By Bhaskar Sunkara
and Adaner Usmani
May 21, 2016
This essay appears in The ABCs of Socialism. View the release page for the book and buy a print copy today.
“Good in theory, bad in practice.” People who profess interest in socialism and the idea of a society without exploitation and hierarchy are often met with this dismissive reply. Sure, the concept sounds nice, but people aren’t very nice, right? Isn’t capitalism much more suited to human nature — a nature dominated by competitiveness and venality?
Socialists don’t believe these truisms. They don’t view history as a mere chronicle of cruelty and selfishness. They also see countless acts of empathy, reciprocity, and love. People are complex: they do unspeakable things, but they also engage in remarkable acts of kindness and, even in difficult situations, show deep regard for others.
This does not mean that we’re plastic — that there is no such thing as human nature. Progressives do sometimes make this claim, often arguing with those who see people as walking, talking utility-maximizers. Despite its good intentions, this reproach goes too far.
For at least two reasons, socialists are committed to the view that all humans share some important interests. The first is a moral one. Socialists’ indictment of how today’s societies fail to provide necessities like food and shelter in a world of plenty, or stunt the development of people locked into thankless, grueling, low-paying jobs, rests on a core belief (stated or not) about the impulses and interests that animate people everywhere.
Our outrage that individuals are denied the right to live free and full lives is anchored in the idea that people are inherently creative and curious, and that capitalism too often stifles these qualities. Simply put, we strive for a freer and more fulfilling world because everyone, everywhere, cares about their freedom and fulfillment.
But this is not the only reason why socialists are interested in humanity’s universal drives. Having a conception of human nature also helps us make sense of the world around us. And by helping us to interpret the world, it aids our efforts to change it, as well.
Marx famously said that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Resistance to exploitation and oppression is a constant throughout history — it is as much a part of human nature as competitiveness, or greed. The world around us is filled with instances of people defending their lives and dignity. And while social structures may shape and constrain individual agency, there are no structures that steamroll people’s rights and freedoms without inviting resistance.
Of course, the history of all “hitherto existing society” is also a record of passivity and even acquiescence. Mass collective action against exploitation and oppression is rare. If humans everywhere are committed to defending their individual interests, why don’t we resist more?
Well, the view that all people have incentives to demand freedom and fulfillment does not imply that they will always have the capacity to do so. Changing the world is no easy feat. Under ordinary circumstances, the risks associated with acting collectively often seem overwhelming.
For example, workers who choose to join a union or go on strike to improve their working conditions may invite the scrutiny of their bosses and even lose their jobs. Collective action requires many different individuals to decide to take these risks together, so it’s not surprising that it is uncommon and mostly fleeting.
Put differently, socialists don’t believe that the absence of mass movements is a sign that people have no inherent desire to fight back, or worse, that they don’t even recognize what their interests are. Rather, protest is uncommon because people are smart. They know that in the present political moment change is a risky, distant hope, so they develop other strategies to get by.
But sometimes people do step up and take risks. They organize and build progressive movements from below. History is filled with examples of people fighting against exploitation, and one of our principal tasks as socialists is to support these movements, to help make collective action a viable choice for even more people.
In this effort — and the struggle to define the values of a more just society — we will be aided, not hurt, by our shared nature.
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