This quotation is often bandied about as a soundbite summary of communism. There is, of course, more to communism than this, but since its proponents still tend to recite this quote from time to time, it's worth examining closely. As we'll see, it's like that old quotation about statistics being like a bikini--what it reveals is tantalizing, but what it conceals is vital.

First note that this sentence no verb. Doesn't have a subject, either, and is a bit short on direct objects as well. Let's start by specifying exactly what's coming "from each" and "to each." As best I can figure, we're talking about work (whether physical or mental or a combination of both) and property (whether it's money or food or medicine or whatever). "Property," however, is a term that always provokes debate, so let's leave it aside and just use "stuff," which doesn't necessarily imply ownership. That gives us the following:

From each, work and stuff according to his abilities; to each, work and stuff according to his needs.

That sounds nice enough. Still no verb, though. For the latter half of the sentence, it's easy--we can just use "given," which makes it sound like a pleasantly benign sort of socialism. But the first half of the sentence is more problematic. It'd be nice if we could use "give" here as well, or a similar verb like "contribute." Unfortunately, each of these implies that there's a voluntary aspect to work and stuff, and that just isn't the case in real life. (If you think it is the case, I'll send you the addresses of charitable organizations and my student loan company, and you can put your money where your mouth is and start writing checks. Oh, and the guy huddled in the alley could really use that extra coat you have hanging in your closet.) No, there's nothing voluntary about the contribution of work and stuff, so we need to use a stronger verb, a verb that makes clear that one won't be allowed to hoard it:

From each will be taken work and stuff according to his abilities; to each will be given work and stuff according to his needs.

There, that's more realistic. But we still don't have a subject. Who is doing the taking and giving? Why, the government, of course--who else?

From each, the government will take work and stuff according to his abilities; to each, the government will give work and stuff according to his needs.

We're not done yet. As the Founding Fathers noted a good many years before the invention of communism, it's not at all easy to measure someone's abilities. Even with modern psychological methods, it's an imperfect science:

From each, the government will take work and stuff according to its best estimate of his abilities; to each, the government will give work and stuff according to its best estimate of his needs.

One last little problem. It's nice to think that the government will take care of people's needs, and if they get it a little wrong sometimes, well, that's tolerable enough. Of course, this assumes that there's enough to satisfy everyone's needs, which isn't necessarily the case (as we know from watching communism in action):

From each, the government will take work and stuff according to its best estimate of his abilities; to each, the government will give work and stuff according to its best estimate of his needs. Assuming there's enough work and stuff to satisfy his needs, that is.

A close examination reveals the truth behind this pretty little aphorism. It uncovers the essentially coercive nature of communism; your work and stuff can be seized if the government thinks that someone else needs it. (Moreover, it hints at a good way to beat the system--if you can convince the government that you have few abilities but many needs, you can do quite well for yourself.) Finally, it makes explicit one of the problems with this utopian view--namely, redistribution sounds well and good, but one can't really assume it'll work. Of course, this analysis doesn't cover all the problems with this statement; for one, it implicitly assumes an honest government (which is, of course, an utterly preposterous assumption). But it is, at the very least, a start.

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