Is “human nature” a barrier to socialism?

About The Author

Canyon Lalama is an activist with Socialist Alternative, CWI USA
The world is a mess. War, poverty, and oppression are now part of the daily lives of billions round the globe. Even during the last boom 80% of the world’s population – 5.4 billion people – lived on less than $10 a day. Now that the world is in the midst of this crisis even the head of the World Bank has said it will result in “a human and developmental calamity… the number of chronically hungry people is expected to climb over 1 billion this year”. The wars in the middle east, enviromental destruction and worsening economic turmoil are only the most recent striking examples of the crises facing humanity.

At the root of this suffering is the economic, social, and political system of capitalism. Capitalism has given rise to large multinational corporations that are locked into a system of cut-throat competition, where corporations single-mindedly pursue short-term profits, power, and resources, regardless of the human cost.

Corporations and imperialist countries may have taken over the world, but millions of impoverished, oppressed people from Lebanon to Iraq, Venezuela to Mexico, are fighting back. Since the outbreak of the international economic crisis movements of workers and young people, in the more advanced capitalist countries, fighting against attcks on their living standards have shown the huge anger building up from below.

Many of the people involved in these struggles are searching for an alternative to the misery of capitalism, and many, especially in Latin America, are again beginning to turn towards socialism. However, people often come up against arguments that socialism is unrealistic because it goes against “human nature”. This article attempts to answer some of these questions about socialism.

Aren’t people motivated by money? Wouldn’t socialism stifle hard work and innovation?

In reality, it is capitalism that stifles the motivation and creativity of the majority of the population  “the working class”. There is nothing more unmotivating than being forced to do the same repetitive job for 8 or 12 hours per day just to pay your bills.

As the American socialist Eugene Debs put it: “[People] do not shrink from work, but from slavery. The [person] who works primarily for another does so primarily under compulsion, and work so done is the very essence of slavery.”

After 40-plus hours of mind-numbing work and other life pressures, most workers have no time to develop their creative skills and talents. To make matters worse, under capitalism workers have no incentive to develop labor-saving inventions and more efficient methods of work. In a fiercely competitive market economy, greater labor productivity generally leads to layoffs and a more thorough exploitation of the workforce, sending profits up and workers’ living standards down.

But if workers collectively owned and managed their workplaces in a democratic socialist economy rather than taking orders from a boss, workers would be much more motivated. Every new innovation would mean either less working hours or higher living standards.

And if all jobs provided good pay, benefits, and security, people would pursue careers they enjoyed rather than jobs that just provide economic security, which would make people far more productive.

Aren’t people too greedy and selfish for socialism to work?

There is a difference between selfishness and self-interest. There is absolutely no doubt that human beings look out for their self-interests, and the struggle for socialism is completely in line with this tendency. Socialists fight to achieve a living minimum wage for all, for free national healthcare, free public education through college, affordable housing for all, and other programs that would dramatically raise the standard of living for the vast majority.

As the history of the trade union movement has shown, working people have the most power to improve our lives when we work collectively instead of desperately trying to succeed as individuals in a system rigged against us.

Ironically, it is the same pro-capitalist ideologues who preach that people are too “greedy” for socialism who then turn around to demand workers “tighten their belts for the common good” whenever they want to lower our wages, lay us off, or cut our social programs.

But self-interest is not the only thing that guides us. Take a look at the amount of people doing volunteer work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 65 million Americans volunteered in some way in 2005.

After Hurricane Katrina, individuals around the country donated $4.25 billion to help the victims, whereas corporations donated a pitiful $400 million (Charity Navigator, 8/8/06). These figures show the enormous sacrifice and solidarity working people are capable of.

Won’t socialism result in a dictatorship like in Russia?

The monstrous bureaucratic dictatorships in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere were a complete negation of genuine democratic socialism. At the same time, it is crucial for socialists today to study the experience of the Russian revolution in order to explain the reasons behind its bureaucratic degeneration, which lay in specific historical conditions, not human nature.

The Russian revolution of 1917 was the first time the working class overthrew capitalism and started building a new socialist society. The early Soviet Union was the most democratic government the world has ever seen: ordinary workers and peasants ran society democratically through workers’ councils (called soviets). It was one of the very first countries in the world to give women full legal rights, including the right to vote and have abortions, and to legalize homosexuality.

The Bolshevik leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, always explained it was impossible to build socialism in one country by itself, especially in the undeveloped and semi-feudal conditions of Russia. They argued the Russian revolution would only survive if it spread to the powerful capitalist countries of Western Europe.

The major imperialist powers themselves recognized that the Russian revolution was not a purely local affair, but threatened capitalism internationally. They therefore moved, along with the Russian capitalists and landlords, to instigate a bloody civil war to overthrow the new Soviet government. 21 countries, including the U.S., France, and Britain, invaded Russia to help the counter-revolution.

Decisive in the Bolshevik victory in the civil war was the wave of revolutions throughout Europe and the world, sparked by the Russian Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ call for workers to rise up against World War One. The revolutionary uprisings in Germany and across Europe brought the war to a decisive end, and compelled the ruling class internationally to withdraw their troops from Russia in order to avoid further upheavals at home.

Unfortunately, these revolutions did not succeed in overthrowing capitalism. This was because unlike in Russia there was no mass revolutionary party that was willing to lead the revolutions through to completion. Instead, the mass working-class parties in Europe were dominated by reformist leaders who played a decisive role in saving capitalism.

So, while the Soviet Union defeated the attempt at counter-revolution, it remained isolated. The bloody civil war left the country in shambles with the masses exhausted, unemployed, and hungry. This laid the basis for the rise of a conservative, bureaucratic caste. The bureaucracy, centered around Stalin, consolidated power in its hands in the 1920s and 1930s and demolished the democratic rights the Russian working class had won.

The many revolutions in the neocolonial world and Europe that subsequently took place unfortunately looked to Russia as an example to follow, and the Soviet government was able to export their Stalinist model to China, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

Is capitalism part of human nature?

The ruling class would have us believe that capitalism or class society is the inevitable result of human nature. While biology determines certain aspects of our behavior, human nature is not a permanent, unchanging thing that magically fell from the sky. How we act, and how we relate to the world and each other, develops in response to the changing material conditions of society and our relationship to the natural world.

For millions of years, people lived in egalitarian, nomadic hunter-and-gatherer societies. Food, shelter, and the necessities of survival were equally shared throughout society. Only after the agricultural revolution, when nomadic tribes settled down to cultivate crops, did a surplus of wealth develop that allowed a ruling class to arise for the first time in history.

Various ruling classes since then have claimed that it was “human nature” for one person to own another as a slave, or for there to be a divine king appointed by God to rule over everyone else. Today people would rightly dismiss this as utter nonsense!

By harnessing modern technology to provide for everyone, socialism would create the material basis for human culture to change in the most fundamental way. Instead of a society that rewards the most vicious and greedy, a socialist society would develop a new culture based on equality and justice.

Decisions would be made democratically, not by electing one capitalist party or the other every five years but by regular working people making decisions themselves through mass meetings and direct elections. People in power, such as managers and public representatives, would be elected, subject to instant recall, and paid only the average wage of the people they represent.

Shortening the workweek, sharing out the work with the unemployed, and providing for people’s basic needs would liberate women and men to finally take control over their lives and pursue all forms of creative and intellectual endeavors, unleashing humanity’s vast creative potential.