Marx and Engels are often depicted as egalitarians by people on the right. In reality Marx and Engels rejected equality as a social ideal and as a permanent yardstick against which social arrangements should be judged. This can be seen in Marx and Engel’s reaction to the programme of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany.
In March 1875 Engels complained in a letter that the programme mistakenly advocated “[t]he elimination of all social and political inequality”, rather than “the abolition of all class distinctions”. For Engels, the goal of total social equality was impossible and represented the ambitions of an under-developed form of socialism. He wrote,
As between one country, one province and even one place and another, living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated. The living conditions of Alpine dwellers will always be different from those of the plainsmen. The concept of a socialist society as a realm of equality is a one-sided French concept deriving from the old “liberty, equality, fraternity,” a concept which was justified in that, in its own time and place, it signified a phase of development, but which, like all the one-sided ideas of earlier socialist schools, ought now to be superseded, since they produce nothing but mental confusion, and more accurate ways of presenting the matter have been discovered.(Engels 1875)
According to Raymond Geuss in ‘Philosophy and Real Politics’ Marx makes two main points about equality in his 1875 ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’. (Geuss 2008, 76-80) Firstly, Marx claims that it makes no sense to speak of equality in the abstract. This is because we can only understand what it means for x to be equal or unequal with y if we first specify the dimensions along which they are being compared. For x to be equal to y is for them to be equal in a particular concrete respect. For example, if x and y are people then they can only be judged equal relative to particular criteria such as their height, how many shoes they own, or how much cake they have eaten. Therefore, one can only be in favour of equality along specific dimensions, such as equality of cake consumption, and never equality as an abstract ideal.
Secondly, Marx claims that advocating equality along one dimension, such as everyone in a society earning the same amount of money per hour worked, will lead to inequality along other dimensions. Everyone earning an equal amount per hour of work would, for example, lead to those who work more having more money than those who work less. As a result, those unable to work a large amount (if at all) such as disabled people, old people, or women who are expected to do the majority of housework, will be unequal with those who can work more, such as the able-bodied, young people, or men. Or those doing manual labour, and so unable to work long hours due to fatigue, will be unequal to those who engage in non-manual labour and so can work more hours. If a society decides to instead ensure equality of income by paying all workers the same daily wage then there would still be inequality along other dimensions. For example, workers who don’t have to provide for a family with their wage will have more disposable income than workers with families. Therefore we can never reach full equality but merely move equality and inequality around along different dimensions.
If Marx was not an egalitarian in the strict sense of the term then what was he? The answer in short is a believer in human freedom and human development. For Marx, the “true realm of freedom” consists in the “development of human powers as an end in itself”. (Marx 1991, 959) As a result, he conceives of a communist society as one in which “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”. (Marx 1990, 739) In such a society there are “[u]niversally developed individuals, whose social relations, as their own communal . . . relations, are hence also subordinated to their own communal control”. This “communal control” includes “their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth”. (Marx 1993, 162, 158) Marx therefore justified the forms of equality he did advocate, such as the communal ownership and control of the economy, on the grounds that they led to human freedom and human development, rather than simply because they were egalitarian.
Geuss, Raymond. Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton University Press, 2008).
Engels, Frederick. Engels to August Bebel in Zwickau (1875) https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/letters/75_03_18.htm
Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I (Penguin Books, 1990)
——— Capital Volume III (Penguin Books, 1991)
——— Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875)
——— Grundrisse (Penguin Books, 1993)