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As Free and as Just as Possible

By Charles Spencer

Jeffrey Reiman

(Photo: Jeff Watts)

In the preface to his latest book, As Free and as Just as Possible: The Theory of Marxian Liberalism (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), Jeffrey Reiman, the William Fraser McDowell Professor of Philosophy, writes: “I think that the time is ripe for a philosophical theory of justice that combines Marx’s insights—about capitalism, and about the conditions of freedom and the mechanisms of coercion—with the liberalism that socialist states have lacked. Marxian Liberalism is such a theory of justice.”

Reiman recently talked about his theory and Marx’s impact on his thinking.

The phrase “as possible” is a key part of Marxian Liberalism, whether you’re talking about freedom or justice.

I think of Marx as someone in the liberal tradition. He was a Kantian and Hegelian liberal. He believed in freedom of speech and all of the familiar political freedoms. But he discovered another threat to freedom that people didn’t notice. That threat to freedom is built into a social structure where a small number of people own the means of production—factories, land, resources, machines, and so on. Because Marxian Liberalism aims to protect freedom against this additional, often unseen, threat, it makes for a society that is as free as possible.

The tricky part is once you accept the private ownership of means of production, force can be exercised through free negotiation. But there’s not much talk about the force built into the property system itself. That for a Marxist is ideology. You just don’t see it; you’re just too used to it. It’s just there.

On the other hand, I think that capitalism rapidly and dramatically raises people’s material standard of living, and that this amounts to providing them with the means to additional freedom. It gives them the possibility of acting more and more on their personal choices. So ultimately I argue that people can be compensated for the structural coercion of the property system by the way it raises the material standard of living. I think that’s one of the marvelous things about capitalism. It constrains you in this other way but it quite dramatically increases freedom by raising the material standard of living.

And the justice part of the equation?

I think justice is a special moral ideal. If you look at the way justice is treated by people like Kant and Mill, justice always has to do with what can be required of people. In that sense it must take into consideration their actual needs and abilities and desires and level of altruism and so on. So justice is not really an ideal value; it’s more of an applied value. So there too, but in a different way, you can only have as much as possible.

That’s not to say you can’t speak about ideal justice. But what you’re doing is speaking about where you think people can go. So that’s why this is as just as is possible. It’s as just as they can get now.

Many philosophers, among them Kant, Locke, and of course Marx, are important to Marxian Liberalism. But none more so than John Rawls, especially his use of the difference principle.

The difference principle is the distributive principle that Rawls thinks it would be rational for people to agree to in the original position. The basic idea is something like this: In the original position you imagine people are rational. They have general knowledge but no particular knowledge of their own situation. They stand behind a veil of ignorance. They don’t know their talents, race, gender, and so on. They will have some way they want to live; they just don’t know which way it is. They have to agree on principles that they would be willing to live by knowing that they have the general interests of human beings. So in that situation you are forced in a way to choose as if you could be anyone, because in a way you could. That forces a moral point of view on you.

The point of view of morality is the point of view of anyone or the point of view of everyone taken together. Everyone has an equal say or an equal veto. So if you were talking about distribution your first thought would be to divide everything up equally. So then Rawls supposes that somebody comes forth and says, ‘Look, suppose by allowing a certain amount of inequality we could raise the amount that everybody has.’ So everybody would have more, even the people on the bottom of the inequality. This leads to the difference principle which holds that inequalities are justified if and only if they maximize the share of the worst-off group. It’s based on the use of inequalities as incentives to make more available to all.

You defend Marx against people who associate his ideas with failed communist states.

Marx was a democrat; he believed in liberal freedoms. He thought the development of the French constitution, The Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen, was a great step forward. And he believed the American constitution was a great step forward. He was a student of the constitutions of the newly independent American colonies. He saw their progressiveness. But because he saw the other threat to freedom, the threat posed by private ownership, he viewed political rights as providing only partial liberation. Getting political freedom without getting control of the means of production was not fully emancipation.

As for the failure of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union claimed to be socialist, but it basically was a kind of bureaucratic tyranny. There have been Marxist economists who argued that the Soviet Union basically followed the laws of capitalism; it just made the state the main investor. And, since it concentrated economic power in the state, it became a tyranny that left little freedom to its citizens.

Marx has had a great influence on your thinking. Do you recall when you first encountered his work?

Oh, goodness. It must have been as an undergraduate, at Queen’s College.

I have to say this. I didn’t really seriously learn about Marx until after I got here. I came here in 1970, during the Vietnam War and civil rights struggles, and AU then and I think even still now was a very ’60s place. I started sitting in on some of the courses my wife [AU economics associate professor emerita Sue Headlee] was taking as part of her doctoral work in political economy, and I realized that I didn’t really have a serious knowledge of Marx. I had this fluffy knowledge of Marx. I loved the liberation part of it, the radicalness of it.

Yes, he has had a big influence on me. My mother was sure I was going to become a communist. She wasn’t exactly right, but I’m still working on it, my own brand of capitalist-communism.