Friday, November 9, 2012

"It will never work because . . . " (1985)

Editorial from the December 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard

Numerous undesirable social condition have been and still are explained away or justified by the glib remark that "you can't change human nature". Yet the science of anthropology shows these conditions to be cultural acquisitions, subject to change, and not the inevitable result of something inherent in people. Let us try to see, then, the particular ways in which human nature is supposed to be unchangeable, and what follows from thinking in this way.

Human nature is held by opponents of socialism, to be unalterable in certain respects that effectively prevent any conscious improvement in social conditions. Human beings, it is said, will go on acting in the same old ways, and so inevitably bring the same problems that have "always" faced them. Of course, if this were the case then it would be useless even to try to improve things, we might as well face the "inevitable" now. But those who hold this view obstinately refuse to have the courage of their convictions, and they are often found taking very active measures to avoid a fate, such as grinding poverty, that they forecast for others.

What are the reasons for holding and propagating the idea that "you can't change human nature"? From the point of view of those seeking to justify capitalism, there are many reasons. People are unemployed because they are "naturally lazy"; fight wars because they are "naturally belligerent"; cheat, injure and bankrupt each other because they "naturally act on the profit motive".

There are many variants of these arguments, and not all are put as directly as the examples quoted. Sometimes the objector to social change will try to coat the bitter pill that he forces himself to swallow. "Of course, it would be a good thing if people could always live in peace, but until we get a new race of human beings I am afraid this will be impossible". He wants social change, but only provided that certain impossible conditions can be fulfilled - which amounts to not wanting social change at all.

We can now see where all these arguments lead. It is toward the prevention of future change through the spread of a philosophy that justifies present evils. If people can be persuaded that what they want is impossible to achieve then they will give up struggling for it. Instead, they will content themselves with whatever crumbs they can pick up within the present set-up, in the knowledge that all social evils from which they suffer are "natural", and therefore unavoidable.

"Incurably selfish"
There are two main ways in which human nature is said to be unalterable. One is that we are supposed to be universally and incurably selfish, and the other is that mankind is mostly stupid and unteachable, and that intelligence is the prerogative of a few "born" leaders.

Let us examine these statements to see what truth they contain. If we were really incurably selfish, then there could never have been any sort of stable society, because no one would have co-operated with anyone else. If people were really so stupid by nature, then they could never have overcome previous obstacles to the development of their productive forces, and capitalism could never have grown out of feudalism.

When we take a closer look at the "incurably selfish" argument, we see that it rests on the assumption that everything that we do involves loss or sacrifice for other people. Now there is no question that some of the things people do have that effect. But there is equally no question that society depends for its very existence on the fact that there is co-operative behaviour, and that people do work at things which are of no immediate benefit to themselves.

We may infer from this that behaviour which benefits other people is at least as consistent with human nature as that which harms other people. Nevertheless, granting all this, it might still be true that selfishness exists in human nature side by side with social-mindedness, and that therefore it cannot be eradicated. Or, to put it more concretely, there are some things which we need so badly that we will injure other people in order to get them.

The answer to this is that, though such behaviour exists and may even be the general rule in property society, it is not natural to human beings. The fact that there is unselfish behaviour means that selfishness is not inherent in us. People only act selfishly or anti-socially when they can see no other way of obtaining what they desire (by co-operation, for instance) then there is no reason to suppose that they will not choose it when they see that it is better to do so.

Justification for behaviour
It is important not to confuse selfishness with self-interest. Self-interest is the satisfaction of one's desires at the expense of someone else. Self-interest is an integral part of human nature, but selfishness is not - unless it is assumed that everything we do is at someone else's expense. But we continually do things without detriment to other people, and the satisfaction of some of our desires, such as companionship and love, involves the satisfaction of other people's. Any selfish, anti-social behaviour that is present cannot therefore exist in the desires themselves, but only in the way they are sometimes satisfied.

Having seen that there is nothing to human nature that necessitates injuring one another, we must conclude that there is nothing in human nature that necessitates war. War can occur under certain conditions, but as far as human nature is concerned these conditions need not exist.

There is one contradiction in the argument of "selfish human nature" that we must point out. If it really is selfish then we all must share an equal guilt, and it is a case of one sinner condemning another. But those who use the argument give the lie to it themselves, because they impute incurable selfishness only to others and never to themselves. We have never the objector to socialism who seriously maintains that if an article were freely available he would still fight someone for his share.

The real reason for the doctrine of human selfishness is not hard to discover. It is a justification for the anti-social behaviour that a highly competitive society produces. The employer blandly counters the accusation of "selfish profiteering" with "selfish wage demand", and the worker who is not class-conscious falls for the trick. In reality, all the antagonisms result from the nature of the system that all except socialists support, and not from the selfish natures of either capitalists or workers.

"Stupid and unteachable"
The other way in which human nature is commonly said to be unalterable is that people are, on the whole, stupid and unteachable. Human intelligence is supposed to be too weak to enable people to solve the complex problems that face them - they must fight a losing battle with ignorance. The particular form in which we usually meet this argument is that most people are incapable of understanding socialism. Allied to this is the assertion that ordinary people would never be able to run society in their own interest.

It must be noted that, although most people are supposed to be incapable of understanding what are sometimes called the abstruse principles of socialism, the understanding of such complicated matters as the balance of payments or the American electoral system is assumed to be quite within their power. Propagandists for capitalism never tell us that we are too stupid to understand the tortuous arguments used, for instance, to prove that the way to preserve peace is to prepare for war. The point is not that arguments either way are too complicated and therefore beyond universal comprehension, but that the will to learn is actively discouraged when its threat to the continuation of capitalism becomes apparent.

From the unwarranted assertion that most people are stupid flows the equally unwarranted assertion that therefore they must always have leaders. And why must they have leaders? Because those who are in the position of having a following do not wish to lose their privileged position. The existence of leaders and "the led" implies that the former have the power to make decisions, whereas the latter have not. In co-operative enterprises the concept of leadership is foreign, since all the participants have a common purpose. When you know what you are doing you do not need somebody else to "lead" you to do it. The leader is thus the reflection of "the led", and the measure of their ignorance (not stupidity), and both disappear when people know what they want and how to get it.

Human nature is strictly what is common to the natures of the vast mass of all human beings. It has nothing to do with possession or non-possession of knowledge, which is governed by environmental factors, such as whether the particular knowledge is available to people.

The varying capacity for acquisition of knowledge means nothing more than that some people learn certain things quicker than others, and does not prove that some are incapable of learning.  Language - the expression for all communicable experience - is the possession of humanity as a whole, and it is the crassest prejudice to suppose that its fruits are beyond the reach of any individual or section of society.

Demanding the Impossible (1996)

Editorial from the March 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the Socialist Party was formed in 1904 our opponents called us "impossibilists", revolutionaries who took little notice of the practicalities of life, simply content to "demand the impossible" - the working-class conquest of political power for the immediate establishment of socialism, instead of reforms of the present system.

Over 90 years later, socialism still hasn't been achieved and is still considered a dream, mainly because the so-called "possibilists" - with their immediate demands and promises of reform - have diverted the attention of the working class away from fundamental social change. The modern day "possibilists" of Tony Blair's New Labour and Scargill's SLP still plough the reformist furrow, offering variations on an interventionist theme, but disillusion with their so-called "practical politics" is rife.

And why shouldn't it be? The twentieth century has been the century of reform par excellence, yet the problems of the capitalist system remain, with new ones emerging by the day. War, unemployment, stress, insecurity of life, environmental abuse, crime and many other evils haunt the working class and are impervious to the efforts of the reformers. In countries like Britain the rich get richer while the poorest get poorer still, and on a world scale the gap between the rich and poor is probably greater than at any other time in history. Most people on this planet are living in varying degrees of misery and yet the fundamental cause of the problems and misery - the market economy - remains unchallenged.

A principal contention of the Socialist Party at our foundation was that the market economy, having brought about a situation of potential abundance, could never be made to harness its productive potential in the interests of the wage- and salary-earning working class. As the century draws towards its close, we stand by that contention.

In truth, we were not really "impossibilists" in demanding socialism and nothing but for the working class at all - history has demonstrated that the real impossibilists were those who thought it worthwhile attempting to patch up capitalism. In demanding a humanised capitalism they have been demanding the impossible for decades. It is about time they took stock of the situation and admitted they have been wrong. They can then join with real socialists everywhere in building a society capable of solving social problems rather than only creating them.

Capitalist values rejected (1996)

Theatre Review from the May 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Skylight by David Hare

Some moments in the theatre last forever. I remember in 1959 being overwhelmed by Beattie Bryant's dramatic and revelatory act of self-discovery at the end of Wesker's Roots -  a play which will always carry its inspiring message for socialists that people can change; that they can learn, individually and collectively, to take charge of their own lives and transform the world in which they live. Skylight by David Hare, now transferred from the National Theatre to Wyndham's Theatre, has much the same power to remain resolutely part of the memory.

I first saw Skylight soon after it opened last May. Months later when its impact continued to resonate I bought a copy of the script, the better to understand the nature of its claims on my memory. And now I am clear that here is a minor classic; a play of its time, full of insights about the mean-minded, miserable nineties, yet also full of optimism about the possibilites of desirable change.

A chamber play for three players — Skylight follows the meeting of two ex-lovers — Tom a successful entrepeneurial restaurateur in his early fifties, and Kyra a struggling teacher in her early thirties. Hare writes captivating dialogue of great weight — witty, honest and revealing. He is much helped by two amazing performances from Michael Gambon and Lea Williams, and by Richard Eyre's impeccable direction. Tom and Kyra stand as emblems of their respective classes: he is a thrustful money-maker; she a put-upon employee. But Hare doesn't make the mistake of making Tom a pantomime villain and Kyra only the course of goodness and light. Tom is insensitive, dogmatic and macho, but he is also lyrical, amusing and compassionate. Kyra is principled, steadfast and courageous; but she is also acerbic, self-righteous and stubborn.

What remains for me are memories of an enthralling evening and the almost epic quality of Kyra's daily struggle to teach deprived, poverty-stricken children. "You care for them. You offer them an environment where they feel they can grow. But also you make bloody sure you challenge them." Kyra has a first class honours degree in maths and Tom cannot understand her motivation. He accuses her of throwing her talents away "teaching kids at the bottom of the heap", and of doing "anything rather than achieve".

The last page of script begins with Kyra offering this ringing defence: "I have to eat quickly. There's a boy I'm late for. I'm teaching him off my own bat. Extra lessons. Early, so early! I sometimes think I must be going insane. I wake at five-fifteen, five-thirty. The alarm goes off. I think what am I doing? What is this all about? But then I think no, this boy has the spark. It's when you see the spark in someone  . . . This boy is fourteen, fifteen. His parents are split. He lives in this place I cannot describe to you. It's so appalling he has to the bloody common to work . . .  And that is it, that's being a teacher. One really good pupil. That's enough."

To those who would have us believe, mistakenly, that human nature is intrinsically fixed and selfish, Kyra's behaviour is inexplicable. Yet there are many thousands of teachers whose benevolent behaviour mirrors precisely that of Kyra. Even in this rotten catch-as-catch-can world such people reject the egocentric selfishness of capitalism. They seek satisfactions in ways which help others. Imagine the explosion of concerned, caring behaviour when strife and competition are replaced by sympathy and co-operation. The struggle to create such a world is given substance by Skylight.
Michael Gill