Volume 2 Issue 3 Fall 2018

The Politics of Reticent Socialism

In the last decade of his life, John Rawls, the most influential liberal political philosopher of the twentieth century, insisted that even the most benign form of capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, could not realize the ideal of justice as fairness to the defense of which he had devoted his entire life. This explicit critique of capitalism in the thought of one of the giants of contemporary political thought has been lost on many socialist commentators for whom Rawls’s theory of justice is no more than a series of, at best, overly moralized, at worst, ideologically driven, speculations with little to offer by way of direction to the real movement that abolishes the current state of things.

This is unfortunate, for two reasons. Firstly, because given the extent to which Rawls’s thought and related Rawlsian analysis have dominated the last half-century of Anglo-American political theory, any credible attempt to construct an alternative intellectual hegemony would at least have to avoid giving the impression that it is ill-informed about what rival liberal egalitarians actually write. But secondly, and more importantly, because in our efforts to update socialism for the challenges of the twenty-first century, it pays to begin with the points on which an overlap between left-liberal and Marxist-oriented thinking is uncontroversial so as to carve the space for a more critical engagement on the issues in which they are clearly at odds. For while there are important affinities when it comes to the demands of morality and justice in ideal circumstances, there are also significant differences when it comes to addressing the question of how to theorize the political transition to a condition of ideal justice. The latter is a topic on which mainstream political theory is surprisingly silent. Yet only if we appreciate how liberal egalitarianism is not only compatible with but requires socialist institutions, can we develop a critique of political liberalism that is radical, plausible, and appropriately nuanced.

For many, these observations are likely to raise eyebrows from the start. Mutual suspicion goes back a long way, not just to the political debates about “their morals and ours” but also to philosophical questions about the extent to which the Marxian critique of capitalism is about justice at all, to sociological analyses of the relation between individualism and holism in discussions between agency and structure, and to historical questions about the continuity between Enlightenment ideals of rationality and Marxist thought. But one can also choose to start elsewhere. Between them, Rawls and his followers pretty much exhaust all interesting theoretical developments in Anglo-American political theory for the last fifty years. Their endorsement of socialist ideas in connection to explicitly liberal accounts of justice should be cause for celebration rather than, as seems to be the trend, fuelling further suspicion. So how to explain the reticence? What sort of socialism is at stake here? What can we learn from the liberal egalitarian endorsement of socialism? And what does it leave out?

The following pages seek to address some of these questions more in the spirit of opening a constructive debate about the merits and limitations of liberal interpretations of socialism than by offering any settled conclusions on the matter. Still, there is one general claim that I want to make towards the end. While socialism is often presented and defended as an attractive idea by current left-liberal egalitarians, it really is no more than that — an attractive moral ideal for the pursuit of which only liberal democratic institutions and norms are invoked. But that is precisely where we have to dig deeper. In the world that we have, egalitarian justice cannot be delivered by liberal institutions, and thinking morally about a just society cannot be abstracted from thinking politically about it. The question is whether and how to extend the analysis of justice that liberal egalitarians are happy to share with their Marxist counterparts to a critique of the state, the vision of an alternative anticapitalist international order, and the political institutions and movements in charge of realizing those ideals of justice. Yet even getting to that point requires a more constructive engagement with liberal egalitarianism and, in that spirit, I shall start with Rawls.

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