‘[Human rights are] simply the rights of a member of civil society, ie egoistic man, man separated from other men and the community… [Thus] none of the so-called rights of man goes beyond egoistic man, man as he is in civil society, namely, an individual withdrawn behind his private interests and whims and separated from the community.’

– Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1843)[1]

To Karl Marx, human rights create an order for privileging a specific class (ie the bourgeoisie) to the disadvantage of those who are oppressed (ie the proletariat) in the society. In this essay, it will be first argued that the Marxist conception of human rights provides an alternative narrative to the idea of human rights history. Secondly, the Marxist critique is one of the foundations for the emergence of modern critiques of human rights such as the relativist, the post-colonial and the feminist critiques. Despite these perspectives, it is undeniable and argued finally that the Marxist critique has its own inherent limits in the juxtaposition of the civilizational changes since the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens 1789.

The Marxist critique as an alternative narrative to the idea of human rights history

Traditional historical narratives present human rights as one of the products of liberal western thinking reflected either in the adoption of the Magna Carta of 1215[2] or Britain’s endeavour to abolish slavery in 1807[3] or the more recent phenomenon of the USA’s mission to democratise the others since the 1970s[4]. Taking a departure from these narratives, Marx identifies and criticises the problems of the liberal idea of human rights. Made in the context of the French Declaration of 1789, Marx’s critique places central emphasis on the downside of the capitalistic notion of individualism to understand human rights. The idea that human rights bring freedom and liberty for individuals ends up, according to Marx, in the disunion of the society – based on an individual’s ‘class status’ – in the bourgeoisie and the proletariat groups. This division reflects the inherent crisis of the society, ie the problem of inequality in all directions – social, economic, and political. The critique also deciphers the problem of human rights scholarship’s over-reliance on civil and political rights vis-à-vis socio-economic rights. Though not explicitly stated by Marx, such classification of human rights indicates the construction and perpetuation of the so-called generation theory of rights.[5] Drawing spirit from the Marxist critique, it can be thus argued that the said inequality works at two levels: international and domestic.

At the international level, the present problem of vaccine nationalism is helpful to understand the overreach of the ‘a few’ capitalist bourgeoisie states who are on a mission to monopolise the Covid-19 vaccines for their own interests – plausibly for the commercial interest of the states. The critique is also helpful in understanding the emerging problem of global governance touching upon some of the human rights questions such as the economically powerful states’ exclusive control over outer space and high seas as opposed to the idea of recognising such spaces as the common goods by the less-powerful states.

Similarly at the domestic level, the interest of the bourgeoisie society is perceived differently from the interest of the State – the fact which evidently challenges the state’s own sovereignty. For example, the rise of private corporations representing the bourgeoisie capitalistic interests in public service sectors such as health, water, education, housing, environment, etc. has been enlarging the already existing inequality in the society. The traditional narratives leave out these criticisms while constructing the history of human rights where the Marxist prism of understanding human rights can be appreciated as an alternative space to the idea of human rights.

The Marxist critique as the foundation for modern critiques of human rights

Therefore, the Marxist critique is a departure from the early critiques of human rights such as the realist and the utilitarian ones which considered human rights as one of the obstacles towards the realisation of the social contract. Interestingly, Marx questions the existing liberal idea of state structure by criticising the class system which maintains socio-economic deprivation for the ‘diffused majority’ on the one hand, and economic imperialism for the ‘discrete and insular minorities’ on the other.[6] The diffused majorities such as the poor and marginalised ones are always disadvantaged by the powerful commercial lobbies such as polluters, pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies, etc.[7] The idea of liberalisation and the free-market economy which has together created a gulf of global inequality is at the centre of the Marxist critique.

By this way, Marx has also created a basis for the modern critiques of human rights. For instance, Susan Marks argues that the traditional human rights discourse gives more attention to documenting rights violations rather than addressing the structural root causes of such abuses/violations.[8] The Marxist idea is also echoed in the cultural relativist and post-colonial critiques of human rights. Mutua’s ‘savages-victims-saviours’ metaphor[9] intelligibly showcases that the idea of human rights is yet to be decolonised from the grip of the so-called western hegemonic power structure which Marx identifies as the bourgeoisie class. As the whole idea of universalising human rights in the context of World War II was initiated by a few western states in the 1940s, it is plausibly challenging to reimagine human rights idea from the perspectives of subaltern states towards a new universalisation of human rights.[10] That is why in a western race to make human rights universal, the human rights discussion is still perceived to be a matter of concern for the western powers who themselves self-consciously, sometimes as outsiders, view the lack of protection and promotion of human rights abroad as a problem of absence of democracy as well as liberal cultural values and freedom. And hence, according to them, the panacea to this is the intervention of foreign powers (the saviours) in other sovereign states where there exists the flagrant violation of human rights against their own citizens (the victims) by so-called tyrannic governments (the savages). As a result, the anti-colonial movement does not find its place in the traditional human rights rhetoric. Similarly, the traditional human rights idea is also criticised by the feminists for being less capable of addressing the challenges of women’s subordination, non-inclusivity, and intersectionality.[11] In a sense, the modern critiques find the points of commonality in the Marxist critique, and hence, take the spirit from it towards reimaging the idea of human rights. Despite these perspectives, let us now analyse some of the inherent limits of this critique.

The critique of the Marxist critique

The Marxist idea was constructed in the context of a specific historical moment, ie the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen 1789. The Declaration reflects the idea of individualism in the spirit of enlightenment and social contract theory. The critique suffers from various inherent limits which are as follows:

  • First, the critique has a problem of generalising the whole human rights discourse from a single point of view, while the French Declaration had a major impact subsequently on the development of human rights and democracy in Europe and outside. Furthermore, Marx failed to understand the significance of this Declaration as a progress towards the elimination of monarchy as well as the introduction of popular sovereignty.
  • Secondly, what appears from the Marxist critique is that he was more interested in envisioning human emancipation rather than idealising human rights.[12] This plausibly relates to his ignorance about the idea of human dignity. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie society perpetuates inequality, and hence, human emancipation is not possible without establishing a society where the proletariat would be able to flourish themselves as a ‘species-beings’. This would take place upon the recognition of their ‘own forces’ as the ‘social forces’. Despite that he does not explicitly refer to the necessity of human dignity as an integral part of enjoying human rights in a free society, he does refer to it by making a case for the need to become the ‘species-beings’. Here what he proposes is nothing but essentially the reference to human worth and dignity which, according to many philosophers, is an intrinsic status of human rights.[13]

Furthermore, in the context of the present-day development of human rights, the Marxist idea of human rights seems to be utopian thinking. His idea of shifting from political emancipation to human emancipation is still an unfulfilled ideological dream in many communist countries. His idea of political transition is also problematic as this might result in ‘the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’.[14] The break-up of the Soviet Union or the civil war in Cambodia (the former Khemer Rouge regime) is a relevant example here.

  • Despite that Marx’s critique is indicative of the difference between elite and non-elite classes, it does not underscore the role of the states towards human rights protection. Other than describing human emancipation, it does not say much about some of the civilisational problems relating to racial superiority and the crises of the minority and indigenous groups. Human rights are seen as an exclusionary idea distinct from the state conceptualisation.

To sum up, two important aspects of the Marxist critique, as this essay has argued, show that (a) the citizens as the public self are withdrawn from their communal/political self; and (b) the guarantee of human rights is camouflaged with economic annihilation and oppression. In this backdrop and despite all the limitations, firstly, the Marxist critique could be seen as an alternative space to reimagine the histories of human rights; and secondly, the critique itself has created a basis for the modern critiques of human rights.


[1] Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’ in Robert Tucker (ed), The Marx-Engels Reader (Norton & Company 1978) 26–46 <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/> accessed 07 August 2021.

[2] Ed Bates, ‘History’ in Daniel Moeckil and others (eds), International Human Rights Law (3rd edn, Oxford University Press 2018) 1–21.

[3] Jenny S Martinez, ‘Antislavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law’ (2008) 117 Yale Law Journal 550–641.

[4] Samuel Moyn, Human Rights and the Uses of History (Verso 2014) 69–87 & 135–147.

[5] Steven L B Jensen, ‘Putting to rest the Three Generations Theory of human rights’ (Open Global Rights, 15 November 2015) <https://www.openglobalrights.org/putting-to-rest-the-three-generations-theory-of-human-rights/> accessed 08 August 2021.

[6] John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review (Harvard University Press 1980).

[7] Eyal Benvenisti, ‘Reclaiming Democracy: The Strategic Uses of Foreign and International Law by National Courts’ (2008) 102(2) The American Journal of International Law241-274. See also, Doreen Lustig and Eyal Benvenisti, ‘The Multinational Corporation as “the Good Despot”: The Democratic Costs of Privatization in Global Settings’ (2014) 15.1 Theoretical Inquiries in Law 125–157.

[8] Susan Marks, ‘Human Rights and Root Causes’ (2011) 74(1) The Modern Law Review 57–78.   

[9] Makau Mutua, ‘Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights’ (2001) 42 Harvard International Law Journal 201–245. 

[10] Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (Cambridge University Press 2005). See also, Upendra Baxi, The Future of Human Rights (Oxford University Press 2006); Upendra Baxi, ‘What May the ‘Third World’ Expect from International Law?’ (2006) 27(5) Third World Quarterly 713–725; and Dianne Otto, ‘Subalternity and International Law: The Problems of Global Community and the Incommensurability of Difference’ (1996) 5(3) Journal of Humanistic Psychology337–364. 

[11] Vasuki Nesiah, ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet: “Third World” Feminisms’ (2003) 4(3) Journal of International Women’s Studies 30–38; Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’ (1991) 43(6) Stanford Law Review 1241–1299.

[12] Marie-Bénédicte Dembour, ‘Critiques’ in Daniel Moeckil and others (eds), International Human Rights Law (3rd edn, Oxford University Press 2018) 4160.

[13] Jeremy Waldron (ed), ‘Nonsense upon Stilts’: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man (Methuen 1987). On some critical reflections relating to the idea of human dignity, see Jeremy Waldron, ‘Is Dignity the Foundation of Human Rights?’ in Rowan Cruft and others (eds), Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights (Oxford University Press 2015) 117–137; Susanne Baer, ‘Dignity, Liberty, Equality: A Fundamental Rights Triangle of Constitutionalism’ (2009) 59(4) University of Toronto Law Journal 417– 468.

[14] Dembour (n 12).

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