The Third International after Lenin

Friday, April 9, 2010

To illuminate the gloomy life of the prisons, shorten Draconian sentences, abolish barbarous punishments

Rosa Luxemburg on inhumanity
of capitalist ‘justice’

Printed below is an excerpt from Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for April. A revolutionary situation developed in Germany in late 1918 with councils of workers and soldiers springing up demanding that their authority be recognized. On November 9 a general strike broke out, forcing the government to abdicate. The chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, handed over power to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The monarchy was abolished and a democratic republic proclaimed. Luxemburg was then released from prison. One of the first pieces she then wrote was “Against Capital Punishment,” excerpted below. In it she condemns the inhumanity of capitalist “justice” and outlines the humanitarian goals of the socialist revolution and the treatment of prisoners. Under orders of the SDP-led government, she and fellow revolutionist Karl Liebknecht were arrested and executed two months later, a blow to the German revolution. Copyright © 1970 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

We did not wish for amnesty, not for pardon, in the case of the political prisoners, who had been the prey of the old order. We demanded the right to liberty, to agitation, to revolution for the hundreds of brave and loyal men who groaned in the jails and in the fortresses because, under the former dictatorship of imperialist criminals, they had fought for the people, for peace, and for socialism.

They are all free now.

We find ourselves again in the ranks, ready for the battle.

It was not the clique of [Social Democrat Philip] Scheidemann and his bourgeois allies, with Prince Max of Baden at their head, that liberated us. It was the proletarian revolution that made the doors of our cells spring open.

But another class of unfortunate dwellers in those gloomy mansions has been completely forgotten. No one, at present, thinks of the pale and morbid figures which sigh behind prison walls because of offenses against ordinary law.

Nevertheless these are also the unfortunate victims of the infamous social order against which the revolution is directed—victims of the imperialistic war which pushed distress and misery to the very limit of intolerable torture, victims of that frightful butchery of men which let loose all the vilest instincts.

The justice of the bourgeois classes had again been like a net, which allowed the voracious sharks to escape, while the little sardines were caught. The profiteers who have realized millions during the war have been acquitted or let off with ridiculous penalties. The little thieves, men and women, have been punished with sentences of Draconian severity.

Worn out by hunger and cold, in cells which are hardly heated, these derelicts of society await mercy and pity.

They have waited in vain, for in his preoccupation with making the nations cut one another’s throats and of distributing crowns, the last of the Hohenzollerns forgot these miserable people, and since the Conquest of Liege there has been no amnesty, not even on the official holiday of German slaves, the kaiser’s birthday.

The proletarian revolution ought now, by a little ray of kindness, to illuminate the gloomy life of the prisons, shorten Draconian sentences, abolish barbarous punishments—the use of manacles and whippings—improve, as far as possible, the medical attention, the food allowance, and the conditions of labor. That is a duty of honor!

The existing disciplinary system, which is impregnated with brutal class spirit and with capitalist barbarism, should be radically altered.

But a complete reform, in harmony with the spirit of socialism, can be based only on a new economic and social order; for both crime and punishment have, in the last analysis, their roots deep in the organization of society. One radical measure, however, can be taken without any elaborate legal process. Capital punishment, the greatest shame of the ultrareactionary German code, ought to be done away with at once. Why are there any hesitations on the part of this government of workers and soldiers? The noble Beccaria, two hundred years ago, denounced the ignominy of the death penalty. Doesn’t its ignominy exist for you, [Social Democrats Georg] Ledebour, [Emil] Barth, [Ernst] Daeumig?

You have no time, you have a thousand cares, a thousand difficulties, a thousand tasks before you? That is true. But mark, watch in hand, how much time would be needed to say: “Capital punishment is abolished!” Would you argue that, on this question also, long discussions followed by votes are necessary? Would you thus lose yourselves in the complications of formalism, in considerations of jurisdiction, in questions of departmental red tape? …

The history of the world is not made without grandeur of spirit, without lofty morale, without noble gestures.

Liebknecht and I, on leaving the hospitable halls which we recently inhabited—he, among his pale companions in the penitentiary, I with my dear, poor thieves and women of the streets, with whom I have passed, under the same roof, three years and a half of my life—we took this oath as they followed us with their sad eyes: “We shall not forget you!” We demand of the executive committee of the Council of Workers and Soldiers an immediate amelioration of the lot of all the prisoners in the German jails!

We demand the excision of capital punishment from the German penal code!

During the four years of this slaughter of the peoples, blood has flowed in torrents. Today, each drop of that precious fluid ought to be preserved devotedly in crystal urns.

Revolutionary activity and profound humanitarianism—they alone are the true breath of socialism.

A world must be turned upside down. But each tear that flows, when it could have been spared, is an accusation, and he commits a crime who with brutal inadvertency crushes a poor earthworm.

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