Communism and Human Nature

In a world becoming more atomized and misanthropic by the day, where it seems sometimes that you have only to be a raving degenerate in order to achieve fame and power—witness Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, or, in a different way, Milo Yiannopoulos (whose degeneracy, though, has partly caught up with him)—it is useful to be reminded of the other side of human nature. The institutions of modern capitalism happen to reward depravity, first and foremost in the economic sphere, but since the maturation of mass society generations ago, in the cultural sphere as well. One is constantly confronted, therefore, by moral and intellectual filth—the depths of human vulgarity on television and the internet, mad lusts for power and profit in politics and business, collective slavishness to mainstream norms in intellectual institutions, self-deception on a virtually heroic scale among the hordes of objective servants of power. One feels hemmed in by forces of delayed social implosion; one feels claustrophobic in a society whose categorical imperatives are but to privatize and marketize, to impersonalize, bureaucratize, and stupidize, all for the sake, ultimately, of accumulating capital.

Fortunately there are avenues of momentary escape from the decadence. One such avenue is to follow a particular train of thought that David Graeber pursues in his bestselling Debt: The First 5000 Years, as well as in this paper. It provides a conceptual antidote to the knowledge that Trumps and Bannons exist.

Namely, Graeber reminds us that fundamental to human nature, more fundamental than the debaucheries thrown up by late capitalism, is the tendency that he dubs communism. On a deep level, we are all (or nearly all), to some degree, communists. For if communism means “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” as Marx defined it, then it simply means sharing, helping, and cooperating—giving to others in need what you’re able to give them, even if it is only advice, assistance at some task, sympathy or emotional support, or some money to tide them over. Friends, coworkers, relatives, lovers, even total strangers constantly act in this way. In this sense, Graeber says, “communism is the foundation of all human sociability”; it can be considered “the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace.”

From this perspective, incidentally, the early Marx’s apotheosis of communism in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 acquires a somewhat different meaning. To quote his grandiose idealistic formulation:

This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man—the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species.

If one understands “communism” in Graeber’s sense, as, in effect, a fundamental tendency of human nature—and a “principle immanent in everyday life,” to quote Graeber—these exalted theses are at least suggestive. For instance, humans’ psychological communism does tend to resolve conflicts between man and nature and between man and man, for it springs from the reservoir of sympathy that Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith understood to be shared by all non-pathological humans.

The communist morality, in fact, is nothing but a corollary of the Golden Rule, that you should treat people as you’d like to be treated, with respect and compassion. Morally speaking, communism is common sense. Indeed, polls show that, despite what we’re taught to think about the political proclivities of Americans, large numbers agree with this “radical” statement. In 1987, for example, when Reaganism was ascendant, a national poll found that 45 percent of Americans considered Marx’s famous slogan quoted above (from his Critique of the Gotha Program) to be so obvious that they thought it was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution! This is a point one might make in debates with political “conservatives” (i.e., reactionaries).

It would be amusing, too, to point out to some Breitbart writer or his legions of online followers that, in spite of himself, he is manifesting a communist morality every time he helps someone, every time he shares or cooperates; he is acting contrary to the capitalist imperative to “gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” Or to point out to a conservative Christian that “Christian love” is essentially communistic, and that Jesus hated the wealthy. (See, e.g., Luke 6:24-25: “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.”) A communist society would just be a society in which the “baseline communism” of everyday life (and of original Christianity) was the guiding rule, the main principle of social organization.

As for our own society, the only reason it is able to function at all is that it’s held together by this dense anti-capitalist fabric, into which the more superficial patterns of commercialism, the profit motive, and greed are woven. Capitalism is parasitic on everyday communism: everything would collapse if the latter even momentarily vanished. One might, therefore, reverse the typical judgment of apologists for the status quo: not only is capitalism not a straightforward expression of human nature (supposedly because we’re all predominantly greedy, as an Ayn Rand or a Milton Friedman might say); it is more like a perversion of human nature, which evidently is drawn to such things as compassion, love, community, respect for others, and free self-expression unimpeded by authoritarian rules in the economic or political sphere.

Such are the thoughts with which I try to comfort myself periodically, when feeling overwhelmed by the systemic misanthropy that daily bombards us all.

Chris Wright is a doctoral candidate in U.S. labor history, and the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist and Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. Read other articles by Chris, or visit Chris's website.