From the May 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
In modern society, the interests of the individual are indivisible from those of society at large. Socialism then can he seen as a matter of self interest.
If society is organised as a capitalist jungle, the human animals who live in it will of necessity require tooth and claw in order to survive against the competition. To mix a couple of common metaphors—in a rat race nice guys finish last.
It follows from this that people must now set themselves to the task of cutting down the competitive jungle and establishing in its place an environment which will allow human beings to behave as such and not like rats in a rat race. And this task must be achieved by the non-angelic humans who compose society. But, it may be asked, why should men and women who are accustomed to living in the jungle bother to set their hands to creating a different kind of society and one which will give no scope or reason for all those qualities which religious people describe under the heading of original sin? If we don’t expect people to have a “change of heart,” how can we expect them to take upon themselves the task of building the new society of harmony and co-operation? Well, it will not happen out of altruism—but sheer self-interest.
First, it is necessary to say that the key to the history of the evolution of human society is that classes act in what they conceive to be their own interests. The immediate example of that is seen in the revolutions in various countries (classically France but also, of course, England and Russia) in which the rising capitalist class overthrew the feudal system. And the proof that that step really was in the interests of the bourgeoisie is readily demonstrated when one looks at today’s world and sees the unparalleled wealth which the capitalist class enjoys. The riches of an Onassis or a Rockefeller make the great feudal lords look like veritable “basket cases” (to use the term so often on the lips of glib politicians like Kissinger). But this answer is not sufficient for our purpose even though it is incontrovertible as far as it goes. It might be argued that the capitalist class did not have to think very hard to see where their self-interest lay. (Which is perhaps as well; capitalists do not need to be great thinkers. Just great money-makers.) The rising capitalist class did not have to think very hard to see that feudalism was fettering their efforts to amass wealth—which was the object of the exercise.
The capitalist class needed, above all else, a working class to exploit. And the army of potential workers was not in the towns queueing up for jobs in the mills and the mines. They were tied to the land, eking out their existence being exploited for the benefit of the landowning aristocracy. For capitalism to succeed it was essential to get the peasants off the land and into the factories. So self-interest stepped in and the capitalist class staged their revolution—with the help of the masses who were prepared to assist the devil they didn’t know in preference to the one they did know.
The self-interest is not always clearly and immediately and individually apparent. Suppose we have an elderly worker who is convinced that all the social evils of capitalism (poverty, insecurity, unemployment, inferior housing and food, not to speak of wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation) can only be eliminated by the abolition of the system of private and state-owned means of production and distribution. He could be excused for thinking that he will not see socialism no matter how hard he works for it. Socialism will only happen, as already indicated, when the majority of the working class have consciously opted for it. And not even the most incurable optimist could imagine that being achieved in, say, the next ten years. So how will that worker be achieving his own self-interest, which is the motive force for the establishment of socialism? Will he not simply be working his way into the grave?
The rate of progress in socialist thinking of the working class is difficult to judge. But it by no means follows that because we are a tiny handful of socialists now, fewer than a thousand after seventy five years, that their progress cannot suddenly take off. And once a take-off point is reached, it is reasonable to expect that socialists’ efforts to convince their fellow workers will accelerate at a rather more encouraging rate than we have seen hitherto. But to our elderly worker, the self-interest we talk about is the self-interest of the class to which he belongs. When the majority of the working class can see the clear self-interest of the class as a whole, then the self-interest of the individual members of the class will be fulfilled.
When I jointed the SPGB in Manchester at the age of 19, the aged pillar of that Branch (I reckoned that he and his wife were about half the membership of the Branch) made it quite clear to me: “Don’t be a young man in a hurry. That way lies only disillusionment. No good for you. No good for the SPGB either. If you dislike the world around you, if you think that it is possible to make a much nicer world for you and your posterity to live in, then join us. But if you expect to see the new world by the time you are 30 or 40, then we certainly cannot make you any promises”.
I got the message, I cannot pretend that I am not disappointed that the working class has proved to be so slow in seeing their own class self-interest. But never having had illusions, I am spared the risk of becoming disillusioned. And what better way is there to spend one’s time than in trying to make a better world? And to make people see the futility of hoping that by putting a little cross every few years for the likes of Callaghan or Thatcher, these vile politicians (some of whom even have the impudence to call themselves socialists while actually running capitalism) will make the better world for them.
L. E. Weidberg