Is Socialism Doomed by “Human Nature”?
Spoiler Alert: It’s not. If anything, socialism is more compatible with our shared desires for cooperation, solidarity, and freedom.
One of the most frequent arguments people make against socialism is that it goes against “human nature.” People are “naturally greedy” and “competitive,” these detractors insist. As such, they argue, capitalism is best suited for human society as it “rewards greed.” Socialism, they lecture us, “sounds good in theory,” but would “never work” because of “human nature.”
War…? Humans are “naturally violent,” the right-wing detractors insist. Racism…? It is human nature to fear “outsiders.” Women’s oppression…? Men and women are “naturally different.” Indeed, if we are to accept these rigid, unchanging views of human nature, then any sort of endeavor to change human society for the better — through socialism or otherwise — seems doomed from the get-go. And, in many ways, that is entirely the point.
You Can’t Change Human Nature
The argument that socialism “goes against human nature” is essentially one of biological determinism — also known as social Darwinism. Biological determinism attributes all human behavior and psychology to our genetic makeup. And that genetic makeup, according to biological determinism, is innately fixed, static, and unchanging. Thus, greed, violence, racism, sexism, xenophobia and the like are all hardwired into our DNA.
The truth is human nature is far more complex, dynamic, and yes, contradictory than the right admits. And human nature — like the human brain — is malleable. It can change along with our environmental and material conditions. There is nothing innate about social ills like war, racism, sexism, and other forms of violence. Rather, such violence and oppression result from social structures in class society that have a vested interest in pursuing and maintaining them. There is no human gene for war.
In fact, contrary to popular belief, war is a fairly modern development in human history. Despite what the biological determinists on the right would have us believe, humans have not been “at each other’s throats” since the beginning of time. For millions of years, “pre-civilized” man lived in largely peaceful, nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Food, shelter, and other necessities were all shared equally.
As Paul D’Amato writes of these early exercises in socialism in his socialist-primer, The Meaning of Marxism:
For most of our existence as a species, humans lived as the Montagnais-Naskapi — without any class divisions, without armies, courts, or bureaucracies…. All things beyond personal possessions were communally owned and shared in what some have called “primitive communism.” In these egalitarian societies, people foraged for food in small bands, moving wherever food was most plentiful. These societies necessarily emphasized reciprocity and sharing, and knew no formal or permanent hierarchies.
Women often enjoyed higher status in many of these “primitive” societies, as well. According to D’Amato, a tribeswoman among the Iroquois Indians could dissolve her marriage at any time simply by “placing her husband’s belongings outside the household door…”
These descriptions fly in the face of the conventional understanding of pre-civilized man as savage, aggressive, and male-dominated.
Mankind is Not All Bad
Furthermore, human nature is not the giant black hole of bleakness the right paints it out to be. While there is no denying that humans can be capable of unspeakable acts of violence, cruelty, and destruction, this is merely one side of human nature. Humans are also capable of profound acts of love, kindness, and cooperation. We are, at heart, social creatures. Just consider the last year of life under COVID-19. How often in the last year have you, or someone you know, gone grocery shopping for an elderly neighbor or volunteered at a local food pantry?
True, there has also been a segment of the population — primarily Baby Boomer-aged and middle-class — that has steadfastly refused to engage in the simplest and most basic act of human decency by wearing a face mask in public. But these people — juvenile and obnoxious as they are — are a minority. The vast majority of working-class Americans understand the importance of mask-wearing and have voluntarily acquiesced to mask and social distancing mandates without fuss. They have and continue to do so both to protect themselves from COVID-19, but also to protect others.
Furthermore, emerging evidence suggests right-wing anti-maskers are driven by sociopathic tendencies — in addition to a selfish, petty-bourgeois ideology. Point being, the narcissism of these right-wingers is hardly emblematic of human nature — nor, for that matter, the best of humanity.
The desires for freedom, companionship, solidarity, and leisure time are also facets of human nature. As the French philosopher, Albert Camus observes in his book-length essay, The Rebel, it is part of human nature to revolt against oppressive, inhumane conditions. “The urge to revolt is one of the essential dimensions of human nature,” Camus writes. Capitalism, far from catering to those universal human desires, does more to stifle and eradicate them.
“A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object,” Camus writes. “But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.”
For those on the right, the entire conceit of attributing capitalist oppression to “human nature,” makes for a highly convenient way of dismissing such forms of oppression, entirely. These attitudes are simply “natural,” the biological determinists on the right argue.
And, as mentioned earlier, this is entirely by design. Biological determinism is little more than bourgeois ideology disguised as science. It uses racist pseudo-science to justify the existing power structure. This was precisely how bourgeois 19th century social Darwinists like Sir Francis Galton and English philosopher and anthropologist, Herbert Spencer utilized biological determinism. Both figures were blatant in their racism and contempt for the poor. Spencer, in addition to his social Darwinist views, also opposed universal education, providing food for the homeless, and “any laws regulating wages or working conditions.”
Indeed, D’Amato aptly summarizes social Darwinism as “survival of the whitest and the richest.”
“Human beings have changed relatively little genetically or biologically over the last forty thousand years,” D’Amato writes. “Yet our social forms of organization — the way that we organize ourselves to procure food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities — have changed tremendously, and in recent centuries, at an accelerating rate. It is this that accounts for the changing ‘nature’ or humans — our morals, our ideas about the world and about ourselves — from one society to the next.”
“But Aren’t People Naturally Competitive?”
A corollary to the human nature argument is that humans are “naturally competitive,” and that socialism would curb any incentive to “work hard,” or to “innovate.” Again, the implication here is that capitalism “rewards” such “creativity” and “innovation.” Socialism, the argument suggests, would stifle such creativity.
(I’m sorry, but when was the last time you were actively encouraged — even for that matter, allowed — to be creative at your job…? Yeah, that’s what I thought.)
This argument is patently absurd. Under capitalism, working-class people do not work for themselves. They work for a boss, a manager, or some faceless CEO. The point is workers do not reap the full rewards of their labor. They merely work to survive — and, often barely, at that.
In fact, this anti-socialist argument has been around so long even Karl Marx and Frederick Engels felt compelled to respond to it in The Communist Manifesto, in 1848.
“It has been objected,” they wrote, “that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work.”
Consider the example of Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and the richest person on the planet. Bezos makes more than $7 million an hour. But what, precisely, does Bezos actually do to “earn” this incomprehensible amount of money? Are we really to believe that Bezos works seven million times harder every hour than the underpaid, non-unionized people who work on his Amazon warehouse floors?
Conversely, how many people do you know who indulge in art, music, athletics, auto-mechanics, and other hobbies or creative endeavors during their free time, not for personal profit, but purely to satisfy their own individual passion? (I know I do.) Yet the “socialism-stifles-competition-and-creativity” argument suggests that monetary reward is the only thing that drives human creativity or a person’s work-ethic.
Under capitalism, the only incentive working-class people have to work is so they can survive. That is no “incentive,” nor is it even a genuine form of freedom. It is coercion.
Express Yourself (Don’t Repress Yourself)
As Marx and Engels also wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Working-class people’s efforts to overturn such tyranny and exploitation is also an essential component of human nature.
As Bhaskar Sunkara and Adaner Usmani write in their contribution to the Jacobin pamphlet, The ABC’s of Socialism, “History is filled with examples of people fighting against exploitation, and one of our principle tasks as socialists is to support these movements, to help make collective action a viable choice for even more people.
“In this effort — and the struggle to define the values of a more just society — we will be aided, not hurt, by our shared nature.”