Money  /  Q&A

The History of Equality: It’s Complicated

The strange and contradicting development of the liberal version of egalitarianism.
Darrin M. McMahon

I set out to do the opposite: to try to understand how equality has been imagined in the past, and to examine the many and varied uses to which it has been put over time. It turns out that they are extensive. The common conception that equality is strictly a modern notion—without a history prior to the 17th and 18th centuries—is just wrong, and I try to show how these older uses bear on later ones. I would argue—drawing here on my colleague David Armitage’s recent work on the subject—that every history is unavoidably “presentist” in certain respects. But rather than project the present onto the past, I’ve tried to allow the past to project some of its light on our current moment.

DSJ: Perhaps one of your major arguments in the book is that ideas of equality contain within them the exclusion of others from that equality. How does this apply to the thought of Karl Marx? In what sense, that is, was he a critic of equality?

DM: Yes, I try to show that equality claims in general invariably involve the singling out of a circle of equals, whose common “equality” is constituted, and then strengthened and reaffirmed, by reference to those who are deemed “not equal” in some way. That often involves othering or scapegoating, and of course you can see the latter going on in Marxian denunciations of the bourgeoisie, of kulaks, etc. But really, the more salient point is that both Marx and Engels, and their close readers like Lenin and Stalin, are contemptuous of “equality” as an ideal and aspiration. Lenin calls it “a most absurd and stupid prejudice.” They associate equality, to be sure, with bourgeois ideology and specious individual-rights talk, as well as with what they regard as the fantasies of earlier socialist schools. Equality, Marx and Engels write in The German Ideology, is one of the “illusions of the era,” a holdover from an earlier phase of historical development.

But the critique goes deeper than that—right to the heart of the social-democratic impulse to put questions of distribution at the center of politics. For Marx and Engels, the point of true socialism is the abolition of classes, not the abolition of inequality per se, and so once you accomplish one, the other becomes irrelevant. It is one of the reasons that Soviet economists didn’t study income or wealth inequality. Moreover, both Marx and Engels are explicit about the fact that human aptitudes and needs vary widely. So, in a state where each is asked to give “according to abilities” and will be given to “according to needs,” those will necessarily differ extensively. There is no indication in Marx and Engels’s work at all that material fairness or equality will be the result.