“Human rights – an advance of civilization” Ruthless Criticism


“Human Rights – an advance of civilization”

[Translated from MSZ 1984-11]

Letter from a reader:

Regarding the article “The Business About Human Rights” in the latest issue of your periodical “Opposing the Costs of Freedom” (MSZ, October, 1984):

What the ruling politicians and their regimes carry out with their “living human inventories” and how they stick the proud label “human right” on any awful thing is one thing you hammer on. However, nobody harbors any big illusions about this. It’s already enough if Ronnie Reagan wants to brutalize almost half of humanity’s right to freedom with his “Big Stick,” even at the risk that even more than half if not all of it is destroyed. That is why the core of the matter cannot be glossed over so quickly. You yourselves implicitly recognize the fact that fundamental human rights are actually an advance of civilization on behalf of the individual against complete despotism when you write:

‘No constitutional state can pass the practical test of the agreeableness of freedom and equality; it does not answer it by resigning from power, either, but by getting rid of some manners of governing which have become impractical.’

Quite right: if it becomes tiresome, the state might prefer to go back to the Middle Ages. And for this reason something should be done to prevent it. Human rights were wrung from the absolutist state in the bourgeois revolutions. And of course you don’t want us to fall back behind the French Revolution, or do you?

In the Third World, the demand that human rights be guaranteed is neither liberation nor socialism. But down there anything goes. With human rights, some of the barbarity can be pushed back, and one can continue on from there. For example, what are the nicest programs of the Sandinistas worth if they treat the Miskitos as poorly as the Czar did the stubborn ethnic groups in Siberia? This is not anti-communism (I know that you are very fixed on this killer argument), but rather the crucial test of the emancipatory content of the Sandinista revolution. More importantly: most anti-East bloc agitation of the citizens would lose its venom if, for example, the Soviet Union would simply allow its dissidents to leave. Nonetheless, the 5-Year Plan can’t fail because of it and if it can, then it’s already too late anyway.

M.B., Frankfurt/Main

Response from the editors:

The salvation of human rights – by imperialism

We are supposed to agree on the “self-evident fact” that it doesn’t do people any good if a state brings its whole power into play in order to guarantee the human rights of its citizens? This can’t be true! In the end, you regard the hard truth about human rights, which “existing” democracies use to bind their human material to useful service for state and capital, as banal and quite secondary because you do not want to let go of the ideal of human rights.

In a certain sense, you’re right: state-guaranteed human rights protect the citizen – amusingly, from that which grants this protection. This protection naturally has a catch. It demands willing participation in and subordination to the requirement of usefulness which capitalist exploitation and state power imposes on people as their only chance of making a living. And where the citizens are subservient, the obedient personnel of the ruling power in each state gets to enjoy consideration of their human rights, along with everything else that it gives them. This also applies to the region of the world in which you wanted to demonstrate that the observance of human rights would be a favorable condition from which one can “continue on from.” The military in South America doesn’t kill people indiscriminately, but rather gets rid of those who have declared their opposition to the state. To simply spread terror or produce corpses is not the purpose of the butcheries taking place there. The guerrillas are statesmen, not child-eaters. If the bloody separation of the people into willingly ruled material and enemies of the state who have lost their right to life involves “innocent” people also biting the dust, then this speaks only to the determination of the guerrillas to enforce the subservience of their people, who then also are granted human rights.

It’s really somewhat ludicrous that, of all things, binding people to the will and political dealings of the state power is considered a weapon against the very same power. Anyone who turns against his state effectively communicates that he has forfeited his human rights, and not only in the Third World; and you want the guerrillas to fight for this violent unity of people and state!

By the way: why do you think of the “Third World” in regards to “reverting back to barbarism”? Is everything lovely in the empire of realized human rights? When it comes to states which effectively wield force internally and externally, you think of Reagan and not Pinochet; and it is certainly not unknown to you that the corpses of the “Third World” are a by-product of the political and economic decisions which are made here, when “we” enforce “our” interests all over the world.

For this reason, the guerrillas are just as keen on human rights as you are. They consider this only less idealistically and more to “the core of the matter”: willing human material which would be as emphatically useful for the international standing of their own states as it is for the home states of imperialism – this is their envied model. The fact that this greatness of the nation isn’t always present doesn’t lie in a lack of will or political clumsiness but rather in the fact that the peoples and dominions in the “Third World” are already established as a backyard of imperialism.

Human rights are a means to hinder the bourgeois state from falling back into the “despotism” of feudalism? Where do you get this alternative, according to which democratic politicians speculate about possibly once again establishing, instead of capitalistically administered wage-labor and state fiscal sovereignty, slavery and the tithe? Even if such comparisons nourish an entire field of scholarship (historians), they have nothing to do with reality; it has more to do with the interest in issuing an unbeatable praise for the bourgeois state; unbeatable because the actions of this state power are no longer spoken about. One can do this forwards as well as backwards. The interpretation of the banality “democracy is not absolutism!” performs the same service as the invention of a state which is supposed to have nothing in mind except supervision and control. Without fail, the judgment of everything that democratic states do in reality is measured with this fantasy: as least it’s not as bad as Orwell’s 1984.

Your argument that human rights are an “advance of civilization” because ultimately they were fought for and won, is just as implausible. Every modification of economic and political relations has been put through with the use of force; therefore, whether one regards human rights as something good should depend on their contents and not on their origin. The freedom of private property, regardless of its connections to fiefdom, the freeing of wage-laborers from their means of subsistence, and the monopoly of force of the bourgeois states against all class and personal privileges were all also fought for – do you also want to apply an honorary title to all that?

The bourgeois revolutions in their fight against absolutism enforced nothing more and nothing less than these three achievements of historical progress – and this was the birth of human rights. Nothing could be cheaper; the “hard truth” behind their prestige is capitalism. By recognizing person and property and granting freedom and equality to all citizens, the bourgeois state obligates its human material to try to pursue their happiness only as the means of capital: in private property, wage-labor and money. It uses its monopoly of force to maintain the antagonism that this includes and thereby makes it useful.

You like to imagine that human rights are supposed to be good for something else; honestly though: human rights haven’t occurred to you because you’ve considered what would be best for people. If that were the case, something completely different would occur to you.

With your reference to feudalism, you probably didn’t want to say that democracy, thanks to the regime of human rights, has gotten rid of poverty and and the production of dead bodies. Conversely: the feudal lords of that time couldn’t ever have dreamed of the respectable products of today’s imperialism such as world war, international trade and global debt, as well as the human victims that come along with them.

Your reference to Nicaragua is troublesome. Has it really escaped you that a war is taking place there? For the Sandinistas and the people of Nicaragua, it is a matter of naked economic and political survival and forcible assertion against enemies who are firmly resolved to obliterate this state, however many bodies this may cost. Because the USA, employing its military means for this purpose, has completely transformed all neighboring territories into military bases against Nicaragua and organizes the terror in the country itself, the Sandinistas have evacuated the Miskitos from the border areas – whether it is more for the protection of the Indians or more out of mistrust of them, we can’t say. What goes for the Indians goes for any other inhabitant of Nicaragua: thanks to the war which the USA wages, life doesn’t go normally for anyone in this country. The political organization of the Indians (the Misurasata) has in any case fought on the side of the Contras – and for them you ask the recognition of their human rights by the Sandinistas! On their self-created basis, the message of Western statesmen from Reagan to Brandt saying the Sandinistas should recognize their enemies as equals only means they should voluntarily give up power before they are massacred. You must decide: either you agree with the fact that the USA eradicates the Sandinistas, only so that you can issue them the moral bonus of having been a decent government – or you clarify for yourself what is actually going on there. With bombs and shells, it is certainly not a competition over: “Who is the better human rights activist?”

Do you really think that the anti-communism organized by NATO and made into the only content of freedom would embarrass itself if only the Russians would proceed differently? Let’s suppose that they deport Andrei Sakharov – someone who, after all, asserts that the Pershing cruise missiles of the U.S. would be the means to bring human rights to the USSR – would anything else come out of this other than proving the weakness of the USSR, which would only make the will of the West to clean up the East even more unyielding? Nevertheless, the preparation for world war doesn’t take place as a socialist competition around human rights!

This in general is your decisive mistake: because you think that politics would have to justify itself by your ideal of human rights, you right away impute human rights as a purpose of politics, which politics regrettably always only redeems inadequately. There you are mistaken! The subservient usefulness of its human material for everything which state and capital demands of it is only a basis and means for the practical purposes of imperialism. Then these look completely different.

From Reagan to Kohl, wherever human rights are enforced, it is about a practical interpretation of the international situation, which only names the declared enemy. Unfortunately, the idealism of human rights is also only good for this sorting: here of course there are deficits in human rights – there it is the states which are first of all supposed to prove to you that they have human rights at all. A correct judgment about how it stands in the present period doesn’t come about this way.

– MSZ Editors