth.

For those oppressed by the police, criminal court systems and various social agencies, there is a need for the abolition of such structures and the “withering away” of such structures as workers and the community finally develop processes that enable them to control their own life process.

Mr. Gindin’s article, then, ultimately serves as a reminder of just how distant “real socialists” (actually, social-democratic reformers) are from the daily experiences of billions of workers and community members.

Mr. Gindin’s “realistic” socialism, then, fails to address either the nature of modern capitalist society or the qualitatively different kind of society which would characterize a socialism without a repressive government apparatus.