Marxism and Criminology: Three Puzzles
The background to this paper is that I am in the process of writing a book about Marxism and criminological theory. The book falls into two parts: a review of existing attempts at applying Marxism to criminological theory and a discussion of aspects of Marxism which can be applied to criminological theory with a view to looking at their validity and also at the issue of how well they fit with other possible applications of Marxism. This paper examines three problems which have been thrown up by the project. The first, which comprises the longest section of the paper, discusses which definition of crime is most appropriate for the project. The second revisits a well-established debate as to whether or not Marx has a theory of justice, and argues that one particular approach to this is necessary if the discussion of corporate crime is to be interesting. The third is a preliminary attempt to get a purchase on the claim that there would be much less crime under communism.
There is a long but unsystematic
history of attempts to use Marxist theory to explain crime. Marx and Engels themselves
mention crime quite frequently, but in a relatively casual way. For example, in Outlines of Political
Economy and The Conditions of the Working Class in England, Engels
takes a conventional definition of crime and argues that the appalling
conditions suffered by workers lead them to commit crime. 1
Marx takes basically this approach in articles for the New York Daily Tribune, 2
and in Capital. 3
Marx and Engels see the lumpenproletariat as a major source of crime, again
conventionally defined. 4 Marx recognises that changes in legal
definitions can produce changes in statistics of crime which do not reflect
changes in behaviour. 5 Marx also includes in his economic writings
the famous passage which appears at first sight to be a functionalist account
of crime. 6
These passages provide several interesting suggestions but by no means amount
to a developed theory. As early as 1916
Willem Bonger produced an account of crime based on the analysis in Capital, 7
and despite their affiliation to the Frankfurt School Rusche
and Kircheimer constructed an account of punishment which also follows strictly
economic lines based on Capital. 8
The revival of Marxism in the 1960s and 70s led to interesting work in the
It is therefore worth attempting a more systematic account of the possibilities of analysing crime using Marxist theory. I am currently writing a book in which I attempt to do this. In the first half I review existing attempts to link Marxism and theories about crime. In the second half I work in the opposite direction and consider various aspects of Marxism which look as though they might be useful for explaining crime. Anyone wanting to do this is faced with the immediate dilemma of defining Marxism on the one hand and crime on the other. In this article there is no real attempt to deal with the Marxism end of the dilemma other than by assuming that while Marxism remains an important and compelling theory in many respects, few will now want to insist on the exclusive validity of one particular version of Marxism which provides a ‘royal road’ to the truth and to a worldwide revolution which will install communism. For many it will be more worthwhile to take various possibilities from the framework of Marxist theories as generally conceived and to see how well they make sense of particular forms of crime. The issue of what variant of Marxism to use for this is a significant puzzle but not one that will be attempted here. The issue of how crime should be defined is sometimes thought to merit substantial discussion at the beginning of books on criminological theory, but is sometimes skated over, particularly by radical criminologists, with an assertion that the definition of crime is largely arbitrary. Criminological theory is supposed to explain why people commit crime, or what sorts of people tend to become criminals. The definition of crime is therefore a fundamental part of what criminological theory is supposed to be doing, and forms the first puzzle of this paper.
The second puzzle is simple to explain. Marx’s most deliberate pronouncements about justice suggest that he considers that capitalism is just, and that the case for socialism is to do with human need, freedom, self-realisation etc, and not to do with justice. On the other hand he frequently refers to the activities of capitalists as ‘robbery’ and similar terms. The communist principle ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ appears to be a principle of justice. Does Marx therefore consider capitalism to be a crime, unjust? In what follows I have a somewhat convoluted answer to this puzzle, but I think that I have compelling reasons for arguing that for the purposes of saying something interesting about criminological theory the line that capitalism is just is the best one to take.
The third puzzle comes from the final chapter of the book, and tries to make sense of persistent claims in the literature that crime would disappear, or very much diminish, under communism. I would like to agree with these claims, but at the moment I tend to believe that they are true only to a limited extent.
Puzzle one: the definition of crime.
Paul Hirst on Crime.
This paper takes as its starting point a rather pedantic book chapter written by Paul Hirst in 1975 as part of a collection entitled Critical Criminology. 14 Because of its pedantry the chapter gives a very clear account of the problems of conceptualising crime within a Marxist framework. Hirst takes the line that crime is not a Marxist concept unlike, for example, mode of production or surplus value. Hirst then basically takes a conventional definition of crime and looks the places where Marx and Engels say anything about it, for example in the discussion of the lumpenproletariat or Marx’s satirical account of crime as productive labour. This is by no means silly, but he fails to discuss the concept of crime. He also effectively marginalises it:
In general criminal enterprises are absent from the central forms of capitalist production, from large-scale industry, and large commercial and financial enterprises. Criminal enterprises are economically marginal compared with the productive power of modern industry. 15
Crime and Capitalism Today.
Hirst’s comment may
have been untrue when he wrote it, but it is certainly untrue today. The trade in illegal drugs fluctuates, and
seems to have gone down slightly in the last two years. In 2005 the United Nations estimated the
global retail value of illegal drugs sold amount to about $321.6 billion (
Crime is not just
economically important; is also a major political issue. It forms the main part of the work of the
Home Office, one of the three leading offices of government in
Anyone attempting to see how well Marxist theories fare in analysing crime is bound, I think, to follow some of Hirst’s approach in identifying passages where Marxists talk about crime and seeing what they say about it. However, Hirst simply picks on likely looking passages without attempting to give any sort of account of what he conceives of as crime. As he says, crime is not a central category of orthodox Marxism, nor was it a central theme in the writings of Marx and Engels. It is therefore not surprising that they do not produce any systematic or extended writings on crime. In turn, Hirst’s chapter leaves us with no way of judging how well (or badly) the conception of crime in Marx and Engels matches up with other conceptions.
One way of approaching things would be to accept that crime is defined by the law and the criminal justice system, and to treat these definitions as central. As we shall see, although there are some reasons for respecting this definition there are also powerful reasons for refusing to swallow it wholesale. The Oxford English Dictionary takes roughly this approach, identifying crime as: ‘An act punishable by law, as being forbidden by statute or injurious to public welfare’, but it then extends the definition in an interesting way: ‘… An evil or injurious act; an offence, a sin; esp. of a grave character’. The first half of the dictionary definition corresponds to Tappan’s famous account: ‘Only those are criminals who have been adjudicated as such by the courts. Crime is an intentional act in violation of the criminal law (statutory and case law), committed without defence or excuse and penalised by the state as a felony or misdemeanour’. 25
definition fits quite neatly with an approach where the definition of crime is
dominated by the interests of the Home Office in
There are, plainly, a whole series of problems in simply accepting official definitions of crime. One approach to them which has been popular in radical criminology is symbolic interactionism and labelling theory. Interactionism came to prominence in the 1960s. This is perhaps no coincidence as its founders were ‘at home in the world of hip, Norman Mailer, drug addicts, jazz musicians, cab drivers, prostitutes, night people, drifters, grifters and skidders.’, 28 and rather relished being seen as such. What a symbolic interactionist must do is to stick very closely to the experiences and meanings of the worlds in which particular groups of deviants live, using participant observation which involves seeing and understanding behaviour. The aim is to move from shared meanings to the specific meanings generated amongst groups of prostitutes, drug takers etc. In particular, following the ideas of George Herbert Mead, it involves seeing how the ‘me’ of deviants develops thanks to the activities of their ‘I’; the deviant can come to terms with his or her deviance and its acceptability. 29 Symbolic interactionism is not simply labelling theory, but labelling theory plays a large role in it.
Let us follow this through in terms of Howard Becker’s classic Outsiders. 30 His starting point is that people become outsiders by breaking rules, but that ‘social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction creates deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders.’ 31 This opens a very considerable can of worms. It further inflames the above worries about official statistics: not all offenders are apprehended; not all those apprehended are fully labelled; the process of getting labels to stick is quite complex. For example, at the police stage the police in question might be overwhelmed with paperwork and disinclined to worry about minor breaches, or under pressure to get convictions, or just at the end of the shift or looking for overtime. Similar comments would apply for magistrates, judges, prisons etc. The attitude of the person who has broken the rules will vary. She may agree with the rule and regard her penalty as a legitimate, as may be the case quite often with motoring offences. He may decide to come to terms with being labelled as a drug smuggler. At the opposite end of the scale of the deviant may regard his prosecution as a breach of his human rights as in the response of sado-masochists to the Spanner case. The rulebreaker may want to argue he is sick. How much a rulebreaker becomes an outsider thus varies considerably according to a range of circumstances.
interactionists start from a very different set of assumptions from Marxists
some aspects of their theories could probably be grafted onto Marxism. They basically see the process of making
rules as a matter of power, which looks as though it may fit readily with a
Marxist framework. However, they are
quite happy to acknowledge all sorts of power, for example the power of older
people over younger people, and not at all systematic about their
approach. They acknowledge the
possibility of changing laws and rules through lobbying, demonstrations etc,
which would fit perfectly well with a Marxist approach. They make a further point which could also be
incorporated into a Marxist approach: the forces of law and order themselves
may have an input into the process of making laws. Thus Tony Blair’s proposal to march vandals to
cashpoints for instant fines was vetoed by the police
themselves as impracticable. On the
other hand, Becker himself gives an interesting case study of the way in which
the Federal Bureau of Narcotics campaigned in the 1930s to have marijuana made
illegal, lobbying members of Congress and planting stories in the press about a
young man in
An approach of this sort is popular amongst radical
criminologists, and it leads on to an argument that crime is simply a matter of
labelling. This approach is taken, for
interactionism is thus superficial. It
works best for victimless crimes such as marijuana smoking. Its limitations can be realised if one thinks
briefly about a radical decriminalisation strategy. There may well be benefits to the
decriminalisation of drugs and prostitution. There is a strong argument that
the harms inflicted by these activities are mainly the harms of prohibition
rather than the harms intrinsic to the activities. For example, clean, legalised heroin would
have to be sold with a warning label that it may cause drowsiness or
constipation, but it seems as though many of the other harms associated with
heroin are actually caused by its illegal status rather than by its intrinsic
properties. 37 After all, homosexuality between consenting
adults was illegal in
Following on from this success we could
More recently Tombs and Hillyard have argued that the main focus of people interested in criminology should be social harm rather than crime. 38 They accept the idea that the definition of crime is arbitrary:
But in reality there is nothing intrinsic to any particular event or incident which makes it a crime. Crimes and criminals are fictive events and characters in the sense that they have to be constructed before they can exist. In short, crime has no ontological reality; it is a ‘myth’ of everyday life… For example, rape, credit card fraud, the use or sale of certain illegal drugs, and the (consensual) nailing of a foreskin to a tree, are all defined as crime. As such, they should entail punishment. However, these situations can and do occur in very different circumstances and for widely differing reasons. 39
In terms of the worries already discussed there is a problem that some of these acts disappear as crimes if we simply legalise them, but rape and fraud have definite victims. Hillyard and Tombs accept this. Their point is that many activities which are socially harmful are legal, whereas the amount of harm done by victimless crimes is minimal, and the amount of harm done by many crimes with victims is also fairly trivial. If my lawnmower is stolen from my garage and I am covered by insurance, the main result of my victimisation is a new lawnmower. On the other hand corporations can produce very serious and substantial harms and yet are not considered as criminal.
In many ways the concept of social harm is very attractive. However, natural events such as floods and storms also cause social harm; and some activities such as building roads produce benefits for some people and harm for others. Moreover, human activities and natural calamities are interrelated in complex ways. Consider damage done to houses by flooding because the planning authorities allowed them to be built on low-lying ground, and there was a bad storm, and global warming probably enters the picture. In order to work with this concept we would appear to need some kind of felicific calculus. My preference, at least until the concept is better elaborated, is therefore to stick to a more conventional concept of crime.
Marxism and the Classification of Crime.
Is it possible, then, to develop a specifically Marxist analysis of crime? Having discarded the idea that crimes are entirely arbitrary the most promising approach is to abandon the assumption in much writing on criminological theory that all crimes can be explained in the same way. Marxism can then be seen as more applicable to some types of crime than others. A classification on the lines proposed might run as follows. The most central crimes which are unlikely to alter in a major way are those necessary to any orderly society: killing other members of the society without good reason (good reason would be identified on the lines suggested in the previous paragraph); violence against other members of the society, again, without good reason; taking other people’s possessions without good reason. These crimes are what John Hagan calls consensus crimes. 40 Obviously all kinds of changes can happen around the margins of these central crimes and in the way in which they are treated, but they are unlikely to simply disappear. 41 On first sight Marxism ought to be able to explain, or partially explain, these crimes where they have an acquisitive basis. Where they are founded on individual jealousy or desire to dominate Marxism seems unlikely to supply a full explanation.
A second group of
crimes which Marxists would be particularly keen to identify are those
essential to the functioning of the mode of production. Thus capitalism will not work without the
buying and selling of labour power, the enforcement of contracts required for
buying and selling, and a market. Beyond
this, all kinds of other crimes relate to the stage of development of capitalism
and to its relations to other modes of production in the society. Thus in early capitalism there was a great
emphasis on the punishment of idleness, directed particularly at people
displaced from precapitalist modes of production who
were unwilling to accept a capitalist pattern of labour. 42 Later on a legal framework is needed for
joint stock companies so as to regulate the relations between shareholders,
directors and outsiders who make contracts with the company. And beyond this there are offences which
clearly relate to the mode of production but which depend on the state of the
class struggle or on strategies developed by part of the ruling class. Thus the role of trade unions may be more or
less restricted, provisions may be made to enforce international trading
agreements such as those made in the framework of the European Union or the
World Trade Organisation, or insider trading may be illegal as in the
The same sort of
analysis of core and peripheral crimes could be carried out on other modes of
production. Thus a feudal society needs
to have laws which tie serfs to the land, forbidding them to leave and the
feudal lord to evict them. It also needs
laws restricting the sale of estates if land is not to become simply a commodity
as under capitalism. All sorts of
additional laws may not be essential but are likely because they facilitate the
running of a feudal society. There are
likely to be laws restricting the growth of capitalism in the towns, enforcing
the status of lords and serfs, enshrining the ideological justifications of the
system etc. And then additional laws such as the notorious jus primae noctis are not
essential to the system but are based on it. Similar comments came be made
about slavery. For slavery to exist it
has to be possible for some categories of people to be the property of other
people. Thus in
Beyond these two
broad categories a third and very important class of crimes is based on the
enforcement of religious and moral ideas.
These crimes are much more arbitrary and much more amenable to the
symbolic interactionist perspective.
Perhaps the most extreme enforcement of such ideas in the modern world
was the regime of the Taliban, whose fundamentalist account of Islam restricted
women to the home unless dressed in a burka and
accompanied by a male relative. They
also banned cinema, television, video, music other
than religious music, portrait photography, pork, alcohol, homosexuality,
adultery and fornication, thus leaving few of the leisure pursuits of modern
society. It seems reasonable to hope for a Marxist explanation of why a
fundamentalist group such as the Taliban should become dominant in
Even in a basically secular society such as our own the enforcement of moral ideas remains a contentious and uncomfortable area. There is a conflict between a desire to protect the vulnerable and to enhance personal freedom. We have debates over euthanasia, abortion, cloning, the age of sexual consent, sadomasochism, prostitution 45 and recreational drugs. It is not clear that Marxism has anything distinctive to say about what constitutes a person or the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and thus about the core of several of these issues. Marxism may make some contribution to the analysis of areas where there are major economic interests such as prostitution or the drugs trade, although the economic interests involved are an important part of the story but not the whole story.
A fourth area of crime needs to be noted: what might be called derivative or secondary offences put on the statute book because they are easier to prosecute than the offence which is really intended. Thus possession of an offensive weapon is illegal not because such possession does any harm in itself but because someone is more likely to commit serious offences when attending a football match carrying a hunting knife and an AK-47 than without these accessories. Membership of an illegal organisation such as the IRA is perfectly harmless in itself, but has been consistently linked to shootings, explosions etc. The boundaries between primary and derivative offences are not, of course, totally rigid. Providing funding or a safe house could be seen as on the margins. Marxist explanations of such offences could be expected to be as good or bad as the explanation attached to the more fundamental offence.
A fifth and final area can also lead to bizarre offences of the kind relished by symbolic interactionists but should be amenable to Marxist explanation, at least at a fundamental level. This is to do with maintaining the authority of the state. Thus pretending to be a police officer or a soldier or the monarch in the course of his or her duties, or failing to respect such officials is liable to be an offence because holding such people in widespread contempt undermines the state. This in turn can lead to the criminalisation of wearing a uniform which looks like that of a police officer or, in China, wearing yellow which was a colour reserved for members of the imperial court.
Puzzle Two: Is Capitalism a Crime?
There is an extensive debate as to whether Marx believed that the capitalist system was unjust. This is founded on the paradox that in some passages he insists that capitalism is just by the standards of bourgeois legality, whereas elsewhere he uses terms such as ‘robbery’ to describe what the capitalist is doing. There is an excellent introduction to this issue in two articles by Norman Geras. 46 Geras’s basic approach is that Marx does not think that he has a theory of justice, but that nonetheless he has one. Geras acknowledges that there are evidently well thought out places where Marx specifically says that the purchase of labour power and subsequent utilisation of labour is just according to bourgeois standards of right, and that Marx was keen that the International should not be committed to rights and justice. On the other hand he frequently talks about capitalists engaged in ‘robbery’, the ‘theft’ of labour time and so forth. There is also a good case that the communist slogan ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ is a standard of distributive justice. As can be seen from Geras’s articles, there is a massive literature on both sides of the debate as to whether or not Marx has a theory of justice.
It is most unlikely that brief comments in a paper such as this can contribute significantly to the debate, but I cannot resist adding my two pennyworth. My inclination runs the opposite way from Geras. I am inclined to see Marx’s more substantive pronouncements as those in which he does not appeal to a theory of justice, and to emphasise the lack of an attempt in his work to elaborate a theory of justice. He is also keen to distinguish between scientific political economists such as Smith and Ricardo and later ‘hired prizefighters of the bourgeoisie’. Given Marx’s general approach we are inclined to see the labour theory of value as a claim on the produce of labour on the model of Locke, but Ricardo particularly is quite direct in identifying profit as unpaid labour. To us this seems to invite an immediate move towards Ricardian Socialism, and this is certainly one of the reasons Marx gave why political economists discarded Ricardian theory, but things did not necessarily look that way at the time. One of the popularisers of Ricardo was a Mrs Marcet, who came out with magnificent quotations such as the following:
So far from
considering the profits which the capitalist derives from his labourers as an
evil, I have always thought it one of the most beneficent ordinations of
It will be necessary to return to this question as part of the discussion of our third puzzle, communism, but for now let us stick with the idea that an interpretation which says that capitalism is just is respectable, and see why it is important to take this side of the argument for the purposes of the analysis of crime.
As we have seen, crime is not a Marxist concept. There are strong reasons for not sticking to a definition in terms of the workings of the criminal justice system. Perhaps there is a good case for trying to include in our definition ‘injurious acts’ which are not strictly speaking crimes. This takes us to the debate between Sutherland and Tappan and its subsequent ramifications. 48 Sutherland is famous for having initiated the discussion of white-collar crime as a regular and reasonably substantial topic in criminology. He defined it as ‘a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation’. 49 Such crime, he said, was often undetected; was often unprosecuted if detected, and was often not convicted if prosecuted. Thus in seeking for the scope of such crime criminal statistics are not very helpful. A further problem is that these crimes are frequently not dealt with by the criminal courts but by administrative bodies which impose punitive sanctions. Sutherland insists that despite this we are really looking at crimes and not just technical violations: the acts concerned ‘are distributed along a continuum in which the male in se are at one extreme and the mala prohibita at the other.’ 50
Tappan’s definition of crime which was rehearsed above was a riposte to Sutherland. As we saw above, there are whole series of reasons for regarding Tappan’s definition as unduly narrow. Here we revert to the definition in its original context, which is basically the issue of corporate crime. Tappan’s argument continues by pointing out that there are lots of business practices which some people consider immoral, for example, making exaggerated claims in advertising, breaking trust with employees in order to keep wages down, perhaps being found guilty by a labour relations board of an unfair practice, or undercutting fellow merchants in violation of an agreement. Tappan has three main points. If you extend the label ‘crime’ beyond those who have been formally processed as criminals you enter the sphere of moralising; it is no longer clear what the limits of your enterprise are. Regulatory offences are inherently different from criminal offences. Much of what Sutherland is condemning is actually ‘within the framework of normal business practice’. 52
Marxists would also be sympathetic to most of Sutherland’s riposte to Tappan. He says that many tribunals use rules of proof and evidence similar to those of criminal courts. Criminal intent and presumption of innocence is not required to for all offences, for example those of strict liability (Slapper and Tombs, who broadly support Sutherland’s arguments in their book on corporate crime, extend this by commenting that the concept of mens rea is an anthropomorphic anachronism). 53 Sutherland’s basic argument is that the distinction between criminal and other offences is contingent. Non-criminal offences generally have a logical basis in common law and are adaptations of it. This is true of anti-trust regulations; false advertising regulations; labour relations regulations and copyrights and patent laws (these are laws but they are civil laws). Sutherland further comments that some of the reason that white-collar crime is dealt with by regulations rather than by criminal law is because legislators and judges share material and/or ideological influences with business people. 54
Slapper and Tombs, who are working to some extent in Sutherland’s tradition, stress that their focus is on corporate crime, in other words crime carried out in a framework of limited liability corporations, and furthering their aims, rather than white-collar crime more generally. 55 This seems to be an obvious point of focus for a Marxist account of crime, although it has to be acknowledged that corporate and white-collar crime more generally are often linked. For example, a corporation may encourage individuals to engage in crime in order to meet production targets. If one looks at a scandals such as the Enron scandal there seems to be elements of both corporate crime in which the corporation defrauds other firms or customers and individual crime in which, for example, higher ranking employees defraud junior employees. For Slapper and Tombs the illegality could be administrative, civil or criminal. However, they insist that they are not just engaged in moralising; they insist on some form of legal infraction. In Marxist terms they are discussing bourgeois legal categories and demonstrating that capitalist corporations by and large do not and cannot routinely adhere to them. 56
Obviously there is an extensive issue of exegesis here, but to describe capitalism as a whole as ‘robbery’, in other words to agree with Geras, raises serious questions about the enterprise of Marxist criminology. If a reputable capitalist firm such as Marks & Spencer or The Body Shop is engaged in robbery just as much as the Mafia, Marxism will have little useful to say about the distinction between the two. Reputable capitalist firms doubtless engage in dubious practices on occasion and in some areas, whereas the Mafia are in business to make money by doing things which legal businesses do not do. There are some fairly obvious differences between the extent to which reputable firms and the Mafia are amenable to pressure groups, trade unions and government legislation. There are substantial differences between the approach to life of a typical Marks & Spencers employee and a typical mafioso, as you will discover if you borrow money from each and fail to repay it. One of the aspirations of a Marxist criminology must surely be to capture what these are and how they can be explained. Another must be to explain the pressures on reputable capitalist firms to depart from bourgeois legality. Thus a substantial part of the work of Marxist criminology needs to go along with the argument that capitalism is not unjust.
Puzzle Three: will there be less crime under communism?
There is a persistent view amongst
Marxist criminologists, which I would love to share, that a communist society
would render a great deal of crime superfluous, and would therefore have less
crime than present-day society. Willem
Bonger sees this in terms of egoism. He
says that capitalist societies encourage egoism, whereas communist society will
encourage altruism. As egoism tends to
encourage crime there will be less crime under communism. A similar view is taken in the book by Taylor,
Walton and Young in The New Criminology, the founding text of critical
A state of freedom from material necessity, and (therefore) of material incentive, a release from the constraints of forced production, and abolition of the forced division of labour, and a set of social arrangements, therefore, in which there would be no politically, economically, and socially induced need to criminalise deviance. 57
The retreat from theory is over, and the politicisation of crime and criminology is imminent. Close reading of the classical social theorists reveals a basic agreement; the abolition of crime is possible under certain social arrangements. 58
Crime is ever and always that behaviour seen to be problematic within the framework of those social arrangements: for crime to be abolished, then, those social arrangements themselves must also be subject to fundamental social change...The task is to create a society in which the facts of human diversity, whether personal, organic or social, are not subject to the power to criminalise. 59
The image of crime which seems implicit
in these quotations is of expressive, victimless deviance: marijuana smoking in
order to shock respectable society, abortion and consenting homosexual sex
between adults, both of which were legalised in
Before moving on to a more substantive analysis, it is worthwhile to quickly review the above approaches. Bonger quite rightly emphasises that crime based on sheer need would disappear in a communist society. He identifies crime with egoism, and argues that egoism is encouraged by capitalism. We can certainly agree with the latter, and concur that communism would avoid the creation of false needs. However, not all crime is based on egoism. Crimes motivated by poverty may include an element of altruism -- stealing to keep alive both oneself and one’s starving children. Many political crimes are based on a high degree of altruism: destroying military equipment to avoid one’s nation engaging in an unjust war; attacking abortion clinics because they are engaged in ‘murder’; using illegal tactics to stop experimentation on animals; raising funds for the Bolshevik party in the Caucasus from bank raids; knee capping persistent joy riders in areas of Northern Ireland controlled by the Provisional IRA -- all of these things are done in pursuit of a political cause when the more comfortable alternative would be to do nothing and to avoid breaking the law. Even ordinary crimes, however, frequently contain an altruistic element. Matza’s techniques of neutralisation include the idea of a higher loyalty to, for example, the gang or the corporation, which comprises part of the justification of acts which everyone recognises as criminal.
Moving on to critical criminology, a society which had removed scarcity and the forced division of labour could still have disputes about the exact use of resources (see below). Such a society would also be constrained, for the reasons already given, to retain the criminalisation of acts such as unwarranted killing or assault or rape. ‘Human diversity’, presumably meaning acts or lifestyles which do not harm other people, could certainly be decriminalised under socialism. However, as we shall see, this by no means covers the full gamut of crime in either our society or socialist society. A socialist society might also have its own reasons for wanting to restrict human diversity. Very competitive people, people who turn readily to violence, people who enjoy selling things in capitalist society, and people of very strong religious views might all find, I would argue, that a socialist society would wish to restrict their freedom.
Let us now go back to first principles. In order to work out whether there will really be less crime under communism, I want to start from Marx’s notoriously limited account in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, but to flesh this out with some comments about what might be involved in the fulfilment of needs. It will be remembered that Marx distinguishes between a lower stage, frequently referred to as socialism, in which capitalists and landlords have been got rid of and everyone is rewarded according to their inputs of labour, and the higher stage of communism. Under communism:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and thereby also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of common wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs! 61
In fleshing this out let us start briefly with labour becoming ‘life’s prime want’. Is it realistic to expect all labour to be life’s prime want for everyone all the time? There is another suggestion in Capital Volume 3:
The actual wealth of society, and the possibility of constantly expanding its reproduction process, therefore, do not depend upon the duration of surplus labour, but upon its productivity and the more or less copious conditions of production under which it is performed. In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite. 62
The straightforward meaning of this passage is that although attempts should be made to render production ‘favourable to, and worthy of..human nature’ the ‘true realm of freedom’ occurs outside necessary production and requires the shortening of the working day. This suggests that the labour necessary to keep social life going would still be disagreeable under communism, at least for some people some of the time.
A much worse problem concerns ‘to
each according to his needs’. I shall
start by assuming that this means ‘his or her’ needs. I find Cohen’s claim that this is
unsustainable, given the resources of the planet, thoroughly plausible. 63 For example, in the
It could be argued that things are
not necessarily as bleak as this. It may
be possible to replace fossil fuel with renewable energy, and some developments
which meet human need do not use up natural resources any worse than now. For example, improved computer software or
more powerful chips may well save energy and other natural resources rather
than expend them. On the other hand, things may well also have been worse all
along. Many people would love to write
and direct an epic film, design a major experiment to alter the climate of
We have thus identified two reasons for thinking that any reasonably likely socialist society would need criteria of distributive justice, namely that some people would have to work at things which they found disagreeable at least some of the time, and there would need to be a degree of rationing of scarce resources. How serious these constraints would be obviously depends on technological developments, but I am pessimistic that problems of distributive justice would altogether go away. The obvious consequence of scarcity is that at least some people would want to do things or use things beyond their allocation according to the plan, which in turn means that some of the people wanting to use resources beyond the constraints of the plan would probably do so by criminal means. This problem might be considerably less than its equivalent in current society. There would be a much greater degree of equality, so that fewer people would be left with a strong sense of unfairness. Presumably advertisers would stop stoking up artificial needs and heightening real ones. Presumably the marketing of brands would cease. Nonetheless, there is every reason to think that at least some problems of distributive justice and of attempts to evade distributive justice would remain.
A society planned according to need might generate more crime in another way. They would be likely to be debate about the best ways of meeting need. For example, the countryside in Britain functions as agricultural land to meet the need for food and as a park for the recreation of town dwellers, some of whom like to walk peacefully whilst others prefer to ride around on scrambler motorcycles. Some country people enjoy sports which most town dwellers regard as cruel such as foxhunting, hare coursing etc. Town dwellers may well want to live in houses built on what was rural land. There is thus much scope for argument about the use of the countryside in order to meet rival legitimate needs. The same sort of issues are starting to arise about green ways of generating power. Local people tend to feel that wind turbines spoil their amenities; a plan to use the tidal power of the River Avon is upsetting other river users. One would hope that these issues would be dealt with by debate and compromise. This already happens to some extent in current day society, but those who are disgruntled can often resort to the market in order to go and hunt animals in places where it is allowed, buy houses which do not look out over wind turbines etc. As a socialist society would typically allocate resources according to need rather than leaving things up to the market this safety valve would tend to be closed, leaving people to take direct action against aspects of the social plan which left them disgruntled.
So far we have been looking at the strongest claim that socialism would eliminate crime, namely that crime based on limited resources would be unnecessary, and have found good reason to believe that it would not do so fully. Indeed, as we saw in the last paragraph, the diminution or elimination of the market might actually make some sorts of crime more common. Let us move on to looking at the other varieties of crime identified in the section on definitions. The first was consensus crimes, such as murder or robbery. Murder and robbery based on sheer deprivation of resources, or on felt relative deprivation fuelled by advertising and conspicuous consumption should go down considerably, although, as we have seen, might will not be eliminated. One of the standard criticisms of Marxism is that it does not have much to say about patriarchy or about divisions based on race. To some extent both of these divisions are also the basis of interpersonal crimes. It is very much to be hoped that a move to socialism would reduce antagonisms based on patriarchy and race, but there is no reason to believe that these would automatically disappear as the consequence of the rise of socialism. Crimes linked to them would also remain to some extent. What about murder motivated by sexual jealousy? Fourier’s version of socialist society in which one of the needs fulfilled under socialism would be sexual need, and in which ‘all perversions are equal under the law’, would perhaps have the best hope of eliminating sexual jealousy. However, the availability of sex with someone else might well not make it fully acceptable to find one’s partner in bed with one’s best friend, and Marx makes no particular claims that his sort of communism fulfils needs of this sort.
Over the last 30 years domestic and
sexual violence have moved into the area of consensus crimes in most of the
advanced societies. Although these
crimes are basically universally deplored they remain very common. There would appear to be at least 60,000
cases of rape annually in
What about thefts based on boredom, such as stealing cars, racing them and ending the evening by destroying them and cutting down on the forensic evidence in a really exciting blaze? Or vandalising public property such as public toilets, bus shelters etc? Would life in a socialist society be more exciting? Perhaps a socialist society would lay on more things for young people to do? However, if some of the motive for vandalism is rebellion against the constricting norms of a suffocatingly stable and peaceful society a socialist society might have more problems with vandalism than we have today.
To some extent murder and
interpersonal violence have a technological basis. A major factor in the higher
rate of homicide in United States than in Canada or Western Europe is the
American habit of shooting family members, fellow citizens etc. To people in
Our third category of crimes was
those based on the enforcement of religious and moral ideals. A major foundation of religious faith is
insecurity, and as European societies have become more secure they have tended to
become more secular. Many people still
have some degree of religious faith, but it becomes much less of a basis for
serious social divisions.
More extreme views about moral ideals tend to have religious foundations, but there is nothing to prevent people who take a secular approach from disagreeing about particular issues. At what age are most people able to consent to having sex? What level of learning difficulties renders a person unable to consent to having sex? How drunk does somebody have to be before she is unable to consent to having sex? Most people would accept the validity of consent to mild sadomasochism, such as being spanked with a paddle, but what about more extreme activities such as nailing someone’s foreskin to a coffee table (which led to a prison sentence in the Spanner case)? If foreskin nailing is all right, what about cannibalism, again with consent? Is voluntary euthanasia acceptable, and if it is, what safeguards should there be to prevent someone being pressurised into agreeing to it? Many people would accept that a woman has a right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, but have substantial reservations about infanticide. At what point does the former turn into the latter? The answer to this question is likely to vary as medical technology advances. Is it acceptable to grow foetuses deliberately for experimental or therapeutic purposes? Should the age limit for this be the same as that for abortion? Should people be able to use any drugs they desire, with resources in this area being channelled into health education and rehabilitation, or do some drugs lead to such bad behaviour that they need to be restricted -- obvious candidates might be alcohol and crystal meth. Is sex work a legitimate form of work which meets some people’s needs? Or are communists constrained towards the abolitionist perspective on prostitution? It is possible to have quite a range of disagreement about all these issues within a secular perspective. Still remaining within a secular perspective, most people would agree that there is a spectrum of legitimate disagreement about these issues, but that at a certain point it is appropriate to have criminal sanctions. Thus, for example, someone who thinks that the age of sexual consent should be 18 is likely to be willing to engage in polite and constructive disagreement with someone who thinks it should be 14 but will want to invoke criminal sanctions on someone who thinks he is having consenting sex with seven-year-olds. As I indicated above, Marxists will be keen to ensure that no one is pressured into making decisions on these issues through poverty, but this is by no means the only matter at stake. And a communist society should certainly ensure that there are no economic pressures on these issues, but this will hardly stop paedophiles from being attracted to children, exhausted carers from being attracted at least in some part of their thoughts to euthanasia and so forth. Thus a communist society could be expected, one way and another, to have less of a list of crimes in these areas and less occurrence of such crimes, but overall the picture might not deliver vary dramatically from more tolerant societies such as Holland today.
What about our fourth category, derivative offences? A communist society which was serious about eliminating domestic and sexual violence might well find it necessary to introduce rather more secondary offences in these areas. For example, it is emerging that under current English laws and practices drunken women have very little protection from rape. Thus a specific offence of having sex with someone who is having difficulty speaking, has serious motor difficulties, or who is intermittently unconscious through drink or drugs might be a sensible addition to laws on sexual violence. It is difficult to be sure, but a communist society might thus have rather more derivative offences.
Finally, offences linked to maintaining the authority of the state would hopefully wither away in a communist society, but might actually be rather more necessary shortly after decisive moves away from capitalism at a time when supporters of capitalism would feel a real chance of moving back to their preferred society.
My overall conclusion to this third section of the paper is thus that a communist society might actually define more acts as crimes and encounter a higher rate of criminal behaviour, at least in some respects, than capitalist society, but that it would also be a better society for most people to live in.
1 K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975-) (Henceforth MECW) 3, 442; 4, 366, 425.
2 MECW 11, 497.
3 MECW 35, 488.
4 MECW 6, 494; 10, 62; 11, 149.
5 MECW 16, 489.
6 MECW 30, 389.
7 W.A. Bonger, Criminality and economic conditions (
8 G. Rusche and O. Kirchheimer, Punishment and social structure (New York, 1939).
9 W.J. Chambliss, On the take from petty crooks to Presidents (London Bloomington, 1978), W.J. Chambliss, Power, politics, and crime (Oxford Boulder, CO, 2001), W.J. Chambliss and M. Mankoff, Whose law, what order? a conflict approach to criminology (New York London etc., 1976), W.J. Chambliss and R.J. Seidman, Law, order, and power (Reading, Mass, 1982).
10 P. Reiman, The rich get richer and the poor get prison
ideology, class, and criminal justice (
11 I. Taylor, P. Walton and J.
Young, The new criminology for a social theory of deviance (
13 See, for example, E.B. Pashukanis, Pashukanis selected writings on Marxism and law (London etc., 1980).
Hirst, Marx and Engels on Law, Crime and Morality. In: Critical
15 Hirst, 1975, p. 228. The comment was not particularly accurate when
Hirst wrote. Two years previously Taylor
Walton and Young were commenting on the huge scale of corporate and
white-collar crime in contrast to relatively minor thefts such as the Great
16 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, ‘United Nations World Drugs Report 2005, Executive Summary’, (2005) pp. 17.
17 T. Burke, ‘Warning: Drugs cost the Earth’, New Statesman, (2003) .
18 T.A. Obaid, ‘Statement, Panel on International Migration and the Millennium Development Goals’, (2005)
19 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, ‘World Drugs Report 2005’, (2005) pp. 128.
20 BBC News
21 A good starting point on this would be P. Reiman,
‘Paul’s Justice Page’, (2004) The
general idea expressed in the text can be widely found in the literature on
corporate crime or on globalisation. One
book which sums up the links between neoliberal
deregulation and crime well is R. Tillman and M. Indergaard,
Pump and dump : the rancid rules of the new economy (
22 For a brief but compelling account of the link between Vice President Dick Cheney, Halliburton and Iraq contracts see Corpwatch, ‘Corpwatch: Halliburton’, (2006)
23 M. Castells, End of
24 E. Durkheim, The Division
of Labour in Society (
25 P.W. Tappan, ‘Who is the criminal?’, American Sociological Review, 12 (1947) pp. 100.
26 For details, see Home Office, ‘What is the British Crime Survey?’, (2006)
27 On an attempt to deal with this problem, see: A. Myhill and J. Allen, ‘Rape and sexual assault of women: the extent and nature of the problem. Findings from the British Crime Survey’, 237 (2002)
28 A. Gouldner, quoted
in D. Downes and P. Rock, Understanding Deviance: A Guide to the
Sociology of Crime and Rule Breaking (
29 See G.H. Mead, Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a
Social Behaviorist (
30 H.S. Becker, Outsiders studies in the sociology of deviance (New York, N.Y, 1991),
31 ibid.pp. 9..
32 ibid.chapter 7.
33 J. Muncie, The Construction and Deconstruction of Crime. In:
The Problem of Crime (
34 R. Quinney, The social reality of crime (Boston Mass., 1970), pp. 15.
35 ibid.pp. 302.
36 ibid.pp. 223.
37 See, for example, Nick Davies, Guardian, 22 and
D. Dorling, Prime
Suspect: Murder in
39 ibid.pp. 6.
40 J. Hagen, Crime and Disrepute (Thousand Oaks, 1994), pp. 12.
41 Cf. J.Q. Wilson, Thinking about crime (New York, 1985), pp. 5.
42 See, for example, the graphic description in Rusche, ‘Punishment and social structure’, pp. 19.
For a useful discussion of this issue, mainly in relation to Canada
United States, see: R.V. Ericson and A. Doyle, Criminalization in Private:
The Case of Insurance Fraud. In: What is a Crime?(
S. Penney, Crime,
Copyright, and the Digital Age. In: What is a Crime?(
45 For these sexual issues see M. Cowling and P. Reynolds, Making sense of sexual consent (Aldershot, 2004),
46 For a good introduction to this issue see N. Geras, ‘The Controversy about Marx and Justice’, New Left Review, (1985) pp. 47-85., ibid.’Bringing Marx to Justice: An Addendum and Rejoinder’, (1992) pp. 37-69..
47 Mrs J. Marcet, Conversations on Political Economy, 7th ed,
48 For a good recent exposition and discussion of this debate see G.
Slapper and S. Tombs, Corporate crime (
White collar crime the uncut version (
50 E. Sutherland, ‘Is “White-collar Crime” Crime?’, American Sociological Review, 10 (1945) pp. 139.
51 Cf. Slapper, ‘Corporate crime’, pp. 4..
52 Tappan, ‘Who is the criminal?’, pp. 99.
53 Slapper, ‘Corporate crime’, pp. 17.
54 Sutherland, ‘Is “White-collar Crime” Crime?’, pp. 137-8.
55 Slapper, ‘Corporate crime’, pp. 15.
56 ibid.pp. 19.
57 Taylor, Walton and Young, The New Criminology., p. 270.
58 Ibid., p. 281. Minimum
59 Ibid., p. 282.
60 Young in Critical Criminology, pp. 77-82.
61 MECW 24, 87.
62 MECW 37, 807.
63 G. A. Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, How
Come you’re So Rich?,
65 Peoples Daily Online: http://english.people.com.cn/200306/14/eng20030614_118209.shtml
67 Myhill and Allen, 2002.