The concept of human rights has evolved over time and today, human rights are used as the yardstick upon which people measure a government’s treatment of its people. Human rights have been proffered as universal rights that occur to man by his being human. It may well be stated that human rights in modern day are synonymous to religion. They seek to define the moral code within which a government treats its people. Several theoretical approaches have been put forward in an endeavor to explain the basis of human rights. some of the theoretical approaches include the natural rights theory which states that human rights are a product of natural law and thus inalienable. Others argue that human rights are a demonstration of moral behavior which is a product of the human society. More importantly, the concept of human rights has not been without its critics. Ever since the evolution of this concept of human rights, prominent philosophers and theorists have voiced their discontent with this notion of human rights. These philosophers include Jeremy Bentham, Edmund Burke, Alasdair Maclyntre and the famous Karl Marx. This paper seeks to evaluate the criticism of human rights by Karl Marx. To begin with, this paper explores the background against which human rights evolved with a view to establishing its existence. In the next part, the paper shall examine the various theories and justification s that have been advanced to explain the concept of human rights. In the next section, the paper outlines and evaluates the criticism of human rights through an exploration of his writings on social conflict and the contradictions in the economic system of capitalism which he vehemently opposed.
Human rights are like a form of religion in the modern day world. There is growing agreement which has emerged in both the 20th and the 21st century that on rhetoric, which judges nations against an international moral code by laying down particular benefits to man by virtue of their being human. Political debates have waged, raged and degenerated over the abuse and denial of human rights to people, of which they are entitled. This is not limited to developing nations but even in the developed nations. Indeed, the United Nations has codified several agreements wherein these human rights are embodied. The claim that the particular benefits to man are human rights have been meant to ensure that there is no opposition to the rights, as doing so would not only be unprincipled but also immoral. It is imperative for us to examine the historical origins, theories and concept of human rights so as to understand the concept of human rights or whether it is a misnomer as has been described by some. We may well state that human rights are a product of several years of philosophical debate in the European societies. Several people have been discontent with the notion that the right thing is what the ruling elite usually consider right at any particular time. Indeed, it is this simmering discontent that has led to the need to have moral imperatives that stand the test of time binding both societies and their rulers over period of time and universally. As mentioned elsewhere in this paper, several justifications and theories have arisen to anchor the concept of human rights. The emergence of human rights from the natural law perspective has not been without criticism. These critics have argued that rights only emanate from the laws of a certain society and as such, cannot be natural or be inherent in man.
The earliest reference to human rights may be found in the notions of natural rights as propounded by the classical philosophers in Greece. First espoused by Aristotle, this concept of natural rights was further developed by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas argued that there were behaviors that were naturally rights and wrong in the society because God ordained them so. He further stated that what was inherent or natural rights could be easily discerned by way of human reason. The moral authority of the natural rights therefore was asserted by its divine authority. With the advent of reformation and rationalism, the concept of natural rights started being assaulted. The first assault on this theory was that posed by Thomas Hobbes in the year 1651 who described a State of Nature where God did not seem to play a role. By stating this, Hobbes was simply removing the divine basis of natural rights as posited by Aquinas and claiming in its place that natural rights were merely all about self preservation. He differed with Aquinas by stating that there were no acts that were inherently right or wrong and that certain claims to man derived from nature. Nonetheless, the natural rights theory got more endorsement from other philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke. Kant argued that the convergence of man into a society that was state structured was due to the need to be protected from the violence of one another that was present in the state of nature. He further argued that there was need for a state to be organized through the imposition of universal laws that were to be obeyed by law while respecting the equality and freedom of all citizens. Another ringing endorsement of natural rights was given by John Locke in his “Two Treatises on Government”, where he emphasized the eminence of God in the whole concept of rights stating that such rights were ordained by God to mankind. Indeed, John Locke had a great influence in the whole corpus of human rights as his work is reflected in the American Declaration of Independence and the France’s Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen which were subsequently passed by the Republican Assembly. In particular, the French Declaration declared 17 rights as natural, inalienable and sacred.
It is this French Declaration of rights that strengthened political writers to begin assaults on the notion of human rights. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in a critique titled, “Anarchical Fallacies”, offered a clause by clause scathing attack on the French Declaration and stated that there was nothing as natural rights as all rights were a product of the law. Bentham famously stated that natural rights were nonsense upon stilts as real rights are a child of the law. Another critique of the natural rights concept was Edmund Burke who also poured water o the French Declaration of natural rights and argued that rights were only those benefits that were won in society, and no more. Immediately upon this stinging attacks came another endorsement from Thomas Paine while writing in The Rights of Man. though he made a distinction between civil rights and natural rights, Paine drew a link between the two types of rights. He argued that natural rights appertained to man by virtue of his very existence. He cited the intellectual rights, the rights of mind and all those individual rights essential for his comfort that do not curtail the natural rights of others, to be natural rights. He described civil rights to be those that appertained to man by virtue of his membership in the society. We argue that controversy still abounds over the origin and justification for human rights.
We then move on to evaluate the critique offered by Karl Marx on the concept of human rights. Karl Marx denounced human rights as a fabrication or a mere creation of the bourgeois society in which an individual was segregated from his society and rights were required in capitalist states in order to avail protection from the state. Simply put, Karl Marx applied his social class conflict theory and preference for communist tendencies in his critique of human rights. According to Marx, an individual was a product of the society and as such, could not be seen in an antagonistic relationship where rights were needed. Karl Marx is considered as one of the initiators of communism during the French Revolution and he similarly criticized the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Marx dismissed the declaration as a bourgeoisie declaration and a demonstration of the rights of the egoistic individual predicated in the right to private property. According to Marx, the recognition of individual rights was a consequence of the universal, extension of market relations with the whole world made possible by primitive capital accumulation and globalization of capitalism. He criticized these individual rights passing as human rights as resulting from the supposed right of the laborer selling his labor in the market through contracts which worked to disassemble the collective grouping of producers. He was of the view that just when the industrial revolution demanded the concentration of the masses in factories, the individualistic bourgeoisie community segregated themselves to take advantage of the situation. We thus argue that Karl Marx’s criticism of human rights is fundamentally different from other critics such as Edmund Burke who favored the rights of the individual as opposed to the right of man. In particular, Marx’s criticism of human rights was not predicated on universalism and humanism project as Burke argued but rather on economic ideology. In his works, the Das Kapital, Marx gave an ironical perspective of the pomposity of human rights as opposed to the more modest Magna Carta and claimed that the capitalist or the vampire, who were the owners of factors of production, would not relent in their pursuit of capital accumulation until they exploited every ounce of blood from the laborers. He called for a mobilization of the masses or the laborers who would then force the passing of a legislation that proscribed their selling of their labor for their own protection. We must state that the term human rights has replaced the earlier term natural rights as discussed elsewhere in this paper since the rights have become less viewed as requiring natural law for their existence.
In order to best illustrate this critique of human rights as offered by Karl Marx, we then delve into his social conflict theory. This exploration will enable us to identify Marx’s conflict with the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen in France, an in general the whole corpus of human rights. It is the case that the oppressors during the time if Karl Marx consisted if the owners of the means of production whom he popularly referred to as bourgeoisie. At the receiving end were the laborers who worked and were exploited whom he called the proletariat. He argued that the bourgeoisie always sought to maintain the costs of labor at the lowest possible minimum while the proletariat strived to sell their labor force at the highest possible price. He therefore posited that this conflict in interests of the two classes of the people is what brought conflict in the society. In the context of human rights, he thereby saw the Declaration of human rights as only of the elite bourgeoisie which had little to do with the poor working class. The bourgeoisie were able to command the society since a capitalist society has a large mass of unemployed people who were eager to work for any price. This competition among the unemployed workers had the effect of pushing down even further, the cost of labor. He was of the view that these material conditions determined what the people believed, knew and valued. The Marxist theory cited conflict as originating from the oppression of the powerless and the poor by the powerful bourgeoisie in a capitalistic society. Marx viewed the law as a tool of the elite which they used to criminalize the activities which they perceived as harmful to their interests while ignoring their own socially harmful behavior. It is clear that societal inequality more so in terms of wealth and power was of the greatest concern to Karl Marx. Indeed, it is on this foundation that Marx deprecated the notion of human rights propagated by capitalistic society. In such a society, some dominant bourgeoisie groups exploited the proletariat to gain a disproportionate share of the wealth and power. He sought a classless society where everyone accessed equal wealth and power, and this was his notion of universal human rights. In a capitalistic society, Marx stated that it is the owners and controllers of the means of production who benefit most at the expense of the laborers. Marx also insisted that money should not earn money and that instead only labor need earn money. By this, he was decrying the earning of interest on savings and other investments as he viewed this as earning an income without going to work.
A fundamental theme that runs across the whole concept of Karl Marx ‘s ideology and which is of great importance with regard to this notion of human rights, is that capitalist profit making is achieved through exploitation of the laborers. In this respect, he argued that when a capitalist sells sold something his worker had made and received most of the proceeds for the item than he paid the worker, he is merely taking a portion of the value of the work created by the laborer. This can best be exemplified in the case of shareholders who only invest their money in a factory and do not care anymore, yet they are able to receive an income without having to work any further. Nonetheless, this argument by Marx must be examined against the view that it is the capitalist who provides the capital which makes it possible to engage the laborers. Further, both capital and labor are required to produce these things and that wages are the returns paid for the labor while profit represents the return for the capital invested. The crux of Marx’s agreement was that it is prudent to organize the society in such a manner that everyone in the society own and controls capital so that no one is able to get an income without working for it. Marx further stressed the factor of accumulation of capital which is rampant in the capitalistic society as an impediment to the realization of a just society. He described the endless quest to make profits which is then reinvested to make further profits as a stumbling block to achieving justice and equality in the society. He further posited that capitalism tends to destroy all non-economic values and monetizes them, thereby making money considerations as the sole criterion of value and exchange. A classic illustration of this is that during the feudal times, the buying or selling a thing mainly depended on important moral, religious and traditional rules and values and not merely for personal economic gain. This changed with the development of capitalism which made it possible to buy and sell everything including labor and land. It can well be said that capitalism and the end for selling labor has led to the tearing away of the emotional bonds that existed between individuals thus leading to a segregation of the community. At the present, an individual usually exists as a single social atom absent of strong emotional bond and attachment. This may contribute to crime, drug abuse and incidences of suicide.
Marx further argued that the state only serves the dominant classes or the elite in the society. He described the state as the executive committee of the bourgeoisie which rules primarily in their interest. In execution of this task, the state normally makes use of its coercive power to enforce compliance such as by way of fines, jail terms or making war. We now examine the contradictions in capitalism as explained by Karl Marx. Though Marx acknowledged that capitalism led to great developments at first, owing to increase in production and material wealth, he argued that social conflict would arise with time. He predicted that the social relations of production would ultimately lead to the destruction of the capitalism system as the capitalism competes severally to make profits. There is a proclivity by the capitalist who own the means of production to increase their proportion of capital investment while decreasing the part of the proportion which goes to compensating labor. Since the laborers take home less pay, this reduces their purchasing power which means that they are unable to buy the products of the capitalist. Marx therefore argued that in the long run, this would impact badly on the capitalistic system thereby rendering it unsustainable. We argue that the recurrent environmental problems and the financial crises are a reflection of the failure by the capitalistic system to self-regulate. Before dispensing with the criticism offered by Marx, we offer our own criticism of his perspective. We make the case that Marx placed too much emphasis on economic factors while explaining social change whereas things such as culture are independent of economic relations. More so, the view by Marx loses sight of the fact that the authoritarian centered approach in government where the state controls the means of production may be fraught with danger as the authoritarian state could well trample on the rights of the people and entrench dictatorship hell bent on subjugation.
In conclusion, we note that there are various origins, theories and justifications for human rights. Human rights have now been codified in several international legal instruments and have since been domesticated into law by most nations. On the contrary, Marx saw human rights as propagated as the rights of the egoistic man who was far removed from the community and that its emphasis on individual rights was fallacious.
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