Marxist Theories of Crime

It is not controversial to state that crime is present in nearly every society. However, would it be too far to suggest that society itself causes crime?

Marxist Theories of Crime Marxist Theories of Crime

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Table of contents

    For Marxists, this is true!

    In this explanation, we will be focusing on Marxist theories of crime.

    • We will explore the Marxist perspective on crime and deviance.
    • We’ll also take a look at how Marxism, as a very influential school of sociology, has been taken up and adapted by other scholars and branches to explain crime and deviance.
    • We’ll close with an evaluation of the Marxist theory of crime and deviance, diving into particular strengths and criticisms of this perspective.

    Let's get started.

    The Marxist theory of crime: examples and key terms

    In this section, you’ll find an explanation of the Marxist view on crime. Before we look at Marxist theories of crime, it may be helpful to have a reminder of Marxism generally.

    A refresher on Marxism

    Marxism is a conflict structuralist theory in sociology, pioneered by Karl Marx and Friederich Engels (1848). Structural theories in sociology take a top-down approach by examining the workings of society in terms of the institutional relationships which shape human behaviour. Marxists believe that class conflict is at the core of all societies. This conflict is between those in positions of power and the powerless, and is caused by the nature of the capitalist system. Social control is implemented by the bourgeoisie (ruling class) upon the proletariat (working class), based on the premise of economic determinism.

    Economic determinism refers to the idea that society’s most significant relationships are those which are based on economic factors (such as a relationship between an employer and an employee). All other types of relationships, like cultural or political ones, are determined by the form of the economic relationship.

    Society is criminogenic

    Marxists believe that the capitalist economic system is criminogenic.

    Something is criminogenic when it is believed to be the root of criminal or deviant behaviour. A criminogenic society is one where crime is inevitable due to its nature.

    The prevalence of crime and deviance is explained by Marxists as being the result of the very nature of capitalism, the key feature of which is the maximisation of profit through private ownership over the means of production. Following this, Marxists argue that the capitalist system encourages competition, greed, and exploitation with the goal of individual success (rather than collective wellbeing) in mind. The obsessive striving for material gains pressurises people into doing whatever it takes to achieve this goal, even if it means breaking the law.

    Because of the value that’s attached to financial gain, breaking the law can be seen as a justified (or even logical) means to a profitable end, where even non-utilitarian crimes can be rationalised as the result of frustrations caused by capitalist pressures.

    While theft is a common crime with the aim of financial gain, some more obscure crimes committed by the wealthy obtain similar results. Here are a few examples:
    • Evading taxes
    • Forgery
    • Intellectual theft
    • Drug trafficking
    • Bribery
    • Money laundering

    The law is made for the rich

    Marxists argue that the law is designed to benefit the bourgeoisie (ruling capitalist class), as law enforcement agencies reflect and protect its interests. More specifically, society’s laws tend to enhance the occurrence of trade, industry growth, and private ownership. Several theorists have put forward explanations for why this is the case.

    William Chambliss

    The existence of laws protecting the ruling class is slightly more obscure in more developed countries than in third-world countries. For example, laws that protect trade unions are much more loosely implemented than the laws which govern property ownership rights.

    William Chambliss (1976) stated that these property ownership laws were first set up by the state so that wealth would stay in the family among the ruling classes.

    Laureen Snider

    On the other hand, Laureen Snider (1993) suggested that laws that have been set up to protect the interests of the working class are only a smokescreen designed to disguise the exploitation to which they are subjected. Examples of laws that appear to reflect the interests of the proletariat include the minimum wage, workplace safety, and anti-monopolistic regulations.

    Aside from the laws that appear to protect the working class, Snider (1993) also said there is a significant lack of laws regulating ruling class activities. This is because the state stands to profit from large corporations due to the investments which it has attracted from them. The state not only wants to protect these profits but also to continue to get along with corporations so that their profitability is perpetuated.

    Trade unions are worker associations, formed to protect workers' rights in particular trades or professions.

    Not only are laws created in favour of the ruling class, say Marxists; they are also enforced more strictly among the poor. Corporate crimes tend to be more leniently dealt with (if they’re ever prosecuted at all), while financial crimes committed by the poor are almost always pursued by law enforcement. This is called selective enforcement.

    You probably remember, or have heard of the big Panama Papers incident of 2016. In short, many wealthy people like politicians, celebrities, and businesspeople were storing their money in offshore accounts. While this isn't inherently illegal, many were doing it for illegal reasons, like dodging taxes.

    While many of the individuals involved were held accountable by being forced to step down from their jobs, the laws which call for more comprehensive and transparent corporation registration practices have been much slower to come to fruition.

    Differences between the Marxist and functionalist theories of crime

    There are many differences between the Marxist and functionalist theories of crime that you may want to consider when evaluating theories. Let's look at a few.

    Marxist theories of crime: the nature of society

    As opposed to functionalism, which sees consensus as the basis for society, Marxists believe that society’s main features are conflict and coercion.

    Marxist theories of crime: causation

    Another key difference between functionalist and Marxist theories of crime rests on causation. Unlike the functionalist theories of strain and status frustration, Marxism posits that the pressure to achieve prosperity affects all members of society, regardless of whether they come from poverty or wealth.

    As a result, they believe that working-class crime is a response to the class struggles experienced by the proletariat.

    Can you think of any more differences?

    How has the Marxist view on crime been extended?

    Let's take a look at how the Marxist perspective on crime has been taken up and extended by other scholars and branches of sociology.


    Neo-Marxism is a more recent version of traditional Marxist theory, which considers critiques of the original theory when forming explanations of their own. Neo-Marxists believe that cultural factors are much more heavily implicated in the shaping of human behaviour than acknowledged by traditional Marxists, who emphasised the sole importance of economic relationships.

    Radical criminology

    Radical criminology examines how the state labels certain actions as ‘criminal’, as a result of which certain demographics (namely the disadvantaged), are more likely to be labelled as criminal as well. Radical criminology takes on both micro and macro evaluations, emphasising the importance of studying the state-level management of the criminogenic capitalist society and lower-level interactions between, for example, the police and deviants. Some of the most popular proponents of radical criminology are Taylor, Walton and Young (1973). They advocated for a 'fully social theory of deviance'. While they agreed that capitalism creates an environment where crime is both encouraged and easily doable, their main argument was that working-class criminals haven’t been forced to commit crimes because of their circumstances - they make an active choice to do so.

    Taylor, Walton and Young (1973) suggested a seven-part model for the theory of radical criminology:
    • Locating the act of deviance in the wider context of capitalism.
    • Locating the act of deviance in the immediate social context.
    • The meaning of the deviant act according to the individual who committed it.
    • The societal response to the deviant act.
    • Locating the societal response within the wider context with questions about who defines, and what is defined as ‘criminal’.
    • The impacts upon the deviant after being labelled as such.
    • An overall examination of the deviant processes combining the previous six steps together.

    Bonger's Marxist theory of crime

    Willem Bonger (1916) was one of the first criminologists to apply Marx’s theory of crime to his own study. Bonger’s key position was that a capitalist society brings out selfishness, or ‘egoism’ in people. It was this egoism that served as an indirect cause of criminal or deviant activity. It’s important to note that Bonger didn’t believe egoism to be directly responsible for creating the criminal. Instead, he argued that the environment which the capitalist system creates makes people more egoistic, and therefore more capable of committing crimes. Because of the individualistic focus of capitalism, the social bonds that tie people together are weakened and members of society are then subjected to acting out of pure self-interest. In line with the selective law enforcement which Marxists speak of, Bonger stated that the poor’s egoism is labelled as criminal often simply as a result of their lower position in the class hierarchy.

    Feminist sociologists on Marxist theories of crime

    It’s reasonable to be confused about what feminist sociologists have to say about Marxist theories of crime. One of the several branches of feminism is Marxist feminism. Marxist feminism is a theory that proposes that gender inequality stems from economic inequalities. Capitalism provides the context in which women can be exploited by men within the market. Those who take the least privileged positions in society are working-class women. Marxist feminists believe that the cause of crime is to exploit and oppress this demographic. Crimes such as sexual assault and domestic abuse committed by ruling class men tend to go unpunished. Therefore, a reformed society requires a legal commitment to female victims, both within and outside the workplace.

    Strengths and weaknesses of the Marxist theory of crime

    As with all theories, we will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the Marxist theory of crime. Check out our handy table below.

    Marxist Theories of Crime, Gavel and paper with not guilty stamp on it on a table, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Wealthy people benefit from more lenient laws, and less frequent prosecution when guilty.

    • The Marxist theory of crime has the benefit of a holistic view - it accounts for a range of deviant acts committed by people from different social backgrounds, with different motivations.

    • The Marxist theorisation of egoism in capitalist society provides a sound explanation for the existence of both working and upper-class crime.

    • Many studies back up the prevalence and harms of corporate crimes, which Marxism correctly highlights as a key issue of the capitalist system.

    • Neo-Marxists argue that traditional Marxist criminology is far too deterministic. Working-class criminals are still responsible for their own actions, even if they are subjected to living conditions that lead them to deviant activity for survival.

    • Marxists overemphasise the importance of class inequalities at the expense of the social identity markers that can also have oppressive impacts (such as gender or ethnicity).

    • Traditional Marxism points out the problems with the capitalist system, but falls short in providing a solution or an alternative.

    Marxist Theories of Crime - Key takeaways

    • Marxism is based on the notion of economic determinism - economic relationships are at the heart of all interactions within a society.

    • The capitalist society glorifies the maximisation of profits and ownership and therefore encourages the pursuit of individual successes over collective wellbeing.

    • The capitalist system is inherently criminogenic - its very nature leads people to deviant activity as a means to an end. The law is designed and enforced to protect the ruling class's interests.

    • Neo-Marxists follow a more recent perspective which is less deterministic than traditional Marxism - they believe that working-class criminals, despite the harsh conditions they’re subjected to, are still equally responsible for committing deviant acts.

    • However, Marxism's shortcomings include neglecting societal factors that are not inherently economic. It also fails to provide a potential solution for the flaws in the capitalist system.

    Marxist Theories of Crime Marxist Theories of Crime
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Marxist Theories of Crime

    What are Marxist theories?

    Marxist theories are social explanations based on the ideas of Karl Marx. Falling under the branch of conflict structuralism, the main premise of Marxist theories is that social order is characterised by an unequal class hierarchy, whereby powerful groups impose order on the working class. 

    What do Marxists think causes crime?

    Marxists believe that the cause of crime is a combination of factors related to the capitalist system. Specifically, they believe that the maximisation of profits and private ownership as ultimate forms of success, in conjunction with the individualism that this encourages, is what leads people to commit crimes. This also explains the prevalence of crime across all social strata (i.e. crimes committed by the rich and the poor). 

    What are some primary ideas of the Marxist approach to criminology?

    Some primary ideas of the Marxist approach to criminology include the following:
    • Capitalism is inherently criminogenic - it creates an environment that both encourages crime and makes it easier to commit. 
    • The law is both designed and enforced in favour of the ruling class, in that laws governing working-class livelihoods are more strict and more subject to prosecution. 

    What are the criticisms of the Marxist theory of crime?

    A criticism of the Marxist theory of crime is that it overemphasises the significance of economic relationships at the expense of other factors which shape human behaviour. Traditional Marxism is also criticised for being too deterministic, which neo-Marxism accounts for by attributing responsibility to working-class criminals for their actions. 

    Why is Marxist criminology important?

    Marxist criminology is important because it studies the crimes of the powerful as well as of the poor.

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