Are rights subordinate to class power?

The intention of this article is to bring into focus the idea of “rights” and to put forward the argument that the communist movement should not frame strategies within the language of rights: rather our analysis must be based on class power.

If our objective is to develop class-consciousness with our slogans as part of broader campaigns, the language of rights either brings us to moralistic appeals for what should exist, without an analysis of a means to get there, or falls into the reformist trap of appealing to the capitalist class to grant legal concessions without a means to win them by force. Only an analysis of power provides a way out of this cul-de-sac.

We can only advance our goal of facilitating awareness of class interests by exposing the divisions, contradictions and exploitation of the capitalist class and system. This can only be done by being involved in day-to-day struggles and putting forward an analysis that goes beyond the single issue, by helping people to see how their immediate grievances could be resolved, and by demonstrating how particular struggles share a common root with the capitalist mode of production. The central question that will be asked, therefore, is, Does the language of rights help or hinder this process?

Rights are moral principles or behavioural norms that are usually afforded some legal status in a society. They tend towards normative ideals of what ought to be in some realm of human activity, as in the instances of basic human rights, workers’ rights, consumer rights, etc. Rights in a capitalist society carry the class nature of that society. Unless they are concretely enforced by institutions, in other words backed up by institutional class power, they will remain abstract ideals. For example, having the abstract right to a home or to not suffer from domestic violence is nothing but nice words to someone who is homeless or cannot afford to leave a situation of domestic abuse.

Marx correctly observed of the capitalist class as far back as 1844 that “the right of man to liberty ceases to be a right as soon as it comes into conflict with political life.” The capitalist class, always pragmatists, are not half as naïve as the idealist left, who insist on arguing about universal rights as an end rather than a means towards advancing some particular goal. For the capitalist class, rights are to be fought for or discarded insofar as they advance their class interests.

Marx goes even further in a scathing critique of rights in the Gotha Programme (1875), when he writes of them as

dogmas, ideas which in a certain period had some meaning but have now become obsolete verbal rubbish, while again perverting, on the other, the realistic outlook, which it cost so much effort to instil into the Party but which has now taken root in it, by means of ideological nonsense about right and other trash so common among the democrats and French socialists.

It would be a strategic mistake for the communist movement to concentrate on abstract universal rights instead of on class power, as now, as in Marx’s time, rights do not inherently expose the conflict in the class division of society. Under certain circumstances the advancement of particular rights may be useful—as in the instance of advancing workers’ rights to engage in a political strike—but it should not form the bedrock of our analysis for every issue: the question should always return to the issue of class power. Is it advanced, and, if so, is this the most effective way to do it?

The appeal to rights is deeply ingrained in our society, and it would be a mistake to discredit the importance people attach to rights. Mass movements that choose to concentrate on rights are spontaneously organised according to the particular issue being championed. In each case the demand is a response to burdens or restrictions placed on people in a wide cross-section of society.

The question for communists is whether these movements, or the demands they make, offer an opportunity to weaken or to strengthen the power of capital and the capitalist class. Within their analysis of a particular issue is there a transformative element that can be injected in order to expose the contradictions in class interests, thereby making use of the spontaneous element in order to advance a clear class-conscious position? If so, then supporting campaigns centred on rights will be strategically important and necessary.

However, the challenge for the communist movement is to fulfil our immediate goal of developing class-consciousness. So, our support for such campaigns and movements will need to include a supportive critique of the singular focus of the campaign, or at least offer an analysis that goes beyond the singular and spontaneous nature of the campaign or demand.

If we take the Right2Water movement as an example, it took root and succeeded in mobilising tens of thousands from towns and cities throughout Ireland. The Government didn’t back down on the introduction of water meters and the privatisation of water because it was won over by a rights-based argument, that every individual should have the right to water: it succeeded because the power of the movement forced the Government to back down, through consistent small and large-scale rallies, marches and local defences against the introduction of water meters and the ultimate goal of privatising this utility.

The movement itself was strengthened only when the demand became one of ownership rather than of taxation and payment. This was a clear development of class-consciousness within the movement. That slight but important shift in the demands and slogans of the movement unified and solidified the mobilisation of the people against the commodification of a basic human need. The relationship between power, demands and rights is very important here.

With the threat of an organised mass movement engaging in a campaign with clear demands, the capitalist state and its political representatives relinquished their plan to lay down the physical infrastructure for privatising water by means of water-metering (in the short term) and backed down in order to quell the mobilisation.

Following the campaign, by taking people off the streets and putting the matter into the institutional halls of the state, the ruling class were successful in dividing and ultimately squashing the movement. The subsequent Right2Change movement, which issued a programme based on abstract rights, fizzled out and never managed to hold on to its initial support.

If we can take anything from the Right2Water struggle and impart it to current and future struggles, such as housing, the health service, or the environment, it is that if we engage the class enemy on their terrain, i.e. in trying to justify our right to a home, the right to a free health service, the right to a clean and sustainable environment against the right to own property, the right to profit from ill-health, the right to profit from the plundering and destruction of the natural world, and the right to privately own the land, we will not advance our position one step: we will simply leave ourselves open to a quagmire of endless debates of morality, of thoughts and ideas about degrees and hierarchies of the rights of one section of society over another, in the halls and institutions of the capitalist state.

To emphasise this point: under the Constitution of Ireland we already have the right to undermine private property rights where they go against the “common good.” Article 43 states:

1.1º The State acknowledges that man, in virtue of his rational being, has the natural right, antecedent to positive law, to the private ownership of external goods.

1.2º The State accordingly guarantees to pass no law attempting to abolish the right of private ownership or the general right to transfer, bequeath, and inherit property.

2.1º The State recognises, however, that the exercise of the rights mentioned in the foregoing provisions of this Article ought, in civil society, to be regulated by the principles of social justice.

2.2º The State, accordingly, may as occasion requires delimit by law the exercise of the said rights with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good.

This is a clear example of how rights are subordinate to class power. Two conflicting rights are presented; and it’s clear which is being upheld and which is being ignored in our class society. The right to private ownership trumps the common good. Our slogans should not be the “right to X” but clear statements of intent on the transition of private ownership to public ownership of the means of production for the common good, striking at the heart of the class division.

Demanding and putting forward a campaign for public housing using slogans such as “Public housing is the solution! Cap all rents to 10% of the average wage now!” moves the debate and the demand from being centred on rights to being centred on ownership and power. It does this firstly by focusing on the need for public housing, as compared with private housing built by developers and owned by vulture funds—this is the long-term aim; secondly, it places an emphasis on a short-term objective to alleviate the immediate pain felt by renters instead of the present policy of providing housing assistance payments, which act as a transfer of wealth from workers to landlords, further pushing up rents.

Both these demands, if they are met, objectively weaken the power of the capitalist class and strengthen the power of the working class.

If all that is on offer for people and movements led by spontaneous elements is “chasing” rights it will simply enforce the incorrect idea that the way to achieve social change is to organise to make appeals to the ruling class, issue by issue, and hope they grant us concessions. In contrast, by shifting the focus to class power we raise the potential strength of a class-conscious movement.

The more power the working class wields the more demands it can make on the capitalist state, heightening the contradictions of the capitalist system in pushing demands that go beyond rights, such as universal basic services, the public ownership of housing, utilities, infrastructure, finance, sectors of industry, agriculture, etc., to be used for the common good.

Answering the question whether the language of rights is a help or a hindrance to the communist movement is always dependent on circumstances. If it advances the interests of the working class we should not be squeamish about employing it as a tactic, but never as a strategy. If rights are the central focus of a spontaneous mass movement we must always meet people where they are instead of dictating to them from on high, as certain sects on the left tend to do; instead we must try to outline the limits of an approach based on appeals to rights and help to develop an understanding of why building class power in the institutions of the working class is the only basis for progressive social change. This requires work and a genuine commitment to addressing the issue at hand.

Finally, in our own analysis and slogans we should reject the language of rights from the outset and concentrate on concrete demands that can alter the balance of class forces.