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Lectures on the History of Moral and Political Philosophy$

Jonathan Wolff and G. A. Cohen

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780691149004

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691149004.001.0001

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Review of Karl Marx, by Allen W. Wood

Review of Karl Marx, by Allen W. Wood

(p.298) Chapter 11 Review of Karl Marx, by Allen W. Wood
Lectures on the History of Moral and Political Philosophy

G. A. Cohen

, Jonathan Wolff
Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews Karl Marx, by Allen W. Wood. The book is divided into five parts: Alienation, Historical Materialism, Marxism and Morality, Philosophical Materialism, and The Dialectical Method. Wood begins by providing an account of the idea of self-realization: various failures to achieve self-realization generate correspondingly various alienations. He then joins those who seek to reinstate a toughly materialist reading of Marx's theory of history before addressing the relationship between two branches of Marxism, namely: its philosophical anthropology (or conception of human nature) and its theory of history. Wood also defends the thesis that Marx did not think capitalism was an unjust society.

Keywords:   capitalism, Karl Marx, Allen W. Wood, alienation, historical materialism, Marxism, morality, philosophical materialism, self-realization, theory of history

This addition to Ted Honderich’s imposing “Arguments of the Philosophers” series is, at the time of writing, the best philosophical introduction to Marx in English. It is a well-organized, well-written, and, with one big exception—to which most of this review will be devoted—supremely balanced work. Wood is properly and acidly skeptical about many of the claims about Marx and about the world which Marxists have made, but he is also largely persuasive in his enthusiastic recommendation of what he thinks is abidingly valuable in Marxism.

The book is divided into five parts. The first part, on Alienation, begins with the liberating observation1 that one should not expect to identify a theory of Alienation in Marx, since the fragments carrying his ideas on that topic present phenomena too disparate for theoretical unification. Wood nevertheless succeeds in unifying his own discussion by providing a judicious account of the much-unanalyzed idea of self-realization: various failures to achieve self-realization generate correspondingly various alienations.

In part 2, on Historical Materialism, Wood joins those who seek to reinstate a toughly materialist reading of Marx’s theory of history, in the face of sixty years of Hegelian and other idealist interpretation of it. He devises many good distinctions, such as those which enable him to present historical agents’ lack of self-knowledge as a social rather than a psychological matter,2 and others which support his nuanced denial that historical materialism is a determinist doctrine.3 He also lodges many particular claims with which I disagree, too many, indeed, to discuss here, where I shall comment on one very general issue only.

That issue is the relationship between two branches of Marxism, its philosophical anthropology (or conception of human nature), and its theory of history, which correspond to parts 1 and 2 of Wood’s book. I think Wood associates the two too closely. It is easy to do that, since the concept of production is at the center of each, but it plays contrasting (p.299) roles. In the philosophical anthropology people are by nature creative beings. They flourish only in the cultivation and exercise of their manifold powers, and they are especially productive—which is to say, here, creative—in the condition of freedom conferred by material plenty. But in the theory of history people produce not freely but because they have to, because nature does not otherwise supply their wants; and the development in history of the productive power of man (as such, as a species) occurs at the expense of the creative capacity of the men who are the agents and victims of that development. They are forced to perform repugnant labor which is a denial, not an expression, of their natures: it is not “the free play of [their] own physical and mental powers.”4

Wood writes: “Historical progress consists fundamentally in the growth of people’s abilities to shape and control the world about them. This is the most basic way in which they develop and express their human essence. It is the definite means by which they may in time gain a measure of freedom, of mastery over their social creations.”5 The first sentence is ambiguous, because of “people’s abilities,” which may denote either abilities inherent in individuals or the Ability of Man, and only under the latter interpretation is the sentence true. And the second sentence is, consequently, false: people do not develop and express their human essence in activity which thwarts that essence. The third sentence, taken out of context, might still be true, since an essence-frustrating cause could have essence-congenial effects, but if we take it to mean that humanity engages in self-denying labor in order “in time” to achieve self-fulfillment, then what it says is too extravagantly teleological. Teleological or (as I prefer to consider them) functional explanations are, I am sure, fundamental in historical materialism, but it does not follow that history as a whole has an overall purpose which humanity pursues.

After Historical Materialism comes the book’s most original part, on Marxism and Morality. Here Wood departs from sobriety and defends, with considerable skill, the unlikely thesis which he launched in his seminal article on “The Marxian Critique of Justice” that Marx did not think capitalism was an unjust society. He argues that the common and natural supposition that Marx did think it unjust reflects misunderstanding of his social philosophy, according to which principles of justice are never to be taken as they present themselves but are always to be understood (p.300) reductively, as the ideological sublimates of effective power relations which it is their function to endorse and thereby reinforce.

For Wood’s Marx that is just, in a given society, which conforms to the ground plan of that society, and there are no criteria of justice by reference to which its ground plan might be criticized. Wood infers that, for Marx, the contract between capitalists and worker is not only not unjust, but just, at least in the standard case where the worker gets the market value of the labor power he sells. There are no noncapitalist criteria of justice which impugn a properly formed labor contract, just as there are no criteria of justice which impugn slave ownership in a slave society, where it is not only not unjust, but just.6

Marx condemns capitalism because it displays, not injustice, or any other moral evil, but what Wood considers to be nonmoral evils: it cripples human creativity and it fosters inhumane social relations. “Although capitalist exploitation alienates, dehumanizes and degrades wage labourers, it does not violate any of their rights, and there is nothing about it which is wrongful or unjust,”7 since in capitalist society there exist no rights beyond those which capitalist exploitation honors.

This is a patently interesting interpretation of Marx, and Wood makes a strong textual case for it. But the case is not invulnerable, and a number of authors have plausibly reinterpreted many of the texts he uses and adduced other ones which embarrass his position. Ziyad Husami’s “Marx on Distributive Justice” and Gary Young’s “Justice and Capitalist Production” are especially effective contributions, and I also recommend Young’s “Doing Marx Justice.”8

I cannot review the many relevant texts here, but there is a well-known passage in volume 1 of Capital which is particularly germane, and I shall turn to it after I have expounded a pertinent bit of Marx’s economic theory.

A main object of Capital is to explain how capitalists are able to turn given sums of money, or value, into bigger ones. Marx thinks the explanation cannot in general be that the capitalist exchanges what he has for something more valuable, for then the other party loses whatever the capitalist gets, and there is no net gain: what needs to be explained is the (for Marx) manifest fact that fresh value comes into being, and none comes into being when one person gets value which another loses. Marx concludes that the only way, in general, in which a capitalist can increase his stock of value is by purchasing, at its value, a commodity which can (p.301) be used to create more value than it, that commodity, has. He then identifies the worker’s labor power as the requisite commodity. It is sold in daily or weekly packets to the capitalist, who pays for it a sum corresponding to the number of hours required to produce it (to produce, that is, the commodities the worker must consume to remain alive and able to work). Since, according to the labor theory of value, the value of a commodity depends precisely on how many hours are required to produce it, the worker gets the value of his labor power, but the capitalist nevertheless gains (newly created) value, because the value of the worker’s labor power is less than the value of what it produces: a worker can work more hours per day than are required to produce what he must consume to work that many hours in a day.

In this operation “equivalent is exchanged for equivalent,” since the worker gets the full value of his labor power, but “the transaction is for all that only the old dodge of every conqueror who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has robbed them of (mit ihrem eigenen, geraubten Geld),” since capitalists pay wages with money they get by selling what workers produce. Thus the worker, though paid the full value of his labor power, does not get the extra, or surplus, value he produces, and capitalist profit, and therefore capitalism, are “based on theft (Diebstahl) of another’s labour time.”9

Now when Marx speaks here (and elsewhere: this is not an isolated text) of “robbery” (or “theft”), he cannot mean “robbery according to the rules of capitalism,” since the transaction he considers robbery obeys those rules: what is wrong with capitalism is that the appropriation of surplus labor is not, by its rules, robbery, that when and because the worker gets the full value of his labor power, he is robbed. When, therefore, Wood stresses against his critic Husami that the Capital passage speaks of an exchange of equivalents,10 he exhibits a singular and uncharacteristic obtuseness, since Marx’s point is that equal exchange enables the capitalist to rob the worker. Wood treats the assertion of equivalence as though Marx intended it to show that moral condemnation of capitalism is out of place, when its purpose, for Marx, is to emphasize that the transaction he goes on to condemn does not violate the rules of market exchange.

Now since, as Wood will agree, Marx did not think that by capitalist criteria the capitalist steals, and since he did think he steals, he must have meant that he steals in some appropriately nonrelativist sense. And since to steal is, in general, wrongly to take what rightly belongs to another, to (p.302) steal is to commit an injustice, and a system which is “based on theft” is based on injustice.

Did Marx, nevertheless, lack the belief that capitalism was unjust, because he failed to notice that robbery constitutes an injustice? I think the relationship between robbery and injustice is so close that anyone who thinks capitalism is robbery must be treated as someone who thinks capitalism is unjust, even if he does not realize that he thinks it is.

And perhaps Marx did not always realize that he thought capitalism was unjust. For there exist texts, ably exploited by Wood, which suggest that, at least when writing them, Marx thought all nonrelativist notions of justice and injustice were moonshine. If the texts really show that he thought so, then I would conclude that, at least sometimes, Marx mistakenly thought that Marx did not believe that capitalism was unjust, because he was confused about justice.11

At one point Wood approaches a thesis about Marx on capitalism and justice which resembles the one just stated, but he retreats from it on the ground that “there is no sign that Marx sees anything morally wrong or unjust about … capitalism.”12 I think calling it “robbery” is such a sign, and that saying, “Capitalist justice is truly to be wondered at!,”13 with the sense the remark carries in its context, is another one.

So I uphold the conventional idea that Marx thought capitalist exploitation is unjust, and I shall now argue that Wood’s denial (see above) that exploitation is unjust leads him into a false account of what exploitation is, in fact and in Marx. He says that exploiters get something from those they exploit without giving anything in return, but that not all unreciprocated transfers are exploitative. I more or less agree with that, although there are problems, touched on below, about what is to count as absence of reciprocity. But Wood and I disagree about what the other features of exploitation are. I would claim, conventionally enough, that nonreciprocity is exploitative only when it is unfair, but Wood cannot acknowledge that exploitation is unfair, and he proposes this different account of the concept: Marx’s idea is that A exploits B whenever A lives off the fruits of B’s labor and is able to do so not because A makes any reciprocal contribution to social production but because the social relations in which A stands to B put A in a position to coerce B to work for A’s benefit.14 But coercion, I shall argue, is neither a necessary condition, nor, when added to nonreciprocity, a sufficient condition, of exploitation.

(p.303) To see that it is not a necessary condition, consider a rich capitalist, A, who, for whatever reason, voluntarily works for another capitalist, B, at a wage which is such that, were A a worker, he would count as exploited. On my view, and also Marx’s, A, though not forced to work for B, or for anyone else, is exploited by B. We might ask A why he lets B exploit him and he might give any of various answers: “I don’t think B is exploiting me,” “I don’t mind being exploited,” “I bet C that I would get B to hire me,” “I want to see what it is like to be a worker,” and so on. Being a rich capitalist, he could not reply: “I have no choice.” Yet on Wood’s view it is truistic to say of an exploited person that he is forced to work for his exploiter.

So I do not agree with Wood that the reason why “people who live on welfare do not exploit taxpayers” is that “the taxpayers are coerced by the state and not by the welfare recipients”:15 exploiters do not necessarily coerce those they exploit. In my different view, one reason why welfare recipients are not exploiters is that the relevant transfer payments are not unjust. For the same reason, they are also not beneficiaries of exploitation. (A nonexploiter may be a beneficiary of exploitation, as Wood would no doubt agree that capitalists’ children are, and as he might agree that he and I are.) Is Wood willing to say that people on welfare are beneficiaries of exploitation, since others—the state—force taxpayers, who receive nothing in return, to sustain them? He seems committed to that unfortunate claim.

I would also deny that coercive nonreciprocity is a sufficient condition of exploitation. Wood purports to illustrate the sufficiency thesis by urging that “welfare recipients would exploit taxpayers if—as some right-wing fanatics claim—the state were in the hands of good-for-nothings who used its taxing powers to plunder hardworking citizens,”16 but by describing the hypothetically coercing welfare receivers as good-for-nothings he obscures the issue whether it is their coerciveness or their undeservingness which makes them exploiters. For a better test of the sufficiency claim, imagine not good-for-nothings but involuntarily unemployed adults with plenty of children to feed who force earners to make modest payments to them, by threatening violence in the streets, or, more fancifully, under a constitution which confers legislative power in welfare matters on unemployed people. “Right-wing fanatics” would call those people exploiters. How could Wood disagree?

Right-wing fanatics—and even nonfanatics—would say that on Wood’s definition of exploitation capitalists are not exploiters, since they provide workers with means of production and thereby make a “reciprocal contribution to social production.” I would reply that the said (p.304) “contribution” does not establish absence of exploitation, since capitalist property in means of production is theft, and the capitalist is therefore “providing” only what morally ought not to be his to provide. But how could Wood, steering scrupulously clear of moral judgment, resist the claim that there is a reciprocity in the capital/labor relationship which disproves the charge of exploitation?

The last and least interesting parts of Karl Marx are devoted to Philosophical Materialism and The Dialectical Method. Wood’s discussion of these matters is far superior to most, but that is not high praise since, as many will agree, Marxist research has been particularly infertile in these areas. The part on Philosophical Materialism is a refreshing treatment of a dry subject, but I was less impressed by Wood on dialectic. He relies too much on an unexplicated notion of “organic wholeness,” and I cannot agree with him that “inherent tendencies to development” (with which he associates dialectic) and “causal laws”17 represent fundamentally contrasting sources of explanation of phenomena, since the first notion seems to depend on the second. I also think that, in his chapter on “Dialectic in Capital,” Wood is too kind to the labor theory of value, but there is no space to substantiate that here.

I disagree with Karl Marx on a number of important counts, but I would reiterate that it is a splendidly well-constructed book, and quite the best general philosophical treatment of Marx in English.18


(2) Ibid., pp. 88, 93, 112.

(3) Ibid., pp. 111–17.

(4) Capital, vol. 1 (Chicago edition), p. 291 (Penguin edition, p. 375). [In the original text Cohen cites the Moscow 1961 edition, which also uses the Moore and Aveling translation. In the Chicago edition the text reads: “the free-play of [their] bodily and mental activity.”—Ed.]

(6) Ibid., p. 131.

(7) Ibid, p. 43.

(8) This is published in the bumper Supplementary Volume 7 (1981) of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, entitled Marx and Morality, which contains an excellent bibliography.

(11) The italicized thesis is misreported, in two different ways, at pp. 9 and 42 of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Supplementary Volume, Marx and Morality, because of bad (copy?) editing.

(15) Ibid., p. 267.

(16) Ibid., p. 268.

(17) Ibid., p. 211.

(18) I thank Arnold Zuboff for his brilliant criticisms of a draft of this review.