The question is here taken up—yet again—of whether Marx did or did not characterize capitalism as unjust and condemn it as such. What follows is in the nature of a postscript to the case I argued seven years ago in ‘The Controversy About Marx and Justice’, a critical survey of the debate on this question to that point.footnote1 The discussion has since continued. To the bibliography of more than three dozen entries there appended, in testimony to how extensive the relevant literature already was, it is now possible to add some four-fifths as many items again.footnote2 My intention, however, is not to offer another general review of the material. It is to reaffirm the central claim made out at length in the earlier essay (and which has been cogently put, too, by Jerry Cohen and Jon Elster): in a nutshell, that Marx did condemn capitalism as unjust in the light of transhistorical norms, albeit inconsistently with his own emphatic disavowals.footnote3

I shall defend that claim. I do so by responding to the criticisms that have been directed against it. Here I am grateful, in particular, to Joe McCarney, for having twice addressed himself to the argument I made, so prompting further reflection upon it. I seek to show that his criticisms, as well as those of some other recent contributors to the debate, are uncompelling. But I try to take the discussion forward. In support of this rebuttal, I shall develop a point which has lately been brought home to me through other work. This point has, I believe, a decisive bearing on the issue in dispute.

Further, from what I shall urge in connection with it, it transpires that Marx’s (and, more generally, socialist) thinking about exploitation is marked by an ambiguity. The diagnosis of this provides material for reflection on the relationship between Marxism and liberalism. So, if the present addition to an already long debate begins by looking back once more on an issue in the history of ideas, it ends by looking forward—to important current questions.

More fully articulated, the conclusion I defend is this: that Marx’s work, whatever else it may be, and his disclaimers to the contrary notwithstanding, is an indictment of capitalist society in the light of transhistorical principles of justice (amongst other moral values); an indictment, that is to say, in the light of non-relative normative standards, pertaining to the social distribution of benefits and disbenefits, resources and burdens.

I cannot repeat myself over the whole range of argument that can be brought in support of this conclusion. But some general contours of the case earlier made for it will be to the point. First, the conclusion was not casually generated. Nor did my advocacy of it make light of the complexity of the subject matter. Rather, entering a debate that had been in progress for more than a decade, I tried to summarize the literature, systematically setting out the textual evidence and supplementary argument that could be adduced on both sides. I sought thereby to identify the genuine difficulties in the material itself under dispute (Marx’s work) which might account for so deep, so wide and so widespread a division of interpretative opinion. I argued, nevertheless, that when all was said and done, although Marx would not confess to criticizing capitalism as unjust, and indeed explicitly took his distance from criticism in that vein, this overview of the debate and of his texts disclosed intractable problems in the way of taking his disclaimers at face value.

Second, I spelled out two key strategic questions which challenge those commentators who do take his disclaimers at face value.

(a) Why is capitalist exploitation often presented in Marx’s work in terms of ‘robbery’, ‘theft’, ‘embezzlement’ and the like? We know that, for him, this exploitation does not constitute theft by the norms of capitalism; being, as he insists, in harmony with its standards of rightful ownership and trading. If he treats it, therefore, as wrongful taking—the meaning of theft—this must be by recurring to standards which are external or superior to those of capitalism, and thus reliant on some transcendent criteria of rightful or just entitlement.