1980s >> 1985 >> no-976-december-1985

Editorial: “It will never work because . . . “

Numerous undesirable social condition have been and still are explained away or justified by the glib remark that “you can’t change human nature”. Yet the science of anthropology shows these conditions to be cultural acquisitions, subject to change, and not the inevitable result of something inherent in people. Let us try to see, then, the particular ways in which human nature is supposed to be unchangeable, and what follows from thinking in this way.

Human nature is held by opponents of socialism, to be unalterable in certain respects that effectively prevent any conscious improvement in social conditions. Human beings, it is said, will go on acting in the same old ways, and so inevitably bring the same problems that have “always” faced them. Of course, if this were the case then it would be useless even to try to improve things, we might as well face the “inevitable” now. But those who hold this view obstinately refuse to have the courage of their convictions, and they are often found taking very active measures to avoid a fate, such as grinding poverty, that they forecast for others.

What are the reasons for holding and propagating the idea that “you can’t change human nature”? From the point of view of those seeking to justify capitalism, there are many reasons. People are unemployed because they are “naturally lazy”; fight wars because they are “naturally belligerent”; cheat, injure and bankrupt each other because they “naturally act on the profit motive”.

There are many variants of these arguments, and not all are put as directly as the examples quoted. Sometimes the objector to social change will try to coat the bitter pill that he forces himself to swallow. “Of course, it would be a good thing if people could always live in peace, but until we get a new race of human beings I am afraid this will be impossible”. He wants social change, but only provided that certain impossible conditions can be fulfilled – which amounts to not wanting social change at all.

We can now see where all these arguments lead. It is toward the prevention of future change through the spread of a philosophy that justifies present evils. If people can be persuaded that what they want is impossible to achieve then they will give up struggling for it. Instead, they will content themselves with whatever crumbs they can pick up within the present set-up, in the knowledge that all social evils from which they suffer are “natural”, and therefore unavoidable.

“Incurably selfish”

There are two main ways in which human nature is said to be unalterable. One is that we are supposed to be universally and incurably selfish, and the other is that mankind is mostly stupid and unteachable, and that intelligence is the prerogative of a few “born” leaders.

Let us examine these statements to see what truth they contain. If we were really incurably selfish, then there could never have been any sort of stable society, because no one would have co-operated with anyone else. If people were really so stupid by nature, then they could never have overcome previous obstacles to the development of their productive forces, and capitalism could never have grown out of feudalism.

When we take a closer look at the “incurably selfish” argument, we see that it rests on the assumption that everything that we do involves loss or sacrifice for other people. Now there is no question that some of the things people do have that effect. But there is equally no question that society depends for its very existence on the fact that there is co-operative behaviour, and that people do work at things which are of no immediate benefit to themselves.

We may infer from this that behaviour which benefits other people is at least as consistent with human nature as that which harms other people. Nevertheless, granting all this, it might still be true that selfishness exists in human nature side by side with social-mindedness, and that therefore it cannot be eradicated. Or, to put it more concretely, there are some things which we need so badly that we will injure other people in order to get them.

The answer to this is that, though such behaviour exists and may even be the general rule in property society, it is not natural to human beings. The fact that there is unselfish behaviour means that selfishness is not inherent in us. People only act selfishly or anti-socially when they can see no other way of obtaining what they desire (by co-operation, for instance) then there is no reason to suppose that they will not choose it when they see that it is better to do so.

Justification for behaviour

It is important not to confuse selfishness with self-interest. Self-interest is the satisfaction of one’s desires at the expense of someone else. Self-interest is an integral part of human nature, but selfishness is not – unless it is assumed that everything we do is at someone else’s expense. But we continually do things without detriment to other people, and the satisfaction of some of our desires, such as companionship and love, involves the satisfaction of other people’s. Any selfish, anti-social behaviour that is present cannot therefore exist in the desires themselves, but only in the way they are sometimes satisfied.

Having seen that there is nothing to human nature that necessitates injuring one another, we must conclude that there is nothing in human nature that necessitates war. War can occur under certain conditions, but as far as human nature is concerned these conditions need not exist.

There is one contradiction in the argument of “selfish human nature” that we must point out. If it really is selfish then we all must share an equal guilt, and it is a case of one sinner condemning another. But those who use the argument give the lie to it themselves, because they impute incurable selfishness only to others and never to themselves. We have never the objector to socialism who seriously maintains that if an article were freely available he would still fight someone for his share.

The real reason for the doctrine of human selfishness is not hard to discover. It is a justification for the anti-social behaviour that a highly competitive society produces. The employer blandly counters the accusation of “selfish profiteering” with “selfish wage demand”, and the worker who is not class-conscious falls for the trick. In reality, all the antagonisms result from the nature of the system that all except socialists support, and not from the selfish natures of either capitalists or workers.

“Stupid and unteachable”

The other way in which human nature is commonly said to be unalterable is that people are, on the whole, stupid and unteachable. Human intelligence is supposed to be too weak to enable people to solve the complex problems that face them – they must fight a losing battle with ignorance. The particular form in which we usually meet this argument is that most people are incapable of understanding socialism. Allied to this is the assertion that ordinary people would never be able to run society in their own interest.

It must be noted that, although most people are supposed to be incapable of understanding what are sometimes called the abstruse principles of socialism, the understanding of such complicated matters as the balance of payments or the American electoral system is assumed to be quite within their power. Propagandists for capitalism never tell us that we are too stupid to understand the tortuous arguments used, for instance, to prove that the way to preserve peace is to prepare for war. The point is not that arguments either way are too complicated and therefore beyond universal comprehension, but that the will to learn is actively discouraged when its threat to the continuation of capitalism becomes apparent.

From the unwarranted assertion that most people are stupid flows the equally unwarranted assertion that therefore they must always have leaders. And why must they have leaders? Because those who are in the position of having a following do not wish to lose their privileged position. The existence of leaders and “the led” implies that the former have the power to make decisions, whereas the latter have not. In co-operative enterprises the concept of leadership is foreign, since all the participants have a common purpose. When you know what you are doing you do not need somebody else to “lead” you to do it. The leader is thus the reflection of “the led”, and the measure of their ignorance (not stupidity), and both disappear when people know what they want and how to get it.

Human nature is strictly what is common to the natures of the vast mass of all human beings. It has nothing to do with possession or non-possession of knowledge, which is governed by environmental factors, such as whether the particular knowledge is available to people.

The varying capacity for acquisition of knowledge means nothing more than that some people learn certain things quicker than others, and does not prove that some are incapable of learning. Language – the expression for all communicable experience – is the possession of humanity as a whole, and it is the crassest prejudice to suppose that its fruits are beyond the reach of any individual or section of society.

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