Driving Society Forward.
MARX, CAPITALISM AND JUSTICE
‘Marx did not think that capitalism is unjust, and, in fact, said that it is just.’ Discuss.
An essay written as an undergraduate in the Department of Philosophy, King’s College London
London, June 2010
As Lukes (1985, p. 3) explains, there is an apparent paradox in Marx’s view of justice and morality. According to Marx, expressions of abstract ideas of justice are: “…obsolete verbal rubbish” . Yet, as Husami explains, Marx also seems to morally condemn capitalism by arguing that it relies on the exploitation of workers, which he sometimes refers to as: “”…robbery”, “usurpation”, “embezzlement”, “plunder”, “booty” and “theft”” . Marx appears to critique capitalism from the perspective of abstract ideas of justice, which he himself says is a mistake. On the surface, it would seem as though Marx has contradicted himself.
I will demonstrate and assess a debate between Wood and Husami who both hold that Marx’s view of justice is not paradoxical. Yet, contrary to Wood, although Marx said that capitalism is just, Husami argues that Marx really thought capitalism is unjust. I will be arguing alongside Wood that Marx did not think capitalism is unjust. Husami’s theory does not explain why Marx distanced himself from utopian socialists who repeatedly condemned capitalism for being unjust (Wolff, 2008, p. 13). I shall also be arguing alongside Lukes (1982, p. 201) that unlike utopian socialists, Marx calls for a communist society that is beyond justice. I suggest that a reason for the perceived confusion in Marx’s view of justice is due to the fact that both the thoughts and language of us readers have been heavily influenced by our capitalist society.
Wood (1972, p. 5) mentions that many thinkers have argued for an ideal conception of justice and have believed that society should conform to this ideal. Yet, Marx argued it is nonsensical to speak in such terms, explains Wood. For Marx, society is the whole social system of productivity that has been conditioned by history (Wood, 1972, p. 8). “Such a historically conditioned social whole is called by Marx a “mode of production”” . According to Wood (1972, p. 13), Marx believed it is the mode of production that determines what is just. For Marx, justice and morals are concepts related to the laws of the state, and what is just is that what ensures that the current mode of production carries on working effectively (Wood, 1972, p. 11). When the content of a legal law corresponds to the current mode of production, then such a law is just (Marx, 1867a, pp. 339-340). There are facts about what is just, and under the capitalist mode of production, it is a fact that capitalism is just. Thus, as Wood says: “Whatever else capitalism may be for Marx, it does not seem that it is unjust” .
Wood aims to show how for Marx, capitalist exploitation of the worker is just, which means that Marx’s view of justice is not paradoxical. Marx tells us that under capitalism, the capitalist purchases the worker’s capacity to produce products (Marx calls this his labour power) for him. “What he purchases from the worker is not the worker’s products, but rather what Marx calls his “labour power” (Arbeitskraft)” . Wood writes that for Marx: “…the value of labour power depends on the quantity of labour necessary to keep the worker alive and working” . What is socially necessary is that what keeps the worker going. If it takes a worker four hours to produce a day’s worth of socially necessary value for himself, then the value he produces in that time is equivalent to the value of wages he will receive (Wolff, 2008, p. 7). The labour that creates what is socially necessary for the worker is called “necessary labour” (Wolff, 2008, p. 7). Wolff explains how for Marx, any value created above the worker’s necessary labour is surplus labour, and surplus labour itself produces surplus value for the capitalist. Wood writes: “The capitalist has bought a commodity (labour power) and paid its full value; by using, exploiting, this commodity, he now creates a greater value than he began with” . But for Marx, none of this is unjust. The worker agreed to sell his labour power in return for a wage, and the surplus value (profit) belongs to the capitalist (Wood, 1972, pp. 21-22). As Marx states: “this circumstance is a piece of good luck for the buyer, but by no means an injustice towards the seller” .
Husami (1978, pp 47-48) believes that for Marx, the moral beliefs people have are determined by both the mode of production and the class that they are in. Members of the ruling class perceive capitalism as being just, whilst working class persons see it as unjust because they are being exploited by the ruling class, explains Husami. It is the ideas of the ruling class that come to dominate under capitalist society (Husami, 1978, p. 48). However, Husami also says that Marx’s judgement of justice is a communist one and is the same as that of the proletarian (working class). Yet, Marx tells us that exploitation of the workers is necessary for the capitalist mode of production to function (Wood, 1972, p. 24). Wood rightly illustrates that for Marx, what is just is that which is necessary to protect the current mode of production. So, under capitalism, exploitation of the workers is necessarily just.
Wood illustrates that for Marx, justice is: “…fundamentally a juridical or legal (rechtlich) concept, a concept related to the law (Recht) and to the rights (Rechte) men have under it” . Marx writes about the content of such laws in Capital, where he says:
“This content is just whenever it corresponds to the mode of production, is adequate to it. It is unjust whenever it contradicts that mode” .
Husami (1978, p. 52) believes that here Marx is really emphasising the perspectives of the bourgeois (ruling class) whose ideas dominate under capitalism. Husami gives a quote from Marx where Marx is discussing the antagonism between the two classes. The quote is:
“So long as one is a bourgeois, one cannot but see in this relation of antagonism a relation of harmony and eternal justice, which allows one to gain at the expense of another” .
Marx could not even evaluate capitalism as he does if he did not do it from the perspective of the proletariat persons who see exploitation of the workers as unjust, says Husami (1978, pp. 77-78). Yet, Wood rightly points out that in quotes such as these, Marx is merely representing what Wood calls “…the practical businesslike side of the capitalist” , and he is not representing his own economic theory. By writing of the correspondence between justice and the mode of production, Marx is refuting claims of what he calls “natural justice”, as Marx believes that what is just is that what corresponds to the current mode of production (Wood, 1979, p. 109). And Marx gives no indication anywhere that he thought justice is anything other than this correspondence (Wood, 1979, p. 109).
Wood illustrates that Husami cites sentences of Marx where Marx calls “…the appropriation of surplus value not only “exploitation” of the worker, but even “theft” and “robbery” . When a man takes what does not rightfully belong to him, he is committing an unjust act. Husami thinks Marx believed that the surplus value which the capitalist appropriates does not rightfully belong to him, as it belongs to the worker. And Wood (1979, p. 117) says that according to Husami, since Marx explains that it is necessary for workers to be exploited under capitalism, then Marx must have thought that capitalism is unjust. But as Wood reiterates, Marx would not have accepted this argument. Wood says:
“For in the notes on Wagner, Marx agrees that he says the capitalist “robs” the worker, but nevertheless insists (in the same sentence) that on his theory the capitalist “earns surplus value with full right”” .
So, Marx could not have thought that the capitalist exploitation of the workers is unjust or that it violates any rights, explains Wood (1979, pp. 117-118). Wood suggests that Marx did not think that the capitalist appropriation of surplus value is analogous to illegal activities. Instead, Wood suggests it is “…analogous to that of conquering people to a less organized and less well-armed (but more productive) population which it regularly plunders” . This suggested analogy coheres well with what Marx says about the bourgeois continuously using their power and wealth to exploit the proletariat who are less fortunate and more vulnerable.
Marx did condemn capitalism because it alienates and deprives us from goods such as “…freedom, community, and self-actualization” . For Marx, communism would be a society where there would be no private property, and under communism, human beings would realize themselves from having the freedom to express their individuality in production, whilst also acting in unity with the communal aspect of their essence. Husami (1978, p. 54) thinks that for Marx, goods such as freedom, community and self-actualization are moral goods, and that capitalism is immoral and unjust because it deprives us of such goods. Yet, Wood (1979, p. 116) points out that even Husami admits that Marx never explicitly calls capitalism unjust. To make sense of Marx’s work, Wood (1979, pp. 121-122) suggests that for Marx, justice and right are moral notions that are to be distinguished from non-moral goods like self-actualization, freedom, and community. Wood states: “Juridical and moral facts, in Marx’s view, are facts about the relation of an act, transaction, or institution to the prevailing mode of production” . Morals facts are facts about what we ought to do or not do, and people get credited for doing moral acts. But, although freedom, community, and self- actualization are goods, they are not goods that we are morally obliged to have (Wood, 1979, p. 122).
Unlike Husami’s understanding of Marx on justice, Wood’s understanding is in conformity with what Marx actually says. In his Critique of the Gotha Programme for example, Marx writes that how resources are distributed is a consequence of “…the distribution of the conditions of production themselves” . For Marx, it is “obsolete verbal rubbish” to say how resources should be distributed in isolation from the current “distribution of the conditions of production” (1875, p. 190). As Marx says:
“What is ‘just’ distribution? Does not the bourgeoisie claim that the present system of distribution is ‘just’? And given the present mode of production is it not, in fact, the only ‘just’ system of distribution?” .
Marx predicts that a communist society will emerge from the capitalist one, as the working class will have a need to form a socialist revolution (Wood, 1972, p. 39). It is also predicted by Marx that a mature communist society will have resources distributed in a way that is: “…from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” . Humans will want to work under communism, and they would each give what they are capable of giving, whilst getting back all what they need. Yet, Wood (1979, p. 130) rightly points out that, in stating this principle Marx was only predicting how resources will be distributed under communism, and he did not judge capitalism to be unjust merely because it fails to conform to such a principle. Marx saw himself as a scientific socialist rather than a utopian one (Wolff, 2008, p. 13).
Lukes (1982, pp. 201-202) gives an account of Marx’s conception of communism, which provides further clarification that Marx’s communist principle was not part of a theory of justice. Lukes uses Hume’s view of justice to help us better understand Marx. According to Hume, justice is there to resolve conflicts, and if there are no conflicts in society, then justice would be made redundant (Lukes, 1982, pp. 202-203). For Hume, if everyone could have what they need, then there would be no conflicts. There would also be no conflicts if human beings were completely benevolent to each other either. Marx himself held that justice is used to settle disputes over conflicting needs. But as Lukes (1982, p. 203) acknowledges, Marx did not think that the circumstances of justice would exist under communism. Under communism, humans would be communal beings that feel for one another, whilst getting from society all that they need. So, for Marx, communism would be beyond justice. Hence, Marx could not have thought that capitalism is unjust because it fails to conform to a communist theory of justice.
I have argued alongside Wood that Marx’s view of justice is not paradoxical, as Marx believed that justice is determined by the current mode of production, and according to the capitalist mode of production, exploitation of the workers is just. Marx did not think capitalism is unjust, because he believed that whatever protects the current mode of production is just. Legal laws are there to ensure that the current mode of production carries on working effectively, and when the content of such laws corresponds to the current mode of production, then such laws are just. There are facts about what is just, and these facts indicate what should be done. Under the capitalist mode of production, it is a fact that capitalism is just. Also, although Marx believed we would be better off under communism, he thought that a communist society would be beyond justice.
Cohen’s explanation for all the confusion surrounding Marx’s view of justice is that: “while Marx believed that capitalism was unjust, and that communism was just, he did not always realize that he had those beliefs” . Yet, this explanation is both uncharitable and highly speculative. My following explanation is more concrete: We readers under capitalism have been heavily influenced by our capitalist society to greatly think and communicate in terms of morals and justice, and the only way many of us can understand Marx’s work, is by believing that Marx thought communism would be just and that capitalism is unjust. As Wolff writes, for many of us: “…Marx’s career simply makes no sense unless we can attribute such a belief to him” . However, in order for us to understand what Marx actually thought about both communism and capitalism, we need to appreciate the fact that for Marx, although justice is a concept used in rationalizing the workings of our capitalist society, it is of no use in helping us to understand what communism is all about.
 Marx, K. (1875) “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, published in Wood, A. (1988), Marx Selections, p. 190.
 Husami, Z. (1978) “Marx on Distributive Justice”, published in Cohen, M., Nagel, T. and Scanlon, T. (1980) Marx, Justice, and History, p. 45.
 Wood, A. (1972) “A Marxian Critique of Justice”, published in (1980), ibid p. 8.
 Wood, A. (1972) ibid, p. 3.
 Wood, A. (1972) ibid, p. 20.
 Wood, A. (1972) ibid, p. 21.
 Wood, A. (1972) ibid, p. 21.
 Marx, K. (1867b) “Capital”, published in Wood. A, (1988), p. 252.
 Wood, A. (1972) ibid, p. 5.
 Marx, K. (1867a) Capital, pp. 339-340.
 Marx, K. (1975/1847) The Poverty of Philosophy, p. 74.
 Wood, A. (1979) “Marx on Right and Justice”, published in (1980), ibid, p. 113.
 Wood, A. (1979) ibid, p. 117.
 Wood, A. (1979) ibid, p. 117.
 Wood, A. (1979) ibid. p. 118.
 Wood, A. (1979) ibid, p. 120.
 Wood, A. (1979) ibid, p. 122.
 Marx, K. (1875) ibid, p. 190.
 Marx, K. (1875) ibid, p. 187.
 Marx, K. (1875) ibid, p. 190.
 Cohen, G. (1995) Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 139.
 Wolff, J. (2008) Karl Marx, pg. 15.
Cohen, G. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1995).
Husami, Z. “Marx on Distributive Justice”, (1978), published in Marx, Justice, and History, edited by Cohen, M., Nagel, T. and T. Scanlon, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, (1980).
Lukes, S. “Marxism, Morality and Justice”, published in Marx and Marxisms, edited by G. Parkinson, Cambridge: The Royal Institute of Philosophy, (1982).
Lukes, S. Marxism and Morality, Oxford: Clarendon Press, (1985).
Marx, K. Capital, translated by Aveling. E and S. Moore, New York: International Publishers, (1867a).
Marx, K. “Capital”, (1867b), published in Marx Selections, edited by A. Wood, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, (1988).
Marx, K. “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, (1875), published in Marx Selections, edited by A. Wood, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, (1988).
Marx, K. The Poverty of Philosophy, (1847), Moscow: Progress Publishers, (1975).
Wolff, J. Karl Marx (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), Website: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/, (2008).
Wood, A. “A Marxian Critique of Justice”, (1972), published in Marx, Justice, and History, edited by Cohen. M., Nagel, T. and T. Scanlon, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, (1980).
Wood, A. “Marx on Right and Justice: A reply to Husami”, (1979), published in Marx, Justice, and History, edited by Cohen, M., Nagel, T. and T. Scanlon, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, (1980).
This paper was originally a Pre-Submission for the 2009/10 BA ‘Marxist Philosophy’ Paper, King’s College London, for the BA in Philosophy
Copyright © Alexander Rikowski, December 2010
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