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Neo-Marxism and Critical Criminology

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

Last updated 13 Nov 2017

Some Marxists who sought to adapt Marx's ideas (known as neo-Marxists) took onboard some of the criticisms, particularly concerning the apparent passivity of the working class. Neo-Marxists recognised that working-class criminals made an active choice to break the law.

However, they argued that sometimes this was a positive political act against the bourgeoisie: e.g. 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.

Young and Taylor's The New Criminology (1976) tried to establish the "fully social theory of deviance". 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 conceptual outline shows the clear influence of interactionism on their approach, despite their analysis being clearly Marxist. Concepts like labelling (to be explored in a future section) are key to this approach to crime and deviance.

Stuart Hall (1978) applied the critical criminology approach to black muggers in the 1970’s UK. His arguments will also be considered when we explore the social distribution of crime by ethnicity and the media and crime; 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

Evaluating Neo-Marxism and Critical Criminology

  • Only a very small portion of crime could be considered as politically-motivated or part of anti-capitalist activism. While theorists might attach such a motive to all manner of crime (from burglary to vandalism), it rarely seems to be a motive that criminals themselves would claim.
  • Left realists point out that most victims of crime are working class. Therefore, Marxists should produce solutions to the problem of crime, rather than simply trying to understand (and, some would suggest, excuse) working-class criminals.
  • Some argue that Stuart Hall's theory about black muggers is a conspiracy theory. Nobody could prove that anyone deliberately set out to divide the working-class to prevent revolution. Even Hall himself recognised that a significant factor in the media's decision to sensationalise such crimes was because it sold newspapers rather than prevented revolutions.


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