Before the Europeans came to America, the Iroquois owned and worked their land in common. They hunted together, and the spoils were divided among the members of the villages. Several families lived together in shared houses.
“The concept of private ownership of land and homes was foreign to the Iroquois,” Howard Zinn writes in “A People’s History of the United States.” “A French Jesuit priest who encountered them in the 1650s wrote: ‘No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers. . .. Their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common.’”
One of the most frequent arguments against socialism is that it is incompatible with so-called “human nature.” Those on the right will paint a picture of humanity as selfish, greedy and competitive. This picture serves a dual purpose – first it debunks the egalitarian, cooperative principles of socialism, then it justifies the cutthroat capitalism we live under.
This bleak view of our supposed nature has been the foundation of capitalism for centuries now. The political economist Adam Smith said humans have a natural “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange,” and that it is not from “the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Smith clearly never encountered the Iroquois.
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The problem with the human nature argument – other than the fact that it’s literally a logical fallacy – is that no one seems to be able to explain what human nature even is. We have Smith’s view, but we also have Rousseau, who argued that humans have a natural impulse toward compassion.
And while everyone has seen selfishness in our society, do we not often see selflessness as well? Where there is greed is there not also charity? Competition, but also cooperation?
Just as Aristotle, living in slave society, expressed the prejudice of his time with his belief that some people were slaves by nature, Smith’s ideas are riddled with the prejudice of bourgeois society.
Under capitalism, the capitalist must accumulate more and more capital to stay competitive, must always acquire new wealth at the expense of others. Capitalists must necessarily be selfish, greedy and competitive if they wish to survive.
The bourgeoisie and their apologists confuse the nature of man with the nature of capitalism.
A lot of long dead philosophers have been summoned so far, but their ideas are very much alive and well. It is because of the rotten “nature” of mankind that Margaret Thatcher can say “there is no alternative” to free market capitalism, and Francis Fukuyama can say we’ve reached “the end of history.” Liberal democracy is the endpoint, the best humanity can do, its natural conclusion.
Karl Marx ridiculed this hubris long ago.
“When the economists say that present-day relations... are natural, they imply that these are the relations in which wealth is created and productive forces developed in conformity with the laws of nature,” Marx wrote. “These relations therefore are... independent of the influence of time. They are eternal laws which must always govern society. Thus, there has been history, but there is no longer any.”
Despite Smith’s assertion about the natural propensity to exchange, the economic system we live under today didn’t exist for much of human history. In Europe, capitalism was preceded by the feudal and slave systems, and the proponents of those systems also said they were in accordance with human nature.
Not only is capitalism a fairly new phenomenon historically speaking, it had to be violently imposed. When capitalism emerged in England, the common lands were forcibly seized from the peasants, and their resistance was brutally crushed.
The capitalist system is hardly natural. It is built upon centuries of slavery, colonialism, imperialism and genocide. Mankind has no propensity to exchange – it has a compulsion to do so.
It sounds simple, but the fact capitalism hasn’t always existed is a revolutionary idea. Human beings have done things differently in the past. They’ve organized even worse systems – slavery, feudalism – but they’ve also organized systems that are quite beautiful, like the Iroquois economy.
If the reader takes anything away from all this, I hope they will be inspired by history. Yes, a lot of it is awful – the violence, the exploitation, the destruction. But there were also a lot of people who built beautiful things.
It’s been said many times the Soviet Union ceased to exist because the state socialist system was fundamentally at odds with human nature. I hope after making it this far, you’ll look for better explanations for the dissolution of the world’s first socialist state.
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And though that system is gone, there’s still a great deal we can learn from it. For all of its faults – and it had many – the Soviet Union was an experiment in striving for something better. It was an attempt at a world without exploitation, a world where everyone could lift their head high. And as I’ve written many times, socialists have had a lot of success.
The Bolshevik revolutionary and socialist feminist Alexandra Kollontai has a beautiful passage in her memoirs that I’ve thought about many times.
“One must write not only for oneself, but for others,” Kollontai said. “For those far away, unknown women who will live then. Let them see that we were not heroines or heroes after all. But we believed passionately and ardently. We believed in our goals and pursued them. Sometimes we were strong and sometimes we were very weak.”
We’re going to make mistakes, but we can move beyond this capitalist nature. There may be greed and selfishness in America today, but there’s also determination and strength. The “human nature” lie is just another chain for us to break.
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a senior studying journalism and political science.