The third article in my series examining the writings of various famous socialists on the criminal justice system. This article looks at Marx’s letter to the New York Tribune published in the Feb 17-18, 1953 issue and available at the Marxist Internet Archive (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/02/18.htm). Thanks to Rob from the Law and Disorder blog for pointing this article out to me and some of what I write is drawn from some of the comments he has made on this article. This letter by Marx is one that touches a fair few subjects, but I intend on limiting my remarks to the crime and criminal justice system related parts of it.
Marx starts the letter by quoting an observation in the Times that there seems to be a pattern of after hangings of either murders or suicides by hanging and suggests that this is due to the ‘powerful effect’ that a hanging a notorious criminal has on ‘a morbid and unmatured mind’. As Marx notes the purpose of the Times article is to exhalt capital punishment as good for society in getting rid of bad elements altogether.
This moves Marx on to other justifications for punishment – saying there are two main ones, either “…as a means either of ameliorating or of intimidating” Yet as Marx points out statistics clearly show that “…since Cain the world has neither been intimidated nor ameliorated by punishment. Quite the contrary.”
However, Marx notes that Hegel has a particular way of viewing punishment as the right of the criminal. Indeed he quotes from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
“Punishment is the right of the criminal. It is an act of his own will. The violation of right has been proclaimed by the criminal as his own right. His crime is the negation of right. Punishment is the negation of this negation, and consequently an affirmation of right, solicited and forced upon the criminal by himself”
As Marx notes this makes the criminal purely a creature of free-will (which is exactly how the legal system treats them) and he points out “Is it not a delusion to substitute for the individual with his real motives, with multifarious social circumstances pressing upon him, the abstraction of “free-will” — one among the many qualities of man for man himself!” As Marx says, although an individual’s choice may play a role, there are other factors particularly social and economic ones.
Marx rejects all the definitions given above. As he goes on to state “Plainly speaking, and dispensing with all paraphrases, punishment is nothing but a means of society to defend itself against the infraction of its vital conditions, whatever may be their character.” This is perhaps one of the best sentences in the letter, encapsulating a basic feature of the Marxist characterisation of the state – that it’s main purpose is defend society as it exists, whether that means directly repressing threats to capitalism or less direct threats such as trying to contain crime affecting all layers of the population.
Marx then discusses some of the statistics by Quetelet to demonstrate that crime rates are relatively stable over time and thus punishment itself is not doing anything to reduce them and then states another key idea in Marxist criminology “…is there not a necessity for deeply reflecting upon an alteration of the system that breeds these crimes, instead of glorifying the hangman who executes a lot of criminals to make room only for the supply of new ones?”
Only by attacking the root causes of crime will we have the possibility of ridding society of it, and for Marxists this cannot be done under a system that is a breeding ground for crime like Capitalism.
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