Socialist Worker

Do wars come from greed?

Issue No. 1773

Capitalism produces war. But what produces capitalism? Isn't it just greedy human nature? That is certainly the view of human nature our rulers would like us to accept. But it scarcely explains how people behave under capitalism, let alone under different societies.

Take the response of people in New York on 11 September. Papers have been full of examples of self sacrifice displayed by people on the day. How can that be if people are 'naturally greedy'? On the other hand, it was reported last week that one of the companies that lost its premises in the World Trade Centre is now using the devastation to try to hide £100 million of losses it had built up as the economy slowed in the months before.

That is not what is usually meant when the papers talk of greed. According to them, workers fighting for higher wages are greedy. That's bad. But bosses making profits are not greedy. They are creating wealth for the nation, and that's good. The real position of capitalists and their supporters is that their class's greed is good and our class's greed is bad.

Socialists, however, point out how the bosses' greed is a case of the already rich wanting to become even richer. When workers fight for higher wages it is a case of the poor trying to survive and secure a reasonable living. Add to this the fact that the most that improvements for working people do is to reduce the extent to which they are exploited and profits are extracted from their labour, and it is clear that this cannot be called greed at all. Marxism has a good deal more to say than this about greed.

Marxists reject the idea that human beings are naturally greedy (and that capitalism is therefore some logical expression of our nature). We don't reject it because we believe people are naturally unselfish, but because we see that the whole question of human nature has to be posed differently.

The right wing view is that human nature, and with it human personality and behaviour, remains essentially the same throughout history. The Marxist view is that human personality and behaviour change enormously according to circumstances. There are, of course, some basic characteristics which apply to all human beings in all circumstances-for example the need for food and water.

There are some which distinguish humans from other species-basic biological structure, language and the capacity to produce tools. But these are few, and greed is not among them. We all know from daily life of unselfish acts as well as greedy acts, of unselfish people as well as greedy people, and people who are greedy at one point and unselfish at another.

This variation would not be possible if people were greedy by nature. The most we can say is that human nature gives people the capacity to be both greedy and unselfish. Which tendency predominates depends on the individual's experiences and circumstances.

That depends above all on the structure of society. For example, hunter-gatherer societies, before the division of society into classes, were dominated by a culture of sharing. All food was systematically shared between all members of the clan. This was because the social order encouraged sharing as a matter of collective survival.

In contrast, capitalist society systematically encourages greed. Indeed, the capitalist class is positively forced to be greedy, in that competition compels each capitalist to strive to maximise their profits. The capitalist system also does its best to foster individual greed in the working class.

This is because if workers compete among themselves they are easier to exploit and rule. But this is not the whole story. Capitalism also provokes working class resistance, and resistance requires solidarity which cuts across individual greed. Workers can only fight back against the boss through collective action, and collective action often involves individual self sacrifice.

The victory of the working class, the socialist revolution, will involve the victory of the principle of collective solidarity over the principle of collective greed. A socialist society will encourage free, individual development for all. But the social ownership of industry, and collective democratic control over it, will mean individual development will not be at the expense of others. The capitalist system stands in the way of that. It creates war and the conditions in which people can behave selfishly.

We should not let capitalism off the hook by blaming the horror it produces on a world scale on the distortions it produces among individuals.

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What Socialists Say
Sat 3 Nov 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1773
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