E. Belfort Bax

Sentimental Brutality

(June 1886)

Sentimental Brutality, Commonweal, 19th June 1886, p.92.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A few week’s ago a question came up in the House of Commons, which, in the stress of Party manoeuvring over the Home Rule question, received but little attention from press or public. We refer to the motion of Sir Joseph Pease, for the abolition of capital punishment. Now we know nothing of Sir Joseph Pease beyond the fact that he is an opponent of capital punishment, though we conjecture that he is a survivor of the humane philanthropic bourgeois of the old Quaker type. But we are not concerned here with him or his motion so much as with the arguments used for the fiftieth time against the dastardly infamy in our criminal law under the high-sounding name of capital punishment.

The gladiator was butchered to make a. Roman holiday. The criminal of today is butchered as a holocaust to bourgeois sentiment. Such is, according to the ex-luminary of the Home Office, Sir William Harcourt one of the main uses of capital punishment. “There are cases,” he said, “like that of Lefroy where public opinion would refuse to be with anything less then the death-penalty.” Thus at last the truth comes out. The argument from social necessity has been so conclusively refuted by the instances of States like Belgium and many of the Swiss cantons, where it is abolished, or even of countries like Germany, where the infliction is so seldom as to be tantamount to abolition, that it needs support from other quarters. The uselessness, as regards prevention of murder, of capital punishment, is demonstrated in every direction. England with its prodigality in the exercise of the rope, shows a record of capital crime as bad as if not worse than any other country, except perhaps, the equally prodigal United States of America. There is no evidence that the Swiss cantons which adopt capital punishment, have benefited by it one jot. Indeed, all evidence tends to show that severity as part of a criminal system always fails in its professed object. In the canton of Geneva, where not only is the death-penalty abolished, but imprisonment means little more than simple seclusion, with few, if any, of the wanton barbarities inflicted in England and elsewhere under the name of “prison discipline,” the statistics of crime are as favourable as in any European country. So that after all it comes to what the late Home Secretary said, capital punishment has to be maintained in order to tickle bourgeois sentiment. The sentimental bourgeois’ sensibilities would be wounded were the murderer to escape his hanging – in some cases at least. Rather than forego the sweet morsel of a sensational criminal’s judicial murder now and then, he is quite content to allow dozens of persons, for whom even he would admit extenuating circumstances, to go to the gallows simply because they technically fall within his bloodthirsty law.

The dastardly nature of a practice by which men are deliberately and with every circumstance of calculation and hypocrisy done to death after some weeks of suspense in a prison cell – that is, of detention under circumstances which would tend to break down the strongest nerves – is unequalled by any other of the actions of men. What if it were “deterrent,” as its advocates would have us believe? The argument from “deterrence,” even if based on fact, would tell much further than the bourgeois would care for. If, as is contended by the advocates of “deterrence,” cruelty in punishment is justified by the “deterrent” effect which these persons credit it with, then surely the rack, the wheel, and the thumbscrew are the last word of penal wisdom. If hanging and the plank-bed are “deterrent” and hence justifiable, then a fortiori the stake and the rack are more “deterrent” and hence more justifiable. The bourgeois is as illogical in this as in everything else. He has practically admitted that “deterrence” does not justify everything. He has tacitly conceded the principle (better the crime than repression by certain means). He must perforce be supposed to believe in the efficacy of oriental modes of punishment as “deterrents” if he believes in cruelty as “deterrent” at all; yet he dares not apply them. What does this reticence mean if not an admission in some form or shape of the above principle? We do but carry out the principle to its logical conclusion, in saying, granted your allegation (disproved as it is by facts and figures) that the abolition of the death penalty would be followed by a certain increase of capital crime, better this increase, infinitesimal fraction of enhanced danger of being privately murdered rather than otherwise disposed of by the resources of civilisation, crumpled up in a railway accident, kicked to death by mounted police at a Socialist meeting, mangled at a street crossing, infected with typhoid in the improved dwellings for the working-classes or the cheap and serviceable suburban villa, slowly poisoned with adulterated goods, better this than that Humanity should be outraged by the erection of the gallows as a permanent institution in its midst.

But have little doubt that so long as the present system lasts the bourgeois will require the periodic sop of “capital punishment”, to be thrown to the wild beast within him. Criminals in high places, who murder, i.e. who “procure the death of another person” – like the authorities who were responsible for the tomfoolery at Liverpool during the Queen’s recent visit there, when volunteers were compelled to stand for hours in the soaking rain, with the result that two have since died; the Russian bureaucracy, with its hecatombs of victims annually whitening with their bones the road to Siberia; the proprietor of unseaworthy ships, who sends them out with the certainty of their going down sooner or later; the railway company which works its pointsmen to a degree which renders effective supervision impossible, on the calculation that the score for damages for an occasional accident will be cheaper than the regular employment of an efficient staff of men, all these escape with scarce even a word of censure. But woe betide the luckless Eastender who in a hasty moment strikes a drunken wife who is quarrelling with him a blow which indirectly causes her death. The law calls this murder, although there was no intention to kill, and although the act itself was done in the heat of passion and without any knowledge of the possible consequences. The man is hanged, with at least the complacent acquiescence of the bourgeois. And this he calls justice.

It must, not be supposed that we condemn as an article or faith the taking of life under any circumstances. There are some cases – such as revolutionary crises – where, as a special measure, summary executions might be necessary. Its special loathsomeness consists in its being part of a system permanently established. What we condemn is the peculiar amalgam of the bourgeois character, which, while fattening itself on social conditions which produce criminals – capital and otherwise – derives a sentimental satisfaction from the hanging of them. This to our thinking, is most offensive.

E.Belfort Bax


Last updated on 26.3.2004