MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




1. mathematics. A statement that indicates the expressions or quantities have the same value. Stated technically, equality is quantitative (abstract) identity, which subsists with qualitative (concrete) difference.

2. society. A system of relationships where everyone has equivalent privileges, rights, status, etc. The understanding of equality has evolved as the relations of production and conceptions of freedom and universality have developed throughout history. The societal version of equality (material) should not be confused with the mathematical version (abstract); equality as equivalence and not as sameness.

Historical Development: In tribal society, while equality permeated a great deal of society, it had narrow limits. Gender division of labour, for example, ensured that equality did not fully exist in some tribal societies (a modern example of this can be found in Afghanistan): women had severely curtailed rights and status. Further, in those tribal systems that had equal gender relations, equality did not move beyond the tribe. The means of production were not advanced enough to enable the management of larger communities on a basis of equality; in other words the notion of "universality" was limited and confined to kin.

In slave society, as technology increased, the enslavement of the foreign communities became possible. Once this happened, class division of labour has taken place, and tribal society begins falling apart as the concepts of property invade tribal morals like a malignant virus. In the slave societies of ancient India, Egypt, Greece or Rome, although there was not yet any complete notion of equality, the elements of these concepts existed thanks largely to what was transmitted from their tribal past: all citizens had the same fundamental rights, but slaves, foreigners and women were not citizens and had no such rights. As time went on, among citizens there arose inequality owing to the accumulation of greater wealth and thus social position. Therefore, equality in practice was broken down for the first time, and inequality was thus felt by all who were not citizens.

In feudal society, every social station was accorded its inherent rights and obligations, and there was no notion of equality between nobleman and serf, yeoman or king, man and woman. According to Christianity for example, the King and the Pope were entitled to their riches and life for the common people was a "vale of tears". Meanwhile, similar conditions persisted in both China and the Middle East, though early Islam taught that all humans deserved a decent lot in life, and thus the disparity between social ranks was greatly reduced relative to the West. Religion provided for a real extension of the concept of universality: although the priests and ruling class had privileged access to God, everyone in the society was a "child of God" and was accorded appropriate rights. Thus, although there was still no notion of equality, the conception that everyone had certain rights according to their station was the essential precursor to the idea of equality – thus a universal embryonic equality historically arose in the form of inequality!

In capitalist society, the expansion of world trade brought the eventual downfall of the feudal order. The exchange of commodities brings with it the conception of equality in the form by which the labour of one person may be exchanged for that of another person:

"The secret of the expression of value, namely, that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice. This, however, is possible only in a society in which the great mass of the produce of labour takes the form of commodities, in which, consequently, the dominant relation between man and man, is that of owners of commodities."

Karl Marx,
Capital, Chapter One

Likewise, foreign trade introduces a broader notion of universality: trading with people from all over the world sooner or later brings with it the acceptance of rights shared with those with whom you trade. What is characteristic about the notion of equality that comes about as a result of money is equality of wealth. No bourgeois radical has ever put forward the demand that the wealth of society should be divided equally: but the very existence of monetary wealth brings this quantitative notion of equality into being.

The U.S. bourgeois revolution in 1776, and in 1789 in France, both declared loudly that "All men are born equal". Still none of these gentlemen imagined for a moment that women and slaves were counted in this, neither that equality had meaning after birth, i.e., in the real world. Nevertheless, there is a huge step forward in the notion of equality here which denounces the inherited privileges of feudal society, and granted white males some equal rights in theory.

From the very beginning of the bourgeois epoch, the working class has sought to radicalise the idea of equality and subject the limited and abstract forms of equality supported by the bourgeoisie to critique. This movement first took the form of the Levellers in 17th Century England and Babeuf in France which advocated literally bringing everyone down to the same level, in something Marxists would later call "crude communism":

"[The first form] of communism – since it negates the personality of man in every sphere – is but the logical expression of private property, which is this negation.

"General envy constituting itself as a power is the disguise in which greed re-establishes itself and satisfies itself, only in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at least turned against wealthier private property in the form of envy and the urge to reduce things to a common level, so that this envy and urge even constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the culmination of this envy and of this levelling-down proceeding from the preconceived minimum. It has a definite, limited standard.

"How little this annulment of private property is really an appropriation is in fact proved by the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilisation, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and crude man who has few needs and who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not yet even reached it."

Karl Marx & Frederick Engels,
Private Property and Communism

By reducing all to the status of workers, this radical egalitarianism challenges the right of the capitalists to monopolise the social surplus as their own private property, proposing to distribute this surplus among the whole community. But in measuring people exclusively by the same measure – their wealth – this "crude communism" is dominated by bourgeois consciousness. Since the late-19th century, with the development of Taylorism, capitalism has introduced inequality within the working class in the form of a huge class of supervisors, middle-management, professionals, technicians, and skilled labourers who are separated from other workers with higher wages and better conditions, a group of workers called the "middle class". The same process has been continued with ever-expanding differences in pay and conditions between different classifications of workers.

The super-exploitation of masses of people in poor countries by capitalists in the imperialist countries indicates that the notion of universality has a long way to go. But with the progress of globalisation, confining the notion of equality to an "us", while excluding the rest of the world is becoming more and more difficult.

Equal Pay for Equal Work: When vestigaes of feudal privilege were abolished with the notion of all men being created equal, the notion of "Equal Pay for Equal Work" came forward, again only applicable to men. This notion was justified by Adam Smith as follows:

"Equal quantities of labour, at all times and places, may be said to be of equal value to the labourer. .... Labour alone, therefore, never varying in its own value, is alone the ultimate and real standard by which the value of all commodities can at all times and places be estimated and compared. It is their real price; money is their nominal price only."

Adam Smith,
Wealth of Nations, Chapter 5

The value of labour-power for Adam Smith, however, is measured by the costs of its production, the standard of living of the worker:

"[there is] a certain rate below which it seems impossible to reduce, for any considerable time, the ordinary wages even of the lowest species of labour. A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him."

Adam Smith,
Wealth of Nations, Chapter 8

The contradiction in this concept of "equality" is that the capitalist is totally exempt: while the workers were all reduced to the same minimum standard of living, the capitalist, who does no work at all, gets all of the profits! None of these political economists were able to rationalise the relation between surplus value or profit and the supposed "service" provided by the capitalist. It's equal pay for equal work for the workers, while the capitalist grows fat on the surplus! The bourgeois theorists weakly respond -- any worker has a chance to become an exploiter themselves! This being true, we here again see a lack of universality in the notion of equality. Racial and gender discrimination further severely limited the universality of equality. So, even this simple notion of "equal pay for equal work" is oftentimes a radical demand today, especially where it challenges the exclusion of sections of the population – immigrant workers, minorities, women for example.

The notion of equal pay for equal work, upon which this most abstract but nevertheless fundamental notion of modern equality rests, can only arise to the extent that workers exchange their labour in the same market, and consequently enjoy broadly the same standard of living. Equality between a citizen of the United States and a citizen of the Philippines can only arise when there is free trade and free movement of people between the two countries.

Equality before the law: The second form of equality which comes forward in the history of bourgeois society is "Equal Rights", or more specifically: Equality before the Law.

For example, justice is supposedly blind, and everyone is tried by a jury of their "peers", but when the poor person comes before the court they are defended by a State Attorney and can expect a long prison term, but the rich person charged with the same crime with a famous barrister on their side will never see the inside of a prison. While everyone has equal right to run for election, when the poor person runs for election, no-one knows who they are, when the millionaire runs for election, multi-million dollar TV ads inform the public of their policies. It was this same notion of equality before the law that the bourgeoisie so long ago used in its battle against the feudal nobility, but today it's used in their battle against the working class.

The radical critique brought forward by the workers' movement against this formal equality is the struggle for workers' rights: freedom of association, free public health and education services, legal aid, limitations on election spending and so forth. This is a kind of "affirmative action": the recognition that under certain conditions "equality means inequality"; having no capital, workers have no rights in bourgeois society, collective action is needed to tip the balance back. This form of communism Marx calls the second or "political" form of communism which has "not yet grasped the positive essence of private property" still "captive to it and infected by it". [Private Property and Communism] Allied with the concept of equality before the law, or social equality, are other important concepts of equality.

Equality of Opportunity: In this notion of equality, popular in the years after the Second World War, it is OK that there is rich and poor, just so long as everyone gets an equal chance at being the exploiter. However, equality of opportunity is invariably associated with various reformist conceptions of the welfare state, regulation, public education and so on; as if a child getting an education in a run-down, gang and drug ridden school with horribly dilapidated funding has the same, i.e. equal, opportunity as the rich kid who is going to private school with all the best resources and services available.

Equality as Inclusion: This is the latest notion of equality brought forward by reformism; it responds to the growing ghetto-isation of the world with the rich withdrawing to secure villages while the poor rot in tenement blocks, with abundance in some nations while other nations face mass starvation. This leads to millions of people being excluded from society. Social democracy proposes to define equality as inclusion, being part of society. In practice, this means involving people in combating crime in their district, involving workers in running their workplace through "works committees" and so on. The aim is not equal pay, equal wealth or equal education – since these are admitted as impossible under capitalism: just the capacity for people to be able to exchange and compare each others' labour at all. In this sense, inequality is a form of equality – because both inequality and equality imply some exchange, as opposed to exclusion.

Political Equality: This notion of equality is to give equal rights to everyone so long as the rights of private property are not threatened, such as embodied in forms of workers' participation, community consultation, and so on. This form of equality amounts to the institutionalisation of inequality; its aim is to co-opt the workers. The ultimate answer of communism is not just to improve the ghetto, but take the power, not just to elect delegates to the board, but take over the firm; not just to encourage everyone to vote in the election, but for the workers to subject all positions to election.

Inclusion is a valid notion of equality, but without the abolition of capital, it can only be a way of politically disarming the working class. The transition from bourgeois equality to communism begins when the working class has won public political power. Although the workers have taken state power,

"What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society – after the deductions have been made – exactly what he gives to it. ..."

"Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labour, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. ...

"Hence, equal right here is still in principle -- bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, ... this equal right is still constantly stigmatised by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labour.

From this basis, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is possible to make the transition to communist society:

"But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

"In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then there can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Karl Marx & Frederick Engels,
Critique of the Gotha Program, Chapter 1

Further Reading: Equality, Anti-Dühring, Engels 1877.