A precarious ideal: the history of human rights

Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia is a powerful and finely wrought examination of the evolution, and future, of human rights.

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The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
Samuel Moyn
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Dh 92

In the 1790s, after the revolutionary government in France proclaimed to the world its Declarations of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham responded with a snort of derision that has echoed down through the centuries. Any such invocation of fundamental rights was, he wrote, "nonsense upon stilts".

This was the contempt of a conservative for any radical challenge to the order of things. Bentham had the blueprints for any number of social-engineering efforts on his desk, and he was prepared to draw up a new one at the drop of a hat. But he wanted planning to be concrete. You should start out with the definite facts of life - such concrete realities as the existence of state power, social institutions, and the clear tendency of human beings to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Then you could calculate the costs and benefits of how things might be reorganised. By contrast, nobody had ever seen "rights". They existed only in words and in the mind. Trying to reconstruct society around the universal rights of mankind meant surrendering not just to abstract rhetoric but to something elevated, meaningless, and intrinsically unstable.

It is not hard to imagine how impatient Bentham would have been with the notion of "human rights" that has grown so prominent over the past few decades. Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia provides a succinct narrative of how that idea came to occupy the centre stage of so much international political discourse and activism. But the book also challenges the hegemony of human-rights-speak in ways that are nearly as combative as Bentham's polemical flights, though far more subtle and telling.

Moyn is an intellectual historian, rather than a philosopher, and where Bentham's mind was geared towards both gross simplification and quirky system-building, the method of The Last Utopia is patient and open-ended. But identifying the politics of human rights campaigning as a variety of utopianism involves a certain tough-mindedness - an aversion to self-delusion, for one thing. This is not a screed denouncing Western intellectuals for using the language of human rights to justify their governments' military interventions in recent years. But it does help explain such things.

Invocations of human rights have grown so pervasive in recent years that it comes as a mild shock to learn that the term barely existed in English before the 1940s. It became central to political arguments only in the late 1970s. But once it did, a sort of rewriting of history took place, as if providence had been laying the grounds all along for the discovery of human rights as a fundamental category for challenging tyranny and injustice.

By the 1990s, this belief was consolidating into an orthodoxy of sorts. The genealogy of human rights could be traced back to ancient sources, including the element of universality in monotheism and Stoic ideals of cosmopolitanism, as well as the more modern principles enshrined in the constitutions of democratic republics. (The Parisian revolutionaries had been the most explicit about claiming that the liberties of the French citizen derived from "the natural, inalienable, and sacred rights of man".)

But the turning point had been the Second World War and the genocide in Hitler's death camps, the moment spelling out most clearly the need for an understanding that certain fundamental rights transcended the sovereignty of any nation-state. In 1948, the United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Later, campaigns against Soviet bloc tyranny or the viciousness of apartheid were inheritors of this tradition. And thus it was logical that the demand for human rights became part of the lingua franca of political change in the era of globalisation following the Cold War.

So the story goes, one in which the past is, writes Moyn, "simply the future waiting to happen". Drawing on work in philosophy, political theory, and historical research covering several continents, he takes this tale of cumulative progress apart, bit by bit. For there is a chasm between the notion of human rights that came into prominence during the 20th century and earlier ways of thinking about rights.

To put it one way, the citizen of a nation-state enjoys rights in the traditional sense, while a refugee or a prisoner has human rights, if no others. The list of rights enumerated by the United Nations in its declaration of 1948 was expansive; it included provisions for education, economic opportunity, and freedom of speech and association. But this vision of a universal welfare state, minus the state apparatus needed to make it operational, had very little effect after it was committed to paper.

As Moyn shows, even after ideas about human rights began being formulated, they tended to go "missing in action" amid the real struggles on the international political scene. Fights against colonial oppression were conducted in the name of national self-determination, rather than under the banner of human rights. Resistance to Stalinist regimes by dissidents was often framed in terms of fidelity to revolutionary principles or socialist legality. And the wave of radicalism that spread across the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s found very little use for the idea of human rights. Its appeal seems to have been confined to liberal Christian circles and the occasional United Nations conference.

This started to change in 1977, when the then US president Jimmy Carter used the phrase in a speech. At the same time, certain disillusioned former radicals in France began to invoke transcendental moral principles to criticise various Third World regimes they had once supported. It is common enough to treat this transitional moment as the abandonment of revolutionary idealism for a more pragmatic sort of reformist politics, if not as an outright conversion to neoconservatism.

But here Moyn's analysis instead stresses the utopian element of this version of what had been a rather unfashionable programme: "It transferred the aspiration to purity once associated with revolutionary ardour to the less totalistic program of human rights", he writes. "Human rights were preferable because they were strategically necessary and practically feasible, but also because they were morally pure." To campaign against torture or religious persecution was a way to improve the world. But it was also "an internationalism around individual rights" offering an alternative to "an age of ideological betrayal and political collapse".

This was not "nonsense upon stilts", necessarily. But it did involve trying, in Moyn's words, "to make a difference not through political vision but by transcending politics", which really means just leaving the existing order of power to its own devices. "Born in the assertion of the 'power of the powerless'", Moyn says in his final paragraph, "human rights inevitably became bound up with the power of the powerful". You may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.

There is a power and elegance to this book that my survey of it cannot convey. Over it hangs the question of whether the notion of human rights may still have a future, or if some other set of aspirations will take its place. Moyn stops well short of speculation. But it is a problem some activist or philosopher (or both) may yet pose in a way we cannot now imagine.

Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.