Long live war?: “What’s Left?” November 2009, MRR #318

I have a section in my library consisting of books like The Ecological Indian by Shepard Krech, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller, War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley, and the Reinvention of Primitive Society by Adam Kuper. I used to think of it as my anti-primitivist section, works by reputable anthropologists and archeologists rebutting John Zerzan’s wet dream that our Paleolithic ancestors were ecological, peaceful, goddess-worshipping hunter-gatherers uncorrupted by civilization and science; a simplistic reprise of Romantic era fantasies of the primitive paradise and the noble savage. Then, I realized that these books also refute at least one important tenet of Marxism.

Refute is perhaps too strong a word. These works don’t contradict Marx’s own assertion that Paleolithic humans existed in a state of “primitive communism,” a relatively classless, communalist social order. Nor do they negate the thesis propounded by Marshall Sahlins that such a social order was the original affluent society, in which people worked as little as ten to twenty hours a week in order to survive. However, this academic research does call into question the Marxist idea that human nature is infinitely malleable, and that it is shaped by the mode of economic production of any given society.

Marx himself believed in a basic human nature, which he called species being, and which was predicated upon humans being social animals. Yet his contention that economic forces molded much of the rest of human nature engendered the notion in the old, Soviet-dominated socialist bloc that it was possible to create, in the words of Che Guevara, a “new socialist man.” This collectivist human being would be motivated by altruism and cooperation, in contrast to the individualistic, selfish and competitive person common to capitalist society.

That such a creature failed to emerge en masse in the “real existing socialist societies” of the day did not discourage these regimes from applying, to an absurd degree, the axiom that environmental forces predominated over biological forces. In a phrase, nurture superceded nature. Both the Soviet Union, and Maoist China, fell hook, line and sinker for the faux Lamarckianism of that scientific quack Trofim Lysenko who argued that characteristics acquired by exposure to environmental conditions could then be inherited. A wheat crop that unexpectedly produced record yields in the face of harsh climatic conditions was then expected to pass on this capacity through its seed. Such a delusion resulted in wholesale famine at different times in the Soviet Union and China, when many millions starved.

Human nature appears to be more fundamental, complex and immutable than Marxists and anarchists would presume.

I started out as a pacifist when I became political in 1968. At the time, I was Vietnam War draft bait, and bucking for CO status. But I also fervently believed that war in particular, and violence in general, were not innate to human nature. I was fond of citing societies, from the Hopi to the Mennonites, which were socially structured around nonviolent principles. Unfortunately, since then, I’ve had over forty years to experience the world, and to read up on humanity’s sordid history. It seems that, past and present, nonviolent societies have been the exception rather than the rule. And, when Germaine Greer opined that human males had a predilection for rapine and slaughter, she was only incorrect in confining this tendency to one gender. This penchant for homicide, while evident in both sexes, is by no means equal between the sexes.

From the Spartan mother’s exhortation to her son to come home “with his shield, or on it,” to the prominence of women as guerrillas in various socialist struggles for national liberation, there is no lack of female complicity in human blood lust. Recent news reports have claimed that women are now in top leadership positions of both the Basque terrorist organization ETA and the Sicilian Mafia. Whether it is enthusiastic participation in sundry right wing and fascist movements (as documented in Right Wing Women; ed. Bacchetta and Power), or as willing suicide bombers in Islamic jihadist organizations, women are still playing catch up in an arena dominated by men. The girls got a way to go.

A recent, influential addition to my library has been Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel. Jünger’s precisely rendered experiences as a German soldier during the first World War intimated that war is among humanity’s noblest endeavors, a crucible that brings out the best and worst in people, and a forge for individual struggle and overcoming. Then, we have James Palmer’s depiction in The Bloody White Baron of the mad, murderous Baron Ungern-Sternberg, a “white general” during the Russian civil war, as “a bloody-handed pillager driven by both an intense religious fanaticism and devotion to the joy of slaughter.” These days, this describes the great preponderance of armed resistance movements in the region from Rabat to Jakarta.

I’ve already mentioned Keeley’s War Before Civilization, which is one of a spate of books (The Origins of War by Guilaine and Zammit, How War Began by Otterbein, Constant Battles by Le Blanc and Register, etc.), that document the human propensity for collective homicide long before said humans could write history. Forgive me then if I’ve come to the conclusion that the predilection for one individual to bash another individual over the head with murderous intent is something more than personal passion or social conditioning.

War is as intrinsic to the human experience as is music, intoxication, pornography and transcendence.

Yet, I’m reluctant to attribute homicide and war to that ultimate black box and deus ex machina, human nature, precisely because of the Hopi and the Mennonites. There have been whole human societies, modestly successful and around to this day, organized to minimize human violence. This actually says a lot about the relationship between human society and human biology, complicating the concept of human nature significantly. Gene Sharp’s comprehensive three-volume reference The Politics of Nonviolent Action, covering a theory of power, a history of nonviolence, an exhaustive list of nonviolent methods, and a sagacious discussion of nonviolent strategy, continues to have an important place in my library.

I’ll conclude this selective survey of my book collection with a story that’s somewhat apropos of this column’s subject. Between 1989 and 1991, when I lived in San Diego, I was involved in setting up a chapter of Anti-Racist Action. Among many things, we did punk rock benefit shows to raise money for local progressive organizations. One such show, held at the Peace Resource Center, featured a banner hung along the building in the backyard, painted with the MDC lyric NO WAR! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA! Among those attending the show were San Diego’s own Boot Boys. At the time, this skinhead crew claimed to be antiracist, and indeed, I detected a couple of Latino and at least one Asian Boot Boy skin. At some point during the evening, the Boot Boys vandalized the banner by tearing off the first NO. It subsequently read WAR! NO KKK! NO FASCIST USA!

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