Sometimes socialists argue for socialism as being in the interest of the working class. Sometimes socialists say that socialism is in the interest of humanity as a whole. Surely there is a logical contradiction here? What about the capitalist class? Is socialism in their interest too, or is it not?
I see no real contradiction. After all, what is an “interest”? The dictionaries, rather unhelpfully, tell us that an interest is a benefit or advantage. Short-term benefit or long-term? Self-perceived advantage or advantage in some objective sense? How we understand all these words depends on how we view human beings, on what we think makes them happy or miserable.
Clearly, the great majority of capitalists do consider it in their interest to preserve – and, indeed, expand – their wealth and all the privileges that go with it. What many of them value is not so much a life of luxury and indulgence (some prefer to live modestly) as power and superior status, the sensation of towering way above the common herd (see: “Why they keep piling up manure: the psychology of wealth accumulation,” Material World, Socialist Standard, October 2009).
However, a minority of capitalists have been socialists. Some have made important contributions to the socialist movement. The best known is Friedrich Engels, the friend and collaborator of Karl Marx. Before Marx and Engels there was Robert Owen, whose ideas had enormous influence on socialist thinking and are still relevant today. There are quite a few others.
Did these socialist capitalists see themselves as altruists sacrificing their own interests for the sake of higher ideals? Or did they think that socialism was in some sense in their own interest? No doubt the answer varies from case to case.
For the writer and artist William Morris, or the writer and playwright Oscar Wilde (who inherited substantial property though he died in abject poverty), the most important things in life were beauty and creativity. From this point of view, they regarded the replacement of capitalism by socialism as being in the interest of everyone, regardless of class. In his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), Oscar Wilde wrote:
“ The possession of private property is very often extremely demoralising... In fact, property is really a nuisance. It involves ... endless attention to business, endless bother... In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it... [Under socialism] nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things.”The interest in human survival
The emergence of weapons of mass destruction and the ecological crisis have radically changed the calculus of interests. There is now a very material sense in which all people and classes have a common interest in socialism as the sole means of ensuring the survival of the human race.
Unfortunately, the common interest in human survival does not eliminate the difference between the real interest of humanity and the working class and the perceived interest of the capitalist class. The interest in human survival is a relatively long-term interest, while capitalists tend to focus on the short term. This tendency was reflected in a famous riposte that the economist John Maynard Keynes once made to an argument about the long term: “In the long run we are all dead.” In other words, the fate of future generations counts for nothing.
In the short term the working class bear the brunt of environmental degradation, while those who are the most responsible for causing it are the best protected from its effects. It is working class areas that are exposed to chemical and radioactive pollution from mining operations, factories, toxic waste dumps and other sources. The capitalists maintain their country estates in idyllic, unspoilt surroundings – although even they cannot escape the ultraviolet rays that penetrate through holes in the ozone layer. In the imaginary future world of Alexander Zinoviev’s The Human Anthill, nature survives only in small enclaves that people must pay to enter, the price being such as to exclude all but the wealthy.
Interests and interests
So there are interests and interests. In several very important senses, socialism is certainly in the interest of every human being. In other senses socialism remains above all in the interest of the working class. Both aspects of the matter require emphasis. There is no conflict between them.