Conflict and Marxist approaches are based on the assumption that social behavior can best be understood in terms of tension and conflict between groups and individuals (Appelrouth and Edles, 2016). Proponents of these approaches suggest that society is an arena in which struggles over scarce commodities take place. Closely intertwined with the idea of conflict in society is Marx’s concept of economic determinism, discussed earlier in this chapter. Economic organization, especially the ownership of property, determines the organization of the rest of society The class structure and institutional arrangements, as well as cultural values, beliefs, and religious dogmas, are, ultimately, a reflection of the economic organization of a society

According to Marx, law and the legal system are designed to regulate and preserve capitalist relations. For Marxists, law is a method of domination and social control used by the ruling classes. Law protects the interests of those in power and serves to maintain distinctions between the dominated and the domineering classes. Consequently, law is seen as a set of rules that arise as a result of the struggle between the ruling class and those who are ruled. The state, which is the organized reflection of the interests of the ruling class, passes laws that serve the interests of this domineering class.

This breakdown of society into two classes—a ruling class that owns the means of production and a subservient class that works for wages—inevitably leads to conflict. Once conflict becomes manifest in the form of riots or rebellions, the state, acting in the interest of the ruling class, will develop laws aimed at controlling acts that threaten the interests of the status quo. As capitalism develops and conflict between social classes becomes more frequent, more acts will be defined as criminal.

A notable proponent of this general view, Richard Quinney (1974), argued that law in capitalist society gives political recognition to powerful social and economic interests.

By providing the mechanism for the forceful control of the majority in society, the legal system reflects and serves the needs of the ruling class. In The Critique of Legal Order, Quinney (2002:16) argued that as capitalist society is further threatened, criminal law is increasingly used in the attempt to maintain domestic order. The underclass will continue to be the object of criminal law as the dominant class seeks to perpetuate itself. To remove the oppression, and to eliminate the need for further reward, would necessarily mean the end of that class and its capitalist economy.

William Chambliss and Robert Seidman (1982) took a similar approach in their analysis of law. While emphasizing conflicting interests in society, they argued that “the state becomes a weapon of a particular class. Law emanates from the state. Law in a society of classes must therefore represent and advance the interests of one class or the other” (1982:72-73). For them, law is an instrument sought after and employed by powerful interest groups in society. Austin Turk (1978) also sees law as “a weapon in social conflict,” an instrument of social order that serves those who are in power. The control of legal order represents the ability to use the state’s coercive authority to protect one’s interests. The control of the legal process further means the control of the organization of governmental decisions and the workings of the law, which diverts attention from more deeply rooted problems of power distribution and interest maintenance.

In a classic historical application of the conflict approach, Jerome Hall (1952) traced the growth of property and theft laws to the emergence of commerce and industrialization. With the advent of commerce and trade, a new economic class of traders and industrialists emerged, and the need to protect their business interests grew. As a result, new laws were established to protect the interests and economic well-being of the emergent class. These laws included the creation of embezzlement laws and laws governing stolen property and obtaining goods under false pretense. Hall’s analysis supports the overall conflict view that notions of crime have their origins less in general ideas about right or wrong than in perceived threats to groups with the power to protect their interests through law.

After Marxist and conflict views became popular during the 1960s and 1970s, critics said they were too simple and neglected the complexity of social interaction (Manning, 1975). Many scholars concede the validity of conflict and interest-group arguments but, at the same time, contend that bold assertions about the “ruling class” conceal more than they reveal. Surely, they say, lawmaking phenomena are more complex than implied in statements that hint at a monolithic ruling class that determines legislative behavior and the creation of rules. Despite this criticism, conflict and Marxist views enter into a number of sociological studies on law and society and have left a lasting impact on the study of law and society.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ended the most extensive attempt to implement Marxism ever, and it is unlikely that another attempt will ever be made to create an economy of any scale that rejects private property, markets, money, financial instruments, prices, money wages, profits, and interest. Thus, the Marxist conception of an economy that would be the negation of capitalism will remain but a dream or a nightmare, depending on one’s political and economic inclinations. Although Marxism failed in this regard, the basic ideas of Marxism and related conflict views will no doubt continue to influence scholarly thinking on law and society.

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