Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1116/31829

From The Socialist newspaper, 13 January 2021

Book Review: Humankind - Dispelling the myth that humans are too selfish for socialism

  (Click to enlarge)

Dave Carr, East London Socialist Party

Historian Rutger Bregman's book 'Humankind' tackles a subject matter that socialists know about only too well - 'human nature'. Indeed, how many times have passers-by told party members on public activities that "socialism goes against human nature"?

This Hobbesian view of humanity (Thomas Hobbes was a 17th century 'Enlightenment' philosopher) argues that, stripped of its thin veneer of 'civilisation', life is "nasty, brutish and short". Moreover, humans are 'naturally selfish'.

The bestselling novel 'Lord of the Flies', by Nobel prize-winning author William Golding, graphically imagines what will happen to schoolboys stranded on a deserted island. 'The law of the jungle' and its murderous brutality are quickly asserted.

Bregman puts this pessimistic worldview to the test. He examines a real-life Lord of the Flies event in 1966 when a group of adventurous schoolboys from Tonga sailed off in a stolen fishing boat. Disaster struck and they were shipwrecked on the deserted, small volcanic island of 'Ata in the South Pacific.

Yet these 13 to 16-year-olds, marooned on the island for more than a year, didn't resort to savagery and cannibalism, despite the huge privations they endured. Instead, they rallied around to provide water, food and shelter for all.

Even when one of the group broke his leg they didn't abandon him, but nursed him back to health. And when arguments did break out, they implemented a simple socially distanced 'time-out' rule to cool tempers.

Human solidarity

Moreover, Bregman gives other examples showing that, contrary to Hobbes' pessimism, humans faced with adversity and disasters tend to look after each other rather than become hideously selfish. The current Covid pandemic illustrates this well. Hundreds of thousands volunteered to nurse and to provide social care to the vulnerable.

Bregman gives the example of New Orleans when it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the immediate aftermath, the establishment media manufactured hoary tales of rape, murder, etc. The only murders occurred when the National Guard eventually appeared and shot innocent survivors! Looting took place, some of it on an organised basis, by people who were desperate for food and medicines for survivors and had been abandoned by the local and federal authorities.

But, you might ask, what about all those social-psychological experiments that pitch students into jailers and prisoners, which show that those in authority rapidly become sadistic brutes? In short, it's not true! Left to their own devices, student jailers and inmates chilled out together and drew up their own set of rules.

Of course, this 'failed' experiment wasn't publicised. Instead, in the more familiar one, researchers imposed draconian rules from the outset, intervened to prevent fraternisation, and encouraged jailers to punish prisoners. Hardly objective research. Likewise, the infamous electric-shock punishment experiment was equally designed and manipulated to produce the results the researchers wanted.

To his credit, Bregman presents a slew of thorough scientific studies which demolish the capitalist establishment view, continuously propagated by the bosses' media, that lurking just below the surface of civilised society is the savage primate and that, therefore, we need today's rulers to save us from ourselves.

In passing, Bregman also punctures the misanthropic view of humanity put forward by some in the environmental movement. In particular, he dispatches the false 'Malthusian' idea that it was a crisis of overpopulation which crashed the Easter Island civilisation.

Primitive communism

Wars, violent crime, and human atrocities aren't an inherent consequence of human nature. Early human communities weren't preoccupied in clobbering their next-door neighbours. Hunter-gathering societies were largely cooperative and equal. And this 'primitive communist' existence has pervaded most of human history.

Bregman, coincidentally overlapping with a Marxist view of history, points out that this tranquil phase in our past only changed with the emergence of settled agricultural communities and the production of surplus produce. Then, gradually, society divides into separate classes of producers and those that own and control the surplus. In other words, the development of class society, or 'civilisation' as Bregmann calls it.

Of course, the author acknowledges the enormous technological and societal progress made in the last 10,000 or so years. But again, mirroring Marxism, he wants to eliminate the inequalities, division and conflict in today's 'civilisation'. Logically, this means the abolition of capitalist class society and its replacement with a sophisticated socialist society.

Here Bregman's arguments fall flat. Intellectually he considers communism better than capitalism, but then he trots out the all-too-familiar crass narrative that 'revolutions always end in tears', and that 'Lenin and Stalin were two dictatorial peas in a pod'.

In fact the Russian Revolution degenerated, not because of some inherent flaw in revolutions, but due to real causal events, namely: the attempted military overthrow of the Bolshevik government by invading western armies and their proxies, and the resulting debilitating effects and privations on the relatively small working-class population. Above all, it was the failure of revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries that condemned Soviet Russia to isolation. It meant that under such siege conditions of terrible and widespread poverty, a privileged state and party bureaucracy emerged, headed by Stalin.

Lenin recognised this cancerous growth and formed a political pact with Trotsky to resist this process and remove Stalin from leadership, but unfortunately died prematurely in 1924.

Utopian or scientific

Bregman's solution is an imaginary egalitarian capitalism. Maybe he should read Engels' 'Socialism: Utopian and Scientific'. He would see himself parroting 19th century utopian socialists like Robert Owen! (See 'Clear explanation of what socialism is and why it's necessary' at socialistparty.org.uk). Indeed, he warms to the 'be nice to your workers' philosophy of a handful of enlightened CEOs in companies such as Buurtzorg and FAVI.

What Bregman fails to address is that these islands of 'goodness' are still subject to the same laws of capitalist boom and bust as other companies. And, in periods of economic crisis like today, they will be compelled to attack workers.

In 1990, car parts manufacturer FAVI was indeed facing a crisis after orders plummeted. Workers only kept their jobs by agreeing to cut their hours, and hence wages, by 25%. Likewise, in 2010, healthcare company Buurtzorg faced a cash crunch. Its CEO Jos de Blok told the workforce they could either temporarily halt recruitment or increase productivity. The workers 'chose' to work harder.

This 'choice' is redolent of the plebiscites in which councils faced with squeezed budgets often ask residents - where would you make cuts? As if there was no alternative.

In the case of a teetering company, trade unions worth their salt should not volunteer concessions to the employer, but demand an inspection of the accounts to see where the money is or where it's gone. Further demands, including public ownership, flow from this starting point.

Bregman concludes with 'ten rules to live by', which are frankly very hippyish. However, Rule VIII - 'Don't punch Nazis' - ie don't mobilise against the far-right, is downright dangerous, as the events in Washington show.

Nonetheless, Humankind, with its useful arguments against capitalism, is worth a read. But if you really want to find the tools to change society, you should (re)read the Communist Manifesto.

Donate to the Socialist Party

Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our Fighting Fund.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation

 

Your message: 

 


In The Socialist 13 January 2021:


News

Our health and livelihoods before their profits

London suffers and Khan piles on pressure

Bosses earn workers' annual wage in three days


NHS

NHS Emergency - Fight for a fully funded, publicly owned, socialist NHS

Dispatches from the front - health workers speak out

NHS pandemic warnings ignored - renationalise our NHS


Schools

Schools: Act together to oppose unsafe numbers and rising workload


Economy

Global capitalism at most dangerous conjuncture since the 1930s


Vaccines

Fully resource the vaccination programme now

Covid vaccine nationalism threatens pandemic response


International news

How should socialists respond to the 6 January attacks on Capitol Hill?


Retail

Lockdown 3.0 - fight to make our shops safe!

Ryan Aldred: Why I'm standing for the Usdaw union executive council


Workplace news

Unison general secretary election shows left can win NEC

Royal mail management forced to make concessions

British Gas workers strike against 'fire and rehire' plans

Get stuck in to build a fighting, democratic PCS union


Youth and students

Refund student rent and fees - fight for free education and make the 1% pay

Exams scrapped again - young people need a future with jobs and free education


Campaigns and party news

Help us fund the fight for Socialism

TUSC to hold local elections conference in February


Review

Book Review: Humankind - Dispelling the myth that humans are too selfish for socialism


 

Home   |   The Socialist 13 January 2021   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook






Related links:

Review:

triangleTV review: Red, White and Blue

triangleReview: Friedrich Engels - Condition of the working class in England

triangleWhat will the spending review mean for me?

triangleUnions must resist return to austerity

triangleTrotsky's ideas live on in the CWI

Socialism:

triangleHelp us fund the fight for Socialism

triangle'Socialism - Utopian and Scientific' by Engels

triangleNo surprise, poverty is rising

triangleEast London Socialist Party: 'Socialism - Utopian and Scientific' by Engels

Workers:

triangleNHS Emergency - Fight for a fully funded, publicly owned, socialist NHS

triangleBritish Gas workers strike against 'fire and rehire' plans

triangleRyan Aldred: Why I'm standing for the Usdaw union executive council

Capitalist:

triangleHow should socialists respond to the 6 January attacks on Capitol Hill?

triangleCovid vaccine nationalism threatens pandemic response

Capitalism:

triangleGlobal capitalism at most dangerous conjuncture since the 1930s

Reviews and comments

Reviews and comments

13/1/21

Review

Book Review: Humankind - Dispelling the myth that humans are too selfish for socialism

6/1/21

Technology

Technology and AI response: Capitalists only invest for profit

6/1/21

Women

Engels on the origins of women's oppression

6/1/21

Workers

Books that inspired me: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

16/12/20

Workers

Quiz 2020

9/12/20

Obituary

Obituary: Roger Priest

9/12/20

Letters

The Socialist Inbox

9/12/20

Review

TV review: Red, White and Blue

9/12/20

Engels

Engels and the answer to the housing question

25/11/20

Disability

CripTales: A painful reflection of a system that pits us against each other

25/11/20

Letters

The Socialist Inbox

25/11/20

Racism

Mangrove: When the black community made a stand against state racism

18/11/20

Socialist

The Socialist Inbox

18/11/20

Obituary

Obituary: Paul Chettle

11/11/20

Trump

Trump is out - our readers react

triangleMore Reviews and comments articles...


Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube

LATEST POSTS

CONTACT US

Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 079 3539 1947

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 077 0671 0041

ABOUT US

ARCHIVE

Alphabetical listing


January 2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2003

2002

2001

2000

1999