Class war and the agents of the state

One of the key components of anarchism is class struggle. This struggle has many forms, from picket lines, through anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, to the fight for migrants’ rights and armed insurrection against imperialism. However, the aim remains the same. Agitation, organisation, and education for the working class against their exploitation and repression by the ruling class.

However, it is nearly always the case that those who enact this repression on behalf of the powerful are working class themselves. Soldiers, policemen, bailiffs, prison officers, and border control officials are amongst those who perform jobs antithetical to the interests of the working class. The inherent contradiction is in the fact that these people share the plight of the workers whilst being the most powerful instruments of established power to maintain that plight.

How do we respond to this problem?

A class analysis

The working class constitutes the vast majority of people on this planet. All who have to sell their labour in order to survive, having no independent access to capital, are of the working class. This basic definition can be applied to agents of state enforcement as readily as to ordinary workers in the public and private sectors.

As I have noted previously for the specific context of soldiers;

Soldiers are neither heroes nor villains but members of the working class who, like everyone else, must sell their labour to survive. That it was the armed wing of the state who employed them is not in itself enough reason to raise them on a pedestal or condemn them to hell.

This does not mean, however, that such as soldiers, the police, and similar groups should be considered comrades. The fact remains that they represent institutions antagonistic to working class interest, enforcing the borders, territorial expansion, property rights, prisons, and limitations on dissent that define our society and entrench its ruling class. If we are to move beyond this fact, we cannot simply attack or damn those who serve the state.

Class struggle involves seemingly endless organising and education, and so it must be in this case as well.

Class traitors?

According to Unfinished business – the politics of Class War, the aforementioned groups are “class traitors.” In final analysis, they can be counted on to take their stand against the workers;

The police and similar groups like bailiffs, prison officers and DSS snoopers have a unique role to play in the preservation of the status-quo. Some actually do believe in trying to do good like stopping crime, but such naivety quickly disappears after entering the force. The Establishment only want those people who are suited by character, temperament and politics to join the ranks of the police force. Those unsuited quickly leave. History is full of instances of soldiers etc. coming over to the side of the people in revolutions. The same cannot be said of the police. While most of the police start off from a working class background they cannot be included in our view of the working class. A very large section of our class has a healthy contempt and disdain for this type of traitor and practically keep them at arms length.

There is, of course, considerable weight to this argument.

A young activist murdered by police during the G8 protests in Genoa in 2001, a graphic example of the antagonism between working class activists and their fellows who serve the state

The behaviour of the police towards protesters and dissidents across the world does not speak in their favour. A record of violence, repression, and murder cannot easily be reconciled with the goals of the anarchist movement. Indeed, where the army mutinies were essential to the February Revolution in Russia, the police served a counter-revolutionary role first for the Tsar then for Lenin.

However, there is a precedent for police siding with the interests of the working class. One prominent example is the Listowel Police Mutiny of 1920;

On June 19 the Republican forces were greatly strengthened in their struggle against the R.I.C. by the mutiny of the police in Listowel barracks. This incident had repercussions far beyond the confines of north Kerry. Indeed, it was an important factor in determining the outcome of the Anglo-Irish war. It was the dilemma in which most of the R.I.C. found themselves. As hostilities intensified they had to regard as their enemies most of the people from whom they had sprung. Consequently, within three months of this highly-publicised event, some 1,100 men resigned from the force. This was a crippling blow to the Black and Tans and a great influx of military, none of whom had the local knowledge or information which was all-important in trying to contain the republican’s growing grip on the countryside.

The mutiny itself had all the ingredients of high drama. It was triggered off by the visit of ex-war hero, Colonel Gerald Bryce Ferguson Smyth who, on June 3, had been appointed Divisional Police Commissioner for Munster. However, the situation had been building up for some days. On June 17 the police in Listowel were ordered to hand over their barracks to the British military and most of them were transferred to different stations in the district where they were to act as scouts for the troops. The police held a meeting and decided not to obey these orders. The following day the county inspector, Poer O’Shee, came to Listowel and when he tried to force the men to obey fourteen of them threatened to resign.

Next morning, June 19, Colonel Smyth arrived at Listowel barracks. He was accompanied by the inspector general, General Tudor, a commissioner of police from Dublin Castle, Major Letham, the county inspector, Poer O’Shee, the O.C. of the military stationed at Ballinruddery, Captain Chadwick, and Assistant County Inspector Dobbyn, and it was obvious that the purpose of his visit was to deal with insubordination on June 17.

When the police had been assembled in the barrack-room he addressed them. He asserted that from then on the crown forces would have to take the offensive and beat the Republicans at its own game. To this end martial law would come into force immediately and by June 21 the police and military would be completely amalgamated. Then, together, police and military would engage in a ruthless pacification programme and if, in the course of it, innocent people were killed he would see to it that no policeman would have to answer for such an eventuality. He concluded by saying that the government wanted their assistance to wipe out the Republicans and that any man who was not prepared to help in doing so ought to leave the job at once.

Then came the first of a number of dramatic incidents. He approached the constable who stood at the top of the police line and pointing to him asked, ‘Are you prepared to co-operate with me?’ There was a tense moment or two as the constable, a Protestant from the north of Ireland, paused before replying that Constable Mee would speak for him. Thereupon Constable Jeremiah Mee startled Smyth, by saying, ‘By your accent I take it you are an Englishman. You forget you are addressing Irishmen.’ Then taking off his cap, belt and bayonet and laying them on the table, he continued: ‘These too are English. Take them as a present from me, and to hell with you, you murderer.’ Smyth immediately ordered Mee to be arrested. As two army officers moved to take Mee away the rest of the police, prompted by Constable Thomas Hughes, crowded round them and refused to let them move. After a few tense minutes Smyth ordered the officers to desist and together with all the visiting officers entered another room, adjoining the barrack day-room, in order to discuss the situation.

At this point Mee, on behalf of the police, wrote a note, which all signed, in which the entire group assumed responsibility for Mee’s words and actions and indicated that they would resist Mee’s arrest even to the point of bloodshed. Then ignoring Smyth, one of them handed the note to the inspector general. Another tense period followed while the officers considered this note. After about fifteen minutes the inspector general emerged from the adjoining room, shook hands with all the policemen and left with the visitors. The police who no longer felt safe in the barracks, held a meeting in the public-house then known as ‘T.D. Sullivans’ (now John B. Keane’s Pub – owned by John B. Keane who wrote ‘The Field’ on which the movie of the same name was based) and, of the twenty-five of them who had been involved in the incident, fourteen, who were single, decided to resign. However, two of these, John McNamara and Michael Kelly, were asked by Michael Collins, who was taking a personal interest in the entire matter, to stay on and carry out merely ordinary police duties. This they did and the following day, when summoned to appear before a court-martial, they demanded a civil trial instead. Next morning a high-ranking military officer arrived at the barracks and told them that they had been dismissed and ordered them to leave the barracks at once.

At this stage there was a very important development. John McNamara went to James Crowley, V.S., who later that year became the Sinn Féin representative for north Kerry, and gave him a detailed account of what had happened and a statement, signed by the fourteen constables who resigned, describing the remarks of Colonel Smyth and requesting an official investigation into the incident. Crowley had the entire story printed by Robert I. (Bob) Cuthbertson and motored to Dublin in with it that afternoon, and the full story appeared in the first edition of the Freeman’s Journal on the following morning. However, it was seen in good time by the authorities and was suppressed. Subsequently it appeared in the Freeman’s Journal of 10 July 1920.

Though not given prominence in the media, there are many further examples of police mutiny and opposition to their bosses[1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6], the earliest one I could find being a rebellion of native policemen on the island of Manilla against their colonial masters [pdf]. Though, of course, not all of the cited examples reveal any class consciousness or revolutionary fervour, evidence of a willingness of police to stand up against their employers is a promising development. As is the empathy occasionally demonstrated towards those who would normally be the victims of their actions.

Of course, not all agents of the state can be brought around to a class perspective. Signing up for the security services, for example, requires a greater level of loyalism and indoctrination than can be expected elsewhere. The collusion between British intelligence and Unionist terrorists is just one example of this.

However, a considerable degree of trade union organisation does exist amongst prison officers, border control agents, and other state enforcement agencies less inculcated than the security services. It is a promising start, and one that can be built upon to bring these “traitors” over to the side of their class.

The barracks of the Listowell Royal Irish Constabulary, whose mutiny in 1920 was "a crippling blow to the Black and Tans" in favour of the rebellious working class

Organising the authorities for resistance

In order to begin discussing how this might be done, we have to look once more to the example of the military.

Although, in theory, the most loyal servants of the nation state, soldiers are integral to revolutionary movements. For activists and organisers, history and experience offers far more examples of this group being galvanised against their masters than any of the other groups mentioned above.

As already stated, army mutiny was integral to the success of the February revolution in Russia. Disobedience by soldiers was also vital to the anti-Vietnam war movement. And as Michael Zweig reports in the Nation, veterans continue to be integral to actions against war in the present;

Counter-recruitment activity, an important element of the anti-Iraq War movement, responds to the many ways recruiters imply commitments to prospective enlistees that the military is under no obligation to keep and promise benefits that in the end do not materialize–a pattern with many parallels in working-class civilian life. Common among the misleading enticements are offers of training that will lead to civilian employment in good jobs; education benefits to pay for college costs and even the signing bonuses, $10,000 or more, that can seem like a fortune to the kids at the desk. The most outrageous reason for yanking back the signing benefits comes when a soldier leaves the military before the full commitment is over because of severe combat injuries. The military, insisting that the benefits are contingent on honorable discharge after completing the full term of service, has moved to take back the signing bonuses that injured servicemembers, unable to complete their tours, have already collected. To combat these practices, young people, often accompanied by veterans with their own stories to tell, are challenging military recruiters in high schools, shopping malls and other places where recruiters seek out volunteers to fill their quotas.

In Dissident Voice last year, Ron Jacobs drew attention to Dahr Jamail’s book, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, which “highlights the various organizations organizing GI resistance, from the Iraq Veterans Against the War to the group Courage to Resist. He also commits a chapter to each of the primary forms of resistance and reasons for that resistance. He describes instances of individual resistance and the refusal of entire units to carry out missions. He also explores the nature of the sexist culture of the military and the immorality of the wars themselves. One of the most interesting chapters in The Will to Resist is titled “Quarters of Resistance.” It describes the mission and interior of a house in Washington, DC run by a couple veterans. The purpose of the house is to operate as a sort of clearinghouse for the GI resistance movement. At times, the house has provided shelter for veterans and GIs attending antiwar activities in DC. It is also a place that the founder of the house, Geoffrey Millard, calls a “training ground for resistance.” In addition to these quarters, Jamail discusses the beginnings of a coffeehouse movement slowly developing outside major US military bases.”

Clearly, the lessons cited above are instructive for those involved in the anti-war movement. But they should also be taken on board for the class war. There needs to be a concerted effort to disseminate information and ideas amongst those who work for the state, to educate them on how what they do harms their fellow members of the working class, and to offer them a way to change that and to resist. Most importantly, that effort must support those who do resist and help them to face off against potential repercussions.

If they choose to ignore these efforts or even to react with hostility, and continue to act against their class, then so be it. But we should not be willing to write off an entire segment of society as “class traitors” until we have at least made the effort to show them that there is a choice and to offer a perspective on solidarity and rebellion.

4 Responses to “Class war and the agents of the state”
  1. Rita cahull says:

    It Goes To Show ye that New York USA Or Northern Island, Know Nothing About the Real EIRE History of Ireland, to write an article you know nothing about in our History, just a make up believe tranny storie of a flawed USA media And BBC

  2. Rita cahull says:

    Your Story About EIRE Is COMPLETE Nonesence and a load of Cock’N Bull Storiy your like the Prodys in Northern Island, of the British Who Stole Our Island of 6 Counties, We the EIRE People Own all of our Island, but we let the Brits go Back Home Now to Britain where they came from, we will leave the Catholics of Our Own stay and live in Northern Island, Royal Ulster owns no part of Ireland, they are intruders and invaded into our Country and stole 6 counties of Ireland, the Northern Island orange Faces are immigrants of Brits from the Past, In Eire for the past ten years we have had great peace and we dont need these bunch of facist interferring in Irish peoples lives again, they are nothing but Liars and Wasters who cause trouble among the Catholics for Years and Years and have treated them as second class Citizens in there own countries not the Prod muppets who treat them as their slaves, we will never be a united Ireland with Brits after what they have done and are still trying to run our country down today, if it werent for the Irish People the Prods would have never Survived, we put clothes on their back and food on their table, and Still orange faces wud stab us in the back, so write this article for a change smog

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  1. […] broader discussion on agents of the state such as police and prison officers can be found here. There, I made the point that revolt amongst the police and the armed forces will be a vital […]

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