Is socialism against human nature?
I have been reading the Socialist Standard for a year now and I find myself in not inconsiderable agreement with most of the views expressed in it. I have a question regarding the relation between our ideals and some fashionable trends in science and philosophy nowadays. It’s a familiar question, but for me a most important one. So far I have not found a satisfactory answer in the Socialist Standard, but this may be due to my own negligence.
As you know from many publications, neo-Darwinism holds that human beings, just like all other beings, are determined to fight for everything that enhances their own well-being, but not for things that don’t. Conservatives and liberals use this idea to defend their economic principles.
On the other hand, we think that a socialist society will only come about as a result of people’s determination to take as much as they need, and to contribute as much as they can. But neo-Darwinism says that, generally speaking, people will never be prepared to act in this way. Indeed, it believes that the inclinations of some people (such as the members of the Socialist Party) to act as real socialists must be explained in terms of underlying drives and goals that cohere with neo- Darwinism philosophy. Compare with the thought that altruists arc really egoists in a more sophisticated way.
So it seems that, if neo-Darwinism is right, socialism must be wrong. Or do they not contradict each other? What do you think? It will not be sufficient to answer that current attitudes will change once we will have changed our institutions and our educational system. For neo-Darwinism will counter you by saying that institutional and educational change could not possibly change our genes. If neo-Darwinism is right, do we therefore have to change our own biological constitution in the process to socialism? This is where things become really interesting. Please enlighten me.
If those you call “neo-Darwinians” hold that humans are prepared to struggle for everything that enhances their own well-being but not for a society where people contribute as much as they can and take according to their needs then they are being inconsistent.
This is because such a society would enhance people’s individual well-being. Socialism does not require people to be altruists acting against their own self-interest. Socialism is in people’s self- interest. It is certainly not against it.
What those who claim that there is something in our genes that would prevent humans living in a socialist society are in effect saying is that humans are genetically programmed to behave against their best interest. Which is absurd.
So their argument is logically flawed but it is also factually wrong. There is no evidence that human behaviour is genetically determined. In humans genes don’t govern complex social behaviour patterns like greed or, for that matter, generosity; they only govern physical characteristics like hair colour or a prospensity to develop certain diseases.
Human behaviour is distinguished from that of all other animals precisely by its high degree of flexibility and adaptability. In so far as the genetic make-up of the members of the species homo sapiens governs our behaviour it is through allowing it to be flexible.
Further, we are — again, biologically — social animals. We live in societies and could not develop on our own as lone individual or family units as some animals do. For instance, speech and all that this enables us to do that other animals can’t — construct cultures and civilisations — is a social product and can only be acquired in and through society.
Both speech and the physical ability to speak could only have evolved through co-operation in an animal group that was capable of practising co-operation. Without this ability to co-operate the human species would never have evolved. Which is why some anthropologists see co-operation rather than the struggle of each against all as being the characteristic human behaviour pattern.
You ask for evidence of all this. Read The Evolution of Culture by Leslie A. White or any book by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu. Read sensible Darwinians such as Stephen J. Gould. And for a thorough refutation of the view that human behaviour patterns are governed by particular genes read the collective work Not In Our Genes (by Steven Rose. R.C. Lewonkin and Leon J. Kamin).
Finally, when Desmond Morris. Robert Ardrey. Konrad Lorenz and the others were peddling these ideas, the Socialist Standard published a number of articles refuting them. If you—or anyone else—are interested in them copies arc still available.
The article “The Kurdish Question”
was excellent (Socialist Standard
, January). But how does maximizing “trade union and democratic rights” become a “springboard” for attaining socialism?
I though that was what the World Socialism Movement was for. Otherwise it sounds like capitalist reformist politics to me.
We have always said that the best framework for the growth of the majority socialist understanding needed before socialism can be established is political democracy, limited and distorted though it must be under capitalism.
We have also always said, following on from this, that socialists in countries where political democracy docs not exist should campaign for this as well as for socialism. This is not reformism because such socialists would not be campaigning for capitalist political democracy as an end in itself with their own reform programme for achieving power nor would we envisage them joining with non-socialists to campaign for this in these countries. What we envisage is socialists — such as any hypothetical Kurdish-speaking socialists in Turkey, Iraq. Iran or Syria — campaigning independently for this at the same time as campaigning for socialism. Certainly they cannot campaign for setting up a Kurdish State and still be regarded as socialists. That’s what we’d call capitalist reformist politics.
The Rev. John Papworth
who described stealing from a supermarket as a reallocation of resources has done a great service in drawing our attention to the nature of society, and how our concepts of behaviour and morality are related to our material circumstances.
While stealing may be regarded as immoral according to Christian teaching, there is much greater immorality in our economy in that it allocates resources in accordance with profit rather than need. It is understandable that a person with little or no monetary resources is tempted to steal in order satisfy his or her needs.
In a different, alternative kind of society, where people would have the freedom of access to the wealth produced, taking what you want would not be regarded as stealing and would, therefore, not be regarded as immoral.
What would Michael Howard. Jack Straw and all the other defenders of capitalist morality and legality make of the following news item sent us by a reader in Canada?
“STATE OF NEED” SUCCESSFUL AS THEFT DEFENCE IN FRANCE
A court dismissed shoplifting charges against a woman who admitted stealing food to feed her children, based its ruling on a turn-of-the-century law favouring the needy.
Supermarkets where the theft occurred said they would appeal the decision by a court in Poitiers. 320 kilometres southwest of Paris.
Annick Grippon, 36, admitted shoplifting meat and sausages on several occasions to feed her three-year-old son and teenage daughter.
Her lawyer, Philippe Brottier, found a nearly century-old “state of need” defence used by courts to dismiss cases against hungry citizens who stole bread.
(Times Colonist, 2 March)