Marxism and Human Rights — Paul O’Connell


Human rights are “the doxa of our age”. [1] An idea, practice, and vocabulary which impacts every sphere of moral, philosophical, political, legal, and sociological enquiry. As such, we cannot ignore human rights. For Marxists, particularly those engaged in the study of law, state, and rights, human rights are also a vitally important subject. As Marx and Engels argued in The German Ideology, law under capitalism takes on “its most general form as the rights of man”. [2] Arguments about human rights, then, are central to more general debates about Marxist analysis of and approaches to law, state, and rights.

Historically, a simplistic common sense has held that Marxists could not, consistent with the Marxist canon, “believe in human rights”–Steven Lukes, in particular, has sustained a veritable one-man cottage industry recapitulating this central conviction. [3] There is, of course, some plausibility to this argument. From Marx’s denunciation of the atomistic and narcissistic character of bourgeois rights in “On the Jewish Question” [4] to his withering elucidation of the narrow horizon of bourgeois right in the “Critique of the Gotha Program” [5], it is clear that Marx was no doe-eyed partisan of human rights.

At the same time, it is equally true that both Marx and his long-time collaborator Engels wrote on numerous occasions throughout their lives in support of human rights. This ranges from Marx’s early defence of freedom of expression and his later defence of the right to universal suffrage, through Engels bemoaning attacks on the right to protest in England, to his celebration of the potential of expanding civil and political rights for working-class political struggles, and to Marx’s glowing discussion of the campaign for limited working hours in the first volume of Capital and the invocation of the struggle for rights in his inaugural address to the First International. [6]

What all of this means is that from Marx and Engels we have inherited a view of human rights that is “critical, differentiated, underdeveloped and, in more than a few instances, ambiguous”. [7] There is, in other words, no canonical steer from the intellectual founders of Marxism as to how we should understand human rights today, and approach the question of human rights from within the Marxist tradition.

While the Marxist canon is devoid of a single, clear line on the question of human rights, the broader tradition does provide us with the resources necessary to begin to construct a theory of, and approach to, human rights (as well as law and the state more broadly). Here I will briefly sketch out three key points for thinking about human rights today from within the Marxist tradition. They are: (i) the structural character of capitalism and how it militates against the enjoyment of human rights; (ii) the need for a dialectical understanding of human rights (and indeed of all social phenomena); and (iii) the importance of agency and social struggle in articulating and contesting human rights.

Capitalism and Human Rights

The first point is relatively straightforward. The structural character of the capitalist system means that it inevitably and invariably militates against the realisation of its own vaunted promises. This lies at the heart of Marx’s critique of bourgeois rights in “On the Jewish Question”. Marx here acknowledges that the historical achievement of the rights of man is a step forward, but stresses that the political emancipation delivered by these rights can never lead to real, human emancipation.

The problem is that the “so-called rights of man” are the rights of atomised, public individuals–the formal freedom of free and equal commodity-exchanging individuals. But the heart of the capitalist system beats in the realm of “civil society”, in the private sphere where exploitation, inequality, and injustice are the norm. So while human rights mark a step forward, they will and must remain structurally denied and undermined in a system premised upon the exploitation of the many by the few.

This insight rings true today, when the work of moderate economists like Piketty [8], and the revelations of obscene wealth stashed in offshore accounts [9], all attest to the structural tendency of capitalism to immiserate the many, to the advantage of the few. In myriad complex ways, this system of exploitation and inequality (which takes the form of imperialism on a global scale) ensures the denial of human rights. Hence, a starting point for a Marxist understanding of human rights will be to stress that structure prevails, and that the promise of human rights can never be realised under a system of global capitalism. Violations of human rights are not an aberration, but instead are the very essence of the system.

Dialectical Analysis

A second crucial aspect of a Marxist approach to human rights is the need for a dialectical materialist understanding of human rights. While critiques of human rights abound in the left-liberal milieu, such critiques tend to repeat the analytical sins of the mainstream liberal accounts they purport to eviscerate. The first mistake is the simplistic, dichotomous rendering of human rights. Human rights are presented as either good or bad, as exclusively serving the interests of the powerful or the powerless, as either apolitical or mere ideological veneer. None of these approaches captures the true complexity of human rights as a set of social relationships and processes.

In contrast, one of the key insights of the Marxist tradition is the understanding of all phenomena as contradictory, interrelated, and in flux. With respect to human rights, this point is captured well by Ed Sparer, who once argued that “the potential contribution of human rights … coexists with their negative potential”. [10] In other words, human rights are at any given moment positive and negative–they advance the interests of the popular masses, while also sustaining and legitimating the status quo. Exactly how any particular struggle over human rights plays out depends upon the complex relation of forces in play. But human rights, as such, are neither inherently emancipatory nor inherently conservative; they are a complex combination of both tendencies.

It is essential, then, for a Marxist approach to human rights to eschew the sterile pseudo-radicalism of being “against human rights”, and dismissing human rights as always and necessarily complicit only in the maintenance of the status quo. Instead, a Marxist analysis should embrace, rather than elide, the complex character of human rights, and seek to understand the specific constellation of forces in any given human rights debate or struggle. This, of course, is frustrating in that it denies shallow certainty. But it allows for a sharper, more realistic understanding of the nature and role of human rights in the world today.

Social Struggle and Human Rights

In his “Theses on Feuerbach”, Marx famously observed that the “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. [11] This simple, rich thesis condenses the very essence of Marxism: it is a system of philosophy geared to understanding the nature of the world around us, but, crucially, with a view to transforming it. The protagonistic agency of the working and popular classes [12] is at the heart of Marxism, and therefore Marxist theory and analysis have to be focused on questions of social practice. This point is well made by Lukács, who notes that for Marxists “the culmination of all genuine theory, its consummation, [is] the point where it … breaks into practice”. [13]

As such, when it comes to human rights, Marxist analysis should, in contrast to many other critical accounts, foreground the role of social struggles in articulating, contesting, and advancing human rights claims. [14] Attending to the ways in which social movements mobilise the language of human rights in their struggles for immediate demands (e.g. housing, water, land, food, health care) can reveal how such struggles often lead to contestation of the broader social order. In this context, rather than serving as mere apologia for the extant social order, the language of human rights is routinely mobilised as an immanent critique of the shortcomings of this order.

Human rights, then, can and do provide an important resource for movements of working-class and other marginalised and oppressed peoples to contest the existing order of things, and a terrain for political struggle and education for such social groups. [15] It is crucial that Marxists engage such struggles in a way that acknowledges the potential value of such claims, and of the minor victories than can be won, while also stressing the structural character of the system of global capitalism, which necessarily militates against the meaningful protection of the interests associated with human rights claims.


As we grapple with developing Marxist theories of law and the state, theories that are adequate to the challenges of twenty-first century capitalism, the question of human rights will be one of the central points of analysis and debate. A Marxist approach to the human rights question has to be qualitatively distinct from prevailing left-liberal critiques. Rather than political quietism dressed up as radical critique, Marxist analyses should stress the tension between agency and structure, the necessary contradictions in human rights, and the centrality of social struggle in transforming understandings of rights, and society more generally. Approaching human rights from within the Marxist tradition allows for an uncompromising assessment of the real contradictions that inhere in the social practices and relationships that structure human rights. It allows us to acknowledge the potential and value of human rights, while at the same time stressing that any possibility of true human flourishing requires transcending the system of global capitalism.

[1] Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Introduction: Genealogies of Human Rights”, in Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (ed.), Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 1, 1.

[2] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology [1846], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 5 (International Publishers, 1976) 19, 209; also available at

[3] For the same (broad) argument spread out over three decades, see Steven Lukes, “Can a Marxist Believe in Human Rights?”, 4 (1981) Praxis International 334; “Marxism and Morality: Reflections on the Revolution of 1989”, 4 (1990) Ethics & International Affairs 19; “On the Moral Blindness of Communism”, 2 (2001) Human Rights Review 113; and “Marxism and Morals Today”, 24 (2015) New Labor Forum 54.

[4] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” [1843], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 3 (International Publishers, 1975) 146; also available (in different translation) at

[5] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme” [1875], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 24 (International Publishers, 1989) 75; also available (in different translation) at

[6] See Paul O’Connell, “On the Human Rights Question”, Human Rights Quarterly (forthcoming in 2018), available at

[7] Amy Bartholomew, “Should a Marxist Believe in Marx on Rights?”, 26 (1990) Socialist Register 244, 247.

[8] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014).

[9] See the information obtained and made available by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, available at

[10] Ed Sparer, “Fundamental Human Rights, Legal Entitlements, and the Social Struggle: A Friendly Critique of the Critical Legal Studies Movement”, 36 (1984) Stanford Law Review 509, 519.

[11] Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach” [1845], in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 5 (International Publishers, 1976) 3, 5 (emphases in original); also available (in different translation) at

[12] Michael A. Lebowitz, “Protagonism and Productivity”, 69 (2017) Monthly Review, available at .

[13] Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought (Verso, 2009 [1924]), 4142 (emphasis in original); also available at

[14] See Paul O’Connell, “Human Rights: Contesting the Displacement Thesis”, Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly (forthcoming in 2018), available at

[15] See, e.g., Prabhat Patnaik, “A Left Approach to Development”, 45 (2010) Economic and Political Weekly 33.

Paul O’Connell is Reader in Law and Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences at SOAS, University of London.