An Anarchist Interpretation of Marx’s “Ability to Needs” Principle

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  1. 1.

    This term is borrowed from Pablo Gilabert, “The Socialist Principle ‘From Each According To Their Abilities, To Each According To Their Needs’,” Journal of Social Philosophy 46 (2015), pp. 197-225.

  2. 2.

    While this contrast between socialists and anarchists is stated in terms of their divergent views regarding the moral status of the state, such views are actually orthogonal to the core question addressed by this paper, which is how anarchists approach the distribution of goods. Further, it should be noted that the contrast is a bit less sharp than this statement suggests, as many socialists de-emphasize the state in favor a more localized, democratic form of control of the economy—a vision that aligns with what many anarchists propose. However, if this paper is correct in its claim that there is a distinctively anarchist way of understanding the ANP, that would help to sharpen the anarchist/socialist distinction.

  3. 3.

    Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in R. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: Norton, 1978), pp. 525-541, at p. 531.

  4. 4.

    Ibid., p. 530.

  5. 5.

    Ibid., p. 529.

  6. 6.

    Ibid., pp. 529-530.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., p. 530.

  8. 8.

    For example, Gilabert mentions only what, below, is called the inequality objection (op. cit., pp. 198, 201). Similarly, G. A. Cohen notes Marx’s complaint about the socialist principle generating inequality, but does not mention anything like exchange of equivalents objection; see Freedom, Justice, and Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 124-25. And Norman Geras makes much of Marx’s objection to inequality, but also fails to discuss the exchange of equivalents objection. See “The Controversy about Marx and Justice,” New Left Review 150 (1985), 47-85.

  9. 9.

    Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), pp. 66-125, at p. 74.

  10. 10.

    Ibid., pp. 75-76.

  11. 11.

    Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” p. 531.

  12. 12.

    Ibid., p. 530.

  13. 13.

    For more on this point, see Norman Geras who defends the view that Marx took such inequality to be a form of injustice which the ANP is intended to rectify (see, Geras, op. cit., pp. 79-81).

  14. 14.

    For more on this point, see Gilabert, op. cit., p. 202 and Cohen, op. cit., p. 126. See also, G. A. Cohen, If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re so Rich? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 42-57.

  15. 15.

    See Gilabert, op. cit., p. 202. See also, Joseph Carens, “An Interpretation of the Socialist Principle of Distribution,” Social Philosophy and Policy 20 (2003), 145-177, and Edward Nell and Onora O’Neill, “Justice Under Socialism,” Justice: Alternative Political Perspectives, ed. James P. Sterba (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992).

  16. 16.

    Representative examples include Carens, op. cit., and Gilabert, op. cit.

  17. 17.

    See Gilabert, op. cit.

  18. 18.

    See Cohen 1995, op. cit.

  19. 19.

    Alexander Berkman, What is Communist Anarchism? (Dog’s Tails Books, 2015), p. 187.

  20. 20.

    Ibid., p. 102.

  21. 21.

    Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (Penguin Classics, 2015), p. 31.

  22. 22.

    Ibid., pp. 32-33, 56, 61-62, 87, 99-112, 164-66.

  23. 23.

    Peter Kropotkin, Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and its Principles (The Anarchist Library, 1927), p. 10.

  24. 24.

    For the sake of brevity, only a small selection of anarchists endorsing the ANP has been presented here, with these figures chosen primarily because of their prominence within the tradition. However, a quick search through anarchist texts reveals scores of reasonably well-known anarchists who endorse the ANP, with proponents spanning countries, continents, and centuries. See, for example, James Guillaume, “Ideas on Social Organization,” in D. Guérin (ed.) No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism (AK Press, 2005), p. 251; Carlo Cafiero, “Anarchy and Communism: Carlo Cafiero’s Report to the Jura Federation,” in D. Guérin (ed.) No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism (AK Press, 2005), p. 294; Isaac Puente, Libertarian Communism (The Anarchist Library, 1932), as retrieved from; Georges Fontenis, “Manifesto of Libertarian Communism,” (The Anarchist Library, 1953), as retrieved from; and, more recently, Cindy Milstein, Anarchism and its Aspirations (AK Press/Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2010), p. 53. The ANP was similarly endorsed by a number of Chinese anarchists, including Liu Shifu, Cai Yuanpei, and Shi Cuntong (see: Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (University of California Press, 1991), pp. 131, 192, 210). Elisée Reclus is also generally reported to have endorsed a principle approximating the ANP (see: Dana Ward, “Alchemy in Clarens: Kropotkin and Reclus, 1877-1881,” in N. June and S. Wahl (eds.) New Perspectives on Anarchism, (Lexington Books, 2010), p. 222).

  25. 25.

    See, for example, Berkman, op. cit., p. 138 and Kropotkin 2015, op. cit., p. 32.

  26. 26.

    Berkman, op. cit., p. 138.

  27. 27.

    Ibid., p. 188.

  28. 28.

    Kropotkin 2015, op. cit., p. 161.

  29. 29.

    Ibid., p. 165.

  30. 30.


  31. 31.


  32. 32.

    Ibid., p. 167.

  33. 33.

    Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Oakland: AK Press, 2005), p. 118.

  34. 34.


  35. 35.

    Ibid., p. 416.

  36. 36.


  37. 37.

    This accords with the approach of Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Blackwell Publishing, 1981), p. 18.

  38. 38.

    This framing assumes that P consults with Q before acting. However, one might also wish to include cases where P acts without consultation under the umbrella of “unconditional exchange.” Modifying the proposed account to include such cases would be fairly straightforward; thus, the details will not be spelled out here.

  39. 39.

    As an anonymous reviewer notes, unconditional transfer is not strictly necessary for resolving the exchange of equivalents objection discussed above, as one might, alternatively, impose conditions on transfer that do not demand the receipt of some equivalent value. However, unconditional exchange is certainly sufficient for resolving the objection, which is all that needs to be shown here. Additionally, unconditional exchange may be necessary for resolving the deeper worry about alienation that seems to motivate Marx’s rejection of the exchange of equivalents.

  40. 40.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for bringing this worry to my attention.

  41. 41.

    This is suggested by the quotation presented in section 2, wherein Marx suggests that the “coerced” and “forced” nature of labor is what renders it a mere means. Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” op. cit., p. 74.

  42. 42.

    Here quoting Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” op. cit., p. 531.

  43. 43.

    Berkman, op. cit., p. 188.

  44. 44.

    Kropotkin 2015, op. cit., p. 165.

  45. 45.

    Bookchin, op. cit., p. 118.

  46. 46.

    It may be immediately objected that this is that this is a failure to provide an option, not the removal of an option. This concern is discussed at length below.

  47. 47.

    Some might worry about cases of structural unfreedom where P and R each act independently remove W from Q’s option set. In such a case, condition (3) will not be met with respect to either P or R, as W would not be available to Q in the absence of P (because R would still prevent it from being an option) and, similarly, would not be available to Q in the absence of R (because P would still prevent it from being an option). To resolve this worry, one might expand this account of freedom restriction by replacing occurrences of “P” within the posited account with either “some set of persons S” or “the members of S,” depending on the context. This would allow the account to capture instances of structural unfreedom. Further, if one thinks that it is true that P restricts Q’s freedom in the case of structural injustice presented just above, one could then append to the expanded account the claim that P restricts Q’s freedom iff P is a member of S.

  48. 48.

    Prominent proponents of the broader view include G. A. Cohen, “On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 12 (1983), 3-33, at p. 18; Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 139-40; Hillel Steiner, “Individual Liberty,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 75 (1974-5), 33-50, at p. 34; and Philip Pettit, On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 28-35.

  49. 49.

    This also makes the account a non-moralized one, as Q’s freedom might be diminished even if Q has no right to W and P has a right to prevent Q from obtaining W. While this approach to freedom is controversial, it cannot be defended here beyond citing arguments such as that provided by Cohen 1983, op. cit., p. 4. This non-moralized approach will allow the argument to sidestep certain objections that might be made below, e.g., that the owner of some object does not reduce others’ freedom when she exercises her right to deny them access to that object.

  50. 50.

    This is roughly how one might interpret accounts of so-called positive freedom. For a brief, recent discussion on this point, see Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 45-46.

  51. 51.

    Here, the absence of blocking replaces what, above, was the state of affairs wherein Q gets the coat. However, given that each state of affairs obtains if and only if the other does, this replacement is of no consequence.

  52. 52.

    This is because P’s strategy for satisfying her state of affairs preferences relies on removing certain worlds where these preferences go unsatisfied.

  53. 53.

    Of course, Q would then be undermining R’s freedom by blocking her from obtaining the coat/holdings she values (assuming that P would not block R if Q didn’t; see the discussion of structural unfreedom in note 47, above). However, this does not change the fact that P, by preventing Q from controlling the holdings necessary to induce R to mow Q’s lawn, removes a preferred option from Q’s option set. Admittedly, the fact that P diminishes Q’s freedom when she prevents her from diminishing R’s freedom does suggest that more needs to be said regarding when freedom constraint is morally objectionable. Unfortunately, such a discussion is beyond the scope of this paper.

  54. 54.

    An anonymous reviewer points out that there is an apparent convergence between this rejection of conditionality and G. A. Cohen’s objection to the ethos of “market reciprocity” where people provide goods and services to others strictly for the sake of receiving personal benefits in exchange (see: Cohen, Why Not Socialism? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), pp. 39-43). Specifically, Cohen’s claim is that such reciprocity undermines community, and, elsewhere, I argue that conditional exchange, specifically, undermines community between persons (see: Jesse Spafford, "Community as Socialist Value," Public Affairs Quarterly 33.3 (2019)). If this is correct, then adherence to the AANP would contribute to promoting community—a value that anarchists also often claim to promote. Thus, there appears to be a nice coherence to the anarchist position, with their rejection of conditionality neatly dovetailing with their embrace of community and aversion to diminishing the freedom of others. This convergence might also allow anarchists to make use of Cohen’s notion of communal reciprocity which is manifested when one provides goods and services as part of an ethos of serving and being served—with this second conjunct providing a possible basis for anarchists who wish to object to arrangements where those to whom they transfer goods and services consistently provide nothing in return. Ibid., p. 43.

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Spafford, J. An Anarchist Interpretation of Marx’s “Ability to Needs” Principle. J Value Inquiry 54, 325–343 (2020).

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