History, we are told, is littered with the failures of those who want to establish ‘heaven on earth'. Such people are either good-intentioned but touchingly-naïve fools who want to deny ‘human nature' or dangerous fanatics who will shrink from no atrocity in their efforts to bring about their ‘paradise'.
Communism and ‘Human Nature'
Humans, we are told, are simply imperfect creatures. We lie, cheat, steal, exploit our brothers and sisters, fight horrendous wars, and kick the neighbour's puppy for no good reason other than that we can. A society based on a view of human nature that denies these facts is simply a non-starter.
For communists, however, there is another fundamental side to human nature. The human species is a social one at root and branch and every activity we carry out has a social dimension. Ties of solidarity bind us together at multiple levels and affect us at the deepest levels of our psyche. Without the company of our fellow human beings we quickly deteriorate psychologically and loneliness (that is, a lack of satisfying emotional relationships) has as much a detrimental effect on human happiness as poverty and deprivation. In the most profound sense, an isolated human being is actually something less than human: a man alone is not a man.
Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the relations of exploitation that arose with class stratification distort this social nature. The presence of an exploiting class that is driven to maintain its rule through oppression undermines the relations of solidarity upon which all societies depend. The exploited suffer under the whip of the taskmaster, while the exploiters are tormented by repressed guilt at their position in society. A class society cannot, by definition, truly satisfy the needs, material or psychological, of its members.
These contradictions express themselves in both the material and ideological arena and are internalised within the psychic composition of each member of society. The anti-social behaviour of some elements represents the working out of these contradictions in practical form. Whether a thief steals to feed his starving family or through some perverse inner compulsion, the root of this behaviour is found within the fault-lines of class society and the psychological torment inflicted upon its members.
Human beings have lived with class society for a long time and the scars of this social development are now so deeply rooted that it must seem to many to be a part of human nature. But we must never forget that class society itself is relatively recent in humanity's evolutionary history.
The majority of our species history was spent living in communal relationships without exploitation and without a state. Despite their limited scope, the very existence of the prehistoric societies demonstrates that exploitation is not an inevitable consequence of human nature. The dim memory and yearning for this way of life and attendant psychological wholeness is found, albeit highly mythologized, in many of the creation myths of ancient religions. From the Golden Age of Greek Mythology to the idyllic hunter-gatherer state of Adam and Eve in the Judeo-Christian canon, humanity has ever looked back to its communist origins. These origins, moreover, are seen as the ‘natural state' of humanity before it ‘fell from grace', something to be valued and cherished. In these ancient myths, which represent the earliest dawning of consciousness, it is in fact class society that is unnatural, so much so that its appearance has to be explained by the action of cosmic forces dwarfing humanity!
Even as the grip of class society tightened upon humanity, communism has never lost its fascination. In every age, in every society the exploited masses have longed for the return of this halcyon period. As an example, for the early Christians, it wasn't simply enough to wait passively until Christ re-established Eden - their communities attempted to express this perceived truth in practical form, by holding all things in common. This radical current is to be found throughout the history of Christianity as well as other religions which, despite its alienated and idealised form, expresses a counterpoint to all those who point to history's tragic procession of wars and massacres.
And paradoxically, even the phenomenon of war itself expresses the contradictions of human nature in class society - this slaughter of thousands, even millions of fellow human beings is accompanied by deep expressions of bravery, solidarity and compassion.
The view of ‘human nature' appealed to by the bourgeoisie is thus a distorted one that, while containing elements of truth, ignores the full import of human thought and behaviour throughout history. To say it is ‘human nature' to exploit others is, in the sweep of history, no more profound an observation than saying it is ‘human nature' to live peaceably. Both can be true in certain circumstances.
Decadent Capitalism: The Living Negation of Humanity
What, then, are the circumstances facing humanity today? What is their import for the communist project?
In 1914, the clearest revolutionary currents considered that capitalism had exhausted its capacity for improving human society. Although capitalism had always been a society based on exploitation and inflicted a new level of alienation upon human society, it was still able, initially at least, to play a progressive role for humanity.
Its earliest stirrings were accompanied by a tremendous advancement in the areas of philosophy, allowing society to begin to criticise the religious and superstitious modes of thought that had now become a fetter on the development of human thought. Science also took dramatic leaps forwards while the toiling masses were mobilised by radical ideas of democracy and freedom. Despite the new exploitation, the living standards of those incorporated into the new system slowly began to rise, albeit as much as the result of ferocious class struggle as any natural inclination on the part of capitalism or its new ruling class.
Signs that this progress was beginning to come to end, at least in Europe, were appearing as early as 1870 but capitalism still had tremendous fields for advancement in the New World and elsewhere. Advancement in many fields, especially science and the economy, in fact continued to accelerate although at the cultural level, signs of decline were beginning to appear. Tensions began to rise between the great powers as each state's need to expand began to conflict with those of others. Philosophical progress began to retreat and the ruling class began to seek comfort once again in the superstitions and cults that it had thrown off in its youth.
In 1914, these tensions exploded and the First World War began. It was a disaster unprecedented in the entire history of humanity to that point, all the more poignant because it was not the random strike of disease or natural disaster but was self-inflicted. Suddenly all the great progress of the previous centuries stood in the balance as the whole of society was reoriented towards the goal of destruction.
From this point, the progress of humanity in many areas has at best slowed down and often stopped altogether. Even those areas where progress has continued - science and production - do not benefit humanity or even the system itself. Instead, they threaten both more and more, fuelling ever more catastrophic economic crises or providing ever more devastating weapons with which to wage war. The increased life expectancy seems meaningless as more and more human populations are subjected to horrific wars or the scourge of easily preventable diseases, or the grinding poverty that is the product of economic crisis. Those who are spared this nonetheless suffer an ever-increasing alienation. In the midst of material abundance, surrounded by millions of our fellow humans and provided with ever more inventive ways to communicate, more and more seem denied the simple satisfaction of normal human relationships suffer with all the attendant psychic distress that this denial implies. The sole purpose of human society is to provide for its members mutual needs - but capitalism today, for all the tremendous advancement it has provided, seems more and more incapable of doing this for all but the smallest percentage of the population and, in reality, not even them.
Capitalism has evolved into a living contradiction, an anti-social society; it is thus capitalism that is the very antithesis of ‘human nature'. Every day this utterly degenerated social organism continues to threaten humanity at multiple levels: economic crises cast more and more millions into poverty if not starvation, while increasingly intractable wars wrack the globe. The nightmares of nuclear annihilation, ecological disaster and social collapse loom threateningly on the horizon. Indeed, total social collapse is no longer some dystopian vision of a few science fiction writers - it is already the living reality facing many in the third world and an incipient reality in the advanced countries. Even if capitalism manages to avoid total self-destruction its continued existence will strip the survivors of anything resembling humanity to the point that we can talk of the spiritual extinction of humanity even if the material shell somehow carries on for a limited period. The price of the continued existence of capitalism is the total negation of humanity and all it means to be human.
If humanity is to survive, it can only do so by the utter destruction of this anti-social system. And this destruction must be accompanied by the reconstruction of society on a truly human basis. The progressive aspects of capitalism have provided humanity with the technical and social means to effect this.
The Proletariat: The Living Negation of Capitalism
One of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism is that, in spite of producing the most corrosively individualist society ever known, it has also created a productive force that represents the polar opposite. In capitalism, production has been increasingly centralised and regimented. Products incorporate materials (and the congealed labour within them) from all over the world and the division of labour has created a level of interaction between the different components of the productive apparatus never before seen.
The bourgeoisie, with its relations of commodity production, perceive production as a question of competition. Planning can only ever exist in such a vision as an alien force, imposed unnaturally over a market that is the true dominant force in capitalism. In counterpoint to this, the fundamental condition of the proletariat is associated labour. Only rarely can an individual proletarian perform all the functions necessary to create the product of his workplace. Her labour exists as one component amongst many, all of which must co-operate if a use value is to be generated. This process of co-operation is explicit in the individual factory or office but also implicit in the whole of the capitalist economy, where each link in the productive process is dependent on the those preceding it for its components and those following it to give it meaning. While the market for commodity production is naturally chaotic, the conditions of production itself are planned and ordered to the highest degree. It is in this socialised aspect of production that we see a potential for a different kind of social organisation and a class that is capable of generalising these conditions throughout society as whole.
The contradiction between the chaos of the market and the order of production is expressed in the life experience of the proletariat itself, which perceives itself to be the victim of the vagaries of the market and relations of commodity production that are expressed in society by the actions of the bourgeoisie. The working class is thus compelled to revolt against the bourgeois class and the relations of production that are expressed by this ruling class.
In the proletariat, therefore, we see a class that represents both an alternative mode of production to the present dominant one and also that this class is compelled to resist and revolt against this dominant mode of production. The struggle of the proletariat then, although conditioned by dying capitalism cannot be limited to it in the sense of a futile revolt against exploitation. It has another form of society to propose, one based on the collective, associated labour of humanity.
This new social form offers humanity a way out of the impasse of capitalism. Moreover, it offers the possibility of the abolition of class society itself and a world without class and without exploitation. The worldwide integration of production and the proletariat achieved by capitalism has laid the basis for a truly global human community. The new society will no longer be plagued by the primitive tribalism that was the hallmark of prehistoric communism and will not be plagued by wars and national conflicts. Nor will the new society be dominated by the chaos of market relations. Just as the modern factory works to a plan, so the whole of society will be managed on a planned and rational basis by the common consensus of the producers.
Communism is not therefore simply the utopian vision of naïve dreamers. It has already existed in concrete reality in the distant past. Nor is it somehow antithetical to human nature - in fact, it is the form of society that best corresponds to human nature! Certainly it is no more foreign to human nature than the debased monstrosity of capitalism today.
But most importantly, the concrete bases of communism exist already in the world today in the form of the modern productive process. And there exists a class whose situation in society both compels it to struggle against the old regime and to generalise those basic building blocks of communism throughout society.
Communism is not therefore just a ‘nice idea'. It is a material possibility conditioned by historical circumstances. It can also be described as a material necessity because it is the only social form that can progress human civilisation as opposed to a capitalism that is more and more destroying it.