Interesting piece, from the preface to a forthcoming Chinese edition of his 1981 book The Idea of a Critical Theory; an excerpt:
The academic reflection of the massive social and economic changes that took place between 1970 and 1981 could be seen in the gradual marginalization of serious social theory and political philosophy—and of “leftist” thought in particular. The usual story told about the history of “political philosophy” since World War II holds that political philosophy was “dead” until it was revived by John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice appeared in 1971. This seems to me seriously misleading. The Forties, Fifties and Sixties, after all, saw the elaboration of major work by the Frankfurt School (including Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man), a rediscovery of Gramsci, various essays and books by Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty, Debord’s La Société du Spectacle, early pieces by Foucault—all works roughly speaking “on the Left.” Meanwhile, Popper, Hayek, Leo Strauss and Oakeshott (to name only a few) were active “on the Right.” If Anglophones took no notice of this material it was not because serious work in political philosophy failed to exist, but for some other reason. To those engaged (in 1971) in the various and diverse forms of intense political activity which now collectively go under the title of “the Sixties,” Rawls’s Theory of Justice seemed an irrelevance. I completed and defended my doctoral dissertation in the spring of 1971, and I recall my doctoral supervisor, who was a man of the Left but also an established figure and full professor at Columbia University in New York, mentioning to me that there was a new book out by Rawls. In the same breath, he told me that no one would need to read it because it was of merely academic interest—an exercise in trying to mobilize some half-understood fragments of Kant to give a better foundation to American ideology than utilitarianism had been able to provide. Many will think that that was a misjudgment, but I think it was prescient. I cite it in any case to give contemporary readers a sense of the tenor of the 1970s.
Rawls did in fact eventually establish a well-functioning academic industry which was quickly routinized and which preempted much of the space that might have been used for original political thinking. He was one of the forerunners of the great countermovement, proleptically outlining a philosophical version of what came to be known as the “trickle-down” theory. Crudely speaking, this theory eventually takes this form: “Value” is overwhelmingly produced by especially gifted individuals, and the creation of such value benefits society as a whole. Those who are now rich are well-off because they have contributed to the creation of “value” in the past. For the well-off to continue to benefit society, however, they need to be motivated, to be given an incentive. Full egalitarianism will destroy the necessary incentive structure and thus close the taps from which prosperity flows. So inequality can actually be in the interest of the poor because only if the rich are differentially better-off than others will they create value at all—some of which will then “trickle down” or be redistributed to the less well-off. Rawls allows people who observe great inequality in their societies to continue to feel good about themselves, provided that they support some cosmetic forms of redistribution of the crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich and powerful. The apparent gap which many people think exists between the views of Rawls and, say, Ayn Rand is less important than the deep similarity in their basic views. A prison warden may put on a benevolent smile (Rawls) or a grim scowl (Ayn Rand), but that is a mere result of temperament, mood, calculation and the demands of the immediate situation: the fact remains that he is the warden of the prison, and, more importantly, that the prison is a prison. To shift attention from the reality of the prison to the morality, the ideals and the beliefs of the warden is an archetypical instance of an ideological effect. The same holds not just for wardens, but for bankers, politicians, voters, investors, bureaucrats, factory workers, consumers, advisers, social workers, even the unemployed—and, of course, for academics.
Thoughts from readers?