Most people, even capitalists, believe in a fair distribution of wealth, but you have probably noticed that capitalists and workers understand fairness in different and often contradictory ways. This is not surprising to Marxists because they use class analysis as their basic method for understanding society. On the basis of that method Marxists recognize that what people mean by fairness has a lot to do with their class position in society and the degree to which they are influenced by the class-based theories, intellectual fashions, and prejudices that dominate the societies in which they live. For example, slave owners in societies with slavery-based economies often try to justify the status quo by claiming that slave laborers are incapable of personal autonomy and self-government and therefore slavery is fair and beneficial both to slaves and society as a whole. Likewise, capitalists promote ideas about the absolute necessity of private property, the profit motive, and wage labor for building a modern civilization, ideas which in their minds justify the existence of the capitalist class, capitalist domination of the working class, and a lopsided distribution of wealth that creates a fabulously rich minority and an impoverished working-class majority.
What do Marxists mean by a fair distribution of wealth? In a letter written by Karl Marx in 1875, a letter that is known today as the Critique of the Gotha Program, he formulated a famous principle about how wealth would be produced and distributed in the highest phase of communist society. That principle is:
From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. 
The first part of the principle—from each according to their ability—means that all members of society will have the right and the actual opportunity to develop their talents and abilities to the utmost and to use their talents to produce goods and services for the benefit of society. In other words, everyone will have an education that allows them to realize their highest potential and a job in which they will have the opportunity to give their best efforts back to society. There will be no uneducated or poorly educated people, no unemployment, and no one will be forced by economic necessity to work in fields unsuited to their abilities. The second part of the principle—to each according to their needs—explains what citizens will receive from society in return for their labor, and that will be nothing less than complete satisfaction of their material and cultural needs.
Marx also said something very interesting about the implications of a fair distribution of wealth in a communist society. He said that the principle “to each according to their needs” actually entails that under communism any given individual will have the right to receive a quantity of goods and services that is unequal rather than equal to the quantity received by others. This will sound counterintuitive, or even wrong, to many readers, because most of us have been taught to believe that equal rights are the highest form of fairness, but Marx shows that this is not the case with regard to the distribution of wealth.
Here’s why: Imagine two women living in a communist society. One woman is a bus driver with five children and the other is a bus driver with one child. Let’s ask ourselves a question: According to the principle “to each according to their needs” which woman should have the right to receive more goods and services (food, housing, clothing, medical and childcare services, etc.) in compensation for her labor?
You might be tempted to answer that both women should receive the same quantity because both are bus drivers, and it’s only fair that everyone be treated equally. That would be the correct answer if this society was being run on the principle “to each according to their work,” which would mean that all bus drivers would receive the same pay. But that is not what Marx had in mind for the highest stage of communism. The problem is that if each woman were treated equally, the driver with one child would receive more relative to her needs than the driver with five children—the former would be objectively richer and the latter poorer. This shows that an equal distribution of wealth can actually result in a highly undesirable kind of inequality—a division between rich and poor. This happens because principles such as “to each according to their work” or “equal pay for equal work” fail to take individual needs into account.
The communist principle “to each according to their needs” overcomes this defect by treating individuals differently, but in a positive way that considers and meets their differing needs, rather than a negative way that ignores individual needs. Under communism the unique needs of every individual would be respected. Thus the correct answer is that the woman with five children should receive more because her needs are greater.
This should put to rest the common misconception that communism means everyone will be treated exactly the same, as in the oppressive uniformity of the anthill or the barracks. Communism actually means the opposite: out of respect for the individual, everyone will be treated differently, but in a way that satisfies the individual’s needs. This does not mean that communism has no place for equality. Communism has the deepest respect for equality, but it must be equality of the right kind. The right to an unequal share in the consumption of goods and services actually results in a higher form of equality—all people will be equal in the sense that the needs of all will be met.
The communist principle holds true even if we compare our bus driver with her five children to a neurosurgeon with two children. Shouldn’t a neurosurgeon be entitled to more than a mere bus driver? Not at all, since the prejudice against “lower” forms of labor is one that communist society will have overcome. Under communism it won’t matter what kind of work you do. What will matter is that you contribute to the best of your ability. In return, society will meet your needs. If the needs of an individual who happens to be a bus driver are greater than those of a neurosurgeon, then the bus driver will receive more. But the needs of both will be completely and ungrudgingly fulfilled. Who would have a problem with that except for people who want more than they need? And there’s a name for that condition; it’s called greed.
There’s something else we must keep in mind in order to understand the Critique of the Gotha Program correctly. Marx did not believe that society could advance directly from the overthrow of capitalism to the highest stage of communism. In the following quotation, he outlines the conditions that must be met before that stage can be achieved.
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour ... has vanished ... after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Marx held that between capitalism and the higher phase of communism, there was a transitional or lower phase of communism “which is still stamped with the birth marks of the old [capitalist] society from which it emerges.”  In this phase, society has to work hard to develop the economic, intellectual, and cultural forces necessary to make the transition to the higher phase of communism. Society in this lower phase will be classless in the sense that there will be no private property in the means of production, no class division between capitalists and workers, and no capitalists to steal surplus value from workers. But due to the relatively underdeveloped state of the productive forces and the corresponding limits on productive capacity, distribution will be made according to work performed rather than according to need. There will also be a division of labor in which more highly skilled workers like neurosurgeons receive more than lower skilled workers such as bus drivers. And there will be deductions from workers’ individual right to consume in order to cover depreciation on existing means of production, maintain funds for developing new means of production, and to provide various forms of social insurance.
Despite all its advances over capitalism, compensation according to work rather than need will foster divisions between those who receive more than they need and those who receive less. This limitation cannot be overcome until society has ripened to such an advanced stage of material prosperity as well as moral and intellectual enlightenment that it is ready to bloom into full communism.
The lower phase of communism sounds backward and uninspiring compared to the higher phase, but we must not forget that the lower phase will have many positive characteristics. There will be a working-class government that labors constantly to develop the productive forces, improve living standards, and defend society’s gains from capitalist restoration. The means of production will be owned in common, and workers will be paid for the real value of the work they do. There will be equal pay for equal work, and no capitalists to steal social wealth from workers. Any deductions from the pool of social wealth will be returned to the workers in the form of social services like health care, education, and recreational and cultural facilities. Although inferior to the principle “to each according to their needs,” the lower stage principle “to each according to their work” is far superior to the capitalist principle of “fairness,” the real content of which is:
From each according to the capitalists’ needs, to each according to the capitalists’ greed.
And if there is any doubt that capitalism has failed miserably at meeting human needs, let’s take a moment to consider to the state of humankind in this capitalist world. Out of a world population of about 6.9 billion, there are currently 2.6 billion people who must try to live on less than $2 per day ; the average adult has only about six years of formal schooling ; at least 621 million are unemployed ; and about 925 million people suffer from hunger.  Is this a world that is developing people’s abilities and meeting human needs?
We can do better. You might be a Marxist if you seek a world in which the principle
“From each according to the capitalist’s need, to each according to the capitalist’s greed” has been abolished, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their work” is what we are fighting for, and “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” is our inspiration and ultimate destination.
1 Marx was not one to use gender inclusive language, a practice that was virtually unknown in the nineteenth century when Marx was writing. Despite Marx’s use of the masculine pronoun “his” it is clear that he intended the principle to apply to both women and men.
2 In State and Revolution, V. I. Lenin called the lower phase “socialism” and the higher phase “communism.”
3 UN Human Development Report 2010