Our recently published book Can Socialism Make Sense? takes on the arguments against socialism. In this abridged excerpt a critic of socialism (B) is answered by a socialist (A) on the question of human nature.
B: You can’t change human nature. Humanity remains an animal. Human nature — competition, individualism, selfishness, predatoriness — produces, protects, and preserves capitalism.
A. If that were true, then why did we not have capitalism all back through history? We have had slave societies, feudal societies, “oriental-despotic” societies (ancient India and China, Inca Peru). The idea that capitalism is eternal is simply ignorant, or, for some, wish-thinking.
B. Don’t be a smart-arse. You know what I mean: human beings are animals which prey on other animals. It’s our deepest nature.
A. Society remoulds our animal natures and impulses to an enormous extent. You may be broke or hungry and have an impulse to rob someone or break a shop window to get what you want, but the great bulk of civilised humanity will not act on such impulses.
B. What about the riots four or five years back, when people looted electronic goods stores?
A. The rarity of things like that reinforces my point.
B. They are rare because of the fear that state reprisals instill in people. Fear rules, not social feeling or innate altruism.
A. It is not just fear, though in some people that may be the main inhibiting factor. Mostly it is the sense of right and wrong, the awareness that society could not run if many people behaved that way. A desire to keep faith with others in society.
B. And your point?
A. Human beings are self-aware, self-controlling, self-shaping, self-reshaping, as a rule. Natural animalist impulses are, for most people, most of time, educated into submission to the higher order we in society have made for ourselves and of ourselves. We can aspire to a society governed by something higher than the dog-eat-dog morality which capitalism teaches and which you accept and promulgate. There is nothing in that aspiration which requires us to idealise human nature. Marx once said of himself that he identified with what an ancient Greco-Roman, Terence, said: Nothing human is alien to me.
B. Not everything he said or quoted is rubbish, then!
A. You could adapt that idea to: “Nothing animal is alien to humankind”. At the start we are animals, and then animals who have developed themselves and gained consciousness of themselves — human beings. And not to slander our cousins, the animals, the fact is that much animal behaviour is altruistic. It is only human beings that prey systematically on their own kind. To cite only one of many examples which the old anarchist Kropotkin collected in a whole book on the subject: “I was struck with the extent of mutual assistance which [crabs] are capable of bestowing upon a comrade in case of need. One of them had fallen upon its back in a corner of the tank, and its heavy saucepan-like carapace prevented it from returning to its natural position. Its comrades came to the rescue, and for [hours] they endeavoured to help”.
B. Socialist solidarity for crabs! Now you are turning into a disciple of dear old St Francis, who preached to his brothers, the birds and the seals!
A. He probably got more sense out of them than I’m getting out of you! The process of evolution from ape to human, from hunter-gatherer to our present tremendous ability to manipulate and in some respects control inanimate nature, is a long process of self-construction and self-reconstruction, in which we have made and then again re-made ourselves. That is basic: humankind makes and remakes itself. Nurture refracts nature, shapes and determines its social manifestations. It does that now. It can do it differently.
B. The aspiration to the socialist world you want — as distinct from Stalinism: for the sake of argument, I’ll concede that for the moment — a world governed by fellow-feeling and human solidarity...
A. What William Morris used to call “fellowship”...
B. ... is hopeless. That aspiration, too, in you is old Christianity disguised: “All things bright and beautiful... The Lord God made them all”. No, he didn’t! There is darkness, as well as light, and rather more of it. Learn from history! Accept the reality! Go with the grain! Not only the Stalinists, but the Nazis too, were what they were because they tried to reshape society according to an impossible, crazy ideal. Leave well enough alone!
A. Some wise old ape probably grunted that idea at another one who swung down from the trees and tried to walk upright. Your ancestor, the mate of the woman who invented agriculture, probably beat her for wasting good eating-seed by putting it in little holes she made in the ground.
B. And the ape just down from the trees probably replied: We apes can do anything. As soon as I learn to walk, I’ll climb to the top of the tree, flap my wings, and fly like the eagle. So, I haven’t got wings? I’ll grow a pair after I have learned to walk!
A. And yet the far distant descendants of that ape did learn to fly! Not by growing wings, it is true, but we fly nonetheless. As Trotsky put it: “The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labour, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand — as it does not now in any well-off family or ‘decent’ boarding-house — any control except that of education, habit and social opinion. Speaking frankly, I think it would be pretty dull-witted to consider such a really modest perspective ‘utopian’.”
B. Said the man who slaughtered his enemies in the Russian civil war!
A. Enemies who slaughtered his comrades and who amidst other horrors organised the worst anti-Jewish pogroms known to history before Hitler’s Holocaust. All your arguments that socialism is “against human nature” are proven false by history. It is true that basic human drives — hunger for survival, food, sex, putting self and family first — are instinctive and can’t disappear. But Trotsky was right. People can be educated, and are educated and re-educated all the time. It is plain fact that prevailing conceptions of what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, have changed as society has changed. From age to age, the way that basic instinctual drives are harnessed, refracted, redirected, expressed in relations with other human beings, has changed.
Take chattel slavery. In the ancient world, and long after, nobody, not philosophers, nor the early Christians, saw moral wrong in slavery, or in setting gladiators to fight and kill each other to provide spectators with sport. It’s a myth that the Christians once in power stopped the gladiator-killing shows.
There is some hidden chattel slavery in Britain now, and a lot of it in the wider world, but society frowns on it and punishes those who inflict it on other people. Once we thought it right that kings should have absolute power of life and death and social regulation. Not long ago in historical time it was thought right, and found to be morally acceptable, that children, even very small children, should go to work in dangerous factories or be made to crawl up sooty chimneys. When Parliament first regulated child labour, it cut the hours, but it was suggested that, instead, the morally upright Victorian capitalists should work double shifts of children on the shorter hours.
B. All those things have been rectified.
A. That’s the point. They were once thought moral and necessary and good. The aspects of capitalism you defend and think normal will in future society be condemned as we condemn the now notorious old abuses.
B. Dream on! In fact, you prove only that the reform of abuses happens when enough people think it necessary.
A. I’m showing that moralities change. Pioneers began the work of changing the previous validation of existing social horrors. A large part of European and American society used to think it right to discriminate against Jews and persecute them; some, that it was a moral duty to persecute or murder them. For centuries, it was all right to enslave black people to forced labour. For a long time, it was all right in the USA to work them to death. Not so long ago a woman’s citizenship was subsumed into that of her husband. Legally, children had only one parent, the father; a woman’s property became her husband’s. What kind of “crank”, what degree of crankiness, would it take now to advocate any of those things that were once prevalent? Or defend them?
B. Moralities change. Human nature doesn’t.
A. Morality “regulates” the expression of “human nature”. People in the future will look at our capitalist society, in which, in order to work, people have to hire out to private individuals and companies and do their profit-hungry will for so many hours a week, as we now view slavery. They will see the private ownership of newspapers and TV stations as we now see a world in which prelates laid down the law on what people could think and vote, as absurd and radically incompatible with proper democracy. A lot less than half a century ago, it was considered right, moral, and necessary in Britain that school children should be beaten, frequently, regularly, by their teachers, and, at whim, by their parents and other “guardians”. That isn’t considered “right” any more, either, though a lot of bullying by parents still goes on. “Human nature” is channelled to new expressions as society evolves.
B. Not necessarily for the better. In any case, you exaggerate. Human nature is not as easy to modify and control as you wish-think it is.
A. The history of social behaviour and social morality, of shifting ideas of right and wrong, proves what I say to be true. What would be the opposite of wish-thinking — wish-armoured refusal-to-think? That’s what you are doing here.
B. Again, you juggle irresponsibly with words — mere words! — and ideals. Reality is much harsher and more intractable than you think. Stubborn human individualism is the unsurpassable barrier to socialism.
A. Then let me tell you the strongest reason why the idea that capitalism corresponds to human nature is nonsense. In the oldest human societies we know about, long before capitalism, the sense of belonging to the collective is stronger than the sense of individual self. It was like that for god-knows how many hundreds of human generations. Individualism is itself a product of social and human development.
B. So now your socialist ideal takes as its model primitive groups of hunter-gatherers wandering in the primeval forests. We will go from primitive communism to… primitive communism!
A. This time, not primitive. This time, in a society which can exercise a tremendous degree of control over natural and social environments. In terms of the argument about human nature and capitalism and socialism, don’t the facts about the earliest human societies say something to you?
B. Yes, thank god for rugged individualism!
A. Moving on from primitive collectivism and to the development of individualism was progress. But our instinctual “human nature” was not different in “primitive communism” from what it is now.
B. So it’s back to the old Stone Age! That’s your socialism for the 21st century?
A. Forward to a world in which the sense of human interconnectedness and interdependence is revived on an immensely higher level of human ability to produce and reproduce the material means of life.
B. And individualism? You concede that was progressive in its time.
A. Individualism and a strong and governing sense of belonging to a great social interconnectedness are not in contradiction: they are complementary.
B. You are feeding me gobbledegook “dialectics” again!
A. You know what the great paradox here is? Individuation that produces individualism, the development of diverse minds and personalities, is very limited under capitalism: that is one of the things socialists criticise in capitalist society. It is one of the great possibilities opened up by capitalism before humankind that capitalism does not deliver for most of its citizens.
Under wage-slavery, most people are compelled to spend most of their energy being “cogs in the machine” of production-for-profit. At best they can hope to develop their individualism in a very limited way outside work hours. In a world of material well-being, of democratic collectivism, individualism would flower in a way it can never flower under capitalism.