On the History of Human Nature

Against the Current, No. 108, January/February 2004

Jim Morgan

FIRST, HUMANS HAVE the capacity for love, solidarity, compassion AND the capacity for great aggression and cruelty. Which capacity dominates depends on certain geographic and social conditions.

In “primitive” pre-literate clans where there is virtually no economic surplus, there is always sharing of land, resources, products, labor. By necessity (for the clan could not survive with a dog-eat-dog outlook and practice) the capacity for love and solidarity is dominant within the clan — a family of extended families.

This proves the human capacity for love and sharing; the capacity for aggression and cruelty shows up when there is some economic surplus, but not enough for the whole tribe or nation to share the wealth. Here we find tribal wars over limited hunting grounds, cannibalism, and slavery. This is class society, the beginning of so-called civilization.

This class-divided aggressive society has been with us for many centuries, perhaps seven thousand years (roughly 210 generations). But what we see during this long period of class domination and severe cruelty and greed is a constant periodic struggle of those who are the oppressed and exploited–a struggle for freedom and justice.

To Be Free

We can conclude that a basic aspect of human nature is the drive, the never-ending struggle to be free and to live in solidarity and harmony with one another.

In other words, humans have a drive to live AND a drive to be happy, to live in peace, love and freedom. (Freedom is basically the power to combine with others in order to get your needs fulfilled.)

Is the drive for happiness doomed to be forever frustrated, leaving us stuck indefinitely in the situation of dominant cruelty and aggression? Many people think so, that somehow the “death drive” is so basic that no matter what the geographic and social conditions, “human nature” is always greedy and aggressive.

But this is of course contradicted by the fact of human “primitive communist” sharing society, and that people have been constantly, periodically, throughout the history of class-divided society, trying to throw off the yoke of oppression.

They have had to be in solidarity with others in order to carry on this struggle. The hymn of the U.S. labor movement is rightly entitled “Solidarity Forever.” (“Us poor folks haven’t got a chance unless we organize!”)

In ancient Asiatic society (Egypt, China, etc.), where private ownership of land is unknown, there have been long years of relative mass docility; but with the development of modern bourgeois society especially, the tempo of development and uprisings has considerably increased!

Many old-fashioned Christians believe that human nature is “fallen” and cannot extricate itself from “Original Sin.” Thus any historical progress is dependent on divine intervention.

In a secularized version of this, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) thought that in a “state of nature” (without the strong control of the modern state) human life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan). This is not what anthropologists have found among primitive peoples who are living closest to nature, and without a state, police, jails, etc.

Is Greed Natural?

Many will argue that greed is so essential a part of “human nature” that any socialist sharing of the wealth is impossible. Obviously greed runs rampant in bourgeois society, but it has not always been that way. Greed (like human nature) has a history.

In the shared poverty of primitive communal society, greed is evidently unknown. Greed emerges with the onset of class divided society, with enough economic surplus that one person can produce enough to support others (slavery).

Such greed is originally limited by the use-value form of wealth (measured in land or cattle). (Only so many steaks may be eaten in a day.) With the development and dominance of abstract exchange value (money), greed comes into its own, expanding toward infinity. Accumulating money becomes an end in itself, an addiction . . . .

Fortunately, there is a way to human happiness, to peace, freedom and solidarity among all humans. Industrial capitalism, which has become the epitome of greed and aggression, has created the conditions for potential economic surplus which is so extensive that a true sharing of the wealth (never before seen in history) is possible.

Something new in history, beginning in the late 18th century and developing down to the present (eight or so generations), has been the creation of unheard-of productivity, culminating in automation (potentially freeing us all from stultifying, mechanical labor).

Of course capitalism is only after more and more profits, so would rather spend big money on “defense,” wars of conquest and wars protecting private wealth. Unfortunately this military power of the capitalist state is so strong it is virtually impossible to get rid of it (or so it seems).

The final showdown is going to be between the organized drive of the great masses of working people for happiness, and the money and wealth of the capitalist few. I’m betting on the workers, but of course there are no guarantees. The Frankenstein monster of uncontrolled big bourgeois power could end up doing us all in because of its pollution, destruction of the environment, and wars. Which side are you on?

Humanity Becoming Human

What does it mean to be truly human? Humans have the ability to negate the present state of affairs and to imagine something better. To be human is to be open, flexible, and very bright. Studies have shown that little babies are brilliant.

To be human is to grow and develop historically with a vision of happiness and righteousness, acting out of a sense of fairness, realizing human connectedness, loving and living out of enlightened self-interest, enjoying the struggle for a better world. (Revolutionaries are motivated by great love, as Che put it.)

“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx and Engels)

We need social control over our tremendous means of production and destruction. Then, as the Good Book says, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they
learn war any more.”

Suggested Reading:

Marx and Engels, The German Ideology; Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Ch. 7, The Labor Process; H. Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: a Philosophical Inquiry into Freud; John McMurtry: The Structure of Marx’s World-View.

ATC 108, January-February 2004