Basics of Socialism
Nature and How It Changes
by Paul Le
questioned whether a flawed human nature is capable of co-existing with
the allegedly "flawless utopia" of socialism. It is often said that you
can't change human nature. This is true or false depending on how one
defines such terms as "you" and "change" and "human nature."
is defined as some well-meaning elite that thinks it is better than the
rest of us and wants to force us to conform to its own supposedly superior
ways, then it is true -- human nature will resist such violations, sometimes
pretending to be changed as a survival strategy if the elite has power
over it, but not really changing.
means somehow eliminating all of the little "imperfections" that are part
of actually being human in order to become inhumanly "perfect" (whatever
that might mean), -- again we are justified in dismissing such a thing
question has to do with how "human nature" is defined. It is naïve
to see it as being either naturally "good" or naturally "evil," since
we have seen a capacity of many people both to be good and to be evil.
I mean such things as this: parents horribly abusing or killing their
own children; people hurting or exploiting or killing other people for
their own selfish gain; the racism, inhumanity, and violence represented
by Adolf Hitler and so many others; the actual or threatened use of weapons
of mass destruction (such as nuclear bombs) that would kill many thousands
and millions of innocent people; etc.
I mean such things as this: parents nurturing, loving, and protecting
their own children and other people's children; people resisting and helping
others resist being hurt, exploited, or killed by selfish and powerful
individuals or institutions; those who have heroically stood fast against
the racism, inhumanity, and violence of Hitler and others of his ilk;
those who have struggled against the immorality of nuclear weapons; etc.
and Anti-Socialists on Human Nature
is quite flexible, capable of evolving one way or another. The naturalist
and biologist Stephen J. Gould has argued that "flexibility is the hallmark
of human evolution," that in a sense we are "permanent children." He explains
that "in other mammals, exploration, play, and flexibility of behavior
are qualities of juveniles, only rarely of adults," but suggests that
the process of natural selection has made such qualities -- especially
mental flexibility -- "a fundamental process in our evolution."
who are socialists argue (wrongly, I think) that this flexibility of human
beings is so great that there is really no such thing as human nature
-- that we are simply a reflection of our social surroundings with no
inherent behavior, no core or "essence" or special qualities (or what
the young Karl Marx called the "species-being") that make us human. They
seem to figure that this helps make the case for the possibility of socialism:
if we can somehow perfect our surroundings, we can perfect human beings.
I don't think this makes sense, logically or scientifically. We are more
than simply the ensemble of social relations. There is such a thing as
Norman Geras, in a useful study of the "scientific socialist" perspective developed by Karl Marx, explains that in the 1840s "explicit references to human nature" were "integral to Marx's new theory of history." According to Geras, Marx believed that while "the ensemble of social relations" is decisive for shaping humanity, no less essential is "an inner human nature." As Marx himself put it, specific "human desires…exist under all [social] relations, and only change their form and direction under different
He believed that the development of "human productive forces" generated
by the Industrial Revolution opened the possibility -- if the economy
could be brought under the democratic control of the working-class majority
-- for "the development of the richness of human nature."
who are against socialism argue that selfishness and viciousness are so
essential to human nature that it is impossible to create a better society,
such as a socialist future in which people live harmoniously with each
other and share in the control of the economy for the benefit of all.
There certainly is a lot of selfishness and viciousness in our society.
But is it the case that people all over the world behave just in one particular
way, according to some fixed human nature? We know that this is not the
case, that in some cultures people act quite differently than what is
normal in our own.
there are dramatic differences in how human nature plays itself out even
in our own society. As cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris notes, "the
fact is that there is a great range of personalities in every society
and that the more populous, complex, and stratified the society, the greater
there is a difference between selfishness and self-interest. Instinctive
urges of individuals for self-preservation, for food, clothing, shelter,
sex, companionship, creative activity, and control over their situations
certainly add up to self-interest. They do not necessarily add up to selfishness,
which can be defined as the satisfaction of one's desires at the expense
of someone else.
and Positive Aspects of Human Nature
I have noticed
among the people around me that some are greedy and others generous, some
are kind and others cruel, some are clever and others not so clever, and
so on. It would obviously be rather one-sided to define human nature as
being "greedy, cruel, and stupid," or "generous, kind, and clever." I
have also noticed that those of us who are stupid are able to learn to
be less stupid, and at least some mean people can learn to be kinder.
At the same
time, I have discovered -- by looking at myself and people around me,
and also at people I have met from other countries and cultures -- what
strike me as negative tendencies common to us all. Here are some things
that I find: (1) we want to persuade ourselves and others that we know
more than we really know; (2) we validate ourselves by putting others
down (whether they be considered inferior in terms of race, nationality,
gender, class, religion, political correctness, or whatever); (3) we tend
to be dismissive of people or things that are different from what we are
or what we're used to. It is possible, but not always easy, to transcend
such kinks in our nature, but it seems to me that such sinful limitations
are deeply rooted in the human condition.
there are different tendencies that also define what it means to be human,
and these perhaps can contribute to the possibility of rising above our
limitations. Marx saw three interconnected, interactive, mutually dependent
elements in human nature -- the drive and capacity that we have for conscious,
imaginative, creative labor; the need that we have for community, for
association and positive interaction with other people; and the profound
drive for self-determination, or shaping our own personal development
and future, in a word freedom. Norman Geras, combing through Marx's work,
developed a more elaborate listing of the basic needs that indicated the
shape of the "inner human nature" which develops through its interaction
with nature and society:
for other human beings, for sexual relations, for food, water, clothing,
shelter, rest and, more generally, for circumstances conducive to physical
health rather than disease. There is another one to be added…, the need
of people for a breadth and diversity of pursuit and hence of personal
development, as Marx himself expresses these, "all-round activity," "all-round
development of individuals," "free development of individuals," "the means
of cultivating one's gifts in all directions," and so on.
that "to be radical is to grasp things by the root, but for man the root
is man himself." In this spirit he contrasted what he perceived as the
magnificent potential of humanity with the actual human condition under
capitalism, proclaiming "the categorical imperative to overthrow all conditions
in which man or woman is a degraded, en slaved, neglected, contemptible
about abstract "human nature" doesn't get us very far. But Marx's philosophical
reflections were rooted in the social science of his day -- and appear
to find support in scientific study of humankind (anthropology) in our
are less adequate than a dynamic and evolutionary understanding of human
nature. Cultural anthropologist Marvin Harris observes that something
so basic as being male or female means something different depending on
what part of the world we look at. "Anthropological studies lend support
to the view that contemporary definitions of masculinity and femininity
may be unnecessarily restrictive." Shifts in economic life are especially
important, he notes: "As the technology of production has changed, so
has the definition of ideal masculine and feminine roles. It has also
fundamentally altered marriage and domestic life. The continuation of
these trends will further modify the ideal personalities of the man and
woman of the future."
anthropologist, Colin Turnbull, points out that all human beings share
the common reality of going through a life cycle: "We may have many different
ways of doing things, but for all of us the process of living, of being
born, growing old, and dying, is much the same. At each age, in whatever
society we live, our body offers us certain possibilities and denies others."
Turning this around, however, he emphasizes that the process of the life
cycle "is something we all go through, but in very different ways."
on differences between "our own Western, industrialized, highly complex
national society and the small-scale tribal societies" of so-called "primitive
peoples," Turnbull suggests that our own society has much to learn from
many "primitive" cultures. Developing in our own society these "tribal"
cultural norms, "individual activity, while still fully satisfying the
demands we all feel for individual expression and satisfaction, would
also become social activity, and we would see it as such, recognizing
the social implications of what we are doing even when consciously setting
out to achieve individual goals."
Such a social
change would mean that we would "concentrate on inculcating the spirit
of cooperation rather than that of competition; the spirit of integration
and incorporation rather than the mechanics of fragmentation and isolation;
and on shifting the driving force from legality to a belief system that
made of morality a rewarding experience rather than a penance," and this
would result in something which matches the socialist goal:
be opportunity for a much higher level of individual satisfaction with
life; conflict and violence would be reduced because alternative social
means that would negate the currently felt need for self-help would readily
be accessible; and in any case there would be a greater degree of equality
and a greater sense of security in the social system, both inherent in
the whole concept of living together rather than in isolation.
to achieve this, more and more of us will need to rise above the limitations
which our capitalist culture encourages. Selfishness, pretentiousness,
closed-mindedness, putting down our brothers and sisters who are different
from us -- these things are not adequate for advancing our own genuine
self-interest, for bringing us happiness, or for overcoming the conditions
that oppress us. Bitter experience and the positive dynamics of social
struggle will demonstrate that other parts of our nature must come to
the fore if there is to be hope for the future.
Loyd D. Easton
and Kurt H. Guddat, eds. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and
Society (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967).
Marx and Human Nature (London: Verso, 1983).
Gould. The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981).
Cultural Anthropology, Second Edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).
Colin Turnbull. The Human Cycle (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983).z