The Problem with Prison Abolition

Adam Marletta
5 min readJun 7, 2023

Prison abolition has, in recent years, become a major focus of the left. The trend is often associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside calls to defund the police. Angela Davis, in particular, has emerged as a prominent proponent of prison abolition. The topic has become Davis’s go-to talking-point during her various speeches throughout the world. (These speeches are, ironically, inevitably introduced by wealthy university donors or college presidents.)

Davis is, no doubt, an inspiring figure on the left. But Norman Finkelstein is correct when he points out that prison abolition is “nowhere on the historical agenda,” right now. Prison abolition cannot even be contemplated until we reach the highest stage of communism. As such, Davis’s lectures on the subject are ultimately symbolic and entirely toothless. They are, as Finkelstein puts it during a recent interview, a “hot ticket item on Martha’s Vineyard.”

No doubt the prison-industrial-complex is inherently racist. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with over 2 million Americans in a federal, state or county jail.

And people of color make up a disproportionate number of U.S. prisoners. In 2017, black Americans represented 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 33 percent of the prison population, according to a Pew Research report. This overrepresentation of African Americans in prison is a direct result of the racist orientation and origin of the police. Black people are five times more likely to be arrested than whites.

Likewise, there is a clear class component to U.S. incarceration rates. The prison system is disproportionately made up of poor and working-class people. Nearly half of the prison population (44.5 percent) consists of people arrested for minor drug offenses.

Thus, there are plenty of reasons to oppose prisons — at least as they currently exist. In many other countries “prisons” are humane rehabilitation facilities focused on helping inmates gain better work or educational skills. (Michael Moore’s 2015 film, Where to Invade Next? offers excellent insight into how the U.S. could dramatically re-think the concept of incarceration to place it better in line with the rest of the world, using the Norwegian prison system as an example.)

As a result, I am not opposed to the concept of prison abolition in theory. It is in terms of Marxist practice that the issue becomes problematic.

For starters, Lenin already outlined the case for smashing the capitalist state in his classic, The State and Revolution. Prisons are a crucial part of the state apparatus. To make the rhetorical move from calling for the abolition (or, in Lenin’s exact words, the eventual “withering away”) of the state, to the abolition of only prisons strikes me as a clear retreat toward social democracy. It is a call for reform — not revolution.

But there is a far more practical reason why socialists should be wary of embracing calls for prison abolition. Quite simply, after the socialist revolution, we will need prisons.

After a successful socialist revolution, when the working class takes power and establishes the dictatorship of the proletariat, it will inevitably face a fierce counter-offensive from the recently-displaced capitalists, CEOs, and petty-bourgeois small business owners. These reactionary forces will do whatever they can to regain their wealth and power — including launching terrorist counter-revolutions and instigating a civil war. This is precisely what happened in the Soviet Union following the Bolsheviks’ October 1917 uprising.

The proletariat will thus face an unenviable choice: We can slaughter as many of these reactionary dissidents as possible. (And anyone who recoils at the necessity of employing some degree of violence in a successful revolution does not, as Engels himself asserted, understand the nature of revolution). Or we can lock them up and detain them somewhere — like a prison.

This was the purpose of the much-maligned “gulags” in the Soviet Union. The gulags were essentially labor camps that housed reactionary capitalist dissidents who opposed the new communist government. Did some human rights abuses occur in the gulags…? Undoubtedly. But the vast majority of those imprisoned in Stalin’s “show trials” were, indeed, guilty of conspiring against the communist government.

Even ardent anti-communist liberal, Timothy Snyder, concedes that nearly 90 percent of those sentenced to the gulags were later released.

Indeed, the toppling of the tsar during the Russian Revolution was, perhaps, the easy part. The truly difficult task the Bolsheviks faced after the 1917 revolution was defending the revolution from the myriad internal and external forces dead-set on overthrowing it.

“The transition from capitalism to socialism,” Lenin wrote in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918), “represents an entire historical epoch. Until this epoch has terminated, the exploiters inevitably cherish the hope of restoration, and this hope is converted into attempts at restoration.” (Emphasis in original.)

He goes on:

And after their first serious defeat, the overthrown exploiters — who had not expected their overthrow, never believed it possible, never conceded the thought of it — throw themselves with energy grown tenfold, with furious passion and hatred grown a hundredfold, into the battle for the recovery of the “paradise” of which they have been deprived, on behalf of their families, who had been leading such a sweet and easy life and whom now the “common herd” is condemning to ruin and destitution (or to “common” labour…)

Simply put, we are a long way off from contemplating abolishing prisons entirely. As such, discussions on the topic smack of reformism. They serve — whether intentionally or not — as a distraction from the more urgent need of developing a broad working-class consciousness within the masses. And such work is severely hindered when the contemporary left has a anti-communist culture of rejecting outright any and all examples of actually existing socialism as “authoritarian,” or “not really socialism.”

To wit, the aforementioned Michael Moore documentary culminates with the filmmaker boasting of the role he played in helping to literally break apart the Berlin Wall. “Democratic socialists” like Moore envision socialism as little more than New Deal-style “progressive” reforms. Actual communism scares them.

By all means, let’s abolish prisons — when we have reached the stage of full-communism when it becomes plausible to do so. We must re-dedicate ourselves to Marxist studies and the understanding of theory. I know many young leftists balk at such “boring,” “academic” pursuits, written a century ago by a bunch of “dead white men.”

But, as Lenin wrote, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement. This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”

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Adam Marletta

Writer, socialist, and coffee-fiend. I have written for the West End News, Socialist Worker, a bunch of decidedly less interesting publications.