Can Marxism make sense of crime?

Mark Cowling

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    There has been quite a substantial tradition of criminological theory that makes some use of Marxism. Notable figures have been Willem Bonger (1916), Rusch and Kircheimer (1939), in the United States Richard Quinney in the 1970s (1970, 1970a, 1974, 1977, 2002 [1974]), Frank Pearce (1978) writing on the USA from Britain and Canada, William Chambliss (1975, Chambliss and Mankoff, 1976, Chambliss, 1978, Chambliss and Seidman, 1982, Chambliss, 2001) Jeffrey Reiman (1998, 2004) Christian Parenti (1999), and in Britain, Taylor, Walton, and Young (1973, 1973a, 1975), the authors of Policing the Crisis (1978), Ian Taylor (1999) and John Lea (2002). In this chapter my intention is to draw on some themes analysed by the above authors and my own reading of Marx in order to give an overview of some areas where Marxism has been, or could be, used to analyse crime. Marx and Engels themselves associated crime with the lumpenproletariat, but I argue that the definition of the lumpenproletariat is foggy, and the concept is dubious for the same reasons that Charles Murray's conception of the underclass is dubious. It would be possible to make some use of Marx's theory of alienation in the analysis of crime, but I consider that the theory is too vague to be seriously helpful. I then turn to the idea that crime might be part of the reproduction conditions of capitalism, and basically conclude that it is a contingent possibility rather than a necessary feature. Another way of linking Marxism and crime is through the analysis of law, and I agree with Paul Hirst and E.P. Thompson (strange bedfellows!) that law has a substance of its own, and as such can provide a degree of defence to working-class interests. I then move on to discuss the question of distributive justice, on which I consider that Marxists today need a theory of distributive justice, and criminal justice, on which I argue that there is a worthwhile distinction between relatively decent capitalist enterprises such as Marks & Spencer's and the Mafia, which can be captured in the idea that the former is not a criminal enterprise whereas the latter is. Finally I argue that various forms of crime would not disappear in a communist society, contrary to the views of Bonger and Walton, Taylor and Young, and that a communist society would actually criminalise some activities which are currently legal.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages12
    Publication statusPublished - 2011
    EventExamining the Relevance of Marx and Marxism to Contemporary Global Society - Newcastle University, Newcastle, United Kingdom
    Duration: 29 Jan 201130 Jan 2011


    ConferenceExamining the Relevance of Marx and Marxism to Contemporary Global Society
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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