The Forum: Does self-interest govern human actions?

To the Editor
I am writing to draw your attention to the statement in the “Socialist Standard” that “Self interest dominates all human actions.” Is this correct ? What seems to me a complete answer is to be found in the “Theoretical System of Karl Marx,” by Boudin (pp. 36-8), which deals with this subject. It is, of course, too much to quote here, but the passage I should particularly like to draw your attention to is on page 37, commencing : “For example.” After giving an illustration of how people sacrifice themselves for an ideal the writer says : “they sacrifice their lives for the high ideal born and begotten of the interests of their class, or of the ruling class under whose moral and intellectual tutelege the class stands. The experience of the South African war fever which I can well remember also goes to prove the correctness of this statement, and I also have a slight idea that it is quite consistent with Marxism.
—Yours, W. M. AUSTIN.


Oar correspondent’s “slight idea” that his quotation is quite consistent with “Marxism” is correct, otherwise it would not have appeared in the “S.S.,” nor in the Manifesto (p. 14), from which it was quoted. The statement referred to, that “self interest dominates all human actions,” is, of course, a generalisation, being condensed into the fewest possible words in order to convey the idea, in conjunction, comparison, or sequence with, some other idea or ideas that must be taken together to arrive at a conclusion. Every science has its generalisations and formulas ; it is, therefore, perfectly in accordance with the scientific method to generalise in this way.

The particular statement in question loses nothing by being condensed, for whilst it startles by its directness, it challenges the reader to discover any action that is not dictated by self-interest. And as rapidly as his thoughts travel from one example to another he fails completely to establish any case where individuals do not act for the purpose of obtaining or retaining something which they consider desirable. Of course, every Socialist generalisation will be challenged and quibbled over, no matter how apparent it may be, because self interest, or class interest, is involved.

The objections that are advanced are usually of the freak type—examples that are as rare as Pleocene fossils in the upper crust of the earth. Nevertheless, even these can be shown to be no exceptions. But even if it were true that those who “sacrifice themselves for an ideal” are not dominated by self interest, the small proportion of such “self sacrificers” would not warrant us taking them into consideration when treating society as a whole.

That men do sometimes act against their material interests cannot be denied ; but that is rather through want of knowledge than want of will. Louis B. Boudin himself makes this clear on page 28 of “The Theoretical System of Karl Marx.”

“This dominion of the class which controls the production of society is due not only to the coercive power it possesses over the other members of society by reason of such control, and of the control of society’s means of subsistence and comfort which results therefrom, but also to its persuasive powers. From the standpoint of interest it must be admitted that its interests lie along the road of the progress of society, and therefore coincide with the interests of society as a whole. From the higher “ideal” standpoint its position is also impregnable : what it obtained by might has in due course of time become its right by the rule of prescription (euphoniously known as ‘tradition’) the greatest and most potent source of right, as it requires no evidence of title and works itself into the very inner consciousness of man and becomes co-extensive with his feelings. To help and augment this natural feeling of its right, the dominating class, which controls the spiritual food of society along with the material, inculcates the ideals of its rights into the members of society artificially, so that the whole of society is usually permeated with the ideas of the dominating class.”

Soon actions that appear to be contrary to self interest are thus accounted for. Some can only be explained on the assumption that the “ideal” is so desirable that every other possession, including life, is willingly risked for its attainment. In many cases the central figure in an “auto da-fe” did not think of himself as a victim, having reached the goal of his labours and finding his reward in “The Martyr’s Crown.”

On page 38 Boudin quotes Karl Kautsky as saying: “The turning away from all earthly interests, the longing for death, of early Christianity may, he says, very well be explained by the material conditions of the Roman Empire at the time. But it would, of course, be monstrous to attribute the longing for death to some material interest.” If we realise the intensity with which the early Christians believed in a spiritual life, we have only to substitute the word spiritual for material and we shall see at once that not only the early Christians, but the dupes of the modern Evangelicals as well, come within our generalisation. Their sacrifices, so-called, is merely the price they pay for eternal bliss.

Behind every action is a motive or motives, though it is not always easy to discover which are responsible. The Indian fakir, for instance, may be the result of the “moral and intellectual tutelage” of his caste, finding in the reverence of the people his reward for “abstinence and mutilations.” Or the cultivation of “righteousness” may bring satisfaction to his mind. Self interest does not always coincide with things mundane. As John Morley says of Lillburne and the Levellers (“Oliver Cromwell,” p. 291) they were “animated by a pharisaical love of self applause, which is, in truth, not any more meritorious, nor any less unsafe, than vain love of the World’s applause.”

My critic refers to the South African War as proof of Boudin’s more complete definition, which, after all only applies to a limited number of cases. Boudin himself uses the Russo-Japanese War to illustrate his point, the full quotation being as follows :

“The ruling class of Japan needs new markets for its expanding industries. Russia is in its way because the ruling classes of Russia for some reason or other need the same markets. Japan and Russia go to war for the control of these markets. This begets a high patriotic fever in both countries, and thousands and tens of thousands of people sacrifice their lives willingly for the high ideal, ‘My Country forever.’ Among those thousands there are very few who are directly ‘interested’ if it were put to them as a mere business proposition. Most of those who will sacrifice their lives in this war for the ‘honour’ of their country will be people who have no ‘interest’ in the war, who may even be affected injuriously by the war, but they sacrifice their lives for the high ideal born and begotten of the interests of their class, or of the ruling class under whose moral and intellectual tutelage their class stands. While the actions of the individual participants in the war are, therefore, the result of ideal motives, the historic event itself, the war, is the result of material interests, which are in their turn the result of economic conditions.”

But neither Boudin nor my critic can produce evidence to prove that even one out of the “tens of thousands” gave his life, or even his services, for that ideal, “My Country Forever.” Some are ambitious and covet honour, medals and crosses and such-like marks of bourgeois approbation. Many shrink from being branded cowards ; others want adventure ; but the majority are more or less compelled by economic stress. If the soldier is actuated by the “high ideal” it never appears in his conversation. His chief concern and topic of conversation is the same as it was on the industrial field—his pay, food, equipment and quarters, etc.

If the critics of “Marxism,” however, really needed an instance of “self sacrifice for an ideal” in order to attack our generalisation, they could not find a better one than the case of Marx himself, who laboured unceasing all his life in continual poverty that he might place Socialism upon a scientific basis. His arduous work could not possibly bring him pecuniary reward during his lifetime. He worked almost alone for Socialism, whilst on every side was anarchy, corruption, and ignorance—everything, in short, calculated to discourage him. One man working day and night for posterity—the world deriding. One man working his life through, for the working class of to-day, because he knew we should need a scientific basis for our movement. Yet no Socialist—not even Marx himself—would call this self-sacrifice, or claim that he acted contrary to what he thought to be his interest. is goal was to know that he had indeed laid, the foundations upon which the working class must inevitably rear the Socialist Commonwealth.

F. F.

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