Classical School of Criminal Law

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Classical School of Criminal Law


a bourgeois school of criminal law that originated in the 18th century during the struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism. The views of the exponents of the classical school of criminal law were based on the rejection of the principles of feudal criminal law and on the defense of democratic principles in criminal responsibility and in the administration of punishment, principles proclaiming the formal equality of all citizens before the law. This tenet became firmly established in opposition to the feudal law of privileges and the inequality of social classes.

Based on certain common premises, the classical school of criminal law encompasses concepts and national variants arising from specific features of the historical development of different countries. In Great Britain, where the ideas of the classical school appeared earlier than in other countries, the exponents of the new theory of criminal law, based on a compromise between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, included the philosopher J. Locke and the jurist W. Blackstone. According to F. Engels, Locke was “in religion as in politics the son of the class compromise of 1688” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch. 2nd ed., vol. 37, p. 419). Locke’s assertion that only law can be the measure of good and evil became the basis of the classical school’s principle nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege (there is no crime and no punishment unless it is indicated in the law). Blackstone’s views on criminal law rejected Locke’s concept of man’s natural rights, which must be reflected in laws. However, he advanced many compromise tenets —for example, he defended the common law that had evolved under feudalism. A return to many tenets of feudal law is characteristic of the 19th-century British scholar J. Bentham. In France the men of the Enlightenment and the encyclopedists exerted a great influence on the development of bourgeois relations in criminal law, advocating in particular the concept of natural law, which forms the basis of the classical school of criminal law. In Germany the school’s leading exponent was A. Feuerbach.

An outstanding representative of the classical school was the Italian legal scholar C. Beccaria, whose work Crimes and Punishments (1764) most clearly expressed the school’s views. Beccaria held that crimes arose not only as the result of breach of contract but also because of man’s distortion of divine and natural laws; however, he limited the scope of criminal acts to violations of laws. He advanced a number of basic principles of criminal responsibility: “The punishment must be commensurate with the crime, the criterion for which is the actual harm” and “every citizen may do anything that is not against the law; however, violation of the law entails punishment.” Beccaria rejected the concept of punishment as torture or torment, holding that the purpose of punishment was to prevent the guilty person from again harming society and to restrain others from committing crimes. A number of his tenets were of a progressive nature, such as “no one can be deemed a criminal before a judgment of guilt has been decreed” and “only laws can establish punishment for crimes.”

The humanitarian principles of the classical school of criminal law reflected the interests of the bourgeoisie, which was aspiring to power, and led to the establishment of a new, bourgeois law to supersede the feudal law of unequal social classes and privileges.

The classical school of criminal law had many adherents in prerevolutionary Russia, notably Z. A. Goriushkin, N. N. Sandunov, I. F. Timkovskii, A. P. Kunitsin, and V. G. Kukol’nik. Leading representatives in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century were A. S. Zhiriaev, V. D. Spasovich, P. D. Kalmykov, A. V. Lokhvitskii, N. A. Nekhliudov, A. F. Kistiakovskii, N. D. Sergievskii, and N. S. Tagantsev.

The school’s inability to resolve the problems of dealing with the spread of crime in the capitalist states gave rise to new trends in bourgeois criminal law. The anthropological school of criminal law represented a distinct reaction against the dogmatic prescriptions of the classical school.


Beccaria, C. O prestupleniiakh i nakazaniiakh. Moscow, 1939. (Translation.)
Tagantsev, N. S. Russkoe ugolovnoe pravo: chast’ obshchaia, vol. 2, 2nd ed. St. Peterburg, 1902.
Poznyshev, S. V. Osnovnye nachala nauki ugolovnogo prava: Obshchaia chast’ ugolovnogo prava, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1912.
Reshetnikov, F. M. Ugolovnoe pravo burzhuaznykh stran, fasc. 2. Moscow, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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