Calling Marxism Egalitarian Is a Strawman

One of the worst things that can happen to a bad idea, is to have it propped up by bad counter arguments. Marxism is one of those bad ideas that is often strengthened by misunderstandings. A particularly common strawman, is the accusation that Marxism is an egalitarian philosophy, seeking equal outcome regardless of unequal input. This assumption is popular within the libertarian community. It’s mostly put forth by fans of Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Jordan Peterson. It’s not hard to see why this misconception would arise. Marx and Engels collectively wrote well over 25 books and hundreds of letters, essays and speeches. There is so much work it would take a short lifetime to fully grasp all of their ideas. Egalitarianism is also a common trope within the general left. One could see a leftist calling for equality and falsely assume that such ideas are core of all leftist philosophy, included in that Marxism.

The truth is Marx and Engels were pretty explicitly anti-egalitarian. If you dissect what is meant by the line “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, it is necessarily a call for an unequal outcome and distribution of wealth and social responsibility. The phrase is a recognition that everyone is different and unequal and as such they need different and unequal things. But Marx gets even more explicit in other parts of his 1875 ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, he offers a criticism of socialist movements that advocate for equality.

The internet anarchist and marxist AnarchoPac summarizes Marx’s criticisms far better than I could in these paragraphs:

“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.”

There is simply no room for egalitarian thought in Marxism. It’s important that critics and advocates do not make the error of grouping them together.