In this essay I review a fast-growing sector of the current literature on Marx and the controversy that has fuelled its growth. During the last decade or so, the keen interest within moral and political philosophy in the concept of justice has left its mark on the philosophical discussion of his work. It has left it in the shape of the question: did Marx himself condemn capitalism as unjust? There are those who have argued energetically that he did not; and as many who are equally insistent that he did—a straightforward enough division, despite some differences of approach on either side of it. To prevent misunderstanding, it is worth underlining at the outset that the question being addressed is not that of whether Marx did indeed condemn capitalism, as opposed just to analysing, describing, explaining its nature and tendencies. All parties to this dispute agree that he did, agree in other words that there is some such normative dimension to his thought, and frankly, I do not think the denial of it worth taking seriously any longer. The question is the more specific one: does Marx condemn capitalism in the light of any principle of justice?

I shall survey the case for thinking he does not and the case for thinking that he does; the textual evidence adduced and supporting argument put forth on behalf of each. Given the extent of the literature being surveyed—some three dozen items (all but one of which have appeared since 1970; and incidentally, of largely, indeed overwhelmingly, North American provenance, twenty-one of the twenty-four authors cited here either writing or hailing from that continent)—each case as I present it is a kind of composite. No one of its proponents necessarily makes use of all the texts and arguments I shall enumerate and they sometimes emphasize or formulate differently those that they do use in common. Still, I give what I hope is an accurate overall map of this dispute, before going on to venture my own judgment on it. The main body of the essay falls, therefore, into three parts. First, I review the texts and arguments put forward by those who deny that Marx condemned capitalism as unjust. Second, I review the texts and arguments put forward by those who claim he did so condemn it. I try in these two sections to present each case broadly as made, with a minimum of critical comment. Third, I then offer some conclusions, and argument in support of them.footnote1

Before getting under way, however, there is one indispensable preliminary and that is to sketch briefly a part of the theoretical background to this debate, the general lines of Marx’s account of capitalist exploitation. One may speak for this purpose of the ‘two faces’ of it distinguishable in the wage relation. The first and more benign of them is seen in the sphere of circulation, where there is according to Marx an exchange of equivalent values, wages on the one side for labour-power on the other. The workers sell their commodity—the capacity to work—and from the capitalist they receive in exchange, in the form of wages, the value of the commodity they sell, which is to say the value of what goes into producing it, of the things workers consume by way of their historically defined subsistence. What they receive from the capitalist, Marx goes out of his way to insist, is the full equivalent in value of what they sell and so involves no cheating. The second and uglier face of the relationship now shows itself, however, in the sphere of production. Here the workers, whose labour is itself the source of the value that commodities contain, will have to work longer than the time which is necessary to reproduce the value of their own labour-power, longer than is necessary to replace the value of the wage they have received. They will perform, that is to say, surplus labour, and the surplus-value they create thereby will be appropriated by the capitalist as profit. Labour-power in operation creates a value greater than the value labour-power itself embodies and is sold for. The two faces by turns reveal their contrasting features across the pages of Capital, complementary aspects of the wage relation: in the sphere of circulation, an equal exchange freely contracted; in the sphere of production, the compulsion to labour some hours without reward.

This, then, is the character of capitalist exploitation. Does Marx think it unjust?

(i) A first and, on the face of it, compelling piece of evidence against supposing so is that he actually says it is not. Once the purchase of labour-power has been effected, according to Marx, this commodity belongs to the capitalist as of right, and so therefore does its use and so do the products of its use.footnote2 Or, expressed from the worker’s point of view, ‘As soon as his labour actually begins, it has already ceased to belong to him’.footnote3 The capitalist, Marx says in the passage most often referred to in this connection, has paid for the value of labour-power, and the fact that the use of the latter now creates a greater value, this ‘is a piece of good luck for the buyer, but by no means an injustice towards the seller’.footnote4 Similarly: ‘The fact that this particular commodity, labour-power, possesses the peculiar use-value of supplying labour, and therefore of creating value, cannot affect the general law of commodity production. If, therefore, the amount of value advanced in wages is not merely found again in the product, but augmented by a surplus-value, this is not because the seller has been defrauded, for he has really received the value of his commodity; it is due solely to the fact that this commodity has been used up by the buyer.’footnote5

(ii) Consistently with this denial that the wage relation is unjust, Marx also rails against socialists who want for their part to appeal to considerations of justice. The best-known occasion is his polemic, in Critique of the Gotha Programme, against the notion of a fair distribution of the proceeds of labour. ‘What is “a fair distribution”?’ he asks pointedly. ‘Do not the bourgeois assert that the present-day distribution is “fair”? And is it not, in fact, the only “fair” distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production? Are economic relations regulated by legal conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal relations arise from economic ones? Have not also the socialist sectarians the most varied notions about “fair” distribution?’ Shortly afterwards, he refers to such notions as ‘obsolete verbal rubbish’ and ‘ideological nonsense about right and other trash so common among the democrats and French Socialists’—the gist of all of which seems clear enough.footnote6 Again, in a letter of 1877, he writes contemptuously of ‘a whole gang of half-mature students and super-wise diplomaed doctors who want to give socialism a “higher, idealistic” orientation, that is to say, to replace its materialistic basis (which demands serious objective study from anyone who tries to use it) by modern mythology with its goddesses of Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity’.footnote7 On the one occasion when Marx himself makes use of some phrases about rights and justice—in his Inaugural Address to, and Preamble to the Rules of, the First International—he explains carefully in a letter to Engels: ‘I was obliged to insert two phrases about “duty” and “right” into the Preamble to the Rules, ditto about “truth, morality and justice”, but these are placed in such a way that they can do no harm.’footnote8

(iii) What motivates the above polemics, as well as Marx’s denial of any injustice in the wage relation, is perhaps already evident. It is what is suggested to many, including those whose interpretation we are presently rehearsing, by another formulation from Critique of the Gotha Programme; namely, that ‘Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby’.footnote9 Standards of justice, this may be taken to mean, are relative or internal to specific historical modes of production. It is not merely that they are generated by these—that juridical relations and the ‘forms of social consciousness’ corresponding to them ‘originate in the material conditions of life’footnote10—but that, in addition, they are only applicable to and valid for them. The only principles of justice which are appropriate to judging a particular mode of production are those that in fact ‘correspond’ to it, that are functional to sustaining and legitimating it. In the words of another much-quoted passage: ‘It is nonsense for Gilbart to speak of natural justice in this connection [interest payment on loans—NG]. The justice of transactions between agents of production consists in the fact that these transactions arise from the relations of production as their natural consequence. The legal forms in which these economic transactions appear as voluntary actions of the participants, as the expressions of their common will and as contracts that can be enforced on the parties concerned by the power of the state, are mere forms that cannot themselves determine this content. They simply express it. The content is just so long as it corresponds to the mode of production and is adequate to it. It is unjust as soon as it contradicts it. Slavery, on the basis of the capitalist mode of production, is unjust; so is cheating on the quality of commodities.’footnote11 Now, if by relativism in this regard we understand a conception in which what is just is simply a matter of subjective viewpoint, then Marx’s conception may be said not to be a relativist one. It has, on the contrary, a firmly objective basis, since it construes the standards of justice appropriate to any society as being so by virtue of the real social function they perform.footnote12 It remains relativist, however, in the different sense of tying every principle of justice to a specific mode of production in the way described, and thus rendering each such principle unfit to provide a basis for trans-historical judgment. On this account of things, there cannot be an independent standard of justice, external to capitalism, yet appropriate to assessing it. There can be no principle transcending historical epochs and in the light of which Marx would have been able to condemn capitalism as unjust.