Letter to the Editors from the December 1944 issue of the Socialist Standard
The letter below from Mr. Whitehead continues the correspondence published in our May issue.
Without challenging one of the many examples I gave showing that capitalism and poverty could not be the most serious causes of crime, the Socialist Standard instead is much more concerned with what is my view of the cause of crime.
Actually there is no cause of crime or of any other sociological phenomena, but many causes. And in showing as I did that neither capitalism nor poverty is the cause of crime, I am no more called upon to give the true causes than is a critic logically bound to supply the real explanation when he says spirits are not responsible for the flying tambourines at a seance.
By showing that India, a poor country, has the lowest crime rate, and the United States, the richest country with the highest standard of living among the workers of any nation on earth, has also the highest rate of crime, I demonstrated that poverty could not be the cause of crime. The low violent-crime rate among Jews in any environment and the high rate for violent crime of Italians in Italy or in any other environment shows again that capitalism per se cannot be the cause of crime. The far greater crime rate of Catholics compared with Jews, Protestants, or any other class in Britain, America, France and Germany is not due to their greater poverty and insecurity, as is proved not only by India, where crime is less frequent, but by the fact that Southern Europe and the Latins in general have a greater ratio of crimes of violence (often connected with sex) than the peoples of Northern Europe, but the latter in turn have a greater ratio of crimes against property. These Latin characteristics go with their owners to America, North and South, and even to Australia, where Italians are famous for their ready use of the knife—so much so, that I have a peacetime report of Australian workers striking rather than work in company with Italian colleagues. Germans, by the way, are law abiding in almost any community. And almost everywhere agricultural communities, usually more poverty stricken and insecure than industrial, have a far lower crime rate in the same countries, and as a class all over the world tend to have a lower rate than the industrial populations.
Crime is far more complex than Socialists assume, and crimes of violence are far less associated with economic causes than are crimes against property. Sex, jealousy, revenge, passion, drink, uncontrolled temper and other temperamental idiosyncracies have more to do with crimes of violence than has capitalism or poverty.
The causes of serious crime must be sought not only in the sphere of economics, but in morals, biology, psychology, religion and race; and not only in environment but far more in heredity and parental and other training of the young. Even temperature cannot be excluded, crime and insanity being more rife in summer than in winter, in spite of there being more unemployment and poverty in winter.
The psychological and inherited factors all have causes and are obviously associated with material conditions without, however, being, as the Marxians assume, the direct or indirect reflexes, being more often themselves causes of economic reflexions. This, I hasten to add, is not the prelude to a long controversy on the Materialistic Conception of History. My present intention is merely to expose the absurdity of the claim that capitalism is the cause of crime, criminals being rife scores of thousands of years before capitalism became the King Charles' head of Socialists. Finally, if capitalism is responsible for economic insecurity, which causes crime, why do 95 per cent. of the workers suffering from insecurity never commit serious crime, and why are Jews, who in many countries are penalised and relatively insecure, far less prone to crime and drunkenness than Catholics in the same countries?
Mr. Whitehead introduces too much detail for us to cover all his statements in the space at our disposal. We will therefore consider the broad aspects of the question, and refer the reader back to the previous reply to him, which he has not met.
First of all, we note that Mr. Whitehead has no remedy for crime. He argues that there is not one but many causes of crime. He has entirely missed the point of our previous reply, which stated that crime "is to lie explained by the capitalist environment in which we live."
Crime did not flourish in early communistic communities because there was no private property and sex relations were free. It grew with the development of private property.
Crime consists of infringement against the social rules of the time. These rules in turn depend upon, or rise out of, the nature of the human communities. In the early communities these social rules were based upon communism and were formulated freely by the community as a whole. With the growth of private property the owners of private property became the rulers and law makers. Infringement of their laws became “crimes.” For example, to-day sex is a private property institution and sex relations outside of wedlock are regarded as crimes, except in circumstances where it suits the rulers—when the birthrate of prospective workers and fighters is going down, rich appetites have to be met, or the needs of soldiers attended to for the sake of morale.
What constitutes “crime" has varied as communities have developed. Among the Spartans in early Greek times thieving was a virtue because the Spartan ruling class was a small body among a host of subservient, and their wits had to be developed to the highest pitch for the purpose of repression. In Elizabethan times piracy by English sailors was a virtue because it brought maritime wealth to the English ruling class. In the later centuries private property owners stole millions of acres of common land from the people, but this was not regarded as crime because the new laws based upon private property excluded from their influence the land that had no individual owner but was free for the use of all. In our own day millions of men are trained to strangle, drown, blow to pieces, shoot and maim their fellow-men, but this large scale slaughter and destruction is not regarded as criminal because the rulers of a capitalist society justify it on suitable abstract principles. If a poor man kills another man no abstract principles will save him from the hangman. If a rich man kills another man he has many avenues to escape from the hangman.
Prostitution, over-drinking, over and under eating, the blind pursuit of wealth and the enslaving of native people, war, and the strain of modern life are all consequences of capitalism, and have a demoralising influence on people. All these things contribute to a weakening of the social instincts. They were present in previous forms of society, but have reached their highest expression and their greatest power for evil in the capitalist system.
Poverty and laborious lives induce a low intellectual condition and a brutalised outlook on life. These together with prostitution and unhealthy sex unions produce degeneracy and insanity.
Crime ratios are misleading. Numbers of people commit what Mr. Whitehead would call crimes but never appear in criminal courts because they are rich or crafty. The poor prostitute figures in records, the rich rarely. While proof is difficult, it can hardly be doubted that much evasion of tax and similar regulations is carried on by monied men who are in a position to “know the ropes," or who can afford expert legal advice on ways of finding loopholes.
From the foregoing it will be seen that Mr. Whitehead's references to the ratio of crime in different countries and among different people is no answer to the question. “What is the cause of crime?" nor is it a refutation of our claim that crime can only be explained by social conditions. The rate of crime depends upon the influence of the social factors mentioned above in the countries and among the people in question. This is too wide a subject to be dealt with here. Surely his reference to law-abiding Germans is strange in the light of the rise of the Nazi party and the Gestapo, whose performances rival any criminal propensities of the Italians anywhere. What greater volume of crimes have Catholics committed than those committed by Protestants upon native peoples and upon men. women and children in the mines and factory hells of this country during the last century? The opera “Madame Butterfly" is based upon the attitude of Western man towards his Eastern sister, and many of those who go to see it and enjoy the luxury of shedding tears over the tragedy of Madame Butterfly are blind to their own share in similar tragedies.
We would remind Mr. Whitehead that an understanding of the cause of crime requires also an understanding of what crime is.
When wealth becomes commonly owned and each can obtain what he needs, there will be no crimes against property, the intellectual condition of people will rise, and the heritage of degeneracy and insanity will disappear; when woman has no economic need to sell her body, prostitution will disappear; when the relations between the sexes are free and partnerships can be made and unmade according to the emotional requirements of each, sex crimes will disappear. Then at last we shall really live, healthy, happy and crimeless—morals, biology, psychology, religion, race, heredity, and every other ology notwithstanding!