Books / Digital Text

Chapter 10: Socialism and Human Nature

Why did the benign dream of Fourier and Owen, when made plausible by the rationalizations of Marx, and dynamic by the engineering genius of Lenin, turn into a nightmare? I think the reason, if you go to the depth of it, is single and very simple. It is because these men and all their tens of millions of followers, notwithstanding their bold scorn of superstition and firm determination to be realistic, had a naive and romantic conception of what a man is.

Both the Utopians and Karl Marx did their thinking before psychology as we know it, or anthropology, or even biology in its modern form, was born. And Lenin, as I said, did no theoretic thinking that passed beyond Karl Marx. Lenin was only twenty years old when William James published his epoch-making Psychology, but there is not a sign in his writing that he ever read so much as the title of an elementary textbook in this developing science.

In October 1917, after the news came that Kerensky’s government had fled, and the Winter Palace had fallen to his insurrectionary troops, Lenin, who had been in hiding, appeared at a meeting of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet of Petrograd. He walked rapidly up the aisle, mounted the rostrum, and when the long, wild, happy shouts of greeting had died down, remarked:

“We will now proceed to the construction of a socialist society.”

He said this as simply as though he were proposing to put up a new barn for the cows or a modern hen house. But in all his life he had never asked himself the equally simple question:

“How is this ingenious invention going to fit with the instinctive tendencies of the animals it is made for?”

The idea had never entered Lenin’s head that men, like other animals, might have instinctive tendencies. He actually knew less about this subject, after a hundred years, than Robert Owen did. Owen had described human nature fairly well for an amateur as “a compound of animal propensities, intellectual faculties and moral qualities.” He had written into the preamble of the Constitution of New Harmony that “Man’s character . . . is the result of his formation, his location, and of the circumstances within which he exists.” He merely omitted to think about that factor of man’s “formation”—what we call his hereditary nature—until his wish had time to convince him that “location” and “circumstance” could do everything. Plant people in a cooperative society young enough, he persuaded himself, and they will grow up just, reasonable, truthful, magnanimous—they will grow up cooperative.

To say nothing of science, it would seem a mere matter of common sense, if you wanted to improve upon Owen’s system, to go down into the details and find out something a little more exact and reliable about “man’s character.” If the thing had happened in England or France, that would probably have been the next step. But it happened in Germany, and the natural procedure was to fly up out of the details into the empyrean. Instead of a more circumspect plan for progress, we got a system of philosophy in which progress was incidental. Marx deduced socialism from a theory of the universe which he had learned at school, and which happened to be fashionable at the moment. For this reason, with all the great talk about advancing from “utopian” to “scientific,” Marx took a long step backward from Robert Owen’s comparatively sensible approach to his problem. He dropped out “formation” or “propensity”—the problem of man’s hereditary nature—altogether. He dropped out man altogether, so far as he might present an obstacle to social change.

“Man,” he said, “is a complex of social relations . . . The individual has no real existence outside the milieu in which he lives.” By which he meant: Change the social relations, change the milieu, and man will change as much as you like. “All history,” he added, “is nothing but a continual transformation of human nature.”

That is all Marx ever said on this primary, and in a scientific mind, preliminary question. And Lenin, I repeat, said nothing. That is why their dream turned into a nightmare. That is the rock-bottom reason. Their scheme was amateur—and worse than amateur, mystical—on the very subject most essential to its success.

To be sure, we cannot jump in with a pretense that we know much about the subject even now. The science of human behavior is still in its infancy. Biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology—they have hardly even joined forces yet, or agreed upon a common language. They have, however, a valid mode of approach and certain concepts to which any man seriously concerned with social change must give attention. As a studious reader of these sciences, I will venture to mention four or five of these concepts, which I think largely explain why, instead of the New Harmony he expected, Lenin produced the horrors of a totalitarian state.

It is not that men are greedy or acquisitive merely. Both men and women, and especially the youth, were sacrificial of this world’s goods in both Lenin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany to the point of sainthood and in droves. Those wiseacres who used to growl about the greediness of men, and say on that ground, “You socialists don’t know anything about human nature!” really didn’t know very much more than we did. It wouldn’t have hurt either of us to study the subject.

Man is, to begin with, the most plastic and adaptable of animals. He truly can be changed by his environment, and even by himself, to a unique degree, and that makes extreme ideas of progress reasonable. On the other hand he inherits, besides “animal propensities” in the crude sense, a set of emotional drives or impulses—the word instinct is a risky one—which, although they can be trained in various ways in the individual, cannot be eradicated from the race. Training consists only of repressing or redirecting them. And no matter how much they may be altered by the “location and circumstance” of the parent, they reappear in the original form—as sure as the hedgehog puts out spines—in every baby that is born.

This native endowment, moreover, was evolved in prehistoric times. In general it fitted man, or those men at least from whom we are descended, for survival in savage tribes. Nothing has happened in the brief span of racial life called “civilized” to alter measurably what we are at birth. The learned attitudes and modes of behavior which, together with manufactured objects, constitute civilization, are not transmitted in heredity, and have to be acquired anew by every individual.

This much about human nature can, I think, be properly described as knowledge. When it comes to stating just what those native tendencies are, however, differences of opinion arise that make the going difficult. Freud solved the problem, or concealed it, by lumping them all together and calling them id. As Freud is always stressing the central importance of sex, and as id is the Latin word for “it,” this academic device had a very unacademic appropriateness when it arrived on our slangy shores. But it did not blind judicious eyes to the irreducible variety of drives in man’s hereditary nature.

One of them upon which even Freud agrees is an aggressive or pugnacious tendency. It seems that whenever this human animal is frustrated in any of his impulses, he is likely to get an impulse to lambaste somebody. And as all of us in the nature of things are a good part frustrated all the time, there is always a plenty of pugnacity lying round. As a carefully scientific book says: “One may think of each nation as having a large number of individuals who are constantly in need of some person, some idea, or some group toward whom aggression may be expressed.”1 This, I think, is what made Marx’s doctrine so much more popular than Fourier’s or Owen’s. The three men talked about the same ultimate goal of peace and harmony on earth. But Marx talked very little about it, and meanwhile gave his followers a chance to fight. To arrive at the goal they must forswear peace and harmony and go in for a battle of the ages.

A wiser scheme would preserve some of that belligerent excitement in its future goal. It would fashion an ideal a little less like heaven than the “classless society,” a little more like having fun on earth. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” sounds very just and noble, but if you use your imagination a little:—What a bore it would be!

“At least let’s take time out every afternoon,” the too-blessed citizens would say, “and see what each can grab.”

I hope I do not sound frivolous, for I am saying the most important thing I know how to say about socialism. It has been more myth than science. Its aim has been escape from reality rather than adjustment to it. Instead of trying to “remove all causes for contest between individuals,” as Owen did, or even between classes, as Marx did, we ought to recognize that contest forms a large part of what keeps mankind in health and interested. Progress must consist in elevating the level and humanizing the terms on which the vital contests are fought. This takes perhaps a little of the flame out of the heart of the revolutionist, but it will keep a light shining in his head. If it is true, or anywhere near true, as Marx said, that “All history is a history of class struggles,” then the attempt at a classless society is an attempt to jump out of history. The Bolsheviks did indeed jump out of history, or jump into this form of tyranny which history had never seen before. The task is to guide history, using above all things our knowledge of man to make his future more satisfying to his instinctive nature.

That is the most obvious thing, I think, that psychology has to say to the socialist. The ideal society must be adapted to the unideal man. It must have regard to native average human traits, and not confuse these with subtle attitudes that specially bred or educated types have sometimes managed to maintain. And among these traits a gift for giving battle will be found quite as native as that gregarious kindliness of which socialists have made so much.

Another trait of man that socialism has ignored—and indeed all political idealisms from Plato’s Republic to the Declaration of Independence—is involved in that gregarious or social drive itself. It is not a simple disposition to stand side by side, or chat together, or do together what has to be done. It is a disposition enabling a number of distinct and wayward individuals to cohere when necessary and act as a unit. To this end each individual has to be capable of adopting toward his neighbor, and adopting with impetuous sincerity, an attitude either of dominance or submission. It is this confusing and yet neat pair of attributes that socialists most fatally ignored. Particularly the submissive side has been ignored—the passion both men and women have for being led, for obeying, and conforming, and belonging-to.

Freud sees this tendency in adults as the child in them still yearning for a parent’s authority. Others have called it an “instinct of submission,” as opposed to an “instinct of self-assertion.” Still others have been content to describe the whole thing—and almost everything else besides—as “herd instinct.” But that suggests a rather timorous grass-eating herd. “A tendency to fight in packs,” might be more appropriate to the present picture of mankind, if you are bound to find first cousins in the zoo. But I do not think that is necessary. We shall get into desperate trouble if we adopt the clichés of any particular school or line of study in psychology. Naturally, if you approach the delineation of man’s nature by way of the animals, you will come out with one terminology; if you approach it through primitive communities, you will come out with another; if you approach it through the insane asylum, you will come out with a third. If you approach it with an awe-stricken respect for the methods of mathematical physics you will come out nowhere at all. But I think any authority on the subject, whichever language he might use, would agree that men have in their hereditary nature a good-sized dose of belligerence, and they have a disposition both toward dominating others and submitting to them, which is not an acquired taste. Their appreciation of independence and equality of status, as well as their cooperativeness, is thus qualified by very strong drives of a contrary kind. Is it too much to ask of the architects of a New Society that they take these facts into consideration?

Owen’s experiments did not fail, nor Lenin’s either, because of the “habits of the individual system” prevailing in its members. It failed, rather, because of the impulses of the social animal prevailing in them. The idea of producing a “Community of Equality”—or in Marx’s term, a “Society of the Free and Equal”—by socializing property and production, assumed a greater self-dependence, as well as a more peaceable disposition, than these human animals are born with or capable in large numbers of acquiring. Cats might form such a society if they could learn to work together, but dogs would have to learn to stand on their own feet! And so would all gregarious animals, including even this very teachable and thoughtful one called man.

If these things are true, it is no accident that Owen’s community—and the others like it—throve only so long as the founder stayed on hand to boss it. It is no accident that “complete collectivization” in Russia, instead of setting the workers and peasants free, imposed over them a new kind of tyrant. It seems obvious to me now—though I was slow, I must say, in coming to the conclusion—that the institution of private property, the dispersion of power and importance that goes with it, has been a main factor in producing that limited amount of free-and-equalness which Marx hoped to render infinite by abolishing this institution. Marx himself, as I remarked in another connection, was the first to realize this. It was he who informed us that the evolution of private capitalism with its free market had been a precondition for the evolution of all our democratic freedoms. It never occurred to him that, if this was so, those other freedoms might disappear with the abolition of the free market.

That, however, is exactly what happened in Russia, and it happened with astounding speed. I do not believe the much over-worked “backwardness” of the country goes one step toward explaining this. Russia’s backwardness can hardly explain why collectivization made her more backward. Nor do I believe that the “capitalist encirclement”—so much like Owen’s excuse—explains it. Nor even the dictatorial and violent procedures of Lenin’s Bolshevik party. It cannot be explained without a reference to those more recently discriminated facts which Marxists out of loyalty to their antique doctrine refuse to think about: the hereditary as against the acquired nature of man; the fact that the hereditary nature is still that of the tribal savage; and that it contains, among other things, a taste for fighting and that tendency to bow down to others or boss them which makes group solidarity in gregarious animals spontaneous.

Particularly in time of stress and danger, men are prone by nature, not just persuadable by argument, to get together and fight. And in that fighting union, all those “moral qualities,” the reasonableness and justice, candor and magnanimity, which Owen counted on, and Marx and Lenin after him, tend to give way before those deeper-lying traits. Even calculating self-interest tends to give way. You can not count on anything but cohesion and intolerance.

This, at least, was the exact manner in which the Russian failure came about. The very party of consecrated revolutionists upon whom Lenin had relied to socialize the industries and bring the free society to birth in Russia, became the nucleus of a blind and vengeful fighting gang, stamping to death with shrill yells of hate every individual who dared stand out for Lenin’s promises, or for any other thing but anger and obedience.

That is what happened to Lenin’s experiment, and began to happen even before his controlling hand was withdrawn. Instead of producing the higher civilization demanded by his amateur science, or no-science, of man, the turmoil of it swept away whole sections of the acquired fabric of civilization altogether, and left the technique of modern industry and education at the mercy of the naked passions of a savage tribe . . .

But let us not malign savage tribes. Within their patterns they cultivate wisdom; they are in a state of growth. It is civilized beings who revert to savagery that are indefensible. Primitive art has its dignity of aspiration, but the cult resulting from the modern imitation of it is already at a dead end. And the same holds of these political and moral retroversions, the totalitarian states, of which that aesthetic cult has been, it almost seems, an anticipation. They are a renunciation of intelligence and of all defined and finely chosen values.

They are a renunciation of everything that Socialists, in particular, set out to multiply. And therefore it is an ironical and sad reflection that the one argument for common ownership that Socialists did base upon the facts of human nature was the argument from savage tribes. “Primitive communism,” we used to say, proves that such an economic system is suitable to human nature and will work. It did not occur to us, although it would have been a very “Marxian” occurrence if it had, that in reverting to the economics of savagery, we might revert to its crude level of life. That again, however, is what happened in Russia. There are no better words in which to describe the cultural effect and moral atmosphere of “complete collectivization.”

I do not pretend to have given a “scientific explanation” of this complex disaster. It will satisfy me if I have escaped the charge of literary psychology, and convinced the reader that the disaster cannot be explained without a science of human nature. It cannot be explained in the old catchwords of economics and class policy. The backers of Hitler in Germany made the same mistake about the Nazi party that the workers and soldiers in Petrograd made about the Bolshevik party. Each group believed that this new brutal, rabid, monolithic fighting gang, on achieving power, would promote, as had been promised, its enlightened interests. Each found that in the growth and triumph of the gang enlightened interest as such disappeared. The gang itself, the perpetuation of its blind fighting power, became the essential goal of the procedure.

Totalitarianism is thus literally an abandonment of civilization itself. And no one who has lived a thinking life these thirty-five years will deny that Lenin’s experiment in socialism broke the dam and dug the political channels in which the whole flood is running. It is not enough to pick flaws in the tactics of Lenin; his basic understanding must be questioned. An honest, bold, loyal, and within its limits extremely highbrow attempt to produce through common ownership a society of the Free and Equal, produced a tyrant and a totalitarian state; there sprang up in its wake, borrowing its name and imitating its political procedures, other tyrants and totalitarian states; the whole world was plunged into a brutishly stupid war. I think any wise Socialist, viewing this sequence in the light of what we know and Lenin did not know about human nature, little though it may be, will be inclined to reconsider his assumptions. In his further efforts toward a world in which science shall have conquered poverty and superstition, and made a rich life possible to all, he will be cautious about the scheme of common ownership and state control. He will be cautious about the extent to which it may be carried. The more “radical” he is, in the sense of intelligently caring about liberty and justice and a chance at life for the wage workers, the more cautious he will be. Of that I am firmly convinced. Socialism was amateur; we must learn to be expert.

  • 1. Frustration and Aggression, Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer and Sears. (Yale Institute of Human Relations.)
Shield icon library