Is Violence and War Part of Human Nature?

Dear Anti-Imperialism.com,

Some of my peers and even teachers claim that violence and war are part of human nature and that nothing can be done to change this. What is your response to this?

Comradely greetings,

[name withheld]

First, thanks for the question and for your support.

A far too common assertion for those benefiting from oppression or otherwise beholden to dominant systems of oppression is that violence and war is inevitable because of is part of “human nature.” Winston Churchill is famously quoted for saying, “the story of the human race is war,” for example.

Our first response to this is, ‘so what?’ All sorts of things occur regularly (rape, murder, abuse of power, etc) and could thus conceivably be described as ‘natural,’ (“the story of human history is rape and gender-domination/slavery and rule/corruption by rulers/etc”) yet all societies at some level consistently attempt to mitigate such phenomenon through social norming and legal authority. This idea that violence and war is somehow different and shouldn’t be subjected to fierce regulation is beyond strange.

At one time or another in many parts of the world, slavery was justified as natural. Yet, this was always at times when slavery prevailed as a social system and it was always the slaver-owners who were the main engines of such theories. The same could be said about those who qualify war as natural to the human condition for they themselves are often benefiting from ongoing war.

Through the critical study of history, we learn not to take words, initial verdicts or self-identification at face value, but to delve deeper into what various phenomena truly represent. No doubt, slavers, colonizers and rapists have always attempted to justify their actions through great words and spin their own narratives during their tenure (‘the slaves are better off under White society,’ ‘there is no such thing as native civilization,’ ‘she deserved it’). And, they have always maintained that they were something other than slavers (‘paternal civilizing figures’), colonizers (‘crusaders for Christianity’) and rapists (‘real men’).

That said, the idea that war is natural is a fascistic concept. Nazis promote a similar idea: that hierarchy and conflicts to enforce hierarchy are natural, and that attempts to mitigate such hierarchies through European ‘Social Democracy’ or Russian ‘Communism’ would enviably weaken the whole position of a society. Then they launched a war to conquer or liquidate dozens of nations and oppressed minorities to manifest the Third Reich: to re-institute the ‘natural’ order of violence and hierarchy throughout Europe and beyond. Today, the idea that war is ‘natural’ is mainly promoted by modern Nazis, i.e. people who stand to benefit from the periodic conflict necessary to main the neo-colonial order.

Violence and war, like many other acts (empathy and love, for example), are part of human capability but not all of it. Under the current system [capitalism-imperialism] or part of any particular system of oppression, violence and war become inevitable (and not always rationally directed) because of irresolvable social conflicts between those situated as oppressors and the oppressed. These social conflicts tend to occur in four general ways. First, between oppressors vying for relative status over each other and over the oppressed. Second and third, between the oppressors and the oppressed (the former attempt to extend or maintain the subjugation of the latter; or, the latter attempting to assert sovereign autonomy against the former). Lastly, conflict occurs between the oppressed when the lack of an alternative leads to the adoption an oppressor mindset and action, creating a hierarchy at the bottom which itself becomes entrenched as part of the system. Conflict, in this manner, though not always manifested as ‘violence’ and ‘war’ in its common usage, is both the result of a system of oppression, and in some cases, has the ability to fundamentally transform such social relations (namely, the third listed form of conflict).

The above is a general, though widely applicable sketch of how violence manifests along the contours of conflict from oppression in society. Looking at capitalist-imperialism, the principle form of oppression, and how it gives rise to war specifically we see examples which fall in category one (World War 1 and 2), category two (the US invasion into Vietnam), category three (the violet conflict led by Vietnamese revolutionaries prior to and after the US invasion), and category four (any number of Third World ‘ethnic conflicts’ spurring on by narrow nationalism, everyday violence between similarly oppressed people, etc). Sometimes, a given war can include all four of these characteristics. For example, the United States led an invasion of Iraq, both to strengthen its position vis a vis other imperialist countries and to further subjugate Iraq. Amongst Iraqis, violent resistance has been carried out not just against Western invaders but also along the lines of social conflicts amongst Iraqis themselves.

Going back to those who claim with such certainty that war is ‘natural,’ rarely amongst them is someone who champions a war of the united oppressed against the oppressors. This sort of violence is always denounced while wars to put down the oppressed and vie for supremacy over them is deemed natural and at times celebrated. Likewise, violence between the oppressed is cited as reason for oppressor rule and the violence necessary for its continuation.

War has specific causes beyond an amorphous ‘human nature.’ War and violence will disappear along with the social relations which engender them.

Mao Zedong, a leader of the Chinese Revolution and one of the main instigators of the Cultural Revolution succinctly noted, “We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.”

And, while leading the Chinese masses in the struggle against Japanese occupation and US-backed neo-colonialism, Mao described it as a war of a new type: a people’s war.

China’s revolutionary people’s war united the broad masses while building independent institutions of the oppressed and arousing their enthusiasm, creating new, distinctly-better social relations and consolidating base areas free from rule by reactionaries. In China and elsewhere, revolutionary violence has been used to transform society in remarkably better ways. Today, oppressed people around the world still struggle and fight against oppression, its enforcers and beneficiaries in a protracted effort towards liberation.

Karl Marx described the whole of history as struggle between various classes and violence as the midwife of every old society pregnant with the new. At first glance, this seems remarkably similar the Churchill’s observation– yet this only reveals the distinction between fact and meaning. Various types of conflicts and wars are the inevitable result of social conflict: class struggle. Moreover, it is class struggle or social conflict of a distinct type (i.e., revolution of the oppressed over the oppressor) and manifested in part through violence which can annul or transform the social relations which inevitably give rise to conflict and war.

Keep Fighting,

Nick Brown for RAIM