What Kind of Abolitionism?
Beyond Liberal or Anarchist Abolitionism
Is there a solution to crime under capitalism?
The anti-racist/anti-police brutality movement has turned toward abolitionism in recent years. It has called for the complete elimination of police and prisons. This is a radical turn and to be applauded, but it does have its problems.
One of the key arguments for abolitionism is that there are better ways to handle conflict and social harm today. Advocates often put forward programs of restorative justice and transformative justice(RJ/TJ). The exact definitions of these vary but the latter is more radical — transforming relations rather than just restoring the status quo before the incident.
Revolutionary Marxists support the goal of abolition. From the time of the Paris Commune or before Marx and Marxists have advocated the abolition of the bourgeois state. The core of the state as Lenin noted was the “special bodies of armed men,” and their support systems: police, armies, courts and prisons.
One of the primary reasons that Marxists support abolition is that the current state is a state of the capitalists. It’s role is to preserve class domination by the rich, protect their property and ensure the smooth functioning of exploitation. In order to divide the working class, the state also upholds institutional racism, sexism etc. Marxists don’t see the state as a neutral body that mediates society’s differences. The bourgeois state is the concentrated political power of the class enemy. It only grants concessions to the poor and working class under the pressure of mass struggle of to maintain its own rule. The rulers will take back these concessions whenever they feel it is possible.
Of course Marxists also oppose the repressive apparatus of the state because of its horrible effects in general — -It wages wars that kill thousands or millions; it imprisons millions instead of providing them decent housing and social support; it enforces institutional racism and sexism either openly or quietly; It constantly criminalizes freedom of expression. The list could go on indefinitely.
For these reasons, we want to weaken state repression as much as possible. We want it to have fewer resources to suppress workers. We want its police to have a harder time enforcing the law. We want it to have less options for subjugation. We support any reform that moves in this direction. On the other hand, we oppose any reform that strengthens the carceral system or , rehabilitates it in the eyes of the public, helps it win cooperation from the community etc. For example, we oppose supposed solutions of better police training, community oriented policing etc. Full abolition is impossible while capitalists have state power.
Since Marxists endorse the goal of abolition, in the Summer of 2020, we supported the demand to “Defund the Police.” This was always a vague demand. Liberals who claimed to support it stressed that it only meant trimming around the edges and denied it was motivated by abolitionism. More radical people saw it as a step toward abolition and often openly claimed it on that basis.
Angela Davis and other activists have often been clear about the nature of reforms that should be supported. She has argued along the lines noted above — -do not accept reforms that actually reinforce police power. Davis stresses anti-capitalism. Unfortunately, Davis and others have not been clear about what their anti-capitalism consists of in relation to abolition. Their implication has been that abolitionism can over time transform the current system into a humane one. They generally do not explicitly call for socialist revolution and the revolutionary workers’ party that will be necessary to bring this about.
There is another problem with most abolitionism: it is naïve. Davis and others imply that prisons are not needed because other methods can solve the problem of social harm even under capitalism. Transformative and Restorative Justice can virtually eliminate interpersonal criminality. To be fair abolitionists couple this with an understanding that capitalist exploitation, oppression and poverty cause crime. Therefore solving the fundamental causes of crime must go along with the use of TJ and RJ. This is an important emphasis.
However, it does not answer the question of what to do about crime today. To people scared about interpersonal crime, abolitionists answer that prisons don’t enhance safety and that TJ and RJ are more effective. This may be true but there will always be horrific interpersonal crime under capitalism. It will not be solved by TJ and RJ or more social programs. TJ and RJ would not have convinced Jeffrey Daumer to change his diet. It is true that generally police do not interrupt crime, but attempt to catch perpetrators after the fact. It is also true that reducing poverty and other causes of crime can lower the incidence of interpersonal crime under capitalism. Obviously Marxists support any reduction of poverty, etc. now. An ounce of prevention really is more effective than a pound of cure. Our partial solution to crime is to struggle against the causes of crime that capitalism produces: poverty, unemployment, racism, sexism, alienation, etc. Putting resources into these issues will do far more than police and prisons to cut into interpersonal crime.
Yet, even with these measures, the truth is that under capitalism, there will always be crime . To imply that crime can be eliminated by TJ and RJ under capitalism is unrealistic. People realize this and will be turned off to abolitionism if advocates don’t acknowledge this sad fact. Further, there will always be police as long as capitalism exists. Interpersonal crime is not the source of police. The ruling class needs the police to keep order, to protect its property and power. This is why the ruling class will never allow complete abolitionism while it holds political power.
Another important point is that interpersonal crime is not the only crime. Corporations, the rich, and capitalist governments are directly responsible for much of it. Employers kill thousands of workers every year in on the job accidents and industrial diseases. The opioid crisis and illegal drug overdoses, are caused by poverty and deteriorating social conditions. They kill thousands. Poverty, homelessness, racism and sexism are other causes. The business of war, economic sanctions and other imperialist actions is another source of death and destruction. Exploitation, the foundation of capitalism, steals billions each year from the working class. These are the result of corrupt capitalist institutions. The press and politicians focus only on interpersonal crime. Their emphasis on this is an attempt to divert our attention from the capitalist system that is the ultimate source of premature death, injury, and distress under this system. Class struggle both economically and politically can also reduce the crimes directly caused by capitalists and their institutions: war, police murder, industrial disease and accidents, diseases of poverty, etc.
The Marxist answer to how to fight crime is to struggle to eliminate its causes as much as possible now and to organize for a socialist revolution. Nothing short of that will eliminate crime. We do not claim to have a complete solution for crime under capitalism, nor should abolitionists generally.
Abolitionism has usually been unclear on these relationships. Some abolitionists imply that if people understand that TJ and RJ can solve interpersonal crime better than prisons, they will turn to abolitionism. If enough people support abolitionism and the government social programs the causes of crime can be eliminated. This is a gradualist approach resting on false assumptions. It rests on the assumption that capitalism can be fundamentally reformed and is therefore unrealistic. As noted above, the ruling class will never give up its means of enforcing its will voluntarily and capitalism can never be reformed enough to eliminate the causes of crime.
There is one final aspect of naivety in the abolitionist movement: An anarchist idea that once we have a better society, no repression will be needed. For revolutionary Marxists, the period after a successful socialist insurrection is a transitional period. Marx called it the dictatorship of the proletariat, or workers’ democracy. The working class will democratically hold full political power and use that power to nationalize industry under worker’s control, plan the economy to meet human needs, overcome the division between mental and manual labor, reduce and finally eliminate class divisions, etc.
However, this is a process! On the first day after the insurrection there will still be economic classes. There will still be residual racism, sexism, etc. This means that the underlying causes of interpersonal crime will not be immediately eliminated. The mass of the population will have been transformed by revolution. In spite of that, it would be naïve to expect everyone to have been changed into fully cooperative people. The horrors of capitalism will still have created individuals deeply damaged by exploitive, oppressive and alienating social relations .The “Socialist Human ” will not arrive until well after the socialist revolution.
Even more important than this, the capitalists will use their remaining economic power to sabotage the transition to communism. They will resort to civil war. Look at what happened in Russia after the 1917 revolution. The new workers’ state will have to use repression against the capitalists after the insurrection. The workers’ state will wither away, but only as classes wither away and capitalists give up their attempts at restoration.
Engels pointed out the need for repression of class enemies in a revolutionary period in answer to “anti-authoritarians”:
Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.
Marx and Engels were not just concerned about the capitalists. They were also concerned about the capitalists using the lumpen proletariat against the workers. By lumpen, they meant primarily petty criminals.
For both of these reasons, a workers’ state will need to use repression against the enemies of working-class power during the transition. Abolition of the bourgeois state does not mean the end of all state authority. Authority, which must include repression, can be progressive if exercised by a democratic workers’ state. The new workers’ state will have to decide exactly what type of repression is needed. However, the use of prisons cannot be ruled out . In the history of revolutions, the problem has been that workers were too lenient to their class enemies, not too repressive.
In summary, abolitionism can be a step in the direction of a classless, harmonious society without repression in the long run. However, the dominant politics of the current abolitionist movement are unclear about the need for working-class revolution which would smash the capitalist repressive apparatus and the need for repression after a revolution. Too often abolitionists imply that the fundamental problem is repression, not capitalism. In fact, repression is good or bad depending on who is using it for what purpose. Support abolitionism as a step toward revolution, workers’ power and finally communism!