Marxist and neo-Marxist theories of crime

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Traditional Marxist approaches

Crime and deviance in a Western society can only be understood in terms of Capitalism and the class struggle; coercion and conflict are key features of a Capitalist society. 

Although very different to Functionalism, similarly they see the structures and institutions of society as largely determining how people behave. 

Karl Marx wrote very little about crime, but a Marxist theory of crime was first developed by Bonger and then further developed by writers such as Chambliss. The background to the approach was based on the Marxist analysis of society, which argues that society is best understood by examining the process whereby the majority of the population are exploited by the owners of the industry. Marxists argue that the fact of exploitation provides the answer to the explanations of the workings of society.

The key elements of the Marxist approach include:

  • the basis of criminal law
  • the dominant hegemony (ruling class values being imposed upon the population) of the ruling class
  • law enforcement
  • individual motivation
  • crime and control

The basis of the criminal law

All laws are for the benefit of the ruling class, and that criminal law reflects their interests. e.g. concern with laws of property ownership benefit those with significant amounts of property.

Criminal law operates to protect the rich and powerful.

Law creation and the dominant hegemony

In capitalist societies, the ruling class impose their values - those that are beneficial to themselves. They do this through a number of agencies (education, religion and media).

The dominant set of values forms the framework on which laws are based in a democracy; however, according to Marxists, the values have been 'forced' on people. This means, what they believe they are choosing to agree to, really is in the interests of the ruling class. 

Law enforcement 

Although the laws created were meant for the benefit of the ruling class, if applied fairly they could benefit the majority of the population. However, even the interpretations of the laws are biased, meaning that the police and criminal justice system are more likely to go harder on someone working class, than ruling class. 

Individual motivation

Marxist theory also explains individual motivation for committing crime. Bonger argued that Capitalism is based on competition, selfishness and greed and this formed peoples attitudes to life. This means crime was a perfectly normal outcome, as society stressed the importance of looking after yourself at the expense of others. However poorer people were driven to crime because of their desperate conditions. 

Crime and control

As previously stated, Capitalism diverts the vast majority away from the exploitation that occurs through institutions of social control such as education, media and religion.

Crime plays a part in doing so also, as it takes peoples attention away from the scandals of the Capitalist society, and focuses on the evil and frightening nature of certain criminal groups in society. People are then forced to believe that the police are the only ones that can help them, allowing an increase in hard


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