Marx, Morality, and the Global Justice Debate by Lawrence Wilde with Capabilities, Equality, and Class Justice by George DeMartino

PDF Version: Capabilities, Equality, and Class Justice: A Reply to Wilde by George DeMartino.

Marx, Morality, and the Global Justice Debate

By Lawrence Wilde


Marx’s disdain for moral discourse is well known, and it is therefore hardly surprising that he barely rates a mention in the global justice debate that has developed apace over the last two decades. However, it is questionable that the debate, addressing as it does systemic inequalities in power, should simply ignore Marx’s analysis of exploitation in capitalism and its implicit ethical grounding in the alienation thesis. Conventional Marxist positions can be critical of liberal arguments about justice, but offer no alternative within moral discourse. However, if the ethical significance of Marx’s social theory is admitted, it could produce a radical and constructive contribution to global justice.  This paper argues for such an engagement on two grounds. First, that Marx’s hostility to moral discourse was a tactical choice rather than a rejection of morality as such, and that this choice is no longer justifiable. Second, there is an ethics explicit in his early writings and implicit in his mature political economy that could be developed to produce an ethics of self-realisation. The point of access to existing debates in global justice is the work of Martha Nussbaum, one of the few contributors to make use of Marx’s philosophical views on human flourishing. A Marxist perspective could give qualified support to her capabilities approach, as applied to global justice in Frontiers of Justice (2006), while clarifying its limitations in not dealing with the realities of global economic power.


Marx is conspicuous by his absence from the burgeoning debate on global justice. Recent summaries of leading contributions, as well as edited collections, barely mention Marx.[1] In the extensive Global Justice Reader, edited by Thom Brooks, he fares a little better, but on closer inspection all the references relate to the work of one theorist, Martha Nussbaum (Brooks 2008: 600-618).[2] Nussbaum’s use of Marx’s philosophy of human potential raises interesting questions about the relationship between liberal approaches to global justice and Marxism, an issue that will be addressed in the final part of the paper. First, however, I want to deal with the most obvious reason for the neglect of Marx in this field, namely, the hostility he displayed towards moral discourse from 1845 to the end of his life.  In this part of the paper I argue that this rejection of moral discourse was a tactical choice, contingent on the particular circumstances of the time and no longer appropriate to the circumstances we face today. The second part will argue that there is an ethical viewpoint implicit in Marx’s analysis, a eudaemonistic ethics understood as a commitment to self-realisation through the development of key potentials. The third part will examine how Martha Nussbaum uses Marx’s philosophy to support her capabilities approach to global justice, as set down in Frontiers of Justice (2006). I argue that her selective use of Marx could be augmented by a stronger commitment to a project of de-alienation that would require the radical re-regulation of the world economy.

Marx’s Anti-Moralism as a Tactical Choice

Before 1845 there is a strong moral thrust to Marx’s central argument that capitalism is rooted in alienation and has a dehumanising impact, not only on the working class but on society as a whole. In The German Ideology (1845-46), Marx begins to develop a social science that has no truck with moralising or indeed with abstract philosophical argument. His impatience with philosophy that does not take into account real social relations in their historical context was evident already in the Theses on Feuerbach (1845). Now, on the understanding that it is not consciousness that determines life but life that determines consciousness, morality, along with religion and metaphysics, is treated as epiphenomenal to the development of the social life process (Marx 1976a: 36-37). Having made this general point, Marx goes on to make a number of attacks against individual philosophers for their muddle-headed moralism, and, in an attack on Max Stirner, makes the unequivocal point that ‘communists do not preach morality at all’ (ibid: 247).

In the Communist Manifesto (1848) we find a relativist view of morality whereby all moral, religious and philosophical ideas are seen as reflections of the conditions of material existence, so that ‘the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class’ (Marx 1976b: 503). Marx anticipates the objection that morality itself has persisted throughout history, despite historical modifications, and therefore if communism rejects ‘eternal truths’ it runs the risk of acting in contradiction to all past historical experience’ (ibid, 504), but his answer is highly unconvincing. He insists that since all the history of past society has been one of class antagonism, the common forms of consciousness must reflect, in various ways, the exploitative nature of class society. Only with the abolition of class antagonisms can these common forms of consciousness be left behind, so that communism therefore involves the ‘most radical rupture with traditional ideas’ (ibid). Marx then abruptly ends the discussion and urges the working class to win the battle for democracy. What we are left with here is an approach that feels free to criticise all moral judgements on the grounds that they reflect particular material interests, but resolutely refuses to be drawn on its own moral position. Nevertheless it should at least be conceded that the communist society of the future will have its own moral principles. At one stage in the third volume of Capital, Marx projects one aspect of what a communist moral viewpoint would look like, when he states that the private ownership of land will come to be regarded as just as absurd as the idea of slavery appears to us in liberal society (Marx 1981: 911). However, this is an isolated instance of thinking about what a socialist morality might look like, and Marx in general abjures from discussing how a revolutionary moral consciousness might develop. Instead, all is left to the revolutionary struggle, informed by theoretical analyses of the economic and political conditions.

It is not hard to gauge the reasons for Marx’s moral reticence. Put briefly, socialist arguments based on moral objections to unfairness or exclusion run the risk of blocking the emergence of analyses of the conditions confronted by the working class, and such analyses were vital to identifying the most propitious ways of organising and intervening politically. At this relatively early time in the development of socialist thought, most of the contributions were moralistic or utopian, setting down ideal alternatives without due consideration of how revolutionary social  movements could develop under existing conditions and circumstances. Marx wanted to move beyond the twin postures of outrage and yearning, towards developing a better understanding of what was possible under given conditions and circumstances. However, it is important to recognise that Marx was making a tactical choice in shunning moral argument, rather than repudiating the idea that the struggle for socialism has a moral dimension. In other words, his denunciation of specific moral positions should not be taken to mean that all moral utterances are nonsense.

An example of Marx denouncing bad moralising without rejecting the validity of all moral thinking as such can be found in those parts of the Critique of the Gotha Programme in which the German Social Democratic Party claims for all members of society ‘an equal right to the undiminished proceeds of labour’ and ‘a just distribution of the proceeds of labour’ (Marx 1974: 341-347). On the ‘just distribution’ argument, Marx repeats his relativist position by stating that the bourgeoisie would claim that the present system of distribution is just and that they would be right to do so within the present relations of production (Marx 1974: 344). However, Marx makes it clear that by ‘just’ he refers to a legal concept of right, thereby leaving open the possibility that it may be considered unjust by some socialist standard that anticipates a post-capitalist future. The argument against the ‘equal right to undiminished proceeds’ is simply that if all people had equal right, that would include those who do not work, and if that was the case then the proceeds of labour would not be ‘undiminished’. Marx then goes on to make a number of points about how part of the proceeds of labour must be set aside for public services, including looking after those who are not able to work. Marx terms these demands ‘obsolete verbal rubbish’ (Marx 1974: 347), but this judgement is quite specific to the cases discussed and should not be construed as a general repudiation of morality per se. Not only does Marx concede that ideas of this sort may have ‘made sense’ at a particular time, but he endorses a principle of distributive justice for the future communist society, already well established in socialist circles – ‘from each according to ability to each according to needs’ (ibid).

Along with his aversion to moral discourse, then, is an acknowledgment that moral statements can make sense and that moral ideals are an inevitable part of class struggle. When he wrote the Provisional Rules of the First International in 1864, he included a commitment that the members of the International ‘will acknowledge truth, justice, and morality, as the basis of their conduct towards each other, and towards all men, without regard to colour, creed, or nationality,’ followed by a claim for the rights and duties of man and citizen (Marx 1974: 82-83). In a letter to Engels, Marx reveals that he had been ‘obliged’ to insert these sentences by the sub-committee, adding that ‘these are so placed that they can do no harm’ (Marx 1987: 18). So, although he would not have adopted this language if left to his own devices, he was quite willing to put his name to these moral commitments. Indeed, in his own Inaugural Address to the International he urged the working class to oppose the predatory foreign policies of the various governments, in order to ‘vindicate the simple laws of morals and justice’ which ought to govern both relations between individuals and relations between states (Marx 1974: 81).

Marx never denied that workers were motivated by ideals, despite the passage in The Civil War in France in which he argues that the working class did not expect miracles from the Paris Commune and were not trying to introduce a ready-made utopia overnight. He claims that the workers ‘have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant’ (Marx 1974: 213). Geras has interpreted this to mean that Marx denied that the workers had ideals at all (Geras 1986: 55), but if we read the ‘but’ in the sentence as ‘except’ then it becomes clear that setting free elements of the new society from the status quo is just such an ideal, an ideal of emancipation. This becomes apparent in the relevant passage of the first draft, in which Marx argues that from the moment the workers’ struggle became real, the ‘fantastic utopias evanesced, not because the working class had given up the end aimed at by these Utopians, but because they had found the real means to realise them’ (Marx 1974: 262). It is perfectly clear from this that Marx acknowledges that the workers have ideals, and indeed in the closing paragraph of The Civil War in France Marx declares that the martyrs of the Commune will become part of the collective memory of the working class, fired by outrage against those responsible for their deaths, who will be ‘nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them’ (Marx 1974: 233).

Marx chose to downplay moral argument because he considered that it would detract from the imperative tasks of analysing the contradictions of capitalism and formulating an effective political strategy. Yet even if we accept Marx’s moral relativism, we are still entitled to ponder what precepts of justice would be appropriate to communist society, and, furthermore, we should be able to identify how those feelings for justice are developing in late capitalism. Marx did not consider it important to dwell on such issues in the nineteenth century, instead relying on a conviction – indeed a faith – that the working class would achieve a consciousness of its own position and create effective revolutionary movements. Despite his frequent observations about competition among the workers, the baleful effects of national and racial prejudice, and the moderating effects of parliamentary politics, he had an unwavering conviction that working class political action would replace capitalist society with communist society. Implicitly, there was an assumption that socialist consciousness would grow in step with the growth of the proletariat and its organisations. These hopes have not materialised, and, furthermore, the failure to realize Marx’s injunction in the eleventh of the Theses on Feuerbach to change the world should prompt a critical reappraisal of his rejection of philosophy and morality. As Adorno rightly comments at the outset of Negative Dialectics, not to do so would constitute ‘a defeatism of reason’ (Adorno, 1973: 3). Such reappraisal is made all the more urgent by the fact that, in the twentieth century, Marxist movements actually adopted a default moral position of ‘the end justifies the means’ without any serious consideration of either means or ends, with disastrous consequences, as Steven Lukes argues in Marxism and Morality (Lukes, 1985: 100-138). Marx’s work provides a rich resource for the development of arguments that disclose global exploitation not simply as the manifestation of global class struggle, but also as global injustice. Struggles for economic re-regulation are also struggles for human freedom. It is incumbent on those who accept the truth of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and who share the normative goals that are clearly present in his work, to engage in this moral discourse. The moral debate is also a political debate, and, through the process of ‘normative framing’, radical forces in civil society can mount a serious challenge to neo-liberalism. If Marxists have only negative criticisms to offer in relation to the arguments about global justice, they will effectively be adopting the sort of ‘political indifferentism’ which Marx condemned the anarchists for at the time of the First International (Marx 1974: 327-332).

Marx’s Implicit Eudaemonistic Ethics

Having established that Marx’s hostility to moral discourse does not involve a rejection of morality per se, the question arises as to what sort of ethics can be extracted from Marx’s work. What is clear is that there is plenty to work with, for his analysis of capitalism is replete with morally committed references to the extraction of surplus value as robbing, stealing, embezzling or ‘pumping booty’ out of the workers, and elsewhere as theft and loot (see Peffer 1990: 145). The literature on the implicit ethics of Marx is extensive and has been expertly reviewed by Rodney Peffer in Marxism, Morality, and Social Justice (1990), where he identifies two approaches. The first is to attempt to reconstruct Marx’s own moral viewpoint, making explicit what is implicit in his work. The second is to re-frame Marx’s social theory through the lens of existing moral theories such as Kantianism or utilitarianism; Peffer himself constructs a Marxist moral theory along the lines of Rawls’s theory of justice. This second approach has the merits of opening a dialogue with mainstream moral philosophy, but loses the richness of Marx’s original perspectives, developed out of his immersion in the ethics of Ancient Greece. So, I opt for the first approach, and, following scholars such as John Somerville, Alan Nasser, Hilliard Aronovitch and Richard Miller (discussed in Peffer 1990: 100–106), argue that Marx’s implicit moral position remains as it was in the early writings, firmly in the eudaemonistic tradition (Wilde 1998: 1-50).[3] What is required here is a clarification of what Marx considered human beings in capitalism to be alienated from in order to illuminate his normative conception of human emancipation.

The alienation thesis is the leitmotif of the Economic and Philosophical Writings. Marx bemoans the fact that work is experienced as deadening compulsion, with the worker feeling free only in functions such as eating, drinking and making love, which, taken abstractly, are animal functions (Marx 1975a: 275). The fact that these functions are shared with animals does not mean that they are not also human needs which are being met, but clearly for Marx there must be more to human life than this. In discussing alienation from species-being, Marx enlarges on the difference between humans and animals, much as Aristotle had done when discussing human essence (he had just translated Aristotle’s De Anima – “On the Soul” – into German). According to Marx, ‘conscious life activity’ distinguishes humans from animals, for whereas animals are ‘immediately one’ with their life activity, humans make their life activity the object of their will and consciousness. This emphasis on rational planning of our ‘activity’ is followed by a sharper focus on the human capacity for social production, creating products for each other in a consciously planned way. ‘It is just because of this that he is a species-being,’ comments Marx, a conscious being for whom ‘his own life is an object for him’ and ‘his activity free activity’:

By creating a world of objects, humans prove themselves to be conscious species-beings, or, in other words, they demonstrate their essence. Animals too produce, but only for what they or their young immediately need; they produce only to meet their immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need. Indeed truly free production occurs only when immediate needs are taken care of, and humans gain knowledge of how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and how to produce what we think of as beautiful. (ibid: 276-7)

In other words, animals can adapt to their environment by changing themselves – autoplasticity – but humans can change the environment – alloplasticity. However, under alienation, the objective demonstration of human essence is contradicted by the subjective experience of the mass of producers, who are condemned to adaptation rather than self-realisation.

Like Aristotle, Marx holds firm to the idea that we are fundamentally social beings. He expresses this at length in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and reiterates it in the Grundrisse and the first volume of Capital by quoting Aristotle’s conception of man as a zoon politikon. Marx therefore conceives human essence as conscious and social life activity, but with the development of alienated labour our human essence is deformed into nothing more than a means to our existence. He talks about workers losing their freedom ‘in the service of greed,’ becoming ‘depressed spiritually and physically to the condition of a machine’ (Marx 1975a: 237-238), a metaphor that recurs in the Manifesto and also in the first volume of Capital (Marx 1976b: 490-491; Marx 1976c: 799). Although the roots of alienation are located in the purchase and sale of labour power, the malaise is not confined to the world of work. Rather the perversion of human potential is achieved through the medium of money, raised to a position of omnipotence, where it confounds and confuses ‘all natural human qualities’ and turns the world upside down (Marx 1975a: 326). It is not only workers who are alienated in the despotism that is the money economy, it is the entire society. The task of the communists is to lead society away from this alienation, so that our essential human potentials can be realised. Communism is the ‘real appropriation of the human essence by and for man’ and ‘the return of man to himself as a social being’ (Marx 1975a: 296).

Paradoxically, while capitalism denies human self-realisation to those dependent on the sale of their labour power, it simultaneously exhibits the immense capacity of human creativity. The development of industry demonstrates the ‘open book of man’s essential powers’ while at the same time it furthers the ‘dehumanisation of man’ (Marx 1975a: 302-303). This conception of dehumanisation is present throughout Marx’s works, as a loss to be recovered through social struggles. In order to combat it, a communist consciousness must develop in revolutionary activity, through which the working class rids itself ‘of all the muck of ages and becomes fitted to found society anew’ (Marx 1976a: 52-53). The exploitation of the worker is seen as the deprivation of the worker’s social creativity, its perversion into a form of wage slavery, to be redeemed only through revolutionary transformation that will deliver what he envisions in the third volume of Capital as the ‘true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself.’ In this projection real freedom can be developed only when producers have full control over the process of production and work-time has been minimised (Marx 1981: 959). The goal is one of self-realisation, where the self is understood always as a social self (Marx 1973: 611-612; Wilde 1998: 24-29).

Perhaps the clearest indication of Marx’s awareness of the centrality of human essence to moral judgement occurs in a footnote in the first volume of Capital in which he derides Bentham for applying the principle of utility to human needs without first specifying a theory of ‘human nature in general’. Marx, of course, recognized that human nature is also constantly in the process of being ‘historically modified’, but here he explicitly endorses a eudaemonistic conception of a distinctive human essence. He makes a comparison with the animal world, stating that just as ‘to know what is useful for a dog one must investigate the nature of dogs’, so too we must consider the nature of humans (Marx 1976c: 758-759n). For all that Marx emphasises the changing historical dynamics of human needs, he maintains this Aristotelian commitment to human nature ‘in general’ as both descriptive and normative, looking forward to a future in which alienation is overcome and human potential can be realised to the full by all the peoples of the world. Marx, of course, never developed these insights into an ethical theory, but it is possible to do so, and I have argued elsewhere that the ethical work of Erich Fromm is the closest we have to a developed eudaemonistic ethics in the Marxist tradition (Wilde 2004 and 2007; Fromm 2002; Fromm, 2003). From this ‘radical humanist’ perspective, moral progress can be assessed – and struggled for – according to the positive development of our potentials for reason, productive work, care and solidarity. Such an approach carries similarities with the capabilities approach to global justice developed by Nussbaum.

The Capabilities Approach

Nussbaum first sets down her account of the basic human functions in a long polemical article in Political Theory in 1992 entitled “Human Functioning and Aristotelian Justice: In Defence of Aristotelian Essentialism”. At the head of the article is a quotation from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts in which he extols the virtue of the rich human being in need of the totality of human life, for whom self-realisation exists as an inner necessity and for whom the greatest wealth is the other human being (Nussbaum 1992: 202, cf. Marx 1975a 304.) She introduces her argument by recounting experiences at conferences at which papers by postmodernists defended a variety of traditional cultural practices that would be intuitively deplored by defenders of human rights. The postmodernist view maintained that we should respect the traditions of others, having no right to impose western values or make essentialist judgements about those traditions. At one such event the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm responded with a blistering attack on this cultural relativism and was angrily asked to leave the room. Nussbaum objects that these anti-essentialist postmodernists are ‘people who think of themselves as progressive and feminist and antiracists,’ but ‘are taking up positions that converge, as Hobsbawm correctly saw, with the positions of reaction, oppression and sexism’ (Nussbaum 1992: 204). She adds that in her own essentialist way she commits to life over death, freedom over slavery, nutrition over starvation and knowledge over ignorance. Here she makes common cause with a Marxist committed to ‘a determinate conception of human need and human flourishing’ resolutely opposed to what she then termed ‘the new subjectivism’ (Nussbaum 1992: 212).

Nussbaum then, exasperated by the sanctification of difference, wants to emphasise what we share in common as human beings. Capabilities are regarded as what people are able to ‘do’ and to ‘be’ (Nussbaum 2000, 71: Nussbaum 2006: 70). Her purpose is to identify the most important human functions so that we can make demands on our social and political institutions for their promotion (Nussbaum 1992: 214). She lists ten “functional capabilities” in the 1992 article (ibid: 215) that are substantially retained in later works, in particular Women and Human Development (Nussbaum 2000: 78-80) and Frontiers of Justice (Nussbaum 2006: 71-76). Table one is a summary of her human capabilities, using the headings adopted in the two books:

Table One:

Nussbaum’s Capabilities

1. Life. Being able to lead a full life.

2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health.

3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to have physical security, sexual satisfaction, and choice about reproduction.

4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses in a truly human way through education and guarantees of free expression.

5. Emotions. Being able to develop our emotions of love, grieving, longing and gratitude.

6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to plan one’s own life.

7. Affiliation. Being able to live with and for others. Being free from discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion or national origin.

8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for animals, plants, and the world of nature.

9. Play. Being able to laugh and play.

10. Control Over One’s Environment. Being able to participate politically, being able to hold property on an equal basis with others, and being able to work with meaningful relationships of recognition with other workers.

It should be noted that two of the capabilities, practical reason and affiliation, are held to play a special, architectonic, role, holding the project together and making it human.

In proposing her capabilities approach, Nussbaum is determined to stay within the camp of political liberalism, and she sees her contribution as complementary to contractarian and human rights perspectives (Nussbaum, 2006: 7). She emphasises that the approach builds in a respect for pluralism in a number of ways. The list is open-ended and subject to revision, and its abstract and general nature allows for different applications of the same principles. In the most recent version she is careful to specify that she is talking about capability rather than functioning, so that people may be enabled to do something but may not necessarily choose to do it. For example, a person may have the right to vote but may choose not to participate in the particular polity in which they reside for various reasons. She gives the major liberties of speech, association and conscience ‘a central and non-negotiable place’, but she also insists that, while her approach provides a good basis for global political principles, it is not intended to justify implementation by force or sanctions (Nussbaum 2006: 78-80).

Why, then, does she consider the capabilities approach superior to that of the contractarian approach? In one sense she is trying to take care of issues which Rawls himself admits are not dealt with adequately by his approach, namely, what is owed to people with disabilities, what is owed to animals, the problem of justice across national boundaries, and the problem of saving for future generations (Nussbaum 2006, 23; Rawls 1996, 21). These problems flow from the setting up of the framing of the contract, whereby the framers are considered to be more or less equal abstract individuals within a nation state who are also going to be the recipients of the justice outcome. However, the key moral element that Nussbaum is unhappy with is the presupposition that the pursuit of mutual advantage is the justification for social cooperation. Supporters of contractarianism would view this is a strength because it provides rational grounds to support whatever agreements are reached, where rationality is assumed to equate with narrowly conceived self interest. In other words, it dispenses with altruism, which is intuitively taken to be irrational and simply too demanding. Although versions of the Contractarian approach try to build in consideration of others to avoid egoism, the ghost of Hobbes continues to haunt all contractarianism. Nussbaum comments that the pursuit of mutual advantage is not ‘less’ than a compassionate commitment to the well-being of others, ‘it is just different’, and she considers that adopting the ‘parsimonious’ starting point of mutual advantage is likely to lead in a different direction than an ‘other-committed’ starting point (Nussbaum 2006: 35). Nussbaum’s intuition here is that this ruling out of sociability and benevolence as a part of what it is to be human leads rather too easily to an acceptance that humans are by nature egoistic utility maximisers. As an Aristotle scholar she prefers a different starting point, that we are by nature social beings, and she finds support in this view from the young Marx.

On the specific issues of global justice, Nussbaum begins by describing the gross inequalities between the peoples of rich and poor countries (ibid: 224-225). She is sceptical of the efforts of Contractarian theorists to deal with this issue. Rawls admits that his original position does not translate to the global sphere, and when Beitz (1999) and Pogge (1989) try to extend it, they ignore the ‘circumstances of justice’ assumptions that are crucial to the origin of the contract (Nussbaum 2006: 268).[4] The capabilities approach endeavours to identify human needs that have to be met, in a variety of ways depending on cultural difference, if we are to create a more just world. In terms of advancing the development of her capabilities to a minimum threshold, Nussbaum develops another list, this time specifying ten principles to guide our pursuit of global justice:

Table Two:

Nussbaum’s Ten Principles for the Global Structure

1. Overdetermination of responsibility: the domestic never escapes it. All nations, rich and poor, must take responsibility to promote human capabilities up to some reasonable threshold level.

2. National sovereignty should be respected, within the constraints of promoting human capabilities.

3. Prosperous nations have a responsibility to give a substantial portion of their GDP to poorer nations.

4. Multinational corporations have responsibilities for promoting human capabilities in the regions in which they operate.

5. The main structures of the global economic order must be designed to be fair to poor and developing countries.

6. We should cultivate a thin, decentralised, and yet forceful global sphere.

7. All institutions and (most) individuals should focus on the problems of the disadvantaged in each nation and region.

8. Care for the ill, the elderly, children, and the disabled should be a prominent focus of the world community.

9. The family should be treated as a sphere that is precious but not ‘private’.

10. All institutions and individuals have a responsibility to support education, as key to the empowerment of currently disadvantaged people.

(Nussbaum, 2006 315-24)

The contentious issue is the extent to which these principles seek only to ameliorate current distress rather than confront the structural causes of oppression.

Nussbaum’s approach reflects her Aristotelian heritage, with the emphasis on good functioning leading to eudaemonia or human flourishing, but she also draws also on Marx and assumes an affinity between the two philosophers. In a collection edited by George McCarthy, Marx and Aristotle, Nussbaum outlines the Aristotelian basis of the emphasis on function and capability, and at the end of her article, originally presented in 1986, she points out the similarities with the views on fully human functioning expressed by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, citing the passage in which Marx points to the different conceptions of food held by a starving man and one who eats for sensual enjoyment (Nussbaum 1992b: 204-205). The point here is that the capability to function in a truly human way, in this case to express discernment and taste, cannot be fulfilled by those deprived of the requisite material resources. Nussbaum cites Geoffrey de Sainte Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World in support of the view that Marx was strongly influenced by Aristotle in the development of his theory of class struggle. She also argues that Marx shifts allegiance from the Hellenistic philosophers (particularly Epicurus) to Aristotle around 1844 (Nussbaum 1992b: 211, n. 47) as part of a move towards a total commitment to political activism. Whereas Epicurus preached withdrawal from public life, Aristotle charged us to make our social institutions consonant with justice (Nussbaum 1994: 11).

Broadly speaking there are two aspects of the young Marx’s humanist philosophy that she commends. First there is the commitment to the idea of truly human functioning, involving a wide range of human life activities (Nussbaum 2006, 74). As essentially rational beings we need to exercise our human potentials, and a life reduced to survival is stripped of its humanity. Nussbaum argues that the capabilities approach shares with Aristotle and Marx the view that it is tragic waste when people are not enabled to develop (Nussbaum, 2006: 346-347). She also credits Marx’s understanding of humans as creatures in need of ‘the plurality of life activities’, seeing rationality as only one of our functions, and respecting the fact that we share other functions with other animals (Nussbaum 2006: 159-160). In general then, Nussbaum takes from the young Marx the appreciation of ‘rich human need’, prominently including needs for other people (ibid: 132).

This conception of humans as quintessentially social beings is the second insight she takes from Marx, as well as Aristotle:

the capabilities approach takes its start from the Aristotelian/Marxian conception of the human being as a social and political being, who finds fulfilment in relation with others. Whereas contractarians typically think of the family as ‘natural,’ and the political as in some significant sense artificial, the capabilities approach makes no such distinction (ibid: 85-86).

One of the most important of what Marx termed “rich human needs” is the need for others (ibid: 132). In Women and Human Development Nussbaum refers to a discussion of Marx’s view on human nature by Daniel Brudney, which draws attention to the significance of reciprocity in Marx’s vision (Brudney 1997: 388-99). The most relevant passages are those from the Comments on James Mill when Marx talks about production in communist society ‘as human beings’, when our production doubly affirms both the producer and the recipient. Marx talks about the satisfaction that the producer would feel in knowing that their products were enjoyed by others, and, in that knowledge, grasping our communality as a completion of our nature (Marx 1975a: 227-28). This insight, with its emphasis on the liberating implications of working in a way that arouses awareness of our deep complementarity, is very important for Nussbaum. In her final chapter she emphasises the need to cultivate our moral sentiments through education and culture (Nussbaum 2006 408-15), and this is very much in line with her previous work on the role of art and literature in creating a more human world and about the development of the emotions (Nussbaum 1992c; Nussbaum 2001).

Although she shares Marx’s commitment to the fulfilment of human potentials, Nussbaum eschews reliance on any ‘deep metaphysics of human nature’ which she regards as incompatible with political liberalism (Nussbaum 2006: 86). She insists that she uses the Marxian idea of truly human functioning ‘for political purposes only, not as the source of a comprehensive doctrine of human life,’ adding that Marx made no such distinction (ibid: 74). We may ask why Nussbaum considers the stronger version of human freedom inimical to her substantive goal. It could be argued that this distancing herself from the ‘deeper’ view of what it is to be human makes it more difficult to ground her own list of capabilities, which might otherwise be considered subjective and arbitrary. After all, she has moved away from moral justification based on mutual advantage and therefore needs to answer the question as to why people should be moved to support these capabilities. Nussbaum’s reluctance to support a strong view of human nature reflects an anxiety to preserve a commitment to openness to change or flexibility, but it appears to be a retreat from the spirited defence of essentialism contained in the Political Theory 1992 article.

A Constructive Marxist Criticism

In using Marx to justify her entitlement thesis, Nussbaum expresses only his positive view of what liberated humanity could be, setting to one side the alienation thesis from which this view is taken. Marx is primarily concerned to show that capitalist relations of production distort human relations and de-humanise the producers. A radical humanist perspective grounded in a Marxian ethical framework would point up the structural obstacles to the fulfilment of human potentials, without using that analytical insight to reject the possibility of any progress towards social justice in the conditions which confront us today. The elucidation and demand for human potentials is a worthy goal, and one that is more consonant with non-Western ethical approaches, but its association with political liberalism is in deep tension with liberalism’s attachment to private property. Nussbaum’s approach is having a practical impact on United Nations development strategy in pursuit of the UN Millennium Goals, but the danger is that the demands for fulfilment can become detached from the political imperative of challenging the fundamental direction of global economic governance.[5]

The radical humanist perspective on global justice is concerned that Nussbaum’s approach pays inadequate attention to the structural causes of the injustice she wants to redress. This is evident when we look at Nussbaum’s principles for the global structure. Although Nussbaum’s aims are clearly designed to redress world poverty, some of the principles indicate an unwillingness to confront the structural causes of that poverty. For example, the third principle asserts the need for rich states to give money to the poor, but it does not make the point that ‘their’ GDPs have grown from the exploitation of the poor. It reads like a moral appeal to charity rather than a ‘pay back’ demand, and, on this issue of moral responsibility for global poverty, Pogge’s negative rights approach and his suggestion for a Global Resources Dividend is more convincing (Pogge, 2002). The fourth principle demands that multinationals have responsibilities for promoting human capabilities in the regions where they operate. But what does this mean? All the major global corporations have codes of ethics, and no doubt their spokespersons would claim that they take their responsibilities very seriously, but in practice this is not what they are in business for, and self-regulation has been wholly inadequate (Fisher and Lovell 2008). The principle should not be to ask them to accept responsibility, but to insist on it through regulation. Although the fifth principle calls for the main structures of the world economy to be designed to be fair to poor and developing countries, it does not mention how the issue of power in those institutions that control those structures is to be met. And even if some of the glaring inequities were to be removed, such as the huge subsidies employed by the USA and the EU, what is to prevent global corporations dominating the economies of those poorer states? The ‘fairness’ demanded would require a level of regulation much more authoritative than that envisaged in the ‘thin’ global sphere referred to in the sixth principle.

These criticisms of the ‘Principles of the Global Structure’ are not intended to damn the capabilities approach to global justice. The radical humanism I advocate is not averse to the ethical universalism of Nussbaum, and shares her view of the ethical significance of Marx’s conception of the self-realised social being. It also shares her critical observations on the ‘mutual advantage’ assumptions about human motivation adopted by contractarians since Hobbes. However, although she clearly sees her approach as offering a less ‘cynical’ view of human nature than that implicit in the contractarian reliance on ‘mutual advantage’ (Nussbaum 2006: 414), she leaves unanswered the question of the relationship between political liberalism and economic liberalism. Nussbaum, in common with most liberal political theorists, tends to conflate liberalism and democracy, using liberalism in a purely political sense without delving too deeply into its intimate attachment to private property. In doing so she avoids the big questions about how a democratic political culture can emerge to promote human capabilities, if to do so runs against the interests of global corporate capital. Nussbaum has promised to discuss how we might develop the resources to advance the normative goals of the capabilities approach in a forthcoming study, Capabilities and Compassion, and perhaps then we will be able to form a clearer picture of the distance between her approach and more radical, anti-systemic perspectives.


Adorno, Theodor (1990), Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge.

Beitz, Charles (1999), Political Theory and International Relations, 2nd edition. Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press.

Brookes, Thom (2008), The Global Justice Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Brudney, Daniel (1997), ‘Community and Completion’ in A. Reath, B. Herman and C.

Korsgaard (eds) Reclaiming the History of Ethics: Essays for John Rawls. Cambridge,

Cambridge University Press, pp. 388 -415.

Caney, Simon (2005), Justice Beyond Borders: A Global Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

Charusheela, S. (2009), ‘Social Analysis and the Capabilities Approach: A Limit to Martha

Nussbaum’s Universalist Ethics’ in the Cambridge Journal of Economics 33, 1135-1152.

De Grieff, Pablo, and Cronin, Ciaran (2002), Global Justice and Transnational Politics.

Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Fisher, Colin, and Lovell, Colin (2008), Business Ethics and Values: Individual, Corporate and

International Perspectives. London: Financial Times/Prentice Hall.

Fromm, Erich (2003) Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into The Psychology of Ethics. London:


Fromm, Erich (2002), To Have or To Be? Continuum, New York.

Geras, N. (1986), Literature of Revolution: Essays on Marxism. London: Verso.

Jones, Charles (2001), Global Justice: Defending Cosmopolitanism. Oxford: Oxford University


Lukes, Steven (1985), Marxism and Morality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Marx, Karl (1973), Grundrisse. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, Karl (1974), The First International and After. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marx, Karl (1975a), Collected Works, volume three. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Marx, Karl (1975b), Collected Works, volume four. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Marx, Karl (1976a) Collected Works, volume five. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Marx, Karl (1976b) Collected Works, volume six. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Marx, Karl (1976c) Capital, volume one. Harmonsdworth: Penguin.

Marx, Karl (1981) Capital, volume three. Harmonsdworth: Penguin.

Marx, Karl (1987) Collected Works, volume 42. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1992a) ‘Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defence of

Aristotelian Essentialism’ in Political Theory, 20 (2): 202-246.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1992b) ‘Nature, Function, and Capability: Aristotle on Political

Distribution’ in G. E. McCarthy (ed), Marx and Aristotle: Nineteenth-Century German

Social Theory and Classical Antiquity. Savage, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1992c) Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New

York, Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1996) The Therapy of Desire: Theory: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic

Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2000) Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2001) Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2006) Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership.

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Pogge, Thomas (1989) Realizing Rawls. Ithaca, NY: Cornel University Press.

Pogge, Thomas (2002) World Poverty and Human Rights, 1st edition. Cambridge: Polity.

Sen, Amartya (2009) The Idea of Justice. London: Allen Lane Penguin.

Sullivan, William, and Kymicka, Will (2007), The Globalization of Ethics. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Tan, Kok-Chor (2004) Justice Without Borders: Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism and Patriotism.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilde, Lawrence (1998) Ethical Marxism and its Radical Critics. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Wilde, Lawrence (2004) Erich Fromm and the Quest for Solidarity. New York, Palgrave.

Wilde, Lawrence (2007) ‘The Ethical Challenge of Touraine’s “Living Together’”. Journal of

            Global Ethics 3 (1): 2007, 39-53.

[1]  More precisely, there is one throwaway reference in Simon Caney’s Justice Beyond Borders (Caney 2005), a single mention in Charles Jones’s Global Justice (Jones 2001), none at all in Kok-Chor Tan’s Justice Without Borders (Tan, 2004), and two passing remarks in the collections of articles edited by William Sullivan and Will Kymlicka, The Globalization of Ethics (Sullivan and Kymlikca 2007) and by Pabo De Greiff and Ciaran Cronin, Global Justice and Transnational Politics (De Greiff and Cronin 2002) .

[2]  Since The Global Justice Reader appeared in 2008, Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice has appeared, and he makes use of Marx in a rather different way (Sen 2009: 163-164; 245). Sen, like Nussbaum, operates a capabilities approach.

[3] Lukes accepts that there is ‘much evidence’ to support the view that Marx was implicitly committed ‘to an aristotelian realization of distinctively human potentialities and excellences’ (Lukes, 1985: 87)

[4] Nussbaum does not discuss Pogge’s negative rights approach adopted in World Poverty and Human Development (2002), which demands that we take moral responsibility for the structure of the world economy that systematically deprives people of their rights.

[5] Nussbaum’s contribution has been criticised from a postcolonialist perspective which invokes Marx structural analysis of the economy, but goes further in rejecting her essentialism, which I do not. See Charusheela (2009).

Capabilities, Equality, and Class Justice: A Reply to Wilde

George DeMartino[1]


It is unfortunate but perhaps unsurprising that the global justice debate has largely ignored Marx, as Lawrence Wilde argues in “Marx, Morality and the Global Justice Debate.” Marx is routinely overlooked in many debates where he is of direct relevance—especially but not only in my own field of economics, where he presented what remains the most compelling investigation of capitalism to date. Indeed, in the context of the current crisis many mainstream economists are dusting off their Keynes to see what they may have missed in his work, or perhaps forgotten, while Marx remains off the reading list except among those radical economists who never lost sight of his myriad contributions. And in the field of moral philosophy, things are even worse. Here, Marx himself is partly to blame, as Wilde and others rightly note. Marx so often ridiculed talk of ethics among socialists and other revolutionaries. He disdained naïve utopianism that was not grounded in “objective” analysis of the material basis of social formations—in the forces and relations of production, and in the material contradictions that gave rise to both the need for social transformation and the obstacles and opportunities that presented themselves in any particular historical conjuncture. Moral claims that were not grounded in material conditions were dismissed as obfuscatory and otherwise wrong-headed. Moral thought, after all, largely reflected the world view of the dominant classes. How then could it also provide the basis for emancipation?

Wilde wants us to see that Marx’s disdain for ethics was strategic and not fundamental. He was manoeuvring to defeat the idealist form of socialist thought that predominated among the radical philosophers and social movements of his day. He sought to promote awareness of the material basis of politics and ethics, to demonstrate that ethical aspirations that were not tied to material conditions were dead ends that would entrap rather than liberate the oppressed.

Wilde notes that many (perhaps even most) Marxists reject this view, and essentially take Marx at his word on the matter. I will not try to go beyond Wilde in adjudicating the issue here. Instead, I will admit my own sympathy to Wilde’s view so that I may move on directly to engage the substantive claims he makes about the value of the capabilities approach for Marxian scholars. I have examined this issue previously (see DeMartino 2000 and 2003); and I will draw liberally on that work to complement Wild’s arguments. My point of departure will be to emphasize something that is central to the Marxian enterprise but largely missing from Wilde’s essay—the matter of class. Wilde is largely silent on class, I presume, because his point of entry into ethical discourse is explicitly humanist. If one enters through that door, one may be apt to focus exclusively on individual freedoms at the expense of processes that operate on other levels. But since my goal is not to offer a critique of humanism (or Wilde) here, I will leave that matter aside and turn immediately to the issue that is, for me, paramount.

That issue may be put simply: the capabilities approach of Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen and others, especially when combined with egalitarian sensibilities and claims, does indeed open up to Marxian ethical concerns, as Wilde argues here. But these concerns do not comprise just individual flourishing (and the overcoming of alienation), which is Wilde’s chief interest. They also include the uncompromising demand for what I will call “class justice.”

On Class

To sustain this claim I have to take a moment, first, to discuss what is meant by class and then, second, to examine the meaning of class justice. Here I follow in the tradition of what is variously referred to as the Althusserian/post-Althusserian or post-structuralist approach to Marxism that emerged in the U.S. context first in the work of Steve Resnick and Rick Wolff (1987) and then in the work of their many students and other academics who were arriving at a similar interpretation of the Marxian tradition (at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and elsewhere). Readers may know of this school of thought through the journal Rethinking Marxism, which often publishes work in this tradition; and/or through the work of David Ruccio and Jack Amariglio (Ruccio and Amariglio 2003); or J.K. Gibson-Graham (1996; 2006) and their own students and like-minded scholars and community activists who have formed the Community Economies Project (see This school of thought tends to object to the claims of humanist Marxism (Wilde cites the work of S. Charusheela on this point). But for present purposes what is more important than the anti-essentialism/post-structuralism of this approach is its interpretation of Marx on the matter of class.

From the perspective of this school, the explicitly Marxian notion of class refers to the production, appropriation and distribution of surplus. Simply put, societies must produce a surplus in order to sustain themselves.[2] Those whose labor produces the goods and services upon which human survival depends cannot just produce enough to reproduce themselves, since at any moment many members of society cannot produce to meet their own needs. This group includes, for instance, infants, the elderly, and the infirmed. These members of society must be supported by the labor of others—and this extra production by producers, which they will not themselves consume, is surplus. It arises from what Marx calls surplus labor, or the extra time that workers labor beyond what is necessary to sustain themselves; and it takes the form of surplus product.

It follows from the above that the existence of surplus is not itself ethically indictable. We can imagine surplus that takes the form of willful and voluntary nurturing of others, gifts, and other forms that express the fully human connections among society’s members—what Nussbaum calls affiliation and which Wilde values in this essay. I labor voluntarily so that you may thrive—this may not be the site of oppression, but instead may express our deepest human connections.

Where there is surplus, there must be surplus production, appropriation and distribution. Someone must generate the surplus, through the performance of surplus labor. This is the moment of surplus production. The surplus so produced falls to someone in the first instance who receives it juridically and perhaps even physically—either the producers themselves or others. This is the moment of surplus appropriation. Finally, the surplus so appropriated will be distributed across some or all of society’s members. This is the moment of surplus distribution.

For Marx, then, the term class designates a diverse range of social activities. Moreover, it is the study of these activities—along with the institutions that structure them and the knowledges and beliefs that sustain them—which forms the basis of the uniquely Marxian approach to political economy.

On Class Justice

All his ridicule of ethical thought aside, Marx was deeply invested in moral critique of class injustice. As I have argued in “Realizing Class Justice,” an appreciation of Marx’s view on this matter must recognize his distinct but combined treatment of the separate moments of the class process. Marx gave us the basis for theorizing a composite notion of class justice that comprises three elements: productive justice; appropriative justice; and distributive justice—where all three are defined in class terms.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Though this passage in Marx is among the best known by Marxian scholars and non-Marxian theorists as well, its class significance is often overlooked. The passage speaks directly to two elements of class justice. From each according to ability speaks to the matter of productive class justice. Who should produce the social surplus, and how should that burden be distributed among society’s members? For Marx, those who can produce more surplus ought to do so. But why is that? Wilde identifies one important part of the answer—one that draws on the humanist impulses that we find especially in the early Marx. Marx theorized human production as that which arises only after the compulsion of need is overcome. Human production is a domain of free activity, wherein the essential creativity of humanity expresses itself. But if this is correct, then Marx could not be indifferent to efficiency concerns. Wastage of (human and other) resources would interfere with the achievement of freedom from need-based productive activity. Hence, seeking the greatest contribution from those with the greatest ability was pivotal to the achievement of human freedom.

This formulation begs the difficult question as to how the greatest contribution from the most able is to be secured. A fuller account of productive justice would have to wrestle carefully with that question. Neoclassical economists, for instance, claim that this can only be achieved in a free market system where wages are tied to marginal productivity. Tying reward to contribution provides the incentive for each agent to enhance his/her human capital, so as to be able to contribute more and, hence, receive greater income. This surely was not Marx’s view.[3] But how then is differential contribution to be achieved in an ethically suitable way—and one that also promotes rather than undermines the affiliation among human beings that Marx sought? Are we willing to hope that human sensibilities will evolve in a post-capitalist society such that this effort is freely forthcoming? Or ought we presume that, like the other two aspects of class justice that I will discuss momentarily, this domain is and will forever be fraught? The post-structuralist approach to Marx argues for the latter view, with which I concur. But I won’t argue the point here. My goal instead is to expose an area in need of careful attention by Marxian scholars who take up Wilde’s challenge to take seriously the idea of Marxian ethics.

In contrast, “to each according to need” speaks only but importantly to the third moment of class justice—to the distribution of the social surplus. This aspect of Marxian ethics has appeared occasionally in the contributions of Amartya Sen to debates over equality and the capabilities approach. Indeed, Sen’s critique of Rawls and other theorists who propose the equal distribution of primary goods, resources and the like is based on the idea that an equal distribution may yield unequal freedoms since different people have distinct needs owing to their physical and mental attributes, age, environment and so forth. Different people enjoy different abilities to convert means into ends. And since that’s the case, egalitarians ought to advocate the unequal distribution of resources (based on need) so that all may enjoy relatively equal ability to live valued lives (Sen 1992).

To be sure, those like Sen who draw on Marx in this context do not think or speak of the distribution of the surplus. Neither do many Marxists. Marx is read as simply making an ethical argument in favor of distribution of goods and services. But if we understand the focus of Marxian political economy as building class knowledge of society (and securing class emancipation), then we are encouraged to theorize distribution in terms of the surplus. In this case, distributive justice has to do with the final allocation of shares of the social surplus across society’s members, for their own uses. It does not speak to the allocation of surplus to non-consumption uses—that, as we’ll consider next, is a matter that pertains to appropriative justice. Of the surplus that is not to be used for reinvestment, infrastructure projects, the arts, spiritual pursuits, and so forth, how is it to be divided up among all of society’s members?[4] Marx suggests that that distribution should be based on need.

This stance raises as many questions as it answers, of course. How is need to be assessed? For which needs that individuals experience are they themselves to be held accountable, and for which, alternatively, are they to be forgiven? For instance, if a person chooses to live in a particularly dangerous way of life, and suffers severe injury, is her greater consequent need for healthcare to be validated? If a person is lazy, is this propensity to be taken as a natural state over which she has no control—and is she therefore to qualify for additional income or other services? And what is society to do about the moral hazard problem, when some purposely cultivate need so as to secure a greater share of the surplus?[5] Finally, should those who come to ethics with Marx in mind to wrestle with these questions, or are we to presume (as above) that in a post-capitalist world human subjectivity will evolve in a manner that makes these questions somehow moot?

Note that “from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs” says nothing at all about what I am calling appropriative justice. Who should enjoy the first claim on the newly produced surplus, and what institutions, norms and other mechanisms should support whatever arrangements are deemed just? On this, Marx had much to say. More excoriated exploitation, which in this approach seems to entail any situation in which those who produce the surplus do not appropriate it—and when, consequently, non-producers are the first receivers of the surplus that the producers generate. The critique of exploitation was absolutely central to Marx’s project—indeed, Marx’s disdain for exploitation is at the heart of his mature political economy, including of course, Capital. Marx ridicules bourgeois political economists on grounds that they failed to recognize the social theft at the heart of capitalist accumulation. Distracted by the apparent equality that arises among (equally) free men in the marketplace, where labor power is bought and sold, they never pierce the veil to recognize that workers are free only in the formal sense of nominally owning their labor power. For Marx, workers’ bondage arises from their dispossession of the means of production which leads to their inability to appropriate their own surplus. Under what Marx referred to as wage slavery, workers therefore typically receive a wage that compensates them only for their necessary labor. Making matters worse, Marx demonstrates that the working class as a whole receives wages for their labor in any one period that is derived from their past unpaid labor. Hence, the payment of wages in exchange for labor power amounts to theft in two senses: workers are forced to do some amount of unpaid labor each day; and even the compensated part of the workday is paid for with money that was previously stolen from them. The situation would be no different were the capitalist to pay workers with money that he’d just picked from their pockets.

Now, just what does appropriative justice entail, precisely? Unfortunately, it is far easier to identify cases of appropriate injustice than it is to speak of appropriative justice. For Marx it is clear that when the workers do not appropriate their own surplus, there is injustice. But what of a case where workers participate meaningfully but alongside others in the processes of appropriation? In a worker-run cooperative factory, for instance, what is to be the role in appropriation of “unproductive workers”—those who provide conditions of existence for surplus production, but do not themselves produce surplus? Think of the mechanic who maintains the machines; or the clerical workers who keep track of inputs and outputs? In contemporary workplaces, these unproductive workers may far outnumber productive workers. Are they to be excluded from the process of appropriation simply because they do not directly produce surplus? Is this what Marx had in mind—a case where only a minority of workers enjoy the right of appropriation—and is this how we should theorize appropriative justice?

Again, I will not offer an answer here (but see DeMartino 2003 and the citations therein). Instead, I only mean to suggest that these important questions become visible once we take up Wilde’s challenge of recognizing the ethical saturation of Marx’s critique of capitalist (and other forms of) exploitation.

This discussion raises another difficult question: why does Marx rail against exploitation? What is it that makes exploitation so indictable? Why, after all, does it matter who gets first claim on the surplus? One answer is suggested by Wilde’s humanism. To be exploited is to be alienated from one’s labor—and thereby, from one’s species being. Another is to see exploitation, simply, as theft—as Marx’s own prose (cited in Wilde) suggests. Something is being taken without compensation from workers that is rightly theirs. But this notion depends on a view of property rights attaching to those who contribute labor to production—a view that seems on its face to be more consistent with a Lockean view of property rights than a Marxian conception, as Steve Cullenberg (1998) has argued. Or it might have to do with the illegitimate sacrifice of responsibility for one’s actions that exploitation entails. Workers are not taken to be fully responsible agents when they do not control the output that they themselves generate. They are treated merely as means toward others’ ends, and not ends in themselves—in violation of the Kantian categorical imperative, as Burczak claims (Burczak 1998, 2001 and 2004, which draw on Ellerman 1992).

Another view—more complementary than hostile to these arguments—emerges once we recognize the right of appropriation as entailing also the right (within limits) to decide how the surplus is to be utilized. The appropriator is in position to make decisions the consequences of which can reverberate across society (and even be epoch making). How much of the surplus should go to new investment, and what particular form should that investment take? Should production be expanded here, or moved over there? Should this or that technology be introduced, should this or that good be produced—and how will these decisions bear on quality of life of the workers and the broader community? Understood in this way, appropriation rights are nothing less than economic governance rights. The right to receive and make decisions about how the surplus will be used have enormous consequences not just (or even primarily) for those making the decisions, but for all of society—present and future—and for the natural environment. To be deprived of appropriation rights, then, is to be disenfranchised from some of the most important decisions that a community must make.

This way of thinking connects with Wilde’s view on the harm to individuals that arise from exploitation, despite the fact that it is not grounded in the humanism that he embraces.[6] Of particular relevance in this regard is the work of the Community Economies Collective (2001), which argues that an anti-essentialist approach encourages recognition of the way in which patterns of surplus appropriation constitute individual subjectivity and construct relations among individuals in the formation of society. In their words,

Thinking of the surplus not as property and prize but as the origin of distributive flows [offers] a new understanding of class exploitation. The trauma of exploitation is not that something belonging to you is taken from you. Rather, it is that you are cut off from the conditions of social possibility that the surplus both enables and represents. Restricted to the necessary labor that sustains you, separated from the surplus that sustains the larger society, you are constituted as an “individual” bereft of a possible community and communal subjectivity.

In an explanatory footnote the authors continue as follows:

Under capitalist relations of exploitation, the surplus is appropriated by the capitalist or the board of directors of the capitalist firm. They then distribute it—it may go into capital accumulation, higher management salaries and consumption, acquisition of other firms, speculation in real estate, bribes to officials, dividends to shareholders, or a wide variety of other destinations, in the process constructing “society” and social possibility. At the same time the laborer is paid a wage, which is the monetary form of her necessary labor and presumably sufficient to reproduce her. The wage payment restricts the worker to her necessary labor, imposing an imaginary completeness as a self-contained individual. Though connected to the larger community through the distributions of her surplus that sustain and nourish it, she is not aware of her connectedness; though sustained and reproduced by that larger community, she is not aware of her incompleteness (in the dimension of labor, at least). Communism, or communalism, in this vision becomes not only the communal appropriation and distribution of surplus labor but the conditions of possibility of a communal subject: connected and incomplete, living in the awareness that the existence of others is the effect and also the condition of one’s own being.

As I’ve now argued and as these quotations indicate, appropriative justice bears not just on the matter of receipt but also on the subsequent dispersal that this receipt entails. We have already considered the distribution of that share of the surplus that is destined for consumption goods and services, this being the domain of distributive class justice. One of the distinguishing features of Marxian class justice is that it reaches beyond this limited (though important) domain, and highlights the normative significance of the processes by which a society allocates its social surplus across all uses and purposes. Authority over surplus allocation comprises decisions over investment in productive enterprises, housing, and other private institutions—something that is treated today in most societies as a right that attaches to the ownership of capital—as well as over the nature and quality of public services, and so forth. This allocation shapes society’s institutions and practices, modes of political and social interaction, forms of cultural production and representation, and much more. Allocating surplus is therefore fundamental to the processes of social (and personal) construction, expression and experimentation. To be “cut off” from this process is therefore tantamount to disenfranchisement in a most fundamental sense. It is to be denied not one’s rightful property, but ones rightful participation in a process that defines one’s community, and even oneself. Clearly there is far more at stake here than the level of wages workers receive for their labors, the distribution of income across society’s members, or the alienation from one’s labor that arise when other control the labor process.[7]

On Capabilities Equality and Class Justice

Having elaborated a Marxian perspective on class justice, just one step in the argument remains. I would suggest that not only does the capabilities approach to justice open up contact with the Marxian concern for alienation, as Wilde argues in his essay, but it also is amenable to extension to incorporate class justice. This is particularly true if, following Sen, we define and advocate equality in terms of capabilities (see Sen 1992).

The capabilities approach to equality focuses our attention on the fact that human freedom has many distinct, non-fungible components. To be substantively free is to enjoy a wide set of capabilities to achieve functionings that one has reason to value. It encompasses the ability to achieve what Sen calls “basic” functionings, such as being well nourished and housed and avoiding preventable morbidity. But it encompasses as well more complex functionings, such as appearing in public without shame, and achieving political efficacy and control over one’s environment. For Nussbaum in particular, it entails substantive freedom of affiliation, whereby one is able to work freely in concert with others to chart the course of one’s community.

From a Marxian perspective, the capabilities approach must incorporate among valued functionings those that pertain to class—especially but not only appropriative justice. The Marxian approach sheds light on the powerful impact of surplus appropriation on one’s life and the life of one’s society. To be excluded from meaningful participation in this process is to be “cut off” from a most fundamental aspect of political life—and to thereby be deprived of self-governance. This runs contrary to the spirit that animates the capabilities project. Political efficacy is hollowed out when it does not range over the domain of the uses of the social surplus, where some of the most important political decisions must be made. Moreover, the deprivation that arises from class injustice cannot be compensated for with greater provision of other goods. For instance, higher compensation that allows for the pursuit of many functionings cannot offset class disenfranchisement—just as it cannot compensate for the loss of freedom of speech or association, even if some are willing to make that bargain. To be denied any important functioning is, under this approach, to be un-free.

This brings us to the conclusion of the argument. The neglect of the Marxian tradition by so many contributors to the global justice debate renders much of that literature terribly incomplete, since it necessarily misses a central domain of social and political life. The justice it offers is overly thin and in a real sense, empty. In this, Wilde is entirely correct—and so his project is vitally important. Moreover, the capabilities approach of Sen and Nussbaum is a natural point of contact between the Marxian and non-Marxian traditions, since both emphasize human flourishing as the keystone of justice considerations. Wilde is correct on this claim as well—and his humanist stance makes this connection particularly apparent. On this count, I have tried here to add to Wilde’s humanism important insights from an alternative approach that focuses our attention explicitly on Marx’s conception of class as the production, appropriation and distribution of surplus. One of the salient aspects of the capabilities approach for Marxists is that it permits (if not welcomes) the inclusion of class considerations among the central functionings and capabilities that it seeks to equalize. Equality in terms of capabilities entails equal right to participate meaningfully in decisions over the production, appropriation and distribution of surplus. Once we recognize class in these terms, how could it be otherwise? Full and equal franchise must certainly entail the equal right to intervene in political decisions that address the nature of the most fundamental economic flows and outcomes. An arrangement wherein that right is monopolized by some (by virtue of their location in the corporation or government) is indictable on capabilities grounds, since it deprives others of their voice in processes that bear on human and social evolution.


Burczak, T. 1998. “Appropriation, Responsibility, and Agreement.” Rethinking Marxism 10 (2): 96-105.

_____. 2001. “Ellerman’s Labor Theory of Property and the Injustice of Capitalist Exploitation.” Review of Social Economy 59 (2): 161-183.

_____. 2004. “Correspondence: Focusing on Appropriative Class Justice: A Comment on DeMartino’s ‘Realizing Class Justice.’” Rethinking Marxism 16(2):207-209.

Community Economies Collective. 2001. “Imagining and Enacting Noncapitalist Futures,” Socialist Review, 28 (3&4): 93-135.

Cullenberg, S. 1998. “Exploitation, Appropriation, and Exclusion.” Rethinking Marxism 10 (2): 66-75.

DeMartino, G. 2000. Global Economy, Global Justice: Theoretical Objections and Policy Alternatives to Neoliberalism. New York: Routledge.

_____. 2003.  “Realizing Class Justice.” Rethinking Marxism, 15: 1, 1 — 31

Ellerman, D. 1992. Property and Contract in Economics. Cambridge: MA: Blackwell.

Gabriel, S. 2006. Chinese Capitalism and the Modernist Vision. New York: Routledge.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Oxford UK and Cambridge USA: Blackwell.

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[1] Professor of international economics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. Email:

[2] Though see Resnick and Wolff (1988) for a discussion of the possibility of “class-less” communism.

[3] Many difficult issues arise in this context which I cannot explore here (but see DeMartino 2003).

[4] I don’t refer here exclusively to the distribution of private income—but also to the provision of public and other services upon which society’s members depend.

[5] These questions are not peculiar to Marxian-inspired ethics. They arise equally in any egalitarian framework that ties distribution to need.

[6] Nor is the harm rooted necessarily in private property rights, as Wilde suggests, since public property rights enjoyed by the state can be just as effective a means as private property rights for sustaining exploitation (see Resnick and Wolff 2002; Gabriel 2006). In the absence of a discussion of class as surplus production, appropriation and distribution, Wilde falls back in this essay onto a property based notion of capitalism and exploitation.

[7] Wilde’s humanism leads him to raise concerns about the absence of control of the labor process by those who perform the work. While this is an important issue in the Marxian tradition, to be sure, a focus on class as defined here also turns our attention to the matter of control over the uses of the surplus. I see these ethical concerns as complementary, not contradictory.