How Crime Will Cease.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


  “Tout Comprendre c’est tout Pardonner.” (MADAME DE STAËL.)

  There are a number of serious problems which, though not emerging directly from the controversies between the advocates of public ownership and of “private enterprise,” are certain to be materially affected by the adoption or rejection of socialist principles, and therefore have a claim to be considered in any discussion of the wider bearings of Socialism. Among the most important of these is the question of Crime and Punishment, which has an obvious connection with the present system of property holding.

  “The fruitful source of crime,” wrote Godwin, “consists in this circumstance, one man’s possessing in abundance that of which another man is destitute”; to which he added that “the proper method of curing this inequality is by reason, and not by violence.” Making full allowance for the strength of other forms of crime—especially those of passion, which are certain to persist for a long time under any sort of government—the general truth of Godwin’s statement has been confirmed rather than shaken, by the experience of the past century; we have to consider, too, whether crime is not likely to be fostered, to some extent, by the very sanction given in our society to what are known as “business” methods. If it is thought permissible, for example, to sell a thing at a higher price than it is really worth, to take advantage of the ignorance or necessity of our fellow-citizens in order to drive a hard bargain, or to underpay those who work for us, it is hardly surprising that, for men of a still weaker moral fibre, the temptation to overstep such artificial boundaries between honesty and dishonesty is too strong. They become “criminals,” and measures have accordingly to be taken for their suppression. Crime and Punishment are such essential features of a capitalist society that a vast and complicated fabric of Law has been built up to deal with them.

  There are three theories as to the best method of dealing with crime—first, the old retributive idea, which vindicates the majesty of the law by the punishment of the culprit; secondly, the utilitarian idea of the protection of society without any further desire for vengeance; and thirdly, the more modern of the reclamation of the offender. In addition to these three established theories, partly conflicting and partly interwoven, we begin to see the development of a newer and still more advanced doctrine, which recognises that the criminal is himself a product and reflection of social conditions. Society grows its criminals first, and punishes them afterwards; it is society itself that is, at root, to blame. The sum of the whole matter is that, if we wish to get rid of our criminals, we must cease to manufacture them; and this cannot be done without complete reform of the present social system.

  So far from being merely a “sentimental” notion (as it is often represented) this is the considered opinion of some of the greatest modern criminologists. Thus, while we find it stated in Dr. W. D. Morrison’s book on Juvenile Offenders, that “it is to ameliorative methods we must look for the best results in dealing with juvenile delinquency,” he makes this further and still more noteworthy assertion:

  “Ameliorative methods of dealing with the individual offender will accomplish much, but it must be borne in mind that these efforts do not touch the general conditions out of which juvenile crime arises. It is in these wretched and degenerate conditions of existence that juvenile delinquency has its origin, and it will always continue to flourish till these conditions are ameliorated.”

  Equally emphatic is the testimony of Dr. James Devon, as given in his most suggestive work on The Criminal and the Community. Sweeping aside the pseudo-scientific theory which sets down all crime to heredity, he holds that “our social inequalities are the cause of much serious crime,” and points out the futility of the common cry for retribution. Much expert authority might be quoted to the same effect.

  For a good many years past the Home Office authorities have, very wisely, been humanising the prison system by the introduction of rational methods in the place of the old stupid brutality of solitary confinement; and it is nowadays not uncommon to hear a complaint expressed that “prisons are being made too comfortable.” But what inference would be drawn therefrom as to the comforts of life outside? Strange that we never hear from these stern penologists the converse proposition, that the homes of the workers are not comfortable enough!

  Socialism, if it comes to power, will take care that the cottager is at least as well housed as the criminal. I think we may further assume that it will not tolerate the continuance of those two entirely barbarous forms of punishment—hanging and flogging—which, to the disgrace of a nation that imagines itself to be civilised, have survived into the twentieth century. No doubt the war against Germany, and the brainlessness it engendered, had the effect of considerably delaying the growth of a saner feeling in these matters; but even so, it is difficult to believe that such revolting relics of savagery as the gallows and the lash can much longer affront the common humanity, and indeed decency, of a people which professes to have abolished torture.

  If there be any life that a man has a primâ facie right to take, it is his own. That suicide, or attempted suicide, should be a criminal offence, while the death-penalty is a cherished legal institution, is one of those glaring absurdities that amuse and disgust at the same time.

  Indeed, it must be said that the gallows are not merely a belated form of punishment but a present and actual disgrace to all concerned in their use; for, as was well said by Ingersoll, “a punishment that degrades the punished will degrade also the man who inflicts it, and the government that procures the infliction.” Moreover, capital punishment is a hindrance to the calm administration of justice; inasmuch as the horror which the thought of the penalty breeds in the mind makes it more difficult to decide a plain question of innocence or guilt. A jury’s obvious business is to give a verdict on a matter of fact, and they ought not to have in thought any matter that lies beyond; yet how can they avoid having such thoughts when those of their number who object to capital punishment may be relieved of their duties before the consultations begin?

  It is often, and quite wrongly, assumed that opponents of capital and corporal punishments are moved wholly by pity for the culprit; but I would point out that the feeling uppermost in the mind of those who would put an end to hanging is the sheer repugnance that such penalties arouse. I was told by a former chief of police in a great city that he used to remark privately to the judges that if it were their function, as it was his, to be a personal witness of executions, they would not so readily pass the sentences. I think the feeling on such occasions is less one of pity than of disgust; and in like manner, when various other rough deeds are arraigned, the supposed “sentimentalists” are often taking the more practical view.1

  Flogging, like hanging, is a degradation to all concerned; and no graver mistake can be made by so-called “lovers of animals “than asking for recourse to the lash in cases of cruelty—that is, of appealing to one barbarism as a means of repressing another. This was done, for instance, in Mr. John Swain’s unpleasantly named book, Brutes and Beasts (1933). It has to be remembered that the floggings ordered by magistrates, and inflicted by jailers, are a much severer punishment than the mild correction to which boys are liable at public schools; yet I have heard from the headmaster of a great public school that when the birch was in use, he had noticed how the upper boy, who was officially in attendance, would turn away from the sight. In brief, it is a beastly spectacle. Yet it is for a much nastier and more savage punishment than this that not a few “zoophilists”—kindly but foolish folk who have brooded over one, and only one branch of a very large subject—are not ashamed to clamour.

  To return to the question of crime. Without desiring to claim for Socialism more than justly belongs to it, and admitting that the evils above mentioned have been unsparingly denounced by other than social reformers, I think it is unlikely that crimes against property will ever be greatly reduced, or the treatment of criminals ever fully humanised, until the present form of society has given way to a more equitable one. So, too, with regard to betting, gambling, and other practices, which, if not themselves criminal, are closely associated with crime: it seems impossible that they should be got rid of, except in a State which is itself free from the extremes of poverty and of riches, and where life is no longer so sordid, or so selfish, as to drive people to these debasements.

  The fact is, “stealing” cannot in justice be limited to the narrow conventional sense in which it is at present used. If to steal is to take what is rightfully the property of another, there is many a rich man whose possessions are fully secured by law, who is as much a thief as a Dartmoor convict. Nay more, there may be such a thing as an unintentional and unpremeditated stealing; indeed the whole system of modern society, with its “profits” and “interests,” and similar genteel phrases, is nothing else than a gigantic conspiracy, by which non-workers steal the produce of the labouring classes. That individuals cannot remedy this systematic wrong does not in the least disprove the existence of the evil; at any rate they ought to have the grace to acknowledge the source from which their comforts are derived, and to join in the attempt to bring about as speedy a reform as possible. Unfortunately this is a course to which the well-to-do classes seem specially disinclined. They insist that they are the rightful possessors of wealth which comes in to them without any labour on their part, and attempt to raise the cry of “Stop thief” against those who venture even to investigate the origin of their wealth. Our capitalists persist to the bitter end in the fatuous assertion that to live idly on the labour of others is not the same thing as to steal. It can hardly be doubted, I think, that if the natural kinship of man with man be ever recognised on earth, the state established in that distant, extremely distant age will be one of Communism. Why, again, need we be afraid of the word? The present bad relations between those who call themselves communists and the other citizens have no bearing whatever upon the question. “Commune” is a beautiful word in itself, implying sympathetic union among friends; and the local misuse of it is due to its having been involved, as we know, in political and territorial contentions. Communism, actually and honestly practised, would put an end to crime; and a country which becomes free from crime is likely to find itself communistic.

  I began this chapter by quoting Godwin’s remark about the origin of crime. Let me conclude it with the words of a very different thinker, Henry Thoreau, concerning his life at Walden: “I am convinced that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient, and others have not enough.”2

1 John Ellis, our “public hangman,” committed suicide, owing to the effect upon his nerves of what he had witnessed. See the Morning Post, September 21st, 1932.
2 Walden, Chapter VIII., “The Village.”

All Sub-Works of The Creed of Kinship (1935):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.