Marxism and justice

All this discussion about liberal rights and justice has got me thinking about the relation between Marxism and justice. Allen Wood developed the interesting argument that Marx's critique of political economy had nothing to do with justice and that capitalism does exploit the working class but this exploitation is just. Wood explains;

"He(Marx) equally scorned those who concerned themselves with formulating principles of distributive justice and condemning capitalism in their name. Marx conceives that justice of economic transactions as their correspondence to or functionality for the prevailing mode of production. Given this conception of justice, Marx very consistently concluded that the inhuman exploitation practiced by capitalism against the workers is not unjust, and does not violate the worker's rights; this conclusion constitutes no defense of capitalism, only an attack on the use of moral conceptions within the proletarian movement. Marx saw the task of the proletarian movement in his time as one of self-definition, discipline and self-criticism based on scientific self-understanding. He left for later stages of the movement the task of planning the future society which it is the historic mission of the movement to bring forth."

To summarize, law and justice are judicial concepts. Judicial concepts belong to the superstructure which is determined by the mode of production. A society will thus have a conception of justice that fits and grows naturally out of its mode of production. Capitalist exploitation is just in a capitalist mode of production but unjust in a communist mode of production. It is wrong therefore, to ascribe some universal form of justice applicable to all modes of production. A future communist society will not be 'more just' than capitalism, it will simply have a conception of justice that fits its mode of production; a mode of production where capitalist exploitation doesn't exist.

Wood fleshes out this argument in his book _Karl Marx_ and his article "Marx and the Critique of Justice" Philosophy and Public Affairs, V1 no. 3 1972.

Any thoughts on this argument?

Sam Pawlett


I am not sure that I would agree with Allen Wood's contention that Marx didn't regard capitalism as unjust even by the criteria of bourgeois justice. It seems to me that Marx argued just the opposite of Wood's thesis in writings like The Communist Manifesto. Marx IMO certainly regarded notions of justice as being conditioned by the prevailing mode of production but one aspect of the contradictions of capitalism is that capitalism violates even bourgeois norms of justice when it exploits labor.

On the other hand Wood is correct IMO in asserting that Marx regarded judicial concepts like justice and rights as constituting an inadequate basis for a full critique of capitalism, a position he made clear in his Critique of the Gotha Program where he criticized the Social Democrats for relying too much on the language of justi