From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is a slogan popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program.[1] The principle refers to free access to and distribution of goods, capital and services.[2] In the Marxist view, such an arrangement will be made possible by the abundance of goods and services that a developed communist system will be capable to produce; the idea is that, with the full development of socialism and unfettered productive forces, there will be enough to satisfy everyone's needs.[3][4]

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![1][3][4]

Although Marx is popularly thought of as the originator of the phrase, the slogan was common within the socialist movement. For example, it was used by August Becker in 1844[5] and Louis Blanc in 1851.[6] The origin of this phrasing has also been attributed to the French utopian Étienne-Gabriel Morelly,[7][8] who proposed in his 1755 Code of Nature "Sacred and Fundamental Laws that would tear out the roots of vice and of all the evils of a society", including:[9]

I. Nothing in society will belong to anyone, either as a personal possession or as capital goods, except the things for which the person has immediate use, for either his needs, his pleasures, or his daily work.
II. Every citizen will be a public man, sustained by, supported by, and occupied at the public expense.
III. Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws.

A similar phrase can be found in the Guilford Covenant in 1639:

We whose names are here underwritten, intending by God's gracious permission to plant ourselves in New England, and if it may be, in the southerly part about Quinnipiack, do faithfully promise each, for ourselves and our families and those that belong to us, that we will, the Lord assisting us, sit down and join ourselves together in one entire plantation, and be helpful each to the other in any common work, according to every man's ability, and as need shall require, and we promise not to desert or leave each other or the plantation, but with the consent of the rest, or the greater part of the company who have entered into this engagement.[10]

Some scholars trace the origin of the phrase to the New Testament.[11][12] In Acts of the Apostles the lifestyle of the community of believers in Jerusalem is described as communal (without individual possession), and uses the phrase "distribution was made unto every man according as he had need" (διεδίδετο δὲ ἑκάστῳ καθότι ἄν τις χρείαν εἶχεν):

Acts 4:32–35: 32 And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. 33 And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. 34 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, 35 And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

However, other scholars disagree with this, and claim that the phrase 'from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs' has a non-religious origin, in 'the Roman legal concept of obligation in solidum' [13] The Roman legal concept of obligation in solidum is that 'everyone assumes responsibility for anyone who cannot pay his debt, and he is conversely responsible for everyone else'. [14] James Furner then argues:

'If x = a disadvantage, and y = action to redress that disadvantage, the principle of solidarity is: if any member of a group acquires x, each member has a duty to perform y (if they can assist). All we then need to add, to get to the fundamental principle of developed communism, is to assume that non-satisfaction of a need is a disadvantage. The corresponding principle of solidarity in respect of need says: if any member of society has an unsatisfied need, each member has a duty to produce its object (if they can). But that is precisely what the principle ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs!’ dictates. In Marx’s vision, the basic principle of developed communism is a principle of solidarity in respect of need.' [15]

Debates on the idea

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".[16] 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.[17][18]

Claiming themselves to be at a "lower stage of communism" (i.e. "socialism", in line with Marx's terminology),[19] the Soviet Union adapted the formula as: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his work (labour investment)".[20]

While liberation theology has sought to interpret the Christian call for justice in a way that is in harmony with this Marxist dictum, many have noted that Jesus' teaching in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30) affirms only "TO each according to his ability" (Matt. 25:15), and not "FROM each according to his ability".[21]

The slogan was parodied in the novel Moscow 2042. After "Communism in one city, in Moscow, had been built, every morning the radio announced: "Comrades, your needs for today are as follows:...".

In Ayn Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, a large and profitable motor company adopts this slogan as its method for determining employee compensation. The system quickly falls prey to corruption and greed, forcing the most capable employees to work overtime in order to satisfy the needs of the least competent and funnel money to the owners. As a result, the company goes bankrupt within four years.

See also


  1. Marx, Karl (1875). "Part I". Critique of the Gotha Program. Retrieved 2008-07-15.
  2. Busky, Donald F. (July 20, 2000). Democratic Socialism: A Global Survey. Praeger. p. 4. ISBN 978-0275968861. Communism would mean free distribution of goods and services. The communist slogan, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs' (as opposed to 'work') would then rule
  3. Schaff, Kory (2001). Philosophy and the problems of work: a reader. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 224. ISBN 978-0-7425-0795-1.
  4. Walicki, Andrzej (1995). Marxism and the leap to the kingdom of freedom: the rise and fall of the Communist utopia. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-8047-2384-8.
  5. Was wollen die Kommunisten, 1844, p. 34.
  6. Louis Blanc, Plus de Girondins, 1851, p. 92.
  7. Graeber, David (2013). The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. New York: Spiegel & Grau. pp. 293–294. ISBN 9780812993561. OCLC 810859541.
  8. Norman E. Bowie, Towards a new theory of distributive justice (1971), p. 82.
  9. Gregory Titelman, Random House dictionary of popular proverbs & sayings (1996), p. 108.
  10. The Guilford Covenant
  11. Joseph Arthur Baird, The Greed Syndrome: An Ethical Sickness in American Capitalism (1989), p. 32.
  12. Marshall Berman, Adventures in Marxism (2000), p. 151.
  13. James Furner, Marx on Capitalism: The Interaction-Recognition-Antinomy Thesis, Brill 2018, p. 113.
  14. Hauke Brunkhorst, Solidarity: From Civic Friendship to a Global Legal Community, MIT Press 2005, p. 2
  15. James Furner, Marx on Capitalism: The Interaction-Recognition-Antinomy Thesis, Brill 2018, p. 113
  16. Part 1, Critique of the Gotha Programme,, quoting Marx/Engels Selected Works, Volume Three, p. 13-30.
  17. Bli︠a︡khman, Leonid Solomonovich; Shkaratan, Ovseĭ Irmovich (1977). Man at Work: The Scientific and Technological Revolution, the Soviet Working Class and Intelligentsia. Progress. p. 155. Retrieved 2014-06-24.
  18. Johnson, Hewlett (1968). Searching for light: an autobiography. Joseph. Retrieved 2014-06-24.
  19. Ken Post; Phil Wright (1989). Socialism and underdevelopment. Routledge. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-415-01628-5.
  20. Geoffrey Jukes (1973). The Soviet Union in Asia. University of California Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-520-02393-2.
  21. Finley, Tom. "The Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Minas (Matt. 25:14-30 and Lk. 19:11-27)" (PDF).

Further reading

  • Carens, Joseph (2003). "An Interpretation of the Socialist Principle of Distribution". Social Philosophy & Policy. 20 (1): 145–77. doi:10.1017/S0265052503201072.
  • Cohen, G. A. (1995). "Self-ownership, communism, and equality: against the Marxist technological fix". Self-ownership, freedom, and equality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-47751-2.
  • Furner, James (2018). Marx on Capitalism: The Interaction-Recognition-Antinomy Thesis. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Press. pp. 113–114. ISBN 978-90-04-32331-5.
  • Gilabert, Pablo (2015). "The Socialist Principle 'From Each According To Their Abilities, To Each According To Their Needs'". Journal of Social Philosophy. 46 (2): 197–225. doi:10.1111/josp.12096.
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