The Marxist Case for Human Rights

“Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of each man has only those borders which assure other members of the society the enjoyment of these same rights. These borders can be determined only by the law.” -Article 4 of the Declaration of The Rights of Man and Citizen, 1789
Call into memory the philosophy of Karl Popper. To be tolerant of intolerance as a position leads society towards the abandonment of tolerance as its prime virtue. Indeed with the passage of time we can say that inevitably such tolerance of intolerance leads towards a fundamentally intolerant society.
The Marxist Critique of the liberal approach to human rights is generally correct in regarding such rights as fundamental but not universal. By this it is meant that such rights do not prevail historically in times of war or revolution, but that they require a socioeconomic foundation. Moreover, Western human rights embodies the utmost expansion of negative liberty with the squandering of positive liberty. The Stalinist/ Marxist rights of humanity historically (taking the 20th century as an active example) embody the utmost expansion of positive liberty with the squandering of negative liberty.
To quote Marxists Internet Archive’s definition of negative and positive freedom: “In hitherto existing Socialist states, like the Soviet Union and China, ‘negative freedoms’ were severely restricted, while ‘positive freedoms’ were advanced. All people had universal access to health care, full university education, etc, but people could only use those things they had in a particular way – in support of the government. In the most advanced capitalist governments, this relationship is the other way around: ‘positive freedoms’ are restricted or do not exist all together, while ‘negative freedoms’ are more advanced than ever before. A worker in capitalist society has the freedom to say whatever she believes, but she does not have the freedom to live if crippled by a disease regardless of how much money she has. A socialist society that has been established from a capitalist society will strengthen ‘negative freedoms’, while ushering in real ‘positive freedoms’ across the board, ensuring equal and free access to social services by all.”
It is in this that we find the foundational basis for an expansion of what we think of as “human rights”. Also, we find in Popper’s philosophical analysis a justification of the Marxist critique of liberal human rights. We cannot be tolerant of political organizations and movements fundamentally based on intolerance. But the method through which such an “intolerance of intolerance” is enforced can only be through the people themselves. Contrary to the “necessary post-revolutionary bureaucratic machine for the suppression of reactionary ideas and ‘remnants’ of the bourgeois class” advocated by Stalinism, Lenin himself condemned such totalitarian notions:
“We are not Utopians,” responded Lenin in 1917 to the bourgeois and reformist theoreticians of the bureaucratic state, and “by no means deny the possibility and inevitability of excesses on the part of individual persons, and likewise the necessity for suppressing such excesses. But … for this there is no need of a special machine, a special apparatus of repression. This will be done by the armed people themselves, with the same simplicity and ease with which any crowd of civilized people even in contemporary society separate a couple of fighters or stop an act of violence against a woman.”
Such a saying is not a sign of an unfree or intolerant society, but rather of one so free and tolerant that the roots of unfreedom and intolerance can never get a grip on its fundamental virtue: tolerance. What Lenin advocates here (for a society in which the initial revolutionary upheaval is completed and the republic founded), is not entrusting such a power in the hands of the state (even a workers state, or especially a neoliberal one), but solely into the hands of the armed people themselves. This is fully consistent of the Marxist notion of the withering away of the state and the, albeit anarchist, philosophy of the ‘anti-fascists’.
The full expansion of positive freedom strips from our bourgeois notion of liberty its capitalist character, exorcises it of its status as a bourgeois ideology and brings about its birth as a truly mass proletarian ideology. It serves to be the largest possible expansion of the idea of human freedom, not it’s Stalinist squandering in the name of some future, far off society. If there is something to be learned from the Stalinist tragedy of the 20th century it is that the Marxist-Leninist (Stalinist) approach to bourgeois liberty today is outdated. It was the “Marxist-Leninist” states that were compelled to sign a formal declaration respecting human rights by the capitalist countries, not the other way around. The liberty we know today, though no doubt limited and not actualized for a large portion of the population due to the near total absence of positive freedom, is in fact to a certain degree, real, and not merely a “bourgeois declaration”. It is real because of the bloody and peaceful working class struggles of the 20th century to gain true, even if largely formal, equality for women, people of color, etc. This is not something Lenin or Marx could have foreseen. Of course, the struggle continues today thanks to the heroic work of the Feminist movement and organizations like Black Lives Matter, but the original Marxist-Leninist critique of liberty still fails the test of time when we take the 20th century into account.
Still even today, despite the experiences of the 20th century, some Stalinists totally ignore the material reality of what took place in those countries and still clamor on about the “illusion” and “falseness” of a declaration of human rights. Some even talk about the “myth” of totalitarianism. There is nothing more tragic than this. Socialism, especially coming from an advanced capitalist society, should serve as an enormous expansion of human rights (negative liberty) through providing the means for its actualization via the expansion of positive liberty.
To quote Engels, the aim of the communists is “to organize society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society.”
To quote Rosa Luxemburg, “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege… Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc. (Lenin’s speech on discipline and corruption.)”
I read in Jacobin something along the lines of, “any socialist movement worth its salt today would fight to defend, preserve, and expand the liberal rights won by decades of working class struggle that we enjoy today”. I cannot but echo such a declaration.
It is in this spirit that I make the case for the socialist and communist parties of the world to learn from the mistakes of the past and to declare not only the rights of humanity, but human rights, to be a fundamental aim of socialism. As socialists we aim not for liberal declarations of human rights but their actualization. We aim not for their Stalinist destitution in the name of communism, but their fulfillment in the name of communism.
Engels said of bourgeois ‘equality’, “Equality is set aside again by restraining it to a mere “equality before the law”, which means equality in spite of the inequality of rich and poor — equality within the limits of the chief inequality existing—which means, in short, nothing else but giving inequality the name of equality.” (Collected Works Volume 6, p. 28-29).
We aim for the total and complete liberation of the poor and the exploited classes, for a society in which that old phrase “all humans are born equal and free” is embodied by human society at large, where all have an equal chance to succeed at life, to pursue happiness and better themselves. Human rights are, as we have stated, are a fundamental part of Marxism. In the past we could clamor on about certain countries not having the material prerequisites necessary for bourgeois liberty, democracy, etc. (see how applying ‘democracy’ to Afghanistan went for the US). But most states today, especially the developed ones (see China) have built up the material prerequisites necessary to fully realize not only negative liberty, but positive liberty as well. For such nations there is no excuse. In such nations, human rights are not abstract ideas, but attainable goals. For all nations, but especially those, Marxists cannot but advocate unlimited political and individual liberty.
In the digital age the right to privacy is also withering away more and more even (and especially) in the most “freedom loving” liberal democracies. But as Rosa Luxemburg correctly pointed out, “freedom is always the freedom of the dissenters… of the one who thinks differently”. Privacy in the digital age is the only real prerequisite to civil liberty. One is not truly free to dissent if one is being watched at every moment, (it is a well known and independently verifiable fact that people alter their behaviors when they are being watched, especially by authorities) and if one is being watched at every moment, one is not free at all. One doesn’t even have to wield this power to the fullest extent possible to destroy human liberty, it’s very existence is a terminal illness to every form of human freedom. In light of the horrendous abuses of power by NSA, GCHQ, and its accomplices, the Marxist left is bound by its principles to fight against mass surveillance, for the preservation of human freedom. Every such advance in mass surveillance brings the world one step closer to turn-key tyranny. The fight for freedom today is not only a fight for socialism, but it is a fight against the increasingly authoritarian right-wing shift in global politics. In addition to the classic battle-cry of the Marxist left “WORKERS OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE”, we must also proclaim loudly and in the same sentence, “DEATH TO TYRANNY, LIBERTY OR DEATH!”
Declaration of The Rights of Man and Citizen:
Karl Popper on tolerance:
MIA on Liberty:

Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith by Engels:

Rosa Luxemburg on The Russian Revolution:

One thought on “The Marxist Case for Human Rights

  1. Pingback: We Are Freedom Loving Communists! You Heard That Right!

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