On the Stateless Question: Human Emancipation and the Right to Have Rights (Part One) — Nicole Landry

This post will offer a critical reading of Hannah Arendt’s concept of a “right to have rights”, presented in The Origins of Totalitarianism, through the lens of Karl Marx’s analysis of rights and emancipation in “On the Jewish Question”. I will begin by discussing Arendt’s critique of universal human rights, as well as her analyses of statelessness and rightlessness out of which this critique is developed. I will then outline her proposal of a right to have rights, focusing in particular on the kind of political community it necessitates. In the subsequent section, I will present Marx’s critique of rights and citizenship in the bourgeois state, including his important distinction between political and human emancipation. Of particular interest in understanding the latter will be his concept of “species-being”, which I will unpack with the help of the writings of Thomas E. Wartenberg and Norman Geras on Marx’s view of human nature. Bearing these in mind, I will then turn to consider Arendt’s version of the distinctly human. This is not, as we shall see, a conception of human nature per se, but of constitutive elements of what Arendt describes as the “human condition”–conditions that are necessary to a meaningful human life.

In exploring these ideas, I will endeavour to show that Arendt’s versions of the distinctly human and of political community strongly resemble similar concepts in Marx. I will also attempt to demonstrate that beneath their terminological disagreements, the two share a view of humanity in which community is a necessary precondition for individual flourishing and a vital component of human life. I will argue that Arendt expresses in rights language a normative element that is present in Marx’s theory, while Marx’s analysis sheds light on the limitations of (realizing) Arendt’s proposed right through the state. Reading the two together brings out the need to develop an approach to political community that reaches beyond the state form in order to make possible the kind of universal inclusion that Arendt calls for and that is necessary to species-being.

Statelessness and the Right to Have Rights

In “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”, her famous chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt develops a criticism of universal human rights through an analysis of the experience of stateless persons during the Second World War. [1] She describes their plight as a situation of rightlessness stemming from a lack of legal status or recognition, not only in the countries from which they had been expelled but in any country whatsoever. According to Arendt, this lack of legal status left them vulnerable to arbitrary treatment wherever they resided. Although this treatment was not always necessarily violent or malicious and could indeed be sympathetic, Arendt contends that

neither physical safety–being fed by some state or private welfare agency–nor freedom of opinion changes in the least their fundamental situation of rightlessness. The prolongation of their lives is due to charity and not to right, for no law exists that could force states to feed them; their freedom of movement, if they have it at all, gives them no right to residence which even the jailed criminal enjoys as a matter of course; and their freedom of opinion is a fool’s freedom, for nothing they think matters anyhow. [2]

Although Arendt emphasizes the “deprivation of legality” as a core element of rightlessness, it is the last point here that is paramount: more fundamental than the loss of various legal rights is the loss of community and of political life that befalls the stateless. [3] Vividly, Arendt describes their “loss of home and political status” as having become “identical with expulsion from humanity altogether”. [4] Those afflicted are rendered “superfluous” as human beings. [5]

Based on this analysis, Arendt identifies a paradox in universal human rights: although they are said to be inalienable rights possessed by all people simply by virtue of their being human, they prove incapable of protecting those who lack a political community to defend them. This contradiction follows human rights back at least to their declaration as the rights of man: from the secularization of natural law and rights in the late eighteenth century, these allegedly universal rights were bound up with the rights of citizens. Arendt notes that the only enforcement mechanism (if it can be characterized as such) established to defend these universal rights was their mapping onto domestic law as civil rights, which “were supposed to embody and spell out in the form of tangible laws the eternal Rights of Man, which by themselves were supposed to be independent of citizenship and nationality”. [6] In any given state, laws that did not meet the standard of the rights of man were “expected to change”, but this expectation was their limit, both conceptually and in practice. [7]

As we have already seen, the problem with this model, revealed by the crisis of statelessness, is that it presupposes a world in which “all human beings [are] citizens of some kind of political community”, excluding from its protections those who lack such citizenship. [8] This forms the core of what Arendt terms the “right to have rights”, which she identifies as a necessary, more fundamental right than those possessed only by citizens–essentially, a moral right to belong to a political community capable of guaranteeing other rights. [9] Arendt effectively frames this as the one true human right, applicable to all and without which the very human character of one’s existence is in jeopardy.

The specific nature of the political community required to substantively fulfill such a right is, in my view, key to determining precisely what the right entails. Multiple interpretations are possible, one of which is that the right to have rights amounts to a right to citizenship in a (nation-)state. Indeed, there is textual evidence to support this reading: in the preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt writes that in the face of the crisis of statelessness, “human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities“. [10] Even so, this language is imprecise and remains open to various possible images of political community. Further, to conceive of political communities beyond the nation-state form is consistent with the thorough critical analysis of that form’s legal and political failures that Arendt discusses. Such an alternative to the foregoing approach, as well as the need for them, will be proposed in a later section.

Legal Rights and Political Emancipation: Marx’s Critique

Much of the critique of rights that Arendt advances is already present in the early work of Karl Marx. In “On the Jewish Question” [11], Marx responds to Bruno Bauer’s assertion that in order to achieve equality, German Jews must renounce their religion, arguing to the contrary that this may well achieve equality under a secular state; what is at issue, however, is the specific type of equality being granted. Here Marx distinguishes between “political emancipation”, on the one hand, and “human emancipation”, on the other. He explains the distinction between the two by noting that “the state can liberate itself from a constraint without man himself being really liberated; that a state may be a free state without man himself being a free man“, giving the examples of the abolition of an official state religion and the abolition of property as a prerequisite for franchise and representation. In the former, the state emancipates itself from religion by relegating religion to the private sphere; humans, however, may continue to be religious in their private lives (and face discrimination for it there), and thus do not share in the emancipation achieved by the state. In the latter example, the state is emancipated from private property by removing the “property qualification” for political participation. Obviously, this does not free humans entirely from private property, but Marx notes that “[t]he property qualification is the last political form in which private property is recognized”. [13] The state abolishes distinctions based on religion, property ownership, and other conditions by depoliticizing them, making humans formally equal under the law–politically emancipated–but does not abolish the conditions for these distinctions themselves, which full human emancipation would require. [14]

In this vein, Marx critiques the “so-called rights of man, as distinct from the rights of the citizen“, defining the former as political rights and associating them with political emancipation. [15] He argues that the rights of man are “simply the rights of a member of civil society, that is, of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community”. [16] Civil society, for Marx, is the site of alienation, the economic sphere in which each “acts simply as a private individual, treats other men as means, degrades himself to the role of a mere means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers”. [17] Marx critiques the four rights of man articulated in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 for their atomizing nature. Among these rights–to equality, liberty, security, and property–the first three all serve to protect the latter, which is itself “the right to self-interest”. [18] These rights of man are founded on the “separation of man from man” and create a society which “exists only in order to guarantee for each of its members the preservation of his person, his rights, and his property”. [19] Within this framework, “political life declares itself to be only a means, whose end is the life of civil society”. [20] As a result, a division is produced between “man” and “citizen”–between the isolated individual as they live in civil society and the abstract character they assume in political life, specifically in their engagement with the bourgeois state. For Marx, true human emancipation requires the merging of these two characters into one–namely, into what he terms “species-being”. [21]

[1] Hannah Arendt, “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1985 [1951]), 267.

[2] Ibid., 296.

[3] Ibid., 295.

[4] Ibid., 297.

[5] Ibid., 296.

[6] Ibid., 293.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 296–97.

[10] Ibid., ix (emphasis added).

[11] Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” [1844], in Robert C. Tucker (ed), The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 26.

[12] Ibid., 32 (emphasis in original).

[13] Ibid., 32–33 (emphases in original).

[14] Ibid., 33.

[15] Ibid., 42 (emphases in original).

[16] Ibid. (emphasis in original).

[17] Ibid., 34.

[18] Ibid., 42.

[19] Ibid., 42–43.

[20] Ibid., 44 (emphasis in original).

[21] Ibid., 46.

Nicole Landry is a master’s student in law and legal studies at Carleton University.