Marxist Conflict Theory and a Canadian Social Policy

        The Marxist theory argues that all societies are formed out of class struggle. Capitalist society, of which Britain and USA are examples, was formed out of the struggle between the landed aristocracy and an emerging class whose wealth was based on industrial production and trade. Karl Marx (1818-83), the originator of Marxism, called this emerging class the bourgeoisie.

Marxist Conflict Theory

            Recent contributions to what has been called radical or critical or Marxist criminology. While there are some theoretical differences among these writers, they occupy common intellectual ground within this overview of the development of criminological theory. Their analysis of crime and social control, essential Marxist in nature, is to be distinguished from the applications of conflict theory to criminology made by Austin Turk and other non-Marxian conflict theorists (1969), as well as the positivist approach taken by the formal Marxist Willem Bonger.

            The radical Marxist criminologists focus their analysis on the state as a political system controlled by the interests of the ruling capitalist class, especially through the use of law as a tool to preserve existing inequalities. Much of the work of these theorists deals with the historical conditions of classes which they link, theoretically, with the development and differential enforcement of criminal law. They reject the traditional (functionalist) view that law reflects society’s consensus on the norms and values which should control behavior; instead, they argue that law emerges from a conflict of competing interests and serves the interests of the elite ruling class.

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            Turk, on the other hand, essentially continues the intellectual tradition of Ralf Dahrendorf and other non-Marxist conflict theorists who have analyzed crime as a result of conflict concerning the distribution of power and authority within society. Rather than isolating the economic system and the class structure related to it, this perspective takes a broader view of the structural factors which produce conflict.

            The implications of these perspectives for a philosophy of social control and for the criminal justice system are dramatically different from those suggested by earlier theorists.

            Again, the centrality of the political dimension is inescapable, whether one is discussing labeling theory, conflict theory, or radical Marxist theory. The labeling perspective, which emphasizes the discrepancy between actual criminal behavior and officially detected crime, is a societal reaction theory. It is not the deviance itself that is so important, but the way in which society reacts. This perspective generally is interpreted as advocating less intervention and less labeling of people as criminal. The criminal justice system is viewed as one which exacerbates the problem of crime; therefore, that system should be reduced and made less powerful.

            Conflict and radical Marxist theory also would suggest that there is a need for societal restructuring. However, from these perspectives the criminal justice system merely reflects broader structural arrangements (i.e., the economy, the class system, and/or the distribution of power and authority). Radical Marxists advocate the abolition of capitalism and the development of a socialist society. They tend to view anything less than that as piecemeal liberal tinkering with a fatally flawed system. The alternative conflict view would argue that the particular economic system (e.g., capitalism) is not the basic problem and that crime exists in non-capitalist states as well. Crime is viewed as a structural problem resulting from the distribution of power and authority and as a reflection of unstable relationships between legal authorities and subjects.

            It should be apparent that while man’s attempts to explain crime have covered a tremendous range of ideas, there are parallels among these ideas. The idea that crime is a result of demonic possession is perhaps not a great deal different than the mental illness explanation advanced at a much later point in history. Both are largely deterministic, even though one is magical and the other scientific.

            Similarly, the rationales cited by the state for the use of imprisonment have varied from moral reform to deterrence to rehabilitation, public protection, and punishment. Meanwhile, the perceptions of those imprisoned by the state have also changed, from passive acceptance of society’s reaction to the increasing tendency to view themselves as political prisoners of unjust legal and political systems. It is apparent, therefore, that the linkage between theories of crime and social control philosophies must be evaluated on two levels: first, the connections between theoretical explanations and formal policies, and second, the changing rationales for employing essentially similar social control practices.

            The significant development that aroused sociologists’ interest in political factors in deviance was non-Marxist and Marxist conflict theory, in general, and the new British criminology in particular.

            The Marxist theory of deviance is actually a variant of the more general conflict theory. Modern conflict theories in deviance stem from the older value-conflict approach, and they may encompass the following theories: sub cultural theories maintaining that subgroups promote values that oppose those of the surrounding society; labeling theories emphasizing the societal response to assumed acts of deviance; and group conflict theories stating that conflict leads to deviance from the activities of socially and economically dominant groups in society (Hagan 1977). Marxist theories of deviance are included in the third category.

            The Marxist approach genuinely tried to associate deviance directly with the elements of sociological analysis in general. Krisberg (1975), for example, defined privileges as: “the possession of that which is valued by a particular social group in a given historical period” (p20), and he further claimed that the societal privilege structure was closely linked to deviance because it determined who received various societal privileges and why. This analysis represents a stratification problem, directly related to the Marxist analysis of deviance, which claimed that crime is a by-product of an unjust and alienating structure of economic institutions, which in turn shape the social and political institutions. Thus, the structure of society as a whole is perceived as criminogenic.

                        Last conception of poverty is based on what has become known as a conflict theory of society. Conflict theory is an offshoot of the Marxist contention that capitalist society depends on the exploitation of the working class by the captains of industry. Advocates of conflict theory consequently downplay both the exchange relationships of the marketplace or the need for values to achieve social cohesion in society. They have traditionally believed that it is corporate and governmental coercion rather than the integrative role of cultural beliefs that contributes to the smooth functioning of society. But in the last thirty years, conflict theorist has argued that the capitalist state has become much more sophisticated in its ability to control and diffuse discontent in society.

            American Marxists like Piven and Cloward believe that capitalists will try to divide and manipulate the working class rather than directly coerce it into accepting lower wages (Fox, The American Road to Democratic Socialism). By keeping a large reserve army of poor people available, corporations and the state can regulate the wages of workers. More recently, American and European Marxists, who have been influenced by the Frankfurt school in Germany, have argued that the capitalist state is not above using cultural values to make the public more docile. The classic example is the tendency of capitalist societies to promote a cult of consumerism to dampen revolutionary activity. As individuals come to think of themselves as consumers rather than members of an exploited class, they tend to accept the nature of society as a given and thus become immune to calls for radical change.

Canadian Social Policy

            In Canada, the Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP) is another example of autonomous organizing based upon alliances forged across social divisions. OCAP was founded in 1990 and intervenes using instrumental direct action aimed at obstructing the application of neoliberal policies employed bye the state or national government. This involves ‘direct action case-work’, focusing on issues and events which are directly relevant to the quality of everyday life experienced by oppressed communities. The casework involves a process that requires active resistance at the point where it can make a difference – not symbolic protest, or advocacy, but building communities of struggle and respecting the autonomy of those communities to self-organize.

            OCAP has had success working against homelessness, poverty, police harassment, privatization, deportations, and corporate power. As an avowedly anticapitalist organization not allied to any political party, they have attracted members from different ethnic and class backgrounds, and have shown clearly that to organize in a way which can make a difference often means being prepared to fight. As OCAP organizer Jeff Shantz says, “as long as movements remain trapped in methods of limited protest, government and profit-seeking regimes will continue to escalate their attacks on poor people, people of colour, and the Earth.”

            It is easy to cal for a fight and easier still to lose one, but it is very difficult to sustain a serious defense against the ever-more regressive and brutal tactics of the state. However, OCAP’s autonomy and vitality has enabled them to mount such opposition. For their strength lies in the roots of their organization – rather than being content to mirror the liberal call to tolerate diversity, they practice an actual unity in diversity, and this means they draw upon a wider constituency than many similar activist organizations.

            As Thomas Walkom wrote in the Toronto Star, OCAP is: “An eclectic band that includes not only poor people, but students, retirees and the odd university professor, OCAP doesn’t play by the usual rules.” It is direct, in your face and occasionally rude. Where other protest groups try to make their points by holding demonstrations in authorized public spaces such as Nathan Philips Square, OCAP tends to take the fight right to where its enemies live.

            In OCAP, we have an example of how new strategies of direct action have reinvigorated campaigns around perennial social realities of poverty and inequality. Similarly, in the new networked spaces of PGA and the myriad processes of consultation, we have a model for how everyday social realities might come to inform each other while retaining the autonomy each prizes so highly.

            The nature of autonomy is necessarily different in different location; political philosophy and grounded practice, an aim of self-organization and the outcome of participatory democracy. We have sketched out the bare bones of what this might mean: liberated zones, networked social spaces for organizations, coordinating across geographic and cultural barriers, and the tough resolve required to organize autonomously in the shadow of the state across difference and division. Yet it will always be difficult to do justice to autonomy. For as theory and practice it is the life-blood of the movements against capitalism: as freedom and connectedness, as unity in diversity, as recognition of the other.

            The politics of autonomy encourage us to push for and take, to refuse, to be prepared to fight, and to escape, exit. For the exit is also to take, to take ourselves out of the context within which we are ensnared, to choose differently, to reinvent our circumstances, and to decide what it is we should, or need, to do. Autonomy is a key demand of a complex movement, a tree of tomorrow whose deep roots were planted in yesterday and today and are spreading everywhere.

            In 1999, the Ontario Coalition against Poverty (OCAP) specifically targeted business leaders, film productions and tourists in Toronto during the Toronto 2008 Olympic BID in order to draw attention to the growing homeless problem in Canada’s largest city. As police began to act on the mayor’s call not to allow the homeless to sleep in city parks, OCAP released an ultimatum to the press to ‘guarantee that large numbers of tourists leave Toronto this summer with stark images of the homeless loudly interfering with their enjoyments of what the commercial tourist traps have to offer’ (Benzie, 1999).

Canadian Social Policy Relates to Marxist Theory

            In the most recently published book-length study of a Canadian election (Johnson et al.1992), interestingly, no serious effort is made to deal with the extent or nature of class differences, except for looking at farmers and trade-union members.

            Studies that conceptualize class as a combination of variables embody the assumption that modern capitalist societies are differentiated, but not categorically. While the owners and managers of corporations might have unusually high incomes and occupations status, they are not identified as the occupants of distinct class positions. Fundamental to Marxist analysis meanwhile are the theoretical categories used to understand the capitalist economy, particularly the theory of value and the relations to the production and expropriation of surplus value. Here are intermingled the thorny issues of the difference between productive and unproductive labour; the real nature and measurement of the exploitation of labour; the constantly changing and differentiated institutional regimes through which the basic wage-labour relation in capitalist society is regulated; and the survival and articulation of pre-capitalist production relations within the capitalist mode of production.

            The Work of the eminent Marxist historian E.P Thompson is seen to exemplify this approach (Palmer, 1981). Whatever one makes of the trajectory of class action in Canadian Social Policy, the orientation leaves without genuine classes at present, except perhaps for the capitalist class, or at least the well-organized segment of large corporations.


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