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Marx’s vision of inequality The Left has given up on usurping capitalism

(UWE MEINHOLD/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)

(UWE MEINHOLD/DDP/AFP via Getty Images)


October 16, 2023   4 mins

It is often assumed that Marx was an egalitarian thinker. This is done, I believe, not through reading Marx (few people do it) but by applying a simple extrapolation. According to this common, and somewhat naive, view of the world, the Right favours inequality, a small state, and almost no redistribution, and the Left the reverse. The more you move towards the extreme Left, it is held, the more the latter position must be true. And since Marxists are considered the extreme Left, they must be in favour of equality even more so that the other Leftists.

This view, however, overlooks what was the principal objective for Marx: the abolition of classes, end of private property of capital and thus transcendence of capitalism. Marx and Engels were indeed activists, founders of the First International, indefatigable organisers of various workers’ assemblies, writers of The Communist Manifesto, authors of very accessible lectures delivered to workers’ associations (especially so Marx’s very simple but brilliant Wage Labour and Capital). In such activities, they necessarily argued for typical pro-workers or pro-trade union causes: reduction in the number of hours of work, a ban on child labour, higher wages, free education.

So, how could he not have been a pro-equality thinker? To understand this, one has to return to Marx’s and Engels’ principal objective: the end of class society. For that ultimate objective to be reached, workers’ activism in which Marx participated and which he supported, was necessary. It was useful too as it brought some real gains to the workers. But such activism, in Marx’s view, must never lose sight of the ultimate objective. The reduction of inequality that could be obtained through syndicalist struggles cannot by itself be the final goal. It is only an intermediate aim, on the road to the classless society.

Marx and Engels are very clear on this point in their critique of the Gotha Programme, the new programme of the German Social-Democratic Party drafted in 1875. This was the single most important occasion at which they forcefully expressed the contrast between the two objectives: reduction of income inequality within a capitalist society, and the abolition of classes. As Engels writes: “The elimination of all social and political inequality [as stated in the Gotha Programme] rather than ‘the abolition of class distinctions’ is similarly a most dubious expression, as between one country, one province and even place and another, living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated.”

That their concern was not unfounded can be seen from the fact that the programme, despite Marx’s and Engels’ objections, was adopted with all of its reformist and meliorist features. The party then went even further in the reformist direction when Eduard Bernstein, who in the years before the First World War became its chief theoretician, argued that “movement is everything, goal nothing”, meaning that the continual struggle for improved workers’ daily existence is what matters, not the abstract, or perhaps, utopian goal of transcending capitalism.

For Marx, as Shlomo Avineri and Leszek Kolakowski independently argue, this transformation of a social-democratic party into the political arm of a trade union movement wasn’t enough. Avineri moreover thinks that, for Marx, the key value of trade union activity was not in its struggle, or at times, successes in improving workers’ conditions, but in the fraternity among members that it created in the struggle for a common cause — in “the real constructive effort to create the social texture of future human relations”. The readiness for sacrifice, dedication to the common goal, and good humour that Marx saw among the Parisian proletariat in 1848 and 1871, and which he chronicled with such passion, were for him glimpses of the future classless society where solidarity will reign rather the “icy-cold water” of self-interest.

For Marx, the subsidiary or secondary importance of equality as a goal comes also from impossibility to achieve true equality under capitalism. True equality will become possible only when a minority no longer monopolises access to capital in order to hire labour, and to appropriate the surplus-value. “To clamour for equal or even equitable remuneration,” Marx writes, “on the basis of the wages system is the same as to clamour for freedom on the basis of the slavery system.”

When will concern with equality become more important? Only when the right background institutions (absence of private property) have been established. Here, as is well-known, Marx distinguishes between two stages: socialism where scarcity is still present and where equal rules will be applied to unequal people (those who work hard, are smarter or luckier will earn more), and the highest stage of development, under communism, when, as the famous formula says, “everybody will contribute according to their abilities and receive according to their needs”.

It is only under socialism that we should begin to be primarily concerned with material inequalities — that is, at the time when class exploitation has been eliminated but before the society of plenty had arrived. As long as the background institutions are “faulty”, and as long as private capital exists, believing that reduction of inequality is the primary objective of the Left is, according to Marx, wrong because it implicitly accepts the maintenance of unfair institutions that generate inequality.

Given Marx’s writings are explicit about this, why do we tend to ignore his views on equality? The answer, I suspect, is that after the cataclysmic failures of socialism and ideological ascendance of neoliberal ideology, we have tacitly accepted the permanence of capitalism. If one has such a view, then indeed it makes sense to refashion Marx as a pro-equality thinker who cared about trade union activity, equal opportunity, higher workers’ wages and the like. In other words, if we have given up on the idea of ending capitalism, we can try to repurpose Marx into the apostle of equality under capitalism.

But it may not be easy. After all, if the Left tosses out the idea of transcending capitalism, can it be said to be Left-wing at all?


Branko Milanović is a Serbian-American economist. His most recent book is Visions of Inequality: From the French Revolution to the End of the Cold War

BrankoMilan

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Nell Clover
Nell Clover
9 months ago

The only thing preventing a socialist nirvana is the people. Get rid of the people and socialism will be a success.

Institutions don’t generate inequality. People do. Aided and abetted by geography, time, biology, illness, and serendipity.

It’s the nature of the universe: nothing is equal. It takes extreme engineering to make physical objects that are equal and even then there will be inequality at the new scale at which you are working. The problem of inequality never disappears within the resolution you are looking at the problem.

It would take extreme social engineering to make the even more complex human equal and we would still find inequalities. Where once we might measure equality in terms of food and clothes, we now measure it in less tangible terms such as opportunity and experience. Like a mathematical asymptote, reaching equality has no end.

Faced with the problem of not being able to create an equality that satisfies everyone, the persuit to end inequality ultimately becomes reductive and the very worst excesses of the ideology are unleashed.

It doesn’t matter what Marx wrote or what Engels said, these are self-evident truths about mathematical distribution and the human condition.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Or as Pliny put it slightly more pithily near two thousand years ago:- “Nothing is more unequal than equality itself”*

(*Pliny the Younger.).

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
9 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Absolutely agree: The author derides “unfair institutions that generate inequality.” Unfortunately for him, those institutions that “generate inequality” are the very ones that promote and attempt to enforce equal opportunity for all (regardless of class, race, creed etc).

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
9 months ago

I’ve got a better idea; stop banging on about Marx and his acolytes as if they have anything further to add except to the already colossal sum of human suffering and misery set in train by those in thrall to them, as this writer appears to be.

This undergraduate-type analysis is as banal as it’s irrelevant.

James 0
James 0
9 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

And yet here you are reading it and commenting on it.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
9 months ago

The notion that one can end capitalism presupposes that capitalism is an unnatural state of man.
Why should we assume this to be the case?
Capitalism is trade by another name and trade is so fundamental to human existence that it is arguably hard-wired into our genetics: the ability to count, the ability to negotiate, the ability to describe, the ability to plan.
Imagining that capitalism is temporary to humans is much like imagining that meat is temporary to lions.
The trouble with Marxism is that Europeans are so generally brainwashed by it that most except its core assumptions even when they imagine themselves to disagree with it.
For example, I see time and again those who imagine they hold no Marxist beliefs speak about inequality causing crime. In one breath they reveal the axioms of their mind: presupposing that human conflict is fundamentally a game of two classes where one class withholds materials from another, thereby giving need for the other class to “strike back” and even the playing field.
Such assumptions were in full force during the 1970s when much of Southern Africa were devoutly anti-Marxist. Ian Smith’s regime imagined that a solution for the settler population would ultimately result from the rise of a black middleclass that aligned with white class interests.
The Apartheid regime in South Africa likewise imagined the salvation of South Africa would rest on creating a black middleclass that would align with white interests.
In both cases they were wrong: the land invasions in Zimbabwe were not the result of the impoverished masses rising up and taking farms from a capitalistic class, but the transfer of assets from one “upper class” to another.
Both the Rhodesians and the South Africans, despite being heavily against Marxism, nevertheless unwittingly operated on Marx’s assumptions about the nature of conflict itself, and how to alleviate it.
It is interesting to me that no matter how many times these assumptions are shown to be false, it never dents the Western mind’s fixation with them being a single factor explanation for the world as we see it.

T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago

Well said. NeoMarxist philosophy is so embedded in the institutions that many people don’t even realize they’re laundering and spreading it.

Duane M
Duane M
9 months ago

Nonsense. There is nothing intrinsically natural about capitalism. Capitalism requires as its starting point a surplus of goods that can be invested in some way. Early humans did not have that, as they did not accumulate more than they could carry. Capitalism could not begin until the Neolithic transition, at the earliest.
As for Marx, he did not have a solution for the problem of capitalism, but his analysis of capitalism was accurate and remains relevant.
Capitalism, with its appetite for increased profit and unending growth, is eating the planet. Literally. And there is nowhere else to go.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
9 months ago
Reply to  Duane M

Of course you are right. But the idea that somehow capitalism is the natural order of things is far more ingrained in western culture than Marxism ever was. But as a recent article in these pages has argued the tech giants have ushered in a kind of tech-feudalism which moves beyond old fashion capitalism. The action now is not to be found in the quaint Adam Smith ideal of open trade between free producers. We are all serfs to those who in effect own and control the internet and charge us rent for its use, and collect our data for free and then – in effect – sell it back to us. The old fashioned capitalist are as beholden to these new tech barons as are private citizens and indeed governments. Really don’t think Marx anticipated this.

T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago
Reply to  Duane M

First off, despite what your Anthropology book written mostly by Dialectical Materialists tells you, we have absolutely no idea how people in the Stone Age behaved outside of basic survival instincts. Anthropology is a combination of cobbled facts and creative storytelling pieced together into coherent narrative.

So people didn’t accumulate more than they could carry. Really? You don’t think some tribes were hoarding hunting territory, meat, furs and what not at the expense of other groups? You don’t think there was a hierarchy within those groups that benefitted more than others?

You think everybody just lived in Nirvana and ecstasy in a state of perfect Communism. Rousseau is the first clown you lefties need to reevaluate. He put these ridiculous notions of human nature and “The noble savage” into your minds.

The idea that “Capitalism” is destroying the planet is more existential Gnostic nonsense peddled by Utopian Theologians that want to stack themselves on top of the Compassion Hierarchy. Capitalism has raised billions out of poverty. All Socialism can do is grift off the productive capabilities of Capitalism.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

So people didn’t accumulate more than they could carry. Really? 

Yeah – watch the flintstones. They had those cars with stone wheels.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago

Capitalism is trade by another name 

It’s not, I’m afraid. That’s why we don’t just call it trade.

Dominic A
Dominic A
9 months ago

“The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

Marx et al neglected the essential feature of humankind – the mind, psychology. Even if everyone had the same size house, income and savings etc, the inequality of personal outcomes would still be great. This has long been the fatal flaw with economists – they think it’s all about money.

Last edited 9 months ago by Dominic A
David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Although you are quoting Satan – perhaps not the best source on the topic 🙂

Dominic A
Dominic A
9 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

The devil has all the best lines…

Last edited 9 months ago by Dominic A
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
9 months ago

Notice, as ever with Marx and Marxists, how the transition from socialism to communism is wishy washy. Capital is abolished, and to begin with, workers now achieve their true wages as the surplus value expropriated by capitalists is removed. But then, somehow, the ultimate heights of communism are achieved “from each according to their ability”.

In the first stage the more able worker earns more, under full communism he earns less than the “needy”.

(However that is worked out. In practice it was communist apparatchiks )

Either way it’s a slave’s charter. Even Marx admits that the worker works for a time to earn wages, but not all the time. That isn’t working to his ability, only slaves with severe slave drivers work to their ability, which would mean to stop just to eat and sleep.

Last edited 9 months ago by Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
9 months ago

Beware the ideas of Marx.

Duane M
Duane M
9 months ago

Altogether a rather dense, roundabout, and exegetical approach to its core nugget at the end: Does the Left propose any alternative to capitalism? And if not, does the Left have anything else to offer?
To which the answers appear to be, (1) No, and (2) A thin soup of hazy moralism and situational ethics, at best. At worst, an impossible stir-fry of individual rights over everything. That is, the extension to absurdity of the Liberal idea of individuality. Social implosion.

Emre S
Emre S
9 months ago

This was a very interesting and concise intro for Marx – thanks. This made me wonder about China who have today have much inequality and arguably are in a period of plenty in a socialist system. Should we understand Xi Jinping’s tightening grip on power sliding China back into being a near dictatorship in the light of an attempt to bring about this second stage Marxist prophecy?

T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

Absolutely not. The actual “second stage” is and will always be State Capitalism not Communism. The State will not “wither away.” All Socialism does is create a top down bureacracy of social planners that have no desire to form a “classless” society.

Marxism is so oblivious. On what planet are you ever going to rid the world of currencies? If Currencies exist, a “class hierarchy” will form because some people will naturally seek to improve their own lives while others won’t and currency…IE money, creates that opportunity. Its not everything but it matters. Everybody knows that. Communism rests on some assumption that human competition will cease once everyone is made equal. You can’t socially engineer equal outcomes without purposeful discrimination on behalf of one group over the other. In other words, tyranny and tribalism arbitrarily administered by “experts.”

Marx has already been reinvented hundreds if not thousands of times. We’re seeing the effects today. The “third way” or Social Capitalism is not “new” it is the status quo.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Well said! We have no need to hark back to Karl Marx anymore. We have had a bitter centurys worth of experience of communism and socialism. We need to focus on the very new phenomenon – only a decade old – which is eating away at the vitals of both weakth creation and prosperity here in UK. The mind virus of Identitarianism or DEI. Within only a matter if years this extreme unbending cult of equalify has captured our ruling elite. Now the Social Capitalist model is driven by derwnged groupthinking autocrats hostile to all forms of discrimination..with wealth near the top. This is why Labour feels free to harm all forms of meritocracy – bashing private schools, attacking non doms and rich overseas property buyers and why the Fake Tories adopt the Brownite Tax Only For Redistribution mantra. The crazed equality cult is the most potent dangerous force in our society as – propogated 24/7 by the Evangelist BBC – it lives and breathes in everyone independent of the Uniparty political parties.

Emre S
Emre S
9 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Thanks for the reply and your thoughts on the question. I was more asking about how Xi Jinping and the CCP are seeing this. I know Jinping takes his Marxism quite seriously, so what’s happening in China may have a link to what’s explained in this article.

Chris Bradshaw
Chris Bradshaw
9 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

Xi takes Marxism seriously in that it is a parent of Maoism – and he is devoutly Maoist in that it is in turn a parent of Xi-ism (Xi Jin Ping Thought).

Xi also takes Marxism seriously as it is a squishy justification for China’s current system, which is dictionary definition Fascism.

Emre S
Emre S
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Bradshaw

Yeah, the revelation for me here in this article was how a socialist yet capitalist system like in China is in fact in line with Marxism as it was originally defined. I used to think China deviated from socialism towards Western liberalism, but I see it is actually also plausible to read the situation as them staying within the Marxist framework.

Last edited 9 months ago by Emre S
T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago
Reply to  Chris Bradshaw

Correct. I’ve thought for awhile now that Marxism is actually a pre-condition for Fascism in places that aren’t already ruled by an overwhelming Central Planner. It could be called Pre-Fascism. Since Marxism, which is really just Liberation Theology can never work practically or functionally, the State will always keep and expand control over the means of production.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

Xi will use whatever tools he likes – western capitalism, domestic authoritarianism – for the purpose of asserting China’s regional and international power and the suprenacy of the ruling Party. The West is different. See excellent article in Spectator on Technocracy. It echoes my point that our elite is driven by near deranged equality cult that actually delights in acts which do our nation great and ovious harm! A lockdown catastrophe- imposed to ensure total equality of suffering. Open borders & mass migration – to embrace the Brotherhood of Man ethos not our welfare. Now Net Zero – again to make the nation SUFFER as our Elite bow to the Gods of internationalism. No cars no manufacturing no runways if it may somehow cause a typhoon in East Asia. The contrast is incredible. The fact that this is happening in front of our eyes – with the entire political and State machinery captured by this same Do Harm Agenda simply staggering.

T Bone
T Bone
9 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

I do think Western Marxists are running into too many dialectical contradictions and the most recent developments in the Middle East will make that apparent to a significant chunk of people that call themselves “progressives.”

I do think SOME of these utopian progressives are actually good people that so bought into Critical Constructivism that they gaslit themselves. The arrogant progressives will double down because they’re driven by all-knowing Hubris but the good natured utopians might start to reevaluate now that the contradictions are so apparent.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
9 months ago
Reply to  Emre S

China is only as successful as it is now because of a massive supply of cheap labour. Rising living standards over time will reduce China’s competiteness – and our cheap consumer goods.

Android Tross
Android Tross
9 months ago
Reply to  Deb Grant

Glad someone mentioned this.

Su Mac
Su Mac
9 months ago

Such an overly wordy ramble, annoying.
If you are interested in a clever, memorable and scarily relevant summary of Marx’s original goals for human relations and how they have been tweaked to account for the fact that socialists can’t get the workers to let go of capitalism this is the clip! From the very eloquent James Lindsay.

https://twitter.com/StucknDaMid/status/1652560486909775872

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
9 months ago

Great piece!

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago

This is why the terms left and right are (at best) not helpful. Capitalism isn’t going away anytime soon, so yes we will have to live “under” it. But the cake can be sliced a little more fairly, can’t it? It really is that simple.

David B
David B
9 months ago

(For some definition of “fair”.)

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
9 months ago

Capitalism is barter. It’s the best and most successful way to add value to human endeavour. There simply is no other way.

Unless we biologically engineer people to be equally clever, attractive, talented and fit there can never be equality. There will always be an elite. We have to work with the reality of what we’ve got, and part of that means creating incentives for people to work to their potential. Without incentives to achieve, we will end up with too few people pulling their weight and paying all the bills.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Deb Grant

Capitalism is barter

It’s not, I’m afraid.

Rob C
Rob C
9 months ago

What else is there besides capitalism, either private capitalism or state capitalism?

Last edited 9 months ago by Rob C
Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
9 months ago

I am not an advocate for Socialism at all however, since my revelations about “Predatory Capitalism” in which the Capitalists lie, cheat, steal, and kill people to make a profit I realize that there needs to be a change to protect the consumers. Big Pharma, Big Tech, and Out of Control Government working together to the detriment of We the People is my eye opener.

David Morley
David Morley
9 months ago
Reply to  Chuck Burns

Yes, while few people really believe in communism any more, a lot more are starting to think: surely things could be better than this.

Last edited 9 months ago by David Morley