Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Is ‘Human Nature’ a barrier to Socialism?

Socialists are often confronted by this objection to Socialism. Often an instant reaction to the Socialists’ argument for a cooperative peaceful society, based on common ownership and even democratic control, is met with instant and scornful rejection: “But what about human nature? You can’t change human nature!

This argument is given academic cover by the likes of Stephen Pinker and others in academia: they will argue that people are, by nature, lazy, greedy, selfish, competitive, aggressive, warlike, religious and looking for leadership. And they claim that ‘human nature’ cannot be changed.

Yet this is a bogus argument. To start with, it is based on the assumption that we can make claims about an “unchanging” human nature from the human behaviour we can observe. Human behaviours vary enormously and often quite fast: as people react to different circumstances, they change and adapt to these, and so their behaviour changes. If there is one thing we can say for sure about ‘human nature’ it is this: humans are immensely adaptable, able to live under very different conditions, and in many different social systems.

A second point which must be made is that humankind is a social species, whose whole life is predicated on the assumption of social cooperation. Even in our society, capitalism, which places such a premium on competition, it is always assumed that people will work together cooperatively. This happens as a matter of course in the family or household. It happens as motorists observe the rules of the road, stopping at traffic lights, keeping to the right side of the road, waiting at junctions and roundabouts. And it also underlies the division of labour in the workplace – farms, factories, mines, offices, shops, schools, hospitals, the Stock Exchanges, etc. All of these would be unable to work without social cooperation.

So if greed and selfishness were the governing principles of how all people operate, due to their ‘human nature’, it is hard to see how capitalism could work.

In capitalism competitive behaviour is actually encouraged: the idea of the individual entrepreneur making a fortune, or the development of a vast chain of stores from one small shop, is based on capitalist anti-social principles of ruthless competition.

Whatever that unchanging ‘human nature’ may be, human behaviours do change according to circumstances, and often quite fast. For instance, in Victorian England it was normal and approved of for fathers to beat their young children quite harshly. The founder of the Salvation Army, ‘General’ Booth, regularly did this, as a matter of parental duty. Today such behaviour would likely mean the children being taken into care.

In the instances of greed, selfishness, and aggressively violent behaviour today, these are treated as criminal and out-of-the-ordinary, and seen as so abnormal as to get reported in the mass media. This is seen as “inhuman” – not consistent with what we normally expect from ‘human nature’. Among the functions of family and school is to teach and train the young in the norms of social behaviour.

So if a homeless criminal steals from the victims of a terrorist attack - that’s headlines, and means jail. But if a bank like RBS steals from small businesses, or capitalist directors and CEOs - like Sir Philip Green of BHS, the directors of the outsourcing giant Carillion, or long ago Robert Maxwell with the Mirror Group’s pension funds, all of whom made vast fortunes and walked away from these businesses, leaving workers without jobs and with their pensions looted: then there is little done. That’s business for you!

Capitalism offers numerous opportunities and lots of encouragement to individualistic behaviour. Success in business may depend on aggressive go-getting to get ahead in the rat-race.

But this sort of behaviour really goes against the grain for most people. Many reject this and work as teachers and nurses or as volunteers in NGOs and charities.

So we cannot take at its face value any claims about so-called ‘human nature’, especially those who portray it as nasty, selfish, greedy and acquisitive – and unchanging.

The claims that humans are by nature aggressive and that this is the reason for wars is also a fallacy. Even if an individual gets angry, it seldom results in anything worse than a fist-fight. Most people do not go around with guns (the exception is the United States, and even there the vast majority of gun-owners are, it is said responsible).

Wars are planned for, and paid for out of state taxes. The modern machinery of warfare is highly industrialised and technical – the latest in missile and drone technology, linked to satellites, mass-produced, and remotely controlled from a computer console on the other side of the planet: this has absolutely nothing to do with feelings of anger or aggression.

Wars happen as a result of competing national interests – due to competition for mineral resources, control of markets and trade routes, oil and gas pipelines, etc. The seemingly endless conflicts in the Middle East, the war in mineral-rich Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Chinese development of bases on mini-atolls in the South China Seas, a key trade route for shipping - all these can be seen to have started not from some warped psychological aggressiveness or greed, but from a geopolitical calculation about competing commercial and capitalist interests.

In place of this dystopian nightmare, which now means growing numbers, some 60 million men, women and children, are now helpless and hopeless refugees, dependent on the “kindness of strangers” and ancient cities and villages have been shattered, what can capitalism offer us? Only more of the same – but worse!

Instead, what can Socialism offer? A social system which is not based on competition and war, not rooted in exploitation, not divided between the haves and the have-nots, and the endless war of class against class, of Capital against Wage Labour. A society which is truly social, not anti-social. One which values cooperation, not ruthless competition. One where the false ideologies of racism, nationalism and religion are rejected as socially divisive.

But that is simply Utopian!” Of course it would be, so long as we have the capitalist system, with its competitive drive and its competing interests. But there is no reason to suppose capitalism is here forever. Just as chattel slavery gave way to feudalism and that was forced to give way to capitalism, Socialists are confident that the day will come when capitalism too will be overthrown so as to allow for a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of producing and distributing wealth, by and in the interests of the whole community.

Only this is lacking: working-class support and understanding of what needs to be done and acting politically to achieve this. We are sure that one day this will be possible.

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