Marxist theories of crime aim at the power difference between different social classes. Laws and their enforcement serve to maintain these power differences.
Richard Quinney, William Chambliss
The contents of Marxist crime theories do not always automatically go back to the social theorist Karl Marx. Rather, the thoughts of the neo-Marxist philosophers had an influence on these approaches. Accordingly, a classless society is indispensable for a crime-free society. Here laws are expressions of free will and do not serve the interests of individual classes.
The Marxist approach thus focuses the conflicts between the three socio-economic classes capitalists (those who possess means of production and economic values), bourgeoisie (middle class) and proletariat (working class).
The central object is the analysis of the connection between economy and politics, economy and state as well as the legal system. From a Marxist perspective, there are four main thematic fields:
- ideological control through an influence on/ manipulation of values (e.g. in the course of socialization), which ensures support for the capitalist social system in general and the ruling class in particular,
- the development of laws reflecting the interests of the ruling class,
- the enforcement of laws/punishment that affect different social groups to varying degrees,
- the criminogenic character of capitalism: capitalism as a factor influencing individual motivation to commit crimes
In 1976 William Chambliss published his theory that criminalization is part of the political economy, political power struggle and bureaucratic organization. His remarks on power relations refer to the categories of “social class” and “social injustice”. The mere fact that there are different social classes creates social conflicts. Rules and laws are enacted solely for the reason that the established can control and ward off dangers.
Criminals thus belong to the powerless class over which the powerful class determines and ascribes crime status to them.
It was Richard Quinney who, in 1977, continued to specify in particular the previous theoretical views on conflict by using Marxist ideas as a basis for the theory of conflict. For him, every form of deviation represented a conscious resistance to social oppression. In his explanations he describes different types of crime caused by the capitalists in order to maintain their control over society. In contrast, he describes criminality of the underclass as an act of survival. Quinney is seen as one of the most influential radical criminologists in the US. He first wrote conflict theories in the 1960s, radical theories in the 1970s and 1980s, and later on a discussion of the peace-making approach. Especially the instrumentalist analysis of the state (instrumental Marxism: laws and criminal justice systems are instruments of the capitalist class) is in the foreground of his writings: Criminality as expression and weapon in the class struggle – as threat to the capitalist system.
Critical appreciation & relevance
Radical approaches are criticised for various reasons. On the one hand, they are accused of the fact that the assumption they represent of crime as a “normal” and ubiquitous phenomenon is not new (this statement is already found at Durkheim).
On the other hand, the criticism is raised that radical crime theory – like the labeling approach – would focus one-sidedly on the genesis of norms and thereby lose sight of the violation of norms.
Some argue that the radicals have only managed to politicize traditional criminological content, that radical approaches fail to analyse the capitalist class and its impact on norm-building processes, and that radical advocates have created an idealized image of the criminal as a rebel, and that this role of the oppressed excuses all forms of crime.
- William Chambliss, Milton Mankoff (Hrsg.) (1976): Whose law? what order? : a conflict approach to criminology. New York: Wiley.
- Richard Quinney (1974): Critique of legal order : Crime control in capitalist society. Boston : Little, Brown and Co.
- Richard Quinney (1980): Class, State, and Crime. New York: Longman.
- David F. Greenberg (Hrsg.) (1993): Crime and capitalism: readings in Marxist criminology (2. Aufl.). Philadelphia : Temple Univ. Press.