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Sen, Marx and justice: a critique

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journal contribution
posted on 2016-09-23, 15:53 authored by Ian Fraser
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to offer a critique of Sen’s utilisation of aspects of Marx’s thought that inform his idea of justice. Marx’s ideas appear in four main areas of discussion: Sen’s positioning of Marx in relation to the other thinkers in his approach to justice; Marx’s fluid notion of identity and its relation to social choice; the problem of going beyond a subjective perspective to consider objective concerns by considering the impact of what Sen calls “objective illusion”; and the issue of just redistribution. Design/methodology/approach – The author utilises a Marxian framework of analysis that engages in immanent critique of Sen’s use of Marx in relation to his theory of justice. This is accomplished through textual analysis and by critical assessment of the analytical Marxist tradition that Sen can be seen as using in his own theories with all their inherent weaknesses. Findings – Sen’s attempt to use Marx’s ideas to inform his theory of justice founder because: he groups Marx with thinkers that would not accept his desire for the abolition of capitalism and a more just society beyond it. He reduces Marx to the analytical tradition with all its inherent weaknesses. He resorts to a methodological individualist approach of choice that Marx rejects. His search for positional objectivity is undermined by the power of capitalist ideology and ruling class interest. His discussion of just redistribution ignores how Marx’s approach can overcome the arbitrariness that Sen thinks is inevitable when making just decisions. Research limitations/implications – Theoretically, the paper suggests that, based on immanent critique and textual analysis, Sen’s use of Marx’s idea of justice is problematic most notably because Sen keeps his analysis within the framework of capitalism that Marx would reject. The implication for further research is the development of Marx’s own arguments on what constitutes a just society. Practical implications – Practically, the paper raises questions about the capacity for justice to be achieved within the capitalist system for the reasons discussed in relation to Sen. Social implications – Socially, the paper implies that far greater measures to tackle the injustices of the world are necessary than seem to be admitted to by justice theorists such as Sen. Originality/value – The author shows that the use of Marx’s theories to inform Sen’s notion of justice, while to be welcomed, lose their efficacious power to expose the full injustice of capitalism and the need for its transcendence.



  • Politics and International Studies

Published in

International Journal of Social Economics






FRASER, I., 2016. Sen, Marx and justice: a critique. International Journal of Social Economics, 43 (12), pp.1194-1206.


Emerald Group Publishing


  • AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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This paper was accepted for publication in the journal International Journal of Social Economics and the definitive published version is available at http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/IJSE-08-2015-0202




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