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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