Peter Sedgwick

Crime and Punishment

(July-August 1961)

From Socialist Review, July-August 1961, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A number of recent happenings have served to underline the need for a drastic re-appraisal of society’s attitude to punishment. There have been the savage jail sentences of 25 and 42 years imposed on two men found guilty of espionage (although one might have thought that any kind of spying was commendable, in creating the equal “balance of terror” so eagerly praised by official strategists). There has been the sentence on Victor Terry, hustled out of the court-room before he could hear the result of his appeal to the Lords. There has been the extension of the death penalty in the Soviet Union to such crimes as embezzlement and forgery, thus creating a criminal code reminiscent of the grisly days of pre-Victorian England. And, praised be for something positive for a change, there has been the opening of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, on a scale which augurs well for its ultimate success.

Behind the current prejudices about punishment, in whatever country, stand a whole mass of irrational, ill-informed, sadistic and hysterical attitudes, stemming variously from the low cultural level of the ruled and and the maniac obsessions of their rulers. In the wise words of one nineteenth-century writer:

“What right have you to punish me for the amelioration or intimidation of others? Besides, there is history – there is such a thing as statistics – which prove in the most complete manner that since Cain the world has been neither intimidated nor ameliorated by punishment.”

This seemingly sweeping generalisation is true especially of what may be called the physical punishments (i.e. any form of judicial killing or beating). A few examples must suffice here.

As far as flogging is concerned, a pre-war Departmental Committee of the Home Office established that violent criminals who had had the “cat” tended, if anything, to commit more violent crimes afterwards than those who had not been so brutalized. Concerning capital punishment there is an abundance of statistics comparing the murder-rate in different countries with and without the death penalty; no significant difference emerges. The annual number of murders in Britain has been fairly constant in recent years, in spite of the wide fluctuation in the degree to which hanging was or was not in abeyance.

The figures behind those facts have been widely publicised in such papers as the Observer and the New Statesman. Other statistics, on the effects of capital punishment on military desertion, are less well known, and deserve some quoting (if only because certain Left-wingers still apparently feel that the firing-squad is a more efficient, moral, Socialist, or just romantic form of judicial killing than the gallows). In the First World War over three thousand death sentences were passed on members of the British Army for desertion and “cowardice”, and 36 of the condemned were actually executed. The death penalty was abolished for these offences in 1930 and, despite strong pressure to the contrary in 1942 from General Auchinleck and all his Army Commanders (and a similar, though less imperious recommendation from General Alexander in the same year), it was not re-introduced during World War Two. The average yearly incidence of desertion in World War One was in fact considerably larger (10.26 cases per 1,000 troops) than in the last war (6.89 per 1,000) although the stress of battle in 1939-45 was “incomparably greater, in the long run, than that experienced during the First World War” (R.H. Ahrenfeldt, Psychiatry in the British Army in the Second World War, p. 273, from which the above figures are taken).

It may be noted that shooting for desertion was a current practice both in Trotsky’s Red Army and in certain of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War (although it was successfully resisted by the British Battalion).

Given these facts, the onus is on the world-wide proponents of capital punishment to prove that their methods are any more effective against forgery, embezzlement, treason, sabotage or rebellion than they are against murder, desertion or (one may add) sheep-stealing and the other capital crimes of the pre-Victorian calendar.

Why, in the teeth of so much evidence, do working-class, middle-class and ruling-class people persist in regarding these barbaric penalties as necessary? Part of the answer lies, as has been mentioned, in the impulses to destruction and torture that lie beneath the surface in all of us, and which are fully realised within large numbers of individuals in conditions of colonial war and totalitarian oppression, The belief in “an eye for an eye” evident in all moral traditions which owe much to the Old Testament (Christianity, Islam) is also partly to blame. Above all, there operates the persistent anti-scientific habit, inculcated over centuries, of regarding human beings as freely responsible and rational calculators who decide on their actions in the light of all the likely consequences. Hence the argument for “deterrence”. This view of human behaviour simply does not do justice to the actual workings of the minds of men, particularly criminal types (like poisoners or politicians). In fact such people choose what to do on the basis of all kinds of irrational, socially distorted motives. Which is why murders still take place and why nuclear war is at present more likely to happen than not.

The above argument is very sketchy, and especially does not pay enough detailed attention to the special reasons that ruling classes have for being cruel. It should be emphasized that no case for absolute pacifism has been put. People are not killed in wars as a form of deterrent punishment, but as a trial of naked force.

Two more quotations. First, Rosa Luxemburg, who was certainly no pacifist:

“The proletarian revolution needs no terrorism to attain its ends, and its supporters abominate murder. It needs none of these weapons because it fights against institutions, not against individuals. Because it does not enter the struggle with naive illusions, it needs no bloody terror to revenge its disappointments.”

Finally, our Abolitionist of the last century:

“Is there not a necessity for reflecting deeply on 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 a supply of new ones?” (Karl Marx from New York Daily Tribune, 18 February, 1853)


Last updated on 25.11.2004