A Duty of Honour

(Excerpts from Rosa Luxemburg’s article, November 1918. Rosa and Karl Liebknecht, imprisoned for their opposition to the First World War, were freed from jail as a result of a revolutionary uprising of German workers in November 1918. This article was written not long after Rosa’s release from prison. Her call to abolish capital punishment goes to the heart of the matter: the barbarism and hypocrisy of capitalist “justice”.)

The justice of the bourgeois classes had again been like a net, which allowed the voracious sharks to escape, while the little sardines were caught. The profiteers who have realized millions during the war have been acquitted or let off with ridiculous penalties. The little thieves, men and women, have been punished with sentences of Draconian severity.

Worn out by hunger and cold, in cells which are hardly heated, these derelicts of society await mercy and pity.

The Proletarian Revolution ought now, by a little ray of kindness, to illuminate the gloomy life of the prisons, shorten Draconian sentences, abolish barbarous punishments – the use of manacles and whippings – improve, as far as possible, the medical attention, the food allowance, and the conditions of labour. That is a duty of honour!

The existing disciplinary system, which is impregnated with brutal class spirit and with capitalist barbarism, should be radically altered.

But a complete reform, in harmony with the spirit of socialism, can be based only on a new economic and social order; for both crime and punishment have, in the last analysis, their roots deep in the organization of society. One radical measure, however, can be taken without any elabourate legal process. Capital punishment, the greatest shame of the ultra-reactionary German code, ought to be done away with at once. Why are there any hesitations on the part of this Government of workers and soldiers? The noble Beccaria, two hundred years ago, denounced the ignominy of the death penalty. Doesn’t its ignominy exist for you, Ledebour, Barth, Daeumig?

You have no time, you have a thousand cares, a thousand difficulties, a thousand tasks before you? That is true. But mark, watch in hand, how much time would be needed to say: “Capital punishment is abolished!” Would you argue that, on this question also, long discussions followed by votes are necessary? Would you thus lose yourselves in the complications of formalism, in considerations of jurisdiction, in questions of departmental red tape?

The history of the world is not made without grandeur of spirit, without lofty morale, without noble gestures.