E. Belfort Bax

The Death Penalty

(7 December 1901)

The Death Penalty, Justice, 7th December 1901, p.6 (letter).
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

DEAR COMRADE, I really think we may all reasonably wish our “Scientific Socialist” friend would mingle a little accuracy with his science. He alleges that your recent “note” on Faugeron and the Death Penalty committed Justice, and thereby the party, to the “extreme view” that “we are all of us no better than sentient automata.” One is tempted to ask, has our “scientific” one read the “note” criticised, through? If he has, it seems incredible he should not have noticed that the “note” in question expressly and categorically repudiates this view – whether rightly or wrongly I will not say, but at all events it does so. Yet, notwithstanding that you fully recognise individual responsibility, you, in common with the bulk of Socialists everywhere, denounce the death penalty as vile and demoralising.

Our “Scientific Socialist” flouts the verdict of the general Socialist conscience, perpetuating at the same time a blazingly obvious false analogy. “The world,” he says, is “none the less round,” even though the majority of men believe it flat. Of course. With scientific truth or falsehood a majority has nothing to do. It is otherwise with matters of ethics, which rest ultimately on instinctive feeling or conscience. Here the moral sense of the majority plays a distinct part as an argument, not that even here it is by any means absolute, since it may be shown to be, as it commonly is, perverted by class or race bias. But the case is infinitely stronger for the appeal to the general conscience when it represents not a mere count-of-heads majority, but the bulk of one’s co-religionists (if friend Ellam will pardon me the use of the word) in the Socialist cause. So strong, is fact, is it here as an argument, that I submit it can only be overthrown by conclusively showing it to be based on a fundamental misconception or false analogy. And this our zealous hangman’s advocate does not even attempt to do. The mere dissent of a few eccentric individuals is not enough to invalidate the verdict of the general Socialist conscience. Those who are in line with it have a right to demand that what they feel to belong to the best within them shall not be outraged to satisfy the belated bloodlust of scientific curiosities.

I had intended to have said more, but I know our editor objects very properly to lengthy discussions in Justice. If, however, “Scientific Socialist” will state his views in the Social-Democrat, I shall be very pleased “to take him on.” Refuting arguments in favour of the death-penalty may be rather like flogging a dead horse, but still, “Scientific Socialist” is a clever man, and I have played a clever chess player before now, with the whole of his Queen’s side off. – Yours fraternally,


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 10.8.2004