Marxism – Crime and Deviance

Lesson objectiveTo explore the marxist approach the crime
Lesson outcomes• Assess its relevance in today’s society
• Analyse the perspective
• Explain what marxist’s believe


Don’t be caught out…… Marxist approaches can also be called “Radical Criminology” in your exam. Make sure you are comfortable using both key terms.

Marxism takes a structural view of crime assuming that all people who consist of the proletariat are treated equally harshly by the bourgeoisie. Systems of punishment and governance are run by the bourgeoisie and act as a mechanism to control and oppress society.

  1. Capitalism is Crimogenic –Capitalism promotes and forces individuals to commit crimes. There are generally, three ways that shows this:
  • Capitalism encourages individuals to pursue self-interest rather than public duty. Social exclusion is where people are excluded from full participation in society. Gordon (1971), develops this concept and suggests that what is surprising in these circumstance is not that the working class commit crime, but that they don’t commit more of it. The reason for this, is because they are socially excluded.
  • Capitalism encourages individuals to be materialistic consumers, making us aspire to an unrealistic and often unattainable lifestyleAdvertising and product placement can lead to status frustration and feelings of failure, inadequacy. Not everyone can achieve these products legitimately through working and thus. For those millions who lack the legitimate means to achieve the materialist norm through working, creates the conditions that can lead to status frustration, which in turn can lead to crime. Merton and Nightingale have pointed out that for some the desire to achieve the success goals of society outweigh the pressure to obey the law, advertising only adds to this strain between the legitimate means and the goal of material success.​​

Take a look at the example (left). Do we really need a house that big? If a person cannot afford this, but aspires to acquire it, illegal means are the only way.

  • Capitalism in its wake generates massive inequality and poverty, conditions which are correlated with higher crime rates. Bauman highlights that the very wealthy segregate themselves from the rest of society, through living in exclusive gated communities and travelling in private jets or first class. If people can afford it, they move to a better area and send their children to private schools. Marxists state that this visible difference in lifestyle creates a sense of frustration and anger. Chambliss supports this and states economic crime ‘’represents rational responses to the competitiveness and inequality of life in capitalist societies”. This is supported by the equality trust who claims:

“The link between economic inequality and both property crime and violent crime is well established[1]:

  • Rates of violence are higher in more unequal societies[2]. This finding holds up in many different contexts when looked at via different methodologies and after controlling for other determinants of crime such as low income, unemployment, and teen birth rates[3].
  • Small permanent decreases in inequality – such as reducing inequality from the level found in Spain to that in Canada – would reduce homicides by 20% and lead to a 23% long-term reduction in robberies[4].”

It’s no coincidence that the countries globally with the lowest crime rates also have the highest level of equality, wealth and happiness.

2. The law reflects ruling- class interests and ideology.

Chambliss (1975), argues that instruments of the ruling class and they reflect the values and beliefs found in ruling-class ideology. At the heart of the capitalist system is the protection of private property and other ruling-class interests, and the state defines acts as criminal in line with these basic concerns. Chambliss (1964) argued that vagrancy laws provided an example of how elites utilized the legal system to maintain their dominant economic position, or as Chambliss himself expressed it: “shifts and changes in the law of vagrancy show a clear pattern of reflecting the interest and needs of the groups who control the economic institutions of the society”.

Box (1983), argues that what is defined as a serious crime is ideologically constructed. Serious crime is identified as offences such as property crime and violence committed by members of the working class, rather than as the major harm (environmental damage) by corporations. Box (1983) notes how social factors (such as poverty) have traditionally been correlated with official crime statistics to produce a composite picture of ‘the criminal offender’. Box (1983) makes the point that even with a crime such as ‘murder’: ‘The criminal law defines only some types of avoidable killing as murder; it excludes, for example, deaths resulting from acts of negligence, such as employers’ failure to maintain safe working conditions; or deaths which result from governmental agencies giving environmental health risks a low priority . . .’. This point is particularly relevant, as we’ve seen, in relation to black criminality and imprisonment, given the fact that nearly 40% of the current black prison population has been found guilty of drug offences; if drug-taking were decriminalised, for example, the consequences for our perception of this particular ethnic minority could well change dramatically. Finally, Snider (1991) states that capitalist states will pass laws bettering health and safety, pollution and other such laws that regulate and control private businesses, only when forced to by the public or unions. Snider (1991) for example, regulation is best understood as a dialectical process; one that is shaped by the outcome of struggles within nation-states. Thus, the key factors in identifying regulatory outcomes are: the interests and strength of various forces within capital; the nature and strength of various ‘pro-regulatory’ groups; and the interests within and strength of local and national states (Snider, 1991). To explore more on what Snider talks about (see the stretch and challenge document on the white collar crime page.

3. Selective law enforcement.

When looking at official statistics, crime is mainly a working-class phenomenon, due to the selective enforcement of the law. Chambliss suggests there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. Those of a higher social class are less likely to be prosecuted. See the official statistics page on patterns and trends and focus on social class. Pearce called ‘the crimes of the powerful’ highlighting the white-collar crime and corporate crime are the biggest crimes of all. Marxists highlight that the media and government focus agencies (e.g. police) towards working-class crime to divert the public’s attention away from them being oppressed.

According to Gordon ‘selective law enforcement’ benefits the Capitalist system in three major ways:

  1. By highlighting that individuals who break the law are social failures by choice, it ignores and hides the conditions that lead criminals to their actions e.g. lack of money.
  2. The imprisonment of selected members of the lower classes neutralises opposition to the system.
  3. By imprisoning poorer members of socieity, the underclass, it hides the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’. This allows society to pretend everything is well.


Neo-Marxists believe that the law and law enforcement are simply aspects of ruling-class power and control of the working class. Neo-Marxists recognise that working-class criminals made an active choice to break the law, they are not all forced to. They argue that crime can actually be positive when society enters the rebellion phase (uprising against the Bourgeoisie). An example where this can be seen is the Black Panthers – a radical black rights group in the US in the 1960s and 1970s who did engage in criminal activity in the course of their political activism. This Neo-Marxist approach to crime and deviance became known as critical criminology or, sometimes, radical criminology. Many poor economic circumstances do not commit crime, and so choosing crime is a voluntary act. Neo-Marxist theories view working-class crime e.g. theft, burglary and meaningful and symbolic acts resisting occupation.

Young and Taylor highlighted that when considering any deviant act, they argued that Marxists should consider:

  • The structure of society and where power resides
  • The structural “macro” background to the deviant act
  • The immediate cause of the deviant act and the act itself
  • The impact of the act (both immediate and on a larger scale)
  • The societal reaction to the act (this links closely with Interactionist explanations of crime, deviance, social order and social control)
  • The impact of that reaction (both on the individual and on society)

This clearly highlights the impact that Interactionism has had in developing Neo-Marxism.

Hall investigated Neo-Marxism and applied it to black muggers in the 1970’s UK, but some key findings were:

  • There was what Marxists call a “crisis of capitalism” (an economic recession).
  • The resulting unemployment had a disproportionate impact on black people, some of whom chose to enter the informal economy (aspects of which involved crime) rather than do “white man’s shit work”.
  • The ruling class sought to divide the working class to prevent anti-capitalist political activism: turning white workers against black workers was one approach to this.
  • A moral panic about street crime by black people was fostered, leading to a crackdown by the police and a crime wave fantasy (see the media and crime).
  • This was one means by which revolution or radical political change was prevented.


(Good) – They highlight the importance of inequalities in power and wealth, and the conflicts these create.

(Good) – They emphasise the biggest crimes are white-collar, corporate and state crime,s not working-class crimes.

(Bad) – They over-emphasise property crime – they say little about offences like rape, domestic violence, child abuse and murder.

(Bad) – They over-emphasise class inequality, and neglect other inequalities.

(Bad) – Feminists regard them as malestream, for focusing primarily on male criminality.

(Bad) – Traditional Marxist theories ignore the fact that most working-class people, even the poorest, do not commit crime.

(Bad) – It is difficult to interpret all laws as reflecting ruling-class interests.

(Bad) – They romanticise crime, viewing criminals as fighting political oppression, when the main victim of their crimes are mainly other working-class people.

(Bad) – They don’t suggest practical policies to prevent crime and protect victims, who are overwhelmingly working-class.

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