Individual rights versus collective rights
by Dorothea Anthony
Contribution to the Communist Party of Australia 11th National Congress, October 2009
I would like to say a few words about human rights. In the last year the Rudd Government has entertained the idea of a bill of rights for Australia. One might ask: Why now? Usually bills of rights are introduced at significant turning points in a country’s or a region’s history. The Declaration of the Rights of Man arose out of the French Revolution and the US Bill of Rights out of the American War of Independence, as a means of providing an ideological basis for emerging capitalism in these countries. Bills of rights have also come about as a result of the Russian Revolution and more recently South Africa’s end to apartheid and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. The United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights was drafted following World War II in response to fascism.
There does not appear to be a clear reason why Australia is now set on a path of introducing a bill of rights. The fact is that many commonly regarded rights under capitalism already exist in one form or another throughout Australian legislation. Is a bill of rights an attempt to consolidate these rights into one document and thereby emphasise the ideological basis of capitalism? Or is it a smokescreen for the continued denial of trade union rights, the denial of the right of association such as with anti-bikie laws, the introduction of the so-called anti-terrorist laws, and the increasingly pervasive technological surveillance of citizens wherever they are or whenever they use the internet or mobile phones?
Many people on the left are enthusiastic about the prospect of a bill of rights for Australia, as they believe it will bring about considerable change. However, bills of rights are part of the social superstructure of society and generally reflect the socio-economic basis of society. They offer an ideological justification for the existing economic order.
So what kind of rights might appear in Kevin Rudd’s bill of rights? The main emphasis will undoubtedly be on rights of the individual and of individual choice, usually referred to as “civil and political rights” or “democratic rights”. These rights include freedom to own property, freedom to secure oneself from harm by others, freedom of reputation, freedom of religion, the right to vote and the right to free speech.
The right which is most fundamental to capitalism, and which notably appears in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is freedom of the individual to own private property. For private property is where capitalists make their vast profits. The freedom could not be more individualistic, as it stands in direct opposition to the freedom of society to keep property in public hands and to benefit collectively from it. The freedom is, as Marx wrote, a “right of selfinterest”.
Capitalist society glorifies individual rights and paints them as absolute and supreme. This is because individual rights best suit the interests of capitalists at times of buoyant capitalism. Capitalists rely on individual rights to maximise their gains from society, such as with the right to property. And they rely on individual rights to minimise their losses, such as with freedom of security, which Marx pointed out protects the property of the capitalist class. Collective rights, on the other hand, which necessitate the sharing of property, do not suit the capitalist class.
Capitalists must give primary emphasis to individual rights. They must allow these rights to run through the veins of society. Such rights promote not the welfare of society or the common good, but the protection and satisfaction of the individual. They promote what Marx called “egoistic man”. “Egoistic man” is described by Marx as “an individual withdrawn into himself, his private interest and his private desires and separated from the community”. So effectively, Marx believed that individual rights reinforce individualism as an ideology, at the expense of collective life and collective values.
Not all individuals in capitalism gain equally from individual rights. Capitalists will always have priority over the working class in exercising individual rights. This is the nature of capitalism. For instance, as the mass media rests in capitalist hands, it is capitalists who have the greatest right to free speech. It is no accident that freedom of speech is the number one right of the US Bill of Rights. While it is necessary to defend freedom of speech — as capitalism has the capacity to withdraw such rights should a fascist dictatorship be called on when the system is threatened — we must always evaluate rights within the context of the politicoeconomic circumstances which prevail at the time.
For capitalists, individual rights are used as a major weapon against the working class. They make much of the “right not to join a trade union”. Yet for the working class, a major weapon against capitalists is the pursuit of their collective interests. Collective rights, commonly called “economic and social rights”, include the right of society to have public property for the good of the people; the right of citizens to adequate food, shelter, health, education, transport, culture and work; and the right of workers to join trade unions and collectively bargain for better wages and conditions.
It is collective rights which we must promote as a communist party. For these are the rights which are most consistent with the interests of the working class. And unlike individual rights, collective rights are not doubleedged — they directly benefit the working class.
Individual rights already receive more than adequate attention in capitalism. They have no shortage of advocates — in the political, legal, religious, cultural, academic and popular media spheres — such that it is up to communists and progressive people to shift the balance towards collective rights.
In the last ten to twenty years, the popular thinking in bourgeois academia and in the international human rights arena has been that we should equally emphasise individual and collective rights because they are equally as important. The United Nations has stated: “The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis”. However, does this mean that we should treat collective rights using the same high standard commonly used for individual rights, or, that we should treat individual rights as poorly as collective rights are treated in capitalist society?
Marx pointed out such lack of logic in the concept of equality of rights when he said: “Is it demanded that the upper classes also shall be compulsorily reduced to the modicum of education — the elementary school — that alone is compatible with the economic conditions not only of the wage workers but of the peasants as well”.
Moreover, how can a theory of equality of rights be of assistance where individual and collective rights conflict with one another? For instance, where the right of drug companies to make lavish profits conflicts with the right of access to affordable medicines for millions of people? Or where the right of companies to increase their profits by downsizing their workforce conflicts with the right of a community to work? Surely in these circumstances collective rights must prevail.
As a dialectical theory, Marxism involves the idea that rights are interconnected, such that where collective rights are achieved, other rights will flow from these. For example, the right for all people to be educated in the arts will encourage individual creativity, which, notably, can be contributed back to society. Also, the collective right to security of work and decent wages and conditions will encourage healthy relationships in families which, in turn, enhances the individual’s personal adjustment.
Bourgeois theorists argue in the opposite direction, that is, that collective rights flow from individual rights. They say that the individual’s right to vote ensures that there will be a system of education, health, etc, which benefits the whole community. But this amounts to dialectics without materialism. For the right to vote is not in itself a material achievement, it is simply a right to a choice. Ultimately, the very nature of capitalism prevents the actual achievement of collective rights.
The dialectics of rights reaches its most advanced form in socialist countries. In Soviet law, there was no right without an obligation, and no obligation without a right. The Soviets, in applying Marxist theory, believed that people must have rights, but at the same time, they must have obligations to exercise their rights in a way which is not detrimental to the ability of other people to exercise their rights. Socialism seeks to marry the rights of the individual with the rights of the group and with the rights of the people as a whole.
This is a model approach to human rights, but only for socialism. Because it is only in socialism that we can trust that the obligations placed on people will be fair and humanistic, and that the values which are instilled in these obligations will be communist values: values of collectivism, peace, internationalism and so on.
In conclusion, I would like to say that it is extremely important for the Communist Party to take a leading role in developing a program of collective, economic and social rights. For it is the Communist Party that people look to for direction in achieving these basic human rights.
Addendum: At the time of writing, the Model Human Rights Bill for Australia includes 27 civil and political rights, and only 5 economic and social rights. Of the economic and social rights, the right to strike is not expressed as a full right but, rather, limited by legislation. Current legislation on the right to strike is considerably narrow. Australia’s performance regarding this right has long been a subject of criticism by the International Labour Organisation.