Socialist envy

James Lawler PHIJIML at
Sun Apr 2 16:29:10 MDT 1995

Forwarded by Jim Lawler (phijiml at

ON SOCIALIST ENVY David Schweickart (d.schweickart at

Modern socialism, particularly Third World socialism, is beset with a
difficult dilemma.  On the one hand, socialist movements have been
motivated by an ethical ideal--that of equality.  They have been powered by
a deep hatred of inequality, and have aspired to create a more egalitarian
social order.  On the other hand, the very passions that have been
mobilized against oppressive inequality shade easily into envy, envy of a
particularly destructive sort.

Marx himself was quite aware of this dilemma.  Consider his harsh criticism
of what he called "crude communism," a communism that, in his words, "aims
to destroy everything which is incapable of being possessed by everyone."
This communism, Marx argues, appears to be exceedingly radical, but it is
in fact the mirror image of capitalism.  It is capitalism's "abstract
negation" as it were, because it, like capitalism, is based on envy.  Under
crude communism, he says, "universal envy [sets] itself up as a power" that
aims at "leveling-down on the basis of a preconceived minimum."  But this
envy is only a "camouflaged form of [the envy that animates capitalism],
which re-establishes itself and seeks to satisfy itself in a different

As a matter of fact, this crude communism, Marx suggests, is worse than
capitalism.  Under capitalism envy motivates many people to strive to raise
themselves up to the level of the wealthy, whereas under crude communism,
envy motivates people to pull down those who have more.  Marx writes:

How little this abolition of private property represents a genuine
[communism] is shown by the abstract negation of the whole world of culture
and civilization, and the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the
poor and wantless individual who has not only not surpassed private
property but has not yet even attained to it.

Few socialist movements that have come to power have attempted to impose an
egalitarianism so severe as that against which Marx warned. (Pol Pot's
Kampuchea is the only example I can think of-although a "politics of envy"
have flared from time to time in various countries, usually with
destructive results.)  Almost all socialist societies have recognized the
need for material incentives as a motivation for productive labor.  But the
attempt was made, almost everywhere, to "rationalize" the resulting
inequalities; that it so say, to tie the differentials in income and
special perquisites to "objective" criteria: skill, training,
responsibility, importance of the work, etc.  The underlying idea has been
to replace the irrational inequalities of the market with a more rational
system of differential rewards, asdetermined by the planners.

It is my contention that this strategy has failed.  It has failed not
because the ideal of replacing irrational inequalities by more rational
ones is an unworthy goal, but because the planning mechanisms created to
accomplish this goal have proven to be inadequate to the task.  The
empirical evidence is now clear: central planning generates its own
irrationalities, and these become increasingly severe as a society's
economy develops.  It has become clear--clear to me at any rate--that a
socialism that wishes to meet the legitimate economic aspirations of its
citizens must be a market socialism.  The market must be utilized as a
basic economic mechanism.  I do not claim that the market should be the
sole economic mechanism.  Certainly not.  Nor do I claim that the other
defining features of capitalism, namely private ownership of the means of
production and wage labor, are essential to economic viability.  They are
not.  But a socialism that is both economically viable and worthy of its
ethical heritage must be a market socialism.  (I have argued these claims
at length elsewhere.  I won't pursue them further here.)

Let us come back to envy.  If my basic claim is true, that a viable
socialism must be a market socialism, then it follows that socialism must
tolerate inequalities that would seem to have no "rational" justification.
The market does not reward "rationally."  Hard work matters, but so does
luck.  Enterprises must take risks.  Some risks pay off, but some do not.
Customers can be fickle.  Tastes can change.  Managers can mismanage.
Promising technologies can fail.  Under such circumstances, some firms
prosper, but others do not  Some even go bankrupt.

Needless to say, such conditions offer much scope for envy-particularly in
a culture with an egalitarian ethos.  There is much room for bitterness and
discontent.  Basic socialist ideals, for which many have sacrificed, seem
to have been betrayed.

And it is indeed possible that basic ideals will be betrayed.  There is
real danger here.  The market is a powerful force.  Properly utilized, it
can be an instrument of great value, but improperly utilized, it can wreak
havoc.  (Eastern Europe is littered now with examples of the latter
possibility.)  This is not the place to discuss technical questions of
market reform, but it is worth asking here about general criteria.  If
marketgenerated inequalities are not "rational," in the sense of
corresponding to standards of objective merit, how can we say whether or
not they are excessive?  One plausible answer to this question--a good
answer, I think--comes from an unlikely quarter.  The most influential text
in Anglo-American political philosophy since World War II is John Rawls' A
Theory of Justice.  In this work Rawls sets out a simple principle (which
he calls "the difference principle") by which to determine if the
inequalities of wealth and power in a society are just: they are just only
if they benefit the least advantaged stratum of society.  That is to say,
if the least advantaged members of society are better offthan they would be
if the society were more egalitarian, then the inequalities are justified.
To put the matter in a slightly different fashion: Rawls starts with a
presumption in favor of equality.  Inequalities are then admitted, provided
a) their motivational effects are sufficient to increase the total output
of goods and services, and b) some of this increase really does make the
worst off segments of society better off.

I've said that this is help from an unlikely quarter, because Rawls's A
Theory of Justice has been widely regarded as a defense of
Keynesian-liberal capitalism.  And indeed, it can be so regarded, although,
as I have argued elsewhere, capitalism, even that of a social-democratic
structure, fails utterly to accord with Rawls's normative theory.  Whatever
the intentions of its author, Rawls's theory provides justification for
socialism (certain forms of socialism)--not for capitalism.

Interestingly enough, Rawls addresses explicitly the problem of envy.
Given "human beings as they are," he says, great disparities of income and
wealth are bound to induce envy, and even wound a person's self-respect.
If the inequalities exceed those permitted by the difference principle, a
person cannot "reasonably be asked to overcome his rancorous feelings."
Such envy is "excusable."

If we accept this Rawlsian analysis, we may conclude the following: A
society may justly employ the market as a part of its economic structure,
so long as the resulting inequalities work to the benefit of the least
advantaged strata.  So long as inequalities remain within these bounds,
whatever envy they generate is morally inexcusable.  This is true even if
the inequalities do not correspond to effort, skill, responsibility or
other such quasi-objective criteria.  But if the inequalities exceed those
permitted by the difference principle, they are not justified, and the envy
to which they give rise is excusable.

The analysis just given constitutes, I think, a reasonably adequate general
account of the relationship between equality and envy under socialism.
Inequalities do not betray basic socialist commitments so long as they
serve to motivate producers to produce more efficiently, and so long as the
gains thus registered transfer in part to the least advantaged strata.
Under such circumstances envy is a vice--understandable, perhaps, but not

There is another important matter to consider.  The account just given,
however adequate as a general analysis, does not do justice to a
particularly pressing problem today: the problem of making a transition
from a non-market to a market form of socialism.  It has long been
recognized that the market has a corrosive effect on traditional values.
In Marx's telling phrase, "all that is solid melts into air."  It has been
argued, by Habermas among others, that capitalism itself may come into
crisis precisely because the capitalist market, in the long run, so
undermines the moral character and even psychic structure of individuals
that the system ceases to function effectively.  The market, to be
effective, cannot operate in a moral vacuum.  If the citizenry become
excessively cynical, uncaring of the common good, too little concerned
about future generations--in short, too possessed of "possessive
individualism"--then the market, rather than stimulating efficient
production, will breed mainly corruption, crime and social devastation.

An analogous problem faces a socialist society attempting to introduce
market reforms.  Such reforms, properly introduced, can greatly enhance the
material well-being of the population.  (China--the most dynamic economy in
the world today--is proof positive of this.)  But such reforms must be
introduced in such as way so as to avoid not only major economic
dislocation, but also moral degradation.  Some of each--economic
dislocation and moral degradation--is inevitable, but it is crucial that
neither become too severe.  It is crucial that measures be taken to
counteract both.

Needless to say, there are no magic formulas to be invoked here.  This is
uncharted, difficult territory.  It may well be case that those who remain
most loyal to the ideals of socialism will benefit least from the reforms.
And yet, if the reforms are to be successful, economically as well as
morally, it is vital that the ethical ideals of socialism be upheld--in a
free and open fashion, not corroded by envy.  It is vital that those who
benefit most from the reforms recognize a) that not all are benefitting
equally, b) that their good fortune is justified only if those less well
off ultimately benefit also, and c) that the long range success of the
reforms depends crucially on maintaining the moral integrity of society.
Likewise, it is vital that those who care about socialism work hard to see
to it that proper safeguards are maintained so as to keep the market forces
in bound, while at the same time, resisting the temptation to a "politics
of envy," a politics that denounces indiscriminately those who benefit most
from the reforms.

One should have no illusions as to the difficulty of the task at hand.
Marx has written that "mankind only sets itself such problems as it can
solve; for when we look closer we will always find that the problem itself
only arises when the material conditions for its solution are present or at
least in the process of coming into being."  Let us hope that he is right
in this instance.


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