What About Human Nature?
In the struggle for a more just society, we will be aided, not hurt, by our shared nature.
What About Human Nature?
By Bhaskar Sunkara and Adaner Usmani / jacobinmag.com

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.

The ABCs of Socialism book is out now.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.

3.5 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 14,584 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 9,714 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
25 Mind-Twisting Optical Illusion Paintings by Rob Gonsalves
Dovas · 8,406 views today · The beautiful and mind-bending illusions in Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves’ paintings have a fun way of twisting your perception and causing you to question what in his...
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 6,480 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
No Moral Superpower: Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, and the Crimes of Empire
Jake Johnson · 4,020 views today · When Arundhati Roy was preparing, in 2014, for a trip to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden, she was troubled by two things. One of them was the fact that the meeting was arranged...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 3,083 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 2,609 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
The Empire Vs. The People - Police Attack and Arrest Peaceful Protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline
6 min · 2,525 views today · On October 22, just before dawn, hundreds of people, including many families, gathered and prepared to march toward the Dakota Access pipeline construction site near Standing...
Men Loving Men
Bianca Vivion · 2,203 views today · When my father was seven he and his best friend Phil cut their index fingers open and placed them together to create a “blood pact” that they would always be brothers. To this...
These Incredible Stories Remind Us of Our Better Selves
36 min · 2,186 views today · #WhoWeAre is a campaign to share the stories of people whose actions show us compassion and to send a message of empathy, hope and optimism. These videos will automatically...
The Burden of the New Story
Adebayo Akomolafe · 2,127 views today · The 'new story' - that longed for milieu when all is right with the world and things are set straight - seems to be taking its sweet time coming. Why?
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,749 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
And After the Election, The Reaction
Ret Marut · 1,028 views today · Could there be any better illustration of the shortcomings of representative democracy than this year’s Presidential campaign? For months upon tiresome months, the whole world...
Writers Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein Talk About Journalism and Activism
27 min · 965 views today · Author, Activist and Former California State Senator Tom Hayden talks in depth with the author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, about the state of the fourth...
'The Climate of Fear Is Unacceptable' - Ken Loach on I, Daniel Blake
6 min · 794 views today · Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a man who is denied disability benefit after a heart attack and who is then subsequently caught in a...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 724 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 629 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Three Massive Mergers - Millions for One Bank and a Disaster for Food, Water, and Climate
Wenonah Hauter · 610 views today · In addition to advising on all three mega-mergers, Credit Suisse is playing a big role behind the scenes of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Ode to Lesvos
5 min · 547 views today · An inspiring story of a few remarkable heroes on the Island of Lesvos who helped almost half a million refugees in 2015 has been documented in a new short film called Ode to...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 463 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
What About Human Nature?