‘Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century’ by Tony Smith reviewed by Jan Kandiyali

Reviewed by Jan Kandiyali

About the reviewer

Jan Kandiyali is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Istanbul Technical University. He is the …


In ‘On the Jewish Question’, Marx famously argues that liberalism cannot deliver human emancipation. In his view, liberalism represents an advance on the systems of religious discrimination and feudal privilege that preceded it. But it is also inadequate, for the ‘political emancipation’ it provides is entirely compatible with – indeed, in Marx’s view, presupposes – the persistence of deep inequalities in wealth and wellbeing in people’s everyday lives. For this reason, Marx argues that genuine human emancipation requires us to move beyond liberalism and to embrace socialism.

‘On the Jewish Question’ might be thought to provide a compelling critique of classical liberalism. On the face of it, however, it has little force against liberal egalitarianism, for philosophers like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin incorporate an uncompromising commitment to equality alongside the classical liberal commitment to civil and political liberties. In this new and important book, however, Tony Smith argues that Marx’s critique of liberalism remains compelling despite liberalism’s embrace of equality. His central claim is that liberal egalitarianism’s major theoretical commitments are incompatible with a capitalist market society. Liberal egalitarians fail to see this because they lack an adequate conception of capital. Once we have such a conception, however, we will see that realising liberal egalitarian values necessitates a move beyond liberal egalitarian institutions.

The first part of the book provides an overview of liberal egalitarianism, the target of Smith’s critique. The discussion is divided into two parts: the first focuses on liberal egalitarianism’s theoretical commitments, the second on its theory of social and political institutions. In Smith’s view, liberal egalitarianism’s theoretical commitments centrally include five elements: human flourishing, autonomous agency, access to the resources necessary to pursue one’s conception of the good, the development of one’s central capabilities, and a social space for democratic will-formation.  Since liberal egalitarians are also committed to the claim that each individual has equal moral worth, it follows that the core tenet of liberal egalitarianism is the moral equality principle: the principle that each individual should have an equal opportunity to flourish, exercise autonomous agency, access resources, develop central capabilities and engage in public discourse.

Smith then considers liberal egalitarianism’s view of social and political institutions. Not surprisingly, he pays particular attention to the capitalist market, the major site of disagreement between Marx and liberal egalitarians. According to Smith, the attitude of liberal egalitarians towards the capitalist market is complex. On the one hand, they see the capitalist market as an efficient institution that realises important freedoms. On the other hand, they recognise that it also has a tendency to create unjustifiable inequalities in wealth and wellbeing.  In Smith’s view, however, liberal egalitarians believe that these problems are contingent and remediable. As he puts it, the ‘core thesis’ of liberal egalitarianism is that, ‘A capitalist market society is compatible with the institutionalization of the moral equality principle so long as the systematic tendencies of markets to generate results incompatible with that principle are put out of play by effective regulation’ (xii).

As I have already said, Smith’s central claim is that this core thesis is false: no amount of economic regulation or resource-distribution can make a capitalist market society compatible with the moral equality principle.

Before he argues for this view, Smith considers a number of familiar Marxian objections to liberalism, for example that liberalism is based on an atomistic conception of society. Smith plausibly argues that Marxists have often been guilty of attacking a straw man, and that, as a consequence, many of their criticisms have little force. It is a virtue of Smith’s account of liberalism that he avoids this tendency towards caricature.

Having considered these ‘false starts’, Smith returns to liberal egalitarianism’s core thesis.  To understand why it is false, Smith argues that we need to understand the concept of capital; and to understand the concept of capital, we need to turn to Marx. Smith helpfully explains the key elements in Marx’s social and economic theory, introducing Marx’s concepts of the commodity, value, abstract labour and money, before turning to the key concept of capital. Marx’s key insight is that the capitalist market societies are dominated by the ‘valorisation imperative’, the accumulation of money as an end in itself. In such societies, Smith explains, ‘human ends, the human good, and human flourishing are systematically subordinated to the end of the good, and the flourishing of capital’ (xii).

This concept of capital paves the way for the claim that capitalist market society can never be one in which the moral equality principle is realised. Smith’s strategy is to show how the valorisation imperative frustrates the five theoretical commitments of liberal egalitarianism: human flourishing, autonomous agency, access to resources, central capabilities, and democratic will-formation. To give just one of Smith’s example: capitalism has generated enormous increases in productivity. Such increases could be used to reduce the amount of time in wage-labour, thus enabling people to spend more time in activities that lend themselves to human flourishing: spending time with family and friends, developing new skills and abilities, participating in the organisation of voluntary associations, and so on. Under capitalism, however, these increases in productivity are used to increase output rather than reduce wage-labour.  Advances in productivity and technology, which could contribute to human flourishing, only contribute to the flourishing of capital.

Having discussed Marx’s challenge to liberal egalitarianism, Smith considers various different liberal egalitarian lines of reply. The common element in these replies takes us back to the core thesis of liberal egalitarianism, the claim that capitalism’s defects can be overcome through concerted state action. Thus, a liberal egalitarian might accept that under capitalism advances in productivity will typically be used to increase output rather than decrease wage-labour. However, they would argue that the state could check this tendency. For example, in recent years a number of liberal egalitarians have argued that a sufficiently generous basic income would liberate people from the compulsion of wage-labour, thereby giving them the real freedom to work less if they so wish. In reply, Smith concedes that state action can mitigate the destructive consequences of capitalism’s relentless pursuit of profit, but plausibly argues that it cannot eliminate it completely, for a redistribution of income and wealth sufficient to meet liberal egalitarian goals would threaten the functioning of capitalism itself. Consequently, any such proposal would be met with overwhelming resistance by the representatives of capital.

The final part of the book is devoted to a discussion of various different forms of liberal egalitarianism. These include a neo-Schumpeterian version that holds that the destructive aspects of capitalism are simply a price that must be paid for the benefits of its creative aspects; a version that focuses on the rise of a new mode of production, commons-based peer production, that exists alongside capitalism; and a version of liberal egalitarianism as property-owning democracy that receives discussion in Rawls’s later writings and has recently been taken up by some of his followers. In each case, Smith argues that each version leaves the ‘reign of capital’ in place, and thus can never be a society in which the moral equality principle is realised.

The foregoing discussion only provides the barest of sketches of Smith’s main arguments and conclusions. The book contains much more besides. Rather than detail this other material, however, I conclude with three more general comments about the core themes of the book.

My first comment concerns Smith’s understanding of the relationship between Marx and liberal egalitarianism. One interesting feature of Smith’s interpretation of this relationship is his claim that the core normative commitments of Marx and liberal egalitarians ‘broadly coincide’ ( 341). In particular, Smith claims that Marx would accept the moral equality principle, and that liberal egalitarians would accept Marx’s view of a good society as one in which ‘the free development of each is the free development of all’.  The disagreement between Marx and liberal egalitarians, in Smith’s view, is solely about institutions. At the level of values, ‘there is no need to go beyond liberal egalitarianism’ (341). This interpretation is controversial, and I think it is fair to say that Smith does not say much to defend it. On an alternative reading – famously put forward by Allen Wood – Marx was a fierce critic of the very notions of justice and equality. On this view, his critique of liberalism is not limited to its theory of institutions but extends to its normative commitments. For what it is worth, I think that Smith is right to argue that Marx and liberal egalitarians share more normative ground than is commonly supposed. Indeed, I have defended a similar view in my own work. However, those with a different view may well think that Smith has missed, or at least downplayed, an important element in Marx’s critique of liberalism.

My second comment concerns an omission. Although Smith discusses the work of a number of contemporary philosophers, readers of the book might be surprised to find that there is no discussion of G. A. Cohen. As is well known, Cohen’s first book provided an interpretation and defence of Marx’s theory of history. His work then turned towards a sustained engagement with the work of liberal egalitarian philosophers Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls. This engagement was often interpreted as a turn away from Marx. However, Cohen’s last work, Why Not Socialism?, reaffirms the traditional socialist view that the capitalist market is an intrinsically undesirable way of organising economic activity, in that it encourages productive contribution on the basis of motivations – greed and fear – that are inimical to socialist community. In this sense, Cohen was also looking to go beyond liberal egalitarianism. For this reason, it is something of a surprise that he does not feature in the present work. I would have thought he would have made an ideal interlocutor.

My third comment concerns the ‘core thesis’ of liberal egalitarianism. Recall that this states that a ‘capitalist market society is compatible with the institutionalization of the moral equality principle so long as the systematic tendencies of markets to generate results incompatible with that principle are put out of play by effective regulation’. Now, Smith is surely right that many liberal egalitarians hold this view. But I suspect that some liberal egalitarians would accept Smith’s more pessimistic claim that no amount of political regulation can tame capitalism completely. These liberal egalitarians may nevertheless still endorse capitalism, on the grounds that we do not (yet?) have a compelling alternative to it. Overcoming their attachment to capitalism would not be a matter of persuading them that a capitalist market society can never be a society in which the moral equality principle is realised, since they already accept that it will never be. Rather, one would have to provide a compelling alternative to capitalism. In fairness, Smith sketches an interesting alternative in the final pages of the book, one that emphasises the overcoming of the valorisation imperative and workplace democracy. However, it is just that – a sketch. As such, liberal egalitarians may well prefer to stick with the devil they know.

It would, however, be unfair to expect a single book to reconstruct Marx’s view of capitalism and his alternative to it. Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism provides a fair-minded overview of the core tenets of liberal egalitarianism, a clear interpretation of the key elements of Marx’s social theory, and an excellent account of why Marx thought that a capitalist market society will never deliver freedom, equality and human flourishing.  It is an important resource for anyone who wants to understand the challenge Marx presents to liberal egalitarian political philosophy.

10 July 2019


  1. I am surprised that Tony Smith aims his blunderbuss of Marxist categories at “liberal egalitarians”, rather than, say, the New Right. His story reminds me a bit of different protestant and catholic sects at the time of the Reformation, who debated about who could claim to have the “true” concept of what heaven really looked like.

    It seems odd to attack the integrity of people who are in favour of freedom and equality, when those people are the nearest to your own neo-Marxist ideology. The majority of America’s most prominent New Left intellectuals originated from liberal egalitarian milieus (if Paul Bühle and Alan Wald are right), they were born in families where people believed in the values of freedom and equality.

    Tony Smith himself has claimed to be a exponent of “systematic dialectic”. A systematic-dialectical approach to the topic would involve:

    *an exposition of the historical origin, foundations and development of liberal-egalitarian ideology in capitalist societies (the concern with both liberty and equality, spurred by the growth of labour movements, state reformism and civil rights movements in the late 19th and the 20th century).

    *It would trace the emergence of, the mediation of, and the attempts to resolve its contradictions, in the past and in the present.

    *It would inventorize the pitfalls of liberal egalitarian thought, but also acknowledge its manifestly progressive effects on the world (in terms of human rights, civil rights, social security, environmental protection, foreign aid, etc.).

    Yet Tony offers no dialectical story at all in that sense, just a bunch of categories, definitions, typologies and assertions.

    As a “hyper-radical” Marxist, he believes liberal egalitarianism is not good enough, and ought to be transcended. Yet it remains very vague and general what the better alternative is – except that the world should be made a nicer place than liberal egalitarians could imagine.

    Tony wants to dot the i’s on the limits of liberal egalitarianism, with references to scholarly works by other thinkers where these things are discussed in more depth. Liberal egalitarianism is, in his opinion, naive. It must fail, because capitalism is always and everywhere a den of inquity, yeah. Big deal.

    Sure, liberal egalitarianism is not free from weaknesses, vulnerabilities and defects, but in the real world, in practice, liberal egalitarianism is nowadays under attack almost everywhere. It is under attack, because freedom and equality are under attack. Many prominent liberal thinkers say, that they are deeply concerned about that. The world they loved seems to be vanishing more and more.

    It would be nice to think that Marxists had meantime cottoned on to what a viable socialist economy requires (in terms of freedom and equality), and understand about how human morality works, but there is regrettably no such prospect on the horizon. The “super-radical” ultraleftist Marxists want to beat the shit out of the liberals, before they can claim to do anything better than the liberals.

    So really I think Tony Smith’s Marxist blunderbuss is aimed at the wrong guys. He is unwise to attack potential friends, when his own position is just as fragile. Liberal egalitarianism is not the enemy these days; the problem in the real world is rather the substantive LACK of liberal egalitarianism, whatever the rhetorical academic gestures and political flourishes might be.

    The salient question to ask is, WHY is liberal egalitarianism as such in decline?

    Pursuing that line of inquiry, would take you directly to an analysis of the limits of the liberal-egalitarian tendency and the contradictions of capitalism in our epoch.

    Unfortunately though, Tony Smith wants to transcend liberal egalitarianism, without really thinking through what it actually is, that has to be transcended. That is why he just defines his imagined opponents out of existence, using various conceptual constructions, and why his alternative remains vague and sketchy.

    In the real world, I think the situation is worse than many people think. Today’s liberals mostly cannot even argue for liberty and equality anymore, in a cogent and persuasive way. They don’t even have a clear idea anymore about what a liberal commitment means.

    It is not just that famous journalists like Martin Wolf declare vaguely that “Liberalism is not a precise philosophy, it is an attitude” (you can wiggle any which way, with that).

    It is that the real “attitude” of liberals at universities and research institutions – supposedly a prime source of better ideas – is in practice becoming more and more anti-liberal, seeking to censor and suppress dissenting viewpoints which are considered to be “not politically correct”. Samuel Bowles has raised the spectre of the “end of liberalism” – this is not just a perspective of Vladimir Putin as reported in the Financial Times.

    If more and more elite people resort to shutting others out, as a way to resolve a conflict of ideas, rather than facing them with better arguments in a dialogue, the future of liberal egalitarianism does not look good at all, even without Tony’s blunderbuss. The future of liberal democracy does not look good at all.

    If liberal egalitarianism goes down the tubes, then you can kiss your Marxist faculty program goodbye too, because they aren’t going to be there. They are going to be restructured out of existence.

    So before Tony pulls the trigger of his Marxist blunderbuss again, I think he should consider that he is killing off a lot of potential allies.

    Maybe he does not care, because he is as good as retired, with a very nice pension. But the next generation after him does care. They don’t have those opportunities and benefits. They have live with the consequences of the wreckage left behind by the previous generation.

  2. [Mr. Wagner also forgets that for me neither “value” nor “exchange-value” are subjects, but the commodity.
    It is from the value-concept that use-value and exchange-value are supposed to be derived d’abord by Mr. Wagner, not as with me from a concretum, the commodity. ]

    In a word, value, its form, and valorization process as a whole is a ‘derivative’ of that ‘cell’, the commodity form of labor, its dual nature. So long as the very nature of labor as a self-relation is not the focus, there won’t be a new perspective which transcends both liberalism and communism.

  3. Well, actually, there already exist plenty perspectives which have transcended both liberalism and communism. But they are mostly not well known, not popular, or they are hidden. Most people right now cannot understand their meaning, and they cannot recognize what those perspectives are.

    Often, it is precisely the system of concepts which Marxist and liberal academics want to dictate to the world, that prevents them from understanding anything much about the world. They are so far into their own ideology, that they cannot see beyond it.

    Most of the ideas that will shape the future already exist, it is just that they haven’t “caught on” yet, or gained broad appeal. This is a central point of Marx’s active interpretation of history, which BTW has nothing to do with the sterile abstractionism of academic “historical materialism”.

    Marx said “humanity only sets itself such problems as they can solve”, because, by the time people can “think” the problem, alternative solutions are already available in the background. If therefore, the problems “can” in principle be solved, this does not automatically mean yet that they “will” be solved; that requires conscious human action.

    It is one thing to “transcend” something in thought or in theory, but another to “transcend it in practice”. Yet, Marx noticed that it is often the case that things are transcended in practice, before they have been transcended in theory.

    The current theory will say that things are “not possible”, and that they are a logical self-contradiction. But in practice, they turn out to be possible, even although we may not even know exactly yet why that is, within the framework of a consistent, systematic theory. To be a revolutionary of some kind, is to enable the seemingly impossible.

    In the false dialectic, the academic system-builders seek to foist or super-impose their (largely arbitrary) chain of categories and concepts on the world, suggesting “here is the true doctrine, kneel here”.

    In the true dialectic, the intrinsic connections of the different parts of a subject-matter are “discovered” through a genuine analysis, enabling a coherent explanatory narrative which provides a rigorous, dialectical synthesis of the subject-matter – a durable synthesis, that is not easily transcended by the next new idea that wafts into the room.

  4. Previously I said, that universities and research institutions, the home and future of tomorrow’s elite, are becoming “more anti-liberal”. In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof indicates what this is about. See: Nicholas Kristof, “Stop the Knee-Jerk Liberalism That Hurts Its Own Cause”. New York Times, 29 June 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/29/opinion/sunday/liberalism-united-states.html?em_pos=small&ref=headline&nl_art=0&te=1&nl=nickkristof&emc=edit_nk_20190717?campaign_id=45&instance_id=10980&segment_id=15325&user_id=131178e875f9b6f170efe5261bab233a&regi_id=93722158emc=edit_nk_20190717

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