Historical Thinking on Progressive Police and Armed Bodies: Lessons from the Paris Commune and The Soviet Revolution

Artur Rubinat

Abstract: This article reviews the historical examples of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Soviet Revolution of 1917, focusing on police and armed bodies policy. The article reviews relevant literature as a primary source of evidence. I depart from the idea that progressive movements today have forgotten that these two historical examples gave us interesting lessons for progressive police reform both in the United States and Europe. By progressive police reform, I mean coherent proposals to change the current police models, made by progressive movements, that is, the ones situated ideologically to the left of traditional social democracy. The main lesson from these historical cases is about police democratization in a broad sense. Finally, using lessons learned from these historical cases, the article briefly debates contemporary ideas on progressive police reform and the abolitionist view, arguing that both perspectives are needed for progressive police reform today.

1.     A Progressive Police Reform?

It is impossible not to remember episodes of police repression during the meetings of the G-20 in different cities, or the repression against the 1st of October 2017 Catalan Referendum, not to mention the last episodes of police repression in the United States and the surge of the Black Lives Matter Movement. In this regard, Elizabeth Day (2015), explains that the police reform movement is a response against injustice and institutionalized racism, and the endemic brutality of the state against those it deems unworthy.  

This article is a historical reflection on the police, drawing from the historical cases of the Paris Commune and The Soviet Revolution. Why these two historical examples? Because of their historical magnitude and lasting significance both practically and theoretically. What are the lessons from these historical examples for today’s progressive police reform?

In other words, this article based on these historical cases aims to contribute to the contemporary debate about progressive police reform in the United States and in Western Europe. Moreover, I will also briefly review the abolitionist view about the police, giving us some additional insight into what we should do with the police today. By progressive police reform, I mean coherent proposals to change the current police models made by progressive movements. That is, the ones situated ideologically to the left of traditional social democracy, in a similar way proposed by Papanicolaou and Rigakos (2014).

Methodologically, this article mainly draws on the cases of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Soviet Revolution of 1917 as aforementioned and is based on a literature review.

2.     What is the Police?

For this article, I discuss a definition of police considering the following elements: social and historical context, type of social institution, and functions. Focusing on the first element, according to Manning (2010), the police is socially constructed, dependent on social conditions, and emerging from social conflict. Furthermore, police theory has evolved according to the historical context (Bayley and Shearing 1996; Shearing and Marks 2011).

The main reason for the creation of the police institution at the end of the 18th century was to repress the poor masses, mostly workers, and in the case of the United States also to control the enslaved population (Papanicolaou and Rigakos 2014). One of the first key figures to establish a modern police force in Western Europe was Patrick Colquhoun in the United Kingdom. That police force was created primarily to avoid theft in the docks of London, therefore driven by economic reasons (Critchley 1978). Centering on the type of social institution and the functions that the police carry, according to Reiner (2010), the police is a state specialist organization that holds a monopoly on force, and its primary function is to preserve the social order in capitalism.

We might think that the historical context in our societies today is different from that of 19th-century capitalism. However, as Papanicolaou and Rigakos (2014) point out, current empirical research still shows a continued correlation between degraded workers’ conditions and more police, mainly in the United States and Western Europe.

3. The State and Classical Marxism

Given the recent occurrences of police brutality, it is urgent to start with the reviewing of classic Marxist scholars. They defended that the state and the police as a repressive body have its origins in capitalist economic relations. Mark Neocleous’s (2021) recent book presents this perspective, putting Marxism and police repression once again in conversation. The revolutionary projects presented here exemplify the need to change class relations when aiming to transform policing. The classic of Marxism, “The Communist Manifesto” continues to stand as a good starting point. “The modern state power is just the committee that administers the collective affairs of the bourgeois class” (Marx 1998: 14). But the Manifesto holds another key idea, the proletariat needs to take over the state power. According to Marx, the conquest of the state by the proletariat will entail a process of democratization because the majority will govern.

3.1. Pashukanis: On Marxism and law

Pashukanis represents one of the first well-established theoretical propositions on law and Marxism. Pashukanis is a key author in this field, not just theoretically, but also because his ideas had a great influence on the Soviet Union. Pashukanis (2004) defends that the content of the law will depend on which class takes power of the state apparatus. In that sense, the state under the strategic direction of a class has the power to control and exercise coercion over the enemy class. The author explains that when the proletariat takes over the state apparatus, it uses it as an instrument of class struggle. For that reason, we can conclude that in classical Marxism the composition of state power changes in relation to the social class that effectively conquers the state. At the same time, this new dominant social class uses state power to reaffirm its social power. Nevertheless, according to Pashukanis, the control that the proletariat exercises over the state apparatus is more democratic than the control by the bourgeoisie, because the first represents the majority. This last idea will be key in our two historical examples of police democratization.

 3.2. Lenin: what to build?

Another key author to review is Lenin. Lenin is crucial since he headed the Soviet Revolution of 1917 and guided the first steps taken by the Soviet State after 1917 (Carr 1950). “The state is product and manifestation of the irreconcilable character of class contradictions” (Lenin 1981: 16). In other words, the state is a political power, an apparatus that exists as long as class conflict exists. While Lenin defends this, he also defends that the closest form to a democratic state is when the proletariat is in power and controls the state institutions (Lenin 1981).

On this subject, Lenin shows that the bodies of the army and the police are essential to the state. “The army and the police are essential elements, public forces set above society” (Lenin 1981: 24). Put differently, the police is a key and necessary instrument of the state. For Lenin, the state is transitory, a tool that the proletariat must use to build communism, a thought that follows Marx’s reflections. Another key and controversial idea of Lenin, however, is the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat”. For Lenin, this means more democracy for most of the people, but it also means that the state will never be totally democratic. That is, repressive forces like the police will continue to exist, but now against the minority; the bourgeois class.

But in which direction can key state institutions be changed when the proletariat and the peasants conquer the state? Lenin gave us some clues: the suppression of the permanent army or the total eligibility and mobility of all civil servants. Moreover, for Lenin the key element that explains why it is possible to democratize the state can be seen here: “Socialism will reduce the working day, will elevate the masses to a new life, will set up the majority of the population in conditions that will allow them without exception to exercise their state functions” (Lenin 1981: 199). That is an interesting conclusion. When a society changes through a revolutionary process, the political institutions also change. Can that be the case with the police?

4. The Paris Commune: a New State Form

The Paris Commune of 1871 represented the first democratically elected local government in Europe, and indeed, the first experiment of state democratization even though it was short-lived (Marx, Lenin and Engels 2010). The Commune was the first real practice of workers’ control of state institutions. But what was the Commune? “The Commune was made up of municipal councilors elected by universal suffrage from the different districts of the city. (…) it was possible to impeach them at any time. (…) most of the members were, obviously, workers or recognized representatives of the working class.” (Marx et al. 2010: 35).

Marx, from the experience of the commune, analyzes the state institutions existing at the moment that the workers took power in Paris in 1871. “The centralized state power (…) like the permanent army, the police and the bureaucracy, are organs created under a hierarchical plan to repress the popular classes” (Marx et al. 2010: 31).

At the same time, he observed that when the communards took the state institutions, they began to organize these institutions in a new way, putting this machinery under the service of the workers. In this direction, the same Marx states that the National Guard was reorganized and gave its supreme direction to a central committee elected by its members. We see here a clear pattern: democratization.

Another interesting reflection of Marx is about the values of the members of the new repressive body: “The members of the Central Committee of the National Guard, as the majority of the members of the commune, were the most intelligent, active and energetic heads of the IWA (International Workers Association), the most honored the more sincere” (Marx et al. 2010: 69).

Specifically, about the police during the Paris Commune, Marx says that the body was put under the orders of the Commune (and its elected people) and that the members of this police force were revocable at any moment. Here we see a very interesting idea about the police. Essentially, during the Paris Commune the police were set to serve the majority of the people and were thought to be democratic in a broader sense.

Lenin also comments on the experience of the Commune and arrives at interesting conclusions about alternative ways to organize public institutions in a democratic way. For example: “without any complicated legal system and in an easy manner, the proletariat had conquered the power democratizing it, suppressing bureaucracy, and establishing that all the public servants are elective” (Marx et al.2010: 99). In other words, Lenin defends that what the members of the Paris Commune did was to put the state institutions under the service of a majority, therefore, the Paris Commune revolution, as said, was a process of democratization. There are not many reflections about the police during the Paris Commune made by Lenin. However, he gave interesting inputs about the army, highlighting for example that the commune changed the regular army by establishing people in arms.

Additionally, for a more in-depth insight into the day-to-day workings of the members of the National Guard, it is worth mentioning Gonzalez and Barekat (2012). These scholars bring examples that show the relationship between the population as a whole and the members of the National Guard giving clues about the goals and strategies of this body. The first example is about the special duty the militiamen had to protect the Red Clubs (circles of political and free debate). According to the scholars, that shows the full expression of the National Guard as a democratic armed force.

The scholars also explain that the elected central committee of the National Guard had the power to recall militiamen if they considered them to be acting against the wishes of the working class. Finally, their comment that one of the elected delegates of the body, Charles Delescluze, told his men that they were fighting for their liberty and for social equality. According to them, the words of Delescluze show a lot about the democratic and progressive idea behind the National Guard.  

5. The Soviet Revolution of 1917: Soviets, army, and police

Many scholars have debated the Soviet Revolution of 1917. One of the more influential ones is Carr (1950). He defended that the Soviet Revolution represented a sudden democratization of the whole society including state institutions. However, John Reed’s classic from 1919, Ten Days That Shook the World, may be one of the most interesting historical sources on what happened during the first days of the 1917 revolution. Reed explains that suddenly the repressive bodies of the state went into the hands of organized workers, peasants, and poor soldiers, and that represented an occlusion of democracy and freedom of speech. “In all the military bases, meetings were held each night, the days were passing in the middle of passionate and interminable debates” (Reed 2008: 57). But what were the Soviets? The Soviets were assemblies of poor soldiers, workers, and peasants that became the real power in cities and in the countryside (Carr 1950; Reed 2008). 

Faulkner (2017), giving some in-depth insights into the social composition of the police just before the 1917 revolution, says that the regime recruited the file and rank officers from the most backward sections of the working class. According to Faulkner in Tsarist Russia, the police, the army, and prisons were key factors to guarantee the rule of the minority over the majority.

Precisely, the 1917 revolution meant a sudden change in these armed bodies. In this direction, the Commissariat of the People established the first decrees concerning the army. The decrees, among other measures, recognized the eligibility of commanders, the constitution of popular juries, the right of defense for poor soldiers, and the idea that the army was composed of free and equal citizens (Reed 2008). 

Reed presents other interesting decrees of the Commissariat of the People that go in the same direction of radical democratization. “1. The army is put under the service and the will of the working people. 2. In each of the troop units the authority is for the Committees of Soviets and soldiers 3. The eligibility regime is established for the heads and commanders, the administration, the sub-officials, and officials, that are elected by universal suffrage” (Reed 2008: 214). This fragment is very clear in terms of specific measures of democratization, measures probably never seen before in similar places at that time.  

Hasegawa (1995), illustrating the day-to-day workings of the workers and city militia of revolutionary Petrograd in 1917, gives some clues about the strategy and goals of these new armed bodies. He explains for example, that one day the workers-militiamen detected a theater where a pornographic show was taking place. They asked Kelson (the chief) if they had to intervene, Kelson said that they could not act to ban the show since freedom of expression was recognized by the new revolutionary legality.  

In another example, Hasegawa referred to the foundational document of the workers-militia of Admiralty Shipyard in Petrograd, explaining that the workers gave the following reasons for its creation: maintenance of order and peace, defending everyone from all kinds of violence, and resisting counterrevolution. The author also cites a report from the commission that reviewed the operations of the whole Petrograd militia in 1917. The report shows that criminal investigations were carried out unsystematically and without any technical leadership, even if – the report states – the militiamen tried to investigate crimes with zeal. The report also highlights- according to Hasegawa- that only the collective council of the body could impose punishment for infractions of members of the militia. Nevertheless, according to the report, the moral quality of many militiamen was generally so high that this discipline had not been necessary.

In another order of things, Frame’s (2016) clarification is also relevant; in 1918 when the civil war between the Bolsheviks and their opposition began, despite the radical implications of the existence of the workers-militia, conventional ideas about policing came back in Soviet Russia. Hasegawa (1995) finds the same pattern; the democratic institutions of the workers-militia were weakened from 1918 and the centralization of police tasks grew clearly.

Finally, it is worth debating in more detail the main downsides of the new model of policing. According to the aforementioned scholars, especially Hasegawa (1995), it seems that many new members of the democratized armed bodies were not familiar with police tasks, therefore lacking the technical knowledge to carry out their duties. Furthermore, many of the former members of the old repressive police were expelled from their posts (or had deserted) when the revolution started. The sudden loss of police force led to increased numbers of new members in the new revolutionary armed bodies. These new members had little time to train, being required in the streets carrying their tasks since a vacuum of power had led to a rise in different types of criminality (robberies, street fighting, and so on) in some areas. There was also poor coordination between the new armed bodies (city militia, workers militia and so on), and a lack of weapons for the militias in some districts. All in all, it seems that the fast revolutionary social changes that occurred did not allow enough space for the new armed bodies to initially consolidate. Hence, this urgency led to under-skilling and under-training of the new men to carry in a more systematic way their duties beyond mere voluntarism.

6. Red Lessons on Police: 1871 and 1917

The following table summarizes the historical lessons in terms of police and armed bodies from the two revolutionary projects reviewed. 

6.1. Historical Lessons from the Paris Commune and the Soviet Revolution

 Table 1.  Historical lessons from the Paris Commune and the Soviet Revolution

State and Police conceptPolice democratizationPolice goals, strategies and values
1. The state and the police are dependent on social conditions.2. The state and the police are instruments of class power.3. The state and the police can serve the majority depending on class power balance. 1. A first step is to democratize state power.2. Democracy is the idea that the police must serve the will and needs of the majority.3. The police need to be governed democratically. 1. Goals:Civil democratic oversight.Sense of justice. 2. Strategies:Police activity must serve the majority and not be biased against them. Police activity must fight counterrevolution and crime.  3. Values: police officers must maintain high moral and ethical standards.

Lesson 1: state and police concept

The state, the police, and other armed bodies are spaces for social transformation in a progressive and democratic way. The two historical experiences show that even if the state and its key institutions are repressive and serve the ruling minority, they can also be democratized and serve the majority if the popular classes are able to democratize state power.

Lesson 2: police democratization

The first step towards democratization, according to the historical cases reviewed, is that the working classes must take effective control over state institutions, democratizing state power. According to these historical cases, democratization in these armed bodies, meant among other issues, the establishment of civil collective councils of government, the establishment of internal equality policies, or the election of commanders. Finally, democratization gave rise to deeper key ideas – these armed bodies had to represent the will and needs of the majority.

Lesson 3: police goals, strategies, and values

According to both historical examples, a general goal had been to guarantee civil democratic oversight of the police and other armed bodies. Another goal that can be detected is the general idea to make justice for the popular classes. Regarding strategy, it can be said that these historical cases show the pattern that police activity must be carried out to serve the interest and needs of the majority. Related to this last postulate, doing a careful analysis of the two cases, the intention was to prevent bias of police activity against poor people, workers, and peasants. It is also noteworthy that the police must conduct at the same time actions to fight counterrevolutionary activity and actions to fight crime. Furthermore, it is important to highlight the changes occurring in the field of values. With the example of the Paris Commune of 1871, one can observe that the National Guard – according to Marx – was composed of brilliant and honorable men, the most composed, the most disciplined, and the most educated. The same pattern is observed during the Soviet Revolution of 1917, where literature depicts militia men of high morals and discipline.

All in all, these two historical examples show us a clear pattern of change in different armed bodies: democratization in a deep and broad sense. However, how long did these changes last? 

The two revolutionary processes did not last long for different reasons. In the case of the Paris Commune, the revolution was ended early by an external force. As for the Soviet Revolution, according to Hasegawa (1995), Frame (2016), and Faulkner (2017), the changes lasted until the beginning of the civil war. The civil war (1918 – 1921), fueled by foreign intervention, created a situation where the newly democratized armed bodies on the Bolshevik side needed in a short period of time, to be more effective and professional against their opponents. That meant in many cases reinstating former Tsarist officers, hierarchy, and discipline. Nevertheless, in the case of the Soviet Revolution, the explanation is more complex according to Faulkner (2017) and entails questions related not only to historical events, but also to Bolshevik ideology, or internal power struggles among others.

However, even if the deep and intense changes to armed bodies that occurred in both revolutions lasted a limited time frame, their ideas are powerful lessons that last until today.  

7. What About Today? Between Reform and Abolition

7.1 Born in the USA: Community Policing

The fundamental ideas behind police democratization in the Soviet and French cases are present in police reform efforts in the United States and Western Europe today. These include community policing in the United States and different progressive police reforms in Europe. 

Community policing, according to many scholars, was born as a reaction to the revolts against the police across the United States in the late 70s (Skogan and Hartnett 1997; Sklansky 2008;       Manning 2010; Joyce 2011 and Shearing and Marks 2011). This forced public authorities to rethink the police from a new perspective (Reiner 2010). According to scholars such as Sklansky (2008) and Shearing and Marks (2011), the key idea of community policing is that empowerment of communities in police strategy is key to building safer communities. In relation to this, Bayley and Shearing (1996) link citizen participation with the idea of external civil oversight of the police. Others, such as Manning (2010) relate citizen participation with the involvement of marginalized social groups in police strategy. However, community policing has been criticized for its actual results. Some like Sklansky (2008) have concluded that citizen participation has been poorly implemented. Others like Wacquant (2001) and McQuade (2016), have highlighted that indeed these reforms meant in many cases that communities saw more penalization of poverty, an increase in law and order enforcement, and more surveillance.

7.2. European progressive experiences

Papanicolaou and Rigakos (2014) debate what a progressive program for police reform would look like, using some cases from Western Europe. The authors point out key questions to consider for progressive movements when thinking about police reform. First, establish mechanisms of democratic control, for example by creating a dense network of external controls, second, think of police officers as public workers, and third, promote moral integrity inside the police force.

Two examples from Spain: Badalona and Pamplona

In my master thesis, Rubinat (2018), I studied the local police reforms carried out by “alternative left” political parties in 2015 in the cities of Pamplona and Badalona. By alternative left, I meant political parties situated to the left of social democracy. These two cities were examples of a police force with many problems (corruption, police brutality, biased identifications, etc), that the new local governments wanted to change. The results of my study can be summarized as follows. First, both new local governments had as one of their main priorities to reform as deeply as possible the local police force. Second, I found some common principles that guided both reforms: “prevention and proximity,” “citizen participation,” “public safety as a basic right,” and the idea of a “feminist police force.” I also found out that implementation was complicated, with resistance from police unions. Finally, it is worth noting that even if the reforms lasted for four years only, the changes proposed showed some way forward.

7.3. Abolitionists and the Police

The two historical cases reviewed show that the radical reforms in the police and the armed bodies were closely linked to the revolutionary changes in society. Community policing and other similar attempts to reform the police and policing in contemporary times have relied on many of the ideas of the two historical cases. However, the current attempts to reform the police drawing from these ideas, have been met with challenges. It seems that the main reason behind the difficulties in the implementation is the fact that without broader social change, police reform has its limitations. 

For that, it is important to mention the abolitionist view on the police. Vitale’s (2021) The End of Policing, points out that police brutality and over-policing are usually a result of social problems being treated too often as police problems. Vitale defends that any agenda for police reform must look to replace the police by empowering communities as much as possible. Vitale also explains the limits of police reform. In this direction, he highlights that any successful police reform must be related and include among other questions, the decriminalization of sex work, programs for affordable housing, well-funded mental health care, more and better paid social workers, more psychologists, more doctors, and so on. All this matters because the constraints that progressive police reforms face make the abolitionist view a relevant complement. As said, police reform without radical social change is difficult. 

8. Conclusions: History, Police, and Progressive Politics

In conclusion, the two historical examples show that the police and other armed bodies can be radically transformed and democratized. Regarding democratization, we have seen for instance the appearance of externally elected collective bodies, internal equality policies, and the idea that the police must represent the will of the majority. We also learned that in terms of goals, these police and armed bodies must guarantee civil oversight of their activity and must have some sense of social justice. Regarding strategy, police activities must fight at the same time counterrevolution and crime.  Finally, we have found in both historical cases the relevance given to the idea of high moral and ethical principles for police values. In regards to contemporary progressive police reforms, I think we can draw some parallels with the historical cases. Community policing, at least in theory, was thought to make police activities more democratic. Related to this, some scholars debating progressive police reform in Europe, have proposed some ideas. For example, to create “a dense network of external controls” or “promote moral integrity inside the police force”. In this line, I have debated two contemporary examples of progressive police reform in Spain, where I have also detected ideas such as: “prevention and proximity”, “citizen participation” or “a feminist police force”.

All these ideas relate to a broad concept of democratization, and also draw tentatively an idea of security as a basic social right for the majority. At the same time, the idea that the police must act to make social justice, the idea that police activity must not be biased against poor people, or also the idea of a “feminist police force,” can make us think cautiously that progressive police reform can potentially improve the relations between the police and marginalized social groups.

Finally, I have also briefly reviewed abolitionist ideas on police, that are complementary to ideas about progressive police reform. Better social policy will create societies where the police are less needed and for that, democracy will improve. But here comes a never-ending debate: will the police be necessary as long the state exists, even under much better social conditions? What will the role of the police be after the revolution? Both questions can be provisionally answered by the following; First, according to our two historical examples, the police will still have a role in society. Second, in contemporary societies, the police could be less important if social policy and empowered communities had a more important role to play. However, even in this situation, we need progressive police reform because it seems that the police will still exist, and that’s why abolitionist ideas and progressive police reform ideas are complementary. Nevertheless, it is important to remember, as we have seen, that these reforms can be challenging and difficult. 

Last but not least, we do not have to forget that as the Catalan activist Joan Fuster said, all the politics not done by us are going to be done by others, and we do know who the others are. That’s why I defend that a radical change in policing is necessary and is not going to come just by mentioning it. 


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