KOREA COLUMN 29
What about human nature?
In my experience the two most common objections to Marxism are 1) that it fails to take account of human nature, 2) that it reduces everything to economics.
Actually the two objections contradict each other – the ‘human nature’ argument suggests that socialism won’t work because people are basically greedy and self interested; the overestimating the economic factor argument claims that Marxism fails to take enough account of the role of ideas and ideals in history. The contradiction is not usually noticed because the two arguments are deployed in different spheres. The first is mostly encountered in the sphere of everyday political debate and discussion. The second is most common at the level of theoretical critique in the academic world. For this reason I shall devote a separate column to each.
We should begin by recognising the plausibility of the human nature argument. It is plausible partly because it has such a long pedigree. It embodies an idea that has been central to bourgeois ideology for centuries and to ruling class ideology for millennia. The Christian religion, for example, taught that people were all born ‘wicked’ and this justified both the power of the church to bring them salvation in the afterlife and the power of the state to keep them in order in this life. It is also plausible because it seems to fit with historical experience, with the simple fact that all past attempts to achieve a society of freedom and equality have failed. Finally it is plausible because it seems to explain a lot of our personal experience – all those occasions when we have been treated badly by workmates or let down by friends or people around us just seem to be apathetic.
All this plausibility, however, does not make the argument sound and it is precisely in the last area, the area of our personal experience, that we find the most obvious evidence of its falsity. Yes, it is true that everyday life presents plenty of examples of selfishness, callousness, lack of sympathy and so on, but it is also the case that it offers many examples of the opposite, of kindness, self sacrifice and solidarity – of people who help strangers in difficulties, who risk their lives to save those in danger, who devote their lives to what they see as good causes. IF it really were human nature to be selfish, if we were actually programmed to be that way, such altruistic behaviour would either be non-existent or at best extremely rare, but it is not. What experience actually shows is that human nature permits both selfish and unselfish behaviour, both apathy and commitment,
cowardice and bravery and that which predominates depends on both circumstances and conditioning.
Here we have to remember that the human behaviour we experience is behaviour under capitalism and that capitalism massively conditions people towards selfishness. Of course the system preaches morality and altruism to children but look at how schools are actually organised: the children required to compete to come top of the class (or be punished for not trying), to pass exams, to gain entry to ‘good’ schools and top universities, to get the best jobs, and with any deviation from this self interested agenda subject to severe condemnation.
Nor is it just a question of early socialisation and childhood conditioning. As adults the system virtually forces selfishness on people if they are to survive or be treated with any social respect. Capitalists obviously have to be greedy, in the sense of pursuing maximum profits, unless they are prepared to renounce being capitalists. The managers who work for them have to adhere to the profit/ greed agenda or be sacked. Only the workers are pushed towards, and have an interest in, solidarity (which is what makes workers the socialist class) and such solidarity is not only seriously stigmatised (‘militants’, ‘troublemakers’ etc) but also frequently illegal. The wonder, under capitalism, is not how little but how much self-sacrifice and social responsibility we encounter.
Much the same applies, in a different way, to broader social and historical experience. If we explain the failures of the French, Russian, Chinese and other revolutions – the return of tyranny in Napoleonic or Stalinist form – by human nature, either the greed or ambition of bad leaders or the apathy and inertia of the masses, how do we explain the revolutions in the first place? Of course, in a sense, everything that has happened in human history must be compatible with human nature or it wouldn’t have happened, but in explaining everything in this way we explain nothing.
This raises the question, very seldom asked by most of those who invoke the human nature argument, of just what is meant by ‘human nature’ or what it consists of. I shall take it that by ‘human nature’ is meant a combination of the characteristics which all, or almost all, humans have in common and the characteristics which distinguish humans as a species from other species.
A complete list of such universal characteristics (especially in the biological sense) is obviously immensely long but those that are relevant to the issue of socialism are fairly few and pretty simple. Above all they consist of a number of basic needs which all humans share and which have to be met for humans to survive: the need for air, water, food, clothing, shelter, for social interaction with other humans, for sex. Equally the key distinguishing characteristics of humans relate to the means by which these needs are met, namely collective social labour, followed by language and expanded social consciousness.
Do any of these common or distinguishing characteristics that make up human nature constitute an obstacle to an equal society or to socialism? Both history (real history not bourgeois myth) and reason give a resounding no to this question. History, because for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the development of agriculture, i.e. the vast bulk of human existence, when ‘human nature’ was being forged and consolidated, people lived as hunters and gatherers in deeply egalitarian communities, with no division into rich and poor or leaders and led and with distribution of goods based on the principle of sharing.
Reason, because a glance at the state of the world today shows that capitalism, despite an abundance of resources, is extremely poor at meeting these basic human needs for most of humanity at the best of times and its worst (through war, climate change etc) threatens
even the limited provision that exists. Socialism, by contrast, would make its whole point of departure and raison d’etre the planning of production to meet the basic physical and social needs of human nature
Far from human nature being incompatible with socialism, socialism is just what human nature needs.
27 August 2007