10. Critical Criminology

10.2 Marx and the basis of Critical Criminology

Kevin Walby and Kelly Gorkoff

The tendency of critical criminology to investigate and attempt to transform the world begins with Karl Marx and subsequent Marxist criminological scholars.

Marx and the Critique of Capital

Most people would probably not identify Karl Marx as a criminologist, though he is often seen as a political economist, a critical historian of economics, and a sociologist. Marx’s writings were concerned with the rise of social institutions during industrialisation which included the development of criminal law, the power of police and prisons, and processes of criminalisation. At the core of his work, Marx rejected the idea that societies operate based on a consensus (see 1 What is Crime?). Instead, he suggests that societies are full of conflict, which is often reflected in, and stems from, its relations of production (the social relationships involved in producing the things we need to survive such as food, and shelter).

To provide some examples, in Capital, Volume One, Marx (2004) addresses these critical issues in chapters 26, 27 and 28. As he examines the , he explores the that occurs alongside it. In chapter 26 on the secret of so-called primitive accumulation, Marx argues there is nothing natural about the creation of private property (e.g., owning land or factories), the extraction of resources from the land (e.g, cutting trees or drilling oil), or the extraction of value from those resources (e.g., paying for lumber/gas or profiting from selling lumber/gas). Marx argues that our capitalist order is a political and economic one formed through various attempts at social control of these processes of private property, extraction and value. He claimed that the process of so-called primitive accumulation and the extraction of value from the resources found in land is only possible through the development of a state apparatus (e.g., government) that supports capitalist exploitation. Part of that state apparatus, perhaps the main part, is social control agents such as police and prisons.

In chapter 27 of Capital, Volume One, which is on the expropriation of the agricultural population from the land, Marx (2004) argues that, instead of land being collectively governed and people benefiting in a collective way from the value of resources and land, the capitalist mode of production requires the expropriation of people from their land, their territory, and the resources found there. This goes for populations in the English countryside, and it could be further extended to colonial relations with Indigenous peoples in British colonies such as Canada. To achieve control of resources and land, social control agents of the state apparatus forcibly expropriate populations from the land to privatise it and its resources (such as lumber, oil, and minerals) for capitalist landowners. The example of establishing Indigenous reserves in Canada is an example of the expropriation of people from their land, a process that continues today.

In chapter 28 of Capital, Volume One, Marx (2004) writes about , a swath of laws passed by the state apparatus in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Commonwealth countries that do two things. First, they enable the creation of private property, enabling the privatisation of wealth, value, resources, land, thereby creating a powerful capitalist class. Secondly, they are used against the working class and against the who cannot work or choose not to work. These laws allowed for the expropriation discussed above. These laws also force persons to work in the capitalist mode of production in factories. If people choose not to work, bloody legislation is applied to them, to criminalise and punish them. If persons are unhoused and move from region to region or from the country into the city because their land has been stolen from them by the capitalist class, they too have bloody legislation applied to them, specifically laws of vagabondage. Laws are also passed to dissuade labour organising and resistance (Poulantzas, 1975; Griffin et al., 1986; Kuriakose & Iyer, 2021).

This swath of laws is created to control the working class and the lumpenproletariat, and to enforce the capitalist mode of production. Although Marx is usually not identified as a criminologist per se, even this one work, Capital, Volume One, offers a rich history and analysis of the way the state apparatus was formed to support the capitalist mode of production and how criminal law in its origin emerged as a tool of control for elites. Criminal law, police and prisons from a Marxist perspective, exist to control the population, to force people to work, and to prevent people from collectivising (or equally sharing) land, resources and wealth.

Using Marx

A significant figure in early critical criminology, William Chambliss (1964), drew on Marx’s ideas to analyse the origin of vagrancy laws (some enacted as early as 1349) and concluded that these laws were created to force people to work in factories and other places, by criminalising those who did not. These laws were pivotal in capital expansion and Chambliss (1964) notes how different categories of “the criminal” were created as capitalism expanded. These included individuals who made and sold goods in traveling shows, those who organised gambling events, and those who took goods that were in transit from one factory to another. Chambliss (1964) defined crime as “conduct that is defined and controlled by agents of the dominant economic class in a politically organized society, to benefit capitalism” (p. 71). To enforce these laws, policing, courts and prisons are obviously necessary.

Another Marxist, Louis Althusser (1969, 1971), named this set of agencies and defined them as bodies granted the legal right to use physical force to control the masses. This includes the military, the police, the judiciary, and the prison system. It is argued that these bodies are used to enforce laws and to demand obedience to laws based on unfair expropriation. Generally, the presence of these institutions is enough to gain compliance, but when the unfairness of capitalist/worker exchanges is questioned or laid bare, these bodies engage in explicit legalised violence. Gordon (2005, 2006) examines how the rise of law-and-order policing, and the over-policing of poverty and the poor, coincided with changes in the capitalist order. He identifies governmental changes in policing alongside shifts in economic policies such as the shifts from (pre-1960s) to (1960-80s) to (1980s-present).

As Marx traces this out in detail in chapters 26, 27 and 28 of Capital, Volume One and as critical criminologists such as Chambliss and Althusser argued, the criminal justice system is essentially a tool of the capitalist class. However, this view that the system always operates as an arm, or instrument of, capitalism has been critiqued as overly conspiratorial. Some Marxist criminologists debate whether things are really so instrumental.

A Marxist criminologist named Richard Quinney (1978) argued that there are instrumental and structuralist Marxist positions. An position continues the understanding put forward by Marx, that the state apparatus and criminal law exists as a direct result of capitalism to uphold capitalism and the capitalist mode of production. A position argues that governments are somewhat autonomous and are not simply installed by the owning class. For example, structural Marxists Leo Panitch (1977) and Nicos Poulantzas (1975) argue that the state acts on behalf of capital, not at its behest. Theorists such as these suggest that although governments might pass laws that appear to help protect the population (i.e., minimum wage, labour law) and reduce the power of the owning class, overall, police and corrections operate to maintain the capitalist economy (which as discussed above is, at its base, unequal and supports the wealth and power of a small number over the majority).

Structural Marxists agree that law works to ensure capitalist accumulation and to maintain conditions where the generation of wealth is possible. This is often called the structural imperative or the way social structures create reality. Louis Althusser (1969, 1971) was also interested in how law and criminal justice are legitimised or normalised in the thoughts of the general population. Therefore, structural Marxists focus less on the coercive nature of law alone and more on the ideological function of law. Quinney and others examine how ideas of crime and criminals are shared in the general population. Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology (1947) about how the mode of production of capitalism gave rise to people’s false beliefs about society and their role in it. They referred to this as “phantoms formed in the human brain that appear upside down….. that sublimate material life processes.” Contemporary Marxists argue ideologies are necessary to support and legitimate the actions of the state to enforce definitions of crime in law, policing and corrections. These ideologies are often detached from the broader social system and individuals are thought to be responsible for their behaviour. Ideologies are comprised of all the ideas we form about crime and criminals that are communicated by social institutions from family, school, media and politics, but are essentially about supporting ideas that hide the coercive nature of the capitalist mode of production.

Althusser (1971) called these institutions the ideological state apparatus. These concepts about crime include ideas like criminals are bad, punishment is good and helpful, and law is equal. However, according to Marxist theory, laws are created to make sure capitalism continues to thrive and to control the conduct of individuals who might threaten it. This is also known as , or when the ideas of the dominant class become the ideas of everyone (Gramsci, 1971).

Structuralists offer a compelling set of arguments about the law-society relationship. This includes how ideas of human rights and democracy become used to justify and legitimate oppressive law. Anatole France, a French novelist, captured this ideology of equality in his quote “the Law in all its majestic impartiality forbids both rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” This quote speaks to the ideological dimension of law, which often clouds the exploitive relations of law itself. This ideology of capitalism and crime is the illusion that capitalism is noncoercive; therefore, the law itself is an ideological form (Reiman, 2013, p. 229).

Another dimension of Marxism we find in critical criminology is the study of corporate crime or crimes of the powerful (see 15 Crimes of the Powerful).  Sutherland (1949) distinguished between working class crime and crimes of the elite or “white-collar crime.” The criminalisation of both categories of acts are related to capital accumulation: working class crimes such as theft uphold private property relations, assault upholds the need of a healthy body to work, and crimes of the elite such as fraud or insider trading uphold “proper” relations of capital accumulation. However, it is more difficult to criminalise wrongdoings of the powerful. Laureen Snider and Steven Bittle study Canadian corporate crime and its legislation. Their research shows that police rarely enforce legislation such as Bill C-45 (Bittle, 2012). Bill C-45, often referred to as The Westray Bill, amended the Criminal Code to outline the criminal liability of organisations/corporations. The Westray Disaster saw 26 miners in Nova Scotia die in an explosion in 1992. The disaster was said to be the fault of the corporation that owned the mine, but they could not be criminally charged under the legislation of the time. Bill C-45 defines criminal liability for corporations. However, Bittle (2012) contends the new legislation is rarely enforced for several reasons including the contention that criminalising actions of capitalists is dangerous and could harm capital accumulation, thereby affecting jobs and profits (Bittle & Snider, 2015). For more on the dangers of exposing these crimes see 15 Crimes of the Powerful.


Marx himself and later Marxists provide an important foundation for thinking about critical criminology and for thinking about the role of law, police and prisons in our society. By examining how the relations of capitalist production create systems such as police, courts, and corrections to maintain and legitimate the expropriation and exploitation of land and people, as well as studying ideologies that cloud this exploitive dynamic, Marxist conceptions of critical criminology are an important foundation of critical criminology.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Kevin Walby and Kelly Gorkoff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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