Human Rights and Radical Social Change: Liberalism, Marxism and Progressive Populism in Venezuela

By Tillman Clark
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 3/13 |

But is this position so different from the “negative” one? Why is it that when material right come into the picture we are suddenly faced with a conception of the “paternalist” institution that must mediate the position of the starving masses with those whose responsibility it is to provide food? Thus, where both these seemingly competing theories converge is the role of a mediator, or, as I shall put it, the role of the political institutions that emerged directly from the theory of . If a person is somehow restricted from entering the voting booth, or has his private property confiscated by his neighbor then an external mediator must enter the picture the same way it must when material human rights are to be fulfilled. What follows from this picture is a classic, and contemporary, view of the liberal state. Within liberal human rights theory there must allows exist the mediator that is the state and thus there always exist a with since rights always entail a restriction on political action. Even more importantly, the liberal state is founded upon a certain moral condition--a certain monopolization of a concept of human nature and approaches its intervention into civil society from a standpoint of “moral legitimation” since it is in possession of an absolute moral truth. Under the liberal state the rights holder is seen as an individual and political institutions are then organized around this conception of human nature and influences the types of relations that can be established. Basing political institutions on the rights of individuals is a way of saying that institutions are only legitimate as long as they secure the liberty and freedom of the individual. Within liberalism rights are given the significance of claiming them against the state and thus developing a conception of human rights as a theory of government and political legitimacy.

Liberalism is a historical movement the same as any. It began as a political movement aiming to replace the institutions of feudalism and monarchism with ones based on individual liberty. It has evolved into something different which can best be seen as two different positions; a moralistic and ethical superiority discourse that seeks to impose itself in a form of humanitarian imperialism or a liberalism with a libertarian tinge that advocates nonintervention and thus excuses gross misery on the basis of the subjects “struggle for rights.” The contemporary human rights movement thus acts as an obscurant for the relations of power and the interests they represent. The agency is not in the individual, but in the institutions that do the empowering actions of intervention, defense or assistance that is portrayed as an exercise of moral duty or protects the rights of the holder within a certain border. Using the US intervention in Iraq as an example:

It is clear [...] that the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, was not only motivated by other political-economic interests (oil), but also based on a specific idea of the political and economic conditions that should open up the perspective of freedom to the Iraqi people (Western liberal democracy, guarantee of private property, inclusion in the global market economy, and so on). Thus the purely humanitarian antipolitical of merely preventing suffering amounts in effect to the implicit prohibition of elaborating a positive collective project of sociopolitical transformation.8

When power is used from a position of moral truth, it does not have to use the more discomforting of the political or economic type. While the classic liberal position would like to encourage more transparency, more checks and balances, more individual liberty and less state intervention, it is obvious that this position is naive. The liberal state itself is founded on position of moral supremacy, not just political action, and will continue to exercise this supremacy. Moreover, the idea that the ideal liberal state is constituted upon a political relationship of reciprocal responsibility to its liberty practicing, rights-bearing, politically active constituents who are constantly in a position to check a “morally superior” exercise of state power and intervention is equally naive. It does not adequately take into account an important issue regarding issues of class and economic relations.

If one defends human rights the liberal perspective today, one is defending a status quo situation of specific types of institutions and more or less defending the highjacking of the theory in the interest of modern power relations. Liberal human rights theory was once a progressive calling designed to check and eventually overthrow the whimsical institutional powers of theocratic and monarchist regimes and give a voice to oppressed, but this is not the case today. One of the first theoretical attempts to deconstruct and transcend liberal human rights theory is Marxism. It is to this theory the paper now turns.

Marxism and Human Rights

If the blackmail against liberal human rights theory is that supporting it is tantamount to imperialism, then the only logical counterp is the rejection of human rights. The blackmail in this regard can be most succinctly described as being that if one rejects human rights, one is in effect acting to mask injustice or pardon authoritarianism and repression. The rejection of human rights has been used many a time by those seeking to avoid responsibility for their crimes, but these rejections have almost entirely been entirely pragmatic and based on specific situations instead of any sort of theoretical founding (although, as we will see, one can beget the other). The most comprehensive and theoretically sound rejection of human rights has undoubtably come from the canon of Marxism--with its rejection of , its emphasis on collectivity and its position that the institution of private property is the foundation for exploitation, alienation and the subsequent distance between “formal rights” and real human security and fulfillment.

Liberal human rights theory is individualist and property centered. To Marx, freedoms in liberal democracies are illusory in that the individual value advocated by the liberal regime is market value, not human dignity. For Marx, the fundamental rights capitalism defends are not universal human rights but rather the rights of capitalists to property and legal structures that follow. The Marxist critic of human rights asserts that the rights and freedoms of bourgeois democracies are but illusions, empty of meaning and purely formal, at most procedural. The working class, lacking economic means, consciousness and intellectuals to enforce its rights, is subject to the principles of equality and legality in theory only, masking de facto inequalities that are the result of the struggle between different social classes.


Marx’s criticism of human rights is premised on the distinction between the political man, which due to a propensity for liberal states to highlight tends to be regarded as “natural” man, and man as a member of civil society:

Man as a member of civil society, unpolitical man, inevitably appears, however, as the natural man. The “rights of man” appears as “natural rights,” because conscious activity is concentrated on the political act [...] The political revolution resolves civil life into its component parts, without revolutionizing these components themselves or subjecting them to criticism. It regards civil society, the world of needs, labor, private interests, civil law, as the basis of its existence, as a precondition not requiring further substantiation and therefore as its natural basis. Finally, man as a member of civil society is held to be man in his sensuous, individual, immediate existence, whereas political man is only abstract, artificial man, man as an allegorical, juridical person. The real man is recognized only in the shape of the egoistic individual, the true man is recognized only in the shape of the abstract citizen.9


Thus, Marx’s criticism is a global condemnation of liberal regimes generally and the premise through which they were founded as insufficient and able to see man only as a limited political subject whose “civil” needs are to be tended to privately. For him, the state is concerned about the protection of capitalist interests, while ignoring those of workers, because the state is only concerned with equality in the political sense and not with that of sivil society. Therefore, liberal human rights theory and capitalism,

"recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of , in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only -- for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored.10"


The Marxist critique is relative, recognizing that as a part of historical the limited protection of human rights in the capitalist system of production is still higher than the previous feudal stage. However, according to Marx, to achieve the next step forward in civilization, proprietary relations must be suppressed and replaced with real, human relations that take into account the conditions of civil society.


Far from being the means by which freedom is exercised, which is the usual liberal conception, Marxism sees private property as the final mechanism of oppression and a source of separation between men. The resolution of these inequalities would occur, for Marx, via a revolution aimed at the implementation of a temporary dictatorship by the proletariat as a step towards the disappearance of the state and its replacement by society. It would be with this act that the formal and procedural logic of human rights would whither away along with the state. With this transitionary phase and subsequent development, the “narrow horizon of bourgeois right” would be “crossed in its entirety”:


"...after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!11"


Marx’s theory of human rights thus coincided with a theory of economic development and the idea that socialism would bring about not only political emancipation of the working class but also the unfettered growth of economic abundance through a new organization of the relations of production. In most situations where Marxists have taken power, this has not been the case.


While seemingly sound in theory, Marxism's historical sore thumb has been the use of its rejection of human rights as “formal” or “bourgeois” when its advocates have been in positions of power. The rejection of human rights as an illusory product of private property relations and the capitalist system has led to situations in which the repression of human beings has been excused in the name of “means to an end.” At the level of practice, a valid liberal criticism of Marxism is that the proletarian dictatorship, which in theory had been intended only to be a temporary transitory phase, were ossified and institutionalized.

As the Russian Revolution was arguably the high water mark for historical Marxism, it is arguably the most important reference to theories of human rights and the policies and practices that the architects of this event adhered to and implemented. When looking at the Russian Revolution, it could be counter-argued that the capitalist countries were the aggressors that forced into authoritarianism. Additionally, it could be argued that all states--especially revolutionary ones--were founded on and suppression of dissent, not withstanding the bloody birth of liberalism which, as some authors have pointed out, were not inherently democratic but were made so only after a protracted struggle.12 But if a closer look is taken, the theories of Marxism, especially after the Russian revolution, are imbued with not only a willingness to use violence and repression, but a willingness to do so brutally and with little to no moral restrictions.

Marxism is rather straightforward in its approach to revolution. Lenin was arguably the first to truly grasp and implement the implications of revolutionary Marxism and the active engagement in terror and suppression of the previous holders power--such as landowners, capitalists and those who had an active interest in taking up armed struggle against the revolution. Writing his classic The State and Revolution, on the eve of the revolution in 1917, Lenin but it quite bluntly when he wrote that,

"the dictatorship of the proletariat imposes a series of restrictions on the freedom of the oppressors, the exploiters, the capitalists. We must suppress them in order to free humanity from wage , their resistance must be crushed by force.[13]"

While this statement is contextualized with a discussion of increased democracy of the underprivileged and the full realization that it is transitory policy that acknowledges the lack of freedom inherent in it, the implications are obvious and straightforward. His revolutionary counterpart, Leon Trotsky, in a polemic against Karl Kautsky written in 1920 entitled and , put it in even more direct terms:

Who aims at the end cannot reject the means. The struggle must be carried on with such intensity as actually to guarantee the supremacy of the proletariat. If the Socialist revolution requires a dictatorship – ”the sole form in which the proletariat can achieve control of the State” [A quote from Kautsky]– it follows that the dictatorship must be guaranteed at all cost.14

What Lenin and Trotsky’s quotes point to is an honest admittance of the need to use force at any cost to guarantee the ushering in of the a socialist revolution. It this theory, inscribed into the practical application of Marxist revolution, through which the rejection of human rights and the following authoritarianism and repression is used.

The way in which Marxism treats human rights follows a very distinct ideology of radical social change. The first idea is that liberal human rights are premised on inequality and injustice and should be seen as simply a theory natural to capitalism and therefore open to complete rejection. The second idea is that if a movement has an emancipatory plan and ideology that conforms to the rejection of capitalism and the desired institution of socialism, then terror and abuses to human dignity can be accepted for a certain transitional period in order to suppress those who are opposed to seeing this plan come to fruition. The rejection of human rights is to be tolerated under the guise of necessity and a rejection of “bourgeois morality.”