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).
MARX’S ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE THEORY OF JUSTICE
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]
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.