Marxist Theories of Criminal Justice and Criminogenesis

Working from the Marxist materialist conception of history (see “The Marxist Theory of History” and “Historical Materialism and the Struggle for Freedom”), Marxists approach the subject of crime and deviance in two basic and interconnected ways.

Marx and Engels

In the first, scholars theorize that the categories of deviant behavior that draw official sanction are products of the superstructural imperative to secure and entrench exclusive property and related forms of oppressive social relations and, more specifically, manage labor markets. Because the character of the superstructure reflects the interests of the ruling class, it is these that shape the deviance making process and the content of the categories used to control individuals and groups. Moreover, since the societal structure changes over time, the character of the deviance making enterprise and its products is temporally variable. These ideas express the dialectical theorization of societal development.

In the second, Marxists focus on the criminogenic character of class-based social structures, theorizing in particular that the discontents of capitalism, a system marked by alienation, immiseration, inequality, and injustice, produce the criminogenic conditions requiring the criminal law and necessitating its aggressive enforcement. Oftentimes one finds this view in Marxist penology alongside the analysis of control structures. However, it deemphasizes critical theory of coercive control.

The historical record supports the theory that economic imperative and the attendant political character of a given concrete mode of production shape the control machinery and its deviant categories. At the stage of primitive communism, where there is neither social class nor state and law, one finds scant evidence indicating the existence of formal and coercive social control machinery. Instead, control of deviance appears as informal and not particularly punitive. Moreover, there is little crime and violence in evidence (even when crime is defined beyond the principle of legality). The emergence of the state and law coincides with the appearance of social class and patriarchal relations, which are associated with the arrival of large-scale agriculture. At this point, social control as an institutional force appears. Each successive stage of development in segmentation leads to greater inequality in wealth and power; with each stage, the formal control machinery becomes more extensive and elaborate.

Capitalism represents the highest stage of exploitative relations and therefore achieves the highest level of coercive and ideological control. It is in this context that sophisticated police and carceral structures appear, accompanied by a scientifically framed intellectual system, principally the disciplines of criminology and penology. Other historically unique control systems also emerge, such as the mental health industry, with its own intellectual (or ideological) justifications in tow, taking the forms of psychiatry and psychology.

Noting that this machinery is far more extensive than past arrangements, Marxists theorize that the chronically alienated state of the working class and the problem of managing the fallout from the periodic crises associated with capitalism require an extraordinary control apparatus operating at the boundaries of the structure of work place rules. The latter concern especially flows from Marx’s theory of the general law of capitalist accumulation, presented in Capital I, wherein rising organic composition of capital, defined as the ratio of variable capital to constant capital, swells the ranks of the unemployed, or industrial reserve army.

In the 1990s, Michael Lynch and associates tested hypotheses derived from this theory, positing a relationship between the rate of surplus value and the size and scope of the police and carceral functions in the United States. Their research provides compelling empirical support for the theory.

The interest in the relationship between wage labor and carceral control is a longstanding one in the Marxist literature on crime and deviance. Perhaps the paradigm of modern Marxist penology is Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer’s landmark Punishment and Social Structure, based on Rusche’s seminal article “Labor Market and Penal Sanction.” Rusche posits a relationship between labor supply and rates, types, and intensities of punishments. Harsh physical punishments are associated with economic downturns, a relationship that, he theorizes, is a function of the concomitant rise in surplus laborers; since one’s labor is attached to one’s person, the less valuable one’s labor, the less valuable one’s person. In contrast, rehabilitation and prison labor, publicly appealed to as enlightened reform, take priority during periods of economic expansion. Again, supply-and-demand plays the crucial role: the need for labor shrinks the supply of labor thereby making each laborer more valuable. Stripped of complexities, the pendulum swing between repression and reform is a function of the rhythms of capitalism. 

Punishment and Social Structure expands on this idea and, inspired by Marx’s analysis of primitive accumulation in Capital I, explores the history of carceral control. Rusche and Kirchheimer compare the capitalist epoch with the epoch it superseded. There was no centralized state or bureaucracy under feudalism. Conflicts were, for the most part, resolved privately. Moreover, social arrangements were not such to require repressive public control. As a consequence, punishments were not severe. However, by the latter middle ages, private criminal law yielded to greater levels of state control and punishment. Capitalism required the destruction of relations protecting labor under the feudal system: the lord was dispossessed of political and economic power, the master craftsmen of the guilds transformed into an unattached skilled proletarian, and serf and peasant forced off the land via enclosure for use as cheap labor. This was achieved in part through measures criminalizing guilds and unions with the charge of conspiracy, as well as statutes and ordinances expanding the scope of foraging, poaching, trespassing, and vagrancy laws. Theft naturally increased with manufacturing, as objects once owned by those who made them became the property of those who owned the land and means of production. Subsequent works by several scholars, including William Chambliss and Christopher Adamson, have sustained Rusche and Kirchheimer’s thesis.

In the area of legal theory, Evgeny Pashukanis demonstrates that the criminal law (and law in general) embodies an ideology that functions to perpetuate the rule of the bourgeoisie. For example, the principle of equal treatment obscures the reality of class inequality and exploitation by projecting an image of the law with the outward appearance of neutrality and universality. Bourgeois morality becomes common morality, a superstructure concealing the true operation of criminal justice as an apparatus managing the working class for the sake of reproducing the unequal division of property. A leading modern exponent of this view is Jeffrey Reiman, who, in The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, argues that, whereas the pretense to universalism legitimizes the use of force by government, the state’s failure to manifest equal justice makes its coercion analogous to criminal violence. He concludes criminal justice is really a criminal justice system. 

The second way Marxists approach the subject of crime and deviance is to focus on the criminogenic conditions generated by the capitalist mode of production. This emphasis emerges early in the development of Marxist theory. Engels, in The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844, argues that the degrading working conditions prevailing under industrial capitalism demoralize the proletariat, leading to a loss of social control among workers and their children. The discontents of capitalism provide workers with the temptation to engage in deviant behavior and wear down their moral capacity to withstand temptation. Capitalism thus generates the social conditions that turn some members of the working class into criminals. Engels characterizes crime among the working class as a form of “primitive rebellion,” the “earliest, crudest, and least fruitful kind,” which, because of its expression at an individual level, is not only suppressed by the state but also condemned by the working class. For this reason, Engels and Marx are skeptical that working class criminals could be of much use to their revolutionary goals. They write in the Communist Manifesto that the conditions of capitalist society make more probable that working class rogues will play “the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” Marx and Engels describe street criminals as “lumpenproletariat,” “social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society.”

The lumpenproletariat (the “dangerous class”)

Marxists do not see the street criminal as the only criminogenic consequence of capitalism. Engels theorizes that capitalism encourages crime among the bourgeoisie, as well, and, further, observes that the character of crime control is shaped by class location. In a passage that anticipates the work of Edwin Sutherland, Engels writes, “Murder has been committed if society knows perfectly well that thousands of workers cannot avoid being sacrificed so long as [capitalist] conditions are allowed to continue.” Willem Bonger, credited with the first full Marxist criminological work of the twentieth century, echoes Engels’ argument, theorizing that the tendency of capitalism to reduce everything to a cash nexus, pitting worker against worker in unforgivingly competitive markets, and promoting egoism over altruism constitutes a criminogenic milieu. This allows Bonger to account for crime across the class structure. 

A critique emerged in the late 1970s wherein proponents, most notably Jock Young, took issue with “left idealism,” identified as the tendency to treat the criminal as something of a working class hero. The left idealist, so goes the critique, romanticizes the working class criminal, depicting the rogue as a revolutionary, a portrayal that stands in stark contrast to that painted by Marx and Engels. In one notable example, David Greenberg characterizes the proletarian criminal as the “vanguard of the revolution.” This view of crime, according to the “left realist,” rationalizes the behavior of the proletarian who turns to crime, explicitly justifying behavior harmful to working class interests. Given that most victims of street crime are proletarian, if Marxists criminologists are to represent the interests of the working class, then they must take the problem of working class crime seriously. The arguments of the left realists were influential in the United Kingdom during the 1990s, where they played a role in the development of New Labor’s crime control policies. However, Young himself was critical of these policies as New Labor jettisoned class analysis and shifted the blame to the victims of capitalism. 

What of Marxism as a transformational political project? A piece of the project manifests today in the revolutionary act of overthrowing bourgeois definitions of crime. Developing her own conception of crime, the politically committed Marxist indicts the capitalism and associated problems of alienation, imperialism, poverty, racism, and sexism. For example, Julia and Herman Schwendinger argue that the capitalist mode of production represents the systematic violation of human rights as understood from the radical democratic and egalitarian standpoint, or, using Erich Fromm’s distinction, “positive liberty.” The Schwendiners distinguish between personal rights necessary for continued personal existence, such as the right to clean water and nutritious foods, and those necessary for dignified human existence, for example the right to democratic freedoms, an education, housing standards, etc. Marxists judge capitalism incapable of meeting the terms of these rights, as it rests on the exploitation of human labor and the unequal division of the fruits of that labor. 

It is in the rejection of bourgeois definitions of crime and the redefining of criminal conceptions along radical egalitarian lines that Marxists most clearly differentiate their project from that of the conflict theorist. Seeing crime and deviance as social problems resulting from inadequate social institutions and the struggle over cultural values and partisanship inhering in a pluralist society, public issues that can in turn be addressed with a more equitable distribution of income and engaged citizenry, conflict theory is ultimately reformist in character.

The conflict social scientist’s failing is that he does not begin with a critique of the material foundation of the social order. His conception of power is rather more idealist; it is the struggle over social power that generates conflict. In contrast, the historical materialist sees conflict as emanating from the mode of material life, with class antagonisms and the property arrangements serving as fuel. Power emanates from the prevailing socioeconomic arrangement.

Criminogenesis in both its senses is ultimately the manifestation of the underlying class struggle that pervades capitalist societies: the criminal justice apparatus is, by design and by historical development, a structure to secure bourgeois rule over the proletarian masses; the impoverished and conflict-ridden conditions generated by capitalism imperil the working family, while, at the same time, encourage the pursuit of profit at the expense of the public good. The Marxist critique strikes at the roots of modern capitalist society, an unjust system that humankind cannot reform, but must instead abolish. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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