Why Socialists Should Believe in Human Nature

It's tempting to argue that "human nature" doesn't exist, but that's wrong. All people want freedom from abuse and exploitation and the ability to lead decent lives.

Gustave Deghilage / Flickr

Last year, Jacobin published The ABCs of Socialism, designed to answer the most common and most important questions about the history and practice of socialist ideas.

To coincide with our second printing of the book, Jacobin recently hosted a series of talks with ABCs contributors. You can buy a copy of the book for $5 here.

Here is an edited transcript of Adaner Usmani’s remarks on whether human nature really exists and whether it is compatible with a socialist society. You can also listen to a podcast of his talk here.

Let’s set a scene. You’re with your extended family, and discussion meanders to an observation about you. Someone notes that, “Hey, on Facebook, it looks like you been going to protests — looks like you’ve been casting aspersions on capitalism, American imperialism, Ezra Klein. You’ve been using words like neoliberalism and reading Trotsky. It seems like you’re a socialist — maybe even be a commie?”

Someone at this gathering immediately responds to this revelation with disdain — maybe a cousin who overdosed on econ classes at college. This cousin turns to address you: “Socialism is all well and good on paper. Caring, sharing, all sounds great. But you’re preaching to the wrong species. Humans aren’t hippies. They’re selfish and care only about themselves — hence war, plunder, exploitation, violence. With the raw materials that are human beings, you’ll never build anything other than what we have today.”

When confronted with this objection, I’m guessing that most of us respond in roughly the same way — something like, “Look, cuz: the humans you know, they are monsters. Not only because you only hang out with douchebags, but also because you only know ‘capitalist man.’ Capitalist man sucks. But socialist man, on the other hand — he would be caring and compassionate.”

Finishing with a flourish, we’d probably say something like, “The bottom line is, there is no such thing as human nature.” Humans are made, they aren’t born.

In short, in response to the argument that humans are inherently competitive and selfish, you argued that in fact, there are no attributes or drives that adhere in humans. There is no such thing as a human nature. Let’s call this the “Blank Slate Thesis.”

The Blank Slate Thesis is wrong. It’s the wrong way to confront your cousin’s objection to socialism, and it’s the wrong way to defend the possibility of another type of society.

The Moral Problem

The Blank Slate Thesis leads socialists into three kinds of insoluble problems; three difficulties that reveal that most of us don’t even believe that there is no such thing as a human nature, even if we’ve made the opposite argument to stubborn cousins. There’s a moral difficulty, there’s an analytical difficulty, and there’s a political difficulty.

First, the moral difficulty. The thesis that humans have no inherent human nature makes our moral project incoherent.

By this, I mean one very simple thing. When you or I look at the world around us and find that something is amiss, that something immoral is afoot, we fixate on certain elemental forms of deprivation.

People are deprived of the basic things that they need in order to reproduce themselves comfortably. Many people in this world go to sleep hungry. They’re worried they may not survive their next pregnancy, their next illness, their next marriage. They’re worried that the oceans may rise to flood their home. They work meaningless jobs for petty tyrants. They can’t send their children to decent schools.

We agree that these things are terrible, they ought to be eliminated from our world. But you think these things are outrageous because you correctly believe that the people living in these conditions must themselves be outraged.

You believe that the average human being should not be forced to live impoverished, stunted lives because you impute to the average human being certain unshakeable interests — being fed when hungry, quenched when thirsty, free when dominated.

Consider the glorious socialist invocation, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” That’s a universal injunction. And why is that compelling? Because we all know that nobody likes being in chains.

The slogan is not, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. Unless, in some cultures, people like being in chains, in which case, we demand that those people be allowed to keep their chains.”

This belief that these universal interests exist is rooted in a belief that humans universally are everywhere basically the same. You believe that people are meaningfully animated by their human nature whatever the influence of culture or history on them.

The Analytical Problem

So that’s the first point. Our moral projects are normative projects that require a commitment to some model of what human beings demand everywhere by virtue of their very nature.

Second, an analytical point. If humans were blank slates, it would be very difficult to make much sense of the laws of motion of human societies. It would lead to an analytical impasse.

As Vivek Chibber recently argued, socialists fixate on class because class analysis holds diagnostic and prognostic insight. Both of these claims are versions of a more general claim that socialists make about human history, which is referred to as “historical materialism.”

The claim is that given certain information about how the total pie in any given society is produced — about who does the producing, who does the appropriating, who owns, who rents, who works — we can make certain inferences about who has power and who is powerless, about who will do well for themselves and who will do poorly.

We can say something intelligent, in other words, about the rhythms of economic life in that society, about the character of political conflict that might emerge, and even about the nature of ideas or ideologies that agents in that society will find compelling.

What’s relevant for our purposes is that it is impossible to make this argument without being committed to some stable expectations about what humans are like across time and across space. At its essence, historical materialism is a set of claims about how an abstract human is likely to behave when she finds herself with or without certain resources and arrayed against other humans who are similarly or differently positioned.

If you take out the anchoring model of what humans are like in the abstract, if you reject any and all claims about human nature, the whole edifice comes crashing down. You lose the ability then to make sense of these core questions.

Anyone who wants to change society has to ask: why are some people poor? Why are other people rich? Why are some people powerful? Are other people powerless? How do we counter the power of the powerful? If you take out the anchoring model, human societies become nothing more than a blooming, buzzing, confusion of an infinite number of hierarchies, roles, ideas, beliefs, and rituals, etc.

People on the Left are very fond (and rightly so) of quoting thesis eleven from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.” Thesis ten-and-three-quarters is definitely, “If you want to change the world, you have to make sense of it first.” The Blank Slate Thesis makes that impossible.

The Political Problem

So we’ve had a moral problem, and we’ve had an analytical problem. The third problem is a political problem: the Blank Slate Thesis leads to ruinous political analysis. It makes it very difficult for socialists to apprehend the tasks ahead of us in a non-socialist world. It leads to bad diagnoses and bad strategy.

What do I mean by this? Why would our position on human nature bear on our ability to win people to our politics? Let’s start with some sobering reminders first. We live in a society in which our politics are not mainstream.

It’s not a surprise. The enormous growth of socialist groups after Bernie Sanders, the widespread support for something like socialism among a younger generation at the polls — I don’t want to deny any of that.

But at the same time, we cannot forget that we’re still small, we’re still weak, and we’re still operating on the margins of this society.

When a small, weak, and marginal group looks out from its minoritarian vantage point onto society, there are two ways in which it tends to make sense of its own marginality. The first one is to believe that people aren’t signing up because they fail to see what we see. They don’t get it.

On the Left, enormous energy goes into these kinds of explanations. People aren’t with us because they aren’t woke. And why aren’t they woke? Because they’re bigoted, they’re stupid, they’re ignorant, they’re sexist, they’re racist, they’re nationalist, they’re xenophobes, and on and on.

That’s one way to make sense of why people don’t get it. And if I convince you of nothing else, please let me convince you that this is the wrong way.

The correct way, the better way, to make sense of our marginality is to invert this view — to flip it on its head entirely. We are few and they are not with us, not because they’ve failed to understand what we see, but because we’ve failed to understand what they have seen. We have failed to put ourselves in their shoes and take a walk through the world as they’ve experienced it.

What do I mean by this? Let’s take the enormous orange-haired elephant in the room. How are we to understand a white worker in West Virginia voting for a billionaire windbag? Or how 53 percent of white women could vote for the same man? Good answers to these sorts of political questions are distinguished from bad answers by one simple fact: they take seriously what it means to have lived the life of the person whose actions or beliefs you’re trying to explain.

In other words, a good political answer is one which puts you in the shoes of the person you’re trying to account for.

What does it mean to put yourself in their shoes? This is the critical point. It means remembering that a Trump voter is a human being animated by the same kinds of interests that animate you. She cares about her livelihood, her dignity, her autonomy, her family in much the same way that you do.

Your explanation and practice, in other words, should pass a simple litmus test: could it explain why I would have voted Trump, had I been born her?

If we fail to do this, we will find the tasks ahead of us impossible. Organizing is not really the task of preaching to the woke, but in large part, the task of awakening the not-yet-woke.

But if you can’t put yourself in their shoes, you will invariably find yourself talking down to them. Rather than meeting them where they are at, you will find yourself livid that they are not yet where you are. And that will lead to a lot of vigorous, condescending, and elitist finger-wagging.

So this is the third problem, the political problem: the Blank Slate Thesis encourages you to forget that people are always meaningfully animated by certain unshakeable concerns. If we’re going to win people to our side, we have to take these concerns seriously. We have to take their human nature seriously.

Human Nature in Capitalism

If you commit to the Blank Slate Thesis, as a socialist you face three kinds of problems. A moral problem, an analytical problem, and a political problem. So don’t do it. Don’t let your friends do it and don’t do it yourself.

But so far I haven’t made an argument on how to respond to our annoying cousin — just how not to respond. In fact, I’ve conceded that our cousin, our family free-marketeer, is right on two points. He’s right to argue that there’s a universal human nature, and he’s right to note that this means that people everywhere care about themselves and the interests of their loved ones.

Given these concessions to his argument, what distinguishes us as socialists from him? How should socialists respond? How do we defend the idea of a new society different from this one — a society in which people aren’t just out to maximize returns to themselves, a society which takes care of the weak, the vulnerable, the unfortunate?

To defend this vision against his, we have to make two clarifying arguments — one about this thing that we’re calling “human nature,” and one about how it expresses itself in social life.

The major mistake made by our family free-marketeer is that he paints a flat, simplistic portrait of what human nature entails. So of course he’s partly correct. Humans everywhere care about themselves. They care about having enough to eat, they want to be cared for when sick, they care about having a roof over our heads. We also care deeply about certain intangibles. Our autonomy, our dignity, and maybe even some unsavory things about ourselves — what people think of us, our standing in the eyes of our peers.

But our antagonist’s view of human nature is one in which we care only about these things, in which we only care about maximizing returns from the world to ourselves.

This is the bourgeois view. The abstract human is basically like a two-year-old on an airplane. Nobody else matters. And if this were true, our project would be doomed. Out of toddlers on an airplane, I think you’d probably be able to build a world of an Ayn Rand novel, but you wouldn’t be able to build socialism.

But the bourgeois view is only partly correct. Humans are capable of many things other than simple selfishness. We’re capable of caring for others, we’re capable of empathy and compassion, we have the capacity to distinguish fairness from unfairness, and the capacity to hold ourselves to those standards.

The bourgeois view inflates our selfish drives and ignores these other qualities. Socialists do not have to do the same. Human nature is not infinitely plastic. Its contain a variety of drives and capacities — some inner demons and some better angels, to quote Steven Pinker.

Here’s the second point. Notice what our antagonist’s argument entailed: that whatever the character of the society in which humans find themselves, their underlying selfishness, their underlying competitiveness, is going to eat away at social structures until those social structures have been rendered irrelevant or totally transformed. Biology overpowers society.

In response, it is tempting to argue that human nature does not matter at all. But this is wrong, for the three reasons already outlined. So what should we say, in response? We should argue that human nature is always relevant, but never decisive.

Think about the way in which society is organized. What do people have to do to reproduce themselves? What do they have to do to other people in order to reproduce themselves? These facts exercise selectional pressures on the set of drives that constitute our human nature. The socialist wager, in a sentence, is that a better society would encourage our better tendencies.

This is not to argue that the other aspects of our nature can ever be ignored. A better society will no doubt have to respect certain limits. It will have to satisfy our needs. It will have to grant us our desires for freedom, for autonomy, our need to be respected. Socialism will most definitely fail if it requires us to be altruistic or saints, because the vast majority of people are not built to be either of those things.

Whatever else socialism might mean, it cannot mean a society in which people are called upon to systemically sacrifice themselves for some ideal, be it the fatherland, the working class, the world revolution, the supreme leader. That road leads straight to Pyongyang.

However, a society which caters to everyone’s universal needs, which helps everyone flourish — this is a society that would encourage and nurture the good that lies inside all of us.

It is true in some important sense that our free-marketeer cousin knows only capitalist men and women. Socialist men and women would be different. They would still care about themselves and their needs, but a better society would also encourage them to take seriously the interests and needs of others.

Human Nature in Socialism

How would it do this? We can only speculate, of course. But I can think of two ways. First, a society which meets everyone’s needs is a society in which there would be less to quarrel about. Less reason for aggression, less reason for violence, less reason for predation. Compare the person you are when you’re sharing a box of cookies with your brother or sister, to the person you are when you’re sharing one cookie.

The second point is that socialism would also be a much more egalitarian society. People would be each other’s equals — not subordinates or superiors.

I’m sure many of you have heard of the Stanford prison experiment, which illustrated that hierarchies can make monsters out of ordinary humans. Well, the absence of these hierarchies should make it easier to bid farewell to the monsters inside us.

In a more developed, and more egalitarian society, better humans will flourish. Socialists one, libertarian cousin zero.

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.