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ISR Issue 56, November–December 2007


The following article appeared on July 31 as a post on “Darwinian Conservatism,” a blog ( written by Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University. A response by Phil Gasper follows.

Humans instinctively seek power

THE JULY/August issue of the International Socialist Review has an article by Phil Gasper criticizing my argument for Darwinian conservatism.

Gasper insists that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels accepted Darwin’s science, which shows that the ideology of the socialist Left is compatible with Darwinism. But Gasper does not tell his readers that Marx and Engels set up a sharp dichotomy between animal nature and human culture, so that they could say that Darwinian science explained the natural world of animals and the human body but not the uniquely human world of cultural history. Although other animals have some capacity for labor, Marx claimed, only human beings have the capacity for purposeful working upon the world to conform to some plan in the imagination. By changing the natural world to satisfy his needs, man also “changes his own nature.” This allows Marx to protect his utopian vision of socialist perfectibility from being subverted by Darwinian naturalism. This same socialist tendency towards viewing human beings as capable of a utopian transcendent freedom from nature is manifest in Gasper’s appeal to Stephen Jay Gould’s vision of human transcendental freedom.

The mistake that comes from such utopian transcendentalism—broadly characteristic of all leftist thought—is refusing to recognize the limits set by human imperfectability. For example, Marx asserted that the greatest revolutionary change would come with the rule of the proletariat, which would bring a classless society and thus the end of all domination of some over others. Against Marx, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin warned that Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” would actually become a new “despotism of a governing minority.” “He who doubts this,” Bakunin insisted, “simply doesn’t know human nature.” Marx responded by ridiculing Bakunin’s “hallucinations about domination.”

Like Marx, Gasper rejects my claim “that humans instinctively seek power.” According to Gasper, we can conclude that there is no “instinct for power” when we see “examples of cooperation and solidarity.” He quotes from anthropologist Richard Lee’s account of the !Kung bushmen as showing that “the earliest human societies were not based on competition, inequality, and hierarchy.” Here Gasper follows Marx’s lead in arguing that pure communism would restore the original communism of primitive hunter-gatherers.

Gasper does not tell his reader that Richard Lee calculated that the homicide rate among the !Kung was comparable to that of Detroit. (See Lee’s book The !Kung San, 1979.) Nor does Gasper tell his readers that Lee studied patterns of “leadership” among the !Kung. Although there were no formal structures of leadership or government, some individuals had more status or power than others. The !Kung were egalitarian in the sense that they worked hard to punish people who might become too arrogant in their bullying. But that’s just the point—they had to work hard to restrain the human tendency to dominate.

Far from restraining that human tendency to domination, socialist utopias have appealed to the “instinct for power” as expressed in the yearning for revolutionary leadership. In this same issue of the International Socialist Review, there are articles on Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Castro is quoted as saying that when he was a young boy, he admired people like Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Becoming the leader of the socialist revolution allowed him to satisfy his dream of power and glory. Chávez shows the same love of glory in proclaiming “socialism for the twenty-first century.” The author of the article on Chávez opens with breathless excitement: “Venezuela’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is moving ahead fast.” Well, yes, and all for the glory of Hugo Chávez.

Wouldn’t it be more prudent to recognize the need to limit government to protect against a potentially tyrannical “instinct for power” that is too deeply rooted in human nature to be abolished by socialism?

Human behavior is malleable

LARRY ARNHART raises three main issues in his response to my recent article on Darwin and politics (“Darwins dangerous ideas,” ISR 54, July–August 2007).

First, Arnhart accuses socialists—from Marx and Engels to the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould—of believing “human beings [are] capable of a utopian transcendent freedom from nature.” This is simply false. Gould, for example, is quite explicit that the facts of human biology place limits on the kinds of human society that are possible. But one can accept this while rejecting the simplistic idea that human behavior is based on biological impulses that were supposedly selected for in our ancestors. The most notable feature of human evolution is the emergence of larger brains, which resulted in a species with enormous behavioral flexibility and creativity, and the ability to make decisions that are not biologically motivated. For instance, many of us choose to use birth control or to make sacrifices that benefit strangers, decisions that make no sense to those who believe that human behavior is driven by the goal of propagating our genes to the next generation.

Second, Arnhart claims that humans are biologically disposed to seek domination over others. It is rather amusing that a conservative like Arnhart quotes the nineteenth-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in support of this claim, even more so given that Bakunin did not share Arnhart’s views. Indeed, Bakunin was an advocate of a classless society in which private property and the state have been abolished, along with exploitation and oppression, so he obviously believed that such a state of affairs was compatible with human nature. Bakunin’s disagreement with Marx was not about whether such a society was possible, but how it could be brought about. Bakunin believed, rather implausibly in my view, that after the capitalist state was overthrown a stateless society could be instituted immediately. Marx, by contrast, argued that a successful revolution would first need to set up a new, highly democratic state run by workers and their allies, which would begin a gradual transition to a fully classless society. Bakunin’s argument was based on his belief that all states are equally bad and will subvert the human potential for solidarity and egalitarianism, not that human beings have a general instinct toward domination in all circumstances.

Arnhart believes his view is also supported by the anthropologist Richard Lee’s research on the !Kung or San people in southern Africa. But the murder rate he cites concerns the !Kung only after contact with the modern world, including colonialism. Lee in fact describes traditional !Kung society as highly egalitarian. In another well-known study, Marjorie Shostak says !Kung society was originally non-hierarchical, with decisions reached by consensus, and relative equality between the sexes.

Finally, Arnhart mentions ISR articles on Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, but he does not appear to have read either of them very carefully. The ISR has always rejected the view that Castro’s Cuba represents any kind of genuine socialism. On the other hand, the social changes that Cheavez has initiated in Venezuela have permitted the emergence of social currents that may push the process in even more radical directions. As the ISR’s article argued in some detail, the situation contains contradictory elements, but Arnhart’s characterization of what is taking place as no more than a power trip by Chávez is hardly a serious analysis. It tells us nothing about Venezuela and even less about human nature.

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