Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

11: Human Nature and
the Alternative to Capitalism

Opponents of revolutionary change always fall back on one key argument – human nature. They say this rules out any alternative to the competition and greed that characterise capitalism, that any revolution will simply give rise to new rulers who treat the mass of people in the same way as the old rulers. Revolutions inevitably ‘devour their own children’, they say, quoting one of the moderates of the French Revolution, because of human nature.

These arguments draw on the notion of human beings as ‘naked apes’, suggesting people have a tendency towards competitiveness and violence inherited from our primate ancestors. According to one writer:

Hierarchy is an institution among all social animals and the drive to dominate one’s fellows an instinct three or four million years old ... The human drive to acquire possessions is the simple expression of an animal instinct ... The roots of nationalism are dug firmly in the social territory of almost every species of our related primate family ... Our early human ancestors were engaged in continual bloody combat both with other species and with each other. [Robert Ardrey, African Genesis, London, 1969]

Supposedly scientific disciplines, first socio-biology and more recently evolutionary psychology, have been used to give a sophisticated veneer to such claims. A book coauthored by one of the world’s experts on insects, concluded there are genes for entrepreneurship, aggression, spite, conformity, xenophobia, gender roles and much more, and warned against conceiving of human nature ‘as relatively unstructured and largely or wholly the product of external socio-economic forces’. (Charles J. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson, Genes, Mind and Culture, Cambridge, Mass. 1981)

However, there is a key feature of the human genetic make-up which separates us from other creatures. Animals are genetically programmed in narrow ways that provide them with behaviour appropriate to a limited range of environments. We are characterised by immense flexibility in our behaviour that enables us to thrive in any part of the world. Our genetic speciality is that we are not specialised, not constrained by a range of instinctive behaviour. One result is that human beings can display very different forms of behaviour – ranging from great care for one another to selfishness and violence. The behaviour that predominates is not genetically determined.

For about 94 per cent of the time since modern human beings evolved our ancestors lived by foraging – what is often called hunting and gathering – before the development of agricultural and settled village life. Evolutionary biologists claim we were genetically determined during that period to behave as we do in present day society. But studies of hunter-gatherer societies report features very different to the stereotypical view of human nature. An early observer of the hunter-gathering Montagnais of Canada noted in 1834:

The two tyrants who provide hell and torture for many of our Europeans do not reign in their great forests – I mean ambition and avarice ... not one of them has given himself to the devil to acquire wealth. [Quoted in M. Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, London 1974]

More recently an anthropologist wrote:

There is no formal leadership, let alone class division, within these societies. Individual decision making is possible for both men and women with respect to their daily routines ... Men and women alike are free to decide how they will spend each day: whether to go hunting or gathering, and with whom. [E. Friedl, Women and Men: the Anthropologist’s View, New York 1975]

Individual members of hunter-gatherer bands enjoy a level of autonomy infinitely greater than the mass of people in class societies. But it is not accompanied by selfishness.

The anthropologist Richard Lee, who carried out the most-thorough studies of one foraging society, the !Kung of South-West Africa, concluded:

It is the long experience of egalitarian sharing that has moulded our past. Despite our seeming adaptation to life in hierarchical societies, and despite the rather dismal track record of human rights in many parts of the world, there are signs that humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep-rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity, a deep-rooted... sense of community. [R. Lee, Reflections on Primitive Communism, in T. Ingold and others, Hunters and Gatherers, vol. I, New York 1991]

Surprisingly, the most prominent right-wing economist of the 20th century, Friedrich von Hayek, shared the same opinion, although he did not like the fact, writing of dangerous ‘innate instincts’ that led the mass of people to want ‘a just distribution, in which organised power is used to allocate to each what he deserves’.

Many Human Natures

None of this means there is a wonderful, benign human nature that automatically leads people to behave in positive ways. Rather, human behaviour is flexible and varies according to the situation in which people find themselves. The reason cooperation flowered in hunter-gatherer society was that humans had to cooperate and care for one another if they were to survive.

Humanity has lived in many different sorts of society since some of our ancestors began to adopt ways of living other than hunter-gathering about 10,000 ago – from light hoe agriculture, herding and fishing, to heavy plough agriculture, long-distance trading, handcraft production and finally, industrial production. There have been societies based on different kinship lineages, societies run by privileged religious or royal groups, societies dominated by warring groups of land owners and capitalist societies based on the exploitation of wage labour by rival owners of the means of production. Each society has given rise to characteristic forms of human behaviour that become so engrained in people’s thinking that they appear natural. So in the Middle Ages, it was taken for granted across most of Europe, Asia and Africa that societies were formed of a fixed hierarchy of estates or castes into which people were born. Today, it is taken for granted that individuals compete with one another to improve their social position – despite the winners almost always being the children of those already at the top.

The transition from one such form of society – which we describe as feudal – to another, capitalism, involved a transformation in ‘human nature’. The ways of thinking and acting today are specific to capitalist society, hammered into us by hundreds of years of this society.

This is not the end of the matter however; otherwise it would be difficult to see how we might build a society based on different values. Capitalism is based on the contradictory combination of what Marx identified as ‘social production and individual appropriation’.

On the one hand there is a global productive system, drawing together the labour of billions of people, who work collectively in factories, mines, docks, warehouses, supermarkets, offices, farms – each connected by transport and communications networks to other units. This involves continual cooperative interaction between people. In every workplace people cooperate as well as compete. If they did not, the system could not function. Nurses do not look at time sheets or pay scales before dealing with a patient. Teachers do not demand a bonus before helping a child with reading difficulties. Soldiers often risk their lives for one another. These tendencies are increased by one of the many contradictions in the system – that as processes become more complex, control from above becomes more difficult. Management can never have anything like full knowledge of what is happening in a workplace and place ever greater reliance on elements of altruism and the desire to do a good job. Hence, the fashion for participatory schemes designed to make workers feel they have a real interest in their work. Even at the most mundane level, people are always getting help from others – whether asking for directions or requiring aid in an emergency.

On the other hand, all our efforts are framed by the relentless competition between companies and states that grab the fruit of our labour. The system breeds both cooperation and selfishness, altruism and aggression, care for others and hatred. The system distorts even our best intentions. To help their children, parents must compete for nursery and school places. Charities fighting poverty must battle other charities for money. It is these contradictions in ‘human nature’ under capitalism that explain the mixture of hope and horror in recent history – the examples of selflessness and solidarity alongside atrocities and war.

The values of cooperation and mutual caring only really come into their own when those whose labour keeps the system going are driven to struggle against it. It is struggle that frees the cooperative spirit from the corrosive effects of competition. Even in small-scale, defensive battles people begin to embrace ideas that challenge the values of capitalism – notions of unity, solidarity and collective endeavour. Major battles lead to new ways of cooperating that point to a different way of running society. The cooperative spirit can find its highest expression in strike committees and picket lines, workers’ councils and workers’ militias.

Vast demonstrations produce a sense of solidarity that begins to dissolve the atomisation and selfishness of daily life. Great strikes allow people to develop this sense over days, weeks or months. But revolutions transform life totally. Hence, one of the extraordinary features of revolutions repeated in almost every account – crime declines even as police forces disintegrate.

In his The Paris Commune of 1871 (London 1937), Frank Jellinek wrote: ‘Public order had never been so little disturbed ... Crimes of violence were few; robbery decreased notably.’ George Orwell described the mood in revolutionary Barcelona at the end of 1936:

Waiters and shop workers looked you in the eye and treated you as equals. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared ... Above all there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in a capitalist machine.

In the Gdansk shipyard occupation of 1980, Polish film director Andzrej Wajda observed ‘an impression of calm, coolness, festivity, something lofty and extraordinary’. By the end of that year, the workers’ movement extended to every workplace in Poland, leading a sociologist to note: ‘Much of the interpersonal irritation and aggressiveness has disappeared. People are being nice to one another.’ A psychologist in Argentina reports how the development of a movement among the unemployed in 2001, the piqueteros, led to a rapid fall in psychological ailments.

In each case, struggle led to one element of ‘human nature’ beginning to eclipse another. The social element in production, which unites people, escaped from the ‘individual appropriation’ – the exploitation – which divides them. It is certain we will see a transformation of human nature in the revolutionary upheavals that are inevitable this century. What is not certain is whether these transformations become permanent or remain fleeting memories.

Last updated on 5 October 2016