Workers Vanguard No. 1071

10 July 2015


On Crime and Punishment


6 May 2015

In the WV article on Attica, it is mentioned that in a socialist society the question of crime and punishment will be dealt with. I was wondering what would be done in an egalitarian socialist society about this question. Would there be prisons? Or would the focus be on the rehabilitation of people who might stray out of the lines. Personally, I do not think that there would be much crime in this sort of society. Also, things like drugs would be decriminalized, as well as prostitution. Then there is the obsession with sex crimes and pornography. Out here they recently arrested a thirty year old woman for supposedly raping two sixteen year old males. The whole thing stinks to high heaven, and they are ruining this woman’s life. I agree with the SL position that it is all a question of consent. I do not think that these two youth were forced by the woman.

Comradely, NB

WV replies:

In the conclusion of “Attica: The Nightmare That Never Ends” (WV No. 1065, 3 April), we wrote, “To lay the basis for abolishing the whole wretched system of crime and punishment requires a workers revolution to sweep away the bourgeois state and expropriate the class in whose interest the state is administered.” There can be no fair or humane system of justice for the working class and oppressed under the class rule of the bourgeoisie. Much of the theft, fraud and violence in society is a result of the material scarcity inherent to capitalism and is bolstered by reactionary ideologies like racism and bigotry.

The criminal code is written to justify and enforce the capitalist system of exploitation based on the private ownership of the means of production. In reality, the capitalists are the biggest crooks. As the murderer Macheath in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera remarked: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” The capitalists require a huge apparatus of repression (the courts, cops and prisons as well as the military) in order to secure their rule over the exploited masses. The bosses’ hired thugs are most casual dispensers of violence against workers and the oppressed, dealing out death with impunity, especially to black people and Latinos.

The capitalist class’ whole system of punishment is based on religious precepts of retribution and penitence. Thus, they inflict vengeful suffering—from incarceration to solitary confinement to the death penalty—on transgressors of their code, to make them “pay for their sins.”

As we described in our last issue, the early Soviet workers state, issuing out of the victorious Russian October Revolution of 1917, pointed to what is possible when the working class establishes itself in power. We noted: “The determination not to base the penal code of a workers state on retribution found its fullest expression in the 1919 party program” of the Russian Communist Party (see “Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!” WV No. 1070, 12 June). That section of the program ended with the vision “that the penal system shall ultimately be transformed into a system of measures of an educative character.”

The goal of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks was a communist world. They recognized that socialism, the lower stage of communism, was not possible without the productive forces being developed internationally, well beyond current levels of productivity, under the rule of the working class. An egalitarian communist society will provide what people need in exchange for whatever contribution they are able to make. Under communism, classes and the state will have withered away. In The State and Revolution, written in the midst of the revolutionary events of 1917, Lenin explained:

“Freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules of social intercourse that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims. They will become accustomed to observing them without force, without coercion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for coercion called the state.”

Under workers rule and under communism there may still be a need to separate out certain individuals if they are a danger to themselves or others, but this would be done without stigma or deprivation and with education, medical care, rehabilitation and the goal of reintegration as productive members of society.

As NB suggests, there will doubtless be a reduction in crime once the capitalist class is out of power. Many activities that the capitalists label as “crimes” in fact have no victims (e.g., drug use, gambling, consensual sexual activity including prostitution) and we call for them to be decriminalized.

The case NB refers to is that of Lauren Harrington-Cooper, a teacher in Pennsylvania. She was sentenced last September to up to 23 months in prison for having a brief sexual relationship with an 18-year-old male student, performing oral sex on a 17-year-old and two counts of “corrupting minors.” She was convicted under a Pennsylvania law barring any sexual contact between a teacher and a student regardless of age or consent. Rather than a case of rape, all reports indicate the sexual encounters were consensual. Nevertheless, Harrington-Cooper will be on the sex offender register for 25 years and barred from teaching.

As NB notes, the SL believes that effective consent should determine sexual relations. We reject the right of the capitalist class to criminalize consensual sexual activity, dictating who can have sex, where, at what age, or with how many people. This means we oppose “age of consent” laws and special rules against teachers or professors having consensual relationships with their students. Lauren Harrington-Cooper committed no crime; she should be released from prison and have her teaching license reinstated.