A Materialist Analysis of Human Rights

Human rights discourse today is largely grounded in value judgments, and this has the effect of disguising the class interests behind human rights. Rather than human rights being progressively developed and expanded as a result of enlightenment, discussion, and liberal thought, the idea and implementation of human rights has been embedded in the class relations of the societies. Class, rather than constitutions, are the driving force behind human rights.

While a moralistic stance towards human rights can be politically useful, it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the causes. Societies don’t limit or expand public advocacy rights because the leadership is good or bad, power-hungry or humble, they’re limited or expanded based on class structure and power.

As Albert Szymanski outlined in Human Rights in the Soviet Union, there’s 13 factors determining the limitation and tolerance of public advocacy in any given society:

1. The greater the domestic threat from any movement that attacks the basic system of property and privilege, the less the tolerance of public advocacy that challenges the system.

2. The greater the need to mobilize people for war (especially civil war) or overseas intervention, or the greater the threat from external powers, the less will public advocacy of anti-war ideas be tolerated.

3. The less secure the ideological hegemony of the dominant class, the less the willing acceptance of the prevailing property and political arrangements, the less the tolerance of public advocacy of ideas that attack property and the state.

4. The greater the popular feelings that the symbols of the society (the flag, patriotic myths, heroes, etc.) are sacrosanct, the greater the sentiments of group solidarity, the greater the emotional enthusiasm, then the lesser the tolerance of public advocacy of ideas opposed to the system.

5. The fewer the number of people benefiting and the greater the number of people suffering from the operation of a society, the less the tolerance of public advocacy of ideas opposed to the system

6. Regimes which need to dominate former ruling groups with high levels of expectations about returning to power, and high levels of organization and mobilization skills, are less tolerant of oppositional views than regimes that dominate those with lower levels of expectations and organizational and mobilization skills..

7. The more the dominant group of society is concerned to change (as opposed to preserve) popular consciousness and conduct, the less is public advocacy of anti-system ideas tolerated.

8. The more a society relies on moral incentives or ideological mobilization (as opposed to economic incentives and physical coercion) to motivate labor and social contributions, the greater the need to secure the dominant ideology, the lesser the tolerance of conflicting ideologies.

9. The greater a society’s need for innovation, the greater will be the tolerance of ideas that challenge the system; because the lower the level of tolerance, the less likely are useful and original responses to society’s problems to develop and stagnation avoided.

10. The greater the economic diversity of the ruling group, the greater the need for open debate and free expression of diverse opinion within it to enable compromises to be negotiated and solidarity maintained. Hence the greater the level of tolerance of diverse opinions within ruling groups, such as in parliamentary forms and formal public advocacy rights developed in the most commercial societies.

11. The corollary of the need for decision-makers in any society to be aware of potential social discontent, etc., is a social tolerance of freely expressed opinions; that is, the maintenance of public advocacy rights as a “barometer of discontent”.

12. The public expression of ideas which fail to have a significant social effect serves as a safety-valve for discontent and to legitimate the existing power structure, since such tolerance seems to be proof of freedom. This process has been called repressive tolerance since such formal freedom, in fact, weakens substantive freedom. To formally prohibit the expression of ideas generates potentially dangerous resentments that freedom of expression, even if ineffectual, successfully neutralizes.

For the reasons outlined in 11 and 12 under stable conditions societies will tend to expand the range of tolerated opinions in order to strengthen the existing power structure

13. The greater the danger that repression may precipitate large scale social disorder, the greater will be the level of tolerance for those fundamentally opposed to the system to express their ideas publicly.