Socialism and Human Nature – Arc Digital
Critics of socialism claim that because humans are by nature selfish and cruel, socialism won’t work. This doesn’t follow.
Anyone who sets out to defend socialism in the early decades of the 21st century needs to confront the wide variety of anti-socialist arguments developed during the 20th. Economic calculation problems represent a problem for the practicality of at least some socialist proposals. Libertarian arguments based on the idea of a natural right to property challenge their morality. But one of the most persistent claims of socialism’s critics, one that I want to tackle head-on, is the idea that socialism is not just impractical or even immoral but unnatural.
Economist and libertarian social critic Murray Rothbard, for example, entitled a book of his essays Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature. Psychology professor and science popularizer Steven Pinker breezily asserts in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature that “socialism and communism…run against our selfish natures.”
Arc Digital columnist and historian Joshua Tait discusses, in a piece from last week, why scientific claims of this sort appeal so strongly to the right.
These are the discoveries — typically biological, psychological, or anthropological — that find immutable characteristics in human nature. Conservatives are drawn to biological studies that emphasize our irrationality, our aggressive natures, our genetic differences, and our groupishness. This scientific conservatism sometimes veers into race science, especially in the deliberately anodyne-sounding study of “human biodiversity.”
Why care about these claims? As Tait puts it, “the defining feature of the right is that it considers the egalitarian aims of the left either impossible or undesirable and thus opposes them.” So the allure of these claims, then, is that they are able to lay out, “with scientific authority, the permanent, inbuilt, and insurmountable limits on left-wing ideology.”
The grim view of human nature painted by these critics has roots as fresh as evolutionary psychology and as ancient as the doctrine of original sin. It’s been used to motivate arguments against socialism not just by libertarians like Rothbard, neoliberal centrists like Pinker, or various right-wing critics of progressivism like the ones Tait profiled, but even by someone as firmly “on the left” as The Young Turks (TYT) host Cenk Uygur. When a C-SPAN caller asked Uygur about Marxism, he flatly stated that, “Human nature does not work the way that communists want it to work.”
In some versions of this critique, the point is generalized from human nature to nature in general. Jordan Peterson has made a habit of tweeting things like this:
Defining Our Terms
One early worry with this argument is that “socialism” comes in many different flavors.
There are market socialists like Erik Olin Wright whose visions of the future include room for a “private sector” of competing worker co-ops, as well as orthodox Marxists like Paul Cockshott, who thinks that computer technology had made the calculation problem redundant by the 1980s. Even liberal theorist John Rawls was pulled late in his life toward the conclusion that some sort of socialism might be necessary to fully realize liberal ideals.
What these visions have in common is a broad-strokes aspiration to transfer economic enterprises from the ownership of private business-owners to workers and communities in order to bring about a more just and egalitarian social order.
Adding to the confusion, “socialism” is also a word sometimes used by social democrats like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn who want to reform capitalist societies in various ways without challenging their fundamental economic structure. While “socialists” in the sense of the word defined above typically vote for social democratic politicians and value social democratic reforms as important steps in the right direction, they have more radical long-term goals.
A third thing that “socialism” all too often meant in the 20th century was the replacement of capitalism not with workers’ control of the means of production but with the rule of an unelected elite of party bureaucrats and state planners. Happily, nearly all anti-capitalists in 2019 reject Stalinism. They want more democracy than countries like the U.S. and the U.K. have now, not less. The question on the table is whether carrying out radical plans to extend democracy into the workplace would “run against our selfish natures.”
Questioning the Premise
The usual socialist response to what I will call the Human Nature Argument is to question the truth of the premise. Where anti-socialists play up our capacity for selfishness, our cruelty, and our tendency to arrange ourselves into dominance hierarchies, socialists usually emphasize our capacity for cooperation, compassion, and solidarity. So, for example, in G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? we’re asked to wonder why society shouldn’t be able to function like a camping trip, where families share equipment and resources and whatever else they individually brought, rather than assert their exclusive use over those goods.
In its simplest form, the idea here is to counter the assertion that “humans are bad” with the assertion that “actually, humans are good.”
The obvious problem is that although the range of human behavior includes a great capacity for both cruelty and cooperation, selfishness and solidarity, the premise that we are quite often selfish and cruel is undeniable. (Certainly, I’m too much of a Tom Waits fan to deny it.) A more sophisticated way of challenging the premise that we have selfish and cruel natures comes from Emma Goldman:
Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?
John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?
Freedom, expansion, opportunity, and, above all, peace and repose, alone can teach us the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities.
I’ve argued elsewhere that Goldman is correct to believe that a post-capitalist society would not just be fairer and more equal but also far more free than what we have now. And she certainly knew how to write a stirring passage. But as a response to the Human Nature Argument, it’s not entirely satisfying. After all, a critic of socialism could respond, what happens if we institute your utopia and humans keep acting just as cruel and selfish as they always have?
We need to go back to the drawing board.
A Better Response
A crude summary of the Human Nature Argument might go something like this:
Premise 1: Humans are by nature selfish and cruel.
Premise 2: ?
Conclusion: Socialism would never work.
Premise 1 is surely true at least to some extent. Of course, it’s also false to some extent. In his essay about the afterlife, David Hume says that most of us “float between virtue and vice” — not good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell.
If we accept for the sake of argument that Premise 1 really would (in combination with some suitable Premise 2) give us a good reason to believe the Conclusion, the question is whether we’re sufficiently bad for the Human Nature Argument to give us pause about socialism. I have no idea how such a question could even be adjudicated.
A more promising route would be to question the connection between Premise 1 and the Conclusion. Very often, when I encounter a grim view of human nature brought up in the course of arguments against socialism, I have no idea what sort of Premise 2 the author has in mind. For example, in a recent exchange between Arc contributors Jonathan Church and Matthew McManus on LetterWiki, Church attributed a “human nature is actually good” sort of view to the left:
If, then, the basic left-leaning vision is Rawlsian, does this mean that we maximize the minimum standard of living so as to ensure not only enough food to eat, decent housing, health insurance, and all that, but also to ensure that we are not so bogged down by the anxieties of material survival that we can all pursue an “authentic” life (as Marx said, I believe, one can fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, etc, or something like that)? If so, this seems to assume that human beings are ultimately “noble” in nature, and all that prevents them from achieving the “noble” aims of their soul are material constraints.
I’m not so convinced of that.
Church seems to be assuming that we should only aim at a society that allows humans to flourish if we assume that human nature is noble. But why should we need to assume that? I don’t regard my cat as a moral paragon — and I’m certain a mouse wouldn’t view him as one — but I still want him to have best life I can possibly give him.
Human Nature and Incentives
The version of the Human Nature Argument I’ve seen that connects the dots in the clearest way is the one given by Pinker and Uygur.
In The Blank Slate, Pinker quotes a classic passage from Adam Smith: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” He pairs this with the one sentence from Karl Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program that everyone knows — very much including people who have never read the rest of that document: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
Pinker comments on the juxtaposition:
Marx the architect of communism and socialism assumes that in a socialist society of the future the butcher, the brewer, and the baker will provide us with dinner out of benevolence or self-actualization — for why else would they cheerfully exert themselves according to their abilities and not according to their needs?
Human nature does not work the way communists want it to work, where you put in as much as you want and take out only as much as you need. That’s not how human beings work, so communism usually leads to dictatorships because since it is not a good fit for human nature, some strongman comes in and takes over the process.
As a claim about the historical origin of Stalinist regimes, this is extremely inaccurate. The Bolsheviks had brought about a one-party dictatorship within about a year after the Russian Revolution, and all of the rest of the capital-C Communist states came about not from strongmen hijacking purehearted attempts at implementing “from each according to their abilities…” utopia, but rather from conscious attempts to replicate the Soviet system by Communist Parties that were ideologically committed to that model. None of these societies, at any stage in their development, claimed to be putting the “from each…to each” passage into practice.
What Marx Didn’t Say
If they’d read the rest of the Critique (or even just the whole chapter in which the “from each…to each” passage appears), Pinker and Uygur would have run into this passage, in which Marx criticizes his Lassallean rivals in the socialist movement of his time for advocating that each worker receive an equal share of the common product of their labor:
One man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. … Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal [share] in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.
This certainly sounds like Marx sees the butcher, the brewer, and the baker — or, rather, the self-managed workers at the collectivized slaughterhouses, breweries, and bakeries of the socialist future — being motivated in the “duration and intensity” of their work by the hope of material rewards.
Of course, he envisioned this changing as socialism evolved into its next phase, but this too is easily misunderstood by those who are reading the line quoted by Pinker out of context. His line of thought here is best understood by reading the Critique in conjunction with Marx’s “Fragment on Machines,” where he discusses the way that automation might play out if it were combined with workers’ control of the means of production. Under capitalism automation puts people out of a job. Under socialism, Marx predicted, it would just mean that workers could vote themselves fewer hours of work for the same compensation. Eventually, he thought there would be so much abundance that everyone could simply take what they needed, and what little work still needed to be done by humans could be accomplished by everyone just pursuing whatever projects happened to interest them. That’s when we get, “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”
This might strike some readers as wildly unrealistic science fiction. I won’t argue the point here. Whatever one makes of it, though, it’s important to be clear that Marx isn’t making any sort of prediction about humans becoming more benevolent. He’s making a narrow prediction about the economic consequences of the combination of technological advances with democratic control of technology. He isn’t suggesting that people won’t be selfish or cruel in their personal relationships or that they won’t be viciously competitive in figure-skating competitions or basketball games or chess tournaments. In fact, in a society where money was no longer relevant, it’s entirely possible that pursuit of status in non-financial contexts would become more competitive.
Turning Around the Human Nature Objection
Even if Pinker and Uygur did have a reasonable objection to a specific vision of socialism put forward by Marx, how is this is supposed to generalize into what Pinker breezily lumps together as “socialism and communism” in general? If “from each…to each” is unrealistic, it hardly follows that public ownership of the means of production is intrinsically unrealistic.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Marx was wrong to think that the combination of automation and collective ownership of machines would one day make it unnecessary for human butchers, brewers, and bakers to continue to be given material incentives to produce our dinners. I would argue that we can have socialism and incentives. It’s unlikely that workers in a democratic economy would feel the need to incentivize anyone by paying them 287 times what others were paid — the average pay differential between workers and CEOs last year in the United States — but this doesn’t mean they’d settle on completely flat pay scales either. If anything, they might reverse some of the inequalities we’re accustomed to under capitalism.
Think about the job of “the butcher.” In a society in which everyone had meaningful access to higher education and no one was driven to the most unsafe and unsanitary jobs by sheer desperation, the only way to fill such jobs would be to compensate them at a higher level than occupations that are innately pleasant and interesting. In the world we live in, on the other hand, even philosophy professors earn almost four times the average salary of slaughterhouse workers.
Consideration of the even more staggering difference between the salary of those workers and the profits taken home by companies that own the slaughterhouses should lead us to look at the relationship between socialism and human nature in an entirely different light. The fact that immigrant workers will take jobs working in filthy, noisy, and unsafe conditions for poverty wages speaks to their desperation. The fact that decision-makers in the companies that employ them will offer them such wages in the first place, and then ruthlessly subvert their attempts to unionize, speaks to the enormous capacity of human beings for selfishness and cruelty.
Both sides of the traditional debate have it wrong. If we start from a sunny view of human nature, we might not worry much about how bosses and business-owners will use their positions to treat those with less wealth and power. To the extent that we do worry about the selfish and cruel aspects of our nature, on the other hand, this should give us a reason to favor a vastly more egalitarian and democratic economic system.
Ben Burgis is a philosophy professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College and is the author of Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left. He does a regular weekly segment on The Michael Brooks Show called The Debunk. His writings have appeared in Jacobin, Quillette, Areo, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @BenBurgis.