Marxist Critique of Human Rights

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents, 1565

What Are Rights?

Human rights stem from the philosophical tradition, and specifically the notion of natural rights developed by philosophers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. Locke argued that there were three major natural rights: the right to life, liberty, and property. For Locke, natural rights are self-evident, and they come from the law of nature. The law of nature is reason, which “teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”1 In traditional philosophy, the positing of any law of nature presupposes the existence of God. While the right to life seems obvious at face value, the rights to liberty and property are interdependent. For Locke, the right to property means the right to the fruits of our own labor. If I appropriate wood from nature and build a home with it, then the home is mine because it was created through my labor. Liberty entails a negative right, in the sense that I am free from others who would attempt to violate my life, liberty, or property. For Locke, civil society ought to preserve man’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property, while punishing offenders of these natural rights. Hobbes, on the other hand, posits only one natural right, which is the right to self-preservation.2 He argues that the right of nature entails that every man has a right to preserve their life. Hobbes, like Locke, defines liberty as freedom from things that take away his natural right. Since all people are equally powerful, in the sense that anyone has the capacity to kill someone, men enter into a social contract to maintain peace and each others’ liberty. The only way to ensure the social contract is through a common power that has the authority and ability to protect all from each other and foreigners. This common power is the Sovereign, who establishes the morality of the state, the legislature, and is not subject to civil laws. 

For both Locke and Hobbes, rights are negative in the sense that we have the right to protect ourselves from those who would seek to violate our rights. Furthermore, they both build their notion of rights on the state of nature and argue that rights are either self-evident or are an essential part of humanity. Any traditional notion of a human nature/essence presupposes a God/creator that endows all humans with a common essence, although later theories of human nature turn to evolution/biology as a basis. 

While the classical theorists assert negative rights, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights adds positive rights.3 Positive rights are rights that individuals ought to receive from society, such as education, healthcare, and so on. They were not the first to do so, as Mary Wollstonecraft had already advocated for the universal right to education4, but it was significant in that an international body legally incorporated positive rights for the first time. While retaining the classical negative rights such as the right to free speech, a free trial, freedom of religion, and so on, the UN added the right to education, leisure, work, cultural participation, and a decent standard of living.

Unless one bases human rights on God or human nature, then rights must be social constructs. It is not to say that rights do not exist, but that they are concepts created by humans to designate how a society ought to treat its members. For Locke, a society must have a government that protects the rights of its members. For Hobbes, the members of a society must submit to the Sovereign in exchange for the protection of their rights. Some modern theorists defend a system of laws which protect the rights of individuals. For others, the government must not only protect individuals’ rights, but individuals are also entitled to an education, healthcare, and other forms of social welfare which the government must guarantee. To conclude, human rights, in the way that they are used, are concepts that designate how a society ought to treat its members and the protections individuals have from the state. 

However, rights are also used by governments, the media, and individuals to criticize governments, both foreign and domestic, usually for violating and/or not recognizing human rights. An example of the former is that the American media and politicians criticize a country like Cuba for violating its citizens’ freedom. This is hypocritical because the US is a country that is illegally operating a prison, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where people are detained by the American Government without any trial or due process.5 Furthermore, Guantanamo Bay uses illegal practices such as torture on the people they illegally detain in the first place. It is obvious that when the American media and government criticize countries, usually those like Cuba which disrupt the political and economic hegemony of the United States, it is not because they actually care about the supposed violation of human rights. Individuals also invoke human rights when criticizing their own governments. For example, one could argue that the United States violates the human rights of those they incarcerate through cruel and unusual punishment.6 Another example is Angela Davis, who argues that black people have always been subjected to unjust laws and institutions in the United States.7 Whenever black people resist oppressive institutions, such as slavery or segregation, they are imprisoned and demonized. She uses the example of Nat Turner, black abolitionists, the Black Panthers, and others. Regardless, it is evident that rights serve a polemical function; human rights are invoked in the context of politics and they are a rhetorical tool designed to add weight to any critique. Jeremy Bentham concludes that rights are, “simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense,—nonsense upon stilts.”8

Critique of Human Rights

Since human rights are concepts that designate how a society ought to treat its members, as well as the protections individuals ought to have from society, then it is perfectly reasonable that law and morality would overlap when theorizing human rights. The law is supposed to designate a set of rules which protect individuals, and if it is broken, the transgressor is subjected to the judicial system which will render ‘justice’. The law is negative in the sense that it is only concerned with what individuals ought not to do. I shouldn’t kill people, steal from people, commit fraud, drink and drive, and so on. Morality, on the other hand, is concerned with what people ought to do. I believe that human rights are only meaningful if they fall in the domain of morality rather than the law. To illustrate my point, I don’t believe it is meaningful to say “I can do whatever I want” in response to someone criticizing me for, hypothetically, berating my dog for no reason. Of course anybody can do whatever they want, that is not in question here. What’s at question is what someone ought to do, and I should not berate my dog even if I can “do whatever I want”. While the protections that individuals ought to receive from society would fall under the domain of law, the way individuals in a society ought to treat each other is in the domain of morality. The problem is that most conceptions of human rights offered by philosophers focus primarily on the ‘protections from society’ aspect of the equation. 

To start with, the law is fundamentally formal, repressive, and bourgeois. Louis Althusser argues that the law is necessarily formal in that it doesn’t concern itself with the content of what is exchanged between legal persons, but rather the form of the contracts regulating these exchanges.9 Thus, the law may be invoked by every person regarded as a legal person. Since the law is only concerned with the form of exchange, and not the content of an exchange, and since capitalist societies are defined by relationships of exploitation (worker/boss or tenant/landlord), then the law abstracts and conceals these relationships of exploitation. To use a concrete example, according to the law, a worker and a company are equal persons. Therefore, when they sign a contract of employment, it is done from an equal standpoint. However, this is not true as the company clearly possesses the power, and the worker is subjected to their power if they want the job. People are forced to work in the capitalist system because that is the only way in which one can survive. To do so, people need food, water, and shelter, which is just the bare minimum. Under capitalism, all of these basic needs have been commodified and thus cost money to attain. One can only have money if they inherit it from family (or from some benevolent figure), or by selling their labor in exchange for a wage. If one is forced to work, then that person is not free entering an exchange as the potential worker is subjected to the whims of the boss. The law is also repressive, according to Althusser, because it relies on a system of sanctions in order to be enforced, and consequently a penal code. He says, “Constraint implies sanction; sanction implies repression, and therefore, necessarily, an apparatus of repression.”10 The apparatus of repression refers to the courts, prisons, police, and the totality of the judicial-penal system that enforce the law (the repressive state apparatus). The law exists to defend private property, and is therefore a class weapon. The members of the bourgeoisie are the only ones with substantial private property, while the working masses are property-less. As Angela Davis says, 

“The occurrence of crime is inevitable in a society in which wealth is unequally distributed, as one of the constant reminders that society’s productive forces are being channeled in the wrong direction. The majority of criminal offenses bear a direct relationship to property. Contained in the very concept of property, crimes are profound but suppressed social needs which express themselves in anti-social modes of action.”11

The law protects the property and interests of the bourgeoisie, and it is in this sense that the law is necessarily bourgeois.

Furthermore, the law is not equivalent to morality. The US Bill of Rights is supposed to protect an individual’s human rights, which include the rights to free speech, the freedom to practice any religion, the right to a fair trial, and so on. As a result, there is a misconception in contemporary society where people believe that the law is equivalent to morality. This logic posits that if you break the law, you’re a bad person, and the inverse; if you don’t break the law, you’re a good person. This logic manifests itself anytime an accused criminal/rapist is brought up. If you call an accused rapist a bad person, such as Cristiano Ronaldo, then someone will pipe in and say “what happened to innocent until proven guilty?!” These people do not understand that the principle of innocent until proven guilty only applies to the legal system. I don’t need OJ Simpson to be legally convicted of murder, when the evidence overwhelmingly implicates him, to know he’s a bad person.12 On the flip side, there are many people in our prison system who are serving huge sentences for petty crimes, such as possessing marijuana. Are these people, who like millions of others were using recreational drugs, bad people? I think it’s clear that not only are they not bad people, but it is unjust for them to serve long sentences for petty crimes. People break the law in capitalist societies not because they are inherently bad people, but because our society distributes resources based on the laws of commodity exchange, which means many people are left without the resources they need if they do not have the money. To the point, morality is different from law; good is not equivalent to the law, and bad is not equivalent to breaking the law. Furthermore, we need to question the practice of categorizing people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which ignores the messy reality where everyone does good and bad things.

A problem with traditional human rights theories is the presupposition of ‘bad’ people. Classical theorists assume that murderers, rapists, and thieves are inevitable and necessary. As if God stamps individuals with ‘good’ or ‘evil’ as they roll across the production line. What bourgeois theorists miss, because of their ideological presuppositions, is why people come to do bad things. More often than not, it is a result of environmental factors, such as abusive parents, bullying, and toxic home environments in general. Sometimes, it is a matter of class and race, as people born into lower and oppressed classes have less resources and need to do what they can to survive. Davis says, “It should be borne in mind that not all prisoners have actually committed crimes. The built-in racism of the judicial system expresses itself, as Du Bois has suggested, in the railroading of countless innocent blacks and other national minorities into the country’s coercive institutions.”13 Most incarcerated prisoners are not imprisoned because they are bad people, they are imprisoned for racial, and thus political, reasons. One may object and point to the extreme cases such as the serial killers, sociopaths and psychopaths ‘born’ with an inclination towards violence. While there will always be extreme cases of violent individuals, a society which promotes ruthless individualism and which is based on a punitive system of justice does not do anything to help. The presupposition that some people are inherently bad and are incapable of any moral accountability is flawed. Even assuming these ‘bad’ people did necessarily exist, why do philosophers such as Locke and Hobbes jump to punitive legal systems? If someone commits a murder, will locking them up and isolating them from society, essentially reciprocating the violence, really do anything? Why do we need to punish them? The answer to this rhetorical question relies on the same assumption above, that some people are intrinsically bad, so murders and crimes will always occur. Punishment is, therefore, the best deterrent. However, anyone who has studied the United States’ legal system, which is premised on punishment as a deterrent, will find that we have one of the highest recidivism rates in the world.14 In other words, once someone leaves jail, there is a high percentage chance that they will be re-arrested within five years, which means their first stint(s) in jail clearly didn’t deter them! To conclude, even if we accept the logic that there are people who are intrinsically bad, even though I reject that, then punishing them does nothing except inflict further damage. 

Human rights also rely on the presupposition of a separation between the people and the State. Or in other words, it is assumed that humans, by nature, will always live in a society where they are subjected to a state or government. In, “On the Jewish Question,” Karl Marx criticizes the basic concepts of human rights for being egoistic.15 He, “note[s] the fact that the so-called rights of man… are nothing but the rights of a member of civil societyi.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.”16 In the logic of human rights, liberty means that one has the right to do what does not harm others, which already assumes that an individual is to be separate from others. He says, “the right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself.” 17 The right to private property logically follows from this separation from society. If everyone is an isolated, egoistic individual, then everyone will be concerned about protecting their property from others. All ‘rights’ rest on this separation from the individual from the community. This is contrary to humanity, because humans are social animals. Therefore, for Marx, posing Jewish emancipation from the perspective of political emancipation misses the point. A person is only liberated when they “recognize and organize his “own powers” as social powers, and, consequently, no longer separates social power from himself in the shape of political power, only then will human emancipation have been accomplished.” 18 In other words, true emancipation is not political emancipation where individuals have their rights recognized. Human rights rest on the existence of a capitalist mode of production, where individuals are isolated from each other and subjected to the State. Human rights obscure the sources of wealth, the role of the state, the history of the state, the nature of production, and the source of commodities. Furthermore, the law is built on this understanding of humanity, where egoistic individuals are pitted against each other which necessitates ‘law’ to protect our property and personhood. As if, without the law, individuals would ruthlessly murder and steal from each other. Bourgeois notions of human rights and laws presuppose humans as they are in capitalist society. Consequently, Marxists need to critically assess human rights and investigate whether they have any meaning.

Some theorists, like Darren O’Byrne, argue that human rights are roughly consistent with Marxism.19 O’Byrne recognizes Marx’s critique of human rights in “On the Jewish Question” and the “Critique of the Gotha Programme”, but maintains that a commitment to human rights strengthens Marxism. The human rights that Marxists would support are economic and social rights (positive), compared to the traditional negative rights. However, O’Byrne seems to possess a flawed understanding of Marxism as a project of individual emancipation. He says, “The struggle for equality and social justice in an inherently unequal and unjust capitalist system, for the personal autonomy and positive freedom of each individual to flourish regardless of her or his place in the relations of production, is entirely appropriately framed as a struggle for rights, and in this sense, the achievement of human rights which are absolute and unconditional becomes a legitimate strategic goal of the revolution.” 20 O’Byrne’s notion of revolution is ambiguous as he doesn’t specify what a ‘revolution’ entails. There are two notions of change in Marxism: one entails revolutionizing capitalist society from within the existing political apparatuses to produce a socialist society, which is reformism. Eduard Bernstein is the major proponent of this view, and he argued that socialists do not need to pursue revolution because capitalist production was able (by the 1900s) to meet the needs of all of society. The other notion of change in Marxism, and what is traditionally associated with it, is the overthrow of capitalist society via a mass uprising, which is revolution proper. This is the position of most Marxists, like Marx, Lenin, and Mao, and they argue it is only possible to build socialism once capitalism is overthrown. O’Byrne’s argument is only intelligible if his understanding of socialist change is reformism. However, Marxism entails a wholesale rejection of this view because it has been proven, time and time again, that capitalist society cannot be revolutionized from within. The historical examples are abundant, as there is the SPD in Germany, Allende’s Chile, and, if we’re being generous, Western welfare states. To conclude, Marxism is not a project of individual emancipation. Rather, it is a project of collective emancipation based on a scientific understanding of history and class struggle. Marxists don’t need for moral justification for revolution, Marxists fight for revolution because it is politically and economically necessary. The capitalist, and imperialist, system is already waging war against the exploited and oppressed classes. Fighting back through class struggle is merely self-defense.

Another philosopher, Egidijus Mardosas, follows O’Byrne in arguing that ethics is pivotal to understanding Marx.21 He argues that Althusser’s thesis of an epistemological break in Marx, where there is an early, philosophical Marx and a later, economic Marx, is proven wrong by the volume of writings demonstrating Marx’s ethical foundations.22 He then spends the rest of his essay detailing an Aristotelian and ethical interpretation of Marx, which he grounds in the 1844 Manuscripts. However, Mardosas’ argument is premised on a rejection of the epistemological break thesis, which he does not seem to understand. Althusser did not argue that there were literally two, distinct Marxs. Rather, he argued that Marx was originally a Feuerbachian who thought in the problematic of Feuerbach, and thus Hegel.23 Overtime, as Marx experienced events such as the Revolutions of 1848 and the development of capitalism in England, he turned to a study of classical political economy. In the process, Marx revolutionized the concepts and theories he inherited from traditional philosophy, such as alienation and contradiction, and turned them into completely new ones. Althusser does not literally posit that there are two Marx’s, but that Marx’s views were revolutionized based on his experience of the class struggle. Mardosas argues that new volumes of literature on Marx’s ethical foundations disprove Althusser’s thesis, but they do not as Althusser was already aware of and actively responding to this literature. 

Human rights are not compatible with Marxism because they depend on the same problematic as concepts like human nature and the state of nature. French epistemologist Gaston Bachelard, who famously argues that every science develops unevenly through epistemological ruptures, contra to a progressive history of science, introduced the concept of a problematic, which I have already referenced.24 A problematic refers to the structure of a theory: it’s questions, the posing of questions, its answers, and its method.25 Problematics can be specific to an individual thinker, for example the Cartesian problematic, or can refer to an entire conceptual field. Althusser, building on Bachelard, used the problematic to analyze Marx’s theoretical development. Returning to the point, human rights is a concept that stems out of the problematic of traditional philosophy. Locke and Hobbes both constructed their notion of right on the ‘state of nature’. Even if contemporary conceptions of right move away from the state of nature and human nature, they are embedded within this problem. This is because they all depend on similar presuppositions, like the egoistic individual, the separation between the individual and society, the existence of ‘bad’ people, and so on. Marxism is not in continuity with the problematic of bourgeois philosophy, it is a theoretical revolution that rejects any notion of an immutable human ‘essence’. 

To conclude, the law is inherently bourgeois in that it presupposes antagonistic social relations. The law is also not equivalent to morality, as the law is based on protecting property while morality is based on the goal of human flourishing. Traditional conceptions of human rights seem to have two goals in mind: to articulate how a society ought to treat its individuals, and the protections individuals ought to have from society. The former is the domain of morality, the latter is the domain of law. Human rights depend more on the latter than the former, and for this reason any Marxist should dismiss the use of human rights. Furthemore, human rights depend on a larger presupposition, which is the separation of the individual and society.

The Meaning, Transformation, and Uses of Concepts

While human rights in the way that they are used and theorized now are bourgeois concepts, this doesn’t mean that they cannot be used polemically by Marxists, radicals, or other critics of bourgeois society. No concept necessarily possesses a fixed meaning, and concepts can be revised, revolutionized, or appropriated. The history of human rights themselves even demonstrates how this can happen, as human rights were originally natural rights but were secularized overtime and became human rights. I will use two examples to show the different ways concepts can be changed: Lenin’s notions of democracy and Althusser’s (following Mao Tse-Tsung) arguments on human nature. Lenin’s appropriation of democracy demonstrates how Marxists can polemically use human rights to struggle against bourgeois ideology. Althusser follows Lenin in demonstrating how human nature can also be appropriated by Marxists. 

While human rights are quite meaningless to invoke literally if you’re a Marxist, it is still possible to use human rights polemically since human rights add weight to any critique. Therefore, Marxists can invoke/appropriate human rights to criticize bourgeois society. Lenin himself appropriated democracy to criticize bourgeois society. In “Bourgeois and Proletarian Democracy”, he argues that bourgeois democracy (Western democracy) only protects the rights and freedoms of the bourgeois, while the rights of the proletariat are trampled upon and exploited.26 He says, “Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor.” 27 Lenin is arguing against other socialists, mainly Kautsky, who want “pure” democracy. Lenin argues that he fundamentally misunderstands that in class societies, there can only be democracy for a given class, because classes are always antagonistic. Lenin’s understanding of democracy is built on his understanding of the state. Lenin argues in State and Revolution that all states are the manifestations of irreconcilable class antagonisms.28 The state is formed to regulate and maintain order in the face of class antagonisms. For Lenin though, the state is always the dictatorship of one class or bloc of classes over other classes. Therefore, in capitalist countries the state is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. Lenin claims that after a socialist revolution, classes will still exist as the bourgeoisie isn’t completely eliminated in one stroke. This means that a socialist state must become a dictatorship of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Likewise, under socialism, there must be proletarian democracy rather than bourgeois democracy. For Lenin, democracy is a bourgeois construct that can be re-claimed by the working class in their fight for liberation. Only once there are no classes can there be true democracy. 

Althusser makes a similar move with his analysis of human nature. In For Marx, he argues that the bulk of the philosophical tradition is idealist.29 This idealist problematic presupposes a problematic of human nature, which relies on two premises: that there is a universal essence (or the myth) of man, and that in each human this essence can be located. He argues that by rejecting the essence of man, which is the basic premise of all of philosophy, Marx rejects the whole of philosophy (mostly empiricism). Marx, through his discovery of historical materialism, history is driven by the class struggle, establishes a materialist and rejects the old ideological problematic. In other words, Marx rejects the notion that human nature can be boiled down into a single essence, which most of philosophy attempts to do. Althusser counterposes bourgeois/ideological humanism against socialist humanism. The latter is defined by the liberation of the proletarian class from the chains of capitalism and imperialism. It is a particular humanism that stems from revolutionary necessity. Bourgeois humanism, which is the more general form, is defined by abstraction. As with Lenin and ‘democracy’, Marxists must revolutionize human nature in the ideological struggle against bourgeois ideology. For Althusser and other Marxists, a notion of proletarian human nature implies that human nature is always changing and reflective of a society’s social relations. Since socialists want an egalitarian society where workers control production and the products of labor are distributed according to need, rather than profit, then a socialist society ought to foster a proletarian human nature. 

While I don’t think Marxists should necessarily take ‘human rights’ seriously, a wholesale rejection of human rights is not wise. If the goal of Marxists is to produce a revolution, then history tells us this must happen through a class struggle. The class struggle unfolds on three fronts: the economic, political, and ideological. Trade unionism represents the economic struggle, the construction of socialist and communist parties represents the political struggle, and the ideological struggle entails theory and philosophy (amongst other domains like art and culture). It is therefore necessary to grapple with bourgeois philosophy, and consequently, human rights. Marxists can effectively appropriate human rights through criticizing capitalist society for violating what its defenders hold most sacred. As Althusser comments on Engels appropriation of the theory/practice dichotomy of traditional philosophy, the use of ideological concepts “should therefore be used when the aim is to defeat ideology on the terrain of ideology, i.e., when the aim is ideological struggle strictly speaking.”30 Likewise, Marxists should only use human rights on the terrain of ideological struggle. 

Marxists can use human rights to criticize bourgeois society by arguing that we have the rights to the products of our labor (following Locke) and we have the right to rebel. If individuals have the right to the products of our labor, which is the basis of Locke’s natural right of property, then capitalism clearly violates that right. Under capitalism, the workers produce products which are then sold on the market for a profit. However, the profit goes to ownership rather than the workers. It is thus the capitalists who appropriate the products of individuals labor, rather than the individuals themselves, which is a clear violation of Locke’s notion of property. Furthermore, if one is forced to work, then they are not voluntarily entering a contract of employment. Following Thomas Paine, Marxists can argue for the necessity of revolution by appealing to the right to rebel against tyranny.31 For Paine, tyranny occurs when the state violates natural rights that the citizens never agreed to give up, and consequently, these governments are never legitimate. Since the United States, and capitalist governments in general, violate individual’s rights to property and liberty, then we have the right to rebel against it. 

To conclude, even if human rights are bourgeois concepts, they can still be used by Marxists. Marxists can revise, revolutionize, or even appropriate human rights in the ideological struggle against capitalism. Marxists can also use human rights to add weight to critiques of capitalist society. Beyond that, however, human rights are just nonsense upon stilts. 


Human rights are, generally speaking, meaningless concepts in the way that they are used and theorized. However, I am not implying that oppressive governments, such as the United States, are justified in the way they treat their citizens. All states, whether ancient, feudal, or capitalist, are dictatorships of one, or sometimes a coalition of classes, over the others. Historically, the class or classes in power are the ones that control and appropriate the products of production. The classes which are subjected to the State are usually those that do the labor, the working masses. Under feudalism, it was the serfs and crafts guilds that performed the necessary labor of society. Under capitalism, it is the proletariat that performs the necessary labor. Even if capitalist governments proclaim the importance of human rights, it is all, following Bentham, rhetorical nonsense. They do not actually care about the health and wellbeing of the people. If they did, people wouldn’t be dying in poverty while the capitalists hoard wealth. This is illuminated by the Covid-19 pandemic, where politicians like Trump are desperate for the economy to return to ‘normal’, even if this comes at the expense of millions of vulnerable people. 

However, I do not think that just because capitalist governments do not care about human rights, that we ought to conclude we should have a government that respects human rights. Or in other words, we will not suddenly have a just society if the government decides to respect and expand human rights. Proponents of this argument presuppose a capitalist mode of production that would then be reformed through social welfare. They believe that if we simply reform our judicial system and install forms of social welfare, like nationalized healthcare and higher education, then we will have a good and just society. However, as Marx pointed out, “Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution.”32 In other words, this view asserts that if we re-distribute the fruits of capitalist production, then we will have socialism. This view obviously misses the point, as an economic system is primarily defined by production, and not just distribution. We don’t need a government that respects human rights, we need to revolutionize our mode of production, distribution, and culture. We need to transform the way we develop children, the way we treat and care for people, and we need to develop actual communities. This is, generally speaking, the project of socialism which all Marxists must strive for. Human rights are, at best, a bare minimum that workers and oppressed people should fight for. However, merely gaining human rights will not lead to liberation. 


1. Patrick Hayden, The Philosophy of Human Rights (St. Paul: Paragon Press, 2001), 72-73. 

2. Hayden, Philosophy of Human Rights, 59. 

3. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations, published 1948,

4. Hayden, Philosophy of Human Rights, 107.

5. Conor Friedersdorf, “The Torturers Wanted to Stop, but the CIA Kept Going,” The Atlantic, January 23, 2020,

6. The American carceral system is cruel and unusual punishment because of its terrible conditions and disproportionately long sentences.

7. Angela Davis, “Political Prisoners, Prisons, and Black Liberation,” in The Angela Y. Davis Reader, ed. Joy James (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 40-41.

8. William Sweet, “Jeremy Bentham,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Accessed May 2020,

9. Louis Althusser, “Law,” in On the Reproduction of Capitalism, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2014), 64.

10. Althusser, “Law”, 65.

11. Davis, “Political Prisoners,” 45.

12. This is not to say that we should baselessly believe in all allegations, but we shouldn’t base our moral judgements on the verdicts of the legal system.

13. Davis, “Political Prisoners,” 46.

14. Maria Alper and Joshua Markman, “2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014),” published May 2018,

15. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” 1843, accessed from

16. Marx, “Jewish Question.”

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid. 

19. Darren J. O’Byrne,“Marxism and Human Rights: New Thoughts on an Old Debate,” The International Journal of Human Rights 23, no. 4 (Fall 2018): 638-652,

20. O’Byrne, “Marxism and Human Rights,” 648.

21. Egidijus Mardosas, “Marxism and Aristotelian Ethics,” Filosofia, Sociologija 27, no. 3 (2016): 214-221.

22. Mardosas, “Marxism and Aristotelian Ethics,” 215.

23. Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster, Penguin Press, 1969, 34.

24. Patrice Maniglier, “What is a Problematic?”, Radical Philosophy 1 no. 73 (May/June 2012), accessed May 2020.

25. Maniglier, “What is a Problematic?”.

26. Vladimir Lenin, “Bourgeois And Proletarian Democracy,” in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, accessed May, 2020,

27. Lenin, “Bourgeois And Proletarian Democracy.”

28. Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917, accessed from

29. Marx, For Marx, 204-224. 

30. Louis Althusser, “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy,” in Reading Capital, trans. by Ben Brewster, (London: Verso, 2016), 50.

31. Hayden, Philosophy of Human Rights, 99.

32. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” 1875, accessed from

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