2000s >> 2007 >> no-1229-january-2007

Might is Right

Everybody is talking about human rights these days but what are they and will they always need protecting?

Socialists have a problem with human rights. Not of course that we dont think individuals shouldnt have free speech or shouldnt be free from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. It is the concept of rights in general that is the problem.

We are materialists and so dont like to deal in vague abstract ideas such as Justice, Freedom – or Rights. For us, these are reflections of material circumstances. We take the view that might is right, not in the sense that this is how things should be but in the sense of how things are. Without the power to enforce it (might) a right is just an ineffective, abstract concept.

Take the right to strike, for instance. What this means is that it is not illegal to go on strike. But the state only made strikes legal after the workers had demonstrated that the law wasnt going to stop them striking. In other words, the states recognition of the right to strike was the state accepting that the workers had already acquired the might to strike.

This is not the case with individual human rights in countries which dont recognise them. When Amnesty criticises the lack of human rights in China or Burma or Iran or wherever, they are merely appealing to an abstract idea since there is no might to back them up. No wonder the governments concerned dont take much notice of these appeals (unless they want to make some gesture in order to obtain some diplomatic advantage).

The most that we as materialists can accept regarding the concept of rights is as a description of what is in the legal code of some state, i.e. as a description of what the law actually says rather than as an abstract idea existing independently of the law. So, we can say that the right to free speech or the right to a fair trial, etc exist in some country when this is provided for in the legislation of that country. On the other hand, if the law or the practise in China or Burma does not allow for free speech then this means that, as a matter of objective fact, no right to free speech exists there.

Any other definition of rights than what is set out in the law creates all sorts of problems, not least as to what exactly they are. Most people would associate human rights with free speech and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment but why are they restricted just to things like these? Why, for instance, isnt it a human right to have enough food or to be housed decently? On what basis, in fact, is something considered to be a human right? In the end, it can only come down to a question of political preference – its what the people making the claim consider desirable, not something objective that can be discovered. Its an expression of what they think is right. Nothing more.


All the same, human rights – or The Rights of Man as Tom Paine entitled his famous 1791 polemic in defence of the French Revolution – do have a history. What, then, were human rights originally, when the concept was first introduced?

For this we need to go back to the end of the 18th century when two key documents were adopted within two years of each other: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens by the National Assembly of France in 1789 and the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America, known as the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791.

The “rights” in the two documents are basically the same (which was no accident of course since there was a cross-fertilisation of ideas between both sides of the Atlantic): the individual has the right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom for arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and a fair trial before an impartial jury.

Talk of the government emanating from the “nation” and governing with the consent of the governed might lead to the conclusion that the right to vote, i.e. to say who makes up the government, would also be regarded as a “human right”. But in both documents such a “right” is conspicuous by its absence – and this is very revealing.

What it reveals is that both the American and the French Revolutions were revolutions carried out largely by, but in any event, in the interest of property-owners, large and small, who wanted to remove the obstacles to their accumulating more property. But there were conflicts between the larger and the smaller property-owners, between what in France were called the “bourgeoisie” and the “petty bourgeoisie”. One of the disputes between them was precisely over the right to vote.

The richer property owners were afraid that, as they were not themselves in the majority, the less well-off would vote to take away their property. In both America and France, they got their way and arrangements (restricted franchise and/or indirect election) were made to keep power out of the hands of the majority. Which is one of the reasons why we call these revolutions “bourgeois” revolutions. The “rights of man”, now known as “human rights” were first proclaimed by these bourgeois revolutions.


Marxists who have analysed these bourgeois revolutions have explained the “rights of man” as an ideology accompanying the development of the market economy which these revolutions both reflected and encouraged (see, for instance, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism by C.B. Macpherson). On the market, especially the ideal free competitive market, all commodity-producers are equal in the sense of the market not according special privileges to any of them (hence the call for the abolition of all titles of nobility); they are also free agents in the sense of making their own decisions independently of each other about what and how much to produce and sell; the market, the outcome of these decisions of the free and equal commodity-producers, operates independently of the government (hence it is the duty of the government to accept that all men are free and equal).

It is not only Marxists who associate “human rights” with the market economy. So do advocates of the so-called “free” market. Here’s what the Cato Institute, a free-market think-tank in America, had to say in a document put out in 1996 (opposing trade sanctions against China for its bad “human rights” record):

Free trade is itself a human right and rests on an individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property – rights the U.S. Founding Fathers regarded as inalienable and self-evident ( . . .). The proper function of government is to cultivate a framework for freedom by protecting liberty and property, including freedom of contract (which includes free international trade) – not to use the power of government to undermine one freedom in an attempt to secure others. The right to trade is an inherent part of our property rights and a civil right that should be protected as a fundamental human right. The supposed dichotomy between the right to trade and human rights is a false one. Market exchange rests on private property, which is a natural right. As moral agents, individuals necessarily claim the right to liberty and property in order to live fully and to pursue their interests in a responsible manner. The freedom to act without interference, provided one respect the equal rights of others, is the core principle of a market economy and the essence of human rights.” (http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj16n1-5.html)

This association of human rights and political democracy generally with the market economy and private property is the official policy of the US government. When it criticises the human rights record of Syria or Iran or North Korea (or, less stridently these days, China), what it is criticising is not so much the imprisonment of dissidents as the fact that these countries have state-run economies which don’t allow US corporations free access to invest and buy and sell.

That the US government uses “human rights” to try to impose its form of capitalism on other countries must be an embarrassment to organisations such as Amnesty who are interested in these rights for their own sake. It allows the governments they criticise to dismiss them as tools of US and Western foreign policy. Which objectively – even if quite unintentionally of course – they are.

Lowered sights

This wouldn’t be the criticism we would make of them. We would criticise them for having set their sights too low. In confining themselves to only taking up individual cases, they are missing the big picture. There’s nothing wrong with writing to prisoners (any prisoners, not just political ones) and taking up their case with the authorities. This will ease a little the lot of the prisoners chosen, but can’t really be called political action.

We would of course like Amnesty and the others involved in this sort of humanitarian work to work for socialism. Or even, to work for the coming of political democracy to those countries without it, as the best political condition under capitalism for the development of the socialist movement. But the various human rights organisations have deliberately chosen not to do this. This is not just because it would close all channels of communication with the political authorities they have to deal with to have any chance of achieving something in the individual cases they take up. It is also because they, either implicitly or explicitly, regard working for something bigger such as political democracy (let alone socialism) as to set too unrealistic a goal in the sense of something not likely to be achieved in the near future.

Human rights organisations are not the only ones to take up this position. In the last thirty or so years it has become the general position of people concerned about some problem or other thrown up by capitalism. In the past such people would have joined the Labour Party or the Communist Party to try to solve the problem by national political action. Now they have given up on this and dispersed into hundreds of single issue organisations (Amnesty, Shelter, Greenpeace, Child Poverty Action, etc, etc.). It is as if they have accepted that capitalism is here to stay and have adopted the tactic of merely trying to make things a little less bad in the field of their particular concern. It’s a reflection of the pessimism that has resulted from the failure of reformism, in which so many people had previously placed such high hopes.

No doubt such people gain some satisfaction when they make progress in a particular individual case, but can they really be satisfied with the prospect of endlessly having to fight such cases again and again? Can they really be happy seeing the future as capitalism continuing for ever with them trying to stop it stamping so hard on people?

Hopefully not. Hopefully they will eventually come round to realising that it makes more sense to work for a world in which there will be no violation of human rights since there will be no governments representing the interest of minority ruling classes with an interest in violating them to protect their privileges and rule. In other words, a classless, stateless world based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life by and in the interest of all the people, in which there would be no market as there’d be production directly for use.

In such a world the whole concept of “human rights” would be part of the in-built democratic nature of a classless society (whether as procedural rules or as spontaneous behaviour patterns). There would be no minority ruling class or armed political centre against which people would need protection – no institutionalised might against which a counter-might would need to be exercised.


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