‘Naturally Selfish’: Does Human Nature Make Socialism Impossible?

When discussing socialism, hearing others discuss socialism and looking at the various pro/con arguments on the topic, I’ve come across several ideas as to why communism is a flawed system, why there will never be a revolution and why, at the end of the day, we’re better off how we are. Some cite certain atrocities in various communist countries and make a conclusion about their inevitable presence in such a system, whereas others will simply tell you that it’s an unrealistic goal which will never be achieved in the real world. There are also those who will object on moral grounds, defending their right to private ownership, but perhaps the most interesting proposition I’ve come across is the idea that communism is rendered unachievable by human nature itself. 

I can understand how this argument would appeal to many, as it seems to make logical sense; humans have a longstanding tendency towards selfishness. This can be seen in both a social and a biological manner, with mankind’s survival being based on Darwinian principles, and its prosperity on socially Darwinian ones. It would appear that competition is both an innate and necessary component of human wellbeing, which suggests that building a collective society based on the principles of equality is impossible. I’m going to argue the opposite, or, more importantly, I’m going to approach the issue from a Marxist perspective.

In Marx’s eyes, mankind has progressed through various historical epochs, each based on the dominant economic class in the era, which have managed to control and utilise the means of production for their own gain. So far, we have seen society progress from slavery to feudalism, and later, to capitalism. Regardless of your views regrading Marxism generally, a study of global history tells us that this progression is more-or-less accurate, and it provides a solid basis for historical analysis in this case.   

Each of the epochs described here are based on the principles of inequality and exploitation, but there is, in fact an earlier stage in this model of human development, referred to by Marx as primitive communism. These were the days of man’s tribal history, where hunter-gatherer societies roamed the planet, and when socialism was the accepted norm. The tribes man formed in the ancient world exemplify society devoid of exploitation, or in other words, a communist lifestyle, that totally defies the judgement of many who claim this isn’t possible. 

Several indigenous peoples like these have survived in the present era, such as the Penan people of Borneo, who live under the principles of equality, have no actual  leaders (only spokespeople who wield no power) and are known for practising ‘molong’, (never taking more than is necessary). The Adi people of India and the Maasai tribe of East Africa also provide examples of preserved tribal socialism, and Israeli Kibbutzim, alongside various anarchist communities today, serve as successful attempts to recreate this lifestyle in the modern world. They remind us that our condition in the past is not reflective of that today.

Maasai tribesmen

It’s also telling that this was our earliest state of being, for the fact that our first and most basic attempts at civilisation were not based on greed or self-indulgence (rather the reverse) shows that not only are selflessness and collective organisation possible, but they are natural to mankind. Only after individuals took over the productive means did the focus shift onto individual, rather than communal gain, meaning economic exploitation and unequal distribution are learned habits. This argument is further supported by the fact that humanity is still struggling to find happiness, no matter how much wealth we accumulate. Statistics on contentment or satisfaction in developed countries demonstrate this, showing that endless buying and spending do not make us any happier, and suggesting that it is not an innate desire to strive for ones own gain at the expense of another. Needless to say, this kind of consumption is also incredibly unsustainable, meaning that, like it or not, capitalism must give way to a better economic system.

Coming back to Darwinism, I understand that if societal competition is not natural to mankind, this would seem to contradict the competitive biological nature of mankind’s development, based on the principle of survival of the fittest. However, it may surprise the non-Marxist that Marx was a great admirer of Darwin’s, and saw his ideas on the evolution of organisms, through the process of natural selection, to be at one with his own ideas of society’s evolution, through the process of class struggle. It also isn’t necessarily counter-evolutionary that humanity’s natural state is a collective one; it has merely evolved from this condition in the same way that cells and organisms repeatedly do, and nor does the belief that man will ‘return’ to socialism contradict the ideas of competitive evolution, for, with the rise of communism, we are simply seeing the end of an evolutionary process. In a way, we’re seeing something similar in the natural world today; survival of the fittest has determined humanity’s evolution since it’s birth, yet with advances in the medical sciences, we’re now able to preserve ‘unfit’ characteristics and curb natural selection. Should this continue in the future, humanity may never need to adapt, and evolution would no longer occur.

This is why I believe that human nature does not contradict equality, but rather allows for it. True, we have a tendency to put our own needs above others, but at the end of the day, our earliest efforts at working together show that these unhealthy behaviours aren’t innate or fixed, even if they fuel the exploitive economic systems of modern society. In a debate on the benefit and rationality of religion, I once heard it remarked that, unlike squids, which apparently spend almost their entire lives in isolation, humans are social creatures. However unsociable capitalist society may make us seem, I believe this is certainly something to remember.

For more information on the socialistic structures of tribal society, I recommend the following, an online chapter from David Maurer’s book: http://moderntransformation.com/contents/ch-1-early-stage-tribal-society

The image depicting the Maasai tribe was provided by User:Helga76 from Wikimedia Commons (though I added the caption), and was licenced under the following: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

 

 

15 thoughts on “‘Naturally Selfish’: Does Human Nature Make Socialism Impossible?

  1. Just had a Howdy message from wordpress so you may not have had mine.
    Thank you for today’s blog Max. Have you read Margaret Mead’s ‘Growing up in Samoa’?
    Don’t know if it has been updated..
    From the whips one sees the animals were oppressed even then. Cake tomorrow. Xx

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  2. Great post! Down with the squids – you listening Mr Grayling? Engels once wrote: “The middle classes have a truly extraordinary conception of society. They really believe that human beings . . . have real existence only if they make money or help to make it.”

    Mind you, he also said “If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living” (but then we all have off days).

    Except you it would appear. Well done Mr Anonymous Revolutionary!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A very thought provoking post – my favourite so far ☺.

    It had me reading up on the tribes you mentioned and considering the pros and cons of past and present collective lifestyles. Like you I’m pleased to find ancestors whose existence wasn’t based on ‘greed and self-indulgence’, though I am not sure this is as humankind’s ‘natural’ state.

    It could be argued that living collectively was due to necessity (a single hunter/gatherer wouldn’t get very far) and that a pre-requite is having vast amounts of space to hunter/gather in. When the land could support everyone (and belong to no one) it was, perhaps, easier for humans to share.

    The environmental argument for a more collective and sustainable life-style is a strong one. I didn’t know about (& now admire) the Penan’s practise of ‘molong’ (never taking more than is necessary). If Wikipedia can be trusted then the Penan also don’t have a word for ‘thank you’, as ‘help is assumed and therefore doesn’t require thanks’. According to Survival International the Penan are in desperate need of help themselves and your blog indirectly led to me donating to a campaign to highlight their plight. If other’s are similarly moved and interested they might want to read more here:
    http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/penan

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  4. Your writing stuns me. So beautiful. All woven together so cleverly.. neatly. Me though, I always struggle to find the words that I need especially now that I’m trying to post here .. staring up at your skills. But I am going to try because I have to tell you…and I never thought that this would happen … but I think you are shifting and changing my views on Marx, socialism… capitalism.. the future.. and I have thought so much about what you’ve said… here and in your previous posts.

    Was watching a clip from Star Trek at the weekend (bear with).. Kirk and the gang, all used to a life in the 24th century, suddenly find themselves in, and baffled by, a present day (well ok the 1980’s) San Francisco. They try and fail to board a mini bus: ‘We need to get money!’ exclaims Kirk, ‘They still use money!!’ . Yes yes yes I know it’s just Star Trek but it made me think about your blog. And the future.
    Because I do agree with you that our present economic situation IS unsustainable… we WILL be forced to, amongst other things, find a new store of value, medium of exchange and I certainly hope by the 24th century we will have got there. A new world system WILL have to evolve. Capitalism and socialism .. can’t believe they’ll even exist as distinct ideologies then? Do you? Everything is going to change and that is obviously the only certainty.
    But ooof I do hope for a sartorially better future than Star Trek would have us imagine; please dear God no nasty tunics, velcro and badly cut trousers etc. Though a jump suit CAN look good with the right heels…. Ok enough from me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much – you can take some credit as the blog post was inspired by your comments. I think that by the twenty-fourth century capitalism will have been replaced by a sustainable, redistributive system (socialism), but whether whether socialism or capitalism will exist as ideologies, or even words, I suppose we’ll never know. Either way, I think we can hope for something better than Kirk’s world!

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      • Heavens no.. it is I who have to thank YOU! Feels like you have reached in and given my brain a good ol’ shake.

        Let’s not diss Kirk’s 24th cent world too much though. Muscle past the unsophisticated use of primary colour blocking in clothing and you can sense that there IS equality, tolerance, fairness and general harmony with, now that I think about it, very little sign of any crazed consumerism. Plus the doors make lovely swishy noises and hey, teleportation! Come on that would be fun.

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  5. Hello, Max. I enjoyed this post and have also enjoyed the comments arising from it.
    You mentioned in a previous post the early church, linking early Christians to communists. Acts 4 specifically talks of the early church in Jerusalem sharing their possessions. It also talks of people who were in need.
    In 2 Corinthians something else is happening, however; the poverty in Jerusalem had become acute & Paul reminds the Corinthian church of their expressed intention to send money to support the church. (chapter 9) He also draws their attention to other churches which likewise are collecting a gift to be sent to Jerusalem. As I look at it, it seems to me that what Paul urges them towards is compassion. The gift they are to send is for people they will never see but whose sufferings move them.

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  6. Hi Max,

    Really liked this post. You should also look at models such as Norway which at least appears to be socialist in nature. They had a similar amount of oil as Britain once did. They ensured that the oil was owned by the people and so the profits was distributed to society. The money from the sale of oil sold was reinvested into finding green energy (Norway is almost entirely green energy now) and providing the people in Norway with all the things they needed, good roads, transport, leisure time, health care. In essence it filed the public purse to bursting point so that the whole of society benefited. By contrast Britain allowed the vast majority of its similar oil reserves to be owned by individuals and companies, the profits were therefore distributed to the rich only with nothing to show for this. In Norway the profits from the Oil industry is still public money and reinvested into society in Norway only now most of the oil is sold to other countries as Norway needs very little of it. Norway recently put a tax on overtime of something like 70% as they were of the view that the people did not need more money, that overtime was unproductive and that this time was better spent with family and friends. As a nation they are much more inclined to share ideas and seek out sensible solutions which benefit all rather than seeking out what will produce the most profit. The politicians are all sensible and boring picked for their skills for the job. The royal family live in normal homes in the city and travel by public transport. As a society they believe in rehabilitating offenders back into society, on the basis that they believe that this will in the long term benefit the person and will be better for society than paying to keep them in prison for life. The prisons are all rehabilitative open plan with therapy at its heart. This is the case for every offender even those who committed the most appalling crimes.

    The world is waking up to the terribly damaging effects of consumerisim. There is a interesting movement called the circular economy. Idea is to design all products to be dissembled and the bi-products used elsewhere. In order for this to work properly no one would own products they would lease them, once done with rather than throw them away they return to them to the manufacturer who then dissembles them and either uses the remains themselves to build the newer model or sends them to another company to use for another produce. Moving away from the constant consumption of capitalism. For this movement to work it requires companies to work together with a mutual interest, it also requires a high degree of cooperation amongst the designers and producers and manufactures, and to some extent the consumers who will have to give back their product and give up any sense of ownership. Pretty socialist idea.

    This is also starting to happen in other areas such as housing with friends and family purchasing together or living in what is now referred to as urban communities. What started as a necessary way to afford to live in a property with space in large cities has proved to be much more with people reporting that they are happier sharing their homes, as this provides them with a sort of community or family where they share meals together and are company for one another, look after each others things when the other is away on hols, help each other out etc etc.

    I even think the likes of AirBnB has encouraged people to be more socialist, as people have to open their homes to strangers/foreigners. All for a mutual benefit. Someone’s spare room not being wasted and someone else getting cheap accommodation and a real life experience of a country from the home of someone who lives there. The history of AirBnB is very interesting, it being started as a social experiment. However it has grown and people are enjoying having strangers in their home, sharing ideas and experiences with people who are from a completely different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

    In short I think as Bob Dylan said the times are a changin, Even in all consuming Britain.

    PS I hope you enjoyed the cheesecake

    Keep blogging

    K xx

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  7. A lovely read!
    If you are interested in Darwinism and competition, you might want to give Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid: A factor of evolution” (1902) a go. Wikipedia summarises it well:
    “Written partly in response to social Darwinism and in particular to Thomas H. Huxley’s Nineteenth Century essay, “The Struggle for Existence”, Kropotkin’s book drew on his experiences in scientific expeditions in Siberia to illustrate the phenomenon of cooperation. After examining the evidence of cooperation in nonhuman animals, in pre-feudal societies and medieval cities, and in modern times, he concluded that cooperation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of species and the ability to survive.”
    Here is a link to it, if you fancy a read: https://www.complementarycurrency.org/ccLibrary/Mutual_Aid-A_Factor_of_Evolution-Peter_Kropotkin.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A fine blog, Max. I don’t think the “Darwinian Competition” argument against Marxism is taken so seriously as it once was.A counter argument is that cooperative and altruistic behaviour in social animals, like chimps and early us is a strong drive to develop communication skills (e.g. language) and also a larger and more efficient brain to handle complexities of life in a social group. It pays to be cooperative and work for the benefit of the group because that is the best strategy for ensuring species survival.

    but great stuff !

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve particularly enjoyed this post, like many of your readers. You hit so many nails on the head and stirred so many thoughts. I’ve had to have a couple of sessions to read it, as things have been a bit hectic, and at last have got to the end… twice! There is a lot to think about in there. But I really wanted to pick up on your comment about the early church a couple of posts ago (yep – I’m never knowingly early anywhere :-)!). I’ve been mulling that one over, and wanting to do some research into the matter… not really had time to, but then I told myself that the Anonymous Revolutionary has shown himself to be a dab hand at the research bit and doesn’t need more than a gentle nudge to go into overdrive there! Raise an issue, and he’s got it covered! So here come the thoughts without much of the research!

    I’m sure that the members of the early church did share their possessions (there are references to this in the epistles) and were encouraged to do so by their leaders. Because keeping it all for yourself is definitely not a Christian principle – the idea being that everything we have has come from God anyway, and so we are just giving it back to him. I’m less sure that they found it entirely natural and easy. Indeed, there are also accounts of people who lied to their church about the extent of their possessions and gifts to the church (nasty story about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5…). The epistles are heart-warming letters which tell of enormous generosity under what must not necessarily have been easy circumstances, but also show how the early Christians sometimes needed a lot of ‘encouragement’ from the leaders (Paul et al) to behave themselves nicely! They were ordinary humans, after all. My impressions also are that the early church were probably a pretty vulnerable and frightened bunch of people. If it wasn’t the Romans on their backs then it was the Pharisees/Jewish leaders. They were regularly getting arrested and imprisoned if not worse. I can’t help thinking that they would have been happy to stick together for protection, solidarity and the philosophy of strength in numbers. I think that that kind of threat of violence, although horrible, often brings out the best in people (perhaps the worst too… perhaps depends who you are), heightens your faith and convictions in a way that a humdrum life, where everything is hunky dory, doesn’t. You don’t need to think deeply about your actions so you don’t.

    Maybe this reflects what you are saying? There is a capacity to live together and to share. It becomes much harder the more you have to lose. It’s easier to share when you have next-to-nothing, practically impossible when you have great wealth. Although interesting story about Gary Neville letting the homeless sleep in his new hotel. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/28/inside-neville-giggs-manchester-hotel-not-average-homeless-hostel

    Thoughts left hanging here a little….

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  10. Very interesting post Max.

    Ok, here’s my take on it. I get the fact that sharing is a natural instinct in humans and one that can still be adopted as a central or guiding principle for small groups (clubs, communes, even small societies or the indigenous groups you mention.), which they can use in their day to day dealings with one another and with considerable benefit.

    But my query is how it works in a geopolitical context? Can it work in larger societies, which, because of their size, tend to require the normal apparatus of state (i.e. government, rule of law, police etc.)? Once a society gets to a certain size, the only way that the principle of the sharing of resources can be “enforced” above all others, given that the desire to share inevitably comes into conflict with other human emotions, is through a totalitarian state, i.e. extreme power wielded by the State. So the primitive communism you refer to has a natural ceiling in effect.

    That the end result is totalitarianism (which is generally accepted as being a bad thing) obviously has some precedent in history, but I suppose the question is this:
    Is it (totalitarianism) an inevitable consequence of what I would simplistically label the natural conflict between human emotions such as greed (which is always going to happen), or is it not quite so fundamental in origin and instead the result of external influences or causes, which if it was possible to remove, would bring Marxists closer to their goals?
    If so, the first step is to identify what those external influences or causes are that have derailed the project on the occasions it has been attempted in the last 100 years or so.

    Just a thought – would be interested in your views!

    Liked by 1 person

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