Socialism, Justice and Rights

Against the Current, No. 29, November/December 1990

Harry Brighouse

RECENT EVENTS HAVE made it impossible for even the most optimistic to deny that socialism is in crisis. Gloating pro-capitalist ideologues cite the introduction of market reforms in the Eastern bloc countries as evidence that the historic failure of socialism has at last been recognized even by its proponents. The collapse of the Eastern European Communist parties was greeted joyfully by the Western media. Mrs. Thatcher recently said, “Communism has crumbled. It has lost all credibility even among nominal believers.” Her declared ambition to banish socialism from Britain’s political culture is shared by many other Western leaders.

Meanwhile Western social democrats are dropping socialist rhetoric from their manifestos and speeches, yet have increasing difficulty winning office.(1) <#N1> As the distance between them and both the possibility of power and their old working-class bases grows, the rhetoric and practical politics of social democracy and Eurocommunism now emphasize “lifestylism” and consumerism. A phrase—”designer socialism”—has been coined to describe these developments and has even been embraced by some of their proponents.

Of course, the collapse of Stalinism and social democracy East and West will not distress ATC’s readers. But our persistent criticism of these currents does not spare us from dealing with what is seen by many as socialism’s final hour. The historical experience of “actually existing socialisms” has been shameful to any who identify with the politics of Marxism.

Those who have been failed by Stalinism and social democracy are not turning in droves to revolutionary democratic socialism as an alternative. There is now, even among those who advocate democratic socialism as unflinchingly as they ever have, more unclarity than ever about what we mean by socialism.

There has always been a resistance, to some extent well motivated, to giving blueprints for a socialist society. Those who have to build socialism will undoubtedly have to confront unforeseen problems and should not be weighed down with dogmatic mandates This resistance, however, has been one barrier, and an illegitimate one, to the development by Marxists of a coherent and distinctive vision of political morality.

While we are right not to want to tie the hands of (future) socialists in power with our inadequate empirical projections and experiences, we do need, now more than ever, a clearer picture of what we hope for and expect from socialism. The case for this is strengthened when we consider the many atrocities that have been committed in the name of socialism and defended by sincere and committed socialists.

This gap in the Marxist tradition is due, in great part, to the dominant deterministic interpretation of historical materialism favored by the Second and Third Internationals. A central text that has motivated hostility to the project of developing a distinctive political morality is Marx’s preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Here Marx outlines his theory of historical materialism in the form most open to an economically determinist interpretation:

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of productions or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto .. ..It is necessary to distinguish between the material transformations of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal political, religious, artistic or philosophic—in short ideological—forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out…..This consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”(2) <#N2>

The dual insistence within strict determinism that 1) all ideological disputes be explained solely in terms of the economic base of society, and that 2) socialism will develop productive forces to such a degree that scarcity will no longer be a problem has led many in the Marxist tradition to conceive of communism as a historical epoch in which humans would be free from every kind of political conflict that has characterized hitherto existing societies if consciousness giving rise to political dispute is always rooted in the conflict between the forces and the relations of production then communism, in which that conflict has been permanently resolved, will be free from political dispute.

Communism would, in this view, be free from class conflict, since there would be only one class. Also absent would be conflicts arising from the insufficiency of resources to fulfill everybody’s needs and desires, since there would be enough to go round.

Finally, communism would be free from conflict at the level of ideology (to use that term in its broadest, most non-technical sense), because such conflicts depend on the existence of; and are determined by, class differences. Since communism would ultimately be conflict-free, it would be possible not only for the state, but even for morality itself, to wither away: morality, justice and the state are required only to coordinate the behavior of people who have perceived interests sufficiently divergent to put them in conflict with one another.

The deterministic version of historical materialism affects interpretation of Marx’s often ambiguous pronouncements on the nature of morality. On the one hand he invokes moral categories in his condemnation of capitalism; on the other he is suspicious of moral categories and argument The Critique of the Gotha Programme (CGP) is an interesting case. Here he criticizes the German social democrats for using particular moral terms such as “fair distribution” and “equal right” in their program. He goes on to say that “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”(3) <#N3>

Many take this as a general endorsement of moral relativism—the view that moral categories only have force in those societies that they already govern. On deterministic historical materialism this interpretation makes some sense, because it is part of that view that when socialism becomes possible it is actually realized. If so, then there would be no time during which criticism of existing capitalism in terms of a historically feasible alternative would be possible, so socialist moral categories would be utopian in the worst sense.

But on the very same page Marx puts forward a principle of distributive justice for communist society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” For relativists this has to be a futile specula-lion about how a post-capitalist society will be regulated. Yet to engage in such speculation on the same page as proclaiming that it is futile would seem odd indeed. This fact alone should cast doubt on the economic determinist version of historical materialism as an interpretation of Marx.(4) <#N4>

Why Political Philosophy Matters

Today, of course, few Marxian thinkers and activists accept the strictly deterministic view of historical change (and it is far from clear even that Marx did).(5) <#N5> Few now think that the mere availability of socialism as a possible historical outcome makes socialism historically inevitable. Nor do many believe that all religious, moral, and philosophical disputes are entirely contingent on the existence of class society.

If, however, we reject strictly deterministic readings of historical materialism then we have no good reasons for believing that post-capitalist societies would be free of political conflict.(6) <#N6> If the economic base does not determine religious disputes, or determines them only “in the last instance,” then there is no reason to believe that they will wither away when capitalist private property and class have been abolished.

The abandonment of strict determinism, then, as well as affecting our strategic aims, forces us to reconsider our picture of what post-capitalist societies will be like. They will be free of those conflicts and instabilities which are dependent on the existence of a class society (and, on any acceptable theory of history, these will be many). But some conflicts, being independent of class, can be expected to persist under socialism and to be completely ineradicable (although presumably much less socially divisive than they currently are).(7) <#N7>

Abandoning strict determinism also enables us to interpret Marx’s strictures about “right” in CGP differently. On this interpretation Marx, believing there is an indefinite period of capitalism during which socialism is available, leaves room for appeal to socialist principles of justice in criticism of capitalism during that period. His hostility to the talk of “fair distribution” and “equal right” is due, in this view, to its unclarity of formulation, which he goes on to expose brutally.(8) <#N8>

Obviously, which conflicts will persist under socialism cannot be predicted without some idea of which ideologies will survive into a socialist society. But, for example, if tolerant forms of Christianity and Islam survive within socialism, there will be attendant conflicts regarding, for example, the structure of educational institutions and, maybe, the relationship of religious institutions to the state.

Disputes around these questions may not drain the resources of mediating institutions much; disputes around, for example, what is the most appropriate form of punishment for serious crimes such as rape and murder are likely to be more draining. Similar conflicts can be expected to attend whatever variety of ideologies survive into socialism.

The persisting conflicts will have to be mediated by some apparatus, and, if a socialist society is to remain stable in the presence of the conflicts, the principles by which it resolves them will have to be able to command the allegiance of its citizens. This will require the retention of something like a minimal state apparatus, the operation of which must be governed by a more rather than less pervasive political morality.(9) <#N9>

Socialists, then, do need a political morality. While Marxists have paid some attention recently to the need for a political morality they have done little to develop one. Marxism has been strong on moral outrage but has, for the above reasons, been weak on moral theory, and so there is little in our tradition on which to draw.

Below I shall describe the theories of two contemporary egalitarian political philosophers with the aim of showing that Marxists can learn much from them about the construction of a distinctive political morality. I shall then argue, against the traditional hostility of Marxists to the notion of individual rights, that a socialist society which is worth struggling for and living in will guarantee an extensive scheme of individual rights and liberties. Showing this, I hope, provides a starting point for the development of a clearer moral vision.

Philosophical Liberalism

The philosophical liberalism described below should not be confused with the liberalism so eagerly repudiated during the last presidential campaign by Michael Dukakis and which we often confront as activists.

English-speaking political philosophers are pretty uninformative about what they think the real world looks like and rarely say what kinds of concrete changes they think would be needed to realize the values they advocate. But it is clear that the political values endorsed by the two liberals whose theories I shall describe, John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, would require changes far more sweeping and dramatic than those from which Dukakis succeeded in dissociating himself. Philosophical liberals are not, in the standard and derogatory senses, idealists or utopians.(10) <#N10>

Limitations of space prevent me from defending liberalism against the accusation, often leveled by socialists, that it essentially licenses private property in the means of production. While tolerance of private property is undeniably a persistent part of the liberal intellectual tradition, I do not think it is essential. In particular, many values that liberals prioritize cannot be properly realized in a society where private property in the means of production is tolerated. I shall just say here, without proof, that while Dworkin and Rawls permit private property this is not part of the core of the political moralities that they advocate.

John Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness is quite self-consciously in both the contractarian tradition of Locke and the rationalist tradition of Kant It was developed in opposition to utilitarianism, which was the dominant philosophical underpinning for liberalism in the first half of this century. Utilitarianism, by focusing on “the general good,” gives insufficient security to individual rights and economic equality. Rawls’ aim is to develop a theory that gives firmer guarantees of these goods, and which rests on a less controversial conception of value than does utilitarianism, which defines good as preference satisfaction.

He starts with two basic assumptions. First, he assumes the fact of pluralism: that any society which is not regulated by severe repressive force will contain several competing, and sometimes conflicting, moralities and ideologies; in other words, that the circumstances of justice cannot be overcome. We have already seen that Marxists have no good reason to challenge this assumption. Second, he thinks that there are certain widely shared intuitions in actually existing “modern industrial democracies” about what constitutes justice.

He aims to render coherent these intuitions and work out their consequences for what he calls the “basic structure of society.” The “basic structure” consists of those social, political and economic institutions that regulate the civic rights and duties of citizens: This includes the judiciary, permissible forms of property and the structure of the economy, but excludes non-established churches, firms, families, etc. (although, of course, the constitution of the basic structure will have profound effects on these other institutions).

This is Rawls’ version of the division, essential to liberals, between the public sphere, in which government coercion is permissible, and the private sphere, which should be free from government interference. The distinction is important because Rawls believes that the business of government is not to intervene directly to make citizens live good lives, but to preserve the conditions in which autonomous citizens can lead freely chosen good (or bad) lives.

He describes a thought experiment that he thinks reflects the widely shared ideal of justice as fairness. The theory is contractarian because it is arrived at by thinking of citizens as represented by parties in a bargaining position behind a “veil of ignorance,” which is known as the Original Position. The parties have to establish a social contract by rationally pursuing within the bargaining position, the interests of their clients.

The “veil of ignorance” keeps the parties from knowing the positions which their clients would or-copy in the just society. They are ignorant of their clients’ particular skills, talents, race, gender and physical advantages, as well as of their distinctive ideas of the good life. Such features are seen as morally irrelevant, and thus inappropriate bases for distribution. The idea should be familiar to socialists: the distribution of social goods should depend as little as possible on inequalities among individuals for which they are not responsible, such as inequalities of innate talent and advantages of upbringing The veil of ignorance is seen as the clearest way of elaborating the implications of these familiar intuitions.

The parties do know what kind of ideologies tend to win support at which stages of history, the laws of history and sociology, and what features of human beings constitute basic needs and capacities. The permitted knowledge protects the theory against charges of utopianism and gives the parties raw material from which to develop meaningful principles.

The parties are supposed to come up with just principles to regulate the basic structure of society. Rawls argues that in the Original Position, which he claims is faithful to the shared conception of justice as fairness, they will come up with the following two principles:

The Liberty Principle:

each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liber ties for all.

The Difference Principle:

social and economic inequalities must be arranged so that they are (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged citizens; and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

The principles are much more egalitarian than they might seem. They are ordered so that 1) the liberty principle takes priority over the difference principle: that is, any inequalities that threatened equality of the basic liberties could not be tolerated even if they helped (materially) the least advantaged; and 2) such that condition (b) has priority over condition (a): That is, if people do not have equal opportunity to material privileges then those privileges are impermissible even if, again, they were to benefit the least advantaged.

We often hear the reasoning behind the Difference Principle, of course, from defenders of contemporary inequalities. They say that because of trickle-down effects the worst off in this society are better off than they would be in a more egalitarian society. This claim, of course, is patently false and rarely made sincerely. Socialists generally think, though, that even if it were true, inequalities should be abandoned. A common reason given for this is that welfare is a relative concept However, welfare is not a relative concept, and the real problem is that, even if inequalities were to improve everybody’s welfare, substantial material inequalities would threaten the socialist value of equality of political power.(11) <#N11>

The idea that inequalities of wealth threaten equality of political power underlies Rawls’ recent insistence that the “fair value of the political liberties” (that is, their equal usefulness) be guaranteed. So inequalities that threatened genuinely (as opposed to formally) equal access to the means of political expression or which enabled the better off to have greater influence within the political system would, again, be impermissible. Marxist sociology, in so far as it is reliable, gives us reason to believe that this condition ensures that Rawls can permit only very inconsiderable inequalities of wealth.

It is important for Rawls that the parties in the Original Position not know their clients’ ideas of the good life when they deliberate. This ignorance is important partly because it reflects the intuition, which he thinks we share, that no one should receive privileged treatment in the distribution of goods merely because they hold some particular normative theory. But it also reflects a practical concern. Moral pluralism is seen as an ineradicable feature of human society, and he assumes Chat a major role of the institutions of justice will be mediating the consequent disputes.

It would be wrong to accuse Rawls of claiming an impossible universality for his theory. He claims for his theory applicability only to societies in which the intuitions to which his theory appeals are widely (that is, almost unanimously) shared. He believes that we live in such a society and would accept that if he is mistaken then his theory has no applicability. Many regard such modesty as a weakness of his theory, and to what extent his intuitions are shared may be doubted. But I think his intuitions are shared among most socialists and so provide a starting point for our political moralizing.

Ronald Dworkin calls himself a radical egalitarian. He bases liberalism on equality, which he conceives of as citizens being entitled to equal concern and respect from their government Governments thus have a duty to abstain from promoting particular overall ideologies except insofar as other obligations force the government to take actions that happen to bring about conditions in which some ideologies are more likely to thrive than others Governments are also prevented from imposing constraints or sacrifices on any citizen which it cannot justify to her without forcing her to feel that she is not being treated with equal respect.

This entails respect for individual rights, which can be exercised against the interests of society as a whole if and when the two come into conflict They are, Dworkin says, like frumps, in that they protect the individual in the event of her interests coming into direct conflict with those of the prevailing social order. Finally equal concern and respect entitles each citizen to an initial equal share of the community’s resources.

Like Rawls, he notes that no one deserves, in any interesting sense, the talents with which they are born that distinguish them from others. From this he concludes that citizens must have made available to them resources that reflect only the different choices they have made in life and not such factors as innate talent, brute luck, or the particular material and cultural circumstances into which they are born.

Dworkin, then, judges society by conditions on the procedures that determine distributions. If resources are distributed according to the life choices and common needs of human beings, who are also accorded equal respect by the government, then the society is a just one.

In fact, Dworkin thinks that the best way to get such a distribution is via a market that is massively constrained so that it rewards only the relevant features, with some redistributive mechanisms to compensate for the failures of the constrained market, plus insurance schemes to offset unforeseen and unforeseeable bad luck. But this solution is based on a set of empirical claims and would be given up in favor of the moral vision if such a market were found to be incapable of realizing that vision.

Before arguing that socialists must consider themselves liberals, I should stress just how radical even Dworkin’s view is. The way markets work in real existing capitalism does not even reward the combination of talent and work that the “free market” is supposed to reward. Existing capitalism rewards corruption and fortunes of birth before talents and hard work.

Constraining markets so that they rewarded choices and needs without regard to morally irrelevant factors such as brute luck and talent, if it were historically possible, would require structural social changes of a kind that have not occurred even in those countries where social democracy has been most successful.

Marxists would be unlikely to accept that the market could be made to work under the constraints that Dworkin proposes, at least without undermining the stability of the society which it is supposed to be regulatin&(12) <#N12> But saying this does not bring into question the underlying moral vision. It is not clear whether Dworkin or Rawls recognize this: just as Marx was vague about what kind of society he wanted, they are vague about the nature of the societies in which they actually live.

To What Extent Are Socialists Liberals?

Many Marxists are suspicious of the above theories. While both advocate a relative equality of resources and power which may be appealing the Marxist tradition has fostered distrust of appeals to individual rights that can be exercised against the general good A central part of the Marxian critique of capitalism concentrates on alienation at the point of production and the consequent destruction of collective ties and community. Individual rights are often seen as the ideological corollary of alienation.

Furthermore, effective struggle against the ruling class requires the fostering of a sense of community and solidarity among those who struggle: many of those in struggle must be ready to make considerable sacrifices, including waiving their own rights, if struggles are to be successful. Marxists who have sought a distinctive political morality have generally prioritized the value of community over that of individual rights and have often seen rights as undermining the sense of community that we hope to promote.

The socialist concern with community is reflected even in the language of working-class institutions—“brother,” “sister,” and “comrade” are used to address people with whom we have had no previous contact, indicating that there are firm bonds that require only the common cause to sustain them. Part of our vision is that in a socialist society people will come to see their good as being intimately connected to the good of others, and will thereby live lives that are more free of fear and envy, and more filled with self- and mutual respect, than is possible in pre-socialist societies.

Socialists rightly expect that individuals in a social-1st society will often be willing to subordinate promotion of their interests to the needs of society. No social-1st would deny the value of community and collective activity. But I shall now argue that socialists must see the citizens of even a socialist society as bearers of individual rights. If correct, this removes a barrier to learning from the contemporary egalitarian liberals.

Non-socialists tend to counterpose the values of equality and liberty. Socialism has tried to advance both of these values by considering them at the point where they meet. Our central concern is with equality of power over the material conditions that shape our lives. This is what liberty has meant to the democratic socialist tradition: having no more or less control over social conditions than anyone e1se.(13) <#N13> Insofar as we advocate economic equality it is because we recognize that equality of power can be stable and meaningful only in the absence of substantial material inequalities.(14) <#N14>

However, advocates of equality of power who accept the persistence of pluralism face a serious problem. Conflicts, by definition, have winners and losers. Even if we had a picture of feasible institutions through which equality of power could be exercised (and this is a central theoretical and practical problem) we would have to show how equality of power could be reproduced over a series of interactions.

The problem is that finding herself repeatedly on the losing side of disputes over time has detrimental effects on a person’s self-respect as well as concretely affecting the amount of power she is able to exercise, unless constraints (which, of course, must not frustrate the execution of the democratically chosen outcome) are imposed. We cannot rely on the good intentions of citizens, which would not be enough to reassure losers (although intentions will have to, by and large, be good).

As to the institutional form these constraints would take, what can be said here is that they will be properly referred to as /individual fights/.(15) <#N15> Rights are essential to the reproduction of equality of power, for they ensure that “losers” will continue to be treated with respect and as equals by “winners.” The ideal of equality of power simply cannot be realized unless certain rights are institutionally guaranteed to potential members of minorities. In other words individual rights are an indispensable part of the socialist moral vision.

A frequent objection to the notion of individual rights says that having citizens think of themselves as having legitimate claims against the common good is destructive of the sense of community that socialists hope to foster This maybe true. However, seeing community as prior to liberty could make many exploitative and oppressive sets of political arrangements morally and politically acceptable.

Imagine a feudal village ruled by an “enlightened” lord. He rules wisely and kindly, and so inspires affection and loyalty in his subjects, who happily acquiesce to his requests for the products of their labor, and gladly go to war to protect his kingdom from outside aggressors. Imagine also that the members of the population are tied together by a common faith (maybe Islamic fundamentalism, so that there are few transgressions of a strict by unanimous moral code.

In such a society the value of community is realized to as full an extent as it possibly could be. Alienation, though it exists, is no barrier to community because a demanding common faith guarantees that citizens identify fully with one another’s ends. But, whether they like it or not, the citizens are being exploited and oppressed by the lord and his close associates. In this case community is not valuable at all. To make matters worse, since it almost certainly functions to uphold this morally repulsive state of affairs by (at least partially) blinding the exploited to the nature of their exploitation, community is actually a barrier to social progress.

So what could be wrong with this situation? No one’s rights are directly violated. But the standard liberal rights—freedom of expression and association, the rights to privacy, due process, etc—are not even minimally secured. These rights will not be violated while nobody tries to exercise them. But if anybody tries to escape the bonds that tie the community together the full might of the lord as well as the disapproval of her fellow exploitees will bear down on her. She will find herself without rights, without autonomy, and probably hanging from a rope.

The problem with this solidaristic community is that, were the exploited to come to their senses and attempt to swim against the current, they would lack structurally legitimate means to do so. This example shows that community without guaranteed individual rights simply is not valuable. For liberals and, I believe, for socialists, the only kind of community worth having is one with institutions that make leading a life in open dissent from the majority a realistic option.

Though unpopular, this view of rights has some defenders in the classical revolutionary Marxist tradition. Rosa Luxemburg advocated individual rights unambivalently: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they maybe—is no freedom at all.

Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when freedom becomes a special privilege.”(16) <#N16>

“Community” as a political value, in other words, is secondary to, and dependent upon, the security of individual rights. Rights are valuable not just because they help to remedy problems arising from the implementation of the ideal of equality of power in conditions of moral pluralism, but also because they enable people to be autonomous in a way that is essential for collectivist bonds not to be oppressive. In other words, individual rights, as well as playing a remedial role, are valuable in their own right.

The hope of socialism is that, having removed unacceptable inequalities, and having removed the greatest barriers to mutual respect and understanding—private property in the means of production and the labor market—a society in which people are motivated substantially by concern for the common good will develop. We expect that, freed from the pressures to which capitalism subjects us, we will, through the free exercise of each of our autonomous individual wills, come to live in relative harmony. Citizens’ interests under socialism will be much closer than they have been, and there will be a general and genuine agreement on how properly to mediate disputes that persist.

But we do have to face the fact that if citizens make use of their rights at the expense of society too often then community may collapse. If that happens in conditions most favorable for socialism, then socialism will probably have failed. The problem, though, will be with socialism, not with individual rights. This is an unremarkable and unobjectionable possibility: that socialism as a feasible model for social arrangements is an empirical claim, not a religious certainty.

Even if liberal socialism were stable, some might claim that the mere existence of individual rights in a society, the mere fact that citizens see their own needs and wants as primary sources of legitimate claims on society, causes a separation of subjects that is not conducive to the deep communal ties for which socialists have hoped. If what I have said is right then some of those hopes have simply been misplaced and have been tacitly recognized as misplaced by those who have given up strictly deterministic historical materialism. If the mere existence and recognition of individual rights frustrate ideals of community and cause alienation to some extent, then socialism will be stuck with alienation and frustrated community to that extent.(17) <#N17>

Thus community and collectivist values, although socialists both endorse them and believe that they will be realized under socialism, will take a second place to ensuring that distributions are just and that egalitarian power relations are reproduced. We aim to secure, through the abolition of the capitalist property relations, a fuller operation of those rights that liberalism endorses than is possible under capitalism. We hope, reasonably but without guarantees, that as people come to be able to respect one another in ways that they cannot under capitalism, and thus to choose to modify their own claims on society out of respect for those of others, a liberal socialist community can be realized.

Clarifying Our Moral Vision

In the light of the experience of “actually existing socialism” as well as the practice of social democrats in power, which have been at best disappointing and at worst grotesquely dystopian, we must clarify our moral vision. I have argued that the necessary rethinking of socialism will require that we both engage with and learn from the results of “bourgeois” philosophy and social science. It will require that our language and ideas draw on ideas that are already found within the societies we aim to change.

I would endorse Jeffrey Reiman’s claim that “Marxists have generally been unable to see that liberalism ranks alongside of technology among capitalism’s lasting contributions to humanity. Had they seen this they would have recognized that the rejection of liberalism by Marxists is social Luddism.(18) <#N18>

Accordingly, I have argued that socialists should value liberty and democracy over community and that a socialist society will be a pluralist and liberal society, in that its citizens will have structurally guaranteed claims on society the pressing of which may detract from the general good.

I have not described the content of those legitimate claims. The right to private property in the means of production will, obviously, not be among them. The rights to free speech, freedom of association, and adequate education, for example, equally obviously will be among them. Nor have I said exactly what socialists have to learn from the philosophical liberals. These important details are part of a larger project What matters here is that in reaching for a clearer moral vision Marxists will find that a common ordering of political and moral values forces them to attend sympathetically to the liberal tradition in political philosophy.(19) <#N19>

Finally, two apologies. In this essay I have followed the practice of anglophone political philosophy of remaining at a high level of abstraction. This was necessary in order to represent fairly the positions I have described, which are essentially about what political values we should advocate. Elaborating empirically defensible institutional alternatives to capitalist, social-democratic, and Stalinist institutions, which are informed by our moral vision is a separate, though equally pressing task.

Furthermore, this essay does not have much to do with strategies for transforming societies: the extent to which people can be moved by moral appeals is certainly not negligible but is probably somewhat limited. It is a basic and correct tenet of Marxism that class struggle is the central mechanism of epochal social change. However, this is not incompatible with the claims that socialist societies will be better than capitalist societies and that they will be liberal societies. Clearly collectivist values must find expression in any liberation struggle that will be successful. I have argued here, though, that liberal values will have to be prioritized by any liberation struggle that will be liberating.


1. When Joseph Biden, a mainstream Democratic Party candidate for President in 1988, plagiarized a speech from Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labour Party, nobody commented on the radical nature of the speech, only on the integrity of the man who stole it. That a British Labour leader, even a stupid and ineffective one, now gives election speeches that are not out of place in a Democratic primary is indicative of the extent to which European social democrats have ceased tube social democrats. back to text <#R1>

2. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (New York: International, 1981) 21. back to text <#R2>

3. Karl Marx,”Critique of the Gotha Programme,” A Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (London: Norton, 1972) 531. back to text <#R3>

4. Marx formulates historical materialism in a number of different and incompatible ways. The economic determinist interpretation, most notabIy promoted by the Russian Marxist Ptekhanov, while unattractive in s number of ways, and compatible only with some of Marx’s statements of the theory and with few of the particular explantions he gave of historical events, is the interpretation that has been accepted by the overwhelming majority of people who have thought of themselves as Marxists. I don’t address the question of what is the best interpretation of Marx because I think it is of little relevance to the issues I address in this essay. back to text <#R4>

5. I assume that this is uncontroversial. The phrase “in the last instance” pervades the work of “orthodox” Marxists who reject crude economic determinism, but want to distinguish themselves from those who accord no distinctive explanatory role to economic factors. See, for example, Norman Geras’ attacks on Laclau and Mouffe in New Left Review 163 and 169. back to text <#R5>

6. There are also good reasons for believing that socialism will not be constructed under the conditions of material abundance that were once expected. I shall not dwell on this here, although it is obviously an important question. There are instructive remarks about socialism under the circumstances of ecology in the latter half of Michael Wunsch, “Life in a Greenhouse,” Against The Current 21 (July/Aug 1989). back to text <#R6>

7. John Barzman has pointed out to me that even some quite deterministic Marxists acknowledge that a socialist society will be pluralistic. Ernest Mandel, for example, seems to hold this position. So liberals need to argue against only certain kinds of strict determinists. back to text <#R7>

8. There is much debate about Marx’s views on morality and justice. Like his views about historical materialism I think this is of largely historical interest. But it is hard to read Des Kapital, for example, without thinking that he condemns capitalism as immoral. However, it is equally hard to read his attacks on morality and justice without concluding that he objects to the use of such categories. I’m inclined to think that he had and used a conception of justice, but was, misguidedly, hostile to the project of constructing a theory of justice. For the best summary of the contemporary debate see Norman Geras, “The Controversy about Marx and Justice,” New Left Review 150. back to text <#R8>

9. John Rawls calls the idea that people with divergent and potentially conflicting comprehensive moral conceptions or ideologies might nevertheless sincerely affirm the same constitutional and legal arrangements the idea of an overlapping consensus. There is no room here to an idea that is to be worked out carefully. See John Rawls, “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies (1987). back to text <#R9>

10. See A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971). Here I give only an embarrassingly cursory account of the central ideas of the most important political theory of this half of the twentieth century. Some idea of the theory can be obtained from an excerpt “The Good and the Right Contrasted,” Liberalism and Its Critics, ed. Michael Sandel (New York: NYU Press, 1984), and from -Democratic Equality-by Joshua Cohen in Ethics (Summer 1989). For Ronald Dworkin see: “Equality of Resources,” Philosophy and Public Affairs (1981) and “Liberalism,” Liberalism and its Critics. back to text <#R10>

11. Here we must distinguish between three kinds of good: welfare, resources (or wealth) and political power. The first two kinds of good are not relative in that how much one has of them does not depend on how much others have. My welfare can be increased without diminishing that of anyone else, and so can my wealth (at least over time). But the amount of political power I have cannot be increased or diminished without directly diminishing or increasing the amount that others have. Without making these distinctions and seeing how the good are interconnected, it is impossible to see that what we should equalize is the good that cannot even conceptually speaking, be increased by permitting inequalities. back to text <#R11>

12. Those who call themselves market socialists do, in fact, accept this possibility; indeed the coherence of market socialism depends on it. back to text <#R12>

13. Maoists have tended to retain the Enlightenment view that such forces are extremely susceptible to human control. Conservatives tend to deny that the material conditions of our lives are, even in principle, open to human manipulation. This is an important empirical question. But it would be quite coherent to concede much of the susceptibility of material conditions to human control and restate the socialist moral vision–equality of power over that degree of the material conditions over which any control can be effectively exerted. back to text <#R13>

14. One consequence of this is that one of the values espoused by the egalitarian liberals, equality of resources, plays (only) an instrumental role in our moral vision: it is a prerequisite for equality of power and that is the (only) reason that we advocate it. In this way socialists differ from some egalitarian liberals (like Dworkin and Thomas Nagel) for whom equality of resources is an intrinsic political good. back to text <#R14>

15. Notice that this problem arises only because socialists now share with liberals a recognition of the “fact of pluralism,” which makes justice a prerequisite for the value of other civic virtues. The fact of pluralism, which socialists who have given up strict determinism have, by virtue of that abandonment, no reason to deny, ensures that there will be ideological minorities within socialist societies; there will not be unanimity about decisions regarding social arrangements. back to text <#R15>

16. Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor. University of Michigan Press, 1967) 69. back to text <#R16>

17. I am not suggesting that “community” and “individual” are always counterposed. There are good reasons to think that “community” is not only unstable when coerced, but in fact extremely rare. Accounts of life in oppressive communities are unreliable precisely because those who do not share the sense of community, lacking standard individual rights, do not get their side of the story told. It is likely that individual rights are not merely compatible with, but actually facilitate, a sense of community by enabling citizens to find ties by which they want to be bond to one another. What I argue is that we should value them primarily independently of any such role. back to text <#R17>

18. Jeffrey Reiman, “An Alternative to Distributive Marxism: Further Thoughts on Roemer, Cohen, and Exploitation,” Analyzing Marxism: Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Suppl. Vol. 15 (1989) 331. back to text <#R18>

19. If a sharp division can be made it has to do with a series of empirical presuppositions about the effects of the labor market and capitalist exploitation rather than with political morality. The liberals do not share the socialist hostility to the existence of a labor market because they (or at least some of them) do not agree that its workings give rise to those unfreedoms and inequalities to which they do share socialists’ hostility. back to text <#R19>

Note: My views have been influenced greatly by conversations with Barbara Herman, my comrade Ted Stoize and, especially, Sharon Lloyd. Thanks are also due to Andrew Levine, Miks Manty, Michele Milner, Susan Stambaugh and the editors of ATC for comments on previous drafts, and especially to Michelle Rosen for valuable discussions and for suggesting that this be written in the first place.

November-December 1990, ATC 29