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"Human Nature" & "Failed Communism"

I'm thoroughly exhausted by the "human nature" argument that I consistently encounter, while teaching or in random debates, whenever the possibility of communism is raised. You know the one: that supposed epiphany that forms the basis of the good-in-theory-bad-in-practice argument. "Oh sure it sounds sensible, but obviously it can't work because it fails to understand human nature."

Human Nature?

If they mean the boy band "Human Nature" that was responsible for the 2005 hit single "Reach Out (I'll be there)" then no, my arguments for communism have not understood human nature.

Clearly human nature is meant to indicate something like this:

Look out! I'm a human and this is just how I behave when I'm outside the normal laws of society that are meant to stop me from swinging chainsaws and killing and being true to my vicious human nature!

Human nature, then, meaning that humans are essentially selfish and competitive individuals who could never live in a classless society because, just by virtue of being human, we like to hurt each other. Sometimes with chainsaws.

What really annoys me is when this assumption about human nature is used to explain the failures of the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Rather than doing the actual historical work, and looking for the complex and critical reasons behind these two failed instances of communism (never mind the fact that maybe we should also be looking for, eventual failure or not, their world historical successes), the expert on human nature will declare, as if s/he has come to this understanding all on hir own, "clearly they failed because they could not contend with the reality of human nature."

Wow. I guess those of us who still see these derailed revolutions as instances of human freedom, and who still dare to call ourselves communists, really thought about that before. Maybe, because we never reckoned with the awesome fact of human nature, we might as well not be communists. Hell, we don't think about humans really - we spend most of our time, you know, thinking about machines and robots.

Communists don't like babies because they're human. This is why we know nothing about human nature.

Communists like machines and societies built by machines, preferably run by robots, as this picture shows. This is clearly my idea of communist utopia and, since it does not concern humans, demonstrates my lack of understanding of human nature.

I recently encountered this human nature argument on "Clarissa's Blog" which was somewhat worrisome because this blog claims to be progressive. It is one thing to see this argument in reactionary and liberal essays; it is extremely disappointing to see a supposedly critical thinker write something called "Why the October Revolution Failed" that is based on flawed and ahistorical assumptions.

This essay about the Russian Revolution begins with the false premise that other explanations for the failure of Soviet communism are wrong because they rely on some sort of culturalism (she doesn't use this term, but I'm tightening her terminology). That is, these other explanations ascribe the failure of communism to something specific to Russian culture. The author is right to criticize this position (though she sometimes conflates it with another position that is not always culturalist, namely that Russia couldn't develop communism because it missed the stage of capitalism), but she utterly ignores other explanations that, if she had done her research properly, are not culturalist and not hard to understand.

And then she jumps into her appeal to human nature, as if she has come to this epiphany, this divine revelation, all by herself. Apparently, while it is clearly wrong to blame the Soviet failure on some Russian cultural essence, it is not at all wrong to predestine the failure of communism itself by appealing to a Plantonic notion of human essence. Oh we might be "social animals" she admists with an implied chuckle, but we are definitely not "collective animals."

Leaving aside the battleground of human nature for the moment, I want to briefly note the two historical materialist positions regarding the failure of Soviet communism that our scholar of human nature has completely ignored:

1) The External Factors Argument: Directly following the revolution Russia was isolated and forced into a defensive position. Then there was World War Two and Russia was not only the main force responsible for winning this war but also bore the brunt of the slaughter and devastation. Since its emergence it never had any chance, was locked into what Michael Parenti called "siege socialism" and was thus unable - due to forced militarization, industrialization and reindustrialization, paranoia caused by the American led Cold War - to foster communist social relations. You try building socialism when the capitalists and imperialists are attacking you with sanctions, undermining your government, and funding fascists to wipe you out.

2) The Internal Factors Argument: This was the most important insight of the Chinese Revolution, an insight that would also predict the demise of Chinese communism. Mao Zedong argued that class struggle continued under socialism, that the road to communism would be long because the ideology of capitalism lingered under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Thus there would be "capitalist roaders" within the party who would want to "restore capitalism." The Chinese Communists were calling the Soviet Union "state capitalism," explaining its failures as capitalist restoration within the Party, as early as 1962. In any case, the Cultural Revolution was launched in an attempt to stop the same thing from happening to China and, as we know now, it failed - the capitalist roaders took power under Deng at the end of the 1970s.

Although I think that the external factors argument does explain a few characteristics of the failure of Soviet Communism, I think the internal factors argument possesses more explanatory depth - especially when we want to examine the problem of "human nature." By placing the emphasis on ideology rather than something as philosophically dubious as human nature, we can reject an idealist conception of human essence by arguing that characteristics like "selfishness" are the product of past modes of production's ideology that do not disappear after revolution. If we are educated and socialized in a society that prizes self-interest, then we don't start thinking differently, no matter how much we want to, in a mode of production that encourages a different way of seeing the world. We have to be re-educated, just like so many monarchists throughout Europe were re-educated over successive generations, into capitalists. And yet still, under capitalism, we encounter people who think in ways that should only make sense under previous modes of production.

There are other arguments for the failure of Russian communism that are not culturalist or simplistic. For example, the Autonomist argument that blames vanguardism for the failure of actually existing socialism is an argument that - while I do not agree with it - possesses more critical depth than the straw-person arguments on Clarissa's Blog.

Furthermore, this author's supposedly original human nature point is not only flawed historically, it is flawed philosophically. As I said at the outset of this entry, I'm terribly annoyed by people who make appeals to some transhistorical notion of human essence that is utterly divorced from social history. Oh, she can throw away the comment about humans being "social animals" but it is not clear that she understands what that even means. For example, she fails to recognize that humans produced themselves as a species when they produce history/society. And this means we produced new ways/understandings of seeing ourselves in relation to the world.

Humans are selfish and merit-inclined? Please: this conception of humanity only appeared under capitalism. If we want an older conception of human nature we could say that humans are defined primarily by "original sin." Some people still believe this, after all.

I like to imagine a feudal ideologue telling a capitalist that capitalism could "never happen" because it is "against human nature." The Great Chain of Being, God's divine plan for the natural world according to Aquinas, clearly states that humans are divided before birth into essential identities. In fact monarchists did make such arguments and, guess what, capitalism exists in spite of these claims about human nature.

The author's spurious claims to positivist psychology aside, the article is defined by a lack of unoriginality posing as unique. The appeal to human nature is bourgeois ideology masquerading as common sense, the old tired and uncritical argument against communism that is designed ro reinforce capitalist social relations as a priori.

And besides, the band Human Nature got along well enough to release some kick-ass boy band singles. Considering that they named themselves after human nature, shouldn't this constitute a proof? Or maybe the fact that they broke up (did they?) proves that their name is appropriate for those who reason that human nature is brutish and nasty. Clearly it's just as good of an argument as the one made on Clarissa's Blog.


  1. Hey JMP -

    I really enjoyed this post. This "human nature" argument is pretty absurd (unless we're talking about Madonna's Human Nature - and on a side note, I would be interested in hearing your take on this video/song, especially in relation to your earlier post about Dworkin's anti-rape/pornography argument vs. sex-positive arguments from 3rd wave feminism... But that's getting a little off topic now).

    When I talk to people who say that Communism "can't work" because of human nature, etc. I always find it interesting that they don't seem to question whether or not capitalism is "working". But I suppose notions like "human nature", "survival of the fittest", etc. all fit nicely with capitalist social relations.

    These arguments about human nature places the onus on individuals when it comes to evaluating whether or not capitalism "works". If it's not working for you, it must mean that you're just not trying hard enough. Homeless people want to be homeless, they're lazy, etc. Perhaps it's just not in your "nature" to succeed.

  2. Thanks Xtina! Oh yeah, Madonna's "Human Nature" - that's arguably a better pop reference than a one hit wonder boy band...

    Unfortunately, as you imply, capitalism is "working", if we understand capitalism, scientifically, as producing surplus value, etc., etc. It's just not working, I suppose, in the way libertarian-type capitalists want it to work.

  3. Silly Josh. PEOPLE ARE ONLY MOTIVATED BY MONETARY GAIN. The only reason I write songs is so that I can live in this mansion with my butler.

  4. scientifically? Dude since when you, someone who can tighten someone else terminology, use terminology without any discipline?

    start expunge, asswipe

  5. I'm guessing that neither the author of the post nor any of the people taking part in the discussion have ever been in the Soviet Union and glean all their knowledge of Soviet history from books. Would I be right in assuming this? :-)

    Whether you or I believe in the "human nature" is immaterial. What matters is that the ideologues of the Soviet Union did. Their main goal that they proclaimed on numerous occasions since years before the revolution was "to change human nature." Until the last years of the Soviet Union that was still the goal (see Brezhnev's last speeches). So this was a system aimed at struggling against human nature. And it failed in the process.

  6. Oh dear, how do you respond to an argument that is rigged? Logicians refer to this way of arguing (which is rhetoric and not argument) as "poisoning the well." By changing the terms of the argument with a rhetorical flourish, the terms of the argument aren't even addressed, no?

    Whether or not I've lived in the Soviet Union is immaterial because that was not the point of the argument. I agree that that revolution failed, but I think there are scientific, rather than idealist, reasons behind this failure. What I indicated was that its failures (and yes it DID fail and degenerate into brutal state capitalism) were not because of some eternal and unchangeable human nature. And this position comes from people who did live under the Soviet Union, but remained critical communist, and seriously grappled with the issue.

    Nor do I see Brezhnev as any sort of theoretical authority. My position (and this should be clear from my point about WHY I think the Soviet Union failed) is that Brezhnev was a state capitalist, and an imperialist.

  7. As I said, Brezhnev was only the last in a long line of ideologues who prepared, inspired and created the revolution. The revolutionaries all spoke of the revolution as a "definitive fight against human nature." Whether you or I like it or not, these were the terms that defined the Russian revolution from the start.

    As for Brezhnev being an imperialist, sure he was. Just like Lenin and Stalin. No leader of Russia can possibly be anything else.

  8. Again, you're ignoring the terms of the argument. Simply because Brezhnev said it was a "fight against human nature" doesn't suddenly mean that the revolution failed because of human nature. This is a spurious appeal to the authority of the one. It is also a category mistake to associate him with Lenin (or Stalin with Lenin for that matter).

    I agree that the idea of any revolution is to "change human nature" (if we understand "human nature" as something that is socially contingent) but I have suggested why that change failed to develop - and note those who put a lot of work into scientifically (again I emphasize this term) grappling with why this didn't happen in Russia or in China (though the latter went further, understanding the mistakes of Russia and then making new mistakes). When capitalism developed there was a definitive transformation in "human nature" and our understanding of "human nature." We as a species see ourselves differently now than our counterparts under pre-capitalist formations.

    So why did the Russian Revolution fail? Surely not because there was some unalterable human essence that predestined its failure ahead of time. The fact that capitalism was able to change (and I do agree that some ideologies and previous ways of seeing ourselves linger, and I noted that) "human nature" is already proof that our nature, because it is social, is changeable. Will it take longer to change it through socialist revolution? Of course: and those people who came up with scientific critiques of the Russian revolution understood this as well. The fact is that the Soviet ideologues, especially post-Lenin, did not understand what was at stake which was why they took the [state-]capitalist road.

    In any of these cases we are "taught by failures and setbacks" but the trick is to understand the actual failures and the actual setbacks, not to accept such a liberalized argument that depends on so many assumptions about reality.

    Arguing for human nature being some quasi-supernatural force that destines failure is not only unscientific and ahistorical, it is politically paralyzing. If this is the case, we might as well accept a brutal free-market system and the war of all-against-all. Maybe that is the case? If so, then we might as well reject any form of progressive struggle because, if we are brutish and nasty, what does any of it matter?

  9. "The fact is that the Soviet ideologues, especially post-Lenin, did not understand what was at stake which was why they took the [state-]capitalist road."

    -I think you wanted to say post-Stalin since Stalin was Lenin's most faithful disciple and never deviated from what Lenin planned even by an inch.

    "If this is the case, we might as well accept a brutal free-market system and the war of all-against-all. Maybe that is the case? If so, then we might as well reject any form of progressive struggle"

    -Obviously, that isn't what I'm proposing. In order to be successful, progressive struggle has to take people into account. The Russian revolutionaries, who did, in fact, see human nature in very essentialist terms, did not. So the failure was imminent.

  10. Well I guess here we're not going to end up agreeing. I definitely do not think Stalin was a faithful Leninist. There is the issue of Lenin's memoirs that despair over this fact (where he saw both Stalin and Trotsky as problematic), and then the key differences over ideology (i.e. the national question, the fact that [as the Chinese Communists argued before their revolution degenerated] Stalin lapsed into "metaphysical idealism", etc.)

    Oh well. But for those other comment makers who've seen this, and just so they don't get the wrong idea from my sometimes overly polemical statements (oh my semi and occasionally nebulous rhetorical humour!), you should check out Clarissa's Blog that I linked above. Although I clearly disagree with her on this issue, I still think it's one of the cool/progressive blogs out there that is worth checking out for many reasons that will be proven once you see the breadth of its posting...

  11. (And sorry, Xtina, I just noticed your earlier comment now. It was not my intention to tighten your terminology: it was a tangental agreement - maybe I misunderstood the comment (always possible considering the state of most of these posts)? But yes, I do believe that there is a scientific understanding, and I will stick by that term, of capitalism.)


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