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Marxism and Human Rights Author(s): Leszek Kolakowski Source: Daedalus, Vol. 112, No.

4, Human Rights (Fall, 1983), pp. 81-92 Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences Stable URL: . Accessed: 02/04/2013 06:22
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Leszek Kolakowski


and Human Rights








the refrain

ends with thewords Internationale erk?mpft das Menschenrecht

while wins (the "International" written without Marxist human right). The song, inspiration, was adopted to be sure, as the offi

cial hymn of the Third International, which was supposed to be the only political embodiment of Marxist doctrine. From this itmight seem that the idea of human rights was part of the ideology of the
communist not nor so. The in other movement. expression, translations Alas, which view, we find that this was neither in the French original appears seems to of the song, have been inserted into closer of the hymn, rien, soyons ideology. and human on

theGerman text principally to rhyme with the preceding line (auf das
Letzte but This is an oddity not only in the history Gefecht). as well. Nous ne sommes in the history of Marxism a more accurate tout! is certainly rendering of Marxist In inquiring into the relationships between Marxism

rights theory, itmay be useful to define both terms, a difficult task,

that exist and the contro given the enormous variety of definitions no set of definitions will versies they generate. While satisfy everyone, to its theoretical ifwe reduce the problem the many core?dismissing peripheral extent that variants their of Marxism and setting aside the intricate ques

tions that relate to what may be included as human rights and the
conditions?we When that we 81 we on implementation depends contingent some progress. may be able to make historical

say that we accept human accept human rights as valid.

rights, we are saying in effect But what does that mean? It

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Leszek Kolakowski
not mean that those

rights make up, or have always and every a where made up, part of all legal systems. Such a statement would be false, and in any case irrelevant to what most people believe to be true about human these rights would be valid even if no rights?that

positive law included them, explicitly or implicitly. Conversely, if all legal systems in theworld guaranteed them, this by itselfwould not
be not sufficient depend grounds positively for accepting or negatively them. Their on actual of human simply validity, legislation, rights because claim they then, does or past

present. Nor do those who is an arbitrary

accept norm which

the concept they accept

that it like it,

and that it achieves validity by the force of their decree. To assert the
a sheer act of commitment validity of human rights is not Itmeans more the justification lies in its very performance. rights," but rather these rights." The basis a except theological of which than sim

ply saying that "we (I)decide that everybody ought to be given these
to declaring that "it is the case that everybody has no in idea of human other has firm words, rights, in terms of natural in turn, have law theory, which may, or or transcendentalist Kantian Husserlian) (say,

justification. law theory does indeed imply that it is the case that steal Natural are inherent prop iswrong; for rightness or wrongness example, ing, or to certain human whether erties of acts, according they conform nature of man. Those immanent moral the rational conflict with on divine decrees. In the tradition qualities may or may not depend as well), in Cartesian nominalism of late medieval (and metaphysics which free have from God's been differ verdict, might they resulted was. ent from?indeed, God decided it actually to?what opposite

that it was wrong


to kill one's father; given the irreversibility of

sinful. has since been inherently and immutably law, patricide law doctrines Seventeenth century natural rejected the "decretalist" a distinction made between natural law and and instead theology positive

the latter resulted from God's law, arguing that while was in the nature of things and law inherent decree alone, natural even by the Creator himself. Grotius, for one, could not be changed, imma God is that orders what Leibniz took this position.1 argued divine

nently good and forbids what

acts and things good

is immanently evil, instead of making

free decision.2

or evil by the force of his own

The very idea of homo, Pufendorf argued, included his inherent dig

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and Human



nity.3 While making the moral order of things independent of our

knowledge moral of God, natural law theory was based on a metaphysical

principle, which stated that the order of nature displayed immutable

and that itwas not only an order of causes and characteristics, as well. values of but effects, To the extent that the idea of human rights was logically depen to the dent on the belief in natural law, it was clearly unacceptable

adherents of empiricism and of all varieties of historicism, including

Marxism. man A distinction rights concept for this discussion: portant inherent dignity of being on this point is necessary, includes three characteristics, first, human however. The hu im among others, these rights are valid because of the and they make up part of the natu

ral order, rather than being established by decree or by positive law;

second, together not On this order and is immutably valid wherever human live beings interact with one another; these however third, rights, groups, races, classes, professions, that aMarxist's the first of order nations, or other

specified, are rights vested in all individuals and only in individuals,

in social entities. it appears these assumptions, man rights would be much stronger not cist. The while latter, accepting dismissing and the idea of of the notion their permanent commit himself case against hu than the one made by an empiri of values the three premises, and rights, as it is not a

of an "objective"

"validity"?insofar to the

validity established by specific legislation?might


still, without


contradiction, not believe that God or nature made certain or but he could admit that there is nothing wrong right, illicit, logically human actions unsound, by qua empiricist good." An empiricist nihilism. He may believe, for example, or empirically forbidden is "this "this saying, wrong," is not

idea of human

rights. He human actions improper,

reacting to is noble," "this is to preach moral bound iswrong and that

in our

that torture

we ought to support and fight for a society inwhich all people enjoy
guarantees against being tortured. In a limited sense, an empiricist may ise; he may, without being inconsistent, even accept the second prem state that though no univer

sal validity may be spoken of in a particular case, he himself is ready

to stand up for human rights in all imaginable conditions. To be sure, cannot be defended since his position in terms of "validity," he is and must concede helpless before the challenge of an adversary, that,

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Leszek Kolakowski

in cognitive terms, no worse position

those who deny the idea of human rights are in a than he. Barred from committing himself intellec or to of is the doctrine human he neverthe theoretically rights, tually to it. commitment less free to abide by his practical A historicist may find himself in a somewhat analogous position. of the par

moral, pointless

believing that all values and standards, both cognitive and

"express" to dwell specific needs, aspirations, and conflicts

ticular civilization inwhich they happen to arise, he knows that it is

on their ahistorical, let alone eternal, validity. This, not him from that as a participant does however, prevent admitting and that he is not being in a particular culture, he shares its norms, aware though he may in those norms, if he "believes" inconsistent

also be of their historical relativity.

A Marxist's framework, is far more radical. Within his conceptual position to take the historicist's he is not only bound standpoint, in immutable the concept he rights, but, to be consistent, even in its of human his rights

dismissing all the claims of natural law theory, all the beliefs in ever
order or lasting moral must positively oppose idea. and human doctrine between Marxist rights theory than the idea that all values and rights, in in something more but the temporary of particular Marxist terms, are nothing products but the that of opinions particular nothing production, relationships to give them an illusory their vested classes use to express interests, both the concept of liberty and shape. For to the Marxist, ideological The conflict consists

torically relative form; he is ideologically committed to reject the very

the idea of human rights, as defined by Enlightenment thinkers and

ideologists of the French society bourgeois from the "Jewish to the lasting validity of "bourgeois freedom" and unre claims made ex Marx individual's the idea of The human movable rights, rights. natu a society in which is the interests of each person implies plains, a society to interests of the and others, opposed inevitably rally The domi incurably torn asunder by the clash of private aspirations. nant motivations ter of in this society are bound of human nature?but result of the corruption the economic system, which are the specific expressions of a Revolution, on Marx's the verge of collapse. that is writings, are of all dismissive onward, wholly question"

as a to be egoistic?not because of the charac conflict-laden. All

is inevitably

rights and liberties in bourgeois society simply assert and codify the

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and Human



simple fact that each individual's aspirations and interests inevitably conflict with, and are limited by, the interests and aspirations of oth
ers. Since the civil no war, where vide an illusory strictions on hostilities. liberties, which is a place of incessant and all-pervasive is possible, the state steps in to pro real community re to set limits to the conflicts by imposing unity, society These necessarily restrictions appear in the form of civil take on a purely negative character. Ideo to the system by various contract social

is given logical legitimacy in its promise of abolishing classes and class theories. Communism, out roots of the social the conflict, makes thereby cutting struggle, freedom" "negative bourgeois uals isolated from, and hostile between done civil society "real away with; of individ rights?rights one another?useless. The division to, and the state, the distinction between the two, is and human

life" and spontaneous community, having ab of the government sorbed the state, law, and other instruments that its with and oppres society, privileges, exploitations, kept bourgeois siveness intact, serving to perpetuate Communism ends the clash between person naturally and aspirations of it, has no need of such supports. the individual and society; each

and spontaneously identifies himself with the values and the perfect unity of the social the "whole," a return to the primitive of the body is recreated, not by community as a the Romantics would have it, but by movement savages, upward on an "ascending restores to that human spiral" meaning technologi are simply the facade of rights, in other words, in the new, unified society they have become rights, he never argued, as whether those rights were a despotic between and a

cal progress. Human the capitalist system; irrelevant. utterly

Marx Although despised "bourgeois" the anarchists did, that it did not matter valid in bourgeois liberal order within

portant one he urged workers' bourgeoisie

society. The difference was an im the "capitalist mode of production" to Marx. the 1848-49 revolution and thereafter, During to ally themselves with were the democratic tyrants; republicans was not a matter

parties to fight against

to Marx, that no imaginable true, according a a socialist mean in could have political changes capitalist society could be obliterat economy ing, and that the iron laws of the market ed only by a revolutionary in the of upheaval, resulting expropriation the bourgeoisie and the centralization of all economic levers in the

against royalists. This, tactics. While it was


to be supported of principle but of

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Leszek Kolakowski

to participate in the fight for needed of the state, the workers it the of would condition their struggle, improve democracy; political final for the battle them against capitalism. preparing behave when Marxists, therefore, they fight for civil consistently nonsocialist liberties and human regimes, and then rights in despotic those liberties destroy Such rights, according the new cratic sessed conflictless, regimes and according and rights to Marxist society. immediately socialism, upon seizing power. are clearly irrelevant to stated clearly that demo should since the be as latter

Trotsky of the proletariat the dictatorship to their own respective principles; them; rules of democracy, if the bourgeois order, on


simply rejected cused of violating cannot

the "formal"

it could

not be ac hand,

the other

did not abide by its rules, it could be rightly blamed.4 This standpoint
so long as Marxists as cynical, who fight for in nonsocialist human regimes do not pre despotic rights guarantees nor that their moral of principle tend that it is a matter indignation even be viewed has these been and furthermore aroused, once they are themselves rights make in power. no promise to guarantee turns it out, they (As

usually do all three.) Marx himself did not pretend that capitalist society deserved to be
condemned was about it was unjust, or that the revolutionary the moralistic He abandoned approach justice. moment he defined himself the and from on, early because German struggle to social

problems sition to the so-called

in oppo to true socialism, he tried consistently atti that the convince his readers and followers proper (and himself) not in denouncing failures the moral tude to social changes consisted that would the "natural" tendencies but in analyzing of capitalism, new In this cause to about the and it society. bring collapse inevitably to develop their potentialities have an opportunity society, all would to the fullest, asserting their individuality not, however, against the to its general progress. There was, he society, but in contributing terms in no reason to of condemn believed, exploitation capitalist

was a commodity; the justice or injustice; the labor force itself an to in selling himself usually does it conform worker, employer, The conflict between to of the exchange. equivalent principle ably was one of right against to and Marx, workers, according capitalists social them.5 decide between right; force alone would to a large extent, was of the moralistic Marx's dismissal approach, are hidden in all his Normative of course a self-deception. premises

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and Human



in his idea of alienation and in his theory concepts, particularly restore the would of value, as well as in his belief that communism to human He of life. knew how human character the achieve truly man with the idea of humanitas, of the empirical and that conformity Plato's than this was no less value-laden knowledge acquaintance the world have


men of ideas. He failed to explain what motivations in the for for would he communism; struggle taking part might that they fight for communism have resisted the proposition for no to win by the force of historical better reason than that it is bound

while making allowances cannot, however, to is fundamental Marx's work?reinsert ity?which human fantasies historical rights rights into his theory, distilling the normative


for this ambigu the concept of content from

the hybridlike doctrine thatmelts determinist prejudice with Utopian

into one were a IfMarxism whole. indistinguishable purely not and it would include the human description prediction, to be sure, but it would not actively oppose that


doctrine either. The incompatibility between theMarxist

and human comes


rights concept through ism as both a disguised moralism?which an to be. To for political it explicitly wanted action, which appeal state that civil liberties and human are rights principles simply an and institutional of the market that economy expression ideological intends to abolish is not merely

clearly when we see Marx it refused to admit?and

to press forward with a the most "sociological" description, predicting likely out come of current social conflicts. it is to affirm positively, Rather, a to and social order where contribute civil encourage, for, appeal are liberties and human is in This rights abrogated. entirely keeping with the notion of man as a social animal in its specifically Marxist In a market variant. are victims individuals economy, Marx argued, of the society in that their lives are prey to a contingent historical communism neutral that no one, separately process the trol; society itself is alienated anonymous laws; lost. Communism, to "associated create Marx camp?quite individuality, or in alliance with from "real men" as a consequence can con others, and is governed by of its isolation, is

by restoring genuine community, by turning over the re control of social processes, would producers" of real individual his new Yet, development. society as a sort of concentration of penetrating critics, even

the conditions did not

imagine the contrary.

a number

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in his ism,"

Leszek Kolakowski
lifetime, noticed without that itwould for the achievements waiting if the Marxist social program of "real ever came social

to be a ev produce highly despotic regime, making implemented, a state. of the omnipotent Com ery human being helpless property a was to to munism in which Marx, be, supposed according society the "negative freedom" guarantees?are fies himself with principally had been or "bourgeois human freedom"?the rights because identi everyone willingly pointless precisely since communism the community. is Furthermore, of private property, once neither the bourgeoisie the liberties nor society would of the Second Marxists did that

the abolition

successfully expropriated, clearly, human the institutions protecting rights in a bourgeois be needed. It is true that many theorists, considered who International, especially themselves

in the period full-fledged

not believe that socialism would destroy the rights embodied in the
democratic institutions of "bourgeois socialism, democracy relationships, by extending the scope of human would rights. They enlarge, rather than abolish, in Marx's writ of the philosophical took little account generalities a as a moral as not but scien doctrine his appeal, ings, interpreting and society," into economic predicted

tific analysis of capitalist society. Karl Kautsky and Rudolf Hilferd

to this company. It is belonged ing are only two of many who this kind of selective that however, by suggesting reading, arguable, both the spirit and the letter of the canonical these men betrayed was a much more faithful disciple scriptures. Lenin, by comparison, as sheer, di of the proletariat the dictatorship of Marx. By defining a matter no rules, disdaining?as rect violence, obeying no laws and of parliamentary the institutions of principle?all democracy?, with its elections, accepting?not party, neither would stating freedom be freedom of speech, and all the rest, and proclaiming dictatorship state would that tasks, cultural and that of the the

abolition of the division of power, he followed Marx completely. By

just in fact, but in theory?the that the Soviet unambiguously nor democracy, subordinated announcing to political promise activity terror


would be directly inscribed into the legal system, he showed his fidel
the "fables about ethics" and asserting By denouncing ity to Marx. an was to be instrument of the class struggle, by sneering that ethics at bourgeois between inventions such as the distinction aggressive that one should keep internation and defensive wars or the principle

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al agreements, by insisting

and Human


in po

that there are no permissible

litical struggle?in all these, Lenin did not depart fromMarxist prin
clarity, he stated ciples. So, too, did Trotsky when, with praiseworthy of socialist power; that all is the form par excellence that violence as a reservoir of the labor force; human beings are to be considered of the new society; labor is a permanent that compulsory principle on moral to be discarded if they can that no means grounds ought never serve the cause of communist communists "were that power; and vegetarian-Quaker with the Kantian-priestly concerned prattle about the 'sacredness of human tions of political any significance Lukes regimes. Steven strategy and to a distinction are ques life' "; that moral questions nonsense to attribute tactics; that it is between democratic and fascist

the validity abandoned

who consistently admit argues that the only Marxists are or "revisionists who of human have discarded rights tenets are of the Marxist canon" in those central that

sense can those who do with such a belief.6 But in what compatible or consider to be such? While still be seen as Marxists themselves socialists who, without there may be many are committed to human rights principles, Marxism, has a number the Marxian contradicting this is because themselves, there is no

commonly accepted definition of socialism; the idea itself, older than

patible with the scientistically some of them obviously of varieties, incom some true variant. Nevertheless, it is that of

to pu oriented Marxists mentioned above wanted in its normative the doctrine of distorted elements, and, rify doing so, Marxists its sense. The neo-Kantian tried to supplement the allegedly Kantian of with ethics. Unlike the value-free Marxist society theory a was to mixture whom such the neo-Kant orthodox, unimaginable, ians, though accepting that no normative ideas can be inferred from

Marxist doctrine, found no logical difficulty in enriching itwith the

Kantian of practical reason.71 believe that both the scien philosophy were wrong. Marx Marxists oriented and the neo-Kantians tistically ism is no longer itself once we cut it down to its purely "descriptive"

content and discard its normative background, which is hidden in the

of alienation, and of the future identity theory of class consciousness, of individual and society. The Marxian free critique of "negative a dom" and individual is conclusion from this necessary rights theory.

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Leszek Kolakowski

to be of this half-Marxism abor proved historically current of old, apart from its contribution to the to exist, and the social-democratic Leninist ceased move variant, a was soon inherited to lose contact ment, which part of its legacy, tive. The orthodox

with theMarxist
proponents; movements proved

tradition. Neo-Kantian Marxism

to revive some of As its tenets a doctrinal to be short-lived. prophetic monopolized

died off with

in later revisionist


attempts pretensions, virtually

explanatory was Marxism ing device dismissing of


corpus with all and prognostic guidelines, ideolo by the Leninist-Stalinist

gy and, without being essentially distorted, has become the legitimiz

the totalitarian them It solved moral issues, not by empire. in favor of a value-neutral but analysis, by launching

the vision of a new mankind, which would achieve its final liberation by making everything the property of the state, by proclaiming the
irrelevance The der of "bourgeois freedom" and human rights. into their jargon?reluctantly have assimilated from the West?some of the phraseology pressure Soviets and un of human

rights. Yet, this hardly suggests that they have embraced human rights theory; it is only a symptom of their ideological disarray. No
dare to repeat Lenin's clear and precise today would nor are about democracy and freedom, such judgments judgments ever quoted in the Soviet press. That some Western was phraseology or of the realities build course, adopted?without, altering political Soviet leader that might limit the state despotism?indicates the ing any barriers was a Yet it force of the human in idea. rights adopted only strongly version: when Soviet qualified speak of human ideologists rights, stress to that chief human is the the work, they invariably right right and that this has been granted under the Soviet system only. What

they fail to add is that this has been achieved by a system of compul
at the very beginning in principle of sory labor that was established Sovietism. Thus the supreme right of man and his supreme freedom

arematerialized in the form of slavery.Nor do they dwell on the fact

that this same and work fascism. question, This freedom has been achieved under National Socialism

to be sure, cannot be lightly dismissed. The right to a as to in the nineteenth the helpless response century emerged and exploitation of workers. Even ifwe do not consider ness, misery, it a human right, to feel useful to other people is an undeniable aspea of human dignity. People who, as a result of social processes beyond

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their who are unemployed control, and useless, feel redundant condition that matter, in which

and Human



or unemployable in great numbers, are injured not only in their welfare, nobody ever looks for a job?is in from state.

but in their dignity as well. It is possible that absolutely full employ

ment?the For

compatible both with the market economy and with technical pro
labor; perhaps tells us that the market economy Experience not sufficient, of political orders condition and guarantee that result fluctuations tionalize human in a certain gress. slave it could it is incompatible, freedom too, with a slave in be implemented only is a necessary, that are able

although to institu

and civil rights. Inevitable economic are amount of unemployment eco is temporary. When tolerable only so long as the unemployment a large class of are nomic fluctuations instead produce who people doomed permanently such a class continues the charity of the state, and when to grow, society is in danger, not only because in suffering, frustrations, and criminality, but because to renounce freedom is real and pressing. liberal advice?to abandon these function If democratic for the security of em There are no reasons to state interventions they are left to live on

of the increase many

feel ready people The dilemma ployment. believe that traditional affairs in economic alone?will of


best when societies

prove prove incapable coping with mass unemployment, they are likely to encourage totalitarian into jeopardy the very institution trends, thereby putting al framework which the observance of human upon rights depends. It is often stressed that the idea of human to dismiss its claims


rights is of recent origin, to timeless validity. In its the doctrine is it is contemporary form, argu certainly new, though able that it is a modern version of the natural law theory, whose origins we can trace back at least to the Stoic philosophers and, of to the Judaic sources of European and Christian culture. course, is no substantial There difference between "the right to proclaiming and that this is enough

life" and stating that natural law forbids killing.Much as the concept may have been elaborated in the philosophy of the Enlightenment in its conflict with Christianity, the notion of the immutable rights of
individuals tus and Yet, vented goes back to the Christian belief in the autonomous sta value of the human personality.8 irreplaceable it was not the metaphysical character of the theory that pre it from being incorporated into Marxist doctrine. And itwas

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not with

Leszek Kolakowski
the antimetaphysical the human rights spirit of Marxism principle. Rather, that made it incompatible it was Marxism's funda

mentally holistic approach to human life, the belief that progress can
to control the conditions, only by the ability of mankind an individ both natural and social, of its life, and that, consequently, to ual's value is not related to his personal but his life, being a com On of the collective "whole." the that is violence ponent assumption be measured the midwife mate liberation one should naturally of progress, that the ulti expect in the coercive consist of humanity would reduction as active subjects. This is what in fact all

of individuals to inert tools of the state, thereby robbing them of their

personality, of their status

the regimes that base their legitimacy on Marxist

they are incapable cies, of accepting

ideology try to do;

not as a result of temporary in principle, deficien to the idea of human accept human rights, for is there for this work of aiming to perfectly at the extinction of units


indeed demolish their very foundation. What chance of



life, reducing beings exchangeable personal one that I That is a separate of productive question, processes? to say that its to leave aside in this essay. Still, it is possible choose success would but in the result not only in the ruin of civilization,

ruin of humanity as we know it. My bet, however, is that itwill not

prove successful, to resist enough that the human totalitarian spirit will turn out to be refractory pressure.

1De iure belli ac pads, I, i, X-XV. II. de m?taphysique,


3De Of?cio,
4Trotsky, 5Capital,

I, 7, i.
1932, 8, 1. p. 336.

Writings I, chapter

6Can aMarxist Believe inHuman Rights? Praxis 1 (4) (January 1982). 7Idiscuss these questions inmore detail inmy Main Currents ofMarxism, especially
vol. 2, the chapters Lukacs. on Austromarxists and on Kautsky, and vol. 3, the chapter on

8On the Christian origin of modern "individualism," cf. Louis Dumont, "AModern View of Our Origin: The Christian Beginnings of Modern Individualism," Reli gion 12 (1982).

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