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Study Notes

Classical Marxist Approaches to Crime

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 13 Nov 2017

Marxists argue that the economic system of capitalism itself causes crime. The whole system is based on the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class, leading to the ever-increasing wealth of one class and ever-increasing poverty of the other.

It is therefore not surprising that those who cannot afford the basic necessities of life might turn to crime to provide what their employers do not. Furthermore, it is to be expected that the exploited working class will sometimes express their frustration and anger at their exploitation through violence or criminal damage. Furthermore, the values of capitalism are, potentially, criminal values: that the aim of capitalist society is to get as much money and wealth as possible, irrespective of how that might harm other people. This encourages crimes of the rich (fraud, etc.), and of less fortunate others who are persuaded this is an appropriate way to behave.

Marxists would further question who the real criminals are; the employer paying poverty wages or the worker trying to feed his or her family? Therefore, some Marxist criminology can be described as transgressive criminology as Marxists are not just interested in acts that are against the law, but also in legal acts that cause harm.

One reason for this is that they see the law as something created by the ruling class to serve their own interests, which are coincident with the capitalist system. From this perspective, legal acts might be harmful; at the same time, sections of society may consider some technically illegal activity harmless or even admirable (like revolutionary activism).

Chambliss (1976) argues that most law in the US (and the UK) is property law and this primarily protects people who own property. In his famous 1978 study of Seattle, he went further to argue that members of the ruling class were part of a crime syndicate who used their wealth and influence to bribe officials and avoid punishment. He wrote that this included politicians and business owners. His argument was that the criminal justice system was not really there to catch them; nominally universal laws were applied selectively to control the working class while protecting the rich.

Graham (1976) illustrated Chambliss's point further by looking at how the government policed the illegal trade in drugs, particularly amphetamines. Even though there was a "war on drugs" in the US at the time, Graham found that politicians agreed not to greatly restrict amphetamine production and distribution because most of it was made and sold by large pharmaceutical companies rather than "criminals". There was a "war on drugs" but only on those drugs that didn't make a profit for the bourgeoisie.

Pearce (1976 – a popular year for classical Marxist criminology) argued that even laws that appeared to help workers really helped the bourgeoisie. His focus was on health and safety laws which provided the ruling class with a healthy workforce. 

Later Marxist studies, like Snider’s (1993) concluded that such laws were not enforced especially strongly anyway; that laws appearing to be in the interests of the working class were more "for show" while those that protected the ruling class were rigorously enforced.

Marxists take a particular interest, then, in white-collar crime, corporate crime and state crime and the ways in which these crimes are controlled much less than petty crime and anti-social behaviour.

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