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On the Marxian Theory of Social Control: A Reply to Horwitz

Author(s): Steven Spitzer


Source: Social Problems, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Feb., 1977), pp. 364-366
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social
Problems
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/800088
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ONTHEMARXIAN
THEORYOFSOCIALCONTROL:
A REPLYTOHORWITZ
STEVEN SPITZER
Universityof Pennsylvania
Alan Horwitz's criticismof my essay rests on a partial,and therefore distortedcharacterization of the causal structureunderlyingthe "theory."' Specifically,he chooses to isolate
one component in the process of deviance production (the self-generated"needs"of the
controllers)and argue as if that component comprisedthe whole of the theoreticalsystem.
By truncating and telescoping the theory, Horwitz not only removes the decisive causal
element from the explanation (the historically-baseddevelopmentof contradictionsin class
society), he also createsan impressionof tautology where none exists.
There is a functional proposition within the theory: within class societies the system of
social control will tend to take the form which best insures the maintenanceand extension
of class rule. But to analyze this propositionin a vacuumand ignoreits contingentcharacter
is to do serious violence to the Marxianmodel. Becausecontrol arrangementsare ultimately
a responseto structurallygeneratedand historicallycontingentproblemsof classsociety, the
essential cause of devianceprocessingsystems cannot be discoveredin either the interaction
between the rulers and the ruled, or the specific "needs" of the ruling class. It must be
found in the distinctive forms of socio-economic organization (e.g. slavery, feudalism,
capitalism,state socialism) that call into being specific forms of social control at particular
points in their development. To infer from Marxiantheory that "whicheversocial control
system is actually adopted becomes the one which best stabilizesruling class dominance"
(Horwitz, 1977), would be to deny the foundations of Marx'shistorical materialism.It
would rip the relationshipbetween the problemsof class society and control from the historical context in which it is imbeddedand, in so doing, posit an empty, ahistoricaland selfreplicatingprocess.
It is precisely the historical nature of the theory that enables us to distinguishwhich
forms of control are likely to be used at a given point in the developmentof a system of
class rule. If we limit ourselvesto the "needs" of the rulingclass to explain, for example,
why capital punishment was favored in 18th century Englandand whippingin the slaveowners' South, and why community-treatmentis popular in contemporary America, we
would remove from considerationthe conditions basic to Marxianinterpretation.It is only
when these historical conditions are ignored that the theory becomes "untestable" or
"unfalsifiable." According to Hemple (1966:31) "a scientific hypothesis normally yields
test implications only when combined with suitable auxillary assumptions."When these
assumptions (in this case the assumption of dialectical development) are suspended, the
impressionthat a theory cannot be tested may be erroneouslysustained.
In decipheringthe causes of control it is clearthat rulingclassesdo not simply "choose"
1As i thought I made clear in the original article, my intention was only to offer a prolegomena
to a theory, not a theory in the strict sense of the word. The presumption that a theory of deviance
could be developed and presented within the space of a journal article reveals important differences
between Positivist and Marxist conceptions of what theory is and how it is created. For anyone working with the Marxian tradition it would be foolish to call a few interrelated propositions a theory, or
to expect that theories can be developed simply by first grinding out "testable" propositions like prepackaged sausage and then playing erector games with those propositions in the task of "theory construction." Although I disagree with the assumptions underlying his reasoning and definitions of what theory
is, I fully agree with Horwitz's observation that I have not proffered a "true" theory of deviance: I never
intended or pretended to do so.

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Communication

365

whatever works, "they choose from standpoints, views and propensitiesthat do not form
another set of independent data but are themselvesmolded by the objectiveset" (Schumpeter, 1962:12). Rulersthus select or countenancemodalitiesof control which appearto them
to be most consistent with their historically-definedclass intersts.2 Not only are they sometimes ill-advisedor clumsy in their selection and applicationof control measures:they may
actually behave "irrationally"in that their attempts to achievecontrol producean opposite
effect. Of course, this irrationalityis not a measureof the ineffectivenessor ineptitude of
any given set of rulers;it is a reflection of the contradictionsinherent in the class system
itself. Given the significanceof this type of "irrationality"for Marx'sconception of social
change, it is ironic that Horwitz imputes a "rationality"to the rulingclass-a rationality
which not only anthropomorphizesthe controlsystem, but also contradictsthe basicpremises
of Marxiantheory.
In contrast to Parsonsiantheories of law, with which my analysiswas compared,there is
no equilibrium assumption within the Marxian model. Instead, the theory assumes an
essential disequilibriumand instability, a continuous movement of systems of domination
toward their own dissolution. To follow Horwitz's advice and "predictin advancethat one
deviance processing system from a range of possibilities will be adopted because it most
effectively stabilizes the rule of the capitalist class," we would have to assume that the
characteristicsof these systems are exclusively determined by the imperativesof control,
and that changes in these systems are only a reflection of tendencies toward equilibrium.
We would have,in otherwords,a theory muchcloserto the formulationsof Michels(1962) and
Pareto(1967) than those of Marx.
I regretthat my essay did not distinguishmore clearly between Marxian,functionaland
elite theories. But whateverthe merits of my originalargument,it is clear that theoretical
insights are not always renderedmore intelligible when they are reduced to the slender
proportionsof a causal formula. While theories should always be stated in termsthat make
them susceptible of proof, the developmentof "true"theory will sufferwheneverwe become
preoccupiedwith the form of a relationshipto the exclusion of its substance.
REFERENCES
Hemple, Carl G.
1966 Philosophy of Natural Science. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
Horwitz, Allan
1977 "Marxist theories of deviance and teleology: A critique of Spitzer." Social Problems, This issue.
Michels, Robert
1962 Political Parties. New York: Collier Books.

2 The causal structure of Marxian theory is easily misconstrued by those of empiricist leanings because
"empiricism has always been hostile to the notion of a purpose or tendency which can supposedly be
identified separately from the conscious desires of the being concerned" (Taylor, 1966:241). The crucial
distinction is that for Marxian theory individuals can be influenced by social structure without having a
clear conception of what is at stake. As Taylor (1966:241-242 notes, "in talking of the structural events
of history, such as the rise of classes, as though they fell in the realm of human action, even though they
did not represent the goal of any individual agent, they (the Marxists) seem to be setting alongside the
ordinary explanation through individual agents one which makes appeal to entities with wills distinct
from that of their members. For Marxism of course, the will of, say, the bourgeoisie is nothing mysterious,
but is simply the commonly accepted aims of the bourgeois as seen in the historical context... This will
not be perhaps the will of the bourgeois as they would recognize it. But this is not surprising, for they are
only aware of the ends they seek in a distorted 'ideological' form. If, however, one wishes to maintain
that a will can only have the content that it is conscious of having, that this type of 'interpretation,'
therefore, is without meaning, then, indeed, the will of a class becomes something mysterious added on to
history, as it were, from the outside. The theory appears to be an odd kind of supernatural holism."

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366

HORWITZAND SPITZER

Pareto, Vilfredo
1967 Sociological Writings. S. E. Finer (ed.). New York: Praeger.
Schumpeter, Joseph A.
1962 Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Taylor, Charles
1966 "Marxism and empiricism." in Bernard Williams and Alan Montefiore (eds.), British Analytical
Philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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