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Karl Marx and the Issue of Punishment

Updated on March 19, 2019
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Dr. David Thiessen is an educator, writer, pastor, and speaker. He has authored several books on a variety of topics including Archaeology


In this modern world the idea of justice and punishment have been placed under extra scrutiny. Because of this, different governments have implemented programs to apply the punishment they see fit. How the different governments implement those programs can and usually do depend on the social status of the offender. The rich do not get punished as much as the poorer members of society (De Giorgi, 2018).

The Marxist theory that this paper will use to consider Marx’s views on punishment is his idea that God was invented by the people (Wolf, 2017). This concept applies because so many of any societies laws are based on the religion that is dominate in the country in question. For western nations that religion would be Christianity; for Arab nations that influence would fall to Islam and for Israel, it would be Judaism. Their laws reflect the religious influence that permeates their culture ( Skitka, et al, 2018).

While Marx shared this view with Feuerbach, he went further to say that punishment was the ability of one specific group of people or individual to get another group of people or individuals, to behave in a desired manner accepted by the former groups or individuals (Krawford, 2009).

That would support his idea that religious groups would do exactly that. Use punishment to force people or individuals to do as they say. Of course, his views does have its strengths and weaknesses which will be discussed here in this paper.

The Strength of the Absence of Religion

Marx did not write a lot about punishment in a very direct manner. The absence of his views on punishment did open the door to a great discussion on how society should treat those who violated its rules (Tunick, 1992, pp. 46-47). This debate on how punishment should be applied allowed for lesser ideas to be discarded while keeping the best ones for society to implement.

Without religion guiding it, society was free to make those rules that individuals felt were necessary to maintain the society in general and help it continue to exist. The influence of religion could be seen as being overly harsh, very extreme, and closed-minded. The passing of religious based laws could also be seen as a way of one group forcing their beliefs on those who may not be guilty of any real crime. A ore critical look at those religious laws could be done to see if alternative punishments could replace the more draconian ways already in use (Skitka, et al, 2018).

Marx himself felt that capital punishment was a very brutal way to punish someone and a very primitive way to help society survive. In light of this observation, Marx implies that justice was not being served very well. By removing God and religion from the discussion, it seems that the Marxists, who took Marx’s limited words and applied them to their own ideas of justice, were able to come to a very clear perspective of what constitutes justice. This perspective, along with others, could help society to create more just punishments that met all the sensibilities the people had concerning crime an dhow it should be dealt with (Tunick, 1992, p. 47).

Then once God and religion was removed from the discussion, it seemed that a clear view of the nature of capital punishment could be established and be questioned. One aspect that can be considered a strength of the removal of religion is that capital punishment ceased to have a foundation and could not be considered a moral punishment that fit any crime committed by people of society (Greenberg, 1993, pp. 55-56).

What may also be considered a strength to the removal of God and religion from the issue of punishment is the exposure of the inequality of society. Those that held power, had access to the discussions and decision making process excluded those who were less fortunate in life. These excluded groups and individuals became resentful that they had to follow laws constructed by those who had all the power. With this attitude and inequality exposed, steps could be taken to rectify the problem and create a more equitable solution. This discussion also led to the analysis of society in general and the classes of people who make up society. It was concluded that the elites held most of the power and took advantage of the situation. (Krawford, 2009). Little has been done or can be done to alter that situation.

The Cause of Crime

Once Marx eliminated religion from the issue of punishment, he basically eliminated the major cause of crime and opened the door for just about anyone to construct a theory as to why people committed the crimes they did. This problem emerged when Marxists could not construct their own theory as to the cause of deviant behavior. This is one of the weaknesses that come when both God and religion are eliminated form crime and punishment (Worral, 2007).

The theories are endless, ranging from environmental issues, to positivism which eliminated ethical aspects of the issue, to the idea that development pathways was responsible for the criminal nature in people. Every body had their own ideas and rarely did they all agree with each other. What this did was make it virtually impossible to solve the crime problem and it also failed to create effective punishments that deterred people of committing crimes. Or leading them to see the error of their ways. The offender could easily escape responsibility for their crimes by pointing to a significant influence that took place at some point in their lives (Worral, 2007).

Marx did not speak directly a lot on punishment and this vacuum also left subsequent Marxists with nothing substantial to build upon. They were always pointing to some alternative idea, for example, that punishment was merely a tool to protect the material property of the elites in society or to sustain the capitalistic nature of that society. Also, they would turn to the idea that that punishment was a strong tool for one group to oppress another. They could not really ferret out the cause of crime and why punishment was necessary (Tunick, 1992, p. 49).

This failure to construct a viable and credible theory about punishment, weakens the Marxist view on the issue. It did not help when the Marxists who came after Marx, could not decide on a specific cause for crime. Unlike the efforts mentioned above, their targets were the usual Marxist targets of oppression, capitalism and so on. It was the fault of the type of system, one which Marx opposed, which created the problem. In other words, it was the nature of society. They did not know where the idea to commit crime came from thus they were incapable of solving the problem. society, capitalism specifically, and the elites who were responsible for the crime and the failure to create a good system of punishment that was fair to all. The offender was again not responsible for their offenses (Worral, 2007).

By removing religion from the issue of crime and punishment, then the cause of crime and the unjust nature of punishment was removed as well. No one really had an answer to the crime issue thus they could not construct a viable punishment system to reduce that problem. They did not know where the idea to commit crime came from thus they were incapable of solving the problem.

Who Makes the Rules

People may not like religion or God involved in their society, the latter makes objective rules that apply to everyone. There is no exceptions made due t o power, wealth, color of skin or class. The rules apply equally to all. But once, As Marx tried to do, you remove God and religion from the issue of crime and punishment, then you are left with the question of who gets to make the rules.

This is a vital weakness of the Marxist theory that God was invented by the people. What he has done is taken out an objective rule and punishment and replaced it with a subjective standard that can be exploited at will. Because Marx and Marxists consider punishment to be the tool of the elite, etc., to oppress less fortunate members of society, they have allowed the very thing they are fighting against to take hold of any society including their own socialist governments and nations. The idea that the law is only enforced to protect the elites only support this point. The laws are subjectively applied in favor of protecting the ruling class and also unjust as the ruling class receives lesser penalties for the same crimes (Tunick, 1992, pp. 50-52).

This thinking then leads people to the idea that religious people are incapable of creating just punishments. This is based on the idea that morality has grown away from religion and religion itself is incapable of constructing those punishments deemed necessary to eliminate criminal activity. It suggests that Marxists or other secular people are the only ones able to work on the issue of punishment. But this is in contrast to real examples where the leaders of socialist nations have used punishment as tools of oppression and protection of the elites and their property (Skitka, et al, 2018).

In answer to the question above, it seems that the major weakness of the Marxist theory that God was invented is the people who get to make the rules re the ones who are able to remove current leadership from power and take over the government and run the country their way. There is no real alternative to issue of oppression and the ruling class, as all that changes are the people and their ideology that possesses the seats of power.


There are quite a few Marxist theories that could probably apply to the issue of punishment and how it should be implemented. But they do not have the impact that the idea that God was invented has. This idea can be found throughout all Marxist theories while all Marxists theories cannot be found in that specific one.

When you remove the concept of God and religion from the construction of rules and just penalties, then you are eliminating the one source that can construct laws that are equitable for all. It is understood that religious people are not as objective as they should be and they have been known to be as subjective as secular rulers. This is one of the weaknesses that comes when letting humans decide the fate of offenders. Subjectivity and double standards are found everywhere.

What makes the exception for religion and God though, is that God is neither subjective, nor corrupt, and his rules are not tailored to benefit one group over another. Even Marxist laws and punishments do not meet this high objective.

What can be seen by removing God and religion from all phases of society is that society becomes vulnerable to the most powerful person who is able to wield power, either directly from the highest office of the land, or indirectly behind the people who occupy those seats. Chaos exists as the rules and punishments become arbitrary and without purpose.

The Marxist failure to construct a viable of credible theory of punishment only leaves society vulnerable to the will, desires, and whims of those who are as bad as the common members of society who suffer the majority of punishments issued in society today.

Works Cited:

De Giorgi, A., (2018) Punishment, Marxism, and Political Economy Oxford research Encyclopedia online Available at: Accessed March 19, 2019

GREENBERG, D. F., editor. (1993) Crime And Capitalism: Readings in Marxist Crimonology. Temple University Press,. JSTOR, Available at Accessed March 19, 2019

Krawford, K., (2009) Power in Society – Marx Conflict Perspective & Elite TheorySocial Analysis Academia, Available at: Acccessed March 19,2019

Skitka LJ, Hanson BE, Washburn AN, Mueller AB (2018) Moral and religious convictions: Are they the same or different things? PLoS ONE 13(6): e0199311. Accessed march 19, 2019

Tunick, Mark. Punishment: Theory and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1992 1992. Accesed March 19, 2019

Wolff, Jonathan, "Karl Marx", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = Accessed march 19, 2019

Worral, C., (2007) Crime and Capital: Rethinking a Marxist Theory of Crime and Punishment Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research – Launch Issue, Available at Accessed March 19, 2019

© 2019 David Thiessen


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