‘Liberal Socialism: An Alternative Social Ideal Grounded in Rawls and Marx’ reviewed by Alejandro Torres

Liberal Socialism: An Alternative Social Ideal Grounded in Rawls and Marx

Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 2015. 192pp., £52.95 hb
ISBN 9781498506533

Reviewed by Alejandro Torres

About the reviewer

Alejandro Torres is a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at Florida International …


Ian Hunt’s Liberal Socialism proposes a new social ideal of justice, grounded in John Rawls’s political liberalism, and also in socialist critiques of neoliberal capitalism, which, nevertheless, fall within the ambit of Rawlsian liberal theory. The aim of the book is, thus, to provide philosophical grounds for a more complete form of collective freedom; the rules governing just institutions are sought to preserve the necessity for ‘collective working activity as a form of free cooperation’ (9). Thus, the book combines Rawls’ ideas on justice and Marx’s views on economic inequality and alienation of labor to make a plausible case for liberal socialism.

The view of liberal socialism presented by Hunt is neither unique nor unprecedented. Yet, this acknowledgment is generally missing throughout the book. For example, Carlo Rosselli’s Socialismo Liberale (liberal socialism) criticized neoliberal policies, and proposed liberal socialism as a fairer system of justice during the 20th century in Italy. Rosselli targets the injustices of fascist movements that influenced his support of labor unions in the region, while vindicating his belief on liberal democratic essentials. Furthermore, Hunt’s analytical framework will appear familiar to those who have read Étienne Balibar’s political essays on the concept of Equaliberty and Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom paradigm, which suggest that severe social and economic inequalities are nothing but kinds of ‘unfreedoms’ suffered disproportionately by some. In sum, all three references share the methodical conundrum of thinking about equality in terms of freedom capabilities. That said, we must not focus on Ian Hunt’s levels of authenticity as the best way to measure the worthiness of his piece. Rather, the reader should focus on the plausibility of his argument and further attempt to settle an all-encompassing Rawlsian ideal of justice. The author’s motives for thinking about ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘procedural neutrality’ is a good place to start.

Hunt’s book comprises eight chapters. The first five review the question of social choice, the philosophical foundations of neoliberalism, the structure of capitalist market relations, and the relation between distributive and regulatory justice. It may be safe to infer that Hunt’s position is admittedly more pragmatic than Rawls’ theory of justice in the mere sense that society’s fair basic structure is not only logically possible, but also socially possible (16). The following two chapters introduces Marx to the equation in more depth, to address what sorts of goods and values of freedom ought to be legitimized in a market-based society. To conclude, the last chapter recapitulates the author’s optimism towards a moral face of capitalism that rejects the abstract principles exercised under neoliberalism. What else can we hope to attain justice? It is precisely liberal socialism the answer Hunt suggests.

The book begins by appealing to the idea that legislative choices cannot be made only within the political concepts included by Rawls, even if the basic structure of society still seems compatible with his political conception of justice (27). Rather, legislation involves devoting large resources to supporting the sphere of ‘other regarding virtues’ and ‘participation’ in public life, though such expenditures do not make participation a constitutional requirement or regard failure to secure any basic right or fair share of the burdens and benefits of social cooperation. The Rawlsian idea of ‘social cooperation’ is used by the author in nearly every chapter, thereby thinking of liberal socialism as a dialectic of individual liberties and collective freedoms. However, those reading the book will find themselves disappointed if they look for a resolution to collective action problems like minority rights versus majority legislation that take place within the ambit of political liberalism, as the latter retains its guidance for choice of a constitution legislated by majority consent.

In chapter 3, Hunt discusses the merits and flaws of other ideals of justice such as Nozick’s libertarianism and Hayek’s concept of regulatory justice. For neoliberal scholars, an economy is efficient in theory when ‘no redistribution will improve the welfare of anyone without reducing the welfare of all’ (34). This case for neoliberalism carries out assumptions that are more abstract and less robust than they appear, i.e. interventionism in markets for the sake of equity is harmful to efficiency (36). Hunt dismantles this idea by claiming that the relative political power of the capitalist and their ability to block the full development of egalitarianism, differences in opportunities at birth (known by Rawls as the natural lottery) will not reduce inequalities unless we fix the basic structure with economic constraints that limit the ability of the wealthy to benefit from basic opportunities more than others (51).

The case for liberal socialism hereby shown appears first in the sense that, ‘just rules not only require that people not have their opportunities limited by their parents’ resources but also require that they not suffer from other restraints that lessen their free choice of occupation, freedom of movement, or basic liberties of freedom of thought and conscience’ (52). However, it is unclear the extent to which these freedoms overlap. In what ways could free choice of occupation be the result of parental connections? Are people free to choose family networks for certain positions or not? How is freedom of thought and conscience precisely defined? These questions remain unanswered in the text, which makes the book shorthanded for those looking for a complete resolution of justice under liberal democratic systems.

 Hunt proceeds to reconcile Marx’s critics of capitalism with Rawls’s liberalism by noting that they share the conception of procedural justice and neutrality. However, Marx extends it even further, as procedures can only be fair if they most advantage the least advantaged. Resources must be distributed in such ways that people make of them the best social use, without conscious direction to particular outcomes according to any criteria of fairness (63). One major discrepancy between Rawls and Marx remains, however. Market coordination of economic activity for Marx is not freedom-diminishing because modes of production happen outside the scope of conscious collective coordination. Yet, Marx could accept a market economy as long as free association of workers can have socially planned economic activity that is not dominated by impersonal forces. These conditions can be met also under Rawls if ‘a competitive scheme of impersonal and automatic in the details of its operation; its particular results do not express the conscious decision of individuals’ (65). Therefore, the rules of a basic structure are unjust if they coerce members of one social position into having fewer basic goods to favor the claims of members of another social position. One question remains unrequited by Hunt in the text: how do people consent to this ideal system of justice voluntarily? The social ingredient of freedom is preempted by equality, and such understanding is not chosen freely unless consent becomes compulsory (or so it appears).

A hugely important remark, however, is made when Hunt suggests that distributive justice depends on regulative justice and vice versa. Distributive justice requires that society has measures to deal with noncompliance even in ideal theory, since otherwise it could not sufficiently guarantee the security required for its scheme of justice to be stable. Allocative justice is necessary, since otherwise citizens could not have good reason to regard some degree of reliance on pure procedural justice for distribution of basic entitlements as an embodiment of ideals and principles that can be supported for their own sake (101). In sum, regulatory and distributive justice are mutually dependent, not exclusive from each other.

Hunt closes his revision of Rawls and its critics by saying that regulative justice is concerned with just responses to individual vulnerability, while distributive justice in Rawls’s theory is concerned with principled respect for persons (105). The basic structure of a wholly just but not well-ordered society recognizes citizens as needy and rights bearing persons through realizing political justice as the unity of distributive and regulative justice. This new model of justice thus mutually depends on the branch of non-ideal regulative justice.

 Marx’s idea of a good human life is key to spell out the advantages for choosing liberal socialism over other ideals that emphasize the value of individual life and private ownership of productive resources. This position is not to be accepted under all reasonable comprehensive doctrines but only intended to give some individuals reason to choose institutions that support a sphere of other regarding virtues that promote free social cooperation. If a majority adopted this view of the Good, then society may prefer institutions of liberal socialism over its alternatives in order to give concrete shape to their society (113).

For Hunt, Marx’s concept of human freedom does not fully depart from Rawls’ conception of justice. In other words, the emphasis on free collective action by Marx is not incompatible with Rawls’ freestanding view, as the latter applies to labor unions and thus as the necessity for freedom of conscience under fair terms of cooperation (125). Nevertheless, this realization happens far too quickly and thus may appear as somewhat problematic for the reader, because the author fits Marx into Rawls as opposed to grounding an alternative social ideal through the lenses of each political thinker by equal merit.

The underlying logic applied to Marx and Rawls is such that structures for internally free collective activity will need rules to get faithful independent representation of the interests of individuals and groups. These could include a rule that union leaders be no better paid than their best paid members, and rules that allows members to demand reports as well as a new election of trade union leaders (128). If workers in a market based system had ‘the Right to pursue their own happiness, society endorses the aspiration of freedom’ (129).

The last two chapters evaluate which sorts of values interplay with freedom in a social ideal of justice. Hunt argues that such abilities we possess as individual agents outside collective organizations are socially constructed too. For example, ‘people who cannot walk without wheelchairs have greater freedom of movement with them’ (147). This logic is sound i.e.: they would claim a loss of freedom if such access to wheelchairs is constrained. Constraints and abilities that are thus alterable are relevant to our liberty. A good value for collective liberties that flows from a majority decision to set up institutions for liberal socialism will remove constraints against free collective activity (152). Yet, what is there to be said about minority provisions? A new social ideal has at its core an ideological basis which is not clearly stated in the book, given the author’s preference in presenting a more pragmatic vision of justice. But the problem of abstraction is yet to be clarified.  

13 January 2017


  1. Alexandro Torres thinks that I do not acknowledge others who have advocated what they call “liberal socialism”. It was not my purpose to give such a review, which would have listed similarities and dissimilarities with such views. This accounts for my lack of reference to them. The only uniqueness claimed is the development of the liberal socialism on the basis of Rawls and Marx.
    I was also disappointed that Torres makes no mention of my development of Marx’s implicit case for the injustice of capitalism, which I regard as an important strengthening of Rawls’s critique of the injustice of capitalism. Another way in which I developed a view that does not simply amount to fitting Marx’s view into that of Rawls was my attempt to develop Marx’s view of the good, which Rawls does not deal with at all. I do not regard my book as fitting Marx’s views into those of Rawls. I suspect that Marx’s view might have been inconsistent with Rawls’s. What i do is use Rawls to spell out a view of the injustice of capitalism, which i think Marx had but left implicit for various reasons. I use Marx’s view of capitalism to strengthen Rawls’s argument for saying it is unjust and to spell out a view of a good society (socialism), which Rawls does not deal with explicitly for various reasons.
    I would also have wanted Torres to register my discussion of the problem of collective agency and the ways I suggest that that free collective activity must include ways of representing minority views.

  2. Thank you for your response to my review. I believe that your book was an ambitious and well-written piece in terms of its contribution, which lies at grounding a social ideal of justice on the basis of Rawls and Marx. However, aside from whether such a review of previous works meets the purpose of the book or not, their contributions on the subject of “liberal socialism” are helpful to understand why Rawls and Marx provide a “new” social ideal and how exactly does this ideal of justice is more pragmatic or convenient than previous philosophical works. That said, a review of the literature does not deviate from the main purpose advanced in the book, but they add important nuances that might be worth considering as well. On the other hand, Marx’s critique of the injustice of capitalism is well cited throughout, and I gave reference to the idea that “Resources must be distributed in such ways that people make of them the best social use, without conscious direction to particular outcomes according to any criteria of fairness.” This applies concretely to Marx’s critique of capitalism and to the objectionable capitalist mentality evident in Rawls’ difference principle. However, “Marx could accept a market economy as long as free association of workers can have socially planned economic activity that is not dominated by impersonal forces. These conditions can be met also under Rawls if ‘a competitive scheme of impersonal and automatic in the details of its operation; its particular results do not express the conscious decision of individuals’ (65).” Therefore, Marx’s critique of capitalism has not been overlooked. I wish, rather, that the text had been more consistent with its original thesis, as the argument tends to circulate different ideas taken from Marx to fit the platform of Rawls (as you recognized in your last sentence of the first paragraph in your comment). I believe you’re right in your remark that you suspect Marx and Rawls to be incompatible, but this is often unclear throughout the text. On the one hand, you make the claim that “I use Marx’s view of capitalism to strengthen Rawls’ argument for saying it is unjust and to spell out a view of a good society…” On the other, you claim that “I suspect that Marx’s view might have been inconsistent with Rawls.” Hence, this may appear confusing, and to some extent contradictory to the reader.
    I will look more carefully over your discussion of the problem of collective agency and the ways you suggest free collective activity, which I found particularly weak if you aimed to reconcile varying collective action problems with the liberal ideal of justice combined with socialism hereby discussed.

    All best,

  3. I appreciate Mr. Torres’ review on the subject of “liberal socialism.” I read the book myself not too long ago, and I am able to sympathize with most of the remarks discussed in the review while disagreeing with others. The text may seem paradoxical to the reader if we seek to read beforehand a “new” social ideal of liberal socialism. The author seems to merely apply Marx conveniently to Rawls’ principles of justice, but this is different from treating each thinker by equal merit. Hence, I share that very same impression. Following Mr. Hunt’s rather emotional response in the comments, I am skeptical about the extent to which he recognizes this constructive note in his work. Indeed, even if other works on liberal socialism are not the purpose of the book, the tradition (as such) deserves more historical attention that it is provided here. On the other hand, I do think Mr. Torres does not emphasize really Hunt’s work on free collective action, which offers a great deal of attention to minority provisions even if these are not specific or fully consistent with Rawls’ liberalism.

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