“We’ll Need More Than Rawlsianism Can Offer”: Katrina Forrester on John Rawls and Anglo-American Political Philosophy after 1945

Posted by

Katrina Forrester is Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the history of twentieth-century social and political thought and its implications for political theory. Forrester’s first book, In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2019) is a history of how political philosophy was transformed by postwar liberalism, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and the rise of liberal egalitarianism. She is currently working on a new book project on Feminism and the Transformation of Work, and a related set of essays on feminism and the state. 

Katrina Forrester, Assistant Professor of Government and Social Studies at Harvard University

Jonas Knatz is a PhD Student in New York University’s History Department. He works on 20th century European intellectual history.

Anne Schult a PhD Candidate in New York University’s History Department. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Anne Schult/Jonas Knatz:  In the very first sentence of your book, you state that “political philosophy in the English-speaking world today is largely concerned with a set of liberal ideas about justice, equality, and the obligations of individual citizens in capitalist welfare states” (ix). In essence, you attribute this state of debate to the continuing influence of John Rawls’ ideas about justice as fairness—despite the fact that at the very moment Rawls published his major work, A Theory of Justice, the capitalist welfare state he seemed to advocate for entered a deep crisis. How do you explain this seeming paradox and the enduring attractiveness of Rawls’ philosophical framework to evaluate contemporary politics?

Katrina Forrester: Let me start with the paradox. There are two stories that often get told about liberalism in the second half of the twentieth century. There’s a philosophical success story: John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice transformed how political philosophy was done and a species of political philosophy called liberal egalitarianism came to dominance. That’s one story my book tries to tell, about the origins of A Theory of Justice, its triumphant reception, consolidation, and canonization into what became known simply as “Rawls’s theory”. I set this against another broader story about liberalism: that the 1970s was a time of crisis when social liberalism gave way to neoliberalism. But instead of seeing the rise of a liberal egalitarian political philosophy amid the decline of the welfare state as an ironic or even tragic story, I give a different account – I call it a ghost story. What I try to show is that Rawls’s theory endures and takes hold precisely because it provides a vision of a just society that goes beyond the postwar welfare settlement at the very moment that settlement is coming apart. It provides the grounds for a new liberal consensus, a new philosophical order, at a time of political disorder when the postwar liberal consensus is being challenged (first by the left, and gradually and more successfully by the right).

So that means that the attractiveness of Rawls’s theory is, in part, explained by the seeming paradox. It is also, in part, explained by two more prosaic points: First, Rawls’s own institutional and sociological influence as a teacher and academic at Harvard, and the influence of his students and colleagues; Second, the nature of his theory and its conceptual power (it’s important not to understate that power or A Theory of Justice’s philosophical beauty). Rawls’s theory also had a variety of other characteristics that contributed to its enduring appeal: its ideological force, that enabled its near-hegemonic dominance, and its peculiar flexibility and capaciousness. The flexibility is vital. I also argue in the book that the periodization of postwar thought into welfare-statist and neoliberal is too simple. Rawls was never a straightforward defender of capitalist welfare states (as all Rawlsians and liberal egalitarians know well), but it turns out that as a young man he was far more sympathetic to anti-statist forms of liberalism that we have realized. Yet the theory he built allowed for a variety of political settlements, up to and including a liberal socialism. So it was that flexibility that meant that aspects of the theory could be taken up across the political spectrum. It enabled its continued relevance.

In the Shadow of Justice (2019), Princeton University Press

AS/JK: In 2014, Raymond Geuss described the 1950s and 1960s as a particularly lively and interesting period in political philosophy that saw the publication of books by thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School, a revival of Antonio Gramsci, and the broad circulation and discussion of very influential texts by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre or Guy Debord on the left and Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott or Karl Popper on the right. Against this background, according to Geuss, the publication of Rawls’ main work thus “seemed like an irrelevance.” Yet, as you point out in your book, a predominant narrative in the historiography of political thought portrays the publication of Rawls’ Theory of Justice as a rebirth of political philosophy after a long postwar hiatus. How did Rawls attain such a hegemonic position, and in what aspects was his Theory of Justice a product of these larger postwar debates?

KF: Geuss’s description of the 1950s and 1960s is perhaps best understood as a rebuttal of the “rebirth of political philosophy” story. According to that narrative, after the Second World War, it became impossible to think about justice and utopia. Political philosophy was widely seen as “dead”. Then Rawls’s theory revived political philosophy from its slumbers by giving political philosophy new normative foundations. Now, there’s plenty wrong with this story. But while it’s obviously untenable to see political theory, generally construed, as “dead” in the postwar years (for the reasons Geuss explains), it is nonetheless possible to make the case that the death-and-revival story isn’t all wrong. It’s just that it only holds true if it’s taken to be a much narrower and more tightly delineated story (even then, there’s plenty to contest). A revised version of the story goes something like this: within certain fields of the human sciences in the mid-century US, thanks to the prevailing liberal anti-totalitarianism, a slippery slope to authoritarianism was seen behind every progressive reform. Analytical philosophers weren’t very interested in building “normative” institutional theories, and certainly no one was doing it quite at the same scale as Rawls would. From that perspective, Rawls’s contribution was extremely significant. If the history of postwar political philosophy is told in terms of what goes on within US philosophy departments, Rawls’s impact was huge.

From left to right: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara. Cuba, 1960. Wikicommons.

But that doesn’t mean Rawls came out of nowhere. He was a far closer reader of a wide range of postwar scholarship than is often assumed: he engaged closely with economics and social science, with sociology, political science, psychology, and law, and he was no stranger to the so-called “continental” tradition. To that end, I describe A Theory of Justice as a kind of “encyclopedia” of the postwar social sciences. It is very much a recognizable product of that mid-century moment. And yet, Rawls himself contributed to the idea that it was somehow apart from it, by reinforcing the narrative of the death-and-revival of political philosophy: in lectures to students, year on year, when he contemplated the question of whether postwar political theory was dead or declining, he suggested that the concept of justice would be necessary to its revival. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Rawls helped consolidate the narrative according to which theories of distributive justice like his signaled the revival of political philosophy. As political philosophy was remade in Rawls’s wake with a novel conceptual vocabulary, the thinkers that Geuss describes as central were consequently removed from the canon of political philosophy. They were re-described as being engaged in a different endeavor: social theory, critical theory, political theory, and so on. Rawls and the subsequent generation of Anglophone analytical philosophers oversaw a redefinition of what counts as political philosophy.

AS/JK: By historicizing Rawls’ theory, your methodology bears resemblance to what the literary critic Barbara Johnson termed ‘critique’, a deconstructivist approach that was later adopted by historians such as Joan W. Scott. That is to say, your book appears less as an engagement with Rawls’ theoretical system in the form of an “examination of its flaws and imperfections” in order to improve it, but instead as an “analysis that focuses on the grounds of the system’s possibility,” to “show that these things have their history.”[1] Do you see your work as following in this tradition, or would you describe your methodology otherwise?

KF: That’s an interesting connection, but I’ve never thought of my work explicitly in relation to Scott or Johnson. Certainly, I’m interested in looking to the political work that ideas do, their political effects, their histories and the historical circumstances that made them possible. I suspect I’m quite in keeping with many who were trained in the Cambridge School of the history of political thought when I say that I don’t spend much time worrying about method: I have contextualist and historicist inclinations, to which I’m reasonably faithful. But in this book and elsewhere my central commitment is to writing the history of the present – I want to find ways to think the present historically, to understand political theory in political terms, and to identify the politics of political philosophy, which can only really be done historically. To do that, we might use all manner of tools, and not all of them are compatible – genealogical, Marxist, Foucauldian, psychoanalytic, as well the workaday practices of historical explanation. So yes, critique is a central part of how I conceive of my work, but I would want to define that quite broadly.

AS/JK: You attribute parts of Rawls’ influence to his success in transforming the vocabulary of Anglo-American political philosophy. An essential cornerstone of his language, as you detail throughout the book, was the metaphor of society as a game. Analogies with games were ubiquitous in postwar academia, from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language games to John von Neumann’s writings in game theory, but Rawls took particular inspiration from Chicago School economist Frank Knight’s notion of the ‘good game.’ How did the metaphor of the ‘good game’ encapsulate John Rawls’ understanding of a just society, and how did he negotiate the rise of neoliberal economic policies that emerged from the very same metaphor in the 1970s?

KF: In the early 1950s, Rawls wrote that society could best be understood as a game, rather than as an organism or a mechanism. He aimed to describe how a just society could be set up so that it was self-regulating. The government acted as umpire that tried not to intervene in the game. He drew from Knight to describe society as a game of multiple players with their own interests, whose starting positions had to be equal enough that they had a stake in the game and wanted to play. The game had to be regulated so the effects of winning were contained, and so no one player could accumulate too many goods from winning. It was important to Rawls that players in the game of society have a degree of equality, but that should be achieved without too much active state intervention and redistribution. Now, Rawls didn’t ever fully drop the game metaphor – it features in A Theory of Justice, though it’s not well developed there. He did overlay it with other accounts of society (as a system of social practices, and his vision of the basic structure of society). But I argue that the game metaphor gives us a crucial insight into Rawls’s youthful dream of limited government.

The game metaphor was also used by neoliberals, as you rightly say, and by public choice theorists like James Buchanan, who recognized Rawls as a fellow “student” of Knight’s account of games. But, to my knowledge, Rawls didn’t write anything about how his theory related to the neoliberals who used the game metaphor. Unlike some later egalitarians, he doesn’t explicitly engage with neoliberal ideas. And yet, Rawls was briefly a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, until 1971 when he allowed his membership to lapse. He also dialogued with Buchanan and other contract theorists. They didn’t agree on social issues – Rawls’s racial liberalism runs deep. But it was in the nature of that liberalism that he didn’t reject links with those for whom it didn’t. That engagement doesn’t make Rawls a neoliberal, but it certainly complicates narratives about Rawls being a socialist of some kind. Rawls’s theory allows for liberal socialism – and certainly many political philosophers have argued that it might require it – but Rawls himself was not a socialist.

AS/JK: Yet, Rawls’ work has often been received as a defense of the welfare state, to the point that William A. Edmundson called him a “reticent socialist.” By situating A Theory of Justice in the intellectual milieu of the postwar period, you emphasize that it was influenced by the then-prevalent Anglo-American critique of the totalitarian state. What was Rawls’ understanding of the state, and how does his understanding differ from the minimalist state advocated by contemporaries, such as Robert Nozick?

KF: For a long time, discussions of the state in the mid-twentieth century tended to flatten quite distinctive visions of the state into “welfare state theory.” But there were then many ways of thinking about the state that in practice might have amounted to a defense of something like a welfare state, but at the level of theory included very different arguments about what the state was, and how the state did, and should, function. Theories of planning, welfare, socialism, pluralism, Keynesian stabilization: all these had different implicit or explicit accounts of the state. My book tries to situate Rawls’s account of the state alongside these. It’s crucial to see his theory as in dialogue with these mid-century and wartime theories, not as a product of the Great Society. Recent work on early neoliberal theory has done a lot to dispel the idea that neoliberalism was a purely anti-statist theory. But in the mid-century US, there was a distinctive strand of sceptical liberalism that was critical of the New Deal planning state (and later invoked anti-totalitarianism and metaphors of anti-statism), and I argue that Rawls’s early work was surprisingly indebted to that anti-interventionist liberalism. Rawls always wanted something distinctive from the welfare state. When he first formulated his account of a “property-owning democracy” in the early 1950s, it was as part of a minimalist liberal theory in which the functions of government were highly limited. He ruled out any political control of the economy. So, then, what he wanted amounted to less than a welfare state. But Rawls changed his mind about how much state action would be necessary to secure distributive justice. As he developed his account of property-owning democracy, he conceived of it as requiring more than the welfare state – a distinctive form of democratic political regime. That’s where the connection to liberal socialism comes in – Rawls saw his theory of justice as permitting a liberal socialist settlement (though he preferred property-owning democracy).

That said, there is something of a puzzle about how Rawls understood the state. Unlike Weberians or Marxists (or indeed Cambridge School historians of political thought), liberal political philosophers since Rawls have not been so interested in the state. That’s in part down to how Rawls explained, or didn’t explain, the state. Rawls’s theory was deeply institutional, but he was never very explicit about what the state was. As a young man hostile to corporate and state personality theories, he came close to what’s sometimes called an eliminativist theory of the state – he defined it as “the collection of men” and laws. When he later discussed society as a system of practices, there’s little sense that the state is a particularly distinctive, autonomous or semi-autonomous, agent. It’s not a corporate person, nor is it a field of interests. Sometimes Rawls’s state seems to be well-suited to the public/private nature of the American mid-century administrative state, a system of interests and institutions that is neither public or private – but he never theorized it explicitly in this way either. What’s clear in his early writings is that government should have a limited reach: the game should be set up so it can be self-regulating with minimal government intervention. The scope of state action is circumscribed, even if its nature is underdeveloped. Now, in his mature writings, in A Theory of Justice and beyond, Rawls abandons that minimalist view. But that formative anxiety about the overreaching state is not unconnected to the absence of theoretical attention he gives to the state. He ends up focusing on the juridical and legislative institutions, whereas the administrative state is always envisaged in the negative, as something to be constrained. Yet by the time Rawls publishes A Theory of Justice, it’s clear that the institutions of his just society require a well-functioning state, with significant state capacity – including capacity to intervene in the economy in a variety of ways to secure a just distribution of goods. Something like the postwar American state is always assumed but never interrogated.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Basic Books

How does this compare to Nozick? Well, Nozick takes Rawls’s mature theory to require a great deal of state intervention. And, when compared to Nozick’s theory, rather than to the mid-century planning states, it certainly does. Even if we take the early Rawls, at his most minimalist, he and Nozick have starkly different visions of society. Nozick’s is a remarkably pure form of libertarianism. There is no metaphor of the game. In fact, Nozick’s minimalist state is quite different from the neoliberal state of those who think of society as a game, or from the state as responsible for setting the rules or the road. Nozick objects to theorists of “games of fair division.” He’s concerned with property rights, not state rules.

AS/JK: In the later 1970s, Rawls’ theory was reshaped and expanded by others to apply on a global level. In the book, you focus specifically on Rawlsian solutions to the political problems of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation—issues that Rawls himself had fairly little to say about in an official capacity, but that a new generation of philosophers like Charles Beitz thought solvable by means of Rawls’ philosophical framework. How did the adaptation of the Rawlsian notion of justice intersect with humanitarianism in the Global South and the rise of neocolonial development politics?

KF: The crucial point of intersection is in the 1970s, when political philosophers look in earnest to international politics. When liberal moral philosophers turned earlier to theorize the Vietnam War, it was mostly in terms of just war theory and the moral responsibility of leaders. Then in the 1970s, they take the institutional framework of Rawlsianism and look to international politics through the lens of distribution. There are various objections to Rawls’s decision to limit his theory to the national level, but it’s Charles Beitz that really extends Rawls’s theory internationally in detail. His is the first of many attempts to expand the scope of justice and to stretch Rawls’s theory to cover the world. The 1973 proposals for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) are key here as a spur to action. There’s also a contemporaneous move among those engaged with the new philosophy of public affairs to theorize other problems of international ethics, particularly foreign aid and food policy via appeal to varieties of utilitarianism or neo-Kantianism. It’s out of that, really, that you get a new humanitarianism within philosophy, one that’s fairly policy focused in its approach. By contrast with this, the extension of justice theory internationally is pretty radical. It’s born of sympathy with the redistributive demands coming out of the Global South (or at least with those demands as they are mediated by Northern liberals and socialists, and as they pass through the UN). A lot of their radicalism is diffused, though, as political philosophers take up the demands. As Brian Barry put it, in an extremely honest, straightforward, rendering of the egalitarian project, the aim for philosophers was to “domesticate” the arguments of the NIEO. That is, the point was to domesticate these demands by squeezing them into the vocabulary of liberal egalitarianism and justice theory. Barry is wonderfully explicit about this. For Barry, the NIEO demands are best understood as claims of justice, whereas the humanitarian debates about famine and food policy are merely claims of humanity.  But other philosophers cut the distinction differently and don’t disaggregate humanity and justice. Over time, conceptions of justice are used to explicate humanitarian activism too: food policy, human rights policies, the NIEO demands, all these get rendered in the vocabulary of justice theory. Here again we see the flexibility of liberal egalitarianism.

Meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Santiago, Chile, April 1972, which would eventually issue the Declaration for the Establishment of a New International Economic Order in 1974.

AS/JK: Around the same time, analytical Marxists, such as G.A. Cohen and John Roemer, began to engage with Rawls’ theory. As you argue in your book, these Marxist attacks “were taken up [and] their hard edges were softened” (207), and the criticism of the “No-Bullshit Marxists” was simply incorporated in the larger paradigm of liberal egalitarianism. You conclude that these debates “ultimately gave way not to socialist theories of democratic control but to liberal theories of deliberative democracy and public reason.” (ibid.) Why was analytical Marxism so powerless in challenging Rawlsianism, and how was the latter transformed by these encounters, if at all?

KF: Analytical Marxism starts off as something quite far away from Rawls and liberal egalitarianism, and many members of the original ‘No Bullshit Marxism’ group never have much to do with egalitarian political philosophy. But when, at the end of the 1970s, political philosophers after Rawls are becoming preoccupied with deep questions about equality, key analytical Marxists – Cohen and Roemer in particular – become very engaged with these debates. This is a moment when a number of philosophers get very interested in socialism, and in ‘rethinking’ it in the face of the rising New Right. As the 1980s rolled on, rethinking socialism often means abandoning it. But there were also plenty of new socialist visions, from analytical Marxism to market or democratic socialism. Few of them last long. What happens to some of the analytical Marxists as they encounter liberal egalitarianism is that they render Marxism a theory of distribution. They become proponents of the distributive paradigm. In this sense, Marxism gets domesticated (to redeploy that word). There are forays into theories of socialism, democratic control, and workplace democracy, but they don’t last. By the 1990s, debates about deliberative democracy and public reason take over. Marxism becomes distributional, democratic theory becomes deliberative. There’s an end of history effect.

Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978), Princeton University Press

AS/JK: By the late 1980s, the law-like character of Rawls’s conceptualization of a just society was challenged by two other philosophical strands, communitarianism as developed by Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel and a new form of anti-totalitarian liberalism as put forward by Judith Shklar or Alasdair MacIntyre. Yet, you argue that these critics of Rawls offered little political alternatives and instead “provided mirror images of liberal political philosophy” (242). What led to their failure as true political-philosophical contenders?

KF: When I describe the story of liberal egalitarianism as a kind of ghost story, it’s Rawls’s theory that haunts political philosophy. But there’s really another ghost, too, that I characterize as “postwar liberalism” – the liberal vision of society that is born of the postwar settlement, which encompasses a range of liberal political assumptions and theories (of which Rawls’s is but one). In a basic sense, many liberal and communitarian responses to Rawls didn’t move beyond postwar liberalism. So they didn’t provide significant political alternatives. But I also argue that in important respects, a number of the communitarian and liberal responses to Rawls retraced his steps conceptually speaking too. They ended up mirroring ideas they wanted to dispute, they went back to ideas that Rawls had left out or left behind. This was not, of course, true of all alternatives – and I have tried not to overstate the centrality of Rawlsianism and the critics who took it as referent. Yet, for example, the communitarian critics of Rawls looked to Wittgenstein and the social self. I show in the book that this is actually where Rawls began. Similarly, those like Judith Shklar who advocated a liberalism of fear went back to Rawls’s early anti-totalitarianism but updated it for a new phase of the Cold War. Many of Rawlsianism’s twentieth-century alternatives couldn’t escape it. They ended up operating in the shadow of justice theory. 

AS/JK: At the end of your book, you argue that “we tend to underestimate the political distance traveled between that world of political consensus and our own” (278). Similarly, in a recent article for the Boston Review, you suggest that Rawls’ framework may have outlived its purpose as “some of our most pressing concerns lie in its blind spots.” How can political philosophy escape the shadow of justice?

KF: Well, first I want to be clear that the hold of the Rawlsian or liberal egalitarian framework has loosened over the past decade or so. And there is a lot of fascinating work being done within the tradition historicized in my book: as political philosophers try to face the future of work, technology, climate politics, financialization, privatization, and so on, plenty of its resources are relevant. So I don’t think “escaping the shadow” means abandoning those resources entirely. It means recognizing the limits of the Rawlsian framework, liberal egalitarianism and the analytical approach associated with the philosophy of public affairs – seeing what those approaches can’t do. One way to do so is to historicize and defamiliarize the vocabulary and architecture of that way of doing political philosophy. Another is to use ideas and arguments from other traditions. So, for instance, as part of my new research, I’ve been reading a lot of Marxist and socialist feminism, in part because I see that tradition as a rich resource for thinking about the future of work – richer than Rawlsianism. But there’s no one approach or single tradition of social and political theory that provides all the solutions, nor is there a single alternative to the limits of the paradigm. I’m a historian of political thought and a political theorist, not a philosopher, and I don’t want to tell another discipline what it should do with itself – that’s not my aim. Yet it’s nonetheless clear to me that if we are serious about finding a political philosophy, or a political theory, that can deal with the dilemmas of our own age, then we’ll need more than Rawlsianism can offer. We’ll need new theories of the state, work, climate. Some of those will be built from the resources of egalitarianism, others will be drawn from the many other traditions of social and political theory that we could mine. Constructing these is a collective endeavor, and many philosophers and theorists of various political and methodological stripes are already engaged in that endeavor, and recognize the challenge. I’m optimistic.


[1]. Barbara Johnson, translator’s introduction to Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981): xv.

Leave a Reply