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Basics of Socialism

Human Nature and How It Changes

by Paul Le Blanc,

Some have 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."

If "you" 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.

If "change" 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 as impossible.

A tougher 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.

By "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.

By "good" 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.

Socialists and Anti-Socialists on Human Nature

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."

Some people 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 human nature.

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

social relations." 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."

Some people 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.

In fact, 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 the variability."

Another point: 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.

Negative 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.

Fortunately, 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:

[the need] 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.

Marx noted 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 being."

Anthropology and Revolution

Pure philosophizing 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 own time.

Static conceptions 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."

Another well-known 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."

Focusing 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:

There would 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.

Of course, 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.

Further Reading

Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, eds. Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967).

Norman Geras. Marx and Human Nature (London: Verso, 1983).

Stephen J. Gould. The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981).

Marvin Harris. Cultural Anthropology, Second Edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).

Colin Turnbull. The Human Cycle (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983).