1990s >> 1999 >> no-1138-june-1999

Book Reviews


    * Just war
    * What is human nature?

    * Pensions

Just war

The Face of War. By Martha Gellhorn. Granta, £7.99

To commemorate the author’s death last year Granta reissued Gellhorn’s collection of war correspondence. Covering most of the twentieth century’s wars, from the civil war in Spain to the US invasion of Panama, this is an impressive record. However most of us have heard the old “war is hell” stuff ad nauseum. What will be of interest is Gellhorn’s general explanation for conflict: “leaders make wars” and also her conclusion that there can be a “just war'”—that is one against exceptionally bad or aggressive leaders.

According to Gellhorn there were several “just” wars this century including the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Vietnam war (Vietnamese side) and the Israeli-Arab wars (Israeli side). The reasoning is fairly obvious: atrocity-mongering dictators have to be prevented, small nations deserve independence. What is being played here is the “good war, bad war” game. Choose your war and let your prejudices decide which side is the “goodies” (i.e. “morally right”). Ignore anything that gets inconveniently in the way. The 1939-45 war for example was apparently a war against fascism (despite the existence of neutral Spanish and Portuguese fascisms), and for democracy (despite totalitarian Russia being on “our” side). The idea that “this war was made to abolish Dachau and places like (it) forever” is equally absurd given the continued existence of concentration camps first in Russia and now in the Balkans.

And apparently in a just war anything goes. The “bad side” gets a hammering but that’s okay because they’re the “bad guys”. Thus the Germans in the 1939-45 war deserved everything they got. So it’s okay to roast folk alive in air raids if they’re on the “‘wrong side” (“You can’t really learn to like those people—unless they’re dead”, p. 184). Similarly Gellhorn has the audacity to say that Palestinians are better off as refugees (p. 309). So much for Gellhorn’s alleged “humanity, compassion and wisdom” (blurb on back).

No matter what the real or alleged atrocities of the “bad” side however, wars are quarrels over control of territory and resources between different sections of the capitalist class—business rivalry by other means. The working class can have no interest in such matters. The result of a “just” war is the same as a “bad” war—we get the hammering. The only “worthwhile” war is the class war—the fight against war.



What is human nature?

Marxism and Human Nature. By Sean Sayers. Routledge. 1998.

There are two ways of answering the objection that “you can’t change human nature”. One is to say “oh yes you can” and to point to how humans have been different in different times and in different places. The other is to say “we don’t need to change human nature; it is only human behaviour that needs to change” and to point to how humans’ behaviour has been determined by the sort of society they live in and has varied with this while their biological make-up has remained unchanged.

Marx, who came to socialism via philosophy, adopted the first approach. We in the Socialist Party, with the benefit of the findings of biological and anthropological research since Marx’s day, have adopted the second. Not that the two are incompatible. Both refer to the same facts and draw the same conclusion—that an unchanging human nature is not a barrier to socialism working—but what is meant by “human nature” is different.

In the one case it is the traditional philosophical idea of “what underlies and determines human behaviour” (and in German the term is “human essence” rather than “human nature”). In the other a distinction is drawn between “human nature” as the biological, or natural, make-up of humans and “human behaviour” as the way humans behave, with the former underlying but not determining the latter, with in fact a key part of humans’ biological make-up being precisely the capacity to adapt to a wide variety of behaviour patterns.

Even though Marx gave its content a historical and so changing character, the philosophical definition he inherited still has some problems even with this amendment. How do you describe the features of human nature in this sense? How can you tell what it is at any particular time in human history? In what sense can it be said to determine human behaviour? Is it in fact any different from human behaviour? Why use (in English) the term “nature” when what is being referred to is not natural in the sense of being determined by nature but is admittedly socially-determined?

Sayers ignores, not to say rejects, the contribution that science has made to the question of human nature. He only mentions two anthropologists: the title (Man Makes Himself) of a book he likes by V. Gordon Childe and Marshall Sahlins and his Stone Age Economics. In fact he doesn’t really give any clear definition of what he means by “human nature”; you have to gather from the text that he means something like “human needs and powers”. But this is so vague that it leaves the door open to all sorts of unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable speculations as to what human nature might be.

Sayers’s contribution to this debate (which anyone can join in) is to lay down that the need to be employed is now a part of human nature. We don’t think this is quite what Marx had in mind. After all, it would mean that his key demand for the abolition of the wages system would go against human nature.




Pensions – Who Pays? National Pensions Convention

A pamphlet from the National Pensions Convention outlining the history of State pensions in Britain and of how this reform is now in danger of being whittled away by a government formed by the party which used to champion it. Price £1 post free from NPC Research Committee, 8 Milner Place, London N1 1TN.



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