Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Socialism And Human Nature

In almost any discussion of socialism with the people around us we hear the argument that socialism is impossible because of human nature. This was a standard refrain from our opposition for much of the last century, a cynical or pessimistic view of people deepening as capitalism pushed past religious boundaries and raised the levels of modern exploitation. The argument was answered in part by those who simply and radically denied the existence of human nature at all.

The argument that socialism is incompatible with human nature denied the reality of existing socialism or blamed its shortcomings on inevitable and negative human attributes instead of on specific political and economic programs. It has always been a lazy person's argument.  The argument that human nature does not exist raised strong points about the natures of good and evil and relativism and self-determination, but it left many other questions about social behavior and social solidarity unanswered, at least in the popular mind. Meanwhile, our comrades in socialist countries often spoke about "the soul of the people" and the positive human and national characteristics which were flowering in socialist societies. We did well to ask if human nature is compatible with capitalism.

Adaner Usmani recently reopened the discussion on human nature in an article in Jacobin. Usman's argument is written in a popular style and will be of interest to many people new to socialist politics if the article gets the needed circulation. Usmani says:

You have perhaps been tempted in the past to make the argument that there is no such thing as a human nature. That temptation is understandable — I’ve been there. But it’s wrong for three reasons: a moral reason, for an analytical reason, and for a political reason.

Socialists do believe — we must believe — that there is something called human nature. In fact, I believe that you believe it, whether or not you believe that you believe it. But we make two arguments that distinguish us from our bourgeois antagonists.

First, human nature comprises not just an interest in ourselves, but also compassion, empathy, capacity for reflection, capacity to be moral. And second, the way in which society is organized can amplify these drives and downplay others.

All this means that another world is definitely possible. Don’t let the fools get you down and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Usmani's article has been answered by Themistoklis Pantazakos writing in Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal. This is a more scholarly piece, and it takes on Usmani's arguments in respectful ways. Pantazakos knows the subject well:

What does this have to do with humans and more specifically with the discussion at hand? For starters, thinkers in the modern leftist political thought who stand behind the idea that human nature is effectively non-existent (such as Michel Foucault) are precisely in the business of denying that there are any essential features to humans. Depending on the social antagonism referred to (class, race, gender et cetera), leftist post-structuralism is mainly about negating the claim that there are defining sine qua nonswhich universally pre-dispose social order across all its fields. Take for example the issue of class and of the distribution of wealth. An example of anti-essentialism in this area would be to deny that people are inherently, unavoidably greedy and vested in self- interest alone; to deny, that is, one of the chief assumptions of neoclassical (read: neoliberal) economics. Or take gender and sexuality: anti-essentialism there would deny that a person’s reproductive organs mean (or, more importantly, should mean) something definitive about the way they behave and their sexual preferences.

Now, you may start to see why anti-essentialism and rejecting human nature are appealing ideas. To further illustrate this point, try thinking the issue from the side of the bad guys. For most traditional forms of hate speech, there is something essential about the targeted Other (women, migrants et cetera), which makes them worthy of being on the receiving end of violence, or perhaps unworthy of even being called human. This something changes as hate speech assumes different forms and targets, but there is usually an irremovable characteristic that serves to degrade a given social group: the color of their skin, their Jewish cunningness, some corrupt desire that runs against the alleged course of nature.

Lots of us are going to get lost here. We're going down a path with the question of what it means to be human. People interested in the scientific-philosophical approach to this question can start working their way down this path by reading an article by Joseph Fracchia which recently appeared in Monthly Review. "Essentialism," as I understand it, looks at what a thing is by looking at its essential characteristics and processes; it says that essence precedes existence. One of the obvious problems with this is that it does not anticipate a contradictory relationship between essence and existence which pushes both forward in real time. Pantazakos pulls us back by writing:

To move to the analytical problem, which holds that one is left without any analytical compass of prediction and political suggestion should one abandon the concept of human nature, I will open with the following remark: that something is not eternal does not mean that it is not steady, or that you cannot count on it. If one believes in evolutionary theory, and I take it that most socialists do, one is sure to believe that the biological characteristics of humans will almost certainly change given enough time. That, however, does not change the fact that, regarding the past we have in view and the foreseeable future, humans are mostly born with two hands with certain capacities and sensitivities. Based on that and on the most common human needs of our time, one can therefore predict that gloves will keep being made, in such and such shapes, to fit human hands and protect them while performing tasks to satisfy these needs. Similarly, certain principles appear to be governing the social, political and economic world, and analytically spotting and employing them does not lose any power from realizing that they may not be eternal. To abandon essentialism is not to embrace chaos.

I think that we need to listen to Pantazakos carefully here. We have many on the left---and many more in our working class---who have indeed abandoned essentialism and who embrace chaos in the forms of nihilism and abstract violence. We also have to hear what is being said here about the "eternal." Pantazakos says, "But perhaps Usmani talks about a partial adoption of the others’ positions simply for the use of advancing more effective politics. To which I reply that, surely, this can occasionally be beneficial depending on what the desired ends of one’s politics is, but I simply do not see how this empathetic stratagem must amount to any kind of claim about the universal nature of humans. Must I believe that something is the same and eternal in humans to try and simulate how the human being next to me must feel and think? I think not."

But Pantazakos goes off the rails with the comment that

Take the moral problem, which is the problem of being unable to tell when a certain social group is being oppressed in the absence of a definition of human nature. In reply to this, I submit that it is not anything essential within humans that should make socialists argue that a certain practice is morally susceptible. For example, the socialist political line regarding domestic abuse should not be that there is something to exercising violence that makes the act inappropriate to all occasions universally and regardless of context. As has been widely argued, violence in the household in another, recreational and consensual context may be perfectly acceptable. It is a leftist commonplace, I should like to think, that two or more people engaging, for example, in enthusiastically consensual sadomasochistic practices should never be told that they are engaging in a morally susceptible practice.

There may not be something essential within human beings which makes us argue that certain practices are morally susceptible, but our view of morality and moral questions must arise instead from a grasp of social solidarity and its problems, the passing of the old and the emergence of the new, an understanding of where we are and the map we're using to move forward, and a realistic take on what the most advanced positions are in a society at a given moment and how those are actualized. Pantazakos uses a terrible example and one which is going to be used to shift subjects. Violence and its outcomes, in whatever forms, must be acknowledged, but it can't truly be defended. Our comrades who pick up the gun do not do so because they love violence or because it is in their nature.

In this regard, I had the experience yesterday of  being in an adult English class for community activists and exploring what "self-actualization" means. Many people in the class argued that it means making changes or having a plan. I argued that it means planning and changing from the standpoint of self-determination, and that that is what makes us more fully human, that this is how we "come into oursel;ves." I didn't convince anyone.

Pantazakos and Usmani end up agreeing with one another when it comes to the prospects for real socialist change, but they take different paths.

The conversation or debate suffers from not inckuding the voices needed from Asia, Africa and Latin America, the indigenious scholars, those compelled to cross the imposed borders, and women. We can put aside the anarchist prejudices and Kropotkin's wishful thinking, but the discussion cannot move forward without these other voices. For my part, I take the side of A. Spirkin:

The point of departure of the Marxist understanding of man is the human being as the product and subject of labour activity....

There is nothing more individualised in the world than the human being, the person, nothing in creation is more diverse than people. At the human level diversity achieves its highest peak, the world contains as many individuals as there are people. This is due entirely to the complexity of human organisation, whose dynamics would appear to have no limits. Human individuality is expressed in its having different opinions, in abilities, level of knowledge, experience, degree of competence, in temperament and character. Personality is individual to the extent that it has independence in its judgements, beliefs and views, that is to say, when the brain is not "stereotyped" and possesses unique "patterns". In every person, regardless of the general structure of his individuality, there are specific features of contemplation, observation, attention, various types of memory, of orientation, and so on. The level of individual thinking varies, for example, from the heights of genius to the worst cases of mental retardation.

The principle of individualisation has its limits, its proportion. Beyond this borderline we come to complete relativism, which maintains that if every person has his own soul, then every person must also have his own world, and hence there are as many worlds as there are people. But the actual dialectics of existence tells us that the uniqueness both of outward appearance and a person's spiritual world is relative. It is derived from the universal, to which it belongs and from which it has sprung. The personality has a general origin, position, culture, language, certain standards, a world-view, and so on, that it shares with others. The more fully it represents, individually, the universal human principle, the more significant the personality becomes. Every person is a unique individuality in the whole complex of his physical and spiritual peculiarities, but at the same time he embodies the essence of the race and also certain general features of his class and nation....

Thus, the human Ego, while substantially changing under the influence of social conditions and together with growing knowledge, cultivated emotions and training of the will, and also with changes in physical states, health, and so on, nonetheless preserves its intrinsic integrity and relative stability. Thanks to the existence of certain essential invariable characteristics of the structure of his mental world, a person "remains himself". We move from one stage in life to another, carrying with us all the baggage of our intellectual gains, and change as this wealth increases and our physical organisation develops.

To sum up, at the point when the Ego comes into being there is a self-identification of the personality; it knows itself. The Ego is a unity, an entity of spiritual and physical existence. It is given as the vehicle of infinite relationships both with the surrounding world and with ourselves. These connections, while infinitely diverse, are possible only thanks to this unity and wholeness of mind as the system of the highest organisation of everything we know.

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