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To what extent do socialists agree or disagree over equality of outcome

Equality of outcome is a concept, realisable through state policies and systems, in which all individuals have approximately the same material wealth and income. This is in opposition to the concept of meritocracy where the successes of individuals is determined by their abilities, regardless of inequalities of outcome. Revolutionary socialists, in particular, support equality of outcome, whilst social democrats and third-way ‘socialists’ are much more sceptical of this concept. Whilst it can be argued that socialists are committed to equality to a significant extent; this essay will argue that the differing tensions within socialism dispute whether equality of outcome is practical or indeed required for a fairer society. 

Revolutionary socialists support equality of outcome. Marx and Engels believed in common ownership over means of production within a communist economy. Marx famously declared, From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, which has been widely interpreted as his desire to create a society where needs were not determined by effort or other factors. The existing state – that is biased toward the ruling bourgeois class thrives on inequality, and stands in favour of hostility and competition. This state should be overthrown in social revolutions to establish communist institutions as part of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (this was seen in the Russian revolution 1918-21). As a ‘class consciousness’ develops with the proletariat becomes aware of their exploitation, they will seek to strive for equality between workers. Although Rosa Luxembourg warned against undemocratic, dictatorial revolutions that diminished the proletariat, she also accepted the need for equality of outcome. These revolutions are inevitable as capitalism is inherently unsustainable as ‘surplus value’ eventually runs out of consumer markets and collapses. Revolutionary socialists aspire towards a society where the economy is centrally-planned with common ownership over means of production, determined solely by human need. This will eradicate socio-economic inequality as all individuals are entitled to the same and equal rewards of labour, dismissing differential outcomes based on abilities. This is further enabled by curtailing private ownership and resolving the inherent contradiction within capitalism between production and wealth accumulation. Thus, revolutionary socialists are committed to equality of outcome to a significant extent.

Social democrats support equality of outcome to a much lesser extent than revolutionary socialists, favouring equality of opportunity instead. Some see equality of outcome to be desirable but unachievable, instead they opt for the “inevitability of gradualness” as Beatrice Webb called for. Webb dismissed the Marxist belief in class conflict, supporting the introduction of socialism via democratic institutions (evolutionary socialism). In this way, social democrats oppose the revolutionary overthrowing of the state and reject the Marxist view of capitalism. She argued a more evolutionary approach, calling for incremental changes to Capitalism, would lead inevitably to a more Socialist society. This is achieved through state intervention and managed Capitalism, argued by the revisionist Crossland as the best way to create a fairer society. He called for universal benefits a mixed economy and state intervention particularly in creating opportunities for all. Crosland looked to State education, public housing and income maintenance for the liberation of potential that would make the selective process of competitive capitalism into a genuinely fair race. Although equality of opportunity may lead to differing outcomes, social democrats saw equal opportunity as a means to denying massive income and wealth inequalities. Revolutionaries would argue that social democrats were at best naive to accept a market economy would ever create equality, instead they stood guilty of furthering inequalities by giving life to Capitalism. 

Unlike revolutionary socialists, third-way ‘socialists’ dismiss the concept of equality of outcome altogether. Giddens rejected state intervention as encouraging a culture of dependency, and discouraging investment and entrepreneurship through the eradication of financial inducements. In this way, third-way socialists promote the priority of the market over the state, rejecting ‘top-down’ state intervention (exhibited under revolutionary and, to a lesser extent, social democracy socialism) in favour of further privatisation and de-regulation as the opposite stifles economic growth. Third-way socialists hold a belief in a ‘competitive state’ that develops the skills and knowledge base of the workforce, improving job prospects of individuals and boosting economic growth – as opposed to common ownership. He called this “equality of inclusion” and argued his approach stood between market Capitalism and social democracy, suggesting his thinking was in line with the ultimate aims of socialism. Unlike revolutionary socialism that holds a belief that private ownership within laissez-faire capitalism perpetuates socio-economic inequality and the oppression of the proletariat, these socialists do not necessarily oppose the huge accumulation of private wealth, instead they promote targeted welfare toward socially-marginalised groups as part of the concept of social inclusion to promote equality of opportunity and genuine meritocracy (social justice). This can be seen in a raft of policies under Tony Blairs government, influenced by the Third Way, investing in schools and hospitals but making choice the enabler to success as well as introducing tax credits for the poorest of families. Thus, third-way socialists are not committed to equality of outcome but Giddens would say they belong to the socialist tradition because he, like social democrats such as Webb, want to achieve equality for all. Social Democrats would argue against Giddens, suggesting his form of equality would be too weak to work against immense wealth disparities. Revolutionaries would question the ‘socialist’ credentials of Giddens and would claim his commitment to the free market in effect brought him closer to Capitalism. 

Most socialists aspire to an equal society but do not agree on equality of outcomes. Revolutionary socialists are committed to equality of outcome that can only be realised through revolution. On the other hand, social democrats although believe in the ideal of equality of outcome, favour equality of opportunity through the expansion of the state to introduce socialist policies to ensure social justice, they see this as practical and creating harmony between the owners of capital and the workers. The Third Way reject equality of outcome and neither see it as an ideal or a positive measure of success. 

Ryan Cunnington

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