Socialism and Human Rights: Or Why the Left Should Avoid the Discourse of Human Rights

Quoting Marx’ harsh critique as well as relying on recent theories, Andrius Bielskis urges the left to sharpen its political discourse to respond to the rift dramatically growing in politics: he details the pitfalls and shortcomings of the concept of human rights and insists on promoting solidarity and the defense of rights for all differently.

Since the 1970s, a shift has taken place within European societies: the traditional working class – blue collar workers engaged in manual labour – has diminished considerably, while the middle class – white collar individuals working in service industries – has grown in number. The class politics prevalent during the era of social compromise has given way to identity politics and the liberal discourse of human rights. In this paper, the conceptual, philosophical, and historical reasons for the growing tension between traditional socialist demands for social justice achieved through attempts to democratise the economy are examined on the one hand, and the progressive discourse of human rights in our struggle for the recognition and non-discrimination of gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity are considered on the other. This rift is evident across the globe: in disillusioned, white, working-class men who voted for Donald Trump; in Labour supporters who elected Boris Johnson to deliver Brexit; and in Lithuania, where marginalised workers voted for the socially-conservative Farmers and Greens party to oppose the Istanbul Convention whilst, following the Polish Law and Justice party, favouring an economically left-wing agenda. Thus, if socialists and social democrats want to be electorally and politically successful in the future, they need to understand the reasons for an emerging political and cultural alliance today – the alliance between social conservatism and economic progressivism.           

Our Material Conditions

Marx’s famous materialist conception of history, formulated in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), is important as a starting point for this analysis. The forces of production and the relations of production which constitute the material base of a given society should be prioritised over “a legal and political superstructure”, to which “correspond definite forms of social consciousness” (Marx 1993). Although this is first and foremost an epistemological claim – as we do not “judge an individual by what he thinks about himself”, so we cannot understand societal changes by studying what society thinks about itself; rather, we aim to explain it by considering “the contradictions of material life” – it is also important politically. That is, political action should be informed by the analysis of the material conditions of our societies.  

What, then, are the key aspects and contradictions of our material condition? In short: a lack of private investment in the real economy; the enormous concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the economic elite; stagnating wages; hyper-financialisation; the digitalisation of the economy and the failure of market relations within it; and the looming climate crisis. Authors as diverse as Thomas Picketty (2014), David Harvey (2005; 2006; 2010; 2014), Joseph Stiglitz (2012), Asbjørn Wahl (2011), and Paul Mason (2015) have demonstrated the long-term unsustainability of the current economic regime. Neoliberal capitalism has not produced the level of growth that its proponents envisaged (certainly it never attained the level of post-war growth), while private investment has remained relatively low over the last several decades (Harvey 2005, Mason 2016). The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few has reached unprecedented levels.

One of the consequences of this is the enormous growth of morally unjustifiable wealth inequalities, which threaten the political fabric of democratic societies by engendering right-wing populism, resentment, political apathy, and the collapse of public trust in the political establishment. Meanwhile, real wages have stagnated since the 1970s, while the capitalist tendency towards overproduction was mitigated by the growth of the financial sector, which injected credit-backed money into the market, thus contributing to the enormous growth of public and private debt. It is estimated that at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, the sum of world’s financial assets was three times larger than total global gross product (Wahl 2011: 49). Rogue speculative practices such as credit and stock manipulations and asset-stripping through acquisitions and mergers made the economy volatile, and stripped entire sectors of the capacity to create real wealth. Digitalisation and the growth of digital giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Netflix, Spotify, fostered – to use Shoshana Zuboff’s term – surveillance capitalism, which functions not due to the self-regulating price mechanism of supply and demand, but instead through arbitrary rent-seeking. Recent Facebook privacy scandals demonstrate how powerless and vulnerable governments can be when faced with these giants. Australia’s attempt to tax Facebook’s news feeds, shutting them overnight until the eventual agreement of a deal, demonstrates that the battle for democracy with the overlords of digital surveillance is in its infancy, and will not be resolved easily. Earlier forms of capitalist accumulation by dispossession, as David Harvey put it, have now been transformed into surveillance capitalism, which “claims its right to ignore every boundary in its thirst for knowledge of and influence over the most detailed nuances of our behaviour” (Zuboff 2016). Yet the biggest challenge, of course, remains the ecological crisis, which requires immediate international action. We know that even the minimum requirements necessary to avoid an ecological disaster are extremely demanding. Limiting the rise of global temperature and achieving climate neutrality require serious commitment and immediate action on the part of the international community.    

It is against the background of these material contradictions – the marginalisation of part of the working class, wage stagnation, wealth concentration and inequality, and the ecological crisis created by the system of modern capitalism – that we should aim to explain the fact that neoliberal elites, as Walter Baier (2020: 37) acutely put it, came out of the 2008 financial crisis strengthened, while part of the working class voted for nationalists and other right-wing populist parties. One of the reasons for this, this paper argues, lies in the ideological obfuscation of the concept of and discourse surrounding human rights. That is, when ordinary working-class people have their active membership of the labour movement and its robust culture revoked, then they look for simple answers and find them in the ideological masquerade of right-wing populists (e.g., Brexit, Donald Trump, AfD). This is the first and most obvious form of ideological obfuscation. A more complex layer of ideological obfuscation rests within the human rights discourse that is advanced and adopted by socialists and other progressive political forces. It is this second layer that will be the focus of attention for the remainder of this paper.

Marx on Human Rights   

At the end of chapter six of the first volume of Das Kapital, Marx, after laying down the conditions of commodity circulation when labour power is one such commodity, ironically concludes that:

“This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself”.
(Marx 1999; emphasis added)

The primary sphere of “human rights”, according to Marx, therefore, involves market and private property relations. These relations are essential for our commercial transactions – the sphere of commodity circulation – while the subject of these “innate rights of man” is the “Free-trader Vulgaris”, who sees in property relations perfect equality, freedom, and utility. The view of the Free-trader vulgaris is, of course, important, but it hides from us the fact that behind the formal freedom and equality of “human rights” there is fundamental inequality: “he, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but – a hiding” (ibid.). Marx saw the discourse of rights as a product of classical liberalism, which both reflected on and legitimised the establishment of new capitalist property relations. As John Locke (2003: 102, 111) put it, “all men may be restrained from invading others’ rights”, every man has the right to “life, health, liberty, or possession”, and “men, being once born, have a right to their preservation”. We now know that the establishment of capitalist relations of production was based on the illegal enforcement of private property – such as the theft of communal feudal land in the form of enclosures and the colonisation of the common land of indigenous peoples in North America. Locke’s arguments of “natural rights” were thus used to justify colonialism (Parekh 1995). By the end of 17th century, the process of illegal theft was legalised and thus finalised, allowing Adam Smith (1977: 239) to claim “the sacred rights of private property” in the Wealth of Nations.  

That “human rights” for Marx meant, or were at least intertwined with, property rights is also evident from On The Jewish Question. Starting from the issue of what are today called cultural rights – the right of a community to assert its distinct religious and cultural identity – Marx juxtaposed political emancipation with human emancipation. It is not enough to achieve the political emancipation of the Jews through the emancipation of the state from religion by abolishing the state religion – even if “political emancipation (…) is a big step forward” (Marx 2008). What is needed instead is human emancipation. This requires the ability to go beyond the Hegelian civil society, beyond market society, and beyond the separation of democratic politics from the economy, in which human rights are asserted to preserve one’s egotism and self-interest. “What are these human rights?” asks Marx. They are defined in negative terms. The “so-called rights of man, the droits de l’homme” can be distilled into freedom from harm and the avoidance of harming others: “the limits within which anyone can act without harming someone else are defined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is determined by a boundary post. It is (…) the liberty of man as an isolated monad, withdrawn into himself (…); the right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man (…); the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself; [while] [t]he practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property” which in turn means “the right to enjoy [it] (…) and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (…), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest” (ibid., emphasis added).

Not everything that Marx wrote on human emancipation in this essay is equally convincing. Yet his claim that true human emancipation is possible only if we recognise and manage to organise our powers as social powers, as belonging to and stemming from non-alienated social relations – the relations of solidarity – is important today. The emphasis on solidarity and the intersubjective, collective nature of our individualities is important because of its sharp contrast to today’s toxic social environment of culture wars (even if it is important to acknowledge that the rhetorical device of “culture wars” is first and foremost an ideological invention of the Right[1]). Thus, a shift from the discourse of human rights towards that of solidarity and social justice would not only be more attractive to the working-classes who turned away from socialists because of, among other things, their elitism, individualism, and “social progressivism”. It would, hopefully, also heal the rift between two sections of the working class: well-educated, white-collar professionals (the so-called middle class) who are also being squeezed by neoliberal capitalism; and the traditional, blue-collar working class who have been greatly disillusioned and alienated from the labour movement of which socialist and social democratic parties were once an essential part. In short, the key thesis of this paper is that if socialists want to overcome the rift between the socially progressive agenda (LGBT+ rights, feminism, the non-discrimination of minorities, etc.) and socialism in economics (economic democracy, support for trade unions, progressive reform of the financial sector, etc.), they need to shift their language from human rights, which is liberal and individualistic in its essence, towards social justice, and to address the key marginalised groups – women, racial and ethnic minorities, members of the LGBT+ community – through the discourse of social justice rather than through the language of human rights.           

The Good Old Erfurt Programme

It is important to remember that it was socialists rather than so called bourgeois parties – including the liberals – who first started the campaign for universal suffrage and equality. Whilst liberals now boast that they have always been the champions of individual rights, and that socialists incorporated the demand for individual rights and freedoms into their political manifestos under the influence of liberalism, these claims are misleading[2]. The Erfurt Programme, written and directed in 1891 by Karl Kautsky, Eduard Bernstein, and August Bebel, demonstrates the progressive character of the historical Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) which, as Rosa Luxemburg (1915) put it, was “the pride of every socialist and the terror of the ruling classes everywhere”. Not only did it demand the “[a]bolition of all laws that place women at a disadvantage compared with men in matters of public or private law”, it also claimed that the mission of the party was to fight “the exploitation and oppression of wage earners in society today” and “every manner of exploitation and oppression, whether directed against a class, party, sex, or race” (The Erfurt Program, 1891, emphasis added). It is instructive that these “human rights” demands (as we tend to call them today) – the demands to end racial and gender-based discrimination – are expressed through the language of social justice. Thus, the authors of the programme saw these demands as an integral part of the fight against the capitalist exploitation of labour. Demands to end the oppression of women, ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBT+ community are demands of social justice; they are of the same nature as the political struggle of the working class against capitalist exploitation.

The Ontology of “Human Rights” 

What does it mean to say that one has an inalienable “human right”? What kind of claim is this? It is certainly not an ordinary ontological claim, because individuals are not born with these rights. Instead, they are conditional: they depend on the political and legal status quo in which an individual exists. To put the notion of human rights in these terms is not new, of course. Jeremy Bentham was perhaps among the first to ridicule the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” as “rhetorical nonsense – nonsense upon stilts” (Bentham 1987: 53). This criticism is well known, yet it overlooks the radical nature of this declaration: it was an attempt by the French revolutionaries to reject the hierarchical structures of the Ancien Régime and instead lay the foundation for egalitarian political order without hereditary privileges. In a similar way to John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – whose theories of the social contract prefigured the modern political order of popular sovereignty rather than describing the ontological state of the political world – the authors of the declaration prefigured the subsequent institutionalisation of the political and legal order based on the equality of the rights of individuals. In this sense, Bentham’s critique was short-sighted and naïve. Utilising John Searle’s (2010) philosophy of language and his social ontology, we can say that the declaration of 1789 as a speech act gave birth to the social reality of political equality whereby all citizens, irrespective of their birth, were said to have equal political status. Thereby, the idea of the modern state based on the notion of popular sovereignty became possible and was gradually established. Thus, the ontological status of these rights is not that they are natural entities or natural conditions, but that they are constructed social institutions inscribed in the constitutional (legal) form of the modern democratic state. In other words, their basis lies in the historical public declaration: we declare that from now on it will be so that all individuals will have equal political status. Thus, all privileges, talents, and gifts that people are born with (hence the ontological difference and uniqueness of each person) should and will be treated as irrelevant as far as their political status is concerned. Yet, because declarations as specific speech acts[3] both express our desire to see the world changed according to what is being declared and require our commitment to change the world according to what was declared, declarations of equal rights require our commitment to enforcing them through positive law. They also presuppose an international alliance of political communities which treat them as relevant and authoritative. In this respect, “human rights” presuppose a group of political communities which accept these declarations as valid and agree to inscribe them in their legal systems. Hence, human rights are an institutionalised (international) legal practice.

The Ideological Obfuscation of “Human Rights”

That being said, the institution and the legal practice of “human rights” are first and foremost liberal ideological constructions. This, as we have seen, was evident for Marx. After the revolution in France, the ideals of the “rights of man” and the “rights of the citizen” were adopted by the emergent liberal parties (Knight 2021: 6). However, liberal parties in Europe did not apply these rights universally to both men and women until socialist parties demanded universal suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The history of human rights shows that claims for human rights were advanced as the self-defence of different marginalised groups. They were and are individualistic and have been construed in negative terms. When an individual claims that they have a right to “life”, to “conscience”, or to “express their opinion”, they are demanding an autonomous space – space away from the interference of other people. This is a rhetorical and legal mechanism for individual self-defence against both the potential and actual encroachment of the authoritarian state.

Herein lies an aspect of human rights discourse that is potentially detrimental to the politics of the Left. “Human rights” are essentially liberal, and the nature of human rights is that of entitlement which carries a negative aspect: in having this entitlement, an individual is at liberty to do what they please. Given this, liberals will always be more suited to defending human rights. More importantly, “human rights” do not convince either philosophically or conceptually – they are obscure and are open to cynical misuse in that they do not have a terminus: where do our “human rights” end? What is a human right and what is not? Why do we prioritise certain rights over others? Are the rights of cultural minorities, intended to preserve the uniqueness of a communal way of life, human rights? If they are (as Article 22 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights suggests), how are they to be reconciled with other individual rights when in conflict? All of these questions, irrespective of their perceived simplicity, pose yet more questions as soon as we attempt to give detailed answers to them. While human rights, as suggested above, are primarily an international legal practice (hence their arguments are most effectively advanced by professional human rights lawyers), the popular political discourse of human rights is often contradictory and susceptible to politically-charged misuse. That is, they often become somewhat of a “hot potato” of partisan politics: certain rights are claimed against another group’s rights, and different social groups enter cultural conflict. As Charles Beitz put it:

“It can be difficult to construe certain human rights (e.g. those to work, to an adequate standard of living, or to periodic and genuine elections) as grounds of claims assertable by individuals taken seriatim against particular other agents. This might be for any of several reasons: for example, because no agent or group of agents controls sufficient resources to satisfy the claims or because the claims can only be satisfied by some ambitious change in institutions and policies. Human rights like those just mentioned may not seem to be genuine rights at all”.
(Beitz 2009: 46)

The supposed universality of human rights also appears in conflict with their specific history, “western values”, and the fact that they are part of an institutionalised practice which requires the assent of political communities. Although this objection can be easily dismissed, their practical application to daily political struggles – e.g., by LGBT+ activists claiming that a proposed law banning the sharing information on the LGBT+ community with under-18s is a violation of universal human rights – often sounds arbitrary. Finally, it is necessary to consider whether progressive politics and policies should be based on the vague idea of individual human entitlements (including the entitlement to consume) in an era of ecological crisis. 

Appeal to Social Justice rather than to Human Rights

The previous example, although it is a direct reference to Hungary, is not to suggest that members of the LGBT+ community do not have a legitimate claim against their ongoing discrimination in different countries. Rather, the suggestion is that the language of the left should be rooted in the notions of solidarity and social justice rather than in the deontological rhetoric of (human) rights. It is also instructive to note that we find cultural radicalism framed in the language of social justice throughout the history of socialism – namely in the early stages of Bolshevik communism, that is, prior to the advent of the totalitarianism of Stalin. As Gerassimos Moschonas acutely put it, “communism as a vehicle of modernity was more daring (…) than its contemporary social democratic parties of the West. (…) Abortions became legal and free in 1920. Women’s freedom of choice was also strengthened by the Soviet law, adopted in 1922”, and homosexual relations among consenting adults were also legalised (Moschonas 2018: 537–538). Thus, the key question is: is it possible today to frame political arguments for the emancipation of women and the LGBT+ community from the point of view of social justice rather than by using the language of “human rights”? To answer this question, a brief overview of how social justice may be conceptualised is necessary.

Since the 19th century, socialist arguments and rhetoric have emphasised the essential sociality of human existence. There is a long tradition of political thought emphasising the social, political, and cooperative nature of human life. Aristotle’s thesis that a human being is a zoon politikon – a political animal only able to live a flourishing life in a well-functioning political community – was a considerable influence on Marx and other socialist authors. The ideas that human existence is marked by intersubjective cooperation, that our subjectivities are formed through the social networks of giving and receiving, and that human life cannot flourish without social justice and the recognition of the fundamental equality of human beings, have been the key to socialism. While Aristotle drew an ontological distinction between oikonomia and politikē, between the management of the household and the life of politics, Marx’s analysis showed how capitalism reinforced the compartmentalisation of economy and politics, and argued for the transformation of the economic system of wage-slavery into the community of social humanity. Marxist feminists from Silvia Federici (2020) to Johanna Oksala (2018), inspired by Rosa Luxemburg, expanded Marx and Engels’ analyses (especially Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), and argued that the critique of the sphere of capitalist production should be supplemented with the critique of patriarchy within the domestic sphere of social reproduction. Indeed, the foundation of the socialist conception of justice should be based on the idea that the sphere of social reproduction – the birth of a new life, care for children, and the maintenance of our lives – ought to be the focus of our attention: patriarchy should be rooted out through the system of socialised reproductive labour. The latter not only means a comprehensive, publicly-funded system of nurseries and quality primary education that allows both men and women to have meaningful jobs and raise their children, but also involves socialised domestic labour (cleaning and cooking) through communally- and publicly-funded organised services. Sharing these tasks of reproductive labour in the spirit of solidarity and fairness is essential for a socially-just, flourishing (socialist) society because, among other things, of their educative character. Cooking, raising children, and caring for the weak and disabled is important for the development of individual and communal empathy. Empathy, rather than the language of human rights as “natural entitlements”, should be essential for socialists. Carol Gilligan’s ethics of care (or the more philosophical notion of asymmetrical responsibility conceptualised by Emmanuel Levinas) and its language is a much more effective approach to tackling the prejudice and discrimination suffered by historically marginalised groups – ethnic minorities, women, members of the LGBT+ community, and immigrants. The emphasis on social reproduction is also important, since the notion of caring for a home has a strong ecological aspect in modern society: our planet, which has become endangered by industrial capitalism driven by the exploitation of fossil fuels, is also our home.

Following the thesis of second-wave feminists that “private (personal) is political”, politicising oikonomia – the principles (nomoi) of production and the reproduction of life which happen in the “private” and “domestic” spheres, at home and at work (the oikos) – ought to be the key principle of socialists. The struggles of women and the LGBT+ community for recognition against their discrimination are class struggles – they are our (socialists’) struggles. Globally, more affluent members of the LGBT+ community are much less frequently discriminated against. It is unlikely, for example, that Elton John has suffered as vitriolic a level of discrimination as that experienced by an impoverished gay man in a Lithuanian village. At the very end of Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx, admiring the genius of Shakespeare, describes the very essence of money in bourgeois society:

“What I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. (…) I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid? (…) Does not my money therefore transform all my incapacities into their contrary?”
(Marx 1988: 138; emphasis in the original)

Thus, the people who are most often discriminated against are working-class members of the LGBT+ community who work hard to make ends meet; single mothers who struggle at home and in the workplace to feed their children; ethnic minorities who, when targeted by the police, are discriminated against twice: first because of their poverty and second because of their perceived otherness, their ostensible difference. Who can understand their plight and the injustices inflicted on them better than socialists – ordinary working-class people whose existence is also defined by the struggle to subsist? Why should liberals – the very people whose ideology and policies were used to create the neoliberal economic regime of enormous inequality at the expense of the working-classes – be permitted to fool our LGBT+ brothers and sisters with their language of entitlement? They ought not!

Therefore, to paraphrase Marx and Engels, all working men, women, ethnic minorities, and members of the LGBT+ community, unite!  

This paper was first published with the title “Social Democracy, Human Rights, and Social Justice” in: Next Left (Vol.13): Progressive Proposals for the Turbulent Times. Eds. A. Schieder, L. Andor, M. Maltschnig, A. Skrzypek. Brussels: Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), 2022, pp. 54-73.


[1] I am grateful to Kuba Jablonowski for reminding me of the point about “culture wars”.

[2] As Donald Sassoon (2010: 22) acutely put it: Liberal or conservative parties defended an electoral system that allocated votes in terms of the wealth possessed or earned by each individual. Throughout Europe they also accepted and defended an upper chamber that over-represented or represented only the members of the upper classes (…). Furthermore, liberal and conservative parties were not only guilty of ‘class-ism’, but also of sexism. Not only did they oppose the disfranchisement of the working class, they also opposed that of women”.         

[3] According to Searle (1969, 2010), declarations, contrary to other speech acts such as assertives (which explain how things are and have the word-to-world (↓) direction of fit) and commissives (through which we commit ourselves of doing things and which have the world-to-word (↑) direction of fit), have both directions of fit (↕︎): through a declaration as a speech act we express our desire to see the world changed (↑), and thereby initiate change; by performing this change, we also describe the world as changed (↓). All socially constructed institutions (schools, states, banks, property, money, etc.), according to Searle, are created through declarations. 


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