Written by: Claire Laster
Marxist theory condemns Western capitalist society as an unjust divide between two classes: the ruling bourgeoisie who own the means of production (the capitalists), and the proletariat, the poor masses with nothing to offer but their own labor. Because the bourgeoisie control the means of production, they control the political state and thus their position of power over the proletariat is perpetuated. This system leaves the proletariat oppressed, with no power whatsoever to alleviate their situation. In the words of Karl Marx, “There must be something rotten in the very core of a social system which increases its wealth without diminishing its misery,” (Greenberg, 1993; 54). According to Marxist theory, the bourgeoisie will remain in power unjustly oppressing the proletariat until the poor masses cooperate with one another to violently overthrow the capitalist government and economy and replace it with a classless, socialist system. It is unsurprising then, that the Marxist approach to crime centers on this class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Because the capitalists control the political state, they also control the criminal justice system. The system appears to serve the interests of the proletariat, but it is in reality used against them by the ruling class. Greenberg states that the theme dominating Marxist criminology is the “contention that criminal legislation is determined not by moral consensus or the common interests of the entire society, but by the relative power of groups determined to use the criminal law to advance their own special interests or to impose their moral preferences on others,” (Greenberg, 1993; 4). For Marxists then, the cause of crime is dictated by social forces, namely capitalism, and thus remains beyond the control of individuals.
Bonger’s Criminality and Economic Conditions (1916) contends that the competition and profit motive emphasized by capitalistic societies produces “egoistic tendencies” and greed in the individuals within those societies (Akers & Sellers, 2009; 244). However, because the bourgeoisie own the means of production and control the law, they can afford to be greedy and pursue their egoistic desires. According to Bonger, it is the poor proletariat whose egoistic actions are labeled as criminal because of their lower position in capitalist societies. Bonger’s theory provides a very basic overview of the Marxist theory of crime. However, because his theory offers only a single-factor explanation of crime, it has largely been discredited. Others have presented ideas very similar to Bonger, however. For instance, in their book Crime and the American Dream (1994), Messner and Rosenfeld state that the American economy creates a society “conducive to conflict and crime,” (Sims, 1997). Messner and Rosenfeld’s book maintains that there is a ‘dark side’ to the American Dream: the obsession with monetary gain and a simultaneous minimization of alternative measures of success. The proletariat who lacks opportunity for success and monetary gain, but yet is still indoctrinated with this “fetishism of money” is thus left with only illegitimate means by which to seek success in a capitalistic society (Sims, 1997). Sims continues this argument saying that all individuals in American society are socialized to embrace this doctrine of material gain and that American society expects that all individuals should achieve, or at least pursue, the American Dream regardless of their status in society (Sims, 1997). Essentially, the proletariat is being set up to fail by the bourgeoisie and punished by the legal system when they do fail.
Criticism of the Marxist theory of criminology has tended to focus around the fact that much of the theory can really be seen as an “ideological condemnation of Western democracies and a call for revolutionary action to overthrow them,” (Akers & Sellers, 2009; 240) and not truly a criminological theory with implications for our criminal justice system. Other critics contest the claim that Marxist criminology “enhances our understanding of crime,” (Greenberg, 1993; 21). And perhaps the most crucial criticism of Marxist criminology is the question of whether or not it is scientific. Many critics argue that the statements made by the theory are not empirically testable. However, empirical research has been conducted utilizing principles of the Marxist theory of criminology and is touched upon below.
As a whole, there really is little in the Marxist theory of criminology that is empirically testable. It has been tradition for Marxists to examine history as a way to determine the adequacy of Marxist principles and the socialist societies that they precede. Of the empirical evidence that has been undertaken, results are mixed. For example, Harring, who studied the development of police forces in Buffalo, found:
The forms of police organization, patrolling practices, etc., were to some extent influenced by a desire to control "the labor problems" of those cities in a time of industrial development, rather than to deal with an actual or perceived increase in the rate of serious crime. (Sparks, 1980)
So it would seem that law enforcement is at least in part influenced by the economy when enforcing the criminal law. In the same vein as Harring’s study, much of the research done has focused on criminal justice institutions and social control, but much less has been conducted on actual criminal and deviant behavior. One exception is Greenberg’s 1977 study of the age distribution of delinquency. As Sparks discusses, Greenberg was questioning why deviant behavior is so prominent in adolescence and suggested that it is a result of the “desire to participate in social activities with peers, and the absence of legitimate sources of funds to finance that participation,” (Sparks, 1980). In essence, the adolescent’s position in the capitalist society sets them up for an increased probability of criminal behavior.
However, as stated above, many of the principles of Marxist criminology are extremely difficult to test scientifically and the tradition has been to look at historical models of socialist societies influenced by Marxist principles. However, historically, socialist societies have been totalitarian or authoritarian and “have not progressed to the point of instituting a classless society with a non-repressive system of law and criminal justice,” (Akers & Sellers, 2009; 242). Historically, socialist leaders such as Joseph Stalin have created command economies in which an even smaller elite than in capitalist economies controls the means of production. This begs the question: is capitalism truly the cause of crime, and is socialism really the answer?
Rather than focusing on the aspects of individual criminals or their specific environments when approaching the crime problem, Marxist criminology instead demands taking a holistic view of society and its organization. This is because Marxist criminology assumes that the organization of political, legal, and even social institutions shape the patterns of criminal behavior. As Greenberg discusses, Marxists “expect patterns of crime and of social responses toward crime to change as society’s economic and political organization change,” (Greenberg, 1993; 18). In its most elementary form, Marxist theory calls for this societal change in the form of the violent overthrow of the capitalist system. However, this radical response is unquestionably not the most appropriate solution for the United States criminal justice system. Indeed, Marxist theory essentially posits that crime will always be a major issue in capitalist systems, and the need for individuals to commit crime will only subside with the establishment of a socialist system in which the “profit motive would be eliminated, [and] concern for the general social welfare would dominate over selfish privilege and competitiveness,” (Akers & Sellers, 2009; 252). Without this competition driving the need for wealth and success, criminal activity would be reduced to more negligible amounts. If crime results from the labor conditions of capitalist societies, then remove those conditions and crime should decline drastically. The common man will no longer need to steal from the affluent bourgeoisie in order to feed his family because with socialism comes equal ownership of the means of production across all of society. In short, the only solution to the crime problem as defined by Marxist theory involves the complete annihilation of capitalism and the subsequent adoption of socialism.
This unrealistic reliance on a violent revolution to usher out capitalism and all the crime and inequality that comes with it has led to Marxist theory being “dismissed as a utopian realm of thought with no relevant policy implications except revolution,” (Lynch & Groves, 1986; 105). More moderate proponents of Marxist theory have instead called for non-revolutionary reforms and policies that are strikingly similar to those of mainstream criminological theories such as increased employment opportunities and community alternatives to incarceration. However, to remain loyal to true Marxist criminology, the only valid solution to the crime problem provoked by the disparities of wealth distribution in capitalist societies would be to completely eradicate the old system and establish a new socialist one.
Akers, R. L., & Sellers, C. S. (2009). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and
application. (5th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Lynch, M. J., & Groves, W. B. (1986). A primer in radical criminology. Harrow and Heston.
Sims, B. A. (1997). Crime, punishment and the american dream: Toward a marxist
integration. Journal of research in crime and delinquency, 34(1), 5-24. doi:
Sparks, R. F. (1980). A critique of marxist criminology. Crime and justice, 2, 159-210.