The death penalty

In the last week before Christmas I am still a week ahead of schedule with studying. This week, the topic is the death penalty. Obviously as a revolutionary socialist I am firmly against the death penalty, hell I am against the whole penal system. In this last blogpost before the new year, yes I am also taking a break, I will explain my thoughts and theory on this topic.

I will start off with an interesting view on murder by Friedrich Engels (1845), who is for those of you who don’t know, the financial force and co-author of Karl Marx’s ‘Communist Manifesto’. He personally wrote ‘The Conditions of the Working Class in England’ in which he made this statement about the concept of ‘social murder’:

“..they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual” (p.126). 

I would go as far as saying that all crime is a consequence of the material conditions people live in, which means that the capitalist state is ultimately creating crime. The capitalist state then punishes its citizens for committing these crimes, but doesn’t acknowledge its role in creating them nor does it have to face scrutiny or consequences for committing ‘social murder’ itself. This is because the state decides what is crime and has the power to legislate. When I say that the capitalist state creates crime, I mean it creates the conditions in which people are forced to commit crime, or are driven to commit crime. I know the causes of crime are very diverse and complicated but I think a lot of crime is caused by inequality, exploitation and deprivation which are the components on which capitalism thrives. Okay, yes, this is just my own personal opinion, I am not going to delve into it further and back it up with evidence.

Now the arguments in favour of the death penalty fall into two categories (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 197):

  • Arguments around preventing future harm
  • Arguments based on morality

The first argument has two components:

1. deterrence – the threat of death will deter people from committing a similar crime

2. incapacitation – by executing the death penalty a person will be permanently removed from society and thus does no longer pose a threat to society. This then suggests there is no hope for change within the offender.

Resulting from this line of thinking (deterrence), one has to conclude that capital punishment should result in clear reduction of murder rates (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 197). Unfortunately this is not the case. In the US the states with the highest murder rates account for around 80% of all state executions (Drake and Scott, 2019, p.193). So you can’t say it actually works as a deterrence, as evidence suggests otherwise.

Then there is the arguments based on morality. This includes retribution so that the death of the perpetrator can somehow provide ‘closure’ to the victim’s family. Unfortunately, this argument also is based on a sense of morality rather than evidence (Camus, 1957; Pojman and Reiman, 1997).

‘Stairway to Hell’ | Graphite on paper | Mayola | 2020

Arguments against the death penalty are also divided into the same 2 categories, based on morality and around preventing future harm. In case of the latter, the death penalty does not prevent future harm as a general deterrent, meaning that in places where the death penalty is applied as a threat for specific crimes, these crimes still happen at similar rates to places that don’t have the death penalty. It does however obviously work as a specific deterrent; a person killed through the death penalty will not commit any crime ever again Bedau, 2001). Another point is that often people legally killed by the state like this turn out to be innocent of the crime. It is also impossible to determine if someone would kill again in future (Zimring, 2004).

The moral arguments against the death penalty are for instance that it can be argued to be an act of hypocrisy that allows the state to commit legal murder on a person accused of the same act. Critics also question that it is mainly poor people who are sentenced to death, which undermines the application of the death penalty (Culbert, 2001). International human rights bodies like the UN argue for the importance of the ‘right to life’, and highlight the way that the state has power to take life, questioning the right of the state to have such powers (Drake and Scott, 2019, p. 201).

I think after reading all this, that there are much better arguments against the death penalty, with evidence to back it up. It really makes me wonder how society would develop if we would live in a much more equal society, based on the common interest of improving living conditions for everyone on this planet. If life was not based around competition and producing the most profit and private property for a few extremely rich individuals over the backs of the billions of workers who are exploited for their labour.

Imagine if every aspect of life was based on the idea of improving everyone’s living conditions equally to the maximum possible. That is what socialism and ultimately communism is. There would be no competition, because we would all work towards this common goal. The death penalty does not belong in that picture. Yes, we would still have generations of extremely disturbed murderers we have to deal with, but because the whole outlook would be different, we might discover ways to rehabilitate most criminals and even murderers. If we would collectively look at solving those problems, I am confident we can find a way that works much better for both the victims of crime and their families, and the criminals and their families.

And living in a world that has to improve all life equally, the causes of crime would slowly disappear. To give an example, I once read about an experiment with rats. One rat was put in an empty cage with two bottles. One filled with water, and one filled with water laced with heroin. Very quickly the rat would start drinking from the laced water because it would feel better dealing with its surroundings and become addicted.

Then the same rat was put in a cage but this time it was filled with lots of fun activities, bedding, food and a few rat friends to accompany him. Both bottles were still there, but the rats hardly touched the heroin laced water. Conclusion, having company, warmth and activities to do making the rat feel comfortable and safe meant that it wouldn’t get addicted. Off course the same counts for humans.

In this capitalist society where individualism is encouraged, and communal activities are discouraged, there is lots of competition for necessities like food, water, housing etc. which places people against each other. Every aspect of life is made a commodity and love, care and empathy are rare and often also made a commodity for sale. This is extremely unhealthy behaviour and leads to addiction, loneliness, crime and deprivation. Communism is the opposite of that, it encourages working together, diversity, respect and love. I always have to think of the motto of the three musketeers: ‘One for All, All for One!’.


Engels, F. (1845) The Condition of the Working Class in England, Oxford, Oxford University Press (this edition 2009).

Drake, D.H. and Scott, D (2019) ‘The Death Penalty: state-sponsored murder?’, in Drake, D.H., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D (eds) Introduction to Criminology 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 183-208.

Camus, A. (1957) Resistance, Rebellion & Death (including Reflections on the Guillotine) (Trans. J. O’Brien), New York, Alfred A. Knopf (this edition 1961).

Pojman, L. and Reiman, J. (1997) The Death Penalty: For and Against, New York, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Bedau, H. A. (2001) ‘Abolishing the death penalty even for the worst murderers’, in Sarat, A. (ed.) (2001) The Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics, and Culture, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Zimring, F. (2004) The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Culbert, J. L. (2001) ‘Beyond intention: A critique of the “normal” criminal agency, responsibility and punishment in American death penalty jurisprudence’, in Sarat, A. (ed) (2001) The Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics and Culture, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Drake, D.H. and Scott, D (2019) ‘The Death Penalty: state-sponsored murder?’, in Drake, D.H., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D (eds) Introduction to Criminology 1, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 183-208.