Marx and Law

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JOURNAL OF LAW AND SOCIETY VOLUME 20, NUMBER 4, WINTER 1993

0263-323X

Marx and Law
ANDREW VINCENT*

There is no sense in which Marx can be described as just a legal theorist. He did not write any systematic works on legal science or jurisprudence; however, his observations on law are both immensely penetrating and contain an extremely subtle interweaving of philosophical, political, economic, and legal strands. Marx was also at the centre of many crucial intellectual and political debates of his time. In order to try to unpack some of these debates, elucidate his views on law, and retain some overall clarity, I divide my remarks into five sections, which will inevitably overlap. The sections covered are: the problems of discussing Marxist jurisprudence; the philosophical background to the analysis of law and the state; materialism, political economy, and law; base, superstructure, and the ideology of law; and finally, law, politics, and the state. PROBLEMS OF MARXIST JURISPRUDENCE There are a number of problems for any student of jurisprudence or politics trying to grasp Marx's approach to law.' First, there is the puzzling point that neither Marx nor Engels had a positive normative theory of law, crime or deviance. In fact, much of the time Marx appears predisposed simply to ignore the question of law as peripheral, or at least to treat crime as a symptom of the conflict within a class-based society.' He certainly offers no clear encompassing definition of law. Marx's jurisprudential thought is often premised upon a critique of law per se, and what he has to say tends to be overwhelmingly negative in character. This is fine if one's purpose is 'critique' and nothing else, but it is a definite handicap if one wishes to say something more positive about the nature of law, law reform rather than its overthrow, or the future of law (e.specially if one believes that law has a future role in society). A second problem relates to the sources for Marx's observations on law. It has already been noted that Marx did not have a normative theory of law. It is also clear that what he does say about law, by way of negative critique, does not appear in any systematic format. There are works which begin to *

School of European Studies, University of Wales, Cardiff CF1 3 YQ, Wales 371 C Basil Blackwell Ltd. 1993. 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 JF, UK and 238 Main Street.Cambridge. MA 02142. USA

HeinOnline -- 20 J.L. & Soc'y 371 1993

say something more systematic, like The German Ideology. However, Marx never allowed its publication in his lifetime and it is commonly dismissed (although not by all writers by any means) as either a work of immature juvenilia or a flawed piece of philosophical polemic which does not come up 3 to the systematic and scientific standards of Capital. Marx, it is also commonly asserted, had intended to write a work on law and the state 4 (possibly as an extension of Capital), but he never realized his ambition. Thus, in consequence, the writings and observations on law that we do have are incomplete and must be picked out from a diverse body of writings. Marx's writings are in fact markedly eclectic and can be roughly divided into four often overlapping types: first, the early, more philosophicallyinclined pieces, clearly more inspired by the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Under this rubric would be included the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), The Holy Family (1844), The German Ideology (1845/6), and The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). The second type of writing is the polemical pieces written for particular political objectives. The most famous of these is the Communist Manifesto (1847/8). The overt character of these polemical writings- despite their wide dissemination, immense influence, and popularity - is their simplification of issues and doctrines. This can be a problem in assessing what Marx actually believed, rather than what he needed to put forward for polemical thrust and...
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