In State and Revolution, Lenin quotes and then comments on a passage in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme as follows: ‘“Equal right” [of everyone to an equal product of labour] we certainly do have here [i.e. in the first phase of communism]; but it is still a “bourgeois right”, which, like every right, presupposes inequality. Every right is an application of an equal measure to different people who in fact are not alike, are not equal to one another;footnote1 that is why “equal right” is really a violation of equality and an injustice. In fact, every man, having performed as much social labour as another, receives an equal share of the social product. . . But people are not alike: one is strong, another is weak; one is married, another is not; one has more children, another has less, and so on. And the conclusion Marx draws is: “with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal”.’

Lenin comments: ‘The first phase of communism, therefore, cannot yet produce justice and equality: but the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible, because it will be impossible to seize the means of production. . . as private property. . . . The vulgar economists. . . constantly reproach the socialists with forgetting the inequality of people and with “dreaming” of eliminating this equality. Such a reproach, as we see, only proves the extreme ignorance of the bourgeois ideologists. Marx not only most scrupulously takes account of the inevitable inequality of men, but he also takes into account the fact that the mere conversion of the means of production into the common property of the whole of society (commonly called “socialism”) does not remove the defects of distribution and the inequality of “bourgeois right”.’footnote2

But Rousseau had already posed the problem of the inequality of men in these terms in his Discours sur l’origine et les fondemets de l’inégalité parmi les hommes (1755): ‘I conceive that there are two kinds of inequality in the human species; one, which I shall call natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and consists in a difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind or of the soul [this is the inequality of men]: and another, which may be called moral or political inequality [or also the inequality among men], because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men. This latter consists of the different privileges which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others; such as that of being more rich, more honoured, more powerful, or even in a position to exact obedience. . . It follows from this survey [concludes Rousseau, at the end of the Discourse] that, as there is hardly any [moral or political] inequality in the state of nature [‘a state which. . .perhaps never existed’], all the inequality which now prevails owes its strength and growth to the development of our faculties and the advance of the human mind, and becomes at last permanent and legitimate by the establishment of property and laws. Secondly, it follows that moral inequality, authorized by positive right alone, clashes with natural right [i.e. with reason], whenever it is not proportionate to physical inequality [i.e. natural inequality of abilities and merits: or inequalities of men]—a distinction which sufficiently determines what we ought to think of that species of inequality which prevails in all civilized countries; since it is plainly contrary to the law of nature [i.e. contrary to reason],. . . that children should command old men, fools wise men, and that the privileged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the basic necessities of life.’footnote3

Before we examine the ultimate implications of this famous conclusion of the Discourse, let us look at the Marxist solution to this difficulty, as expounded in the Marx-Lenin text (given the inequality of men, right must not be equal but unequal), a difficulty we can already define as one of an egalitarian-Rousseauist type. Lenin’s text goes on: ‘And so, in the first phase of communist society (usually called socialism) “bourgeois right” is not abolished in its entirety, but only in part, only in proportion to the economic revolution so far attained, i.e. only in respect of the means of production . . . However, it continues to exist as far as its other part is concerned; it continues to exist in the capacity of regulator (determining factor) in the distribution of products and the allotment of labour among the members of society. The socialist principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is already realized; the other socialist principle: “An equal amount of [social] products for an equal amount of [social] labour” is also already realized. But this is not yet communism, and it does not yet abolish “bourgeois right”, which gives to unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labour, equal amounts of products. This is a “defect”, says Marx, but it is unavoidable in the first phase of communism; for... the abolition of capitalism does not immediately create the economic premises for such a change . . . Marx continues [and concludes]: “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”’footnote4 Engels’ earlier conclusions in Anti-Dühring (Part III, II) are completely consistent with this: ‘The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties—this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here’.footnote5

Let us return to Rousseau to find out what was the original solution he gave to the difficulty of establishing a ‘proportion’ between the inequality of men and the inequality among men (i.e. the civil differences constituted and governed by society); a difficulty later reformulated, as we have seen, by Marx and Lenin as the necessity for an ‘unequal right’ precisely because of the unavoidable ‘inequality of men’, and resolved in a different way according to their scientific criterion of a communist society. Rousseau explains to us that ‘riches, nobility or rank, power and personal merit [‘the origin’, he says, ‘of all the others’] being the principal distinctions [or ‘sorts of inequality’] by which men form an estimate of each other in society. . . the harmony or conflict of these different forces [personal merit and ‘other’ qualities] is the surest indication of the good or bad constitution of a State’.footnote6 For in a State with a good constitution, ‘the rank of citizens ought, therefore, to be regulated. . . according to the actual services [‘in proportion to their talents and abilities’] done to the State’.footnote7 This means that for Rousseau the solution to the problem of an effective universal equality requires the unlimited, universal application of the criterion of personal merit and circumstances, given that personal qualities are, as we have seen, the origin of all the others. In other words, it requires that equality be conditioned by the (social) recognition of the unequal or different capacities and possibilities of all men without exception. So this solution implies the creation of a new and democratic society (the antithesis of the Absolutist society of privileges), for it is quite clear that the recognition of every person on which the installation of an effective equality depends must be of a social nature. Not only because, as we have seen, it presupposes in fact the settlement of a question of ‘rank’ or civil status, but also and above all (quaestio jurist!) because ‘distributive justice would oppose this rigorous equality of the state of nature, even were it practicable in sivil society’footnote8. (Note, still in the Discourse, the strong protest against whose who deform the real thought of Rousseau, the antonomasticfootnote ‘critic’ of society: ‘What, then, is to be done? Must societies be totally abolished? . . . This is a deduction in the manner of my adversaries, which I would as soon anticipate as let them have the shame of drawing’).footnote9 This produces Rousseau’s final appeal to ‘distributive justice’—a brilliant and modern appeal to this crucial Aristotelean ethico-political category, in order to oppose the superiority of social equality—based on the ‘actual services’ rendered society by its members, i.e. ‘in proportion to’ their different, ‘unequal’ ‘talents and abilities’—to natural equality, the rigid equality of the mythical state of nature which, if we accept that it is ‘practicable’ in ‘civil society’, would, suggests Rousseau, be unjust and hence contradictory, given its anarchic indifference to persons, to their diversity and originality.