1980s >> 1982 >> no-939-november-1982

What socialism means

In a world rotten to the core with human suffering it is easy to forget the richness and beauty of the natural environment. The artificiality of a society over which the mass of humanity has virtually no control obscures the foundations upon which social existence is built.

Urban industrial life, under a system which puts profits before needs, deforms the relationship between nature and human beings. Alienated from ownership or control of our material base — the world in which we live — living often seems to run contrary to nature; our lives appear as a struggle against material forces, as though there were a conspiracy of the universe against the overwhelmed individual. You want to eat, to live in a decent home, to be fully mobile, to enjoy the pleasures of the world — but the world refuses to let you. “It’s a crazy world”, people often say. But it is not the natural environment which is crazy. Natural forces do not condemn the hungry to starvation or the homeless to permanent insecurity. Nature can potentially satisfy most of our material wants.

Is it, then, the people of the world who are bad? Badness and goodness are human concepts which- reflect moral perceptions: we are no more inherently bad than we are inherently good. The evils of capitalism are not a consequence of the will of bad people. The old shiver and die in the winter cold, too poor to pay for heat; their suffering is no more the consequence of “badness” than “goodness”. There is nothing in the human make-up which makes us behave as we do.

Nature is not greed, aggression, selfishness, laziness and competition. We have a capacity to act in such ways, just as every baby has a capacity not to. Nature is sunlight, rain, birth, death, earthquakes, eating and excreting. When we pour cold water down our mouths on a hot day or sense the coldness of ice or rolling in the grass, we then exhibit human nature. When soldiers shoot with guns they are behaving, but not naturally. Human nature comprises those characteristics by which the human species is defined and constrained. Human behaviour is social; it is limited only by the forces of matter and the workings of the human brain.

The earliest human society, which lasted for tens of thousands of years, was communistic in its organisation. Primitive humans were at one with nature, in that they respected the natural environment, utilising it for their own natural objectives. Modern humans have learnt to control nature in ways that our ancestors would have thought unnatural. We virtually dominate the universe, but our system of society denies us the power to utilise nature for our own ends. We are capable, for example, of doing the necessary productive work to feed, clothe and shelter every human being on the face of the earth, but the capitalist system denies us the chance to use the productive forces to their fullest capacity. We live in fear of our knowledge, for instead of using it to produce all that we want there is the imminent threat of science being employed for the purpose of social destruction.

Perhaps we should turn to the simple life, unbothered by scientific knowledge and control — could that be the path to unity with nature? To stamp out centuries of human evolution — to hope pathetically for a dose of collective amnesia so that we may forget the recipes for bombs and the indignities of poverty — is no answer. It is impossible to fight against history and win even the presently complacent conservatives wilt discover that lesson one day.

Cynical resignation to the reality of the present is no answer either. To sacrifice potential social happiness for the sake of a non-existent omnipotent “Nature” is a waste of our short lives. Why conform to a system which tramples on your human potential when there is not a scrap of evidence to show that it must go on existing and plenty to show that it will not?

To live with the belief that your condition is predetermined is unhistorical and a colossal waste. Consider the Athenian slave or the feudal serf, refusing to envisage life beyond their respective chains of servitude. Think of the factory workers of the late eighteenth century who accepted the bosses’ stick as a “fact of life” or the South African black worker for whom it is “natural” not to enter places where white people go. Now the slave and the serf have made way for the wage slave. The label of oppression has changed, as has the process of exploitation, but a class of propertyless. socially inferior beings remains. The non-possession of the earth is still the lot of the majority; the parasitic power of the ruling class differs in form only.

Trapped in a time-lock of social evolution, the majority of workers think that nothing except capitalism has ever existed, and even if it has, nothing else will ever come. Nature is seen to determine the system and to challenge these false dogmas is to be accused of being at best a crank and at worst a wrecker.

In a sense, socialists are cranks and wreckers. Our refusal to accept the beliefs which keep the system standing makes us cranks in the eyes of those who define sanity. To those who wish to conserve class monopoly, exploitation, poverty and war, we revolutionaries are wreckers; and without doubt we do want to destroy such a society. Those who possess but do not produce will use any method they can to defend their privilege. Once the myth of god sufficed: “God says you must obey us, so you had better or you will face everlasting damnation”. The modern capitalist line is that to envisage a world without wage labour and capital is to entertain visions of the “unnatural”. We are told time and time again that we have “forgotten human nature”.

Think of the arguments against socialism. “It can’t work”; “What about the greedy, lazy, war-like, unco-operative person”; “you’re forgetting that society is made up of human beings”; “freedom is impossible because of human nature”. Socialists have heard these responses almost as many times as we have been told to “go back to Russia”. Thousands of times the same old cliched objections to socialism are trotted out, all of them based on the myth of human nature. But repetition of an argument — or its widespread popularity — does not prove its validity. For many years it was often repeated and widely believed that the earth was flat. The denial of the possibility of socialism on the grounds that the new system would conflict with human nature is not made by coincidence: such a belief is historical and political, it arises out of particular social relationships and it exists to serve a specific class interest.

Human nature is an ideological concept designed to shield those who benefit from the status quo against change. The first response of someone who sees something happening which he or she fears is to say that “it can’t happen”; likewise, an historically redundant class can only meet the political challenge of socialism by assuming that “it can’t happen”. The capitalists, and their defenders, will give as proof the fact that socialism has never “happened” before. And that which has not existed cannot exist. Such a method of analysis conflicts directly with the most fundamental principle of history and science: that all things change, and all reality is preceded by the conception of that reality, in one form or another, in the human brain.

To maintain their mythical contentions, the Human Nature Brigade must abandon history and science. Had they been told a century and a half ago that society would include an intricate network of motorised road transport, all regulated by a generally self-administered highway code, the believers in human nature would have claimed that “it can’t happen. Drivers won’t stop at traffic lights. Pedestrians will walk in front of fast cars. There will be multiple pile-ups in every street every other day. Road co-operation is an impossible dream”. But, by and large, the transition from the horse and cart to motor transport has worked — and would work even better if the stress and inefficiency of capitalism was taken away. Co-operation does happen now in certain social contexts; people “feel good” when they are able to behave co-operatively. In a socialist society conscious human co-operation will be a natural form of social behaviour — killing, plundering, exploiting and oppressing will seem as unnatural to a socialist community as the idea of having a society without those features seems to most people today.

The need for a socialist society, based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production and distribution, is an urgent one. Our daily experiences of life under capitalism tell us that this competitive, jungle society does not and cannot work in the material interest of the majority of the population, who produce the wealth but do not possess it. Socialism becomes a meaningful idea to workers when it is realised that instead of trying to survive in conflict with everyone else, as if this were the only possible way, the answer is to survive by co-operating with the rest of humanity.

Steve Coleman