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.

If human beings are social animals, socialists believe that the natural relationship among them is one of cooperation rather than competition. Socialists believe that competition pits one individual against another, encouraging each of them to deny or ignore their social nature rather than embrace it. As a result, competition fosters only a limited range of social attributes and, instead, promotes selfishness and aggression. Cooperation, on the other hand, makes moral and economic sense. Individuals who work together rather than against each other develop bonds of sympathy, caring and affection. Furthermore, the energies of the community rather than those of the single individual can be harnessed. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (see p. 104), for example, suggested that the principal reason why the human species had survived and prospered was because of its capacity for ‘mutual aid’.