Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Marx's influence on Rawls

John Rawls and Karl Marx shared a number of core intellectual concerns.  Both were interested in the question of what features a good and just society should have; both had theories about the good human life; and both understood that the benefits of modern life depend upon social cooperation.  So it is interesting to ask whether Marx's thought had an influence on Rawls.  In brief, the answer seems to be largely "no."  In particular, Marx's economic writings and his theory of exploitation seem to have been of no special interest to Rawls during the period leading up to the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971.

I didn't have the opportunity to study with Marx; but I did have that opportunity with Rawls.  I attended both of his lecture series on the history of moral philosophy and the history of social and political thought in 1972 and 1973, and I served as a graduate assistant in the latter course.  And eventually Rawls agreed to serve as primary advisor on my dissertation, "Marx's Capital: A Philosophical Study" (1977).  (This eventually became the germ of my first book, The Scientific Marx.)  Rawls's two primary lecture series have now been compiled by former students of Rawls's: Samuel Freeman's edition of Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy and Barbara Herman's edition of Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.  The lectures continued into the 1990s, and they certainly evolved significantly during that time.  In particular, the lectures on Marx are substantially more extensive by the time of the 1990s than they were in the 1970s.  (An earlier posting provides the notes I took on a lecture that Rawls gave in 1973 on Marx's critique of justice.)

Rawls's teachings about Marx in his courses on ethics and social and political philosophy focused primarily on the early Marx -- the "philosophical Marx".  He taught and reflected upon the theory of alienation and species being, and the main texts he focused on were the Economic and Philosophical ManuscriptsOn the Jewish Question, and Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.  He gave little serious attention to Capital or Marx's own economic theories. It was Marx's theory of the human person, Marx's philosophical anthropology, that he seems to have found of the greatest philosophical interest and value.  (Robert Tucker's The Marx-Engels Reader (Second Edition) remains a good source on Marx's writings. and Rawls used it as the primary source of Marx's writings in his course.  Rawls also used Tom Bottomore's collection, Karl Marx: Early Writings.)

There is only one substantive comment about Marx in the lectures on moral philosophy:
A difference between Hegel and Marx in this respect is that Hegel thinks that the citizens of a modern state are objectively free now, and their freedom is guaranteed by its political and social institutions.  However, they are subjectively alienated.  They tend not to understand that the social world before their eyes is a home. .... By contrast, Marx thinks that they are both objectively and subjectively alienated.  For him, overcoming alienation, both subjective and objective, awaits the communist society of the future after the revolution. (Herman, 336)
(Shlomo Avineri's Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, which appeared in 1972, provides a similar treatment of Hegel view of the modern state and the citizen's freedom.)

Rawls gave his primary attention to Marx in his lectures on the history of social and political philosophy. (This occupied roughly two weeks of the 12-week course.)  Here are the selections of Marx's writings that Rawls assigned in this course:  On the Jewish Question, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, selections from the German Ideology, selections from Capital, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Capital, Vol. I, chs I: sec. 4; VI-VII; IX, sec. 1; X, sec.1; XIII-XIV; and Critique of the Gotha Program.  (These are the assignments listed in the syllabus for Philosophy 171, fall 1973-74.)

The materials assigned from the early Marx in this syllabus provide a fairly complete exposure to Marx's theories of species being, true human emancipation, and alienation.  On the Jewish Question and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts contain rich bodies of argument in which Marx lays out his conception of human activity and freedom.  Sections from the German Ideology provide some exposure to the theory of historical materialism.  And the Critique of the Gotha Program is a vehicle for discussing Marx's ideas of a socialist society.  So this batch of materials offer a reasonably thorough exposure to Marx's thought prior to his political economy and his formulation of an economic theory of capitalism.

By contrast, the imprint of Marx's political economy in this set of lectures is very limited.  The readings from Capital break out this way:
  • Vol I, ch I, sec. 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof
  • VI: The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power
  • VII, sec. 1: The Labour-Process or the Production of Use-Values
  • X, sec.1: The Limits of the Working-Day
  • XIII: Co-Operation
  • XIV: Division of Labour and Manufacturing
This amounts to about 55 pages of reading from Capital, out of the 774 pages of volume 1.  These readings introduce a few fundamental ideas such as the fundamentals of the labor theory of value, the idea of commodity fetishism, and some of the basics of Marx's sociological description of capitalist society and the economic process within capitalism.  But it is a very sketchy introduction to Marx's thinking in Capital.  And the most extensive discussion that Rawls provided of any ideas from Capital in his 1973 course -- the discussion of Marx's conception of justice in the 1973 lectures -- is largely a paraphrase of Allen Wood's analysis in "The Marxian Critique of Justice" (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1972, link).  This is true all the way down to the two passages that Rawls mentions from Capital in the course of this lecture; both were previously discussed in Wood's article.  So there is nothing original in the 1973 lecture; Rawls has pretty much adopted Wood's frame of analysis in treating the question of Marx's conception of justice.  This isn't surprising, in that Wood's article was highly original and rigorous, and opened up a largely new line of interpretation of Marx's theories.  But Rawls didn't have much to add to the debate in this lecture.

In other words: As of 1973, two years after the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls's references to the economic theories and sociological descriptions contained in Capital were very slender indeed.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rawls had not been significantly immersed in a reading of Marx's economic and sociological writings during the formative period of his development of the theory of justice.

This breakdown of topics and readings gives a clue to what Rawls found appealing about Marx. The conception of individuals forging themselves through labor is central; it reflects a line of thought extending from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx, and it seems to be foundational for Rawls himself when he describes his theory of the good.

But there are other core ideas in Marx's thought that plainly did not appeal to Rawls. Central are the ideas of critique and exploitation. Both ideas are absolutely core to Marx; but they play no role in Rawls's theories.

The idea of critique involves the notion that there are hidden presuppositions underlying a given theory, and critical philosophy can uncover them. Ludwig Feuerbach represents on ideal along these lines; Feuerbachian criticism of religion "lays bare" the hidden agendas represented by official religion. Marx's own arguments in the German Ideology reflect this method. And in fact, many of Marx's titles have the subtitle "towards a critique of political economy".  Does Rawls ever give attention to this intellectual style? In a word, no.  Rawls pays no attention to Marx's philosophical method when it comes to "critique" as a tool of intellectual discovery.

The other unspoken Marxian concept in Rawls's writings and teachings is exploitation. Marx believed, as a matter of objective economic analysis, that capitalism is a system of exploitation in a specific technical sense: the capitalist is enabled to expropriate the unpaid surplus labor of the worker.  This perspective on modern economic relations as representing a set of fundamentally unfair economic relations between the powerful and the weak is not one that Rawls found compelling, apparently.  And the fundamental "ontological" framework of Marx's thinking -- the idea of capitalism as a system of relations of production through which economic activity transpires -- never comes in for detailed description or discussion in Rawls.

This aspect of Marx's theory of capitalism became central in the debate in the 1970s and 1980s over "Marx's theory of justice" (for example, Allen Buchanan, Marx and Justice: The Radical Critique of Liberalism and Allen Wood, Karl Marx). If capitalism is exploitative in its most fundamental institutions, then presumably Marx would judge that capitalism is unjust. Debate raged.

The topic of justice comes up directly in Rawls's 1973 lectures. But significantly, Rawls's analysis here is taken almost point-by-point from Wood; Rawls doesn't seem to have given the question much thought himself.  So the theory of exploitation, in spite of its relevance to Rawls's central topic, is not an area of influence on the development of Rawls's thought.

And why is this? Apparently because both ideas are fundamentally anti-liberal.  As Rawls writes in his lectures on political philosophy, "I will consider Marx solely as a critic of liberalism" (Freeman, 320).  The two ideas mentioned here both fall in the category of fundamental critique of liberalism.  The first discredits the philosophical foundations of Smithian political economy, promising to lay bare the underlying and contradictory assumptions it rests upon. The second lays out an explicit theory purporting to demonstrate the explicit inequality and unfairness of market institutions at their core. Perhaps it was cognitive dissonance that kept Rawls from giving more attention to the later Marx.

It is interesting to note that the explosion of interest in Marx by analytic philosophers took place in the early 1970s -- about the time of publication of A Theory of Justice.  Philosophers such as Allen Wood, George Brenkert, Allan Buchanan, John McMurtry, Gerald Cohen, Jon Elster, Adam Przeworksi (a political scientist), and John Roemer (an economist) began taking Marx's writings seriously and offering extensive analysis and criticism of his theories.  This resurgence began in discussions of "Marx's theory of justice," but extended quickly into many other areas of Marx's thought -- the theory of exploitation, the labor theory of value, the theory of historical materialism, and his theory of capitalism as a distinctive mode of production.  (I myself argued for a "rational choice" interpretation of Marx's theory of capitalism in The Scientific Marx.)  Early arguments discrediting the labor theory of value fall in this category as well.  Examples of some of this work are included in John Roemer, ed., Analytical Marxism: Studies in Marxism and Social Theory.  This work was referred to as "rational choice Marxism" or "analytical Marxism," and it represented an intellectual agenda that took Marx seriously as a thinker but often came to conclusions that offended orthodox Marxist theorists.


bd said...

Fascinating. Layperson here, so I'm barely keeping my head above water.

I think I knew Marx was a philosopher, but only ever studied the manifesto.

Rakesh Bhandari said...

Having read all the literature that you mention, I must say that I think your book on the Scientific Marx is the most important of them all. It lays out brilliantly the questions that Marx is trying to answer but does not himself always clearly articulate, and you show why he thought of himself as the Galileo of the social sciences. Now it's been fifteen years since I read it, but I cannot imagine having come to understand Marx without having read it. I shall re-read it soon.
As for critique and exploitation, two quick points.
Marx's critique is also meant to point to the puzzles that classical political economy could not itself solve or the contradictions in which it was ensnared.
As for the exploitation theory, I find it interesting that Marx first lays it out in chaps 4-6 and returns to it in chs 22-23. As I mentioned before I think what he is saying is that the wage exchange is not just exploitative, it is not really an exchange at all at least from a certain scientifically sound perspective that alas has no validity from within bourgeois society. This development of the exploitation theory obviously is important for understanding the nature of Marx's critique of liberalism.

Rakesh Bhandari said...

I am not an economist, and I must say that the labor theory of value seems to me to be at least reasonable.

First, why else the obsession with raising labor productivity? It's because prices tend to move with labor time requirements that firms must raise labor productivity and reduce prices (assuming a constant value of money)--otherwise they could not stay competitive. The labor theory of value has a practical ring to it.

Second, I don't see the importance of the Sraffian framework that Samuelson, Steedman and Roemer used to critique Marx. Say that you have given objective conditions of production and distribution is settled extra-economically. OK from within this frozen framework you can determine relative prices and the profit rate, and you don't have to make reference to the labor theory of value. But if you want to understand how those exchange ratios will change over time, you have to understand how rates of labor productivity growth are varying inter-sectorally. Again you have to make reference to labor time, for it's changes in rates of labor productivity growth that is leading to changes in the given conditions of production and thus changes in relative exchange ratios over time. You can't understand the movement of the economy without reference to labor value, so it's ridiculous to dismiss it as redundant or even more strangely as metaphysical.

It should be noted that even as harsh a critic of Marx as Lord Meghnad Desai concedes that as a hypothesis as to what is the main determinant of changes in exchange ratios over time the labor theory of value is in fact empirically robust.

Third, abstract labor time is referred to all the time when customers make relative value judgments. That is, when we try to figure out why a hand made sweater is more valuable than a machine produced one or why a fine meal into which a lot of preparation went is more valuable than a fast food meal, we are making assessments of relative abstract labor time that went into their production. Again the labor theory of value has a practical force.

Fourth, Marx clearly recognized that while prices would move with value as labor productivity rose at varying rates across sectors (that is, varying rates of labor productivity growth would be the main factor accounting for changes in exchange ratios, and unit prices would tend to move downward, on the assumption of a constant value of money, across the economy due to rising labor productivity), he also understood that other forces would move prices away from proportionality to labor values, and he singled out the tendency for the rate of profit to equalize.

But because the law of value contradicts the tendency for the rate of profit to equalize does not mean that the law of value has no force at all. It just means that social dynamics are best understood as resolutions of contradictory tendencies which are equally immanent to the system.

I would also argue that the transformation problem is a non-problem.

Fifth, it's well known that the main law of motion associated with the labor theory of value is the law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall (if labor is the only source of new value, surplus value should fall relative to the capital investment the production becomes mechanized and living labor is expelled from the production process). Now the critique of the labor theory of value was strengthened by the apparently visible fact that the profit rate had no such tendency. There are many points to be made here, but I shall just refer to Akerlof and Shiller's Animal Spirits, pp. 133-135.
Here they make the point that what was thought to a real profit boom that justified the upward movement of the stock market could have instead been the consequence, via wealth and credit effects, of speculative run of asset values. That is, real profits can be raised for some time by speculative booms. But then the law of value asserts itself just as the law of gravity does when a roof falls upon a house.

Anonymous said...

No, the labour theory of value is false - see George Reisman on the exploitation theory. The demand for goods does not constitute demand for labour - the whole premise is mistaken and has been since J. Mill's book on commerce, 1804.