By John Rees.
Praeger Publishers. I52 p p . $5.
LABOUR AND INEQUALITY.
Edited by P. Townsend and N. Bosanquet.
The Fabian Society, London. 304 pp. 22.20.
When the Levellers, the Diggers, Babeuf, the 19th-century Utopians or the early Socialists dreamt of a society of equals, they could not even imagine a society with the productive capacities of America today. And yet equality looms more distant than ever on the horizon. Indeed, until quite recently, the panegyrists of growth managed to dismiss it as rather irrelevant. The size of the cake, they argued, is more important than its distribution. But growth for whom, for which purpose and for whose benefit? With such questions springing up spontaneously throughout the Western world, the spokesmen for the Establishment are temporarily on the defensive and there is, once again, scope for the egalitarians.
The search for equality is, naturally enough, anathema to all rulers. Followed’ consistently, it not only strikes at the roots of property and wealth but attacks the prerogatives of power and the perpetuation of privilege. It questions the hierarchical order now concealed under a technological disguise. As such, egalitarianism is dreaded by a11 Establishments from Washington to Moscow. Hitherto they have managed to keep it in check, attacking it cleverly in the West as naive Utopianism and more openly in the East as a dangerous heresy. Yet both sides may soon have to face a new wave of levellers. At our stage of development the concept of equality contains political dynamite.
It cannot be said that Mr. Rees’s little book provides this sort of, ammunition for radical critics of existing society and it is a pity, because the author is well equipped for such a task. Clearly, he has studied Marxism, and possibly sympathized with it, at some stage in his academic career. Hence, the Marxist critique figures prominently in his brief chapter on inequality of wealth and the three following chapters dealing with political equality. Unfortunately, it is a version of Marxism bowdlerized for academic consumption. The letter is often there, but the spirit is not. Despite the many quotations from Marx and particularly Engels, the reader can hardly grasp that when they talked of a society in which men would be “free and equal,” or when Marx claimed that all political and social inequalities would vanish with the abolition of classes, they had in mind quite a different society–in which differences between country and town, between intellectual and manual labor, have disappeared, and the state has withered away; in other words, the social division of labor has been abolished.
It may be objected that the contrast is striking between this vision and the reality of the first alleged attempt to put theory into practice, and no Socialist can simply dismiss this objection. It may equally be argued that there is no need to be a Marxist to write about equality. The snag is that Mr. Rees, having started with real issues, such as the influence of wealth and other factors on the perpetuation of privilege, ends inconclusively with verbal exercises and formal logic. Was it necessary to drag in Rousseau and Buonarroti, Marx and J.S. Mill, to conclude that “absolute equality” (i.e., uniform treatment for all) is not a practical possibility, while conditional equality is a subject “within the cognizance of the rational faculty”? At several stages in his book, the author refers to the Western societies in which we live as “liberal-democratic,” on the ground that they do tolerate protest. In his case there was no need for much toleration. A book turning Marxist dynamite into a wet squib can be safely handed to students, with the blessing of the Establishment.