Socialism 101: Doesn’t human nature mean that socialism can’t work?

In this capitalist society, the notion of “human nature” is used to explain away all kinds of evils – violence, racism, and inequality.

By Eddie McCabe

In this capitalist society, the notion of “human nature” is used to explain away all kinds of evils – violence, racism, and inequality. Socialism – a society based on cooperation, real participatory democracy and the common ownership (and planned use) of all wealth, resources and industry – is deemed to be unachievable because it is incompatible with human nature.

This is a convenient tale for those who oppose socialism, but it’s completely untrue. It’s an ideological ruse to shift the blame for all the horrors in the world from the system – the particular way society is organised in the interests of the billionaires – to all people, including the billions of exploited and oppressed.

Not easily defined

For a start, the concept of ‘human nature’ is not an easily defined one. It’s usually thought to mean people’s natural instincts, which underlie our morality and ultimately our behaviour. For those who argue against socialism, being greedy, aggressive and lazy are usually considered to be the dominant human instincts. Hence capitalism: where greed is good and the more aggressive folk simply have the edge over the lazier folk, or so the story goes.

Of course, many examples of these negative traits can be found in all human societies. But so too can their opposite: generosity, comradery, activity. And the reality is that people’s instincts, morality, and behaviour are largely shaped by the kind of society they live in. So in a society like capitalism – which encourages ruthless self-interest to get ahead – a good argument could be made that the persistence of such social instincts despite the plainly ‘unsocial’ system, is proof that ‘human nature’ is actually contrary to capitalism, and better suited to socialism.

Complex beings

Moreover, as far as human history is concerned, capitalism has only existed for around 250 years and other class-divided societies for around 5-10,000 years. In fact, for most of the 200,000 years of humanity’s evolution, we lived primarily in egalitarian communities of foragers. This was out of necessity (in order to survive humans had to work collectively and live communally), not choice, but it surely contradicts any notion of an inherently individualistic human nature.

The truth is that humans are more complex creatures than either of those crude arguments would suggest, neither inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ by nature, but capable of either depending on circumstances.

Collective endeavours

What people have understood as human nature has changed over time, because societies have changed dramatically and so too have the people in them. Slavery was considered to be part of human nature for thousands of years, but to make that claim today would be outrageous. Slavery was abolished and the general concept of ‘human nature’ was modified to no longer include slavery, which is telling because by definition – if it’s part of our nature it can’t be modified.

If there is one defining human characteristic, which is inherent in our nature, it is the basic desire to live – and live well. All human history tells us that no matter what the conditions, this is best achieved by people working (and struggling) together for collective social progress, which in turn allows for the fullest development of each individual.

If this is true, then socialist principles – of social and economic democracy, equality, freedom – are perfectly in line with this most elementary feature of human nature.

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