Blair Hurley examines the multi-faceted issue.


The concept of human rights is an immensely popular piece of theory in international political discourse. Many seem to intuitively link human rights with ideas of justice, as they are both very simple to comprehend and seemingly powerful to deploy as a political tool.

Reputation aside, human rights should be regarded as a theory with some force, with principles based on contemplations of justice. An introduction to human rights cannot be complete without mentioning the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration repeatedly mentions ‘rights’ side-by-side with human ‘dignity’ and the Declaration’s first article asserts that humans have ‘reason and conscience’. This language does indeed echo the work of Kant (and to varying extents of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau), who ‘located the seat of universal laws in … respect for intrinsic human worthiness, which he termed dignity’. A critical illustration of the core philosophical assumption, or underpinning, of human rights can be observed from the UDHC; and that is that human beings are in some way special.



1.  What are Human Rights?

Human rights assert that persons are, or should be, metaphysically inviolate, and that they are entitled to certain things. This conclusion is reached from observations about the ‘nature’ of people or the way they might behave. Rawls’s famous original position provides an excellent example of an attempt to define the locus of rights in humans. Very briefly, the Rawls’s original position ‘tries to account for … moral judgments and helps to explain our having a sense of justice’ by postulating a group of people charged with choosing principles of justice without existing as people with any idiosyncratic features. Rawls’s parties to the original position are the hypothetical embodiment of what Kant and the UDHC consider ‘human dignity’.

The idea of human rights, however, is not unassailable. In fact its weakness probably lies in its conceptual simplicity. Very simply, a human right asserts that someone is entitled to something only by existing as a human. Speciesism aside, human rights appear only to be totally abstract and normative, and unable to actually do or achieve anything. Edmund Burke’s avowal to ‘call in the aid of the farmer and the physician rather than the professor of metaphysics’ in derision of rights demonstrates that talk of rights could in fact be a pursuit entirely illusory. Indeed, human rights could very seriously only exist as a means of describing of the function of legal systems, and the entitlements and obligations one might find therein. If this is so, it would seem that rights-talk would collapse as a useful and morally authoritative political theory in discourses on global justice, and those fighting for noble causes all across the world would have to find a new, more cogent framework through which to pursue their goal for justice.

2. Atomos: Nothing More or Less Than A Human Right?

Particularly prescient on this point is a consideration of the Marxist method and theory of history with regard to human rights. Although never garnering as much attention as other discourses of and about international relations and global justice, the Marxist conception of human rights does lay convincing claim to an alternative mode of considering international governance. The critical position that Marxists take on human rights is, of course, fundamentally linked, and possibly dependent upon their considerations of capitalism, but it is not simply short-hand for an ulterior motive to criticise bourgeois economics.

The Marxist (or Marxian) approach to rights-talk (the ‘language of rights’, ‘rights as a language’) can be sourced primarily to two works by Marx:


On the Jewish Question:


“Man is far from being considered, in the rights of man, as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself—society—appears as a system which is external to the individual and as a limitation of his original independence. The only bond between men is natural necessity, need and private interest, the preservation of their property and egoistic persons.”


The German Ideology:

“Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc.—real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process.”


These two texts of the Marxist tradition (i) define human rights as the product of historical economic-political structures and (ii) critically examine the moral character of human rights.

The Jewish Question explicates the moral effect of rights and just as urgently identifies that the concept of rights claim is unintelligible outside societal institutions: it is observed that rights claims (at least in their first-generation forms) serve to atomise people as moral units. It is stressed in the Jewish Question that this consequence of human rights fetters any kind of realisation of political justice.

The German Ideology builds upon the Jewish Question by arguing that our current conception of the ‘language of rights’ is a product of the structure of our economic-political institutions. Put simply, The German Ideology powerfully asserts that our conception of the world is heavily contingent upon the mode by which we make things. As a result, rights can be exposed as a theory than does not sufficiently penetrate and describe the phenomenology of the human experience, and does not have the best claim to an authority as a tool—or a source of guidance—for political action. Instead we have our ‘productive forces’ and our social and material relationship to which to consider in order to achieve international justice. Indeed, Marx may never have touched on the subject more explicitly when he claimed ‘right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby’.

3.  Action Without Rights?

The body of academic work known as ‘liberation theology’ can help further illuminate the relationship between the language of human rights and the Marxist method. Liberation theology can be seen to be a nuanced and informative application of the Marxist method to pressing questions of global justice because of the historical conflict between political, economic and cultural differences between North and South America. The virtual plethora of disparities between the North and South Americas as a context for the current of thought that was, and is, liberation theology gives Marxist theory some real substance as a method for framing questions of global justice.

It is possible to identify within liberation theology four limbs of criticism of human rights, the first of these being very similar to the theoretical discussion attempted above—the charge that human rights suffers from a ‘lack of systemic vision’.

The second of these criticisms is that human rights gives legitimacy to the systems and authorities responsible for violating the supposed ‘human rights’ of populations of people.  This is achieved through the appropriation of the vocabulary of human rights by the upper echelons of political and economic structures. First world countries are able to absolve themselves of their connection with, or participation in, the oppression of people in ‘third world’ countries by deploying the language of human rights to criticise horrible events abroad.

Perhaps a result of geo-political locus of liberation theology historically being Latin-American, the third criticism levelled against human rights is its propensity to be used as a device to condemn or actually justify the prevention of attempts to better the plight of people undertaking initiatives informed or guided by second-generation rights. It seems absurd that human rights theory should be in conflict with itself—‘who is allowed to make claims against human rights, and who adjudicates their claims?’ Which is to be preferred: talk of liberty, or talk of fairness and equality?

The final and arguably most important criticism is that human rights risk a denial of agency of the poor. The fact that human rights language can be appropriated by bourgeois government bureaucrats objectifies rather than enfranchises the poor and powerless—who must be the prime subject of justice. Indeed, liberation theologians should be regarded to be pressing a legitimate concern when they assert a theory of justice that requires institutions that work ‘with the poor, rather than for them’. This fourth criticism may fly in the face of groups who employ the language human rights and are legitimately concerned with the plight of the planet’s most impoverished and defenceless, and while this conflict is incredibly unfortunate, it goes right to the heart of the issue at hand.

The repeated accusations of duplicity (the idea that human rights plays into the hands of powers than control the means of production, however they are purported to be possessed by the world’s worst-off) that liberation theologians have historically heaped on the theory of human rights, informed by the Marxist method, is heavily influenced by the American geo-political arena. The avowedly capitalist, finance dominated North America has never stopped preaching its human rights rhetoric, perceiving and interacting with the South through such a lens. In contrast, the predominantly raw-material producing, industrially fledgling and foreign-capital-dependent South has throughout time taken on the character of a subject, or a kind of ‘other’ to the North, its proximity to the ownership (or control) of the means of production notably more distant.

These observations account for something. The Marxist thesis for the primacy of the productive forces as the driving force, the most critical, if not only, cause of the progress of history is what precipitates this response to human rights. The ‘productive forces’ about which Marx’s theory of history revolves depends upon an ontology founded on materialism. The ‘material relations of production’, people’s ‘labour power’, and the means of production, the material interaction between man and nature, is ‘mediated’ by social relations of production—the way material production is socially organised. As alluded to above in the German Ideology, these social relations are conditioned by the material productive relations—the way people organise themselves and think about the world. It is obvious that the language of human rights, viewed in this manner, is a product of our social relations of production and as such is not a factor instrumental in the pursuit of justice.

4.  Marxist Rights?

So what? Is the Marxist method only full of criticism, or does it offer a superior method of pursuing justice than that of human rights? When it comes to giving an instructive, authoritative framework through which to interpret and analyse international relations, the Marxist method’s response to this challenge might appear paradoxical and even somewhat Machiavellian to the average run-of-the-mill liberal.

Some statements by Marx can be recalled to give evidence for an argument that the Marxist method accommodates or is compatible with the theory or language of human rights. Indeed it may be that Marxism requires the idea of rights in some form in order to function as a theory.

Volume One of Capital reads:

“…the peculiar nature of the commodity sold (a person’s ‘labour power’—a productive force—a property of their person that is instrumental in material economic production) implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration.”


A little later on in the Jewish Question than that already quoted:

“Only when the real, individual man re-absorbs in himself the abstract citizen, and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his everyday life, in his particular work, and in his particular situation, only when man has recognized and organized his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.”


The passage in Capital points out that the concept of labour power seems to imply that people possess an abstract inviolability with regards to their person in their participation in the capitalist mode of production—a right to use and withhold labour power at will. There does prima facie appear to be some sort of compatibility or similarity between one’s ability (in the Marxist method) to sell their labour power, as possessing rights in their person to do so.

The second passage from the Jewish Question exposits a kind of singularity that Marx perceives to be necessary to unite or combine the person as an individual and as a member of the broader global human community. Described as ‘communal rights’, the Marxist method conceives humans as ‘species-beings’—subjects of a kind of cosmopolitan justice.

Whatever the texts of the Marxist method say about the ‘rights’ of capitalists and proletariat, it was not intended to be asserted that people possess rights in themselves when it is mentioned that people ‘own’ their labour power, and have the ‘right’ to sell it. Even though Marx may have adopted legal language to describe concepts outside the capitalist mode of production, the following statement from the Grundrisse provides the best description of the Marxist position on the possible link between the idea of labour power, and that of rights in the person:

“All the bourgeois economists are aware of is that production can be carried on better under the modern police than e.g. on the principle of might makes right. They forget only that this principle is also a legal relation, that the right of the stronger prevails in their ‘constitutional republics’ as well, only in another form.”


Indeed the Marxist method does not make itself compatible with classical formulations of human rights with its historical/economic ontological term of labour power. The Marxist method does of course consider all legal systems and concepts of ownership and possession—such as the ownership and possession rights in one’s person, as well as the ownership of physical objects—to belong to social production relations. To better elucidate the meaning of the use of the word ‘right’ in Capital it is crucial to understand that while a person might have a legal right (or consider themselves to have a moral right) to withhold their labour power to any particular buyer they wish, they really have no power at all not to sell their labour power to someone.

5. Conclusion

It might strike one as chilling (and difficult to understand) that Marxism refuses to acknowledge any kind of individual rights in the proletariat, but this is a reflection Marxism’s concern for a broader, more far-reaching conception of justice, one that focuses on the material, the actually observable.

Although in historiography the Jewish Question predates the development of the Marxist theory of history, its charge that the rise of the liberal idea of the dualism of the person as a private individual and a public citizen is a symptom of bigger problems in our current political systems is—or can be—linked with the Marxist theory of history. As a result, the Marxist view of history informs and gives content to its global, almost biological conception of rights, and that is achieved by this idea of the development of humanity’s productive forces.

The disconnect between ideals and the observable world that Burke criticised about rights can by-and-large be considered bridged by the Marxist method. By shifting one’s focus from an individual person to that of human society as a whole as the common (albeit larger) dominator of justice, and having this conception of global societal rights informed by an understanding of its function as a system, one can satisfy Burke’s challenge and call in the aid of the farmer and the doctor—one can locate, in reality, the power to satisfy the demands for which a human right might call, and explain and justify, beyond the framework of human rights, how this ‘right’ was made effective.

To many it might seem that the Marxist method really accommodates no satisfactory formulation of claims as of right. Setting aside any sentimental grounds and circular reasoning one might attribute to such criticisms, it must be stressed that the Marxist conception of rights is such a ‘high level’ form of rights because of the method’s ability to locate an explanation for what rights-advocates term civil, political and economic rights through material (non-metaphysical) means.

The biggest issue with the Marxist method’s ‘partial’ compatibility with rights may in fact be its palatability. The simultaneous character of piety and flexibility of human rights is what gives it its popularity in international political discourse, and to do away with what many have intuitively come to accept (humans are, or should be inviolable) in such a form so easily comprehended is probably what has led many to attempt to locate a greater degree of compatibility between human rights and the Marxism.

The obvious response to quasi-issues such as these really does involve an idiom containing the same moral message as Plato’s cave; the more light one can shed on the true nature of reality, the more knowledge, wisdom and power one will accrue in order to transform the world for the better. This must be the deeper meaning able to be divined from the above dialogue between the language of human rights and that of Marxism, but it must also be remembered that Marxism still retains some conception of a right. This might lead one to wondering about a very bizarre question indeed: would it be possible to explain this abstraction away, given more evidence?


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