I need to find fundamental differences which separates socialism from altruism. I know that it is easy to confuse socialism with altruism, because socialism demands absolute equality and elimination of class. Basic search shows:

A moral philosophy that emphasizes selflessness and concern for the welfare of others. Encourages individuals to act in ways that benefit others, even if it comes at a personal cost. Can be practiced in any economic or political system, including capitalism, socialism, or communism. Does not necessarily involve government intervention or regulation.
An economic and political system that advocates for collective ownership and control of the means of production and distribution of goods and services. Seeks to eliminate social classes and create a classless society. Emphasizes the importance of social welfare, equality, and cooperation. Government plays a significant role in regulating the economy and providing social services.

Being an economic model where the govt takes full control of all individual property, it takes away the freedom and identity of individuality of citizens, thus essentially excludes altruism which requires organic individual charity. Even though citizens democratically choose a communist model, and willingly disowns property to the state which acts as God, it still cannot be called true altruism, since people have no freedom to opt out of this system, and the giving away of wealth is rather taxation, not charity. Can you explain further with references and details to improve this analysis?

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    Socialism is a political theory. May 21, 2023 at 9:58
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    I agree with your point, but I'm going to have to vote to close because this is pushing a personal philosophy in the form of a question. May 21, 2023 at 10:07
  • David, you may be biased to my personal philosophy or the question. I just need answers, you are free to challenge my personal philosophy. Dont be insecure of disagreements. I expect better analysis from others about the diff between socialism vs altruism.
    – Michael16
    May 21, 2023 at 10:10
  • The problem is not your personal philosophy but the fact that your definition of socialism is wrong (at least, it's not how socialists define socialism). What is strange is the definition you quote is correct. Which one are you going with?
    – armand
    May 21, 2023 at 10:53
  • I posted my understanding of it, you should post an answer about your definition and correct, inform me. I am assuming socialism is utilitarianism, consequentialism, ends justifies means, totalitarianism; whereas altruism is virtue based on deontology (truth based ethics). Socialism denies individualism and treats all as same equal imposes uniformity.
    – Michael16
    May 21, 2023 at 11:00

4 Answers 4


First point: The description of socialism given here is a remnant of McCarthy era anti-communist propaganda, with no real relation to governmental practice or political theory. Socialism never tries to create 'absolute equality' in some bizarrely draconian fashion. Socialism is a Liberal philosophy that (in the seemingly never-achieved ideal) tries to create juridical equality and social equity. Marxist theory never says that people cannot become wealthy and successful if they have the talent and skill for it. It only says that no person should be reduced to the level of an animal, obliged to do body and soul crushing labor for mere subsistence while others profit greatly from that obliged labor. Socialist institutions don't take away all property and distribute it equally, like some demented Santa Claus. Socialist institutions — ostensibly, anyway — take productive property and administer it to ensure that laborers aren't exploited.

That's the ideal, anyway. Let's not get tangled in discussions of how poorly 'real' socialist governments have managed it...

Second point: This definition of altruism lacks nuance. Altruism (philosophical or otherwise) doesn't advocate masochistic self-abnegation. Altruism merely suggests that the welfare of others is a significant concern that outweighs certain selfish interests. Yes, it would be altruistic if I gave away my last shirt to someone else because they needed it more than I did, but it would also be altruistic if people like Musk or Zuckerberg gave a few hundred millions of their billions back to the employees that helped them make those billions. Socialism is altruistic in the second sense, where the state intervenes as an altruistic agent, but capitalism can be altruistic as well. There's absolutely nothing stopping Elon or Mark from doing exactly that if they chose to, and there are Free Market and Libertarian thinkers who assert that that kind of good-heartedness should be a dominant feature of Capitalist society.

Altruism is an ideal that capitalists ought to aspire to, by their own reckoning. Socialists believe that capitalist pretension is bunk — that capitalists are all amoral selfish maximizers by definition, at least with anyone outside their class — and so they want to put people with an altruistic moral compass (i.e., a government of the people) in charge of the system.

  • I am not a scholar of Marx or socialism, but I have thought a great deal about the problems of optimizing liberty in a free society since studying Anglo-American law as an effort or social means to promote individual freedom and responsibility. I have read authors who state that Marx thought State Socialism would be a stepping-stone from capitalism to Stateless Socialism. I think political philosophers have abstracted away from the characteristics of human beings as emotional lower apes with a mind full of signs, symbols, and meaning. Lower apes strive for social power and status as do humans. May 21, 2023 at 22:15
  • @SystemTheory From what I know Marx said that the "rule (he called it dictatorship but used that more in the sense of government) of the proletariat" would be an intermediary state (in the sense of status not institution) towards socialism/communism. He rarely used that concept though and never actually defined it further. It's rather Lenin who argued that state capitalism under a communist party constitutes that intermediary state and that it shall be called "socialism". Though also not a scholar of Marx.
    – haxor789
    May 21, 2023 at 23:17
  • @SystemTheory: Marx actually said socialism would come immediately after the overthrow of the capitalist system, with the new socialist state seizing control of the means of production in the name of the people. But such socialist states would inevitably become dictatorial, with the state administration setting itself up as a new 'socialist' class which would in turn exploit laborers. This would lead to a series of further revolutions in which an exploitive socialist class would be overturned and replaced by a new (better) version, until ultimately the notion of 'class' itself is erased. May 22, 2023 at 0:13
  • @SystemTheory: The first part seems true to what actually occurred in the USSR and China. Marx didn't anticipate that a socialist system would collapse back into the kind of crony capitalist regime we see under Putin, but I don't think it would have surprised him. As to the rest... May 22, 2023 at 0:16

State Capitalism or Socialist Commonwealth? - Peter Petroff June 1934

This is the best article on socialism and political philosophy I have ever read:


Marx, Engels, and generally the elder generation of socialists, visualised Socialism as the highest stage of human society, economically, socially, morally and intellectually.

All the accumulated treasures in machines and technical appliances created by the genius of man, all that science and art had given to the human race in generations is to be utilised, not for the few, but for the benefit of mankind as a whole.

Based on the common ownership of the means of production and distribution, a new and higher economic system is to be built up, raising production to a higher economic level, and ending all social oppression by dissolving the hostile classes into a community of free and equal producers striving not for sectional interests, but for the common good.

This vision of socialism incorporates commonwealth ownership of capital, ideal liberty, and ideal altruism for other humans in general. While socialism and altruism are two distinct ideas I am of the opinion that the Marxist vision of socialism incorporates an ideal altruism. I am not of the opinion that humans can implement commonwealth ownership of capital, ideal liberty, or ideal altruism, but without some mix of these ideals, perhaps without excluding private property and markets entirely, humanity might be doomed to perpetually repeat our patterns that perpetuate adverse social outcomes.

  • +1. I think in the above quote, if we distinguish between the actual political points and the PR talking points (what we want to achieve VS. what we could achieve with it), the disctinction between socialism and altruism can be seen. One can imagine a society where the means of production are socially owned, but non workers (old, disabled people, etc) don't get any benefits and are let to die (non altruist socialism). But since every worker is bound to get old or can one day be disabled, it is in everyone's interest to dedicate part of the production surplus to sustain non workers.
    – armand
    May 22, 2023 at 2:53
  • Taxation is coercion and compulsory, not altruism. Socialism removes individual identity, unique abilities, talents, freedom, and gives all property to the state/king/oligopoly which acts as god who'se above law. Idea Utopian society of commonwealth have existed since ancient times, but socialism is unique and recent which is based on utilitarian rather than deontology (value/virtue/truth) ethics. This is denial of reality of how economy n morality works. It results in genocide and poverty for all as it fails to generate growth. Minor welfare/taxation isn't socialism.
    – Michael16
    May 22, 2023 at 8:43
  • taxation and slavery cannot be confused with voluntary charity and freedom; both are opposite to each other. Socialistic utilitarianism rejects moral realism; under consequentialism which assumes net pleasure to be the goal of system becomes amoral. It inevitably results in mass starvation genocide n depopulation, as it has no objective moral values in truth. Charity of altruism is founded in individual organic love, where morality is based on truth (deontology). Socialism is materialistic based on coveting others wealth.
    – Michael16
    May 22, 2023 at 8:52
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    The "state socialism" of the USSR etc. was certainly a tyranny, though I gather that some people in those parts of the world are beginning to get nostalgic about it. So is the state capitalism regime in China, though many people in China seem to accept it. North Korea is beyond words. I don't accept that any of those regimes are socialist in anything but words. There are other regimes that call themselves democratic, but are not, and most democratic regimes are less than perfectly democratic. That doesn't mean that democracy is wrong. Capitalism has its excesses as well.
    – Ludwig V
    May 22, 2023 at 12:48
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    @Michael16 Anarcho-capitalists want to privatize government functions, make citizens pay for services from competing private companies, and these payments would be an alternative to paying taxes for public goods organized via coercive government. When private firms exert police force in proximity to rival police forces it is the pattern of feudal lords each with a rival police force getting into conflicts over greed and power. The rule of law and other social constraints would have to regulate coercion otherwise it is just feudalism all over again. Taxes pay for public goods to curb inflation. May 22, 2023 at 22:22


Behavior is normally described as altruistic when it is motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself for that person’s sake. The term is used as the contrary of “self-interested” or “selfish” or “egoistic”—words applied to behavior that is motivated solely by the desire to benefit oneself

Socialism is a lot more complicated.

Humans are social animals that forms collectives and that's a rather successful idea, it's increases production by synergy effects way beyond the sum of it's parts. However as soon as you form groups you're prompted with questions of organization, production, distribution, morality, ethics and questions of who or how that is decided.

So these groups could be egalitarian, hierarchical, loose or tightly connected, top-down, bottom-up, a contract, an legal-entity and so on...

Now Europe ended up with some sort of caste system with ruling class (aristocracy) that based it's power partially on titles of ownership of land, military strength (again partially based on feudal systems of loyalty) as well as a narrative of the church of a "god given hierarchy". The second class was that respective church that was somewhere between providing that narrative and being rulers themselves and the peasantry who produced things and served as soldiers.

So a system were people had their place and purpose. Then came the enlightenment and somewhat ripped the veil from this narrative. There were ideological and political struggles that put more emphasize on the individual in those systems. So people were encouraged to think for themselves, the role of a person was elevated from a part in the body/machine of society to that of an individual that was supposed to have a life of it's own.

The power of kings were limited by constitutions, the caste system was eroded and demands of political participation came up. Freedom and equality of people was demanded. A rule of law that applies to everyone equally rather than being dependent on the good will of a ruler. Social contracts and so on.

However liberalism apparently adopted sometimes a rather extreme position of individualism, which encouraged considering the individual as an isolated entity. And early modern socialism apparently originated as a counter to that one, stressing the importance of societies. Rather than the self-sufficient individual their ideal was a free association of equals. Which ranged from contract theorists to utopian socialists and moved more towards the latter group.

And from there it gets complicated because hundreds of people added their two cents on how such a utopian society could look like, how it should be achieved, how it should operate, what should be prioritized by it or in order to achieve it and so on. At first it was also used synonymous with communism or in place of each other, or socialism for collective production and communism for both production and consumption.

That being said, with the industrial revolution it became apparent that the equality that was achieved with the liberal revolutions, was largely a legal and political, but that economic disparity was the new caste system both socially and politically as democracy was still largely a game for the wealthy. With the major culprit of that inequality being identified in the production of goods and more precisely that that the ownership of the means of production marked the demarcation line between the new classes. So the socialist demand was largely to democratize the economy and to collectively own and work the means of production. Again various ideas of how that should work, from worker owned companies, to state owned industry, strong unions aso.

On top of that you had various workers rights movements some socialist, some just concerned with the improvement of the conditions of the working class. Marx apparently ranted against the utopians and tried to characterize the capitalist mode of production and argued that history is a series of class struggles and that argued for a proletarian revolution. He rebranded the term communism to refer to his particular movement and split with the anarchists who also were in favor of such an ideal, but not in favor of seizing power to establish it, but rather would go straight to a society of equals without a period of domination of the revolutionaries.

Though Marx was largely theoretical and didn't saw any of that in application, the closest being the Paris Commune which was gunned down within months. So the first larger applications happened at the end of WWII when the war let to desperation and the lack to fight back opposition which resulted in several revolutions, the most lasting being the one in Russia. There in 1903 Lenin had tried to build revolutionary vanguard party, failed to be effective with it and got exiled. First revolution happened in 1905, introduced a parliament and was rolled back by the czar. Then another revolution in February of 1917 and got rid of the czar and then Lenin was allowed to return and with his party seized power in November of 1917, held elections soon after, lost and took power anyway.

He in this practical application made some significant changes to the entire concept. Redefining socialism to "intermediate state of rulership by a communist party with the goal of preparing for communism" or something like that. And developing economic and political ideas and exporting them to various countries who largely adapted them with local fixes. Meaning when "socialism" is used there's a good chance it refers to one of those systems, despite the fact that this "real existing socialism", is often quite far off from the ideal of a society of equals, organizing their economic production democratically.

So socialism could refer to a utopian goal, to concrete movements, to ideologies, to a transitional state and so on... So it's complicated.

Now how is that different from altruism? Well for a start altruism seems to be an individual thing, while socialism is concerned with a society. They both somewhat acknowledge the existence and importance of other people but for altruism that's a goal in itself for socialism it can be but it also can be mutually beneficial.

That being said it's debatable whether an extremely pure version of altruism is even feasible as there is always some positive side effect in helping others and if it's just the feeling of moral righteousness. So the question is somewhat whether it applies to just the act or the purity of the motivation for the act. Depending on that it could apply to some versions of socialism but doesn't have to.

Like afaik there are literally version of socialism based on a union of egoists, so if everyone acts egoistically and concerned with their own self-interest they keep each others interests in check while mutually benefiting from each other, not sure this works stable like that, but it would be a non-altruistic edge case.

A more interesting question might have been what's the difference between "social" and "altruistic".


There are many definitions of both these terms. I'm not aware of any that has acquired a consensus. They are both contested (and often misrepresented) terms.

I don't disagree with either of the definitions that you cite. But the definition of socialism is not complete.

It is true that altruism "encourages individuals to act in ways that benefit others, even if it comes at a personal cost."

It should be added (because someone is sure to point this out before long) that altruists benefit themselves because they get satisfaction from acting this way. The altruism is not in their getting no benefit of any kind, but in the fact that they get satisfaction from acting in this way. It is also true that altruistic acts often stem from mixed motives, some of which may not be, in themselves, altruistic.

It's worth adding that the opposite of altruism is selfishness, which disregards the benefit or cost of an action to others. But it needs to be said that this opposition is not exclusive - a balance between the two is usually best.

Socialism derives from the belief that everyone benefits from collective organization, so it is not altruistic.

The opposite of socialism is more complicated. Capitalism is often cited as the opposite of socialism, but it is just a different way of organizing collective action, and not the only alternative to socialism - and some forms of capitalism seek to benefit everyone. Individualism, which is often mistakenly aligned with capitalism, is often regarded as the opposite of socialism.

But it is more complicated than that. One needs to distinguish socialism in which everyone benefits from the collective from other forms of social organizations that promote the benefit of the organization above the benefit to its members, or promote the benefit to certain members of the organization above the benefit to the rest; the last two are not, of course, socialist. (I'm sure I don't need to give you examples.)

That's a long way of saying that socialism and individualism are not exclusive opposites.

As to further reading, I'm not an expert in this field. My first recourse would be the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Internet Encylcopedia of Philosophy. You'll find plenty of further references in either.


You say "socialism demands absolute equality and elimination of class"

Some socialists may demand those things, and some non-socialists may like to think they do. But they are both a nonsense. Since people are hugely different, absolute equality is not achievable, not even by cloning. A practical socialism would expect people to contribute what they can and provide everyone with what they needed. Equality before the law would be required, of course; and so it should be.

Given the different roles that are needed in a collective and the different desires that people have, it is futile to seek to abolish class. What could, and should, be abolished, is class privileges.

  • You have just equated altruistic utopian society with socialism by calling it "practical socialism". Socialism doesnt work on voluntary charity mutual love, but slavery and giving up of personal identity; the model is indeed nonsense and have proven to be complete failure and impossible since it cannot generate wealth. US democrats may have obscured the objective definition of socialism by saying a limited and democratic socialism can exist. We should avoid their misleading tactics, as we can allow limited public sector industries, but thats not true original socialism
    – Michael16
    May 22, 2023 at 12:47
  • @michael16. Are you suggesting that capitalism works on voluntary mutual charity and love? Are you suggesting that capitalist growth benefits everyone? There's a lot of evidence that it concentrates the benefits on some people and leaves others behind.
    – Ludwig V
    May 22, 2023 at 12:53
  • No, but it is the natural free market which generates wealth. Freedom allows charity and altruism bec they have something to give to the poor; in socialism all are slaves and poor doomed to eat each other. There's a reason Christian nations are capitalists (most successful) but the amoral-consequentialist atheist states are communists. China North Korea Russia India dont understand charity, love, human rights.
    – Michael16
    May 22, 2023 at 12:57
  • The free market is not "natural". It is a created by a society that has things like the law of contract and laws about property, not mention money. What's more, participants are incentivized to use their freedom to distort it. If it is not fiercely regulated by a powerful authority, it ends up pretty soon as a monopoly because someone always wins the competition. In any case, the pursuit of growth is hitting its limits, and we'll all have to concentrate on how what wealth we can create is distributed.
    – Ludwig V
    May 22, 2023 at 13:10
  • Only the hyper capitalist USA is monopolistic where some industries like pharma and tech owns the govt. Capitalism has been natural in the sense business or means of production has been in hands of people throughout history. Where the King was too controlling and suppressing then people created Bill of rights- Magna Carta in 13th century. They held the king was not above God or law. The socialist system is based on atheism which makes the govt god and arbitrator of law and morality. Govt or King should exist but not socialism/communism. Christianity/spirituality cultivates charity altruism.
    – Michael16
    May 22, 2023 at 13:20

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