The Great October Revolution: Punishment’s politics



Politics is not absent in the philosophy and culture of punishment ruling machines practice; and there’s nothing like class-neutral politics although a group of bookmen always suffer with annoyance and pain while they enter into discourse with issues like politics and punishment practiced by the poor and the exploited, and especially in case of the Great October Revolution. Punishment system is slanted in terms of class interest when it transects property and power. Punishment system in tsarist Russia was no exception; and the Great October Revolution had to weed that out, which was not a task of carrying with a stroke of a pen or through a few deliberations in legislative chamber or through mere pious wishes free from use of force, which a group of scholars dream and demand.

All ruling systems define law according to its requirement: class interest. History of enactment and evolution of laws stand with the evidence. John Locke argued: punishment requires that there be a law. For Locke, the power to punish rests not with the individual but rather with the government, and the extent/severity of punishment is the extent/severity that would provide restitution to injured parties, protect the public, and deter future crimes. (Two Treatises of Government, ed. by Peter Laslett, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, …, 1988) Tsardom, a heaven for exploiters, was not roaring around without its “law”, and the law, as it happens everywhere, was based on the property relationship the empire was built on.

The system, thus, legitimized and protected propertied interests it was based on. The system generated its “legitimacy to punish the wrong-doers” on the basis of its political power while it defined “legitimacy”, “wrong-doers”, “punishment” as class-based ruling systems do: self-class interest. The system rested on government while it defined government and the government’s constituents as is done in all systems: self-class interest. In the entire line of work, class rule was the deciding ingredient, which is sometimes forgotten by a group of scholars having posture of saints – away and aloof from this earthly world full with class contradiction.


Mortality rate rockets

Imperial Russia was no exception to universally high mortality rate among prison population. “[P]rison conditions worsened dramatically after 1906 because of overcrowding and a hardening of regime […] [and] after 1906 mortality rates rocketed. [….] Between 1906 and 1914, mortality rates in all prisons were three to four times higher than mortality rates among the general population.” (Sarah Badcock, A Prison Without Walls? Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016) The dead were the prison fodder, and, basically, the system fodder. The dead prisoners were less than cheaper than dead labor. The prisoners’ death had no impact on national average productivity as the empire had more labor in reserve to replace the dead. The demise of the prisoners had no impact on average rate of profit in the ruling system.

Prison labor

The empire used cheaper and expendable prison labor to exploit resource-rich Siberia.

Moreover, exiles, among others, were engaged in the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway. Harsh weather, difficult terrain, frozen ground made the construction work difficult. The frozen ground turned into swamps once it thawed after mid-July. Workers had to work in up to two feet of water. A total of 9,000 prisoners and 4,500 exiles worked on the railroad. The Amur and Trans-Baikal railways used the same “cost-effective” “human-resource”. In areas, the prisoners engaged as construction workers had to walk between one and five miles in the morning to get to their place of work, and returned to their barracks for lunch. The work was terrible manual labor: moving stones, clearing ground, felling wood, working in waist-deep water and swamp, covered with cloud of biting mosquitoes during dry days, intense heat, constant thirst, blackflies day and night, and in cases, many workers had to go barefoot as they were not issued boots. There were crowded sleeping quarters, insufficient dishes for meal that led workers to take rounds, no mattresses or pillows that led workers to gather herbs, hay, etc. to sleep on. (ibid.)

“Prison labour is not a novelty in modern history. The concept mainly feeds on two ideas of limited compatibility: re-socialisation through work and economic utilisation of the workforce. After the American Revolution, longer prison sentences became prevalent as punishments for male delinquents. This was seen as the more appropriate punitive form compared to the previously common hanging, torturing or pillorying. The extended time in prison was supposed to be conducive to atonement and the work to be conducive to acquiring skills and lawful habits. After 1820, however, a contractual labour system became dominant on a large scale, where the prisons’ operators were renting out the prisoners to private persons and companies (McLennan, 2008). In the Southern states, after the emancipation of the slaves, this system took on a massive scale, in a sense as a substitute for slavery. The old and new elites of the South remained interested to an equal extent in keeping up this forced labour (Lichtenstein, 1997), both to supply workers for the plantations, but also to build and maintain infrastructure. To achieve this, the threshold for arrests were lowered (the so-called Pig Laws) and prison terms extended. Since the private users of the prisoners’ labour power did not own the prisoners, their interest in maintaining the exploited prisoners was even less than in the case of slaves. Work conditions were accordingly brutal (Oshinsky, 1996). An intended side effect was the disciplining of the black population and free workers. In case of protests, the latter had to fear losing their workplace to a prisoner (Mancini, 1996).

“Nevertheless, rebellions did take place, and an armed revolt of mineworkers in the periphery of the Southern states (Eastern Tennessee) in 1891 accelerated the turning away from the contract labour system (Mancini, 1996), which had been criticised equally by small peasants and plantation owners for favouring large plantations. However, other forms of forced labour superseded the renting-out practice. In Mississippi, this happened in 1894 via state-owned prisons and farms (Oshinsky, 1996). In Georgia, the system persisted until 1909 and was then replaced by the chain gang prison system, where prisoners would have to carry out infrastructural work while being chained to each other (Lichtenstein, 1997). These practices only came to an end in the course of the 1960s civil rights movement.” (R M McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776–1941, Cambridge University Press. New York, 2008, A Lichtenstein, Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South, The Free Press. New York, 1997, D M  Oshinsky,  Worse Than Slavery, Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice, Free Press, New York, 1996, & M J  Mancini, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American. South, 1866–1928, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1996 cited in Christoph Scherrer and Anil Shah, “The Political Economy of Prison Labour: From Penal Welfarism to the Penal State”, Global Labour Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 2017) So, it comes out: the entire system is not free from profit-gain “game”.

The question comes: how to look at prison labor? “In sum, the evolution of prison labour has to be seen in the context of societal phases with their specific ideology, modes of production and balance of forces, and has to take into account the specific conditions of the labour market as well as the discrimination of specific social groups in society whose citizenship is questioned by a dominant segment of the population.” (Christoph Scherrer and Anil Shah, ibid.) Are not there issues of politics lying buried?

In the United States, and in other states after the medieval period, the system was no less cruel with lashing/flogging, execution, was not free from prison labor system, was not sitting idle “to turn unruly laboring men into ‘silent and insulated working machines’ [….] In the 1840s, the vast majority of American prisons so closely resembled the great textile manufactories for which free American industry was becoming internationally renowned that upon visiting one of these prisons, Charles Dickens found it ‘difficult at first to persuade myself that I was really in a jail: a place of ignominious punishment and endurance.’ In most states of the union, a free man convicted of felony crime could expect to spend several years imprisoned and at productive labor for the benefit of private contractors or, in some instances, a state-owned business. The great majority of men undergoing legal punishment found themselves sequestered in great cellular fortresses, ‘let out in the morning and barr’d at night’, in the words of Walt Whitman. ([…] Whitman […] was appalled by the conditions under which they lived and worked).” There was, in the words of a member of the Boston Prison Discipline Society, “constant supervision, silent hard labor during the day, and solitary confinement at night – the delightful results of wisdom and goodness.”  The prison system had to go through “contractors’ influence over prison life,” and “profit-oriented mode of imprisonment more generally.” A few changes were “in theory”, but “on the factory floor, […] it proved little more than a flimsy fiction. The business of industrial production […] involved the contractor, and his overseers and foremen in the disciplinary relations of the prison [….] The contractor’s foremen and instructors determined the kind of work to be done and set the pace.” (all cited parts in Rebecca M McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment, Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 176-1941, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, etc., 2008; Dickens is cited from his American Notes, Modern Library, New York, 1996, Whitman from “Song of Myself”, verse 37, from Leaves of Grass, 1855, and the Boston Prison Discipline Society-member from Fifteenth Annual Report, 1840)

Prisoners for war

The tsarist system used prison labor also for war, a critical phase of politics. Here, it was the prisoners of war (POW). “The Russian side may have actually outpaced the Alliance in forming national military units from among prisoners of war. The Russian army, during the years 1914-1917, captured a large number of prisoners of war, nearly 2 million according to postwar statisticians. The Russian high command […] began to experiment with national military units even before its opponents did. (David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye & Bruce W Menning, eds., Reforming the Tsar’s Army, Military Innovation in Imperial Russia from Peter the Great to the Revolution, “The limits of reform”, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington D C, & Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, 2004) Engaging with war appeared more profitable to the system than appropriating the POWs’ labor in some other way. Actually, the appropriation-profit-war-profit calculation is wider encompassing all the social labor and total profit in an entire economy. The Great October Revolution unchained these prisoners; and they survived from getting turned into cannon-fodder through the Revolution’s actions: oppose imperialist war. No class, but the proletariat took lead in opposing the imperialist war.

Pushing prisoners into war with a different appearance and form is also found today in a number of economies. Actually, with help from so-called liberal and a part of “progressive” camp, it has widened and turned more brutal with increased capacity to manipulate citizens and to shroud real face.

Monopoly of politics

The tsaristan’s Criminal Code of 1845 “became a milestone in the historical evolution of the Russian police state, institutionalized the long-standing custom of politics as a monopoly of the tsar and his senior officials.” The vagueness of language in the code resulted in “failure to distinguish deed from intent in describing state criminal activity”, and, “gave Russia’s political police its infamous gross latitude to harass, arrest, and punish Nicholas I’s subjects. [….] Russia’s tsars stood above the law and they issued edicts carrying the force of law without any recognition of requirements for consistency or observance of the statutes. [….] [R]uling and governing elites […] believed that the law served only one purpose: the preservation of the monarchy and through it their privileged and powerful positions. As these elites began to believe themselves threatened they stove to erode the political impact of the Great Reforms through a series of unpublished statutes dealing with political crime enacted by the government through the 1870s. [….] Between 1870 and 1879 tsardom promulgated but never published for public perusal nineteen laws expanding its arbitrary authority over the Russian people. The first of these edicts increased the government’s authority to deal with industrial strikes by administrative means. ‘Administrative authority’ in this case refers to Tsardom’s right to punish political criminals – those who threatened the security of the state – without due process of law. In 1878-1879 these unpublished decrees culminated with the condemnation to ‘administrative exile’ – the punishment of those persons adjudged a threat to the stability of society […]” (Fredric S. Zuckerman, “Law and the repression of political crime in Russia, 1826–1902”, in The Tsarist Secret Police in Russian Society, 1880–1917, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1996, paragraphs have not been indicated in the cited section, henceforth PNI)

The political machine developed along with the developments in economy and politics, which manifested in development of contradictions within the society. The more these developed the more the system sharpened its punishment system as part of its politics opposed to its subjects. “The growth and institutional development of the tsarist political policing system began slowly and rather haphazardly during the reign of Alexander I (1801-1825), evolved quickly under Nicholas I (1825-1856) and then began to grow in size and institutional sophistication, eventually spreading untrammelled throughout the empire and abroad during Tsardom’s remaining years. Political policing of sorts had taken place in Russia for more than two hundred years prior to 1800. [….] To protect the crown against future misguided treachery and to allay what became his perpetual fear of revolution, Nicholas I issued the Ukaz (decree) of 3 July 1826, establishing the Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Chancery. The Third Section and its subordinate military branch the Separate Corps of Gendarmes […] formed the tsar’s political force. Unlike its predecessors, concerned with those composed or surrounded the court, and who for the most part lived in St. Petersburg, the Third Section occupied itself with the opinions and behavior of a much broader segment of society – Russia’s educated classes: bureaucrats, officers, gentry, courtiers, and later, intellectuals. [….] In Russia the police existed for only two purposes, the maintenance of the political status quo and the enforcement of political stagnation. [….] By allowing policemen, governors and even local officials to decide what criteria constituted political criminal behaviour and by permitting law and order bureaucrats to determine the accuseds’ degree of guilt and their appropriate punishment […] Tsardom encouraged the founding of a separate police empire within the state. The empire would eventually increase its power at the expense of the crown itself.” (Fredric S. Zuckerman, “The Development of Modern Political Policing Institutions in Russia, 1800–1902”, ibid., PNI)

“[T]he detectives maintained surveillance over individuals, groups or places, while undercover agents infiltrated revolutionary organizations in order to subvert or inform upon their members. [….] Tsardom’s first line of defense against its people had traditionally been its detective force. The centuries old practice of treating the slightest sign of dissent as political subversion is startlingly exemplified by the watching brief assigned to Russia’s political police filery [detectives]. People in all walks of life and especially those whose careers involved them in communicating ideas were regularly placed under neglasnyi politseiskii nadzor (secret surveillance). This large group included: known revolutionaries; persons who have completed their sentences as state criminals; students; high school and university teachers; zemstva workers; persons occupied in various aspects of publishing; persons working in libraries and reading rooms; agitators among the peasants; and members of the military – both officers and enlisted men. Places where suspects met and spread subversive propaganda were also kept under secret surveillance – shops, eating houses, inns and public houses.” (Fredric S. Zuckerman, “Fontanka’s Foot Soldiers: The Professional Lives of Russia’s Political Police Detectives”, ibid., PNI)

“The First World War placed the political police system of Russia on alert. The forces of order like so many other institutions in Russia believed that the outbreak of war had merely granted Russia a reprieve from revolution, that its conclusion (with the inevitable victory of course) would bring on the long expected in the new century, challenging the last bit of authority the Romanov dynasty possessed over its people. [….] During the war the political police had access to vast resources allowing it to spread its tentacles more widely and deeply into Russian life than it ever had before. Tasks assigned to it […] included: […] stirring up loyalty for the dynasty by supporting the patriotic right-wing press and making payments to reactionary members of the State Council; […] and the establishment of surveillance over an entire range of civilians and officers it considered unreliable.” (Fredric S. Zuckerman, “Illusion and Reality: Into the Abyss, 1915–1917”, ibid., PNI) Undercover agents were placed within high schools; experts knowledgeable about revolutionary movements were engaged. (ibid.)

All these are parts of ruling mechanism as is found in different forms in all class-based ruling systems, and, all these parts are packed with force, the fact faithfully “missed” by eyes of a group of theoreticians having hearts of saints and analyzing issues of power in politics. The extent/spread and use of these parts varies only. Circumstances – capacity and maturity of ruling classes, and intensity of struggle by opposing classes – make the variance in use of force.

“[…] David Bazelon, the chief judge of the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, told the American Society of Criminology, ‘[P]olitics is at the heart of American criminology’. [….] [C]rime control strategies are profoundly political because they both reflect and direct the distribution of power in society. [….] [A]ll aspects of crime and punishment are inherently political for they lie at the ‘heart of matters of state, authority, and sovereignty’ […]” (David Bazelon, “The hidden politics of criminology’, Federal Probation, 1978, 42, & Ian Loader and Richard Sparks, Public Criminology, Routledge, London and New York, 2011, cited in Marie Gottschalk, ‘The carceral state and the politics of punishment’, in Jonathan Simon and Richard Sparks, eds., The SAGE Handbook of Punishment and Society, SAGE, Los Angeles, London, 2013) A judge is efficient enough to locate politics in criminology; but the sage-theoreticians deny to cast their eyes on it although they engage their brains into analyzing and evaluating a class act unprecedented in history: the October Revolution.

However, the fact is: “penal system is […] deeply embedded in a state’s […] political, cultural, institutional and social fabric.” (Marie Gottschalk, ibid.)

Punishment’s relationship

No activity of state machine is not without any connection, relation, and not isolated from the political order the state is embedded in; and punishment is one of the activities of state. “[P]unishment allows us to see political order in dynamic fashion. [….] [P]unishment is a problem of political regimes. [….] [P]unishment […] points toward the unrealized promise of political order […] [P]unishment can […] be a catalyst in the unraveling of regimes, and […] at times demonstrate the state’s powerlessness.” (Keally McBride, Punishment and Political Order, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2010)

“Garland […] writes that punishment should be seen ‘not in the narrow terms of the “crime problem” but instead as one of the mechanisms for managing the underclass.’ Because the punishments administered by the state are a fundamental component of political authority.” (David Garland, Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory, University of Chicago Press, 1990 & Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London, 1977, cited in  David Jacobs and Jason T Carmichael, “The politics of punishment across time and space: A pooled time-series analysis of imprisonment rates”, Social Forces, vol. 80, issue 1, September 2001)

In Punishment and Social Structure (Colombia University Press, New York, 1939), the famous Marxist analysis of connection between economy and social control, Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer claims: Every system of production tends to discover and use punishments which correspond to its productive relationship. They present the fact: Europe, especially its towns, was not having shortage of labor during the late Middle Ages. Human life of lower classes, therefore, carried little value to the masters. In the 16the century, death as the dominant mode of punishment climbed to its peak. “72,000 major and minor thieves were hanged during the reign of Henry VIII, and that under Elizabeth vagabonds were strung up in rows, as many as three and four hundred at a time.” At that time, England’s population was only about three million. Michel Foucault views the “dying a thousand deaths” punishment of the Middle Ages were not indicative of an attempt to control crime, but rather functioned as a means of publicly demonstrating the awesome power of the monarch. In the early-17th century, Europe was having a rising demand for labor although religious wars and pestilence considerably reduced populations in a number of the countries in the continent. So, criminals became a source of labor. Many criminals, instead of being hanged, were used in the army’s front line. A number of countries sold their convicted criminals to foreign armies. Convict labor, later, was found useful in the face of labor shortage in colonies including Australia and America. During the era of labor shortage, prison industries turned highly profitable. (John Braithwaite’s “The political economy of punishment” and Focault’s Discipline and Punish … are referred in the cited portion.) The tsardom didn’t go beyond this.

“[T]o say from the purely sociological standpoint, the bourgeoisie maintains its class rule and suppress the exploited classes by means of its system of criminal law. [….] Every historically given system of penal policy bears the imprints of the class interests of the class which instigated it.” (Evgeny B Pashukanis, Law and Marxism: A General Theory, tr. Barbara Einhorn, Ink Links, London, 1978, first published in 1929) The tsarist system was not beyond this fact.

“When we say that all inmates are political prisoners, we are not asserting that all criminal acts are deliberate, self-conscious acts of rebellion against an unjust authority. In fact, the overwhelming majority of inmates we saw are doing time for narrow, selfish acts such as stealing, breaking and entering, and fighting. Nevertheless, their incarceration is political since it is the end-product of decisions to treat some social harms as deserving of penal sanctions and others as not – with little regard to the actual extent of social damage.” (Joan Smith and William Fried, The Uses of the American Prison: Political Theory and Penal Practice, Lexington Books, Lexington, 1974, cited in David F Greenberg, ed., Crime and Capitalism: Readings in Marxist Criminology, Mayfield Publishing, Paolo Alto, 1981) Moreover, petty theft and similar acts are products of a certain property relation-reality; and the property relation-reality gets active and empowered through political arrangement/mechanism.

Power to punish a petty thief or a political adversary originates from political power; and political power stands on class power. The same class power reins entire society; and class power does not always rein by chains, but by chains at times, and always by institutions and organizations, arrangements and mechanisms, ideas and ideologies, fallacies presented as infallible and self-evident logic, argument, rationale and principles having no need to examine, and practices, coercion and threats of coercion; and these elements take the role of chains.

The Great October Revolution changed and de-legitimized the property relationship the empire was roaring on, overthrew the class rule engaged with protecting the relationship, and these acts were the Revolution’s “crime”. The “crime-count” increases as the “crime” stands as an example in front of all the exploited in the world. With the change of property relationship, the Revolution re-defined legitimacy, government, governing system, law, etc. as has been done by classes seizing political power for advancing self-class interest in the past although a group of scholars like to enact a travesty with historical facts.

The article is the last (4th) section of the 5th part, in abridged form, of a series composed on the occasion of the Great October Revolution Centenary. The 1st – 4th and 6th parts and the 1st – 3rd sections of the 5th part of the series were originally carried by, and the series is now being carried by the web site of Frontier, an independent, radical weekly from Kolkata.

Farooque Chowdhury, a Dhaka-based freelancer, has not authored/edited any book in English other than Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis and What Next, The Great Financial Crisis (ed.), and he does neither operate any blog/web site nor any facebook nor similar accounts.

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