Structural Marxism arose in opposition to the humanistic Marxism that dominated many western universities during the 1970s. In contrast to Humanistic Marxism, Althusser stressed that Marxism was a science that examined objective structures, and he believed that humanistic, historistic and phenomenological Marxism, which was based on Marx's early works, was caught in a "pre-scientific humanistic ideology".
Toward the middle of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Marxist theorists began to develop structuralist Marxist accounts of the state, law, and crime. Structuralist Marxism disputes the instrumentalist view that the state can be viewed as the direct servant of the capitalist or ruling class. Whereas the instrumentalist position argues that the institutions of the state are under the direct control of those members of the capitalist class in positions of state power, the structuralist perspective takes the position that the institutions of the state must function in such a way as to ensure ongoing viability of capitalism more generally. In other words, the institutions of the state must function so as to reproduce capitalist society as a whole. The Miliband-Poulantzas debate between instrumentalist Ralph Miliband and structuralist Nicos Poulantzas characterized the debate between structural and instrumental Marxists.
Structuralists view the state in a capitalist mode of production as taking a specifically capitalist form, not because particular individuals are in powerful positions, but because the state reproduces the logic of capitalist structure in its economic, legal, and political institutions. Hence, from a structuralist perspective one would argue that the institutions of the state (including its legal institutions) function in the long-term interests of capital and capitalism, rather than in the short term interests of members of the capitalist class. Structuralists would thus argue that the state and its institutions have a certain degree of independence from specific elites in the ruling or capitalist class.