The Mismeasure of Men: A Socialist Feminist Analysis of “Male Aggression”

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This article is the edited text of a presentation given by Peter Murray in 1989.

 Are men aggressive? Leaving aside the problem of what is and what is not “aggression,” this appears to be true. Are men naturally aggressive? That is an entirely different proposition. I first began to think about the question when I was studying politics and sociology at Monash University in the ‘70s, when the “innate” aggressiveness of “man” was a given in bourgeois academia. How else did one explain war, the need for a standing army, police, crime, rape etc? “Look, the ‘evidence’ is all around you!“  Or, as the English philosopher Hobbes wrote: “life [without the coercion of the State] is nasty, brutish and short.”

The bourgeoisie has a powerful weapon in supposedly pure science; its purportedly “objective” scientists are among its most effective tools, should they choose to be.

Well, I tended to accept the conclusions of the anthropologists and other biological determinists at that time. There was a certain persuasiveness about the argument that humans are “nothing but” animals in the biological sense. It fitted my cultural prejudices and socialisation. Like many “common sense” theories, it had an inevitability about it.

It wasn’t until some years later that I came to the conclusion that science was not abstracted from the entirety of human society and that the conclusions of scientists, and in the case of the topic at hand, pseudo-scientists, were, shall we say, not uninfluenced by the cultural prejudices of the individuals concerned. In other words, science can serve the interests of the ruling class very well indeed.

And the so-called “innate aggressiveness” of the human species is a case in point. I will return to this aspect of the problem later.

What, if anything, is aggression? Dictionary definitions do not help here, because human behaviours are so diverse. Take the sample of a soldier firing a gun at another soldier. There may be many reasons why this has occurred. It may be accidental. It may be conscious but motivated by fear of injury. It may be because the two are “at war” and that the other is “the enemy,” who is a threat, but is personally unknown to the first soldier. It may be directed at one against whom the soldier has a personal grudge. All of these could be, and are, labelled “aggression.” But each case must be examined to discover which is correct.

This is just one problem with labels and sweeping generalisations. You might think you know what it is you are discussing, but on examination there are other factors, which turn the whole problem on its head. In the example above, lacking further evidence, one must impose a value judgement, which states that the act of firing the gun is in itself aggressive. Alternatively, one must say, “I can’t decide.”

Unfortunately, as in many facets of bourgeois science and ideology, we are expected to make the first choice, to accept the innate aggressiveness theory, and to apply it unthinkingly. The usefulness of this to the ruling class in general terms should be obvious: unthinking, unquestioning responses are all that is required for the production of surplus value and the continued enjoyment of its unearned wealth by the bourgeoisie.

But the greatest problem associated with innate aggression is that so many on the Left and in the feminist movement have indeed accepted the idea. I strongly suspect that for the Left, the reason is this: if people are “naturally” aggressive, or evil, or selfish or whatever, then there is no possibility of revolutionary change, and one can happily get on with the business of reformism, of modifying an evil world—which is the product of evil, selfish humanity—to the extent such traits will allow.

Revolution is defined as impossible, capitalism is defined as inevitable, the State is necessary to prevent anarchy and barbarism. Capitalist power structures are left intact. Notice how this conclusion gels nicely with the conclusion of the Right: “accept your place because you are naturally unable to rise above it.” 

For the feminist movement, the process has been different, but, in most cases the result is the same: the status quo is accepted, if people—specifically men—are innately aggressive then there is no possibility of liberating women from their oppression. One can either take the reformist road or the separatist road. But the former is constrained within the bounds of a contracting capitalist economy and the latter seeks personal solutions to a social problem. Both leave patriarchal power intact.

Let me make it quite clear here that I am not equating autonomy with separatism. Women and all oppressed groups have the right to organise autonomously.

Nevertheless, separatism, in all oppressed groups, must fail because the question which faces everyone seeking emancipation is a struggle for power. This can be achieved only by participating in the social processes and winning the necessary battles. The answer is not: “if you can‘t beat ‘em,  join ‘em,” as the femocrats argue. Neither is it “if you can’t beat ‘em, ignore ‘em,” which is the separatist conclusion. For socialist feminists the answer is: “organise!” Challenge sexism and male privilege with the aim of winning men over to the cause of women‘s liberation. That is our aim in the Freedom Socialist Party.

The real problem for putative feminists, though, is that in accepting the proposition that men are naturally aggressive, one cannot get out from under its corollary: that women are naturally passive. Again, this ends with the conclusion that women‘s liberation is impossible.

The overall answer to the problem is, of course, that neither men (nor “man” in the sexist terminology of the biological determinists) are “naturally” anything, if by “natural” we mean merely a product of their genetic  make up and/or of their environment.

Humans—it must be stated yet again—are not “just” animals but are animals with an important difference: the ability to modify their environment through conscious, planned and organised activity.

Humans are humans because they engage in the activity called labour. And this activity, this ability, did not simply arise out of the slow evolution of brain and/or hands. It may even be, as the United States biologist Stephen J. Gould argues, an incidental by-product of the complexity of the human organism.

In other words, the uniqueness of the human species may simply be a genetic; “accident,” arising from factors not directly connected with either “intelligence“ (whatever that means) or the ability to manipulate objects in a purposeful way.

But in any case, the ability to labour is a quantum leap from the activity of even the most “advanced” of primates. Evolution, it now seems, does not proceed in a continuous process.  In most cases there seem to be long periods of slow or no alteration followed by sudden periods of intense change, which are different not in degree, but in kind, from what has gone before. Chimpanzees are extremely closely related to humans in a biological sense, but their use of tools is not labour.

The genesis of the human species was a profoundly revolutionary phenomenon. The legendary search for a “missing link” is almost certainly just that: a nice story. Humans evolved from whatever was their nearest biological predecessor through an abrupt leap.

Biological determinists attempt to use the obviously animal origin of the human organism to get away with a trick.  If humans evolved directly and without interruption,then one can with some justification compare the behaviour of animals to that of humans. But if what is romantically termed “the human condition” is the result of something unique, the whole argument falls apart.

Marxists argue that this is indeed the case: all the evidence leads to this conclusion if only the blinkers of cultural prejudice and political orientation are discarded. The behaviour any person can be reasonably and scientifically compared with that of other persons, given certain conditions. But it cannot be compared with that of animals.

Human society is no more related to that of bees or gorillas than is fire to water. That certain “scientific” theories attempt to do so is a reflection either on the biases or the political leanings of their proponents. So it is no surprise that the study of animal behavior, known as “ethology,” began to be applied to humans in the Cold War period and came into its own in the United States during the Vietnam war. I’m not suggesting that governments consciously had anything to do with this; evil conspiracy theories are not necessary. It was merely that the time was one of deep social upheaval throughout the world, and ethology suited the narrative of U.S. imperialism.

Along came a series of (usually) men, sometimes with, but more generally without, scientific training who say “we have the answer: “it (warfare) is in your nature. Strong government is necessary, conflict is inevitable (and possibly good).” Communism, therefore, is unnatural because people are naturally uncooperative, men are strong and aggressive, women are weak and passive. So accept your lot and don‘t complain.”

Very convenient for the various imperialist governments whose populations were questioning loudly the policies and practices of their rulers; whose female citizens were arguing for equality, whose minorities were battling fiercely against institutionalised racism. It is not an accident that the innate aggression theorists also, by and large, argued that women, Blacks, Asians and Native Americans were also “inferior” to white Anglo-Saxon males.

Homosexuality to them was, of course, a disease caused by some genetic convergence between an outwardly male body and the psychology of women. (Lesbianism was not even worthy of debate, but then it wasn’t seen as a threat to male pre-eminence.)

Fortunately, most of these “learned gentleman” shied away from the conclusions, which their ideological forebears proposeda century earlier, conclusions that were put into effect by the leaders of Nazi Germany. They “did not like” eugenics—which advocates the breeding of a super race of humans—white, of course. They “did not hold with” mass sterilisations and exterminations. But their opponents had to deal with the “hard facts,” which they had uncovered.

Marxists argue that “facts” in a social context cannot be divorced from that social context; biological determinists see no social context.

So: the “facts” upon which the biological determinists base their theory are little more, in most cases, than the prejudice of the theorists imposed upon the evidence. Aggressiveness, whatever the term might mean, is not innate, because the actions of people are not biologically determined. There is in the sociological and psychological literature a lot of debate about “nature versus nurture.” Is a person’s behaviour determined by their genes or by their environment? Following from that, is the individual shaped by society or is society shaped by the intervention of the individual? This poses a question much like that of the chicken and the egg, with as just as little possibility of a solution.

Yet there is a solution.

The biology of a particular human being produces an individual with potentials for the development of many possible personalities and behaviours.

The person’s environment—and more particularly their interaction with it—is the key factor in producing a unique individual. The person’s environment is, of course, the society in which they live. So yes, society does shape the individual. This is obvious, and accepted by environmental determinists. But whereas these people, who, of course, bolster the status quo, leave it at that, Marxists say that individuals are actors in that society, that people shape the society; we only have to look at the great social revolutions in England, France, the U.S. and Russia to see that. People acting together are the society. And guess what? Communism isn’t unnatural!

So what of human aggression? Well, it is a social phenomenon, born from the interaction of people with society. And as such it cannot be divorced from the class nature of society. That, in turn, is predicated upon a competitiveness forced on the majority by the scarcity inherent in the accumulation of wealth by the minority.

Is war the result of aggression? Yes! However, it is the aggressiveness of capitalist economic system, based on the exploitation of the many by the few, which leads to war.

Did the Australian working class choose to fight in Vietnam? No, because the power to make that choice remains in the hands of the capitalist few, who fanned ignorance and prejudice in order to divide the peoples of the warring countries—in this case with mixed success. The Australian working class is not aggressive towards the people of other countries, nor those people to us. The common factor in our oppression is the same: global capitalism.

Another example: the “violence” of workers on picket lines. Aggressive it may seem at first glance, but again there‘s the question of power. Workers in struggle have nothing but their organisation. The picket line is a defensive military tool of the workers to close down production, and industrial disputes arise out of the violence of the everyday exploitation experienced by all workers: industrial injuries and deaths; police beatings; the generalised brutality of poverty.

But this is not a male phenomenon; not the “bully boys” flexing their muscles. Whoever argues that argues that women in struggle are not capable of building picket lines and busting the heads of scabs. Sorry, life and history contradicts this everywhere. The so-called aggression of the workers, which politicians and the press point to constantly, is a result of oppression; a reaction to a system built on the aggression of the wealthy. And, of course, (you might have guessed this!) the “facts” about innate aggression “prove” that the poor are more aggressive than the rich—so they need “strong” governments to keep them in line.

Then there is the personal violence between people. Rape, gay bashing, murder, assault, etc, etc. Now, the fact that a person‘s behaviour is the result of an interaction between the person and the environment means that individual responsibility comes into play.

Marxists are not pacifists or liberals; we say that a rapist has both choice and responsibility, which must be counted in dealing with him. But again there is the social context, the power relationship, for rape is indeed about power, not sex. Can we stop rape, in the entire world society? Yes we can—if we deal with the unequal power relationships between men and women; if we stamp out sexism, provide equal access to economic resources to both women and men; if we break down the nuclear family, and more. And gay bashing will stop when we have wiped out homophobia, which is the most virulent form of sexism.

There will always be individuals who, for whatever reason, commit violence against other individuals. But the pathological breakdown in social relations, which is characterised by violent acts in general; which arises from the brutalisation of the oppressed as a class under capitalism; which makes the husband a proprietor in the nuclear family; which turns women and children into his chattels—all this can be dealt with.

Men are not naturally aggressive. Biology is the destiny of neither women nor men. The ideology that measures people with the yardstick of determinism, which reduces people to either animals or robots, is both insulting and arrogant; it complements the current system of wage slavery well.

But the ideology is more than that. For feminists and the broader Left, it is can be an ideology of defeat and despair. That the arguments have to be had again and again—with radical feminists, reformists, cynics and outright reactionaries—is evidence of this.

The FSP says that we’ll win the argument when it is we—the working class—who have the power, because we have our own powerful weapon, Marxist-feminism, which is about the empowerment of women and men. Through the mass action of all the oppressed, we‘ll revolt and attack the source—capitalist barbarity.

And that act of so-called “aggressiveness” by the oppressed of this world will liberate everyone from the violence that is capitalism.



Evelyn Reed

  • Woman’s Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family. New York, Pathfinder, 1975
  • Sexism and Science. New York, Pathfinder, 1978

Leon Trotsky

  • Problems of Everyday Life. New York, Monad Press, 1973

Stephen Jay Gould

  • The Mismeasure of Man. New York, Pelican, 1981
  • Ever Since Darwin. New York, Pelican. 1977
  • Hen‘s Teeth and Horses Toes. New York, Pelican, 1974
  • The Panda‘s Thumb. New York, Pelican, 1980

Frederick Engels

  • Anti-Dühring. Moscow, Progress Press
  • The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Moscow, Progress Press
  • The Part Played By Labour in the Transition from Ape To Man. Moscow, Progress Press

Robert Ardrey

  • The Territorial Imperative. New York, Pell, 1966

Desmond Morris

  • The Naked Ape. London, Jonathon Cape, 1967
  • The Human Zoo. London, Jonathon Cape, 1969

Konrad Lorenz

  • On Aggression. London, Methuen, 1967
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