1980s >> 1984 >> no-953-january-1984

Letters: Marx and crime

Dear Sir,
I read with great interest the two parts of the article “Marx’s Conception of Socialism” published in the July and August editions of the Socialist Standard.


Firstly, a point of information: the phrase “the judgement of the criminal upon himself” comes from Chapter VIII of the Holy Family by Marx and Engels. The Foreign Languages Publishing House (Moscow 1956) renders it slightly differently, but the sense is clearly the same.


  . . . under human conditions punishment will really be nothing but the sentence passed by the culprit on himself. There will be no attempt to persuade him that violence from without, exerted on him by others, is violence exerted on himself by himself. On the contrary, he will see in other men his natural saviours from the sentence which he has pronounced on himself, in other words the relation will be reversed, (op cit p.239).


Presumably Marx and Engels meant by this that certain categories of human action, which are now classified as crimes, would be considered reprehensible in a socialist society (“human conditions”). However. while individuals might punish themselves in remorse for such actions, their neighbours, moved by feelings of humanity would try to persuade them not to. Which of these tendencies would win out, the individual’s remorse or his neighbour’s humanity, one cannot predict. The precise category of actions Marx and Engels had in mind is not clear — they do not mean crimes of violence, for these by definition do not exist, since “coercion is contrary to “(truly)’ human nature” (op cit p.238).


Secondly I am worried by the statement that “In a socialist society you will only be able to have free access to the things which society decides it will make available for free access”. This sounds dangerously like “‘you will only be available to have free access to the things the majority decide they will make available for free access” and it clearly breaches the principle “’From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. The article was on much safer ground when it stated that in the early days of socialism, the attitude of relatively opulent workers to “free access” should be: “Don’t take advantage of it”. While it may be true that in a socialist society, a majority would be unlikely to abuse its power, nevertheless, the principle of “To each according to his needs” seems to provide a safeguard for minorities, which although only based on “moral” force is better than no safeguard at all.


Clive Hill,


Graduate Common Room,
London School of Economics.




We thank Clive Hill for the source of the quotation from Marx, in the Holy Family.


Other interesting statements by Marx and Engels will be found in two Pelican books: Karl Marx — Selected Writings (1976) pp. 167/8 and 234/5, and Engels — Selected Writings (1967). pp. 175/6.


Marx and Engels were both examining crime and punishment in capitalist society from the socialist standpoint. Two quotations will indicate the line of their approach: Marx wrote:

 Punishment is nothing but a means of society to defend itself against the infraction of its vital conditions, whatever may be their character. Now, what a state of society is that which knows of no better instrument for its own defence than the hangman, and which proclaims . . . its own brutality as eternal law?


Engels argued that “society creates a demand for crime which is met by a corresponding supply” and added:


 I leave my readers to decide whether it is just to punish criminals under these circumstances.


On his second point, about “free access”, Clive Hill’s fears are groundless. The passage in the article was an attempt to deal with a misunderstanding about ‘“free access” voiced by a questioner at a meeting. Reasoning from what goes on under capitalism, with trade unions and other groups making claims and calling on the employers, or the government, or “society”, to meet them, the questioner said he interpreted “free access” to mean that whatever any individual thought they would like to have society would provide for them. This misses the point that, with the establishment of socialism, all individuals will be members of the community. co-operating together democratically to meet the needs of all on the basis of “free access” and making the necessary production and other arrangements to make it possible.




Asbestos deaths


Dear Editors


Although the article ‘“Fireproof Death” (Socialist Standard, October 1983, by Gary Jay) is no doubt written with the best of intentions, nonetheless it contains some inaccuracies which this campaign feels should be set right. Perhaps the most important misinformation is the statement. “There are safer substitutes for nearly all uses of asbestos”.


It was actually established beyond doubt (see the Anti-Asbestos Campaign Fact-sheet) that satisfactory substitutes for every Asbestos application will be available in Britain by November 1982. I must stress that this is an independent single issue, non-partisan campaign. I say this because you do not necessarily need to be a socialist to realise that when it comes to Asbestos society can no longer afford free enterprise, if you fully understand the nature of Asbestos and its threat — which Gary Jay obviously does not — viz. “Asbestos and similar hazards”. I assure you that Asbestos is entirely in a class of its own as there are no similar hazards. The others that Gary Jay mentions are hazards of chemical poisons or hazards of human mismanagement — minor hazards. Asbestos however is the single most serious threat to life on this planet that I, or anyone else who understands its chemistry, can recognise. In our fact-sheet we ask whether there will be 40,000 deaths per annum in Britain caused by Asbestos in 2022. Even this is a moderate estimate.


Please in the interests of public health and safety do print a summary of these criticisms.

Harry Moss 


The Anti-Asbestos Campaign


The fact that there is evidence for all asbestos uses being replaced with safer substitutes strengthens the case against a social system which continues to use this murderous material because of its cheapness, and therefore profitability, to the ruling class. This is one of the numerous social problems which are constantly produced by the profit system. The solution is not to campaign against these symptoms individually.


The uses of various unsafe, dangerous and anti-social materials and products have the same social cause — the system of production for profit. By the time that one well-intentioned reform group thinks it has solved a problem, capitalism has produced many more.


Many thousands of people are dying and being injured in ways which could be avoided. They are victims of wars, starvation, insanitary water consumption, industrial accidents and so on, ad nauseam. These are problems produced by a competitive social system. The majority of people, the wealth-producers, produce wealth as wage slaves. Production, production techniques and distribution are geared to profit and not human need.


It was not, as Harry Moss says, simply “human mismanagement” which precipitated the misery outlined in the Socialist Standard article, including Rowan Point, Ford Pintos, thalidomide and poisonous cooking oils. These problems are endemic to our social system. Asbestos is beyond doubt a highly dangerous substance, as information in the AAC fact-sheet illustrates. But asbestos is one of many urgent problems which have the same solution. In a world capable of producing enough food for everybody, more people starved to death each day in 1982 than died from asbestos in the whole year. On the brink of a nuclear war the world now holds the equivalent of over four tons of TNT for every single human being on the planet.


Only in a society of common ownership of the means of producing and distributing wealth can these grotesque problems be made unnecessary. Socialism will mean production for use not profit. The community will control what is produced with all the care, meticulous research and pride which will flow from the awareness that we are producing for our own good, and not as now to provide profits for an owning minority.




Cross of gold


Dear Editors,


Re: issue of September 1983
On the bottom line, centre column, you attribute the remark “Shall mankind be crucified upon a cross of gold” to Eugene Debs. I believe that you are actually referring to “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” made by William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a US representative and presidential candidate upon the Democratic Party ticket.


As usual, enjoyed this issue. Keep up the good work.


Merwin Orner 
New Jersey, USA


To “M.K., Scotland”
The Editors would like to publish your letter, with our reply to the important points you raise. However, it is not our practice to publish letters without knowing the name and address of the sender — not necessarily for publication. Please get in touch with us.