Root file : Critical Criminology
by Dave Harris

This is a marxist approach to deviancy and crime. It has always stood in an uneasy coexistence relationship with another, perhaps more famous, strand of Marxist deviancy theory represented by the CCCS group --see the file on one of their works for an example. This approach had a number of insitutional appearances, mostly centred round the work of the three main exponents -- Taylor, Walton and Young . It is convenient to summarise the main strands by following through three stages in this project, based around three major books.

NEW!! I just (Sept 2006) found in my filing cabinet notes on an early article by Taylor and Walton setting out the case for a new criminology. It is a bit technical and takes in matters such as the fact/value dichotomoy and the methodological implications:. Try it nevertheless

Taylor, I and Walton, P.  (1970)  'Values in deviancy theory and society', The British Journal of Sociology, XXI (4): 362 - 74.

(a) "The New Criminology" (Taylor et al 1973).[see file for a reading guide]

This provided a critical review of early and familiar approaches in deviancy theory ( including social disorganisation and subcultural approaches).  The approach involved an "immanent critique" seeing earlier approaches as valuable but as limited, with one missing ingredient.  There was no proper account of social relations of capitalism.

  1. So  Merton was right to some extent to blame the disjunctions between culture and  social structure as a source crime - but wrong to see this in a functionalist framework rather than a Marxist one [ bit odd this -- Merton was trying to incorporate some marxist insights, of course]. 
  2. Subcultural theorists were on the right lines, but did not sufficently analyse where the powerlessness and alienation of youth came from [it comes from a more general pattern of alienated labour, of course]
  3. Labelling theorists are right to point to strong societal reactions to deviance, but do not see this as a political matter of alliances marshalling social pressure to condemn some deviants but not all [ see the similar CCCS line on this too -- here]
  4. Or take Matza, criticised in Chapter Six ,and on whom I happen to have more detail -- see file]. A good review of his position leads ito an attempt to rework it by seeing techniques of neutralisation [another file]  as "false consciousness", the acceptance of the deviant values of capitalism, an idealistic resolution of problems of fatalism, a result of powerlessness (Matza sees them , roughly, as techniques used by deviants to deny their deviancy and maintain their images of themselves as 'normal').  To put this in a broader context of ideology and power requires a Marxist analysis.  It required Marxist politics too - focussed on the power of those who criminalise.

(b) "Critical Criminology" (Taylor et al 1975). [ click link for a reading guide]

This was an  attempt to supply a proper Marxist account of those missing social relations.  Marxist accounts are notoriously difficult to pin down,though, and  this led to a familiar "philosophical argument" among Marxists about what a Marxist account really is.  A very interesting discussion of the possibilities for a Marxist criminology appear in Chapter One.

  1. (i) an expose of rich and powerful and their crimes - this is OK but purely moral;
  2. (ii) a demonstration of crime and its connections with  property - e.g. showing how  theft accounts for a small amount of property crime compared with fraud yet theft is policed much more rigorously;
  3. (iii) what was to be a major concern for the next stage - crime and law. Law is seen as ideology, as a level in capitalism, as tied to the economic relations of capitalism - in a number of unclear ways which were to be sorted out later.
At this stage, let us pause to consider some critics.  The most notorious aspects of "critical criminology" are the politics of it.  Crime is explained as result of the alienation and powerlessness of working class, and the way they had been brutalised by capitalism.  An evil ruling class was able to criminalise them - directly by producing brutalising conditions, and indirectly via controlling law and legal agencies to criminalise working class values and protect their own.  This led to a politics at a number of levels - support for prisoners' rights, for decriminalising movements like Gay Lib, for radical lawyers, for Claimants' Unions.  More generally, there was an insistence on the need to protect diversity in socialism and to aim to solve the problems of crime by creating socialism, which would be a crime free society.

These points were much criticised -  Downes and by Cohen (in Downes and Rock 1979) [ see reading guide].  As we might expect, these proposals seem apologetic, over polemical, not really serious - e.g. there was no examination of different societies and their crime rates.  Moral implications arise for Cohen, for whom the whole project was very odd morally and politically - was there to be no sympathy for victims, not even for working class victims of crime?  Were radicals really going to celebrate violence as a kind of 'socialist diversity'? The proposals seemed very vague politically too - partly, they were about equal rights within the law for underprivileged groups, and partly about smashing capitalist laws. 

Further, serious methodological problems are raised by Hirst's article  in "Critical Criminology" [see file].  There were definite problems with the kind of Marxist analysis developed by Taylor, Walton and Young --  the "alienation problematic".  This approach was highly controversial and much disliked by Althusserians: for them, there are a number of positions in Marx including a proper scientific one rather than the sloppy old stuff about alienation.  A paradox then arises for marxists:

(i) They can persevere with alienation readings - but Marx's own criticisms show the dangers of using this to do criminology.  We have to accept much of bourgeois ideology about the law, its neutrality and its purpose, and much of the apparatus of legal rights.  The main purpose of law and the State for Marx was NOT the control of crime - that's its excuse.  The real purpose is to control organised labour;
(ii) We can abandon the alienation reading (as Marx himself did, for Althusserians) and use Marxist science instead.  The problem here is that this science is a series of concepts and discourses about a mode of production about the economy and reproduction, NOT about crime at all.  There is a technical problem "applying" it to crime - concepts can't just be "applied" to "objects" for Althusserians.  There were replies by Walton and further replies by Hirst (see file) to this critique ( which frightened the life out of the CCCS approach too -- see file). The whole controversy offers an  example of the problems rasied when one dabbles with Marxism. 
Here is how I summarised the debate in my own 1992 book ( chapter 4):
NDC [the National Deviancy Conference, another manifestation of the approach developed by Taylor, Walton and Young] had been concerned from the start with crime and criminology rather than subcultural deviance focussed on leisure and style, and despite the overlaps, 'critical criminology' had moved along a clear path focussed upon the law and illegal behaviour. As with CCCS, they had scoured the sympathetic American sociology of deviant subcultures, and had tried to preserve its critical impact by politicising it. The NDC project, however, focussed on the political struggles over the law and the judicial system, and the practices of criminalisation as a form of social control. The orthodox view of the law in criminology had been a functionalist one, whereby the law simply represented the real interests of all, but that was to be replaced by a 'conflict' perspective. This conflict perspective was to develop increasingly as a marxist one (despite some early flirtation with 'conflict sociology', especially with Dahrendorf).

The emphasis on criminalisation had enabled the NDC writers to offer a more plausible marxist 'immanent critique' of bourgeois sociology, it has been suggested. As the Conclusions to The New Criminology (Taylor et al. 1973) put it, it was possible to restore a social context for the classic sociological work, by exploring the political economy of both the criminal actor and the juridical reactor. How had the problems for both been created and defined? How had the resources (including power) been differentially provided to both types of participants? [We can see similar arguments in Policing the Crisis --  see file] ...

Capitalism itself was criminogenic, and deviancy and crime could be seen as an attempt to reassert a certain cultural diversity against widespread alienation (and, via Matza's work, to rationalise the consequences of being caught): bourgeois sociologies of deviance described the activities of the culturally diverse, and had stumbled upon the importance of a context of structured conflict and power, but they had no adequate theoretical resources to develop their insights. By contrast, Marx himself had written a good deal on law and jurisprudence, and indeed in the process had developed much of his general theory about civil society, science and ideology, and the connections with political economy (the concept of alienation had a juridical meaning, for example).

However, scarcely had the ink dried upon the manifesto of the 'new criminology' than a powerful autocritique developed, under Althusserian influence. ... Young was to argue [in Critical Criminology] that a critical inversion of orthodox criminology was insufficient, for example, and that the theoretical resources of the new criminology were too slender to sustain a proper analysis of the State and its judicial arm: these resources were largely a single 'control' perspective and a naive usage of the term 'alienation'. 

Young argues that the celebration of human diversity, encouraged by ethnography and by the need to form a broad front of radical splinter groups, ran the great risk of acting as mere voyeurism or 'zoo-keeping' [as Gouldner had suggested], and as a kind of consolation for powerless radical criminologists. Finally, Young goes on to offer some projects for a revitalised radical criminology, including taking an offensive against bourgeois practices, instead of defending working class ones: undertaking an expose of the rich and powerful and how they bend the rules while avoiding decriminalisation (using official statistics to do so if necessary, despite the earlier abhorence of 'positivism'), taking on the definitions of crime in propertied societies (eg demanding a focus on fraud rather than theft, or harmful non-crimes), and, finally, undertaking a proper analysis of law and the State in marxist terms (moving, ironically, away from the very specific focus with which the project had started). The latter project offered the only proper course to take.

It was this latter project that revealed the difficulties, though. Hirst argued that there could be no real marxist deviancy theory (or any other 'applied' marxism), since marxism was a science of the social formation, with concepts like 'mode of production, the class struggle, the state, ideology etc' (Taylor et al. 1975: 204). These could not simply be applied to a field constituted by some other discourse like 'the established social sciences'. Hirst elaborates his point by tracing the different stages in Marx's writings, treating the early works on law as moral critique of specific laws rather than a general theory, discussing the 'Feuerbachian' work on 'alienation' as not specific to law, and arguing that the 'historical materialist' phase offers little hope for radical criminologists hoping for a theory which predicts a 'crime-free' communist society.

Finally, Hirst goes on to reinterpret Marx's discussions of crime and law as matters of politics not abstract theory. Crime and delinquency might be forms of political protest, but more often are forms of 'reactionary accommodation' to capitalism, or a source of division among the proletariat. Similarly, laws are indeed predominantly the laws of the ruling class, but no society can be law-free, and some laws are more useful politically than others. Finally, and even more significantly for our examination of CCCS work, Hirst argues that crime is generally politically marginal to capitalist societies, and that the real purpose of the legal system is to contain the threat from organised labour: in this sense, radical criminology serves the purposes of capital by talking up crime as a major political challenge.[Incidentally, in the course of this, Hirst referred to Marx's views of the 'lumpenproletariat' -- including the professional criminals and violence-mongers -- as 'scum': this was to lead to much convoluted debate in Policing... see file]

The ensuing debate between Hirst and the radical criminologists took the familiar form of a contest between advocates of a radical ideology connected to activist politics, and those of a rigorous marxist theory. As we have noted before, these contests look like simple ones between activists and theorists in British academic circles... [and see the file on a famous argument for black activism] 

(c) "Capitalism and the Rule of Law" (Fine et al 1979)[ see reading guide]

Many of these difficulties were taken on board in this third phase. Curiously enough, Young tries to respond to both sets of criticisms (moral ones like Cohen's and Althusserian ones) by advocating the same solution - concrete specific and detailed research.  This is seen more readily as a response to Downes' and Cohen's critiques, initially.  Young admits (in Chapter One) that the NDC writers were initially "left idealists", that they didn't properly sort out the different categories of crime, they didn't allow for working class victims, they did tend to lump all radical politics together as 'good things', and they were very uncritical. Young advocates a much more specific analysis of law and crime as a result - e.g. to analyse why street crime is so universally condemned, and, on the practical level, to be sensitive to cases where law can be used to defend working class interests.

It is less obvious, how this is also a solution or response to Hirst's criticisms too.  It is seen best, perhaps  in Picciotto's piece in this book.  Picciotto is actually better known as an analyst of the role of the State. Here, he argues against a number of previous formulations of the legal relations in capitalism, including Gramscian AND Althusserian ones - those definitions were too formal and general, too much based on abstract analysis of the functions rather than on concrete historical examples.  This is a familiar criticism of Althusser, of course - nice to see it levelled at gramscians here too.

Concrete analysis is therefore the solution and the way forward for Marxist theories. They should research how the law actually develops in the context of power relations, how its objects become crystallised out. This is paralleled in other Marxisms - of the State especially ( perhaps Poulantzas's work is hinted at here?).

So, Marxist criminology has come a long way - a journey from (bourgeois) criminology into Marxist theory as Young describes it.


I still like this work as an example of the consistent pursuit of the implications raised by marxism. There is a sense in which  you feel, reading these pieces, that the authors really have engaged in debates with their earlier positions and have realised some important implications as a result. It seems far less stage-managed than CCCS work by comparison. That too encountered a similar sort of crisis with the 'mugging project', trying to 'apply' marxist theory and then realising that there were many difficulties once one moved away from the 'alienated youth' angle. The CCCS trajectory was into gramscianism, and this caused further problems as Althusserians ( including Hirst) had to be managed. I think the main book here -- Policing the Crisis , on which, inevitably I have a file -- is very weaselly and imprecise, both in admitting the criticisms and dealing with them. Cohen-type criticisms (or Young-type self-criticisms) are never properly addressed, but there is instead a very vague, timid and apologetic chapter on black cultural responses, including valuing crime and work-refusal. Hirst's criticisms are never mentioned explicitly either, but are addressed in the course of a vague and repetitive re-statement of the 'theoretical map' which long ago had led to Gramsci. Finally, despite the detail at times in the account, I don't think CCCS approaches ever had much time for actual concrete analysis -- how the concrete is produced by many determinations emanating from the economic, political and ideological levels ( to paraphrase Poulantzas). There's was always a more parasitic project, merely organising and 'mapping' the work of others.

Of course, I may be biased...

NEW!! Now see Jock Young's account of the emergence and significance of critical criminology -- here


Downes D and Rock P (eds) (1979) Deviant Interpretations, Oxford; Oxford University Press
Fine B, Kinsey R, Lea J, Picciotto S and Young J (eds) (1979) Capitalism and the Rule of Law: from deviancy to marxism, London: Hutchinson.
Harris D (1992) From Class Struggle to the Politics of Pleasure..., London and New York: Routledge
Taylor I, Walton P and Young J ( 1973) The New Criminology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Taylor I, Walton P and Young J  (1975) Critical Criminology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

back to home page