Marx and Justice

Sam Pawlett epawlett at
Tue Feb 9 10:20:54 PST 1999

I was summarizing Allen Wood's views not my own. I'm not sure what I think but I find Wood's argument attractive partly because it is so counter-intuitive for a Marxian socialist. Wood's argument is a bit too deterministic. I think one of his aims was to try and dissociate Marx from being pigeonholed as a utilitarian or a Kantian as philosophers are wont to do. Here are some more quotations from Wood's 1972 paper. " The juridical point of view, for Marx, is essentially one-sided, and to adopt it as the fundamental standpoint from which to judge social reality is to adopt a distorted conception of that reality...In Capital Marx says 'The justice of transactions which go on between agents of production rests on the fact that these transactions arise as natural consequences from the relations of production. The juristic forms in which these transactions appear as voluntary actions of the participants, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by the state against a single party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds to the mode of production, is adequate to it. It is unjust whenever it contradicts that mode. Slavery, on the basis of the capitalist mode of production, is unjust; so is fraud in the quality of commodities.' ...For Marx, the justice or injustice of an action or institution does not consist in its exemplification of a jurical form or its conformity to a universal principle. Justice is not determined by the universal compatibility of human acts and interests, but by the concrete requirements of a historically conditioned mode of production. There are rational assessments of the justice of specific acts and institutions, based on their concrete function within a specific mode of production. But these assessments are not founded on abstract or formal principles of justice, good for all times and places, or an implicit or hypothetical contracts or agreements used to deterine the justice of institutions or actions formally and abstractly...The justiceness of the act or instituion is its concrete fittingness to this situation, in this productive mode. The justice of an instituion depends on the particular institution and the particular mode of produciton of which it is part...If revolutionary institutions mean new laws, new standards of juridical regulation, new forms of property and distribution, this is not a sign that 'justice' is finally being done where it was not done before. It is instead a sign that a new mode of production has been born from the old one. This new mode of production will not be 'more just' than the old one, it will only be just its own way...The attempt to apply post-capitalist juridical standards to capitalist production can only derive, once again, from the vision of post-capitalist society as a kind of eternal juridical structure against which the present state of affairs is to be measured and found wanting....For Marx justice is not and cannot be a genuinely revolutionary notion."

Sam Pawlett

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