“Marx On Equality” by Allen Wood

In a chapter of Allen Wood’s book The Free Development of Each: Studies on Freedom, Right, and Ethics in Classical German Philosophy, titled “Marx on Equality,” Wood aims to understand why Marx did not share the egalitarian intuitions we may be tempted to attribute to him.

For Marx, equality as an exclusively political idea was a distinctively bourgeois value, used as a vehicle of class oppression and entirely separate from communist ideals of class abolition. The proletarian demand for equality could only be truly realized as the demand for class abolition; class abolition should be understood as the more precise articulation of proletarian aspirations.

Wood explains that the Marxian idea of equality as political can be understood as a form of political equality, or, equality before the law. Mere procedural equality, Wood points out (citing Rawls), is weak; conceivably, equality before the law could deem permissible such unequal relations like slavery. For Marx, these procedural conceptions of equality are tied to the bourgeois political and legal institutions that prop up class oppression.

To understand why Marx holds these views about political equality, it is helpful to review why Marx does not regard capitalist exploitation as unjust. Underlying such an explanation is the relationship between concepts of right and economic labor. Marx’s historical materialism posits that rather than economic relations being regulated by concepts of right, concepts of right arise from economic relations. Thus, right, for Marx, is contingently tied to the particular existing mode of production. To claim that class exploitation is unjust, then, ignores the lexical priority of modes of production; standards of right are set by the capitalist mode of production. The same problem is tied to the claim that class exploitation results in an unjust distribution of wealth. This cannot be; wealth distribution in a capitalist mode of production can only be considered just given capitalist standards of distribution.

This is, of course, not the view of distribution commonly held. After all, when philosophers speak of the correct standards of distribution, they do not usually mean the capitalist standards of distribution; such a standard makes for the trivial conclusions above. Rather, it is standards of justice that require that some things should be equal for everyone. This common intuitions, Wood observes, raises a plethora of questions including what exactly should be equal for everyone, or how do we go about getting to this state of equality, among others. But, there does seem to be a commonly held belief that given the right equal standard, justice requires equality of something.

Marx rejects this intuition, denying the idea that there exists an equal standard required of an ideal of justice. Yet, he also concede that as long as bourgeois conceptions of right exist, so too will these ‘equal standards’ be applied. In the first phase of post-capitalist society, Marx expects these standards to endure, as producers are given back the amount they contribute to society. Such an equal standard, for Marx, is unsatisfactory. He writes:

Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable by an equal standard only insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing else is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will receive more than another. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal. But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society (CW 24:86).

In other words, right must be unequal to remedy the defects of equal justice. The slogan is: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs! People are equal neither in their abilities nor in their needs; given such inequalities in what people require of society, and in what people may contribute to society, the application of an equal standard is defective. It is important, for Wood, that we understand the use of the word ‘each’ not as referring to some substantive egalitarian principle, but rather referring to the fact that some predicate applies equally to all. (Consider for instance the statement: One might as well say that the Grim Reaper is an egalitarian on the ground that once we die, we are all equally dead).

There is another sense in which the egalitarianism which Marx rejects is a political idea. Implicit in the intuition that justice requires equality of something is the idea that justice places egalitarian demands on the actions of political institutions – that distributive policies like taxation or land reform are exactly that – policies implemented through laws by political institutions. The treatment of people as equals must be the treatment of citizens as equal members of a political association.

Yet, for Marx, political emancipation cannot be true human emancipation; human emancipation can only occur in the sphere of civil society which stands in opposition to the state. In political community, people are seen as communal beings entitled to certain rights or powers over other humans. When the social nature of persons is thought of as political, then the true social life in civil society becomes self-interested, egoistic, and private. For Marx, the political life is not the true social life, and therefore political concepts of right, equality, and justice are unsatisfactory expressions of human emancipation.

Genuine human emancipation requires the abolition of classes; it is the proletariat demand for class abolition that better encapsulates the true meaning of “equality” for Marx.

Central to Woods’s argument is that to frame Marx’s notion of classless society in egalitarian terms is a serious mistake. To understand why this is the case, Woods tries his best to describe what Marx means by classless society. This proves a challenge, for even Marx was not interested in “writing recipes for the cook-shops of the future” (Capital 1:99) and insisted that communism “is not an ideal to which reality has to adjust itself” (CW 5:49).

Marx does, however, offer more insight into his conception of class. Classes emerge out of production relations which prompt the creation of common mass interests; these masses with shared interests become classes upon engaging in some common action with historical force. In other words, it is only when these masses act upon these shared interests and defend them, that they become class interests. These class interests are necessarily incompatible and in conflict with other class interests, as classes are constantly engaged in class conflict. This is why Marx regards  normative universals like justice, right, or law as illusions which mask predominantly bourgeois interests.

We may be tempted to think that Marx’s position is that the bourgeois interests in the guise of normative universals attempt to usurp the place of true universals. This too would be a mistake. Marx thinks that any claim to a universal normative force will always be an illusion for bourgeois interests claiming authority. In other words, claims to universal validity are a product of class struggle in which a class attempts to claim universality and authority for their own interests.

It is only through understanding social life and history materialistically that communists achieve a kind of freedom – freedom from historically conditioned illusions made possible by class society.

We may also be tempted to view communist society as requiring a rightful distribution. But for Marx, communist society involves total abolition of right.
Marx adopted Max Stirner’s view of the free individual as one who rejected all interests, ideals and laws that claimed universal authority as illusions. In a communist society, people have a free claim to the imposition of class interests claiming to hold transcendent authority. These class interests – feigning as false universals – disappear in a classless society. Instead, individuals are radically free to cultivate themselves in a genuine community.

For truly social individuals, what actualizes individual needs also actualizes the needs of others. Here, Marx’s point mirrors Rousseau’s – that the source of human conflict is not as Hobbes thought – natural, but rather a social product. The abolition of class society creates the possibility of beginning human history, and retaining social cooperation without class conflict. This is because the proletarian movement is a self-conscious movement in the interest of the immense majority, and for the immense majority.

The chapter ends with Woods’s own reflection on Marx’s views on equality. Woods is attracted to the metaethical antirealism of all universal values that Marx defends; he finds the position thoroughly honest. Where Woods departs the most from Marx is in Marx’s view of capitalism as a transitional, and therefore temporary, economic form “whose historic mission was to elevate the productive powers of humanity…to the point where they would offer abundance to all in a higher and freer society.” Woods sees the age of extreme inequality, climate disruption, and continued exploitation among other things as evidence of the long enduring character of capitalism. And yet, Woods still accepts that there is reason to hope for the eventual abolition of exploitative relations – that given humans’ rational nature, we humans will eventually guide ourselves away from such an evil state of living.

A few miscellaneous thoughts:

First, much of the argument against universal normative values which Woods describes reminds me of the pragmatist position Richard Rorty ascribes to Dewey – specifically, his rejection of the correspondence theory of truth. It is not the position that universal values are illusions of the interests of the powerful – rather simply the claim that we have no reason to believe in universal ideals like morality or justice or that reality should reflect our ideals. We have as much reason to believe in these as we do sacred religious values – and indeed, we often treat them the same way. This parallel is reinforced when Woods writes that Marx is not interested in what exactly classless society will look like since communism “is not an ideal to which reality has to adjust itself” (CW 5:49). Similarly, the Deweyian pragmatist does not have an image of the better democracy in mind – it is only through practice and experimentation that the more democratic society emerges.

This raises a question for Marx, I think, which Rorty and Dewey face – namely, how can someone who rejects universal standards make claims about societal progress. It seems necessary to have standards like morality or justice to claim that today’s society is better than before, or the present state of affairs is an improved one. It seems as though Marx should be able to claim that a classless society is improved because there are fewer exploitative relations, and that exploitative relations are bad. Perhaps Marx would answer that classless society is better under the proletarian interests standard. But surely, the communist would want to make a more robust claim about the universal progress of a classless society – that it is not just better for the proletariat. Even if the Marxian does not care to make such a claim, it seems a deficit for a movement to be unable to measure its own progress – changing standards of justice or morality measures no progress at all since there is no universally applicable standard with which to weigh progress.

Second, the Marxian view of universal ideas of authority strikes me as similar to Thrasymachus’s claim that justice is simply the advantage of the stronger.

Third, Marx describes the freedom from historically conditioned illusions made possible by class society. Indeed, he argues that once we understand that there universals are historically contingent, then there is a sense in which we are free. This, I take it, is a kind of speculative freedom – a freedom that arises merely in our understanding some fact or arrangement of the world. Aristotle viewed philosophical speculation as the highest form of freedom. Hegel argued that once we understood how we were home in a fundamentally rational world – a world that initially appears as radically other – we could attain a kind of free relation to it. Perhaps even more similar to this Marxian idea of freedom, Heidegger wrote of achieving a free relation to technology. There, Heidegger was referring to technology as a mode of being. For Heidegger, once we understood that technology as a mode of being was exactly that – a mode of being, and a severely limited one, we could achieve a kind of freedom. I think the same can be said of Marx’s conception of freedom from universals. Once we understand universals not as universals, but as historically situated and limited class interests, we stand in a free relation to them.

I also have a few thoughts about Marx’s views on equality – specifically, I think that Marx appears to conflate moral and social equality, and takes for granted the importance of protecting standards of moral equality. I will address these concerns in a later post.






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