Marxist Theory of Punishment




Marxist Theory of Punishment

Marxist theory of punishment is anchored on the boarder Marxist view of class conflict. According to the theory, the capitalist society is engaged in an endless battle between the bourgeoisies (owners of capital) and the proletariat (working class). The bourgeoisies are the dominant class while the proletariats are the dominated class (Kircheheimer and Rusche, 1939; Garland, 1991). In that respect, the system of punishment existing in a state, according to this theory, is designed in a way to ensure that the dominant class retains its dominance. Marxists therefore holds that most of the laws existing in a country exist to preserve the interest of the bourgeoisies. The system of punishment is skewed against the working class.

Marxist theory of punishment begins with a recognition that for the society to function efficiently, social order has to be maintained (Box, 1987). The question, therefore is: how can social order be maintained when the two classes are in endless conflict? The capitalist have to exploit the poor to maintain their standard and to continue with their accumulation of wealth while the working class, on the other hand has to resist the exploitation. At the end, one class –the working class- has to be forced to submit. The forced submission is brutal and through punishment. The end result is to force the working class to accept the existing social order even though it works against their interest. Those are the values and the norms of the capitalist ideology.

From that background, Marxist theory believes that the whole system of punishment is unjust (Bohm, 2008). Although Marxist theory does not hold that crime is justified, it is sympathetic to criminals. It is not the wish of criminals, especially the street criminals to commit crime. Crime is a product of the social structure, mostly a response to the capitalistic environment. This is the reason why Marxists argues that crime is a reaction to the unequal power relation and unequal distribution of resources. The way to address crime, therefore, is not through brutal punishment or incarceration; it is through equal distribution of power and resources.

The reason why the whole system of criminal justice is skewed against the poor is because the capitalist are the one who influence the passage of the laws. They pass laws that will benefit them and protect their property (Fattah, 1997). As such, most of the laws are passed to ensure that no matter how the working class is deprived, it will always respect private property, that is, the property held by the rich. The laws are also made to govern the labour relations.

Even when the capitalist themselves are not in power, they use their resources to influence state policies and laws (Marx, 1853). Such an argument can be supported by happening in modern times. In competition for political offices, candidates’ sympathetic to capitalist ideologies easily win in elections. This is always a scheme by the capitalist to ensure they have senior people in high offices to protect their interests, either through government policies or legislations. The neo-liberal ideals, in England for instance always surpass welfarism policies.

Selective Justice System

According to Marxists, it is not that crime is domiciled in the low income earners only, the propensity to cause crime cut across all the social status. However, the law, obviously designed by the ruling class, is lenient to crimes committed by the rich. Such an outcome is ironical because as the law gives much weight to street crime, it is the crime committed by the bourgeoisies that has much impact (TaylorWalton and Young, 1973). This is not to mean that shoplifting, burglary, house breaking and mugging that goes on in the street is not equally harmful, it is to detest the biased way in which the entire criminal justice system approach the different types of crime. The only difference between the two set of crime is that the powerful in the upscale, wealthy neighbourhoods are likely to be in their houses and businesses while committing crime, while the socially disadvantaged people commit their crimes in the street. The latter type of crime could be easier to monitor and target. In modern days, the bourgeoisies, at least from the Marxists perspectives are the corporate owners. Various corporation commits crime that affects thousands of people, but the law is designed to favour them.

There are many examples of corporate crimes that go unpunished, and when they are punished, the punishment is not proportionate. In recent cases, major banks in the UK as well as around the world have been accused from various types of serious crimes, including fraud, money laundering and the libor scandal, and yet, none of their senior managers has been imprisoned for the crimes. In 2012, Barclays bank agreed to pay at least $450 million to resolve government manipulation of libor and the Euro interbank offered rate(Aldrick, 2012).. UBS was fined £940 million for the same offence (Aldrick, 2012). While such approach may seem to be an enough indication on the side for the regulator to prosecute the offenders, it is not proportionate and an enough deterrence for similar offences. As a benchmark interest rate used in transactions worth £310 trillion globally, it is evident that a slight manipulation is bound to cause serious implications. The libor scandal involved many other banks like JP Morgan, RBS and Citigroup. The bank of England classified the action as criminal. It therefore surprises that none of the real culprits have gone to jail.

Banking industry crimes and the related financial crimes around the world continue to go unpunished not forgetting that they are the root cause of the financial crisis that the western world is struggling to pull out from. It is evident that malpractices of major banks like the Lehman Brothers precipitated the financial crisis and the subsequent recession, but most of the western countries responded with bailout packages at the expense of the taxpayer’s money. Although some of the culprits have been prosecuted and charged, the whole crisis vindicates Marxists theory that there are no enough laws to prosecute capitalists.  The effects of the financial crisis are still felt five years later.

Even after the financial crisis, other banks continue to commit serious crimes that go unpunished. Like Hastings reported, almost all major British banks have been involved in “mis-selling of Payment Protection Insurance” (Hastings, 2014). Others like HSBC have been linked to man-laundering for Mexican drug cartels. Yet there is no regulatory system bold enough to prosecute the real offenders. In US, Lloyd Balnfein, the person in charge of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon who was in charge of JP Morgan have never faced in serious financial loss even being in charge of institutions linked with the financial crisis.

The examples from the banks demonstrate what Marxist believes to be a selective justice system. If this period can be compared to the time that robbers could break into banks and run away with millions, it can be seen how the law is selective. The bank robbers were faced with serious confrontation with the police, and those who were unlucky were shot and other imprisoned for years. It is not evident how the yesteryear forceful bank robberies can be differentiated from the modern manipulation of interests, fraud, money-laundering or criminal tax evasion services. In contrast, the modern day crime leads to millions of loss while the yester year robbery could only result to slight loss.  Yet, the law enforcement devised ways to eliminate bank robbery. However, the major difference is that the bank robbers were coming from the street while those who swindle the bank or the public large sums of money come from the privileged class.  

Selective justice cuts across all sectors of the economy. In the industrial sector, there are examples where industries have compromised safety and health standard in pursuit of profits. Some of the major disasters that have happened across the globe are attributable to human failures. The piper Alpha disaster in the UK for instance was attributed to insufficient safety measures. Marxist have pointed to other major disaster like the Bhopal, Hatfield train clash, BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and Zeebrudge ferry disaster, to show how corporate crimes ignore safety measures in pursuit of profit. A recent example is where a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing over 1000 workers in 2013. Some of the well known retailers like Wal-Mart, Mark & Spencer had their production lines in the building. There are examples where the state has enacted strict laws to pursue corporate crimes, but the Marxist will be sceptical of their success. Health and Safety laws are very strict in the UK and the U.S, but the capitalist have started relocating their industries to countries like India, Bangladesh and China where laws are less stringent.

According to Gordon, selective justice is targeted is designed in a way to neutralise those members of the oppressed class who try to oppose the oppressive system. In other words, it is a warning that those who refuse to accept the status quo will be imprisoned. Modern Marxist would point to the high number of the poor people in current prisons to justify this claim. In the United States for instance, the black community, who are the socially deprived and disadvantaged members of the community often comprise the highest percentage in American prisons (Hartney and Young, 2009; Carson, 2014). According to Austin et al (2007, p.4) “incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos are now more than six times higher than for whites” in the U.S. considering that these are ethnic group considered to be socially deprived in U.S, the figures may go a long to justify Marxist claims.

Social Unrest

Europe has been cited as experiencing high risk of social unrest. Such unrest, according to International Labour Organization, will include strikes, work stoppages, street protests and demonstrations (ILO 2014). Analysing such risk from Marxist theory, it would appear that Europe is about to experience an epic class struggle and social disorder. Although the 2011 riots in London Boroughs for instance were precipitated by a police action, a critical analysis reveals that the underlying cause is despair and deprivation among the poor class. The neoliberal policies that have been practiced in England since the time of Thatcher government have continued to shrink the social nets. The current government continue implementing its austerity measures ostensibly to suffice huge debts. The oppressed class cannot understand how these debts were incurred.

 Such unrests, at least from the Marxists view, may be an indication of an impending class struggle (Muncie, 1999). In preparation to such an outcome, the UK has enacted several laws. For instance in 2014, parliament passed the Anti-Social Behaviour and Policing Act.  The Government states that the act ‘will introduce simpler, more effective powers to tackle anti-social behaviour that provide protection for victims and communities”. Among the anti- social behaviours that the law will tackle include the social unrest. This from the Marxists view may be seen as the capitalist way of responding to the oppressed class that is out to disturb the status quo.

Like Marxist argue, when the capitalist are about to pass a law to safeguard their interest, they employ right wing media to sway the public support. In the riots for instance, some of the UK media painted the rioting youth as hopeless youth who were crying for government support. As the Guardian reported, the rioters were “young, poor and unemployed” (2011). There was a growing opinion that the riots were an outcome of high rate of unemployment and the shrinkage in welfare support. However, there were other Medias that painted the rioting youths as criminals who deserved serious punishment. This was also the position of the government. The government also supported its claim by producing statistics that depicted those who were caught in the rioting as repeat offenders. In the court, the government demanded for harsh penalties. However, according to Marxist, most of the times government present false statistics to sway public support. At the end of the riot, the offenders were handed severe punishments.

Evolution of punishment

The Marxist theory is also of the view that punishment is not a logical consequence of crime, but the outcome of the social relations existing at the time. In order to prove this argument, Marxist point to how method of punishment has involved over the time. According to the theory, in the beginning, the method of punishment was inflicting pain on the offender. At that time, there was no need to imprison the offenders. Punishment could be meted on the offender through severe and cruel manners, including capital punishment. However, in the turn of 16th century, when the owners of capital were experiencing a shortage of labour, the capitalist saw the need to imprison offenders so that they could be used as free labour during the time of their imprisonment (Godon, 1991). During industrial revolution, the supply of labour increased; there was no need of prison labour. The ruling class reverted to its preferred method of punishment: cruel and severe penalties.  

Contemporary Marxist can also interpret punishment from a radical perspective. In Britain for instance, punishment has also become an investment opportunity. Privatisation of prisons and rehabilitation services is an opportunity for capitalist to invest. In Marxist view, the capitalist could be also creating for themselves more opportunity to earn.


In summary, Marxist theory of punishment is built on the interaction between the ruling class and the working class. The theory holds punishment to be a form of enforcing dominance of the ruling class. To prove this point, Marxist point to the selective punishment system that exist between the poor and the rich. The ruling class enacts laws that are only sufficient to safeguard their interest. As a result, Marxists do not believe that punishment is justified because crime is a rational response to capitalist system.







List of References

Aldrick, P. (2012) How UBS built its Libor racket. The Telegraph. Available at: (Accessed on March 5, 2015)

Anti-Social Behaviour and Policing Act 2014

Austin, J. Et al (2007) Unlocking America: Why and how to reduce America’s prison population. New York: JFA Institute

Bohm, R.M. (2008) Karl Marx and the death penalty. Critical Criminology, 16(4), pp.285-291

Box, S. (1987) Recession, crime and punishment. London: Macmillan

Carson, A. (2014) Prisoners in 2013. New York: U.S. Department of Justice

Fattah, E. (1997) Criminology: Past, present and future. London: Macmillan

Garland, D. (1991) Sociological perspective on punishment. Crime and Justice, 14, pp.115-165

Godon, D. (1991) Resurrecting Marx. New York: Transactional Publishers

Hartney, C. & Young, L. (2009) Disparities in the US criminal justice system. New York: National Council on Crime and Delinquency

Hastings, M. (2014) Yes, the bankers who robbed us are criminals. Daily Mail. Available at: (Accessed on March 5, 2014)

International Labour Organization (ILO) (2014) World of work 2014: Developing with jobs. Geneva: ILO

Kircheheimer, O. & Rusche, G. (1939) Punishment and Social Structure. New York: Russel and Russell

Marx, K. (1853) Capital Punishment. New York Daily Tribune, 28 February

Messerschmidt, J. (1997) Crime as structured action: gender, race, class and crime in the making. London: SAGE

Muncie, J. (1999) Youth and crime: A critical introduction. London: SAGE

Taylor, I, Walton, P. And Young, J. (1973) The New Criminology: For a social theory of deviance. London: Routledge

The Economist (2013) The origins of the financial Crisis. The Economist. Available at: (Accessed on March 5, 2015)

The Guardian (2011) England rioters: young, poor and unemployed. The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed on March 5, 2015)

Tyler, I (2013) Revolting subjects: Social abjection and resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London: Zed Books

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