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Against the Odds?Social Class and Social Justice in Industrial Societies$

Gordon Marshall, Adam Swift, and Stephen Roberts

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780198292401

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198292401.001.0001

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(p.222) Appendix F: The Ideology of Meritocratic Socialism

(p.222) Appendix F: The Ideology of Meritocratic Socialism

Against the Odds?
Oxford University Press

All communist regimes have experimented with a variety of systems of remuneration and distribution in the attempt to reduce inequalities of outcome or condition in the lives of their citizens. One thinks here, for example, of early Russian drives towards the levelling of wages and benefits; of the shortlived hopes of substituting moral for material incentives in postrevolutionary Cuba; and of the periodic and catastrophic attempts in China to restructure the allocation of rewards without inducing either economic stagnation or administrative chaos. The long-term consequences of these and other initiatives have been debated at considerable length. There is some evidence—though keenly disputed—that communist redistribution may have diminished inequalities of outcome, as these have historically been evident in the disposition of wealth, health care, housing, and the like. However, the jury of international scholarship is still out on this issue, and we do not intend here to anticipate any decisions at which it may yet arrive.1

But the communists themselves never mistook egalitarianism for socialism. No less an authority than Stalin insisted:

Equalitarianism owes its origin to the individual peasant type of mentality, the psychology of share and share alike, the psychology of primitive ‘communism’. Equalitarianism has nothing in common with Marxist socialism. Only people who are unacquainted with Marxism can have the primitive notion that the Russian Bolsheviks want to pool all wealth and then share it out equally.2

In this respect, Stalin and the many others who wrote in similar vein were simply rehearsing the tenets formulated by Marx himself, who (as was noted in Chapter 2) considered the desert-oriented principle of rewarding each ‘according to his labour contribution’ to be entirely appropriate to the first or lower (and present) stage of socialism. This second-best criterion was to be superseded by the maxim ‘to each according to his needs’ only in a subsequent (and, in the event, never realized) higher stage.3

Perhaps ironically, therefore, appeals to social justice in later communist writings typically took the form of the liberal principle of increasing equality of opportunity to earn rewards proportionate to merit. Having conceded that inequalities of outcome, although arguably somewhat diminished, (p.223) would continue to be a necessary feature of socialist societies for the foreseeable future (at least if economic growth were to be secured), élites then offered the alternative argument that socialism nevertheless promoted distributive justice by giving people more equal access to unequally rewarded positions, in a society still (temporarily) characterized by a hierarchy of offices carrying with them significantly different levels of material advantage. From this point of view, a competition with unequal outcomes is fair as long as people have equal chances to win, and as long as the outcomes reflect the differing abilities of those taking part. Individuals get what they deserve, and the socialist society, though unequal, is nevertheless just—certainly more so than its capitalist equivalent.4

As Walter Connor has observed, most socialist societies were therefore characterized by an unresolved conflict between different conceptions of justice, evident in the policy disputes that separated those whom he describes as ‘ideological egalitarians’ from their ‘pragmatic reformist’ opponents. Examples abound, but one obvious illustration is provided by Soviet policy towards entry into higher education, which alternated between competing egalitarian and meritocratic initiatives. What we now call positive (or reverse) discrimination was often practised in the attempt to guarantee equal outcomes in the distribution of university places. Children of workers and peasants were compensated for cultural and other disadvantages by being awarded studentships irrespective of their educational achievements. At other times, performance in competitive examinations was the principal criterion of admission, and the concerns of individual merit were given priority over those of class preference. In this particular instance, as in other attempts to resolve the possible tensions between equality of outcome and equality of opportunity, most socialist governments pursued a middle course—‘retaining the promise of greater equality in the future, and claiming that much of it has been achieved, while citing the socialist performance principle as a contemporary guide to reward’.5

This tension, and the dispute between egalitarians and pragmatists in general, is sometimes presented as a contrast between two rather different types of mobility that are said to characterize actually existing socialism: collective (or class) mobility and individual (or social) mobility. The former pursues what Włodzimierz Wesołtowski and Bogdan Mach (1986: 25, 27) describe as ‘the collective mobility of the unprivileged classes’; that is, greater ‘equality of conditions’, the principle supposedly governing state intervention in the process of distributing goods. Individual mobility, on the other hand, refers to ‘mobility through qualifications and occupations [and] posits the creation of similar opportunities for achieving unequally rewarded positions. It derives from the pragmatic and reformist version of socialism or its meritocratic version.’ As Wesołowski and Mach concede, Marxist sociologists have historically been somewhat reticent in discussions about equality of opportunity, on the grounds that Marx himself regarded (p.224) this as a bourgeois ideal that was largely irrelevant to the classless communist societies of the future. However, as they also acknowledge, parity in the chances for individual social mobility was ‘an important problematic’ in the real socialist societies of Eastern Europe, since ‘propaganda suggests that there has been a close approximation to the ideal of equal opportunities’.6

The broadly meritocratic defence of social inequality under socialism is also a prominent theme in the sociological literature on stratification. For example, in their review of the history and functions of social mobility under real socialism, Wesołowski and Mach observe:

During the first stage of a socialist regime, a stress on equality of positions as the main characteristic of the new order is of strategic importance for those in authority. Later a new problem confronts this type of regime. It consists in associating egalitarian promise with mobility through qualifications, in order to foster societal support for an inegalitarian, but meritocratic, system generating achievement motivation and capable of growing and innovating. To this end, steps must be taken mainly to ensure equality of access to qualifications…Furthermore, social norms must operate so that competence and qualifications are the grounds on which important posts are allocated and that their lack cannot be compensated for by social origin or by other group affiliation (e.g. party membership and social ties).7

Like Connor, Wesołowski and Mach can see ‘some unclarity’ in the relationship between these two principles, since equality of opportunity points to individual occupational mobility (mainly through qualifications) while equality of conditions seems to call for collective mobility (secured by state intervention to redistribute resources).

Soviet and other socialist scholars of the post Stalinist period therefore employed the language of class (or strata) and of class inequality (or differentiation) readily enough. But they steadfastly maintained that there were important differences in the degree of openness in class structures East and West. In particular, the former offered far greater equality of opportunity than did the latter.8 In the late 1960s, for example, Rutkevitch and Filippov (1973: 235) concluded that ‘in a socialist society, as a result of fundamental changes in the social class structure, most of the real barriers to social mobility disappear’, although this judgement appears to have been reached more through Marxist theory than sociological research.9 Similarly, in the mid 1980s, Aitov (1986: 256, 270) conceded that ‘socialist society does not yet enjoy full social equality’, but concluded from his study of social mobility in the Russian city of Magnitogorsk that ‘socialist society is far more “open” than its capitalist counterpart’.10

These assessments are based mainly on the evidence provided by some methodologically suspect studies of social mobility in particular industrial enterprises, towns, or regions within the former Soviet Union. We have (p.225) reviewed this rather disparate material elsewhere (see Marshall, Sydorenko, and Roberts 1995). It will be clear, not only from the new data on crossnational rates of social mobility reported in Chapter 4 but also from other reliable studies (many of which are mentioned in Appendix H), that these claims greatly exaggerate the differences between mobility regimes in democratic capitalist and state socialist societies. However, from the point of view of the present study, the significance of this literature lies less in its assertions about enhanced mobility than in the distinction that was made by apologists for communism, almost from the outset, between equality of condition (‘collective mobility’) and equality of opportunity (‘individual mobility’)—and the emphasis that was placed upon the latter under (what soon came to be) the prevailing ideology of meritocratic socialism. The unwarranted claims that were then made for equality of opportunity in the Soviet East precisely parallel those made by liberal theorists in the capitalist West.


(1.) In any case, it seems highly unlikely that this complex question will have a simple answer. After reviewing the evidence, we are inclined to agree with the authors of one study who concluded that ‘in sum it appears a valid generalization that, if private ownership of the means of production is replaced by collective ownership, some types of inequality are eliminated, some others remain, and some new sorts of inequalities emerge in social life’ (Kolosi and Wnuk-Lipiński 1983: 3). The evidence relating to the Soviet Union is reviewed in Lane (1982: ch. 3). That for socialist East Central Europe more generally is reported in the chapters on incomes, consumption and housing, in Kende and Strmiska (1987). On Cuba, see the essays collected in Mesa Lago (1971). The Chinese experience is summarized by Parish (1981).

(2.) Stalin (1955: 120–1). On this issue critical Marxists tend to share in the view of the orthodoxy; e.g. Zsuzsa Ferge (1979: 401) insists that socialism and communism should not be defined in terms of equality, although ‘the reduction of existing inequalities’ is a realistic objective of socialist social policy.

(3.) This hierarchical interpretation of Marx's theory of justice is stated concisely in Elster (1985: 229–30). Later Marxist thinking on the issue of social justice is usefully summarized in Lukes (1985: ch. 4). For overviews of the wider literatures, see Cohen (1986) and Scherer (1992). According to many observers, the distributive inequalities of condition found under real socialism were the result not only of rewarding ‘each according to his work’ but also of giving unequal rewards for equal work. For example, Wlodzimierz Wesołowski (1988: 3–7) has argued that because of the widespread tendency to discriminate against women, and to favour (p.226) members of the Party in general and workers in the so-called productive sectors of the economy in particular, under state socialism the ‘gender, sector and nomenklatura principles undermine the model assumption of equal pay for equal work’.

(4.) V. Z. Rogovin (1989: 137) summarizes the official view in these terms: ‘The concepts of social justice and social equality are not identical…equality in, say, material status of members of society may be unjust, especially when it is due to wage equalization although the respective work done may be unequal in quality and quantity. The principal form of a just distribution in the position of individuals and social groups under socialism is a differentiation based on the consistent observation of the principle of distribution according to work performed.’ Here too it is hard to distinguish critical from orthodox Marxist commentators. For example, in her review of the Hungarian experience, Ferge (1979: 305–6) argues: ‘The most pressing needs in Hungary have by and large been covered by now. Hunger, mass squalor, precarious living conditions, general scarcity are problems of the past, and have hopefully been wiped out for ever…How should the new prosperity be used? What aims should be served by the new products? Up to now only one “model of prosperity” has found answers to these questions—that of the advanced capitalist economies…But it is clear by now that the modern capitalist system does not correspond to a socialist ideal…In 1969 the Hungarian Commission for Perspective Planning on Manpower and Standard of Living published its hypotheses concerning the orientation of social development for the next fifteen years…The final version of the long-term plan later emphasized certain elements which undoubtedly overstep the traditional boundaries of a “bourgeois way of life”. Its principal ideas were—besides material progress—to assure a secure and stable life for everybody; to strengthen the open character of society by maintaining mobility at a high level; to enhance the socialist character of income distribution, implying the reduction of the distance between extremes…’

(5.) Connor 1979: 25). See also Meier (1989: 169–70), who notes: ‘The educational system in all socialist societies has to fulfill at least two universal functions: to provide as much social equality…as seems necessary for the stability and legitimation of the socialist order, and to produce an educated labour force…both a pool of highly trained and selected talents and a specialized, educated “normal” labour force…Educational systems in both the Soviet Union and the GDR have experienced situations in which the egalitarian principle of guaranteeing equal educational rights and chances to students from all classes and strata in practice came into conflict with the meritocratic principle by which recruitment for the different trades and professions is managed. The twofold universal use of education periodically creates tensions that hardly can be ignored. Educational planning from above tries to orchestrate the conflicting purposes in such situations by giving priority to one or the other goal and reversing the rank order of functions from time to time.’

(p.227) (6.) Wesołowski (1988: 17) later argued explicitly that both ‘the reduction of social differences’ and ‘processes of intergenerational mobility’ should be taken as ‘indicators and elements of socialist changes’ in any study of stratification under real socialism. See also Ferge 1979: 424).

(7.) Wesołowski and Mach (1986: 30). David Lane (1976: 178) has rightly noted that the Soviet ideology of meritocracy also embodied strongly functionalist overtones: ‘State-socialist societies aspire to communism and therefore to an equalitarian form of society. But in their present arrangements all state-socialist societies manifest distinct patterns of inequality. How do they justify these inequalities? Paradoxically, the argument put forward by the élites of state-socialist societies, which is now inherent in their central value systems, is essentially a functionalist one. It derives from Stalin's statement that under socialism men give according to their ability and receive according to their work. According to Stalin, some work contributes more to the national income than other work, and requires greater training and more skill; another fact is that some workers perform more efficiently than others. These differences in skill and effort (in input) justify differential rewards, and in practice workers are paid according to the amount of work done, the level of skill and the efficiency in applying their skill.’ Wesołowski's (1988: 11–12) own restatement of the normative theory of stratification under socialism is a good example of how the meritocratic and functionalist defences of inequality became intertwined. In his account, socialism ‘is based on the assumption that the division of labour is an inseparable feature of every modern society and that this is linked with two of its correlates: the unequal distribution of power and the unequal distribution of material goods. The division of labour manifests itself, among other things, in a multiplicity of specific jobs, some of which require greater qualifications, or expert knowledge, and others—lesser qualifications…One may say that jobs which differ as regards qualifications and knowledge give unequal inputs to the well being of society. Likewise, the differentiation between managerial and nonmanagerial positions gives unequal inputs to the progress and welfare of society as a whole. The principle of socialist justice calls for higher remuneration of both jobs with higher qualifications and positions of power. In this model not only the actual results of different jobs and actions are taken into consideration. But also the effort made to become better qualified likewise counts…Jobs and functions that require greater preparations should be more highly evaluated…In this way the model postulates: (1) that there are “more valuable” jobs and functions; (2) that these deserve higher rewards.’

(8.) This was, of course, not the only alleged difference between classes in the West and stratification under real socialism. An earlier (now unfashionable) argument was that status inconsistency (the correlation between education, occupation, income, housing conditions, cultural consumption, and suchlike) was lower under state socialism than democratic capitalism (see e.g. Alestalo et al. 1980). For a discussion of the similarities between this view and the theory of ‘complex equality’ proposed by Michael Walzer, see (p.228) Swift (1995). The Soviet literature also offers extensive discussion about such issues as cross-class cooperation, intra-class differentiation or class fractions, and the relationship with the Party. These are not really germane to the issue of social justice and need not be considered here. A good summary of the various official theories of class under state socialism will be found in Matthews (1972). The more recent views of critical socialists are outlined in Borocz (1989).

(9.) No substantiating evidence is cited, the authors merely insisting that ‘there is no doubt that only Marxist dialectics and the materialist conception of history can provide a genuinely scientific basis for understanding the social structure of any society and all the processes of its change, including social mobility’ (Rutkevich and Filippov 1973: 229).

(10.) See also Hegedüs (1977: 59, 71), and Charvát et al. (1978: 162), who offer the same argument in almost the same terms. Reviewing this field a decade or so later, Wesołowski and Mach (1986: 27) observed that, in real socialist societies, ‘those in power appear to have adopted a convenient stance. According to them, so much has been done to equalize opportunities and the process of levelling the social position of classes is proceeding so rapidly that there is no need to query how the equality of opportunities should be implemented in practice. To a certain extent thought has leapt into a world better than the one which has been created in reality. However, questions about the degree to which opportunities have been made equal cannot be avoided.’