Socialist Worker

Does life make us too selfish for socialism?

We live in an economic system based on competition—so how can socialism be possible in the face of these pressures?

Issue No. 2294

The biggest selling newspapers in Britain are viciously right wing. The Sun has the highest circulation, selling around 2.7 million issues a day. Its nearest competitor, the Daily Mail, sells just over 2 million.

It’s not just the media that displays these reactionary attitudes. We live in an economic system based on competition. People are forced into competing with each other—for jobs, promotions, even for grades at school.

But what effect does all of this have on us? Does it make us irreversibly selfish and right wing? And how can socialism be possible in the face of these pressures?

The first thing to note is that selfishness is just one side of the story. Despite us being conditioned to compete from an early age, we also see compassion all around us. People look after sick relatives, help their friends and give to charity.

We can see further evidence that people’s ideas are not set in stone if we examine our history. Today we live in an era of highly advanced capitalism. In many respects this differs from the early days of the system written about by revolutionaries like Karl Marx.

There was no mass media in the 1840s as we would understand it. There were no right wing talk show hosts or mind numbing TV commercials. Capitalism was a new and brutal system—one that was turning people’s lives upside down.

Some people conclude that the revolutions across Europe in 1848 simply could not happen today. Others argue that the Russian Revolutions in 1917 would not have occurred if the ruling class had exerted the level of “mind control” that it does now. But revolutions do happen today—in far more controlled and repressed societies than Britain.

Before last year’s revolution in Egypt you could be tortured just for handing out a leaflet criticising the regime—let alone broadcasting it on TV. Yet the Arab Spring showed what was possible, even in these difficult circumstances.


In any era the ruling ideas in society are those of the ruling class. That doesn’t mean that everyone holds these ideas. But they are pushed at us from all angles in everyday life—from the press, schools, politicians and so on.

One example is racism. It suits our rulers for workers to blame unemployment on other workers—those labelled as “immigrants”—rather looking upwards and putting the blame on the bosses.

But we don’t soak up ruling class ideas wholesale. If we did, no one would ever go on strike, since the mass media invariably tell us that striking is wrong.

A savage austerity programme in Greece is currently tearing people’s lives apart. Yet a recent poll suggests some 33 percent of people believe that society should be changed through revolution. In 1999 this figure was 11 percent.

There isn’t a single mainstream media outlet in Greece that argues for revolution. No mainstream politician argues for it. Yet somehow the idea has tripled in popularity.

This is because our ideas have to explain the reality of our daily lives. This is the test for whatever ideas we read in the press, or learn in education, or are told by politicians.

As Marx put it in 1845, “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” The ruling class can push their ideas on us all they like. But they will be fighting a losing battle if they fail to explain the reality of the world.

David Cameron can tell you that unemployed people are lazy all he likes. You may well question this if you find yourself out of work for months on end despite applying for every job you think you can get.

The experience of collective struggle can shatter old ideas with remarkable speed. In a revolutionary situation people may start with reactionary opinions, which can wash away as events unfold.

The notion that humans are intrinsically competitive fades once collective struggle shows that solidarity is of far more benefit to us. Racist, sexist and homophobic ideas can stop making sense once it becomes clear that workers have a collective interest in fighting together.

As Marx put it, “Revolution is necessary, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”

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What Socialists Say
Thu 15 Mar 2012, 11:53 GMT
Issue No. 2294
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