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Marxism with Human Rights

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The human rights (HR) discourse is one bound up with questions of law, justice, and morality, and state. What we know today as human rights is made up of different philosophical ideas, geography and historical events. Right have moved from natural law, the monotony of the church, to that enjoyed by the head of the family, and further enjoyed by being membership to a group in the feudal era. Law generated rights but also customs and traditions also had a greater impact on the law as in the feudal era duties generated rights. In modern times law is made an instrument of right and justice as seen in the Universal Declaration of Right. Modern HR generated out of the atrocities of the two world wars. It has its root in western legal liberal values such as equality, dignity and inalienable right of an individual based on the rationality of individuals and natural fact of being human with man as the subject of the right. These legal rights are individual right not held in a group and its universality call on states to have a duty to protecting, respecting and enforcing these rights. Cultural relativists and scholars such as Whyte (2019) see human rights as a neo-liberal agenda; a way to internalize through the law that provides undisputed code; capitalist social relations for legal security of the western civilization and the market order.

Most theories and ideas thus come out with different conceptions of human rights and justifications. Marxism is concerned primarily with the economy and the relations between production as the ‘basics’ of society as Marx asserts “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and intellectual processes of life” (1859), while realists, on the other hand is concerned with power, the centrality of the state and interest as a result of unchanging pessimistic human nature. Although both schools of thought hold different views of their perception of values of human rights, they share similar ideas of it as well. In this essay, I wish to discuss the relationship between the realist and Marxist conception of human rights focusing on role of the state and different perceptions of right and morality. This essay will base on the theoretical core values because of the different controversies and lack of agreement that exist among scholars. I will start with their similarity, the second subheading will address their differences and I will conclude by discussing their strengths and weaknesses.

Both Marxists and the realists have shown in their writings that human right is only a façade and an instrument to further particular interest. This has led most scholars to question their compatibility and belief in the present right declaration.

For the realist, the Human right law is just an instrument of state power over the weak. The realists see human rights as secondary and state, power and interest as primary, which is why most states will pursue human right abroad only when it fits with their national interest. Thus state will only bother about human right if they are tools for the state to maximize more power over the weak and further its interest defined in terms of power as various humanitarian interventions such as U.S invasion of Panama have been not for humanitarian purposes but to further the interest of the state and thus a facade. Also, that explains why when national interest coincides with human rights, there is no real commitment as human right principles are undermined and only give attention to human right when it has something to gain and it is in the interest of the state as specified in the Melian dialogue “What we want to do now is to show you that we have come here in the interests of our empire…since the survival of your city will be good for us as well as for you.’.

For Marx, Rights are based on economic and political emancipation and thus reduced to bourgeoisie right and an ideological tool created by the superstructure of the capitalist class, as a way to keep their interests, power and justifies their illusionary rights. For Marx, “ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas” (1859). Marxists see the human right declaration as reflecting and serving the interest of the bourgeoisie class as “legislation, whether political or civil, never does more than proclaim, express in words, the will of economic relations”. These bourgeoisie rights are illusionary as such society give rights to an abstraction, not the human person, isolate and privatizes man, as men are both the subject and the object of right . This means that rights divides and benefits some bearers and imposes suffering and legal disabilities on others. According to Marx in his capital, “each disposes only of what is his own…Looks to himself only and no one troubles himself about the rest” (1867). Men posses right to sue their employers even when they do not have the finance to hire a lawyer, this according to Zigedy (2013), shows the link between human rights and the capitalist society that provide an illusionary fair moral framework which provides a foundation for the growth of capitalism. Marx sees the present right system as negative or empty right as the right of liberty is contradicted by the right to property which is used to exploit the workers (Lacroix and Pranchere, 2012). Forsythe and Mach (2002), reiterate legal human right is negated by exploitative capitalism that leads to accumulation of profit rather than the rights of individuals thus a tool for international legitimation of capitalism. Thus human right is a tool for unshackling and promoting the ruling class and its world view with the law as a tool having no power to dissolve this mode of production.

The realist and the Marxist differ in their annotated role of the state. Both Marxists and realists share similar assumptions on how the international human right system works, but they differ on how the state plays a “progressive historical role”. While realists see the state having a positive role in the regulation of the individual rights in the society, Marxist thinks of state as an instrument of oppression, will not have any role in the classless society and thus wither away.

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For the realists, the law is derived from a divine source (natural law), with the state as absolute that must be obeyed for the people’s good. The state is seen as a unit/sovereign that speaks with one voice and represents all, as can be seen as Thucydides “Melian dialogue” illustrates this, in the case of both the Melian and the Athenians where a representative from the government is chosen to represent all other individuals and negotiate “you are refusing us a public platform because you fear that people if they hear us speak persuasively and without interruption might be swayed by us, we know that is why you have brought us here to speak before only a selected few”. Nicolo Machiavelli (1532) also states the state’s dominance in the international system by acknowledging the prince, the most visible actor to take whatever means to secure its survival, power and self-interest. According to Hobbes, to restore man to justice and harmony can be done only through the coercive power of the sovereign vested with absolute power and takes actions necessary to preserve the security of the state (1651). Carr (1939) asserts that the only way for morality to exist is through the effective authority of the sovereign. State is thus an effective means for individual rights and protection. For society to live there is a need to submit to the sovereign all their rights as the sovereign is rational of what is good for everyone and “provide privilege definition of good”. The state represents them, thus individual have rights under the sovereign who apportions right, shapes interest, maintains peace and safety, as outside of the state is anarchy. Thus the state is the only effective means for individuals to lead a moral life.

For Marx, states are nothing but a product of the relationship between production and means which the bourgeoisie class use to express their interest, expand, maintain the system of exploitation and hide the reality of class rule by giving it an “illusory ideological shape”. Thus rights and ideas of HR are the expressions of the bourgeoisie society that provides negative right to obscure their class rule, sustain the system of exploitation and create an illusion of real equality as the bourgeoisie right to property hinders the proletariat from the fulfillment of their right. Because the system has pit man against man, state is brought in to provide an illusionary unity by imposing restrictions and rules that grant and protect these bourgeoisie rights. Here, rights are the instrument of class legitimization and state as a product of this class rather becomes an instrument that exacerbates division and inequality and restricts individuals in the society from getting full libertу. Also, Parekh (1986) states that capitalist states allow these human rights laws only as long as they do not threaten the bourgeoisie existence. But Communism will abolish the root of this conflict, the negative right and its elements for preservation (state) and introduce genuine human rights.

Rights are created by law and law articulates justice. Although both Marxists and realists do dismiss the liberal values of right, they have a different understanding of what right and morality is and how morality is achieved.

For Marxists, morality and right are just false ideologies that pervert our understanding of our situation, in the interest of the hegemonic class which is presented not to free but to bind us from the same oppression. Marx in his economic and philosophic manuscript (1844) reject the realist claim of natural law and states that man is a “natural being” but are “human” based on their creativity with labor in which they humanize and realize themselves as full supreme beings with full liberty “object of his instinct exist outside him..but are the object of his need, indispensable and essential for the realization and confirmation of his substantial powers”. But the current capitalist system stripes men of this right as it shows a society where people are naturally divided and opposed to the interest of the other not because of human nature but as a result of the economic structure that divides the society into “Laborers” and “capitalist vampires” and permeates the whole society. Marx in his “Capital” (1867) states “each…Looks to himself only and no one troubles himself about the rest”. For Marx, these rights are negative and limits men from full liberty as these rights are contradicted in practical application, as the right to liberty not to harm others is contradicted with the right to property; as men are alienated from its labor which exploits and oppress. Also, the right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man where all men are barriers to their own freedom and justice obliging to the dominant class interest. Thus, the moral values and principles in the human right are not moral justice and rights are just illusions and of “deceptive appearance”. This is the cause of war, but war will bring about revolution as “the forces of production which develop in the midst of bourgeois society create at the same time the material conditions for resolving this contradiction… the prehistory of human society ends. In Grundrisse (1857), Marx states “man is an animal which can individuate itself only in the midst of society”. Morality can only come when there is total destruction of these structures and instituting of the communist system; thus the realization of man as a citizen. In essence, Human right thus becomes an instrument of exploitation, inequality and the destruction of individual freedom.

For the realist, on the other hand, morality described by the human right law is different from what they think is morality. For Morgenthau, political action is an attempt to realize moral values through politics in terms of power. Realist traces the origin of moral law from the natural law (divine authority) with the centrality of the state as the sovereign who has the power to shape interest and secure the state’s survival. For the individuals to have right there is the need to submit to the sovereign as the sovereign acts on their behalf, shapes interest and “provide privileged definition of good”. Outside of the state is anarchy with no moral, no right and state of nature with competition of power as “every man is his own judge” due to the lack of a sovereign. Morgenthau asserts that the world is made up of opposing interest with human nature selfish and lust for power, thus in order to act morally there is need to understand these laws society operate in to be able to translate into successful political action and make moral decisions. It further calls on the need to study what is, which is a call on statesmen to promote and protect national interest rather than what ought to be; an abstract notion of universal morality. Moral goodness is only seen in that that seeks to preserve the state. Also for Morgenthau, man is a political animal “born to seek power” and power is the end when he asserts “we assume that statesmen think and act in term of interest defined as power” (1978, 4-15) thus moral principles does not determine the action of states. Machiavelli, acknowledges the prince, the most visible actor to take whatever means, even “evil course if he must” “must be a liar and hypocrite” “he must have a mind disposed to adapt itself according to the wind, and as the variation of fortune dictate, and, …if possible, but be able to do evil if constrained “to secure its survival, power and self-interest because human nature is unchanging. State’s actions cannot be judged to be good or bad for the realist, as what is done with good intention but unwisely leads to a disastrous result, thus the need for prudence. Thus for the realist universal morality in politics brings no gain, what is moral is making a policy that is of national interest to the state not of moral/utopian policy. Also in contrast with the Marxist, war does not bring about a change rather humans have rights by being under the state but outside of the state is a division as a result of anarchy and human nature prone to conflict as a result of constant strive for power. War is a continuation of politics and changes nothing as most countries benefit from war. Thus war is inevitable and a means to an end, with the end as power.

One weakness of both realist and Marxist is that they offer a one-dimensional account of the international human right system and prevent forces that shows that new pattern path of historical development is possible. The realists need to go beyond the state-centric system and move towards the conception of society and individual that have different entries to coexist within it to incorporate non-state and individual role. Marx on the other hand center the society on class positions and excluding/generalizing other forms of social situations such as race, gender, status which are also important. The realists portray the political nature/language of human rights, the role of power and order with the state as primary-decision maker. Marx’s strength sterns from his ability to historically trace today’s system of inequality and conflict to economic system of relationship between productions.

In conclusion, although none of these theories have been able to fully predict the international system, thus they do have both their strengths and their weaknesses and have proven to be relevant in the political analysis today.

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Marxism with Human Rights. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 24, 2023, from
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