December 9, 2017 - No. 40

International Human Rights Day, December 10

Rights: A Modern Definition


TML Weekly is reprinting the following important article by Hardial Bains, originally published in TML Daily Vol. 22 nos. 61-63, December 11-13, 1992. It has been slightly edited for grammar.

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A right as it pertains to human beings is, by definition, something which appears at a definite stage in the development of human beings and human society. Rights appear only in history and are the concretization of all qualities which make individuals and society human at that particular time. There can be no right which can transcend such a requirement both of history and of human beings and human society. Rights, in this sense, are the expression of the nature of society. To be formalist about this matter obscures the study of the conditions in which rights exist. The fight for human rights at the present time only reveals that the societies are advanced enough to express these rights, and human beings are extremely anxious to overcome their absence. Still, there are conditions which are an obstacle to their growth and development. Human beings are striving to change those conditions.

When it comes to human beings, rights are not expressed by the fact that they are given by this or that economic or political power, this or that social or cultural institution. It is necessary to study these rights as they exist within a particular society or internationally, so that the extent to which the society has to advance can be ascertained. Of course, human rights, like all other rights, have to be guaranteed, but this cannot be the case unless the conditions exist which favour their development. For instance, it is not possible to speak of human rights if even the right to a livelihood does not exist in a society or if that society is in constant threat of being taken over by another. The socio-economic level of a society, the relations between states and the overall national and international conditions have to be taken into consideration if the extent to which human rights prevail in a society is to be ascertained.

A right, by definition, is something which can neither be given nor taken away. In the sense of reflecting a definite stage in the development of a society, a right is; its recognition exists by virtue of that society. Various states on the world scale, especially the most powerful such as the U.S., do not want to provide human rights with a guarantee. In the first place, they cause confusion over the definition of human rights, making them dependent not on the quality of being human but on some other quality -- whether political, ideological, religious, cultural or moral. On the basis of their definition, they interfere with these rights and make them a target of legislation, without paying any attention to the conditions which prevail in the society. Such states do not recognize human rights by enacting legislation which provides them with a guarantee. Instead they guarantee that which benefits the economically and politically most powerful in the society. The case of Ross Perot who, because of his wealth, can have more right to elect and be elected than nearly all other Americans, flies in the face of the claim of the American state that it is thoroughly democratic.[1] Privilege and wealth and its use in the political process stand in contempt of the right of all citizens to be equal in the political process and to participate in governing their own affairs.

When a human being is born, she or he is a person strictly in accord with the stage of the society to which she or he is born. Her or his human rights will be recognized only to the extent the society favours. A study of such a society can tell us what this newborn person's fate is likely to be. There is hardly a state at this time which begins with the study of rights as they are, as they exist in society. Furthermore, there are states which even forbid the recognition of rights, even though there is no impediment to their existence in terms of the level of social development. Such is the case of Kuwait where even universal suffrage has yet to be established. Why is this the case? What reasons can there be to deny the people of Kuwait universal suffrage? Is it the privilege and power of the Emir which acts as an impediment? The study of the conditions of other countries would show that, as in Kuwait, there are very definite obstacles to the practice of universal suffrage. Most of the countries which are divided between rich and poor have universal suffrage in name only. It is the wealthy who decide the kind of government, its composition and its policies.

Is there a reason why rights as is are being denied people on the world scale at this time? What is this reason? Why are human beings denied rights as is at this time? Why is there no society in the world today where human rights exist in their entirety? Rights as is is an abstraction, a definition of a character of the society which affirms that its members can have demands on the society by virtue of their being human. The individual member of the society, however, cannot enjoy this right, cannot make a claim upon society, if the conditions for it do not exist. The main and decisive condition has to be for the entire collective, the society itself, to fight for the general interest of the society and for the individual interest of each member. What belongs to the individual, in the first instance, rights as is, now belongs to the condition. Unless such a condition exists, there is no possibility for rights as is to become a reality.

From the time of the Renaissance to the development of the democratic revolution in the eighteenth century, the bourgeois society was the condition for the expression of such a right. As it developed, however, the same society became the obstacle to its expression, and the affirmation of the collective in the society emerged as the condition for the further development of rights. Society, in this period, has gone through great changes. From the freedom of free enterprise to the rise of monopolies and oligopolies, bourgeois society no longer accepts its expression. It is acting like the old society which it overthrew, the feudal society which had concentrated privilege and power in the hands of the nobility who used it to deprive everyone else of enjoyment of their rights. Modern society is quite similar to the old society in this respect.

If the bourgeois society is not the condition for the expression of rights as is, then what is the condition of its expression? It cannot be said that rights as is will find their expression with the destruction of the society. Speaking generally, it can be said that their expression will take place with the destruction of the bourgeois character of the society. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Just as under feudalism, free enterprise emerged as the weapon against feudal absolutism and the feudal aristocracy, so too something quite specific to the modern society has arisen which is the expression of rights as is. This is the collective or, in political terms, a basic cell through which individuals fight for the expression of their rights as is. In economic terms, workers aggregate in the form of their own associations, unions and organizations and so do individuals. The collective has emerged as the condition which will eliminate that character of the society which is obstructing the expression of rights as is for all.

The Problem as It Exists on the World Scale

At this time, whether the discussion of rights concerns Canada, India or any other country, the problem is posed in a specific fashion. In other words, by virtue of this consideration, it is posed in the same fashion everywhere. It is not uncommon to hear the question asked whether a government has the right to do such and such a thing. There is an acute awareness of what an individual should or should not do, but the focus today is on the state. Does the state have the right to suppress those who rise against it? This has arisen as one of the most important questions. Or, do the people have the right to overthrow a state or a government which is oppressing them? It is generally accepted that if there is no other recourse to oppression, then the sword is the only way. But in modern times, this argument is used by the most powerful nations when it suits them.

The problem as it exists on the world scale is that the conditions which prevail in various parts of the world speak about the plight of a definite class or strata of people. These conditions tell us that an uncurbed tendency has developed in which the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. Do the rich have the right to become richer or the poor the right to not become poorer? How should such problems as they exist be looked at? Does an employer have the right to shut down a plant because it is no longer profitable? Do the workers have the right to not be unemployed? Conditions point out that economic developments have given rise to the very economic and political superstructures which make it impossible for rights as is to express themselves. In its place, there is the expression of problems as they exist. The definition of a right which clearly begins from right as is gets totally consumed in the problems as they exist. What do the specialists on rights have to say about this matter?

There are rights which have assumed a general and universal character, as in the case of universal suffrage. There is universal suffrage in Canada. All those who have attained the age of eighteen can, by law, elect and be elected. But there is a collective discontent with the inability of everyone to enjoy this right. The electorate does not reap the fruits of this universal suffrage as do those who enjoy the right to get elected, especially if they belong to the Executive. Does the electorate have the right to change the mechanisms which give the elected the mandate to do whatever they please? Does the government have the right to give or take away this right from the electorate? Such are the problems as they exist. And there are many more. In such circumstances, how will a right be defined? Its definition must necessarily be a modern one, given that the conditions as they prevail today nationally and internationally did not exist before. Generally speaking, these are conditions in which the concentration of capital and production has become extreme. There is a massive deployment of the productive forces which, when directed, can give rise to results which could never have been imagined before. The exploration of space is one such example. Examples can be given from every facet of life.

Solutions Present Themselves in the Course of Defining
the Problems as They Exist

There is a quality which belongs to all human beings, that power through which what is absent in their conditions and is necessary for their well-being can be abstracted. At this time there is a general feeling about what is absent in the sphere of rights. The solution is found by changing the conditions, but there is more to it than this. The solution is that the rights as is of all human beings should be recognized. Once this is done, then one of the major problems of our times will be sorted out. But how can it be achieved? Can there be a system which would, as a matter of fact, recognize that rights as is need not be enshrined in a constitution? If they can be enshrined in a constitution, they can also be taken out, proving that such a thing will not solve the problem either.

The solution will be to begin not from rights as is, but from the right of the collective to fight for the rights as is of the individual in the general interest of the society. Just as all of production is carried out on a collective basis and the society functions in every field in a collective manner, the work to establish rights as is has to be realized on a collective basis. In other words, the first step is to recognize the rights of the collective. For instance, as a collective, human beings have a right to flourish as human beings. The flourishing of the human aspect will determine the extent to which this right prevails in the society. Such a right will forbid anyone committing any act which does not enhance the human aspect. The right of all human beings to be recognized as being equal in the political sense must be given a political guarantee, so that they can benefit from universal suffrage. The right of people not to face famine or the devastation of war, or to live in a healthy environment, must also be given political guarantees. In other words, rights must first be defined in terms of individuals as they constitute a collective.

The conception that as a living being man is equal to all others of like kind first appeared in the thinking against feudal privilege and power but this conception was not turned into reality. Solely men of property acquired equal rights, including those whose ownership over their labour power was recognized so that they could enter into contracts with the owners of capital over the price of their labour. Neither rights nor equality were recognized until much later for women, black people or colonized peoples. In other words, rights were not recognized by virtue of people being human. Equality was given a political guarantee to men of property.

The modern definition of rights has to begin on the basis of the quality of being human, as human beings appear in the form of collectives within the present conditions. All human beings must be equal in front of the law within a state both as individuals and in terms of their collectives. All women as they constitute one gender of human beings must not be discriminated against because of their sex. Such a definition has to also enter into the domain of the economy as well as in the sphere of culture. It has to enter the national and international spheres also, which means in the relations within a nation and between nations.

In modern times, rights can only be recognized by a collective. By definition, such a right which a collective guarantees must not, in any shape or form, hurt the general interest of the society or the interest of the individual within that collective or society. Such a definition of rights begins from what must not be done, that is by abstracting that which is causing the problem, hurting the general interests of the society and the interest of the individual. No movement for rights can remain aloof from these cardinal points. No longer can the definition of a right remain an abstraction or be given by an individual. It has to be concrete and it has to be given by the collective. Secondly, the collective must pay utmost attention to ensuring that all that which goes against the general interest of the society is undone and all that is needed to ensure that interest is done. The individual interest has to be looked after on the basis of the same care and consideration.

A Clear Definition of Rights:
The First Requirement of Modern Democracy

Modern democracy cannot be satisfied with a mere recognition of universal suffrage. The conditions as they prevail in the U.S., Canada, Britain, France and elsewhere prove that these countries are using universal suffrage to deny the right of all human beings to govern their own affairs. The lynchpin of a democracy has to be the collective interest which must ensure the general interest of the society and the individual interest of its members. Modern democracy, if it is not to be in contempt of human rights, must empower the collective to exercise this right.

The world has witnessed various struggles for democracy in the recent period. However, has a collective come to power which is serving its interests by ensuring the general interest of the society and the individual interest of its members? There are claims to this effect, but the conditions convey something else. In the sphere of the economy, what is in the general interest of the society? What is in the interest of the individual member? The same question requires an answer in the sphere of politics, especially in relation to the political process, and in the sphere of culture. Even a cursory examination of the situation worldwide indicates that such a requirement is not satisfied.

A rights group does not constitute a collective in the strict sense of the word. A collective emerges generally out of common interests from within the conditions which prevail in the society, be they economic or other. A rights group also has common interests but only in so far as rights are concerned. It does not go any further. A collective mirrors the objective condition. The collective of workers faces the same conditions as does the collective of small farmers or small fishers or professionals and intellectuals. A collective will fight for the general interest of the society and the interest of the individual members if it is in its own interest to do so.

Different political parties lead different classes, strata and groups of people and their interests clash within the existing conditions. What makes the difference is not when this or that political party or group of political parties comes into power but, in the final analysis, when a collective in whose interest it is to defend the general interest of the society and the interest of its members comes into power. It is such a collective which would finally proclaim that rights are as is. They will require no further definition.


1. Ross Perot is a U.S. billionaire and one of the richest people in the United States. He ran as an independent candidate in the 1992 U.S. presidential election, and subsequently established the Reform Party to run as its presidential candidate in the 1996 election.

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