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Marxist Theory of Crime: An Overview and Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2556 words Published: 3rd Jul 2018

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What can a Marxist understanding of society contribute to criminological theory?

Marxist understanding of the society sets the tone by giving an economic analysis of the society that sees a class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This struggle contains the attempts by the proletariat to free themselves from the domination of the bourgeoisie as they seek to take over the means of production.

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As Chablis states, “the capitalist society is where the means of production are in private hands and where the inevitably develops a division between the class that rules and the class that is ruled, it creates a substantial amount of crime” (Chablis, 2016). Marxism is a conflict theory established to create a belief that the capitalist system is just a way in which the bourgeoisie control and exploit the proletariat. It underlines the unequal conflict between these two social classes in the society. Marxist understanding of the society provides an explanation or gives us the opportunity to understand the criminological theory from a different perspective. It perpetuates an understanding of how the significant gaps between the social classes are the prime reason for criminal acts, it explains this through the income gaps, the exploitation of profit through labour, using consumers as an instrument to the end profit. Chablis “Crime diverts the lower classes attention from the exploitation they experience and directs it towards other members of their own class rather than towards the capitalist class or the economic system.” (Chablis, 2016) this reinforces the whole idea of capitalism structured only to favour the bourgeoisie as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It also underlines how we’ve accepted being exploited as something natural and making ourselves wage slaves (i.e. slave to the market, low pay and precarious employment, to the petty tyranny of managers, to the crises of capitalism). This essay would address how the Marxist perspective comes into play in contributing to the criminological theory.

The mode of production consists of both the means of production (the technological process) and the relationship of different classes to the means of production. The distinction between those who own and those who work for others is crucial. Often of the most violent sort, as a result,it emanate from the capitalist system. Chablis in his writing reinforces upon the prime Marxist factor in understanding the criminological theory” Due to the division of class, conflicts awake and this manifests in rebellions and riots among the proletariat’s, the state, acting in interests of the owners of the means of production will pass laws designed to control, through the application of state-sanctioned force, those acts of the proletariat which threaten the interests of the bourgeoisie. This act is defined as criminal.” (Chablis, 2016) The capitalist system is one which is subject to the crisis, due to its structure and how it functions, Marx and Engel argue that capitalism brutalises the poor, it fosters immorality and creates a higher likelihood for people to want to commit a crime. This can be supported from Merton’s idea of the strain theory; he explains this theory using the idea of the ‘American Dream’. In this, he illustrates how the end goal, is to achieve the American dream, however, those who can’t achieve this dream through legal means become delinquent in an attempt to achieve their goal in one way or the other. The structure of capitalism creates both the desire to consume and for a large mass of people. For those with the inability to earn the money necessary to purchase the items, they have been taught to want means they become delinquent. On this note, Marx would say, capitalism functions on this factors, without people being delinquent, capitalism cannot function as it thrives on poverty, unemployment and crime. Marx would also further on say, the bourgeoisie’s power to create and make law is what provides power, work and ability to control and bend the rules in their favour. As also argued by Chablis, “The criminal law is not a reflection of custom but is a set of rules laid down by the state in the interests of the ruling class. Due to class structure, criminal behaviour is now inevitable. Criminal behaviour is a product of the economic and political system in a capitalist society.” (Chablis, 2016) Criminality is simply not something that people have or don’t have, crime is not something some people do and some don’t. Crime is a matter of who can pin the label on whom and underlie this socio-political process is the structure of social relations determined by the political economy.so therefore, Marxist understanding of society contributes in making us understanding the criminological theory but illustrating how the apparent significant social gap amongst class contributes to the criminological theory.

The starting point for the understanding of society is the realisation that the most fundamental feature of people’s lives is their relationship to the mode of production. Willem Bonger view on the criminological theory underlines that capitalism is a culture of egoism, greed, the rich legitimately but also criminally greedy, the poor illegitimately greedy. He illustrated how the criminal justice system permits the selfish greed of the rich but criminalises that of the poor. This shows that the system significantly favours one social class and on the other hand significantly criminalises the other. The war or fight against crime is one which can’t be won. The criminal justice system doesn’t help but rather create a system of policing and punishment which reproduces the problem of crime which causes re-offenders to re-offend. Marxist understanding of the society creates a premise that there is a causal system in play. The proletariat is constantly in the struggle of overthrowing the bourgeoisie to create a utopian society ruled by all people. The constant attempt of the proletariat in overthrowing the bourgeoisie means it gets defined as a crime and therefore the proletariats are classed as criminals. This is as a result of the bourgeoisie actively working to set laws in place that oppress the proletariat by creating crimes that target the proletariat or put in place systems such as unemployment equals prison. As once the consumer can’t consume at will, they become delinquent. So, therefore, Marxist understanding of society contributes to criminological theory in illustrating how the social gaps cause a causal effect where the bourgeoisie uses their power in making the proletariat delinquent.

Marxist understanding of the society on criminological theory poses the notion that crime is an ideological construct as they do not refer to those behaviours which objectively cause harm, injury and suffering. Marxist understanding denotes that the capitalist structure creates a state of illusion. In this, he explains how the bourgeoisie uses their control to keep the masses ignorant of their exploitation. These results in the isolation of the worker from the process of production, the lack of control over work mean that the person identifies themselves as a machine and therefore work appears alien. The difference class system gap leaves the proletariat oppressed, with no power whatsoever to alleviate their situation. This then brings into light the whole idea of ideological control through the use of media in portraying an image of something which isn’t necessarily the case. This, of course, depicts a false illusion and creates a society where people are unsure of their identity or in fact living a fake identity in and within their societies. This essentially means the proletariat are being set up to fail by the bourgeoisie and punished by the legal system when they do fail. As Greenberg states “there must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery,” (Greenberg, 1993; 54) Marxists understanding also believe that when it comes to crime, governments fabricate information to suit their purposes and to get public backing for any action taken by that government that might be construed as trespassing on freedoms. Marx himself also recognises that we can observe in recent times that the continuous repetition of mass incarceration has turned into an economic attempt. It creates jobs (in the legal profession and in law enforcement) and it creates new technologies (e.g., electronic tags). Furthermore, the existence of criminals might foster the feeling of societal cohesion among the law-abiding and among those who appear to be law-abiding. Law enforcement agency discretion in making arrests, prosecuting attorney discretion in refusing to take legal action; dropping or reducing charges or going ahead with the prosecution, judge’s discretion in setting sentences and discretion in releasing criminals from custody, all operates to the advantage of the bourgeoisie. The right to a lawyer benefited those who could afford such superior legal representation more than it benefited others. Significantly, Marxian criminologists began to see these discriminations not as an unfortunate product of prejudice on the part of isolated individuals, but rather as a reproduction of the inequalities in power that follow from the inequalities of the bourgeoisie.

On the other hand, Marxist understanding also gave room for some questioning. The major problem with Marxist understanding makes an attempt to apply actions to people which are only applicable to a small minority. In addition to, the assumption or the conclusion that every form of crime that happens or occurs is due to the economic class struggle is tough to sustain. We must not dismiss the fact that Marxist understanding of the society doesn’t contribute to the criminological theory today but it is plausible to say such views are invalid in today’s society as Marxist understanding of the society was an explanation for the situations paying at hand in the 19th century but we are in a different era now. So, therefore, his understanding of the society is slowly becoming irrelevant. This is plausible and fair to say because we now live in a society where most people have undergone considerable improvements in their standard of living and we live in a society, where people are not trying to overthrow the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie aren’t in control of manipulating the criminal justice system as unlike before, most politicians, corporate companies, the rich, the enforcer of the law are being held accountable for any deviant actions and not rather just the proletariat being criminalised. So, therefore, it is fair to say the system now holds everyone accountable. In addition to, functionalist criminology would attribute more to flawed socialisation and see crime as a necessary element of the society to help bring about a collective change but also to support the combined conscience of the people. Marxism ignores the process involved with the criminal system. For example, Becker and Edwin Lemert focus on labelling theory to identify how and why people are identified, labelled delinquent and criminalised. Many fundamentalists such as Oakley argues more in common with a Marxist understanding of the society but with an emphasis on patriarchy rather than capitalism. This, therefore, shows that there are some loopholes for criticism in Marxist understanding of the society in contributing to criminological theory. However, one notion still stands firm and plausible, the gap between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is one which is still apparent as the rich gets richer and the poor get poorer.

To conclude, Marxist understanding of the society supporting contribution to criminological theory outlines the facts that crime occurs due to the class gaps amongst the proletariat and bourgeoisie, Marx also further goes to elaborate that the class gaps creates an effect where the bourgeoisie are in charge of the criminal justice system and therefore are capable of bending and making the law. This in facts put power only in the hands of the bourgeoisie and therefore makes the whole process undemocratic. Due to this, this creates and an economic gap where the poor are exploited of their services as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. This understanding illustrates that capitalism only thrive and survive on this factor, Marx explain this through the whole concept of the proletariat being sold a reality that they can’t afford and therefore are paid lower wages and in order to reach this goal, they either become delinquent or work harder and get exploited. The crimes of the rich are unaccounted for as they are in control of the law and the bourgeoisie ability to define law means they decide who a criminal is and what makes a criminal. Marx also touches upon the idea that crime is an ideological construct created by the capitalist system to create a state of illusion and as a result, he endorsed or highlights a revolution and such notion against the bourgeoisie would be considered an act of crime. Although briefly highlighted,, there are some loopholes in Marxist understanding of the society, it is plausible to conclude that Marxist understanding has helped put things into perspective in understanding the criminological theory as the social class and economic class gap amongst the rich and the poor, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is still an issue that needs addressing in today’s society.


Chambliss, W. (1975) ‘Towards a Political Economy of Crime’, Extract reprinted in J. Muncie et al (eds.)(1996) Criminological Perspectives: A Reader, London: Sage pg. 249-255

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Howard Becker (1973). Outsiders: studies in the sociology of crime and deviance. New York: New York free press. 1-18.

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