• Robert Spicer

Kropotkin on Law

Kropotkin, Prince Peter (1842-1921) Kropotkin was a Russian geographer and revolutionary. His work included the following comments: * Prisons do not moralise their inmates; they do not deter them from crime. • Our penal institutions have been nothing but a compromise between the old ideas of revenge, of punishment of the “bad will” and “sin”, and the modern ideas of “deterring from crime”, both softened to a very slight extent by some notions of philanthropy. • Most people who are kept now in jails, or put to death, are merely people in need of the most careful fraternal treatment. • The higher instincts of human nature have been checked in their growth by the abominable conditions under which thousands and thousands of children grow up, and millions of adults are living, in what we call our centres of civilisation. • If we analyse ourselves, we should see that all of us have had some feelings and thoughts such as constitute the motive of all acts considered as criminal. We have repudiated them at once; but if they had had the opportunity of recurring again and again; if they were nurtured by circumstances, or by a want of exercise of the best passions – love, compassion and all those which result from living in the joys and sufferings of those who surround us; then these passing influences, so brief that we hardly noticed them, would have degenerated into some morbid element in our character. • That is what we ought to teach our children from the earliest childhood, while now we imbue them from their tenderest years with ideas of justice identified with revenge, of judges and tribunals. And if we did this, instead of doing as we do now, we should no longer have the shame of avowing that we hire assassins to execute our sentences, and pay warders for performing a function for which no educated man would like to prepare his own children. • Humanity has seldom ventured to treat its prisoners like human beings; but each time it has done so it has been rewarded for its boldness. • Prisons do not cure pathological deformities, they only reinforce them; and when a psychopath leaves a prison, after having been subjected for several years to its deteriorating influence, he is without comparison less fit for life in society than he was before. • The shameful practice of legal assassination – of hiring for a guinea an assassin to accomplish a sentence which the judge would not have the courage to carry out himself – this shameful practice has not even the excuse of preventing murder. Nowhere has the abolition of capital punishment increased the number of murders. • From year to year thousands of children grow up in the filth – material and moral – of our great cities, completely abandoned amidst a population demoralised by a life from hand to mouth, the incertitude of tomorrow, and a misery of which no former epoch has had even an apprehension. • We cannot wonder that our big cities chiefly supply prisons with inmates. • At the other end of the social scale, money is squandered in unheard-of luxury, very often with no other purpose than to satisfy a stupid vanity. • Money-worship tends to develop an insatiable thirst for unlimited wealth, a love for sparkish luxury, a tendency towards spending money foolishly for every avowable and unavowable purpose; when there are whole quarters in our cities each house of which reminds us that man has too often remained a beast. • Man is a result of the conditions in which he has grown up. • Two-thirds of all breaches of law being so-called “crimes against property”, these cases will disappear, or be limited to a quite trifling amount, when property, which is now the privilege of the few, shall return to its real source – the community. • Prison cannot be an environment that reforms the criminal. The man who is shut up in a prison is so far from being bettered by the change, that he comes out more resolutely the foe of society than when he went in. • All legislation within the state has always been made with regard to the interests of the privileged classes. Law originated in primitive superstitions and was developed by the decrees of conquerors. Human relations were originally regulated by custom. The dominant minority used law to make customs immutable which were to their advantage. Law made its appearance under the sanction of the priest and the club of the warrior. Kropotkin divided laws into three categories: 1.The protection of property. This is intended to appropriate the product of labour or to deal with disputes between monopolists. These laws have no object other than to protect the unjust appropriation of human labour. 2. The protection of governments. This is constitutional law which aims to maintain the administrative machine and almost entirely acts to protect the interests of the governing classes. 3.The protection of persons. This is the most important because such laws are regarded as indispensable to the maintenance of security in society. These laws developed from useful customs but they have been modified by rulers to serve their own interests. Punishment is not appropriate for anti-social or violent persons. The severity of punishment does not reduce the amount of crime. On the basis of his own experience of Russian and French prisons Kropotkin criticised prisons for killing physical energy, destroying the individual will and encouraging society to treat released prisoners as something plague-stricken. Prisons could not be improved. The more they are reformed , the worse they become.

People without political organisation, and therefore less depraved than ourselves, have perfectly understood that the man who is called criminal is simply unfortunate. The remedy is not to flog him, to chain him up, to kill him on the scaffold or in prison, but to help him by the most brotherly care, by treatment based on equality, by the usages of life amongst honest men.

Kropotkin on the origin of the state: Laws were made to protect private property and were enforced by a special group of soldiers. The state dates from the sixteenth century when it took over the free towns and their federations. The state resulted from a triple alliance of lords, lawyers and priests who dominated society. They were later joined by capitalists who strengthened and centralized the state. Consider what corruption, what depravity of mind is kept up among men by the idea of obedience, the very essence of law; of chastisement; of authority having the right to punish, to judge irrespective of our conscience and the esteem of our friends; of the necessity for executioners, jailers and informers – in a word, by all the attributes of law and authority.



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