Catalysts of the Black Lives Matter movement included the execution of Troy Davis, the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin, an ongoing series of police killings of unarmed Black people including Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Akai Gurley–and Michelle Alexander’s bestseller on mass incarceration, The New Jim Crow. Galvanizing analyses matter. Notably, that was not a book about policing per se. But a raft of new critical books on policing in the United States is emerging, and one new contribution deserves close attention. It is also an old contribution.
Sidney L. Harring’s Policing a Class Society from 1983 should be considered a classic. A rare avowedly Marxist history of policing in the United States, it offers something many readers crave. Now republished by Haymarket Books, with a stirring new introduction, it raises fundamental critiques of policing in the United States that differ from those driving present-day mobilizations. Because it is a history book about a time over a century ago, and because it was written during the 1970s, the book can help clarify what has and has not changed in policing itself and in radical critiques of it. The book for decades was difficult to find outside university libraries, and readers should be grateful to Haymarket for republishing it. I recommend it for classroom use. In this review, I will summarize Harring’s argument, describe the response the book originally received, situate the book within the debates about Marxist state theory of the 1970s, relate it to contemporary debates, and propose some alternative ways to think about the questions of policing, class, and race in the present that the book inspires.
Harring argues that police in the United States from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the First World War played a key role in capital accumulation by controlling labor strife and managing the growth of the restive industrial working class. His analysis centers on the Great Lakes region, focusing on Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Toledo, plus some other smaller cities. He looks at both concentrated police activity toward working-class organization, like strike-breaking, and diffuse control of labor pools, like the enforcement of vice regulations and control of “tramps”, the itinerant unemployed or underemployed male proletariat.
One insight of Harring’s research is that it was not inevitable that police officers would side with capitalists against workers. Striking workers often hailed from the same neighborhoods, religious and ethnic groups, and even families as cops, though cops tended to be better off than most unskilled laborers. Loyalty was a political question as much as a technical one to be solved by police supervisors on behalf of industrial leaders, who often assailed police for insufficiently defending their business interests. The state had tools available to it to answer the loyalty question. Harsh discipline for officers who disobeyed was one. Another was scale-jumping, by utilizing non-local forces, including militias and the national guard–though Harring argues that these tended to be ineffective. New state-level police forces, invented after municipal police forces, also became important (they were modeled on colonial constabularies in places like the US-occupied Philippines), as did private security firms like Pinkerton. Exploiting ethnic divisions in cities was a third tool, pitting cops from older immigrant groups against workers from newer ones.
By retaining a focus on class, Harring also makes a few key interventions into institutional police historiography. For example, he argues that the disorganization and lack of professionalism that marked policing during this period, as well as widespread corruption and graft, did not interfere with the political-economic task of stymying the power of labor. In contrast, the consensus among other police historians to this day remains that these features did impede police ability to control crime. Further, Harring argues that key technological reforms and organizational changes that swept municipal police forces grew directly out of efforts to manage working-class revolt, even at the expense of the integral linkage between beat cops and political machines. The call box that officers used to communicate with headquarters is an example. It enabled police to respond to emergencies efficiently, but because business owners could often access it, the box enabled cops to answer class-specific public demands for service independent of the political hierarchy of the machine. Harring shows, but perhaps underemphasizes, that everyday policing and “political” policing were not distinct and separate modes of maintaining order but were instead deeply intertwined.
Most important is Harring’s overall argument that even as police played a central role in enacting bourgeois class rule by implementing multiple forms of extra-economic coercion on workers, working-class organization and mobilization limited what the police could achieve. In short, Harring argues that class struggle shaped policing, and therefore shaped bourgeois rule. Neither cops nor capitalists “can do anything they wish” (19). Working-class mobilization is the reason.
Historical research on policing poses significant challenges, especially if the researcher seeks evidence of constraints posed by class struggle. Police rarely make their records easily accessible, even if failing to do so violates a court order, as has been the case in New York City until very recently. As Alfred McCoy has argued, a key difference between the military and the police can be found in their approach to their own histories and archival access. Militaries commemorate what police erase. For police, internal record-keeping practices are not always uniform, meaning that what is available to historians is often what police departments have produced for purposes of justifying the resources they garner from municipalities. The annual report on police activities, which shows the department in the most positive light possible, becomes the only source available a century later. Harring made great use of these sources. He found cops often were unashamed to crow about how intensely they suppressed strike activity. Harring supplemented annual reports with old newspaper articles, from both the mainstream and the left-wing press. Together, these sources made the cops look like the right hand of the bourgeoisie. They may not have revealed what cops thought, but they illustrated what cops achieved.
What is so revelatory about this book is how central Harring shows brutal violence to have been to the accumulation process. Police suppression of the strikes he analyzed killed and injured hundreds. As Martin Thomas masterfully demonstrated in his global history of interwar colonial policing Violence and Colonial Order (2012), the political economy of capital accumulation itself explains both labor unrest and the police response to it. Rather than treating violence as a regrettable detour along the way to harmonious relations between capital and labor, Harring too shows that in the moment there was nothing but struggle–and, much to the chagrin of the bourgeoisie, cops were not always dependable adjuncts in this struggle. Violence was not epiphenomenal to the smooth running of mines in rural Africa, as much as factories in the urban Midwest, but was the essence of their smooth running, an economic situation that birthed political problems. Thomas would likely appreciate Harring’s argument, influenced by Harry Braverman’s 1974 Labor and Monopoly Capital, that standardization and rationalization of work, typically called Taylorization, fomented strikes and made them more violent because it enabled employers to easily replace unruly unskilled laborers. What Harring leaves unexplored, however, is the connection between this violence and broader dynamics of late nineteenth-century capital accumulation or how it might have created conditions for the crisis of 1929.
The original reviews of Policing a Class Society were mixed. The book was an entry into ongoing debates around police reform, arguing that its advocates misunderstood the purpose of policing. The American Historical Review, Contemporary Sociology, and the Journal of American History assigned reviews to police historians whose work Harring explicitly critiqued–James Richardson, Eric Monkkonen, and Roger Lane, respectively. Their responses were predictable. Although Harring’s focus on the class-specific aspects of policing undermined prevailing pluralist perspectives on the state, most of his reviewers were such committed pluralists that even dismissals of his analysis took the general form of “if you are a Marxist, you will agree with Harring; if not, you won’t”. Reviewers accused him of reductionism, instrumentalism, and functionalism, without paying much attention to distinctions among these terms, nor to Harring’s explicit attempt to avoid these analytic problems.
Monkkonen, who became perhaps the most well-respected academic historian of US policing, called Harring’s book “reductionist, simplistic, and banal”. Monkkonen believed that Harring’s unwillingness to grant crime autonomy from “bourgeois hegemony” was a mistake. Failing to grapple with the novelty of Harring’s research or his framework, Monkkonen’s dismissiveness was disproportionate. For instance, he argued that what seems like a minor and uncontroversial historical point was “astonishing”: Harring’s claim that municipal police forces were not a hugely important aspect of municipal governance much before the massive growth slowdown and strike waves that began in the 1870s. The point mattered to Monkkonen because his own account of police origins (which was not Harring’s interest) was apolitical and deterministic, arguing that modern police forces developed relatively organically first in big cities and then “diffused” to smaller ones. Influenced by 1960s-era labeling theory, Monkkonen developed the term “class management” to describe police activity, but he also worried that some radical criminologists fell into a credulity trap, believing the classes labeled “dangerous” actually were dangerous to bourgeois rule. Harring actually found affinities with this analysis, but he saw Monkkonen as ignoring fundamentally violent and domineering aspects of police work. Overall, Harring basically accepted the insights of many liberal academics into what police actually do–cops don’t deal with crime most of the time–and how they do it, but he asked a question these writers avoided: why?
Other reviews, particularly in law, criminology, and labor/social history, were more positive. Generally, they recognized that even though police control of strike activity was a crucial aspect of labor history, deeper research into the topic was needed. The sympathetic reviewers recognized that Harring took account of contrary arguments and evidence, anticipating rebuttals, but dismissive reviewers like Richardson claimed, for example, that his arguments were “presented in an absolutist fashion that admits of no exceptions, conflicting evidence, or alternative explanations”. Harring did note, however, that the bourgeoisie across different Midwest cities was not uniform, nor were political arrangements. The “how” of policing therefore was not the same everywhere, even if the “why” were. Further, working-class political power mattered. In Milwaukee, for instance, the power of elected socialists affected police appropriations, modifying police interactions with the whitening working class. Similarly, Harring observed that ethnic and religious distinctions (and battles), as well as other forms of violence that were not determined primarily by class, shaped this history. His critics, however, ignored these points. At the same time, as I will discuss in the next installment of this review, Harring’s disregard of race is the book’s flaw, as he now acknowledges.
Stuart Schrader is a Fellow in Crime and Punishment at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University and the author of a forthcoming book from University of California Press on the relationship between US counterinsurgency efforts overseas and domestic policing during the Cold War.