Are we too selfish for socialism?

Geraldine Fela looks at the claim that the selfishness of human nature means socialism is impossible

Many people are convinced socialism is impossible because we are “too selfish”. It is assumed that greed and individualism are a biological fact, inherent in so-called human nature, and that it follows that a truly co-operative, egalitarian society, based on the allocation of resources according to people’s needs, is idealistic and impossible.

Selfishness, however, is not “natural”—it is created by the world we live in. Greed and self-interest is encouraged under capitalism and handed down from the ruling class.

The system forces ordinary people to compete with each other every day: for a job or a place at university, for a seat on the bus on the way to work, for marks, or a promotion. Meanwhile the bosses and the elite drive their luxury cars into their specially assigned parking spots and enjoy the fruits of our labour and hard work.

And yet, in spite of this, people constantly demonstrate selflessness and solidarity. We don’t have to look far to see people acting in selfless and generous ways, from the thousands of volunteers who run soup kitchens everyday, to the record wave of donations that flooded into Indonesia and Thailand following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

Even in the face of vile anti-refugee rhetoric from the Murdoch press, ordinary people come out in thousands for pro-refugee protests. Similarly, same-sex marriage rallies are invariably full of straight people who want to fight for the rights of their gay friends and family members.

Australia’s history is full of examples where working class people have seen beyond immediate self-interest and false divisions in order to change the world for the better.

In the 1970s, the radical Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) organised workers who were not only fighting for better wages, they were leading movements for social change. Contradicting the “macho” stereotype of construction workers, BLF members challenged the homophobia of Macquarie University management with a “pink ban”. Unionised workers refused to build on the campus until a gay student was reinstated at his residential college. Similarly, the BLF was instrumental in weekday moratorium marches against the Vietnam War and for Aboriginal land rights.

Capitalism and competition

The only real “selfishness” is that of the ruling class, the bosses in our workplaces, Vice Chancellors in our universities and politicians in our parliaments. They run a system based solely on competition for profit, and are driven by its logic to fight to the death to defend it.

These are the people who start wars for empire, stoke anti-refugee hatred, restrict marriage rights, cut wages, public transport, social services and force us to compete in order to survive.

This is not to say that ordinary people are never selfish. Life under capitalism is miserable; we tolerate boring, alienating work because it is marginally better than the alternative, unemployment and poverty. This, combined with the everyday struggle to get by in the face of job losses, inadequate social services and education cuts means that people sometimes do put themselves first and act out in cruel ways.

However, this is not some intrinsic aspect of human nature. As Marx said, “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.” Selfishness is a product of the brutal, dog-eat-dog system that is capitalism.


Crucially, however, capitalism is riddled with contradictions. It purports to be a system based on “human nature”, the idea being that the capitalist market reflects our natural individualism and self-interest.

Yet co-operation between workers is essential for production. The industrial revolution in the 19th century meant that production became a collective activity; no single person can build an aeroplane or run a factory or a call centre. Capitalism does force us to compete, but at the same time, without co-operation between ordinary people not a single train would run, the factories that build our laptops and smart phones would grind to a halt, our universities would fall apart.

The “common sense” idea that people are naturally individualistic and selfish seems absurd when you consider that ordinary people are working together every day to create our society.

Moreover, the way that bosses, VC’s and parliamentarians constantly seek to erode our wages and conditions, social services and education for the sake of their profits and power, means that ordinary people not only work together but also must fight together constantly to defend our livelihoods.

In strikes and social movements we give up wages and our free time to fight for a better world. Essentially, cooperation and solidarity is built into the social DNA of the working class. If we stripped away the greedy ideas of the ruling class, if people weren’t forced to compete every day just to survive, we would live in a very different world.

What would this world look like? The generosity and solidarity that people already demonstrate could flourish. There would no longer be a small minority of people stealing the majority of the wealth we create. Competition would wither away because, without a greedy elite, the fruits of our collective labour could be shared equally and according to our needs.

Socialism would mean a society based on cooperation and collective organisation. This is the kind of world ordinary people can make.


Solidarity meetings

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