The affairs of the criminal

The Press has given no little attention to the Government’s changes in the methods of handling released convicts. Has the Socialist anything to say on the matter ? Yes. He, like the rest of the workers, is called upon to support the administration that thus deals with the suppression of “crime” and “criminals,” and, since he would influence the workers in another direction, he must give reasons why he refuses to support that which, for him, is a detail of capitalist defence. The occasion, then, calls for some discussion of the new arrangements and, necessarily, as the Socialist view is quite distinct from, and in violent contrast with, every other view, a general statement of the nature of “crime” and “criminals.”

To-day men speak of actions as criminal which are commonly held to be very immoral—actions in violation of the law of the land, or of what is considered to be correct living. But in the narrow sense those are criminals whose actions bring them within the cognizance of the Law of the day, and render them liable to imprisonment or death.

It is useful to point out in the first place the important fact that there is nothing fixed or absolute in “crime.” Actions that are “criminal” at one time or in one country, are not so at another time or in another country, In Borneo and New Guinea, to this day among the natives, man-eating is quite correct, while in most other lands it is criminal. To-day, in England, someone sticks a knife into a fellow human and gets hunged for it, while another pushes his knife, on the end of a Lee-Enfield, into a man whom he never saw before, and is a “hero.” Often in the past the usurer and he who “cornered” stuffs was hoist on the gallows or imprisoned, but now such a person has but to succeed to be acknowledged a smart fedow, worthy of every honour. One might continue indefinitely to multiply examples showing the changes in men’s attitude towards certain conduct, but it is more interesting to enquire why these changes take place.

Take our examples. Those who have studied savage life tell in that behind custom aud ritual cannibalism has its roots in famine—in human necessity. And men “make virtue of necessity.” With peoples in a higher stage oE development, the necessity has passed away, and with that the virtue. Here “order” of a different kind is required ; industry must proceed with a minimum of waste and disturbance, and the stranger within the camp may be more useful to the ruling interest alive than dead ; human sympathy cornes through in queer ways, for man who may starve one another may no longer eat one another.

Likewise your fellow with the knife—he has become a general nuisance. The rich have other tools, and no longer have neel of the bravo ; there’s no virtue in him, and he is suspended. The soldier, on the other hand, is a handy fellow. In orderly fashion ha will proceed to wipe ont the inconvenient Kaffir or the troublesome workman. The more he kills the finer fellow he is.

Clearly here the change of attitude is due to the change of interests—interests, of course, of men in a position to enforce their desires—ruling interests. Such are only the common interest or that of the great, majority, while society is in its primitive stages. But since classes evolved, men have been branded as criminal and punished for actions that conflict with the class-interest dominant at the moment.

Unlike the Christian and capitalist hack, the Socialist may not approach this question through the mysteries of God given conscience, and the assumed absolute “right” and “wrong,” but must view it from the basis of human experience. He perceives that crime is a question of circumstances, pre-eminent among which is class-interest. Class-interest decides that the satisfaction of men’s hunger by taking and eating bread is in certain circumstances criminal. The principle of property—the basis of class rule—may not be violated with impunity. The punishment for man-slaying in certain circumstances will be found to be ultimately on the same basis of class-intorosl,, just as sanitation was undertaken when the gay clothing made in fever-infested slums wan found to kill aristocrats.

Criminality, then, depends upon circumstances, and your criminal is a victim of such.

Let men but consider the criminal’s case and ask how came he in such a position. They will find that such are made of very much the same flesh and blood as themselves, that while unasked-for inherited characteristics count for something, it is essentially the difference of circumstances, of child-training, companionship, opportunity, and requirements, that accounts for the difference between the criminal and the man in the street.

Our opponents are fond of bragging of the “individual” who makes his mark and imposes his will upon the world, as though he were some Olympic deity. But the slightest examination of the individual’s career will show that he is but a fly upon the wheel, and makes little difference. Rather than he imposing his will upon the world he will be found to derive that will, in its specific form, from the world about him, the social organisation or system of which he is but an atom. That system to-day is one wherein the means of livelihood, of joyous and comfortable existence, are greedily monopolised by a small class—the ruling, capitalist class. The great bulk of mankind are kept poor and hungry and anxious and miserable, and as such are treated with contempt until, taking instruction from the masters, they come to hold one another in disdain. When some seek to satisfy their needs—seek to get out of their wretched position—in ways inconvenient to the ruling class, the latter, with its instrument the machinery of State to hand, lands them in gaol.

Latterly the ruling class has taken to improving its prison arrangements—all in the interest of the prisoners, of course. Some of the revelations of police persecution and “criminal”-breeding under the “ticket-of-leave” system have made somewhat of a scandal, while the more up-to-date and cheaper prison-elevator schemes of the Salvation Army and other bodies seem to offer a better way.

The latest scheme is to hand the supervision of released convicts over to a new organisation composed of the Salvation Army, the Church Army, and other bodies concerned to clear the streets of the human wreckage produced by capitalism.

Here is no real improvement on the old conditions, for these organisations can only do as in the past, namely, force the men to work for next to nothing and destroy outside firms, as in the notorious case of the firewood industry. It means that badly paid workers will be discharged and replaced by worse paid ones. Others will go to gaol instead of these—that is your reform.

The Socialist cannot stand for any such hollow sham, and must needs denounce it. He knows that while the criminal withholders of the people’s bread are allowed to keep on the even tenor of their way, and millionaires are produced at one end of the social scale, gaols will be filled at the other. He knows that millions of sons and daughters of men shall rot aud die in the brothels and gaols, secular aud religious and industrial, of capitalism ere it shall be ended. Let Tories and Liberals and Labour men continue their shams and futilities. For us the cleansing touch of Revolution !

H. B.

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