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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/John Rawls and the New Left: an interview with Bill Edmundson

John Rawls and the New Left: an interview with Bill Edmundson

Ethan Linehan

Platypus Review 111 | November 2018

Bill Edmundson is a professor of law and philosophy at Georgia State University. He is also the author of John Rawls: Reticent Socialist. Ethan Linehan conducted the following interview over email correspondence during the month of September in 2018.

Ethan Linehan: Please give a few brief biographical details about the life of John Rawls. When appropriate, situate his life details within the broader historical context (e.g. the 1960s and 1970s New Left scene, the philosophical trends that inspired him, etc.).

Bill Edmundson: Rawls was born in Baltimore in 1921. Baltimore is a Southern city, below the Mason-Dixon Line, and was segregated well into the 1960s. Rawls’s father was a politically connected corporate lawyer, and his mother was president of the city chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Two of Rawls’s younger brothers died in childhood from diseases that Rawls had transmitted. This double shock caused him to develop a stammer he struggled with throughout his life. As a teenager, he was sent to a high-Episcopalian boarding school, the Kent School, in rural Connecticut, and he matriculated at Princeton in 1939. Princeton was still considered “the northernmost outpost of the Southern gentleman.”

Germany invaded Poland during Rawls’s first semester, and Rawls took to the Firestone Library to read up on the Great War; he probably learned something about Lenin and Trotsky as well as Nicholas II and Kerensky. He studied philosophy with the Wittgensteinian Norman Malcolm. Rawls graduated summa cum laude and enlisted in the Army in 1943. He served in the Pacific, winning a Bronze Star, and was sent to Japan after V-J Day. He saw the ruins of Hiroshima first-hand, and watched film taken at the newly liberated concentration camps in Germany. Rawls, who had considered becoming an Episcopal clergyman, lost his faith, and—for the first time—took an interest in political philosophy.

Demobilized, Rawls went back to Princeton as a graduate student on the GI Bill. His field was philosophy, but he also took courses in economics and U.S. political history. Thomas Pogge describes a seminar in Spring 1950 in which Rawls “studied the most important views on political justice that had been articulated in the course of U.S. history and experimented in developing each of them into a systematic theory of justice.”[1] So here, at the beginning of the “Silent Decade” of the 1950s, Rawls is trying to work up a conception of justice suitable for his country.

He was very much alone in this. Chroniclers of the “New Left” describe his as a “missing generation” falling between the youthful activisms of the 1930s and the 1960s. The American left splintered in the late 1930s—the New Deal years—thanks to Stalin’s pact with Hitler and the show trials in Moscow and splintered again in the 1950s after the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party denounced Stalin’s crimes. On top of doctrinal factionalism, the anti-Communism of the McCarthy era attached a personal cost to vocalizing any set of beliefs critical of capitalism.

In 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed at historically black Shaw University. The 1960s Civil Rights Movement began with SNCC sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, followed by freedom rides, marches, and voter registration initiatives that met with murderous and pervasive resistance across the South. Volunteers for SNCC brought news, and their example, to the campuses up North and the West Coast. Suddenly, white college and graduate students woke up and took notice of the incongruity between their privileges and the injustices borne by blacks. Rawls, as Thomas Pogge writes, had been exposed to white racism as a child: his mother had not been pleased to find out he had befriended a neighborhood black boy his own age.

The Port Huron Conference of the Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID) in the Spring of 1962 is now legendary. It incubated the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which grew to maybe 100,000 members before it disintegrated in 1969. But SDS was almost smothered in its crib by the leadership of its parent organization, the LID. Not only had SDS allowed a teenaged Communist to come in to observe at Port Huron, its Port Huron Statement appeared to approve popular-frontism—sheer heresy to Michael Harrington and other leaders of the “Old Left.” The New Left wanted to get past the factional strife that had divided and subdivided the Old Left. This meant soft-pedaling theory, and uniting in commitment—commitment, not to a blueprint for a just society, but to active opposition to obvious and massive wrongs, segregation being foremost.

Rawls was by that time teaching at MIT and Harvard, and had in 1957 published an article titled “Justice as Fairness.” Rawls was uninvolved with politics, but he became fixated on the problem of justifying civil disobedience (“CD”), a stock tactic of the Civil Rights Movement. Given the fallibility of even the best political processes, unjust laws are inevitable. He articulated a principled basis for CD in a 1964 article—which he disavowed in a subsequent 1969 article. But both articles—though tortuously reasoned—were supportive of CD. No pacifist, Rawls rejected the idea that private conscience, rather than an appeal to a shared, public sense of justice, could justify (rather than merely excuse) disobedience in an at least nearly-just society. The activist Movement would have been uninterested in rationales for what seemed to many to be obvious: unjust law lacks legitimacy and unlawful protest is of course “moral.”

By 1965, SNCC had invited its white members to leave organizing blacks to blacks. In other words, to leave. The New Left suffered the first of its many fissions. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were signed in the law but, at the same time, the Vietnam War was escalating. The white New Left’s focus shifted to injustices abroad.

Thenceforth, the CD engaged in by Harvard students—and witnessed by Rawls—was primarily to protest the War, rather than segregation. As the War expanded, male students became conscious of the possibility that they would be drafted upon graduating. In 1966, the Selective Service System inflamed campuses by proposing that colleges administer a national examination, to facilitate drafting the underachievers. In the tumultuous presidential campaign of 1968, Richard Nixon promised to replace the draft with an all-volunteer army. Rawls was later to dismiss this “reform” as unworthy of a just society, but Nixon’s ploy sowed seeds of further division within the New Left.

Writing in 1964, Rawls accepted the near-justice of the basic structure of the United States, though only arguendo. By 1969, the paradigmatic target of CD was a foreign war against Communism, rather than the domestic outrage of official segregation. Insofar as segregation had been thoroughly repudiated as a legal regime, the urgency for Rawls to revisit the general problem of CD lay elsewhere. Rawls had not begun to formulate a theory of international justice—he was still working out a theory of justice for a single, more-or-less self-sufficient society that had achieved a sufficiently high level of economic development. But he was a vocal critic of the injustice of a conscription policy that shifted the burden of military service onto the less advantaged classes—wholly aside from the separable question of the injustice and unwisdom of the U.S. military adventure in Southeast Asia. Rawls was sympathetic to the plight of students who had to decide whether to accept the unjust benefit of deferral or exemption from military service. He concluded the 1969 piece on CD with the observation, “if legitimate civil disobedience seems to threaten civil peace, the responsibility falls not so much on those who protest as upon those whose abuse of authority and power justifies such opposition.”[2]

Rawls attended a number of meetings about the War and the draft in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the late 1960s. One of his former students, SDS-er Alan Gilbert, remembers a meeting attended by Rawls, Hilary Putnam, and Noam Chomsky. Rawls spoke up for about ten minutes, but his stammer and his abstract formulation of issues made the audience impatient. Rawls tried to introduce the idea of the “original position” he had worked up from the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill—but this was a generation that drew its inspiration instead from C. Wright Mills and Albert Camus, Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray. Rawls sat down.

Between 1962 and 1969, the more thoughtful members of SDS tried and failed to build upon the theoretical materials collected but only loosely assembled in the Port Huron Statement. Chiefly the work of SDS’s first President, Tom Hayden, the Statement expressed a mood and a range of concerns beautifully, but it contained no program. Todd Gitlin, the Harvard undergrad voted 1963-64 President of SDS (at age 20!), later wrote:

“‘America and the New Era’ [(1963) was] SDS[’s] last consensual manifesto... [a] manifesto was now only a puff of smoky words. After 1963, in fact, SDS conventions stopped trying to produce sweeping analyses... successive leadership circles... intuited that if SDS strained too hard to describe the world it wanted, rifts might emerge... SDS proceeded to muffle itself, to slip toward precisely what it criticized in smooth, orthodox America.”[3]

Self-muffling was something Rawls himself fretted about. Late in life, he wrote,

“[My colleague] Burt [Dreben] was doing what he could to make me be clear, to write forcefully and sharply, to be less guarded and muffled... He would often comment by name on other people who were extraordinarily bright and knowledgeable but failed to express themselves clearly and with vigor. Their style was muffled and cramped, somehow they held back.”[4]

Rawls’s muffled mode of expression owed to some of the same reasons that SDS’s did. Detailed positions, vigorously defended, turn people off. Rawls also had before him the vivid example of his Harvard colleague, Hilary Putnam, who joined—then had publicly to break with—Progressive Labor (PL), which is now remembered as the Little Red Book-waving Maoist faction that took over SDS in 1969, precipitating its demise.

Ironically, PL was more cautious than the “prairie power” non-coastal youths who poured into SDS in the later 1960s, attracted by its reputation for action rather than tedious “praxis.” By Spring 1969,

“…above all figures of speech loomed one supreme talisman: The Revolution... To speak of the Revolution was to postpone vexing questions about socialism, anarchism, democracy...”[5]

The wider ‘60s youth culture of drugs, sex, and cheap thrills was not automatically buying in: “You say you want a Revolution? Well…” the Beatles temporized. The theoretical muffledness of SDS could no longer be maintained, nor could questions about what lay on the far side of revolution be postponed indefinitely. As the fateful June 1969 SDS National Convention approached, Greg Calvert, a former National Secretary, recalled:

“In about a six months period... suddenly everybody in SDS said ‘I am a Marxist,’ or ‘I am a Marxist-Leninist...’ People you never would have suspected of having read Marx at all suddenly became ‘Marxists.’ Overnight.”[6]

And, overnight, the founding hope of SDS, to nurture a genuinely home-grown ideal of a just society—a participatory democracy—had folded. Within a matter of a few more months—roughly the minimum of time it would take to read and even begin to digest volume one of Das Kapital—SDS itself was but a memory.

Kirkpatrick Sale’s masterful history of SDS starts with the explosion on March 2, 1970, of a “bomb factory” in the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse, killing three Weatherpeople—the Weathermen being one of the factions self-ejected in the explosion of SDS itself at the 1969 National Convention. Seven weeks later, on April 26, 1970, a firebomb gutted an office annex at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where John and Mardy Rawls happened to be spending the academic year 1969-70. The final draft of A Theory of Justice, which he had been working on that entire sabbatical, was nearly destroyed. The damp and smoky manuscript was saved, retyped, and published the following year.

Rawls was remarkably equable, once he had absorbed the initial shock of learning that his life’s work had likely gone up in smoke. In late December 1970, Rawls was on a panel, “Liberalism and the New Politics,” at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Someone had been scheduled to represent the New Left point of view, but cancelled. Rawls took up the challenge of articulating that viewpoint within his own framework—even as necessitated by his framework once Marx’s critique of liberalism comes in. From that joint standpoint,

“…one is forced to consider which reforms are necessary to establish the validity of liberal institutions and procedures. Some radical critics believe it is essential to dismantle capitalist institutions altogether: it is these that remove the possibility of just background conditions. Whether this is correct or not, it seems hard to deny that the question of socialism and which form of it must now be squarely faced.”[7]

This message was muffled to the point of inaudibility in A Theory of Justice, which was shortly to hit the bookstore shelves.

EH: John Rawls is widely regarded as the 20th Century’s preeminent liberal philosopher. What does the term “liberal” mean here to Rawls? What really were his project’s ambitions in your view?

BE: The term “liberal,” like many words describing political positions and associations, is both fraught and murky. Rawls never shied from it. Like most words with a meaning worth debating, it has a history. Rawls once said, “a person has no place outside of history,” and I think the same may be said of the ideas most important to us. His project could be seen as an attempt to work out what Axel Honneth calls an “immanent analysis” of the liberal democratic tradition, to make moral sense of what came of the defining events in that tradition: the nobility’s and then middle class’s curtailment of absolutism, the end of the wars of religion, and the “winning of the working classes” to parliamentary rule.[8]

One important meaning of “liberal” is identified with so-called “classical liberalism.” This is the tradition that culminates in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The idea is that society and state may not justly impose sanctions upon individual thought and conduct unless it harms others. Individuals are, by right, free to pursue their own conceptions of the good, so long as they allow an equal liberty to others.

The word “liberal” acquired another important meaning during the New Deal era. A “liberal” was someone who favored an active role for government in directing the economy. This is the meaning President Harry Truman had in mind when—in a dictated but unsent letter to Justice William O. Douglas—he castigated the “so-called ‘Liberals’” on the Supreme Court for denying him the power to seize and run the steel mills.

Yet another meaning of “liberal” connects with the idea of liberality, the willingness of the more fortunate to share, especially with the needy. If we also take note of the fact that material want can make one less free, we get the idea of what Isaiah Berlin dubbed “positive” liberty. Negative liberty means non-interference rather than assistance, and Berlin and others warned that classical liberalism should not countenance any notion of positive liberty that would entail a duty of assistance. Berlin aside, someone who is liberal in this sense will be amenable to the idea that the state has a responsibility to promote opportunity and to maintain a social “safety-net” to assure that misfortune leaves no citizen destitute.

These three meanings of “liberal” are woven together in FDR’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech on U.S. war aims, the four freedoms being: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Liberalism is not at all antithetical to socialism. But with the advent of the Cold War, the word “socialism” was popularly identified with denial of the freedoms of speech and worship. Socialism meant Communism meant Soviet totalitarianism.

The Smith Act, McCarthyism, and internecine struggles on the Left conspired to make “socialism” a word that liberal socialists wanted to avoid. If socialism is, in essence, a social system in which the means of production are owned in common, then clearly a socialist society need not be liberal in the first sense. A democratic socialism is what socialists typically mean by “socialism,” but the USSR, the first socialist society, was quite obviously never in fact democratic. A democratic society is necessarily liberal with respect to the political liberties: the right to vote, to run for office, to speak, to assemble—but a democratic society need not be liberal in the sense of tolerating each and every conception of the good. “The tyranny of the majority” is a thing, as Mill warned. So is the stinginess of the majority: a democracy need not be liberal in the positive-liberty sense of the word “liberal.”

From Rawls’s perspective, although liberalism is a manifold of ideas, a central one—once the principle of toleration is secure—is the idea that the legitimacy of government must derive, ultimately, from the unanimous consent of the governed.[9] The New Left’s ideal of a participatory democracy, in which each citizen has a meaningful say in the decisions that affect her, is at bottom the same idea. Obviously, this idea has to be worked out carefully (what about expertise? what about majority rule?); but, as has been said, multiple difficulties do not make a doubt.

In the 1950s, the League for Industrial Democracy (later to be SDS’s parent) suppressed the term “socialism” in favor of “liberalism.” Liberalism was, after all, thoroughly acceptable and also understood to be the animating spirit of the New Deal and the four freedoms that Americans had fought to defend in World War II. Besides, liberal democracy was understood to require socialism anyway—so who needs to unsettle the wasps’ nest by self-identifying as a “socialist”? This attitude prevailed in the early SDS. Sale writes:

“SDS itself at this point—mid-1964—was in certain ways not terribly far left... It was not willing to declare itself socialist, though it had a number of people who thought of themselves that way and that was the clear if unstated implication of parts of both The Port Huron Statement and ‘America and the New Era’. (In May, [SDS National Council member] Jim Williams complained, ‘In SDS... socialism is still “the forbidden word.” Why is this when most of its leaders are socialists? Whom are we trying to fool?’)”[10]

The mealy-mouthed-ness about “socialism” was soon to be eclipsed by the New Left’s disgust with the warlike Johnson administration and pro-War liberals, and—by association—with liberalism itself. That fueled the sudden repair to Marx, in 1969, to make post-hoc sense of the New Left stampede from “Part of the Way with LBJ” to protest, from protest to resistance, and from resistance to Revolution.

After the collapse of SDS, and the fall of Saigon in 1975, “socialism” again went into linguistic hiding. When the Soviet Union dissolved, in 1989, socialism was assumed to have died with it. By that time, Rawls had been lecturing every year on Marx as a central figure in the liberal democratic tradition, culminating a sequence connecting Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rousseau, and Mill. Beyond praising Marx as a man of “remarkable gifts,” an heroic genius, Rawls said this:

“It may be thought that with the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, Marx’s socialist philosophy and economics are of no significance today. I believe this would be a serious mistake... [W]hile central command socialism, such as reigned in the Soviet Union, is discredited—indeed it was never a plausible doctrine—the same is not true of liberal socialism.”[11]

Rawls was not saying that socialism is an intellectual bauble that would be nice to keep in our collective cabinet of curiosities. He was saying that Marx’s socialism is an idea that we have yet to work out. What he says would fit comfortably among other anguished “What next?” lucubrations published at the time by impeccably credentialed leftists of the caliber of Leszek Kołakowski, Eric Hobsbawm, Frederic Jameson, and John Roemer, among many others.[12] But Rawls still has yet to lose the label “apologist for welfare-state capitalism” which—due, again, to his reticence—sticks to him even today, like a post-it note he was initially unaware he had stepped on, then thought he had shaken off.

In the U.S., the term “liberal” had by the end of the ‘60s become a pejorative on both the Left and the right. As Rawls’s friend Henry Aiken put it, from the New Left perspective “liberalism” meant “corporate liberalism,” pretty much the type of regime Rawls termed “welfare-state capitalism.” This type of regime disparages substantive political equality and tries to palliate the working class with a more-or-less generous safety net rather than any principle of reciprocal benefit. Rawls emphatically rejected the legitimacy of liberalism in this sense. No reasonable and rational person would freely consent to it: it denies the right to a meaningfully equal say in the decisions that affect our lives.

EL: After reading both Rawls’ works and your own, one might leave with the sense that a socialist political philosophy should be motivated by moral intuitions concerning “social justice.” But historically there are contrasting theories for motivating a socialist politics. A Marxist in an uncharitable mood, for example, might worry that social justice reduces to Christianized ethics, to a kind of “bleeding heart-ism,” which would render socialist politics as a form of guilt-tripping the opposition (from a position of superior morality) into adopting socialism. In other words, the fight against capitalism would look the same as fights throughout history, thereby removing what is historically new and unique about capitalism. What might Rawls say to defuse this worry?

BE: Is there a problem with intuitions? We rely on them every day and cannot do otherwise. Or is there only a problem with moral intuitions? Surely, you intuit, as I do, the wrongness of torturing babies for the mere fun of it. If that makes me a bleeding heart, I confess. But so will you. Is the problem that we do not all share the same intuitions? If so, that is Rawls’s starting point, not an inconvenient truth he overlooked. Everyone has intuitions about social justice. Few of them are shared. Is there—could there be—a core set of principles that we could all accept and can reasonably expect others to accept also? This is where Rawls starts:

“[W]hat is just and unjust is usually in dispute. Men disagree about which principles should define the basic terms of their association. Yet we may still say, despite this disagreement, that they each have a conception of justice. That is, they understand the need for, and they are prepared to affirm, a characteristic set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining what they take to be the proper distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation... Those who hold different conceptions of justice can, then, still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life. Men can agree to this description of just institutions since the notions of an arbitrary distinction and of a proper balance, are left open for each to interpret according to the principles of justice that he accepts.”[13]

This frames the problem. The Original Position procedure is offered as a way of testing competing conceptions of justice, pairwise, to see which would be preferred by any rational being placed behind a veil of ignorance. The veil prevents choosing principles to suit oneself. The mighty will not choose the principle “to each according to her threat advantage” because the mighty will not know how mighty they are—nor that they are not among the weak. The basic reason to exclude that knowledge is not the moral intuition that justice is not merely the interest of the stronger (pace Plato’s Thrasymachus), it is that the mighty cannot reasonably expect the non-mighty (or the insecurely mighty) to accept such a principle. It would be irrational for them to do so.

Are there any principles that would be acceptable to all, according this procedure? Well, yes, but this is not the place to go through the argument. Let me simply note here the sophisticate’s rejection of the Rawlsian task. One need not be a Marxist or Marxian to reject the task as mere moralizing—and there is ample reason to think that Marx himself would not have rejected it. Marx, as Marx said, was not a Marxist, if Marxism meant rejecting ordinary politics in favor of militant insurrection—even where politics might win some small success and violence promised nothing. So also, Marx was no Marxist if Marxism means ridiculing the very idea of social justice—sharing a chuckle on high with Friedrich von Hayek, as it were.

Rawls expressed diffidence about the success of his procedure. There is no a priori assurance that it will leave us with useful, non-vacuous principles, that it will not leave us essentially where we started, with the bare concept of justice as a non-arbitrary assignment of basic rights and a proper distribution of the fruits and hardships of social cooperation. We have to try and see.

A key part of Rawls’s procedure is to sketch out how principles chosen in the Original Position could be realized. In Justice as Fairness: a Restatement (2001), he states explicitly what he assumed was already implicit: that capitalism—whether laissez-faire or “welfare-state”—cannot realize any reasonable conception of justice. Compare what Carl Oglesby, SDS President in 1964-65, wrote in 1969:

“What was so leftist about SNCC’s “one man, one vote” demand? Or the abiding SDS principle of participatory democracy...? No one bothered to notice in those days [1960-64] that such a principle, fully understood, would lead through draft-card burning toward a demand for workers’ control of the means of production.”[14]

But neither Oglesby nor any other figure of the New Left got around to setting out precisely why democracy—“fully understood”—has to lead to socialism. Rawls himself felt there was something that others had not “bothered to notice” as falling out of his 1971, 600-page brick of a book. That is why he seems both defensive and apologetic in the Restatement, when he expressly sets out why—when the principles of justice are applied to the task of choosing a politico-economic regime—capitalism is a non-starter.

Before there was capitalism, there was nothing quite yet answering to the term “the means of production.” There was land and there were tools—but not yet steam and rail and assembly lines and the exploitation of vast economies of scale. The means of production are those things upon which all must depend for a livelihood, but which cannot be owned by each and every one of us severally—and so individual ownership cannot be an aspiration. Every yeoman farmer might hope to acquire her own forty acres and a mule, but not every farmer could aspire to own her own railroad, or her own nitrate factory. Until the means of production appeared on the historical stage, Adam Smith’s laissez-faire was a plausible doctrine of human emancipation, as Elizabeth Anderson has argued.[15] But once the means of production have arrived, the propertyless can no longer be reconciled to their station with the assurance that they might one day acquire fee-simple title to the material means to their independence. They cannot, unless duped. Until the means of production in this dominant, non-distributable sense had begun to shape economies, “the property question”—socialism or capitalism?—could not yet be posed. Once it was evident that these had arrived, and were to dominate for all foreseeable human time, the property question became and remains unavoidable. Anyone who insists, as Rawls insisted, that society be conceived as a fair productive cooperative between free equals, and that there is a question to be answered about ownership of the means of production, should be reported to the FBI. That person cannot be trusted to accept the results of the capitalist lottery.

In Rawls’s mature view, once principles of justice have been provisionally determined in the Original Position, we proceed to what he called a constitutional stage. At this stage, the veil of ignorance is lifted, but only enough to tell us where we are in history, what territory we inhabit, what our level of cultural and economic development is. Here, we are to choose among politico-economic regimes that he calls “ideal regime-types,” and he argues that we must exclude all but two: liberal democratic socialism and something he calls “property-owning democracy.” (Soviet-style socialism is excluded because it denies political equality and denies freedom of occupational choice.) Property-owning democracy is essentially exactly like liberal democratic socialism, except that the major means of production may be privately owned. These two regime-types, unlike welfare-state capitalism and laissez-faire capitalism, honor political equality and distribute the social surplus according to a principle of reciprocity: no one benefits unless all do. (Recall Marx’s reflections tending to favor reciprocity over fetishized equality in the “Critique of the Gotha Program.”) Rawls worries that economic inequality in a property-owning democracy will undermine political equality but is reluctant to state the conclusion: justice as fairness can only be achieved in a liberal socialist democracy. In short, justice demands that the means of production be public property, never private, never privatized. In a property-owning democracy, an effort is made—has to be made!—to disperse capital so that no class can dominate the economy and, thence, dominate politics. I think Rawls realized—as anyone who has followed out this thinking must—that once there are “the means of production,” and they rest in private hands, then “the drift toward oligarchy” (Thomas Piketty’s term) will undermine citizens’ shared sense of justice. This might not be so, if we find that we pop into history before an industrial revolution has occurred.

Rawls’s principles are timeless in one sense, but time-indexed in another. They define a conception of justice for an economically developed constitutional democracy, whenever and where it might happen to exist. But of course, such societies are terribly recent. And even timeless principles have to be applied to the circumstances. An economically developed constitutional democracy might conceivably have arrived before the commanding-heights means of production that characterize the industrial revolution. But that is not how we are circumstanced, now. A person has no place outside of history.

Your question also raises the issue of motivation. What motivates the more-advantaged in a society to respect the principles of justice when their demands conflict—as they will—with what the more-advantaged prefer? The problem is really more general than that, because justice demands restraint on the part of the less-advantaged as well. This is a big question that I cannot answer here, because I cannot answer it concisely.

EH: In a recent Jacobin Magazine review of your publication, the author writes “Rawls claimed that one of philosophy’s goals is to reconcile us with our world.”[16] Contrast this with the eleventh of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”, where Marx says: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”[17] Leftist critics often complain of Rawls that his “veil of ignorance” forces us to adapt to the status quo, to society as it is. It is said that the Original Position removes the impetus to fundamentally transform society, which is exactly what socialism would be. What might Rawls say to diffuse this worry?

BE: This is what Rawls himself wrote about the eleventh of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”:

“It reminds us... of Hegel’s remark: “Once we look at the world rationally, it will look rationally back.” To this Marx adds, in effect, that we cannot look at the world rationally until we are rational; and we cannot be rational until our social world is rational. Therefore, when conditions allow, we must change our social world so that it is made rational.”[18]

Rawls is in entire agreement with Marx about the task. To be reconciled to an unjust social world is to succumb to false consciousness. Rawls reads Marx as elaborating Hegel’s idea, not as rejecting it. To view the world rationally—as philosophers claim to do—they must recast the social world, change it, to make it rational. Only then will our social world confirm our association with it.

What does it mean to make the social world rational? This is where the idea of the Original Position and the veil of ignorance come in. To complain that the veil of ignorance forces one to accept the status quo is to voice a simple misunderstanding. The Original Position procedure is meant to enable us to choose a social world—not to reconcile us to the one happening already to be. The veil of ignorance forces us to view the social world rationally—that is, from a point of view that anyone, any fellow being, may take up. Rather than see the social world from the perspective of our own personal advantages, gifts, grievances, and desires, we view it through the eyes of a representative Other, whose path—but for fortune—we would ourselves have to tread.

The Original Position procedure does not in any way vitiate the urgency to change the world. Rather, it gives that urgency a direction. If the procedure is successful, it will deliver principles that no one can reasonably reject, and which any rational person can accept and apply as the fundamental charter of a rational social world, “a society of freely associated producers”—Marx’s term—which is—now using Rawls’s words for the same idea—“a fair system of cooperation over time among citizens as free and equal persons.”[19]

EH: Marxists used to argue that the concept of the Left historically is about freedom/liberty. The Left is defined by its utopia, by its vision for the future, by its progressivism, and by a striving for radical change. It is about an opening of possibilities, an overcoming of the limitations of what currently exists. In the Marxist tradition, it is argued that social justice cannot be about freedom because justice is about restoring some equilibrium, of preserving what is or what used to be, and not advancing further possibilities. Pursuing a politics of social justice stands on different philosophical justifications than pursuing a politics of freedom—in the name of justice, crimes against freedom can be and are committed. Do you see an antinomy between the liberalism of Rawls and the liberalism of Marx?

BE: There is no antinomy. Rawls went to some length to explain how his project is an extension of Marx’s just as Marx’s is an extension of the liberal project to which Kant and Mill contributed. Put another way, Rawls’s project was to make rational the “winning of the working classes to democracy”[20] a contingent but epochal historical event. That victory is no victory at all until Marx’s critique is answered. The debate about whether Marx was interested in social justice has been settled, in Rawls’s view, decisively in favor of the answer, “yes”; Marx was passionately interested in making a just world. But Marx saw that liberal democracy is a sham and an obstacle if a monied class runs politics. It fell to Rawls to show why even a self-interested person would not agree to principles and institutions that would permit that.

Rawls recognized that freedom of association and freedom of occupational choice entails inequality of income and wealth. Justice, however, can tolerate no such inequalities unless (a) background justice is already secure, and (b) those inequalities are to the benefit of all. Many on the Left cannot forgive Rawls for this, but only because they have failed to note what background justice demands. Background justice demands political equality—every citizen having comparable motivation and ability must have roughly equal political influence, regardless of social or economic status. This demand fully embraces Marx’s critique of the justice of parliamentary democracy in “On the Jewish Question.” And it is a rigorous demand, which insists that each citizen have fairly equal control over the political agenda, and not merely a vote among options dictated by an elite. Rawls’s later writings all but declare that socialism—common ownership and democratic control of the commanding heights of the economy—is necessary to assure background justice.[21]

What room is there for freedom in an ideally just world? All the room anyone could justly expect. It is a world in which—as Marx and Engels wrote—“the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” I blush to have to say it, but the social world we share today is emphatically not such a world—it is unjust, above all, because the few are free at the expense of the many. Even if we restrict our focus to native-born American citizens, not only are the four freedoms of the New Deal not secured, the dominant political powers have either striven for or acquiesced in the destruction of the institutions of the New Deal. (Recall Bill Clinton, shoulder-to-shoulder with Newt Gingrich, “ending welfare as we know it”; recall Barack Obama signaling his willingness to talk with congressional Republicans about trimming Social Security.) The notion that Rawls was reconciled to—or would want anyone to be reconciled to—our present condition is simply a misunderstanding, an almost hopeless misunderstanding, of Rawls, his century, and the century before it. | P


Thanks to David Reidy, Andy Altman, Christie Hartley, Frank Michelman, Jeremy Farris, and Matthew Schrepfer for helping spot mistakes before this transcript became final. The ones remaining are mine alone.

[1] Thomas Pogge, John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 15.

[2] John Rawls, “The Justification of Civil Disobedience”, in Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 189.

[3] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 130-31.

[4] Rawls, “Afterword: A Reminiscence”, in Future Pasts: The Analytic Tradition in Twentieth-Century Philosophy, ed. Juliet Floyd and Sanford Shieh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 426.

[5] Gitlin, The Sixties, 345-46.

[6] Ibid., 383.

[7] HUM48, Box 24, folder 8 in the Pusey Library, Harvard.

[8] Rawls, “Introduction: Remarks on Political Philosophy”, in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 11.

[9] Ibid., 3-14.

[10] Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Vintage, 1974), 124.

[11] Rawls, “Lectures on Marx: Lecture I: His View of Capitalism as a Social System”, in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 323.

[12] Robin Blackburn, ed., After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso, 1991).

[13] Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 5.

[14] Carl Oglesby, “The Idea of the New Left”, in The New Left Reader, ed. Carl Oglesby (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 14.

[15] Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

[16] Ed Quish, “John Rawls, Socialist?” Jacobin Magazine, August 8, 2018. Available online at <>

[17] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, in Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 143-145. Available online at <>

[18] Rawls, “Lectures on Marx: Lecture III: His Ideal: A Society of Freely Associated Producers”, in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 361.

[19] Rawls, A Theory of Justice, xv.

[20] Rawls, “Introduction”, in Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, 11.

[21] Compare HUM48, Box 24, Folder 8, in the Pusey Library, with Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.