Monday, May 9, 2016

Human Nature? (1934)

From the September 1934 issue of the Socialist Standard

The critics of the Socialist case are legion, but the diversity of their arguments is very limited. At street corner or in public hall, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, in Great Britain and abroad, one hears the same arguments, couched in similar words, from those who would refute the case for Socialism. It would almost appear as if they vied with one another in their efforts to be unoriginal.

One of these stock arguments is the one which the Socialist designates as "The Human Nature argument.” It is frequently the first question which rises to the lips of the but recently interested worker, and it is often the last line of defence of the opponent who has been driven from every other point of vantage by the logic of the Socialist case.

It is usually worded thus: “Ah! But you cannot change human nature”; or “Socialism is desirable, but human nature would not allow it.” However the query is worded, the answer is the same—the Socialist calls upon the members of the working class to organise consciously and politically for the capture of the machinery of government in order that this machinery may be used to establish a Socialist system of society. A revolutionary proposition this, which human nature and the laws which govern social development demand. Let us explain.

First of all, what is this human nature? What is there in the nature of human beings which can prevent the establishment of Socialism? It is the nature of the human being to be social. Man is essentially a social being, not merely because he enjoys the companionship of his fellows, but out of sheer necessity. It has been a part of the process by which man has evolved from a lowly primitive state to his present "exalted” civilised condition. Had he not developed a social sentiment early in this process of evolution, even before he assumed the form of man, the species would have become extinct. And to-day no one ever dreams of man living the life of a Robinson Crusoe, with, of course, the possible exception of some imaginary beings who people the textbooks of the orthodox economists and capitalist apologists. So let us repeat, it is the nature of humans to be social.

“Ah!” we can hear the critics saying, “that’s agreed, but man, having become a social being, then proceeds to behave towards his fellow men in a most unsociable manner.” Therein our critics reveal their error, for in using the word “behave” they expose their illogical argument. Human nature and human behaviour are not quite identical, although one is the product of the other. We have said that man has become a social being out of sheer necessity, likewise his behaviour is determined by necessity, the necessity to live. Man needs to live and in order to live he must have food, and some shelter from the elements. It is in order that he may procure these that he enters into relations with his fellows, or, in other words, forms society, and it is the manner by which he procures his subsistence that determines the relations entered into, or, the form which society takes. When, as was once the case, the method of obtaining the necessities of life was by the use of such primitive tools as the bow and arrow, then men's relationships were framed accordingly, and most certainly did not include such relations as those of employer and employee, nor did this early society include such institutions as trade unions. The means of production being primitive, and, in consequence, each member of society being able to produce only just sufficient for his own maintenance, it was not possible for one man to enslave another. A man who needs to devote all his time to obtaining the things necessary for his own existence is useless as a slave and so, in primitive society, the institution of slavery did not arise. Men lived in tribes, and within the tribe the things necessary to the tribe's existence were communally owned. This determined the behaviour of tribesmen to one another. Many explorers and travellers have testified to the behaviour of men living under such conditions, as, for example, the following.

Lewis Morgan, who lived for a considerable period among North American Indians, in his book, “Ancient Society,” wrote: “If a man entered an Iroquois house, whether a villager, a tribesman or a stranger, and at whatever hour of the day, it was the duty of the woman of the house to set food before him. If hungry, he eats, if not hungry, courtesy required that he should taste the food and thank the giver.”

Likewise, Paul Lafargue, in his “Evolution of Property,” quotes from James Adair's "History of the American Indians": “To be narrow-hearted, especially to those in want, or to any of their own family, is accounted a great crime, and to reflect scandal on the rest of the tribe."

The same author quotes Catlin, who also lived among the wildest of Indian tribes in North America, as saying: "Morality and virtue, I venture to say, the civilised world need not undertake to teach them.” And men behaved like this when, and because, the means of life were commonly owned; and the means of life were commonly owned because it was the necessary form of ownership at that stage of social development.

Just one other of Lafargue's references from the book already mentioned, a quotation from the Jesuit Charlevoix: "The brotherly sentiments of the Redskins are doubtless in part ascribable to the fact that the words MINE and THINE, . . . are all unknown as yet to the savages. The protection they extend to the orphans, the widows and the infirm, the hospitality which they exercise in so admirable a manner, are, in their eyes, but a consequence of the conviction which they hold that all things should be common to all men.”

Since those times, in Europe at least, the means of production have evolved from the bow- and-arrow stage to the present highly complicated machine stage. The spear has given place to the plough, the hand-operated machine to the modem mechanical wonder, the horse-drawn cart to the motor-car, or steam-driven or electrically-driven train or tramway system. Hand-in-hand with this development has gone on a change in the relationships between the individuals who make up society and a corresponding change in the social form, until to-day we live in capitalist society wherein the relationships are based on the private ownership of the means of living, with the consequent division into classes of those who own these means and those who own nothing but their ability to work, their labour-power.

Within capitalist society production is for sale, even the energy of the workers. Before the worker can draw his wage he must sell his energy, for which the wage is the price. Before the capitalist can draw his dividend the products of the workers' toil must be sold. Buying and selling —always buying and selling. It is the very essence of the system we live under. Worker must compete with worker in an effort to sell his labour-power; shopkeeper must compete with shopkeeper; combine with combine; nation with nation.

Competition implies struggle, struggle means strife. Woe to him who gives up the struggle, the penalties are heavy. Nations fight it out in wars, combines seek to establish and maintain monopolies, shopkeepers cut prices and the losers pass, by way of the bankruptcy court, into the ranks of the dispossessed, there to compete with millions of others for an opportunity to sell their labour- power to the highest bidder. Each must scramble with his fellows to get the necessities of life and can only rise by climbing on the backs of others.

It is this that determines human behaviour—the necessity to get a living. It is this that our critics call human nature. It is this that makes men Socialists. It is this that determines that Socialism must follow capitalism. Human nature has not changed since man first appeared, nor will it while he exists; but human behaviour—that undergoes a process of continuous change. The workers to-day, realising more and more that their cut-throat behaviour results in a weakening of their power to resist the encroachments made on their conditions by their masters, are changing that behaviour, as witness the manner in which some, who, although disagreeing with the actions of fellow workers in trade disputes, frequently “fall into line” in order to assist in an attempt to achieve some improvement of their lot. The development of society has produced a working class, and that class has evolved its own class conduct, its own behaviour of members towards one another. Class-solidarity it is usually termed, but no matter what it is called, it is part of human behaviour, and when the working class shall overthrow capitalism and establish a system of society in keeping with its own and society's interests, then that new form will, in its turn, determine human behaviour.

The Socialist does not propose a “change of heart,” but a change in the basis of society, a change from private to common ownership of the means of living. No Utopian idea this, but a dire necessity determined by social development. Not the struggle of a sect, but an historical revolutionary movement, guided by principles based on a scientific investigation of society and the laws which govern its development.

When man has access to the wealth he produces, and has no further need to struggle and compete with his fellow men for a portion of that wealth, then, and not till then, will his behaviour correspond with his nature and become social. There can be no “peace on earth” while there remains a class society; there can be but little" “brotherly love” whilst there is capitalism. The solution lies not in exhorting men to be charitable to their enemies, but in establishing a Socialist society wherein men will not be angels, but just men; wherein competition will give place to co-operation, and all humans, without distinction of race or sex, will live secure, full, and pleasurable lives.
W. Waters

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