Since the United States assumed its current position as leading world power, and especially since the fall of its chief geopolitical rival the Soviet Union, debate has frequently appeared around the international “human rights regime.” An ideological framework with hegemonic reach, the international human rights regime arose out of the blood and ashes of two world wars spanning the first half of the 20th century. Between the specters of racist massacres of minority populations in Europe (eventually to be defined as genocide) and the totalizing warfare created by international aggressions perpetrated by particular states, most damagingly by Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1945, the victorious powers of the second world war developed a basic framework for international moral norms enshrined within and protected by a set of laws. This framework, finding ripest expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the newly formed United Nations in December of 1948, quickly fell into multiple crises of credibility.
The first crisis faced by the new legal system was an internal dispute having to do with its aims: would it aspire to protect minority populations from their own governments, within the borders of sovereign nation-states, or would it primarily seek to protect the sovereignty of nation-states, to safeguard the international peace that had been violated with Nazi Germany’s aggressive, war-making invasions? The answer to this question would determine political power, as the various nation-states defining the newly established “rights”—most prominently, the United States and the Soviet Union—sought to leverage those rights in their geopolitical favor.
The second crisis had to do with the very content and definition of rights—where rights come from, what they should provide and for whom. This debate extended to a contest between “negative” rights and “positive” rights, again forwarded by the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively.
The third crisis arose in relation to the unipolar dominance of the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union. With no challenge to the US definition of rights and its attendant power to enforce that definition, the very idea of “human rights” fell into a performative contradiction wherein the enforcement of human rights itself became further consolidated as a tool for the systematic violation of those very alleged rights by the self-appointed enforcer.
If we seek to untangle the web of contradictions encompassed by the international human rights regime, we ought to return to earlier eras and compare and contrast the respective legacies carved out by the United States and its major challenger, the Soviet Union, on the major questions pertaining to human rights. Here I will examine the origins of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by examining the debates carried out around it by the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Then, I will look at the human rights envisaged and enforced by the United States and the Soviet Union on domestic levels. Finally, I will turn to the contemporary use of “human rights” by the United States ideologically, as it utilizes them to erode the authority of the very entities and texts that gave rise to the international human rights regime in the first place, resulting in what Stephen Gowans recently described as the “international dictatorship of the United States.” Above all, I want to use the occasion to wonder what was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union, consequently asking what could be gained by returning to its conception of human rights.
The Origins of the International Human Rights Regime
The exact locomotive for the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains a source of controversy. One part of the debate—that spearheaded by the West and its ideological schemas—highlights the role of key Western individual activists, their impetus allegedly a moral one. A broader thesis, which allows more room for socio-political and historical explanations, points to widespread revulsion at the aggressive military behavior of Nazi Germany, often interpreted as a symptom of global lawlessness.
Earlier articulations in favor of such a declaration, beginning at the close of the First World War with the League of Nations, cited the precedent of the Armenian genocide, carried out by Ottoman authorities amid the collapse of the empire during World War I. The attention to the Armenian genocide was part of the first alleged justification for a global regime of protection against human rights violations: to form an international defense against the destruction of group minorities. (It is worth pointing out that this expressed purpose potentially contradicts the traditional Enlightenment view of human rights as an inheritance, an inalienable prize, the violation of which occurs in primarily an individualistic capacity.)
For its part in addressing this concern, Japan proposed that the League commit itself to racial equality. Despite some level of support from other states, the great powers forcefully put down the proposal. Indeed, the goal of protecting the collective rights of minority ethnic and religious groups fell into disrepute between the most powerful drafters—the United States and Great Britain—once they realized such a norm could be used against them, entrenched as these two nations were in systems of racial hierarchy tailored to colonial ends. For the United States, the concern was largely domestic as it maintained an anti-Black legal regime that facilitated a high prevalence of white vigilante violence against American citizens of African descent within US borders. For Great Britain, the concern was mainly about its policies in its colonial holdings, including but not limited to Ireland and India.
A turning point emerged for the League-led international system with the disposal of the Weimar Republic and the ascendance in Germany of the Nazi Party, headed by Adolf Hitler. Withdrawing from the League of Nations, Hitler announced Germany’s rejection at the organization’s perceived call for the global assimilation of nations. Germany’s new mission would be dedicated to its own nation, to preserving its superior particularities. As described by Mark Mazower, German publications swiftly began the work of cultivating and spreading the new Nazi ideology:
“Within a short time, the implications of this approach were being drawn out in the legal and political science journals of the new Germany. Denying that international law had any validity, jurists in the Third Reich now argued that ‘the nation comes before humanity’. Each racial group, according to some, possessed its own conception of law, making the idea of a global political society a nonsense.”
Mazower quotes one such journal directly:
“[It is not thereby asserted] that the fundamental moral ideas of the German people are also to be considered as binding upon the so-called international community … It should never, and shall never, be our function to convert by example to German legal notions the negro republic of Liberia, or Abyssinia, or Red Russia, in order to construct a genuine society of nations of universal character.”
The race program embraced by Nazi Germany constituted a virulent form of reaction, fomented at both material and philosophic levels. Germany found itself destroyed and indebted after the First World War. The German ruling class embarked on the creation of a new explanation for world misery, adapted from old style liberalism. Traditional blood-and-soil justifications for the nation-state began to mix in syncretic fashion with scientific racism engineered in the United States, a society itself grounded settler-colonial expansion for the sake of a primitive accumulation staked on the extermination of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of African-descended peoples. Germany’s own imperial failures were given scapegoats. Any ideologies and peoples that could be associated with the idea of equality and with the expansion of “rights”—that is, of human rights—allegedly undermined the uniquely tremendous qualities of the German nation. Paradoxically, liberalism was among the new Germany’s targeted ideologies. For liberalism introduced the idea of rights to the modern world made in its image, even if its foundational right to property served as justification for the racist ideologies of the modern world.
Domenico Losurdo has argued that the Nazi ideology embraced by one of Germany’s most widely read and revered philosophers, Martin Heidegger, was also undertaken as an effort to preserve the particularities of the German nation against the universalist ethics of liberalism and its attendant rationalism:
“Modernity is synonymous with subversion, since with its universalist ideologies (liberalism, democracy, communism) it destroys the communitarian and traditional bonds that unite the members of a given people and separates this same people from its territory and history. Inevitably, the critique of modernity ends up also concerning Jews. The black notebooks [by Heidegger] confirm this: present in many countries and attached to urban rather than rural life, Jews are the incarnation of ‘rootlessness’, ‘distance from the soil’ and thus subversion. And again, this attitude is far from surprising to the Heidegger scholar: the 2 October 1929 letter in which the philosopher emphasises the need to oppose ‘growing Judaisation within German spiritual life’, reinforcing this by rooting it in authentically German forces, is already well-known.”
Anti-egalitarianism, used concretely to promote the superiority of the German nation and proposed immunity from the very concept of international law, was thus linked intimately to anti-Semitism. Losurdo emphasizes that Heidegger’s “Judeophobia came at a moment when across the west as a whole, on both sides of the Atlantic, there was a widespread view that the true culprits for the October Revolution were Jews.” In drawing a comparison between the anti-Semitic views of American industry tycoon Henry Ford and those of Heidegger, Losurdo further reminds readers that “the origins of nazism and the ideological motives inspiring it were not exclusively German.” While Nazi reaction desired to destroy liberalism for its theoretical gestures towards equality and rights, its language and ideas would have been inconceivable without liberalism’s paradoxically exclusivist innovations.
Significantly, Losurdo traces the fascist critique of liberalism to Germany’s material devastation, carried out in the name of “imperial universalism” and “universal interventionism,” citing specifically Napolean III’s expansionism and war waged in the name of the “universal” values of “democracy” and of liberal “civilization.” The Second World War ended with a victory for the torch-bearers of that very legacy, even though it was the Soviet Red Army that made the most substantial sacrifices to put an end to the Nazi machine’s relentless race war. When the victorious powers began to plan the new world order, replacing the League of Nations with the United Nations, they established that liberalism would remain the preeminent ideological substructure for the aims of capital, as liberalism—whatever its historic relationship to fascism—had for the moment withstood fascist challenge at both the levels of war and criticism.
The philosophic underpinning for this new world order became the subject of international debate immediately after the war’s end. The substance of those debates reveal the extent to which our contemporary world, insofar as the United Nations serves as a global point of reference, is fundamentally the outcome of an American project. By 1945, the general American desire for “isolationism” had passed. Instead, America would embrace a new universalism in its image. The turn had been presaged in Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1941, in which he declared the “supremacy of human rights everywhere” as the task of the future, “a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and generation.”
But as this “supremacy” was being realized through the UN, the new basis for the state of colonial exception to universal human rights was outlined. Britain found itself once again concerned for its policies of racial segregation in South Africa as it yet again balked at the implications for the future. The British leadership still signed on to the project in hopes of enlisting the United States, the emergent superpower with domestic racist policies of its own, as a bulwark of support, seeing plainly that wherever the US went, and whatever it decided to do, it would take the world with it.
Britain’s fears threatened to materialize in several ways. Like Japan before it, China made an intervention, requesting a provision specifically addressing the issue of racial equality. The NAACP used the UN to issue an appeal regarding denial of human rights to African-Americans in the United States. If appeals regarding South Africa were to arise, the leading powers of the UN could point to the organization’s goal not to “impose standards but only to proclaim them.” Soon, however, it became apparent that the relaxed view held by the leading powers towards the plight of Black South Africans did not transfer to the conditions of national minorities in Eastern Europe, where the Soviet bloc stood surest. Human rights were fast becoming the ultimate political weapon. Once more, the final statement would fall to the Americans, who would resolve the nascent contradictions by “posing as defenders of both universal human rights and domestic state rights,” in the words of Mazower, implicitly inscribing within themselves the right to dictate the terms of both categories.
For its part, the Soviet Union abstained from signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that the rights were “meaningless without a strong central State in charge of health, education and welfare.” It further charged that the West would use the enumerated rights as a pretext to meddle in the internal affairs of the USSR. In response, the USSR pressed a case for the right of national sovereignty. These concerns—the relative importance of economic social rights as well as national sovereignty—would become ideological fault lines during the ensuing Cold War, as the comparative consequences of the rival worldviews naturally played out in the domestic spheres of both states, the USA and the USSR.
The Cold War over Right
The prominence of the Soviet Union opened up space—with the UN often serving as a vessel for propaganda—within which a Marxist critique of liberalism, and its language of human rights, could be mounted. Indeed, the accusations tossed back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union about “human rights abuses” throughout the 20th century frequently fell into discursive traps. Quite simply, the two countries were speaking two different languages, building arguments upon radically estranged theories. Whereas the United States built a regime on natural law, the Soviet Union constructed one on the basis of class, namely the working class. Whereas the United States prized negative rights and freedom of the individual, the Soviet Union valued positive rights and liberation of the collective. And whereas the United States favored the theory of a diverse marketplace (the wellspring for its theory of democracy), the Soviet Union established its rule on the theory of dialectical materialism. Lying underneath each of these competing notions was the battle between capitalism and socialism.
As Doriane Lambelet writes, “it is crucial that the West understand that the Soviets have a coherent, logically consistent legal theory that shapes their perspective on human rights.” While the rights of the individual emphasized by Western critics of Soviet collectivism are believed by adherents to be naturally endowed, staking their argument on the “natural law” theories of John Locke, practitioners of dialectical materialism determine that rights—if they are to exist at all—are man-created, or to be more accurate, class-created. On this point, Albert Syzmanski quotes Christopher Cauldwell:
“What to the proletarian is liberty—the extermination of those bourgeois institutions and relations which hold them in captivity—is necessarily compulsion and restraint to the bourgeois, just as the old bourgeois liberty generated non-liberty for the worker. The two notions of liberty are irreconcilable. Once the proletariat is in power, all attempts to re-establish bourgeois social relations will be attacks on proletarian liberty, and will therefore be repulsed as fiercely as all men repulse attacks on their liberty. This is the meaning of the dictatorship of the proletariat [emphasis added] and why, with it, there is censorship, ideological acerbity and all the other devices developed by the bourgeois in the evolution of the coercive state which secures its freedom.”
Syzmanski offers an example to illustrate the point, asking in the process, “how does one judge the superiority of right?” Is the right of an upper class doctor to leave to seek higher pay above the right of a worker to receive his services, especially when it is considered that the worker made the doctor’s materially abundant life possible? For adherents to the Western liberal tradition, the answer to the question is likely an axiomatic yes. From the Marxist-Leninist perspective, neither the doctor nor the worker is objectively correct, as they are both acting in their class interests. The normative answer to the question for the Marxist-Leninist thus becomes, the worker is correct, for he belongs to the revolutionary class, the class whose claims in this instance are more progressive on account of that fact that its rule is the imperative of the future. And if the upper class doctor’s perspective had been fulfilled and legitimized by years of bourgeois dictatorial rule (no matter how “democratic” its guises), its standards belonging to the rule of yesterday, the worker’s perspective shall be fulfilled in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“The dictatorship of the proletariat”—a candid phrase. It may be said simply that the bourgeoisie’s ideology (such as its ideology of “human rights”) arose as an emanation of its class needs and existence. One might add that the proletariat equipped with Marxist theory would, as the final revolutionary class, in fact be the first revolutionary class to recognize ideology as a phenomenon by virtue of thinking outside the world it inherited, and thus be able to shape its own world—“the new world,” so to speak—consciously. (Althusser went as far as to argue that “Soviet humanism” marked a “revisionist” turn away from the scientific principles of Marxism for its incorporation of the humanist ideology of the bourgeoisie, for the language of “rights” and “morals,” two primary pillars of humanism, was a dead-end if it stalled the deliverance of the proletariat’s necessary place as the final class in history.) This honest expression of class dictatorship is in actuality intended as an expression of democracy. Syzmanski explains the logic of one-party rule in the Soviet Union:
“It is… argued that it is possible for a single party to be authentically democratic provided it maintains firm roots among the most respected members of the working class and peasantry, who transmit the sentiments and interests of average working people, through the Party’s apparatus, to its leading bodies and hence to all social institutions. This conception of democracy reverts to the original usage of the term as rule by the people, rejecting the contemporary notion, predominant in Western parliamentary democracies, that popular rule is possible only by the more or less open competition of different political parties in periodic elections. The Marxist analysis of such multiparty parliamentary forms is that they can be easily manipulated, through a wide range of instrumental and structural mechanisms, to serve the propertied class and their economic system, while single party working-class based systems are much more responsive to the needs of working-class people, that is, are authentically democratic in the original sense of the term.”
Furthermore, Lambelet outlines why “human rights activists” and dissidents, so often axiomatically supported in the West, would so often be treated as menaces in the USSR:
“Dissent by individuals targeted at the socialist system is seen as an individual action against the people themselves. Because the collective is more important than the individual, the individual who attacks the collective will of the people must be repressed. Thus, dissent against the system contradicts the most basic tenets of socialism and illustrates the ideological necessity for repressing dissent.”
The “human rights movement” would further be seen, in large sections of Soviet society, as disloyal. If the safeguard of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”—which is how the 1936 constitution explicitly defined the country’s system—was the State, and the dictatorship of the proletariat was the exercised power of the revolutionary working class, the state was therefore not only the guarantor or protector or promulgator of the people’s rights, but their actual deliverer.
What did those rights look like in themselves? And what did those rights look like in contrast to Western liberal rights? In the realm of political rights, sexism and racism were directly addressed, in sharp contrast to the Western liberal tradition that claims to serve individuals as individuals. The 1936 constitution for the Soviet Union established in Article 123 that all races are equal and, more decisively, that “any advocacy of racial or national exclusiveness or hatred and contempt, is punishable by law.” Anti-Semitism, a particularly sinister form of racism in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, was banned at even earlier dates. In 1918, for instance, “the Council of People’s Commissars called for the destruction of ‘the anti-Semitic movement at its roots’ by forbidding ‘pogromists and persons inciting to pogroms.’”
On the question of gender, Article 122 stipulated that “the possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, prematernity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.” Similar in spirit, Article 137 established that “women have the right to elect and be elected on equal terms with men.” The progressive rights afforded to women dovetailed with newly won rights for the sundry nationalities that fell under Russian rule, dating back to the pre-revolution days of the Tsar and the Russian Empire.
By the time the Soviet government was established, over one hundred and fifty nationalities fell under its administration. In Central Asia, most of those nationalities held strongly onto feudal and overall patriarchal attitudes towards women’s rights. The trick for the Soviet authorities was to undermine patriarchal practices that held women back as a class without launching an ideological assault on the prevailing Islamic belief system, obviously held to esteem by its adherents. A secular education program was implemented alongside traditional Islamic teaching. According to Anna Louise Strong’s The Stalin Era, in Muslim territories, women “set up welfare clinics where native women unveiled in each other’s presence.” In these spaces, “the rights of women…were discussed.” Additionally, “big public trials were held of husbands who murdered wives; the pressure of the new propaganda gave the death sentence for what old custom had not considered a crime.” Yet, Islam was not attacked as such; rather, the freedom of religion was regarded as a crucial aspect of the right to national self-determination, which would become a defining right of the new Soviet Republic in contrast to the lexicon of rights propagated throughout the West. Upon assuming power, the Bolsheviks issued a statement to Muslim nations:
“Muslims of Russia, Tartars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirgiz and Sarts of Siberia and Tukestan, Chechens and mountain Cossacks! All you, whose mosques and shrines have been destroyed, whose faith and customs have been violated by the Tsars and oppressors of Russia! Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions, are declared free and inviolable! Build your national life freely and without hindrance. It is your right. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, will be protected by the might of the Revolution, by the councils of workers, soldiers, peasants, deputies!”
Perhaps the most defining feature of the Soviet system of rights was its emphasis on positive rights rather than negative rights. In contrast to the Western system of rights, which foregrounded the right of the individual from violations of the state (violations of speech, religion, the press, etc.—failing to acknowledge the relative usefulness of these rights depending on social class and the ownership of media production), the Soviet system played up the importance of the right of individuals to certain social goods and standards of living. Article 118 of the 1936 Soviet Constitution guaranteed all citizens “the right to work,” along with “the socialist organization of the national economy, the steady growth of the productive forces of Soviet society, the elimination of the possibility of economic crises, and the abolition of unemployment.” Article 119 ensured “the right to rest and leisure” and “the reduction of the working day to seven hours for the overwhelming majority of the workers, the institution of annual vacations with full pay for workers and employees and the provision of a wide network of sanatoria, rest homes and clubs for the accommodation of the working people.” None of this is to say that the Soviet system forewent negative rights altogether. Personal property was sharply distinguished from private property, and Article 128 affirmed that “the inviolability of the homes of citizens and privacy of correspondence [were] protected by law.”
The updates contained in the 1977 Soviet Constitution were partially caused by abandonment of the political leadership of founding principles of the Soviet state—above all, there was lost a fidelity to the philosophy of dialectical materialism. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” was removed from the Constitution, replaced by the phrase “All People’s Government.” Vestiges of the founding principles nonetheless endured, in particular the emphasis on positive rights and social welfare. In fact, the breadth of those rights increased on account of the growth of the country’s productive forces. Article 18 protected the rights of the environment, of the need to “make scientific, rational use of the land and its mineral and water resources, and the plant and animal kingdoms, to preserve the purity of air and water, ensure reproduction of natural wealth, and improve the human environment.” Article 21 pressed for the replacement of human labor with machines. Cultural rights, the deservedness of every human being to the splendors of art, were enumerated, and world peace was listed as an ultimate goal. We should not be allowed to forget that, despite the fact that war in its various forms will be inevitable so long as class war is necessary.
The Global Dictatorship of the United States
In 2010, it was reported that the population of the City of Fallujah in Iraq was suffering from chillingly low rates of infant mortality and shockingly high rates of cancer, leukemia, and deformation, exceeding even “those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.” The suspected culprit behind the rates is depleted uranium and white phosphorous. Concurrently, the nearby Palestinian people find themselves under a sixty-plus year assault, perpetual targets of assassination and siege. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian population languishes in an imperial cage, on their every side either insurmountable walls or harsh sea, with colonial snipers and hovering drones watching their movements to ensure they stay packed like herd animals on the sliver of earth allotted to them. They live in the ruins of refugee camps. The conditions of both these people, the Iraqis and the Palestinians, are owed to the newest overlord of world order: the United States, which purports to continue the old civilizing dream so coveted by Napoleon III before it.
The United Nations, would-be watcher of transgressions against human dignity, was in fact from its beginnings a creature of the hegemonic United States, but never more so after the demise of its Soviet critic. The right of nations to self-determination—a notion protected by national sovereignty—fell out of favor. To prove the point, we need not look further than the UN’s consecration of Zionism, which leads us to the ongoing torment against the Palestinians. (To see evidence of how anti-colonial movements sought to use the UN against the imperialists that created it, we need look no further than UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism a form of racism and received support from the majority of the world.) Ironically, the Soviet Union counted itself as the first nation to recognize the independence of Israel. When the United States and Israel embraced one another as allies, the new Soviet campaign against Zionist reaction and world imperialism began. And unsurprisingly, the Palestinian position within the UN decreased considerably after the loss of the Soviet Union.
In the face of this empire and its human rights industry, the shadow of the Soviet critique sometimes still appears. The question is asked: how can the arbiter of human rights not only allow the violations against the peoples of Iraq and Palestine, but actually commit them? The United States stands indicted for hypocrisy and “double standards,” they say. But the indictment is myopic. For this empire pursues not double standards, but a single one, destroying its challengers and celebrating its accommodators. After all, if you make the rules, why should you feel compelled to follow them?
Again, as part of that shadow of the Soviet critique, anti-colonial campaigns are waged in the UN arena, with perhaps less vigor than the days of old, but no less importance. And in deciding the UN’s role in the world, the politics of genocide returns in places as disparate as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan. Within the UN, the questions of who killed whom, and how, and how many, are disputed, and while the answers to the question presented as a purely moral venture, the endeavor is entirely political. In the end, the hegemonic determiner of truths will be the decider of right and wrong and the ultimate enforcer of rights. As such, old questions about power and human rights linger. Which right shall reign supreme and lead the way to peace in this world, the global protection against genocide or the protection of sovereignty against imperial aggression? Far too often it is forgotten that our assigned cautionary tale, Nazi Germany (“assigned” insofar as the extermination of the native peoples of North America is not our benchmark, for reasons of politics and historical happenstance), stood guilty of both.
Added to the suffering of Iraq and Palestine is the recent dismemberment of Libya and Syria. The language of genocide was invoked to justify the “responsibility to protect” (“R2P”) Libyans as the claim was furnished in Western media that the Libyan government was planning a city-razing extermination campaign in the eastern city of Benghazi. The actual life-saving military campaign, carried out by NATO with the United States playing a typically pivotal role, revealed the contradiction that had come to dominate the heart of the US’s role as self-anointed savior to the subjugated and violated multitudes, albeit belatedly, after the war’s finish and the Libyan government’s overthrow. NATO, supposedly assigned to a life-saving mission, carried out and enabled many massacres of its own—including massacres specifically targeting a minority population, in this case Black and sub-Saharan African. The attention typically paid to anti-Black racism by progressive outlets amounted to precious little in an instant. In August of 2011, at the tail end of the bombing campaign, The Independent reported that, in the words of an interviewee, “any black African in Libya is open to summary arrest unless he can prove that he was not a member of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces.” And how did they “prove” they are not members of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces? Exactly. As debate raged around the NATO intervention and the “people’s revolution” it was supposedly saving, the needs of potential and imagined victims hid the fate of actual victims, an unspeakable propaganda crime for which nobody was made to pay after the media apparatus moved on from its Libya triumphalism to the next subject of NATO interest.
The fate of Libya was, of course, part of a pattern of which Palestine and Iraq were also part. Syria became added to the list as it was reported that, from 2011 onward, the United States was covertly arming “rebel fighters” to carry out attacks against the Syrian government. Perhaps more than ever, the right to self-determination had fallen by the wayside. Based on new political realities—again, in a world without the Soviet Union—the United States had made what appears to be a final decision on the direction of human rights in the world, away from national sovereignty and towards the protection of threatened populations, the truth of those threats decided by none other than the United States. Observing this state of affairs, and noting openly the US policy to arm and train rebel fighters against his government, Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Ja’afari made reference to a commitment on which the US had apparently turned its back, one contained in a document the US had also helped to bring into existence:
“The UN has lost its credibility. The UN has lost a lot of the principles of its founding fathers. The UN of today has nothing to do with the UN of the Charter. This is why everybody has forgotten about the Charter; people do not speak of the Charter. They don’t speak about sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, equality among members. Now they speak about the rule of law, human rights, the environment — because this is very dear to the heart of the private sector: money — partnerships. Now the Secretary-General is focused on partnerships, because he wants to privatize the United Nations.
“The budget of peacekeeping operations is three times higher than the regular budget! Rather than extinguishing the conflicts, and decreasing the number of peacekeeping operations, we have increased the peace-keeping operations. We have right now 36 special political missions, aside from 15 peacekeeping operations. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have any special political missions. This is a new phenomenon. By the way, the special political missions and the peace-keeping operations are not in the Charter. These are some of the ways they are deviating from the Charter itself. Together they consume $7.9 billion per year. And they are solving nothing.”
Re-deploying the old method of using the United Nations as a propaganda forum in which to mount anti-colonial or postcolonial arguments, Jaafari traces his own critique back to the system that triumphed (for the time being) when the Soviet Union folded, that is, capitalism. The new language for human rights, he suggests, is about profits. Saving lives, as it were, has become the latest major money-making scheme.
With “human rights” turned into profits, the void left by the Soviet challenge to the capitalist definition of right becomes more obvious than ever. The Soviet Union once preserved that challenge not simply by presenting arguments at the United Nations, but by offering material backing to actualize broader principles such as national liberation, itself a marker for self-determination. And in Palestine, Iraq, Libya, and Syria (to make only a beginning for a much longer list) self-determination is what continues to be so stringently denied. Lost is the right for a nation to decide what the word “right” even means. Without that ability, whatever other rights we may discover or create become gambits for the powerful, when it is the powerful whose caprices the concept of “human rights” should be designed to prevent if the phrase is to have any meaning at all.
Anti-Imperialism at a Crossroads
As the United States and its NATO coalition planned and executed a bloody proxy assault against Syria, it was exceedingly difficult for a time to find media outlets providing much-needed skepticism about the “revolution” packaging the Western media apparatus had assigned the war. And for that time, Russia Today—as the propaganda outlet of a counter-hegemonic state—provided exactly that service. But as the scope of US-led regime change operations increased, so did the size of the refugee population, adding even more urgency to questions around refugees. As the United States and Europe violated the sovereignty of postcolonial Middle Eastern states at will, they raised their own borders more vigilantly than ever, eager to keep out the “barbarian hordes.” Right-wing culturalist tropes began to be raised about the ostensible threat the dispossessed masses of the Middle East posed to the “traditional values” of “Western civilization.” Among the leading perpetrator circulating those tropes has been Russia Today. Here we see plainly another one of the largest vacancies left by the demise of the Soviet Union.
In the era of the Soviet Union, the flag of anti-imperialism was carried ably by the Soviet bloc, placing the cause firmly into a framework including also anti-racism, the right to self-determination of oppressed nations, and above all, socialism. While there is currently no shortage of movements and even states still upholding these values, it helps us to remember that the bourgeois Russian state that secured power by means of long-percolating counterrevolution, does not reliably propagate such values, even if it differs from the United States dramatically as a social, economic, and political formation. “Health scare in Denmark as refugees bring back diphtheria after 20yr absence,” reads one recent RT headline, framing refugees as a diseased alien force threatening the literal health of the European body politic. Another recent RT article decries “feminist apologetics” for “sexual assault” carried out by “Muslim refugees,” instructing European men to reclaim the masculinity that is the core of Europeanness.
This is fascist ideology spread by RT as a scapegoat, a result of the Russian bourgeoisie’s refusal to lay direct blame for groups like Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra on the highest culprit: the United States. Vladimir Putin has come close enough to naming the US, implying that he certainly knows full well how it works and why. In 2014, at the Valdai International Discussion Club, Putin said: “Do you really not understand who is fighting in Syria? They are mercenaries, mostly. Do you understand they are paid money? Mercenaries fight for whichever side pays more. So they arm them and pay them a certain amount. I even know what these amounts are.” But as time has rolled on, the Russian bourgeoisie has pursued a line suggesting the Daesh is out of control of the US, which might have interests of its own in destroying the organization. Although it has objectively served as a counterweight to the US regime change operation in Syria, preserving pieces of a state the US has sought to destroy, the Russian state’s true interests lie at the moment in quite simply upholding sovereignty and the international system at its most elementary level—an aim that in itself ought to be supported in opposition to US lawlessness—and not in confronting either imperialism or capitalism as such, as workers’ states would seek to do.
The result has been at times politically confusing. On the one hand, liberal imperialists have generally been relatively welcoming to refugees, showing public concern for their plight, after having spent years cheering on the destructions of their home countries in the name of “progressive” movements. When they have not opted outright for the role of cheerleader, liberal imperialists have effectively forestalled holistic critique of US imperialism in the age of Obama, and in the process short-circuited militant oppositional movements, insisting that an unapologetic rejection of the US campaigns in Syria and Libya is a disgraceful denial of the “agency” of supposed movements we might otherwise help bring to victory by signaling virtuous concern on the internet. On the other hand, the media role of organizations like RT in fomenting opposition to imperialist regime change threatens to embolden among anti-imperialists nativist elements in the United States and Europe, which reject regime change not out of internationalist solidarity with its victims, but out of a fear that violations of sovereignty threaten cultural homogeneity. Consequently, right-wing “anti-imperialists” are often anti-refugee.
In order to reclaim the internationalist and anti-imperialist legacy bequeathed by Marxism-Leninism, it will be necessary to reiterate and explain that right-wing “anti-imperialists”— Third Positionists, American constitutionalists and libertarians, and so on—are in fact not anti-imperialist at all, only appearing to be anti-imperialist in the face of left media networks in service to the interventionists, from ’68 leftist intellectuals such as Bernard Henri-Levy to old-style Yankee crusaders for the White Man’s Burden such as John McCain. The concretization of regime change as official policy comes out of the demands of finance capital, but there is nonetheless an ongoing debate within imperialism about how it should be managed. It must be kept in mind, for example, that right-wing libertarians in the United States, while objecting to regime change doctrine, wish to save the United States, not to put an end to the settler-colonial prisonhouse of nations built on genocidal property claims. This serves as a major distinction from the goals of communists, one that is often played out at the US-Mexico border, where the defenders of US “sovereignty” form minutemen brigades either killing migrants from Latin America, their homelands torn asunder by US-managed drug wars and coup d’etats, or delivering them to the federal government, which proceeds to throw them in concentration camps. (This scenario points to another contradiction to navigate: “sovereignty” for empires versus sovereignty for empire’s targets.)
The debate within imperialism transpires within the walls of US governance itself. Seymour Hersh’s article “Military to Military” shed a light on this dispute, revealing a miniature mutiny on the part of the US military against the White House and the CIA on Syria policy: “Barack Obama’s repeated insistence that Bashar al-Assad must leave office – and that there are ‘moderate’ rebel groups in Syria capable of defeating him – has in recent years provoked quiet dissent, and even overt opposition, among some of the most senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.” Members of the Joint Staff, it turned out, had been troubled by the policy to “ignore” the intelligence produced on the political character of the organizations that the US was funding, arming, and training on the ground, and instead wanted to assist the Syrian government in combatting groups like Daesh. This objection mirrored earlier internet memes in which US soldiers, their faces hidden, held up signs declaring that they would not serve in Syria on behalf of al Qaeda, insisting that such a mission does not at all correspond to the reasons why they signed up. Central to this objection is a naïve (but logical from a soldier’s perspective) belief in the stated mission of the US military—a voluntarist belief that the mission has in fact been corrupted by bad apples. When the objection to US support for Israel arises from within the military, those bad apples may be defined as the Zionists, Israelis, Jews, and their lobbies; in the case of support for Deash, the bad apples may be Muslims generally (perhaps Obama specifically, his birth certificate perhaps still believed to be questionable), or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In either case, the bad apples corrupt the mission of all-American WASP good ol’ boys.
The duty of communists is to construct a deeper critique to build a truly revolutionary movement. The foundations of capitalism and private property, and all the forms of oppression and exploitation they have engendered, shall be targeted at root, and eradicated. And the world system and the discourses that capitalism created, around statehood and the rule of law and human rights, will only begin to be replaced when its leading agent has fallen. The serious dialectical materialist thinks as an anti-humanist, knowing full well that humanism and its human rights regime is an invention of the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeoisie. But how the dialectical materialist acts depends on the conditions. The wholesale destruction of human rights in general will be neither possible nor desirable until the conditions which necessitate them are overthrown. In the mean time, proletarian movements may use them without tailing them or depending on them.
The experiences of 20th century actually existing socialism provide us lessons, advice, anchors, to carry out our duty. And for our current dilemma and future dilemmas, the answer will lie in neither liberal interventionism nor nativist reaction, but international socialism.
More suggested reading: “Vulnerable Dignity, Enchained Rights: On a Suggestion by Maximilian Forte,” Red Maistre: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=10855