‘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



The Evolution of Communist Symbolism

The emblem used by Communist Party of Britain

The emblem used by Communist Party of Britain

The Communist Party USA's logo

The Communist Party USA’s logo

...and finally, the Communist Party of Ireland's flag

…and finally, the Communist Party of Ireland’s flag

Above are three examples of the way in which communist imagery is used today, showing how some traditional symbols – the hammer and sickle, for instance – have been adapted to represent further ideas (as in the Communist Party of Britain’s emblem, in which the dove symbolises peace), or perhaps simply for artistic individuality (as would appear to be the case in the Communist Party USA’s logo).

Yet whist considerably different from similar imagery used sixty, seventy or eighty years ago, the same kind of images are portrayed. The colour red, the hammer and sickle, and, though not actually portrayed in the images above, the communist star, have certainly survived the test of time as the international symbols of radical socialism, which is interesting, since many of the ideas behind such imagery relate more closely to the conditions where they developed than they do to communism itself. The hammer and sickle, for example, developed in revolutionary Russia to represent a union between the Russian peasantry and the industrial proletariat, and whilst the colour red did have an association with revolutionary leftism in Europe prior to 1917, it is also deeply associated with Russian culture (the Russian word for the colour red (красный) is very similar to the word meaning ‘beautiful’ (красивый). As for the five-pointed star, there are different theories about its origins, with some believing that the five points represent the five continents, yet others, that they represent the five groups which would overthrow the Russian tsar, these being the peasantry, the industrial workers, the soldiers, the intelligentsia, and the youths.

Either way, we can definitely see a trend developing here; much of what we associate with communism worldwide is actually more closely associated with an individual country than anything else, relating to specific ideas that would only apply to the USSR. Yet this hasn’t stopped the exportation of these ideas internationally, not only among the socialist nations but through communist parties and movements operating within capitalist countries, from Peru to South Africa. So the question I’ll be answering today is this: how have these icons, often specific and relevant only to the revolutionary movement in the Russian Empire, been adapted to the multiple conditions in which they have been used?

Throughout the Twentieth Century…

I’ll start with the flag of China, the second country to experience a successful, independent revolution. This flag features one large star in the top-left-hand corner, surrounded to the right by four smaller stars against a red background. The stars are yellow and the background is red, both of which are colours used in the Soviet flag, yet if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the red background is a lighter shade on the Chinese flag than on that of the Soviet Union.

According to the website World Atlas, the large star represents communism, whilst the four smaller stars represent the social classes in China. Apparently, the total number of stars (five) ‘reflect the importance placed on the number five in Chinese thought and history’.

In this case, the hammer and sickle doesn’t make an appearance, though it is obvious that communist connotations have been used, with the design creatively blending socialist imagery with features of Chinese society and culture. Such a trend can also be seen in the designs and emblems of both communist movements and countries of that time period…

Here, the flag used by Yugoslavian Partisans during World War II is almost identical to that of the former Yugoslavian Kingdom, with only the single addition of the red star signifying communist ideology. Whilst, like the flag of China, it does seem to combine Marxist and national imagery, it appears to place a heavier emphasis on national, rather than communist identity. Since the red background is also present on the flag of Albania prior to communism, the same can be said for that of the Democratic Government of Albania.

We can see from these examples how the revolutionary movement in the twentieth century has brought about a whole new wave of art, displaying the merging of political and cultural symbols; the combination of national and international imagery, which can perhaps be seen most clearly in the flags of these revolutionary countries. But, if this is largely the case in the 1900s, what about the communist movement after the turn of the century?

After the Fall of Communism…

It’s difficult to find political examples of socialist imagery after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism in Europe, though certain parties and organisations around the world appear to have followed in the same national/communist trend, such as the Communist Party of Belarus (the logo of which is displayed below which superimposes the star, the hammer and sickle, and the open book on the outline of the country) and others (like those displayed at the beginning) have adapted such symbols in their own, individual ways.


Other than these small organisations, however, socialist art hasn’t exactly flourished; no new communist states have arisen, and the now-greatly-diminished communist world hasn’t made any great cultural contributions since 1991, although one interesting change did occur…

After the end of the Cold War, communism gradually became ever less of a threat to the stability of society. As a result, the culture of hatred that developed around the idea began to wear away, and people began to analyse Marxism from a more open, more casual perspective, creating a generation who looked to the left in what is perhaps a more superficial way.

This gave rise to a bizarre blatantly ironic commercial industry, one which I’ve already mentioned in my entry ‘The Commercialisation of Communism’, that exploited a range of communist symbols (often bringing them back from history’s grave) for profit-making purposes.

Cuban Revolution T-shirt

Following On…

When it comes to the future of such an art, who knows what will arise (or what won’t)? We live among certain symbols and icons which change all the time, like party logos, and some that have stuck around for thousands of years, like the cross of Christianity, and it’s interesting to imagine which path communism will travel down. Assuming some change occurs, one (by this I mean I) could waste hours of time predicting the symbols and icons that will develop communist connotations. Quite possibly, in a world where capitalism has undergone significant evolution, the hammer – representing the industrial worker – may no longer be applicable, yet what will replace it is down to the future conditions to follow.

On second thoughts, perhaps we’ll stick with the classic imagery of the 1900s, with both movements and countries worldwide reluctant to alter the icons which contain in them such a great deal of history. After all, there’s certainly something unifying about these symbols and the ideas contained within them, and it’s hard to imagine that this will be simply forgotten. In the words of John Thune, ‘I believe our flag is more than just cloth and ink. It is a universally recognized symbol that stands for liberty, and freedom.’ If the communist movement felt the same about their beloved red banner, perhaps we’ll still see these icons around and about hundreds of years into the future.

If change does occur, however, I’m willing to bet that any future development of communist symbolism will stick to the same theme, this being inequality; I think we’ll still see imagery, like the hammer and sickle, that glorifies the exploited class in whatever scenario is then present. This may be in the form of an icon representing their suffering or exploitation, or a tool they are associated with, which represents their labour, be it a robot or laser gun (insert any future gadgets or technologies you find to be appropriate here) but given that communism, by its very nature, emancipates the weak and exploited, I’m certain that it’ll be these people who inspire any future art of the revolution.


Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing the result.

For any further reading, I’d like to recommend to you the following site: http://maoist.wikia.com/Communist_symbolism

Whilst not a Maoist, I felt that this website gave an insightful description of many of the concepts which I talked about today, and also some which I have not, such as the flag adopted by the Worker’s Party of Korea.

The image of the logo used by the Communist Party USA was provided by Communist Party USA from Wikimedia Commons (though this is not to say they endorse this blog or my use of their work), and was licensed under the following: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en

The image of the logo used by the Communist Party of Belarus was created by Xanadao from Wikimedia Commons, and was licensed under the following: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode