Does socialism contradict human nature?

Socialism, someone said to me recently, may be a fine idea, but unfortunately human nature would prevent it from operating as intended; by nature, people are too individualistic or competitive or greedy to live in a system of planned cooperation and solidarity. Is this the case?

There are undoubtedly some characteristics shared by virtually all human beings, such as an instinct for self-preservation: if you see a rock whizzing through the air toward your head, you duck without stopping to think about it. It is said that all human beings smile in the same way, and that they use their eyes similarly to convey meaning.

But the self-preservation instinct can be violated — some people commit suicide. Facial expressions may look the same in different cultures, but their meanings can vary considerably: Australian tourists in parts of Asia who suffer some minor misfortune have to learn that smiling can indicate embarrassment rather than amusement.

In any case, similarities at such a basic level cannot possibly explain even fairly simple social phenomena. Human nature doesn’t cause every country to drive on the same side of the road. How could it possibly determine much more complex social arrangements?

Different societies

If there were a human nature that dictated some particular form of behaviour, then all human societies would be fundamentally the same, or at least have the same values. But they aren’t, and they don’t. Developed capitalist societies have essentially similar economic structures and corresponding social values (norms of behaviour). But there have been and are other forms of social organisation, which have quite different values. Capitalism teaches us to relate to others primarily through economic relations: to seek a return on anything we extend to them. In pre-class societies and those in which class divisions are not highly developed, it is often the norm to welcome total strangers into the home and treat them as guests, with no thought or possibility of recompense.

Each form of social organisation has its own norms of behaviour, and it comes to regard these norms as part of human nature. Understood in this way, human nature is not something absolute and determined only by genetics. It is a changing product of history and social conditions, and as it evolves it can in turn alter those social conditions. If this were not the case, the entire human race would still be living in the same sort of society as our neolithic ancestors.

It should not be surprising that human nature is essentially a social product. One of the most basic characteristics of human beings is that we are social beings: wherever there are more than a handful of individuals, we form into a social economy of some sort. Whatever else it may consist of, human nature includes a proclivity to live with and collaborate productively in some way with other individuals. (There can be individuals who prefer isolation: hermits, lone hunters. But to the extent that they really avoid society, they are irrelevant to a discussion of how human nature influences social organisation.)

Capitalism and cooperation

Capitalism has a contradictory interaction with this human characteristic. Compared to pre-capitalist society, it greatly multiplies the scale of social production, driving ceaselessly to incorporate the entire planet. On the other hand, it alienates society’s producers from their own activity, because their product is the private property of the capitalists, who use it to exploit them. Moreover, the values of selfishness and greed that it maintains are in conflict with the solidarity and selflessness that are necessary for expanding human cooperation both quantitatively and qualitatively.

The impact of these contradictions is what creates the effort to make production social in all aspects, beginning with the abolition of capitalist property. As it develops, socialism will gradually create the new human nature that is needed. This creates conflicts with the old values of capitalism, but we know that a new human nature is possible because we can see it being created today even in societies like Cuba that have set out on the socialist path from an underdeveloped capitalism. Cuba’s unselfish humanitarian assistance to the world’s poor, for example in medicine, is concrete evidence that we can create the human nature we need.