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Should the workers obey the law? The working class viewpoint

The Capitalist Ideal ... 'a law-abiding citizen'

Those four words constitute the very highest eulogy than can be pronounced by capitalist lips. A man may be a poltroon or a hero, a rogue or a fool, a Christian or an atheist, an abstainer or a sot, a prince or a porter, but the finale for all worthy men alike, at the end of the day’s workless pleasure or pleasureless work, is this sententious approval – “He was a law-abiding citizen.”

On all other matters appertaining to the conduct of other people capitalists may be divided. One is monarchist, another republican, a third a teetotal fanatic, and a fourth a devotee of the hop and the grape, and the convictions of each play their part in the appraisement of the merits of their fellow men; but, whether they fill it with wine or water, not one would refuse to drain a glass and turn it, empty, down, to the memory of “a law-abiding citizen”.

But what is this fetich which is the highest pinnacle of capitalist ethic, the last word in capitalist morality? The Law! The Might and Majesty of the Law; the strong arm of the Law. Ah! that is the whole secret of it. The Law is all might, and majesty, and strong arm. Soldier and sailor, judge and jailor, policeman and prison and Jack Ketch! The Might and Majesty of the Law, indeed.

One would think that the Law, needing the support of such a vast machinery of coercion, must be a very uncomfortable and unpleasant thing to some people, and not that only, but antagonistic to an enormous number of the population. It must be so indeed. If Peace sits armed beneath her olive, she is armed against somebody.

And who is it that the Law is armed against? Perchance, reader, it is you and me. It is a saying which  continually assails our ears, that without Law there could be no Order. If this is true, if this is the very nature of things human, then it is truly a sad case with that poor, miserable rag, “human nature”, which it profits the prophets to tell us is fore-ordained to frustrate the Socialist ideal.

But it is not true. In spite of all that our “civilisation”, and particularly our capitalist “civilisation” has done for it, still “human nature” has not fallen so immeasurably below the wild beast standard that, in all circumstances, order can only exist under the wing of the Law.

The Law is a Class Instrument
The common impression of that all is disorder and insecurity in savage life is far from the truth. In point of fact all the might and majesty of the Law has never been able to secure the orderly existence that obtained among primitive savage people. Barbarities there may be, connected with superstitious rites, but anarchy has never found a place among the savage races of the communistic stage. The reason is obvious – the interest of one is the interest of all.

Disorder creeps in with the rise of a ruling class, and Law slinks at its heels. A ruling class is always more or less parasitic. It raises itself upon the class it rules, making the latter toil and moil for it. In other words, it is a robber class.

Now if there is one trait inherent in “human nature” it is this – a rooted objection to being robbed. That process never fails, as far as the victim is conscious of it, to arouse the spleen of him whom it is practised upon. Hence a coercive force becomes necessary – not to the subject class, but to the ruling class.

This coercive force exists to conserve the social system under which, and the institutions by which, the dominant class practise their robbery. At first coercion is open, lawless force, for no cunningly devised cloak can obscure the antagonism of interests between the chattel-slave and his master. But as society grows more complex, as the ruling class finds itself threatened by other classes rising from below, as the rulers in society become relatively fewer, and, finally, as they are compelled more and more to rely on the subject classes to become their own suppressors, the necessity develops of substituting laws to be maintained for people to be suppressed.

Suppression is the function of the Law
But whether the big ones of the earth  make laws for the suppression of people, and maintain those laws by force, or they suppress the people without troubling about laws, is in essence the same thing – suppression. Only the method is different.

From the earlier rising of the “State”, class rule has been based upon private property, so Law, at the bottom, has always had a private-property basis. This explains how it happens that the Law of ancient Rome has served for the foundation of the Law of every modern State. Roman Law was projected to maintain the ascendancy of a propertied class. After all these centuries, though new classes have risen and died away, still Law has no other function than to support a propertied class against the expropriated.

Law, then, is nothing but a class instrument – a weapon of the capitalist State for its own preservation. It is necessary to the capitalist State because the ruling class in capitalism have laid thieves’ hands upon the means of life and enslaved the people. The strong arm of the Law, soldier and sailor, judge and jailor, policeman and prison and Jack Ketch, is significant of the class struggle and class antagonism set up by that seizure of the means of life.

The Law is the Enemy of the People
When the worker understands this his attitude toward the Law will be determined  accordingly. As he perceives it to be antagonistic to him, so he will become antagonistic to it – as, with increasing class-consciousness, he must to every instrument of the capitalist State. However much he may be made to fear the Law, the proletarian will no longer respect it. He will come to regard it in its true light, as the enemy, not the friend, of the working class; as the necessary adjunct of class rule, by means of which alone the producers of all wealth can be robbed and murdered and debauched, with some sort of one-sided orderliness, by a class of idle, drunken parasites, steeped to the neck in moral turpitude, sunk to the eye-brows in abomination which even the hardened Law dares find no name for.

That superstitious awe which, quite apart from the fear of policeman and prison and Jack Ketch, surrounds the Majesty of the Law, will dissipate, and no longer will the worker “blush for shame” at being caught in the act of law-breaking. On the other hand, such episodes as the “Houndsditch affair” and “Sidney Street” will assume a different aspect. It will be seen that, instead of the police laying down their lives for any high principle, they have died to secure against the depredations of desperate members of the working class, the wealth stolen from their fellows with outrage and violence infinitely more villainous than ever these so-called Anarchists resort to, as the ghastly murders of Whitehaven and Westhoughton transcend in callous brutality those of Houndsditch.

Great as the revolutionary’s satisfaction must be to observe the breaking down and extinction of this reverence for the Law that is equivalent to so many thousands of extra policemen to the capitalist class, such satisfaction does not arise solely from the fact of the increasing difficulties of our expropriators and spoliators, but from the recognition of the larger fact that, as successive lessons such as that now being wrought out in connection with the strike at Hull, teach the workers how the Law is always on the side of the masters, how completely it is in their hands, they will be driven to enquire what the Might and Majesty of the Law really means.

The Workers’ Course
This spirit of enquiry will be the herald of the dawn. They will perceive then that this mass of legality which men call law, is simply the stalking-horse of oppression, the verbal garment of brute force. They will realise that it is this brute force alone which maintains the murderers of Whitehaven and Bolton, of Belfast and Tonypandy, in power, by maintaining their control of the means of life.

The workers’ course will then be very clear. They will set their faces toward the capture of all this coercive force, by organised struggle on the political field. When they have succeeded in capturing political power they have, by the very fact of so doing, proclaimed at once their strength and their capacity. Their strength to wield the armed forces to the revolutionary purpose, since they will have captured the instruments by which it is wielded. Their capacity to organise themselves as a productive community, since they will have organised themselves for the infinitely more difficult task of their own emancipation.

The first fact in itself would undermine the military strength of the capitalist class, for the working-class soldiery armed in the capitalist interest, realising the political strength of their own class, and inevitably sharing in the advanced proletarian class-consciousness, would be encouraged to follow their class interest – just as the French regulars, under the much less favourable circumstances of the Paris Commune, sided with the workers when they thought them strong, and against them when they thought them week.

Let the workers, therefore, regard the Law and its machinery from their own standpoint – as an instrument of their oppression, and organise themselves into a political party in order to capture it, and use it in the final act of all law, the glorious crowning fruition of the last and bitterest of all class struggles - their own emancipation from slavery.

A. E. JACOMB
(Socialist Standard, July 1911)