POLICE AND PRISONS:
REFORMIST ILLUSIONS
AND THE REVOLUTIONARY SOLUTION

by Bob Avakian

In the course of the beautiful uprising against institutionalized white supremacy and police terror, the notion of “defunding,” or even “dismantling,” the police—replacing the existing police with a different kind of force, and accompanying this with a focus on meeting the social needs of the people who are now the main target of police violence—has been put forward as a “solution.” But does this idea of changing institutions and shifting priorities and funding, within this same system, really represent a way to put an end to police brutality and murder, and at the same time overcome the conditions of discrimination and poverty that cause people to be caught up in continual violence—both the violence carried out by the police and the violence among the people themselves, and in particular the youth in the inner cities?

No. In reality, this idea (of “defunding” or “dismantling” the police and shifting priorities and funding) is something that will not, and cannot, solve the problems it claims to be addressing. It is something that will not, and cannot, happen under this system of capitalism-imperialism. It is actually a dangerous illusion—or delusion—which will lead people to being disarmed ideologically in a demoralizing dead-end. This is because of the fundamental nature, functioning and requirements of this system itself. To end police terror you have to put an end to the system that needs police terror.

Let’s get into why this is true.

The “Priorities” of This System Are Determined by the Basic Nature of the System

Thinking about this, I was reminded of the days of the mass movement against the U.S. imperialist war in Vietnam, when groups like the tired-out “Communist Party” (which in fact was not about real communism or actual revolution) would raise demands like “Money for Jobs, Not War!” It had to be pointed out then that the reason that the U.S. imperialists were waging war in Vietnam was the same reason that there were unemployed people in this country: both of these things flowed out of the basic nature, functioning and requirements of this system of capitalism-imperialism.

People were unemployed within this country because they could not be profitably employed—that is, exploited—by the capitalists who rule this country (or they could not be exploited profitably enough, given the compulsions these capitalists faced in cut-throat competition with other capitalists, not just within this country but on an international scale). It was more profitable, and conformed to the competitive compulsions of the capitalists, to introduce technology to replace many workers in this country, and at the same time to super-exploit people, at much lower wages, in other parts of the world (in particular the Third World of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia). And waging war in Vietnam was part of the same fundamental necessity of those who rule this system—in this case their need to control strategic parts of the world in order to maintain their dominant position in the world. For the capitalist-imperialist rulers of this country to have “shifted their priorities”—ending their war in Vietnam and using the money instead to create jobs for unemployed people in this country—would actually have gone against their fundamental needs and interests.1

And it is for the same basic reasons that, under this system, there will be no “dismantling” or real “defunding” (or changing of the essential role) of the police and no meaningful shifting of priorities and funds into the social needs of the people now violently targeted by the police.

The fact is that even the allocation of huge amounts of money for social programs in the inner cities could not overcome the desperate conditions of millions of people that has resulted from years, decades, generations and centuries of oppression, through slavery, segregation and ongoing discrimination. As I pointed out in Racial Oppression Can Be Ended—But Not Under This System:

Despite what any politician (“liberal” or outright fascist like Trump) may say, there is no way that this system could “reverse itself,” bring large parts of industry back to the inner city and provide meaningful employment, with “a living wage” for all those it is now depriving of this. Even if the government had the “political will” to try to do this, doing so (with the employment of millions of formerly unemployed or “underemployed” people at a “living wage”) would seriously undermine the competitive positions of American capitalists in the global economy. And, if they attempted to do this while at the same time trying to seriously overcome the whole historically-evolved relations of white supremacy, this would completely disrupt the social “cohesion” that “holds this country together,” with white supremacy a crucial part of this.2

On the terms of this system, and from the point of view of its ruling class, to bring about the severe damage to the competitiveness of “American capital” and the massive “social upheaval” that would be caused by actually attempting to overcome the conditions of oppression and deprivation of masses of people in the inner cities of this country—and the inequality built into this—would be highly destructive and irrational. And that is why this will not happen under this system.

There Is Police Terror Because This System Needs Police Terror

Growing numbers of people have begun to get a basic sense that white supremacy has been built into this system in this country from its very founding. In a number of writings (and most recently in Racial Oppression Can Be Ended—But Not Under This System), I have analyzed scientifically and in some depth why the oppression of Black people (as well as Latinos and Native Americans) cannot be abolished under this system, but is bound to continue, as a result of the “toxic mix” of racism and capitalism. And this is a major reason why the police cannot be either literally “dismantled” or fundamentally “reformed” to function without terrorizing, and outright murdering, masses of oppressed people.

But the ruling powers of this system need this kind of brutal police force not only to violently enforce racial oppression, as significant as that is. This system rests upon, and continually gives rise to, social divisions and conflicts—between masses of people and the ruling class, and among the masses of people themselves—conflicts which hold the potential for, and frequently erupt into violence and “chaos,” which in some circumstances can reach dimensions that threaten the “stability” of the system. So the capitalist ruling class requires a force of organized institutionalized violence—the police (as well as the military)—to contain and control these conflicts, and to forcibly suppress them when they erupt into violence and “chaos” that does immediately, or potentially, threaten the “established order.” Even with real, and in some ways sharp, differences among them, about some of the particulars of how this should be carried out, the entire ruling class is in fundamental agreement on the need for this, because once again it flows from and corresponds to the fundamental nature and requirements of this system.

A serious contradiction in this society—something which is the result of the “workings” of this system itself but at the same time does cause real problems for the system’s ruling class—is the fact that there are large numbers of people among the oppressed who have been effectively “locked out” of the regular “formal economy,” and for whom, in the conditions and on the terms of this system, crime seems like the only means to make a way in the world, or for some the only means of survival, even with all the risks it involves. A heartbreaking part of this is the fact that, in this situation, large numbers of oppressed youth in the inner cities are killing each other. These days especially, there are all these fascist asses braying about “Black-on-Black” crime. These racists are complete hypocrites: They care nothing about the horrors that the masses of Black people suffer, and they raise “Black-on-Black crime” only to distract attention from, or to justify, the police terror and murder against Black people—to convey the “message” that Black people are “a bunch of animals” who need to be kept in check, as violently as necessary, by police. But the reality is that Black people, and in particular the youth, killing each other is a very real and serious problem, and a cause of deep anguish for all those who genuinely want to see an end to this and to the conditions (and ways of thinking) that have given rise to this and keep it going.

The way forward out of this terrible situation is not unleashing even more terror against these youth by police (or the National Guard or the army!), or simply preaching at them to stop the violence, but winning growing numbers of them to become part of the revolution aiming to put an end to their oppressed conditions, and all oppression, by putting an end to this system.

But, of course, crime is not committed only by some people in the inner cities. Crimes, including violent crimes, are and will be a significant phenomenon and problem, in the society as a whole, so long as society is marked by relations of exploitation and oppression and the divisions and conflicts they give rise to—all reinforced by the ideology (the way of thinking) of “getting yours” and advancing your own interests at the expense of others, which is widely promoted throughout this society, from top to bottom.

And here is a heavy contradiction: In this kind of society, on the one hand, without the police crime would be an even greater problem, not just for the ruling class but for the society and the people overall; while, on the other hand, the police will be directed to “selectively” enforce the law, and to use the fact of crime as a “justification” for terrorizing whole sections of people, especially masses of Black people (and others) whose mere existence, in conditions of systematic discrimination, oppression and deprivation, is seen as posing a threat to the system. There is no way out of this under this system.

To sum up the essential point: So long as society is founded on relations that embody exploitation and oppression, and give rise to antagonistic conflicts and violence, including violent crime—so long, in other words, as this system of capitalism-imperialism continues to rule and set the terms for how society functions—there will be a police force that will use violence and terror to maintain the “order,” and enforce the conditions and relations, that conform to the basic nature and requirements of this system. No illusions or wishful thinking can change this reality.

And the same applies to the existence and role of prisons.

Under this system, prisons can never and will never be abolished, or play any fundamentally different role than what they do now: to exercise control and, yes, terror, over those (both those actually in prison and those for whom prison is a real and ever present possibility) who might pose a threat to the “orderly functioning of this system,” in one way or another—through “subversive political activity,” or “common crime,” or merely because their oppressed condition itself, and the likelihood that it will lead to rebellion, is seen as posing a potential threat to the system.

For these basic reasons, under this system, the politicians who get into, and remain in, the seats of power will never actually adopt policies that will have the police (or the prisons) do anything fundamentally different. Even if (or where) someone might be elected to office on a platform of “re-envisioning the role of the police” (or “prison abolition”) they will be frustrated, defeated and turned away from any attempts to implement changes that seriously threaten or undermine the basic functions of these institutions and forces of violent repression and control—whose role and “mission” is to maintain the rule and “order” of this system—whether in more blatantly extreme forms (as with the fascist program, represented by the Trump/Pence regime and the Republican Party) or with minor and ultimately meaningless reforms (as with the “mainstream” section of the ruling class, represented by the Democratic Party).

The reason politicians pushing such platforms are bound to fail is not simply that they would be outnumbered by “outdated” and “behind-the-times” representatives of the “old status quo.” More fundamentally, it is because this system could not function—it would “come unraveled,” or be torn apart, actually descending into destructive chaos—without these institutions (the police and prisons) performing these repressive functions, as viciously and violently as necessary.

This is a system which cannot be “pressured” to become other than what it is, just because some people, or even many people, would like it to. It can function only in accordance with its fundamental nature, requirements and dynamics. And, sooner or later (most often sooner), anyone who tries to have things work in a fundamentally different way under this system—in a way that runs counter to its basic nature and requirements—will be reminded, often forcefully, of the impossibility of this.

All this can be ended—not, however, under this system, but only through the revolution to abolish this whole system and bring a radically different and much better system into being.

Revolution: A Radically Different Society, Radically Different Public Security

As set forth in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America—a sweeping vision and concrete blueprint for a radically different and emancipating society—in that new, socialist society there will still be a need for laws and institutions of public security (and armed forces), as well as prisons, because (in addition to the threats from remaining imperialist and other reactionary governments and forces in the world) there will still be contradictions within the socialist society itself that give rise to conflicts, including violent conflicts. Although “common crime” will no longer be a major social problem, it will not yet be possible to eliminate all such crime. There will be forces who will seek a return to the old society through violent means, and they will need to be defeated in this. But there will be no need for, and no tolerance for, police that trample on the rights of people and terrorize whole sections of the population—and, in fact, any such actions will themselves constitute a violation of the law, and will be punishable under the law. It will be a basic principle guiding the institutions of public defense and security that one of their main purposes is to safeguard the rights of the people in this new socialist society, including the right of people to dissent and protest. Even the right to oppose the new system and seek a return to the old, exploitative society will be protected, so long as this does not involve violence.

With regard to prisons, for the reasons referred to here (and spoken to more fully in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America), they will still be necessary for some time, in dealing with serious violations of the law. But prisons, too, will be radically different in this new society. Torture in any form, and cruel and unusual punishment of any kind, will be outlawed in dealing with people imprisoned (and in society as a whole). As this Constitution explains, the basic orientation with regard to people convicted of crimes and imprisoned will be to rehabilitate them, and to “release them and reintegrate them as productive members of the larger society, as soon as it may be possible to do so, in accordance with the judgment that this can be done without unacceptable risk and danger to society and the people, and where doing so would not be contrary to what is set forth in this Constitution.” And no one will be “kept in prison for a period longer than that provided for by law and through legal proceedings embodying due process of law.” Further:

To this end, education, in accordance with the principles set forth in this Constitution… including education in the communist worldview and values but also access to a wide variety of political and philosophical, scientific, literary and other works, expressing a diversity of views—shall be afforded prisoners, and they shall be provided with the means to engage in productive work which can make a contribution to society, under conditions which are not only humane but which conform to the general standards of work in society at large.3

Only with the advance to communism throughout the world—with the abolition and uprooting of all economic relations and social relations that contain elements of exploitation and oppression and give rise to antagonistic conflict, and with the revolutionary transformation of the culture, morality, and ways of thinking of the people—only then will it be possible to do away entirely with armed forces and institutions of public security as well as prisons. But, with the overthrow of the system of capitalist-imperialism, which is based on exploitation and oppression, it will be possible for these institutions to be radically different and to serve the process not of exploiting, oppressing and degrading people but of moving toward the goal of ending all exploitation, oppression and degradation.

If there is going to be a real dismantling of police that terrorize masses of people, this can only happen, and can only really lead to something positive, if it happens as part of the revolution that is needed. And, with this revolution, the institutions of organized repression and violence of this system (the police and the armed forces, as well as the prisons) will be replaced by new institutions which are led with a radically different outlook and are serving a radically different purpose and goal.

Does this mean that the only thing that can be done now is to wait for this revolution to somehow “magically” come about? NO. This revolution must be actively, consciously, scientifically worked for. And a big part of this is fighting back now against institutionalized white supremacy and police terror, as well as the other ways that this system oppresses, degrades, and slaughters masses of people, in every part of the world, while plundering the environment—building these struggles as powerfully as possible, linking them together on the basis of the recognition that they all have a common source in this system of capitalism-imperialism, and building up the basis to bring down this system through an actual revolution.

Working for this revolution—working now to Fight the Power, and Transform the People, For Revolutionthis is what is urgently needed. This means:

strengthening the resistance and rebellion of masses of people against the outrages and injustices of this system, while waging struggle to win people to the emancipating outlook, methods, goals, and morality of this revolution, based on the scientific understanding that only the overthrow, the defeat and dismantling, of this whole system, and all its oppressive and repressive institutions, can finally put an end to all these injustices and outrages;

organizing growing numbers of people into the ranks of the revolution on this basis;

moving to make the “political terrain” and the thinking of masses of people more favorable for revolution, in order to “hasten” the development of things toward the situation where this revolution becomes possible, and building up the organized revolutionary forces that will be capable of seizing on that situation.

This is what we revcoms are dedicated and determined to do, now and going forward.

In this we base ourselves on the new communism, which has further developed communism as a consistently scientific outlook, method and approach, program, strategy and guide to action, bringing alive the need, the possibility, and the means and goals of this revolution, whose ultimate aim is the emancipation of all humanity from every form of exploitation and oppression with the achievement of communism throughout the world.4

This is what everyone who really wants to see an end to institutionalized white supremacy and police terror, and all oppressive relations, needs to become actively involved in, now—casting off illusions and working for revolution.

 


1. The U.S. imperialists were eventually forced to withdraw from Vietnam, because they were unable to achieve their objective of defeating the Vietnamese liberation fighters and subjecting Vietnam to U.S. domination, and a “consensus” finally developed, among the political representatives of this system, that it was best to “cut their losses” in Vietnam before this fundamentally undermined and threatened their position in the world overall—and within the U.S. itself, where there was massive opposition to the war and militant protest and rebellion against the oppression of Black people and other outrages perpetrated by this system, a radicalization that reached right into the U.S. imperialist armed forces themselves. But neither this withdrawal from Vietnam, nor later the “victory” of U.S. (and allied) imperialists in the “cold war,” with the unraveling of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s—none of this produced the “peace dividend” (government spending for social programs, etc.) that various reformists had declared could be the result of ending these (“cold” and “hot”) wars. Why this did not happen is once again because of the basic nature, functioning and requirements of this system of capitalism-imperialism.  [back]

2. This article by Bob Avakian (Racial Oppression Can Be Ended—But Not Under This System) is available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and revcom.us.  [back]

3. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, authored by Bob Avakian, is available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and revcom.us. The passages from this Constitution quoted (or referred to) are from Article III, “Rights of the People and the Struggle to Uproot All Exploitation and Oppression,” Section 2, “Legal and Civil Rights and Liberties.”  [back]

4. The substance of the new communism, brought forward by Bob Avakian (BA), is contained in BA’s Collected Works at revcom.us. This includes BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, the handbook for revolution. Along with the sweeping vision and concrete blueprint for a radically different society in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, the strategy for the revolution leading to this radically new society is spelled out in BA’s speech, Why We Need An Actual Revolution And How We Can Really Make Revolution (the text and video of which are available at revcom.us), and is spoken to in more recent writings by Bob Avakian, in particular A Real Revolution—A Real Chance to Win, Further Developing the Strategy for Revolution, which is also available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and revcom.us. As the title suggests, a basic summary of the new communism, and its relation to the communism founded by Karl Marx, is found in BA’s work Breakthroughs: The Historic Breakthrough by Marx, and the Further Breakthrough with the New Communism, A Basic Summary (which is also available at TheBobAvakianInstitute.org and revcom.us); and there is a fuller presentation of the new communism in the book by BA, The New Communism, The science, the strategy, the leadership for an actual revolution, and a radically new society on the road to real emancipation (Insight Press, 2016).  [back]