Early sociologists recognized the essential relationship between legal institutions and the social order. This section explores the influential theoretical explanations of law and society of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim.

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Heinrich Marx was born into a comfortable middle-class family in Trier, Germany. He studied law and literature at the universities of Bonn and Berlin before moving to Paris and subsequently to England where he did most of his writing, much of it in collaboration with his financial mentor, Friedrich Engels. He died on March 14, 1883, in London.

Of all the social theorists, few are as important, brilliant, or original as Karl Marx. Part philosopher, part economist, part sociologist, and part historian, Marx combined political partisanship with deep scholarship. Marx is perhaps the most influential social and political theorist of the last three centuries (Allan and Daynes, 2017). His writings, and the subsequent ideology of Marxism, may have inspired more social change than any other force in the modern world, in both developed and developing societies (King and Szelenyi, 2004).

Marx postulated that every society, whatever its stage of historical development, rests on an economic foundation. He calls this the “mode of production” of commodities, which has two elements. The first is the physical or technological arrangement of economic activity. The second is “the social relations of production,” or the indispensable human attachments that people must form with one another when engaged in economic activity. In his words, “The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” (Marx, 1959:43). Further, changes in the mode of production produce change in the way in which groups are attached to production technology. This economic determinism is reflected in Marx’s theory of law.

Marx’s theory of law, which has greatly influenced social and jurisprudential thinking throughout the world, may be summarized in three principal assumptions: (1) law is a product of evolving economic forces; (2) law is a tool used by a ruling class to maintain its power over the lower classes; and (3) in the communist society of the future, law as an instrument of social control will “wither away” and finally disappear.

The idea that law is a reflection of economic conditions is integral to the doctrine of dialectical materialism. According to this doctrine, the political, social, religious, and cultural order of any given epoch is determined by the existing system of production and forms a “superstructure” on top of this economic basis. Law, for Marx, is part of this superstructure, whose forms, content, and conceptual apparatus constitute responses to economic developments. This view maintains that law is nothing more than a function of the economy but without any independent existence (Easton, 2009).

In societies with pronounced class distinctions, the ruling class owns and controls the means of production. Marx’s theory of law characterizes law as a form of class rule and dominance (Collins, 1996). While addressing the bourgeoisie of his day in his Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels (1955:47) wrote, “Your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of existence of your class.”

Finally, Marx suggested that, after the revolution, when class conflict is resolved and the institution of private property is replaced by a communist regime, law and the state, hitherto the main engines of despotism and oppression, will “wither away.” There will be no need for coercion because everyone’s needs will be fulfilled and universal harmony will prevail. According to this view, there will be no need for law in the future—a future that will be the final stage of humanity’s evolution because stateless and lawless communism shall exist forever.

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