How the international system might be transformed by Marxism

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02/08/2019 by socialistfight

By Ret Maruat, Socialist Fight Issue No. 2 Summer 2009

Marx made the first socialist criticism of the bourgeois secular regime of rights in 1843 in On the Jewish Question, the ideological foundation for his later critique of capitalism as a whole. The basic argument is that the secular regime of rights as developed by the American and French Revolutions at the end of eighteenth century represented civil but not human emancipation. He examines The Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) and passages from other constitutions to make his point. It equally applies to the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. As Marx shows in On the Jewish Question these rights presuppose increasing inequality because they bifurcate human lives and psyches, the citizen equal before the law and in voting rights and as he really exists in society, alienated, oppressed and exploited:

“Where the political state has attained its true development, man – not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life – leads a twofold life, a heavenly and an 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, regards other men as a means, degrades himself into a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers… the right of man to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself.” [1]

But of course, the new regimes of rights were a big step forward compared to the arbitrary, absolutist power of monarchs, nobility and church in the Ancien Régime. In examining the conflicting claims of cosmopolitans vs. communitarians, cultural relativism, feminist arguments and Asian values we will keep Marx’s vital distinction in mind.

Jef Huysmans [2] is correct to point out that it is false to project a clash of civilisations as Samuel Huntington and Osama Bin Laden do because societies are in internal conflict (Chapter 9 of Ordering). [3] The ‘cultural values’ of the communitarians do implicitly defend reactionary practices like wife beating and female circumcision which are fiercely opposed by female activists increasingly informed by radio, satellite television, mobile phones, etc. But we can see that the communitarians’ arguments echo Marx in counterposing the alienation of cosmopolitan, oppressed civil man as against ‘life in the political community, in which he considers himself a communal being’. Without conceding to localism in this their criticisms of cosmopolitanism are trenchant and ring true.

A Canadian primary schools celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which still eluded humanity

Rights were guaranteed by the state and applied to its citizens before 1948 although there was some attempt to universalise rights, e.g. the Geneva Convention, etc. The ideological content of the Declaration was the struggle of the US to end all opposition to the global free market: fascism, the old colonial empires, communism (‘really existing socialism’) or world revolution (not the same thing). There were seven votes against the 1948 Declaration; South Africa and Saudi Arabia, for obvious repressive reasons, and the USSR and four satellites for two contradictory reasons. One was repressive but the other was progressive; they objected to the Declaration because it contained no reference to collective rights like food, water, housing, healthcare, etc. The Soviet societies claimed their legitimacy because they partially compensated for their repression by providing a measure of these welfare needs. Social justice versus greedy capitalist individualism was their propaganda stance. In the Cold War, the ‘non-aligned’ movement tended to be dictatorial like Syria, Iraq or Nasser’s Egypt which talked a lot about Arab socialism and provide some welfare. The USSR provided a rationale for patronising welfare and repression which had independent economic developmental prospects; it was grudgingly tolerated by the poor because it was better than outright repression with no welfare by such the US supported and/or installed regimes as Mobuto’s Zaire or Pinochet’s Chile.

We are focused on this issue by the question of how we would feel if, on transportation into future, we discovered we had a brand new right – we had an absolute right to keep all our fingers and toes and no one could take them from us. Such a right would make us very uneasy and this highlights the essence of the rights argument, we only need rights if our possessions or security are threatened. And here the rights debate is situated. What value is the right to vote and protest in conditions of famine? Of course, the poor, hungry and starving would accept a great diminution of legalistic ‘human rights’ if they were guaranteed decent welfare provisions.

These arguments had some force while the USSR existed; the neo-liberal offensive, led by the US and Britain, was additionally kept at bay by working class resistance and defence of the welfare states in the advanced metropolitan countries. When the British miners were defeated in 1985 and the USSR fell in 1991 history was supposedly ‘ended’ (Fukyyama)[4] by these dual and closely related defeats suffered by the world working class in terms of the triumph of the free market over social justice.


Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s American dream is still by far the most universally appealing one today. However, the modern neo-liberal capitalist offensive is now floundering because of the depression following the spectacular collapse of so many major financial intuitions. Modern capitalism is the source of all cooperation but also of all conflict and rivalries; it proposes a utopian world free from war and conflict but prepares those same wars and conflicts as states promote its relentless drive to maximise the profits of the TNCs. The transformation potential of Marxist theory lies in the acknowledgement of an objectively evolving source of international conflict in Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development.

However, the conclusion for human liberation is contested by those who call themselves Marxists. The Stalinist view is that a national elitist and privileged bureaucracy can deliver to the masses via state-controlled planning with little regard for human rights or democracy. The production of superabundance, the material precondition for human liberation, is only possible on a global scale. Stalinist ‘socialism in a single country’ (North Korea!) is even more unthinkable now. The Marxist aspiration is world revolution and one world planned economy producing for human need. That is the difference between a civil regime of rights which presupposes inequality and a human regime of real economic and social equality based on the production of the superabundance of wealth, which Marx outlined in The German Ideology. [5]


[1] Marx, On the Jewish Question, Autumn 1843,

[2] Jef Huysmans, obtained a MA in Defence and Disarmament studies from the University of Hull, UK and a PhD in social sciences from the University of Leuven, Belgium. He is now Lecturer in Politics at Open University (University of Birmingham).

[3] Ordering the International, History, Change and Transformation, eds, Brown, Bromley, and Athreye Pluto Press, OU, London, 2004.

[4] Wikipedia, Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama (October 27, 1952) is an American political scientist, political economist, and author. Fukuyama is known for his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies and free market capitalism of the West and its lifestyle may signal the end point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government.

[5] Extracted from, Ret Maruat, Socialist Fight Issue No. 2 Summer 2009, Universal rights and Imperialism’s neo-liberalism offensive,

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