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On the Question of Capital Punishment

Sunday 2 June 2013, by Prabhat Patnaik

THE decision of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M), Central Committee to oppose capital punishment is of great significance. The CPI(M) is the first major political party to have taken a forthright stand against capital punishment in recent times.

Many may be unaware of the fact that the abolition of the death penalty was part of the resolution of the Karachi session of the Indian National Congress in 1931, which provided the implicit social contract upon which the modern Indian nation was to be founded, and which formed a precursor of the Indian Constitution.

It is ironical that the Congress Party, which claims its descent from the pre-independence Congress and should therefore have acted as the legatee of the Karachi resolution, now prides itself upon the execution of an Afzal Guru; and the home minister belonging to that Party claims a macho image for himself on the basis of such hangings. (His exact words after the hanging of Ajmal Kasab were: “Now nobody can accuse me of being weak”.)


This stance of the Congress, and of other bourgeois Parties, is often attributed to the powerful ideological influence that the Hindutva forces have come to exert in contemporary India. This is no doubt true. But this influence derives not from any overwhelmingly persuasive powers of the Hindutva brigade, but rather from the changing class character of Indian society, in particular the fact that the Indian big bourgeoisie is now closely allied to international finance capital, for it is in the nature of finance capital to purvey a “culture of cruelty”.

In Imperialism, Lenin had approvingly quoted Hilferding’s remark that “finance capital does not want liberty; it wants domination”. The need for such domination becomes even more paramount in our context because finance capital carries out a ruthless process of dispossession of petty producers, who not only get impoverished themselves, but also impoverish the workers in general, including those in the “organised sector”, by swelling the ranks of the reserve army of labour. The heightening of inequalities of income and wealth, the unleashing of mass impoverishment, the attempt to acquire exclusive control over the State to carry out these processes, all of which characterise the hegemony of finance capital are also accompanied by the propagation of an ideology which holds that the individual’s infirmities are not socially conditioned; they owe nothing to material factors characterising the social arrangement, but are entirely his or her own fault.

Thus poverty is attributed to laziness, or to a lack of enterprise and initiative; “criminality” is attributed to flaws in individual character; and so on. It follows from this perception of “criminality” that the “criminal”, because of his or her intrinsic nature about which nothing can be done, is a perennial threat to society. If the threat is dangerous enough then there is no alternative to doing away with the “criminal” altogether by taking his life.

This is in sharp contrast to the basic Left position, which is also widely accepted in progressive liberal circles (and was reflected in the Karachi resolution), namely, that infirmities on the part of an individual, including “deviant behaviour”, are, at least in part, socially caused. The individual alone cannot be held responsible for his or her actions, whence it follows that instead of doing away with the individual as the means of removing the threat that he or she poses to society, we should rather change society in a manner that such individuals are not produced.

Such a perception, associated generally with the Left and working class formations, produces a “culture of compassion”. The change in the correlation of class forces which comes about with the hegemony of finance capital and a weakening of the Left and working class formations, also entails generally, at the level of ideology, a substitution of a “culture of cruelty” for a “culture of compassion”. This is what has happened in the Indian case too (which is not to suggest that anyone in India who subscribes to a neo-liberal outlook is ipso facto in favour of the death penalty).

But that is not all. Even the very definition of what constitutes “deviant behaviour” undergoes a change, whereby even protest and resistance begin to get branded as “deviant behaviour”, and any particularly untoward incident arising in the course of such resistance is attributed to the fact of resistance as such. (The recent incident in Delhi where the mere heckling of ministers was also held to be a violent act by several bourgeois formations and the bourgeois media in general, is a case in point).

In short, the “domination” that Lenin saw finance capital to be striving for is reflected inter alia in a “hardening” of attitudes with regard to punishment for “criminal action”. And the fact that, in contrast to the long years after independence, when the implementation of the death penalty was rather rare (even when people had been awarded the death penalty), we suddenly have a number of executions, with even more executions reportedly in the offing, is indicative of this “hardening” of attitudes that has come with the changing class correlation.

The Hindutva forces, representing the trend of communal-fascism, are the natural articulators of such a “culture of cruelty”, and hence the natural exponents of this “hardening” of attitudes. But all bourgeois formations, including the Congress, are willy-nilly coerced into accepting this “hardening”. This coercion, even though proximately emanating from the Hindutva forces, is in reality being exercised by the corporate-financial interests. Their ideological hegemony is sought to be achieved, above all, through their control over the media which systematically propagates the view that “good governance” requires such a “hardening of attitudes”.


By explicitly rejecting the death penalty, the CPI(M) has repudiated this “manufactured consent” behind the “hardening of attitudes”, which is pushed in the name of “countering terrorism” but which is a euphemism for the ideological hegemony of the corporate-financial interests. At the same time it has gone back to the old Left tradition that had always opposed capital punishment, and has also established itself as the real legatee of the spirit of the Karachi resolution.

It is not generally known that one of the first acts of the Bolshevik Revolution was to abolish the death penalty, which was done at the Second Congress of Soviets. It had been a long-standing demand of the working class movement in Russia, as elsewhere, that the death penalty should be done away with; and immediately after the February Revolution in 1917, in the month of February itself, the death penalty had been abolished. But shortly thereafter, in July 1917, there was an attempt to restore the death penalty partially, for deserters from the front, for marauders, and for spies of foreign powers. The workers, led by the Bolsheviks, had vehemently protested against this partial restoration, and the Bolshevik Revolution when it happened had actually done away with the death penalty altogether.

Under the threat of the Civil War, however, the Bolshevik government too had to restore the death penalty subsequently. But that in no way detracts from the fact that the general socialist position had always been that the cold-blooded killing of unarmed criminals was an act of inhumanity.

This position itself of course predates the arrival of the socialist project and had been espoused by revolutionaries ever earlier. Maximilien Robespierre, one of the most important leaders of the French Revolution, had been opposed to capital punishment, and had even resigned in his youth his post as a judge because his conscience would not allow him to sentence a person to death. But even while re-affirming his opposition to capital punishment, Robespierre had supported before the Convention (which was the parliament of the French Revolution) the death penalty for Louis XVI with the words: “neither prison nor exile can render his existence inconsequential to public happiness”.

Robespierre had said this because, in his view, around the person of Louis XVI, the entire monarchical order of Europe would attempt a counter-revolution against the French Republic. But in the present era when nobody can credibly claim any divine right to rule, there exists no person whose existence cannot be rendered “inconsequential to public happiness” through prison or exile. Hence even the Robespierre argument for death penalty for Louis XVI does not hold for anybody in this day and age.

The socialist objection to the death penalty however is not confined to the “agency argument” (namely that an individual’s action is so conditioned by the social arrangements that holding the individual exclusively responsible for such actions and dealing with him accordingly, to the point of even taking his life, is unwarranted), or even the “humanity argument” (namely that the cold-blooded killing of an unarmed and helpless individual is inhuman, and makes the act of the State that does so, no different from the original act of the “criminal” himself). There is also the obvious additional argument that there is always a residue of doubt about the culpability of the “criminal”, and hence the finality of death must be avoided in order to prevent the possibility of a miscarriage of justice.

But besides all these, and indeed encompassing all these, there is the fact that socialism represents a community-in-formation, a community of toiling masses, and the attitude of such a community cannot be the mirror image of that of an atomistic and necessarily alienated individual. “Criminality” above all is an extreme expression of the alienation of an individual. The community-coming-into-being is an overcoming of such alienation. For the community to inflict capital punishment and thereby act as a mirror image of the alienated individual therefore is a negation of itself, of the fact that its raison d’etre is the overcoming of alienation. It amounts in effect to an affirmation of the fact that instead of being a community-in-making that is overcoming alienation, it is itself extremely alienated, exactly like the “criminal” himself. It constitutes therefore the very negation of the socialist project. Hence socialists whose praxis centres around bringing this community into being cannot support the death penalty which represents the logic of “a tooth for a tooth” and “an eye for an eye”.

The CPI(M)’s rejection of the death penalty constitutes an important step in the building of a resistance against the hegemony of finance capital.