A Marxist history of the police : Part 1 – Repression in the face of revolution

by Stephen James Kerr, 10th August 2020

Today we are publishing the first part in a series “A Marxist History of the Police”. Part 1 will examine how the birth of the industrial working class and the tumult of the bourgeois revolutions drove the need for new forms of repression.

Part 2 will deal with experiments towards a police force in Ireland by Sir Robert Peel, up to the infamous Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

Part 3 will examine the growing movement for the vote in the aftermath of Peterloo, and reveal how the demands of the workers for suffrage was bound up with the creation of the police. 

Introduction: The “mailed fist” and the “velvet glove”.

A global movement has sprung up in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. This multi-racial movement has brought millions of people into the streets with various demands, ranging from reforming police forces to disarming and defunding them. Black Lives Matter (BLM) has framed the problem of the police exclusively in terms of racism. For BLM, the police exist simply to impose ‘white supremacy’. For BLM, police violence expresses the pervasive ‘structural racism’ embedded within the entire white population, across all social and class lines. Such a view of the police serves to minimalize their actual repressive function, and divides society along a racial rather than class basis.  If we are to see how this system of divide and rule works, we must be especially wary of racialist ‘solutions’ to the problem of police violence. The notion that police forces can be reformed to be ‘non-racist’ isn’t only non-workable, it drives a wedge where the ruling class wants it- between black and white workers. If some black workers and the black middle class can be appeased by sensitivity training programs, more black officers, or merging police forces with social welfare agencies – all of which have been proposed – and, if white workers come to believe that they must shoulder the burden of guilt for the racist violence of white cops, then it will be very difficult for black and white workers to come together and question the very existence of police as an institution, and almost impossible to call into question the continued existence of capitalism, the source of both racism and of police violence. This is precisely the outcome the ruling class wants, and therefore the one we must prevent at all costs. 

If we examine the history of police forces and how they were first created, we begin to see a different picture than that painted by BLM. Modern society was not always policed as it is today. When we consider the history of how police forces were created, a more complex picture emerges. In fact, there were no centralized police agencies in the English-speaking world prior to 1829. First invented in England, they were exported to Canada, the US, and throughout the British Empire. Why they were invented, and how they came to exist in their present form aren’t mere historical curiosities, but rather constitute crucial political questions of contemporary relevance. 

The British capitalist class responded to the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions in America and France and to the rise of the industrial working class in two ways. On the one hand the British elite developed centrally controlled, uniformed police forces, while offering limited, piecemeal reforms to the middle class on the other. While the police were to be deployed against the most militant section of the workers, the better-off sections of workers and the middle class were presented with reforms the better to bind their interests with those of the existing system of class rule. 

If the police are the ‘mailed fist’ of the capitalist state, reform is the ‘velveteen glove’. Both means are deployed with one aim: to split the working class, and prevent its political unification. The more privileged sections of the working class must be convinced they share the same interests as their class oppressors, while the other sections can be ignored, or violently repressed as needed. To be  ‘legitimate’, these processes must bear the imprimatur of democratic consent. For policing to work, the public must permit itself to be policed

This is the story of how and why that permission was obtained. 

The ruling class didn’t suddenly weave this strategy out of whole cloth. It was arrived at by trial and error, and in the face of massive internal and external resistance. In the long run, the combination of mailed fist and velvet glove has proved extremely effective for our rulers. If we, the working class majority, are to unite to destroy the system of class rule once and for all, we need to understand how this system operates to maintain itself.

 This introduction to the history of ‘the police’ will deal with how the English ruling class and the working classes responded to the American and French Revolutions and English policing in the half century from 1749 until 1800.

The industrial revolution and the birth of the working class.

 18th century England was covered by a patchwork of localized ‘police’ institutions, with varying standards and responsibilities, and no accountability to any centralized authority. Each town or parish organized its own ‘night watch’ comprised of local volunteers. These were mainly concerned with thieving, which was then a capital offence. Otherwise it was the responsibility of an aggrieved party to privately use the courts to bring alleged criminals to public justice. The night watchmen could be variably corrupt, lazy or otherwise incompetent. 

In times of civil unrest, the state called upon either the army or the ‘yeomanry’ – small landowners, or minor gentry, who owned horses to form ad hoc mounted, armed brigades- which could be called upon to impose force on insurgents, usually peasants, but later workers and tradespeople. It was common for rebels to be cut down with swords or shot. Treason was punished with being hung, disemboweled, and then cut into four pieces while alive. Petty theft was a capital crime. There was little due process of law for any but the wealthy. It was a brutal society.

Bow St Runners – circa 1800

 Henry Fielding, author of the novel Tom Jones, established London’s first private police force, the ‘Bow Street Runners’ in 1749. Operating out of the Bow Street magistrate’s office, Fielding’s was a private agency of eight men, who also received payments from the government. Their primary day-to-day activities consisted of pursuing thieves. They were also involved in monitoring political opposition.

The material basis of growing political opposition to the British government was the growth of the immense new productive forces of industrialism, and the extraction and accumulation of unheard-of surpluses from colonial plunder in India, the Caribbean, Africa and North America. Prior to the period of mercantilism and rising industrialism, peasant farmers and small trades people had produced the vast majority of wealth in England on the land with the surplus appropriated by wealthy landowners. This formed the basis of the wealth of the landed gentry, who sat atop a political system that justified and preserved their place. 

The industrial revolution of the middle 1700s created new classes of wealthy merchants and then wealthy industrialists. These developments also created an immense new social class – the working class, out of peasants and craftsmen displaced by these new inventions, and who had no means to live but by the sale of their labour power. 

 In his introduction to ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England,’ Engels noted:

With these inventions… the victory of machine-work over hand-work in the chief branches of English industry was won; and the history of the latter from that time forward simply relates how the hand-workers have been driven by machinery from one position after another. The consequences of this were, on the one hand, a rapid fall in price of all manufactured commodities, prosperity of commerce and manufacture, the conquest of nearly all the unprotected foreign markets, the sudden multiplication of capital and national wealth; on the other hand, a still more rapid multiplication of the proletariat, the destruction of all property-holding and of all security of employment for the working-class, demoralization, political excitement.” 

England’s 50 years of riots

Though they created much of 18th century England’s wealth, the emergent social forces were barred from participating in official political life. The vote was restricted to the landed gentry. But the common people reserved to themselves the right to comment on politics. Expression of popular opinion was very important in 18thcentury England, with the proliferation of newspapers and political cartoons. The people also reserved to themselves the right to riot in the streets. 

Without an official channel to express their opinions, violent riots involving masses of people were the only real means for the common folk to make their views known. Street unrest was far more common in 18th century England than today. 

A newspaper account from The London Gazette of October 8, 1763 describes how traditional journeymen silk weavers “and a great number of other evil minded persons, masked and disguised, and armed with Cutlasses and other dangerous Weapons, assembled at different Hours of the Day, and also in the Night-time, about the Houses of several other journeyman silk weavers… and in a most outrageous and riotous manner, broke open said Houses, and cut and destroyed the silk works in the looms…” Workers without the vote did not bother their MP. They took the streets, and often, over many issues, not only such labour actions. 

The political system in Britain was unsuited to respond to the displacements of industrialism. It remains to this day a relic, which had been pieced together over the previous 800 years. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had, to a certain extent, subordinated the King to Parliament, resulting in what Blackstone refers to as a ‘mixed constitution’ containing elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy embodied in the institutions of ‘King, Lords and Commons.’ This notion had a pedigree going all the way back to Aristotle and Cicero, but it was fitted to a static, agrarian society which industrialism was beginning to tear apart. 

A political explosion – the American and French Revolution

The American and later the French revolutions exploded the happy slumber of England’s mixed constitution. The mass sympathy which the American revolution evoked in the English common people first caused the British aristocracy and wealthy classes to react, and to contemplate the formation of a centralized police force. 

Historian Tom Mackaman summarizes the intellectual ferment:

 “The American Revolution was a product of the Enlightenment—that period of discovery emerging from the darkness of the medieval world-view that had seen in all that existed the unchanging work of God. Defying the wrath of the church, natural philosophers—scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno—began to question the natural world. Simultaneously, political philosophers such as Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire and Montesquieu began to ask questions about the social order. What was the nature of sovereignty? Why do Kings and parliaments rule? Or, as Rousseau put it, why is it “that man is born free, and yet everywhere is in chains?” 

The Declaration of Independence and the book, Common Sense by Thomas Paine posed that question squarely to the embryonic English working class. These caused an immediate ferment in Europe, and sparked immediate sympathy with workers across Europe.

It’s worthwhile to quote briefly from the Declaration, whose most crucial, revolutionary passage is known to billions of people today:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The notion that the ‘consent of the governed’ was required for any government to be considered legitimate was a radical new idea in 1776. Still more radical, was the claim that the people have the right to ‘alter or abolish’ governments with which they disagree. But it was an idea that was increasingly appealing to the British merchant class and the then embryonic working class, which had already been in political sympathy with the plight of the colonies for years.

“The merchants of the City of London and of other expanding citiesof the new middle class in England identified their own interests closely with those of the colonists. The London press, almost without exception, was the voice of this class. With the introduction of the tax on the colonists’ trade in molasses and sugar in 1764, the London Chronicle at once reported from the west coast port of Bristol, which dependedon the American trade, that “the principal merchants of the city intend to support with all their interest the independent free trade of the American colonies.” 

The Gordon Riots by John Seymour Lucas

In 1780, at the height of the US War of Independence, unrest broke out in London and the government lost control of the streets for several days. The ‘Gordon Riots’ erupted out of a cacophony of demands of the poor, for political representation, much of it couched in anti-Catholic prejudice in this instance. Their targets were not the Catholic poor but rather ‘persons of high station.’ Regiments of the British Army put down these riots, with several hundred rioters killed. In the immediate aftermath of these riots, bills were brought forth to establish a system of centralized policing on the French model which was notorious in England for its repressiveness. Still even an apprehended insurrection at home and the loss of the colonies in North America could not forge enough support in the Commons to pass such measures. But demands for the vote were growing, inspired by the revolt of the Colonies. 

The storming of the Bastille July 14th 1789

The years 1789 to 1791 were crucial for the further development of English radicalism. The French Revolution, and the execution of the Bourbon King, threw up yet another question mark over the English Constitution. The French Revolution offered a universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, which consciously reached beyond the borders of France, as a challenge to every single crowned head of Europe. It is worth quoting from:

1. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. 

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. 

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation. 

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything, which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law. 

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law. 

6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents. 

This went far beyond the American Revolution. The English ruling class was horrified. Following on from the French Revolution, the slave uprising in Sainte Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791 further threatened British imperial conquests in the Caribbean by disrupting markets for sugar and slaves, and drew political sympathy in the English working and middle classes for the insurgents. The movement to abolish slavery in England was at its height. 

Revenge taken by the Black Army for the Cruelties practised on them by the French”. Illustration by British soldier and self-admitted “admirer of Toussaint L’Ouverture” Marcus Rainsford

The Haitian revolution radicalized the anti-slavery movement in England, lending it a decidedly republican character, and caused the British government to cool on ending the slave trade. The publication of The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine that year sent further shockwaves through British society, as Paine called upon the British to rise up and establish a democracy as had just been done in France. As republican political clubs formed in London, Paine’s works, printed in cheap penny editions became the most widely read books after the Bible. 

Response to revolution – The velvet glove of reform

The British ruling class also established a ‘respectable’ society to advocate for very limited parliamentary reforms, ‘The Society of Friends of the People’ led by Sir Charles Grey and Sir Charles Fox. Here we begin to see the strategy of co-optation emerging. This was not a popular organization, but a private gentlemen’s debating club. Membership cost the not insubstantial sum of two gold Guineas per year,, and one could only become a member by being nominated by other members. Unsurprisingly, this society disavowed any support for republicanism. 

Fired by Paine’s writing, and inspired by the quickening of the French Revolution, the London Corresponding Society was established in 1792 to agitate for parliamentary reform, and the extension of suffrage to all working people, including women. Its membership and activities spread rapidly across the country. This was a indeed a popular movement. 

Membership in the LCS was open to all who agreed with the statement that “…the welfare of these kingdoms require that every adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament.” Its members were tailors, glaziers, hatters, carpenters and other craftsmen, or to Edmund Burke “the lowest vulgar.” 

Where Paine’s ideas promised liberty and bread for the working classes and independent tradespeople, Edmund Burke prescribed that “Patience, labour, sobriety, frugality and religion should be recommended to them; all the rest is downright fraud.” 

The LCS in contrast, according to Burke “audaciously assumed the task of watching over the transactions of Parliament, and of limiting the boundaries to its powers, threatening destruction if it dared to transgress them…. The Corresponding Society had laid before the Constitutional Society a scheme for calling together a convention of the people, manifestly for the purpose of dissolving the government and lodging the supreme power in their own hands.” 

Response to revolution – the “mailed fist” of the hired mob

Still wedded to traditional modes of thinking, the British aristocracy set about forming ad-hoc associations to repress the new revolutionary ferment – riot vs riot. 

The Association for Protecting Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levelers was formed late 1792, and quickly spread across the country, mobilizing violent mobs in support of ‘Church and King.’ A dictionary definition from 1795 openly suggests there was a direct link between the Associations and the British Government. “Mob – Church and King, – a species of regular militia, kept in pay by the Ministry, for the protection of property against Levelers and Republicans.” This was the alternative to police. 

According to E.P. Thompson, “a mob was a very useful supplement to the magistrates in a nation that was scarcely policed.” The mobs persecuted reformists and their supporters. In one instance, a “leading Jacobin was ‘tied in the saddle of a dragoon’s horse, whilst the mad and bigoted populace stuck pins in his legs.” And in another, “houses of reformers were broken open and persons dragged out, halters were put on their necks, and they were plunged into the muddy waters at the side of town.” 

 According to the Association’s pamphlets, “The press daily produced malevolent writings, in which the Constitution was calumniated, and every sanction of Society was attacked; all ranks, but especially the lower, were inflamed by insinuations of grievances, the soldiers and seamen were tempted from their duty, the artisans and labourers were made dissatisfied with their fate of honest industry… All were instructed to regard the present Establishment as an oppression, and excited to follow the example of France in setting up Equality of Ranks and Liberty without any bounds.” 

 
Ruling class panic at the execution of Louis leads to the suspension of civil rights in England

Inspired by the progress of the revolution in France, in 1792 and ‘93 republicans organized ‘The British Convention’, to which Burke referred above. It held two meetings, both in Scotland where mild proposals for parliamentary reform were put forward, and greetings to the group were read out from the United Irishmen, and also from republicans in Wales. The meetings had been infiltrated by agents of the British government, which was panicked by the execution of King Louis on 21 January 1793 by the National Convention of France.

Prime Minister, Sir William Pitt, suspended Habeas Corpus and charged  leading members of the LCS with sedition and treason. The traditional punishment for this crime underlines the panic of the Pitt government.

E.P Thompson relates how the penalty for Treason was “that he should be hanged by the neck, cut down while still alive, disemboweled (and his entrails burned before his face) and then be beheaded and quartered” and how, unable to stomach the penalty, the jury acquitted the LCS leaders to the jubilation of the London citizenry, if not His Majesty’s government.

While the government made use of terrorism and violent unreason in the streets, it made full use of violent reason in the Commons and the Courts. The Terror of the French Revolution has been mythologized in direct proportion to the extent the terror of the English counter-revolution has been buried. Consider the various repressive measures undertaken by the British government against its own people:

Mass meeting of 100,00 at Copenhagen House – satarical cartoon by Gilray

Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1794 in order to effectively suppress the movement for a Constitutional Convention of the “swinish multitude.” This did not stop the agitation. Demonstrations for the vote continued to mount. On October 26th, 1795 (after a very poor harvest which resulted in famine) a demonstration of more than 100,000 assembled at Copenhagen Fields where it was proposed to organize “the whole nation… combined in one grand Political Association.” Thompson relates how, “A remonstrance was addressed to the King. ‘Whenceforth in the midst of apparent plenty, are we thus compelled to starve? Why, when we incessantly toil and labour, must we pine in misery and want?” 

Three days later King George’s carriage was stoned on its way to the opening of Parliament. The government responded with two Acts that made such demands and demonstrations illegal. The Treasonable Practices Act made it high treason to “within the realm or without compass, imagine, invent, devise or intend death or destruction, or any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, imprisonment or restraint, of the person of … the King.” This act set English liberties back to the Dark Ages before Magna Carta.

Stoning of the King’s carriage as depicted by James Gilray (1795)

The Seditious Meetings Act restricted public meetings to no more than 50 people. To hold a meeting of any size on a political topic, permission from a magistrate had to be obtained. In 1798 the Newspaper Publication Act restricted the printing of newspapers. In that same year, the Bow Street Runners were expanded. Finally, in 1799 the government passed the Combinations Act, which forbade groups of working people from organizing together in trade unions to improve conditions and made strikes illegal. The Seditious Societies Act forbade political institutions organized on a national basis, directly targeting any future growth of corresponding societies. 

 Thus by 1800 the English ruling class by the stroke of their pens had destroyed the popular freedoms, out of fear of the English people themselves. This situation could not last forever. The following 30 years would see even greater social upheavals leading to the first parliamentary reforms, and the formation of ‘the police’ to contain any further democratic aspirations of the people. 

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