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13 January 2021

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

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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.

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In The Socialist 13 January 2021:


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Schools: Act together to oppose unsafe numbers and rising workload


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Fully resource the vaccination programme now

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


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

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

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TUSC to hold local elections conference in February


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


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Leicester picket line of British Gas engineers, striking for five days to maintain their present working conditions and pay, 8 January 2021, photo Leicester SP

Leicester picket line of British Gas engineers, striking for five days to maintain their present working conditions and pay, 8 January 2021. Photo: Leicester SP

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