alex comfort


Alex Comfort

(A lecture at the Anarchist Summer School, London, 1950)


originally published by: FREEDOM PRESS London, England

reprinted in 1975 by: FRIENDS OF MALATESTA, INC.

Mikado, you may remember, prided himself on making the

punishment fit the crime. If he had been one of the more progressively-minded English Home Secretaries, he would have talked about making it fit the delinquent. A great many people use the word as a rather genteel term for criminal. I want to begin by pointing out that this is technically incorrect. Crime is something which the law punishes, and that is all it is. You probably know that the leading maxim of criminal law is that nothing is punishable unless the law expressly forbids it: crimes are those actions which are prohibited and which are punishable, and the term is a legal one. Delinquency is a psychiatric term, and it usually means that kind of behaviour disorder which expresses itself in injury to other people, or general mischief to society.

Now it is delinquency, and not crime, which psychiatry studies. I think you will see that thk must be so—statistical data on the prevalence of crime, for example, are almost meaningless, because any action can become a crime or cease to be a crime overnight. If Parliament passes a Bill, or the Minister issues an order, forbidding the sale of herrings less than four inches long, it is going to be reflected in the criminal statistics. I'm choosing an extreme instance to illustrate the distinction. In most societies, including our own, it is quite true that most crimes, at least the important ones, are acts of delinquency, but in the last hundred years this has become very much less true, owing to the growth of a very large body of administrative law. And the distinction becomes highly important as soon as one begins to try to use psychiatric methods in dealing with those whom the courts convict. It must be quite obvious, I think, when we hear people saying that all convicted criminals ought to receive psychiatric treatment, that psychiatry would have very little to say to Robin Hood convicted of shooting the King's deer, or to the man who steals when he is starving, or to the Tolpuddle martyrs, or to the individual who is convicted of street betting. Those are not extreme instances. In the last few years we have seen psychiatrists being asked to rehabilitate people and readjust them in society because they refused to drop bombs on civilians or to conform to the Nazi racial laws. I don't think I need say any more to stress the distinction between criminal and delinquent, except to point out something I am coming back to later, that while some delinquents commit crimes, those who do are quite arbitrarily selected by the form of the law at the time, and that others of identical make-up are either unpunishable or •re essential members of our present type of society. They may even make the laws which determine the selection.

I want to begin, however, by confining myself to the delinquents who are criminals, in the sense that they persistently fall foul of society and of the people round them in ways which bring them into conflict with the law, because they present a definite challenge to the ideas of society which we, at this conference, have been discussing. One of the standing arguments in favour of the coercive power wielded by the State is that delinquents of this type exist, and that we need to be protected against them. Now I know that most of us here don't accept that argument, any more than we accept punishment. What I want to do to-day is to give you a clearer idea of the evidence which, to my mind, justifies our rejection of it, but nevertheless I feel, from reading a good deal of our literature, that we are in danger of under-estimating the activity of these delinquents, and of assuming rather blithely that in a society of the kind we envisage they will disappear and give no more trouble. It is quite true, I believe, that we can eradicate this kind of delinquency almost entirely by altering the form of society, but only if we have a very clear idea of the exact causes which produce them. If we talk in general terms about getting rid of capitalism or of coercion, we are really being just as vague as the elderly magistrates who talk about improving the moral standards of the nation. The only hope of getting rid of delinquency, in an anarchist society or in any other, depends on our having as accurate a picture of its causes as we have of the causes of epidemic disease, and we can get that information by exactly the same methods. I want to look at some of the ideas of causation in delinquency which have been held in the past, then at more recent studies, and lastly at the implications of this work in any planning of new social patterns which we undertake.

During the period when our criminal law was formed, the normal explanation of delinquency was that it arose from spiritual wickedness. In other words, it had a supernatural cause. So long as that view persisted, attempts to analyse this construct any further were rather limited and scattered, though they were not by any means absent. With the growth of deism and rationalism, the idea of original sin and of the Devil did not decay at all rapidly—they became translated into the ideas of a basic human tendency to relapse into aggression against others, and in the idea of antisocial instinctual drives which had to be curbed. We no longer accept the "basic human tendency", or rather, we recognise that aggressive impulses are normally the obverse of social impulses, but we have to accept the idea that some people have strongly-developed antisocial impulses— the starting-point of rational criminology came when individual workers began to try to ascertain where these impulses originate, why some people show them more strongly than others, and how they can be remedied. The book which is usually regarded as the start of modern psychiatry of delinquents is Beccaria's Dei Dclitti e Delle Pate, published in 1764, but that book is a plea for humane treatment rather than a study of causes. Perhaps the first serious study of cause®, though it was rather a mistaken one, came from the physiognomist Lavater, who originated two of the longest-lived and most misleading ideas in psychology, that of the criminal type and that of the personality-trait, which he claimed to be able to recognise in the face. His influence is very manifest in the work of Lombroso at the start of the century. The tendency of Lombroso's work, as you probably know, was to assume that crime was an innate predisposition, similar to artistic proficiency or high intelligence. Ideas of this kind did much to limit the attempt to treat delinquents with a view to cure, by assuming that the man who commits crimes is genetically different from the man who does not, but it did rest on one very important observation, which still holds good, that those who commit crimes fall into two very sharp groups—those who commit one crime from a fairly obvious cause, who steal when they are hungry or murder someone under the influence of extreme provocation, and those who are recurring decimals and commit crime after crime, very often identical in detail.

I think it is important to recognise this fact, when we try to assess the claim of political theory that the law and the coercive forces of the State are our main protection against delinquents. Quite apart from any consideration of anarchism, the facts show that a relatively large proportion of the crimes which occur, and which are delinquent crimes, as opposed to administrative offences, are the work of a relatively small number of people. The evidence which we have to-day suggests that any of us here to-day are good for one criminal-delinquent act, given sufficient provocation—the fear of punishment may play some small part in keeping us in order, but if it were withdrawn, very few of us would rush out to steal something or kill the person we like least. Our internal standards of conduct would stop us from doing so. On the other hand, there is this very definite group of individuals who repeatedly do such things, and who do them m spite of the law, in spite of repeated punishment, and very often without any great personal advantage accruing to them. The problem of crime is not the problem of stray, innate, or natural antisocial impulses. Stable societies control these very effectively without coercion by the same kind of group-custom which would make any of us here very loth to walk down Oxford Street naked, even if we would not be arrested for doing so. The problem of crime as a serious menace to individual life and rights is the problem of the persistent offender, and the only protection the State gives us against him is that which we get from his absence in jail. I don't need in the present company to argue against mere incarceration for preventive purposes. If we can rehabilitate these people, we ought to—-there is quite as good a case, on grounds of policy, for imprisoning those who have open tuberculosis, but we don't consider it just or equitable to do this. From our point of view, the important thing is that this threat to society, upon which the State bases so many of its claims, would disappear if we could ascertain why individuals become persistent offenders, remove the causes which make them so, spot and rehabilitate the early case, and thereby remove the supply, even if we did nothing to rehabilitate the hardened cases.

The second thing which Lombroso recognised, and which led him to regard crime as congenital, was that the persistent offender almost invariably begins his antisocial activities at a very early age. And it is generally agreed that if we can focus our attention on the juvenile delinquent, pick out the group who are going to become persistent offenders, as opposed to the group of naughty boys, and arrest the process there, crime as an administrative problem will virtually disappear. That is why so much psychiatric attention is being focussed on juvenile delinquency to-day.

Now you'll notice that I have not been talking in specifically revolutionary or anarchist terms about this problem, because most of the work which is being done to-day is not being done by revolutionaries, but by psychiatrists who are trying to work, if not with, at least in, the existing order. I think their work is important, and for this reason—delinquency is not limited to crime. The further we go in the anthropology and psychology of delinquency, the clearer it becomes that the mechanisms which make some people into thieves or persistent murderers are not dynamically different from the mechanisms which make people into the other kind of delinquent, the socially-accepted and unpunishable delinquent, with whom we are at odds whenever we criticize power and coercion as institutions. This is not a theory peculiar to anarchists. It has a very wide, and, I believe, an increasing acceptance in psychiatry. As anarchists, the desire to dominate is the "crime" which worries us most. We recognise that at the moment the delinquent activities cf governments, and of individual psychopaths in them, are a greater threat to social advance than even the most serious examples of punishable crime. The individual who is clever or lucky as well as delinquent may be able to express his basic character-disorder in an unpunishable form—if he is unlucky or of low intelligence he will express it in what is commonly known as crime. In another context, the aggressive psychopath who bashes people and robs them may well be psychodynamically identical with the sadistic warder who bashes people and is allowed to do so, or the bucket-shop proprietor who goes to prison, with the demagogue who rises to be head of his party.

For this reason, a scientific attempt to ferret out the actual, concrete factors in society, the family, and the individual which lead to "crime" of the delinquent type is in itself a revolutionary activity, if by revolution we mean the attempt to alter inadequate social patterns by deliberate action, and any contribution to this study, even if the people who make it do not realise its wider significance, is of vital importance to us as revolutionaries. And it has another side. We're not always very logical. Most of us, I think, refuse on principle to be indignant, and to react by demands for revenge, against bandits or murderers, because we say that their behaviour is the outcome of defects in society. On the other hand, we are very often indignant, and we may react equally sentimentally, at the activity of power-groups or of individual rulers—or, perhaps more characteristically among anarchists, at the activity of a class, or of the whole group of rulers, who seem to us to be acting brutally or wickedly in their own fields. I don't want to suggest we should lose our healthy social indignation, any more than I suggest we should come to shrug our shoulders when we come across a multiple murderer, but I do feel that any revolutionary movement which is able, as I believe we are able, to ground itself in psychiatry should thereby acquire a balance and a principled approach to social evils which it can get in no other way. I believe that there is only one possible kind of revolution, a revolution based on a scientific study of the things we wish to foster and the things we wish to eliminate, and their adjustment by means which I would call psychiatric, not political, and those are the criteria which we have to fulfil if we are to make a contribution to human progress. And it goes further than that—it is known to-day that not only governmental power but revolutionary activity itself is a very common cloak for psychopathic tendencies in the participants. We all know the psychopathic crank, to our cost, and being a minority movement we have to guard against him: for all I know, I may be one. The application and reapplication of rational criteria to our own response and opinions is a positive duty, and an extremely difficult and arduous one. Is our hatred of coercion or authority based on evidence, or is it a discharge of aggressive tendencies which might have landed us in Dartmoor or in the Cabinet? It's a point I won't pursue, but we should mention it in passing. "The Delinquent" or the psychopath is invariably someone else, not the person who uses those words.

Now the crucial question for us is this—can we hope to interfere effectively to prevent the development of the delinquent type of behaviour disorder? Is it, as Lombroso suggested, and as a very few penologists still suggest, an innate defect? I think we can answer that with an unqualified "No." There is no significant evidence whatever to support such a view, except in a very limited number of mental defectives and organic psychotics who are destructive or troublesome, and even these can to some extent be trained as well as restrained. Is it, then, an economic effect? Does poverty breed crime to the extent we formerly believed? Up to a point it does, though some of that crime is hardly delinquency—crime, as I hope to show in a minute, is a breaking-down or breaking-out process, and like other explosive forms of behaviour many non-specific stresses can contribute. But poverty is by no means the only cause, and any simple economic view is not enough.

If you read the press, you will see that the causes of crime, especially juvenile crime, are known to practically everyone—bishops, magistrates, doctors, social workers, postman, and editors. Unfortunately, no two of these agree what they are. The most commonly cited are low moral standards in the home, either through lack of religious teaching or through the supposed growth of pilfering, fiddling and so on, lack of what is termed parental discipline, and the notorious fact that children steal because they want things—if they pinch sweets it is because they want sweets but won't save up for them, which is the spiritual-commensense theory in another form.

The only way to deal with this kind of assertion is by proper observation, to see if it is true. I'm going to devote the rest of my time to one particularly important study on these lines which has just been published, that undertaken by Stott for the Carnegie Trust. So far as I know he is no anarchist, so I can quote him without any charges of special pleading. His series of cases covers 102 youths between 15 and 18 in English approved schools—this is a smallish sample, but the results and the method were both of great general importance. I can't unfortunately do more than summarise Stott's findings, but the book can be obtained from public libraries under the title Delinquency and Human Nature, and I commend it to everyone here.

Stott's primary finding is that in almost every case the actual offences, whatever they were, whether sexual, larceny, or other, represented breakdown-reactions to enormous internal stress. In no case did a boy steal because he wanted something—unwanted objects were stolen, stolen objects given away. Parental discipline ranged from very severe to absent. Religious upbringing was indifferently present or absent. In Stott's own words, delinquent breakdown is an escape from an emotional situation which, for the particular individual and with various conditionings of his background, becomes at least temporarily unbearable. The motives of the offences Stott summarises as avoidance-excitement, which is apparently particularly associated with housebreaking, inferiority-compensation, delinquent-attention, resentment against parents, desire for removal from home, in that order. One important deduction from this finding is that criminal parents are not an important determinant, for this reason: the satisfaction or relief which the delinquents got from their offences were not concrete ones, like gain or advantage, but depended almost wholly on the fact that crime is something which society rejects, which brings punishment, gets them sent away from home, or scandalises parents. The boy whose father is a burglar does not try to spite him by stealing. The largest number (53%) engaged in crime as a means of forgetting their home problems in a round of adventure. Others deliberately courted detection to spite their parents or to escape from home. I think that a reading of the 102 detailed case histories here gives us a truer picture of what we are up against in dealing with the persistent criminal than does any examination of the later part of the process. The old lag has a hard shell—he is in equilibrium with himself, and one can't easily break in. But he is the end result of the same process. Stott shows very clearly that delinquency is a neurosis, if by a neurosis we mean a repetitive kind of response to a situation we cannot cope with, which is in itself inappropriate and useless, but which has become fixed as a habit.

For our purposes, we need to go further, and see what the stresses were which produced this pressure. They were all in essence tensions within the family. Summary gives little idea of them—to realise what these boys had to contend with, in "good" (respectable) homes for the most part, one has to turn to the case histories; Stott gives us broad headings which indicate the type of anxiety source, but not its intensity or the total absence of any real means of escape for the victim: anxiety over parents' health, desertion threats, being unwanted, estrangement from parents, unsatisfactory parents, neurotic, hysterical, stupid, over-severe; homes upset by quarrelling, separation, remarriage and so on. Under these one can make out, if one wishes, some of the more classical Freudian outlines. There is no one paramount cause— any major stress which impairs the stability, the confidence or the affection in a family can, under the right conditions, produce delinquency, some more than others, but in every case the aggression, irresponsibility or cruelty of the delinquent is the outcome of learning—it is a response he has acquired, not a charactcr-trait, but a way of reacting to a situation. And behind the family structure lies the structure of Western urban social-democracy, a pattern of communal life in many respects non-viable, a society which tends to consume, not reinforce its children because it has become socially non-cohesive. And the treatment which is required, this being so, is one of deconditioning, of "placing the delinquent in an environment in which his emotional wounds can best heal". How far this is from the orthodox legal idea of punishment I need hardly stress. As to the asocial society to which he must then return, the reform of that is already our prime concern as advocates of freedom and mutual aid.

I have neither the time, nor, I think, the authority to try to apply the lessons of what I have been saying to our ideas of changing society, except to point out to you once again that the family, in view of its part in character-formation, and the whole nexus of personal relationships which contribute to it, is the key not only to the problem of delinquency in its limited sense but in all the wider social and political contexts which interest us in our desire to found a noncoercive society where individuals respect one another without external sanction. There is plenty of room here for discussion and study.

There are two points I would like to make. First of all, modern work in this field seems to me to give us extremely strong ground for encouragement. The political field, and the type of revolution by a levee-en-masse, which earlier radicals looked for, have never been bleaker in prospect: the new knowledge and study of the machinery of human societies and of individual character-formation gives us, I think, not only a field in which to work with every hope of success, but also an assurance that the ideas which we have espoused, for various reasons, conscious or unconscious, since the time of William Godwin, are becoming increasingly the currency of scientific thought. Secondly, I want to stress the importance of our keeping up with the work which is going on, of seeing all the results, whether they support our preconceptions or not. It is not good enough to read A. S. Neill because we like his ideas and not read those who criticize him. Personally, I would like to see more of us, those who can, taking training in social sciences or engaging in research in this field. I do not want to try to turn anarchism into a sociological Fabian Society, from which non-scientists are excluded. I want to see something done which has not been done before—a concerted, unbiassed, and properly documented attempt to disseminate accurate teaching of the results of modern child psychiatry, social psychology and political psychology to the general public on the same scale as we have in the past tried to disseminate revolutionary propaganda. That most certainly does not involve any split between "worker" and "intellectual"—the worker wants the information, and wants it now, exactly as he wants the doctor, or as the intellectual wants food and coal, and in terms of mutual aid each relies on the other to deliver the goods. I think this is the complement of what other comrades are doing in industry by pressing for such things as workers' control and local autonomy—the two go together. And there is another side to this—most of us may feel depressed from time to time at the complacency of the public in the face of economic and industrial issues and of political injustice: we should have to be radiant optimists, I think, to anticipate any mass movement toward our ideas at the moment, or, if such a movement did miraculously occur, to believe that the English public, conditioned to live as it does and think as it does, could be translated at all suddenly into a higher level of individual responsibility. As a minority movement, our best chance lies in our power of forming opinion. By learning how free men are made, and why they are in short supply to-day, psychiatry seems to me to be filling a role which is not less revolutionary for being unspectacular. I want to suggest to you that it is here, where power, delinquency, and most of the other maladajustments which we want to see removed, can be attacked by the methods which got rid of epidemic disease that we may perhaps be able to make our most effective contribution to the kind of world we want.

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