E. Belfort Bax

Sentiment and Judicial Murder

(2 November 1901)

Sentiment and Judicial Murder, Justice, 2nd November 1901, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

So the unfortunate man Czolgosz has paid the penalty of his crime – or shall we put it, has been sacrificed to the vengeance of the ruling classes? We say nothing against the execution, viewed in the light of the existing penal code, notwithstanding that the crime was political in character. The bourgeois, we suppose, felt himself entitled to Czslgosz’s blood, and he has had it. But admitting that, granted the justifiability of capital punishment, Czolgosz’s life was forfeit, the execution, like every execution, opens up the general question afresh. To ninety-nine Socialists out of a hundred, capital punishment (so-called), i.e., the systematic butchery of criminals with the forms of law, is a base, brutal, and cowardly crime. Of course, when he hears this the Philistine at once reels off his threadbare phases anent sentimentalism and sentiment. As to sentimentalism the term can only apply, if it is to have any meaning at all, to the distribution of sentiment and not to its mere amount, since in the latter case we have no possible criterion as to where legitimate sentiment ends and sentimentality begins. The amount of human feeling required of every decent man to-day would have appeared as incomprehensible sentimentality to our ancestors of three centuries ago. The absence of any criterion, in short, reduces the words sentimental and sentimentalism, used with reference to amount, to mere question-begging terms of abuse – applied accordingly to the arbitrary fancy of the user of them.

But apart from this, those who fling about the word “sentiment” itself as an epithet of disparagement for humane principles forget that whatever view we may take of this question of the death penalty, as of other similar questions, it is open to the allegation of being dictated by sentiment. We can no more get out of the domain of sentiment in human affairs than we can get outside our skins. The only difference is that in one case we have to do with a blood-lust sentiment surviving from early times, when all without the primitive group-society and hostile to it were pari passu without the pale of humanity, while in the other we are concerned with that later sentiment of humanity which involves to varying degrees all that is human, barbarian, Scythian, bond or free, criminal or civil. We may be run away with by either sentiment. The only question is, which? To get entirely outside sentiment is absolutely impossible. It is a question of being swayed by the blood-lust sentiment of the advocate of judicial murder or the humane sentiment of the opponent of the practice. That the real explanation of the craving of the advocate of “capital punishment” is, that it is a depraved survival in otherwise decent and honourable men of the bloodlust of the savage and barbaric warrior fighting against the stranger and the enemy, and not a reasoned conclusion, is shown by the often-proved fact that the death-penalty is not effective in reducing murder or any other crime in amount, the evidence of the Swiss cantons being especially conclusive in this respect. This is noteworthy, although for our part we should object to the death-penalty equally even although it were of proved efficacy, just as we should object is torture, even though it could be shown sometimes to be effective in extorting the truth from criminals. The saying that the worst use you can put a man to is to hang him, has in the light of modern criminological research a profound truth not often to be met with in popular saws. Obviously the more exceptionally debased the criminal the more important he is as an object of scientific observation, and hence should be the more religiously preserved. On all the above ground, Socialists claim the complete and absolute elimination of the death-penalty from criminal law.


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 15.6.2004