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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

Should a Marxist believe in human rights?

Justine Lacroix


Pour la plupart des interprètes, il existe une opposition radicale entre la pensée de Karl Marx et les revendications en faveur des droits de l’homme. Cette grille de lecture s’est trouvée récemment contestée par David Leopold. Dans l’ouvrage qu’il a consacré au jeune Marx, ce dernier plaide qu’il y a peu de traces d’une réelle hostilité au concept de droit chez l’auteur de Sur la question juive. Cette interprétation stimulante n’est pas tout à fait convaincante. Il semble difficile de nier que Marx est resté prisonnier d’une version idéologique des droits de l’homme. En revanche, on peut argumenter que la pensée de Marx souffre, sur la question des droits, d’une incohérence logique et qu’elle présente en son sein les ressources nécessaires pour résister aux violations faites aux droits de l’homme.


Philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

  • 1 Karl Marx, Thesis XI on Feuerbach, cited by Philippe Van Parijs to illustrate the philosophers tas (...)

Karl Marx1

1Nearly thirty years ago, Steven Lukes published an article entitled ’Can a Marxist Believe in Human Rights?’ He answered his own question categorically, saying that ’the Marxist canon provides no reason for protecting Human Rights (…) a Marxist cannot, in the sense indicated, believe in Human Rights. Many non-hypocritical and non-self-deceiving Marxists who do can only therefore be revisionists’ (Lukes 1982: 344). To be sure, Lukes did not argue that it was impossible for those with Marxist affiliations and beliefs to subscribe to the concept of human rights. He did, however, maintain that they could not do so consistently: for Lukes, ’to take human rights seriously’ – that is, to give priority to the interests they presuppose and the obligations they impose – was ’not to take Marxism seriously’ (Lukes 1985: 70).

2Indeed, Marx’s early diatribe against human rights as ’nothing but the rights of the member of civil society, that is selfish man, man separated from his fellow men and from the community’ is well known (Marx 2007: 44). Proclaimed as universal rights pertaining to the abstract individual, Marx suspected that human rights in fact promoted the interests of a highly specific person: the property-owning individual in the capitalist system. Moreover, he argued, bourgeois ideology defined not only the context in which rights emerged, but also their form itself (Waldron 1987: 126). The nature of these rights is ultimately selfish, since it assumes that there will always be a significant enough potential for conflict between individuals to make a coercive authority necessary in order to ensure that the actions of others do not endanger the individual’s pursuit of his/her own interests. In short, according to Marx’s interpretation, human rights feed what today we call ’social atomism’.

3However, the term ’atomism’ is misplaced here, since what Marx emphasized was in fact the difference between social ’atoms’ and members of civil society. In The Holy Family, he thus observed that the defining characteristic of an atom is its self-sufficiency and autonomy. The selfish individual, on the other hand, may cherish the illusion of being a self-sufficient atom, but reality is there to remind him that he does in fact have needs. This is why one can say that a definite bond exists between the members of civil society in the shape of interest. This is the source of the contradiction that trapped Robespierre, Saint-Just and their followers: that of believing it possible at once to proclaim the rights of man – the rights of general competition, anarchy and individualism – and, at the same time, to model collective life on that of antiquity.

Leopold’s interpretation

4On first glance, it therefore seems difficult – following Lukes and most other commentators – to deny the existence of a radical opposition between Marxist thought and the claims made for human rights. However, the certainties of this interpretative scheme were arguably shaken by the publication of David Leopold’s The Young Karl Marx in 2007. In this study devoted to Marx’s early writings, the author affirms that – contrary to ’an interpretative commonplace’ – he can find ’little sign of this purported hostility to moral rights either in this text or elsewhere in the early writings’ (Leopold 2009: 150).

5The first step of Leopold’s argument is to contest the moral status of individuals in Marx’s work. In the broadest sense, to affirm that an entity has rights amounts to saying that it enjoys an independent moral status. To say that someone has ’rights’ means, in this sense, that one considers an individual as an end in herself. Now, it seems clear that the young Marx believed in rights in this broad definition. For instance, he evidently believed that individuals have an intrinsic moral meaning. He argues vigorously against ’objectification’, that is treating human beings as objects or commodities. Thus, when Marx deplores modern working conditions for reducing the worker to a machine, he is in fact condemning the mistreatment of an entity with independent moral status as if it were an entity without any defined status (Leopold 2009: 150).

6It might nonetheless not be too much of a surprise, continues Leopold, to see that the young Marx believed in rights in this broad sense. According to the same definition, practically all normative theories might be interpreted as subscribing to rights. When commentators observe that Marx is hostile to the idea of rights, they are working on the assumption of a more restricted conception of rights. Rights in this narrow sense are defined as the prohibition of certain actions even if those actions could lead to a better collective result. In this definition, rights are seen as an independent paradigm which recognizes the moral value of factors outside the expected outcome of the action, and invests these factors with an importance over and above the outcome.

7But once more, in Leopold’s view, the concept of ’objectification’ in Marx’s work seems to correspond to this more restricted notion of rights. Thus when Marx identifies a number of ways in which a poor individual’s life, skills and work count only as guarantees against a loan, ’Marx is not simply saying that humans have a moral standing which dollar bills lack; he is claiming that humans have a moral standing which we have a duty to respect and which we fail to respect if we treat them (at least treat them systematically) in certain ways, namely as if they were objects’ (Leopold 2009: 153). In other words, Marx holds in his early writings that individuals do indeed have a moral right not to be systematically treated as objects, and that if we treat them as such we violate that right. This injunction not to treat human beings as objects implies a deontological interpretation in as much as it posits the existence of moral considerations independently of any positive outcome of actions.

8One might, however, object here that Marx’s vision of rights must not be reconstituted on the basis of his beliefs about the moral status of individuals: that one should instead look at what Marx said explicitly about rights themselves, and would then see that he shunned any reference to rights. But in Leopold’s analysis, Marx’s early writings reveal little evidence of such hostility to the idea of rights. In particular, one might argue that On the Jewish Question is not in fact an attack on rights in themselves. When Marx analyses ’human rights’ as separate from citizen rights, it must be remembered that his main aim was to refute the argument of Bruno Bauer: that holding a particular religious belief or displaying a particular form of selfishness were good reasons for excluding individuals from the benefits brought about by human rights. Marx consistently avoids condemning the benefit itself (freedom of conscience, expression and association) or refusing the fact that individuals have a right to these benefits. Rather, he critiques the way in which they are understood and implemented by modern states. In other words, the aim of the discussion of rights in On the Jewish Question is to refute Bauer’s argument that the selfish and religious nature of the Jewish population should bar it from access to human rights: ’Marx’s own argumentative strategy in this discussion is not to attack the very concept of right, but rather to reject this contemporary justification for excluding Jews from the possession of human rights’ (Leopold 2009: 161). The basis for critique is in fact not so much rights, but rather a model of political life that underestimates the value of community and citizenship by making the partial individual of civil society the only real human being.

A narrow view of the significance of human rights

9Albeit highly original and developed, Leopold’s new reading of human rights in Marx’s oeuvre is not truly convincing.

10The first limitation of Leopold’s argument lies in its insistence on the immediate historical context of Marx’s work. The focus on the context for On the Jewish Question certainly serves to remind us that Marx’s first objective was to refute Bauer’s argument that the Jewish population should not see the benefits of political emancipation. In other words, this work in practice pleads in favour of recognizing equality of rights for the Jewish population. But in the same gesture, the emphasis on the immediate context of On the Jewish Question hides the fact that the denigration of human rights was a consistent feature of Marx’s works, and one which therefore goes well beyond his reply to Bauer – whether in The Holy Family, The German Ideology or the Critique of the Gotha Program. At the very end of his life, Marx explicitly emphasized that ’rights can never be higher than the economic form of society and the cultural development which is conditioned by it’ and that only ’in a higher phase of communist society (…) can the limited horizon of bourgeois right be wholly transcended’ (Marx 2010: 214-215).

11As Claude Lefort has demonstrated, Marx failed to see the truly political dimension of the ’human rights’ (e.g. the right to resist oppression, the right of association, the right to freedom) that he contrasted with citizen rights – and as a result interpreted them as individualist by definition (Lefort 1986 : 245-259). It seems difficult to deny that in Marx’s view, human rights were selfish by definition and citizen rights were by the same token contaminated by the atomist nature of capitalism (Waldron 1987: 12). More specifically, Marx gave credence to the liberal idea that the Declaration had instituted the separation of the social and the political, of the public and the private. As Etienne Balibar has written, this is ’a complete misunderstanding with the respect to the letter, the materiality of the text. Man in the Declaration is not a private individual in opposition to the citizen who would be the member of the state. He is precisely the citizen….’ (Balibar 1994: 46). A rereading of the 1789 text is enough to show that a number of the rights identified as ’human rights’ – liberty, resistance to oppression, free communication of thoughts and opinion – necessarily bind the subject to other subjects.

12Furthermore, Marx failed to grasp the destabilizing nature of rights discourse: that the lack of ultimate basis for human rights could, by way of its indeterminacy and resistance to clear definition, contribute to furthering the struggle for emancipation. Marx did not see that a politics of human rights ”begins by taking democracy to its limits (…) in order to mark immediately that the rights that we have have no reality and no value except as political rights, rights of the citizens, and even as unlimited right of all men to citizenship” (Balibar 1994: 212). Marx remained in thrall to the ideological narrative of rights, without grasping what they might mean in practice and how they might be agents of radical social change (Lefort 1986). He failed to realize that the words of the Declaration had themselves immediately escaped the control of those who had penned them, going on instead to furnish claims for women’s rights, workers’ rights or the rights of colonized peoples (Balibar 1994: 43). Marx did not pick up on the third way between human rights as an abstraction and citizen rights, subsequently envisaged by Ranciere: that rights might be ’the rights of those who have not the rights that they have and have the rights that they have not’ (Ranciere 2006: 61). Put differently, rights can give rise to consciousness of rights, so that individuals and groups may imagine and act in light of rights that have not yet been formally recognized or enforced by officials (Mc Cann 2004: 7). In this sense, Lukes’s argument that ’Marxism has inherited too narrow an account of the significance of rights and too narrow a view of the circumstances that render them necessary’ remains broadly sound (Lukes 1985: 66).

Was Marx coherent in condemning human rights?

13Nevertheless, without claiming to find a positive interpretation on human rights in Marx’s writings – a claim that would require grave distortion of a number of texts published after On the Jewish Question – one can still suggest that his thought suffers from a logical incoherence on the subject. More specifically, one could extrapolate to human rights Jon Elster’s remark about Marx’s explicit denial of advocating a particular conception of justice: ’It remains a puzzle how Marx could hold these views and also characterize capitalism and communism in terms that strongly suggest a particular conception of justice. One is left with the answer, although it is difficult to accept when interpreting a writer of Marx’s stature, that he did not really understand what he was doing. He was a bit like M. Jourdain (…) who is astonished to learn that he has been speaking prose all his life without knowing he was doing something so fancy. Unlike M. Jourdain, however, Marx went out of his way to refute the correct description of what he was doing’ (Elster 1999 : 93).

  • 2 «Das Recht»

14How can we otherwise explain Marx’s appeal to the same concept of ’right’ in order to reply (in the negative) to his question to Bauer: ’If Bauer asks the Jews: from your standpoint do you have the right to desire political emancipation? Then we ask in return: does the standpoint of political emancipation have the right2 to demand of the Jews the abolition of Judaism, and of mankind in general the abolition of religion?’ (Marx 2007: 32) Instead of attempting to reveal that Marx was in no way opposed to the concept of right – as Leopold does when he cites this important passage (Leopold 2009: 159) – it is more useful to borrow from Elster’s formula and suggest that ’Marx is arguing in prose against the possibility of speaking prose’ (Elster 1999: 97)

15One can advance, in other words, that Marx’s theory – although certainly not presented as a theory of human rights – nevertheless provides at its core the tools to resist any attack on human rights. The dramas being played out today around human rights claims – the defence of the individual considered as ’authentic’ in her universal capacity for freedom above and beyond the citizen and his belonging to a particular national or historical community – can look to Marx’s theory of the means of social production for support. Marx’s rejection of the ideology of human rights, then, does not mean that his theory of social history runs contrary to affirming the principle that humans as individuals have a right to define themselves as absolute ends by freely stating their liberty.


16This last idea brings us back to Steven Lukes’s question: ’Can a Marxist Believe in Human Rights?’ If a ’Marxist’ is someone who follows the Marxist text with literalist fervour, the answer undoubtedly remains ’no’. If, however, a Marxist is someone who – albeit recognizing that Marxist theories are ’shot through with errors of detail, even have basic conceptual flaws, yet remain immensely fertile in [their] overall conception’ – can ’trace the ancestry of his most important beliefs back to Marx’ (Elster 1999: 3-4) the answer then becomes: ’Yes, she can. And in fact, she should’. This moreover, is what Steven Lukes himself means when he asks whether the Marxist conception of liberty can really be achieved without elaborating a true theory of justice and rights in its support (Lukes 1985: 149).



BALIBAR, E. (1994), Masses, Classes, Ideas. Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx, London: Routledge.

ELSTER, J. (1999), An Introduction to Karl Marx, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

LEOPOLD, D., (2009), The Young Karl Marx. German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

LUKES, S. (1982) ’Can a Marxist Believe in Human Rights?’, Praxis International, 1 (4): 334-346.

LUKES, S. (1985), Marxism and Morality, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

MARX, K. (2007), Early Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MARX, K. (2010), Later Political Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MC CANN M. (1994), Rights at Work. Pay Equity and the Politics of Legal Mobilization, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

LEFORT, Cl. (1986), The Political Forms of Modern Society. Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, Cambridge: MIT Press.

RANCIÈRE, J. (2006), Hathred of Democracy, London: Verso.

WALDRON, J. (1987), Nonsense upon Stilts. Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man, London: Methuen.


1 Karl Marx, Thesis XI on Feuerbach, cited by Philippe Van Parijs to illustrate the philosophers task during a teaching seminar with Luuk van Middelaar and Helder De Schutter at the Facultes Universitaires Saint-Louis, Brussels, 24 February 2011.

2 «Das Recht»


Justine Lacroix is Professor in the Department of Politics at the Université libre de Bruxelles and an Associate Professor at Sciences-Po Paris. She recently co-edited European Stories. How Intellectuals Debate Europe in their National Contexts (Oxford U.P., 2010, with K. Nicolaïdis) and is the author of La pensée française à lépreuve de lEurope (Grasset, 2008), LEurope en procès (Cerf, 2004), Communautarisme versus libéralisme (ULB, 2003) and Michaël Walzer. Le pluralisme et luniversalisme (Michalon, 2001). In 2010, she was awarded an ERC Starting Grant for her project Human Rights versus Democracy? Towards a Conceptual Genealogy of Skepticism about Human Rights in Contemporary Political Thought (RESIST).

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011


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