Marx and Justice

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Feb 8 08:26:32 PST 1999

Sam Pawlett wrote:

>.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.

Maybe it's me, but I think there's no small bit of irony here. When he argues that workers trade at their value, it's an implied critique of the commodification of the worker under capitalism. Exploitation may be "just" under capitalist law, but capitalist law (which includes the rule of money and the law of value) is what reduces us to appendages of flesh attached to machines. I think the irony is very clear in this passage from Capital vol. 1 (p. 280 of the Vintage/Penguin):

"The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest."

Though Marx's style was often ironic, his heirs have often been rather irony-challenged, it seems to me. I guess that's what happens when critique gets transformed into dogma. Which reminds me, I must re-read Lefebvre on irony, soon.


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