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Robin Blackburn
New Left Review

Review of
Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History Belknap: London and Cambridge, MA 2010, hardback 352 pp, 978 0 674 04872 0

Thus the first writer to issue an unequivocal denunciation of slavery was George Wallace in a chapter devoted to the question in his book A System of the Principles of the Laws of Scotland in 1760. It is worth quoting as it clearly affirms an individual right. Wallace bluntly asserted that ‘men and their liberty are not in commercio’. He insisted:

For these reasons every one of those unfortunate men who are pretended to be slaves, has a right to be declared free for he never lost his liberty, he could not lose it, his prince had no power to dispose of him. Of course the sale was ipso jure void. This right he carries around with him and is entitled everywhere to get it declared. As soon, therefore, as he comes into a country where the judges are not forgetful of their own humanity it is their duty to remember that he is a man and to declare him free.

Moyn denies that the Haitian revolutionaries were animated by a concern for ‘human rights’, and tries to buttress his claim by drawing on what he takes to be the more hard-headed approach of C. L. R. James in his Black Jacobins: James did not think of presenting Toussaint L’Ouverture and his confederates as human-rights activists before their time. A Trotskyist, James’ view of droits de l’homme, instead, seems to have been as the ‘wordy’ promises of eloquent ‘phrase makers’ who, driven by the true economic motor of history to ‘perorate’, were in the end only willing to give up the aristocracy of the skin at the point of the gun.

James acknowledged the power of revolutionary ideals and noted that Toussaint invoked ‘liberty and equality’ in his declaration of 29 August, 1793. Likewise James stressed the huge importance of the moral factor. ‘It was the colonial question which demoralized the Constituent Assembly’, James insisted. ‘To avoid giving the Mulattoes the Rights of Man they had to descend to low dodges and crooked negotiations that destroyed their revolutionary integrity.’ We should recall that Toussaint L’Ouverture won his most important victories over Britain, Spain and the French royalists as a Republican general. Charting the changes in slave mentalities at a time of revolution is very difficult. We have to dig beneath ready-made notions—whether of purely heroic rebels or of implacable caste hatreds—to bring to light the forging of new identities and new ideals. The Haitian Revolution appealed powerfully to the Romantic imagination, but understanding it is not helped by the seductive and romantic notion that slaves were bound to rebel, bound to champion a general emancipation and bound to triumph (or to fail). It is important to note that the slave community had a reality, notwithstanding the hierarchy and heterogeneity within it between Creoles and the Africanborn, or between different African nations. The racialized structure of exploitation fostered a countervailing solidarity, since only those of African descent were enslaved. The Kréyole saying tou moun se moun, ‘everyone is a person’, perhaps echoed the African notion of ubuntu ngumuntu ngabantu— a person is a person through other people. This was a connection reiterated by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected President of Haiti overthrown by a Franco-American coup in 2004, in his introduction to a new collection of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s writings, The Haitian Revolution. The problem with Moyn’s re-reading is that it overstresses one important conjuncture—the 1970s—and plays down any sense of a longer history of rights, both before and after his magic moment.

Thus Moyn argues that few directly cited the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the twenty years that followed its adoption by the un; during this period, the New York Times barely mentioned ‘human rights’. Yet the Non-Aligned Movement formally adopted the Universal Declaration at its meetings in Bandung and Lusaka.

The Declaration had far-reaching significance because it defined the meaning of the defeat of fascism and, by incorporating significant social and economic rights, summarized the results of nearly a century of labour struggles. Anti-racist movements in South Africa and the United States also rightly claimed its mantle. The framers of the UN Declaration in the late 1940s were certainly aware of the terrible carnage that had wiped out some seventy million human beings; they were offering a response to the widespread aspiration for a world without the terrible ravages that had just been experienced, and without the distempers and depression that had produced the War in the first place. Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ included ‘freedom from fear’, one with a particular relevance to African-Americans living in the Southern Jim Crow regime. Many of the social rights in the 1948 Declaration echoed the Soviet Constitution of 1936—drafted, it should be noted, by Bukharin, not Stalin, as a widespread myth has it. The Declaration reflected, rather than created, the longing for an attainable utopia. One of the impulses that led to its drafting was an ‘Appeal to the World’ from the us National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (naacp), written in part by W. E. B. DuBois, and which—as Moyn is obliged to note— presented ‘African American subordination as a human-rights violation’. (Carol Anderson’s outstanding book, Eyes Off the Prize, helps to fill out this narrative.) The ‘Appeal to the World’ was formally submitted to the un in October 1947; Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the naacp, was apparently alarmed at the possibility that the Soviet delegation would use it against the us government.

Moyn apparently does not regard the anti-racialist component of much anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism as a dimension of the ‘human rights’ package—wrongly, in my view. The struggle against apartheid South Africa was an icon of the anti-imperialist movement and surely had an absolute claim to the banner of human rights.