By Bayo Ogunmupe
Published in the Daily Independent Newspaper. Tuesday, April 8, 2003.
In these days of electioneering campaigns it is usual in modern politics for candidates to emphasise their ideological persuasions. Unfortunately, our politicians have not obeyed these rules of democracy. Instead we have been exposed to tales of the El Dorado their tenures will bring.
For us the people, it is better to set an agendum for the incoming administration to follow. To show that the political, the economic and the social systems in any society are intricately interrelated. That is the central insight of socialism and it is the basis of a socialist view of human rights.
Indeed, it is arguable that this socialist perspective arose in the course of the struggle over human rights.
Socialism developed, first in Europe as a militant critique of the 19th century bourgeois revolutions, above all, the French Revolution which proclaimed the universal rights of man and then, in practice, deferred them to the rights of private property.
In its 19th century origins, socialism began as a human rights movement, more than an economic movement. Its initial focus was upon winning minimal liberties for the working class: universal suffrage, trade union right, first and foremost.
In England, the great surge of the people was in the chartist movement, with its demand for universal suffrage.
In Belgium and Sweden, the battle for the vote required general strikes to gain success. In other places notably in Germany, the fight was directed against a discriminatory voting system.
So it was that Karl Marx – wrote in 1848, in the communist manifesto, that the first step in the emancipation of the working class was in winning the battle for political democracy.
Indeed, I have often thought that one of the reasons for the failure of socialism as a movement in Nigeria and elsewhere is that universal suffrage meant that labour did not undergo the critical phase of the fight for the right to vote.
To socialists, the terms human rights, democracy and socialism are synonyms. All pre-existing societies, Marx wrote in the manifesto, had been based upon the rule of minorities. Socialism was seen as the first movement of the majority in the interest of the majority. It sought not the establishment of a new form of authoritarian property right, but the creation of the first system of truly democratic ownership.
Where the means of production are socially controlled and the people have the fullest right to decide the policies and the personnel of that social ownership, there is democratic socialism. Human rights, the liberty to speak, to organise, to oppose-are thus not merely the prerogatives of the individual in a socialist society, they are the essential mechanism of the social and economic power of the population as a whole.
Without them, socially owned property becomes the private possession of the bureaucracy which runs it and human rights are critically diminished.
To the socialist, the current concentration of corporate power in the advanced industrial democracies is a matter of deep concern. Yet, as Marx and other 19th century socialists understood, political freedom offers the means, the possibility of transcending those economic and social influences that are exercised by the modern day corporation.
In contemporary industrial society, with its drive toward centralisation and bureaucratisation, democratic freedoms are the only mechanism by which the people can exercise control through their elected officials. Political rights are not merely individual freedoms, important as they are, they are the only means to the social and economic power of the people.
These inter-relationship of the political, economic and social are also relevant to us in the Third World. However, it is only by the United States aiding economic development in the Third World that the US can also further the growth of human rights.
But the American record has been mixed. The response of the Nixon Administration to the former Salvador Allende government in Chile will always be a bad chapter in American foreign affairs. In Southern Africa, however, the American record changed for the best soon after the Carter administration took office.
There was a positive development within the United States with regard to apartheid South Africa. The factor in that change was the human rights movement of American blacks. That movement made it possible for an African American to become the US representative at the United Nations. The civil rights activities of African-Americans forced the passage of AGOA by the Clinton Administration and caused the eventual appointment of General Colin Powell, an African-American as the US Secretary of State, a position only second to the presidency in terms of power and influence.
The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured people organised the Black Congressional caucus, which has been a major force for a democratic foreign policy on Africa. From here, one can clearly see the international aspects of the fight for human rights.
The socialist view of human rights also applies to the former Soviet Republics. Modern history clearly indicates that property is neither right nor left. Nationalisation was employed in the “revolution from above” by Bismarck in 19th century Germany. It is widely used today by military dictatorships. But that isn’t state ownership of production. Even then, who owns the state?
There is only one way for the people to own the state, it is by the right, freely and without fear, to change the policies and the personnel of the state. That power to change personnel is offered by the elections. When the people are excluded from the exercise of these democratic rights or when human rights are denied, that does not simply mean a violation of personal liberty, it is a mechanism for maintaining the class rule of the bureaucracy.
For the socialist then, human rights are both individual and social because the political, economic and social form a whole in the modern world. In the opinion of Marxists, human rights are the basis of social and economic results and they are the goal of socialism itself.