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Rethinking ‘Civil’ Rights with Marx

by guest contributor Ali Ahmad

By Ali Ahmad

The Rights of Man was Karl Marx’s topic of concern in his 1843 essay On the Jewish Question. After that, Marx never spoke again of rights per se. However, an examination of his division between base and superstructure would pave the way for formulating a notion of what Marx could have thought of rights in the modern sense of the word—a notion that, based on the ideas of equality and liberty, presumes rights to be constitutional in nature. In the following, I will contend that Marx challenged the Rights of Man on the grounds that they were part of a bourgeois liberal ideology and show how Marx’s critique was in line with the generality of the leftist political thought paradigm. Ultimately, this essay will defend the stance that, within the Marxist paradigm, it is considered viable and fitting to argue that the Rights of Man are part and parcel of a bourgeois liberal ideology. After all, the foundations of the Marxist theoretical body, as Karl Kautsky has stated, “bring morality down to earth” from “heavenly heights,” given that scientific socialism has proved to be an inhospitable home to theories of abstract moral idealism.

In order to understand Marx’s position within the history of the Rights of Man, one needs to understand On the Jewish Question in its entire logical connectivity: as a grand scheme within which the critique of the Rights of Man fits contextually. In this essay, Marx launched his first attack on “civil society” and its impact in fostering “egoistic life”; he avowed that “man […] leads a two-fold life, a heavenly and earthly life: life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being, and life in civil society, in which he acts as a private individual.” Since the sphere of egoism, in all its “abstract” arbitrariness, separates man from his community, and since the State was the political child of civil society, Marx wrote, the only way to destroy both was to destroy the parent: civil society. It followed, then, that the Rights of Man, which demonstrated an ontological conflict yet still existed in a “spiritual” relation with the State, were consequently “nothing but the rights of a member of a civil society, i.e., the rights of egoistic man, of man separated from other men and from the community.”

Given that the Rights of Man were political rights, they were deeply ingrained within the illusory sovereignty of the State. And since the State was the child of civil society—the society which Marx wished the demise of—the Rights of Man would be automatically abolished along with them. It is made obvious here that the establishment of a political state devoid of concepts such as law, privileges, and rights should become the only way to achieve the final stage desirable for society: a stage described by a political program leading to the emancipation of mankind and resulting in a recognition of their species-being, all to the detriment of bourgeois ideology.

This emancipatory procedure has been reinterpreted by Joseph Femia as happening through the purification of juridical institutions from their atomistic view of “formal citizenship.” According to Femia, these institutions should be responding to the real concern of humanity by transforming “formal citizenship” into an active social force instead of endowing it with meaningless abstract materiality. This, consequently, would lead to the completion of the emancipatory program—which Marx later understood as “communism.”

Allen Buchanan has taken this argument even further by claiming that the goal of Marx’s critique of ideology was to highlight the fact that “capitalist conceptions of justice, like other juridical conceptions, presuppose certain factual generalizations which are usually taken for granted.” These generalizations present themselves as an illusion of symmetry between the worker and the exploiter—the free competitive market—that the capitalist puts in place. The free competitive market was, according to Marx, supported and maintained by the Rights of Man that had been articulated in the French and American constitutions. These rights were not eternal truths about the nature of man. Making an example of the right to liberty, Marx saw such rights as the root cause of “the separation of man from man.” Liberty, or the right to self-interest, became the basis of civil society. Conversely, as Steven Lukes has argued, communism would instill in society a sense of harmony between man and nature, and a resolution of the conflicts between men. In communism, humans would live in such a way that there is no need for such individualistic conceptions of rights.

Moving on to the right to property, Marx argued that it suffered the same fate as the right to liberty. In essence, he equated it with “the right to self-interest.” L. J. Macfarlane, in line with orthodox Marxism, has identified it as a class right of the bourgeois against the totality of society. According to him, it was a ubiquitous anti-human right which denied the working class its rightful aim in achieving liberation and self-realization. Hence, “abolishing the right of property as private ownership of capital, would transform the nature of human relationships and the character of the rights men would have or require.” To achieve this transformation, Marx argued that we should destroy all barriers which separate individuals from each other so that the community can overthrow “sovereign power and raise[] state affairs to become the affairs of the people.” For this, he categorically distanced himself from theories of natural rights, claiming that they “all start reasoning from the individual and not from social reasoning,” as Miguel Abensour has put it.

In his Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’ from 1843,Marx went on to point out that “the constitution is rational in so far as its moments can be reduced to abstract logical moments.” It was an illusory arrangement of beliefs which caused the State to treat individuals not as political but as physical, henceforth stripping them from all social qualities that they might possess. In this subsidiary attack on the liberal tradition that atomizes the individual, Marx’s purpose was to rid society of the objective abstract conceptions regarding human nature in the hopes of giving humans a more “conscious” experience of their reality. Following this line of argumentation, Ian Forbes has asserted that “the construct of sensuous being, either in the material sense of producing and reproducing the means of existence, or in the social sense that the human builds up a consciousness of the interactions between the material elements of that existence” is always limited to the context set by economic and social formations. In due course, concrete and sensuous humans, embroiled in economic and social realities, should thus become the real subject and prevail over the abstract theoretical humanity which presents itself in bourgeois liberal ideology.

When breaking down the phrase “bourgeois liberal ideology,” it should be clear that the word “liberal” is equated with the capitalist modes of production—in other words, the economic structure. The word “ideology,” on the other end, is equated to the superstructure. In his later years, Marx saw these two ontologies as closely interrelated. Social reality, in this manner, became a representation of the totality of the relations of production which “constitute the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.” In The Eighteenth Brumaire, written in 1852, Marx insisted on discarding all forms of legal existence in the superstructure—including the Rights of Man—as “peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions” and considered them to be ideological in a peculiar bourgeois manner, serving solely the interests of the ruling class. He further emphasized that this superstructure would cease to exist once it stopped serving the material mode of production at the given time. Naturally, this fit into his grand idea of the superstructure as an illusion, a man-made impulse created in order to rationalize the world in the abstract realm.  

In relation to that, Antonio Gramsci’s thesis has emphasized dominion under capitalism as not only achieved through compulsion, but, in a subtler manner, also through the hegemony of ideas where the ideology of the reigning class becomes vulgarized into the common sense of the average citizen. Power, for Gramsci, was “not just crude legal force” but more so a “domination of language, morality, and culture.” This domination was bound to lead to the internalization of hegemonic ideas by the subordinate class and would consequently become subsumed under their actual living experience, which Andrew Vincent has described as ingrained in all facets of bourgeois culture and discounts material inequalities by adhering to “formal” legal, moral, or political equality of rights. Marx’s owns words in the Critique of the Gotha Program of 1875 support Vincent’s claim. As he stated in this critique, “the equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognizes no class differences […] right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals”—which amounts to the perfection of mankind’s slavery albeit under the veil of a false, pretentious equality.

During his years of publishing in the Rheinische Zeitung in the 1840s, and in particular during a debate on law-making, Marx had already begun arguing in favor of dismantling the State, claiming that it lost its identity in a degradable manner when it reduced itself to private interests. In a subsequent article, he wrote that a “true State” was not a “material thing” but a spiritual force which should permeate the entirety of nature and drop its status as an intermediary actor between emancipation and civil society to allow for the birth of the much-anticipated “free human being.” Since the origin of the State lay in the contradictions between the interests of different classes in society, the State would never be an effective tool in solving the ailments of society. Consequently, both the French and the American revolutions had left man bound as a private individual in economic society.

In the long swell of tension between communist ideology and liberalism that characterized the Cold War, the winning agenda was the latter—of which the Rights of Man are part and parcel. In the kind of capitalist society that was reinstated thereafter, humans became “objective sensuous beings,” met with a destiny that was imposed on them and transformed them into “a suffering being.” Alas, their fate as communists had escaped them. They had lost their battle in being recognized as a species-being, confirmed and realized in their being and knowing. This type of freedom, Carol Gould has contended, is attained in communism through a process of self-realization and “the origination of novel possibilities” which can only arise when the social conditions allow for self-transcendence and fosters an environment in which society is “a constituted entity not a basic entity” and “exists only through the individuals who constitute it.” By doing away with human rights as a liberal bourgeois ideological construct, then, communism would end the clash between two ontologies: individual and society.


Ali Ahmad is a PhD student in Political Thought and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. He is particularly interested in the epistemological and political elements of thought, their interrelation, and their grounding in influential economic ideologies that have developed throughout history. He is currently writing his thesis on the epistemological foundations of the economic doctrines set forth within the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt between 1923 and 1945.

Featured Image: Representation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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