Saturday, July 7, 2018

That Queer Thing Human Nature (1915)

From the October 1915 issue of the Socialist Standard

"You cannot change human nature," has been the cry that has met us who are Socialists for years when endeavouring to persuade our fellow-workers that conditions could be so altered that one would be able to live a pleasanter life than that of a galley slave.

The paid advocates of our masters, those chameleons who can so readily adopt themselves (change their natures?) to the momentary requirements of their paymasters, have echoed the cry from one side of the world to the other.

The best evidence against a man is generally conceded to be his own statements. It will therefore be agreed that the best evidence against the minions of the masters is provided by their own changeful attitude.

Let us dip into recent history a little. Whenever there is a great, mine disaster the capitalist Press exhibits, with the aid of lurid headlines, the deathless heroism of the miners, and we read tales of the self-sacrificing men who go down to almost certain death in the pits for the chance of saving some of their entombed comrades. It is then impressed upon us what an enormous debt the nation owes to the heroes who risk their lives daily bringing coal up out of the bowels of the earth.

In the meantime these self-same heroes, who hardly earn enough to keep body and soul together, ("The average wage of a coal hewer comes out at about 28s. per week—a figure borne out by statistics of the money paid in compensation claims. That is the very best class of workman."— Stephen Walsh, M.P., "Report of a Conference on a Minimum Wage," p. 16. Published by the National Anti-Sweating League, Oct. 1906) come to the conclusion that the time has arrived when it is impossible to make both ends meet. A strike is proclaimed. Oh, what a hullabaloo ! What groans of bitter anguish from the silk-hatted fatbellies at the thought of losing a few pounds out of the enormous profits they are piling up. The miners, the erstwhile saintlike heroes, are now typified as ruffians of the deepest dye. The Press that so recently eulogised their heroism, their monotonous and honest lives, now informs us that the miners are the scum of the earth. A footballing, whippet-racing, gambling, and drunken crew. Human nature (or the nature of coal-miners anyhow) has evidently undergone a very drastic and revolutionary change.

The strike is over and the men have gone back to work on the promise (capitalist promise!) of better conditions. A recruiting campaign commences. Once more the miners are heroes. Again we are told they are the bone and sinew of the nation (skeletons!). We hear of how fathers, mothers and sweethearts have heroically (and blindly!) sent their dear ones to the shambles across the sea for the sake of their country which they don't possess. Human nature—fickle jade—again hath changed.

In the meantime up rise the prices of coal. The Government says an increased output is necessary to meet the demands created by the war. (The governmental cry of "Pile up the Munitions" is converted or transformed, in the process of that mighty alchemist production, into the capitalist refrain "Pile up the Quids"). The coal owners make huge profits. The miners are over-worked and find that the relative value of their wages steadily declines in a rising provision market. They ask for a war bonus to meet the enhanced prices and are told to go to hell—and work. They strike. Scoundrels once more. Unpatriotic shirkers. "Letting the nation down at a crucial moment" runs the fable (of course, the coal kings are not unpatriotic—not likely—they are heroes now and for ever!)

In view of the foregoing, our friends, the enemy, must admit that human nature does change sometimes. It will be rather dangerous for them if they deny it as, in view of their own varied protestations, some unrefined people may be tempted to the suggestion that the capitalist Press must be a sink of lying hypocrisy.

Let us take a momentary glance at the history of humanity apart from the braying of the prostitute Press.

It is now well established among the students of sociology that back in the distant past barbarous man lived in communities, acting honourably towards each other, revering their womankind, conceding to all the right to enjoy the fruits of the collective industry, and polite and helpful to any strangers that visited them. Such were the North American Indians as described by Lewis H. Morgan, the Eskimos when visited by Dr. Nansen, the Germans of Tacitus, the Incas when discovered by the Spaniards, and all barbarians at a certain stage of development, when found by travellers before suffering the contaminating influence of the white man and the white man's god—private ownership. It may be opportune here to give a picture of savagery taken from Henry Drummond's Nyassa Land. (Hodder & Staughton, 1890), p. 56.
   "Hidden away in these endless forests, like bird's nests in a wood, in terror of one another, and of their common foe, the slaver, are small native villages; and here in his virgin simplicity dwells primeval man, without clothes, without civilization, without learning, with out religion— the genuine child of nature, thoughtless, careless, and contented. This man is apparently quite happy ; he has practically no wants. One stick, pointed, makes him a spear; two sticks rubbed together make him a fire; fifty sticks tied together make him a house. The bark he peels from them makes his clothes; the fruits which hang on them form his food. It is perfectly astonishing when one thinks of it what nature can do for the animal man, to see with what small capital after all a human being can get through the world. I once saw an African buried. According to the custom of his tribe, his entire earthly possessions—and he was an average commoner—were buried with him. Into the grave after the body was lowered the dead man's pipe, then a rough knife, then a mud bowl, and last his bow and arrows—the bowstring cut through the middle, a touching symbol that its work was done. This was all. Four items, as an auctioneer would say, were the whole belongings for half a century of this human being. No man knows what a man is till he has seen what a man can be without, and be withall a man. That is to say, no man knows how great a man is till he has seen how small he has been once.
   "The African is often blamed for being lazy, but it is a misuse of words. He does not need to work; with so bountiful a nature around him it would be gratuitious to work, and his indolence, therefore, is just as much a part of himself as his flat nose, and as little blameworthy as slowness in a tortoise. The fact is, Africa is a nation of the unemployed."
And now ye slaves of the workshops and factory hells, has there been a change in human nature since your ancestors left savagery behind? Compare the above mode of life with the slaughtering that prevails now among the soldiers of "civilized" nations. Compare it with our lives of toil and penury in dirty, ugly towns, deprived of the sight of the mountains, the green fields and the broad, blue ocean. Do not the oppositeness of the conditions suggest a corresponding difference in the natures of those who live under the respective conditions? Can you be light-hearted, generous and care-free in the midst of squalor and wretchedness, continually snatching for each others' jobs? Could one be weighed down with cares, miserable, and sneaking, in the midst of the flowery woods, the sunshine, and bounteousness of nature's goods?

The North American Indian who welcomed the English immigrants was converted into a narrow-minded and implacable foe by the cruelty and treachery to which he was perpetually subjected. As travellers successively explore and bring within reach of civilization the unknown lands, so the inhabitants are brought under the yoke of modern conditions, and the land and people are exploited for the advantage of those who now rule in society. Savage customs and moralities are converted into capitalist laws and morals.

Just, as private property in the means of life has converted the strong, healthy, free, open-hearted and sun-burnt barbarian into the lying and fawning capitalist hack, so will the abolition of private ownership convert the weak, choking, pasty-faced, and filthy child of the slums into the vigorous, healthy, and clear-brained citizen of the coming Socialist commonwealth.

As the means of obtaining a livelihood change, develop, and diversify, so does the human nature of the respective epochs change and diversify to correspond. The development of the factory system converted the merchants into factory owners and heartless sweaters of little children. The growth of capitalism brought the practice of chicanery in politics to a fine art, and converted the open ruffians of the Roman Empire into the refined Lloyd Georges of the modern who are the acme of hypocrisy. The growth of poverty, misery, and exploitation, converts the honest, hard-working son of toil into the apostle of the Revolution and the staunch supporter of the principle of the class struggle.

Hurry up and change your natures. The sooner you join us the sooner the war (the modern class war) will be over. Join now ! We want more men! Come in your myriads and assist us to uproot the edifice of capitalism and, to give human nature a chance to exhibit its finest possibilities.
Gilmac.

1 comment:

imposs1904 said...

Hat tip to ALB for originally transcribing this.