Arguments for socialism: Is 'human nature' up to it?

[Green Left Weekly, #275, May 21, 1997]

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, "human nature" is often the final defensive position of apologists for capitalism. Any sort of truly egalitarian society is impossible, it is claimed, because people are naturally greedy and competitive. The ambitious and aggressive will always form an elite which will dominate society, irrespective of any economic arrangements. Thus socialism is a utopian fantasy — it is against "human nature".

One of the key ideological arguments of capitalism is that a greater social good comes through the capitalist owners pursuing their private self-interest (greed). This is an utterly ludicrous proposition. It is similar to the ideology of the "free market": there is no conscious planning to meet human needs, but nonetheless it is supposedly the most "efficient" way to allocate goods and services.

For all the pious claptrap from political and business leaders about service to the community and observance of basic rules and decencies, it is clear that the real operating principle of capitalist society is greed. The greed of the millionaire shareholders of the big corporations is sacred: nothing must threaten company profits or shake investor confidence.

The lives of thousands of Newcastle steelworkers are today being sacrificed to corporate greed: this was perversely demonstrated when the "market" hailed BHP's obscene decision by sharply boosting the company's share price.

The drug trade, with its train of wrecked lives and official corruption, is easily explained. It is simply a business which offers an exceptionally high rate of return on capital invested. The "drug barons" are very successful "entrepreneurs", the modern equivalent of the slave-traders of capitalism's bloody period of "primitive accumulation".

As Marx pointed out, the dominant ideas and values of society are always those of the ruling class. It is not surprising that the authentic capitalist values of getting ahead, climbing the greasy pole and looking out for number one should be so widespread. But while wealth and greed are paraded and exalted all around us, in life and in advertisements and in the media, this is far from the whole story. Society could not function if it were.

There is a world of difference between the profit-driven "self-interest" of the capitalist ruling class and its hangers-on, and the "self-interest" of working people struggling for jobs, housing, child-care, education, health care and a decent environment. Cooperation, solidarity and real concern for others — these qualities exist in abundance in society among ordinary people.

Every strike, for instance, is a victory over the bosses' attempts to sow division and suspicion among their employees and pit one worker against another. Workers often show exemplary solidarity and make great sacrifices in their fight for better wages and conditions and other demands.

Not all the treachery of the Laborite trade union bureaucracy can entirely kill these impulses. They arise from the objective position of the working class as collective operators of society's means of production and distribution.

Another example, highly pertinent in times of drastic cuts to social services, is the often extraordinary effort made by people — especially women, on whom this burden largely falls — to care for dependent family members, frequently at tremendous personal cost.

Such considerations are sufficient to show that there is no fixed, static, universal human nature. Rather, "human nature" is a dynamic category, capable of sharp changes in times of struggle and upheaval.

It was not for nothing that Lenin referred to revolutions as "festivals of the oppressed". In a period of sharp political tensions and broad social struggles, whole new perspectives can open up for wide layers of ordinary people. Those who previously existed passively, trying merely to survive and without any real hope of their situation improving, can be transformed by the experience of mass struggles.

The huge French upsurge of December 1995 demonstrated this once again: a sense of hope and solidarity gripped millions of people; alienation and racism receded as masses of people united to halt the reactionary government offensive. One might say that during the strike "human nature" was transformed.

Such examples refute all cynics and superficial observers. We should be confident that there is no obstacle inherent in the human psyche to the struggle for socialism and a better world. And once we have gotten rid of capitalism and established a society worthy of human beings, a new social psychology and ethic will arise — cooperative, collectivist and solidaristic.