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Why Kindness is Not Enough

Marxists tend to have a realistic view of humanity. We believe that history is replete with examples demonstrating that our species strongest instinctual urges move us in the direction of cooperation not violence. At the same time, we understand that a small clique of self-centred individuals, the ruling-class, use their power to undermine our ability to work together. Hence socialists continue to organise collectively to fight for improvements in our classes daily living conditions with the aim of running society in a way that embraces the positive not the negative aspects of human nature.

With the advent of technologically advanced societies that by their nature are highly interdependent on one another, capitalisms survival, now more than ever, relies upon our division: hence the need for ruling-class propagandists to relentlessly emphasise our brutal natures to the exclusion of our caring habits. Elites repeat ad Infinium that there is no alternative to their preferred capitalist system – a bankrupt political and economic system that asserts the dominion of profit making over all other human priorities. And to justify this nonsense they need to assert that their preferred system is well adapted to harnessing humanities true biological inclinations which they characterise as being dominated by aggression and competition.

This is by no means a new debate and remains a perennial topic for discussion by those seeking to promote socialist change. Therefore, the publication of Rutger Bregman’s 2020 book Humankind: A Hopeful History provides us with a welcome opportunity to take a fresh look at ways of overcoming the daily violence that we all face because of capitalisms deeply pessimistic and ill-informed view of human nature.

Bregman, it turns out, largely agrees with the Marxist view of social murder as was outlined by Frederick Engels in 1845. He states that the “threat of very real violence” remains “pervasive” in democratic societies and it is this ever-present threat of violence that enables a small elite to police their capitalist free market. This is true, and as Bregman goes on to point out, to help legitimise this state violence a lot of effort is expended by the ruling-class to bolster the misconception that it is humans who are inherently violent not the state.

Flowing from these distortions, humanity must ostensibly be saved from our own darker natures. The radical and simple alternative to this lie is however “legitimised by virtually every branch of science” and represents “an idea that might just start a revolution” – this alternative, states Bregman, is “That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” Hence the belief in the cooperative nature of humanity has been “denied by religions and ideologies, ignored by the news media and erased from the annals of world history.” Bregman concludes:

“For the powerful, a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. Subversive. Seditious. It implies that we’re not selfish beasts that need to be reined in, restrained and regulated. It implies that we need a different kind of leadership. A company with intrinsically motivated employees has no need of managers; a democracy with engaged citizens has no need of career politicians.” 

Reclaiming hope from hate

In contrast to socialist ideas capitalism positively rewards violent behaviour, which explains why “egomaniacs and opportunists, narcissists and sociopaths,” as Bregman puts it, are the type of “utterly shameless” individuals who rule and dominate the world. So, understanding how these rulers justify their existence is a vital part of exposing the precarious nature of their power. Debunking the ideas that are marshalled by elites in their desperate attempts to cast the working-class in their own sociopathic image is therefore represents the most useful and hopeful part of Bregman’s book. Hence the first half of Humankind takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of how the ruling-class and their agents have had to distort the findings of scientific research (especially in human psychology) to serve their own interests.

Bregman begins with the ramblings of Gustave Le Bon and his famous book The Crowd: a Psychology of the Masses which was written as a response to the aristocratic classes fear of socialism and revolution. This well-known text essentially equated the collective actions of the working-class with mob-rule and the violent end of civilisation. The man in a crowd, as Le Bon put it, is but “a barbarian”, an “automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.” Le Bon’s book thus provided an anti-democratic guide to many of the ruling-class politicians of the day. Bregman notes: “Hitler read the book cover to cover. So did Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt.” But such retrogressive views have not diminished among our rulers today. And while Bregman overstates the influence of such negative views upon ordinary people there is some truth in his analysis when he states:

“Today, this is still the prevailing view of crowd behaviour among politicians, commentators and the public at large. Most of us are convinced that crowds inhabit a psychological shadowland of primordial instincts and unrestraint, where individuals are stripped of their identity and led unthinking to violent and irrational acts.”

Yes, this may be the prevailing view amongst the ruling-class and their representatives, but we should emphasise that it is precisely through the organisation of collective action that the working-class in our crowds have wrought democratic reforms from the ruling-class, whether that be the right to vote, or the right to be a member of a trade union. This is a fight that continues today.

The denigration and dismissal of our class and of our methods of organising has always been critical to the maintenance of capitalist inequality. Even positive public responses to disasters are inverted to be used as a weapon against our better nature. One particularly disturbing example of this phenomena played out in the media reporting on the allegedly violent and criminal behaviours of the people of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina tore through their communities and lives. Nothing however could be further from the truth as behind the lies of the capitalist press thousands of ordinary people collaborated to coordinate their survival efforts. For a counternarrative to the mainstream medias dark twisting of displays of human solidarity Bregman refers to Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (2009). In doing so he highlights her accurate conclusion “that elite panic [concerning the actions of ordinary people] comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image.”

Although many writers have previously debunked the lies that undergird elite panics about human society, Bregman brings fresh insights to many enduring myths. Take the example of William Golding’s post-war novel Lord of the Flies – a story of original sin that has become deeply etched into public consciousness: a story in which, we are told, we must fear the enemy that lurks within ourselves as opposed to the misanthropy that resides within our rulers. Yet the one true example that saw a group of children stranded alone on a desert island illustrated completely contrary lessons to those told in the novel. In the real-life Lord of the Flies it “turns out, [is] a heart-warming story – the stuff of bestselling novels, Broadway plays and blockbuster movies.” Yet as Bregman adds “It’s also a story that nobody knows.” Moreover, when the children in this tale were discovered living peacefully on a desert island on Sunday 11 September 1966 the first reaction of the authorities was to imprison the children for stealing the boat on which they launched their ill-fated expedition (see “The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months”).

Bregman makes a good point when he observes that “you could look at the entire evolution of civilisation as a history of rulers who continually devised new justifications for their privileges.” And one individual who has made his career by promoting serviceable fictions for the establishment is the celebrity historian Jared Diamond, whose writings have popularised many capitalist myths include the tale about the fate of the people of Easter Island. In Diamond’s historic narrative the fate of the Islanders represents a classic Malthusian story of human greed – which allegedly demonstrates how communities devoid of strong capitalist leaders simply self-destruct. Diamond’s elite-friendly story is however completely wrong. The people of Easter Island were destroyed by outside forces of a very human nature. Ruling-class sailors first brought rats to the Island in 1722 – which helped undermine the Islanders’ ability to live sustainably. In later years Peruvian slave traders (who first arrived in 1862) then kidnapped their people, and when “international pressure” meant the Peruvian government was forced to return the few remaining living slaves back home, they returned them along with smallpox which “spread among the rest of the population, sowing death and destruction.” As this tragic tale of inversion were not bad enough these were “the very same slave traders who kidnapped the inhabitants of Ata (the island where the real-life Lord of the Flies would unfold a hundred years later).”

Bregman also turns his enlightening gaze to the toxic legacy of a variety of social psychologists (discussed in more depth a little later in this review). He illustrates how some of the most famous experiments that sought to provide explanatory frameworks for understanding human nature ended up reproducing the Hobbesian fictions of the past. He writes:

“In the years that Lord of the Flies topped the bestseller lists, a young researcher named Stanley Milgram demonstrated how obediently people follow the orders even of dubious authority figures (Chapter 8), while the murder of a young woman [Kitty Genovese] in New York City laid the basis for hundreds of studies on apathy in the modern age (Chapter 9). And then there were the experiments by psychology professors Muzafer Sherif and Philip Zimbardo (Chapter 7), who demonstrated that good little boys can turn into camp tyrants at the drop of a hat.”

Humankind consequently provides a service to humanity by delving into the recent academic literature scrutinizing these famous cases and demonstrates that despite their continued influence these experiments can also be interpreted differently to show that humans are no way near as violent as we have been led to believe.

The limits of kindness

To be clear, there are many reasons to take hope from Bregman’s book; but at the same time although the author delivers a positive life-affirming version of history he still gets an awful lot wrong. This is primarily because he takes human kindness too far. Thus, after winning his readers over with his refreshing and inspiring book about humanity, Bregman fails to learn the correct lessons from this history. Instead, he plumps for a utopian socialist vision of promoting a pacificist world whose boundaries are strictly defined by the limits of capitalism. Emblematic of such confusion is his retelling the role that a far-right warmonger, General Constand Viljoen, and his pacifist (identical twin) brother apparently had in preventing a civil war in South Africa. Bregman credits the secret talks that took place after the collapse of the apartheid regime between Mandela and the fascistic General Viljoen as representing a “pivotal moment” in South African history where the former head of the South African Defence Force “was convinced to lay down his weapons and join the elections with his party.” Yet what this extreme case study really proves is that when a racist leader from the ruling-class makes unsubstantiated threats about launching a civil war on all black people such an individual should not be trusted. Any political leader worth their salt should have refused to compromise with such a fascist leader; but this is exactly what Mandela and the ANC did when they entered into negotiations with the far-right and for the sake of stability compromised on the ability of the new peoples’ government to redistribute wealth to people who needed it most.

Bregman begins the recounting of his peaceable tall story from the day that General Viljoen had addressed a crowd of15,000 white Afrikaners seething with anger (on 7 May 1993). Speaking as the newly anointed leader new of a white “army” calling itself the Afrikaner Volksfront, Viljoen roared into the microphone: “The Afrikaner people must prepare to defend themselves… A bloody conflict which requires sacrifices is inevitable, but we will gladly sacrifice because our cause is just!” In the subsequent months, his pacifist brother then helped arrange a series of secret talks between General Viljoen and Mandela – with the first taking place on 12 August 1993. Thereon proceeded four months of secret talks at the end of which Bregman says “the former general was convinced to lay down his weapons and join the elections with his party.” But this is not all that happened. As some months after finishing these talks General Viljoen had gone on to lead a military assault to help put down a mass insurrection of the people of Bophutatswana who were revolting against the deeply unpopular right-wing leader of their bantustan, Lucas Mangope. An uprising that stemmed from the fact that because Mangope was refusing to allow Bophutatswana to participate in the national elections.[1]

In the aftermath of General Viljoen’s military incursion, which, most significantly, was quashed by the militant actions of thousands of ordinary people, his threat of civil war was rendered laughable. The following month he thus retreated from his warmongering and formed the Freedom Front so he could stand in the elections as their leader. The General was not the enlightened hero as Bregman might have us believe, quite the opposite, it was the ordinary people who served to prevent civil war by standing together in defence of their community. The General had no abiding interest in peace at all, and it seems that the only critical issue that brought the twins together, other than their love of farming, was their fear of communism.[2] This is a fear that, as it turns out, is shared by the author of Humankind who maintains a rather blunt understanding of communism. Thus, he writes “sharing everything equally may be a fine idea, [but] in practice it degenerates into chaos, poverty, or worse – a bloodbath. Look at Russia under Lenin and Stalin.” Bregman taking his cue from anarchist thinkers ignores the most democratic revolution of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and neglects to mention that the primary reason why it turned into a bloodbath was because capitalist elites saw fit to drown it in blood with a lengthy civil war. Nevertheless at least he recognises that revolutions in and of themselves are not bad. In fact, he writes positively that one “obvious method” by which people around the world have acted to “tame their leaders” is via organising “a revolution” whereby “The masses try to overthrow a tyrant.” But this is where Bregman’s own liberal pessimism in such democratic actions sets in, as he continues:

“Most revolutions ultimately fail, though. No sooner is one despot brought down than a new leader stands up and develops an insatiable lust for power. After the French Revolution it was Napoleon. After the Russian Revolution it was Lenin and Stalin. Egypt, too, has reverted to yet another dictator. Sociologists call this the ‘iron law of oligarchy’: even socialists and communists, for all their vaunted ideals of liberty and equality, are far from immune to the corrupting influence of too much power.”

The solution he proposes to address this dilemma is democracy, although he realises that in our current democratic system the “shameless” and the already powerful still have a massive advantage over ordinary people. “Even now, though any citizen can run for public office,” Bregman writes, “it’s tough to win an election without access to an aristocratic network of donors and lobbyists.” This is all true. And this is why the Bolshevik’s who helped lead the Russian Revolution made the pursuit of workers’ democracy a central part of their revolutionary struggle. For instance, a key demand that still has relevance today was that all elected officials be paid a workers’ wage and should be held accountable through the right of recall. This basic commitment to democracy was of course immediately erased under Stalin’s anti-democratic regime. (For a useful introduction to the 1917 Revolution, see the October 1987 issue of Inqaba Ya Basebenzi — the Journal of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the African National Congress.)

Revisiting Bregman’s history of the psychology of human nature

As should be obvious by now Humankind represents a mixed bag as far as far as its quality of analysis is concerned. Being hopeful is of course not good enough when writing a book about such important historical issues. What the working-class needs to be able to arm itself for successful political struggle, is accuracy, combined with a genuinely scientific approach to understanding class relations. What we do not need is a pick-and-mix assortment of hopeful sounding anecdotes; after all we are not going to hope our way to a socialist future. Instead, we are going to need to organise ourselves in democratic groups with accountable leaders to rid ourselves of our shameless capitalist oppressors. So, in the next section of this book review I will focus on Bregman’s early chapters that deal with several famous psychological experiments and attempt to situate them within a more realistic Marxist framework in contrast to Humankind’s favoured ideology of kindness.

Let’s start with the Robbers Cave Experiment, a famous study that was undertaken in 1954 by Professor Muzafer Sherif, who is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of social psychology. By way of an introduction Bregman writes:

“The Robbers Cave Experiment is a story about well-behaved little boys – ‘the cream of the crop,’ as Sherif later described them – who in the space of a few days degenerate into ‘wicked, disturbed, and vicious bunches of youngsters’. Sherif’s camp took place in the same year that William Golding published his Lord of the Flies, but while Golding thought kids are bad by nature, Sherif believed everything hinges on context.”

In summary Sherif demonstrated that even violent conflicts between groups – in this case children – could be overcome if a sensible approach were adopted. He believed that children were not aggressive or greedy by nature but could be encouraged to behave like this under certain circumstances. But most importantly his experiment successfully demonstrated that conflicts between two rival groups could quickly be overcome if the two groups had to work together to solve a common problem that they both had an interest in resolving. Of course, the main element of this study that capitalist commentators seized upon is the way that otherwise nice children can turn into competitive riven monsters even in the idyllic setting of a summer camp in the woods. This deliberate misinterpretation however misses the entire point of the experiment, as the artificially-generated conflict was only manufactured to prove how it could be resolved. Either way in writing up the experiment for public consumption Sherif neglected to mention that the conflict was far from organic, and that it had to be actively engineered by the secretive actions of manipulative adult supervisors. Hence this meant that the selective manner in which he wrote up his study could easily be co-opted to misrepresent the darker side of human nature. This is unfortunate to say the least.

In exposing this story Bregman interviews Gina Perry, the author of The Lost Boys: Inside Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave Experiment (Scribe, 2018). It is within this text that we discover some relevant background that was excised from Bregman’s retelling of this story. First, and perhaps most importantly Muzafer Sherif was a one-time leading member of the Communist Party in Turkey who was forced (in 1945) to flee from his fascist government to live in exile in America. This fact goes a long way towards explaining why Sherif sought to understand how human conflicts might be resolved. Perry, in her own book, actually states that “Sherif set out to disprove theories that prejudice and conflict sprang from human nature”. None of this is discussed by Bregman.

Perry also shed light on Sherif’s other experiments that help us to better decipher the Robbers Cave Experiment. Thus, Sherif’s first experiment on group social dynamics took place in 1949 and involved examining children in the context of a summer holiday camp on a farm. “After a few days where the boys mixed and played, he divided the friends into two groups and organised a three-day contest of games.” The last day of these competitions was marked by violence and Sherif was happy to have “proved his theory that friends will become enemies when they are forced to compete”. Yet not long after this moment the experiment had to be called off when the adult staff found that they were unable to undo the competitive violence that they had unleashed. Here it is critical to observe that in the first unpublished draft of the academic report on this experiment Sherif’s class analysis shone through. But in the context of the Cold War, and in the interests of receiving further funding, Sherif was encouraged to rewrite his report on the experiment so that it was expunged of his own radical ambitions.[3] On this transformation Perry writes:

“In his first draft, Sherif concluded that in this study, the boys’ behaviour reflected the dynamics of a competitive society that divided people into the ‘haves and have-nots’, stoked rivalry and resentment, and fostered prejudices and, eventually, violence.

“… In the new draft, a kind of paralysis overtakes his writing. Gone are references to class, how the experiment reflected the dynamics of a capitalist society, or the alienation the system breeds between workers who regard one another as rivals in an economic competition. Any inference that a capitalist system sets up inequality between groups in society by granting unequal access to money, power, or resources, and so breeds social discord, was gone. Sherif’s language in the final draft was sanitised, cleansed — and deadly dull. There was no reference to real-world politics. There was no longer anything revolutionary lurking in those pages.”

Amazingly, an experiment that sought to illustrate the failings of capitalism had now become so vacuous in critical content that even the military became interested in funding his research to help them manage (racial) conflict within their own forces. And later the Rockefeller Foundation also stepped forward with a huge $38,000 grant which enabled Sherif to proceed with his Robbers Cave Experiment. Elite interest in such psychological research now became something of a growth industry which was related to the funding of the behavioural sciences which was now growing at a phenomenal rate with philanthropic foundations like Rockefeller and Ford working closely to promote these new research agendas in close cooperation with the CIA.[4] None of this background was apparently of interest to Bregman, who simply chose to zero in on the “fraud” of Sherif’s work, with a particular focus on an abandoned version of the famous 1954 experiment that was cancelled and never formally written-up. Yet it seems that the reason why this preliminary experiment was not written about by Sherif was simple, if not altogether agreeable. Sherif and his supervisors had succeeded in stoking division and conflict between two groups of children, but the children had quickly worked out they were being manipulated so had joined together to turn against the scientists. As far as Sherif was concerned this represented a failed experiment, which it was as the experimental protocol had been derailed. It is of course understandable why Bregman would latch on this lesser-known part of the experiment as a demonstration that human nature is not bad, which is true, but in focusing on this so-called “fraud” he ends up distracting his readers from the positive and progressive results of the Robbers Cave Experiment.

 Lessons in obedience: the cases of Milgram, the illusive bystanders, and Zimbardo

Irrespective of Humankind’s shortcomings, what remains true is that ruling-class institutions were happy to fund and propagate the findings of psychological research that helped to legitimate war and social inequality. Thus, even critically minded researchers like Sherif ended up unwittingly contributing to the CIA’s mind-control research (if only later in his career).[5] So it is hardly surprising that one critic of such sinister research argues that “circumstantial” evidence seems to suggest that Stanley Milgram’s research on obedience and aggression can be seen “as a by-product of the larger CIA mind-control project.”[6] In fact, although the available evidence indicates that Milgram’s research was not funded by the military, it is true that Milgram did put in an initial research proposal for funding to the Office of Naval Research whereupon he made clear the benefits of his work to the military. Milgram wrote in this early proposal: “Given that a person is confronted with a particular set of commands… we may ask which conditions increase his compliance, and which make him less likely to comply.”[7]

Despite the many problems relating to Milgram’s famous obedience experiments, what we do know is this: that first and foremost his work demonstrated that people who volunteered to participate in an experiment — which they believed was being undertaken to advance the science of education — may, with a lot of persuasion, be encouraged to commit violent actions against other humans. This does not really tell us anything significant about human nature. Furthermore, Milgram, in contrast to Sherif, did not make the focus of his research an effort to understand the circumstances under which people might resist coercive pressure. Although it should be noted that some variations of Milgram’s experiment demonstrated that people found it easier to resist the authoritative and bullying scientist leading the experiment when they were not alone, or when the scientist who coerced them was some distance away (communicating via a telephone).

Again, largely relying upon another investigative book written by Gina Perry (Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments), Bregman highlights the fact that “only 56 per cent of his subjects believed they were actually inflicting pain on the learner.” This much was revealed in Milgram’s own book, although not emphasised. More importantly Bregman adds that Perry’s research had unearthed something more significant, and this was “A never-published analysis by one of Milgram’s assistants [that] reveals that the majority of people called it quits if they did believe the shocks were real.” Rather than demonstrate that people are born sinners, ready to become violent robots with just a little encouragement, Bregman concludes that Milgram’s research actually determined that…

“… if you push people hard enough, if you poke and prod, bait and manipulate, many of us are indeed capable of doing evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But evil doesn’t live just beneath the surface; it takes immense effort to draw it out. And most importantly, evil has to be disguised as doing good.”

In the early 1960s, now that Milgram had made his global reputation through his obedience experiments, it is fitting that in June 1964 – while employed at the City University of New York – that he would write an article that supported the growing mythology of another famous incident that allegedly demonstrated the darker side of humanity. He did this when he co-authored an article on the murder of Kitty Genovese.[8] The circumstances surrounding this murder played a critical part in Bregman’s book, as this event is used to prove how little compassion ordinary people have for people they don’t know. The conventional telling of the story is used to illustrate the so-called “bystander effect” which showed how 38 isolated individuals living in Kew Gardens (a wealthy suburb of New York) had all witnessed Kitty’s brutal murder in the early hours of March 13, 1964 but had all done nothing to intervene. Yet nothing of sort happened, it was a story that was literally co-invented by the head of the New York police force and by the metropolitan editor of the New York Times, Abe Rosenthal – whose newspaper, two weeks after the incident, ran with the frontpage headline “37 who saw murder didn’t call the police” (later changed to 38).

As Bregman points out, in spite of this murder appearing to be a terrifying story about public apathy it turns out that one witness did quickly alert the police to this incidence, but when this initial call was made the police failed to respond, probably because they “assumed” it “was a marital spat.” Bregman adds: “Bear in mind these were the days when people didn’t pay much attention to a husband beating his wife, the days when spousal rape wasn’t even a criminal offence.” And although The Times was quick to report the story as a cut-and-dry story about a predatory black man (Winston Moseley) killing a white woman, the story ignored the fact that Kitty was a lesbian and that the second key witness was a gay man who was so scared about contacting the police that he had to get a friend to call for him. Bregman correctly explains: “Homosexuality was strictly illegal in those days, and [Karl] Ross was terrified both of the police and of papers like the New York Times, which stigmatized homosexuality as a dangerous disease.”

Now the true story gets really interesting, as five days after Kitty’s murder the quick actions of two bystanders led to the arrest of a robber who subsequently confessed to the murder of Kitty. The media of course ignored the details of the story which contradicted the so-called “bystander effect”. And Bregman goes further and illustrates that we now know that the “bystander effect” is yet another capitalist myth. He does this by drawing upon the important research being undertaken by Danish psychologist Marie Lindegaard, whose work shows that in most cases (using examples from all over the world) when people witness bad behaviour, they intervene to stop it.

But if we dig further into the case surrounding Kitty’s murder it seems that Bregman omitted a very relevant piece of information from his retelling of this story (which can be found in a research article that Bregman cites in his book). This is because in another follow-up article published in the New York Times by Abe Rosenthal we find out that Winston Moseley, the murderer, had also “confessed to killing two other women, for one of whose murders police say they have a confession from another man.”[9] Rosenthal however doesn’t dwell on this critical point, and as history would soon show the police had already forced a false confession from someone else. Making matters worse an innocent man was ultimately found guilty even though Moseley had given evidence in his trial and had “provided a step-by-step account” of how he had slaughtered Kitty. Police corruption thus resulted in an innocent man serving 12 years in prison. And in another disturbing twist to the scandal swirling around Kitty’s murder, two years later her brother “volunteered for the Marines, a decision he attributes to his disgust with public apathy.”[10]

In the 1960s, we should remember, popular opposition to the Vietnam War was now growing amidst the insurrectionary atmosphere generated around the civil rights movement, and the type of deliberate media distortions that surrounded Kitty’s murder were regularly replicated to impugn the motives of ordinary people struggling for a fairer world. The state’s aggressive efforts to undermine working-class movements were undeterred by matters of common decency, and the corporate media were happy to denigrate democratic movements to better promote capitalist stability. Scientists too continued to play an important role in shoring up the power of the ruling-class, and the example of Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment represents just another piece of this authoritarian puzzle.

Zimbardo’s experiment is arguably the most significant study discussed so far, especially when considered in terms of its utility to the powers that be in helping them propagate the lie that “nice people can spontaneously turn evil”. “Zimbardo’s study wasn’t just dubious,” Bregman summarizes, “It was a hoax.” The entire experiment was pre-conceived in such a way as to make it next to impossible that the prison guards would not abuse their wards. Zimbardo literally manufactured an abusive prison environment designed to create tough prison guards who would torture their prisoners. But unfortunately, this is not how this memorable experiment is remembered in popular culture.

The Stanford Prison Experiment’s depressing results allegedly confirmed that ordinary people “can be led to perpetrate atrocities not because they blindly follow orders, but because they conform blindly to what is expected of them as a group member.” Yet, in the first complete retesting of the original prison experiment, which Bregman refers to in Humankind, two less violence-prone psychologists, Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, came to quite different conclusions, and argued that “it is not valid to conclude that people mindlessly and helplessly succumb to brutality.” Instead, they observed that the available evidence “suggest[s] that brutality occurs when people identify strongly with groups that have a brutal ideology.” This is quite different from the arguments that were forcefully made by Zimbardo about the dark truths of conformity and human nature. Yes, people do great wrong, but they do so because they truly believe that such actions are warranted, “because they actively identify with groups whose ideology justifies and condones the oppression and destruction of others.”[11]

Although overlooked by Bregman, Zimbardo has acknowledged that his experiment was “supported by a government grant from the Office of Naval Research to study antisocial behavior” but says that this had little effect on his research goals. And while further research shows that the title for Zimbardo’s grant under which his prison research was subsumed was, “Individual and Group Variables Influencing Emotional Arousal, Violence, and Behavior,” the military was apparently focused on other matters. Hence the US Department for Defence’s title for Zimbardo’s project was “Personnel Technology Factors Influencing Disruptive Behavior Among Military Trainees.”[12] The difference between the two titles is striking to say the least; so, it is worth reprinting what the military thought the primary purpose of Zimbardo’s research was.

“U.S. military forces have recently experienced an apparent upsurge of problems involving negative reactions to authority, insufficient loyalty to the organization, failure to maintain (and even sabotage of) valuable government property, and racial conflict. This research aims at the production of a set of behavioral principles which could reduce the incidence of such undesireable [sic] behavior in the Navy and Marine Corps.”

Turning the tables on kindness

As pointed out earlier, there are serious limits to the analyses presented in Bregman’s book, which party owe to his simplistic rendering of complex historical processes to support his deeply felt views on human kindness. This shortcoming, as we saw with his mistaken interpretation of events in South Africa, creates serious problems that become particularly apparent in his discussion of Zimbardo’s prison research and its impact on the evolution of America’s incarceration state. Hence Bregman credits the 1973 publication of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment as dealing a death blow to a (new) progressive approach to imprisoning people that had apparently started to flourish in the late 1960s.

In leading-up to his mistaken argument about Zimbardo’s effect on the evolution of the US prison system Humankind also makes another error relating to Bregman’s focus on kindness. Thus, while he correctly presents the 1960s as being a “turbulent” period, in Bregman’s desire to side-line the perfectly understandable everyday violence or ordinary people he only emphasizes the nonviolent parts of the mass movements on the streets (which of course were regularly attacked with great violence by the police). Erased from Bregman’s narrative is any mention of the widespread use of violence for self-defence, or of the huge race riots that were a response to deepening inequality and ongoing class oppression. This mistaken historically narrative encourages Bregman to overstate the progressive nature played by the government which leads him to praise the creation of the President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (which was initiated in July 1965 and made its final recommendations in 1967). Bregman writes that the “most radical recommendations” made by the criminologists involved in this Commission “concerned the future of US prisons” with serious suggestions put forward arguing that a “model institution” would do away with bars and prison cells and “would resemble as much as possible a normal residential setting”. This is all true, and certainly some limited moves were made to trial different, more humane ways, of punishing criminals. But Bregman is way off track when he goes on to assert that one of the main reasons why these prison trials failed was because of Zimbardo’s hoax prison experiment.[13] Bregman thus observes:

“In hindsight, it’s shocking how fast the tide turned – and what caused it. It started with Philip Zimbardo, who in February 1973 published the first academic article on his Stanford Prison Experiment.”

This is simply not true. Much bigger economic factors drove a stake through the heart of the Crime Commission’s unusual proposals. These had a lot to do with President Johnson’s Democratic Party being an undemocratic capitalist organization that certainly did not want to tackle the root causes of inequality via prison reform, especially if it meant alienating their corporate backers. This factor combined with President’s Johnson’s prioritization of war over welfare indicates that the blame for the undermining of radical prison reforms should not be laid at Zimbardo’s doorstep.[14]

Of course right-wing intellectuals were quick to undermine the Crime Commission’s far-reaching conclusions as soon as they were published in 1967, and at the forefront of such early attacks was the up-and-coming neoconservative academic James Q. Wilson. Wilson being the very same individual who, as Bregman points out, later appropriated another Zimbardo experiment to popularise another regressive form of policing that became known as the so-called broken windows theory – a theory of policing that “works to criminalize communities of color and expand mass incarceration without making people safer.”[15] Either way, Bregman incorrectly gives full credit to the Stanford Prison Experiment for inspiring opposition to prison reform. He then goes on to add that the conservative idea that prisons were unreformable…

“…gained popularity when the infamous Martinson Report appeared one year later. The man behind this report, Robert Martinson, was a sociologist at NYU with a reputation as a brilliant if slightly maniacal personality. He was also a man with a mission. In his younger years, Martinson had been a civil rights activist and landed in jail for thirty-nine days (including three in solitary confinement). This awful experience convinced him that all prisons are barbaric places.”

Although you would not know it from Bregman’s book, Martinson was not just an ordinary civil rights activist who went to prison, but had been a leading member of Max Shachtman’s Trotskyist group. This was a one-time Marxist organization that had been moving in a rightward direction from the late 1950s onwards; with the group soon playing an important role in supporting the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s and in coddling up to all manner of reactionary trade unionists. It thus seems likely that following in Shachtman’s footsteps Martinson had transitioned from being a radical socialist to something wholly different; in Martinson’s case, becoming transformed from an activist into a self-centred academic with a carefree approach to the truth. In fact, the article that Martinson authored (based on the Martinson Report) that popularised the conservative arguments regarding prison reform was actually printed in the same neoconservative magazine that had published Wilson’s critique of the Crime Commission (that magazine being The Public Interest). This however is not how Bregman tells the story. Instead, he writes:

“Martinson… published a short summary of their findings in a popular magazine. Title: ‘What Works?’ Conclusion: nothing works. ‘With few and isolated exceptions,’ Martinson wrote, ‘the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.’ The progressive social scientist hoped – much like Philip Zimbardo – that everyone would realise prisons were pointless places and should all be shut down.”

But Martinson was far from progressive by this point in his career. Need I say it, but Marxists do not usually publish arguments devoid of socialist content in “popular” neoconservative publications. Hence the corporate media now made sure Martinson became a national celebrity allowing him to promote his distorted conclusions despite the fact that the major academic study upon which he drew his conclusions had actually provided compelling evidence that prison rehabilitation does work, but less so when seriously underfunded. Nevertheless, undeterred by such matters in August 1975 Martinson secured a slot on CBS’s influential current affairs program 60 Minutes where he repeated his lie that treatment programs “have no fundamental effect” on offenders.[16] This interview was run the month after the law-and-order guru of the neoconservative movement, James Q. Wilson, had published his own book Thinking About Crime, which had called for an end to rehabilitation and promoted a get-tough approach to crime. Wilson believed this was the only way for the justice system to reconcile itself to the dark truths about human nature; serviceable findings that were of course lapped-up by the corporate media. The New York Times ran a slavering review that called Wilson’s book “one of the most insightful books on the topics of crime and punishment” adding: “Here is wisdom, clarity of language, thoughtful alternatives for public policy and broad erudition.”

In conclusion: read a paper, turn your cheek?

Humankind serves yet another reminder that the ruling-class will stop at nothing to maintain the hoax that human nature is a match made in heaven with capitalist greed. And it as Bregman acknowledges, the news as presented in the corporate media has always played a critical role in sustaining this ideological offensive against the better side of human nature. Bregman goes so far to say that following the news is “a mental health hazard.” Here the main researcher he uses to emphasise this important point is the late George Gerbner (1919–2005) who from the 1950s onwards undertook extensive studies which showed the detrimental impact that repetitive negative and violent media stories can have on those who consume it. Gerbner, as Bregman notes “also coined a term to describe the phenomenon he found: mean world syndrome, whose clinical symptoms are cynicism, misanthropy and pessimism.” But the shallowness of Bregman’s research reveals itself yet again in his reference to Gerbner’s work which he credits as being the “first” to “open up this field of research, back in the 1990s,” when in reality Gerbner opened-up this field of research thirty years earlier in the 1960s.

In fact, around the time that the US government’s Crime Commission released their final report, they launched their National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, onto which Gerbner was recruited to undertake research on television violence.[17] Released in December 1969 the latter Commission incorporated Gerbner’s media work and concluded that:

Each year advertisers spend $2.5 billion in the belief that television can influence human behaviour. The television industry enthusiastically agrees with them, but nonetheless contends that its programs of violence do not have any such influence. The preponderance of the available research evidence strongly suggests, however, that violence in television programs can and does have adverse effects upon audiences – particularly child audiences.” (p.195)

The Commission report summarised that…

“…television portrays a world in which ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ alike use violence to solve problems and achieve goals. Violence is rarely presented as illegal or socially unacceptable. Indeed, as often as not, it is portrayed as a legitimate means for attaining desired ends. Moreover, the painful consequences of violence are underplayed and de-emphasized by the ‘sanitized’ way in which much of it is presented.” (pp.194-5)

Of particular interest to Bregman’s story, one television network even responded to the impending release of the full report by starting to fund its own research initiative that sought to swiftly undermine the Commission’s findings. Stanley Milgram thus stepped forward in early 1969 to assist the purveyors of televisual violence, and he obtained a massive $260,000 grant from CBS which he used to demonstrate (with a highly questionable study) that the media does not play a significant role in promoting violence.[18] This was exactly the type of system-supporting research that Gerbner had challenged so successfully throughout his career. It is also perhaps worth emphasizing that throughout this period, CBS, like many other major newspapers (including the New York Times), maintained a cosy relationship with the CIA. In fact, as Carl Bernstein later reported in 1977, “CBS was unquestionably the CIAs most valuable broadcasting asset.”[19] These were the same media outlets that, at the same time as giving support the violent and anti-democratic actions of the CIA, relentlessly demonised the democratic movements of the global working-class.

Bearing all this in mind one can sympathise with Bregman’s advice to his readers to “avoid the news,” especially “television news” and “push notifications” on social media. He however counsels his readers to say that they should still take time to “read a more nuanced Sunday paper and in-depth feature writing, whether online or off.” This is a strange solution to countering media lies, and in the American context amounts to recommending that people read the New York Times! Bregman in his further suggestions goes on to add that people should “Disengage from your screen and meet real people in the flesh.” But again, this is by no means a solution to the systemic problems outlined in Humankind, and neither are his other suggested “ten rules to live by”. For example, his advice that “When in doubt, assume the best” or to just “Think in win-win scenarios” or to refrain from punching Nazis are insufficient if we are serious about moving beyond capitalism. Granted his advice is aimed at overcoming society-wide misperceptions about human nature, but the tried and tested way of overcoming such ideological hurdles is not by changing the individual actions that we take but by engaging in collective action. This is how revolutions in social relations are made. Socialist change comes through hard and determined organising not, as Bregman argues, by “turning the other cheek”. This is a counsel for real despair. Positive change will not just magically arrive when “we revise our view of human nature,” but when we overthrow our capitalist oppressors to inaugurate a new socialist world.


[1] “The Mangope regime commanded considerable resources. Of all the homelands, it was the most economically viable, and the Bophuthatswana Defence Force, 4000 strong and com-manded by ex-SADF officers, was well equipped. But the regime was deeply unpopular and a sequence of events including a civil service strike, mass protests and looting, the defection of sections of the security forces, an attempted intervention by the AWB in support of Mangope and the intercession of the SADF resulted in the bantustan being brought under central government control shortly before the elections.” Gavin Cawthra, Securing South Africa’s Democracy: Defence, Development and Security in Transition (Palgrave Macmillan, 1997), p.79. For a detailed overview of the “Battle for Bop,” see Allister Sparks, Tomorrow Is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Road to Change (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[2] As one reporter noted in October 1993: “They also share a concern that the ideology of communism, though outmoded and disgraced in much of the world, will gain a foothold here.” John Battersby, “Abraham Viljoen: Longtime campaigner for black-white solidarity in South Africa,” Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 1993. Although the New York Times’ article “Apartheid goes ‘Bop’” (March 16, 1994) downplayed the role of ordinary people in the insurrection, it’s still provides useful context to understanding the democratic significance of the “clash”. Their report concluded that “the most striking result was the humiliation of the white separatists, who fell out among themselves as the less extreme faction, headed by retired Gen. Constandt Viljoen, decided to join the election campaign.” One wonders what would have happened in the “Battle of Bop” if the black population had followed Bregman’s advice not to use violence to defend themselves form the armed fascists. As he puts it “punching Nazis only reinforces extremists. It validates them in their worldview and makes it that much easier to attract new recruits.”

[3] Sherif had first travelled to America to study at Harvard University in 1929 where he had befriended the likes of Hadley Cantril. It was only later on his second visit to America in 1934 – this time based at Columbia University — that while living in Harlem in had become converted to the ideas of communism. In returned to Turkey in 1937 but was forced to flee from Turkey’s fascist regime in late 1945 whereupon he returned to America. Upon his return Sherif had co-authored a psychology book with Cantril – in which he had not shied away from promoting his Marxist analyses. But by the 1950s the political situation in America had become extremely hostile to such radical ideas and careerists like Cantril chose to renounce their past radicalism to parlay his careers as a fervent Cold Warrior. As Gina Perry explains, in 1952 “Cantril told the FBI he believed that Sherif ‘would have no hesitation in providing all the information he might possess to the Russians’.” This posed severe problems for Sherif (who was an illegal alien) who was extreme risk of being deported back to Turkey because of his Marxist beliefs. In 1951 while based at the University of Oklahoma Sherif had already had to ward-off the anti-communist witch-hunt and take an oath of allegiance that he was not a communist, however, the FBI continued to investigate him until at least 1953. This background is provided in Perry’s book The Lost Boys; however, further useful information about Sherif’s politics can be found in Sertan Batur’s article “The unknown Muzafer Sherif,” The Psychologist, 27(11), November 2014.  : As a Communist scholar.”

[4] At first much psychological research was funded directly by the US Department of Defence, and it was only by 1961 that total funding provided by the US Department for Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) to “psychological sciences surpassed total DOD funding. HEW spent $20.4 million during that year, fully half of the federal government’s total for such research. The DOD, in comparison, spent only $15.7 million.” Ellen Herman, The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts (University of California Press, 1995), p.347.

[5] Gina Perry writes: “In 1977, the CIA released thousands of documents, after a freedom of information lawsuit, about its funding of research into mind control and interrogation techniques that could be used against enemies. … Muzafer had unwittingly accepted funding from the CIA for small-group research he conducted [in the mid-1960s]. Sherif had conducted a covert observational study on groups of adolescent gangs. It was part of a program of top-secret experiments called MKUltra. But while Sherif was studying urban gang members, the CIA applied the same research to techniques for renegade members of the KGB: ‘Now, getting a juvenile delinquent defector was motivationally not all that much different from getting a Soviet one.’” (The Lost Boys)

[6] Alfred McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror (St. Martins Press, 2007), p.49; also see McCoy, “Science in Dachau’s shadow: Hebb, Beecher, and the development of CIA psychological torture and modern medical ethics,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 43(4), Fall 2007.

[7] Thomas Blass, The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram (Basic Books, 2009), p.66. “The replies Milgram received from all three agencies [including the military] indicated that each of them was receptive to considering the kind of research he had in mind. But the prospects at the National Science Foundation seemed most promising. So on January 27, 1961, he sent the NSF a formal application, ‘Dynamics of Obedience: Experiments in Social Psychology,’ requesting $30,348 for a two-year period from June 1, 1961, to May 31, 1963.” (Blass, p.69) For a useful anarchist critique of Milgram, see Mat Little, The Disobedient Society (New Compass Press, 2019).

[8] With no irony Milgram explained in his article in The Nation (published on June 15, 1964) how the murder was “rapidly being assimilated to the uses and ideologies of the day” without realising he had been hoodwinked by the lies told by the police and the corporate media. The co-author of this piece, Paul Hollander, remained one of Milgram’s closest friends throughout the rest of his life. Hollander gaining much notoriety for his right-wing views and emergence and a leading neoconservative who went on to specialise in the demonisation of Marxists. (see “Paralyzed witnesses: the murder they heard,” The Nation.)

[9] Abe Rosenthal, “Study of the sickness called apathy,” New York Times, May 3, 1964. Bregman does cite this article but evidently overlooked its contents which is unfortunate as he also cites an important academic study which detailed how the police had set-up an innocent man, see Saul Kassin, “The killing of Kitty Genovese: what else does this case tell us?,” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(3), 2017; for a useful summary of this article see “A new look at the killing of Kitty Genovese: the science of false confessions,” Association for Psychological Science, June 30, 2017.

[10] Jim Rasenberger, “Kitty, 40 years later,” New York Times, February 8, 2004.

[11] Stephen Reicher and Alexander Haslam, “Questioning the banality of evil,” Psychologist, 21 (1), 2008, p.17, p.18, p.19.

[12] Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil (Rider Books, 2007), p.30; Stanton Glantz et al., Department of Defense Sponsored Research at Stanford — Volume 1, Two Perceptions: The Investigator’s and the Sponsor’s (SWOPSI, 1971), p.285. For a detailed examination of how Zimbardo’s research was used to both misrepresent fundamental issues of human nature and help shield the U.S. administration from accusations that they deliberately promote torture, see my earlier article “Challenging the Stanford Prison Experiment: military connections (Part III of III),” Swans Commentary, August 1, 2011.

[13] In making this argument Bregman counterposes the American prison system with the more liberal “dynamic security” model of prisons that are utilised in Norway. He cites the following New York Times article “The radical humaneness of Norway’s Halden prison” (March 26, 2015) which also happens to make the same mistaken argument that Bregman uses to demonstrate why the Crime Commission’s progressive findings

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