Based on the principle that universals are valid if they are concrete universals, this article provides a comparison between Western liberal and Chinese Marxist approaches to human rights. It does so in three steps. First is the analysis of the foundations, or roots, of the Western liberal emphasis on an individual’s mastery over a “right” understood in terms of private property, and the Marxist tradition’s emphasis on anti-hegemonic sovereignty in light of anti-colonial struggles for national liberation. Second is the contrast between the development of the Western approach to the core human rights in terms of freedom of expression, movement, and assembly, and the Marxist emphasis on the right to socioeconomic well-being, or common prosperity. Third is the comparison between the fruits of either tradition, one in terms of identity politics, and the other in the emphasis on civil, political, cultural, and environmental rights. The article concludes by asking whether the two approaches are able to come to an understanding of each other, and proposes that such an understanding may need to take place in light of the concept and reality of concrete universals.
The Western Emphasis on Individual Mastery over Private Property
To begin with the roots: the Western tradition begins in Western Europe of the eleventh century. During this period, the fabled “lawyer popes” began the process of a thorough transformation of the European legal and political framework. These lawyer popes and their advisers made a crucial rediscovery: the ancient Roman concept of absolute private property. In Rome of the second century BCE, they were faced with a legal conundrum that concerned slaves. Was a slave a human being or a “thing” (res)? If the former, then the relation between a master and a slave would be one between human beings; if the latter, then the relation would be one between a human owner and an object or a “thing.” Given that slaves had gradually been reduced to the same level as cattle and material objects, it was the relation between a master and a “thing” that constituted the legal problem to be solved.
Roman jurists—legal theorists—came up with an ingenious solution that would come to have repercussions they could never have imagined. This was the category of absolute private property,1 in which the primary relation of the owner of private property was to the “thing” that he—and it was invariably a “he”—owned.2 This may seem like a somewhat strange way to formulate the solution, since those who are immersed in the Western tradition tend to think of private property in terms of the relations with other owners: I own this object, which means that you do not own it. Not so for the Romans. Instead, absolute private property was constituted as the relation between the owner and the object owned. Why? Because the object owned was a slave. The various ways in which this relation was expressed are telling: the slave was seen as simply an extension of the master, an automaton that acted as though it were a part of the master, as the hand of the master.3
Conclusion: Concrete Universals
In conclusion, two points need to be made. To begin with, I have emphasised two approaches and indeed traditions concerning human rights. One begins from individual mastery over private property, grows into civil and political rights, and flowers in terms of identity politics. The other begins from anti-hegemonic sovereignty, upon which grows socioeconomic well-being, and flourishes in term of civil, political, cultural, and economic rights in a socialist system. But a question remains as to whether they have any common ground. By way of an answer, let us consider two documents from the United Nations, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UNGA 1966a) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (UNGA 1966b). In many ways, these two documents embody the two traditions I have analysed in this study, INTERNATIONAL CRITICAL THOUGHT 247 although it is notable that the Marxist tradition’s emphases are also to be found in most developing—and formerly colonised—countries, who also are signatories to the right to development (UNGA 1986). The history of the writing of these documents is instructive: the two main declarations were initially planned to be one document. However, due to disagreement in emphasis between countries that espouse the Western liberal tradition and the majority of countries that were formerly colonised by such countries and strongly advocate anti-hegemonic sovereignty, the declaration was divided into the two we have now. They were initially published in 1966, and they both came into effect in 1976. If one considers the countries that have signed and ratified the declarations (not difficult to determine), it is clear that a divide still exists and mutual recognition of distinct traditions and emphases on human rights still requires considerable work (Sun 2014; Li et al. 2015, 68–69; Zwart 2020).