Can Marxism Make Sense of Crime? by Mark Cowling with Reply by Kristian Lasslett

PDF Versions: Reply by Kristian Lasslett.

Can Marxism Make Sense of Crime?

Mark Cowling


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), 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), Ray Michaelowski (1985)  Jeffrey Reiman (1998; 2004) Christian Parenti (1999) and, in Britain, Taylor, Walton, and Young (1973a; 1973b; 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.


The aim of this chapter is to present an overview of the obvious possibilities in using Marxism to make sense of criminological theory. A brief explanation for non-criminologists: criminological theory typically comprises one central part of criminology degrees, the other central part being comprised of an account of the criminal justice system. Criminological theory looks at theories which purport to explain what is crime and why people commit it. The rest of this introduction discusses issues involved in identifying crime. The main substance of this chapter is a discussion of a series of ways in which Marxism as a social theory might be used in order to make sense of crime. The sections of the paper correspond to the possibilities I consider: the idea of the lumpenproletariat as the criminal class; possible links between the theory of alienation and crime; crime or the criminal justice system as a reproduction condition of capitalism; the Marxist account of law as the basis for making sense of crime; an analysis based on a Marxist account of distributive justice but linked to an account of criminal justice; and finally the question of whether crime would disappear under communism.

The identification of crime is quite a complicated issue. Typical dictionary definitions refer on the one hand to an act punishable by law and on the other to an act which causes serious harm. It takes only a moment’s thought to recognise that these are by no means always fully aligned. At minimum, victimless crimes such as those associated with prostitution and the imbibing of drugs should perhaps be decriminalised, and various activities which are currently not treated as criminal should perhaps be made illegal. A notable example of a crime which is not effectively prosecuted under English law is the war crime of invading other countries without just cause, which is much more harmful than the low-level street crime recorded by the Home Office. The concept of crime is notoriously slippery because crimes come and go: damaging Westminster Bridge and pretending to be a Chelsea pensioner are no longer capital offences. This leads many criminologists, but particularly those on the left, to argue that ‘crime has no ontological reality’. They use examples such as that killing people in time of war can be seen as commendable, or that rape within marriage was legal until 1991 in England to claim that pretty much anything can be criminalised or de-criminalised. Marx and Engels and Bonger are then accused of excessive reliance on official statistics. Although I am generally sympathetic to many of the projects and claims of left-wing criminologists, I do not accept this claim. Instead I prefer the idea of a pyramid of crime (see Hagan 1994: 12) in which murder, robbery and rape are deemed basically criminal in pretty much any society. A society in which these were fully decriminalised would be one where life is nasty, brutish and short. As you go down the pyramid things become more flexible. The most flexible crimes are those based on paternalism, morality and religion. Even below this come activities which are legal, but generally seen as inappropriate, such as making romantic gestures to your mother-in-law. It is certainly possible to go in the opposite direction from general decriminalisation, and criminalise virtually anything. Life under the Taliban would be a good illustration of this. Television, alcohol, pork, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, education for women, going out in public unless dressed in a burka and accompanied by a male relative for women, shaving for men were all made illegal, so that all the main forms of entertainment in advanced Western societies were not permitted.

Given the length of time since its main theories were worked out, it is not surprising that some aspects of Marxism no longer work very well. A version of Marxism which I think works uses the ideas of informationalism proposed by Manuel Castells as the economic base for historical materialism (see Castells 1996; 2000; 2004; Castells and Himanen 2004). This then fits with many of the main features of globalisation. I do not think the idea of revolution on the Leninist model works any more: all that bloodshed in order to produce a society which eventually collapses is simply no longer attractive. Instead I think that some movement towards a socialist world order is possible given the combined efforts of trade unions, social democratic parties and a motley collection NGOs and globalisation protesters.

The lumpenproletariat

In Marx ‘s theories class is basically defined in terms of relation to the means of production, but Marx also considers class fractions such as industrial, mercantile or financial capitalism, social categories such as state employees, and a rather miscellaneous grouping of displaced members of various classes who have not yet settled down as workers, the lumpenproletariat. Marx offers three definitions of the lumpenproletariat, the most entertaining of which is:

From the aristocracy there were bankrupted roués of doubtful means and dubious provenance, from the bourgeoisie there were degenerate wastrels on the take, vagabonds, demobbed soldiers, discharged convicts, runaway galley slaves, swindlers and cheats, thugs, pickpockets, conjurers, card-sharps, pimps, brothel-keepers, porters, day-labourers, organ grinders, scrap dealers, knife grinders, tinkers and beggars, in short the whole amorphous, jumbled mass of flotsam and jetsam that the French term bohemian. (Marx 2002: 77-78)

There are a lot of problems with Marx’s account. They do not seem to comprise a coherent social grouping. Some of the above, notably the day-labourers, organ grinders, scrap dealers and knife grinders are potentially respectable self-employed people. Stretching a point, the same could be true of card-sharps, given that there is a substantial and generally legal gambling industry in Britain, and brothel keepers could be seen as sex workers. Marx seems to use his account of the lumpenproletariat as a way of vilifying parts of the proletariat that did not behave in a properly revolutionary fashion. However, subsequent accounts from Franz Fanon (1969) and Mao (1967) suggest that the lumpenproletariat can side with the proletariat. I am therefore inclined to agree with Bovenkirk: ‘In their [Marx and Engels’s] more theoretical works, their definition of the term lumpenproletariat is unclear and inconsistent. Anyone who tries to base further study upon their interpretation of the term will soon be at his or her wits’ end’. (Bovenkirk 1984: 37)

Worse still, Marx’s account of the lumpenproletariat is strikingly similar to Charles Murray’s (1996; 1997; 2000; 2001) account of the underclass. Murray argues that, in essence, the over-generous welfare state in the USA and Britain has produced a class summarised by one pair of critics as idle thieving bastards (Bagguley and Mann 1992), and that an important objective of social policy should be to get rid of this grouping. Murray’s account is a way of vilifying the victims of the neoliberal policies of Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan. His empirical account of their behaviour is thoroughly dubious. In particular, British people have tended not to get married before having children in recent years, so that about half of British children are now born illegitimate. The values of working, and its rewards in the form of a nice partnership, nice home and happy family life do not seem to have been eroded in spite of more than one generation of unemployment in some parts of Britain (see Bagguley and Mann 1992; Macdonald 1994; Johnson et al., 2000: 26; cf Heath, 1997).

Finally on this issue, Marx sees the lumpenproletariat as a natural tool of finance capital, which he sees as particularly degenerate. Even in spite of the horrors of the recent banking crisis, there is surely a role under capitalism for a stock exchange as a mechanism for raising and redistributing money capital and trading in commodities and commodity futures. In Marx’s terms, some sort of mechanism is needed to translate uneven rates of extraction of surplus value in different capitalist enterprises into a relatively even rate of profit.


Marx’s theory of alienation states that people are naturally creative, loving, communal and powerful, but that these features get removed from them and attached instead to their economic life, notably the act and product of labour, religion, the state, and philosophy. Because this power is turned against them people experience themselves as dominated by the other features of social life that I have listed (MECW 3: 275, 296). There has been a great deal of controversy over the theory. I subscribe to the idea that it was basically dropped around 1846, and that the older Marx makes use of a fairly thin account of human nature (Cowling 1989; 1995; 2006). The fundamental role of the concept of alienation in his youthful writing is replaced by the concept that the other areas of society are determined by the economy (see Cowling 1989; 2006). This sets me at odds with most British commentators on Marx. To the extent that the idea of alienation persists in the older Marx there is certainly an ambiguity: is he arguing that labour can be made creative, or is he arguing that labour under conditions of advanced capitalism is bound to retain some of the features of alienated labour, and that the objective of a socialist society should be to minimise the amount of labour performed by workers so as to allow them a more creative life outside work? (For a good account of this ambiguity, see Wendling 2009.)

Marx himself does not try to use the concept of alienated labour to make sense of crime. One possible use of the concept is found in the early work of Taylor, Walton and Young, which is that a socialist society would allow people full expression of their sexual nature (Pearson 1975: 164). Perhaps this notion could be linked to the ideas of Fourier, whose socialist utopia included arrangements for full sexual expression (see Fourier 1967). However, this could hardly stretch to rape or sex with children under 10, both of which lack consent and are frequently seriously emotionally damaging. Other forms of sexual expression, notably gay and lesbian sex, seemed to be perfectly compatible with capitalism. There is a lively debate between different conceptions of prostitution, with the abolitionist perspective arguing that prostitution is inherently unacceptable and basically a form of rape, in contrast to which the sex worker perspective understands prostitution as a form of work (see Barry 1995; Jeffreys 1997; Sanders 2004). Whilst the concept of alienation could probably be made to fit these issues, it does not add anything useful to existing debates.

A more standard Marxist analysis would say that the workers are so alienated from their human nature that some of them turn to crime; and the objectives of the crime might be to defend the human values of their families. Presumably acquisitive crime directed against capitalists would be seen as relatively acceptable; however, acquisitive crime tends to be directed against other workers. Workers can also try to deaden the effects of alienation by getting drunk and engaging in fights etc. This is fairly similar to the account of the effects of proletarian existence found in Willem Bonger. The theory of alienation adds a moral claim that alienation should be ended. This seems uncomfortably close to the demand that workers should enjoy the full fruits of their labour which Marx gives such short shrift in The Critique of the Gotha Programme (MECW 24: 84-85).

One part of the alienation analysis talks of the alienation of people from nature, and it would be possible to try to construct an ecological version of Marxism on the basis of this. However, Marx also frequently thinks in terms of people dominating nature in one way or another. Actual Communist societies have taken this approach, and tend to have generated worse ecological problems than are generated by advanced capitalism (see Benton 1989).

Marx himself seems to have placed the alienation analysis on the back burner as a result of his encounter with Max Stirner, who took the alienation idea one step further, and thought in terms of claims about human brotherhood etc as a form of alienation from the proper concern of the individual, which is him or herself (Stirner 1907). There is, at any rate, a problem as to why human beings are naturally creative, loving and communal rather than nurturing, or spiritual, or Ayran or individualistic and competitive.

The rather dismal performance of Marxist analysis so far need not be too discouraging: the remaining four possibilities all arguably work better.

The criminal justice system and the reproduction conditions of capitalism

One of Marx’s more extended discussions of crime comes in his Economic Manuscripts of 1861 to 3 (MECW 30, 307-10). It starts:

A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we take a closer look at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as “commodities”. This brings with it augmentation of national wealth, quite apart from the personal enjoyment which — as a competent witness, Professor Roscher, [tells] us… the manuscript of the compendium brings to its originator himself. The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all these different lines of business, which form just as many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human mind, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them. Torture alone has given rise to the most ingenious mechanical inventions, and employed many honourable craftsmen in the production of its instruments. The criminal produces an impression, partly moral and partly tragic, as the case may be, and in this way renders a “service” by arousing the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public.

Marx is actually attacking economists such as Malthus who, he argued, failed to distinguish properly between productive and unproductive labour. He does this by means of a satire in which the criminal is productive because he produces work for the criminal justice system, locksmiths, makers of implements for torture to extract confessions etc, etc. Because this message is entertaining it is frequently referred to and reproduced.

In point of fact, Marx’s best version of this distinction between productive and unproductive labour, namely that productive labour is productive of profit, still fails to work, particularly in conditions of advanced capitalism. It tells us that state employed scientists and lecturers in computer science are unproductive and that a capitalist government should sack them and get them flipping hamburgers for a profit making chain. The output of these particular state employees is the main explanation of why Western economies are still in advance of those of India and China. Also, there are productive labourers who have very bad effects on the rest of the workforce, for example gunsmiths, producers of alcohol and tobacco, people employed in making unhealthy food etc.

Another way to look at Marx’s discussion of crime is to conceive of it as one of the reproduction conditions of capitalism. This form of analysis, taking as its starting point one of Althusser’s essays, ‘Ideology and the State’ (Althusser 1970), was very popular in the 1970s, as it provided a way for radical state employees to argue that they were engaged in undermining capitalism (see Hall et al. 1978; Wilson 1977; Corrigan and Leonard 1978; London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group 1980). The reproduction conditions of capitalism are, I would argue, multi-layered. Most basic are the reproduction conditions of human life itself, such as breathable air, food and shelter. Then there are reproduction conditions which are broadly common to capitalist and socialist economies, such as a good general education system and welfare state. Then there are specific conditions of capitalism, such as free workers, an accumulation of money capital, a reasonably extensive market, and an ideology which understands profit-making as a reputable activity. A very basic level of the criminal justice system is required by both a capitalist and a socialist economy: both of these are undermined if people are free to murder and steal whenever they see fit. Possibly the criminal justice systems of the Scandinavian countries are quite close to this minimum level of imprisonment needed to run a stable capitalist or socialist economic system. They manage to keep incarceration down to around 70 per hundred thousand of population.[1] Some African countries have lower rates of incarceration, but also suffer from civil war or very poor law and order. The Congo would be an example. In stark contrast with Scandinavia, the British and American criminal justice systems have been afflicted since the 1970s with what Garland calls the culture of control (Garland 2001). He argues that from the early 20th century through to the beginning of the 1970s there was a culture in Britain and America of penal welfarism, in which prison was much more of a last resort, and the goal of imprisonment was more clearly rehabilitation. What has happened since then, he argues, is that fear of crime has been whipped up by politicians and the media, and imprisonment has come to be much more a matter of deterrence and retribution. Thus in Britain we have roughly doubled the number of prisoners since the time of Douglas Hurd as Home Secretary; and the United States has ended up as the penal capital of the world with 756 prisoners per hundred thousand of population.

Is there anything peculiar about the development of American capitalism since the 1970s which accounts for this massive growth? There has been the relative decline of mass production and manufacturing, which has tended to be shifted to parts of the world such as Mexico and China where labour is cheaper than the United States. There has also been growing inequality, with stagnating incomes at the bottom of US society and the expansion of extreme wealth of an elite at the top.[2] Given that American culture places considerable stress on material prosperity this is arguably a criminogenic set of arrangements. This point is, of course, made from the anomie perspective (see Merton 1938; Passas 1990; Messner and Rosenfeld 1993). However, to a somewhat lesser extent the same developments have been underway in Britain with a much lower rate of imprisonment. A more likely to set of explanations is specific to the criminal justice system. There is the particularly toxic phenomenon of the Republican Southern strategy, which started in a small way with the Nixon presidential campaign in 1968, in which Republicans in the southern states linked fear of crime with fear of black men. This resulted in white Southern voters switching their allegiance from Dixiecrat Democrats to Republicans. It also led to higher rates of imprisonment, which were then used as an argument to show that there was a major danger from crime, particularly black crime. The Democrats fought back by arguing that they were equally tough on crime (see Parenti 1999; Chambliss 2001). This has carried on since the mid-1990s, when levels of crime started to fall quite dramatically. Some other developments have also conspired to inflate the number of prisoners: truth in sentencing, which limits judicial discretion, and means that prisoners get relatively little remission for good conduct; the war on drugs, which has seen the incarceration of large numbers of inoffensive users and low-level dealers; tougher probation, with a more ready tendency to recall men on probation to prison. There is also an argument that crime statistics are manipulated by police authorities and the FBI, either to demonstrate that crime is rampant and that they need to be supplied with extra resources, or to demonstrate that zero tolerance policing works (see Chambliss 2001).

It is worth debating whether there is a more specifically economic explanation. Three major corporations are in the business of providing private prisons; numerous other corporations profit from supplying all sorts of things to the prison sector and to the police and courts. These, together with hangers on such as criminology lecturers, form a significant lobby. However, I see no reason to dispute the view of Christian Parenti that:

incarceration is a small-scale form of Keynesian, public-works-style stimulus. New penitentiaries can revive economically moribund regions and, acting as anchor industries, can bring in other employers such as medical services and retail chains… The gulag provides opportunities for localised growth but it does not and will not assume the mantle of de facto industrial policy because it cannot and will not replace the role of military and aerospace spending. (Parenti 1999: 217; see also Hooks et al. 2004)

An argument in the opposite direction might in fact be valid. Given that, for example, California is now spending more on its prisoners then it is on education, and that there are more black men in prison and there are in universities, the high rates of imprisonment in United States is probably a drag on the American economy compared with other possible social arrangements. It would be better for the men who end up in prison to be doing almost anything else: retraining for the informational economy; working as carers for the elderly and disabled; tending civic parks and gardens, putting on operas — all of these would be beneficial and constructive, in contrast with the current arrangements.

The overall conclusion of this section, then, is that capitalist economies have quite a high degree of flexibility, and can be run in various different ways. The American pattern of running the economy with such a large criminal justice sector can thus be seen as a contingent rather than a necessary way of reproducing a capitalist economy.

The Marxist analysis of law

Historical materialism conceives of society as comprising an economic base and an ideological and political superstructure, which is determined by the economic base. The role of law in this is problematic. It seems to provide a framework for the economic base, and also to be part of the ideological superstructure. It is possible to use law as a framework for accelerating the development of the economic base — consider, for example, legislation to permit enclosure or the setting up of joint stock companies.

Turning specifically to the criminal law, there are broadly two approaches. One, taken by the Soviet jurist Pashukanis (1980), and by the American criminologist Richard Quinney in his Marxist phase (Quinney 1970; 1974) sees the criminal law as essentially an instrument of the ruling class used against the working class, and thus looks to see the criminal law disappearing with the building of communism. The alternative approach is taken by Paul Q Hirst (1979: 111-114), E. P. Thompson (1990), Douglas Hay (1975) and Hugh Collins (1984). It argues that the law has a relatively autonomous substance of its own. Judges and barristers work within a framework of statute and precedent, using forms of argument which have developed over several hundred years. This activity has, in general, no particular connection to class struggle. This means that the law can to an extent to be used by subordinate classes against the ruling class. Examples of this could be the refusal of a jury to convict the London Corresponding Committee of workingmen of treason (see Thompson 1991: 19-23); the hanging of Lord Ferrers, a particularly obnoxious aristocrat; the role of health and safety legislation, and legislation to restrict working hours; the refusal of a jury to convict Clive Ponting; the use of the law in the context of the British invasion of Iraq by figures such as Phil Shiner. It is pointed out that the ideological role of the law as something neutral, available to capitalists and workers alike, is enhanced by these relatively limited examples of the law acting to constrain those at the top of society.

Distributive justice and criminal justice

There is a very extensive debate as to whether or not to Marx has a theory of distributive justice. It is possible to marshal numerous quotations in both directions from his work.[3] My personal inclination is to go with his official position that historical materialism is not a theory of justice, and that communist revolution is not a revolution motivated by justice. However, I also consider that Marx’s arguments to the effect that communist revolution is highly likely have become extremely weak. Contemporary Marxists need to get involved with theories of justice. Moreover, it is by no means clear that the interests of people who work in the interests of justice are identical. To start with, levels of remuneration enjoyed by different workers are dramatically different: the better paid employees of Microsoft, for example, leave in a state where they can set up their own businesses; contrast this with workers in Third World sweatshops (see Anderson 2005 on the relative pay rates of third world and US workers who work for Wal-Mart). Worse than this, however, the addition of some labour to a product does not seem to be a particularly good title to the whole of the product. If one considers people’s needs, there is a strong argument that carers (usually, though by no means exclusively, women) severely disabled people and some pensioners get a relatively poor deal compared to those lucky enough to be able to do well remunerated work.[4] Justice also demands a reduction in the massive remuneration of those at the very top of businesses, and of the bankers who brought about the current crisis. It is thus important to see if it is possible to develop a distinctively Marxist theory of justice. This is obviously a very big task. In terms of Marx’s categories we live in a rather peculiar society. We still have capitalism, gross inequality and idle rentiers. On the other hand we have a welfare state which to some extent works on the basis of to each according to his or her needs. This points towards a reformist politics which uses arguments about justice to call for the expansion of the welfare state alongside policies to reduce inequalities in income and wealth.

Where does criminal justice fit with theories about distributive justice? The two tend to be discussed separately. Thus there is about one page on this issue in Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, if we leave aside a more extended discussion of civil disobedience (Rawls 1973: 575-6). The line Rawls takes is the obvious one that crime tends to upset just patterns of distribution, so that criminal justice restores a just pattern of distribution. One text written by a criminologist tries to make this link by using Marshall’s theory of citizenship as her criterion of justice (Cook 2006). If we pursue Rawls’ line of thought I would suggest that we should distinguish between white collar crime carried out by individuals on their own behalf, corporate crime and street crime. Individual white-collar crime is arguably pursued less vigorously than street crime which nets the same amount of illicit gains, although in recent years some American white-collar criminals have received substantial sentences. Corporate crime is quite often overlooked, or dealt with leniently. An example would be the British Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, 2007, which simply provides for fines on guilty corporations – fines which in the case of Railtrack, hospital trusts or prisons would be paid by the taxpayer. There is also a strong argument that corporate crime does not get enough attention from criminologists, given the massive damage it causes compared to street crime. I was able to review most of the more significant writing in this area over a few pages of my book (Cowling 2008: 205-208), a task which would be completely impossible for street crime. Just to give a brief illustration of the discrepancy: in the 1990s the Serious Fraud Office had a threshold of £6 million before it would take an interest in cases, and typically had frauds which netted around £5 billion under investigation at any one time. In contrast, the average burglary was estimated to have netted about £370, and the total cost of burglaries was estimated as around £1 billion per annum. Hardly any burglaries were big enough to attract the attention of the Serious Fraud Office if they had been frauds (see Slapper and Tombs 1999: 56-63). Turning to deaths and injuries, in the UK there are around 400 deaths and 50,000 serious injuries at work each year (Slapper and Tombs 1999: 68-78). Very many of these are avoidable. The executives who decide whether or not to risk these deaths and injuries obviously hope that nothing harmful will occur, and have nothing against the particular employee who is a victim, but they risk the deaths and injuries is a calculating manner, whereas an individual murderer tends to be enraged and out of control. It is, of course, quite possible to research these matters without a Marxist framework, but this is pretty clearly territory where Marxist views of the imperatives of capitalism are highly pertinent. It is obviously necessary to develop a Marxist theory of justice in order to properly condemn the crimes discussed in this paragraph as unjust, but this is a major undertaking not appropriate for even a book on Marxism and criminology.

Turning from corporate crime to crime more generally, there are various crimes where a Marxist theory of justice would be relevant. Let us start with the crimes committed by primitive rebels, as Eric Hobsbawm called them. When he was writing in 1959 he had a clear view of the line of march to socialism, and it was relatively easy to see where they would fit (Hobsbawm 1959). Things are less clear if we start engaging in reformist arguments about justice. The line of march toward socialism is messy and unclear. Illegal actions should be largely unnecessary in properly functioning liberal democracies, and are something of a double edged sword in that they legitimate draconian or illicit activities by the criminal justice system or the right against leftists. There may be some role for whistleblowing, leaking, civil disobedience, challenging the way in which demonstrations are policed, symbolic actions against particular targets etc.

What about the victimless crimes advocated by the radical criminologists of the 1970s? People on the left have historically been rather more sympathetic to these than those on the right, but today things are less clear. Existing or recent communist societies have been less sympathetic to homosexuality than today’s decadent advanced capitalist societies; in Britain under New Labour the Home Office was dominated by women who accepted the radical feminist view that prostitution is totally unacceptable.

Finally, a brief comment on the relatively petty street crime which dominates criminal statistics. Much of this is relatively harmless — I can recall rejecting the offer of victim support to get me through the trauma of having our lawnmower stolen from our shed and the horror of claiming for a better one on our insurance, or the puzzle of what was the appropriate amount to claim on the insurance for cracked PlayStation games stolen in a minor burglary. Socialist policy would surely be to try to get the young men who are the main perpetrators of this type of crime through their criminal years as untraumatically as possible, rather than labelling and imprisoning them, thus setting them on course for recidivism.

Communism and the end of crime?

Much of the existing Marxist criminology argues that crime would disappear under communism (see Taylor Walton and Young 1973: 281-282; 1975: 90; Reiman 1998; Chambliss 2001, the last two arguing that socialist type reforms would greatly reduce crime). It seems reasonable to suppose that the type of situation Bonger describes, where people had the option of starvation, stealing or suicide, would disappear in a communist society, but it has also disappeared in capitalist societies which have a halfway decent welfare state (Bonger 1916: 670-672; Quinney 2002, 167; 187-191).

Marx’s slogan for communist society is ‘from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs’ (MECW, 24: 87). The older Marx seems to envisage that at least some work would continue to be necessary and disagreeable (MECW, 37: 807).[5] It can therefore be assumed that some people would wish to evade work some of the time. Some things that people legitimately want, such as a car, are ecologically unsustainable for everyone on the planet. Others would have to be rationed in any conceivable situation: the desire to make epic films, the need for emotional care (see Bryson and Blakeley 2005: 138), the demand for space travel should all be available for some people, but do not seem realistic for everyone in the way they might desire and benefit from. We thus have two sorts of situations in which individuals would wish to deviate from the socialist plan, however it was drawn up. A socialist society will also presumably still have the kind of problem we have today over, for example, the use of the countryside. Farming, house building, quad biking, setting up wind farms and rambling are all legitimate uses to some extent, but are rivals to each other. In capitalist society some people, at least, can get around these problems by spending resources in a way that might not be possible in a socialist society. They might, therefore, engage in various forms of crime or corruption.

Some currently existing crime is motivated by issues of race or gender. Hopefully these would diminish under socialism, but they would not automatically go away. Although people’s sexual desires would hopefully be catered for following Fourier’s slogan that ‘all perversions are equal under the law’ (Fourier 1967), it would surely still be disagreeable to find one’s partner in bed with someone else, so to some extent crime based on jealousy would persist. Hopefully a socialist society would take seriously the need of people to live free of fear, and would thus be more effective in prosecuting domestic and sexual violence. Convictions for these might therefore rise rather than fall. Some offences are based on moral and religious beliefs. One might hope that religious beliefs will tend to fade away in a socialist society, but this looks much more realistic in secular Britain than in the United States. Even from a secular point of view, there is a point at which most people would wish to move from polite debate to criminal sanctions — for example, shifting the age of consent to 14 could be dealt with by polite disagreement, but moving it to age 7 would invite criminal sanctions. Similarly, while most enlightened people seem to accept the idea of a spot of sadomasochism such as was at issue in the Spanner trial, there tend to be reservations about consenting cannibalism.

Finally, we should perhaps pause for thought about the consumption of drugs in contemporary capitalist societies. The illegal drugs trade is based on the desire of lots of people for drugs which are prohibited by law. In a socialist society everything needed for production is supposed to be supplied by the social plan. If this fails and people want to get hold of things needed by enterprises they are forced onto the black market. This seems to have been one major foundation of the Soviet Mafia: lots of commodities were treated in the same way as our illegal drugs in our society.

Overall, then, there seems to be reason to think that in some respects there might actually be more crime in a communist society than in current capitalist society, even if in other respects the communist society was very attractive and provided better opportunities for human fulfilment.


[1] Rates of imprisonment are summarised by Roy Walmsley (2008). Some African countries have lower rates of imprisonment than Scandinavia, but they also do not have very effective capitalist development, and many of them have quite nasty features such as corrupt dictatorships or civil wars. An example would be the Congo, with 22 people in prison per hundred thousand of population, but with a horrible history of corrupt dictatorship and civil war, and a terrible failure to develop the plentiful natural resources of the country for the general benefit of its population.

[3] For an excellent introduction to the quotations, the issues, and the extensive literature, see Geras (1985; 1992).

[4] The argument here basically follows that in Geras (1992: 66-69) and Cohen (2000, chapter 6).

[5] For an enlightening and interesting discussion of this change from the youthful alienation theory, see Wendling (2009).



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A Reply to Can Marxism Make Sense of Crime? by Mark Cowling

Kristian Lasslett[1]


In his paper ‘Can Marxism Make Sense of Crime?’, Cowling critically evaluates a number of theoretical tools which might be employed to improve our understanding of crime and criminality. The paper’s broad scope makes it intellectually provocative, though the theories and theorists are given elliptical treatment which, on occasions, forces the audience to read between the lines. Given the paper’s wide scope, I will break down my review into sections that broadly mirror the author’s own layout.  I have elected to critically engage with Cowling on a number of key points,[2] which I hope healthily reflects the quite divergent views Marxists hold on criminological theory and analysis. However, in so doing the commentary I provide is certainly not meant to be a definitive statement of my own thoughts on the issues at hand, rather they are simply alternative views designed to stimulate dialogue.

The Ontological Reality of Crime

Taking issue with the argument that ‘crime has no ontological reality’, the author begins by outlining a framework which he labels a ‘pyramid of crime’. At the top of this pyramid are acts like murder, robbery and rape, which the author claims are ‘deemed basically criminal in pretty much any society’. Then there are more flexible forms of criminality that vary depending on prevailing systems of morality and religion. While the author’s theoretical innovation is most interesting, I am not sure dividing crime up schematically is necessarily the best approach. Indeed from an empirical vantage point, there are instances we can point to where murder and sexual assault are quite socially acceptable practices (as the author indeed acknowledges). For example, anthropological studies from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea suggest that when women fled certain clans, punishment in some instances included ‘rape by all males of a lineage’ (Donaldson and Good 1988: 21-22). This symbolic ritual arose out of a fiercely patriarchal culture, where owing to constant threats from rival tribes the warrior code and forced labour (of women) were crucial ingredients for a clan’s survival.

Thus, rather than developing elaborate schemas that box crime under different headings, some of which are common to all societies, others of which are specific to only certain types of communities, perhaps we would be better served by trying to illuminate the concrete social processes that give an act its deviant quality (none of which are general to all societies, they are always historically specific processes). That is, if we are to explain why certain acts are criminal and others are not (and in turn why people commit them), we cannot rely on their inherent repugnance to humankind (e.g. rape), rather we must turn our analytical lens to the social processes in which they are embedded. These processes broadly involve a variety of actors, for example, offenders, victims, the community and political authorities. Shaping the interaction between these actors are historically developed structures and processes that inspire specific ways of life, normative systems, intellectual paradigms, political projects and governmental technologies. As a totality these forces establish the context in which the relationship between victim, offender, the community and political authority evolves – an evolving relationship that will give certain offences a criminal character, while other practices will assume a different status (see Lasslett 2010a). Looking at crime this way is not a retreat into symbolic interactionism, rather it simply recognises that practices acquire their meaning and significance from the ensemble of relationships they are embedded within. Marxism I would suggest is immanently well placed to shed light on this dynamic.

The Lumpenproletariat

Having defined crime, the author proceeds to survey a series of Marxist tools which could potentially be employed to shed light on criminality. First off the rank is class analysis, or perhaps to be fair, a specific class category. Cowling’s critique of the category lumpenproletariat as used by Marx, is insightful. However, I am not entirely convinced we can as easily dismiss Marx’s more general point about capitalism’s fickle character. As a mode production, capitalism is chaotic and fragile in nature, making unevenness and disequilibrium a constant reality. When capitalism’s rhythm is blended with a range of neoliberal political technologies, the concrete result for significant sections of the population across the world today is their socially constructed irrelevance. Out of this socially constructed irrelevance develops cultures of resistance, not all of which are necessarily revolutionary or ‘progressive’, for example, youth gangs (see Hagedorn 2005). In this sense, class relations under capitalism do generate a sort of marginalised, irrelevant social strata who react to their circumstances in different ways according to the socio-cultural paradigms that develop around them. Cowling is perhaps right to reject the label lumpenproletariat, however, there certainly seems something analytically important about understanding and conceptualising this socially produced irrelevance and the response of different states to the cultures of resistance that form within marginalised communities.


Clearly not adverse to provoking debate (which is most engaging!), the author proceeds to examine and dismiss Marx’s theory of alienation. In particular, Cowling argues that this theory more or less disappears from Marx’s scholarship after 1846. If we accept that ‘Marx’s theory of alienation states that people are naturally creative, loving, communal and powerful, but that these features get removed from them and attached instead to their economic life’, I would agree, there are indeed few traces of such a view in Marx’s mature work. However, I would argue that Marx never seriously held this position to begin with. Marx’s strongest and most persistent claim is that humans actualise their abstract potential by being immersed in social processes, out of which develop concrete powers of agency (Marx 1959: 97 & 101; Marx 1973: 492; Marx 1976: 283). Consequently, owing to the practical and social nature of human beings, our attributes and characteristics are historically developed rather than organically predefined. Accordingly, it seems to me that Marx does not seriously argue that humans possess certain original qualities, which are then suppressed by social structures. Indeed in his early works Marx (1975: 230) chastises liberal political theory for characterising society as a ‘framework extraneous to the individual, as a limitation of their original independence’.

Nevertheless, when conceived in the above light Marx’s social ontology does raise interesting questions about the relationship between the concrete attributes and capabilities humans possess, and the social relations and processes which underpin their particular historical epoch. On occasions Marx attempts to tease out this relationship:

Greed as such, as a particular form of the drive, i.e. as distinct from the craving for particular kinds of wealth, e.g. clothes, weapons, jewels, women, wine etc., is possible only when general wealth as such, has become individualized in a particular thing, i.e. as soon as money is posited in its third quality … The mania for possessions is possible without money; but greed itself is the product of a definite social development, not natural, as opposed to historical. (Marx 1973: 222)

However, these remarks are never fully developed (perhaps the most intriguing examination of the relationship between personality and structure is made by Trotsky (2005) in his portrait of Tsar Nicholas II). Nevertheless, from a criminological point of view, Marx’s social ontology still offers a useful framework for analysing the relationship between human attributes conducive to socially harmful activities/crime and specific historical structures.

However, this argument on human nature is not essential to Marx’s early or mature views on alienation, which is Cowling’s main concern. Rather, Marx explicitly roots his theory of alienation in the social relations of capitalism. Compare, for example, the following two remarks, the first from his 1844 manuscripts, the second from Marx’s Grundrisse:

The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien. (Marx 1959: 67)

The independent, for-itself existence [Fürsichsein] of value vis-à-vis living labour capacity — hence its existence as capital — the objective, self-sufficient indifference, the alien quality [Fremdheit] of the objective conditions of labour vis-a-vis living labour capacity, which goes so far that these conditions confront the person of the worker in the person of the capitalist — as personification with its own will and interest — this absolute divorce, separation of property, i.e. of the objective conditions of labour from living labour capacity — that they confront him as alien property, as the reality of other juridical persons, as the absolute realm of their will — and that labour therefore, on the other side, appears as alien labour opposed to the value personified in the capitalist, or the conditions of labour — this absolute separation between property and labour, between living labour capacity and the conditions of its realization, between objectified and living labour, between value and value-creating activity — hence also the alien quality of the content of labour for the worker himself — this divorce now likewise appears as a product of labour itself, as objectification of its own moments. (Marx 1973: 452)

Once conceptualised in this way I am not that Marx’s theory of alienation can be as easily dismissed. Indeed, understanding how socially produced wealth is reified in private forms that oppose workers as an alien force, and the correlative reaction this incites in those human beings who actualise their potential in such a system (not only in those who stand opposite it, but also in those who command alienated wealth), would appear a necessary step if we are to more fully explain the interests and attitudes that underpin different forms of offending behaviour. That said, the author is right to raise questions about overly romanticised conceptions of the street criminal, as a lovable rogue resisting commodification and alienation.

Crime and the Reproduction of Capitalism

Having examined and dismissed two tools of Marxist analysis, the author then proceeds to consider whether crime is essential to the reproduction of capitalism. I found this section to be one of the most thought-provoking. Certainly, there have been attempts by criminologists influenced by Marxism to rationalise crime and criminal justice, by linking it to the needs of capitalist reproduction (see, for example, Rusche and Kirchheimer 1939). Besides being built on a questionable empirical foundation, such arguments suffer from all the problems associated with functionalism. Consequently, Cowling’s conclusion that crime/crime control is a contingent reality and thus not necessary to the reproduction of capitalism is compelling.

Law and Justice

In the final two sections of his paper Cowling considers law and justice. Quinney’s instrumentalist view of the criminal law is dismissed, rightly in my view. However, Pashukanis is oddly lumped into this instrumentalist camp – such a controversial characterisation needs to be justified far more thoroughly. Similarly, I am not entirely sure that E. P. Thompson believed that the law has ‘no particular class connection’. Indeed, while I agree that Thompson and indeed Marx argued ‘the law can to an extent be used by subordinate classes’, this I would suggest never rendered the law a neutral instrument in their scholarship. Rather it entailed that the law as a strategic field of struggle was in fact critically shaped in profound ways by the rhythm of class conflict.

The author’s conclusion, which calls for a theory of justice is an important one. Indeed, as I write this review thousands of activists are camped out in city centres across the world to protest against the impunity of finance capital. This follows on the heels of student protests, where major tax-evaders were targeted (unfortunately, those who censured the tax-evaders were in turn censured by the courts with hefty prison sentences). Of course, censuring the powerful for their crimes is not a new phenomena, indeed Marx notes it with approval:

It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England, that saved the west of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless approval, mock sympathy, or idiotic indifference, with which the upper classes of Europe have witnessed the mountain fortress of the Caucasus falling a prey to, and heroic Poland being assassinated by, Russia; the immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power, whose head is at St Petersburg and whose hands are in every cabinet of Europe, have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics; to watch the diplomatic acts of their respective governments; to counteract them, if necessary, by all means in their power; when unable to prevent, to combine in simultaneous denunciations, and to vindicate the simple laws of morals and justice, which ought to govern the relations of private individuals, as the rules paramount of the intercourse of nations. (Marx 1992: 81)

Understanding and theorising the social basis of censure is important if we are to use the rhythm of justice as a medium for evoking change. Cowling’s views on distributive justice certainly offer valuable food for thought in this respect.

Concluding Remarks

By the end of Cowling’s paper, we have been treated to a wide-ranging discussion on the topic of Marxism and crime. There are moments of optimism, but overall the author seems to take a fairly jaundiced view of the analytical tools Marxists have utilised to analyse crime and criminality. While the author’s prognosis is well argued and thoughtful, I am inclined to be more optimistic. Indeed, as my own response has demonstrated I believe that many of the concepts Cowling cites, if combined with rigorous empirical research, may offer important insights into crime and criminality. Nevertheless, the latter is absolutely essential. Indeed, as radical criminology came to the fore during the 1970s, a number of radical criminologists appropriated the theoretical insights developed by Marxism, without really embarking upon the sort of in-depth empirical investigation required to do the concepts of Marxism justice (to put it crudely, a point and shoot approach was adopted). As a result, the critical edge of radical criminology was blunted. If we are to avoid repeating these mistakes our critique of criminology must be built on a solid foundation of empirical research that is refined and enriched through the application of social theory in accordance with Marx’s dialectical method (see Lasslett 2010b; Lebowitz 2009).


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[1] Lecturer in Criminology, University of Ulster and Research Fellow, International State Crime Initiative.

[2] In so doing I have focused solely on the content of Cowling’s paper in this volume – it would be too demanding to analyse this paper in light of the author’s prolific output.