Revolution and Justice

Against the Current, No. 42, January/February 1993

Justin Schwartz

ON JANUARY 9, 1905, the workers of St. Petersburg marched peacefully on the palace of the Czar with a petition seeking “justice and protection,”(1) and were met by the fire of the guard regiments of the capitol. After “Bloody Sunday,” workers and peasants rose in the first Russian Revolution, and by October had actually created a workers’ soviet as an alternative government. The 1905 Russian Revolution was crushed, but it laid the ground for 1917. The workers’ petition, and the revolutionary response to its fate, shows the importance of justice for revolution.

If ordinary people accept the justice of the prevailing order they will petition. If they reject its justice they may revolt. Justice therefore plays a central role in the struggle against oppression.

In Critique of the Gotha Program (CGP), however, Marx dismisses justice as an issue for revolutionaries: “Is … not [the present-day distribution] the only `fair’ distribution on the basis of the present-day mode of production?” His rejection of justice as merely relative turns on his materialist theory of society: “Are economic relations regulated by legal [or moral] conceptions or do not, on the contrary, legal [and moral] relations arise from economic ones?” (528).(2)

If morality or law depends on economics or material social relations broadly construed, as Marx says in The German Ideology, they are mere “ideological reflexes and echoes of [our] life process,” relative to the prevailing mode of production (154). As mere ideology they lack normative force. They do not give us real reasons to act. Revolutionaries should look to nonmoral interests and the “real movement that abolishes the present state of things” (162). Materialism is inconsistent with justice because it shows that justice is relative.

But the Petersburg workers remind us that this position is practically untenable as well as intellectually confused. People are motivated to acquiesce or revolt by their sense of right and wrong, not just by their interests. In practice, Marx himself condemns exploitation in strongly moral terms. For him what’s wrong with exploitation is that it involves unfreedom rather than injustice.(3) But he cannot condemn it morally at all if his critique of justice is valid, and if he appeals to freedom, he cannot rule out justice on these grounds. Nor should he: a sense of justice is a powerful motivation ordinary people actually have to resist exploitation and other forms of oppression.

But if materialism is true, we need a notion of justice that is consistent with materialism. Whether or not Marx is right about the special importance of economic relations, morality, law, and politics are surely dependent on social relations broadly construed. There is no plausible alternative to materialism in the broad sense, to Marx’s idea that “social being determines consciousness” (4).

Moral and political ideas, correct or not, do not fall from the sky, nor are they innate in the mind. Those ideas that become widespread and socially effective do so because of the operation of powerful social interests, including economic ones. The nature of the societies in which we live imposes powerful constraints on what can be thought and what can be done on the basis of what we think. That is what I mean by materialism.

Materialism, Justice and the State

In The State and Justice, Milton Fisk offers the most impressive attempt to date to offer a Marxist theory of justice consistent with materialism.(4) Fisk accepts Marx’s idea that materialism implies relativism, but unlike Marx, he thinks that the relativization of justice helps explain–not explain away–its moral force. For Fisk, justice is relative to the different interests of dominant and subordinate classes, rather than, as for Marx, to modes of production, and each class is bound by its own justice.

I will argue that in the end, Fisk’s justice collapses into something like Marx’s unacceptable appeal to brute interest, because he cannot say which justice we should choose as the right one, or perhaps, indeed, that we choose at all. Much of Fisk’s theory, however, can be adapted for a different strategy which I advocate–reconciling justice with materialism while rejecting relativism. As Fisk argues, dominant and subordinate classes will tend to accept different principles of justice because of their conflicting interests. But this dependence does not imply relativism.

There is an asymmetry between dominant and subordinate justice that allows us to say one is wrong and the other right. Capitalist justice is curiously self-subverting because it reflects capitalist interests in exploitation which cannot be acknowledged without causing workers to reject it. The justice of workers and other subordinate groups, in contrast, is not self-subverting because it is based on interests in emancipation from oppression that can be publicly proclaimed. In the long term, the workers’ justice is more stable.

Many Marxists–and others–accept that materialism implies relativism, but defend justice by rejecting materialism. The German socialists whom Marx attacked in the CGP appealed to an ideal justice based on “natural rights” independent of any social practices. They thought that since labor produces all wealth, workers are entitled to what they produce in virtue of a labor theory of property entitlements. A more sophisticated version of this theory has been resurrected recently by the analytical Marxist G.A. Cohen.(5)

Other neo-Marxists, like Juergen Habermas, appeal to a non-natural but no less ideal justice attained by abstraction from our actual social circumstances: justice is the set of principles for regulating social cooperation to which we would hypothetically consent if we were all free and equal.(6)

But Marx was right to reject natural rights because materialism in the broad sense is true, even if he overemphasized economics among the material determinants of values.(7) And, as Fisk argues, hypothetical consent theories fail because we cannot in general be consistently motivated by a justice that abstracts from the material interests we actually have. Justice must be materialist or nothing at all.

For Fisk, justice is not a set of ideal principles derived by ratiocination but a set of limits on benefits and losses enjoyed or suffered by different social groups. Its function is enable the state to maintain stable rule by reducing social dissatisfaction. In his Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy expresses this idea with startling forthrightness: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

No state, not even Nazi Germany or the Stalinist USSR, can survive without such a set of limits or pattern of justice. A pattern of justice becomes morally binding, when the demands and concessions of every social group attain an equilibrium point. This point will vary with time and place, and, in divided societies, with what dominant groups can safely impose and what subordinate groups will tolerate. So there is no one correct set of principles of justice. A “correct” set is one in the range tolerable under a set of circumstances.

Fisk thus accounts for the moral force of justice by pointing to its explanatory role. How does Fisk’s theory differ from Marx’s dismissal of morality as mere ideology relative to material conditions? If justice is only a set of limits functionally necessary for rule, why respect its claims? Fisk’s reply is that we do respect its claims and regard them as morally binding (72), and that we must respect its claims if we are to have stable rule. There is no transcendental reason beyond that, no reply to Plato, who wanted an answer to the question, “Why be just?” Those who want more, like Plato, will be dissatisfied.

Fisk only purports to tell us what it is to be just, assuming that we want to be. He has nothing to say to those who don’t. I think Fisk’s answer is the best we can get. This is a controversial position, but since it is not an issue between Fisk and me I will not discuss it further.

Official and Radical Justice

Fisk distinguishes between the Official State Justice and Radical Justice. In divided societies, Official State Justice is the set of limits acceptable to the dominant group. While it predominantly reflects the interests of the dominant group, it is not dictated by that group, but is the product of struggle and compromise between dominant and subordinate groups. Too many Marxists suppose that the ruling class uses its control of the means of intellectual production to unilaterally impose on the whole society values that promote its own interests. Fisk insists, in contrast, that even Official State Justice incorporates the interests of subordinate groups, although to a lesser extent than those of the ruling class.

Official State Justice, therefore, is not merely a fraud for the subordinate groups, but genuinely accommodates them to some degree. If it did not, they would be dissatisfied and the state could not rule. Even in Nazi Germany, the workers were given jobs by the armaments production that brought capitalist profits and the Nazi empire. This is Fisk’s version of Gramsci’s theory of ideological hegemony.

Marx says that all “ruling ideas of the epoch,” including its justice, are “ideas of the ruling class” (172), i.e. depend directly on the economy because they benefit its reproduction. But for Fisk, justice in capitalist societies legitimates the capitalist state, not capitalism directly. Justice promotes stable political rule, not class domination and economic exploitation–or it would not take into account the interests of dominated and exploited groups. But Fisk agrees with Marx that the state is functional for the economy: the state maintains the prevailing economic relations and the smooth operation of the economy. The relation of justice to the economy is indirect: justice maintains the state, which in turn maintains the economy.

This indirect relationship means that the demands of justice and of economic reproduction may conflict. To maintain legitimacy, the state may have to oppose the interests of the economically dominant groups, for example, in instituting welfare programs or democratic rights even to the extent of impairing the reproduction of the economy. This is Fisk’s account of state autonomy. Unlike one strain in Marx, in which “political power properly so called” is merely “the organized power of one class for oppressing another” (490), Fisk views the state as partly independent of ruling class economic interests insofar as it must respect subordinate group demands in order to rule. Another way to put this is that the state has an interest in sovereignty, in maintaining its rule, which is a state rather than a pure-and-simple class interest.

The second sort of justice Fisk identifies is Radical Justice, the set of limits on benefits and losses subordinate groups would institute if they were to become the ruling groups. Like Official State Justice it expresses a compromise between various group interests, not just the interests of one group.(8) Since Radical Justice does express the interests of subordinate groups, however, if these conflict with those of the dominant groups, it may have no place for the dominant groups, i.e. it may be revolutionary.

Fisk thinks this is the case with proletarian justice. The basic interests of the proletariat in emancipation–ending exploitation–admit no ultimate compromise with the bourgeoisie. Capitalists have no role, and their interests will not be accommodated, where the working class rules. Fisk does not adequately defend this proposition; he merely remarks that he finds criticisms of the classical Marxist argument for it unpersuasive (131-32). I think he is right, but more must be said.

Radical Justice arises as the positive expression of moral outrage when subordinate group interests are trampled by Official State Justice. Since they are subordinate, this justice is more compromising to their
basic interests, and they are more likely to be harmed by it than is the dominant group. Sometimes a subordinate group responds with outrage. But if the harm it experiences is just–according to prevailing standards–then the group must express the wrong it feels in terms of an alternative justice. Without this, it is hard for the subordinate group to say that it has been wronged rather than only harmed, to be more than just another “special interest.”

Outrage thus given voice depends on solidarity<197>a recognition of common interests and a willingness to act on them. When the outrage reaches beyond a group’s narrow interests to encompass those of others, as workers may come to defend the interests of Blacks and women,(9) it becomes solidaristic in a broad sense, and thus a proper claim of justice, not merely of group interest narrowly conceived.

Is Justice Relative?

Fisk’s emphasis on moral emotions and the importance of solidarity in justice is an improvement on the abstract rationalism of liberal rights theories like Cohen’s or Habermas’. As Marx himself emphasizes in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, classes are constituted by a “mode of life … and culture … that begets … unity … national union and … political organization” (608), as well as by common interests. Shared values and feelings of mutual commitment, the solidaristic sense that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” are not an automatic product of simply having common interests but emerges only with difficulty and uncertainty from shared experiences of struggle.

With at least two sorts of justice in a divided society, relativism looms in a threatening way. Fisk cannot say that economic exploitation is just or unjust, period. Exploitation, within limits, is just from the perspective of Official State Justice, unjust from that of Radical Justice. Which is right from the perspective of the truth? There is no answer. Fisk embraces this deep relativism because, in a divided society, no perspective exists from which dominant and subordinate groups can reach a consensus that will also motivate their behavior given the conflicting interests that they actually have.

How are we to choose which justice to adopt? A merely existential choice–“I go with the workers”–is arbitrary. Fisk’s emphasis on interest-motivated behavior suggests a different reply. We do not choose: we simply have some interests; we find ourselves with them. But first, just because I happen to have some interests does not make them morally acceptable. Do we want to say that if I have capitalist interests then I may exploit workers? (Within the limits of Official State Justice, of course.)

Second, on this reply individual autonomy, the capacity to choose or criticize ends, goes by the boards. Do we want to say that Engels–a capitalist–was morally wrong to side with the workers? Or do we applaud his choice to go against his interests? That we have a capacity to choose is the point of saying that there is a choice problem at all.

Third, the reply cuts off discussion too soon. Milton Fisk says, “I go with the workers.” Milton Friedman says, “I don’t.” Now they fight. Perhaps they must fight, but if it comes to that–especially if it comes to that–it would be nice to have more say about why. If the theory of ideology is right, it is unlikely that Fisk could convince Friedman, but Fisk should to be able to justify his choice to himself. An appeal to interest (by itself) will not do.

Fourth, Fisk and Friedman are professors; neither are clearly workers or capitalists. Many people in modern society occupy such intermediate positions, including most revolutionary socialists. What does the “self-discovery” reply tell them about which side they’re on? Whatever the resolution of the “choice” problem, Fisk’s deep relativism<197>as opposed to his denial of an ideal justice–is insufficiently motivated.

Fisk argues from the impossibility of consensus to the relativity of justice to group interests. This is a mistake; disagreement doesn’t imply relativism. Someone may be wrong even if there is no consensus, even no hypothetical consensus based on abstraction from interests. Indeed, we all may be wrong even if there is a consensus. The truth does not depend on whether we agree among ourselves.

Fisk defends his interest-based relativism elsewhere.(10) But I think the view is infected with this error. The problem of justifying acceptance of a nonconsensual view remains serious, however, even if we reject this relativism, and the “choice” problem becomes sharp again. Fisk would object that if we deny relativism we might as well posit an ideal justice and be done with it. But moral realism no more requires us to go transcendental than scientific realism does.(11)

We argue for a claim of justice from within a moral position and with certain interests. We have no access to the Truth uncontaminated by preconception and interest: this is just materialism in the broad sense. But the same holds for science. We argue for scientific claims from within a scientific theory or practice, and with the interests that practice presupposes. In both cases we argue for the truth of the claim–its truth period, not truth relative to anything. Those who disagree with the claim say that it is wrong–wrong period, not wrong relative to their theory.

Someone might reply that scientific truth itself is similarly relative to interests–that there is, perhaps, bourgeois science and proletarian science. Marxists, who tend to be scientific realists, should find this unappealing.

The Materialism of Choosing Sides

How then can we resolve the “choice” problem and reconcile materialism with justice while rejecting relativism? What is needed is a materialistically acceptable way to rule out some principles of justice but not others. We can appeal to the fact that some interests can be satisfied in the long term if their nature is generally recognized, but others cannot.

Some interests will tend to be frustrated if their nature is acknowledged. That is why oppressors have always dressed up their oppressive interests in fine language: they speak of divine right, natural law, equal opportunity. If they talked plainly of brute power and exploitation, their days would be numbered. (I do not mean that dominant groups have not believed their own ideologies: on the contrary, these ideologies work much better if they are believed by the rulers as well as the ruled!)

We may say that a set of interests is “reflectively acceptable” just in case it can be publicly acknowledged without frustrating its fulfillment.(12) If admitting that a group has certain interests would reduce its long term chances to satisfy them, those interests are not reflectively acceptable. This suggests an argument against the reflective acceptability of capitalist interests in exploitation. The general idea is that no principles of justice that license exploitation, however limited, are reflectively acceptable. Against this background the argument proceeds in three steps. The point is that principles of justice which are not reflectively acceptable are unacceptable period because they cannot be implemented in the long term.

First, for any principles of justice to be stable and realizable, they must be reflectively acceptable, because you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. This is not a moral demand that we act only on interests we can accept if we state them. It is a factual claim that if we act on other interests, this will eventually be revealed in a way that makes their satisfaction difficult. If the interests promoted by some principles of justice cannot be revealed without frustrating those interests, those who are harmed by their promotion will tend to point this out, to discover the interests, and thus to thwart their satisfaction.

Thus the women’s movement rejects not only naked discrimination, but also gender-blind “equality of opportunity” as a mask for male supremacy and instead argues for affirmative action. Strict equal opportunity accommodates women far more than did classic sexism, but still harms an oppressed group, and the group notices and is outraged by this harm. Marxist criticism of Official State Justice as ideological has the same sort of basis.

Second, realizability and stability are conditions that both capitalists and workers will accept as necessary for the adequacy of principles of justice. Both agree that no set of limits on benefits and losses will do if it cannot actually be implemented in the long term. The backing principle is that, as philosophers say, “Ought implies Can.” We are not morally bound to do what we cannot do, and no principles of justice can bind us if we cannot put them into practice and abide by them.

But third, capitalist interests in exploitation are not reflectively acceptable. If they were stated publicly, the workers would not tolerate their fulfillment. Capitalists could not admit that capitalism is based on exploitation–forcing some to work for others under conditions of domination and alienation because of lack of property–without creating mass outrage. To emphasize the point: Injustice is ultimately proven by the fact of struggle against it.(13)

Nor could the capitalist state long survive if it proclaimed that one of its major goals is to ensure efficient (even if limited) exploitation. A defense of capitalism must represent it, as Marx says in Capital Vol. 1, as “a very Eden of the Rights of Man” where “alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham [self-interest]” (342). But this picture is false if capitalism is based on exploitation.

Workers’ interests in ending exploitation, by contrast, are reflectively acceptable. Workers would be more rather than less likely to satisfy their interests were they to acknowledge that they wanted to end exploitation. If capitalism is exploitative, its reflective unacceptability is a long-run source of instability for capitalist society. No matter what new justifications defenders of Official State Justice develop, no matter what welfarist or democratic concessions are forced on the state, exploitation fundamentally compromises the interests of workers, and this cannot be admitted without a threat to the governability of the capitalist state.

Workers therefore have a standing disposition to reject capitalist justice. This disposition may be manifested only intermittently and under special conditions, but it will persist. The workers’ Radical Justice faces no such problem, since it is based on the abolition of exploitation.

Justice versus Exploitation

Capitalists will reject this justice, of course, because it opposes their interests. But unlike the workers, they cannot honestly say why and expect anyone else to agree. Does the capitalist rejection mean that the situation is symmetrical–that each rejects the other’s justice? Only in capitalist society. In a socialist society that implements Radical Justice, there are no capitalists–all are workers, and no group in such a society has an interest in exploitation.

Under capitalism, the (violent) capitalist rejection makes it harder to make Radical Justice into an Official State Justice, to win power. It also means that revolution cannot be defended as just–only as a way to win justice. But we are discussing whether the workers’ justice would be unstable if it were to become Official.

So the conclusion is that the bourgeoisie are wrong to think that capitalism is just and wrong to reject Radical Justice–not just wrong from the perspective of the workers, but also from that of the capitalists, and indeed wrong period. At least they are wrong if capitalism involves exploitation. Capitalists deny that it does; but if Marxist arguments hold, then they are wrong about that too, and wrong period, not just wrong relative to worker interests.

This reply is consistent with materialism. It does not appeal to any transcendental moral truth to which we have no access. It does not involve abstracting from people’s actual interests and perspectives. It turns on exactly the sorts of facts about the functional demands for stable rule that back Fisk’s justice as limits. We can accept both the dependence of moral norms on social being and the injustice of capitalism as a reason to abolish it. We need not treat justice as an ideological illusion to be unmasked.

Milton Fisk’s account of justice as a set of limits on benefits and losses necessary for stable rule allows us to specify with some precision how justice depends on which material factors and to explain its motivating
or normative force. His case that a divided society will have a Radical Justice as well as an Official State Justice gives us a basis for criticizing the existing order.

Fisk’s deep relativism, however, undermines our ability to offer such criticism. But his overall materialist approach does not imply the deep relativism, and indeed reflective acceptability gives us a materialist reason to reject that relativism. We can have justice and materialism without relativism.


  1. “Petition of the Petersburg Workers,” quoted in Leon Trotsky, 1905, Anya Bostock, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1971), 72.
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  2. Here and throughout this essay, parenthetical page references to Marx are to Robert C. Tucker, ed. The Marx-Engels Reader 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1978).
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  3. See my “What’s Wrong With Exploitation?” (manuscript), available on request, and Alan Wood, “Marx and Equality” in John Roemer, ed. Analytical Marxism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 284-303.
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  4. Milton Fisk, The State and Justice (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
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  5. Cohen defends a version of Marx’s materialism in Karl Marx’s Theory of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), but denies that materialism applies to justice. His natural rights theory is in G.A. Cohen, Nozick on Appropriation, New Left Review 150 (1984), 89-107. Marx attacks natural rights in On the Jewish Question, part 1 (40-46).
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  6. See Juergen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, Thomas McCarthy, trans. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973). John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1971), the most influential liberal book on justice of our time, is the most articulated version of this sort of theory.
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  7. Some ideal justice theories, like Rawls’, let materialism in the back door by noting that justice only applies at all in the appropriate material circumstances. The “circumstances of justice” are traditionally identified as those of moderate scarcity. With abundance, justice is not an issue; everyone’s interests are satisfied. (Marx thinks this would hold under full communism.) With too much scarcity, all bets are off because no one will be motivated by considerations of justice. This concedes rather more than advocates of ideal justice would like. First, if motivation matters, why think that most people will be motivated by a justice that abstracts from their interests? And if their interests conflict, their conception of justice will too. Second, if material wealth and scarcity matters, the level as well as the existence of moderate scarcity is relevant. Different levels will correspond to different principles of justice. Marx makes this point in the context of noting that socialism requires the high level of economic development that capitalism produces.
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  8. It follows from Fisk’s account that Radical Justice will have the same sort of indeterminacy as Official State Justice and that there may be several Radical Justices corresponding to the visions of different subordinate groups projected as ruling group. Fisk does not explore this complication.
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  9. Many workers are Blacks and women. But as Blacks and as women, members of these groups have interests distinct from, and not reducible to, those of workers. A Black women worker has at least three sets of group interests.
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  10. Milton Fisk, Ethics and Society (New York: New York University Press, 1980).
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  11. Moral realism, as I use the term here, just means that moral claims can be true or false period, not relative to anything, and that their truth or falsity does not depend on what we think about their truth or falsity. “Prescriptivists” who think that moral claims are commands rather than statements and so cannot be true or false will have to reformulate my arguments in terms of “correctness” or “legitimacy.” But Fisk and I both reject prescriptivism.
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  12. The term is due to Raymond Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981), part 3. My sense of it is different from his. For Guess, a value or belief is reflectively acceptable for an individual if she can retain it after knowing how it was caused. For me, it is reflectively acceptable for a social group if that group and others can retain it while acknowledging its function.
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  13. If workers had no long-term tendency to rebel–because in the manner of a 1984 or Brave New World nightmare they were drugged, sufficiently brainwashed, or subjected to psycho-surgery, then capitalism would not be unjust as defined here. It would still be objectionable for other reasons, including needless unfreedom and denial of human dignity.
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January-February 1993, ATC 42