Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 5. Marxism

A broad overview of a range of different Marxist interpretations of crime and deviance in words and pictures Or, if you want to be picky, film.

Marxist (or critical) theories of crime assume that no behaviour is inherently deviant. Behaviour only becomes criminalised through the creation and application of laws – and in capitalist societies to understand how and why criminal forms of deviance occur we must understand the economic relationships that give rise to class-based laws. As Croall (2001) argues, for Marxists ‘the criminal law and its enforcement reflect the interests of the powerful and are a means of controlling the activities of powerless lower-class offenders’.

Rule of law

Milliband (1973), for example, suggests that laws favouring the general interests of a ruling class are an extension of its political and ideological dominance – an instrumental form of Marxism that sees the law as a tool used to control the working classes. Poulantzas (1975), however, argues that while contemporary capitalist societies need laws that benefit the interests of the ruling class, these laws have (lesser) benefits for subject classes. This form of hegemonic Marxism sees a ruling class as able to head-off class conflicts by co-opting subject classes into the ‘benefits’ of capitalism and the ‘rule of law’ (as opposed to the reality – the rule of capital).

For Marxists, laws are framed to protect both social order and property relationships:

  • Social order relates to the legality of killing people, violent behaviour and the like. Everyone benefits from being able to go about their daily lives unmolested, but a ruling class gains additional benefits; an orderly society is one where those making the greatest profits gets to keep their wealth safe and sound.
  • Property/contract laws relate to the requirements of capitalism as an economic system; they exist to enshrine in law certain rights, such as private property ownership. While everyone benefits from a law against theft, those with the most to lose reap the greatest benefit.

For Marxists, crime is part of a structural process that sees the working classes as both more criminal and more criminalised. The working class experiences greater social pressures (higher levels of economic deprivation coupled with constant ideological injunctions to consume) that lead to higher levels of crime, while their behaviour is more closely defined, surveilled and policed as criminal. While these related processes go some way towards explaining crime, they do not excuse it.

Unproductive labour

Crime, for Marxists, is unproductive labour; criminals, like the ruling class, live off the productive labour of others. This made criminals, for Marx, part of the lumpenproletariat or underclass because they placed themselves outside the class structure by their exploitative behaviour. While a ruling class is part of the productive process (as suppliers of capital), criminals play no such role – they live off the labour of those they exploit without giving anything in return. This characterisation extends to the crimes of the powerful, even though this seems to contradict the notion that laws in capitalist societies are framed in ways that protect their interests. While this is broadly true, controls on the behaviour of the rich and powerful are a dimension of class conflict – a ruling class is forced at times to make concessions to those lower down.

Corporate crime

Pearce (2003), however, argues that most corporate crime – such as tax evasion and environmental destruction – is barely policed and rarely prosecuted. Corporate laws are:

  • weakly framed – it is difficult for control agencies to convict offenders because high levels of proof are required, or the law is framed to allow for a strong defence
  • weakly enforced – very few people are arrested and fewer still convicted.

Slapper (2007), for example, notes, ‘Globally, more people are killed each year at work than are killed in wars. In the UK, over 40,000 people have been killed in commercially related circumstances between 1966 and 2006.’ The majority of these deaths are prosecuted under health and safety legislation, where penalties are more lenient. Over this time 34 companies were prosecuted for manslaughter, with only 7 convictions.


While Marxism gives us little or no explanation about why people commit crime, Hirst (1975) argues that this is less a criticism than an observation. Marxism, he suggests, is neither interested in nor methodologically equipped for such a task. What Marxism does is to highlight the nature of legal and policing practices in capitalist society, where social controls are applied more consistently and punitively the lower down the class structure we go.


In the 1960s Marxism experienced a cultural turn through the work of writers such as Marcuse (1964) who argued that the revolutionary potential of the working class had been compromised through its integration into capitalist consumer society. Marcuse’s argument that revolutionary potential in advanced capitalist societies was to be found in those who had not been well integrated – ethnic minorities, various ‘outsider groups’ such as radical students and marginalised youth  led to the notion of resistance as a key theme in Marxism, which we can explore in terms of critical subculture theories and critical criminology.

Critical subcultures

Marxist subcultural theories are critical of traditional Marxist approaches to deviance in the sense that their focus is on youth and cultural resistance to capitalism. Crime is considered as an expression of resistance located around two ideas:

  • hegemony,considered in terms of how a ruling class, or bourgeoisie, exercises its leadership through cultural values
  • relative autonomy: While individuals have the freedom to make behavioural decisions, choice is restricted or enhanced by structural factors, such as wealth and power.

Although most people choose conforming behaviour (they are locked in to capitalist society through family and work responsibilities), others, especially young, working-class males, who have fewer cultural ties and less to lose, resist bourgeois hegemony.

Youth subcultures

Youth subcultures interest Marxists because they show how groups can oppose bourgeois hegemony through the development of cultural styles of dress and behaviour as alternatives to capitalist forms of control and domination, as with the counter-culture lifestyles of environmentalists, or the 2011-12 ‘Occupy’ movements around the globe. For some this opposition takes place on a symbolic level while others argue it represents a real solution to the social and economic problems faced by young, working-class males that arise out of bourgeois hegemony.

Real solutions

This approach is characterised by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) and the argument that working-class subcultures develop as a response to – and attempt to resist – economic and political change. An example is how deviant subcultures develop as a reaction to changes in social space:

  • Literal space refers tothe ‘loss of community’ thesis advanced by Cohen (1972), where urban clearance and renewal created a subcultural (frequently violent and ill-directed) reaction among young, working-class males displaced by community changes.
  • Symbolic space involvesa ‘loss of identity’ argument to explain the emergence and behaviour of skinhead subcultures (Cohen, 1972), with their violent response to the loss of a traditional ‘British’ identity – anger directed towards immigrants (‘Paki-bashing’) and ‘deviant sexualities’ (‘queer-bashing’).

Subcultural behaviour, therefore, involves a collective attempt to both deal with a sense of loss and to reclaim social and physical spaces. Hall et al. (1978), for example, link subcultural theory to structural tension and upheaval by suggesting that increases in deviant behaviour occur during periodic ‘crises in capitalism’ (high levels of poverty, unemployment and social unrest, for example).

Studies of white, working-class education by Willis (1977) and Corrigan (1979) transfer the focus of ‘class struggle’ into the classroom and Young (2001) notes how subcultural development among lower-stream, working-class ‘lads’ in Willis’s study was an attempt to ‘solve the problem of their educational failure’ by ‘playing up in the classroom, rejecting the teacher’s discipline’ and giving ‘high status to manliness and physical toughness’.

Symbolic solutions

Other Marxist theories shift the emphasis further into the cultural realm by focusing on how subcultures represent symbolic forms of resistanceto bourgeois hegemony.

In this respect, Hall and Jefferson (1976) and Hebdidge (1979) characterised youth subcultures as ritualistic or ‘magical’ attempts at resistance by consciously adopting behaviour and styles (the skinhead ‘uniform’ of bovver boots and braces that ape ‘respectable’, working-class work clothing, punks wearing swastikas and so forth) that appeared threatening to the ‘middle class establishment’, thereby giving the powerless a feeling of power. This behaviour is ‘symbolic’ because it doesn’t address or resolve the problems that bring subcultures into existence in the first place – an idea illustrated by Bowles and Gintis (1976) when they argue there is a correspondence between school and workplace norms.

Correspondence principle

Bowles and Gintis (2002) suggest that ‘schools prepare pupils for adult work rules bysocialising them to function well, and withoutcomplaint, in the hierarchical structure of the moderncorporation’. This correspondence principle is evidenced through schooling in areas such as thedaily need to attend and register and the right of thosein authority to give orders.Education is a proving ground in which the organisation of the work place is reflected in the school and education becomes a test of control and conformity. Those who conform are allowed into the higher areas of education (and work) while those who rebel are excluded or develop ways of resisting this process through subcultural groups, even though such resistance is doomed to failure.


In the 1960s and 1970s a number of ‘spectacular’ youth subcultures (such as mods, skinheads, punks and hippies) developed that have not been repeated over the past 20 or so years. If working-class youth subcultures are symptomatic of ‘resistance to capitalism’ it seems difficult to explain their disappearance.

Although concepts like ‘symbolic resistance’ explain why youth subcultures persist without creating real social change, Young (2001) argues they lack any real substance or empirical validity. As he argues, ‘There is a danger groups become sub-cultural Rorschach blobs onto which the theorist projects his or her own private definitions’. In other words, Marxist subcultural theorists ‘see what they want to see’ when they look at youth subcultures.

Stahl (1999), for example, argues that while Marxist subcultural theory sets up ‘subcultural groups’ in opposition to some real or imagined ‘outside group or agency’ (the school, media, and so forth), they neglect ‘the role each plays in the sub-culture’s own internal construction’. In other words, subcultures may simply be a reflection of how they are seen by such agencies – as social constructions of the media, for example, and as convenient ciphers that stand for whatever a theorist claims they stand for in order to substantiate their theories.

New criminology

Taylor, Walton and Young (1973, 1975) took a broader approach to resistance by attempting to create a ‘fully social theory of deviance’ – one based on the reinterpretation of deviance as class conflict. Criminals were transformed from the lumpenproletariat of traditional Marxism to the vanguard of resistance to bourgeois hegemony in contemporary capitalist societies. ‘Deviance’, in this view, was a ‘normal condition’ of human life in the sense that ‘men are now consciously involved (in the prisons that are contemporary society and in the real prisons) in asserting their human diversity’. Deviance was reconceptualised as freedom.

Deviance, in this respect, was located in a structural setting: it is not random or arbitrary. Critical criminology argued that concepts of crime, criminality and law were based on the ability of powerful classes to impose their definitions of normality on all other classes — and deviance must be understood in terms of power relationships derived from the ownership/non-ownership of the means of production.


To explain crime, Scraton and Chadwick (1991) argue, we must understand how some behaviours are labelled criminal and the power relationships that underpin labelling processes. This was something New Right correctional criminology was unable to do because it identified too closely with the aims and objectives of control agencies – how to catch and process criminals more efficiently.

Structure and action

Critical criminology, however, rejected arguments that criminality was determined by structural imperatives – the kind of simplistic reasoning that because material deprivation correlates with crime it is a causal factor in criminality. Decisions about deviance were, for critical criminologists, played out at the individual level of social interaction and explanations for crime and deviance had to be located at the meeting point between structure and action:

  • Structure – in terms of how and why some forms of behaviour and groups were criminalised
  • Action – in terms of why some people chose crime over conformity

Critical criminology, in this respect, represents a neo-Marxist attempt to synthesise both traditional Marxism and interactionist theories of agency:

  • Traditional Marxism — deviance as an expression of human diversity struggling to break free from the chains imposed by capitalist social structures.
  • Interactionist theories of agency — the idea of people making choices about their behaviour within the context of capitalist societies.

This synthesis is expressed by Taylor, Walton and Young’s (1973) conception of a ‘fully social theory of deviance’.

Dimensions of Deviance

1 Wider origins of the deviant actStructures of inequality, power and ideology shape concepts of deviance
2 Immediate origins of the deviant actUnderstanding the specific relationship between those involved in an act. Individual social backgrounds are significant in explaining conformity or deviance
3 The actual act: what someone does
4 Immediate origins of a social reactionUnderstanding how people react to what someone does
5 Wider origins of the deviant reactionHow the (labelled) deviant ‘reacts to the reaction of others’
6 Outcome of the social reaction to a deviant’s further actionUnderstanding how deviance is neutralised (either by punishing the deviant or successfully rejecting the deviant label)
7 The nature of the deviant process as a whole
Taylor, Walton and Young (1973)

In this respect, critical criminology is suggestive of how we can understand deviance as diversity, rather than a theory to be operationalised, although there have been studies that draw on critical criminology to suggest ways of understanding crime in capitalist societies. Hall et al. (1978), for example, explained the moral panic surrounding ‘black muggers’ in the early 1970s as a way of scapegoating young black males to deflect public attention away from the political and economic crises of this period.

Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1975) suggested that governments were agents of a ruling class, acting to curtail civil liberties and involved in criminal activities in their own right. Contemporary examples here might be the increase in government surveillance and involvement in environmental crime. In addition, Chambliss’ (1975) observational study demonstrated a symbiotic(mutually beneficial) relationship between law enforcement agencies (police, judiciary and politicians) and the organised criminals controlling gambling and prostitution in Seattle, USA.


Cohen (1979), from an interactionist position, suggested critical criminology was neither ‘new’ nor ‘critical’; it simply romanticised criminals as somehow being at the vanguard of ‘opposition to capitalism’.

Similarly, Young (1979) suggests critical criminology was both idealisticin its representation of deviants and a form of ‘left functionalism’, where the interests of a ‘ruling class’ replaced the interests of ‘society as a whole’.

Hirst (1975), from a conventional Marxist position, criticised ‘new criminology’ for its reconceptualisation of criminals as freedom fighters escaping from bourgeois hegemony (rather than being unproductive, parasitic, labour who mostly preyed on the poor).

Next Notes

Explanations for Crime and Deviance: 6. Left Realism

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