Marx and Justice


Jonathan Wolff: Department of Philosophy, UCL



1.    When we read Marx's Early Writings, his writings on capitalism (esp Capital) and other political writings, we have the sense of someone writing with an enormous sense of moral outrage against the workings of the capitalist system. Aspects of his language seem clearly to imply a moral critique. For example he refers to exploitation as 'robbery' 'embezzlement, 'plunder', 'booty' and so on in various of his writings (Husami in MJH p. 45). The term 'exploitation' itself seems morally loaded.


2.    Yet when we look for explicit moral condemnation of capitalism we find virtually nothing. There are, apparently, some speeches where he comes close to moral criticism, but it is said that there are letters to Engels where he explains why he did this, and excuses himself for it. Thus not only does Marx omit to criticize capitalism in moral terms, he tries his best to avoid doing so. So, for example, he refers to exploitation as 'a piece of good luck for the capitalist but by no means an injustice for the worker' Capital.


3.    The 'Tucker/Wood' thesis: Marx condemned capitalism in many ways, but not because he thought it unjust.


4.    Wood's argument:


5.    To think of justice as the chief virtue of society requires one to have a juridicial concept of society.


6.    Marx did not have a juridicial concept of society


7.    Therefore: not appropriate for Marx to make criticisms in terms of justice


8.    This is not just a verbal matter of a stipulative definition - a substantive matter is involved


9.    What is a juridicial concept of society? It identifies the 'social whole' with the 'state' and conceives of the task of political philosophy to fashion principles for ideal state: ideal laws, assignment of rights and duties - thus legalistic notion dominant from Plato to Hegel, perhaps to Rawls.


10. What is Marx's concept of society, and how does it differ from a juridicial conception? It places human productive activity at forefront. Human beings act upon nature, changing the world and changing themselves. At the centre of his account is the mode of production, not the political or juridicial state.


11. In this conception the way in which we produce our means of substistence explains the nature of the economic institutions we have, which in turn explains the nature of the political institutions, and perhaps moral conceptions that we have. This is the essence of historical materialism.


12. Thus the state is thus seen as an entity which, at least in large part, is determined by the economic.



13. What, then, is the relation between a conception of society and the appropriateness of criticisms of justice?


14. Basic idea. If you want to criticise the capitalist economy from the standpoint of justice, then it seems that justice must provide an independent standard of some sort: i.e. to assess something as just or unjust might be start out with a notion of the 'ideal state' - the just state will be 'just according to the laws of the ideal state'. Capitalism may then be criticised for falling short of this ideal.


15. However this is the precisely the account of the state that Marx does not have. The state does not provide an independent standpoint because the nature of the state (and morality) is determined by the economic.


16. In particular, in the 'functional' reading of historical materialism, the state exists in order to stabilise the existing economic relations. Thus we would expect a society's state and morality to endorse whatever norms are most suited to efficient production.


17. Illustration of claim: American slavery came to end not because of a moral crusade against it, but because it was no longer economically efficient (even though this may not have been how it appeared to those taking part in the anti-slavery movement). [n.b. I have no view as to whether this is the correct explanation it is intended only as an illustration of the Marxist position according to the Wood thesis.]


18. From Marx's perspective: What is just depends on what arises from the relations of production. Under capitalism slavery and fraud are unjust, but those transactions which "fit" the prevailing mode of production are perfectly just.


19. The Marxist critique of justice: Justice does not give a universal or ahistoric standpoint to judge modes of production, but is a standard which a mode applies to elements within that mode.


20. Abstracted from its historical place judgements of justice are simply empty.


21. Wood: this is not a relativistic conception of justice: there is always a right answer, no insoluble disagreements.


22. Consequence: no injustice in relation between worker and capitalist - capitalism could not exist without profits to reinvest etc., and as justice is defined in terms of its appropriateness to mode of production this cannot possibly be an injustice.


23. Yet Wood does agree that Marx thinks capitalism is to be criticised. At the very least Marx thinks that we shouldn't live as we do under capitalism - - this is very clear from his Early Writings. Marx criticised capitalism for its irrationality, that it needlessly increased the burden of the workers, that it was unstable and crisis-ridden, that it frustrated the self-actualization of individuals, denied the good of community, and a more rational more stable less burdensome system was available. From this it does not follow that capitalism is unjust, Marx did not say it was unjust and in fact said that it was just.


24. So is it any more than a verbal matter what we call that criticism?


25. Why this is said not simply to be a verbal matter:


26. To suppose that capitalism is unjust is to suppose that what is wrong is a distributive matter: unfair division of the spoils. But:


27. That is to treat production and distribution as distinct. But Marx, like Nozick, thinks that you cannot treat production and distribution as separate subjects.


28. The ideal society will be one in which there are no principles of justice at all: see Lukes.


29. According to Lukes Marx is calling for a form of society 'beyond' justice. This relies on Hume's idea that justice is appropriate only within the 'circumstances of justice' . The circumstances of justice are:


30. Moderate material scarcity (neither grave scarcity or abundance).


31. Division of interests/competition between separate individuals.


32. If there is either great abundance of goods, or some sort of complete fellow-feeling among citizens - - if you love others as you do yourself - - there will be no conflicts, and thus no reason to have norms of justice. Consider distribution of air at the moment there is so much of it, we don't have disputes about using it and thus no need for norms of justice. However if it becomes scarce (e.g. for people trapped in a coalmine) there may be a need for norms of distribution.


33. Communist society will be beyond justice, according to Marx, on Lukes' reading. Either because of transformation of production to produce abundance, or because of transformation of human nature (for discussion see Cohen's paper on reading list). This is why it is incorrect to describe communist society as just.


34. Wood and Lukes have distinct arguments for the same conclusion: that Marx did not think that communist society would embody some universal idea of justice. Let us return to Wood's bolder thesis that in addition Marx did not think capitalism unjust, and that, on the contrary he thought it just.


35. Main opposition to this view comes from Husami, who attempts to find evidence that Marx thought that capitalism was unjust.


36. Note that even if we are convinced by Husami that Marx thought that capitalism is unjust, we have to continue to consider the question of why he took such steps to deny this. If Marx thought capitalism unjust, why didn';t he say so?


37. Husami accepts that though direct and explicit statements are 'few and far between' Marx employs the sort of language typically used in philosophical discourse and seems to be condemning capitalism for its injustice.


38. But what about the fact that he never actually says it is unjust and sometimes says it is just . Husami says that we have to understand Marx's use of irony here.


39. According to Husami, Wood has failed to understand the distinction between Marx's sociology of morals, and Marx's moral theory.


40. Wood appears to believe that for Marx, there would be a dominant moral position prevalent in society, and this, in effect, would be whichever morality was most to the advantage of the ruling classes. However Marx position, according to Husami is more complex. His sociology of morals says that the moral ideas people come to have is determined both by the mode of production, and their class position (although people may go over the boundaries)


41. In a given society the only ideals that may be realized are those of the ruling class: it is in this sense that 'right can never be higher than the relations of production'. But it does not follow that other moral standpoints cannot be used to evaluate capitalism. So, for example, from proletarian standpoint capitalism can be criticised.


42. Husami claims that Marx's moral theory is that of the proletariat under capitalism. What are the principles of justice? These appear in Critique of Gotha programme - look in detail as the second topic.


43. Summary of Husami: we must interpret Marx as deliberately making a distinction between 'real justice' and 'so-called justice' or 'what passes for justice under capitalism'. Wood collapses this distinction, and fails to see that Marx does not mean what he says when he says capitalism is just.


44. Objections to Husami:


45. Textual analysis does not seem to confirm his position: there is something to what he says, but no concrete evidence that Marx saw himself as arguing from the standpoint of a particular moral theory.


46. Why does Marx say so little about justice?


47. But: he has unearthed enough material to show that Marx felt that capitalism was unjust, but not enough to dissolve Wood's arguments.


48. General problem: Wood may have excavated the official position, but not eliminated worries about the unofficial. Husami has convinced us of unofficial position, but not that there is no Wood-like official position: i.e. the debate simply reinscribes the paradox. In effect we are back wehere we started.


49. Cohen's position (mentioned in Geras and Lukes) Marx thought capitalism unjust, but did not think that he thought it unjust. Therefore we should not expect to find him consistent.


50. To explain, we should not assume that people have complete first person authority about their beliefs. An individual's beliefs may be better revealed not by what they explicitly say about a topic, but what they say on related issues, in unguarded moments, and how they act.


51. But if Marx thought that capitalism was unjust, why was it so important to him to maintain the belief that he didn't think it unjust?


52. One possibility: given the theory of historical materialism, he couldn't hold a an ahistoric moral theory. So he tried not to, rather than admit that the theory needed modification.


53. Another possibility.Marx had reasonably clear vision of justice, but despaired of being able to get anywhere by moral argument. Why not:


54. He saw people apparently making anything follow from anything. Ideas which contradicted each other were often both claimed to be 'self-evident'. So not only is there no agreement in morality, but no agreement as to proper method for argument or proof.

'Hollow phrases can be twisted and turned.'


55. People have many reasons for believing things: often not because they have good evidence, but because it serves their purposes (although they don't realize this). This is particularly true in the case of morality. So argument may not shift them, however good it is, because beliefs are not held on the basis of the rational reasons for them.


56. Thus he couldn't mount the revolutionary movement on basis of moral persuasion. However he also thought he didn't need to: history would win the argument for him, and he could show with scientific rigour that it would.


57. Part of motivation of historical materialism is to turn away from ineffectiveness arguing on basis of morality. In any case it becomes redundant. He can win the argument without descending to crude moral terms.


58. Yet paradoxically it is the moral vision which led him to take the argument outside of moral terms i.e. because he saw things as so clearly unjust that the wanted his vision realised: this led him to abandoning moral argument: hence the contradiction between official and unofficial views.


59. Note this is only one possible interpretation. See Geras for a general survey.


60. What is his view of justice? See Topic 2.
Topic 2: Distribution under communism


61. What are Marx's views about how production and distribution are to be arranged under Communism? Take as our main text, the Critique of the Gotha Programme.


62. We will also look at the question of how consistent this is with what he says elsewhere about communism: in particular about the nature of labour under communism.


63. Background to the Critique of Gotha Programme .The Gotha Programme was produced by German Socialists as a joint statement of principle for adoption at the Gotha Unity Conference in 1875. The point of the conference was to unite the working class movement after previous splits.


64. Marx thought that the draft programme was a retrograde step for the workers movement, and wrote a scathing attack on it. Fortunately his bile leads to pedantry and so gave more detail about his views here than we get elsewhere.


65. Start with one important element in programme: it calls for an equal right to the "undiminished proceeds of labour".


66. Something like this is often taken as Marxist theory of distribution, yet according to Marx it is a very naive demand.


67. First it is not clear what "proceeds of labour" means: probably intended to mean "suplus produced" or "net social product". Marx takes it to mean "total social product" in value terms i.e. the value of all goods produced - but Marx points out that this cannot all be shared out.


68. More sophisticated account has to incorporate various deductions:


69. First those of economic necessity:

Cover to replace means of production used up

Portion for expansion

Insurance fund for calamities


70. Second: administration and social services -

Paying the administrators

Communal needs - schools and health services

For those unable to work



71. After these deductions, how are the proceeds of labour to be distributed? Here Marx distinguishes two levels of communism: later called by Lenin socialism (lower level) and communism (higher level).


72. The lower stage is "still stamped with its capitalistic birthmark": not possible to go directly from capitalism to full communism, and intermediate stage required.


73. Thus, ignoring those unable to work, lower communism will be regulated by the bourgeois principle of exchange of equivalents: equivalent labour - each according to their labour. Each person will receive a certificate saying how many labour hours worked, and this can be exchanged for goods.


74. What is wrong with this? Why can't it be the final stage? Like all rights, this equal right is a right of inequality


75. Some are better able to work etc

76. Some have more dependents


77. Thus this equal right will lead to unequal social consumption.


78. However "right can never be higher than the economic structure" i.e. at this level of productive power nothing better is possible. Remember that this was one the key quotes in the 'critique of justice debate'. In context, is Marx saying anything more than 'ought implies can'? That is, there is no point seeking to impose communist principles of distribution if the level of economic production is not yet adequate? Thus there is a question of whether this quote really bears the weight that Wood supposed.


79. However, although this is an improvement on capitalism (which arguable doesn't meet up with its own distributive standard of exchange of equals, for the capitalist makes a profit without offering anything equal in return see Michael Rosen, article on Marx in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy) this equal right is a right of inequality.


80. Would some other standard of equal distribution do better than 'each according to their labour'? Marx rather claims (without much real argument) that no equal standard will be satisfactory, as it will have unequal effects on people.


81. Why not a right to equal consumption, on condition that you have worked to your ability?


82. Marx would probably reply: by the time this would be workable it would be unnecessary. Socialism is still stamped with capitalistic attitudes - could you take people's word that they have worked to their abilities? How else could you tell?


83. By the time attitudes have changed 'bourgeois right' can be left behind and a new principle adopted, which is not a principle of equality.


84. The higher principle: "from each according to their ability to each according to their need." Warning important to understand this properly. Marx is saying here that people should contribute according to their ability, and receive according to their needs.


85. Note that there are at least two possible readings of this:


86. Conditional reading it is a condition of receiving anything that you work according to your ability.

87. Prediction reading under communism this is how people will behave. We don't need to set conditions to get people to work because that is what they will want to do in any case. Cohen argues in favour of the 'prediction reading'. This does seem more in the spirit of Marx's thought.


88. What does marx mean by needs? Clearly more than bare survival needs, but less than 'whatever you desire'. Note that is not intended to be applicable immediately after revolution, when people would still be infected with bourgeois attitudes and hence are likely to exaggerate their needs.


89. However, to keep this in the context of Marx's general thought, remember the Marxist principle that distribution of goods is consequent on the method of production. So we need to ask what method of production would be required to make this possible?


90. In the Early Writing (1845) Speeches in Elberfeld Engels said something about the organisation of production:


91. In communist society it will be easy to be informed about both production and consumption. Since we know how much, on the average, a person needs, it is easy to calculate how much is needed by a given number of individuals, and since production is no longer in the hands of private producers but in those of the community and its administrative bodies, it is a trifling matter to regulate production according to needs.



92. In Engels 1847 Principles of Communism Overproduction beyond the immediate needs of society will mean the satisfaction of the needs of all, the creation of new needs, and at the same time the means to satisfy them.


93. Thus idea of abundance is clearly at play here. Central planning of the economy would create such efficiency advantages that an absolute wealth of goods would be available. (Easier to believe in 1847 than 2001.)


94. Note also abundance leads to the end of class divisions, for class divisions arise over division of surplus, yet the surplus would be such that all could satisfy their needs.


95. Is this problematic? Some would say that there could still be ethnic/religious division. But even putting that to one side, couldn't class divisions arise over who does the work?


96. Standard Marxist reply: under communism work becomes life's prime want -Critique of the Gotha Programme. This is also a theme we encountered in studying the Early Writings.


97. Yet in 1840's Engels still saw labour as something negative: assuring his audience that because communism would not need the various levels of unproductive labourers e.g. middlemen, domestic servants, standing armies and could utilize the unemployed etc. there would actually be less work to do. However, it has to be said that in the Speeches he was addressing an audience of workers, who may have found it hard to believe that there would ever be a time when work would be 'life's prime want'.


98. The main problem is rendering everything Marx and Engels say about the nature of work and production under communism consistent. On the one hand, production must be highly efficient to create the level of abundance that will make possible distribution according to need. On the other hand, work is meant to be non-alienated, and life's prime want. How are both things possible?


99. In the few places where Marx describes work/life under communism, it doesn't look very productive.


100.In The German Ideology presents a vision of idyllic rural life:


101.In a communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today, and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, cowherd or critic.


102.How much hunting and fishing would there be? Deliberately ironic?


103.Recall the notion of unalienated labour from On James Mill - two aspects:

104.In production I would express my individuality and in contemplation of my product realised that I am an objective creature.

105.In your enjoyment of my product I would realise that I would satisfy a human need.


106.Problem 1. No sense of individual creation under highly productive division of labour.


107.Problem 2. Because of abundance, my product may not even be consumed.


108.Separate problem, beyond the scope of this discussion: scarcity of raw materials. Marx never thought about environmental issues.


109.Of course assumption all along: planned production much more efficient than anarchy of competitive market. No reason for Marx to question that? Do we have reason? But let's grant assumption for now:


110.Most sensible idea: lighten load of labour by production techniques, abolish foolish wants by recognition of their foolishness, and leave enough free time so people can do what they want.


111.Would this be a situation in which labour would be life's prime want? Surely not. This free time can be called labour, but nothing substantive is so achieved. Perhaps alienation cannot be abolished, but it can be compensated for.


112.Not hard to see why this has appeared such an attractive idea to so many.