According to Marx, human rights are the “rights of the egoistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community”. They are the rights of man as an isolated, inward looking, self-centered creature
- who regards his free opinion as his intellectual private property instead of a part of communication
- who uses his right to private property not in order to create a beach-head for his public and cultural life but to accumulate unnecessary wealth and to protect unequal property relationships
- who uses the right to privacy as a wall keeping out the poor snoopers watching the rich people
- who considers fellow men as the only legitimate restraint on his own freedom, and therefore as a limit instead of the source of his own thinking, identity and humanity (this is the way in which Marx read art. 6 of the French constitution of 1793: “Liberty is the power which man has to do everything which does not harm the rights of others”)
- who considers freedom to be no more than the ability to pursue selfish interests and to enjoy property, unhindered by the need to help other people, “without regard for other men and independently of society”
- and who considers equality to be the equal right to this kind of freedom (everybody can emancipate himself by becoming a bourgeois).
Human rights, in this view, serve only to protect egoism and the unequal distribution of property, and to oppress the poor who question this and who try to redistribute property. On top of that, human rights obscure this fact because they are formulated in such a way that it seems that everybody profits from them. Contrary to what is implicit in their name, “human” rights are not general or universal rights. They are the rights of those who have property and who want to keep it. A specific situation of a specific group of people is generalized in human rights.
Of course, this criticism can be correct. No one will deny that human rights can serve to protect and justify egoism, oppression of the poor and indifference. They can help to shield people behind private interest and to transform society into a collection of loose, self-centered, self-sufficient, withdrawn, independent, sovereign and isolated individuals. Because the rich have more means to use, for example, their freedom of expression, this freedom can be an instrument of the rich to monopolize political propaganda and political power and to use this power to maintain their privileged situation. Economic relationships can be maintained by legal means.
However, in order to judge and possibly reject a phenomenon, one should also look at its intended and ideal functions, not only at the ways in which it can be abused. Human rights not only protect man against the attacks and claims of other people (for example the attacks and claims on his property); they also create the possibility of forcing people to help each other. They do not allow you to do something to other people (taking their property, determining their opinions etc.), but at the same time they invite you to do something with other people. In other words, they are not only negative. They not only limit the way we relate to other people, they also stimulate and protect the way we relate to other people.