Marx on Capital Punishment

London, Friday, January 28, 1853

The Times of Jan. 25 contains the following observations under the head of “Amateur Hanging”:

“It has often been remarked that in this country a public execution is generally followed closely by instances of death by hanging, either suicidal or accidental, in consequence of the powerful effect which the execution of a noted criminal produces upon a morbid and unmatured mind.”

Of the several cases which are alleged by The Times in illustration of this remark, one is that of a lunatic at Sheffield, who, after talking with other lunatics respecting the execution of Barbour, put an end to his existence by hanging himself. Another case is that of a boy of 14 years, who also hung himself.

The doctrine to which the enumeration of these facts was intended to give its support, is one which no reasonable man would be likely to guess, it being no less than a direct apotheosis of the hangman, while capital punishment is extolled as the ultima ratio of society. This is done in a leading article of the “leading journal.”

The Morning Advertiser, in some very bitter but just strictures on the hanging predilections and bloody logic of The Times, has the following interesting data on 43 days of the year 1849:

Executions of: Murders and Suicides:
Millan March 20 Hannah Sandles March 22
M. G. Newton March 22
Pulley March 26 J. G. Gleeson — 4 murders at Liverpool March 27
Smith March 27 Murder and suicide at Leicester April 2
Howe March 31 Poisoning at Bath April 7
W. Bailey April 8
Landick April 9 J. Ward murders his mother April 13
Sarah Thomas April 13 Yardley April 14
Doxey, parricide April 14
J. Bailey kills his two children and himself April 17
J. Griffiths April 18 Charles Overton April 18
J. Rush April 21 Daniel Holmsden May 2

This table, as The Times concedes, shows not only suicides, but also murders of the most atrocious kind, following closely upon the execution of criminals. It is astonishing that the article in question does not even produce a single argument or pretext for indulging in the savage theory therein propounded; and it would be very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to establish any principle upon which the justice or expediency of capital punishment could be founded, in a society glorying in its civilization. Punishment in general has been defended as a means either of ameliorating or of intimidating. Now what right have you to punish me for the amelioration or intimidation of others? And besides, there is history — there is such a thing as statistics — which prove with the most complete evidence that since Cain the world has neither been intimidated nor ameliorated by punishment. Quite the contrary. From the point of view of abstract right, there is only one theory of punishment which recognizes human dignity in the abstract, and that is the theory of Kant, especially in the more rigid formula given to it by Hegel. Hegel says:

“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.” [Hegel, Philosophy of Right]

There is no doubt something specious in this formula, inasmuch as Hegel, instead of looking upon the criminal as the mere object, the slave of justice, elevates him to the position of a free and self-determined being. Looking, however, more closely into the matter, we discover that German idealism here, as in most other instances, has but given a transcendental sanction to the rules of existing society. 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! This theory, considering punishment as the result of the criminal’s own will, is only a metaphysical expression for the old “jus talionis” [the right of retaliation by inflicting punishment of the same kind] eye against eye, tooth against tooth, blood against blood. 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. Now, what a state of society is that, which knows of no better Instrument for its own defense than the hangman, and which proclaims through the “leading journal of the world” its own brutality as eternal law?

Mr. A. Quételet, in his excellent and learned work, l’Homme et ses Facultés, says:

“There is a budget which we pay with frightful regularity — it is that of prisons, dungeons and scaffolds…. We might even predict how many individuals will stain their hands with the blood of their fellow men, how many will be forgers, how many will deal in poison, pretty nearly the same way as we may foretell the annual births and deaths.”

And Mr.Quételet, in a calculation of the probabilities of crime published in 1829, actually predicted with astonishing certainty, not only the amount but all the different kinds of crimes committed in France in 1830. That it is not so much the particular political institutions of a country as the fundamental conditions of modern bourgeois society in general, which produce an average amount of crime in a given national fraction of society, may be seen from the following table, communicated by Quételet, for the years 1822-24. We find in a number of one hundred condemned criminals in America and France:

Age Philadelphia France
Under twenty-one years 19 19
Twenty-one to thirty 44 35
Thirty to forty 23 23
Above forty 14 23
Total 100 100

Now, if crimes observed on a great scale thus show, in their amount and their classification, the regularity of physical phenomena — if as Mr. Quételet remarks, “it would be difficult to decide in respect to which of the two” (the physical world and the social system) “the acting causes produce their effect with the utmost regularity” — 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?


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