I thought I’d blog about human nature and peoples perceived ideas on the matter. I was having a debate with someone on twitter earlier who was so gloomy about the future and what change we can affect. I naturally disagreed as I am new to revolutionary politics learning all the time and very keen and enthusiastic for socialist politics and Marxist ideas to boot.
MANY PEOPLE think socialism is impossible not because the ruling class is too powerful or the world’s resources are too limited, though many people believe this but because “human nature” will not allow it. They think “people are too lazy,” “too passive,” “too greedy,” “too self-absorbed,” “too violent,” “too ambitious.” They think that people are inherently racist, sexist, and homophobic, that they can’t help but hate people from other countries, cultures, and religions. They think that “people like being told what to do” and “people can’t think for themselves” and “people like to boss other people around.” Nevermind that some of these “inherent” traits are contradictory. Together they work to prevent socialism in the minds of many. And, as if all this weren’t enough, human nature is thought to be not only negative, but permanently fixed: “There will always be good people and evil people” and “You can’t change human nature.”
It is no surprise that people often think this way. Marx once said that the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class. The ruling ideas about human nature under capitalism—that it is static, and for the most part awful—greatly benefit the capitalists. On the one hand, they suggest that, because of traits inherent to human beings like greed, ambition, and a tendency towards violence, capitalism—which rewards greed and requires violence—is not only the best and most efficient economic system ever, but also the most natural. On the other hand, such ideas make it possible to blame the enormous inequality and suffering produced by the system on the “natural” defects of certain individuals. If it is natural for some people to claw their way to the top, it is also natural for others to remain stuck in squalor at the bottom.
Socialists argue something quite different. We say that human nature is flexible and multifaceted, and that the behaviors of human beings are shaped by their social circumstances. We are all capable of greed as well as generosity; which one gets expressed has more to do with the values of a society than with the inborn tendencies of the individual. As Karl Marx put it: “the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”1 From a socialist perspective, there is such a thing as human nature, but its most prominent feature is its changeability. What makes us distinctly human is our ability, not only to change as our circumstances change, but to create new and different social relations and then adapt to them. Socialists argue that if humans could create capitalism, humans can create socialism.
There is a lot at stake in this argument. If it is natural for humans to engage in the practices that capitalism supports or requires, then any attempt to change the system is pointless.
Today, when the ruling class controls weapons and oversees business practices that threaten the existence of the planet, promoting a socialist understanding of human nature is not only correct, but urgent.
From the beginning
The tendency to revert to human nature to justify social and economic structures and to explain their failures has been present from the very beginning of United States history. James Madison rationalized the system of checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches that, at the time, distinguished the U.S. form of government, on the basis of a negative view of human nature.
The idea that capitalism’s failures should be blamed on the poor also got an early start. Eager to please their ruling-class benefactors, scientists and scholars have always been willing to develop theories and misinterpret or fabricate experimental results to support this notion. In the nineteenth century, eugenicists and “Teutonists” (think of an upper-crust Aryan Nation) fudged test scores and measured heads to produce what was considered scientific backing for the idea that poverty is the result of inherited weaknesses of character or intellect called “social inadequacy.” The resulting conviction that “poverty begets poverty” led to forced sterilization and enforced illiteracy; if the children of illiterate parents cannot be taught to read, the argument went, why waste money on schools?
This “scientific racism,” which was applied to all members of the lower classes regardless of skin color, existed alongside of and in combination with the racism used to rationalize the enslavement of Blacks and the genocide of Native Americans. An excellent example of the way these ideas came together is a statement by Oxford University Professor Edward Freeman, who toured America in 1881, speaking to university and “learned society” audiences. According to Freeman, and to the delight of his “learned” listeners: “the best remedy for whatever is amiss in America would be if every Irishman should kill a Negro and be hanged for it.”
What is human nature?
Although the human race has seen enormous and rapid cultural evolution, human beings’ basic physical needs have remained the same for hundreds of thousands of years: we need air, water, food, shelter, or other protection from the elements, sleep, parenting for the young, and sex to propagate the species.18 These general needs are accompanied by a set of specific abilities: because humans have large brains, walk upright, have hands with opposable thumbs, and vocal chords that allow speech, we are able to use our physicality, our bodies and brains and the five senses they afford us, in ways that other creatures can’t. First and foremost, we work in a distinctively human way and, through social labor, we change our environment and the conditions that determine our “nature.”
Friedrich Engels, writing in 1876, placed labor at the very center of human development: “[Labor] is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labor created man himself.”19 Engels goes on to attribute changes in human anatomy to work in general and working with tools in particular, comparing the bone structure of the human hand to that of other primates and noting “the great gulf between the undeveloped hand of even the most man-like apes and the human hand that has been highly perfected by hundreds of thousands of years of labor.”20
In addition to working with tools, humans have always lived and worked in groups: “The development of labor necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by increasing cases of mutual support and joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual.” From cooperative labor arose the need to speak and the development of language: “In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other. Necessity created the organ; the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed.” The development of complex systems of language allowed for human social consciousness: the transmission of culture and history from generation to generation.
Of course it can be argued that animals also work: they hunt, gather, and in some cases store food; they build nests and dens and tend their young. Some cooperate; some communicate, albeit nonverbally; some even use tools. But the work done by animals is mostly instinctive and unchanging. Otters may use stones to crack open sea urchins but they can’t invent a sea urchin cracker. Beavers take down trees to build their dams but they’ll never use a chain saw. Whales may communicate through songs, but they can’t write lyrics or mass produce CDs. Only humans have the ability to record their history and create art. Only humans can conceive of a project, plan out the various steps to completion, and reflect with satisfaction on a job well done. Only humans can invent and construct complex tools that alter the environment and allow for enormous increases in productivity—tools that enable us to make a lot more stuff with a lot less effort.
By acting on nature to produce their subsistence, human beings change themselves. Laboring socially, humans change the material forms of what Marx called their means of production. These engender new social relations, allowing, in the end, for the distinctive variability of human behavior through history, and from one society to the next.
Marx observed that, under capitalism, human productive capacity increased so much that, for the first time in history, it was possible to have enough of everything for everybody. What’s more, the satisfaction of basic needs and the ways in which they were satisfied led to the development of more complicated needs. Crowded living conditions create a need for systems of sanitation. Complex machinery creates a need for higher education. These complications further the development of human tastes and abilities, and could lead, under conditions of socialized, planned production, to the fullest expression of human nature:
Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time. Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under the collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.
But there was (and is) a problem. Capitalists were not (and are not) “rationally regulating their interchange with Nature.” They compete in an irrational and unplanned manner with an eye towards maximizing profit rather than meeting human need. Promoting “conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature” does not concern them either. Instead, their interests lie in getting people to work as hard as possible for as little as possible. And so, despite its potential to do so, capitalism does not allow most of humanity to satisfy its basic needs with “the least expenditure of energy.” Instead, it works some people to the bone while others are thrown out of work. Under capitalism, advances in technology like automation create, not leisure, but unemployment for some and overtime hours of mind-numbing repetitive labor for the rest.
Capitalism created the conditions for the fullest expression of human nature, but simultaneously denied them to the vast majority of humanity by directing all the wealth up to the tiny minority at the top of society. Members of the ruling class collect homes and cars and gadgets, attend first-rate universities, travel the world, eat exquisite food and drink exquisite wine, enjoy operas and the fine arts , and develop whatever talents or abilities they have, and often those they do not. Meanwhile, the majority of the working class struggles from day to day to make ends meet, with a few weeks off per year to develop ourselves in areas other than work—if we’re lucky. Capitalism not only stunts further human development, it is also a stupendous failure when it comes to providing for the basic needs of most people. Every day, all over the world, tens of thousands of people starve or die young of curable diseases.
Far from being naturally adapted to capitalism, most humans are battered or broken by it. If it doesn’t straight out kill them, it stunts their physical and mental development; their intellects are neglected, their artistic talents remain undiscovered or unappreciated, and the distinctively human capacity to engage in creative, socially useful work is reduced to a commodity worth only as much as the capitalist can pay and still turn a profit.
Even those who recognize that capitalism thwarts and distorts human nature—and that we now possess the means to eliminate inequality and want—may still wonder whether humans are capable of the kind of truly egalitarian society that socialists envision. Forced to compete with each other for limited opportunities, compelled to work mindlessly at jobs they don’t like, encouraged to view themselves and those around them as commodities, many people might not seem prepared, at any given moment, to plan and create, “in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms…an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”24 We are swimming (or, more accurately, treading water) in what Marx called “the muck of ages”—racism, sexism, homophobia, competitiveness, conformity, passivity, insecurity—all the ideas capitalists require to divide and enervate the masses and maintain their minority hold on power.
And it is easy to feel, after a few hundred years of capitalism, that things have always been the way they are now and always will be. Luckily for us, this is simply not true. Capitalism is a fairly recent development, and prior to the rise of class society some several thousand years ago, human society was not characterized by classes or inequality or systematic warfare. There are class-free societies on the planet at this very moment, societies that are “egalitarian, cooperative, and on the move.”25 All of the Ju/’hoansi (!Kung) Nharo Basarwa (San or Bushmen) from Ngamiland, Botswana, lived until just recently in societies where egalitarianism—notably along gender lines—was the rule. As some communities shift from nomadism to sedentism, this has started to change—not due to some “resurgence” of human nature, but rather to “the adoption of the economics and attitudes towards gender from non-foraging neighbors [that] facilitates the emergence of gender inequality.… [In addition, some] current development programs designed by Westerners exclude women and contribute to the increase in gender inequality which is emerging in these societies.”
SO to conclude human nature is a big beast and something we cant simply target to being the failings of everything we fail to do. Thinking that things will stay the same forever is a very unmarxist way of thinking and fails to take account of history and the class struggles.
There is nothing about human nature that makes socialism impossible, but there is also nothing that makes it inevitable. According to Marx, people make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing.28 If we want socialism—and the possibility of developing human nature to the fullest—we will need to organize and fight for it. This may seem like a pipe dream given the low level of class struggle in the Uk . at this time. But a socialist conception of human nature also allows us to understand how groups of people that for a long time appeared to be hardwired for one set of behaviors—like not fighting back—can transform radically and rapidly in response to social changes.
with extracts used to back up my opinions from http://www.isreview.org/issues/47/wdss-humnature.shtml