Human Nature

At its heart, socialism offers a unifying vision of human beings as social creatures, capable of overcoming social and economic problems by drawing on the power of the community rather than simply on individual effort. This is a collectivist vision because it stresses the capacity of human beings for collective action, their willingness and ability to pursue goals by working together, as opposed to striving for personal self-interest. Most socialists, for instance, would be prepared to echo the words of the English metaphysical poet John Donne (1571–1631): 

No man is an Island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 Human beings are therefore ‘comrades’, ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’, tied to one another by the bonds of a common humanity. This is expressed in the principle of fraternity. Socialists are far less willing than either liberals or conservatives to assume that human nature is unchanging and fixed at birth. Rather, they believe that human nature is malleable or ‘plastic’, shaped by the experiences and circumstances of social life. In the long-standing philosophical debate about whether ‘nurture’ or ‘nature’ determines human behaviour, socialists side resolutely with nurture. From birth – perhaps even while in the womb – each individual is subjected to experiences that mould and condition his or her personality. All human skills and attributes are learnt from society, from the fact that we stand upright, to the language we speak. Whereas liberals draw a clear distinction between the ‘individual’ and ‘society’, socialists believe that the individual is inseparable from society. Human beings are neither self-sufficient nor self-contained; to think of them as separate or atomised ‘individuals’ is absurd. Individuals can only be understood, and understand themselves, through the social groups to which they belong. The behaviour of human beings therefore tells us more about the society in which they live and have been brought up, than it does about any abiding or immutable human nature.

Society is not a product of human nature, rather human nature is a product of society.

Human beings, being social creatures, socialists advocate for cooperation over competition as the natural relationship among individuals. Competition, according to socialists, creates a scenario where individuals are pitted against each other, leading them to disregard their social instincts. This, in turn, fosters selfishness and aggression while limiting the development of social attributes. Conversely, cooperation is seen as a rational and ethical choice, fostering connections based on empathy, care, and affection among individuals who collaborate. Moreover, cooperation enables the community to pool its resources for collective benefit. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin proposed that the survival and success of the human species can be attributed to its capacity for 'mutual aid'.

The various branches of socialism generally share a viewpoint on human nature. Most socialist thinkers are optimistic about human nature, believing that individuals have a shared humanity and tend towards cooperation and sociability. Socialists see human nature as flexible, akin to plasticine, shaped for better or worse by social conditions. They argue that unaltered capitalism has negatively impacted human nature by fostering selfish, individualistic, and greedy behavior. There are evident disagreements and conflicts among socialist branches regarding human nature. Webb stands out as the least optimistic prominent thinker on human nature, contending that the working class lacks the rationality and intellectual sophistication to manage industry independently, necessitating guidance from a more intellectually advanced and paternal middle class. Different socialist branches differ in their perspectives on the impact of capitalism. Socialists believe that humans possess the rational capacity to establish new societal and economic structures that can foster 'socialism.' They also acknowledge that not all individuals have the same abilities or needs. Marx and Engels proposed that capitalism corrupts human nature to the extent that only a revolution and a communist society can restore a positive human nature state. Conversely, Crosland argued that capitalism does not profoundly erode human nature, suggesting that equality of opportunity and societal and economic reforms could enhance cooperation and camaraderie. While some socialists concentrate on understanding human nature collectively, Giddens emphasizes communitarianism, which considers human nature from both an individual and communal standpoint.