Why are some people socialist
August 25, 2010 12:55 PM   Subscribe

Is there a reason why some people are socialist?

This question has been in my mind for a while, since reading this:

Guardian schools article mentioning King Henry VI and William of Wykeham

where it says:

"When Henry VI founded Eton in 1442, for example, he instructed that "no one having a yearly income of more than five marks shall be eligible". In 1382, the founder of Winchester, William of Wykeham, declared that the school was to be made up of 70 "poor and needy" pupils, although as a concession to those whose patronage he sought, he agreed also to take 10 "sons of noble and influential persons". Rugby, Harrow and Westminster were founded as free schools for the poor. "

Clearly the King and William were wealthy and powerful men, although according to wikipedia William was born a peasant, and had no need to be benovelent, and their actions occur long before Karl Marx comes along. So whay were there socialists in the really old days? what made, for e.g. Pope Alexander set up Westminster school for the poor?

then I read about this guy:

(Wiki) James Maitland

and the bit about his writing seems to indicate a tendency to left of centre politics.

Clearly I am aware that some people are more empathic than others, but I just wondered if there was anything that would explain this socialist tendency, especially given what I know of the things people like Dawkin say.
posted by marienbad to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
None of those actions are "socialist." The United States is a capitalist economy and yet we have had system of free primary and secondary education. You might be interested
posted by muddgirl at 12:59 PM on August 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

Sorry, I meant to say that you might be interested in researching the history of philosophical thinking on the value of free education to create a docile and civil working class.
posted by muddgirl at 1:03 PM on August 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

People are generally socialist because they view it as a system more fundamentally fair to all people.

Your descriptions of these things is pretty convoluted as is searching out a connection between genetics and socialism (from the tags). Your citation has really very little to do with socialism; much more to an enormously wealthy class viewing it as their (christian? paternal? you choose.) responsibility to take (very little) care of a class they viewed as inferiors. They in no way attempted to give these poor people control of the means of production nor treated them as equals.
posted by beerbajay at 1:07 PM on August 25, 2010 [6 favorites]

Religion. You are in England so I guess you missed the salvation through good work bit. That's what you get for getting rid of the papists. And if the Pope knew you are calling him a socialist you'd be in trouble.

Helpful quote that clears up the ideology confusion:

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist", Archbishop Hélder Câmara, on poverty
posted by lucia__is__dada at 1:09 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

being born into poverty or lack of privlege doesn't predispose someone to "have no need to be benevolent" in fact their experience of poverty may be what inspires them to assist others with fewer resources.

also the tradition of "benevolent" acts of charity were commonplace in Medieval leaders. it was deemed appropriate for Christians to be charitable and it was good press for the king to perform these gestures. see the term "noblesse oblige"

to be honest I find your question to border on trolling. socialism is a political system, benevolence is a moral concept common across most cultures and polities. many notable "capitalists" such as Bill Gates are exemplars of charity and "benevolence"
posted by supermedusa at 1:15 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

I suppose that it's makes sense for a king to educate some (clever) poor people so that they could grow to be somewhat more powerful and then feel that their fortunes rose or fell on the success of their benefactor.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:17 PM on August 25, 2010

Socialism is a relatively modern political philosophy concerning class struggle that built upon ideas and philosophies of the enlightenment among other things. Concepts like the "bourgeois" and the "proletariat" would not have made much sense in eras prior to the industrial era.

What you are describing is closer to "Not being a dick" (or altruism, if you'd like) than "Socialism". People have been doing this for as long as there have been people.

I should mention that not all acts of the elite providing services to the masses were necessarily out of kindness and in fact it was often out of pure self interest.
posted by Throw away your common sense and get an afro! at 1:21 PM on August 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

You don't seem to know what socialism is. Charity is not socialist. Do some research before you even try to think about this very complicated issue.
posted by languagehat at 1:22 PM on August 25, 2010 [21 favorites]

I assume, based on the "genetics" tag, that by "Dawkin" you mean Richard Dawkins.

What, exactly, about Dawkins' writings do you have in mind? After all, he famously wrote:

The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight-our capacity to simulate the future in imagination–could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term ones…We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism-something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We ... have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

Also, I don't know exactly what his politics are, but I know he voted socialist at around the time The Selfish Gene was published; he says so in the endnotes to one of the later editions.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:28 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

I dunno if there's "a" reason some people are socialist.

I do know there are lots of reasons some people might be, and they're more complicated than your question even hints.

It's not answerable in current form, nor probably in this forum.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 1:52 PM on August 25, 2010

Some people will tell you that position in the family tends to affect political views. First children will be conservative and second children will be radicals.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:09 PM on August 25, 2010

When you are awed that some famous people were left of center or "socialist", what center are you talking about? There are vast swaths of time where what you conceive of as leftist socialism was the center.
posted by JJ86 at 2:23 PM on August 25, 2010

I've heard/read a few things on political tendencies being innate, genetic, psychological. Here are a few resources that help to illuminate how brain chemistry may play into our moral/political positions:

"The Moral Mind" a TED Talk by Jonathan Haidt

"The Liberal Mind vs the Conservative Mind: Genetic?" The Huffington Post

"Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism" Nature Neuroscience article (PDF)

It's both fascinating and frightening to me, the idea that our political leanings may be heavily dictated by our neurological makeup...

Also, am I wrong to consider liberalism and socialism equals in this discussion?
posted by Malisams at 2:31 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

You might try reading some of very recently deceased Tony Judt's writings, especially "Ill Fares the Land" for a better understanding of the terms you're throwing around here, especially "social democracy" v. "socialist."
posted by webhund at 2:48 PM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: "OK. Lot of angry socialists in this thread. Instead of drowning the OP in leftist Aspie rage, we could rephrase the his or her question. Perhaps he meant to ask why some people are more concerned about the welfare of the poor than other people in their social class?"

This is what i meant. I know what bloody socialism is. And no, i realise that acts of charity are not socialism per se, but still, these things happened when they did and there was no need for the people to act in that way. Does this track back further, are there, for e.g. neolithic examples?

I am interested to know why it is that some people (all through history) have acted against their class/religious (or whatever) interests. A good example in the modern world would be Paul Foot of Private-eye.

jeez, talk about pile-on.
posted by marienbad at 3:00 PM on August 25, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - if you can't answer the question without insulting the other commenters we do not need your contributions.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:01 PM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: "you might be interested in researching the history of philosophical thinking on the value of free education to create a docile and civil working class."

yes i would. care to cite a good starting point

also re: trolling comment- wtf? how is this trolling? trolling would be saying Glenn back is fucking ace, you are all 2 stupidz 2 c it. jeez.
posted by marienbad at 3:03 PM on August 25, 2010

Response by poster: ""The Liberal Mind vs the Conservative Mind: Genetic?" The Huffington Post"

Thanks Malisams. bookmarked.
posted by marienbad at 3:07 PM on August 25, 2010

A People's History of the United States does not directly speak to your question, but should (I think) clarify the difference between benevolence towards the working class vs. empowerment of the working class. Chapters 10, 11, 13, 15, and 17 are particularly relevant. Unfortunately, I don't know if a similar book has been written concerning the history of the UK (but I'd love to read it if it has been).

I guess I'm still confused about what you're asking. Are you asking, "Why are some people progressive and some people reactionary?" Or do you want rationalizations for the specific acts of benevolence you mention in your original question? Or something else?
posted by muddgirl at 3:14 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Ah, nevermind. I see it is the first one of my options.
posted by muddgirl at 3:15 PM on August 25, 2010

there was no need for the people to act in that way.

You may be interested in a book called "The Origins of Virtue," what I've plugged on this site before. Essentially, it's a fallacy to claim that the natural state of man is total selfishness. It is extremely difficult for humans to survive completely on their own- we are social animals who help each other out, and we have been so for our entire existence. Individual rights and equality movements and so on are great developments, but still, the fundamental unit of humanity is not the individual. It's the community.

Helping others isn't perverse or against nature at all.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:19 PM on August 25, 2010

I don't think Dawkins suggests that people are necessarily devoid of charity on a genetic basis, only that the gene (as a very abstract principle) acts to preserve itself.

Imagine a hypothetical self-sacrifice trait under simple Mendelian genetics, then make it recessive, full penetrance, etc. Individuals without the allele (ss) or who were heterozygous for it (sS) would not display self-sacrifice, but the individuals with both copies of the allele (SS) will trend towards heroic stupidity in the face of dangers to their social group, rushing into blazing fires, plunging into rapids, and charging in front of bears as the presence of adrenalin combined with kin recognition features triggers the limbic system to decide "flight" isn't an option.

Now, let's conjure up a family. Mother is sS, Father is sS, and one could come out with a mixture of four children: one of ss, two of sS, and one SS. Mom and Dad are away, foraging for food while some of the hapless siblings encounter an angry bear. SS hears the scream of her sisters and brothers and rushes upon the bear with a pointy stick, the bear dies, but not before shredding and killing SS. Ah, S lives on in two siblings out of the three and the gene has selfishly preserved itself even at the expense of the odd individual.

Hardly anything is this simple in practice, but you get the idea in this toy example. You can see this gene would be rather handy to have around in circulation.

You see any number of social behaviors in animals beyond the insects. Naked mole rats are the famous eusocial example in mammals. Some of these individuals give up breeding rights because siblings carry the appropriate genes. Even reasonably bright animals in groups do this. In wolves, it is usually the alpha pair (presumably the "strongest" by a blend of factors) doing the breeding.

Once you get to the primates, I think, you can start talking about fairness. I don't care to locate the precise citation at the moment, and for all I know it has been since discredited, but we can observe Monkey B, when offered a smaller reward than Monkey A for an identical task, refuse to perform it. Monkey B has a rudimentary sense of fairness.

By the time you combine simple kin preservation with primate fairness and then add in the honking big brain capable of supporting immensely abstract concepts (which often lets us find reasons for doing what we wanted to do in the first place), I'm not surprised that some humans would like to level the playing field a bit. I will not suggest that we're anywhere near locating genetic markers for these behaviors, but I don't think it is beyond the pale, either.
posted by adipocere at 3:27 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

People do things to help other people, and they did even in medieval England. For that matter, so do chimps. Is a chimp who helps another chimp a socialist?

Socialism is a political and economic construct. What the OP mentioned are acts of kindness or charity. Very likely the people the OP cites did what they did because they honestly wanted to or because it was expected of them. When trying to evaluate the behavior of people in history, always assume that they were just like people today.

Karl Marx has nothing to do with this.
posted by justcorbly at 3:41 PM on August 25, 2010

So whay were there socialists in the really old days? what made, for e.g. Pope Alexander set up Westminster school for the poor?

Christianity has been around for quite some time, and the bible is in favour of charitable acts:
"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life."
1 Timothy 6:17-19
A rich person who was Christian, and who interpreted that passage to mean that the rich should perform good deeds and be generous, could be expected to perform good deeds and be generous.

Religion is a meme rather than a virus or genetic trait, but I can believe it could produce the effects you mention.

also re: trolling comment- wtf? how is this trolling?
I think people are confused about what Karl Marx and left/right politics have to do with your question. It's not like the left have a monopoly on good deeds and generosity. That confused me when I read your question, at least.

posted by Mike1024 at 3:50 PM on August 25, 2010

"jeez, talk about pile-on." ... "trolling comment- wtf? how is this trolling?"

I think the trolling suggestion came about because the phrasing of your original question suggested slightly you thought that believing in socialism was so inexplicable that it needed some kind of explanation over and above the explanations used to account more generally for why people adopt political beliefs. It sounded a bit like a "Socialism - wtf's with that?" question.

Now you've made it clear that -

a. you're interested in explanations as to why people hold all sorts of different ideals, not just socialism


b. You're contrasting the adoption of political ideologies with the tendency of organisms to adopt the behaviours most likely to ensure the survival of themselves or their type -

it's an interesting question. There are people here much better equipped to answer it than me, but my initial reaction was - because humans are, uniquely, moral creatures as well as just physical ones. I imagine there is a whole host of reading around that idea, but I'm sadly too ill-read to point you to it - can anyone help?
posted by penguin pie at 4:08 PM on August 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Actually, looking more closely, I see that mr_roboto's Dawkins quote addresses exactly that idea.
posted by penguin pie at 4:14 PM on August 25, 2010

Expanding on part of adipocere's point, you could also think of this in terms of kin selection, broadly defined. While kin selection is usually defined as actions taken to promote the continuity of the genetic line even if you yourself don't necessarily survive to reproduce, one can imagine that many people who care deeply for other human beings would take actions that aren't directly self-serving to promote the well-being or survival of the human race.

From what I know of Christianity, the teachings of Jesus place a lot of virtue on assisting others when it is of no direct benefit to you. Saints/martyrs are a great example of selfless sacrifice that's literally venerated. Jews have a similar idea in mitzvahs. While the leaders at any given time may have spoken against these kinds of acts, people who paid close attention to the spirit of their religion may have engaged in such "socialist" acts.

Perhaps part of the confusion here is that, in the US, "socialist" has become code among folks in the right wing to describe people in the left wing in a pretty unnuanced way. These sorts of criticisms reflect what appears to be a misunderstanding of socialism, so if people read your post as asking about charitable acts even though you meant socialism as a political system, they could have assumed your post was glib. I'll be honest, even though the word "socialist" doesn't trigger a lot of anger or defensiveness from me, I was still struggling to figure out what you were asking, and originally assumed (from my US lens) that it had something to do with what's currently going on here.
posted by emilyd22222 at 6:34 PM on August 25, 2010

If you have luck on your mind, and the kind of empathy that allows "there but for the grace of God go I," you start to allow for a social safety net.

Once you allow for a social safety net, you have to get to the nitty gritty details of how that works, so maybe that's no one with an income of 5 marks can go to a school.

But I think it's just as simple as (sense of luck) + empathy = social(-ism or -safety net).
posted by oreofuchi at 7:08 PM on August 25, 2010

Wolf Hall is a historical novel by Hilary Mantel. I highly recommend it.

Thomas Cromwell was a peasant who worked through the English class system to become a fixer for Henry VIII. Perhaps a cautionary tale.

One theme in the book is mentoring. Scruffy young lads of dubious parentage are given opportunities to take on responsibilities. Implied is the suggestion that the children of the aristocrats are too busy hunting, drinking, etc.
posted by ovvl at 8:21 PM on August 25, 2010

you are confusing socialism with Charity. Capitalism means you do what you want with the money, including giving it away to others.
posted by chinabound at 8:23 PM on August 25, 2010

Consider that you're looking at an age when greed was a sin and prowess was a virtue and trying to make sense of it with Fox News' version of economic theory. Capitalism...the very idea of capital goods didn't exist in 1442 the way it does today. It makes as much sense to accuse George Bush of war crimes for not taking the field himself and honorably challenging Saddam Hussein to single combat with long swords.

If you want a selfish reason to treat your peasants well, you could consider it an investment in England (which was, essentially, Henry's property). Is it socialism if the guy who runs the factory makes sure you're trained before you fire up the big expensive choppy cutty stampy machine? Because arguably, that's what Henry was doing.

Look into the death of Bertrand du Guesclin for an idea of how different things were then. He had invested a town in siege but took ill and died on the day negotiated for surrender if a relieving force did not arrive. The commander of the fortress said that he would surrender to no one save du Guesclin and went forth and surrendered to the mans corpse. If that doesn't make perfect sense to you, don't even try to guess how they thought about property and wealth.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:02 PM on August 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes (and, later, Mikhail Bakhunin) discuss their notions of the social contract as having emerged from a "state of nature."

In all three conceptions, helping others and engaging in confederacy--that is, abiding by certain limits that benefit others in exchange for other benefits for ourselves (such as security)--is a natural consequence.

Even "Dawkin" [sic] explicitly states that when he discusses selfishness (on the genetic level) he is emphatically not discussing it on a moral or ethical level:
This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution.* I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. But unfortunately, however much we may deplore something, it does not stop it being true. This book is mainly intended to be interesting, but if you would extract a moral from it, read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.

As a corollary to these remarks about teaching, it is a fallacy—incidentally a very common one—to suppose that genetically inherited traits are by definition fixed and unmodifiable. Our genes may instruct us to be selfish, but we are not necessarily compelled to obey them all our lives. It may just be more difficult to learn altruism than it would be if we were genetically programmed to be altruistic. Among animals, man is uniquely dominated by culture, by influences learned and handed down.

Some would say that culture is so important that genes, whether selfish or not, are virtually irrelevant to the understanding of human nature. Others would disagree. It all depends where you stand in the debate over 'nature versus nurture' as determinants of human attributes. This brings me to the second thing this book is not: it is not an advocacy of one position or another in the nature/nurture controversy. Naturally I have an opinion on this, but I am not going to express it, except insofar as it is implicit in the view of culture that I shall present in the final chapter. If genes really turn out to be totally irrelevant to the determination of modem human behaviour, if we really are unique among animals in this respect, it is, at the very least, still interesting to inquire about the rule to which we have so recently become the exception. And if our species is not so exceptional as we might like to think, it is even more important that we should study the rule.

The third thing this book is not is a descriptive account of the detailed behaviour of man or of any other particular animal species.

- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Chapter 1
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:10 PM on August 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like socialism and think it does align with my class interests, although it may cost more up front.
I feel as though unrestrained capitalism is inherently subject to wild oscillations which can cause dangerous instability.
To me, that's a bigger threat than higher taxes.
posted by atchafalaya at 12:19 AM on August 26, 2010

You might find the experiments of Ernst Fehr interesting, especially his famous "ultimatum game."

Fehr argued that people have an "inherent abhorrence to inequity."
posted by Ljubljana at 12:29 AM on August 26, 2010

if this question had asked "Is there a reason some people are more well-intentioned than others and act that way, say for example in founding benevolent schools, etc.," you probably wouldn't have expereinced the pile-on that followed.

Some very generous responses above epitomise the best of Metafilter and some responses thankfully deleted reflect the worst.

The first group are the group you are interested in, and they have signposted some very interesting reading on this issue. But just as important for your happiness in this web community is analysing why you appear to have touched a nerve with the way the question was phrased. As one commenter pointed out some terms including "socialism" carry so much baggage in the USA in particular (although not exclusively) that it triggered a response you were not expecting. That's also interesting.

The most useful thing we can learn here in AskMe is that the way we express ourselves can be improved until it is such that we are being crystal clear in what we are asking. That way we get far more useful and detailed advice. While you must be hurt at the pile on, do you see why some people reacted the way they did?

Judeo-Christianity influenced European (and by extension European colonies) in a very profound way. These day we don't teach that much about the underpinning social concepts as religion is felt to be for the religious. I really regret raising my children as athetists without considering how many concepts I take for granted they would have difficulty with without a basic grounding in these religions so a copuple of years ago I started reading with them and discussing the Bible & the Qua'ran as cultural phenomenon.

So you have two fruitful avenues outlined by posters here: socio-political and even biological to kick off your thinking. Good luck
posted by Wilder at 5:30 AM on August 26, 2010

oh, and it would be next to impossible to track it back to the neolithic except in the most tenuous way, for example, the earliest recorded instance of a map is meant to show good hunting grounds. Now that could be basic survival for a clan, or that could be altruistic from the best hunters in a group sharing information with others.

I would be interested to hear where people set the first recorded instances of altruism, it will probably relate to propaganda from some potentate or Pharoe showing how awesome they are....
posted by Wilder at 5:34 AM on August 26, 2010

This is a silly conversation —

What the OP mentioned are acts of kindness or charity. Very likely the people the OP cites did what they did because they honestly wanted to or because it was expected of them. When trying to evaluate the behavior of people in history, always assume that they were just like people today.

— because it's set up to devolve into an "ideology or benevolence?" binary. Really there are tons of crass political reasons a pre-modern ruler might want to set up charitable institutions: to curry favor with one faction ("looks like we need the Church on our side if we're going to go to war with France"); to show up a competing noble ("you think you can do better than me, Count Edward?" or "see, I am better than the last king! never mind I just lost my navy"); to stave off revolt ("well, looks like I didn't get to the throne by entirely legitimate means - better make the people like me"); to demonstrate the power of the state ("we have schools for the poor, all the Spaniards have are equestrian statues and torture chambers"), etc. etc. If my copy of The Prince weren't in a box I think I could pick out relevant passages.

Cultural factors are also very important as Kid Charlemagne mentions.
posted by furiousthought at 8:49 AM on August 26, 2010

Read an article a while back identifying examples of altruism among other species from an evolutionary biology perspective. There seemed to be some contemporaneous attempts to prove that the same or similar instructs exist among humans.

I recall (sorry for the hazy details) the most interesting example being a type of lizard that had essentially three gender roles. Female, breeding male, and decoy male. The decoy male demonstrated a selfless dedication to assisting the breeding male in mating.

And the experiments in humans tended to be along the lines of instinctual reactions among infants - automatically picking up someone else's dropped cup without prompting and without personal interest. (Seems tenative to me, but I'm no human behaviorist.)
posted by greekphilosophy at 11:50 AM on August 26, 2010

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