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As Free and as Just as Possible: The Theory of Marxian Liberalism

reviewed by David Backer - February 25, 2015

coverTitle: As Free and as Just as Possible: The Theory of Marxian Liberalism
Author(s): Jeffrey Reiman
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell, New York
ISBN: 1118720385, Pages: 256, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

In a previous review, Teaching Marx: The Socialist Challenge, I distinguished between two problems: an economics problem in education and an educational problem in economics. The former is a problem for the institution we call school: children are not taught prosocial economic ideas, nor are their teachers taught to teach prosocial ideas. The latter is a wider issue among adults who have not learned to think prosocially in their policies, practices, and opinions.

Committed to addressing the second problem, I am in constant search of texts that take on the task of teaching society to think prosocially. Jeffrey Reiman's As Free and as Just as Possible: The Theory of Marxian Liberalism is a paradigm case.

Reiman has composed a liberal outlook with core prosocial commitments—a great feat. He has done so readably and reasonably, and he addresses a wider audience than the technical, political-theoretical cadre of Rawlsians who debate deep questions of justice that, for all their complexity, rarely go widely enough to include prosocial insights. Reiman’s Marxian Liberalism does, and his work should be read carefully.

One the one hand, Reiman echoes Thomas Nagel’s sentiment that “what capitalism produces is wonderful” (p. 17). Reiman goes on to argue for a Lockean-negative natural right to liberty based on rational competence. He is a Rawlsian methodologically, to the extent that justice in his theory is a property of the basic structure of society, the principles of which result from agreement by veiled participants in a hypothetical original position. These are all liberal (and sometimes libertarian) trademarks.

Yet, on the other hand, Reiman includes Marxist insights in his outlook. Along with the liberal ideas above, we read that money is morally equivalent to other people's labor. Additionally, Reiman argues that capitalism creates situations that appear fair and non-violent, but in fact are structurally coercive and threaten the liberty of those involved. This structural coercion is the result of ideology. Finally, owning property according to Reiman is both liberating (for owners) and inhibits liberty (of non-owners). These are prosocial trademarks.  

Marxian Liberalism is the political outlook that results from a conjunction of these two sets of ideas. According to Reiman, the combination makes capitalism agreeable to Marxists and communism agreeable to liberals, because it renders political and economic structures “as free and as just as possible.”

There is a swarm of questions buzzing around this punchy, impressive, and impactful argument. One region of this swarm includes exegetical questions: Did Marx and Rawls really say what Reiman says they said? Another region of questions is logical: Do all the premises fit together the way Reiman thinks they do? Finally, a third region of questions is educational: What do we learn from this argument? I am primarily interested in this last region.

Educationally, the book finds an important middle ground between political left and center. It teaches us a way of thinking that can appeal to different sets of commitments, and how to mix and match ideas that address a number of concerns in actual and theoretical politics. In lieu of a radical caucus within the US Democratic Party (a counterpart to the Republican’s Tea Party, perhaps), Reiman’s book readies the ground, and provides a rationale for democrats with real Leftist agendas. The argument is eminently reasonable, in the sense that a good number of thinkers with differing perspectives could not reasonably reject it as an outlook—making it a fertile ground in which students, politicians, intellectuals, and activists might cultivate proposals for policy and action.

Yet this very quality of middle-groundedness and wide appeal—the reason scholars, activists, and students of justice should read this book—may be the same reason they do not. Liberals may take offense at the incorporation of Marxist ideas, for instance, into a liberal outlook. Even if they are able to bracket Stalin, Castro, and Mao (and their various Gulags), liberal readers may still shrug, chafe, or outright reject the idea that liberty and property can limit one another.

Marxists, on the other hand, may take offense at the use of Marx's thought to enhance liberalism. Even if they are able to look past Reiman's admiration of capitalism, they might have a difficult time with the Western-Canonical, Lockean-Rawlsian content of his argument, as well as the semi-analytic tone in which it is written. Marxist readers might also take issue with Reiman’s lack of serious engagement with any other Marxist commentator besides the analytic G.A. Cohen, largely unknown or uninteresting in activist circles. Marxists may also furrow their brows at Reiman's minimal sensitivity to the problem of subjectivity, and the five decades of theoretical work devoted to demonstrating the way in which political-economic systems affect individual consciousness; that is, what it is like to be in capitalist society. This is a tradition that, if Reiman took it seriously, might pose an interesting puzzle for his account of a natural right to liberty via rational competence, as well as his implication, at the beginning of the book, that Americans live good lives because they have flatscreen TVs.

What makes Marxian Liberalism exciting for many of us, in other words, is also what makes it disappointing. However, despite these obstacles, it is arguments like Reiman's which teach us to unlearn boundaries separating inquiries, reveal routes out of our bubbles, and open avenues to communicate the merits of our own ways of thinking with those not in our own respective choirs.

Marxists should value this book, as it translates crucial Marxist ideas into mainstream liberal dialects, and also presents an opportunity to learn about those dialects. While my sympathies are with Marxist arguments, I have not seen a more systematic dismantling of utilitarianism than Rawls' theory of justice, and I wish fellow activists would take a closer look at it. Reiman would be a good teacher in this respect. Also, the idea that money is other people’s labor makes an elegant slogan, and it names one of the central contradictions of capitalism in a pedagogical way: all kinds of folks can understand and learn from this formulation. Liberals should value this book as well since it covers, in their preferred terms and tone, their blindest spot with respect to justice: actual (rather than positivist-empirical) economics, and the inherent structural coerciveness of their seemingly non-violent capitalism.

To conclude, addressing the educational problem in economics may require that liberals shift left and Marxists look rightwards. That position—left of Liberalism and right of traditional Marxism—is a position of prosocial thinking, making Reiman's Marxian Liberalism a valuable resource for those interested in creating social change today.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 25, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17876, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 5:27:29 PM

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About the Author
  • David Backer
    Barnard College
    E-mail Author
    DAVID BACKER is an Adjunct Professor at Barnard College and Guttman Community College, City University of New York. Based on his dissertation research, he is currently at work on a practical and philosophical manual for facilitating discussion.
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