from each

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need (or needs) is a slogan popularized by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. The phrase summarizes the principles that, under a communist system, every person should contribute to society to the best of their ability and consume from society in proportion to their needs, regardless of how much they have contributed. In the Marxist view, such an arrangement will be made possible by the abundance of goods and services that a developed communist society will produce; the idea is that there will be enough to satisfy everyone's needs.

Origin of the phrase

The complete paragraph containing Marx's statement of the creed in the 'Critique of the Gotha Program' is as follows:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around 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!

Although Marx is popularly thought of as the originator of the phrase, the slogan was common to the socialist movement and was first used by Louis Blanc in 1840, in "The organization of work", as a revision of a quote by the utopian socialist Henri de Saint Simon, who claimed that each should be rewarded according to how much they work.

Despite the secular nature of Marxism, it has been said that the inspiration for this slogan lies in Christianity. An earlier exposition of the idea is found in the Bible, in Acts of the Apostles. Luke describes the organization of the first Christian congregations following the death of Jesus:

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4:34-35)

This passage is important to Christian leftists. For further information see Christian communism, Christian socialism, and Christian anarchism.

Debates on the phrase

Marx delineated the specific conditions under which such a creed would be applicable - a society where technology and social organization had substantially eliminated the need for physical labor in the production of things, where "labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want." Marx explained his belief that, in such a society, each person would be motivated to work for the good of society despite the absence of a social mechanism compelling them to work, because work would have become a pleasurable and creative activity. Marx intended the initial part of his slogan, "from each according to his ability" to suggest not merely that each person should work as hard as they can, but that each person should best develop their particular talents.

Claiming themselves to be at a lower stage of communism ("socialism") in line with Marx's arguments, the Soviet Union adapted the formula as: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his work (labour investment)".

Real-world examples

In 'primitive' societies

Marxists, as well as anthropologists, have asserted that most hunter-gatherer and primitive agricultural societies were characterized by a communal economic system. In Marxism this is called primitive communism.

The family

In general, there is a social expectation that parents should provide for their children - to the point that failing to do so is criminal - and that married adults should share their wealth with one another.

Some left-wingers have therefore suggested that the family is an example of communal economics. For example William Montgomery Brown wrote that

Always, because we were human, we have had to introduce cooperation, or we could not get along at all.

The family is just one instance. The institution of the family could thrive only as it adopted the principles of communism. The need of every member had to be considered, the various members as a rule learned family loyalty, family devotion, and family love. If these expressions are not as strong as they once were, it is not because human nature has changed but because there are so many human affairs nowadays that the family cannot attend to, and they have to be carried on by other organizations.

Others argue that children, who are not ready to independently exercise their rights, obscures the example of the family as a communal society. In many societies children leave home when they come of age. It is also argued that parents have evolved to care for their children as they are closely related to them (and children are evolved to encourage care), and as such, the imperative to care for the children is not replicated in dealings with other people with whom one shares little relation.


There have been a number of attempts to practice the principle in small groups, in the midst of societies based on other economic systems. These attempts have not necessarily been directly inspired by Marx or Marxism. For example see:

In some cases the small-scale attempts are intended to be the catalyst for a change in the broader society. Many critics of communal living don't object to voluntary experimentation. It is the forced (government force) commune or forced "sharing" that they object to.

In the mind of the U.S. public

A poll claimed that almost half the population of the United States believe that the U.S. Constitution is the source of Marx's phrase, "so obviously right does the sentiment seem". Given the author's ideology and bias, however, the assumption that the sentiment "seems" right is purely editorial.

More broadly

Most communists and anarchists, as well as some socialists depending on how the term is defined, could be said to believe in a society whose economy would be based around the principle.

In addition there are a number of streams of thought which hold to a similar principle in a limited form. For example, Catholic social teaching holds that everyone has the right to a basic standard of living, even if they are unable to earn it by their own efforts. Thus, for example, the able-bodied are bound to subsidize the handicapped. The idea of the welfare state is based on a similar idea, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts a similar "right to social security.


See also

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