A Socialist Labor Party Statement—

Mumia Abu-Jamal and Capitalist ‘Justice’

The following was written for the Sept. 23, 1995, issue of The People, official journal of the Socialist Labor Party.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former broadcast journalist and one-time Black Panther Party activist who was scheduled to be executed in August for the 1981 shooting death of a Philadelphia policeman, has been granted a reprieve.

Jamal has steadfastly maintained his innocence. His case has attracted worldwide attention, and many politicians, celebrities, workers, students and organizations have come to his defense. They are certain that Jamal is the innocent victim of racist and political prejudices. Thousands—some say millions—of people agree that he was railroaded. Others, particularly in the media, maintain otherwise. They claim the evidence of Jamal’s guilt is overwhelming, and that he stands out from more than 3,000 other men and women on the country’s death rows solely because he is articulate and knowledgeable in how to draw attention to himself. They have also sought to belittle and ridicule those celebrity “liberals” who have come to Jamal’s defense as indulging in a “radical chic” pastime, saying in effect that they are merely slumming. They have dismissed with derisive contempt the “ordinary” working people who have felt compelled to become active in Jamal’s defense, and cynically praised the judge in the case as a feisty fighter for justice.

No doubt the international publicity that has grown up around Jamal was instrumental in the decision to grant the reprieve. Capital punishment has always had its opponents among “liberal” upholders of the capitalist system. Many within or near to ruling-class circles are embarrassed by the fact that the United States is virtually the only major country that retains the death penalty.

We do not pretend to know what happened on a darkened street corner in Philadelphia on the night of December 9, 1981. Whether or not Jamal committed the crime for which he was condemned and may yet be executed, he has come to symbolize the hypocrisy and bestiality of the capitalist system of “justice.”

No informed person can deny that the country’s death rows are overwhelmingly populated by African-American and other poor working-class men and women. Many undoubtedly committed heinous crimes. Many others undoubtedly are innocent victims of circumstance, or of the racial and political prejudices to which defenders of Jamal attribute his conviction. Regardless of how an increasingly discredited judicial system eventually resolves the Jamal case, almost certainly many of those other death row inmates eventually will be put to death.

At the same time, no sane and rational person will deny that violent crime is rampant, and that capitalism and its judicial system have failed miserably in stemming the tide. Why this failure?

In truth there is no other reason than that capitalism breeds the conditions that lead to crime, and nurtures those social conditions faster than it can deal with the consequences of its own operations. The vicious scribblers for the capitalist news media who would strip antisocial behavior of its social context to justify official murder in the name of justice and order are accessories to crimes committed on a much wider scale than those on the streets of our rotting cities. They are beneath contempt.

While many liberals, reformers and other supporters of the capitalist system are sincerely opposed to official killings, they are blind to the fundamental causes of both crime and injustice within capitalist society. They attribute it to prejudice without asking themselves what it is about the society in which we live that creates these prejudices.

The basic reason for capital punishment within class-ruled society is that expressed by Count Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821), the reactionary French Catholic and royalist political theorist. Punishment is the real basis of order in society, he maintained, and added that the executioner should be honored accordingly. It is worse, he said, that the guilty should invariably escape than that the innocent should be unjustly condemned. Besides, he added, who is innocent? Many who have been executed for crimes they did not commit deserved their punishment for sins that were never discovered.

Capitalism today may pretend otherwise, but it, too, relies on terror, or the threat of it, to uphold the economic order. The individual execution of a convicted criminal is one facet of a society that produces criminality. Granting a reprieve to one of its victims does not absolve capitalism of its own crimes against humanity.

The Socialist Labor Party opposes the death penalty and unqualifiedly condemns its use by the political state for the vicious and hypocritical thing it is. At the same time, however, Socialists do not permit themselves to fall victim to any illusions about capitalism’s capacity to dispense any other form of justice than class justice.

Efforts on behalf of individuals, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, may save some of the state’s intended victims from execution, and may eventually lead to elimination of capital punishment. However, they will not alter the social conditions that produce capitalism’s need to maintain a form of “law and order” that is designed to protect the system and the ruling class from the consequences of the larger crimes it commits against the working class as a whole.

Writing of capital punishment in the 19th century, Karl Marx asked: “Is there not a necessity for deeply reflecting upon an alteration of the system that breeds these crimes, instead of glorifying the hangman who executes a lot of criminals to make room only for the supply of new ones?”

Socialists maintain that the solution to crime and the class-based prejudices and viciousness of capitalist “justice” is the abolition of the crime breeder—of capitalism itself.


Socialist Labor Party of America, P.O. Box 218, Mountain View, CA 94042-0218 • www.slp.org • socialists@slp.org

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