Editorial: Crime and Punishment
The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.
All the world has been stirred by the execution of the two Italians, Sacco and Vanzetti, in Massachusetts, U.S.A. The workers, generally speaking, have assumed their innocence, and have seen in the case the vindictiveness of a ruling class which manipulates the machinery of the law against propertyless wage-earners. Legal circles in this and other European countries have been shocked by the glaring defects, of a judicial system which can keep men for seven years in jail, and still, in spite of manifest doubts as to their guilt, contemplate their execution. And hundreds of thousands of ordinarily humane people, who accept the original verdict of the American Courts, and do not think of reading class bias into the case, nevertheless felt impelled to protest against the brutality of adding to the sentence of death the torture of seven years’ suspense.
By far the most significant and promising aspect of the tragedy has hardly been mentioned. We refer to the statement made by American newspapers that the attitude of propertied circles who resisted the release of these prisoners was frankly based on the interests, real or imaginary, of the ruling class in Massachusetts. They said, in effect, that, guilty or not guilty, Sacco and Vanzetti were men with opinions dangerous to the privileges of the capitalist class, and the latter needed, therefore, no other justification for taking their lives. This is naked and cynical class interest, the bold casting aside of the conventional cloak of the law. But we welcome it as a sign of the passing of the whole of the senselessly cruel and ineffective apparatus of “justice,” which will have no place in the more rational social order at which we aim. We reject the self-righteousness of the timid nonconformist Labour conscience which mocks the victims of that modern Inquisition, the Law, by enquiring into their guilt or innocence. If Sacco and Vanzetti were “guilty,” it would make no difference to our attitude. But it must not be thought that we share the equally vicious outlook of the alleged Communists who sought to justify the recent executions of political prisoners in Russia on the ground that they had been proved “guilty” of some crime or other, and that this was a piece of “stern revolutionary justice” meted out by the Soviet Government.
All this talk of crime and punishment is a relic of barbarism, and should be discarded by human beings laying claim to civilisation. “Justice” is “vengeance,” in origin the instinctive protection of primitive peoples against individuals who endanger the community by breaches of accepted custom. In later ages, with the entry of class rule, it became the repressive act of ruling classes against those who attacked their privileges. The human impulse which sanctions the cruelty, the legalised violence and murder of the law, is not obedience to some, noble abstract justice, but the animal instinct of vengeance. The infliction of punishment satisfies this primal impulse, and gives pleasure similar in kind both to the suburban Englishman, who likes to hear of criminals brought to book, and to the American mob, drunk with blood-lust, dragging some negro to horrible death by fire. Guilty or not guilty, what does that matter? It does not matter to the lynching party any more than do the moral qualities of the bull to a bull-fight audience, their pleasure is indifferent to such details, and it does not touch the real stability of society. The fabric of twentieth century civilisation is not held together by wreaking vengeance, in the name of justice, on the ignorant and half-witted who commit petty thefts, or on the too-clever Bottomleys who over-reach themselves in the circles of high finance, or even on murderers—what are the latter, anyway, but potential “war heroes” who have killed their man at the wrong time and place?