On Capital Punishment

By Marx, Karl | Monthly Review, May 1984 | Go to article overview

On Capital Punishment


Marx, Karl, Monthly Review


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. …

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