(Reprinted from The Western Socialist, January-February, 1942)
If ever there was a term whose constant use is rivalled only by an equally constant misuse, that term is Human Nature. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, and politician—all consider themselves qualified, if not expert, to discuss the whys and wherefores of human behaviour. And yet, in spite of its widespread popularity, no other subject, no other field of study is beset by so much ignorance and superstition.
In no other endeavour does man make less progress than in the study of himself and his activity. He has given his life to fathom the mystery of things from murders to the movements of the constellations. With the utmost in perseverance, he has solved many of the unknown in physics, chemistry and other sciences. He has solved many of the phenomena relating to his own physical structure. But when it comes to the thinking and behaviour of a human being, he is content to get nowhere fast. In fact, it appears that he enjoys standing still.
The quest for knowledge in any field has always run a gauntlet of persecution against tradition and superstation. However, in what is commonly referred to as the exact or physical branches of science, proofs have become so obvious that the opposition has been forced to retreat. In the study of sociology and human behaviour, organised superstition has yet to be defeated. The inner-man, his “soul,” his responses are considered something intangible and under the influence of a supernatural power. His actions are looked upon as a product of his own independent and free will. The argument is frequently proposed that human nature cannot be analysed and tabulated in a laboratory as are other subjects of study.
It is a current conception and a constant charge that man’s inhumanity to man, his inate qualities of selfishness and greed are the core of all social ills from poverty to wars, from thefts to depressions. The pious are devout in their claim that man’s difficulties are due to his lack of faith and his ungodliness. The intellectuals are equally consistent in maintaining that the masses are not only incapable but also unwilling to lead a better life. The “practical” men insist that a rigid and authoritative leadership is necessary to control the ignorance and stupidity of the mob.
In almost all social codes and doctrines human nature has become the universal scapegoat, the object of contempt of men everywhere. But instead of natural resentment and righteous indignation arising as a result of this, we seem to take delight in the wickedness and frailties of human nature. Indeed we boast of it as a hopeless affliction. The more optimistic and humanitarian of our fellow men insist that, although a better world is possible, human behaviour must necessarily be improved before that glorious status can be achieved.
Human Nature actually represents the last entrenchment of the anti-socialist. Being no longer able to justify or explain the basic contradictions of capitalism, such as poverty in the midst of plenty, overproduction and war and being unable or unwilling to recognise the bankruptcy of present day society, the defenders of the status quo must invariably become apologetic. What better basis for their position than man’s inhumanity to man ? For, looking narrowly at the world about us, what is more glaring than the abundant evidences of selfishness, greed, persecution and cruelty ?
But here is where the socialist is at a tremendous advantage over the most erudite of capitalist theoreticians. Not only is the Marxist a materialist, that is, not only does he look for a material and physical explanation of all phenomena, but he is also a dialectician. In other words, he does not look at people or society, or at anything for that matter, with a static or stationary viewpoint. Rather, because he is scientific, he conducts his investigation with a view to the processes and developments which all things undergo. Nothing in our environment is static. All things from mice to men are in a constant process of flux and change.
Men are not born with patterns of behaviour. They do not inherit vices or virtues. These qualities are a gift from their environment. Ideas, beliefs, characteristics do not originate in the germ plasm. The new-born babe possesses no knack for mechanics and shares no views on world affairs. He is completely ignorant and indifferent to the state of the nation. He is neither Jew nor Christian, Moslem nor Atheist. He is merely a human being equipped with brain, nervous system, sense organs, digestive tract, and a lusty pair of lungs. Above all—he is open-minded.
Once he is subjected to the influences of his environment, he begins to acquire habits, notions, prejudices, and opinions. He is limited by the scope of his experiences. His training in school and church, his home and associations, his reading, his daily adventures are all contributing factors poured into the mould from which a particular personality will be produced. Like all living organism he will be motivated by the basic impulses of the preservation of himself and his species. The manner and means he will employ in this struggle for existence will be determined by the customs and institutions of society.
Those who wish to impose on human behaviour a pattern of constancy are completely ignorant of man’s history. . For the hundreds of thousands of years of Primitive Tribal Society men lived in small but cooperative communities. All things were owned in common. There were no rich and no poor. Women and the aged or infirm were allotted the tasks close to the community, the making of clothes and the preparing of meals. The young and sturdy among the males were devoted to the hunt and the procurement of food. The wisdom of the elders (of both sexes) found their expression in the tribal councils. Privileged classes were non-existant. In times of plenty, all prospered; in times of famine, all suffered. The prizes of the chase were divided according to the needs of the tribesmen. Even to-day, among eskimos who have been able to resist the white man’s bible and whisky, “mine” and “thine” are words foreign to their language.
Without the existence of private property there was no stealing, for who would steal from himself. Crimes against the tribe usually resulted in ostracism, a punishment worse than death to the gregarious tribesmen. Murders by individuals were, according to historians, rare occurrence and almost invariably involved the obtaining of a mate. Of course, human offerings and religious sacrifices are not to be denied. But they were part of the mores and customs of the tribes. Certainly they are no more reproachful than the commercial offerings of the twentieth century. On rare occasions wars were waged when hunting grounds and fertile valleys essential to the tribe’s well-being were involved. But withal, within each primitive tribal entity was a democratic, harmonious communal life that puts to shame the much-vaunted societies of civilisation.
It does not follow, however, that primitive man was imbued with finer qualities than the humans of later years. Nor is the reader to deduce the inference that we should return to tribal life. But the history of primitive people is indisputable proof that man is capable of living a peaceful and harmonious life.
Man’s social nature is no supernatural or mysterious virtue. In order to live men have had to come together and associate in all types and sizes of communities. A child must of necessity be in the company of parents and adults to survive the early stages of living. In the same way people cannot live alone, isolated from their fellow men. Primitive man was in a constant struggle against wind, rain, storm, fire, and wild animals. In order to successfully combat nature he was forced to come together with his fellow beings. In unity there is strength. In strength there is safety and to the tribesman the survival of the individual was part of the safety and well-being of the tribe.
With the advent of private property, came more permanent dwelling-places, and interchange of products, the domination of tribe by tribe, and the growth of privileged and ruling classes. Whereas formerly man’s struggle for existence represented a unified battle against the elements, the fight for survival now took the form of man against man, class against class, state against state. No longer did man live a harmonious and cooperative life. The road to prosperity was now littered with the weaker and less fortunate over whom the successful had to step.
A society is the sum total of human relationships. The basis of all societies is economics, or the way in which men make their living. From this base there arises the superstructure of society. the ideas, morals, codes, and institutions. Change the way men are organised to make their living and you change the way in which they react to one another. It is this and this alone that explains man’s transition through the stages of primitive tribal society to feudalism and Chattel Slavery to the various developments of our present system. The ever-accelerating advance of new discoveries and inventions have wrought consequent changes in men’s relationships.
If we want to understand the disheartening human behaviour of the present-day, we must seek for an explanation, not in psychological stereotypes, but in the organisation of society. We live in a commodity system. Goods are not produced primarily to satisfy the needs of people, but to be sold on the market for profit. The means of production are all concentrated in the hands of a very few who live by virtue of their ownership. On the other hand we have the overwhelming majority of the world whose only means of livelihood is the selling of their energies, physical and mental, to those who own and control the machinery of wealth production. The few live well; the many dwell precariously close to a subsistence level.
It is a competitive world in which success is measured in dollars and cents. The scrupulous, the good-natured, those who will not rise at the expense of other, are forgotten men and women who will never bleed the blue of the upper class. It is an economy in which greed and selfishness are the prerequisites of a secure and prosperous life. Consequently, in order to live, man is compelled to develop these characteristics and to strive for personal achievement whatever the cost to his fellow men.
In such a world it is not practical to be unselfish and co-operative. What benefits one class hurts the other it is each for himself and the devil take the hindmost. The contradictions of capitalist society with its wasteful competition are not limited to individuals and classes within a country. In the quest for markets and trade routes on the part of national capitalist interests, the competitions of peace invariably give way to the conflicts of war, and the world finds itself again embroiled in a slaughter of unparalleled proportions.
Yet, in spite of all the greed and deceit, in spite of the brutality and ruthlessness of capitalist society, man is still a social being, and is quick to rally to the aid of his fellow men. It is not uncommon for men to sacrifice their own lives for the well-being of others. In every catastrophe there are always spontaneous efforts to help and assist the stricken and the unfortunate.
The present war is an excellent example of man’s social impulses.
Actually it is being waged for economic and political supremacy among rival capitalist factions. But in the minds of those in the front lines, the purpose is conceived as a humanitarian one. They are fighting to destroy a menace. They are killing in the conviction that humanity will benefit. They are dying in the hope that by their death a new and better world will come to life.
It is not the creation of a more virtuous man that is needed, not an improvement in human behaviour, but the establishment of a social system that will be conducive to an expression of man’s social nature. A society in which existence will be based on the pursuit of progressive and co-operative endeavours. Not only is man capable of living a better life, but the time is now ripe for its establishment. For the first time in history the world is capable of providing an abundance of wealth, more than enough to satisfy the needs of every individual. Modern science has contributed the knowledge and machinery necessary to transpost the biblical promises of milk and honey into twentieth-century reality.
There is only one obstacle standing in the way of a new day and that is the set of ideas that exist in the minds of men. From early childhood our thoughts and conceptions have been trained and nurtured along set patterns. In school and church we are imbued with set notions and prejudices. By the time we have passed adolescence we have a whole host of definite impressions and stereotyped convictions which we are wont to discard. Most of what we know of the world that lies outside our own direct experience is made up more of cursory impressions than of facts, more of myth than reality. Outside of the individual’s limited environment, his contacts with the world are for the most part second, third, or fourth hand. This limitation also holds true for men in high political offices, who rarely are acquainted with the problems and events over which they exercise authority.
It is undeniable that only a few of us have attained any degree of objectivity in our observations. The great majority of us mortals harbour a large repertoire of prejudices and faulty impressions. But the mistaken concepts, hackneyed ideas and ill-advised standards which we flatter to call our reason is a direct reflection of our environment. For example, if we believe in the nonsense that all Jews are shrewd and grabbing, we are reflecting what our training has taught us to believe.
It is particularly difficult in times such as the present, when we are bombarded from every source by propaganda and distortions, to think clearly and accurately regarding the social forces that have engulfed us. In fact, it is difficult to think at all. But the very conditions that make a clear picture difficult makes clear thinking all the more vital.
To the casual observer who has matured beyond the slogans and shibboleths that are intoxicating our senses, it appears inconceivable that any sort of decent life can emerge from the present horror and degradation. It is a world gone mad. However, all is not lost. The war is but further evidence that capitalism can no longer function in the interest of humanity.
It will not require many more years of privation and confusion before men realise the futility of killing each other in the interests of their masters. It will not be beyond the intelligence of the men and women of the post-war world to realise the possibilities of our scientific age. We need not be wary of the man’s ability to adjust himself to a new and better world. Socialism has become more than a dream for the future, it has become the prime need of to-day. Expediency demands a socialist world—if we are to survive.