Utopianism, Human Nature, and the Left

Utopianism, Human Nature, and the Left

Is there such a thing as a universally shared human nature? And if there is, is it essentially benevolent, malevolent, or some mixture of the two? Moral and political philosophers have debated these questions for centuries. In recent years, with the collapse of communism and the disarray of socialist ideology, the debate has lost much of its intensity. Capitalism now reigns supreme; its philosophical assumptions, including its rather grim view of human nature, go largely unquestioned.

On the left, however, the debate is far from over. For example, the bio-ethicist Peter Singer, in his recent book, A Darwinian Left, has argued that leftists should no longer “deny the existence of a human nature, nor insist that human nature is inherently good, nor that it is infinitely malleable.” According to Singer, if the left is to stand any chance of achieving its historic goals, it must adopt a more realistic view of the patterns of human behavior.

At the same time, other left intellectuals have diagnosed the problem in a diametrically opposite way. Their complaint is that the left has become too “realistic” and in the process has betrayed the utopian vision that once defined what it meant to be on and of the left. Two books, published within weeks of each other in 1999, provide clear examples. Both Daniel Singer’s Whose Millennium? and Russell Jacoby’s The End of Utopia argue that the absence of a utopian vision in contemporary political discourse has so altered the ideological terrain as to make it all but inevitable that liberal and left governments throughout the world would drift toward the center. And of even greater consequence, as they see it, the near wholesale abandonment of utopianism has caused the left itself to lose its political bearings.

Because these two books have been favorably reviewed by a number of journals on the left, their arguments have mostly gone unchallenged. One of my aims in this essay is to rectify this. I also intend to use some of the ideas developed in both books as points of departure for a larger discussion.

Let’s first examine whether the left is guilty as charged. Has there been, since the end of the cold war, a near complete absence of left-wing utopianism? That all depends on what we mean by “utopia.” In their books, both authors suggest fairly similar notions of a utopian society. In Jacoby’s case, one has to read between the lines a bit. That’s because he never goes beyond calling for “a sense that the future could transcend the present” or “a radical idea for a new society.” But based on his attacks on left intellectuals who would include a market of some sort in their ideal society, it’s clear that Jacoby envisions an egalitarian socialist society without any markets.

Daniel Singer is somewhat more explicit in describing his ultimate vision. He argues that it is quite “easy to imagine a radically different socialist society emerging after a long period of transition.” He goes on: “The main features of the alternative are obvious. . . . In a classless society, where the division of work has become purely functional, the superfluous state [will have] withered away.”

Given these accounts of utopia, one would be hard-pressed to disagree with the claim that the left has, for the most part, stopped advocating a utopian vision. But if we allow for a more flexible understanding of utopia, one can easily disprove the main accusation. If we simply reformulate the question and ask whether the left has given up its historic goal of fundamentally changing the world, then the answer is clearly “No.”

That a majority of leftists today believe that a market of some kind should be a feature of any future socialist society is beside the point. The fact is that most leftists have remained committed to far-reaching changes that would lead to a qualitatively different and substantially more egalitarian society.

What is most striking about these two books, however, is not their understanding of utopia; it is the assumptions both authors make about human nature. After I finished The End of Utopia, I was left scratching my head. Had I missed something? Or had I really just read a 224-page book about the need to revive the utopian vision—in which the author never, not even in passing, mentions the issue of human nature? Given that we were in the final year of the bloodiest century in all of recorded history, one would think that someone who was arguing on behalf of utopianism would at least raise the issue. Jacoby apparently assumes that it is so obvious that human nature is compatible with his vision of utopia that it doesn’t even merit discussion.

Unlike Jacoby, Daniel Singer does address human nature, though only belatedly and superficially. In fact, it is only on page 269 of his 279-page book that Singer turns his attention to what most people would immediately see as the obvious stumbling block on the way to a utopian socialist society.

Finally, we must deal with the argument that ideologists for the establishment use, when all else has failed, to prove that our project to reshape society is foolishly and bloodily utopian… that it rests on an overoptimistic assessment of human nature… We, on the contrary, look at people and society in a historical perspective. They are neither sinners nor saints, neither noble savages nor greedy monsters. They are the product of circumstances.

At first glance, this may sound reasonable enough, especially to leftists. Upon closer inspection, however, there is something painfully absent here—namely, any degree of hesitation or uncertainty. Singer seems to have no doubt that under the proper circumstances, people would be capable of the kind of altruism needed to sustain his vision of utopia. In his thought-provoking essay “Socialist Hope in the Shadow of Catastrophe,” Norman Geras passionately urges socialists to approach the issue of human nature with more caution and respect. Pointing to the Holocaust and the twentieth century’s myriad other atrocities, Geras suggests that the human capacity for cruelty and evil should, by any reasonable account, at least call into question the standard socialist assumptions about human nature.

A shadow stretches across the vision at the heart of the socialist project… Democrats, liberals, and socialists of the last century would not have anticipated the horrifying and, as it has now proved, endless killing grounds of this one… Human beings would not have been open, open so long and so geographically universally—and not only open, but so very available— . . . to the benefits of power and privilege, if these things did not meet any impulse in their makeup.

Wise words indeed. Unfortunately, Jacoby ignored the issue altogether, while Singer treated it all too glibly. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that the reviewers of these books in the left press haven’t even noticed.

Of course, there have been many serious discussions about human nature by left intellectuals. For example, Noam Chomsky, in his essay “Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization,” wrote,

Without bonds of solidarity, sympathy, and concern for others, a socialist society is unthinkable. We may only hope that human nature is so constituted that these elements of our essential nature may flourish and enrich our lives, once the social conditions that suppress them are overcome. Socialists are committed to the belief that we are not condemned to live in a society based on greed, envy and hate. I know of no way to prove that they are right, but there are also no grounds for the common belief that they must be wrong.

Few on the left would disagree with Chomsky’s opinion that “we are not condemned to live in a society based on greed, envy, and hate.” But that is quite a different matter than whether human beings are potentially so altruistic as to be able to build and sustain an egalitarian socialist society. In implicitly arguing that such a potential does exist, Chomsky has referred to the early Israeli kibbutzim and the 1936 revolution in Spain. In Chomsky’s words, the kibbutzim represented “successful” examples of “functioning libertarian socialist institutions,” while the Spanish Revolution was a “quite successful” anarchist revolution.

Without getting into a lengthy discussion of these two fascinating and inspiring social/political experiments, a couple of points should be made. First, neither experiment survived long enough to pass the test of time. In the case of the Spanish Revolution, military repression brought a quick and tragic end. The Israeli kibbutzim, while still in existence today, have moved so far from their original utopian socialist values that, if anything, they feed the counter-argument—that human nature is not capable of sustaining a socialist society over the long haul.

The second point is that both the anarchist collectives in Spain and the Israeli kibbutzim were self-selecting institutions. Only those people who were so inclined joined them. They offer limited evidence that human beings in general are capable of living so altruistically.

The scientific debate about the nature of human nature has also stimulated some serious treatments of the issue by left intellectuals. Since the mid-1970s, this debate has revolved around the arguments of E. O. Wilson and other leading advocates in the field of sociobiology. According to their views, there is now hard scientific evidence to support the belief that many aspects of human behavior are biologically determined.

The most visible opposition to sociobiology has come from scientists on the political left. Typical of their position is the following argument by Richard Lewontin and his collaborators in Not In Our Genes: “Up to the present time no one has been able to relate any aspect of human social behavior to any particular gene or set of genes. . . . Thus, all statements about the genetic basis of human social traits are necessarily purely speculative.”

Assuming that the first part of this statement is correct—there is no proven correlation between specific genes and social behavior—where does that leave us? Instead of dismissing as mere “speculation” the idea that, say, violence or greed might be innate behavioral traits (co-existing, perhaps, alongside such positive traits as generosity and social solidarity), it seems to me that we need to take a more cautious approach. For surely the circumstantial evidence (an objective reading of the totality of human history) is so overwhelming that the burden of proof falls on those who reject the proposition that there are biological tendencies toward any number of negative characteristics.

This is not to say that progressive social/political arrangements cannot minimize these tendencies. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Blood Rites, quotes the biologist Richard Dawkins to this effect: “It is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behavior while at the same believing that this influence can be modified, overridden, or reversed by other influences.”

But can these “other influences” so completely override our apparent tendencies toward negative behavior as to make possible the creation of what Che Guevera called the “New Socialist Man”? Unfortunately, the question is more than a little problematic. In recent years, two impressive, left-leaning studies have arrived at similar and similarly depressing conclusions.

William McCord, in his Voyages To Utopia, analyzed a wide variety of experiments in building “the ideal society.” He looked at rural communes and religious societies, as well as at communist, social democratic, and capitalist nations. Among McCord’s primary observations was a firm warning against “an overestimation of humankind’s natural capacities.” Similarly, Edward K. Spann, in his Brotherly Tomorrows, Movements for a Cooperative Society in America, 1820-1920, reluctantly concluded that “every movement eventually failed. . . . The model communities and colonies of the communitarians failed largely because of internal defects… The national movements were no more successful… These failures dashed all but the most stubbornly optimistic views of human nature.”

As a product of the New Left and the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I would very much like to hold onto the intense idealism of my youth. And the fact is that despite all my disillusionment over the years, I still consider myself a socialist. I haven’t given up on the possibility that human beings might somehow one day construct a truly egalitarian society/world. However, I am sad to say that my worldview has evolved to the point where I now consider the likelihood of this ever occurring to be rather slim. I suppose I’d call myself a “skeptical socialist.”

Nevertheless, socialism remains a moral imperative for painfully obvious reasons. In a world with such obscene disparities of wealth between nations and peoples, we desperately need a new ethos, based upon the fulfillment of human needs and social equality, rather than on the pursuit of private profit. But an objective, open-minded evaluation of the historical record should lead us to a position of skepticism as to whether or not we humans are really capable of such a grand achievement.

Yet even today, after all that has happened over the last one hundred years (not to mention the horrors of preceding centuries), too many left intellectuals dogmatically claim that the only obstacles to a socialist utopia are the political, economic, and cultural institutions that prevail throughout the world. They utterly dismiss the possibility that the limitations of human nature itself might also be factors. For anyone who still clings to this perspective, the words of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin should be carefully considered: “This seems to me a piece of metaphysical optimism for which there is no evidence in historical experience.” In his essay “The Bent Twig,” Berlin wrote, “Some thinkers of the Enlightenment were optimistic, some less hopeful. Voltaire and Rousseau were equally clear about the very different worlds they wished to see, but wondered gloomily whether human folly and vice would ever permit their realization.”

But even if such pessimism is warranted—even if it is unlikely that we will ever live in the kind of world we would wish to see—that does not mean we can’t live in a world that is far more decent and just than the world we currently inhabit. Adopting a more skeptical view of human nature while holding on to most of our larger hopes and long-term visions for the future need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, doing so would provide us with a more accurate roadmap for the future—and thus make the realization of our goals that much more likely.

Ken Brociner is a freelance writer in the Boston area.