From New International, Vol.3 No.3, June 1936, pp.78-82.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
ARE several schools of thought in criminology, each picking a segment of the relevant facts for emphasis according to social prejudice and whim. Here we are concerned with outlining those schools which locate the causes of crime within the structure of the individual criminal, usually defining them as hereditary.
Many investigators, determined to make a case for a preconceived conviction, have held that criminality is of and by itself a personality trait, transmitted from one generation to the next. This is the simplest explanation for the conformist, and flourished in its least subtle forms in the early days of crime study (retaining its power today in disguised “scientific” garb). So Lombroso, the founder of the scientific study of crime, advanced his theory of the born-criminal, who was supposed to be set off from the “average” population by peculiar morphological traits of an atavistic nature; that is, the criminal is a throwback to our primitive ancestors, distinguished by low brows, prominent ears, submicrocephaly, etc. The criminal, it seems, is a bloodthirsty ape with a thin veneer of culture.
More recently, Dugdale and Goodard, in their respective studies of the Jukes and the Kallikaks, concluded that, in both of the lines studied, high rates of criminality, alcoholism, and degeneracy were symptoms of bad blood. Again, Lange has attempted to prove that crime is an inherited character by establishing this thesis: among identical twins (from the same ovum, therefore possessing identical genetic backgrounds), when one twin is a criminal, there is great probability that the other will be so also; whereas, with fraternal twins (developed from different eggs, therefore with different genetic constitutions), the probability of concordance in criminality is much lower. Finally, some investigators have attempted to show that crime rates vary from one race to another; it is contended that this variance is accounted for by peculiar racial genetic constitution.
The arguments may be taken up in order:
Now the emphasis shifts from genes of destiny to glands of destiny. Berman maintains that “glandular preponderances are determining factors in the personality, creating genius and dullard, weakling and giant, cavalier and puritan”. Kretschmer maintained that body build is an endocrine product which determines temperament and criminal conduct. Dr. R.A. Reynolds finds that 10 to 15% of the prisoners at San Quentin show obvious symptoms of endocrine disorder, which he states (in the absence of any data for comparison) is a higher percentage than found in the general population. And Schlapp and Smith dismiss the hereditists contemptuously, but repudiate the environmentalists also; how, they ask the latter (and this is a stock question) can you explain the fact that two children have identical social backgrounds, yet one turns out to be a thug, the other a high official with “distinct idealistic trends”? They insist that the thug suffers from chemical (endocrine) disbalance, caused by a “disbalance of the blood and lymph chemistry of the mother at the time of gestation, in turn producing an inhibition of the formative cell process in the foetus ...”
Here again we might suggest that the difference between thug and idealistic official is largely one of terminology and social approval (by the powers that be). But more important is the question, what causes the endocrine upset in the pregnant mother which affects the embryo so deleteriously? Schlapp and Smith reply: In many cases the mother, during the period of pregnancy, was overworked, in wretched financial circumstances, worried about adequate provision of the coming child, etc. Merely setting the problem back one generation, then, does not obscure the environmental etiology of chemical disbalance. But it also remains to be proved that criminals show abnormally high rates of endocrine disorder. There is no confirming evidence on that score whatsoever. Thus, even if it should be established that these disorders are in some measure hereditary, it would not follow that criminality is hereditary, for it has not been demonstrated that the ductless glands play any part in the production of criminal behavior. The fact that so many social scientists have seized upon endocrine malfunctioning to stigmatize the criminal, betrays a touching solicitude for the inviolacy of the social order.
When the theory of criminality as a unit-character of inheritance became too absurd to hold water, the hereditists were not one whit abashed. It became necessary to sneak heredity in the back door, in more subtle forms. The endeavor became, not to determine whether, after all, the criminal really is a distinct personality – this being one of those principles upon which our mind-sets have been nourished – but rather to elaborate other respects in which the criminal is different; this attempt is so persistent, in the face of ever-growing contradictions, that it can only be a symptom of deep-rooted bias in favor of the social structure, a gesture of conformity and class loyalty. So the psychologists began to emphasize other internal factors considered as heritable – feeblemindedness and insanity – and to relate these to criminality. Thus the genes creep in again, this time at one remove but omnipresent as ever.
Goddard insisted “that at least 50% of all criminals are mentally defective”. Another investigator discovers that “probably 80% of the children in the juvenile courts in Manhattan and Bronx are feebleminded”. Judge Harry Owen (undoubtedly one of the high-minded, idealistic public officials?) laments the fact that “mental deficiency lies equally at the bottom of all crime, the type of crime depending upon the nature and extent of the defect”. And, as the emotions have come to the center of attention in the study of motivation, crime students have adjusted themselves nicely. Is the feeblemindedness argument perhaps a little dated? Very well, the Missouri Crime Survey retorts, changing the stand of the social scientist with chameleon-like rapidity: “It is the psychopathic individual who furnishes us with our delinquent problem – the unstable, neurotic, poorly balanced, weak-willed individual with marked character defects and personality handicaps, but often with good intelligence, is the most difficult problem we have to meet in handling criminals.” Groves and Blanchard consider that “it is indeed a conservative statement when we claim that one-half of the criminal class is so by virtue of mental abnormalities.” Thus, if the criminal is not a moron, he must, according to theory, be a maniac. Either way, the theory runs into difficulties:
* * *
All of the above schools of thought, regardless of their concentration-points, are one in their attempt to internalise the causes of crime. We offer the following considerations as significant:
Mary van Kleek: “Crimes against property constitute by far the largest group of offences for which men are serving terms at Sing Sing ...” Recent Social Trends: “Homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery, crimes ‘against the person’, in 1931 averaged 11.1% of the total of major offenses; and burglary, larceny and auto theft, crimes ‘against property’, 88.9%. If robbery be considered a crime ‘against property’, then this latter group accounts for 96.1% of the total.” Glueck: of the delinquents studied, 75% were brought into court for larceny and burglary.
Bonger: “Proportionately the non-possessors are more guilty of crime than the possessors.” Sullenger: “Of 500 cases [of juvenile delinquency] selected at random from 1,245 in Omaha, 225, or 45%, were registered as having received aid from relief agencies.” (In this case social workers characteristically concluded that 46% of the fathers in these dependent families were shiftless anyhow.) Show and McKay: “There is a marked similarity in the variation of rates of family dependency and rates of juvenile delinquency.” Glueck: at least 80-85% of the parents of the delinquents studied were proletarians. Lumpkin: of the correctional school sample studied, “95% came from the classes recognized as least advantaged in income and opportunity, and about two-thirds of these particular homes had been given community assistance of one kind or another.” Caldwell: “67% of the occupations of the parents of the delinquent boy group are below the skilled occupations, which is approximately i5% more than for the general population.” Cyril Burt: 56% of delinquents come from the lower economic strata, whereas only 30% of the general population falls within this category. Lund: the economic classes which furnish 66% of the delinquents are only 26% of the population.
Mary van Kleek: 52% of the Sing Sing prisoners studied were unemployed at the time the crime was committed. Cincinnati Bureau of Governmental Research: “40% of all misdemeanor arrests are of the unemployed classes, which comprise only 8% of the total population of Cincinnati.” Reid: of the social factors in crimes committed by 80 Negro offenders, unemployment was the most frequent, occurring in 59 cases. Winslow: “Findings ... are fairly conclusive with reference to the tendency for crimes against property to increase during periods of economic depression and decrease during prosperity.” Miss van Kleek: in Massachusetts, “fluctuations in employment and in crime synchronize to a remarkable degree in those crimes in which obtaining property [burglary and robbery] or the lack of it, as in vagrancy, is a constant factor.” Dorothy Thomas: “There is a marked similarity in the variation of rates of family dependency and rates of juvenile delinquents ...” Magistrate Brodsky, of the Manhattan Family Court: “I should say that in about 98% of the cases now coming before the court, unemployment is the main factor.” California State Unemployment Commission: “All major crimes committed by adults, and all serious offenses charged against juveniles show a sharp increase since 1930.”
The above facts were selected at random from a great mass of available data. They seem to warrant these conclusions:
How would the hereditists analyze these facts ? Are the underdogs perhaps more feebleminded, more psychopathic, cursed to a greater degree by degenerate ancestry, than the nice people? Of course: here the class logic works beautifully: crime is a symptom of abnormality, of inferiority; therefore, the lower classes are abnormal, inferior.
It might have been expected, in the face of the above facts, that some investigators would come to doubt whether a thyroid deficiency or a skeleton in the family closet explains the simple fact that a man steals bread when he is hungry, or that a child nourished on the degeneracy of slum life turns out to be a vicious, anti-social type. A new trend of thought has appeared: that which we may call the eclectic school. Their special contribution to the problem has been confusion worse confounded. For, they tell us, the environment is undoubtedly of prime importance in tracing out criminal motivation – but there are innumerable factors to be taken into account when analyzing the social environment; we must consider them all indiscriminately.
“The professional criminal is the final product of a long series of demoralizing social influences. His attitudes may be understood only in terms of these influences, and his actions only in terms of his attitudes.”
“The history of thought about crime causation has passed beyond the hypothesis that the chief cause is the defective-minded individual, and it has now arrived at the hypothesis that environmental factors are the chief causes of crime.”
This is encouraging; but Ploscowe immediately cautions us that crime is “a complex phenomenon and its complexity must be taken into account both in searching for causes and also in suggesting methods of treatment”. There are so many causal factors, Healy and Bronner insist, that any “unitary conception” of crime therapy would be sadly inadequate.
What are these “complex causes”? Watts elaborates:
“Any attempt to explain ... changes in the criminal rate on the basis of a ‘single cause’ proves inadequate. It must be sought through an examination of the total situation – including such factors as changes in the age and sex groupings of the population; nationality and cultural backgrounds; economic status; growth and shifting of population centers; world disturbances, wars, business depressions, famines, and political upheavals; the passage of new legislation.”
Recent Social Trends gives us a list of contributing factors which covers admirably every aspect of American history since 1776. White, who recognizes that “the great majority of crimes are committed against property”, becomes more definite:
“The correlation of felonies and certain other social factors, particularly economic factors, suggests that any action by social agencies and the city government to improve living standards, housing conditions, health, and free employment service might have the effect of reducing the felony rate. Some of these improvements would depend considerably upon both rates and wages and regularity of employment. Whatever concerns the functioning of the present system of private property is apparently a factor in the crime situation.”
We seem to be getting warm here. But, if the problem is really so complex, we must proceed slowly, with infinite caution; what we need, to understand the multitude of causal factors, is “thorough, consistent, and scientific study” (Anderson in the Wickersham Report)! Understanding must precede action; social science offers us, therefore, as its contribution to crime prevention, a project for the accumulation of more data. Thus the need for immediate drastic activity is avoided – the “independence” of the investigator is extended; but this attitude is, in objective results, nothing but passive acceptance of the status quo: dominant social principles and institutions are freed once more from the rigorous attack which a courageous social science would have to launch upon them. The demand for more data has been the keynote of the social sciences since their very inception (with, of course, the prospect of “practical application” – once understanding has been achieved!), but these sciences have, unfortunately, played no part whatsoever in determining the direction of social development – other than that of “scientific” sanction of That Which Is. If investigators hesitantly suggest that slum clearance, housing projects, higher wages, etc., would be of some help in eliminating crime, their capitalist overseers are not particularly worried; capitalism cajoles its sincere reformers but never so much as considers their reforms. “Yes,” they agree; “but right now you’d better get us more data; the facts are inadequate.” And the scientists loyally bury their heads in the sand once more.
It cannot be denied, of course, that the causes of crime are many and varied. But to lump all possible factors together indiscriminately is to obscure an elementary truth. Broken homes, family tensions, slum areas, gang activities, unemployment and insufficient income, lack of recreational facilities, poor educational methods and opportunities – all these things are indubitably involved in the etiology of crime. But – and this is what the eclectics fail to see – this is just another way of saying: Capitalism causes crime. For what are all these “complex” factors but aspects of our decaying bourgeois culture? What are they but crying illustrations of an outmoded system of private property? “No,” the “progressive” sociologist answers; “the economic factor is but one of a bewildering number of equally important causes.”
The Marxian viewpoint is invaluable here because it shows us the interrelation of causes; it makes clear which factors are primary, which derivative; it explains how various elements are intertwined in a dynamic cultural pattern. The Marxist does not insist that all crimes are economic in character (although the evidence indicates that the great majority of crimes are such) ; he does, however, make it plain that the economic structure of society determines the cultural facts which orthodox theorists hold are non-economic in essence. Is the broken home a contributing factor in the origin of crime? Very well, but is not the broken home a manifestation of decay of capitalist culture, particularly prevalent in those unprivileged areas where unemployment, etc., inevitably disrupt normal family relations? Are slum clearance and housing projects important? Quite so: but the slum is an inevitable product of capitalist development, and the utopianism of hoping to achieve adequate housing under an outmoded system of private property is evident from what has come out of the none-too-laudable housing schemes under the New Deal. Poor educational opportunities, lack of recreational facilities – what are these but proof-by-example of class oppression? Mere enumeration of possible causes is not enough; what is necessary is a social theory (conceiving of society both as structure and as process) which indicates which factors are basic, which of a reflex or secondary nature. The Marxian analysis, which relates cultural factors to the economic bedrock of society, makes it clear that the social scientists who enumerate multitudinous factors as isolated causes are guilty of the therapeutic error of symptom treatment: they are attempting to cope with factors (education, housing, unemployment, etc.) which are on the periphery of social reality. The primary fact is capitalist class society, organized on the basis of private property and private profit; from this basic economic fact flow the surface evils with which muddled sociologists are preoccupied. Economic crisis, now such a fundamental feature of our anachronistic property relations, admittedly produces devastating results in terms of personal suffering and criminal activity; but, Recent Social Trends hastens to caution us, “whether these recurrent episodes of widespread unemployment, huge financial losses and demoralization are an inescapable feature of the form of economic organization which the western world has evolved can be answered only by further study and experiment”!
We noted at the outset that social scientists attribute to dominant principles (the profit motive, individual initiative, etc.) and to approved modes of behavior an enduring normality; most of these investigators, it seems, consider the social structure only in its spatial, static aspect (implying by this attitude that the present structure must be permanent) ; they are thus able to abstract certain factors and consider them in isolation. But to determine the causal relations between these factors, to uncover the dynamic aspect of society and of its definition qf normality – these are the functions which only Marxism can fulfill.
The Marxist recognizes that in our class society, with the controlling social stratum enabled through its monopoly of the means of production to exploit the non-owning groups in the interests of its own material profit, there exists a fundamental clash of interests, which takes overt form in such phenomena as strikes, revolutions – and criminal acts. All of these expressions of class conflict represent, more or less directly, an attack upon the right of private property by the non-owning, or working, class. Individual criminal acts are products of direct economic oppression, or of attitudes and sentiments engendered by class divisions, or of both. The principles of contemporary social organization (which find expression in our legal system) are dominated by outmoded concepts and traditions, whose progressive nature has been transformed into a reactionary, socially retarding, one; these principles, because society is dynamic, have become only restraints upon the activities, both social and economic, of the great majority of people. Since there is a clash between social need and lagging legalistic restrictions (whose purpose is to safeguard inviolate private property), with no prospect of adjustment, there is produced “discomfort, irritation, and unrest which find natural expression in disrespect for government and in disregard for or resistance to law” (Anderson). Crime and organized revolt, then, are but two expressions, the one primitive and futile, the other conscious and purposive, of the same fundamental class conflict. This conflict grows out of the disparity between the competitive principle of private property, exercised in the interests of a distinct minority, and the demands of social welfare in the present era of mass production. The development of American capitalism has produced the widest extremes of wealth and poverty in the western world; created enormous slum districts and underprivileged areas; participated in one or more wars in every generation; formulated a most elaborate system of checks and restraints upon individual and social conduct, while lawlessness and crime have been ever increasing; has, in the sacred interests of private profit, pulled the economic underpinnings of most people out from under them, leaving in their place the tensions of insecurity which sooner or later resolve themselves in organized revolt, and always assert themselves in criminal behavior. And, as the breach between classes has widened, as the “fundamental unity of interest” between boss and worker has become more and more ephemeral, the ideological checks upon anti-social behavior, dispensed from school, pulpit and press, have begun to slip. More and more repressive laws have been created, more and more agencies of enforcement established. That is, as the ties of custom break down, criminal attacks upon property rights must be prevented by the principle of deterrence through fear. The present period of Fascist development, vigilante committees for the protection of law and order, etc., testifies to the need for forcible oppression, to the breakdown of customary servility. Capitalist society thus necessitates in ever-increasing degree the policing of one class by the agents of the other. But in defending its material interests through repression, the capitalist class is laying the psychological, as well as the economic, basis for crime and rebellion. “... the bourgeoisie produces its own grave-diggers.”
From an historical perspective, then, rising crime rates are an index of social instability and a precursor of rebellion. Rozengart (Le Crime Comme Produit Social et Economique):
“... revolt can take different forms. Prepared in advance, organized as much as possible, and executed by the entire working class in an open and audacious manner, it is called revolution; but carried out by one or a few individuals in a hurried manner, with fear and in the shadow of the night ... it is called crime.”
Surely, from the therapeutic point of view, the solution lies, not in family-welfare agencies or elaborate clinics designed to deal with symptoms, but in the provision of employment and security. That capitalism can no longer supply even these elementary prerequisites is now plain enough. The great majority of crimes are motivated by inferior economic position, by elementary need. And most of the remaining types of crime are produced by attitudes and sentiments engendered by class divisions.  The gangster merely expresses the dominant competitive power-psychology without the sanction of social superiority (see Louis Adamic’s account of the development of a Capone type of racketeer in Grandsons). Our much-publicized public enemies are underdogs afflicted with the drives of the entrepreneur. And the fact that much public sympathy was on the side of John Dillinger in his escapades to evade the police indicates that most common people do not grasp any fundamental distinction between the Capones and the Rockefeller-Mellon boys. The venom released against public enemies by the capitalist press indicates that the Big Boys are wrathful because a few enterprising bottom dogs have been stealing their fire. In short: Crime is an inevitable outgrowth of capitalism; antisocial behavior remains anti-social, whether it be called the indi-vidual initiative of Morgan or the lawless racketeering of Capone.
In conclusion: the existence of economic disparities between classes, the ideology of the “cash nexus between man and man,” are the prime social incentives to crime. The courageous social scientist must accept the necessity for the abolition of the acquisitive society, with all its legalistic and ideological strings. He must recognize, further, that the act of social transformation must be accomplished by those in whose interests it is undertaken: the working-class. The fundamental therapeutic principle is that of revolutionary social change. And from the historical viewpoint, the crime rates may well be taken as an indication that the underdogs are at long last beginning to bestir themselves: it is significant that as crime rates increase, so also do the purposive, directed activities of the working class – strikes, organization and political activity. Crime and revolt are two aspects of the same ferment, which spells doom for a capitalism grown reactionary.
1. This footnote was not included in the printed version. – ETOL
Last updated on 2.8.2006