1970s >> 1975 >> no-846-february-1975

Socialism means Equality

The idea of equality was once taken for granted in even the most muddled talk about Socialism. Because that was the case, attacks on Socialism — or whatever passed for it — were largely concerned with attacking equalitarianism. Jerome K. Jerome wrote a childish essay envisaging people being stretched or shortened to make them all the same size; and Baden-Powell counselled young men not to be “unsportsmanlike” over “a fellow who has had the luck to have more money than you have”. A 1950 Tory pamphlet called Equal Shares contrasted Labour MPs’ statements on equality with their shareholdings and private wealth.


That these lines of argument are not now heard is not due simply to their crassness. The commonest cry was Jerome’s, that equality would mean uniformity and reduce us all to one dull wretched level, and it has become plain to everyone that capitalism achieves that effect par excellence. But, principally, the Labour and Communist parties have dropped talking about equality as an aim. The word appears occasionally in catchphrases with limited meaning such as “equal opportunity” and “equal sacrifice”; but the idea of general social equality (however confusedly misunderstood) is no longer put forward.


To take this further, in the past the parties which claimed to stand for radical change wanted to be judged by the yardstick of equality. Departures from it were seen as failures or betrayals. Thus, when the members of the first Labour Government in 1923 dressed up and behaved like flunkeys to royalty, and MacDonald’s appetite for kissing upper-class bottoms became obvious, there was widespread talk of their having “sold out”. Does the thought occur to Labour supporters today at the sight of their fat, well-dressed leaders hobnobbing in luxury? Apparently not. Likewise in Russia, in the early days, Lenin publicly regretted finding it necessary to pay high wages to specialists: “to pay unequal salaries is really a step backward; we will not cheat the people by pretending otherwise.” (Address on “Soviets at Work”, 1918.) Sixteen years later Stalin wrote off this view:

  These people evidently think that Socialism calls for equality, for levelling the requirements and the personal lives of the members of society. Needless to say, such an assumption has nothing in common with Marxism, with Leninism.

(Address to 17th Congress of the CPSU, 1934.)


According to Needs
Thus, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties stand alone in advocating a society of equality; and it is as likely to be disparaged or attacked by a Labourite as anyone else today. What must first be made clear is the meaning of equality. It is not equal incomes, which is as absurd economically as a project for equal sizes would be biologically; or equal “rights”, which means the distribution of permit-packages by the ruling class.


Equality can be founded only at the point from which inequality at present derives: ownership of the means of producing and distributing wealth. Capitalism is based on the class ownership of those means, so creating two fundamental relationships — owning and not owning them. This is the inequality which causes all the apparent inequalities. People are rich or poor, inferior or privileged, top- or under dogs because of it and no other reason. Contrary to that social arrangement, if the means of production and distribution are owned in common, all people stand in the same relationship to them — and to one another.


Common ownership, the basis of Socialism, is equality. The condition which will exist under it is the one summarized by Marx: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” That means everything it implies. Every member of society has unrestricted free access to the wealth society produces; his contribution is the one which he or she can make. Nor is this a question of applying a principle. It is what arises from common ownership, just as inequality and restriction arise from class ownership.


Abilities Restricted Today
The usual immediate objection to this used to be that people would not put forth their abilities unless inequality existed, i.e. for special rewards in status and getting more than others. The argument has become a weak one because, manifestly, people do. It can be added, first, that persons with exceptional abilities do not need inducements but simply want to exercise their powers as much as possible; and second, that in the history of man’s efforts to solve practical problems, most of it has been done by people getting on with their work unostentatiously.


Socialists are often supposed to hold the view that differences between people do not exist. We would not wear anything so dotty. On the simple physical level, a tall person and a right-handed one can do what the short and the left-handed cannot; and it is also true that the advantages can be reversed under appropriate circumstances. The healthy person obviously has abilities which are denied to the unhealthy.


But what matter are not the differences, but their implications in a given organization of society. Skin colour is unchangeable. It should not mean anything, but for historical and economic reasons black people are at serious disadvantages in “white” societies. It is quite possible to imagine the situation turned about, with exactly the same consequences. White people in a society traditionally ruled by black ones would no doubt be the objects not only of fear and distaste, but of a pseudoscientific mythology concerning their emotional and intellectual make-up; and might darken their skins and have their hair treated to try to gain social acceptance.


What is certain is that under capitalism all differences are distorted and all abilities subjected by the class division. Rousseau’s “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains” is as untrue in that situation as the American Constitution’s “all men are created equal”. The contention that Socialism would not work because of the expectations of people with particular abilities is derived from looking at a minority under capitalism. The fact is that the great majority would be glad of a chance to develop and use abilities for their own and others’ satisfaction.


Is It Brains ?
There is a present-day form of argument against equality that should be noticed. It asserts not that Socialism could not work but that it could not be established at all because men are unequal: for the majority to understand the Socialist case requires an intellectual standard of which only a minority are capable.


The same might be argued about a large number of everyday functions. Dr. Johnson, Plato and Henry VIII would all have been incapable of driving a motor-car — not simply because of the mechanical requirements, but in comprehension of the fluid relationships between vehicles moving at a mile a minute. The Army recruitment advertisements — “Join the Professionals” — promise young men who may not have done well in intelligence tests that they will learn technical and organizational abilities. Even the adage that “the fool of the family” (a well-to-do one) became a clergyman was not undermined by the fact that he had to study, master rituals, and become some sort of public speaker.


Intelligence is a social concept. Obviously, intelligence tests do measure something; but it is impossible to abstract them from the conditioning and conventions of society. What they measure is related to the requirements of the education system and industrial and commercial efficiency. Dr. Spearman, the father of intelligence testing, wrote:


  Every normal man, woman and child, is a genius at something, as well as an idiot at something. It remains to discover what — at any rate in respect of the genius.

(The Abilities of Man)


In short, it is a matter of selection for a society which presumes inequality. Suppose that this had been put the other way round: discovery of the fields in which “clever” people are idiots. What would be made of intelligence then? I.Q. testing is often disparaged through the example of the “dull” boy who later excels. What is much more frequent (because capitalism pushes its “dull” in the waste-bin and tries to hold the lid down) is the opposite example, the “brilliant” person who is thoroughly ignorant and incompetent outside his specialist line. And the comparison must be made between Dr. Spearman’s idea that genius and idiocy are measured by prowess “at something” and the idea, which prevailed before capitalism’s division of labour had taken hold, of a “whole man” who was accomplished at several different things.


If differences in the facility to perceive and relate things exist, they are quite immaterial to understanding the establishment and running of Socialism. The answer to the argument is provided ultimately by Socialists themselves, who come from the common or garden of the working class, participate equally in the varied work of running their organization, and would laugh at the suggestion of superior brains or expertise. The society we work for will be brought about by equals, and the common purpose is


that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.


Robert Barltrop