In a recent column, philosophy professor Ben Burgis takes on the idea that socialism is “unnatural”, that is, somehow contrary to basic human nature:
…one of the most persistent claims of socialism’s critics…is the idea that socialism is not just impractical or even immoral but unnatural. Economist and libertarian social critic Murray Rothbard, for example, entitled a book of his essays Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature. Psychology professor and science popularizer Steven Pinker breezily asserts in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature that “socialism and communism…run against our selfish natures.”
The grim view of human nature painted by these critics has roots as fresh as evolutionary psychology and as ancient as the doctrine of original sin. It’s been used to motivate arguments against socialism not just by libertarians like Rothbard, neoliberal centrists like Pinker, or various right-wing critics of progressivism … but even by someone as firmly “on the left” as The Young Turks (TYT) host Cenk Uygur. When a C-SPAN caller asked Uygur about Marxism, he flatly stated that, “Human nature does not work the way that communists want it to work.” In some versions of this critique, the point is generalized from human nature to nature in general…
Socialism and Human Nature (Arc Magazine)
Burgis goes on to debunk many of these criticisms, but I’d like to take them on from a different perspective. I’d like to use some of the historical and anthropological works we’ve looked at over the past few years. To do that, we need to take a look at some of the history of thought on this issue.
Fundamentally the question being asked here is, what is human nature? To some extent, this is an impossible question to answer. As Chris Ryan writes in Civilized To Death, “To ask ‘What is human nature?’ is like asking ‘What’s the natural state of [water]?’ So much depends on conditions. Liquid, solid, gas—temperature and pressure make all the difference.” (p. 120)
While the question of human nature may be impossible to answer definitively, let’s take a trip through the beginnings of anthropology and sociology to see if we can at least shed a little light on it. This will help us to determine whether or not human nature—so far as we can determine what it is—is fundamentally incompatible with socialist ideals of liberty, solidarity and collective ownership, as mainstream economists assert.
The Father of Anthropology.
We could start with Lewis Henry Morgan. He was an attorney and senator who lived in upstate New York in the nineteenth century. At this point in history, the Native American tribes, although decimated by disease and territorial expansion, still had remnants of their original social structure intact. Morgan became adopted into the Seneca tribe, which was part of what has come down to us as the Iroquois League (although they obviously did not call themselves that). He studied their social organization from a scientific/intellectual perspective. It was one of the first attempts by a Western-European based culture to understand other cultures rather than just obliterate them.
Morgan traveled around the western United States investigating the kinship relations of various Native American tribes. For tribes further afield, he sent questionnaires to missionaries who were living with tribal cultures on other continents.
Morgan is considered to be “the father of anthropology” for his discovery that the primordial form of human social organization was not solitary, contractual or territorial, as many Enlightenment philosophers had believed, but based on kinship; that is, descent from a common ancestor, whether real or imagined. The social arrangement based around this concept was called the tribe: “Tribes were the initial social structures human created to further their survival.” (1)
The flexibility of this arrangement stems from three features. First, if you traced your lineage further back in time to a more remote ancestor, then you could enlarge the circle of kinship. Thus, even disparate tribes could be conjoined if they had a more remote ancestor in common (again, real or imaginary—often times imaginary). Second, non-blood relatives could be “adopted” into an extended family to increase the size of the tribe, as Morgan had been. Such adoption would determine their social roles. This is called fictive kinship by anthropologists. Third was the joining of previously unrelated people through the marriage partnership, called affinal relationships. The children of such a union share the genetics of both their mother and father’s families, and therefore both families are invested in the offspring’s future and become interrelated even though they were not before (what we call in-laws in English, a rather bizarre term, as laws are usually a stand-in for kinship). As Robin Dunbar notes, marriage is not about the parent’s families; it’s about the children. Through affinity, families could be joined, recombined, and enlarged. Marriage was also a major source of political alliances until relatively modern times, even in Western Europe.
The other thing of note was that kinship was not at all uniform–whom one regarded as a parent, sibling, cousin, or other relative varied greatly across tribal cultures. For example, in the Iroquois culture, one’s mother was not just one’s biological mother, but all of her sisters as well (whom we would call aunts). Similarly, one’s father was not only one’s biological father, but also all of his brothers (whom we would call uncles). In many cultures, those whom we would call cousins were regarded no differently than our brothers and sisters, with the same terms being used for both. In some cultures, one’s biological father and his family were not even considered to be related to you at all—only your mother’s relatives were! In these cultures, the major male figure in your life would be your mother’s brother instead of your biological father. In many cultures, parallel cousins (children from a parent’s same-sex sibling) were considered your relatives, but cross cousins (from an opposite-sex sibling) were not.
Such kinship relations organized the tribe’s entire social structure. They defined one’s rights, duties, debts and obligations relative to the rest of the tribe. They also dictated whom one could and could not marry (e.g. one’s cross-cousin, but not one’s sibling, with parallel cousins often being considered siblings). Relationships were defined by status–older over younger, men (in some aspects) over women, husbands over wives, parents over children, brothers over cousins, kinsmen over strangers. etc. As later writers would put it, social relations were primarily status-based rather than contract-based (whether the contract was written or implied). Government-citizen; employer-employee; business partner, and even husband-wife relationships were examples of contract-based relationships in European societies (since marriage could be dissolved and was primarily concerned with legal matters such as inheritance).
All of this was more important than geography, which did not matter at all. You could live right next door to someone and, if they were not a part of your tribe, then you had no obligatory social relationships with them. There was no such notion as “citizenship” based on living in a common circumscribed territory, or under the same nominal government. Plus, many tribes throughout history were nomadic, and thus they could not have based their shared identity on any particular piece of land or territory. Of course, in practice, most people did live closest to their tribes and kinsmen, muddying the issue.
The notion of a social contract was equally problematic. Written contracts could not work, since most tribal cultures did not use writing. And the notion of an implied contract would be impossible without a shared cultural heritage (particularly language and religion), which only existed among members of the same tribe to begin with.
And so, it was clear from the evidence that kinship was the universal and primordial form of human social organization, with all others being later inventions, sometimes much later inventions. Such arrangements had been preserved in cultures all over the world even up until Morgan’s time (the late 1800’s), and still exist in remote places all over the world today.
Morgan wrote a book about his discovery called Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family. He then followed it up with his best-known work, Ancient Society, in which he outlined the basic structures along which he believed all ancient societies around the world had been constituted.
Morgan’s book was hampered by its depiction of societies progressing through definite stages from Savagery to Barbarism to Civilization. Aside from the derogatory connotations of these terms, the very notion of all cultures passing through a predictable series of stages has been soundly rejected by modern anthropologists, as has the notion of some societies being more “highly evolved” than others (although this is enjoying a recrudescence thanks to the Alt-right). Social development does not have a direction, up, down or otherwise. In Morgan’s defense, however, nearly all scholars in the nineteenth century framed their arguments as a sequence of stages, probably influenced by biological evolution. This mistaken notion colored the thinking of scholars in all sorts of disciplines regardless of their political views until deep into the twentieth century.
Despite this drawback, the core of Morgan’s work—his argument that consanguineal kinship formed the basis of human social organization, with all other arrangements following later—has proven basically correct. Subsequent anthropology was built on this foundation, even if rejected some of Morgan’s other claims.
Dunbar’s Number and fractals
If we accept that kinship and tribes were the primordial form of human social organization, is there a way of knowing the size of those tribes? In other words, apropos of our discussion of kinship groupings, is there a “natural” size of social organization?
Although Morgan didn’t know it at the time, subsequent research has come up with an answer. The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar had the idea that the size of the neocortex relative to the rest of the brain was roughly correlated to group size in social animals. From this, he calculated that the “mean group size” of humans would be around 148 people, often rounded up to 150. This has been called “Dunbar’s Number” in his honor. Another group of researchers arrived at a larger number, around 290 (with a median of 231)—the Bernard/Kilworth number.
Furthermore, there are a series of widening “concentric circles” of social relations, with each having a different relation to an individual. Again, this is due to the cognitive limits in the human brain.
According to the theory, the tightest circle has just five people – loved ones. That’s followed by successive layers of 15 (good friends), 50 (friends), 150 (meaningful contacts), 500 (acquaintances) and 1500 (people you can recognise). People migrate in and out of these layers, but the idea is that space has to be carved out for any new entrants.
Dunbar’s number: Why we can only maintain 150 relationships (BBC Future)
Even though the numbers differ on the amount of close, personal relationships we can maintain, we can see that there is a definite upward limit on that number. It is not 500. It is not 1,000, or 10,000, and certainly not a million. This means that there is a “natural” size limit for human social groups, based on our evolutionary heritage.
Dunbar’s number is found all throughout human social groupings, from the size of military units, to the size of Mennonite villages, to the size of small businesses, to the length of people’s Christmas card lists (back when people still did that). And while Iroquois villages could be as large as several thousand people, the longhouse—the center of village life—tended to hold between 20-90 people, consisting of several matrilineal families, each with their own space. The longest one ever excavated could hold 180 people.
According to Dunbar and many researchers he influenced, this rule of 150 remains true for early hunter-gatherer societies as well as a surprising array of modern groupings: offices, communes, factories, residential campsites, military organisations, 11th Century English villages, even Christmas card lists. Exceed 150, and a network is unlikely to last long or cohere well.
Dunbar’s number: Why we can only maintain 150 relationships (BBC Future)
Human social organization also appears to be fractal. Again, Morgan could not have known this, since the concept of fractals was only described by mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975. A fractal is a geometric figure where each part has the same statistical character as the whole. That is, self-similar patterns occurring at progressively larger and smaller scales.
The recursive (or fractal) nature of human social organization allows it to scale up and down as needed, presumably based around the Dunbar number, above. Thus, the structure of the family is basically the same as that of the clan, which is basically the same as that of the tribe, which is the same as that of the nation, which is the same as that of the confederacy; repeating the same basic structure at progressively larger scales. Another way of describing this structure is recursive, much like Russian Matryoshka dolls nesting inside each other.
Incidentally, only humans seem to capable of doing this. Even our closest animal relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—despite being gregarious and highly social animals, cannot accomplish this sort of flexible social scaling. Language is an example of another recursive structure unique to humans, which also plays a social grooming and bonding role.
Numerous scholars in the nineteenth century noted that In the age of monarchy, rulers would commonly depict themselves as benevolent fathers, with their subjects as the children, and the kingdom being a kind of large-scale family. Even in the twentieth century, dictators who ruled over millions of people like Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong often depicted themselves as benevolent uncles.
So, now we’ve limned at least a little bit of what human nature might look like. It’s based on kinship—whether real or fictive—and based around social groupings of no greater than perhaps 150-250 close relationships (what has been humorously termed the monkeysphere), repeated on progressively larger and larger scales, creating a sort of nested group of widening social circles, with different social relationships inside each circle.
By contrast, living in larger, denser environments surrounded mostly by strangers has been sometimes referred to as a Behavioral Sink. This is based on John C. Calhoun’s studies of mouse behavior in overcrowded and highly stressful environments.
Morgan’s work had a huge impact in Europe, and he was cited by scholars as diverse as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx.
It’s that last one that especially concerns us given our topic of conversation. Morgan wrote several papers on the Iroquois system of economic organization, as well as describing it in Ancient Society.
However, it is important to note that social, economic and political relationships were not typically separated from each other in tribal cultures–all were interwoven. This characteristic of early economies was referred to by economic historian Karl Polanyi as embeddedness. Embeddedness refers to the degree that “economic” behavior (for individual pecuniary gain) is constrained by non-economic factors, whether political, religious, or social. Status in most Native American societies, for example, was not conferred by wealth, and the hoarding of wealth would have been impossible due to social pressures. In some Native American cultures (notably the Pacific Northwest), social status was conferred by giving away acquired wealth in elaborate ceremonies (potlatch). Would-be chiefs would compete to see who could give away the most, and hence gain the most prestige.
The Iroquois longhouses previously mentioned were home to several matrilineal clans–people related to each other on their mother’s side. Because of their matrilineal nature, the longhouses were collectively managed by the matriarchs (eldest women) of each clan (the Clan Mothers), who formed a Clan Mothers Council. No one went without shelter.
Iroquois villages had a system of communal land distribution–all land was owned in common by the entire village and parceled out to various clans and families to cultivate. Clans had usufructary rights, meaning they had rights to the produce generated from land that they farmed collectively, but they had no permanent ownership claims over the land itself. So long as produce was being cultivated on it, an individual or clan had rights to the plot. Once a plot was no longer cultivated, it reverted to the collective ownership of the tribe, to be redistributed as needed by the Clan Mothers Council. Thus, when land was “sold” to Europeans, the Iroquois had no understanding that they had given up rights to it permanently (hence the pejorative term, “Indian givers”). Land was considered sacred, and thus could not “belong” to any single person or family.
Agriculture was based around the “three sisters”–corn, beans and squash. Plows were not used; agriculture was slash-and burn (swidden), meaning that new plots were cleared each growing season, and worked with hoes. If useful farmland around the village became depleted, the village had to move to another location (another reason social relations could not be based around land).
Work was performed cooperatively. There was a typical gendered division of labor, with women responsible for child-rearing, planting, cultivating and harvesting crops; while men did hunting fishing, trading, building and forest management. The majority of the tribe’s goods were produced by the women. No money was used–economic exchange was conducted as a gift-based economy.
The produce of the village was stored in collective granaries in the longhouse, which each clan had access to as needed. Everyone had as much as they needed, and no one starved or went hungry.
As for political leadership, Iroquois tribes were not completely egalitarian, but were led by a sachem, what we might crudely refer to as a chief. But, critically, the office of sachem was conferred to an individual by members of the tribe via collective deliberation, and could be rescinded at any time if the sachem failed to perform adequately. And—most critically of all—the office of sachem was not hereditary. A sachem’s family did not have any special claim on the office, and it was not passed down from father to offspring, as was monarchy in Europe. Nor did the sachem have special claim to excessive wealth far greater than that of other members of his tribe.
Sachems could not issue orders or command other people to do things. They could not exert control over other members of the tribe, like a European king or dictator, or a capitalist boss or executive. There was no permanent, standing army or police force among the Iroquois, so there was no way of enforcing any orders by the sachem or anybody else. Every member of the tribe was free to do as he or she pleased, bound only by the requirements of kinship and social convention.
Among the Iroquois league, decisions were made collectively by the various representatives of the tribes, with no one tribe being able to strongarm the other ones. Here is a good description from testimony before the bureau of Indian Affairs given by one Cephas A. Watt (2):
The CHAIRMAN. Mr. Watt, you stated that you weren’t one of the regular chiefs. How are the regular chiefs selected here among the Indians?
Mr. WATT. They are elected by the clan.
The CHAIRMAN. Elected by the clan. Explain what you mean by that.
Mr. WATT. They have the clan system. There are eight clans.
The CHARIMAN. Among the Senecas?
Mr. WATT. Among the Senecas; and there are four on each side of the house, you see. The four clans here do not intermarry, which is their general rule, ad they have to go over to the other four clans to select their mates; and those clans, or clan mothers appoint the chiefs, that is, the oldest woman in the clan appoints him. Of course, these clans all follow their mother’s side, it doesn’t make any difference what the father might be–he might be a Japanese, but so long as he has an Indian mother the children are legitimate Senecas, and they share in all the usual privileges. So they select some of the clan whom you might say is “a good Indian” of the clan, as their chief. There might be 25 in that clan, and they select on of them as chief.
The CHAIRMAN. By whom is he selected; by the clan itself, or by the clan mother, you say?
Mr. WATT. Yes; by the clan mother. Of course, they all have to agree.
The CHAIRMAN. But the selection is made by the clan mother?
Mr. WATT. Yes. And then they are confirmed by the Six Nations chief, and the head chief of the Six Nations.
Mr. HARRISON. But you have to have a condolence meeting of your clan, don’t you?
Mr, WATT. Yes, they have a condolence ceremony, where they are lectures by the chiefs; admonished to be good.
Senator WHEELER. Do they always follow the admonition that they get?
Mr. WATT. Well. some of them do, but when they see that the chief himself is not living up to the requirements as to his character it is different.
The CHAIRMAN. What is the term of office of these regular chiefs?
Mr. WATT. It is supposed to be for life. That is, it is for as long as he is of–
Senator WHEELER interposing. Good behavior.
Mr. WATT. Yes.
The CHAIRMAN. And if the chief dies or resigns, a new meeting is held and a new chief is selected?
Mr. WATT. A new meeting is held an a new chief is selected.
The CHAIRMAN. I understood you to say that you were a chief of come kind here. How did you get your title of “chief”?
Mr. WATT. I haven’t been through the condolence ceremony yet, but I have been appointed by my clan mother and I have been elected, and it holds good until a condolence ceremony is held.
The CHAIRMAN. What clan do you belong to?
Mr. WATT. I don’t just understand, but I think I belong to the Heron clan.
Senator WHEELER. That is a fish clan?
Mr. WATT. Long-legged bird.
Ancient Law and Primitive Property
Now, the obvious objection to this is: sure, that’s fine for bunch of “primitive” savages running around the forests of North America, but what’s all that got to do with Europe?
It’s here where a few other scholars come into the mix. One of them based his experiences not on the natives of North America, but on India (the actual Indians).
Sir Henry Sumner Maine was a judge, legislator and legal scholar who had spent many years in British India. There he noted that Indian law was profoundly different than that of England. In India, the laws were based around something he called the “Joint Undivided Village” or the “Joint Undivided Family” which was headed by the eldest male clansman, who exercised “despotic” control over the whole family. Laws had little to do with individual behavior, contracts, or inheritance, because these were not relevant to village society.
From his studies of the legal codes of the ancient Romans, the ancient Germanic laws which had been transcribed (such as the Salic Law), and the laws of ancient Ireland (the Brehon Laws), Maine concluded that these ancient law codes could only be properly understood by the realization that these societies had all been constituted along the same basic lines as the Indian villages he had witnessed! From this he concluded that the basic unit of ancient societies was not the individual, but the extended family (ie. House or Clan):
The Family then is the type of an archaic society in all the modifications which it was capable of assuming; but the family here spoken of is not exactly the family as understood by a modern. In order to reach the ancient conception we must give to our modern ideas an important extension and an important limitation. We must look on the family as constantly enlarged by the absorption of strangers within its circle, and we must try to regard the fiction of adoption as so closely simulating the reality of kinship that neither law nor opinion makes the slightest difference between a real and an adoptive connection.
On the other hand, the persons theoretically amalgamated into a family by their common descent are practically held together by common obedience to their highest living ascendant, the father, grandfather, or great-grandfather. The patriarchal authority of a chieftain is as necessary an ingredient in the notion of the family group as the fact (or assumed fact) of its having sprung from his loins; and hence we must understand that if there be any persons who, however truly included in the brotherhood by virtue of their blood-relationship, have nevertheless de facto withdrawn themselves from the empire of its ruler, they are always, in the beginnings of law, considered as lost to the family.
It is this patriarchal aggregate—the modern family thus cut down on one side and extended on the other—which meets us on the threshold of primitive jurisprudence. Older probably than the State, the Tribe, and the House, it left traces of itself on private law long after the House and the Tribe had been forgotten, and long after consanguinity had ceased to be associated with the composition of States. It will be found to have stamped itself on all the great departments of jurisprudence, and may be detected, I think, as the true source of many of their most important and most durable characteristics. At the outset, the peculiarities of law in its most ancient state lead us irresistibly to the conclusion that it took precisely the same view of the family group which is taken of individual men by the systems of rights and duties now prevalent throughout Europe.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Celts, the Germans, the Slavs—each and every one had begun as a collection of village communities where kinship defined the overall social structure and all major resources—except for minor chattels—had been owned and held in common.
In other words, very similar to what Morgan described of the Iroquois.
Maine describes a progression from the Joint Undivided Family, to the House Community, to the Village Community (his terms). At each stage, property becomes less communal and more alienable:
…The group which I have placed at the head, the Hindu Joint Family, is really a body of kinsmen, the natural and adoptive descendants of a known ancestor…so long as it lasts, it has a legal corporate existence, and exhibits, in the most perfect state, that community of proprietary enjoyment which has been so often observed…in cultivating societies of archaic type…
The House-Community, which comes next in the order of development, has been examined by M. de Laveleye, and by Mr. Patterson, in Croatia, Dalmatia, and Illyria…These House-Communities seem to me to be simply the Joint Family of the Hindus, allowed to expand itself without hindrance and settled for ages on the land. All the chief characteristics of the Hindu institution are here—the common home and common table, which are always in theory the centre of Hindu family life; the collective enjoyment of property and its administration by an elected manager.
Nevertheless, many instructive changes have begun which show how such a group modifies itself in time. The community is a community of kinsmen; but, though the common ancestry is probably to a great extent real, the tradition has become weak enough to admit of considerable artificiality being introduced into the association, as it is found at any given moment, through the absorption of strangers from outside. Meantime, the land tends to become the true basis of the group; it is recognised as of preeminent importance to its vitality, and it remains common property, while private ownership is allowed to show itself in moveables and cattle.
In the true Village-Community, the common dwelling and common table which belong alike to the Joint Family and to the House-Community, are no longer to be found. The village itself is an assemblage of houses, contained indeed within narrow limits, but composed of separate dwellings, each jealously guarded from the intrusion of a neighbour. The village lands are no longer the collective property of the community; the arable lands have been divided between the various households; the pasture lands have been partially divided; only the waste remains in common.
Thus, Maine came to the conclusion that, “We have the strongest reason for thinking that property once belonged not to individuals nor even to isolated families, but to larger societies composed on the patriarchal model;” and that “by far the most important passage in the history of Private Property is its gradual elimination from the co-ownership of kinsmen.” In addition, transfers of land were never between individuals, but between groups, and so it was far more ceremonious than the mere signing of a contract: “As the contracts and conveyances known to ancient law are contracts and conveyances to which not single individuals, but organised companies of men, are parties, they are in the highest degree ceremonious…” He found evidence of this all over Europe:
…the mode of transition from ancient to modern ownerships, obscure at best, would have been infinitely obscurer if several distinguishable forms of Village Communities had not been discovered and examined…
The chiefs of the ruder Highland clans used, it is said, to dole out food to the heads of the households under their jurisdiction at the very shortest intervals, and sometimes day by day. A periodical distribution is also made to the Sclavonian villagers of the Austrian and Turkish provinces by the elders of their body, but then it is a distribution once for all of the total produce of the year. In the Russian villages, however, the substance of the property ceases to be looked upon as indivisible, and separate proprietary claims are allowed freely to grow up, but then the progress of separation is peremptorily arrested after it has continued a certain time. In India, not only is there no indivisibility of the common fund, but separate proprietorship in parts of it may be indefinitely prolonged and may branch out into any number of derivative ownerships, the de facto partition of the stock being, however, checked by inveterate usage, and by the rule against the admission of strangers without the consent of the brotherhood.
It is not of course intended to insist that these different forms of the Village Community represent distinct stages in a process of transmutation which has been everywhere accomplished in the same manner. But, though the evidence does not warrant our going so far as this, it renders less presumptuous the conjecture that private property, in the shape in which we know it, was chiefly formed by the gradual disentanglement of the separate rights of individuals from the blended rights of a community.
Our studies in the Law of Persons seemed to show us the Family expanding into the Agnatic group of kinsmen, then the Agnatic group dissolving into separate households; lastly the household supplanted by the individual; and it is now suggested that each step in the change corresponds to an analogous alteration in the nature of Ownership.
Many remnants of this arrangement remained even in Maine’s own time. It could be seen even in Western Europe, particularly in a region called Ditmarsh, and also in Switzerland where all land was communally owned by the canton, and the cantons were united in a larger Swiss federation (similar in many ways to the Iroquois league), with no one canton being in charge of all the others. And the Swiss, like the Iroquois, had no standing army.
But the most pervasive examples came from outside Western Europe. Eastern Europe preserved such communities in something closer to their original form. Maine refers to such villages in Sclavonia and Dalmatia (what is today Croatia) and in Russia. He also refers to communities farther afield in India, the Middle East, and Java (modern day Indonesia).
The naturally organised, self-existing, Village-Community can no longer be claimed as an institution specially characteristic of the Aryan races. M. de Laveleye, following Dutch authorities, has described these communities as they are found in Java; and M. Renan has discovered them among the obscurer Semitic tribes in Northern Africa. But, wherever they have been examined, the extant examples of the group suggest the same theory of its origin [as] the Germanic village-community or Mark; ‘This lowest political unit was at first, here (i. e. in England) as elsewhere, formed of men bound together by a tie of kindred, in its first estate natural, in a later stage either of kindred natural or artificial.’
In the end, such village communities were supplanted by the feudal system in Europe. Capitalism developed out of this feudal system:
The Manor or Fief was a social group wholly based upon the possession of land…At this point the notion of common kinship has been entirely lost. The link between Lord and Vassal produced by Commendation is of quite a different kind from that produced by Consanguinity…there would have been no deadlier insult to the lord than to attribute to him a common origin with the great bulk of his tenants. Language still retains a tinge of the hatred and contempt with which the higher members of the feudal groups regarded the lower…There is, in fact, little to choose between villain, churl, miscreant, and boor.
The break-up of the feudal group, far advanced in most European countries, and complete in France and England, has brought us to the state of society in which we live. To write its course and causes would be to re-write most of modern history, economical as well as political…
Maine’s investigations were taken up by others, most notably the Belgian political economist Émile de Laveleye, who wrote a book about the subject called Primitive Property (De la Proprieté et de ses Formes Primitives). In it, he documented copious examples from every corner of the globe confirming that property was at first held in common, and only gradually did it fall under the exclusive ownership of individual families. Then, only much later does it proceed to belong to single, solitary individuals, who then claim “absolute” rights over it in perpetuity, and this process progressed the furthest in the Anglo-Saxon countries. From the introduction to Laveleye’s work by T. E. C. Leslie:
Sir Henry Maine in his lectures at the Middle Temple was, I believe, the first to lay down with respect to landed property the general proposition, afterwards repeated in his Ancient Law, that “property once belonged not to individuals, nor even to isolated families, but to larger societies.”…Sir Henry Maine’s residence for several years in India, had enabled him to collect fresh evidence from existing forms of [Hindu] property and social organization, in support of his original doctrine, that the collective ownership of the soil by communities larger than families, but held together by ties of blood or adoption, was in eastern as well as in western countries the primitive form of the ownership of the soil…To the evidence previously collected by Sir H. Maine and the Danish and German scholars already referred to, [Lavaleye] has added proofs gathered from almost every part of the globe. Ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Russia, the southern Slav countries, Java, China, part of Africa, Central America, and Peru, are among the regions laid under contribution…
The preponderance of evidence was that, in every corner of the globe, it was not private property, but collective property, that was the primordial form of resource ownership. This has been further confirmed by studies of foraging groups, among whom private property is virtually unknown.
Marx and Engels believed from such evidence that primitive societies were universally matrilineal and matriarchal (a state they called, following an earlier scholar called Bachofen, the Mutterecht, or Mother-right). It was only after societies switched to a patriarchal model, they asserted, that the communal ownership of property became overthrown by individual patriarchal families:
…this revolution – one of the most decisive ever experienced by humanity – could take place without disturbing a single one of the living members of a gens. All could remain as they were. A simple decree sufficed that in the future the offspring of the male members should remain within the gens, but that of the female should be excluded by being transferred to the gens of her father. The reckoning of descent on the female line and the matriarchal law of inheritance were thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent and the paternal law of inheritance were substituted for them.
As to how and when this revolution took place among civilized peoples, we have no knowledge. It falls entirely within prehistoric times. But that it did take place is more than sufficiently proved by the abundant traces of mother-right which have been collected, particularly by Bachofen. How easily it can be accomplished can be seen in a whole series of American Indian tribes, where it has only recently taken place and is still taking place under the influence, partly of increasing wealth and a changed mode of life (transference from forest to prairie), and partly of the moral pressure of civilization and missionaries…
Today, anthropologists tend to regard this as far too simplistic. Not all societies passed through these stages, and looking for universal stages common to all societies is futile. Each case is unique. However, there is a good argument to be made that this is a reasonable description of the progression of societies now broadly classified as Indo-European, which includes much of Europe and India, as well as those of Semitic origin—including most of the ancient Near East.
Subsequent scholarship, by Michael Hudson especially, has shown that rather than surplus-generating activities originating with individual self-starting “entrepreneurs”, such activities began in the public (temple) sector for the benefit of the community. Furthermore, non-commercial debts owed to the public sector were periodically annulled in “debt jubilees” and forfeited land was frequently returned and redistributed.
Hudson counters that [Greece and Rome]…are not actually where our financial system began, and that capitalism did not evolve from bartering, as its ideologues assert. Rather, it devolved from a more functional, sophisticated, egalitarian credit system that was sustained for two millennia in ancient Mesopotamia (now parts of Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and Iran). Money, banking, accounting and modern business enterprise originated not with gold and private trade, but in the public sector of Sumer’s palaces and temples in the third century B.C. Because it involved credit issued by the local government rather than private loans of gold, bad debts could be periodically forgiven rather than compounding until they took the whole system down, a critical feature that allowed for its remarkable longevity.
The Key to a Sustainable Economy Is 5,000 Years Old (Truthdig)
I think you can understand from the above why Marx was so intrigued by the accounts of the Iroquois League in Morgan’s work. The Iroquois nation was a living, breathing example of “primitive communism” in action. Marx took extensive notes on Morgan’s work. After his death, Friedrich Engels organized the notes and published them as The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.
Subsequent scholarship in the late nineteenth century had confirmed that arrangements like those of the Iroquois were not the exception, but seemingly the norm all over the entire world, including Western Europe, which had begun as numerous tribal societies during the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Thus, the idea that money and absolute private property were permanent, universal, and necessary features of the human condition was clearly contradicted by such accounts. If someone asked for an actual example of communism in action, here was something Marx and his followers could point to as an example of something very much like they were advocating to replace capitalism: collective ownership of the means of production, with economic and political decisions being made by collective deliberation among equals, cooperative labor, and everyone having access to the collective store of what was produced by the whole society. Inheritance was not bequeathed to individual offspring; rather essential resources were redistributed as needed. And leaders were elected and served for as long as they were seen to be able to perform their duties ethically. They could not pass down wealth and titles to their offspring in perpetuity (but their offspring could occupy the same office if the public so desired).
Unless one were to argue that the Iroquois and their culture were somehow unnatural, it would be impossible to deny such a thing was at least, in theory, possible. And if it was possible, the question became how best to make it happen, not whether such a thing could even exist, or whether it was somehow against human nature. As Marx and Engels concluded in Origin:
…once the gens is given as the social unit, we also see how the whole constitution of gentes, phratries, and tribes is almost necessarily bound to develop from this unit, because the development is natural. Gens, phratry, and tribe are all groups of different degrees of consanguinity, each self-contained and ordering it own affairs, but each supplementing the other. And the affairs which fall within their sphere comprise all the public affairs of barbarians of the lower stage.
When we find a people with the gens as their social unit, we may therefore also look for an organization of the tribe similar to that here described; and when there are adequate sources, as in the case of the Greeks and the Romans, we shall not only find it, but we shall also be able to convince ourselves that where the sources fail us, comparison with the American social constitution helps us over the most difficult doubts and riddles.
And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization.
Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is not need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities toward the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included. There is no place yet for slaves, nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of other tribes…And what men and women such a society breeds is proved by the administration inspired in all white people who have come into contact with unspoiled Indians, by the personal dignity, uprightness, strength of character, and courage of these barbarians. p. 52
It’s also worth noting that humans have a capacity for sharing and cooperation as well as well as self-aggrandizing greed, as Burgis notes:
The usual socialist response to what I will call the Human Nature Argument is to question the truth of the premise. Where anti-socialists play up our capacity for selfishness, our cruelty, and our tendency to arrange ourselves into dominance hierarchies, socialists usually emphasize our capacity for cooperation, compassion, and solidarity. So, for example, in G. A. Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? we’re asked to wonder why society shouldn’t be able to function like a camping trip, where families share equipment and resources and whatever else they individually brought, rather than assert their exclusive use over those goods.
Socialism and Human Nature (Arc Magazine)
As we’ve seen, that’s pretty much how humans functioned for most of history. Most transactions are—by their very nature—communistic, as anthropologist David Graeber has often pointed out: When we are working on a project and ask our coworker to hand us a hammer from the toolbox, he doesn’t immediately turn around and ask ‘and what are you going to pay me for it?’.
In fact, as he also points out, corporations themselves are islands of communism floating in a sea of capitalism. I’ve worked for many corporations, and when I ask for a pen from the collective storeroom, I usually I get one. I don’t have to pay to put my food in the refrigerator. I don’t pay the electric bill for my individual computer or telephone. And when I ask a coworker to help me out with something, I don’t have to give him or her money over and above whatever he or she is being paid to be there. Thus, a corporation functions much like the “joint family” or household Maine described.
Similarly, while people do often have a tendency to be greedy and selfish, the degree to which we let them indulge in those impulses is entirely socially determined. Capitalism argues that the rich “deserve” their spoils, and that their hoarding behavior and lust for power will make us all better off in the long run due to the Invisible Hand. That view is getting harder and harder to justify with each passing year, especially as growth slows due to planetary (and other) limits. As Christopher Boehm argues in Hierarchy in the Forest, foragers practice a kind of “reverse dominance hierarchy” designed to keep the arrogant and greedy in check. As he put it, “In short…an apparent absence of hierarchy was the result of followers’ dominating their leaders rather than vice versa…an egalitarian relation between followers and their leader is deliberately made to happen by collectively assertive followers.” (3)
To bring up yet another nineteenth century scholar who hasn’t been mentioned yet, Piotr Kropotkin was a Russian writer of minor nobility who is associated with anarchism. Trained as a biologist, he expected to find a brutal “struggle for survival” everywhere in nature, as he had been taught by the followers of Darwin. Instead, everywhere he looked, he found cooperation to far more pervasive than competition in the realm of biological life:
Kropotkin expected to see the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition. He searched high and low—but nothing. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.”
Instead he saw mutual aid—everywhere. “In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.”
And it wasn’t just in animals. The peasants in the villages he visited were constantly helping one another in their fight against the brutal environment of Siberia. What’s more, he noted a correlation between the extent of mutual aid displayed in a peasant village and the distance of that village from the hand of government. It was just as the anarchists had suggested. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.”
The Russian Anarchist Prince Who Challenged Evolution (Slate)
Another example of humans voluntarily cooperating in extreme circumstances is given by Rececca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell.
And so, it is very strange indeed that evolutionary biology and psychology have come to be associated with the reactionary right and wielded as weapons in their favor. That human’s evolved tendencies favor Right-wing ideals is a topsy-turvy inversion of what has historically been the nature of the arguments about what is closest to human nature.
So the idea that communism is somehow uniquely “unnatural” is a very recent one, and not really consistent with the findings of anthropology. The people most closely studying primitive societies in the nineteenth century were the socialists, anarchists, Marxists, and similar philosophies, not the “Classical Liberals” or capitalists. It’s pretty clear from Adam Smith’s writing that, although he did an outstanding job describing the English mercantile economy of his own day, his historical knowledge was nonexistent. Even what little was known about primitive economies (for example, from accounts of Native Americans) was ignored by Smith, who instead used inductive reasoning to arrive as his incorrect account of primitive barter economies (which anthropologists universally acknowledge never existed). Even today, evolutionary biologists who promote the virtues of Neoliberalism (such as Steven Pinker) deride their intellectual opponents as “Marxists” (or, in the case of Jordan Peterson, as “Post-modern Neo-Marxists”).
When it comes to studying human nature, it was the socialist/anarchist Left, not the laissez-faire Classical Liberals, who were diving into the anthropological literature and grappling with it. In those days, the “human nature” argument was far more associated with the socialist Left than the apostles of capitalist Progress. Far from being unnatural, Marxists would have seen their ideas as conforming to a more natural, egalitarian social order that had been usurped, first by kings and priests, and then by greedy capitalist bosses.
The opponents of socialism and communism, by contrast, had to argue against earlier and more “natural” forms of human social organization being superior to the commercial capitalism of their day. In these cases, primitive societies—presumably comporting far more closely with evolved human nature—were considered to be inferior and poor examples to emulate—commercial Capitalism and markets were simply a “higher” and “more evolved” form of social organization, they asserted.
Really, according to all the evidence, it is capitalism that is unnatural.
Now, the real argument against the information above isn’t that it is unnatural. It is this: ideas about how our ancestors lived in small, horticultural communities surrounded by kith and kin centuries or millennia ago are not applicable to modern industrial societies with global trade networks and millions of unrelated strangers interacting on a daily basis.
That’s true, but notice that the argument has been completely flipped on its head! It’s not that socialism is unnatural, it’s that it is incompatible with the unnatural environment we find ourselves in today.
And that’s a very different argument. By this standard, everything about our current way of life is unnatural, and appeals to evolutionary biology and psychology to justify the status quo are deeply flawed from the start.
Not only that, as Burgis points out, proponents of socialism are more concerned with ideas surrounding such mundane issues as ownership, legal rights, wealth and property distribution, and so forth, and it would be preposterous to claim that there is some “natural” form of any of these things that we can discern from a study of evolutionary biology. All of those things are, to one degree or another, recent artifices necessary for modern society to function. Being artifices, we can arrange them as we wish. Evolution—whatever it supposedly decrees—is no impediment.
Even if Pinker and Uygur did have a reasonable objection to a specific vision of socialism put forward by Marx, how is this is supposed to generalize into what Pinker breezily lumps together as “socialism and communism” in general? If “from each…to each” is unrealistic, it hardly follows that public ownership of the means of production is intrinsically unrealistic.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Marx was wrong to think that the combination of automation and collective ownership of machines would one day make it unnecessary for human butchers, brewers, and bakers to continue to be given material incentives to produce our dinners. I would argue that we can have socialism and incentives. It’s unlikely that workers in a democratic economy would feel the need to incentivize anyone by paying them 287 times what others were paid — the average pay differential between workers and CEOs last year in the United States — but this doesn’t mean they’d settle on completely flat pay scales either. If anything, they might reverse some of the inequalities we’re accustomed to under capitalism.
Socialism and Human Nature (Arc Magazine)
Perhaps the most basic argument against the fact that the kind of capitalism we’re living under now is somehow compatible with basic human nature is that fact that we’re so disturbed by the current levels of hyper-inequality. When we see the excesses of the super-rich, or how poor people are being taken advantage of, we get angry (those of us who aren’t Libertarians or Neoliberals, anyway). The current levels of anger and frustration at the grotesque levels of inequality present in modern societies should serve as proof that there is nothing “natural” about our current arrangement from an evolutionary standpoint.
Add to that the fact that high levels of inequality are correlated with social instability and pathologies like depression and suicide. Whatever its statistical flaws, the book The Spirit Level does make a good case that high inequality isn’t healthy for societies. And Marx was hardly the first to point this out. From the Gracchi brothers, to Wat Tyler and John Ball, to the Diggers, there has always been resistance to extreme wealth inequality. After all, no one gets disturbed about too much generosity or too much sharing, or a dearth of depression and suicide. Even Thomas Jefferson was disturbed by inequality:
The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others…
Ultimately, one could argue that our modern way of life, whatever our political beliefs—capitalism, libertarianism, communism, socialism, anarchism, or whatever—is contrary to human nature, no matter who owns the means of production or how we organize work and leadership. But that’s a whole other can of worms…
(1) The Psychology of Patriotism, The Shepherd Express, July 02, 2019.
(2) Source (Google Books)
(3) Christopher Boehm, et. al., Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy (PDF)
2 thoughts on “Is Socialism Contrary to Human Nature?”
Thanks! Much to digest here that gets at the core of how we live.
I have much more reading and thinking to do about this broad subject, and look forward to your continued explorations…
Thanks. It is a big topic, to be sure.