1920s >> 1927 >> no-277-september-1927

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?

The emotionalists who gloat over the sickening details of murder trials and executions are a much more potent source of social instability than are the “criminals” who happen to transgress capitalist laws and are found out. If punishment were a question of “deserts,” or if it served a purpose commensurate with the harm it does, why not punish these people too, and those who pander to their tastes? The obvious answer is that the remedy lies in education, not in the infliction of penalties. Socialist society will, of course, try to protect itself against anti-social acts. What it will not do is to debase human life and stultify its own efforts by introducing the irrelevant idea of punishment. It will seek primarily to remove the cause, a line which our present rulers are prevented from following by their need to defend private property. How can they, for instance, remove the incentive to theft—poverty—in face of the simple fact that, without the poverty of the workers, there would be no wages system and no profits for the employing class? Secondly, it will recognise that some breaches of public order are inevitable, and are risks which society must accept as it accepts the wind and the rain. To embody brutal penalties in legal codes is no better insurance against them than is the action of the savage who makes an image of his God to protect him against the terrors of nature and then smashes the image when he suffers loss through storm or flood. All he does is to give vent to his disappointment. We are not savages, and must learn not to wreak our rage on unfortunate prisoners whom chance has brought within the reach of the law!
To return to Sacco and Vanzetti—while we do not imagine that the Dollar aristocracy who wield the sceptre in Massachusetts is occupied with the problem of introducing socialism, their refreshing candour on the real nature of “justice” may well serve to interest others in the class motives of that institution. If the Sacco and Vanzetti case brings justice into disrepute so much the sooner will the workers perceive that the time has arrived for its abolition.