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2015 (37) Heft 1-2

The Normative Turn from Marxism


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The Normative Turn from Marxism

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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