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Issue # 1401      4 March 2009

Human rights: A contribution from Karl Marx

Reference to human rights or citizen rights is virtually absent in the Australian Constitution. Now, over 200 years since the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was formulated during the French Revolution, the Rudd government is moving towards the adoption of a charter of rights for Australia. What kind of rights will the federal government be looking to introduce?

Karl Marx, in one of his first publications, analysed the “rights” set out in the 1791, 1793 and 1795 documents for the French Constitution. The following is an extract from Marx’s article entitled “On the Jewish Question”, written in 1843.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Article 2. ‘These rights, (the natural and imprescriptible rights) are: equality, liberty, security, property.”

What is liberty?

Article 6. “Liberty is the power which belongs to man to do anything that does not harm the rights of others or according to the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1791: Liberty consists in being able to do anything which does not harm others.”

Liberty is therefore the right to do and perform everything which does not harm others. The limits within which each individual can move without harming others are determined by law, just as the boundary between two fields is determined by a stake. The liberty we are here dealing with is that of man as an isolated monad who is withdrawn into himself. Why does Bauer say that the Jew is incapable of acquiring the rights of man?

“As long as he is a Jew the restricted nature which makes him a Jew will inevitably gain the ascendancy over the human nature which should join him as a man to other men; the effect will be to separate him from non-Jews.”

But the right of man to freedom is not based on the association of man with man but rather on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, restricted to himself.

The practical application of the rights of man to freedom is the right of man to private property.

What is the right of man to private property?

Article 16 “The right of property is that right which belongs to each citizen to enjoy and dispose at will of his goods, his revenues and the fruit of his work and industry.”

The right to private property is therefore the right to enjoy and dispose of one’s resources as one wills, without regard for other men and independently of society: the right of self-interest. The individual freedom mentioned above, together with this application of it, forms the foundation of civil society. It leads each man to see in other men not the realisation but the limitation of his own freedom. But above all it proclaims the right of man “to enjoy and dispose at will of his goods, his revenues and the fruit of his work and industry”.

There remain the other rights of man, equality and security.

Equality, here in its non-political sense, simply means equal access to liberty as described above, namely that each man is equally considered to be a self-sufficient monad. The Constitution of 1795 defines the concept of this equality, in keeping with this meaning, as follows:

Article 3 (Constitution of 1795): “Equality consists in the fact that the law is the same for everyone, whether it protects or whether it punishes.”

And security?

Article 8 (Constitution of 1793): “Security consists in the protection accorded by society to each of its members for the conservation of his person, his rights and his property.”

Security is the supreme social concept of civil society, the concept of police, the concept that the whole of society is there only to guarantee each of its members the conservation of his person, his rights and his property. In this sense Hegel calls civil society “the state of need and of reason”.

The concept of security does not enable civil society to rise above its egoism. On the contrary, security is the guarantee of its egoism.

Therefore not one of the so-called rights of man goes beyond egoistic man, man as a member of civil society, namely an individual withdrawn into himself, his private interest and his private desires and separated from the community. In the rights of man it is not man who appears as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework extraneous to the individuals, as a limitation of their original independence. The only bond which holds them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the conservation of their property and their egoistic persons.”

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