On capital punishment.
In view of the resurgence of capital punishment in the United States we thought MR readers might be interested in Marx's observations in a dispatch from him that appeared in the New York Daily Tribune of February 17, 1853. The occasion for writing on this subject was a leading article in The Times (London) that provided, in Marx's words, "no less than a direct apotheosis of the hangman, while capital punishment is extolled as the ultima ratio of society." The following extract gives the gist of Marx's rebuttal. --The editors.
It is astonishing that the article in question does not even produce a single argument or pretext for indulging in the savage theory therein propounded; and it would be very difficult, if not altogether impossible to establish any principle upon which the justice or expediency of capital punishment could be founded in a society glorifying in its civilization. Punishment in general has been defended as a means either of ameliorating or intimidating. Now what right have you to punish me for the amelioration or intimidation of others? And besides, there is history--there is such a thing as statistics--which prove with the most complete evidence that since Cain the world has neither been intimidated nor ameliorated by punishment. Quite the contrary. From the point of view of abstract right, there is only one theory of punishment which recognizes human dignity in the abstract, and that is the theory of Kant, especially in the more rigid formula given to it by Hegel. Hegel says: "Punishment is the right of the criminal. It is an act of his own will. The violation of right has been proclaimed by the criminal as his own right. His crime is the negation of right. Punishment is the negation of this negation, and consequently an affirmation of right, solicited and forced upon the criminal by himself."
There is no doubt something specious in this formula, inasmuch as Hegel, instead of looking upon the criminal as the mere object, the slave of justice, elevates him to a position of a free and self-determined being. Looking, however, more closely into the matter, we discover that German idealism here, as in most other instances, has but given a transcendental sanction to the rules of existing society. Is it not a delusion to substitute for the individual with his real motives, with multifarious social circumstances pressing upon him, the abstraction of "free will"--one among the many qualities of man for man himself! This theory, considering punishment as the result of the criminal's own will, is only a metaphysical expression for the old jus talionis: eye against eye, tooth against tooth, blood against blood. Plainly speaking, and dispensing with all paraphrases, 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 defense than the hangman, and which proclaims through the "leading journal of the world" its own brutality as eternal law?