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Marx, Justice and History: A

Marx, Justice and History: A "Philosophy and Public Affairs" Reader

by Marshall Cohen (Editor), Thomas Nagel (Editor), Thomas Scanlon (Editor)

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The political and ideological turmoil of the late 1960's stimulated among Anglo-American philosophers a new interest in applying moral philosophy to the problems of contemporary society, and a search for critical perspectives on Marx and Marxist thought. These essays, originally published in Philosophy & Public Affairs, contribute to both these areas in the form of


The political and ideological turmoil of the late 1960's stimulated among Anglo-American philosophers a new interest in applying moral philosophy to the problems of contemporary society, and a search for critical perspectives on Marx and Marxist thought. These essays, originally published in Philosophy & Public Affairs, contribute to both these areas in the form of new Marxist scholarship and in illuminating the way in which Marxist criticism and social theory bear on contemporary analytic moral philosophy and current moral problems.

Originally published in 1980.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Marx, Justice and History

A Philosophy & Public Affairs Reader

By Marshall Cohen, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Scanlon


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07252-4



The Marxian Critique of Justice

When we read Karl Marx's descriptions of the capitalist mode of production in Capital and other writings, all our instincts tell us that these are descriptions of an unjust social system. Marx describes a society in which one small class of persons lives in comfort and idleness while another class, in ever-increasing numbers, lives in want and wretchedness, laboring to produce the wealth enjoyed by the first. Marx speaks constantly of capitalist "exploitation" of the worker, and refers to the creation of surplus value as the appropriation of his "unpaid labor" by capital. Not only does capitalist society, as Marx describes it, strike us as unjust, but his own descriptions of it themselves seem to connote injustice.

When we look in the writings of Marx and Engels for a detailed account of the injustices of capitalism, however, we discover at once that not only is there no attempt at all in their writings to provide an argument that capitalism is unjust, but there is not even the explicit claim that capitalism is unjust or inequitable, or that it violates anyone's rights. We find, in fact, explicit denunciations and sustained criticisms of social thinkers (such as Pierre Proudhon and Ferdinand Lassalle) who did condemn capitalism for its injustices or advocated some form of socialism as a means of securing justice, equality, or the rights of man. We even find, perhaps to our surprise, some fairly explicit statements to the effect that capitalism, with all its manifold defects, cannot be faulted as far as justice is concerned. Whatever else capitalism may be for Marx, it does not seem that it is unjust.

The fact that Marx does not regard capitalism as unjust has been noted before. But Marx's reasons for holding this view, and the concept of justice on which it rests, have been less frequently understood. It is of course true that Marx and Engels do not say much about the manner in which social or economic justice may be actualized, and that they do not concern themselves greatly with the ways in which just social institutions may be distinguished from unjust ones. And if, as I wish to argue, the attainment of justice does not, in itself, play a significant role in either Marxian theory or Marxist practice, these omissions are neither serious nor surprising. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels did take seriously the concept of justice and did have a place for it in their conception of society and social practice. Both were in fact highly critical of what they took to be the misuse of this concept in social thought, its "mystification" and ideological "glorification." This Marxian critique of justice may be viewed as an attempt to clarify the role of the concept of justice in social life and to prevent its ideological abuse. Much can be learned, I think, by tracing this critique to its roots in the Marxian conceptions of society and social practice, and viewing it in relation to Marx's own reasons for denying that capitalism is unjust while at the same time calling for its revolutionary overthrow.


The concept of justice has traditionally played an important role in theories of the rational assessment of social institutions. It is commonly felt that justice is the highest merit any social institution can possess, while injustice is the gravest charge which could ever be lodged against it. It seems to be no exaggeration to say that to both the philosopher and the common man justice has often appeared, as Engels once put it, "the fundamental principle of all society, ... the standard by which to measure all human things, ... the final judge to be appealed to in all conflicts." Why is such importance attached to the concept of justice? "Justice" (Gerechtigkeit), according to Marx and Engels, is fundamentally a juridical or legal (rechtlich) concept, a concept related to the law (Recht) and to the rights (Rechte) men have under it. The concepts of right and justice are for them the highest rational standards by which laws, social institutions, and human actions may be judged from a juridical point of view. This point of view has long been regarded as being of particular importance for the understanding and assessment of social facts. It is not too much to say that the traditional Western conception of society is itself a fundamentally juridical conception. The social whole, according to this tradition, is the "state" or "body politic," the framework within which human actions are regulated by legal and political processes. The study of society in this tradition has been, above all, the study of these processes; the ideal society, since Plato's time, has been conceived of as the ideal state; and social practice, in its highest form, has been thought to be the skillful fashioning of a state through the giving of just laws, or the regulation of the actions of citizens by a wise government. The social life of man, according to this tradition, is his life in relation to the political state; man as a social being is man in relation to those powers which promulgate laws, guarantee rights, and issue juridical commands. Granted this conception of society, it is quite understandable that right and justice should be taken as the fundamental social principles, the highest measure of all social things.

The source not only of Marx's critique of justice, but also of the fundamental originality of his social thought, is his rejection of this political or juridical conception of society. Marx tells us in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that the origins of his social thought lay in the discontent he felt with this conception as a student of law and the philosophy of law, and particularly of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. His critical reflections, he tells us — and we can see it for ourselves in the articles and manuscripts produced by Marx in the course of the year 1843 — led to the result that juridical relations [Rechtsverhaltnisse], like forms of the state, are to be grasped neither through themselves nor through the so-called universal development of the human spirit, but rather are rooted in the material relations of life, whose totality Hegel ... comprehended under the term 'civil society.'" The social whole, the fully concrete unity of social life was, in Hegel's view, to be found in the political state; the sphere of men's material activities and interests, civil society, was treated by Hegel as a system of social processes taking place within the political whole and dependent on it. Marx reversed this relationship. Human society, he maintained, is a developing system of collective productive activity, aimed at the satisfaction of historically conditioned human needs; its institutions, including juridical and political ones, are all aspects of this productive activity. As early as 1844 Marx tells us that "Religion, the family, the state, the law [Recht], morality, science, art, etc., are only particular modes of production and fall under its general law." And in the German Ideology Marx and Engels reject "the old conception of history which neglects real relationships and restricts itself to high-sounding dramas of princes and states."

The key to Marx's transformation of Hegel's concept of society is found in the Marxian conception of human practice. Human society, according to the Marxian view, is a fact of nature. But it is nevertheless characterized throughout by the essential quality of man as a natural phenomenon, by productive activity or labor, which distinguishes man from the rest of the natural world. "Men begin to distinguish themselves from animals when they begin to produce their means of life, a step conditioned by their bodily organization." "The animal," says Engels, "merely uses external nature and brings about changes in it merely by his presence in it; man makes it serviceable to his ends through such changes, he masters it. This is the final and essential distinction between men and other animals, and it is labor which effects this distinction." The essential feature of labor for Marx and Engels is its purposiveness, the fact that it is the expression of will. Labor, says Engels, is that by which men "impress the stamp of their will upon the earth." Man alone, Marx points out, "makes his life-activity itself an object of his will and consciousness." And again, in Capital, he says: "What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that he raises his structure in his head before he builds it in wax. At the end of the labor process a result comes about which at the beginning was already in the representation of the laborer, which was already present ideally." But human productive activity, according to Marx, always takes place in particular historical circumstances. At a given point in human history, men are possessed of determinate methods and capacities for subjecting nature to their will — methods and capacities which they have inherited from previous generations through a specific process of historical development. These productive forces (Produktivkräfte), as Marx calls them, correspond to, and are expressed in, determinate relationships between men, within which alone these forces, in their historically given form, can be applied to nature. These relationships Marx calls production relations (Produktionsverhältnisse). Because men are not free to choose the degree of their mastery over nature at a given stage in history, they are also not free to choose the form these production relations will take. Hence production relations are, in Marx's words, "necessary and independent of their will."

Human productive activity, however, not only transforms nature; it also transforms man himself. In altering nature and in developing his productive forces, man acts on himself as well. Human history, for Marx, consists above all in the development and transformation of human nature. The activity of labor itself is for Marx essentially man's self-production. This is because the employment of productive forces is not just a means to human ends, but is rather "a determinate kind of activity of individuals, a determinate way of expressing their life, a determinate mode of life. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are is bound up with their production, and what they produce with how they produce." Men produce by adopting determinate modes of collective activity, modes which in turn act upon them and change them. As they satisfy their needs by productive activity, therefore, they are at the same time producing new forms of activity and new needs. "The production of new needs," say Marx and Engels, "is the first historical act."

Human productive activity, therefore, is a complex historical process composed of many interdependent factors acting upon and reacting with one another. Men's needs, their productive forces, their production relations are all decisive moments in it, but none of them is independent of the others. At a given stage in history these interdependent factors form a whole, a complex system of human activity with a kind of relative stability. Such a historically conditioned system of productive activity has its own characteristic forms of social and cultural life, and within it men have a characteristic human nature, distinguishing this system from the preceding system of activity out of which it arose historically and from the succeeding system into which it will eventually pass over. Such a historically conditioned social whole is called by Marx a "mode of production" (Produktionsweise).

The Marxian conception of society is sometimes described as "economic determinism." By this it is often meant that Marx's theory takes one aspect of social life (the "economic" aspect) to be the crucial one on which all others depend. Marx, according to this account, either reduces all of social life to economics, or he regards the rest of social life as an epiphenomenon of economics, or else as a series of effects proceeding entirely from "economic" causes. This interpretation of Marx, it seems to me, is fundamentally mistaken. There is no space here to deal with this issue in the depth it deserves, but I would like at least briefly to suggest why it seems to me wrong to understand Marx's "determinism" in this simplistic way. In the first place, Marx did not regard himself primarily as a political economist; he thought of himself rather as a critic of political economy, attempting to preserve what was valuable in classical political economy within a more comprehensive theory of society and history. He criticizes political economists for the one-sidedness of their approach to social phenomena, for their failure to see the interconnection between the different factors in social life. When Marx refers to production relations as "economic" relations, he does not mean to isolate one "aspect" of social relations as the crucial one, but simply to emphasize that all such relations are forms of human productive activity, and should be viewed in their connection with production.

Marx does say that "the mode of production conditions social, political, and spiritual life-processes." He also says that "it is not men's consciousness which determines their being, but on the contrary their social being which determines their consciousness." But he does not mean to reduce social, political, and spiritual processes to processes of production, as some philosophers have tried to reduce mental phenomena to physical ones. Nor does Marx mean to say that "production," regarded as one factor among others in the social process, is in general the cause of the remaining social institutions. Marx's point here can best be understood if we keep in mind that his conception of society is a transformation of Hegel's conception, and can best be brought out by looking at Hegel's own anticipation of it early in the Philosophy of Right. Hegel is speaking about the function of legislation in the state, and says: "Legislation must not be considered abstractly and in isolation, but rather must be seen as a dependent moment in one totality, in its connection with all the other determinations which make up the character of a nation and an epoch." Legislation, according to Hegel, is one of the "determinations" (Bestimmungen) which make up a nation and an epoch, one of the dependent moments in a totality. To be properly understood, therefore, it must not be treated as something independent of this totality, or something intelligible on its own, but rather must be viewed as a partial process within the total process. The totality of national life in a given epoch could, in this sense, be said by Hegel to determine and to condition the laws of the nation. It would, however, be either incorrect or unintelligible to say that for Hegel legislation could be reduced to the totality of national life. Hegel is not reducing legislation to anything; he is rather attempting to appreciate its richness by noting its connection with other factors in national life. Nor is it at all plausible to attribute to Hegel the view that legislation is a mere "epiphenomenon" of national life. Legislation, in Hegel's view, might very well be said to be caused by specific factors within the totality of national life, but this is a result of the fact that legislation is itself a determination or dependent moment within this organic totality.

The organic whole of social life in a given historical epoch is of course not for Marx a nation or political state, but a mode of production. This whole is called a mode of production because human life is essentially productive activity. And Marx explicitly distinguishes "production" in this comprehensive sense from "production in its one-sided form" as one of the elements or "determinations" of the total process. Not only human needs, modes of commerce and exchange, and property relations, but also men's political life, religion, morality, and philosophical thought are moments, phases, determinations of human productive activity. Like the more narrowly "economic" categories of exchange and consumption, they are "elements in a totality, distinctions within a unity. ... There is an interaction between the various moments. This is the case with every organic whole." Legal and political structures are therefore called "superstructures" by Marx; they are structures which are dependent on and hence "built upon" the mode of production within which they operate as regulative institutions. These institutions owe their existence and their form to the mode of production within which they operate, to the specific manner in which they regulate existing production relations and serve the needs of given individuals. Law and politics may indeed affect and condition these other moments of the social process, but they are also affected and conditioned by them. They "mirror" or "reflect" the productive social life they regulate. The task of comprehending them is not that of reducing political or juridical facts to economic facts, but that of discovering empirically the "connection [Zusammenhang] of the social and political structure with production."


Excerpted from Marx, Justice and History by Marshall Cohen, Thomas Nagel, Thomas Scanlon. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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