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 Manuscripts, On 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.