Human Nature: A Work in Progress

A Contribution to the Debate on 'Species-Being'

The starting point

The starting point of this debate is the desire to better understand the process of class consciousness, in order to contribute to it. It serves no purpose to discuss the role of the revolutionary minority if we can’t imagine this process. The classic responses of councilism and Leninism are formulaic: the first swears by the formula: W+C=R (a developed working class plus economic collapse equals revolution), the second believes (in the best case) in W+C+P=R (I guess I don’t have to spell out what the P stands for). Both stand in the teleological, Hegelian, tradition of Marxism: they see this process as happening inevitably, history as a program that unfolds as it’s meant to unfold. In the first, consciousness is entirely passive. The working class makes its revolution reacting impulsively to events, without knowing the implications. In the second, the party knows, it embodies class consciousness, its direction makes it possible for the class to overcome the obstacle of capitalist ideology. Implicitly, both positions base themselves on a certain view of "species-being," of human nature. In each case there is an underlying view as to what human nature is capable and incapable of in different circumstances. They should make clear why they believe what they believe, but they never do.

We think that neither party nor crisis make the working class revolutionary. Does that mean that we don’t have to consider human nature? Or is the opposite true? If the working class doesn't automatically make its revolution because its income and social security are collapsing and the party shows them the way, what does give it the will, the motivation, the insight, to do it? Don’t we have to look beyond the economic grievances of the working class to find the answer to that question? And does that not lead us to consider other core aspects of human nature in the working class that are oppressed by capital and that create the desire to break that oppression?

Another argument to investigate this further: the more capitalism's real domination is developed, or in other words, the more it is based on automated mass-production, the smaller the part that attacks on wages, direct pauperization, represents in the totality of ways in which the capitalist crisis affects the working class. The reason is that the more productivity grows, the more the relative cost of wages declines. Today, capitalism's crisis affects the working class in many ways not as workers specifically but as human beings: Wars, the destruction of the environment, the destruction of social services, the destruction of community, the growth of insecurity and anxiety…Is it not necessary that the working class, in its struggle, develops an understanding of how all these aspects are linked with its fights for wages, employment and other workplace-related issues, in order to grasp the scope of its undertaking? Is it not the case that the revolution is possible because the working class embodies a human nature that is threatened by capitalism, and only it is in a position to defend it?

The biological base: a mixed bag

Does a species being, a human nature across social classes exist? Like all other species, we have a common genetic make-up. But we are a special animal, the one that changes the world, through its consciousness. Since consciousness is what makes us different, it has to define our species being. Is it also in our genes, an evolutionary outcome created through natural selection? Some think that consciousness is indeed entirely genetically programmed; that all our individual as well as group traits have been selected by evolution. Take sexual jealousy, a trait that is common across cultures and ages. It can be assumed to be genetically universally successful in the long run, since jealous people will prevent their partners from having sex with others, while spreading their genes through sex with non-jealously inclined people, so that over thousands of generations, only the genes of the jealous will survive.

In this way, one can assume that there are many other traits in humans that have either died out or have become universal, depending on their genetic success, just as in other species. Most of that selection process took place when humans still lived in a form of society we call "primitive communism". Since the time that people painted those wonderful images in the caves of Lascaux, mankind has presumably undergone very little change in its genetic make-up. Genetic evolution is favored by living in small groups, in which new, successful traits can generalize relatively quickly, with limited outside intermingling but with a universal incest-taboo to curtail negative variations. The larger the intermingling, the more mutations cancel each other out.

The implications of the assumption that our species being is created essentially in this way, are deterministic. We can have illusions about deciding our own fate, but in reality we only do what our genes tell us to do. We’re programmed. We can think what we want about war but mankind is doomed to wage it again and again, because evolution has favored the selection of aggressive genes in our struggle for survival.

But even if we accept for a moment that all our characteristics are genetically determined, the implications are not as simple as that. Evolution has promoted contradictory characteristics: it rewards cowardice and courage, aggression and meekness, conformity and creativity, altruism and egoism, tenderness and brutality, solidarity and competitiveness. These are all genetically successful traits, in groups as well as individuals. The biological base of our species being is a mixed bag, a complex vat of raw material.

The limitation of genetic evolution to explain consciousness and therefore species being becomes clear when you look at something like suicide. With the above theory, you can "prove" that suicide does not exist. Humans who are genetically inclined to suicide have less time to transmit their genes so that, over enough generations, the suicide-gene is weeded out. Why then is it a growing phenomenon?

Looking again at jealousy: the assumption was that, if at some point in time some people were jealous and others were not, they were genetically different. But that is just a guess, something that can neither be proved nor disproved (for now). Let’s say that the guess is right, that in that mixed bag of evolution, there is now a universal jealousy-gene (or combination of genes). Does that mean that I have no choice but to act jealously? My point here is not to debate which choice is the right one, but to affirm that there is a choice, both because of my complex and contradictory nature and because I am a thinking being, a product of a collective process of consciousness that shapes how I look at the world, at my choices and actions. I think that the same is true in a collective sphere, for groups, for classes and for mankind in general now. In both cases, for the individual and the collective, the choices are obviously shaped by outside conditions: I may not be jealous now if I don't see the situation as threatening, but I may become so when that changes; in the same way the working class reacts differently when it sees the capitalist crisis as a threat to itself. But while the changes in the context inform the choice differently, it remains a choice, based on an active (and thus not pre-ordained) understanding by mankind, and the working class in particular, of its situation.

Human nature is not innate

Since the specificity of humankind is its consciousness and consciousness develops itself, species being is necessarily a product of history, a work in progress. I think it's valid to speak of "species being" because there is a collective consciousness of the species that is not unique to a class or a culture. That is why you can take a peasant from the Andes or a remote Chinese village and put him in New York: it won’t take him long to fit in. A bourgeois can become a proletarian and a proletarian bourgeois without changing their human nature, not because their genes stay the same but because both, despite their conflicting class interests, are the product of the same collective consciousness. A human does not acquire species being by being born. There is the Tarzan-myth, a man raised by apes yet being wholly human, a model-human to boot, a splendid specimen proving the superiority of the white race. In reality, the rare cases of humans raised outside human society show that Tarzan would not have become human but at best a weird hybrid. As a human, he is frozen in a very early developmental stage, even after integration in human society. Human nature is not innate, you acquire it by living in society. It therefore changes together with society itself.

Although by definition it is not class determined, different classes live it differently -- stimulate and develop certain aspects of it, suppress and develop alienation from others. So they change it too. Individualization has been a long-term trend in the development of our species being. For hundreds of thousands of years, the border between men and their natural environment, and between "I" and "we" subjectively hardly existed. Humans lived in unity with nature and each other, not in the romantic sense in which such phrases are used today, but because their consciousness did not make distinctions which for us are self-evident. Yet you could say that, because of this magical unity with the world around them and the submergence of the "I" in the "we", they were subjectively immortal. They didn't bury their dead because they were too much “we” to care about the loss of a particular member of the group. The first ritual burials, about 80, 000 years ago, showed a new consciousness of humans as individuals, presumably as a result of more complicated interaction and division of labor and thus a sharper sense of loss when a member of the group died. Individualization developed together with specialization. So it was really under capitalism that it most drastically altered our species being. In his article on the same subject in this issue, Mac Intosh makes a good point about the need for capitalism under real domination to stimulate individual freedom and autonomy (the qualification "relative" needs to be added) despite the fact that this undermines its control over society. Real domination developed specialization to the hilt but it’s really a feature of capitalism as a system, not just of its latest phase (ascendant capitalism brought on the age of enlightenment, the age of reason, against the magical group thinking of feudalism). Capitalism changed our species being, not through ideological influence but by creating new social practices, which create a new understanding by men of the world. So species being today is very different from what it was under “primitive communism” yet it is still the same, in the same way as a man is different from the child he was, yet still the same person.

We all know that the first years of a person's life have a tremendous formative influence. The same might be true for our species being. The way we experienced life under primitive communism, which constituted about 98 % of humankind’s history, cannot but have left deep imprints on our collective consciousness. It must have left a very deep longing for community that stands in conflict to the reality of capitalism, despite the fact that capitalism alienates us from it. An urge for a “paradise regained” which feeds into the working class struggle. Yet when we look at this, we also have to look at other childhood legacies in our species being: the tendency to magical thinking, to turn to self-deception when facing apparently insurmountable obstacles. When we really think that the concept of species being is useful to understand how humankind can accomplish a communist revolution, we must also look at it to understand why men have made such horrible, self-destructive, choices in the course of their history, and not just blame the productive forces.

The reasons why we pin our hopes on the working class include the worsening of its specific conditions and its position of potential power over these conditions: the working class already operates the productive forces and is thus in a unique position to gain control over them and to choose to overthrow capitalism. But there is another reason that is to be found in the way species being is lived by the working class. Only the working class under capitalism lives in conditions that favor the cooperation and natural solidarity on which a post-capitalist society must be based. Resistance to conditions that threaten its basic needs naturally lead to collective action, to self-organization and living solidarity. It’s not just a matter of efficiency, of having no other means to fight, but also that through this collective action, it reconnects with our deep-seated need for an empowered communal existence.

The anti-climax

Primitive communism and class societies have all formed the species being that exists today. Inevitably, our species being is not harmonious and stable but contradictory and evolving.

It seems useful to try to understand it better and relate it to the subjective conditions for revolution. But (and that's disappointing and exciting at the same time) it will not make us able to predict if and how a revolution may occur. We can’t know. We’ll have to find out. We can predict some things that will happen, but we can’t predict how the working class will choose to react. It stands on the historical scene, loaded with the luggage of millennia, with its baked-in core of social being, its baked-in gift of creativity, its baked-in capacity to think and imagine, its baked-in tendency to self-deception, and so on. Its choices are not pre-determined and that also means that we can participate in the choosing, if we see ourselves as part of it and not standing outside of it; neither as leaders nor as spectators. If we find a candle, we should light it, if we have a match, we should strike it.


Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links