This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The antisocialist argum:nt Human nature does change
This pamphlet first published in 1993 by Bookmarks Chicago). This edition published in 2003 by the International Organization. at 773-583-5069 Socialist (London and
What is human nature? Capitalism and human nature Socialism and human nature
Reach us at PO. Box 16085. Chicago lL 60616, or' on the Web at www.internalionalsocialisl.org.
Cover design by Paul D'Arnato, Cover image: G. Stenberg. Consu'ucUon No.2, 1920.
Distributed in the U.S. by Haymarket information Phone: 773-583-7884
Books. For ordering
and discounts on bulk orders:
Mail PO Box 180165, Chicago lL 60618. Email: ordersevhaymarketbooks.org Online: www.hayrnarketbooks.org
The antisocialist argument
"SOCIALISM IS a good idea but it won't work. You can't change human nature!" This is the most common and influential of all the objections made to socialism. It is the first argument that comes up on the factory floor, in the cafeteria or in a bar or coffee shop. It is the argument that many politicians and intellectuals fall back on. It is also an argument accepted by many people who would sincerely like to see a better society but can't quite believe it is possible. It is even accepted by some who consider l'hemselves socialists. The effect is that they water down socialism to mean just tinkering with the present system rather than trying to change it fundamentally. The human nature argument can seem very useful to those who oppose socialism. It is short, sharp and to the point, a one-line answer that seems to require little further thought. It relates to many other ideas that are widely held, for example: "there always have to be some people on top," "people are basically selfish," "some people always -want to have more than others," "revolutions always go wrong and kad to tyranny." The argument feeds on the old Christian idea that we are all born in original sin, handed down through the generations from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The notion that there is some basic flaw in human nature, which makes genuine equality and cooperation between people impossible, seems to provide a ready explanation for so many of the evils in the world-like racism and sexism. Specific political issues like the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinist dictatorship and the apparent failure of socialism in Eastern Europe and China are also put down to human nature. These ideas seem to connect with virtually everyone's personal experience. After all, who hasn't seen people ruthlessly competing for promotions or been let down by a friend or frustrated by people's apathy and selfishness? These experiences have helped raise the human nature argument to "common sense." Nevertheless, we shall see why is it completely false.
Human nature does change
WHY DO people claim human nature will always make socialism impossible? They say there are a set of characteristics, behavioral patterns and basic attitudes that are common to all or virtually all human beings and these are incompatible with the achievement of a classless society based on common ownership and control. In particular, it is argued that most people are inherently greedy and ambitious, so they want more than their fair share of material goods and to dominate others. But any examination of how people behave even in our society shows this to be wrong. Of course there are plenty of examples of greed and ambition-look at Donald Trump or the kind of politician who wins a presidential election. However, there are many more examples of self-sacrifice, courage and caring. People risk their lives to save others in disasters; Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for the cause he believed in; students and workers stood their ground in Tianannmen Square in China in 1989 as tanks bore down on them. There are also everyday examples: parents who devote their lives to caring for handicapped children; workers who choose to do abysmally paid, caring jobs rather than earn a higher wage in an office or a factory; the generosity of many people in their response to charities and appeals. When it comes to issues such as the homeless, social security benefits for the elderly and helping the poor, public opinion is mainly generous and caring. Even now, when the U.S. is supposedly swept up by the Bush administration's creed of selfishness, huge majorities consistently support collectivist values such as funding for programs that help the poor. Even when governments are planning the most vicious and predatory imperialist wars, they know that to get public support they have to "sell" them by claiming some decent motive. The British justified their involvement in the First World War by claiming they were saving poor little Belgium. Similarly, saving poor Kuwait was used as the excuse for George Bush's war for oil in the Gulf. These examples are not supposed to prove that human nature is naturally unselfish. But they do show that it is ludicrous to claim that people 4 are innately greedy. This is especially the case when it is remembered that
this is how people behave in capitalist society, which at every turn encourages greed, competition and a general dog-eat-dog attitude. In fact, rather than being innately good or innately bad, a person is, by turns, greedy and generous, cowardly and brave, pushy and restrained. There are individuals who will sacrifice anything for their family but will not lift a finger for their neighbors. There are others who will give handsomely to charity but hold back from their children. Some people are capable of boundless sympathy for animals but have very little regard for humans, while others are the reverse. It all depends on circumstances. It depends on whether people feel vulnerable and threatened or strong and confident. It depends on how the matter at hand relates to the attitudes they have been brought up with and have formed during their lives. In short, people change as their conditions of life and their experience change. If this is true of individuals, history shows it is even more true of societies and social classes. Take the example of the Russian Revolution, the outcome of which is meant to·show the unchangeability of human nature. In fact, it demonstrates the opposite. For centuries the Russian people suffered and were oppressed under the rule of the Tsars. It was the land of deepest ignorance and superstition, of the most backward attitudes to women and the most rabid anti-Semitism. To the superficial observer, it seemed as if there was something deep in the nature of the Russian people that led them to put up with this (unlike the "freedom loving" American people, for example). ~ Then in 1905, and even more powerfully in 1917, these same Russiaa people rose in rebellion against Tsarism. They struck, demonstrated, rioted, fought and rose in insurrection -they made the greatest revolution in world history. This revolution attempted to turn the world upside down: it seized the factories, gave the land to the peasants, withdrew Russia from the imperialist war. It granted the national minorities the right to secede, enacted the complete legal equality of women, elected a Jew (Leon Trotsky) as the president of its leading workers' council and placed him at the head of its revolutionary armies. To our same observer, it now seemed that it was in the nature of the Russian people to burn with wild revolutionary ardor, again quite unlike the "moderate" Americans. Then, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Revolution was overthrown by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which crushed the workers and peasantscondemning millions to starvation and millions more to death in the Siberian labor camps. Now our connoisseur of the Russian character saw it all as confirmation of innate Russian yearning for tyranny. In fact the "nature" of the Russian people-their collective attitudes, psychology and patterns of behavior, which in any case differed 5
between the social classes-changed profoundly, in different material circumstances. The long rule of the Tsars, with its accompanying psychology of subservience, was based on the extreme backwardness of the Russian economy. The downfall of the Tsar and the upsurge of revolutionary enthusiasm were rooted in the way capitalism developed in Russia, with a weak capitalist class faced by a powerful working class capable of rallying the mass of peasants behind it. The collapse of the revolution into Stalinism and the apparent return of apathy, resignation and docility was the product of Isolation due to the failure of the revolution to spread and the virtual destruction of the working class in the terrible civil war of 1918 -1921. Changing circumstances produced changing "nature." What is shown in close-up by these 20 years of Russian history is shown even more clearly by world history as a whole. Patterns of behavior that are taken for granted as natural and eternal by particular societies at particular periods in time are rejected as completely unnatural by other societies at other times. To the vast majority of Americans in the eighteenth century, the enslavement of black-skinned people seemed a perfectly natural institution. It was claimed to emanate from the inherently inferior nature of Blacks. Toward the middle of the nineteenth century, however, many in the north of the U.S. came to see slavery as a violation of human nature-and this view of the nature and rights of Blacks coexisted and contended with the continuing belief in slavery in the South. To the Native American, private ownership of the land was "unnatural." To the eighteenth-century landowner, it was the most basic human right. To the Ancient Greeks, homosexuality was the highest form of love. To the Victorian English, it was the lowest. To the traditional Hindu, arranged marriage has been the norm for centuries. 'To most people in the West, it now seems "unnatural." Change the social conditions, and you change "human nature." These examples could be multiplied many times over. They all testify to the immense changeability of human attitudes, morality and behavior. They demonstrate the massive role played in shaping human life by culture-what is socially learned rather than genetically inherited. They also show the extent to which culture evolves according to changing material circumstances.
What is human nature?
PEOPLE CHANGE with changing circumstances. But does this mean there is really no such thing as human nature at all? Socialists have sometimes been tempted to claim this as a quick way of dealing with the antisocialist argument. However, there are serious problems with denying the existence of human nature altogether. In the first place, it can lead to a view of human beings as totally manipulable. It can suggest that a totalitarian regime that completely controlled the media and the upbringing of children could make of people what it wished-and thus eliminate any possibility of revolt. But there is much evidence that this is not the case. Neither in Hitler's Germany nor in Stalin's Russia-the two most intensely totalitarian regimes that have ever existed-were the rulers able to suppress all resistance or all thought. Even in the concentration camps, some people fought back. = , There is always a limit to the power of state brainwashing, and that limit is reached when, among other things, state oppression con4cts with people's natural basic needs. In the second place, to suggest that there is no such thing as human nature is to imply that there are no common characteristics that human beings share and that differentiate them from other creatures. This is clearly not the case. If it were, it would not be possible to speak of the human species or human history at all. What then can really be said about human nature? We must begin with biology. It is clear that human beings are a distinct biological species, possessing a quite specific human genetic code. This genetic code determines the basic physical structure of human beings. Ultimately, of course, even this biological nature is not fixed or eternal. But the time scale of evolution is extremely slow and of a completely different order from the time scale of historical development. Human beings today are biologically not substantially different from human beings 10,000 or even 20,000 years ago. For the purposes of the question we are concerned with-the feasibility of socialism-the physical nature of people can be regarded as constant. 7
This physical nature endows human beings with certain common needs and capacities that are the foundation of human nature. The most fundamental and indisputable of these needs are for air, food and water followed by clothing, shelter and warmth. There is a need for sleep; for some form of ongoing parenting, since human beings, unlike animal species, take several years to achieve even minimal self-sufficiency; for sex to propagate the species, and so on. The capacities include the five senses, a large brain, the ability to walk upright, a hand that allows for precise manual operations, vocal chords that permit speech and so on. It might be objected that not all people share these capacities-some are born blind, deaf or otherwise disabled-but these are specific exceptions. These needs and capacities, shared by all peoples in all societies at all times during the last 20,000 to 30,000 years, constitute the first building blocks of human nature. However, it is the particular way in which the capacities are used to meet the needs that makes humans different from all other species. Humans meet their needs through working together to systematically produce the means to subsist. Of course, animals also work-in a sense: squirrels hoard nuts, lions hunt, beavers build dams, birds construct nests, termites build dwellings, some apes have even been known to use sticks as tools and so on. Human labor, however, developed gradually into something qualitatively more advanced than this. The systematic and conscious production of tools-known as the means of production-enormously increased the productive powers of labor. Whereas animal labor remains predominantly instinctive and thus repetitive through generations, human labor is learned and developsat first slowly and then at an ever increasing pace. Animal labor leaves the environment virtually unchanged or modifies it only marginally, but human labor progressively transforms the environment. The social character of labor is also of fundamental importance. It was the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who characterized man as a "social animal," and indeed human beings have always lived in groups, never as isolated individuals. Similarly their labor has, from the earliest times, always been social and cooperative in nature. When, for example, early Stone Age peoples hunted for big game, they did so collectively as a nomadic band or group. In all probability, it was this collaborative labor that led to a further basic characteristic of human beings-the development of language. Every known human society has developed to the state where it possesses a language of considerable complexity. In turn, language is decisive in the development of human social consciousness. Culture can then be
learned and passed on from one generation to the next. At this stage, we can summarize the main features of "human nature." Humans are a distinct biological species with certain common basic needs that are met through collaborative social labor, leading to the development of language, social consciousness and culture. The most important point about this definition of human nature is that while it establishes certain major continuities, it also contains a dynamic element in the form of social labor. As human beings transform their environment, they also transform themselves and their relations with others. As they exercise their capacity to meet their needs, so their capacities increase and develop"with eating comes appetite," as Marx said. As certain basic needs are met, so those needs expand and new needs arise. The need for food as such becomes the need for food of a certain quality. The need for clothing develops from a need for skins and furs to a need for money to buy ready-made clothes in shops. As the form of production changes-so does the organization of society. As we move from hunting and gathering to agriculture and from agriculture to craft manufacture and industry, so we move from the small nomadic clan to the settled village to the town and the modern nation. In the process, human behavior and attitudes change radically. As Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto: man's ideas, views and conceptions, in one word, man's consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his' material existence, in his social relations and in his social life. .~ Far from being the case that you can't change human nature, the capacity for change and development is an essential part of human nature. It is one of the key things that distinguishes human beings from other animals. One final point: if human nature is, as we have described it, does this make it basically "good" or "bad?" The answer is neither. The basic meaning of "good" is that which serves human nature by meeting its needs and furthering its development. The basic meaning of "bad" is that which goes against human nature by failing to meet its needs and injuring its development. This is why what people consider to be good and bad differs in different historical periods. Circumstances change, people's needs change and so, too, does their morality. The same applies to different social classes at the same time-their conditions of life differ, their interests are opposed and therefore they develop different moralities.
Capitalism and human nature
LIKE EVERYTHING else, the economic system of capitalism is always changing. Capitalism today is very different from capitalism in the time of Karl Marx. When Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, capitalism was properly established only in parts of western Europe and North America. Today it dominates the whole world. In 1848, the main units of capitalist production were quite small factories owned by individuals or families. Today capitalism is dominated by giant multinational corporations like IBM and General Motors. When Frederick Engels wrote The Condition of the English Working Class in 1844, workers in Manchester, including the children, worked 12- to 14-hour days for pennies and lived in hovels that were little more than holes in the ground. Today, the workers of Manchester have improved their lot enormously, but conditions as bad or worse can be found in Calcutta, Cairo and Rio de Janeiro. But despite these and many other changes, certain fundamental features remain that define the economic system as capitalist. The most important of these are as follows: 1. The key means of production (such as factories, land, machinery and transport) are owned or effectively controlled by a small minority of the population-the capitalists. 2. The large majority of the population are denied ownership or control of the means of production and so are compelled to earn a living by selling their ability to work, known as their labor power, to these capitalists. Moreover, they are obliged to sell their labor power on terms that permit the capitalists to extract a surplus, or profit, from it. 3. The means of production are distributed among different capitalists (either individuals, groups or capitalist states) who produce in competition with one another. The measure of the competition is profit. The continuous competition for profit compels the controllers of each unit of capitalist production to exploit their workers as much as they can. The supporters of capitalism have always argued that this somehow corresponds to "human nature." There once was an element of truth in this argument. When capitalism
was first emerging as a system (approximately between 200 and 500 years ago), it offered a greater capacity to meet basic human needs for food, clothing and shelter than did the previous system of feudalism. The rest, however, is complete nonsense. First of all, it is absurd to claim that it is "natural" or instinctive for people to behave in a capitalist fashion when it took more than two million years of human development to arrive at capitalism. Neither the trading of commodities in general nor the buying and selling of labor power (the central feature of capitalism) appear anywhere in the natural world or in the early stages of human history. On the contrary, history shows that people were only induced to sell their labor power and work for an employer when they were forcibly deprived of any possibility of earning a living working for themselves. The emergence of a class with the wealth to invest in industry and buy labor power on a large scale required a brutal process of what Marx called "primitive capital accumulation." This involved the enslavement of millions of Africans and-their transportation to the Americas, the genocide of a large part of the indigenous population of Central and South America, the pillage and impoverishment of India and the Far East and innumerable other barbarities. Moreover, for the capitalist class to establish its dominance, it had to wage a series of violent revolutionary struggles and civil wars against the old feudal aristocracy, This included cutting off the kings' heads in England and France. Thus, there was nothing "natural" about the development of capitalism. -:.,...It is also not true that capitalism makes individual self-interest the driving force of production. The driving force of capitalist production is profit, but-profits can only be made by the small minority of society that own capital. For the large majority of individuals, capitalism is based on the denial of self-interest. That is why the capitalists are always urging workers not to be greedy. That is why employers have always tried to make laws restricting the ability of workers to pursue their self-interest through unions. Far from being an expression of human nature, capitalism takes the most important and distinctive feature of human nature-the capacity for human labor-and profoundly distorts it. By treating labor as a commodity to be bought and exploited, capitalism makes it alien to the worker. Instead of being the means by which human beings consciously transform nature to meet individual and collective needs, work becomes simply a means of earning the money necessary for social survival. Workers lose all control of their own work, and it becomes reduced to meaningless, soul-destroying drudgery, physically and psychologically 11
destructive to the worker. The result is that most people spend 40 to 50 years in a job they hate or at best barely tolerate and which wears them out and grinds them down. Capitalism even deprives massive numbers of people of the possibility of working at all, throwing them out of work the moment sufficient profits can no longer be made from their labor. Thus, something that goes to the essence of being human, that was available to every "primitive" hunter-gatherer-the opportunity to engage in useful social labor-is denied to millions today. The alienation of labor does not just affect the workplace, it also affects all social relations. Relations between worker and worker, between parents and children, between men and women, relations of sex and love are all twisted and distorted. People treat each other as objects and commodities to be used and manipulated. Sex itself becomes a commodity and is used in the selling of other commodities. Often the most downtrodden and alienated individuals seek to compensate for their powerlessness and oppression at work or in society at large by bullying, battering and abusing others even more vulnerable than themselves. None of this is natural or the product of human nature. It is a product of a system that violates human nature. Finally, capitalism is appallingly bad at meeting the most basic natural needs of human beings-the needs for water, food, clothing and shelter. Food production outstrips population growth every year and vast "milk lakes" and "grain mountains" are built up. Yet billions of people go hungry, and tens of millions starve to death. Countless millions more suffer and die from diseases that are easily preventable. In rich countries like the U.S., resources exist to build luxury hotels and offices. Yet people huddle in doorways because they have no bed for the night. This is neither natural nor imposed by nature. The so-called "primitive" bushmen of the Kalahari are able to extract a better diet from arid land by hunting and gathering than millions who die of humanmade famines or eke out an existence on the margins of the world's great cities. The Inuit in the frozen north can construct a warmer shelter from blocks of ice than those who wrap themselves in cardboard boxes in the inner cities of the U.S. These barbarities occur because capitalism makes access to the necessities of life dependent on purchasing power while at the same time ensuring that masses of people lack that purchasing power. In its relentless drive for profit, capitalism even pollutes the air and the water and threatens to destroy the natural environment that gave rise to and sustained human life in the first place.
Socialism and human nature
IF FROM the standpoint of human nature, capitalism clearly stands condemned, what about socialism? If we accept the existence of at least a basic human nature, is it not possible that lodged deep in this human nature is some characteristic that would block the achievement of a classless, self-governing society in which all would be equal and free? Is there not perhaps some fundamental desire for power or need to dominate that ensures society will always be divided into rulers and ruled? Could it be that the existence of natural physical ineqjialities between individuals forms an irremovable obstacle to social equality? We can give a simple factual reply to these and similar questions. It is that for tens of thousands of years, indeed probably hundreds of thousands of years, human beings lived in societies without private property, class divisions, rulers or a state. The archaeological record shows that the first handmade toolsstone flints-date from about 2.5 million years ago. From then until tne development of agriculture 10,000 years ago, people lived first as .opportunistic scavengers, and then as organized hunters and gatherers, Itostly in small nomadic bands. During this period, there was no planting of crops, no pottery and no means of transport. It was not possible for either the community or the individuals within it to accumulate a surplus of goods over and above what was needed for day-to-day subsistence. Without such a surplus, there could be no division of society into classes-no layer of people at the top living from the labor of those at the bottom. Nor could there be a state of full-time rulers with special bodies of armed men at their disposal to maintain their power. Everyone was involved in producing the necessities of life. Thus for 99 percent of the time humans have inhabited the planet, they lived in non-class communities. The existence of classless societies is not just a matter of studying archaeological clues or logical deduction. Enough hunter-gatherer peoples have survived until recently with a similar way of life for them to be observed by modern anthropologists. A good example are the !Kung San of the Kalahari in southern
Africa, who have been studied firsthand by a number of anthropologists, especially the American Richard Lee. The !Kung have been in the Kalahari Desert for at least 10,000 years. They live in small bands of about 30 people, moving camp every couple of weeks. They accumulate very little in the way of material goods, nothing more than they can carry with them as they move, but they possess a rich oral culture. Detailed knowledge of their environment enables them to achieve a reasonable day-to-day standard of living. Food that is hunted or gathered is shared collectively among the community. Lee writes: Sharing deeply pervades the behavior and values of the !Kung foragers, within the family and between families, just as the principle of profit and rationality is central to the capitalist ethic, so is sharing central to the conduct of social life in foraging societies. The !Kung are strongly egalitarian. Not only do they have no division between rich and poor, they have no chiefs or leaders. Lee once asked if the !Kung had headmen. "Of course we have headmen," came the reply. "In fact, we are all headmen; each one of us is a headman over himself." Summing up the lessons of his fieldwork with the !Kung and his knowledge of other hunter-gatherer societies, Richard Lee writes: The fact that communal sharing of food resources has been directly observed in recent years among the !Kung and dozens of other foraging groups is a finding that should not be glossed over lightly. Its universality among foragers lends strong support to the theory of Marx and Engels that a stage of primitive communism prevailed before the rise of the state and break up of society into classes ... A truly communal life is often dismissed as a utopian ideal, to be endorsed in theory but unattainable in practice. But the evidence of foraging peoples tells us otherwise. A sharing way of life is not only possible but has actually existed in many parts of the world and over long periods of time. This evidence is not intended to suggest that what we find among hunter-gatherers is people in "a state of nature" or that human nature is "essentially" socialist. This would simply be to reverse the anti-socialist argument while repeating the same basic error. In fact, the hunter-gatherer way of life was itself the product of a long cultural evolution, and many of its key features, including sharing, have to be socially learned and culturally reinforced. As Lee aptly comments, "Every human infant is born equipped with both the capacity to
share and the capacity to be selfish." However, this anthropological evidence does prove that human nature and socialism are not in any way incompatible. Modern socialism promises far more than just compatibility with human nature. Socialism today does not mean a return to the conditions of primitive communism but an enormous advance based on the technological achievements of thousands of years of class society. Primitive communism was based on the absence of any accumulated surplus; modern socialism is based on the fact that the forces of production have now been developed to the point where there is sufficient surplus to secure a decent life for all without people's lives being consumed by toil. Socialism today means taking the immense wealth, productive capacity, science and technology at present monopolized by the multinational companies, the super-rich capitalists and their states, and subjecting it to collective democratic control on an international scale. This would ensure adequate food, ~othing and shelter for everyone on the planet, abolishing starvation and poverty. It would, in the process, unite the human race, ending exploitation, national antagonisms, war, racism and sexual oppression by removing the material circumstances that underpin them. It would place people collectively in control of their own labor and the products of their labor. It X\'ould thus overcome the fundamental alienation and distortion of human nature that has persisted through thousands of years of slavery and serfdom, reaching a peak with capitalist wage labor. ...,_ This would transform and liberate personal and social relations; it would produce an environment designed to meet human needs and facilitate human development; it could make it possible to plan rationally for the effects of human activity on nature and thus end the wanton destruction of the environment. One fundamental feature of the human species is artistic creativity. The oldest engraved object is 300,000 years old. Every human society has its music and dance. In capitalism, as in all class societies, artistic activity is largely the preserve of the privileged few-the creativity of the majority is thwarted and crushed. Socialism will liberate this creativity by expanding leisure and education for all and restoring the artistic element to production. It will produce a great cultural flowering. Thus, socialism will not only meet the basic material needs common to all human beings, it will also bring about an all-round development, enrichment and growth of human nature. It is not just possible-it is necessary and worth fighting for.
Subscribe to Socialist Worker
Every week, Socialist Worker gives you the news that you won't get from the corporate media-info rmatio n for our side in the fight for a better world. But more than that, SWaims to be a tool to help activists organize a more effective movement.
International Socialist Organization
If you agree with what you have just read, the International Socialist Organization offers you the chance to fight back against war and the system that produces it-and 7'0 help build a socialist future. We have branches in more than 40 cities that meet weekly and get involved in all the strikes, demonstrations and fightbacks in their area. To join the ISO, or to find out more about what we do, send us the form below. For a full list of branches and activities, visit our Web site at www.internationalsocialist.org.
Name Address City Telephone.A, E-mail addresa.;
Send with a check payable to
I'd like a one-year subscription to Socialist Worker (50 weekly issues).
U.S. First Class-$75 U.S. Institutional$125
o o o
Canada and Mexico-$IOO Overseas Air Mail-$125 _ _
~es , please get in touch with me.
Please send me more inforrna non to join the Interna tional Socialist Organization
o I want
E-mail add ress Socialist Worker in U.S. dollars only
16085, Chicago, IL 60616.
Send to ISO, P.O. Box 16085, Chicago, IL 60616.
A pam phlet from the
International Socialist Organization, publisher of Socialist Worker
www. i nte rnati
ial i 5 t.
rg • www.s
o ci al i 5 two rke r. 0 rg