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Why is Marx, a radical humanist thinker, so vehemently against human rights? Isn’t it a contradiction for a humanist to hold such a position?

Prior to addressing these questions, the point that should be made that in ‘On the Jewish Question” Marx is examining the Declaration of rights detailed by the French following their revolution, and in response to an essay written by Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer. Therefore, it seems prudent to limit the issue to why a radical humanist thinker such as Marx, opposes the ‘rights of man’ outlined in the French Declaration.

In order to conclusively answer both parts of the question, it is necessary to understand how Marx defines the rights of man and their place within a ‘bourgeois society’. Marx postulates that in a capitalist society such as this, there is a distinct division between the political and civil spheres. Ingram shows that this distinction then leads to “the citizen of the state being separated from the citizen as a member of civil society”[1]. Marx believes that just as man is divided, so are the rights that are attached to man, which ultimately results in “so called rights of man, as distinct from the rights of the citizen, are simply the rights of a member of civil society”[2]. The rights of the citizen refer to political rights within the political sphere, while the right of man, subsist in the civil sphere in which the determinative realm of economics exists.

Now that it has been determined that rights of man exist in the civil sphere, it is essential to examine the nature of the man to which these rights are attached. Essentially, the civil sphere is the realm of economics, and in this realm, individualism and competition with fellow man is the norm. This manner of a man was termed by Marx as an egoistic being, who is “separated other men and from the community”[3]. It appears that a large portion of Marx’s opposition to the rights of man is derived from the impoverished conception of the human being, to which they pin these rights. The notion of the egoistic being is contrary to Marx’s theory that freedom, as interpreted by Kouvelakis, occurs when man “ceases to exist as a transcendent double”[4] in dual spheres, and becomes species being, oriented to his fellow man and the community. Marx highlights the negative implication of egoistic behaviour through analyses of the rights to liberty, property and security.

Liberty, as defined by the Declaration, is the power of man to do everything which does not harm the rights of others, as determined by law. According to Marx, this makes other people the limits of mans liberty. He views this as driving a stake between them, resulting in “the separation of man from man”[5]. In relation to the concept of the species being, Marx views the concept of the right to liberty is founded not on the connection between people, but rather the separation between people. In essence, “it leads every man to see in other men, not the realisation, but rather the limitation of his own liberty.”[6] It is the opinion of Marx that this realisation will occur when man returns to a fundamentally free species being, as opposed to an egoistic form which is a slave to material possessions and individualistic motives.

Another example which Marx uses in his argument against the rights of man is the right of private property. He sees this as the practical application of the right of liberty and defines it as “the right to enjoy ones fortune and to dispose of it as one will; without regard for other men and independently of society”[7]. In essence, it is the right of self interest regardless of other persons, which of course is a core element of egoism, and therefore contradictory to Marx’s concept of freedom through becoming a species being.

Marx also discusses the right of security as defined by the Declaration as “the protection afforded by society to each of its members for the preservation of his person, his rights and his property”[8]. Marx regards this to be “supreme social concept of civil society” in that sole purpose of society is to ensure that every person is protected, and therefore isolated, from one other. It is for this reason that Marx sees security as “the assurance of its egoism”[9]

It is also noteworthy that Marx does not dedicate much time to critiquing the right of equality, dismissing it as having no political significance. It seems that in taking this approach, Marx has over looked one of the key floors present in the declaration, in that there is much conjecture surrounding who, or who isn’t classified as a man. Kouvelakis fills this void by suggesting that a ‘man’, under the declaration, “is the property owner”. It then follows that “the unpropertied man is revealed, logically, a bit less of a ‘man’”[10]. In addition to this obvious inequality, Kouvelakis also highlighted that the founding fathers of liberalism unanimously disregarded women, slaves and colonised persons as man, largely on the grounds that they did not own property. It seemed rather unusual that Marx did not relate this notion of many classes of people being determined, and restricted, by the property that they own, to the underlying theme of egoism.

In answering the first question, it seems injudicious to conclusively say that Marx is against human rights as a concept. It is does however, appear safe to say that Marx is vehemently opposed to the human rights outlined in the French Declaration. This is because these rights do not “go beyond the egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community”[11]. The fact that the rights are pinned on an impoverished form in egoistic man is diametrically opposed to Marx’s theory on achieving freedom. This is because Marx believes that true freedom will be achieved once man becomes a species being, who is oriented to other people as opposed to just themselves. Therefore, it seems that the entrenchment of human rights is the entrenchment of egoistic behaviour which impoverishes, limits and isolates man, thus preventing freedom.

On first instance, a radical humanist opposing the rights of man may seem like a contradiction. However, a closer analysis of Marxist philosophical foundations, in conjunction with the application of his theory of alienation, reveals that his staunch opposition to the rights stated in the Declaration are actually in line with his humanist roots.

In line with the humanist tradition, Marx used the commonality of the human condition as a starting point for his theories. This view of Marx is affirmed by Kolokowski who regarded Marx as a philosophical anthropologist. It is from this foundation that Marx develops his theory of alienation and despite the fact that the theory had not been conclusively developed in 1843, its concepts seem to be evident within “On the Jewish Question”[12].

In order to apply the theory of alienation to the rights of man, the theory must first be understood. As outlined in “the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844”[13], Marx delimits this theory into mans alienation from production, from process of production, from the species being and from other people. Marx regards the effect of such alienation to be that “the worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men”[14]. The importance of this theory in assessing Marx is foregrounded by Levine who stated that “every form of social life and society that Marx described suffered from some form of… human alienation”[15]. The various forms can then be synthesised into a process of alienation as follows.

The first stage of alienation involves man satisfying the universal need of externalisation. In this discussion of the rights of man, the act of externalisation is the creation of the French Declaration of the rights of man. The second stage of alienation occurs when the product of this externalisation becomes independent, gaining a power of its own. This act of automatism occurs when the declaration of rights becomes enshrined in law, leaving it imbued with the legal power to bind all humans leaving within the society under the legal structure. The third and final stage of alienation takes place when the externalisation reacts back against its creators in a hostile way. In the opinion of Marx, the method by which this stage takes shape can be found in the interaction the “so called rights of man”[16] and its human creators. As discussed above, Marx views the effects of human rights to be hostile in that they place limitations on man and lead to a state of isolation from other people.

In essence, the result of alienation is the dominance of humans by their self created forces. This consequence appears to have taken place in the area of the rights of man in that man is now subject to another level of limitations brought about by the French Declaration. Through the application of Marx’s theory of alienation, it seems appropriate that a humanist such as Marx should be so vehemently against human rights. This is because, as stated earlier, humanists value the human condition above all else as outlined by Levine who displayed that Marx fundamentally denied that “there was a macro-dynamic force deterministic force which controlled the evolution of all societies”[17]. Instead, Levine interpreted that Marx asserted that in every society the “determining factors were the means of production on the mode of production”[18]. The fact that these factors are dependant on human action means that, in its simplest form, Marx regarded the actions of man to be the deterministic force. Thus, the elevation of human rights to a level at which they exert domination over humanity is a contradiction to this humanist theme that man should be the dominant factor in determining the nature of society.

 

In addition to this, it is upon this premise that a radical humanist such as Marx argues that the world, and the society man inhabits is in a state of inversion where the object is the subject and the subject is the object. An example of inversion in the eyes of Marx is his view on religion where he states that “man makes religion, religion does not make man”[19]. A similar formula can be applied to human rights in that, using the reasoning of Marx; it is man who defines human rights, not human rights which define man. It is this inversion that rationalises Marx’s position as both a humanist and a detractor of human rights as it can be argued that the notion of human rights defining and controlling man is inconsistent with the principles of humanism.

 

In conclusion, when the creation of the human rights declaration is considered as a process of alienation to the point of inversion, it seems that Marx’s stance was not only free of contradiction, but reinforced the principles of humanism.

 

 

 

 

Reference List

Ingram D, ‘Rights and Privileges: Marx and the Jewish Question’ (1988) Studies in Soviet Thought Vol. 35, no.2, pp. 124-145

Kouvelakis S, ‘The Marxian Critique of Citizenship: For a Re-reading of On the Jewish Question’ (2005) South Atlantic Quarterly Vol. 104, No. 4, pp. 707-721

Levine N, ‘Humanism without Eschatology’(1972) Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 33, pp. 281-298

Kolakowski L, ‘Main currents of Marxism, Vol 1, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 1-7

Marx K, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1845), in Tucker, R (ed) (1978) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, pp. 40-46

Marx K, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Tucker(ed) (1978), pp. 71-77, 81-99, 103-105

Marx K, Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’”, in Tucker(ed) (1978), pp. 53f, 60-65

 


[1] Ingram D, ‘Rights and Privileges: Marx and the Jewish Question’ (1988) Studies in Soviet Thought Vol. 35, no.2, pp. 124-145

[2] Marx K, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1845), in Tucker, R (ed) (1978) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, pp. 40-46

[3] Ibid

[4] Kouvelakis S, ‘The Marxian Critique of Citizenship: For a Re-reading of On the Jewish Question’ (2005) South Atlantic Quarterly Vol. 104, No. 4, pp. 707-721

[5] Marx K, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1845), in Tucker, R (ed) (1978) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, pp. 40-46

[6] Marx K, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1845), in Tucker, R (ed) (1978) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, pp. 40-46

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Marx K, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1845), in Tucker, R (ed) (1978) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, pp. 40-46

[10] Kouvelakis S, ‘The Marxian Critique of Citizenship: For a Re-reading of On the Jewish Question’ (2005) South Atlantic Quarterly Vol. 104, No. 4, pp. 707-721

[11] Marx K, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1845), in Tucker, R (ed) (1978) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, pp. 40-46

[12] Marx K, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1845), in Tucker, R (ed) (1978) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, pp. 40-46

[13] Marx K, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Tucker(ed) (1978), pp. 71-77, 81-99, 103-105

[14] Ibid

[15] Levine N, ‘Humanism without Eschatology’(1972) Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 33, pp. 281-298

[16] Marx K, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1845), in Tucker, R (ed) (1978) The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed, New York, Norton, pp. 40-46

[17] Levine N, ‘Humanism without Eschatology’(1972) Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 33, pp. 281-298

[18] Ibid

[19] Marx K, “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’”, in Tucker(ed) (1978), pp. 53f, 60-65


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