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Karl Marx's Criticism of Human Rights

Nicholas Weissman is a student at Georgetown University. This essay includes some of his ideas from his Political and Social Thought class.

At first glance, Karl Marx’s rejection of the idea of human rights may seem like adequate justification for the historical atrocities committed in the name of communism, including but not limited to the Gulag system employed by Stalin. However, this justification would ignore the greater context of Marx’s qualms with human rights, as well as his multifaceted criticism of the political economy of the era of capitalism. Analyzed through Marx’s On the Jewish Question, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and finally the Manifesto of the Communist Party itself, it is clear that Marx emphasizes the significance of human emancipation while criticizing the political revolution already undergone via regime changes seen in France and the United States. In the long run, after the state and other institutions are withered away and the capitalist political economy is dissolved, humanity will then enjoy full emancipation and freedom, while defined rights are rendered unnecessary. The freedoms offered by human rights under capitalism are not freeing and on the contrary, they serve only to constrain the individual and divide him from his fellow man. Through the synthesis of concepts of human emancipation over political revolution, the egotism of rights, capitalist exploitation of need, alienation of labor, and the potential complications of a system without defined rights, Marx’s view can be deduced that communism shall eliminate any need for liberal bourgeois rights.


On the Jewish Question is primarily Marx’s reply to the work of Bruno Bauer, also a member of the Hegelian school of philosophy who addressed “the Jewish Question.” Essentially, the question begs whether or not to provide Jews with the same political rights as others. Bauer saw the most appropriate response to the so-called Christian state as political emancipation, meaning freedom guaranteed by the state, that provided citizens with freedoms founded on their human rights. Whereas Bauer wished for separation of church and state, like what is presented in the United States, Marx advocated for the abolition of religion altogether as a part of the communist revolution. Human emancipation, rather than guarantees of human rights under the law, would accompany the transition to a society under communism. In Marx’s view, separation of church and state is not sufficient to solve the ills of society, such as division due to religion, and therefore personal differences must be eliminated to the furthest extent possible. The emancipation of the human would not merely be through laws, but through a restructuring of the economy.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

The Redundancy & Bourgeois Nature of Natural Rights

Marx defines two types of human rights: political rights and other freedoms, like the freedom of religion and the freedom to own property. Marx focuses on the latter type, which he believes are oppressive and only inalienable so far as the sovereign allows them to be, regarding them more as privileges (On the Jewish Question, 72). Seeing as once the state is dissolved under late-stage communism, there is no state present at that point anyway to allow people as citizens to be free, forming the basis of Marx’s view that the rights are redundant. Furthermore, the right to security, to private property, and to private religion are all egotistic because they allow for exclusion, selfishness, and greed. Civil society, Marx argues, only brings people together as a community by necessity, with each individual acting for their own self-preservation. Under communism, the individual and society would harmonize with individuals sharing in decision-making. Marx criticizes the right to private property under capitalism even further in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, pointing out the fact that private property is already no longer a reality for the proletariat (or will not be for long), with a mere one-tenth of the population enjoying and exploiting the right (Manifesto of the Communist Party, 486). Another qualm Marx has with rights is that formal rights in existence on paper are not necessarily guaranteed in practice. Even if a state allows one to own property, there is no safeguard against a few wealthy individuals to take over and this practice is actually encouraged as the population is converted into an army of wage laborers. Similarly, even if a state guarantees the ability to freely practice religion, this does not mean that religious minorities will evade persecution. The freedom of religion in the United States does not duly protect religious minorities like Jews, nor does it make them feel at home in the larger community.

Communist Parties in Europe Today

Communist Parties in Europe Today

Where Does "Need" Factor In?

In Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx’s statements regarding human need are related to his notion of rights. Under a capitalistic system, exploitation of the worker is increasing at a rate that leads to widespread poverty. While wealth accumulates as capital in the hands of the owners of production, the proletariat as a class has nothing but one another to rely on. Marx states, “Poverty is the passive bond which causes the human being to experience the need of the greatest wealth -- the other human being” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, 91). Essentially, the impoverishment of the proletariat forces them to form tighter communities, tying into the idea that the only bond holding the community together under capitalism is necessity. The full effects do not end there because “It is not only that man has no human needs -- even his animal needs are ceasing to exist” (94). The proletariat, as a commodity of capitalism, lose even the primal necessities; Marx goes on to cite how the Irish live off the worst scabby potatoes, the minimum nutrition required to keep them alive, in the same manner an engine is fed gasoline. The worker may have his right to free speech, property, or religion, but if he is wavering between life and death this is of minute use.

"Not only are rights eschewed, but ethics are as well."

Not only is the worker destitute, but the more he works, the more capital he creates for the bourgeois -- in turn contributing to his own poverty. The goal of the capitalist to reduce human need as much as possible and turn laborers into mere machines, forcing them to sacrifice everything such as natural activity and leisure to amass wealth. Not only are rights eschewed, but ethics are as well. People are forced to choose the function of the political economy over ethics, succumbing to moral wrongs such as prostitution and slavery (97). There is little room for basic human rights when the proletariat and the political-economic system at large must resort to the practice of immoral practices. As Marx points out, French women sell their bodies at night to get by, even after a full day of work in factories. The French Revolution failed to keep its original promises to uphold the rights of man and ended up only promoting social conditions of alienation. The political revolution did not alleviate the social ills under the monarchy, when viewed next to the social ills under capitalism. A human emancipation that frees men of all bonds, economic included, is more effective than a regime change masquerading as political emancipation.


How the Worker is Alienated

The alienation of labor under capitalism forms the basis of Marx’s main criticism of humans rights. The political economy has no regard for human rights, especially as the worker is so far alienated from his own humanity. Marx argues, “... it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful the alien objective world become which he creates over-against himself, the poorer he himself -- his inner world -- becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself” (72). This encapsulates the idea the worker has nothing but his own labor to sell, forcing him to endure whatever hardship the capitalist puts him through to amass more wealth. Even if the worker were to sell more of his labor, he only sinks into further poverty; the amount of goods produced by his own hands grow, increasing the amount of goods he cannot afford or even associate with. The same idea occurs in a religious context when practitioners lose themselves to God and dogma. Capitalism, built on the idea of of separate economic classes, is characteristically unequal and leaves little room for the rights of people. Workers are sacrificing their own humanity and are alienated from themselves (their species-being), other men, the product of their labor, and act of production itself. In a nutshell, workers associate themselves with their profession before their status as a human being, they cannot understand the labor of other workers, have no association with the material thing they produce, and work becomes a means to an end rather than something fulfilling.

What Are Some of the Problems Associated With Rejecting Natural Rights?

The rejection of natural rights is not without the possibility of far-reaching negative consequences. If there are no inalienable rights so to speak, then the state may do as they please with the individual and exploit and punish them for their own interests. There is no safeguard from the violation of fundamental freedoms and liberties. If each individual is without natural rights, then democracy has little place in the political system. A “might makes right” regime such as totalitarianism could abuse a system without human rights, leaving nothing to halt censoring of the press, unjust imprisonment, the formation of a police state, and so on.

"... a communist revolution accompanied by human emancipation is the only solution to the ongoing class struggle."

But is this manifestation of totalitarianism not what Marx believes will occur under the later stages of capitalism? An oligarchy of the bourgeoisie, constantly shrinking in number as the global proletariat grows, will exercise power in a tyrannical manner with the ability to exploit the worker without regard for any rights. This is why he believes that a communist revolution accompanied by human emancipation is the only solution to the ongoing class struggle. In fact, Lockean natural rights in the first place, as well as rights guaranteed in constitutions like that of the United States, were never intended to guarantee equal rights for all. The idea of universal human rights we have today is not what originated in the Enlightenment, and since then the idea was harnessed in order to further the success of capitalists. The ideal of the Protestant work ethic that the United States was partially founded on is a tool of capitalism to force the proletariat to labor hard for the good of the rest of the community, even at the expense of himself. Views on labor such as these become toxic when the worker has no chance of ever achieving economic comfort.


Concluding Thoughts

If the theory were to play out ideally and without corruption, Marx may be believed that, “Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution” (84). The transition to worldwide communism, following a global revolution of a united proletariat, would ensure everyone is provided for and the species-being of each individual is restored. Unfortunately, the promise of no need for defined human rights has been misused by regimes; dictators like Stalin, Mao, and Kim Jong-il have wrongfully killed, tortured, and disenfranchised their people in the name of a communist state. This is not true communism, however, and the same perversion of power can and is occurring under capitalism. Perhaps human rights should be respected until the workers are able to seize the means of production and provide for all. The alienation of labor and abuse of human need are genuine ills under capitalism, evidenced by the billions of people on Earth living on just dollars a day. The end of wage labor will mean humans are able to work again for expression and with public ownership of property as a solution to the division it causes. In Marx’s envisioned society, individual and society will coincide and the notion of human rights will be unwarranted and counterproductive.

Work Cited

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker, Second ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.

© 2018 Nicholas Weissman

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