The Expediency of Justice

Words carry cultural, philosophical, ideological overtones far more significant than their bare, stripped down dictionary definitions, the term “justice” being one of the most loaded. From the Western democratic perspective, a very short-lived and geographically marginalized perspective (as Solzhenitsyn has pointed out) not to mention being a concept that no state has ever managed to implement, “justice” is defined from near the individual extreme of a political continuum that reaches a social extreme at the other end. The historical roots of this view, which 21st century Westerners are mostly content to take credit for may well extend back to early Christian days. In any case, the contemporary view in a U.S. that likes to forget how recently it has accepted anything remotely resembling individual rights (the morality of slavery split the nation to the point of nearly provoking self-destruction only 150 years ago and only that battle paved the way to ending the economic slavery of restricting voting rights to those with property and the sexual slavery of restricting voting rights to men, while the rich in the U.S. in 2010 won a historic battle to reverse centuries of struggle and legalize the purchase of elections) is so far over on the individual end of the continuum that it is constantly necessary to remind people that individual liberty does not confer the right to poison the commons or ignore the rights of other individuals, be they fellow drivers or victims of an oil corporation’s poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico.

There is of course an alternative perspective, as implied by the existence of a continuum, and that, to simplify the already simplified view of a single continuum into a neat, black vs. white choice, is to place society firmly ahead of the individual. (How some faction is to be selected to define the “needs of society” once the individuals in that society are denied that right is a second-stage question not to be addressed here.) Other continua may well be more important in evaluating the concept of justice than the choice between individual and society; for example, one might argue that the most important choice is between conflict resolution by discussion vs. force truly lies at the foundation of any structure of justice. In any case, those who put society first have a very different definition of justice than those who put the individual first, and when members of these two groups talk to each other, the delicate ship of communication is likely to founder on the sharp reef of how each implicitly, if not secretly, defines “justice.”

Потому не нужны юридические тонкости, что не приходится выяснять — виновен подсудимый или невиновен: понятие виновности, это старое буржуазное понятие, вытравлено теперь (стр. 318).

Итак, мы услышали от товарища Крыленки, что Революционный Трибунал — это не тот суд! В другой раз мы услышим от него, что Трибунал — это вообще не суд: «Трибунал есть орган классовой борьбы рабочих, направленный против их врагов» и должен действовать «с точки зрения интересов Революции… имея в виду наиболее желательные для рабочих и крестьянских масс результаты» (стр. 73).

Люди не есть люди, а «определённые носители определённых идей». «Каковы бы ни были индивидуальные качества [подсудимого], к нему может быть применим только один метод оценки: это — оценка с точки зрения классовой целесообразности» (стр. 79).

То есть ты можешь существовать, только если это целесообразно для рабочего класса. А «если эта целесообразность потребует, чтобы карающий меч обрушился на головы подсудимых, то никакие… убеждения словом не помогут» (стр. 81), — ну, там доводы адвокатов и т.д. «В нашем революционном суде мы руководствуемся не статьями и не степенью смягчающих обстоятельств; в Трибунале мы должны исходить из соображений целесообразности» (стр. 524).

В те годы многие вот так: жили-жили, вдруг узнали, что существование их — нецелесообразно. [Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 287-288.]

The reason that fine points of jurisprudence are unnecessary is that there is no need to clarify whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty: the concept of guilt is an old bourgeois concept which has now been uprooted…

“A tribunal is an organ of the class struggle of the workers directed against their enemies” and must act “from the point of view of the interests of the revolution…having in mind the most desirable results for the masses of workers and peasants.” People are not people but “carriers of specific ideas.” “No matter what the individual qualities [of the defendant], only one method of evaluating him is to be applied: evaluation from the point of view of class expediency.”

In other words, you can exist only if it’s expedient for the working class. And if “this expediency should require that the avenging sword should fall on the head of the defendants, then no…verbal arguments can help. (Such as arguments by lawyers, etc.) “In our revolutionary court we are guided not by articles of the law and not by the degree of extenuating circumstances; in the tribunal we must proceed on the basis of coonsiderationsn of expediency.

That was the way it was in those years: people lived and breathed and then suddenly found out that their existence was inexpedient. [Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Arch

The Bolshevik thinking portrayed here by Solzhenitsyn lays out bluntly their stunning (to a naively modern Western democrat) dismissal of individual rights, but the Bolsheviks had it wrong in calling individual justice a bourgeois concept. Anyone is in principle capable of understanding the idea of individual rights, from Christians in Rome’s catacombs to a slave seeking freedom like the eloquent Frederick Douglass. In practice, it is not entirely clear what enables one to differentiate right from wrong or to visualize distinctions between liberty and oppression or to seize abstract visions of “justice” and apply them appropriately to real life. Perhaps the key to achieving that is simply to know that fundamentally different assumptions about the meaning of certain common words underlies one’s definitions. It is not just the Bolsheviks who defined “justice” in ways most Americans today would consider alien.

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