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In What Sense must Socialism be Communitarian?*

  • David Miller (a1)

This paper stands at the confluence of two streams in contemporary political thought. One stream is composed of those critics of liberal political philosophy who are often described collectively as ‘communitarians’. What unites these critics (we shall later want to investigate how deep their collegiality goes) is a belief that contemporary liberalism rests on an impoverished and inadequate view of the human subject. Liberal political thought – as manifested, for instance, in the writings of John Rawls, Robert Nozick, and Ronald Dworkin – claims centrally to do justice to individuality: to specify the conditions under which distinct individuals, each with his own view about how life should be lived, can pursue these visions to the best of their ability. But, the critics claim, liberalism is blind to the social origins of individuality itself. A person comes by his identity through participating in social practices and through his affiliation to collectivities like family and nation. An adequate political philosophy must attend to the conditions under which people can develop the capacity for autonomy that liberals value. This, however, means abandoning familiar preoccupations of liberal thought – especially the centrality it gives to individual rights – and looking instead at how social relationships of the desired kind can be created and preserved. It means, in short, looking at communities – their nature and preconditions.

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1 See, for instance, Gutmann, Amy, “Communitarian Critics of Liberalism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 14 (1985), pp. 308–22.

2 This sketch of communitarianism is deliberately ambiguous in one aspect. We may read the communitarian critics as basing their argument on a core liberal ideal – personal autonomy – but as proposing a more adequate account than mainstream liberalism of the conditions under which autonomy can be realized. Alternatively, we can read them as departing in a more fundamental way from liberal assumptions, substituting a different conception of the self, a different conception of freedom, and so forth. This ambiguity runs deep in communitarian writing (I return to the point later, particularly in relation to Charles Taylor): does communitarianism come to fulfill liberalism or to destroy it?

3 For statements of this view by two promilent members of the British Labour Party see Gould, Bryan, Socialism and Freedom (London: Macmillan, 1985); Hattersley, Roy, Choose Freedom: The Future for Democratic Socialism (London: Michael Joseph, 1987).

4 Nor do I want to say that the socialist critique is exhausted by the two elements I identify. It has other strands too: for instance one charge often made by socialists is that capitalism is a highly inefficient system, making poor use of the welfare-generating resources available to it. There is a good discussion of efficiency arguments in Buchanan, Allen, Ethics, Efficiency and the Market (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), ch. 2.

5 Marxists often claim that their critique of capitalism does not involve a charge of maldistribution. Their meaning, I think, is that they are not centrally concerned with the allocation of income; in particular, they want to dismiss the suggestion that capitalism can be made acceptably fair by income redistribution schemes. What this suggests is either that they see a fairly rigid connection between distribution in the narrow sense (income distribution) and the structural inequalities of capitalism (e.g., the power structure of enterprises) or that they see distribution in the former sense as a comparatively trivial matter. In my wider sense, however, the Marxist critique, in this aspect, would properly count as a distributive critique.

Marx himself recognized that his critique of capitalism could be expressed in distributive terms. For the evidence, see Cohen, G.A., “Freedom, Justice and Capitalism,” New Left Review, vol. 126 (March-April 1981), pp. 1314 n. 7.

6 I have examined this theory critically in “Marx, Communism and Markets,” Political Theory, vol. 15 (1987), pp. 182–204.

7 Evidence for believing that a feasible form of socialism must allow a major role to markets is usefully presented in Nove, Alec, The Economics of Feasible Socialism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1983).

8 Putman, Ruth Anna, “Rights of Persons and the Liberal Tradition,” ed. Ted, Honderich, Social Ends and Political Means (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976), p. 102.

9 I have argued this point briefly in Anarchism (London: Dent, 1984), ch. 12. For a fuller defense of the idea of legality against left-wing criticism, see Campbell, Tom D., The Left and Rights (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), esp. ch. 3.

10 See Steiner, Hillel, “The Natural Right to the Means of Production,” Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 27 (1977), pp. 4149; “Slavery, Socialism and Private Property,” eds. J., Roland Pennock and Chapman, John W., Norms XXII: Property (New York: New York University Press, 1970); “Liberty and Equality,” Political Studies, vol. 29 (1981), pp. 555–69.

11 Dworkin, Ronald, “Equality of Resources,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 10 (1981), pp. 283345.

12 Roemer, John, “Equality of Talent,” Economics and Philosophy, vol. 1 (1985), pp. 151–87; “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?”, Working Paper No. 221, Department of Economics, University of California, Davis.

13 Van Der Veen, Robert J. and Van Parijs, Philippe, “A Capitalist Road to Communism,” Theory and Society, vol. 15 (1986), pp. 635–55.

14 See Miller, David, “Socialism and the Market,” Political Theory, vol. 5 (1977), pp. 473–90; “Jerusalem Not Yet Built: A Reply to Lessnoffon Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,” Political Studies, vol. 28 (1980), pp. 584–89; “Marx, Communism and Markets”; David Miller and Saul Estrin, “Market Socialism: A Policy For Socialists,” ed. I. Forbes, Market Socialism: Whose Choice?, Fabian pamphlet No. 516 (reprinted as “A Case for Market Socialism,” Dissent, Summer 1987, pp. 359–67). These ideas are developed more systematically in a forthcoming book, Market, State and Community (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

15 I call this the minimalist case because it hinges the argument for community entirely on elements drawn from the distributive critique; it makes no appeal to the inherent value of community. Now an argument of this kind might appear inherently paradoxical, at least insofar as it is addressed to the public at large. For either the addressees already see themselves as belonging to a community, or they do not. If they do, then it is redundant to offer them a justifying argument that appeals to extrinsic distributive considerations; if they do not, then a sense of community cannot be conjured out of thin air because it would be helpful from a distributive point of view were it to exist. Thus the argument that follows might seem to have an unavoidably esoteric character.

We may, however, take the addressees of the argument to be people who both see themselves as members of a community and espouse principles of distributive justice, but who as yet see no necessary relationship between these commitments. Community membership is felt to be inherently valuable, but irrelevant from a distributive point of view. The purpose of my argument is to enhance the value of community by connecting the two commitments. This has a practical point insofar as we are now in a position to make political decisions that will influence the nature of our community in the future – strengthening or weakening people's allegiance in the long run.

16 This is not the place to discuss the finer details of Rawls's theory. He expresses some concern about what he calls the “strains of commitment” – the possibility that people might no longer be able to accept the principles of justice they have endorsed in the abstract when faced with their concrete results – but he sees this as a problem about justice and material interests: can people who do badly out of the application of a theory of justice be expected to continue embracing it? (See Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), esp. section 29.) He does not raise the question whether the practical acceptability of a theory of justice might not depend on the quality of social relationships in general.

17 Taylor, Charles, “The Nature and Scope of Distributive Justice,” Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 289.

18 Let me stress that I am concerned here about the conditions under which a socialist system of distribution could be legitimate, in the sense of being congruent with widely-held and spontaneously-formed notions of justice. I am not directly concerned with the transition to socialism, i.e., with the circumstances under which those who are the chief beneficiaries of capitalism would be willing to renounce the privileges they already enjoy. Although democratic socialists will want both the transition and the ensuing arrangements to have broad popular support, it would be unrealistic to set the standard of consent as high for the former as for the latter.

19 See Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), ch. 2.

20 Obviously, this is not a claim about logic but a claim about social psychology. Although social psychologists cannot create genuine communities in the laboratory, their simulations provide some support for the claim. In particular, people give less weight to merit and more weight to equality in distribution when they expect to interact with their partners over a period of time. See Shapiro, E. Gary, “Effect of Expectations of Future Interaction on Reward Allocation in Dyads: Equity and Equality,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 31 (1975), pp. 873–80; Lerner, Melvin J., “The Justice Motive: ‘Equity’ and ‘Parity’ among Children,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 29 (1974), pp. 539–50.

21 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, section 79.

22 See Maclntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1981), ch. 17; Taylor, “The Nature and Scope of Distributive Justice”; Sandel, Liberalism, ch. 4.

23 Only Taylor seems in any way sympathetic to socialist views, and even he is mainly concerned to present socialism as trapped in the same modernist predicament as other outlooks: see Taylor, Charles, “Socialism and Weltanschauung,” eds. Leszek, Kolakowski and Stuart, Hampshire, The Socialist Idea (London: Quartet, 1977).

24 Maclntyre, After Virtue, p. 205.

25 ibid., p. 221.

26 See ibid., pp. 236–37 and Maclntyre, Alasdair, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?”, Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas, 1984.

27 MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 237.

28 For further reflection on the difficulties this entails, see my “Virtues and Practices,” Analyse und Kritik, vol. 6 (1984), pp. 49–60.

29 See Taylor, Charles, “Atomism,” Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

30 See Taylor, Charles, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), esp. chs. 1 and 20; “Legitimation Crisis?”, in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers II (Cambrdige: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

31 Taylor, “Legitimation Crisis?”, p. 283.

32 Taylor, Charles, “Language and Human Nature,” in Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 234.

33 ibid., p. 208.

34 Taylor, “Atomism,” p. 207. Taylor later adds to his argument the claim that political deliberation forms an essential part of freedom, but this has the appearance of an afterthought. See ibid., p. 208.

35 Sandel, Michael, “The Procedural Republic and the Unencumbered Self,” Political Theory, vol. 12 (1984), pp. 8196.

36 If communal relationships foster a sense of justice that is relatively egalitarian, why shouldn't a society made up of small local communities develop a society-wide scheme of redistribution? Unfortunately, there is no reason to expect the scope of a practice of distributive justice to extend beyond the community that supports it. There is ample historical evidence of small communities (tribes, guilds, cooperatives) practicing quite radical forms of egalitarian redistribution internally, but dealing with outsiders on very different terms. Socialists must look for community at the level at which effective policies can be made for whole societies, which, in practice, means at the level of the nation-state.

37 I discuss ethical particularism more fully in “The Ethical Significance of Nationality,” Ethics, forthcoming. See also Oldenquist, Andrew, “Loyalties,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 74 (1982), pp. 173–93; Cottingham, John, “Partiality, Favoritism and Morality,” Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 36 (1986), pp. 357–73; Pettit, Philip, “Social Holism and Moral Theory,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 86 (19851986), pp. 173–97.

38 There is no need, I think, to commit ourselves on the question of whether it is ultimately preferable to have a world order made up of distinct national communities or a global community. On one side stands the value of diversity; on the other, the problems of international distributive justice. The point is that the most extensive communal identities that people currently have are national identities, and there is no sign that this about to change. Insofar as there is any movement, it appears to be in the direction of smaller, more intense forms of nationality rather than towards internationalism.

39 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

40 See “The Ethical Significance of Nationality.”

41 “In the end, when the state, on the brink of ruin, can maintain itself only in an empty and illusory form, when the social bond is broken in every heart, when the meanest interest impudently flaunts the sacred name of the public good, then the general will is silenced: everyone, animated by secret motives, ceases to speak as a citizen any more than as if the state had never existed; and the people enacts in the guise of laws iniquitous decrees which have private interests as their only end.” Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), p. 150.

42 Walzer, Michael, “Liberalism and the Art of Separation,” Political Theory, vol. 12 (1984), pp. 315–30.

43 I use “artifice” here in its neutral, Humean sense.

44 Elster, Jon, Three Lectures on Constitutional Choice, (mimeo) Oslo, 1981.

45 For an attempt at conciliation, see Gutmann, “Communitarian Critics of Liberalism.” See also the brief discussion in Sandel, Michael, “Morality and the Liberal Ideal,” The New Republic, May 7, 1984, pp. 1517.

46 I have grasped this nettle in “Socialism and Toleration,” ed. Susan, Mendus, Justifying Toleration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

* I should like to thank the participants in the conference on “Capitalism and Socialism” organized by the Social Philosophy and Policy Center for helpful discussion of an earlier draft of this paper, and Jerry Cohen, Andrew Williams, and Lesley Jacobs for sending valuable written comments.

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