Can Human Rights and Marxism Coexist?


In the world of the 21st century, it is prevalently believed that human beings have some fundamental rights merely as a result of being human. These rights are framed within the international law which is a product of neo-liberal thoughts, by the name of human rights law and they are protected not only by states but also by international organizations and non-governmental organisations’ support. These essential rights are grounded on shared values of humanity like dignity, respect, equality, justice, and independence. Even though these shared values include some of the fundamental principles of Marxism, whether Marxism can coexist with human rights is not an easy question to answer. In this essay, this question will be tried to be answered by exploring Marxists’ arguments. The points that will be focused on in these arguments will be the illusory nature of freedom, the bourgeoisie class’ intention of masking their oppression by human rights, and the instrumentality of human rights law for western imperialism. Besides, an alternative view on the coexistence of human rights and Marxism will be proposed by emphasizing the positive outcomes, examples, and power of using human rights language for the Marxist struggle. It will be argued that because of the discrepancy between the fundamental doctrines of Marxism and neoliberalism, the coexistence of them in the long-run would not be expected.

Key words: Marxism, class division, human rights, international law, capitalism.


When people think of injustice or oppression in the world, they frame it in human rights terms. They argue that it is their human right to not have to face poverty or discrimination and their arguments are based on several human rights treaties such as the Charter of the UN, The International Bill of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In the same way, in the case of inequality people refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights article 1 which emphasizes that as human beings, we are all equal in dignity and right. Human rights is a remarkable component of international law and set by the states which are the fundamental actors of international areas. However, there is a contentious relationship between Marxism and human rights. From the Marxist perspective, the function of neither international law nor human rights is like it is claimed to be. Especially, even though some of the human rights seem to benefit and appeal to the principles of Marxism, the ideas of Marxists on the question that whether human rights can go hand in hand with Marxism are more negative rather than positive. In this essay, I will investigate the three main Marxist arguments on the possibility of the coexistence of human rights and Marxism. These arguments are considering freedom represented by capitalism illusionary and deeming human rights as a veil used for masking economic division and regarding human rights as a tool of western imperialism. Also, I will mention a pro-human rights argument claiming human rights language can actually benefit the Marxist struggle. Finally, I will argue that because of the discrepancy in the fundamental principles, it is less likely that human rights and the Marxism system can coexist.

1. A Brief Analysis of Marxism

To analyse the Marxists’ argument on human rights, the fundamental principles of Marxism should be revised. Even though Marxism has several aspects like being a philosophy of history or theory of revolution, within the subject of understanding its approach to human rights, it would be more correct to consider it an economic doctrine that focuses on class struggle, economic division, and equality. In other words, according to Marxism, boundless competition and conflict between opponent economic groups mainly qualified the entire process of history (Marx and Engels, 1848: 12). In that sense, Marxism associates each and every whether the internal or external issue to class division and classifies states as core, periphery and semi-periphery. According to this classification, core states exploit periphery states for labour and raw material and periphery states are dependent on core states for capital whereas semi-periphery states have the characteristic of both sides. Likewise, Marxism is against international law because they believe that international law is just a means that assures transnational capital and the functioning of capitalism (Chimni, 1999: 337-339). Also, it not only creates but also perpetuates inequalities in the world. Furthermore, since the international system which was set afterwards of World War 2 favours developed/core states, international law only enables them to maintain their profit-oriented circulation which is based on the exploitation of the working class in developing/semi-periphery and undeveloped/periphery states. Therefore, the common points of arguments of all Marxists are grounded on these principles and logic.

2. Illusionary Freedom

In the case of human rights, freedom is the main and the most crucial tenet that enables people to have their rights in several fields. Freedom of expression, freedom of protest or freedom of the press, and much other freedom of doing something or being not to do form human rights law. However, many of the Marxist philosophers and Karl Marx himself reject the reality of this so-called freedom in the first place. They claim that the system that creates this freedom is capitalism and this illusionary freedom is not real but just formal (Engle 2008: 249-250). It can be inferred that theory may seem that it promises true freedom to humanity and sets them free but in reality, it includes people in capitalism which inherently makes them the slaves of this exploitation-oriented system. Also, proposed freedom is inherently limited and insufficient for the struggle for true freedom because of the nature of capitalism which promotes individuals to pursue their own economic interests (Marx, 1844). Therefore, in this point, one of the main splits between capitalism and Marxism appears which is whether the prioritization of self-interest or communal interest matters. If the proposed freedom just benefits the self-interest of people, then it is not true freedom for Marxism whereas if it serves the communal interest of the society, then it is genuine freedom. In this respect, Marxism opposes social rights, known as rights of man such as the right to freedom, right to property, or right to security. Karl Marx expresses his ideas on this issue: “But the right of man to freedom is not based on the association of man with a 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” (Marx, 1844). Namely, he names these social rights as negative freedoms and accuses them of leading to the atomization of society and egoism of individuals.

Marxism finds civil rights more favourable compared to social rights since they tend to be more beneficial in terms of leading Karl Marx’s ideal of human emancipation (Gemeda, 2014: 5-6). Even though civil rights are still insufficient and a part of the capitalist system, for example, citizens can participate in the decision-making process thanks to political rights and this right may enable them to set themselves free from the exploitative capitalist system. On the other hand, again, there is an illusory nature of civil rights that actually utilizes the bourgeoisie ideology of atomized, property protecting-oriented rights of man. The reason is that, in a capitalist system, people are always the mean for the achievement of capitalist ends and in that kind of a system, civil rights are designed on the sly and cannot serve anything but the interests of capitalism (Macfarlane, 1982: 415-416).

However, criticism of Karl Marx is not on the rights per se but a particular social manifestation of the rights of man under 19th-century capitalism which had negative and discriminatory property protection rights. When today’s reviewed human rights laws are concerned, maybe his evaluation and argument on the specific human rights would be less negative although his ideas on the international law and the exploitative nature of the international system would stay the same. Most of the contemporary Marxist and even Friedrich Engels accept the idea that some of the human rights such as the right to protest may seem favourable from their point of view as well. In the same way, Karl Marx was against censorship which means that he advocated the freedom of expression and he was supporting the idea of limiting working hours which is afterward composed by the ILO standard on working hours (Lacroix, 2012: 47). Nonetheless, it does not change the fact that desired high ideals as a result of these rights cannot be achieved in a capitalist framework.

3. Mask of Oppression of Bourgeoisie Class

In addition, Marxists consider human rights law as a veil that serves the interest of the capitalist system by masking the economic division and the character of oppression under the bourgeoisie ideology. Since Marxism is grounded on all issues on the existing economic division as a result of capitalist principles, it deems every tool of capitalism as a perpetrator of this economic division. Marxists argue that by setting international law and human rights law, the bourgeoisie class only tries to camouflage their oppression which leads to deeper economic division and exploitation of labour (Chimni, 1999: 342-343). In the first place, they purport to give rights to people and protect them but at the end of the day, they permit people to back up their rights if the scope of their rights is out of their interest. In this respect, economic and social rights framed within the human rights which have to provide people with equality and freedom remain secondary compared to civil and political rights in a capitalist system (Macfarlane, 1982: 426-427). Likewise, as Karl Marx says “between equal rights force decide” (Miéville, 2006) principle applies in capitalism. It means that when there is a right against rights, the system of capitalism would solve it not by law-oriented method but by power, capital-oriented approach. Also, having equal access to every kind of so-called human rights is problematic in capitalism because people would like to pursue their self-interest which would eventually overlap with others and they will try to prevail by force. It is a result of an individual interest-oriented society created by capitalism instead of a communal interest-oriented society as in Marxism. This approach of Marxism goes hand in hand with the displacement hypothesis which argues that human rights and this claim to equality under law necessarily crowds out other economic and class-based forms of analysis and rhetoric (Richard, 1972: 454-455).

4. Support of Use of Human Rights Language

On the other hand, these criticisms do not account for how competing meanings of human rights laws are generated and constructed by anti-capitalist social movements when they organize around a rights claim as an expression of their oppression. To essentialize human rights as these criticisms do is to separate theory from the struggle. Serving capitalism objectives is not the only feature of human rights, these rights can enable Marxists a site of contestation btw what we can do. Marxists might foreground the actual struggle of groups who engage with human rights language and understand it through that concrete struggle. There are many examples of it like Social movements that articulate the oppression through both human rights language and explicitly anti-capitalist rhetoric. From the right to water campaign in Ireland to the right to housing campaign in London to the sex workers rights movement to the disability rights movement (Hourigan, 2017: 120-121). All of them articulate their oppression in both human rights language and the language of class and economics. The right to housing campaign explicitly highlights how attacks on housing are a class issue and one that is the direct result of capitalist exploitation (Cavin, 2019: 428-429). Human rights language is used to draw attention to the economic and class-based oppression caused by capitalism. It does not crowd out or obscure the class relations but reveals them through the concrete struggle to make the lofty goals of human rights a reality.

Additionally, as Karl Marx argued until capitalism has transcended such goals will always remain outreached. Anti-capitalist human rights organizers make that clear and they often do it outside of the structures of liberal bourgeoisie law and often even outside the structure of the state. Malcolm x can be a good example of it as a radical actor. He pointed out that the civil rights movements in the USA focused attention only on the emancipation of black Americans instead he argued for a human rights struggle one that is transnational and recognizes that the emancipation of black people is a global movement not one that is just confined to the USA (Epps, 1993: 72-73). Besides, Antonio Gramsci’s model of hegemony and counter-hegemony indicates that the revolution of the proletariat is possible only by the construction of a counter-hegemonic-bloc which will provide society with an ideological leadership (Gill, 1989: 476-477). In the human rights language scenario, the two sides can be named as hegemony common sense vs. counter hegemonic good sense and in the light of his theory it may be argued that highlight this tension and ultimately support the counter-hegemony being formed and the concrete struggles of anti-capitalist or class-based social movements.

5. An Instrument of Western Imperialism

Human rights laws are composed afterward of World War 2, hence they are the product of victorious states. Even though Russia, which had been a socialist state at that time, was among the winners, there was an overwhelmingly liberal western state among them. Thereby, for most Marxists, human rights laws are merely a tool of western imperialism and they don’t have moral values but market values (Montgomery, 1983: 93-97). It can be made out that western states use human rights as the means to the end, which is their capitalist states’ self-interests. Responsibilty to protect (R2P) principle of international law which allege the putting effort for prevention of committing of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity by any states against any community can be a good example for it. Even though western states assert that the function of responsibility to protect is the prevention of the listed four crimes, Marxists believe that imperial western states will use this principle as a justification for their exploitation and intervention to other periphery states. In that sense, the history of genocide can be explored. The concept of genocide was in hand and hand with imperialist states throughout history but after post-World War 2, the UK and the USA did not want to be mentioned with this concept. Therefore, the allusion to imperialism in the genocide convention was stricken from international law.

Besides, every kind of inherent radicalness has been blunted by the international law and human rights law frameworks by the concern that they can have enough courage to challenge their self-interest-oriented decisions so it has been assured that nothing is posing a threat to the status quo (Kolakowski, 1983: 85-86). In the same way, the Security Council of the United Nations is another example of the instrumental nature of human rights law by imperialist core states. Also, not only the action of these imperialist states but also the unresponsiveness of them as in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Myanmar, and many other disgraceful experiences shows the delusionary and instrumental nature of human rights. Briefly, for Marxism, every piece of paper of history clearly shows the dishonesty of western imperialism about building world peace through promoting human rights and supporting international law. Thus, Marxism argues that when we exist beyond capitalism which is the soul of western imperialism, we can truly emancipate and since the concepts and content of human rights is a part of these exploitative systems, it only can make us a slave of their system but never set us free out of the system.


To sum up, Marxism tends to criticize and generally rejects every product of capitalism most of the time regardless of its content. International law is rooted in liberal ideas and human rights law is an extent of it. Therefore, criticisms of Marxism against human rights are inevitable but whether they may coexist is the important question in order to understand their contradictory and common ground. It is proposed by some Marxist philosophers that freedom that human rights promise is illusory because capitalism prevents true emancipation due to exploitative and class division-oriented nature. Likewise, they argue that human rights laws are only a mask that tries to hide the oppressive nature of the bourgeoisie class whereas another contemporary group of Marxists alleges that human rights language can be a helpful way to raise their voice and support the struggle against the capitalist system. Finally, the assertion that human rights are a tool of western imperialists is uttered by other Marxists. As a result, it may be said that the ideas of Marxism on human rights mainly concentrate on the principle that inherently, capitalism would use everything as the means to its end and just endeavour to achieve their ultimate goal which is the endless circulation of their capital-based exploitation. Therefore, it would be said that due to a huge clash between the main principles of Marxism and the neo liberalism which is the creator of human rights, it could be unlikely that Marxism and human rights might coexist. It may be predicted that eventually, one of them vanishes from the other due to consistent disagreement between them.


İnsan Hakları Staj Programı


Bird, M. (1972). The Displacement Effect: A Critical Note. FinanzArchiv / Public Finance Analysis, 30(3), 454-63.

Cavin, A. (2019). A Right to Housing in the Suburbs: James v. Valtierra and the Campaign against Economic Discrimination. Journal of Urban History 45(3), 427–51.

Chimni, B. S. (1999). Marxism and International Law: A Contemporary Analysis, Economic and Political Weekly 34(6).

Engle, E. A. (2008). Human Rights According to Marxism, Guild Practitioner, 65(249).

Epps, A. C. (1993). “The Rhetoric of Malcolm X.” Harvard Review, (3), 64-75. Accessed August 1, 2021.

Gemeda, G. (2014) “Marx and Human Rights.” SSRN Electronic Journal.

Gill, S. R. and Law, D. (1989). Global Hegemony and the Structural Power of Capital. International Studies Quarterly, 33(4), 475-99. Accessed August 1, 2021. doi:10.2307/2600523.

Hourigan, N. (2017) Austerity, Resistance and Social Protest in Ireland: Movement Outcomes. In Debating Austerity in Ireland: Crisis, Experience and Recovery, edited by Heffernan Emma, McHale John, and Moore-Cherry Niamh, (p. 115-28). Ireland: Royal Irish Academy. Accessed August 1, 2021. doi:10.2307/j.ctt1x76dck.14.

Kolakowski, L. (1983). Marxism and Human Rights. Daedalus 112(4), 81-92. Accessed August 1, 2021.

Lacroix, J. & Pranchère, J. (2012). Was Karl Marx truly against human rights: Individual emancipation and human rights theory. Revue française de science politique, 62, 433-451.

Macfarlane, L. (1982). Marxist Theory and Human Rights. Government and Opposition, 17(4), 414-428. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.1982.tb00694.x

Marx, K., Engels, F. (1848). Manifesto of the Communist Party. (Trans: Moore, S., Engels, F.). Ohio: Charles H. Kerr & Company.

Marx, K. (1844). On the Jewish Question. Retrieved from on August 1, 2021.

Miéville, C. (2006). Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Montgomery, W. (1983-1984). John. The Marxist Approach to Human Rights Analysis & Critique. Simon Greenleaf Law Review, 3, 3-202. Accessed August 1, 2021.

Sosyal Medyada Paylaş


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Beğenebileceğinizi Düşündük

South Africa Elections 2024: On the Verge of a New Era

South Africa Elections 2024 will be on 29th May...

Srebrenica Genocide Denial in the Light of Psychoanalysis

The fundamental premise underlying the discourse of the Serbian...

UK General Election: Analysis and Implications

On May 22, 2024, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shocked...

Srebrenica Resolution at UN General Assembly: A Step Towards Justice and Remembrance

Tomorrow, the United Nations General Assembly will vote on...