Rawls's Rebuttal of Marx's Critique of Liberalism


The following are quoted from  pages 176- 179 of John Rawls's 2001 book entitled , "Justice as Fairness":


Addressing Marx's Critique of Liberalism


52.1. We look at Marx's views mainly from one perspective: his critique of liberalism. We try to meet those of his criticisms that most clearly require an answer. For example:


     (a) To the objection that some of the basic rights and liberties, those he connects with the rights of man (and which we have labeled the liberties of the moderns), express and protect the mutual egoisms of citizens in the civil society of a capitalist world, we reply that in a well designed property-owning democracy those rights and liberties, properly specified, suitably express and protect the higher-order interests of citizens as free and equal. And while a right to property in productive assets is permitted, that right is not a basic right but subject to the requirement that, in existing conditions, it is the most effective way to meet the principles of justice.


    (b) To the objection that the political rights and liberties of a constitutional regime (60) are merely formal, we reply that, by the fair value of the political liberties (working with the other principles of justice) all citizens, whatever their social position, may be assured a fair opportunity to exert political influence.


    (c) To the objection that a constitutional regime with private property secures only the so-called negative liberties, we reply that the background institutions of a property-owning democracy, together with fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle, give adequate protection to the so-called positive liberties. (61)


    (d) To the objection against the division of labor under capitalism, we reply that the narrowing and demeaning features of the division should be largely overcome once the institutions of a property-owning democracy are realized (Theory, §79: 463f.).


    While the idea of property-owning democracy tries to meet legitimate objections of the socialist tradition, the idea of the well-ordered society of justice as fairness is quite distinct from Marx's idea of a full communist society. A full communist society seems to be one beyond justice in the sense that the circumstances that give rise to the problem of distributive justice are surpassed and citizens need not be, and are not, concerned with it in everyday life. Justice as fairness, by contrast, assumes that given the general facts of the political sociology of democratic regimes (such as the fact of reasonable pluralism), the principles and political virtues falling under justice will always play a role in public political life. The evanescence of justice, even of distributive justice, is not possible, nor, I think, is it desirable (but I shall not discuss this).


    52.2. Of course, Marx would say that, even accepting the ideal of property-owning democracy, such a regime generates political and economic forces that make it depart all too widely from its ideal institutional description. He would say that no regime with private property in the means of production can satisfy the two principles of justice,  or even do much to realize the ideals of citizen and society expressed by justice as fairness.


    This is a major difficulty and must be faced. But even if it is in good part true, the question is not yet settled. We must ask whether a liberal socialist regime does significantly better in realizing the two principles. Should it do so, then the case for liberal socialism is made from the standpoint of justice as fairness. But we must be careful here not to compare the ideal of one conception with the actuality of the other, but rather to compare actuality with actuality, and in our particular historical circumstances.


    52.3. Marx would raise another objection, namely, that our account of the institutions of property-owning democracy has not considered the importance of democracy in the workplace and in shaping the general course of the economy. This is also a major difficulty. I shall not try to meet it except to recall that Mill's idea of worker-managed firms (62) is fully compatible with property-owning democracy. Mill believed that people would much prefer to work in such firms; this would enable the firms to pay lower wages while being highly efficient. In due course these firms would increasingly win out over capitalist firms. A capitalist economy would gradually disappear and be peacefully replaced by worker-managed firms within a competitive economy.


    Since this has not happened, nor does it show many signs of doing so, the question arises whether Mill was wrong about what people prefer, or whether worker-managed firms have not had a fair chance to establish themselves. If the latter is the case, should such firms be granted subsidies, at least for a time, so that they can get going? Would there be advantages from doing this that could be justified in terms of the political values expressed by justice as fairness, or by some other political conception of justice for a democratic regime? For example, would worker-managed firms be more likely to encourage the democratic political virtues needed for a constitutional regime to endure? If so, could greater democracy within capitalist firms achieve much the same result? I shall not pursue these questions. I have no idea of the answers, but certainly these questions call for careful examination. The long-run prospects of a just constitutional regime may depend on them.


60. In On the  Jewish Question (1843), Marx distinguishes between the rights of man and the political liberties. The latter he greatly values and he thinks that in some form they will be honored under communism; but a role for the former would seem to disappear.


61. On the distinction between negative and positive liberties, see Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty."


62. See Mill, Principles  of Political Economy, bk. N, chap. 7.