Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

The Normative Turn from Marxism

2015 (37) Issue 1


Marxism, both as a Western political movement and an intellectual focus of dispute, lost its academic appeal during the 1970s and 80s, foreshadowing the collapse of `actually existing´ socialism in the early 90s. Within what after the Second World War was called `Western Marxism´, there had been growing awareness of Marx’s early philosophy with its suggestive, if somewhat vague, ideas of a universally productive life and an ideal productive society. In contrast, the stock of (not only official) Marxist theory was acknowledged by most to lie in Marx’s `mature´ position, which centres on the economic structure of capitalism, a `materialist´ view of history and the claim of an inevitable, law-like development towards a socialist society. In growing methodological and political contrast, at around the same time `liberal´ theories of ethics and politics were springing up, and - in particular John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice - forcefully shifting the focus of the academic debate.

Since that time, a broad ethical (if less political) literature has developed in academic philosophy which discusses a multitude of moral aspects of present social life, but steers clear of the elementary axioms and values of `capitalism´. There is no way back (or around), it seems, when arriving at the normative building blocks which make up capitalism: private property, competitive markets, wage labour, unrestricted accumulation of capital - even in view of dismal consequences such as the ever growing social inequalities and the deepening gulf between the first and third world, which makes itself felt at the moment in a growing migratory onslaught on Europe.

Due to this hardly comforting state, Marxism is still of interest. This not so much because Marxism represents an unfortunately missed alternative, but because it provides one of the rare external points of view from which to inspect our present political condition, its iron normative axioms included. The perilous utopias of Marxism are as frightening as the harmful downsides of capitalism. In what sense was Marxism perhaps too similar to capitalism, so as not to provide an alternative at all? Where did it share the same enlightenment visions, which now turn out doubly to have been illusionary ones? Is the usual normative talk of `justice´ and `democracy´ sensitive enough of its economic-functional framework of capitalism, in order not to be exposed to Marx’s critique of being blindingly utopian? Or alternatively, to what extent do prevalent moral claims for `equality´ and `freedom´ have to be corrected realistically if utopias like socialism are to be acknowledged as unavoidably dangerous under human conditions?

Even if Marx himself despised explicit moral thinking, many Marxists and non-Marxists alike assume his presaging socialism to be also one of an ethically ideal society. Liberal ethical and political theory adopted, all too easily, this underlying ideal layer of norms in Marxism; it made it bloom on its own, partly critical of present society, but increasingly loosing its grip on what is realistically possible under capitalist conditions. The typical liberal `turn from Marxism´ requires deeper diagnosis, therefore, of what it is able to offer at all. And Marxist economic realism can be still of use here.

In this issue’s first, introductory section, the role of normative claims according to Marx are compared with views of more recent political thinkers. Martin Jay points out that, unsurprisingly or not, Marx held a resolute position on the importance of truth and truth-telling in politics, in contrast, for example to Hannah Arendt who thought a `politics of truth´ to be dangerous and benevolent lies to be part of the very essence of a `pluralist politics´. Jay cites the French philosopher Alain Badiou as a present-day innovator of a politics of truth which shares the revolutionary spirit of Marx but is also susceptible to develop into the `big lie´ of totalitarianism. The bitter truth of Arendt wins, it seems, in the end. Unlike to an unrelenting `truth-politics´, realistic democracy is, along with pluralism, to some extent in need of mendacity.

According to Brian Leiter, neither Marx himself is in need of a `normative theory´, nor does the present execution of his scientific method require one. For Leiter, Marx’s scientific approach to society would still today be preferable to the self-acclaimed `social´ moral theory, he critically diagnoses in representatives like Gerald Cohen and Jürgen Habermas. According to Leiter, both philosophers get bogged down, whatever their personally good intentions are, in the `bourgeois´ (because utopian) moral philosophy famously criticised by Marx.

Raymond Geuss’ inquiry into the `moral legacy´ of Marx at first appears as an explicit opposition to Leiter’s scientific naturalism. Geuss sees Marx’s moral legacy as being in the approval of a solidarity resulting from class-consciousness, in the awareness of obscuring moralizing, and in the development of a particularistic ethics of needs, opposed to the abstract and universal Rawlsian-style of justice, abstracted from its effective functional social role. Leiter and Geuss share many criticisms of present main-stream academic moral philosophy, but it remains open which reasons Leiter would bring to bear against a positive moral adaptation of Marx, developed for example in an ethics of need as sketched by Geuss.

If there has been a recent philosopher (in agreement with Leiter’s article) representing the typical turn from Marxism to normative theory, it is G. A. Cohen. After having concluded that present capitalist development has falsified the proclaimed morally neutral functionalist model of proletarian revolution, in the latter period of his academic work Cohen set himself the task, largely by way of a revisionary commentary on Rawls, of developing an ethics of radical equality. Cohen, obviously, would be `the´ representative Marxist who tried to make good normatively what he diagnosed as deplorably lacking in scientistic Marx and Marxism.

In this issue, Fabien Tarrit starts a series of comments on Cohen with an overview on Cohen’s development. Tarrit sketches how Cohen in his political philosophy turned first to a defence of liberty against Nozick, and later to a defence of equality and justice against Rawls. One of the most important sub-elements in the latter was Cohen’s emphasis on the role of an individually developed `social ethos´ - against Rawls’ (and also Marx’s, and earlier his own) emphasis on the priority of a `basic structure´ over the individual mind-set.

Cohen did not yet have a theory of how attitudes and values of fraternity and community could be raised under capitalist conditions. But he tried to make the appeal of a solidaristic and communal kind of social relations visible in what, due to his sudden death, turned out to become his last book, Why Not Socialism? (2009). John Roemer and Jason Brennan, comment the pros and cons of Cohen’s attempt, by help of the fable of a camping trip, to promote the socialist principle of justice, `from each according to ability, to each according to need´. Roemer highlights a series of convictions and intentions Cohen had in his ethical work, leading him in the end to an ethical conception of a `socialist equality of opportunity´.

Roemer also puts the finger on where human nature and principles of justice interact with each other, revealing how far Cohen had fallen back behind his earlier acute `functionalist´ awareness of individual psychology’s dependence on social structure. Brennan, on the other hand, defends the acceptability of serious differences in wealth with an egalitarian community-ethos against Cohen. According to Brennan the kind of equality Cohen asks for would also be hostile to many personal differences we cherish in a liberal society.

Julian Culp points to the empirical fact of a `reasonable pluralism´ (Rawlsian term) of what ideal justice would require in a society, in order to call into question Cohen’s claim of the `fact-insensitivity´ of principles of justice. Drawing on the Frankfurt-based discourse-theoretical tradition, most recently represented by Rainer Forst, Culp also offers a political-constructivist approach towards justice, built on the basis of a basic right to moral justification towards others.

At least through reclaiming freedom and in criticizing suppression and alienation and thereby in projecting the opposite positive value, Marxism and socialism on the one side and liberalism and democracy on the other share one common elementary ideal - perhaps the one least contested in Western culture. But this common value-basis also fosters the dispute as to which of the two political traditions is able to live up to the ideal at all. How does Marxism relate to liberalism given how the term is understood in the `American´ sense, namely as socio-liberal, in contrast to libertarianism? Three of the following articles give the answer: quite strongly! Social democracy is taking up what is morally ideal in Marxism.

Jeffrey Reiman sketches the argument he elaborated in more detail in his recent book, As Free and as Just as Possible (2014). Again by turning to Rawls, he thinks there to be even something like a `Marxian liberalism´. John Christman calls to mind the well-known opposition of `negative´ and `positive´ liberty, and sides for the latter in form of a positive version of agent-authenticity. James Sterba starts from a dispute with Jan Narveson, documented also by a recent book, Are Liberty and Equality Compatible? For and Against (2010), and renews his claim that the `negative liberty´-libertarianism inherently leads to welfare liberalism or even socialism if liberty is only nurtured properly.

Libertarianism through this reading is, according to Sterba, taken to the `the brink´ by having an unimpeded view on social liberalism. As the reply by Jan Narveson makes clear, the crucial aspect of this dialectical manoeuvre against libertarianism depends on the distinction between (`negatively´) not harming and (`positively´) helping. In holding fast to the distinction, Narveson resists being led to the brink. Sterba responds to this by pressing the claim that harm `cuts both ways´: if the rich prevent the poor from taking something from them to meet their elementary needs, this harms the poor analogously to the harm the rich suffer by being taxed. This analytical fact, according to Sterba, points towards a strong welfare equality, derived only on the basis of being a consistent libertarian.

In the last section of this issue, approaches are dealt with which are extending impulses of Marxist origin to the present political and cultural situation. Karl Widerquist and Grant McCall try to shake the axiom that social life governed by states is obviously better than living under pre-state conditions. In order to put the burden of proof at the doorstep of present day-contractualists, they draw extensively on anthropological evidence from pre-state, natural societies. Following up on Horkheimer’s reflection on religion Christopher Brittain tries to differentiate between an `eliminativist´ and a positive `functional´ attitude towards religion in Marx, and endorses embarking on further study of the latter. With Horkheimer, Brittain focuses on historical situations in which religion shows emancipatory power and functions to undergird morality more generally.

Michael Howard and Gis van Donselaar discuss the `exploitation objection´ against the basic-income proposal. Howard opts for a reading of Marx that views justice to be normatively inherent, if not officially so, in the latter’s critique of capitalism. He then tries to ward off the exploitation objection against basic income - `lazies´ exploiting `crazies´, in Van Parijs’ terms - by deriving this proposal from a principle of justice of `equality of resources´. Searching for forms of positive contribution from the side of voluntary labour-shirkers, he attributes to them `passive contributions´, as for example opposition towards capitalist exploitation. In his critical comment, Van Donselaar views these attempts as fundamentally misguided. If at all, he sees pro-arguments for a basic income at best on grounds of its proxy role for justice under specific conditions. Even then, a basic income-policy remains dubious in improving the conditions of the least well-off. Their lot, however, should be the crucial benchmark in further testing the basic income idea.

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Table of Contents

Title: Marx and Mendacity: Can There Be a Politics without Hypocrisy?
Author: Martin Jay
Page: 5-21

As demonstrated by Marx’s fierce defence of his integrity when anonymously accused of lying in 1872, he was a principled believer in both personal honesty and the value of truth in politics. Whether understood as enabling an accurate, `scientific´ depiction of the contradictions of the present society or a normative image of a truly just society to come, truth-telling was privileged by Marx over hypocrisy as a political virtue. Contemporary Marxists like Alain Badiou continue this tradition, arguing that revolutionary politics should be understood as a `truth procedure´. Drawing on the alternative position of political theorists such as Hannah Arendt, who distrusted the monologic and absolutist implications of a strong notion of truth in politics, this paper defends the role that hypocrisy and mendacity, understood in terms of lots of little lies rather than one big one, can play in a pluralist politics, in which, pace Marx, rhetoric, opinion and the clash of values resist being subsumed under a singular notion of the truth.

Title: Why Marxism Still Does Not Need Normative Theory
Author: Brian Leiter
Page: 23-50

Marx did not have a normative theory, that is, a theory that purported to justify, discursively and systematically, his normative opinions, to show them to be rationally obligatory or objectively valid. In this regard, Marx was obviously not alone: almost everyone, including those who lead what are widely regarded as exemplary `moral´ lives, decide and act on the basis of normative intuitions and inclinations that fall far short of a theory. Yet self-proclaimed Marxists like G. A. Cohen and Jürgen Habermas have reintroduced a kind of normative theory into the Marxian tradition that Marx himself would have ridiculed. This essay defends Marx’s position and tries to explain the collapse of Western Marxism into bourgeois practical philosophy, i.e., philosophizing about what ought to be done that is unthreatening to capitalist relations of production.

Title: The Moral Legacy of Marxism
Author: Raymond Geuss
Page: 51-70

Marx would not have anything much to contribute to contemporary discussions of `normativity´, because he would reject various of the assumptions on which they rest. Thus, he does not believe it possible to isolate `moral normativity´ as a distinct object of decontextualised study so as to derive from it rationally grounded imperative to individual action. This does not mean that Marx can provide no orientation for human action, but this has a different nature and structure. Marx suspicions of ethical theories are well founded, but his own productivist assumptions should be revisited.

Title: G. A. Cohen and Marxism
Author: Fabien Tarrit
Page: 71-95

The philosopher Gerald A. Cohen died on the 5th of August 2009. His contributions were at first based on Marx’s thought. He really appeared on the intellectual stage in 1978 with his Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. Later on, he gradually departed from Marx’s theory. He discussed the libertarian concept of self-ownership and the possibility of associating it with a Marxist approach, before entering into the normative debate around Rawls’s Theory of Justice, while his Marxism was withering away. Based on Kantian philosophy, his critique of Rawls was that he allowed too little autonomy to individual choices. This paper discusses the consistency of Jerry Cohen’s intellectual journey with regards to his relation with Marx’s work.

Title: Thoughts on G. A. Cohen’s Final Testament
Author: John E. Roemer
Page: 97-112

I present briefly G. A. Cohen’s theory of distributive justice, discuss the relationship that I think he believed held between human nature and justice, and offer thoughts on the feasibility of Cohenesque justice, or Cohenesque socialism. I introduce the idea of Kantian equilibrium, as a way of explaining how people cooperate. Expanding the domain of activities in which humans cooperate will, I believe, go a long way towards achieving Cohenesque socialism, and the history of human society suggests it is feasible to do so.

Title: Equality, Community, and Diversity in Cohen’s Socialist Ideal
Author: Jason Brennan
Page: 113-130

The `community principle´ is crucial to G. A. Cohen’s argument for socialism, because it is the best independent argument he has adduced for his strongly egalitarian conclusions. Cohen argues that even small differences in wealth ought to be prohibited because they bring us out of community with one another. In this paper, I show that his underlying premises lead to some repugnant conclusions, and thus should be rejected. If Cohen is right that even small differences in wealth can upset community, then, by the very psychological mechanisms he identifies, we should think that other differences, such as differences in religion, conceptions of the good, race, or taste, should also upset community. Cohen is thus caught in a trap: the more strongly egalitarian his community principle is, the more it not only prohibits differences of wealth, but diversity of any kind, including the forms of diversity we should celebrate rather than reject.

Title: G. A. Cohen, Constructivism, and the Fact of Reasonable Pluralism
Author: Julian Culp
Page: 131-147

In this article I argue that G.A. Cohen is mistaken in his belief that the concept of justice needs to be rescued from constructivist theorists of justice. In doing so, I rely on insights of John Rawls’ later work Political Liberalism and Rainer Forst’s discourse theory of justice. Such critical engagement with Cohen’s critique of constructivism is needed, because Cohen bases his critique of constructivism almost exclusively on Rawls’s arguments and positions in A Theory of Justice. He thus neglects at least by and large that Rawls had further developed his constructivist method of justification in his later work Political Liberalism, as well as that Forst’s discourse-theoretical works offer elaborate versions of constructivism. These refined versions of constructivism recognize a plurality of reasonable conceptions of ideal justice and draw an important distinction between moral and political constructivism. Because of these features these advanced constructivist theories are not in need of Cohen’s rescue.

Title: The Theory of Marxian Liberalism
Author: Jeffrey Reiman
Page: 149-169

Marxian Liberalism is a theory of justice that results from combining the liberal belief that people have a natural right to be free from unwanted coercion, with the Marxian belief that property is coercive. This combination implies that property must be consented to by all people who do or will exist and thus such consent must be theoretical. Theoretical consent occurs in a Marxian-liberal original position among parties whose knowledge includes Marxian and liberal beliefs. The parties find it rational to consent to a state that protects liberty, and to a system of property governed by the difference principle interpreted according to a moral version of the labor theory of value.

Title: Freedom in Times of Struggle: Positive Liberty, Again
Author: John Christman
Page: 171-188

Many of those critical of traditional liberalism have focused on the notion of freedom at the center of that approach, namely the (negative) idea of liberty as the absence of interferences with action. Building a plausible and normatively acceptable positive alternative, however, has faced numerous criticisms and challenges. In this paper I discuss what such critics of liberalism see as the limitations of the traditional negative notion and sketch the core components of a positive alternative. Specifically I suggest that the dimensions of liberty should contain the positive elements of capabilities and agent authenticity. After laying out the core of these ideas I briefly defend them against standard objections. In doing so, I argue that such a positive notion is necessary to capture the dominance of the language of freedom in contexts of resistance and struggle in the actual, non-ideal, world.

Title: Libertarianism on the Brink
Author: James P. Sterba
Page: 189-201

I argue that recent developments in my on-going debate with Jan Narveson have brought libertarianism to the brink where it is now able to cross over and join forces with welfare liberalism and even socialism. I summarize my debate with Narveson and then argue that a public concession Narveson made at recent meeting along with a new argument he advanced in response to that public concession have now brought libertarianism to this momentous brink where it can now be seen to cross over into the welcoming arms of welfare liberals and socialists.

Title: Sterba on Liberty and Welfarism
Author: Jan Narveson
Page: 203-221

James Sterba advances several arguments designed to show that libertarianism, contrary to what this author and other libertarians think, actually implies support for welfarism and even egalitarianism. This discussion shows why his arguments do not work. There is preliminary discussion of our parameters: how much is Sterba claiming we have a minimum right to in the way of welfare? It is argued that if this is set very low, a libertarian society would easily eliminate the poverty he is concerned about, and if it is set very high, then the standard could be unmeetable and certainly could not have been met until very recently at the least. More abstractly, it is argue that Sterba is in error about the normative assumptions required for libertarianism’s strong distinction between nonharm and outright help. Once these are cleared up, it is seen that his case depends on equivocation. The duty not to harm simply does not imply a duty to help. In the closing pages, a contractarian framework is advanced to explain the libertarian’s disaffection for the kind of ’strong’ rights Sterba wants to uphold.

Title: A Response to Jan Narveson: Why Libertarians Are and Are Not Like Turnips
Author: James P. Sterba
Page: 223-232

I show how Jan Narveson’s critique fails to unseat my central argument that harm cuts both ways in our assumed idealized conflict situations, such that sometimes the poor harm the rich and sometimes the rich harm the poor. I further show how this supports my overall argument that libertarianism has gone over the brink into the waiting arms of welfare liberals and socialists. I also reject the other reasons that Narveson provides for not recognizing the welfare rights of distant peoples and future generations which are independent of my argument about harm.

Title: Myths about the State of Nature and the Reality of Stateless Societies
Author: Karl Widerquist / Grant McCall
Page: 233-257

This article argues the following points. The Hobbesian hypothesis, which we define as the claim that all people are better off under state authority than they would be outside of it, is an empirical claim about all stateless societies. It is an essential premise in most contractarian justifications of government sovereignty. Many small-scale societies are stateless. Anthropological evidence from them provides sufficient reason to doubt the truth of the hypothesis, if not to reject it entirely. Therefore, contractarian theory has not done what it claims to do: it has not justified state sovereignty to each person subject to it by demonstrating that they benefit from that authority. To be justified in contractarian terms, states have to do something to improve the living standards of disadvantaged people under their rule.

Title: Horkheimer, Religion, and the Normative Grounds of Critical Theology
Author: Christopher Craig Brittain
Page: 259-280

This essay examines how the legacy of Marx’s emancipatory commitments continues to be intertwined with his critique of religion. This is illustrated with reference to Raymond Geuss’s claim that Marxism’s political failure is related its lack of an adequate moral theory, a view that leads him to suggest that Marxism needs to function more like a `pseudo-religion´. These issues are analysed by drawing from Max Horkheimer’s writing on Christianity, which imply that materialist critical theory will be resourced by attention to particular historical expressions of religion. The paper argues that such an approach requires a distinction between two strands of Marx’s critique of religion an `eliminationist´ and a `descriptive functionalist´ perspective and involves privileging the second strand over the first. The implication is not that religion resolves the question of the ground of Marxism’s normative critique; rather, what is advanced is view that the critical theory can be supported and resourced by a critique of the `religion of everyday life´.

Title: Exploitation, Labor, and Basic Income
Author: Michael W. Howard
Page: 281-303

Proposals for a universal basic income have reemerged in public discourse for a variety of reasons. Marx’s critique of exploitation suggests two apparently opposed positions on a basic income. On the one hand, a basic income funded from taxes on labor would appear to be exploitative of workers. On the other hand, a basic income liberates everyone from the vulnerable condition in which one is forced to sell one’s labor in order to survive, and so seems to be one way of abolishing exploitation at its root. This paper will develop a conception of exploitation that resolves the conflict in favor of basic income. The conception of exploitation is grounded in a liberal egalitarian conception of justice rather than in Marx’s labor theory of value or an exclusive focus on the worker-capitalist relation. This position is not premised on an acceptance of the basic institutions of capitalism, but rather is a standpoint from which to evaluate them. It is not necessary to downsize our ideas of freedom and equality. But it is less obvious than it appeared in classic Marxist formulations that socialism is necessary for social justice. To quote the title of a famous article, there could be a `capitalist road to communism´, if a substantial basic income is feasible in a capitalist society.

Title: In Company of the Funny Sunny Surfer off Malibu: A Response to Michael Howard (and Some Others)
Author: Gijs van Donselaar
Page: 305-317

In `Exploitation, Labor, and Basic Income´ Michael Howard undertakes to defend an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) as non-exploitative, and on a revised conception of what Marx called `exploitation´. Without taking issue with the revision itself, I point out that Howard, like many others, fails to defend UBI as non-exploitative. All his arguments fail to establish that the so-called `Surfer off Malibu´, a figure who is full-time dedicated to leisure, is not an exploiter in receiving UBI. The strategies to include him as a rightful recipient of a labor-free income rely on the (sometimes far-fetched) attribution of certain contingent features to him that would entitle him to compensation or reward, but that he might also not have. I argue that the best strategy for UBI-advocates is to admit that `slackers´ should be merely tolerated as non-deserving recipients, because the UBI-policy will otherwise have good effects. Finally, I raise some questions about these good effects, as they are conceived by UBI-advocates such as Howard.