2013 conference abstracts

Main speakers

Jeffrey Reiman (American University, Washington DC)
Marxian Liberalism

Marxian Liberalism is a theory of justice that results from combining certain liberal beliefs, chiefly, that people have the natural negative right not to be subject to unwanted coercion from others, with some Marxian beliefs, most importantly, that private ownership (especially of means of production) is coercive. Because private ownership is coercive, it must be consented to by all people who do and who will exist (since all will be restricted in their freedom because of it). Thus theoretical consent (à la the original position) is necessary. In Marxian Liberalism, theoretical consent occurs in a Marxian-liberal original position where the parties’ knowledge includes certain Marxian and liberal beliefs. The liberal beliefs are that everyone has a natural negative right to liberty understood as a right to be free of unwanted coercion, that everyone has an interest in maximizing his or her ability to act freely, that some right to private property is necessary for liberty, and that a state is needed to protect liberty and property. The Marxian beliefs are that coercion can function structurally, that a moral version of the labor theory of value is necessary to detect this coercion, and what I call the fungibility of social and material subjugation. Moreover, parties are aware from history (and even from Marxian theory), that socialist and communist states are dangerous to freedom, and have had stagnant economies. In the Marxian-liberal original position, parties will agree to a state in which liberty is protected against unwanted coercion, and to an egaliatarian form of capitalism in which property is subject to the difference principle to make it compatible with people’s right to liberty. Marxian Liberalism thus provides a deduction of the difference principle, which Rawls wanted but recognized he didn’t achieve.

Sean Sayers (Kent)
Marx as a Critic of Liberalism

Marx is well known to be a critic of liberalism, but in many accounts of his thought the criticisms of liberalism that it implies are set aside and his philosophy treated as a sort of radical liberalism. This paper seeks to rescue Marx from this misappropriation and defend him as a critic of liberalism. It focuses particularly on his critique of liberal ideas of rights and justice. Marx rejects the enlightenment liberal idea that there are universal and eternal `human’ or `natural’ rights. He regards moral and political principles as social and historical products. His account of moral values and ideology is interpreted in the light of Hegel’s notion of ethical life (Sittlichkeit). Marx’s critique of bourgeois society does not appeal to transhistorical standards, it is historical and immanent in form. This is demonstrated by reference to his criticisms of liberal ideas of right and justice in `On the Jewish Question’ and Critique of the Gotha Programme. Marxism opposes liberalism, it is argued, not by absolutely rejecting its core values of freedom and equality, but by showing that they cannot be satisfactorily realized in bourgeois liberal society, but only in a communist society. The final part of the paper discusses problems of justifying the Marxist ethical outlook drawing on the work of Georg Lukács.

Christine Sypnowich (Queen’s, Ontario)
Liberalism, Marxism, Equality and Living Well

Egalitarianism is so central to contemporary liberal political philosophy it might be thought that Marxism, reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and most ‘actually existing’ socialist societies, can declare at least one philosophical victory for the argument on behalf of the equal distribution of wealth. However, the endorsement by liberals of the principle of economic equality is not unqualified. Whereas Marx took the view that the remedy of inequality was bound up with a conception of human flourishing, liberal egalitarians argue for agnosticism about questions of how to live. Liberal egalitarians also part company with the Marxist ideal of distribution based on need, arguing that justice requires that inequality be remedied only in cases where disadvantage is the result of unchosen circumstances. This paper argues for the value of Marx’s ideas for contemporary theories of equality. I contend that Marx and his followers developed a view of equality in terms of human flourishing that is illuminating and compelling, and which, moreover, can correct the deficiencies of contemporary liberal argument, such as the mire confronting egalitarians on the subject of individual responsibility and choice. Indeed, Marx’s ‘egalitarian perfectionism’ points to a robust political philosophy that can withstand common objections made to theories of equality, on the one hand, and theories of the good life, on the other.

Graduate panel

Igor Shoikhedbrod (Toronto)
Karl Marx’s Radical Critique of Liberalism and the Future of Right

Karl Marx is often regarded along with Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Schmitt as one of the most powerful critics of liberalism. Unlike Nietzsche and Schmitt, however, Marx was a critic of capitalism and a revolutionary democrat, whose critique of liberalism was inspired foremost by its failure rather than its success in bringing about human emancipation. It is still commonplace to view Marx’s critique of liberalism through his dismissal of rights as the manifestations of the estranged and egotistic individual of bourgeois society in “On the Jewish Question”. According to an interpretation that is now widespread, Marx sees rights only as barriers and never as bridges to human freedom. Thus, it is argued that Marx’s earliest and most mature reflections on right (Recht)—especially in its most universal form as the rights of man (Menschenrechte)—is consistently negative, which presumably explains why both must be abolished, together with private property and classes, before real human emancipation can be realized under communism. Against this view, which is shared by such thinkers as Evgeny Pashukanis, Allen Wood, and Allen Buchanan, I propose an alternative way of approaching Marx’s account of right which seeks to demonstrate that conventional liberal and Marxist interpretations are profoundly one-sided and mistaken in their conclusions. In moving ahead with a re-examination of Marx’s understanding of right, I suggest a self-conscious return to Hegel, particularly to Hegel’s influence on Marx’s methodology and his outlook on human freedom. I maintain that recourse to Hegelian methodology can provide a persuasive case for why Marx did not envision the abolition of right and rights in communist society. Marx’s radical critique of liberalism points instead to the historical potential of moving beyond the “narrow horizons” of bourgeois right.

Dan Swain (Essex)
Justice as Fetish

In this paper I challenge those who have argued that Marx’s critical project ought to be combined or supplemented with normative theories of distributive justice, particularly along the model of liberal theorists such as John Rawls. These arguments tend to suggest that Marx was either incorrect or inconsistent in rejecting the language of rights, justice and distribution.

The weakness of such accounts lies in their use of an ideal theory method for deriving principles of justice combined with a particular model of the individual subject. Drawing an analogy with the work of Evgeny Pashukanis, I argue that the model of the liberal subject implied by such theories shares features with the commodity form in the same way as, according to Pashukanis, the legal subject. The liberal subject can thus be understood as a kind of fetish. Furthermore, the presumption in favour of ideal theory can tend to systematically mask this fact, presenting the liberal subject as the product of distanced reflection, rather than a specific social form.

These features of liberal theories of justice suggest that such theories are going to be limited in their scope for radical criticism, and in particular that they do not fit easily into a Marxist critique. Marx had good reason to be suspicious of such theories.

Andrew Drever (Edinburgh)
Freedom, Autonomy and the Necessity of Normative Theory

This paper will assess two contrasting Marxist perspectives on the relationship between facts and values and discuss how this affects Marxist conceptions of normativity. Alex Callinicos’ Marxism is based on an explanatory critique of capitalism which works alongside a ‘free-standing normative theory’ that draws on the conceptual work of liberal egalitarianism. The strength of this free-standing theory, for Callinicos, is that it formulates principles in abstraction from the world as it is, and therefore entails a separation of factual and value-based enquiry. The open Marxist approach on the other hand argues that Marx’s critique of capitalism does not rest on the analytical separation of facts and values but rather on the dialectical relationship between them; that is, the connection between how things are and how things ought to be. As such, normativity is related to, rather than independent from, reality. The latter approach thus offers a conception of agency in line with Marx’s account of history as being driven by concrete human action, rather than abstract concepts. I will conclude that normativity, when connected to reality, is a necessary aspect of a complete critique of capitalism, while normative theory, which follows liberal political theory’s separation of facts and values, weakens Marx’s critical project.