In his groundbreaking book “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” Frederick Engels explained the evolution of the state this way: “The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”
The role of the state as a repressive apparatus that includes the police, the prisons, the courts, the big business media and more should be studied and understood by every activist and revolutionary not only theoretically but practically. Even though Engels wrote this book over a century ago in 1884, it is more relevant today than ever.
The state arose out of class society thousands of years ago in order to protect the private property of the exploiters and to prevent organized rebellion by the exploited to liberate themselves. Private property under capitalism comes in the form of the means of production of everything in society — from machinery to factories to office buildings.
For nationally oppressed peoples or people of color, the state, especially in the form of the police and the courts, is an everyday menace that is extreme in nature. From the South Bronx, N.Y., to South Central in Los Angeles, Black and Brown communities face repressive police occupation on a daily basis.
Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo, an African American and an African immigrant respectively, were both unarmed when they were shot to death by the New York Police Department. A 2008 class action lawsuit revealed that Black and Latino/a people were stopped and frisked in large numbers within their neighborhoods by the NYPD based on their nationality. The numbers are vastly disproportionate to their actual number in the population.
But this violent nature of the state is spreading beyond the boundaries of the most marginalized sectors. The unprecedented capitalist economic crisis is now creating suffering among those layers who were once viewed as being “middle class” or privileged, especially if they were white. The Occupy Wall Street struggle is the most dynamic expression of the disillusionment that many white youth and others are feeling with the capitalist system.
The cops & Occupy Wall Street
The continuous bailout of Wall Street and the big banks in the trillions of dollars by the U.S. Treasury since 2008 has fueled this struggle, as many young people realize there are no jobs and no future for them. These young people have also been inspired by the heroic occupations in Tahrir Square in Egypt, Wisconsin, Spain and elsewhere. OWS is now entering its third week and with each day is attracting more and more support in New York City, around the U.S. and worldwide.
Those activists participating in the OWS protests are being educated in the living struggle on the role of the state. They have their own fresh experiences and the experiences of others. On Sept. 24, OWS activists were physically assaulted by police with pepper spray and mace following an impromptu march in the streets. And despite appeals by some activists for the police to be tolerant, at least 100 people were arrested. For many activists, it was their first time being physically confronted by the state. The acts of brutality meted out by the police were captured on videotape.
This demonstration came three days after the horrific, racist execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. All evidence pointed to Davis’ innocence in the killing of a white police officer, but the facts didn’t prevent his execution. A number of OWS activists had participated in protests to stop the execution.
On Oct. 2 more than 700 OWS activists were arrested attempting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan. Once again, an appeal to the police to let them go was ignored.
The struggle can change political consciousness within days or even hours. In response to the Sept. 24 police arrests and brutality, thousands of protesters marched from the OWS site to One Police Plaza. Two of the most popular chants were “We remember Sean Bell, NYPD go to hell!” and “The system is racist, it lynched Troy Davis!” Showing solidarity with the most oppressed was clearly an important step.
Besides deepening this solidarity, the next important lessons are that the capitalist state stands above the people, cannot be reformed, and must ultimately be smashed and replaced with a state that represents the interests of the majority of humanity based on the socialist reorganization of society.
Engels’ words have stood the test of time.