Human Nature and Socialism


In this and five succeeding articles we shall outline the socialist view of the human aspect of society. In doing so we hope to make it clear why we believe that a new form of society, more in harmony with human needs and desires, is within the bounds of possible achievement. We may also be able to dispel some of the prejudices that exist concerning the aim of the socialist movement.

It is no exaggeration to say that most objections to Socialism are basically forms of asserting “it’s against human nature.” We do not underestimate the difficulties of overcoming the comforting feeling that the present system, despite its shortcomings, is “natural” and incapable of being fundamentally changed. The real defence of capitalism consists in perpetuating the myth (which need not be explicit to have its effect) that no other system is possible.

To the casual observer it seems strange that such great strides should have been made by science in the non-human or material side of nature and so few in the essentially human side. The explanation of this is to be found in the fact that the motor of history within private property society has been the development of the means of production. Under the stimulus of the need to increase productivity in order to compete successfully with rivals, capitalists have spent much money on research into all branches of science that aid this. Small wonder that the sciences of society—sociology, history, anthropology, etc.—have shown such meagre advances in comparison. Other fields of study, e.g. psychology and ethics, hardly rank as sciences because they have remained chained to idealism and religion.

We must not, however, underestimate the changes that are being brought about in the climate of ideas. The declining power of religion and the scientific (if not political) death of the dogmas of racism are evidence that man’s knowledge of himself in society is growing rapidly. Old prejudices and false ideas are being swept away because they do not fit into the pattern of knowledge generated by the complex society in which we live.

Every Individual Counts

The essence of the socialist case is that man can have the sort of world that will solve his present problems, by accepting the ideas necessary to bring it into being and to sustain it. But it is not merely a question of getting a majority of people to say—“ Yes, Socialism is a good idea—let’s have it.” With the changing of the ideas that predominate now must come a changing of the ways in which people are accustomed to look at every aspect of life.

So long as people believe that as things are so they have always been, they will not be in a position to take the requisite action to change them to achieve desired ends. They may agree with us when we point out the need for change, but will excuse themselves from taking any action by making some such remark as “ it’s a good idea, but it will never come in my lifetime so what’s the use? ”

The reduction of the worker to the status of a cog in a vast machine helps to foster the feeling that the views of one individual make no difference to the total, and therefore no difference to what is “bound” to happen. Yet those who, at election times, seek support for the continuation of capitalism do not take this view—they stress that every vote counts, which, of course, it does. They know that there is nothing inevitable about the electorate choosing one of the parties of capitalism. It is only when trying to combat the case for Socialism that they seek to deny the effect of individual views.

We are concerned not merely with explaining Socialism but also with overcoming all the factors that hinder the growth of socialist ideas. Not the least of these is the false concept of his own nature that man has built up within property society. From time to time he has believed himself to be the plaything of the gods, the victim of a predestined fate, or the product of a mathematical mind behind the universe. All such views have had the effect (usually, but not necessarily, intended) of making him resigned to his lot, and of turning him away from any constructive action to change it. “It’s human nature” has been more often used in extenuation of the avoidable ills, malpractices, injustices and cruelties of men than any other phrase in the language.

Meaning of Human Nature

There is probably no more misused and misunderstood term in the language than ‘human nature.’ Everyone has used it, but few have understood it. In order to dear away some of the confusion, let us refer to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which takes over 500 words to define ‘nature.’ In connection with ‘human’ it gives:

The general inherent character or disposition of mankind.
More fully human nature.
e.g. Modern. It’s only human nature to do that.

The compilers of the dictionary must be congratulated upon choosing an example that illustrates well the looseness and vagueness of the term. They might have chosen a commoner example, such as ‘it’s only human nature to be selfish’—but then they would have been in the position of saying that selfishness is the general inherent character of mankind. Caution is indicated to all who would enlarge upon what it is ‘human nature’ to do.

We are, however, safe in saying that human nature is the nature (as defined above) of human beings. That being so, it must obviously only apply (even with the qualifying adjective ‘general ’) to the vast mass of all human beings. It is not the nature of all Britons, or of all the people in the world at present, that is under discussion, but what is common to the natures of human beings, as a species, since they first inhabited the earth. Since this is generally agreed to have been anything between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago, care must be taken lest a character is wrongly attributed to human nature. Love of money, for example, could only have arisen when money did (about 5,000 years ago) and is therefore not “natural” to human beings.

“Human nature” only applies to those characters which all human beings share. It is reasonable to include among these such universal needs as shelter, clothing, work, play, companionship and love. Human life can exist, at least for a time, without these things, but they may be regarded for all practical purposes, as universal and basic.

But the term “human nature” is seldom applied in this way. When used correctly, it usually supports some other statement that is fully capable of standing on its own merits, such as “ he needs to be loved—it’s only human nature.” Only when an attempt is being made to prove a doubtful assertion is it extended beyond its true meaning. Take the example quoted earlier, “it’s only human nature to be selfish.” If it is possible to show that any significant number of men have not been selfish, then “human nature” is not applicable. Some other phrase, such as “human behaviour,” must be used to indicate that selfishness is the attribute of only some men under certain conditions.

Heredity and Environment

We must now introduce a concept that is of the greatest importance to an understanding of the socialist view of human nature. It concerns the parts that heredity and environment play in human evolution.

The first thing to recognise is that man’s bodily structure has had little to do with his progress. For all practical purposes, modern men have the same physiological organs as the earliest men. But the products of human evolution—ideas, theories, social organisations and the like—do change, and are, in effect, what distinguish men of one period of history from those of another.

Physical characteristics, such as colour of eyes, skin and shape of head are inherited through the genes, according to certain reasonably well-defined laws, the details of which need not concern us here. But the characteristics which count in the field of human endeavour are not, and cannot be transmitted by physiological reproduction. Each individual must acquire them anew from the human environment in which he is born and develops. Ideas, ways of thinking, habits, motives—in short, the psychological features as distinct from the anatomical—are given to the individual by all the influences of the human world, by the state of society in which his development proceeds.

“Humanity, as a whole, is the only organism which transmits the products of human evolution. A man does not derive them from his parents; they contribute almost nothing in that respect. Every man is born a wild little animal, susceptible of developing into a howling savage, a man of the fifth century, of the fifteenth century, of the twentieth or of the twenty-fifth. It is the vast organism, the human world, which makes him what he is, and determines to what stage of human evolution he shall belong.” (“The Making of Humanity,” by Robert Briffault, p. 64.)

From this, it follows that there is nothing in the biological make-up of man that makes one system of society possible and another impossible. What determines this is the behaviour of people, which is the product of all the environmental influences.

Social anthropologists point out that had any one of us been reared among Hottentots his behaviour would be that of a Hottentot. And if we were to be transferred, even as adults, to a social culture radically different from the one in which we grew up, our behaviour would, in time, begin to resemble that of the people in the new surroundings more so than our former habits. It is only because we remain in the environment in which our habits originally arose that our behaviour stays fairly constant.


(Next Article: “You Can’t Change Human Nature”)

Leave a Reply