Does socialism have any particular connection with equality? In the last couple of days I’ve been talking about definitions in terms of ownership, power, and institutions, but haven’t said anything about equality, even though it’s often thought to be specially linked with socialism.
I’m going to suggest that the definitions argued for so far imply a certain strong and distinctive sort of socialist equality. But first let’s distinguish some forms of equality/inequality.
First off, equality/inequality of what? In brief, two things: power and well-being or happiness. Simple enough.
But secondly, we need to distinguish different sources of equality/inequality. These are almost always mingled together in real cases, but can be distinguished analytically.
Some inequalities arise ‘naturally’, without any human action. One person might be born with larger lungs, giving them more endurance; another might be born in an area with more fertile soil.
Among the other type of inequality, social inequalities, we can distinguish those which are essential and those which are accidental with respect to a given institution. Consider, for example, the title quote of this blog:
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
The equality asserted here isn’t nothing – it would add insult to injury if the rich did have the right to steal bread, or to receive millions of pounds of public money when they run into trouble. It would also be a kick in the teeth if, say, the (generally white) rich could sleep under bridges while the (generally black) poor couldn’t, because of racial exclusions in the law.
But if these sorts of inequality are removed, the result is still substantially unequal, because the rich are still rich and the poor are still poor and this gives the former extensive legal rights to do things that others can’t.
And this inequality can’t be removed as long as property-ownership exists. Given that basic institution, inequality between owners of more property and owners or less or no property is essential, even while other inequalities (between members of certain families, or between adherents of different religions, etc.) are accidental.
So we have three sorts of inequality: natural, social-essential, and social-accidental (and in each case, inequalities either of wellbeing or of power).
We might, tongue a little in cheek, define ‘majestic’ equality as what obtains when all accidental inequalities are corrected and the remaining essential inequalities are ignored.
Socialists want more than majestic equality: the sense in which socialism involves equality is that the basic institution of socialism is one which does not involve any essential inequalities.
Property-ownership, as we’ve said, contains an essential inequality between those who own more and less property; the state, just as obviously, involves an essential inequality between those who operate the state and those who are ruled by it.
Democratic councils, by contrast, involve (almost) no essential inequality, nor (relatedly) do they involve any essential coercion. The same point can be put in the language of classes: whereas the capitalist class requires another class to exploit, and slave-owners or aristocrats likewise, the class-defining activity of the proletariat, labour, implies no other class for them to dominate. Marx says basically this in the Critique of the Gotha Program:
“Instead of…’the elimination of all social and political inequality’, it ought to have been said that with the abolition of class distinctions all social and political inequality arising from them would disappear of itself.”
There are three qualifications I think should be made here.
Firstly, it might be thought that such councils do involve an essential inequality, in the election (and hence empowerment) of delegates to larger-scale councils.
I think this would have to be accepted in principle, but the level of power-inequality involved is tiny compared to, say, that between a UK voter and their MP. Delegates are usually understood as having brief, rotating terms, and as being actively subordinated to the ongoing deliberations and evaluations of the council that selected them. So as usual everything is, strictly, a difference of degree, though not therefore unimportant.
Secondly, saying that socialism (i.e. the rule of democratic councils) involves no, or very slight, essential inequality leaves open that it may involve plenty of accidental inequalities. Individual differences in charisma or cunning, widespread bigotry, or deference to cultish beliefs are all something that would still need to be dealt with. But there’s no shame in not doing everything.
The third point concerns an ambiguity, in all this talk of ‘councils’, between workers’ councils stricto sensu, organised around a place of work, and community councils, organised around a residential area.
If the two are sharply distinguished, we might worry – and some socialists have worried – that rule by workers’ councils excludes from power those who don’t work or who don’t work in workplaces. Many of the same issues blur the distinction itself: if child-rearing or house-keeping are work, what sort of council would represent such workers?
I’m going to leave this tension between workers’ councils and community councils hanging – it’s an important issue that I don’t feel competent to resolve, and in the future, ‘after the revolution’, it may well become a major political dispute. For now though it seems that both institutions have far more convergent than divergent interests/tendencies.
As a final note, I think the same is not true of some other institutions, in particular political parties and religious groups (‘ideological’ organisations).
By and large, these take hierarchical forms, with figures at the top having substantial authority and often substantial control over membership and advancement within the organisation. The same is true, I think, of most academic institutions.
For this reason it’s probably important to avoid letting them take control of society (as in theocracies or the Stalinist one-party states), whether or not they reinforce such power with state power. Since these institutions certainly manifest ‘social power’, this is another point where I would want to dissent from Wright’s definition of socialism in terms of ‘social power’, which was where this series of posts started off.