The story goes that human rights rhetoric took down the Soviet Union.
Fall of the USSR
The USSR couldn’t stand up to the propaganda onslaught, led by internal and external dissidents propelled by newly-minted human rights language.
But the story has more to it, Samuel Moyn, Harvard law and history professor and author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, told teleSUR.
The Soviet constitution of 1936 “offered more human rights to its citizens than any state in human history”—especially in what would later become known as social and economic rights—he said, but it couldn’t stand up to the romantic moralism of the West. No matter that the United States had not ratified key human rights covenants that the USSR had: one side was weaker and came up short in the war of words.
Armed with language that seemed apolitical—the subject was “human” rather than “citizen”—the West could compete with socialism while sidestepping proper political counter-arguments, even if the discourse of human rights was not popularized exclusively to take down the Soviets.
They were first penned by United Nations elites who had every intention of preserving imperialism at a time when political battles were being fought in terms of anti-colonialism, civil rights, pacifism and critiques of the nation-state.
As the Cold War progressed and the belief grew that these alternative ideologies were in fact “bankrupt political utopias," due to a historic set of circumstances that would see "socialism with a human face" die in Eastern Europe in 1968 and Latin America with the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973, Moyn argues in his book that people looked to transcend politics and adopt a more "humanist" stance.
And human rights, which seemed to defy the nation-state paradigm and stake out a neutral voice, were a convenient option. Having their "golden year" in 1977 when Amnesty International won the Nobel Peace Prize, their political edge would only shine through later.
Picking up the Pieces
Shattered by how the Cold War transpired, socialists tried to “save socialism from the Soviet Union” by giving it a new face, said Moyn.
Before 1989, some disengaged from the human rights debate entirely, shifting attention from the USSR onto local regimes, such as the junta in Argentina or the dictatorship in Chile. After the successive coups in Latin America and the fall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe, as they realized human rights "mask a lot of neoliberal results"—and yet had appropriated and monopolized much of the progressive left—socialists were pressured to pick a side.
One side, largely made up of social democrats, adopted human rights language as early as the 1970s and 80s since they reasoned it “could advance human equality and not just capitalism.” Many even helped propel the fall of the USSR, claiming it failed to live up to human rights standards—moving away from legalistic and constitutional arguments. “If human rights are the only game in town, then you have to play it,” said Moyn. To access money, state backing and other resources, many found the choice obvious.
Others saw through the rhetoric from the start and “really feel that they were never fooled, they were always suspicious of human rights—just as Karl Marx would have predicted—as a bourgeois project that was ultimately about capitalism and its spread and success."
They traced the purported struggle for human rights back to political opponents, from interventionists in Vietnam and Afghanistan to Amnesty International's rocket rise to an elite international circle—all fought in the name of human rights. The split on the left, said Moyn, was permanent.
To arrive at a point where it became all-encompassing, the human rights movement did more than split the left. Pitched as a pro-human cause, it appealed to people of any political allegiance.
On board were actors as unlikely as the Catholic Church, social conservatives, Arab Spring revolutionaries, anti-apartheid activists in both South Africa and Palestine and “elite activists” led by Carter “trying to take human rights in a direction that few in the 1940s could have foreseen,” said Moyn. After WWII, the extreme right and left were no longer as united as they had been against liberalism, both succumbing to the lure of the convenient and comfortable.
After being deployed on the front lines of the fight against the Soviet Union, the discourse of human rights proved unthreatening to the world’s most powerful, who, in the wake of decolonization and Cold War campaigns, “learned that they can fight relatively cleaner wars and can exert a lot of global strength without committing as many atrocities, and so they're willing to embrace human rights and humanitarian schemes much more because they don't interfere with their agendas.”
Human rights challenged regimes, but not the ones advancing them as a tool. In the age of accommodating doctrines like “lean in,” said Moyn, human rights stood out as “compatible with extant structures,” a cause for the socially minded who were not set on changing the world.
While human rights movements were largely outward looking, human rights literacy was generally limited to the Global North. Even there, even now, few understand what they stand for beyond the catch phrases, since their terrain rarely strays beyond law and nonprofit structures.
The Cracks Begin to Show
Since Moyn published his book in 2010, the Marxist critique of human rights doctrine has gone from relatively marginal to prescient. But the shift is “not because of what some marginal academics are doing,” he insists, but rather because people have caught onto the pre-eminence of economic justice and the inability of human rights discourse to do much about it.
Human rights are great, argues Moyn, to decry torture, disappearances or political repression, but ultimately neutered when it comes to calling out material disparities, corruption or global hierarchies and power.
The one-off name and shame diplomacy of human rights, then, could not come close to igniting the consciousness of billions, as have world religions, Marxism and transformative movements like feminism and environmentalism. “I’m skeptical they can go much further than they’ve gone,” said Moyn.
Most of those taking the lead in tackling human rights hegemony do so with some variant of Marxism, but more and more movements are choosing to sidestep human rights terminology altogether—a clear sign that the discourse of human rights is losing its grip on social critique altogether.
From Maoists in northeast India and peasants in Chiapas to occupiers in New York, organizers have bigger evils to tackle than the terms defined within the scope of human rights. Moyn is unsure what the next “utopia” to latch onto will be, but considering he already designated human rights the “last utopia,” the world may not have—or need—any others.
"You might think you really need a well-defined alternative theory of solidarity and freedom and equality in advance of any movement or state, but I doubt that's the case," he said. "If we look out at the world, it seems as if movements are not going to wait on some new Karl Marx to mobilize. They're mobilizing already... they bypass human rights, and it's up to us to kind of interpret and try to understand their successes and failures."