I am stuck in a vast amount of papers concerning Marx's view of justice, written in the 70s, 80s and 90s, disputing and contradicting each other. With my current knowledge of Marx, it is sometimes difficult, sometimes impossible, to decide whose interpretation is the closest to the truth or whose speculation (as Marx didn't write a lot about his notion of justice, at least not explicitly) is more coherent.

The question my professor made me answer in my term paper is "If Marx's notion of justice is not a egalitarian one, why is the absorption of surplus value by the capitalist unjust?" Now, I am not exactly sure where that idea (for he does think that Marx's theory of justice is nothing more than a egalitarian theory of justice) came from, but no matter what I read, it always seems to contradict his conclusion or the premise. Also I don't want to only explain why this is not the case, but at least give some answers on the question what a Marxist theory of justice could be.

What would help immensely is a book that takes into account all previous positions (i.e. these old papers), and, if possible, reflects the latest state of research (if for no other reason, it looks better if not all my sources can be dismissed as obsolete/out of date).

What I do have so far are the papers by Wood, Husami and Nielsen (as well as others) and the Oxford book by Buchanan, Marx and Justice: The Radical Critique of Liberalism.

  1. Is there any newer literature that you can recommend?

  2. Does anybody know of any passage in any of Marx's texts that, more or less literally, speaks of the absorption of surplus value being unjust?

  3. Is there any literature on Marx as Egalitarian?

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    There are some works on Marx and Rawls which deals with the topic of justice. For example "Rawls and Marxism" by Richard Miller. Maybe you could search in that direction.
    – Strabo
    Aug 26, 2013 at 18:05
  • I have that one, but it's not exactly on my topic, and also from the 70s. Buchanan also brings in Rawls, but that part doesn't concern my thesis at all.
    – iphigenie
    Aug 26, 2013 at 20:24
  • Have you considered reading the actual source material written by Marx himself? Aug 27, 2013 at 8:45
  • @JuannStrauss I read the German Ideology, On the Jewish Question, the Gotha Program and parts of the Manuscripts of 1844. I can't read the whole Capital for a term paper now, can I? Also, as already said, Marx himself didn't write a lot on the question in question, so no matter how much I read, I'm still stuck with the interpretation.
    – iphigenie
    Aug 27, 2013 at 9:19
  • 1
    let us continue this discussion in chat
    – iphigenie
    Aug 27, 2013 at 13:04

5 Answers 5


Another quick, maybe too quick, comment (or series of comments.) My first impulse, perhaps just an atmospheric tangent, would be to look into certain parts of the Grundrisse, in particular the fragment on machines. He talks about the way in which the machine isn't introduced to make labor easier but rather to intensify and extend it, to latch it onto accelerating and alien rhythms. He also makes an interesting remark there about invention having lost its scientific purity and becoming a business.

In other words, this is the kernel of Marxism insofar as it is generally refracted through an ethical humanism of the common: improving man's (humanity-in-person's) condition in the world by abolishing the exploitation of labor. But thinking is also labor; and today we face both simulation and automation. Marx's machines above involve all the ways capitalism captures us; including even the factories of knowledge, the discourses and disciplinary institutions associated with science. Automation and simulation express capitalism's devaluation not only of our bodies and labor but even our thoughts and the very image of thought.


More of a comment. It is a rather delicate point to state that Marx considered the absorption of surplus value as unjust. It seems that Marx's tended to avoid at maximum any ethical considerations.

As for references: some texts on Marxist ethics (written by Marx and Marxists) are indexed here. A recent book is this one, which has an interesting review here.

  • About your comment: I agree. If anything, there are passages that suggest the opposite. Thanks for the links, I will check them right away.
    – iphigenie
    Aug 26, 2013 at 18:53

What would be a theory of Justice? Marx would not speculate on an abstract "justice" unconnected to material practice. A properly Marxist theory of Law or of Right - which can in some contexts be taken as synonym to a "theory of justice" - would be possible, but I am not sure this is what you intend. If so, I would say that Marx's Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right would be a point of departure.

But I see your professor puts forth the following, and more specific, question:

"If Marx's notion of justice is not a egalitarian one, why is the absorption of surplus value by the capitalist unjust?"

If I was to respond to this, I would reject the question: the precedent is very doubtful (who says that Marx's notion of justice is not egalitarian, and under which definition of "egalitarian"?), and the consequent is probably even worse (the main problem with the extraction of surplus value is not that it is unjust, but that it is unsustainable, as it destroys the conditions for the production of value in the long term(1)). But rejecting a question is perhaps more difficult than anwering it, and, depending on the professor and his/her way to deal with dissent and critical reasoning, diplomatically complicated.

(1) There is, of course, a way to address Marx's criticism of capitalist exploitation from a merely ethical point of view: that capitalists buy one commodity (labour power) but acquire another, which is different both in nature and in value (whatever final product their company is intended to sell). But in this precise aspect, it would be difficult to deny that Marx's notion of "justice" is no different from bourgeois "egalitarianism": the exchange is "unjust" because one side gets paid pro quo while the other pays for quid, so it is an unequal exchange.


I would not so readily dismiss the supposedly antediluvian work on Marx published in the final decades of the 20th century.

As to the injustice of the extraction of surplus value, Robert Tucker offers a wholly plausible explanation :

Marx and Engels depict the capitalist society that they abhor as the scene of a great and growing inequality of wealth, where untold riches accumulate in the hands of a small and dwindling class of avaricious capitalist magnates while the masses of working people sink deeper and deeper into a black pit of poverty. Do they not, then, condemn capitalist society because of its inequalities? And finally, what is the capitalist "exploitation" [extraction of surplus value from] of labor that Marxism talks about if it is not a relation in which the worker is robbed of what rightfully [justly] belongs to him? In all these ways Marxism invites a moral interpretation that sees distributive justice as its central issue. (R. Tucker in
Donald van de Veer, 'Marx's View of Justice', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Mar., 1973) 366-386 : quoted 367. Quotation from Robert Tucker, The Marxian Revolutionary Idea (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1969, 36.) Square brackets mine.

It is true that Tucker himself rejects this interpretation but van de Veer's article argues back hard; and I think the Tucker quotation does, despite Tucker, represent Marx's view.

In regard to 'egalitarianism', it is relevant to quote Marx's two formulas of justice. In socialist society dissimilar amounts of goods will be distributed to different labourers under the rule [implicit in Marx, 'Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875, The Marx and Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. R. Tucker, NY : W.W. Norton, 1978, 531] : 'to each according to his labour'. This rule is only provisional. Under communism a different rule will apply :

... for Marx there was a standard of justice superior to that invoked in the Gotha program, one taking into account relevant differences in the needs of workers but one incapable of implementation in the first phase of communist society. Only in the higher phase of communist development can this optimal standard of equitable [just] distribution be realized; as Marx states, ". only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners; 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!'". (Donald van de Veer, 'Marx's View of Justice', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Mar., 1973), 373-4; Marx, 'Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875, The Marx and Engels Reader, 2nd ed., ed. R. Tucker, NY : W.W. Norton, 1978, 531. (Square brackets mine.)

'To each according to his needs' strikes me as egalitarian : needs will be the criterion of distribution and all needs will be equally met (within the limits of practicability that apply to every political and ethical theory).


see Arthur Diquattro, "Liberal Theory and the Idea of Communist Justice," American Political Science Review," March 1998

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    Why should this article be useful to the questioner? Is there anything more recent? Jun 1, 2018 at 2:18
  • Could you please provide more information about this book? To which question it answers from the ones mentioned by OP? Thank you.
    – lukuss
    Jun 13, 2018 at 10:17

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