Norman Geras’s essay ‘The Controversy about Marx and Justice’ is an authoritative guide to recent debates in the area indicated by its title.footnote1 Analytically rigorous and wholly assured in its use of both original and secondary sources, it is in its way a definitive achievement. No one will need to do this work again, and at most it will need updating in the sense of assigning fresh contributions to their place in the framework it has provided. In addition to mapping the scene, however, Geras advances a positive view of matters in dispute, and here some doubts and objections do arise. What he advances is a version of one of the most familiar themes in the literature, an alleged ‘paradox’ or ‘inconsistency’ in Marx’s attitude to normative questions, including the question of justice. Geras rejects all attempts to disprove or dilute the charge, and ends by reaffirming it in the strongest terms. What Marx presents us with is, he asserts, a ‘pervasive contradiction’, a ‘real and deep-seated inconsistency’, an ‘aboriginal self-contradiction and confusion’ which ‘Marxists should not any longer continue to propagate’. It consists in the fact that while ‘Marx’s impatience with the language of norms and values is global in range’ he yet ‘despite it, does plainly condemn capitalism—for its oppressions and unfreedoms and also. . .for its injustices’.footnote2

Accusations of paradox seem endemic in discussions of these matters, flying about with great facility in all directions, and one would not wish to give them further currency. Yet there is a tension in Geras’s own position which may aptly be described in just that way. His analysis of the controversy about Marx and justice might well be thought to supply all the grounds one could want for concluding that Marx’s dealings with justice are in fact singularly free from doublemindedness or conceptual disorder. Moreover, it seems to show that the widespread belief to the contrary rests primarily on a failure to mark some key distinctions. It is a conclusion which, as we have seen, Geras does not himself share. That he does not is, it may be suggested, due ultimately to the fact that although he is fully cognizant of the notion of justice with which Marx operates he is, in ways to be explained, unwilling to take that notion seriously. As he points out, Marx ‘expressed himself as subscribing to an extremely narrow conception’ of justice.footnote3 It is, one may argue, largely through finding this narrowness intolerable that Geras comes to be so deeply dissatisfied with Marx’s position. Yet a literal-minded tolerance may well, if it can be sustained, prove the most fruitful principle of interpretation here. It is, at any rate, true that the more our reading allows Marx to mean precisely what he says about justice the more harmonious and integrated is the picture that emerges. This is not to imply that it will be found to be wholly convincing and unobjectionable. On the contrary, it is only when the inner coherence of Marx’s views is appreciated that serious critical questions can be asked of them.

Geras’s account of Marx’s thinking about the justice of capitalism may be seen as operating at two distinct levels. The distinction is not explicitly recognized by him but is, nevertheless, of value in coming to grips with what he says. The first level is that of the specific issue of the capitalist wage relation, and the second is that of the distributive arrangements of capitalist society more generally. At each of them a reluctance to concede the logic of Marx’s use of the concept of justice makes its influence felt.

On the first level Geras draws attention to a complex distinction in Marx’s work which might be thought to suffice of itself to dispel suggestions of inconsistency. In its basic form it holds between a ‘sphere’ of exchange in which labour-power is bought and sold and one of production in which surplus-value is appropriated by the capitalist. Correspondingly, there is a distinction between the ‘perspective’ or ‘point of view’ of the one sphere and that of the other.footnote4 To establish an inconsistency here, if that category is being used with anything like appropriate care, requires reasonably strict conditions to be met. What is required is, roughly speaking, a single object of reference and a stable vantage point from which incompatible predicates are ascribed to it. When, however, Marx’s ascriptions of justice and injustice at the level of the wage relation are properly distributed across the contrast identified by Geras, it seems obvious that these conditions are left wholly unsatisfied.

What happens in the controversy about Marx and justice is that, as Geras points out, those according to whom he sees no injustice in the wage relation privilege the first point of view, that there is an exchange of equivalents. On the other hand, most of those according to whom he regards the relation as unjust privilege the second from which no such equivalence appears. As Geras insists, however, these points of view are in no way contradictory but are mutually consistent parts of a single doctrine, the doctrine that ‘labour-power is the source and substance of all value: that labour-power, sold for what it is worth as a commodity, in operation creates something that is worth more’.footnote5

This seems conclusive enough. Yet Geras is not prepared simply to leave the matter there, with the case against Marx in ruins. He still wishes to maintain that Marx ‘has it both ways’ and that he ‘equivocates’, engages in ‘prevarication’ and suffers from ‘confusion’ over the issues.footnote6 How, it may be asked, is it possible for someone who espouses a consistent, unitary doctrine to be prey to these ills? To put the question another way, how can Geras sustain such claims in the light of his own demonstration of the significance of the exchange–production distinction?

The answers lie in a kind of upward displacement of the level of the argument. Marx’s problem, we are told, is not that he affirms both of the mutually consistent points of view. It is rather that ‘he equivocates as to which of them is the one relevant to the moral question, so that it is legitimate in a way for each side to claim about the two different perspectives: Marx really means us to adopt this one’.footnote7 The ‘moral question’ Geras has in mind is, as the context makes clear, the question of the justice of the capitalist wage relation. The suggestion is that Marx’s problem arises in connection with determining the relative significance of the two points of view for this question. It is one of equivocation over the moral hierarchy of perspectives, not over the truth content of what each one discloses.