Rights in a Socialist Society

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Harry Brighouse

TOM SMITH’S UNWILLINGNESS [“Ethics of Socialist Praxis,” ATC 32] to engage with the views actually presented in my exchange with Milt Fisk in ATC 29 is disappointing. Dismissing a particular view of rights as “abstract” and a view of human nature as “bourgeois,” as if that is sufficient to demonstrate that it is not worth investigating, does nothing to further the project of developing a political morality for socialism.

Smith carelessly accuses me of claiming that rights theory is a twentieth century phenomenon, and then falsely attributes its development to Kant: In fact, the recent revival of rights-based liberalism bears more resemblance to the seventeenth century theories of Locke and Hobbes than to that of Kant.(1)

Defense Against Smith and Mandel

What really troubles Smith about my view is that it takes human beings to be, as he says, “inherently selfish” Ernest Mandel [“Socialism and Individual Rights,” ATC 32], similarly, dislikes the assumption that there is “some unavoidable opposition between the ‘private sphere’ and the collective sphere.”(2) The selfishness and opposition are seen as problems for socialists because both authors see one of the aims of socialism as being the eradication of the tensions arising from these problems.

Smith is actually right to accuse me of seeing human beings as inherently selfish. But I see them as selfish only in certain ways, and regard the selfishness as morally quite unobjectionable. It is selfish to seek shelter and food, but human beings will always do this, and need not thereby jeopardize social solidarity. The idea that humans are legitimately selfish is not foreign to Marxism: “To each according to their needs” is a plausible distributive principle precisely because we see citizens as being sources of claims on society which stand in no need of justification in terms of the common good—claims that we call “needs.”

Selfishness, then, is properly distinguished from greed or power-hungriness, which I do not see as inherent in human nature, and which would be a serious problem for socialism if they were. That human beings are sources of some (but only some) claims on society which stand in no need of social justification is a fundamental assumption of liberalism and also, I believe, of any plausible socialist political morality. Should citizens not advance these claims, as it is their prerogative not to, then the gap between individual pursuits and the collective good about which Ernest Mandel is worried will close considerably.

For this reason I do not believe that the private sphere and the collective sphere are unavoidably opposed, as Mandel says. But I do believe that the task of designing feasible socialist institutions is impossible unless we recognize that there may sometimes be legitimate conflict between individuals’ personal projects and the so-called common good.

We have to assume the possibility of such conflict in order to design institutions in which people will interact freely as well as harmoniously: It is irresponsible to assume that conflicts will “wither away,” even if they will, in fact, ultimately do so.(3)

Objections to Smith and Mandel

My objection to Smith’s own substantive conception of rights is simple. He presents rights as being firmly guaranteed because of their indispensable instrumentality to the success of “The Revolution.” But this just begs the question, because he does not say what the revolution itself is or give any independent reason why people should be concerned with its success.

On my view the revolution is valuable not in itself, but because it enables us to build a society in which individuals can live better, more fulfilled, and freer lives; and individual rights are thus an integral part of the revolution, not merely instrumental to its success. So one reason why people should care about the revolution is that it will give a firmer guarantee to both rights and their usefulness than they currently have, not the other way round.

It seems bizarre to me that revolutionaries would have a view on which the very thing we want to persuade people to engage in—revolutionary socialism—is taken as desirable and as standing in no further need of justification. If this is Smith’s view, as it seems to be, it does not augur well for our ability ever to persuade non-revolutionaries.

Both Smith and Mandel accuse me of advocating a version of the currently existing bureaucratic state under socialism. Certainly most egalitarian liberals have argued for this, but the question of how citizens participate in the state is one which has been seriously neglected by liberals until very recently. What I do advocate is a “state” in which each citizen is guaranteed opportunity for equal political influence. Designing institutions which can provide such a guarantee is extremely difficult, but socialists do not have a much better record than liberals on this question.

To illustrate the complexity of designing institutions we can look at Mandel’s own institutional proposal with respect to free political speech. He, like the famous egalitarian liberal John Rawls(4), and echoing Lenin’s pre-October views(5), argues that particular public policy options should be represented in the public marketplace of ideas in proportion to the number of supporters they actually have. He says this would be done by giving them the right to publish a daily, weekly, or biweekly paper, depending on the level of support they have.

This proposal simply does not reflect the reasons that we have an interest in free political speech. Mandel’s proposal reminds me of the high street in my home town where, on Saturday mornings, members of different far left groups would each stand hawking their newspapers, the size and frequency of which varied in direct proportion to the size of the group.(6) They would never speak to each other, thus making it very difficult (and, of course, expensive) to find out what they agreed and disagreed about Such an arrangement was far from ideal, since we want others to present their ideas in part because we want our own views to be the result of due consideration of all the evidence and arguments.

But this fact places two constraints on how we regulate the marketplace of ideas, both of which are violated by Mandel’s proposal. First, the institutions should provide space for views to actually engage with each other in the same forum, as opposed to merely being propagated separately and without reference to each other. In other words, interest groups should each be given space in the same newspapers, rather than (or in addition to each being given their own newspaper.(7)

Second, though, the number of supporters that an idea has prior to the start of a debate should not affect its ability to win new supporters. It is reason and evidence that should propel an idea on to success, not the prior level of support it has. Yet Mandel’s proposal unfairly disadvantages the holders of minority ideas.

Consider a simple model of a planned economy in which two budget plans are advanced: P, which prioritizes health over education, and Q, which prioritizes education over health. Before the debate begins 10% support P, 50% support Q, and 40% are undecided. Mandel’s proposal ensures that the undecided will be exposed five times as often to the arguments for Q and against P as they will to the arguments for P and against Q. Those who are not very active watchers of the debate are likely to read just one newspaper, which is five times more likely to promote Q than to promote P.

In these conditions, other things being equal, it is much easier for Q than for P to win new adherents. Thus, each prior adherent of Q has, actually, more political influence than each adherent of P. So the proposal is incompatible with a central ideal of socialists—that citizens should have equal political influence—as well as with the very reasons that we want freedom of political speech.(8)

Why Rights Are Vital

Getting such questions of institutional design as this right is essential to guaranteeing full democratic control over the state: i.e. preventing the kind of state that I regard as probably in dispensable from degenerating into an unaccountable bureaucracy.

It is not, then, easy to describe institutions which will realize the ideals we have as socialists and it is, as I said in the conclusion of my initial essay, a pressing task. It is also a task that will not go away even in the heat of revolution. People will be suspicious of socialists as long as we cannot say what kind of society we want in empirically defensible detail. This is not because they have closed minds, or are fooled by bourgeois ideology, but because they have good sense.


  1. Smith’s essay contains a number of other misattributions. For example, Mill defended free speech not for the reasons Smith gives but because he thought that free speech made an indispensable contribution to our collectively reaching the truth and making the best policy decisions. Having said that Mill’s defense was a response to a fear of the tyranny of the majority, Smith says that Rosa Luxemburg used the argument to oppose the Bolsheviks’ censorship measures—but the worry which moved Luxemburg was not a tyranny by the majority but a tyranny by the minority: the leadership of the Bolshevik party.
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  2. In fact, I have found it hard to understand the nature of Mandel’s disagreement with me. Towards the end of his piece he seems to endorse a view of rights that is very like mine, and I therefore find it a bit puzzling that he thinks we disagree. I apologize if Nave misinterpreted him, and invite the reader to regard my comments in this section as a response to a possible position which I think Mandel holds. (I have no such reservations about my interpretation of those of his views which I criticize in the next section).
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  3. This is something which Mandel in fact seems to recognize in his closing paragraphs, so I am, again, a little perplexed that he thinks he disagrees with me. I can only think that it is because he sees socialism as having the ambition of eradicating all conflicts among individuals who pursue their self-interested ends while I see socialism as aiming just to resolve these conflicts harmoniously and justly.
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  4. In a recent unpublished manuscript called Justice as Fairness–A Briefer Restatement. Rawls’ institutional proposal is less detailed than Mandel’s—he advocates equal access to the public marketplace of ideas for individuals—and obviously he says that it applies to a liberal capitalist society rather than a post-revolutionary socialist one, but the basic idea is the same, although he is not vulnerable to the first objection to Mandel’s view which I present below.
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  5. See Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, Verso, London, 1990, chapter 3, for an excellent account of the development of Bolshevik views on freedom of the press, and their somewhat less laudable practice.
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  6. Until 1986 the British Workers Revolutionary Party always managed to have a daily paper regardless of their size, but they only had one member in my town, so their paper was usually absent from the high street sidewalk.
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  7. In other words, newspapers and journals would be more like ATC than like many other far left publications, in that they would be forums for an exchange of ideas rather than platforms for the propagation of a single set of ideas.
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  8. There is a solution to this puzzle, but limitations of space prevent me from going into it here. Anyone wanting to see it should contact me through ATC. A further complexity with respect to press freedom which has not been addressed either by contemporary liberals or Marxists concerns the wide and relatively cheap availability in modern industrial societies of (small-scale) publishing equipment. I have nothing to say about that here.
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July-August 1991, ATC 33