Marx: Law on Thefts of Wood

Marx, Karl. 1842. “Debates on Law on Thefts of Wood.” Rheinische Zeitung. Nos. 298, 300, 303, 305 and 307.

As editor of the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842-1843, Marx found himself having to cover what he deemed the “uninspiring debates” of the Rhine Province Assembly on the theft of wood. Before turning toward questions surrounding political economy, I have noted that Marx first deployed his critical intellectual energies toward critiques of idealism and particularly ideologies of the state. A transition period came during his time as editor of Zeitung. As editor and beginning with his coverage of the debates on the theft of wood, Marx found himself in the “embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests.” It was this experience that “caused me in the first instance to turn my attention to economic questions.”

Indeed, throughout these essays we can note the seedlings of ideas that Marx would later develop more fully. For instance, he notes how Cuba’s indigenous people regarded Spaniards’ obsession with gold as a fetish. “Would they [the indigenous] not have regarded wood as the Rhinelanders’ fetish?” As in the fetish, Marx is saying that the debate on the theft of wood was also conceptually divorcing wood from its various social relationships. He excoriates those who with and abject materialism “in connection with the law concerning wood … should think only of wood and forest and should solve each material problem in a non-political way, i.e., without any connection with the whole of the reason and morality of the state.” Marx’s polemical articles are a critique of how capitalism provides for the particular confluence of the state, private interest, law, property, and economic exclusion. His critique is waged on moral, ethical, logical, and philosophical grounds.

The law made the collection of fallen branches for firewood illegal and prosecutable by the forest owners. To begin with, as Marx notes, “Just as it is not fitting for the rich to lay claim to alms distributed in the street, so also in regard to these alms of nature.” In response, Marx calls for a universal “customary rights of the poor.”

In these customs of the poor class, therefore, there is an instinctive sense of right; their roots are positive and legitimate, and the form of customary right here conforms all the more to nature because up to now the existence of the poor class itself has been a mere custom of civil society, a custom which has not found an appropriate place in the conscious organisation of the state.

Marx also makes interesting comments about how the Assembly was proposing to punish the “theft” of wood. (In the sections of Discipline and Punish that I’ve focused on, Michel Foucault echoes Marx’s analysis here.) They debated the measure and economy of punishment; some proposed it depended on the value of the wood stolen.

The problem is to make the punishment the actual consequence of the crime. It must be seen by the criminal as the necessary result of his act, and therefore as his own act. Hence the limit of his punishment must be the limit of his act. The definite content of a violation of the law is the limit of a definite crime. The measure of this content is therefore the measure of the crime. In the case of property this measure is its value.

And, moreover, the “punishment must not inspire more repugnance than the offence, the ignominy of crime must not be turned into the ignominy of law, the basis of the state is undermined if misfortune becomes a crime or crime becomes a misfortune.” Marx also notes the problem with how the state is being essentially privatized by the law. Forest owners would be allowed to demand their own fines—depending on the value of wood pilfered—from wood collectors.

Marx also notes the exclusionary and dehumanizing implication of the law and the state in prosecuting wood collection in this way. “But the state must regard the infringer of forest regulations as something more than a wood-pilferer, more than an enemy to wood. Is not the state linked with each of its citizens by a thousand vital nerves, and has it the right to sever all these nerves because this citizen has himself arbitrarily severed one of them?” Marx describes this as the institutionalization of corruption:

If the state, even in a single respect, stoops so low as to act in the manner of private property instead of in its own way, the immediate consequence is that it has to adapt itself in the form of its means to the narrow limits of private property. Private interest is sufficiently crafty to intensify this consequence to the point where private interest in its most restricted and paltry form makes itself the limit and rule for the action of the state.

But Marx does not see this corruption as some kind of aberration from the “normal” functioning of things. The parliamentary system itself, he notes, is built on the presupposition that private interests—once it all shakes out—is the way society works best.

Private interest is sufficiently crafty to intensify this consequence to the point where private interest in its most restricted and paltry form makes itself the limit and rule for the action of the state. As a result of this, apart from the complete degradation of the state, we have the reverse effect that the most irrational and illegal means are put into operation against the accused; for supreme concern for the interests of limited private property necessarily turns into unlimited lack of concern for the interests of the accused.

This logic, which turns the servant of the forest owner into a state authority, turns the authority of the state into a servant of the forest owner. The state structure, the purpose of the individual administrative authorities, everything must get out of hand so that everything is degraded into an instrument of the forest owner and his interest operates as the soul governing the entire mechanism.

In simpler terms: “The wood thief has robbed the forest owner of wood, but the forest owner has made use of the wood thief to purloin the state itself.” One very important way the assembly has managed to do this, Marx notes, is by legislating exceptions (“the whole law was an exception to the law, and therefore the conclusion was drawn that every exceptional provision it contained was permissable”).

The forest owner has suffered by the theft of wood only insofar as the wood has suffered, but not insofar as the law has been violated. Only the sensuously perceptible aspect of the crime affects him, but the criminal nature of the act does not consist in the attack on the wood as a material object, but in the attack on the wood as part of the state system, an attack on the right to property as such, the realisation of a wrongful frame of mind.

Marx concludes: “Our whole account has shown that they are not to be understood as harmful results for the state, the law, or the accused. Moreover, we should like to make quite clear in a few lines that they do not include harmful results for the safety of citizens.”

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