Frederick Douglass, ”West India emancipation” speech – 1857

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.

Chomsky on Freedom of Speech in Turkey (vs. Europe)

Text of lecture delivered at the Istanbul Conference on Freedom of Speech, April 10, 2010

Turning to Turkey, the immediate tasks are much more difficult. Five years ago, I was asked to submit a comment for a conference on freedom of expression here. I would like to reiterate some of what I said, which seems to me important to keep in mind. Turkey has its share of extremely serious human rights violations, including major crimes. There is no need for me to elaborate on that after todayÕs discussion. But Turkey also has a remarkable tradition of resistance to these crimes. That includes, first and and foremost, the victims, who refuse to submit and continue to struggle for their rights, with courage and dedication that can only inspire humility among people who enjoy privilege and security. But beyond that Ð and here Turkey has an unusual and perhaps unique place in the world — these struggles are joined by prominent writers, artists, journalists, publishers, academics and others, who not only protest state crimes, but go far beyond to constant acts of resistance, risking and sometimes enduring severe punishment. There is nothing like that in the West.

When I visit Europe, and hear self-righteous charges that Turkey is not yet fit to join the enlightened company of the European Union, I often feel, and say, that it may be the other way around, particularly in defense of freedom of speech, a record of which Turkey should be very proud, and from which we can all learn a great deal.


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.

from Road to Wigan Pier / being part of an oppressive system and bad conscience

George Orwell

When I came home on leave in 1927 I was already half determined to throw up my job, and one sniff of English air decided me. I was not going back to be a part of that evil despotism. But I wanted much more than merely to escape from my job. For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces — faces of prisoners in the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servants and coolies I had hit with my fist in moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally: Orientals can be very provoking) — haunted me intolerably. I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same. I had reduced everything to the simple theory that the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong: a mistaken theory, but the natural result of being one of the oppressors yourself. I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants. And, chiefly because I had had to think everything out in solitude, I had carried my hatred of oppression to extraordinary lengths. At that time failure seemed to me to be the only virtue. Every suspicion of self-advancement, even to ‘succeed’ in life to the extent of making a few hundreds a year, seemed to me spiritually ugly, a species of bullying. Continue reading ”from Road to Wigan Pier / being part of an oppressive system and bad conscience”

from Road to Wigan Pier / reflections on his time in Burma and Colonial society

George Orwell

People had not yet settled down to a lifetime of unemployment mitigated by endless cups of tea. They still vaguely expected the Utopia for which they had fought, and even more than before they were openly hostile to the aitch-pronouncing class. So to the shock-absorbers of the bourgeoisie, such as myself, ‘common people’ still appeared brutal and repulsive. Looking back upon that period, I seem to have spent half the time in denouncing the capitalist system and the other half in raging over the insolence of bus-conductors.

When I was not yet twenty I went to Burma, in the Indian Imperial Police. In an ‘outpost of Empire’ like Burma the class-question appeared at first sight to have been shelved. There was no obvious class-friction here, because the all-important thing was not whether you had been to one of the right schools but whether your skin was technically white. As a matter of fact most of the white men in Burma were not of the type who in England would be called ‘gentlemen’, but except for the common soldiers and a few nondescripts they lived lives appropriate to ‘gentlemen’ — had servants, that is, and called their evening meal ‘dinner’ — and officially they were regarded as being all of the same class. They were ‘white men’, in contradistinction to the other and inferior class, the ‘natives’. But one did not feel towards the ‘natives’ as one felt towards the ‘lower classes’ at home. The essential point was that the ‘natives’, at any rate the Burmese, were not felt to be physically repulsive. One looked down on them as ‘natives’, but one was quite ready to be physically intimate with them; and this, I noticed, was the case even with white men who had the most vicious colour prejudice. When you have a lot of servants you soon get into lazy habits, and I habitually allowed myself, for instance, to be dressed and undressed by my Burmese boy. This was because he was a Burman and undisgusting; I could not have endured to let an English manservant handle me in that intimate manner. I felt towards a Burman almost as I felt towards a woman. Continue reading ”from Road to Wigan Pier / reflections on his time in Burma and Colonial society”