Friday, 21 March 2008

The Question of Human Rights

Is there such a thing as inalienable universal human rights? Are they just a distraction of the capitalists from class struggle? These are questions I’ve been grappling with over the last few weeks whilst I’ve been trying to write an essay.

The most important human rights document is probably the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although this recognises such things as rights to medical care, asylum, and so on, it also includes the right to own private property. Although I agree if this were to be limited to personal property, I don’t this should extend to the right to own the means of production – not only because of being a Marxist and arguing for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, but also because without the aforementioned measure you can’t provide the facilities to guarantee the initial rights.

I think it’s a damning indictment of capitalism that 60 years after declaring ‘so-called’ inalienable human rights it hasn’t put them in place – indeed it seems to be threatening them ever more and more. Human rights as capitalism has presented them are just a fig-leaf to the oppressed masses around the world. Indeed, the UN is effectively a toothless body when it tries to act to curb the interests of the major capitalist powers. For them human rights are fine so long as they don’t interfere with their interests, and if they do then human rights get thrown out of the picture.

So should the working classes support the idea of human rights, or is it just a capitalist sham? As Marxist have always noted; the most advantageous capitalist regime for workers in the bourgeois democratic state – this of course is opposed to fascist or military-police bonapartist dictatorships which restrict civil liberties and human rights. So we should for my mind be fairly supportive. In the works of Marx and Trotsky, the idea of universal morality (to which the idea of human rights is derived from) is rejected, as it cannot exist in a class ridden society. To paraphrase Lenin (from State and Revolution) it is only possible to talk of real universal rights when class divisions exist no more.

In conclusion, answering my own questions I don’t think human rights are a tool of capitalists, I think they are in general an aspiration of the oppressed everywhere to live a decent life. To that extent they are actually in contradiction to the capitalist system that cannot sustain such rights – just take a look at the advanced capitalist countries where in theory they should be most obtainable but they aren’t. Thus the establishment of inalienable human rights is something Marxists should be fighting for, however, we need a system that can provide the necessary infrastructure to guarantee them, a socialist world.


Jim Jay said...

If we're going to look at human rights in a cool headed way I think it's fair to say they are concessions historically won by the oppressed against their oppressors.

Some of this was during the revolutions against absolutist monarchies, or colonial powers. Some of it was more directly workers struggles.

I think it's fair to say capitalism tends to appropriate things like rights but even things like the right to own property were not tricks of the capitalist class but historical advances against caste systems that forbade the low born from improving themselves.

I don't think it's wise to dismiss human rights - aprticularly because most people wont understand what you're on about.

There is no objective value to human life - but objectively it is true that we value life *subjectively* - as such rights won are transitory and real at the same time.

Renegade Eye said...

During the 70s, the left used to say, human rights as trumpeted by Jimmy Carter at the time, was code for anti-communism.

I think your conclusions are sensible.

Charlie Marks said...

Renegade raises an interesting thing: human rights as a codeword. Child poverty, homelessness, mass unemployment etc, are never described as human rights abuses - which they obviously are in our book. And what of workers' rights? They are seldom mentioned in the discourse of human rights and many working people would not consider the right to unionise, strike, and take solidarity action, as human rights - if only because of the limited use of the term "human rights".

Jim Jay said...

I think that's true - but its double edged because it raisesd expectationsa about your government's behaviour.

I think WWII is a good case in point because although I don't believe for a second it was a war against fascism the fact that it was sold that way meant the post-war had to be a very different place.

I think it would be useful to use the term civil rights for some of the examples that have been given so far.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

"If we're going to look at human rights in a cool headed way I think it's fair to say they are concessions historically won by the oppressed against their oppressors."

I think you're right - what I dislike about how they are portrayed is that they are seen as immutable things, never to be broken at all - but they aren't as i mentioned private ownership of the means of production is not something we would see as immutable. (for me this is just a product of idealist theorising on this issue from liberal scholars)

i think both human/civil rights can only be guaranteed under a regime that has the material resources to provide for them.

however, to get to the stage where you can guarantee human rights you might posibly have to break them (just look at the russian revolution and the 'war communism' regime - which before any right wingers start up all high and mighty was a system forced on the revolution by invasion) - so i guess it's a somewhat contradictory process

so i think we should fight for the advacement of such rights, but they can only be fully secured depending on the relationship of class forces? (at least under capitalism)

blackstone said...

isn't human rights, not only access to health care, food and water but the right to private property?

Leftwing Criminologist said...

well i'm trying to separate out the right to personal private property from the right to own the means of production in this.

Jim Jay said...

Having thought about this some more I think its important to look at how the right are using the ideas of human rights right now. It seems to me they are doing this in two ways.

Firstly to attack countries like China, Burma and Iran. I don't think we can afford to simply oppose the right on this. We have to show solidarity with those resisting their own ruling class (in all three of those countries) and ensure these ideas are not co-opted for the imperial ambitions of our own r/c.

The second attitude is that the right attack the basis of human rights. Gitmo torture is deemed nescesary and any talk about human rights is dismissed as liberal bleating.

Or in the UK it is Tories and papers like the Mail who want to scrap the human rights act in order to implement more authoritarian measures and immigration controls.

I think under these circumstances the task of the left is not to attack the notion of human rights (although having a critique is fine of course) but to say 'hands off our rights' - and by the way we're going to fight for more.