Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rawls on Marx; December 1973

John Rawls taught a course on the history of political philosophy throughout much of his career at Harvard University.  The course contained his description and analysis of the most important figures in modern political philosophy, including Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Marx.  The course evolved over time; the final version from 1994 is edited in Samuel Freeman's Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.  I served as graduate assistant in Rawls's lectures on this subject in fall 1973, and recently reread my notes of the course.  Here are my notes of a particularly important lecture towards the end of the course: Rawls's treatment of Marx's ideas about economic justice.  This lecture demonstrates Rawls's understanding of the fundamentals of Marx's economic theories and the labor theory of value.  (I am inclined to think that Joseph Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis (1954) was an important source for Rawls on the history of economic thought, including Marx's economics, though I can't at this moment confirm this.)  This lecture is particularly significant in that it is roughly simultaneous with the emergence of "analytical Marxism" announced by the publication of an important article by Allen Wood, "The Marxian Critique of Justice" in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972 (link).


John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973
Notes from lecture, December 11, 1973
[notes taken by Daniel Little; intended to capture Rawls's formulations of the main points presented in the lecture]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Capital seems to be a description of an unjust society. The owners of the means of production live in relative abundance and idleness at the expense of the ever-growing class of wretched laborers. But Marx doesn't make any attempt to present an argument that capitalism is unjust, nor any concept of justice which would back up such an argument. Moreover, we have vitriolic criticisms of utopian socialists who did condemn capitalism on the grounds of justice. Marx asserts on the contrary, that capitalism is perfectly fair, perfectly just.  Why so?

(a) It is not enough to say Marx is averse to preaching or moralizing. He is so averse; but judgments of justice can be reasoned and hence not properly described as "preaching".

(b) It is not enough to say that he didn't want the critique of capitalism to rest on some social ideal. He does reject the utopian socialists' program; but that would not prevent him from stating his own opinion. And he doesn't do that either. He reproaches the utopians for not realizing that some major social change must precede an adjustment along moral lines.

Here is my conjecture as to why Marx didn't judge capitalism unjust. He thinks of justice as a political and juridical conception which is associated with a particular conception of the state and society; so it belongs to the prehistory of mankind. Given his picture of human society, these political and juridical institutions belong to the superstructure, and reflect the workings of the mode of production. For each mode of production there is a conception of justice appropriate to it, at least in prehistory. A further qualification: It is worthwhile to distinguish between the high time of a form and its low period -- where the form is a progressive force and where it stands in contradiction to the mode of production.

Here is a brief discussion of justice in Capital III:
To speak here of natural justice, as Gilbart does, is nonsense. The justice of the transactions between agents of production rests on the fact that these arise as natural consequences out of the production relationships. The juristic forms in which these economic transactions appear as wilful acts of the parties concerned, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by law against some individual party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds, is appropriate to the mode of production. It is unjust whenever it contradics that mode. Slavery on the basis of capitalist production is unjust; likewise fraud in the quality of commodities. (Capital III, 339-40) 
Here Marx conceives of justice in terms of adequacy to the mode of production.  (1) The justice of legal forms cannot be discovered on the basis of those forms alone. Rather it depends upon their adequacy to the mode of production. The juridical institution is formal; to give it content we must look to the way of life and its requirements. A consequence: There is no universal theory of justice which allows us to evaluate generally the social institutions of any society. There is no general principle like "slavery is always unjust." There are thus no general rules of natural rights, no universal justice. (2) This adjustment of justice to the mode of production doesn't mean there are no injustices. Slavery is unjust under capitalism; wage labor is just under capitalism, provided that the worker is paid the value of his labor power.

This view seems to suggest a sort of relativism; but this would be a faulty conclusion. We have a theory matching theories of justice with modes of production, and we might at some time find a function systematically linking them.

Let's now try out this suggestion on the conception of surplus value. The utopians argued that workers ought to be paid the value of their contribution to the firm. Since they are not, capitalism is unjust. Marx rejects this view. It makes the appropriation of surplus value appear accidental -- as if the capitalists could act differently. Marx required a theory of value which made the appropriation of surplus value a necessary part of the capitalist system. On the theory of value every commodity is exchanged for a strict equivalent.

Marx distinguishes between the product of labor and labor power. The worker is given the value of his labor power, not his product. It is on this ground that he is fairly treated. Thus he is undercutting the Ricardian socialist position by rejecting and replacing the principle of contribution. It is the system itself which brings about surplus value, not the behavior of individuals who violate moral principles. Surplus value is an intrinsic part of the working of the social institutions of capitalism.

Consider the description of the production of surplus value in Capital.
Every condition of the problem is satisfied, while the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, have been in no way violated. Equivalent has been exchanged for equivalent. For the capitalist as buyer paid for each commodity, for the cotton, the spindle and the labour-power, its full value. He then did what is done by every purchaser of commodities; he consumed their use-value. ... This metamorphosis, this conversion of money into capital, takes place both within the sphere of circulation and also outside it; within the circulation because it is conditioned by the purchase of the labour-power in the market; outside the circulation, because what is done within it is only a stepping-stone to the production of surplus value. (Capital I, p. 194)
The fact that surplus value arises is a piece of good fortune for the buyer, but no injustice to the seller.

Marx thus rejects the Ricardian principle of contribution. He finds it a bourgeois notion, basing property rights on one's labor.

Summing up. (1) Marx views the notion of justice as a virtue of legal forms and institutions, and thus perhaps it is a notion which belongs to prehistory. The state depends upon the mode of production. (2) Marx doesn't deny that the various conceptions of justice have formal features in common -- exchange of equivalents for equivalents -- but the notion of what is equivalent is determined in different ways. Marx would be prepared to admit that capitalism in its high period is just. One reason he rejects the utopian's argument is that it is misleading. It rests on a misapprehension of where the essential problem lies: not in the superstructure, but in the mode of production. He felt that the key enterprise is to give a scientific theory of the mode of production.

A second point: justice is a distributive notion. The appeal to justice suggests that we can separate the mode of distribution from the mode of production. This is for Marx incorrect. Appeals to justice are thus supposed to be superficial. Moreover, appeal to justice suggests that important social change can be achieved by legislation.

[Other relevant materials from the course:]

From the syllabus:

(a) Marx's criticism of the liberal state; (b) His attitude towards theories of justice; (c) The theory of alienation and exploitation; (d) The conception of rational human society

Final exam questions on Marx:

4. Present and discuss Marx's theory of alienation (as developed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)
5. Present and discuss Marx's theory of historical materialism (as developed in the German Ideology)
6. Present and discuss Marx's analysis of historical change in the Communist Manifesto.
7. Outline Marx's analysis of the basic characteristics of capitalism: the social relations which define it and the nature of the form of economic production.


Steven said...

Thanks for these notes. I have several questions after reading it.

I have recently read Woods paper, Husami's response to it and Wood's reply to Husami (all in the same 1972 edition) and Amartya Sen's recent 2009 critique of Rawls' theory of justice and fairness - The Idea of Justice, but I've never read Rawls himself.

Your notes on Rawls imply he had a very similar take on Marx's notion of justice to Wood's - that it can't be considered separately from modes of production and as such is a part of a whole. Within this whole it can't be considered internally inconsistent.

This seems to be backed up by Marx's writing but if the problem is not with justice but with the mode of production/justice as a whole what is the basis of Marx's objection to the mode of production if it isn't that it is unjust? What was Rawls' opinion on this? It seems to be missing from the analysis in your notes. There is mention of pursuit of a scientific theory but that could mean just about anything.

Wood offers an answer in his reply to Husami to do with a concept of moral and non-moral goods, which he acknowledges is his own conjecture rather than explicit in Marx's writing. He describes these goods in the following terms:

We pursue the first solely or chiefly on account of the moral merit attached to them; the second we would find desirable, even abstracted from considerations of moral praiseworthiness and blameworthiness.

On this basis Wood contends that for Marx the criticisms that he levelled at capitalism, that it failed to provide the majority of people with security and freedom, can be equated to a failure to provide non-moral goods. These non-moral goods are to be assessed in terms of the level of attainment. So Marx becomes a sort of Utilitarian maximiser of non-moral goods but differs with hedonistic Utilitarians on what is to be maximised and its hedonistic conception.

I don't know what Rawls would have said to this but recently reading Sen's work I think there is something missing in Wood. Marx's lack of appeal to or rejection of justice misses that there is more than one appraoch to justice, Sen describes two - one consequentialist, the other deontological.

So what we have formally in Sen is two competing notions of justice and how its content should be arrived at. It would seem to me that it is possible that, in opposition to Wood, that understanding Marx's lack of appeal to justice is not to do with moral or non moral values and dogmatic pursuit of one or the other. When Marx rejected notions of capitalism being unjust is it possible that he was rejecting the deontological approach to justice as being based on the productive whole and thus acts to preserve its form?

The consequentialist approach however sits outside this constraint of being based on any particular mode of production and rather requires the identification of what competing values to use to judge actual outcomes and deliberation thereof given a certain set of material circumstances. If you view human history as such a process isn't this something akin to Marx's dialectics?

Now I seem to be saying that Sen is a dialectical materialist (I haven't read enough Marx to really know what that means) which is way beyond my ken I'll stop.

Bruce Wilder said...

I'd appreciate an explanation of the term, "pre-history", if you have the time or inclination.

Rakesh Bhandari said...

Thanks for Little's lecture notes on Rawls' understanding of Marx.

And thank you Daniel Little for your brilliant book on Marx, but I would defend the labor theory of value. On that perhaps later.

One can only marvel at the generosity and openness of Rawls' mind.

I still think he misses the point. Marx is not interesting in establishing the injustice of the wage transaction but stripping the halo of justice from it. He does this in two ways.

First, as Allen Wood argued, Marx reduces the extant theory of justice to the superstructure. It is nothing more than an ideal expression of the basic relations of society and in bourgeois society that basic relation is the free contract. Our concept of justice is thus juridical. It is thus not surprising that the wage relation tends on average to be just, but to call something just is now understood to mean only that it corresponds, more or less, to the basic social forms of society. The justice of the wage relation is thus irrelevant to those who are struggling to change those basic forms. It has no pull on them.

Second, as Marx argues in chapters 22-24 of Capital I, the wage relation is not actually an exchange at all as over time the capitalist class as a whole only pays the working class with the value it has already appropriated without equivalent. Since the wage relation is not an exchange, it cannot be a just exchange either.

But--and here is the most difficult point--Marx says that this scientifically sound view of the wage relation as one of appropriation (rather than exchange) cannot be had within the juridical viewpoint associated with bourgeois production.

One can only see the wage relation as one of appropriation if one looks at the relation between classes over time, not the relations between any two transacting bodies at a given time.

But to look at the wage relation macroeconomically and dynamically is to take a view on social relations foreign to the bourgeois mode of production. Hence, it is not possible within it to characterize the wage exchange as unjust on the grounds of it not being an exchange at all.

Daniel Little said...


You're right to be somewhat puzzled by "pre-history" in this context. The context suggests that even relatively recent social forms fall in "prehistory" -- including capitalism and the modern state. On that line of thought, we're sort of pushed towards imagining that Marx divides human history between the period of real human emancipation (socialism onwards) and "pre-history" -- or the long period of class society. He says something much like this in the preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: capitalist society:

The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production - antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation constitutes, therefore, the closing chapter of the prehistoric stage of human society.

(Here is an online edition of the preface:

Here is a quote from Engels that defines "pre-history" quite differently. In this quotation Engels uses the phrase in the more common way -- as referring to "the period before recorded history".

"As a second footnote to the Communist Manifesto, Engels wrote in 1888:

In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organization existing previous to recorded history, [was] all but unknown. Since then, August von Haxthausen (1792-1866) discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Georg Ludwig von Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and, by and by, village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organization of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan's (1818-1861) crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this dissolution in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, second edition, Stuttgart, 1886.

In the context, it is the former reading rather than the latter that is in play.

Daniel Little said...


Thanks for these thoughtful comments.

"What is the basis of Marx's objection to the mode of production if it isn't that it is unjust?"

I don't think Rawls attempted to answer this question; but there are two different strategies that could be pursued. (1) There is a normative problem with capitalism, but it isn't a problem that has to do with "justice." Instead, it is X -- perhaps "capitalism is an order in which most people cannot fully develop their human species being", "... in which most people are alienated," or "... in which most people are exploited and poor." (2) Alternatively, Marx might be thought to be offering a purely objective "non-normative" appraisal of capitalism: "This is the kind of social order it is, these are the defining social relations, and these are the reasons we can expect it to collapse." I do believe, myself, that Marx's attitude towards capitalism was normative and critical; and that its defects include alienation and exploitation. And frankly, there seem to be many places in his writings where his tone is indignant at the inequalities of power, wealth, and freedom that are characteristic of capitalism. But Marx also seems to have believed that a critique that is exclusively normative will be ineffectual; it is more important to lay out the ways in which capitalism entrenches relations of power and inequality so that activists can mobilize around these inequalities.

Another way of putting the point that brings the issues back to Rawls: Marx does not agree with Rawls that "Justice is the first virtue of society." Rather, Marx looks at "justice" as a subordinate and technical virtue.

Daniel Little said...


Thanks! This is very helpful.

I suppose that we might play out the conversation between Rawls and Marx a bit further. Rawls might ask: Marx, why do you interpret "justice" in the way that you do? Why not think about it in the more general terms that I offer? Justice has to do with fair terms of cooperation; and "fair" means "acceptable to all involved." But by your own assessment, the wage laborer would not and should not accept the property relations and wage relations of capitalism; so in the "Marx view of the world," capitalism is unjust after all. It is a set of social relations embodying inequalities that at least one party would not be able to accept if offered a free choice.

So in a way, Marx's insistence that "justice is simply a question of whether a practice corresponds to the basic requirements of the mode of production" is perhaps a simple example of a freshman's mistake in formulating a thesis in a term paper; he has defined the problem away rather than thinking seriously about what "justice" might mean when we are thinking about basic social arrangements.

Steven said...

Thanks for the Reply Daniel (and for the comment from Rakesh - this was helpful for me). My limited reading of Marx does lead me to think why not both points (1) and (2) in your reply Daniel, or at least, what do you mean by normative?

This was interesting in your Rawls notes:

This view [justice conceived in terms of adequacy to the mode of production] seems to suggest a sort of relativism; but this would be a faulty conclusion. We have a theory matching theories of justice with modes of production, and we might at some time find a function systematically linking them.

What did he mean "at some time?" Isn't there a link in Marx already? I thought that Marx says that each mode follows the other based on material circumstances and the development of conciousness. It does not seem plausible for the next stage in social development be a return to a norm of slavery for instance, unless all existing social relations were suddenly destroyed and we were set back to some material dark age with our present conciousness forgot.

For Marx, concious action is guided by an evaluation of alternatives which present themselves in a historical social process, which itself gives rise to our conciousness. That is to say one can describe the boundary conditions and process (as in your point 2 about structural features) and provide a plan of present action based on available alternatives (as in point 1). One might agree with (2) but follow an alternative to (1) - I don't know how much wiggle room there is with Marx, maybe I am talking way beyond my ken again. If I am right however, then there is room for notions of justice to be the driving force in the historical process without having an absolute and ideal form of justice. if we institutionalise what is just as we seem want to do, it simply reflects current circumstances in reified form.

Anyway, that would leave us with a comparative form of normative, possibly contestable, only for a certain set of material conditions and conciousness. This is like Sen's notions of justice and unlike Rawls with his transcendental form of normative justice.