1920s >> 1922 >> no-212-april-1922

Socialism and Human Nature.

Among the many objections that have been levelled against Socialism, the one concerning human nature strikes the writer as providing not only a lop-sided view of human nature, but at the same time an indictment of capitalist society unconsciously made by our opponents.

We are informed that “human nature being what it is, Socialism is quite impossible,” or, as it is sometimes put, “you will have to change human nature.”

This remarkable point of view was formulated in another way only a few days: ago by the Rt. Hon. Winston Churchill, who, in a speech delivered in Loughborough Town Hall, stated :—

“A great mistake the Socialists make is that they follow a lot of logical and symmetrical theory, and forget all about human nature.”—Sunday Express, 12/3/22.

Far be it from us to suggest that Mr. Churchill follows any theory that could be called either symmetrical or logical, or, when commenting upon his famous “gamble” at Gallipoli with the lives of thousands of our fellow-workers, that he had forgotten about human nature.

However, we are not so much concerned here with Churchill as we are with those of the working class who seriously entertain the objection stated above. Before proceeding to deal with this objection, we will state what the Socialists have to say of existing society, and how their theory corresponds to reality.

We assert that present-day society is based upon the private ownership of the means of living by the capitalist class, with the consequent enslavement of the working class, by means of whose labour wealth is produced. It follows, then, that, as the capitalist class do not work, they must obtain their wealth from the workers; in other words, they steal it from the working class. Of course, the means, employed are not the same as those of the common thief or burglar, which are quite illegal, but by virtue of their “legal” ownership of the means of life, which is secured to them by their being in control of the political machinery, including the armed forces of the nation. To illustrate this point.

Let us assume that a small body of workers decided to “take and hold” some of the machinery of production for their own benefit, we should at once witness the operation of the power that is in the hands of the capitalist class. The police force, in all probability, would be the first to appear on the scene, and, if this was not sufficient, the Army and Navy would be brought to bear upon the takers and holders, to teach them that “Britons never will be slaves,” and in every large industrial dispute this armed force is ready at hand to teach tht workers the lesson taught the school-child, “You must not touch; it isn’t yours.”

The armed forces are controlled through Parliament, for, though they act in the immediate upon the instructions from the Government Departments, such as the War Office and the Admiralty, they are ultimately under the control of the majority in the House of Commons, as this majority is responsible for the conduct of the various Departments. But the capitalists have not voted themselves into Parliament. The workers outnumber them by millions at the ballot-box. The tragic irony is, that the workers have handed over to the ruling class the very power by which they art kept in subjection. What follows as a consequence of the working class, being a subject class is that the workers must operate upon the various tools of production to obtain a living. But the wealth, when produced, does not belong to them, but to the capitalists, who hand back a fraction of this wealth in the form of wages to the workers, to enable the latter to renew their energy, and thus repeat the performance of producing wealth. In modern society, on account of man’s triumph over the forces of Nature, there is produced all over the civilised world an abundance of wealth sufficient to ensure a comfortable existence for all. But, as every worker is painfully aware, poverty and insecurity of existence is the lot of his class. We have to record the fact that, in spite of the productive power of to-day, we witness the anomaly of starvation in the midst of plenty. The Socialist, after analysing society and viewing all this, proposes to the workers that they should organise into a political party for the purpose of obtaining political power in order to change society from Capitalist to Socialist; that is, alter the basis of society from one of private ownership into one of the common ownership of the means of life, to be democratically owned and controlled by the whole community.

This being the proposition of the Socialist, we ask, What is there about it that in any way conflicts with what we know of human nature ? The objection of our opponents merely begs the following question : What is human nature ? The answer, that, in the opinion of the present writer, covers the ground fairly well, is the one met somewhere in his reading as “the manifold activities of man in general.” This definition should meet with the approval of our opponents, for when they use the phrase “Human Nature,” they generally refer to the actions of certain persons as a proof of their position.

A glance at history will show that the activities of man have changed with every alteration in the form of society, for, just as there has been change within the domain of the biological world, so there has been changes in the forms of society. At a very early period of man’s history cannibalism was very often resorted to as a means of food supply., and was thought no more objectionable than eating the flesh of an ox or a sheep. The sex relationship of primitive man, although being quite in conformity with the current morality of the age, would shock the civilised person, and if anybody proposed their revival in modern society, either a prison cell or a lunatic asylum would greet their efforts. But, while there is a vast difference between the primitive savage and civilised man, the distinction lies in the fact that, while the former had but crude implements at his disposal to obtain the means of sustenance, the latter has inherited the results of the accumulated experiences of man’s long and painful journey from savagery through barbarism to civilisation.

But, while the outlook and surroundings ol modern man are different from those of his primitive ancestor, nevertheless, as far as the qualities that make up human nature aie concerned, there is a similarity between both. For instance, we eat when we are hungry, and roar when we are angry. We seek the greatest amount of pleasure, and avoid pain and discomfort as much as possible, and the same qualities characterise the savage. The difference lies in the means employed to procure the food and the kind of pleasure sought; consequently, viewing human nature from this angle, we say that there is a sense in which human nature changes and a sense in which it is always the same. The change of conditions, whether it be a change in the form of society or a change in the conditions ol existing society, does not change the man , they only direct his natural qualities of adaptation into a different path. To illustrate this, we may take the recent war. Here we find the “peaceful citizen,” who, while he shudders at the mention of a social revolution, because to him it means bloodshed, was converted from a man of peace into a man of war, and the greater the amount of blood of his opponents he shed, the more his conduct was commended.

The worker may notice how, when one of his mates has fallen upon more evil times, the helping hand of the shopmates has been extended towards the victim. In the most poverty-stricken slum the same factor of mutual aid can be observed in various directions. The daily Press reports frequently the news of some gallant act performed without hope of reward. It is a fact, as Kropotkin says in his book, “Mutual Aid,” page 292 :—

“Neither the crushing powers of the centralised state, nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came adorned with the attributes of science, from obliging philosophers and sociologists could weed out the feeling of human solidarity, deeply lodged in men’s understanding and heart, because it has been nurtured by all our preceding evolution.”

As we have already indicated, human nature is a complexity of qualities that can either be expressed harmfully or beneficially ; it depends upon the conditions of its existence; and, as we have shown, that, with the change of conditions, there takes place a corresponding change in man’s activities, we assert that with the change from Capitalism to Socialism, those various qualities which go to make up human nature, will be directed into different paths, and the workers, free from capitalist bondage, will thus enjoy the fruits of their labour and live a life of security and happiness.


(Socialist Standard, April 1922)

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