Left Realism Research Paper

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Left realism began in the 1980s in Great Britain partially as a reaction to those on the left who felt that talk about street crime was just a racistfueled media scare. It was an attempt to take back the crime issue from conservatives with progressive socialist analyses and short-term solutions. Left realists felt that lower or working class members were not only the primary victimization targets of street criminals, but were being attacked from above by white collar, corporate and state crime. Rather than automatically rejecting all mainstream analysis, left realists have adopted elements of strain theory and subcultural theories to make their point that absolute poverty is not a cause of crime. Rather, relative deprivation that leads to dissatisfaction with the social order is the criminogenic factor. When such dissatisfied people lack the legitimate means to attain socially approved goals, they may join together in patriarchal, pro-violent sub- cultures that support their members in criminal activities and in actions to buttress their masculinities (e.g., respect, status) that have been battered by the economic policies of modern governments. The most recent left realist theories, then, which have spread from Great Britain to the United States, Canada and Australia, have added feminist and male peer support elements to concerns for progressive short term solutions.


Left Realism can be located on a political map in comparison with so-called “right realism” and “left idealism.” Right realism is a neo-conservative doctrine that attacks mainstream criminological theory, blames the working class for crime, and calls for extensive harsh measures to conduct a war on crime. It has been extremely influential in providing for massive increases in imprisonment at the same time that crime has gone down, and in convincing many police departments to engage in zero tolerance policing that targets minor annoying behaviors on the theory that this will reduce serious crime in its wake. Left idealism was a reaction to such policies on the political left that protested the implicit racism in discussions of street crime and crime statistics. Complaints about working class crime, they argued, as a media and conservative politician-induced scare tactic designed to create a moral panic that would justify oppressive actions against the poor. Rather, these theorists turned their attention on the horrific and harmful practices of corporations, the wealthy and the state.

Left realism, while actually agreeing with these varied claims of the idealists, felt that the primary focus on crimes of the powerful meant rather explicitly that crimes of the powerless or less powerful were being ignored. While idealists often argued that a concern with burglary, robbery and rape was a thinly disguised form of racism, the left realists instead argued that the predatory crimes of the underclass and the predatory crimes of the upper class squeezed the working class in the middle. As primary targets both from above and below, the working class suffers enormous victimization.

Background Description

Left realism had its beginnings in the United Kingdom in the 1980s, among theorists with extensive experience in decrying the power and actions of the law and the state, but partially as a reaction to various theorists on the political left. Jock Young, John Lea and Roger Matthews were upset that the debate over interpersonal and street crime only had two sides. The larger voice consisted of conservatives had no problem playing off racial fears to convince voters to fund a massive war on crime and an extraordinary increase in the use of imprisonment. The only other major voice came from the left, where many were arguing that any concern for street crime was a racist reaction against inner city and minority group members. After all, these people claimed (quite correctly) most of the money stolen in the world was obtained by white collar and corporate criminals, and much of the injury from illegal activities also tended to be caused by these same people through illegal code violations, lack of safety practices in manufacturing and agriculture, and substantial health threatening industrial pollution.

However, limiting the debate to only these two sides, left realists felt, meant that there remained a major problem. City people were hiding behind locked doors, giving up sitting on park benches or their front stoops to meet with their neighbors, not because they were scared that General Electric or Halliburton would rig bids to steal millions in public construction projects. Older people were dying in heat waves after nailing their windows shut despite not having air conditioning, because of a major fear, but certain not because they were afraid that a company like Union Carbide might release poison gas into the atmosphere, as they did in India in 1984. Rather, the crime problems that people in the working class are most worried about are a variety of acts committed by people at the lowest end of the socioeconomic ladder. They were afraid of rape, robbery, break-ins and burglary, assault and murder. In opposition to the left idealist notion that crime fear was a social construction based on racist and anti-minority thought, left realism took the position that working class people were being attacked both from above and below. While at the mercy of white collar and corporate criminals for a wide variety of crimes, they were also the primary victims of street criminals such as rapists, car thieves, purse snatchers and armed robbers. Thus, one of the most important early arguments of the left realists was that complaints that the justice system was racially biased (which it was), and that the legal system was put into effect to serve the interests of the upper classes (which it was), still masked the fact that the primary victims of both violent and economic crimes were lower class and working class people.

Worse, people in the general public had little respect for theorists of the left who belittled the problem of rape or robbery, the object of great fears on their part. Over 20 years ago, American left realist Elliott Currie laid out a crucial concern that completely ignoring intra-class street crime serves to “help perpetuate an image of progressives as being both fuzzy-minded and, much worse, unconcerned about the realities of life for those ordinary Americans who are understandably frightened and enraged” (1992: 91). Ignoring or belittling a concern for street crime and victimization meant handing over the entire issue of street crime to conservative politicians, who had no problem using it to their benefit first to elect their candidates, and then to implement a series of progressively harsher criminal justice policies, such as longer sentences, mandatory sentences, increased imprisonment, reduced defendant rights, and reduced services for rehabilitation or treatment.

These were not the only places where left realism diverged from common positions taken by other theorists of the left. In the first place, left realists made it clear that they did not feel any necessity to be constrained by the dictates of Marxist theory (Hayward 2010). This was not unique on the left, it was still controversial in some quarters when it became an essential element in left realist theory. While explicitly remaining on the left politically, they borrowed any ideas from mainstream criminology that they believed had merit or explanatory power that would advance or help their explanations of criminal behavior. It was much more common then (and to some degree today also) for left-leaning criminologists to reject wholesale any theories that originated in mainstream criminology, for no other reason than the place of their origin. Thus, it was a major divergence from the norm for left realism to adopt some mainstream ideas just because they seemed valuable or had explanatory power. For example, Lea and Young (1984) borrowed extensively from concepts brought into criminology by Robert K. Merton (strain theory) and Albert K. Cohen (subcultural theory). Lea and Young argued that although criminologists have commonly claimed that crime was caused by poverty, one cannot attribute or explain crime solely through absolute deprivation or extreme poverty. There are many cultures where people were much poorer than the poor of the United State or Great Britain on some objective scale (income, standard of living, purchasing power), but these poor people in other cultures as a group committed much less of what is usually termed street crime (e.g., burglary, robbery, rape, assault). Thus, just the state of having a small amount of money – poverty – was not a sufficient explanation for criminal activity. Rather, the left realists said, crime has its roots in “relative deprivation,” or the extreme differences between rich and poor that leads to discontent with the political structure. This was particularly true in a context where such people do not see any hope of a political solution. Such people who are frustrated and disempowered by relative deprivation tend to band together – to come into contact with other disenfranchised people, and eventually form subcultures that in many cases encourage or legitimate criminal behavior.

State Of The Art

There have been a number of more current left realist perspectives. For example, DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2010) have more recently argued that criminological subcultural development has been strongly influenced in recent years by the destructive consequences of conservative Chicago School economic policies, and by marginalized men’s attempts to live up to the principles of hegemonic masculinity in an environment that offers few constructive outlets for men concerned with masculinity to act out this gendered behavior. Without jobs, social structures, organized sports or educational support, marginalized men sometimes find that crime provides one of the few bases of support available to them for gendered behavior. As newer conservative economic models predominate, jobs continue to be eliminated or exported and salaries for those that remain often cut drastically. Deindustrialization and the drastic decline in family owned farms provide more challenges to young men’s masculine identity than ever before, and the addition of the effects of institutionalized racism no doubt contributes to the mushrooming presence of criminal gangs in the United States.

Although many or even most men who are economically marginalized engage in male to male violence as a form of compensatory masculinity, DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2010) argue that others, including those influenced by a patriarchal culture, engage in a variety of forms of male-to-female victimization as an effective means of repairing damaged masculinity (Messerschmidt 1993). Women abuse has become in many violent subcultures a legitimate way of maintaining patriarchal authority and control.

Other left realist perspectives have attempted to explain other problematics. For example, Gibbs (2010) argues that left realist theory is useful in attempts to explain terrorist acts. Economically disenfranchised men not only are a pool from which street criminals are drawn, but they also under certain circumstances join terrorist-supporting subcultures. Thus, she argues, current political “get tough” policies are likely to be just as unsuccessful in fighting terrorist acts as they have been in fighting street crime.

If there is one thing that separates left realist theory from other theoretical perspectives, and particularly mainstream criminology, but also a substantial portion of critical criminology, it is the importance to any theoretical discussion of short-term, anti-crime policies and practices. British left realism has been centrally concerned with criminal justice reform. In the early formulations, it received extensive attention for proposals dealing with the democratic control of policing. The goal was to implement a pattern of minimal policing in areas where local communities were opposed to a heavy police presence, and to oppose such policies as zero tolerance policing. The goal was to locate and implement police reforms that people in a district actually want.

Further, left realists understood that limiting policing suggestions to issues related to the criminal justice system would doom them to failure. To some degree, the criminal justice system is asked to clean up society’s messes, caused by problems in low employment, bad housing, poor schools, and cuts in other city services. Left realists have argued that many of these issues are related to crime, and included in their short-term proposals for solutions things that might deal directly with these problems, such as an increase in the minimum wage, and affordable day care. To curb crimes of the powerful, left realists have called for such policies as the democratization of corporations, representative citizen patrols to study complaints of corporate crime, and enforcement of regulatory procedures and mechanisms. Still, this area has not been a major strength for left realists.


One of the most potent critiques of left realism, especially in Great Britain, has been the attack that it does not offer a coherent theory of the state (Coleman et al. 2009). For the most part, this has been an attack on the 1980s concept of the Square of Crime, which focused on four interacting elements that can be visualized at the corners of the square: the victim, the offender, state agencies such as the police, and the public. Jock Young explained the relationship (1992: 27):

It is the relationship between the police and the public which determines the efficacy of policing, the relationship between the victim and the offender which determines the impact of the crime, the relationship between the state and the offender which is a major factor in recidivism.

This conceptualization, it was often argued, was most relevant to inner-city street crime, and less relevant to a broader understanding of various societies and crimes being studied today. Further, the development of the state, while inherent in the square of crime, was not fleshed out in significant detail.

One recent attempt to deal with this problem came from Roger Matthews (2009) who published a refashioned left realist theory that prioritizes the state and views it as one of the “fundamental organizing concepts that provide the conceptual frameworks through which we make sense of the social world” (2009: 346). Matthews developed an extensive call for linking theory, method and intervention in his reenergized left realist theory. However, this is a single author, and certainly much more extensive work on this subject needs to be done.

As mentioned, one of the central features of left realism is that the main architects did not feel constrained by traditional leftist theory, and in fact took their influences from any source they felt advanced explanatory power or knowledge. Unsurprisingly, then, there has been considerable controversy on the left among those people who are in fact bound to traditional Marxist or other leftist structures, and find that any incorporation, integration or use of theories developed by mainstream theorists to be a sign of right-wing tendencies. Thus, to give just one example, Jock Young’s use of such mainstream concepts as strain and subculture to attempt to harness a left realist explanation earned him what Yar and Penna (2004) no doubt viewed as their ultimate insult: he was labeled a “positivist” for using a politically incorrect theory. Others on the left have similarly attacked left realism for being politically incorrect, rejecting the claim of the left realists that they are engaged in socialist analysis. Similar attacks were made on left realists for their use of social science data collection such as victimization surveys to develop information to inform their theories.

Another strong controversy in England was the series of attacks from the left from people who believed that short-term solutions that fix problems with the police only plays into the hands of the state. After all, critical changes that make people happy with the police are proposed and implemented, then they will turn their attention away from other issues that might fuel their discontent. This improvement of such things as the police ultimately will only strengthen the existing power structure (e.g., Jamieson and Yates 2009). An alternative formulation of this notion is that the state, the legal system and the criminal justice system are all part of an overarching system that makes any efforts at reform end up as mere tinkering with the inside structures and ultimately meaningless. Left realists, on the other hand, have always believed that ignoring street crime and policing problems while waiting for the outcome of the eventual revolution means ignoring and condemning the women and men who are the victims of both street criminals and also the overzealous activities of some police forces. Any delay in making reforms just means that more lives will be destroyed by criminal or police action. Thus, one of the major contributions of left realists was to argue that it was possible to be a complete realist while at the same time pushing for left-oriented progressive solutions to crime. They argued that it is a legitimate goal to “chip away” at the capitalist patriarchal order, rather than holding off to await the success of some policy to overthrow all of society’s structures. Of course, there are many who see this lack of support for the revolution as a serious flaw in left realism.

There have been sharp attacks on left realism for ignoring crimes of the capitalist order. Of course, those criminologists that were called left idealists here were heavily focused on corporate and state crime, and they obviously felt that such a focus was important. However, as also made plain in this essay, from the beginning one of the central tenets of left realist thought was that members of the working class were victimized from above (white collar, state and corporate crime) as well as below (street crime). Further, there were a series of important works those arose from left realist theory on corporate crime in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, there is no question that the primary focus of left realists was to correct the imbalance of looking only at state and corporate crime, and ignoring the victimization of people by street criminals.

The other area of major attack on left realism has been the argument that some of the theorists have been gender blind. There is some truth to the argument made by some feminist critics that the earlier left realists, and even some of the more recent formulations, are not particularly sensitive to the unique problems of women, although certainly much left realist analysis affected men and women equally. It is not unfair to call them gender blind, as they were indeed more directed toward issues that were of major import to men, such as bar fights and police harassment of young men. Still, left realists were some of the first to recognize the importance of gendered issues. One of their most famous tools, the local victimization survey such as the Islington Crime Survey, was developed specifically to look at measures often seen as gendered, but ignored by most victimologists, such as fear of crime, avoidance behaviors on the streets, sexual harassment, and injury from rape or domestic violence. Still, early left realism was not strong on issues related to how patriarchal structures affected not only women’s victimization but women’s criminal patterns. More recently, left realists have begun to look at some of these issues, such as violence against women in a global perspective (Currie 2008), and a gendered subcultural theory that deals with violence against women (DeKeseredy and Schwartz 2010).

Although there are numerous places where left realist theories were used to study violence against women, one fertile area has been the study of male peer support as a form of subcultural behavior. In particular, men who use violence against women as a method of repairing damaged masculinities, or in an attempt to maintain and uphold patriarchal structures, often have subcultural male peer support for their actions. A variety of studies have found a relationship between the extent of male violence against women, and the amount of time that such men spend with their male friends, and indeed the amount of commitment these men have toward maintaining these male peer support structures. In particular, drinking alcohol with such friends seems to be related to such male violence. In a national representative sample of men, Schwartz, et al. (2001) found that men who went out drinking two or more times a week, had male friends who offered them support for the emotional abuse of women, and offered support for the physical abuse of women, were ten times as likely to sexually abuse women as men who did not have such friends or drinking patterns.

Another recent left realist approach was developed by Dragiewicz (2010), who attempted a left realist explanation for the existence of the antifeminist fathers’ rights group activism. Such groups have been active in arguing that women are as violent as men, and are politically active in fighting any legislation proposed to reduce violence against women, and in fighting attempts to make men responsible for child support payments. Dragiewicz argues that which such group members are not socioeconomically marginalized by the usual standards, but that they experience divorce and child support as socially and economically marginalizing. She argues that “These marginalized men seek out like-minded peers in person and online, drawing upon and adapting mainstream discourses around families, violence, and gender to reassert patriarchal masculinity in the face of challenges” (Dragiewicz 2010: 205).


Criminal justice policy and government policy in general have been trending further and further to the right over the past 30 years. Even in the United States when Democrats have been elected to the presidency during that time, they have engaged in policies that incorporated a great deal of the current conservative thinking, in what Elliott Currie has termed “progressive retreatism.” In general, the entire fight against crime has been ceded to the right, and many observers on the left have limited themselves over the past 30 years to sitting on the sidelines and carping.

DeKeseredy and Schwartz (2012) have issued a call for left realists to do even more to publicize solutions, form alliances with progressive community agencies, and in general to translate left realist ideas into action steps. Currie (2008: 117) suggested that: “the choice is stark and simple: We can either let the process continue and fortify out-selves against it, with more gated communities and more prisons, or we can decide that it is not tolerable and work to change it. What we cannot do is pretend we don’t know it’s happening.”


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