Chris Harman


Isn’t it true that we’re too selfish?

(29 June 2002)

Socialism from below, Socialist Worker, No.1806, 29 June 2002.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

CHRIS HARMAN asks if it’s in our nature to look after number one

ONE OF the most popular arguments against socialism is that people are just too selfish for it to work. It is claimed that socialists are unrealistic dreamers for imagining that things will change overnight and people work together for the common good without being made to.

Certainly if you look at society today the argument seems justified. Many people do see life as a rat race in which the key thing is to get what you can for yourself, regardless of others. Bankers are quite happy to extract interest payments from Third World countries, condemning children to starvation. Industrialists don’t care if they ruin the environment, providing they make profits.

And workers are not immune to the same kind of poison. Some, for example, can resent benefit being paid out to refugees or those without work. But such selfishness is not a result of an unchanging human nature. With the best will in the world, people are often pushed to act in such ways by the structure of capitalist society.

Bosses can only survive if they are more competitive than other bosses. That means they have to try to get as much as possible out of their workers all the time. And it’s an added bonus for them if they can find some legal way of doing down other bosses or fiddling consumers. To boost their profits, industrialists have to do their utmost to prevent their workers fighting back.

All the resources they can muster are employed to turn one worker against another, to inflict the mass of the population with the same blind, vicious competitive spirit that prevails among the rival capitalists at the top. In schools, children are brought up to compete with one another from the age of five onwards. They are continually being put through races called exams.

Each child is supposed to worry about how he or she compares with other children rather than developing their own capacities as best they can. Where possible the same system is imposed in industry.

You get the repeated grading and regrading of workers, as if they were objects rather than human beings. If that were all there was to say, the outlook would be grim. It would be difficult to see how things could change enough for socialism to be possible. But even within capitalist society there is another, quite different, side to human behaviour.

For capitalism not only involves people competing with each other. It also involves them working alongside one another on a scale never dreamt of before in human history. In the modern factory or office hundreds or even thousands of people work together.

Without some element of genuine cooperation the factory system could not work. Whenever people work to rule it show how capitalism depends on the cooperative action of workers. Workers give such cooperation even when it is against their interests individually and as a class to do so. The most blatant example of this is wartime.

In the First World War millions of workers marched off to sacrifice themselves for what they regarded as a “higher ideal”, though in fact it was only to help “their” capitalists outdo rival foreign capitalists. Such misguided heroism shows that ordinary people are far from always being selfish.

In the case of the First World War, it would have been better for humanity if workers had been more selfish, and less willing to risk their lives killing other workers. At times workers show the same spirit of cooperation acting in their own interests. The results of this can be impressive. Look, for example, at the many examples of selfless bravery shown when it comes to rescuing people from fires or train crashes.

The most important way in which the present system makes people cooperate with each other is when it drives them to fight back against it. Some 70 years ago industrial sociologists did some experiments in electrical factories in the US.

They made a discovery that absolutely horrified the big business interests backing them. Even in completely non-unionised factories, workers instinctively cooperated to resist efforts of management to make one worker compete with another. The cooperation can be more powerful when organised. Look at strikes such as the great year-long miners’ strike of 1984-5 or the 28-month Liverpool docks strike of the mid-1990s.

Workers fighting against the employing class displayed the same cooperative enthusiasm and selflessness they put at the disposal of the bosses in wartime. It is out of such spirit that a new world can be built.

Last updated on 11 December 2009