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Remark on Equality / Anton Pannekoek, 1950
The Editor, “Left”
In his article “Accent on Equality” Wigham quotes a sentence written by Engels in his Anti-Dühring, and he derives from it that Engels was against equality of pay in socialist society. It must be remarked first that when Marx or Engels gave their ideas about the future this is no indication of what the workers will have to do under socialism; predictions are no prescriptions. And secondly that here Engels does not speak about socialist future but on the ideas, the demands, and the platform of the working class under capitalism. Against the confused expositions of Dühring on equality as an “eternal truth” he emphasises that ideas on equality are themselves products of social conditions. The proletarian demand for equality was first a reaction against the horrible contrasts between rich and poor, then a protest against the middle-class sham-demand of social equality unrealisable under capitalism. “In both cases the real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes. Any demand for equality which goes beyond that must needs pass into absurdity.” For under capitalism and against capitalism you can demand nothing more essential, more definite, more encompassing than abolition of classes, i.e., abolition of all exploitation. What to simple minds appears as the antagonism between rich and poor, is in reality the class-antagonism between the exploiting owners of the production apparatus and the non-possessing exploited workers. If the capitalist should speak of his earnings as being of the same kind, only (due to his greater capability) larger than the workers’ earnings, the class-conscious worker does not reply: “Equality is a command of justice.” He replies: “Your income and mine are fundamentally different in character, namely profit and wage, because we are different classes; you, the employers, are the exploiting, we, the workers, the exploited class. And we demand, and fight for, mastery over the production apparatus, whereby under common ownership in a class-less society true equality will be established.” Thus what Engels did was to turn the attention from a surface phenomenon to the deep economic essence of society.
The Communist Appeal to Engels
So the Russian official (or his Communist Party spokesman) when appealing to Engels’ words, is entirely wrong. It is just the other way round. The Russian worker, instead of demanding equality of income (a senseless demand under state capitalism) should reply: “Your income and mine are fundamentally different in character, though both have the outer form of wage or salary, because we are of different classes; you, the high officials, are the exploiting, we, the workers the exploited class. What we have to demand (though unable to express it because we are gagged and fettered by dictatorial State power) is common ownership in a class-less society, in order that true equality be established.” This is Engels’ message to the Russian workers.
Engels and Equality under Socialism
There is, moreover, another place in Engels’ Anti-Dühring where he incidentally expresses his ideas on equality under socialism. He treats there the fact that under capitalism skilled labour (that acts as “complicated” condensed labour) is more highly paid because the costs reproduce and reproduce this labour power are higher. Thus descending to the economic foundations of social institutions he says: “In a society of private producers they or their families pay the cost of instruction of the skilled labourer; hence to the private individuals falls directly the higher price of skilled labour-power; the skilled slave is sold at a higher price, the skilled wage-worker gets a higher wage. In a society organised on socialist lines society pays the costs, hence earns the fruits, the larger resulting value of complicated labour. The worker himself has no claim to a higher reward.” (Italics mine – a.p.) This may suffice. Engels says here that in a socialist society higher skill (e.g., scientific or leading capacities) affords no claim to a higher standard of life, since society itself has provided that capacity. Equality is inherent in abolition of class, in mastery of the workers over production; inequality, in Russia as well as in England, testifies to class-rule and, class-exploitation. When in Russia the ruling bureaucracy awards itself high salaries, when in England highly-paid officials in nationalised industries try to impose upon the workers that this is socialism, they cannot pretend to have Engels on their side.
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Compiled by Vico, 3 June 2019