From the April 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard
There are words of which people should have learned to beware. Liberation, meaning it is your allies who will try to kill you this time instead of your enemies. Prosperity, a sure thing you are about to feel the pinch more tightly. Progress, the development of new ways to exploit the majority of people and turn creativeness sour. And justice. In Britain, they say. it is the best that money can buy. Demands and pleas for it echo through history and every day's newspapers So do threats of it: as well as the grail of the oppressed, justice is the first refuge of every oppressor. With each invocation of the word goes the feeling that a moral principle is involved, that there is an over-riding consideration of rights. Is there justice to be had?
One answer might be that it is impossible to get under capitalism, or has to be fought for against odds. On that basis, working-class claims for justice acquire greater weight and passion, because sentiment favours assaults on the inaccessible. Unfortunately, it is a superficial and mistaken answer. The mistake is in the assumption that there is true justice which is simply being with-held or misapplied. If hands could be laid on it, the belief goes, wrongs would be righted and truth prevail. In fact, justice is a concept established and elevated by property society for its purposes alone. Or, as Marx and Engels addressed the capitalist mind in the Communist Manifesto:
. . . your jurisprudence is but the will of a class made into law for all, a will, whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of your class. The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property — historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production — this misconception you share with every ruling class that has proceeded you.
What has to be realised is that there is no injustice — there is only justice. Does this mean that appeal is useless, that every personal and social oppression must be taken as inexorable and endured? By no means. But the argument and struggle had better be for concrete purposes, not for the phantom of a moral truth. Indeed, the Communist Manifesto points out that early major gains by organised workers were won "by taking advantage of the divisions among the bourgeoisie itself” — not by appeals to humanity and justice. In criminal actions it is only the defendant who asks for justice in court. The police and prosecutors know it is there: what they ask for is the penalties.
The futility of seeking social redress in the name of justice was ridiculed by Engels in Anti-Duhring, in 1878:
If for the imminent overthrow of the present mode of distribution of the products of labour, with its crying contrasts of want and luxury, starvation and debauchery, we had no better guarantee than the consciousness that this mode of distribution is unjust, and that justice must eventually triumph, we should be in a pretty bad way, and we might have a long time to wait.
Underlying the belief that some better kind of justice can be had is, inevitably, acceptance of capitalism s yard-sticks and axioms. The idea of rights and freedoms, the idea of equal opportunity — they sound like emancipated thought, but they denote thought sadly fettered. In effect, they propose alterations and exceptions to the rules; the question not asked is who makes the rules, and why they exist. Robert Tressell's biographer. F.C. Ball, relates how the author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists would suddenly ask men in argument: "What makes you think you are entitled to food and clothing?", "Can you tell me why your children should have shoes on their feet?” This is going to the heart of the matter. When the very means of living are owned by a minority, what can be said of the majority's right to live? What is the point of believing that justice can come true?
This is the difference between the reformist and the revolutionary or socialist. The reformist hopes (at a later stage perhaps pretends, professionally) to find a soft heart and a love of truth in capitalist society. Of course by their own professed moral standards those who rule and dispose in capitalism are perenially cynical, vicious and low; but that reveals only the spuriousness of the standards. The socialist knows that Engels, again, wrote in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:
According to this conception, the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in the minds of men. in their increasing insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange: they are to be sought not in the philosophy but in the economics of the epoch concerned.
The socialist case holds no reference to justice or the rights of man. Its foundation, like that of capitalism, is in material interests. When the great majority who form the working class are ready to establish socialism, it will be not a matter of belief in eternal principle; but because they have had enough of deprivation, inferiority and modern barbarity as all capitalism can give, and propose to run society by themselves for themselves. That this society will be a thousand times better and more satisfying in every way is true — but the drive to it is not a moral one. So far from promising to inaugurate justice, opportunity and the recognition of rights, the revolutionary proposal is to do away with them and replace these slave-concepts with the human relationships of socialism. This too was one of the challenges laid down in the Communist Manifesto. Mimicking liberal-philosophical timidity, the authors say:
'There are. besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom. Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis: it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.'
And the reply:
But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages. viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms . . .
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonism, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.