Recently, SkePoet posted a critique of Bhaskar Sunkara’s “Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Socialism.” He quotes from Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,” a text that is often quoted these days as objecting to equality as a socialist value. SkePoet specifically takes aim at Sunkara’s invocation of the French Revolutionary slogan, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” He chides Sunkara for using the term “equal respect,” which he charges is “fundamentally liberal” not socialist.
So, on the point that “equal respect” or its cousin, “equal opportunity” are not in any sense socialist values, I concur. However, I have found myself increasingly uncomfortable with a sort of Marxist distancing itself from what I would call “substantive equality.” While making sure that people aren’t discriminated against when seeking employment is a fundamentally good thing, and a part of a socialist reform agenda that overlaps with liberalism, I can’t escape my conviction that when we propose a socialist revolution, we are proposing a leveling that radically alters the economic and political power differentials in society from those in the ruling classes to those in the working majority. The working classes become self-ruled in order to abolish class rule forever. To say this is not a process of equalizing wealth and power seems to deny the meaning of the word “equality.”
Yes, the liberal view of equality is formal and thin, and in any event always contested from the Right, who in our day are winning substantive roll-backs to gains in formal equality won in earlier struggles. We are seeing massive unemployment and incarceration of young black men in our day, that makes the celebrated gains of the 60s Civil Rights movement seem stunningly irrelevant. Only substantive egalitarian reforms, such as changing draconian criminal statutes, radical improvments to education, poverty relief, and economic leveling could make a dent in this deadly and tragic situation. Such reforms seem almost impossible within the current configuration of our political and economic systems, so calls for radical change are the only route for advancement.
So, we do make common cause with liberals on formal equality, but radicals must push further and demand substantive equality against a world system of horrendous inequalities.