Human Nature and Communism

"Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both humans and nature participate, and in which humanity of its own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between itself and nature. It opposes itself to nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of the body, in order to appropriate nature's productions in a form adapted to its own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, we at the same time change our own nature."

Marx Capital

It seems that the stock argument anyone makes who is losing the argument about the case for communism boils down to a general dismissive statement that communism is impossible because of human nature, that people are inherently selfish and greedy.

It is a fallacious argument and absolutely unfounded but it is also very persistent. Like the oft-heard phrase “it’s only common sense” which is invariably used to support any contention based on very little evidence except for perhaps received wisdom. When the “human nature” argument is invoked it means “I can’t think of any other argument other than I’m right because that’s how people are”. But whereas “it’s only common sense” is rarely used by anyone much above the level of a radio talk show host, the “human nature” argument carries enough prestige to be used by economists, politicians and even some social scientists. For example, Boris Johnson said, when he was Conservative London mayor, that inequality fosters the “spirit of envy”, and added that greed is a “valuable spur to economic activity”. And according to an essay by the American humanities professor Mark Hunter, an attack on capitalism is “an attack on human nature” itself.

The “human nature” argument is nevertheless 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 to 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 because 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 support and defend each other in the workplace, 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.

The human nature argument may take many different forms but the basic argument typically goes like this: “Communism will never work because of human nature, and you can’t change human nature!” The suggestion may be that human nature is actively opposed to your proposition, or the argument can be worded so that the speaker feigns sympathy with your idea, but thinks that people are just too flawed to put it into action. The argument is usually used against socialism/communism or sometimes any idea which suggests that capitalism may not be the pinnacle of human social development and that a superior mode of production is possible. It is at this point when many communists fall into a trap.

Right from the start, once the human nature argument is invoked, one should point out that no one has managed to prove the existence of an eternal, constant and unchanging “human nature.” What traits we have which are truly universal and constant can also be found in animals, such as the survival instinct or the need to procreate. To argue against the “human nature” argument without pointing out its biggest and most obvious flaw is to give your opponent quarter he or she does not deserve. The “trap” however, is the process whereby the proponent of communism attempts to argue against the most common form of the “human nature” argument, namely that people are inherently selfish or driven primarily by self-interest and therefore a communist society based on “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is impossible.

The communist who is inexperienced at countering the “human nature” argument is likely to attack the most obvious weak aspects of the argument, citing all kinds of examples of human cooperation and altruistic behaviour. These kinds of counter-arguments are plentiful, but one should go to the heart of the matter. The human nature argument is about as scientifically defensible as the belief that the Earth is flat or the “theory” that wealth “trickles down” from the rich to the poor. It deserves not only to be countered but to be crushed underfoot.

If we assume that the argument is that people naturally seek self-interest above all, we can squash this claim by progressively reducing the “human nature” argument further until it is completely exposed as fallacious. In order to explore a refutation of the human nature argument, let us begin with a realistic presentation of the argument, as follows:

Communism cannot work because people are inherently selfish and are always seeking personal gain. This is why there will always be capitalism and why a better system than capitalism is impossible, because capitalist markets enable individuals to seek personal gain and as a result society as a whole benefits.

The above is not a quotation, but it is typical of the type of argument proponents of communism often have to deal with. It attacks communism as impossible while defending capitalism as a system that can transform self-seeking behaviour into socially positive results. Obviously the precise formulation of this argument can and does vary. And before the accusation is made that this is a straw man argument let us remember that the theme is the human nature-based argument as it is used as an attack against communism. It is not necessary that a refutation should depend on the actual argument of a given opponent. What is being refuted here is the general proposition that communism is impossible because of “human nature” and that we must therefore settle for the best we can hope for, namely capitalism. That said, let us now look at some counter-arguments, starting with the most simple objections to the more effective.

First, the argument is logically fallacious. It is an appeal to nature, akin to saying that if you are ill you should not take modern drugs because after all, this is not allowing nature to take its course. More importantly, there is no scientific proof to support the existence of “human nature.” It is a bit like the Philosophers’ Stone for which the alchemists searched for centuries. Up till now, all significant studies of “social invariants” as sociologists term it, that is, characteristics of human behaviour which are the same in all societies, have ended up showing the extent to which human psychology and attitudes are variable and linked to the social framework in which the individual develops. In fact, if we wanted to point to a fundamental characteristic of this “human nature”, to the feature which distinguishes man from other animals, we would have to point out the enormous importance of “acquired” as opposed to the “innate”; to the decisive role played by education and the social environment in which human beings grow up.

Thus it is necessary to highlight the fact that “human nature,” is not immutable. It changes through time and from place to place according to specific social, economic and cultural environments. As Marx wrote in the Poverty of Philosophy, “all history is but the continuous transformation of human nature.”

However, if our most ancient, prehistoric ancestors had been driven primarily by self-interest and greed, our species would never have survived. In fact, during the twentieth century, anthropologists discovered and studied dozens of different hunter-gatherer societies, in various remote parts of the world, who had been nearly untouched by modern influences. Wherever they were found – in Africa, Asia, South America, or elsewhere; in deserts or in jungles, these societies had many characteristics in common. The people lived in small bands, of about 20 to 50 people including children per band, who moved from camp to camp within a relatively circumscribed area to follow the available game and edible vegetation. The people had friends and relatives in neighbouring bands and maintained peaceful relationships with neighbouring bands. Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, and where it was known it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.

The highly developed sense of equality in hunter-gatherer society meant that each person was equally entitled to food, regardless of his or her ability to find or capture it; so food was shared. It meant that nobody had more wealth than anyone else; so all material goods were shared. It meant that nobody had the right to tell others what to do; so each person made his or her own decisions. It meant that even parents didn't have the right to order their children around; hence there were non-directive childrearing methods. It meant that group decisions had to be made by consensus; hence no boss, "big man," or chief.

If just one anthropologist had reported all this, we might assume that he or she was a starry-eyed romantic who was seeing things that weren't really there, or was a liar. But many anthropologists, of all political stripes, regarding many different hunter-gatherer cultures, have told the same general story. There are some variations from culture to culture, of course, and not all of the cultures are quite as peaceful and fully egalitarian as others, but the generalities are the same. One anthropologist after another has been amazed by the degree of equality, individual autonomy, indulgent treatment of children, cooperation, and sharing in the hunter-gatherer culture that he or she studied. When you read about "warlike primitive tribes," or about indigenous people who held slaves, or about tribal cultures with gross inequalities between men and women, you are not reading about band hunter-gatherers. And this egalitarian hunter-gatherer type of society describes “Primitive Communism” which was the predominant mode of subsistence in human society for the majority of human history before the advent of agriculture, sedentism and the appearance of the first states approximately 10,000 years ago. It should now be clear that not only is “human nature” not unchangeable, it is also not the default nature of human beings to be greedy and selfish. People have lived in societies for the vast majority of human history where greed and selfishness were alien to the band or tribe.

Having established that greed and selfishness is not a fixed part of our nature; and that, on the contrary, co-operation and mutual aid was a dominant feature of much of human society for the vast majority of our history, it is time to turn to “human nature” under capitalism. The capitalist system is based on exploitation. Surplus value is extracted from the working class by the capitalists and is the source of all their profits. It has caused, and continues to cause, untold human misery and suffering. It is certainly a system where the devil can take the hindmost. Greed and selfishness are actively promoted as virtues. But is it the case that all people living in capitalism today are greedy and selfish? As already mentioned above, there are many examples of altruistic behaviour within modern capitalism today. Indeed, if there weren’t, capitalism could not survive as a system. To take just one example of this, the “valuing carers report” 2015, which looked at the value of carers’ support to the UK economy, showed a staggering increase in the value of carers’ support since 2001, almost doubling from £68 billion to £132 billion. Researchers attributed this rise to a dramatic increase in the number of hours people are caring for relatives and dependents, combined with an increase in the cost of replacement care. If even a small percentage of people decided to abandon their loved ones, the economic impact would be catastrophic for the capitalist state.

It is certainly true that an elite and their hangers on who own the vast majority of the world’s wealth are motivated by greed and selfishness. But the vast majority of us are not "naturally" selfish – though some of us can, indeed, learn to be so. Within the capitalist system the elite few are chiefly oriented by greed, narcissism and selfishness – even if some of them try to portray themselves as benevolent, such as Bill Gates with his “Foundation”. But these “foundations” are often just fronts for self-promotion, corruption and money laundering, the Clinton foundation being a prime example of this.

The elite capitalists are the glorified masters of the world’s economies and governments. They are continuously praised, deferred to, considered "above the laws of the land" and allowed to live in a world of unabashed opulence entirely walled off from the rabble of mankind. Succinctly put, in capitalism, the greedy of the world have discovered their ideal legitimating cover: the promotion and defence of an exploitative system that turns the vice of selfishness into the highest virtue human beings can attain.

However, it would be very interesting to conduct the following thought-experiment: Imagine that we were able, right now, to ask the 7 and half billion people living on the planet whether they would choose an economic system that would inevitably lead to massive wealth and income inequalities and at the same time deny them the possibility of any meaningful political change, that would severely limit equal opportunity, that would force whole populations to live under perpetual economic austerity, inflict endless wars on dozens of countries and condemn hundreds of millions to famine, disease and starvation, that would devastate the health of the planet and the human body while externalizing the costs of such destruction onto everyone on the planet with the exception of a very privileged few.

How many people do you think would actually choose to live in such a system? Honest answer: Almost no one! The only people who would be happy with such a system would be the tiny group of capitalists whose present privileged economic status would be protected and furthered by maintaining the status quo. The fact is the logic of capitalism has always been the same: to protect and perpetuate the power, status and privilege of the few, while impoverishing everyone else.

Self-interest, envy and greed epitomising the ideal of the “self-made man” is simply the ideological expression of the economic reality of capitalism and has nothing to do with “human nature”. Otherwise we would have to say that “human nature” has been radically transformed since primitive communism, or even since feudalism with its village communities. In fact, individualism started to dominate the world of ideas when small independent owners began to appear in the towns and countryside. This fledgling bourgeoisie, small owners who had been successful, often by ruining their rivals, was a fanatical adherent of this ideology and saw it as a fact of nature. So much so, that later it had no scruples about using Darwin’s theory of evolution to justify the social “struggle for survival”, a war of everyone against everyone else.

But the bourgeoisie also gave rise to the proletariat, a class which learned to combine and unite, to give each other mutual support in order to defend itself against the predations of capital; thus providing a counterweight to the dominating idea of individualism. For the working class, solidarity is the elementary precondition for defending its material interests. This is a fundamental reproof to all those who today claim that human beings are “naturally selfish”. If the working class is selfish, it is a product of the necessity to defend itself. It pushes them towards association and solidarity as soon as the social conditions allow it. Many strikes of the past have shown tremendous examples of this solidarity and support, not only between the strikers themselves, but also from their husbands/wives and families who fought to save not only jobs but whole communities.

This demonstrates that solidarity and altruism are essential needs in more ways than one. People need the solidarity of others, but they also need to show solidarity to others. This is something which can be seen even in a society as alienated as ours, expressed in the seemingly banal idea that everyone needs to feel useful to society. Some will argue that altruism is also a form of selfishness because those who practise it do it above all for their own pleasure. That may be so, but that’s just another way of putting forward the idea defended by communists that there is no essential opposition between individual interest and collective interest, quite the contrary in fact. The opposition between the individual and society is an expression of societies based on exploitation and private property. This is quite logical because how could there be a harmony between those who suffer from oppression and exploitation and the very institutions that guarantee and perpetuate this oppression and exploitation? In such a society, altruism can only appear in the form of charity or of sacrifice, which takes the form of negation of others or the negation of oneself; it does not appear as the affirmation, the common and complementary flowering of the self and others.

Contrary to what the bourgeoisie would like us to believe, communism is not, therefore, the negation of individuality. It is capitalism, which separates the producer from what he/she produces, which negates individuality; and this negation of the individual has reached its most extreme limits under the specific form of late capitalism in its imperialist phase. In communist society, where there is no state dominating society and no classes either since there is no form of exploitation, where everything that it is produced is purely for human needs and not profit, each member of society will be living in true freedom. Because humanity can only realise its innumerable potentialities in a social way, and because the antagonisms between individual interest and collective interest will have disappeared, new and immense vistas will be opened up for the flowering of each individual.

And far from perpetuating the dreary uniformity that is the norm under capitalism, communism will be above all a society of diversity, because it will break down the division of labour that obliges almost everyone to limited, restricted roles for their entire lives. In communism, with every new technological breakthrough there will be no next level of specialisation, instead there will be an expansion of the field of activities through which each individual can develop. As Marx put it in The German Ideology,

"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."

We can now see that fundamental to human nature, more fundamental than the debaucheries thrown up by capitalism in its imperialist phase, is in fact, the tendency towards communism. On a deep level, the vast majority of us are, to some degree, communists. For if communism means “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” as Marx defined it, then this simply means sharing, helping, and cooperating – giving to others in need what you’re able to give them, even if it is only advice, assistance at some task, sympathy or emotional support. Friends, co-workers, relatives, lovers, even total strangers constantly act in this way. In this sense, “communism is the foundation of all human sociability”; it can be considered “the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace.” Therefore, whatever the bourgeoisie and all the sceptics and nay-sayers maintain, communism is made for humanity; human beings certainly can live in a communist society and make such a society live and breathe!

Ergosum

Friday, June 15, 2018

Comments

Lets assume for the sake of argument that we are violent predators, slaughterers of species with not a care for the extinct. So what? We have the brain to enter alliance and cooperate for our own egotistical good which cannot be served outside of society lest we become as other animals totally at the mercy of nature. Let us assume the worst, we are killers all, hot wired for survival and all the morality, empathy and the like is a thin veneer rather artificially imposed on an essentially red in tooth and claw nature. Seems to me that cuts both ways. We can strike down our enemies and pursue our self interest. In this case, at this stage, that is through communist society. We don't have to be saints to be communist, we dont have to play our harps and go out of our way not to tread on creepy crawlies...we have to recognise that such a society is the only possible means to avoid the devastation of imperialist war and a million other afflictions and rather than take a chance on the improbable possibility of joining the elite, we should be rational and embark on a collective endeavour. Not saying we are necessarily vicious by nature, by evolution, just saying it does not make a good argument for class society. More like a good argument for the abundant employment of the guillotine...