The Nature of the Left: On the Question of Human Nature


Corinne Hummel | Social Movement Studies | Theory | August 5th, 2019



There seems to be a shared cynicism among some members of the Left and the ideologues of liberal democracy: that sexism and racism belong to human nature. While the liberal may use this assertion to justify and necessitate the state, the anarchist may hold this assertion alongside a rejection of the state. In either case, the possible organization of society is restricted by the assumption of innate characteristics. It is unscientific to attribute these products of consciousness to biological determinism, and the implication in this attempt to apply positivism to the human lifeworld is cynical; where potential is limited by subjective observations of the anathema. Recognizing that such cynicism is incompatible with scientific socialism, I aim to explore the ideological genealogy of the Left, along with the topic of human nature. Because there have been many contributors to these theories, I will only name those necessary for the purpose of this discussion.

Beginning with Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations was such an apt observation of the activity of economic life that it catalyzed dozens of 19th -century successors in the realm of political and economic philosophy. Smith presented capitalism as moral and natural, and asserted that the state should not interfere in the liberty of the individual in the market. Hegel thereafter presented an ontological wedge between Smith's work and its influence, theorizing that liberty is achieved when the rational and universal principles of the self-determination of the individual become objectified in the laws of the state. Influenced by both Smith and Hegel, Proudhon became the "father of anarchism" as he argued for collective ownership of the means of production and insisted that individuals should have a right to the full product of their individual labor. He imagined a market society constituted of free-associating collectives, with the state reformed into a "regulating society" with the sole purpose of supporting this activity. As an associate of Proudhon, Bakunin rejected the idea of a reformed state, and instead advocated for a syndicalism which would end the state, as he declared the state to be inherently oppressive.

Bakunin's communist contemporary, Karl Marx, developed his theories of social phenomena and political economy through critique of Smith and Hegel. Marx noticed that Smith's depiction of capitalism as "natural" was scientifically unwarranted. Smith's methodology was teleological: he neglected to critically explain how capitalism emerged, as his "invisible hand" was expressly providential. And where Hegel concluded the human experience is decided by our consciousness, Marx added that our consciousness is informed by our material relations, an idea known as "dialectical materialism." Bakunin promoted collective ownership of the means of production, but disagreed with Marx over collective control of the means of production, as he believed that would result in oppressive hierarchies. Bakunin betrays himself in his declaration that Marxist communism would lead to a "parasitic Jewish nation." Marx was deeply critical of Bakunin, and the two were positioned as adversaries. An interesting turn occurred in Italy where Cafiero, a young advocate of Marxism, joined the more popular Bakuninist side, bringing with him significant influence from Marx. In 1880, Cafiero and his associates made a formal declaration that the individual appropriation of the products of individual labor leads to wealth accumulation based on merit, and that the state becomes necessitated and reinforced by this condition of inequality. So, the Italian Bakuninists, influenced by Marx, shifted the ideas of collectivist anarchists toward what became known as anarcho-communism.

Kropotkin, a naturalist, made significant theoretical contributions to anarcho-communism when he published a series of essays in 1890, which were later combined under the title "mutual aid: a factor in evolution." In these works, Kropotkin used examples from the animal kingdom to argue against survival of the fittest. Inspired by Darwin, he used the methodology of evolutionary biology to claim that cooperation is naturally selected for, as a consciousness. This means that anything not considered cooperation, such as violence, is an expression of consciousness belonging to an unfavorable evolution. Kropotkin faults the earliest formations of centralized states for enchanting humanity toward authority. The crux of this theory is that in the presence of hierarchies, biological tendencies for cooperation are suppressed in an alteration of consciousness. Kropotkin stated that it is only when all individuals' needs are met that the individual can be free, creatively, and for all individuals' needs to be met, there must be cooperation. According to his hypothesis, such cooperation prerequisites a higher consciousness. Kropotkin's empiricist methodology, when applied to sociology, was not immune to subjective idealism. He claimed to be logically outside the realm of metaphysics, yet he demonstrated Hegel's one-way dialectic in which consciousness decides existence. His conception of the naturally evolved consciousness presents a very agreeable outlook on the nonviolent potential of humanity, but it becomes overshadowed by a cynicism that collective consciousness cannot transcend its subjective perceptions of hierarchies.

Looking at non-human species to interpret human sociobiology will produce a variety of contradictory examples, until it becomes a pseudoscientific double-edged sword. Our view of ourselves as we see it in the world around us is subject to the most determined of biases. The reactionary cites the behavior of lobsters to justify class society, while the leftist claims that white supremacy is congenital. In a study of apes, all were given a banana except for one, and that one reacted violently. When looking at human history, we see those with accumulated wealth enacting violence, as conditions of perceived resource scarcity threatened the reproduction of wealth. Homo Sapiens have existed for roughly 200,000 years while capitalism has existed for no more than 700 years (including its precursors). Capitalism is distinct from the trading activities of ancient civilizations, just as you would not call primitive nomadic peoples "colonizers." The birth of capitalism is marked by the expropriation of the means of production, which was preceded by wealth accumulation. Natural disasters, presenting resource scarcity, were likely causes of the transferring of the commons into private ownership. In the work of Carl Nicolai Starcke, we learn that the emergence of patriarchy, first instituted within the family, was preceded by the establishment of private property. Patriarchy first emerged in those primitive societies which uniquely had a gendered division of labor in which private property became solely undertaken by men. Property, at this point in history, was the means of production: animals or land necessary for reproducing existence. This particular development depended on geography. In the harsh climate of Northern Europe, primitive societies were more dependent on herding animals than growing crops, and in these cases there was a gendered division of labor for biological reasons. Men came to inherit the herds because pregnant women could not care for the herds. The subordination of women occurred after their separation from the means of production, as it became the private property of men, but the original separation was not itself subordinating. Similarly, slavery in the Roman Empire was not based on race: the accumulation of wealth, requiring reproduction and protection, caused the state apparatus to develop a market for human labor as property. As capitalist production expanded, sexism and racism became ideological constructions, institutionalized in the service of entrenching support for continued expropriation of the means of production. The witch hunts and colonialism appearing in the late 15th century occurred 100 years after feudal crises had developed pre-modern capitalism.

Compelled by the lack of technical rigor in Wealth of Nations, Marx investigated what is unique to capitalism in its influence on human behavior. In addition to wealth accumulation and perceived resource scarcity, he theorizes that there is alienation occurring in the mode of production. The mode of production is the way in which society reproduces its existence: it is the material and social relations of labor. In capitalism, the instruments of labor, and the products of labor, do not belong to the laborer. To understand Marx's theory of alienation requires his concept of "base and superstructure" wherein the base is the mode of production; the relations of which are reproduced into the superstructure as societal norms and institutions. In the capitalist mode of production, the worker is estranged from the value of their labor while the capitalist is estranged from the labor of the value they extract. Performing these mechanistic roles alienates the individual from the self: from rationally knowing the fulfillment of need, as the only need becomes wages or profits. Marx was inspired by Darwin as well, in conceiving of history as a complex, yet quotidian, process of change and the response to change. Alienation is what the individual experiences when reality contradicts the rational motivation of the species-being: when the individual's labor is not for the self-determination of the individual, which is simultaneously unique and universal, as a being of a social species. This alienation is reproduced outwardly because material (social) relations inform consciousness, from which behavior cannot be isolated. In capitalism, the behavioral response precipitates evidence of humanity's spirit, though as a broken one, and the empiricist unjustly casts these behaviors as both irrational and belonging to human nature. It is from this cynical perspective that the ideologues of liberal democracy necessitate the utilitarian state to ensure civilization progresses. But for Marx, the ills of society are products of contractual agreements in which can be no real consent. The norms and institutions of the superstructure reinforce, through violence and ideological mystification, that which produces them.

For Kropotkin, capitalism is a byproduct of the state. For Marx, the state is a reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. Marx understood the historical emergence of the capitalist mode of production as preconditioned by rational responses to perceived resource scarcity in stateless primitive societies. The theories of Marxism and anarcho-communism were developed through distinctly different methodologies. When the mode of reproducing existence is not accounted for as an objective material reality of consciousness, observations will be subject to an idealism in which it is possible to misknow reality. For this reason, agreements found among leftists may only superficially bridge an epistemic divide. Marx said, "Proudhon does not know that all of history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature." He meant that one simply cannot say what is innate: behavior is the response to a changing material reality transmuted by the subjective consciousness. Marx contended that we should consider humanity apart from our conceptions of nature because history cannot be explained in the non-human natural world. Marxism is scientific socialism because of dialectical materialism: a process philosophy which overcomes the limitations of empiricism, rationalism, and subjective idealism. It is a more complete theory of social phenomena. By this method, the institution of science can be understood to be oppressive due to it being ideologically reinforced as a reproduction of the oppression in the base of society. When it is recognized, by the historical application of dialectical materialism, that capitalism is responsible for the environmental plunder of colonialism, it is possible to conclude that our societal conception of "nature" has been white supremacist. I conclude with the suggestion that the cynical perception of "human nature" is the result of ideological mystification producing an epistemic impasse.


"Ideology does not exist in the 'world of ideas' conceived as a 'spiritual world.' Ideology exists in institutions and the practices specific to them. Ideology represents individuals' imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence. Ideology has a material existence. There is no practice whatsoever except by and under an ideology. There is no ideology except by the subject and for the subjects. Ideology interpellates individuals as subjects."

- Louis Althusser