From the January 1975 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialists, after long argument advocating Socialism, often find that their contestants make the “Human Nature” bogey their last-ditch stand. “That’s all very well,” they say, “but for Socialism to work you would have to change human nature and that is impossible.”
In fact, for Socialism to work, there is no need to change human nature at all; only human behaviour need change, and history is one long record of change in human behaviour.
What are the charges brought to the door of human nature?
One is that human beings are innately cruel: but just what is the evidence for this? Let us at once agree that history shows men and women behaving with almost incredible cruelty. In ancient Rome, a popular entertainment was seeing men torture each other to death or being torn to pieces by wild animals in the arena. Remember the gentle Roman matron who pointed out to her society friends, “Oh, look; that poor lion hasn’t got a Christian!”
More recently, people’s entertainment has been little less savage and “inhumane”. As recently as the late 1800s, the public hanging of criminals provided weekend entertainment for thousands. In the words of Dickens, “thousand upon thousand of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth and callousness that a man had cause to feel ashamed of his human shape.” Hangings, burnings, beheadings, disembowelling and tortures were once among the entertainments of the citizens of London, as of townsfolk throughout the “civilized” world.
Many maintain that some people are inborn criminals and that whatever their early environment their innate dishonesty will out. However, the general types of behaviour that prevail today are the results of the social environment, including its heritage from the past, that is, Capitalism. Because of want or insecurity, or both, men steal and cheat and are capable of the most selfish, brutal and vicious acts. But many break the law simply because of need and the fact that most of the laws of the land relate to private property which would not exist under Socialism.
Harvard psychologists studied the correlations between happiness and criminality and concluded that the old Dutch proverb, “Happy people are never wicked”, had some basis in fact. They found that the majority of criminals came from unhappy homes. A ten-year study on frustration carried out at Yale University brought out that much hostility to others is brought about by our own happiness.
Another charge made against human nature is that it is basically hostile, aggressive and militant. Writers try to give, as the cause of war, man’s innate urge to fight and kill. Capitalists have the gall to put forward this explanation whilst using every method of persuasion, by the mass media of communication, to get men and women to join the armed forces, and when, as in war, advertisement is not sufficient, use conscription to coerce the “natural killers” into the forces on pain of imprisonment.
Again, an oft-repeated accusation against human nature is that man is basically lazy. And yet, where- ever there is a human need it is in man’s nature to meet it. “Creative” work is widely and readily tackled. Many a man, after a day of unrewarding (except for his daily bread) labour comes home and happily gets stuck into “do-it-yourself” carpentry etc. for the benefit of his wife and family. Under capitalism many people hate their jobs, not because they "dislike hard work”, but because they have to suffer boring, arduous toil. Satisfying work is as necessary to the healthy human as leisure. People want to achieve something and earn the approbation of their fellow man. Should there be eleven months’ holiday in a year and only one month of work, we should all be waiting impatiently for our month of work to come round.
At present many people hate their jobs: they are “square pegs in round holes” because of financial, status and snob values. Under Socialism, where security and comfort would be assured for all whatever their job, men would be able to choose freely their own occupation — something they would enjoy because they would be good at it — something rewarding and eliciting the appreciation of their fellows.
On the other hand, football-pool winners of enormous sums of money sometimes opt to carry on with their jobs. In such cases all the pleasures and privileges of the rich are not enough to destroy the urge to “do something useful”. Doctors often encounter, in their surgeries, the dodgers who try to avoid their work (even at the loss of income it costs them) and ask for certificates to draw National Insurance payments. But also, there are many workers who, after an all-too-short period of rest from their toil because of illness, ask for a clearance certificate to go back to work again, because they say they feel bored and useless staying at home.
At this point it is interesting to note the contents of a report put out by the Standing Conference of Voluntary Social Work Organisations in Staffordshire and published in the Evening Sentinel of 8th September 1973. It revealed that “10% of the population of the country are engaged in some form of voluntary work. Each volunteer devotes two hours a week in the service of those needing help in varying form and degree. The result is that an impressive 1,224,000 man-hours are devoted to the service each year.”
So much for laziness, even under capitalism!
Thus, it is foolish to think that man is innately lazy. To say otherwise is absurd as the picture of an explorer landing on a desert island where the trees were laden with delicious fruits, with the population lying under the trees starving, and when he asked why they didn’t climb the trees, replied “We’re too lazy.”
Some say that true human nature shows itself to be vicious and sordid in such places as prisons and concentration camps. But this is a false criterion by which to condemn human nature, because such circumstances are not natural and could not exist under Socialism. Of course sordid behaviour can result under conditions of distress. Suffering is not always ennobling as some would have us believe. But likewise, surroundings of hardship often do reveal the innate co-operativeness of people, even under capitalism. Men have given their lives to save others. This too is "human nature".
The writer has seen blood donors giving blood, not even knowing the recipient, for no more a selfish reason than the thought of being useful. (Ironically, some of the donors were "docked pay" by their employer — who later could well have been the recipient of a donation himself — for the time away from his factory spent at the blood bank.)
Surely, given a sane order of society, all goods and services could be supplied for the same gain as for blood donor — for use and the consequent approval. If selfishness is seeking happiness, then of course man is selfish. All he needs to learn is that the most effective and expedient way of being selfish for a gregarious animal such as man, is through Socialism.
R. B. Gill