Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 52July 2010

Human rights and the CPA

by Denis Doherty

I want to make some comments on the article Individual rights versus collective rights by Comrade Dorothea Anthony (AMR No. 50, November 2009).

Comrade Dorothea counterposes collective and individual rights and argues that only collective rights benefit the working class. She says in her article:

It is collective rights which we must promote as a communist party. For these are the rights which are most consistent with the interests of the working class. And unlike individual rights, collective rights are not double-edged — they directly benefit the working class.

I think the focus on an alleged tension or contradiction between collective and individual rights actually conceals both the weaknesses and the importance of all rights, collective and individual.

There is also, no rigid barrier between them. For example, the right of individuals to join a trade union has often strengthened collective rights at work.

The bourgeois liberal view of human rights is that they are universal rights which every human being can exercise, regardless of their individual circumstances.

But liberal ethics, far from representing some disinterested universal standard, in fact acts to legitimise modern capitalist social relations by treating them as natural facts. And liberalism, which emerged in the 17th Century as a reflection of the interests of the rising new bourgeois class, continues to reflect similar interests today.

Maurice Cornforth in Marxism and the Linguistic Philosophy points out:

Where there are class divisions and one class interest is dominant within the given form of association, the corresponding obligations and rights express the dominant class interest, and the corresponding moral code becomes class-biased, not a code of universal but of class-biased morality.

p 354

Liberal human rights theory is individualist and property centered. For communists, rights and ethics in liberal democracies are illusory in that the individual value advocated by the liberal regime is ultimately market value, not human dignity.

For practical purposes liberal ethics turn morals into a system of exhorting individuals to act on one set of principles while the society on which they depend for their health, education and happiness is managed on quite contrary principles.

p 237

The rights which capitalism defends are not universal human rights but rather the rights of capitalists to property and legal structures established to protect these rights. The rights and freedoms of bourgeois democracies are illusions, empty of meaning and purely formal for the working class. In Australia, democracy is democracy for the capitalist class. This applies equally to individual and collective rights.

As Cornforth puts it:

How, in a class-divided society in which the profits of one class are derived from the labour of another, can public policies and social aims be judged by a criterion of universal acceptability?

p 228

Until all exploitation of man by man is ended, morality cannot be based on a generalised human standpoint, expressing a common human point of view and interest.

p 357

Despite all this, space for workers to organise, for dissent to be publicly expressed in word or deed, for collective class actions are all essential for social change and the struggle for democracy is an essential underpinning of the struggle for socialism.

To any isolated individual in the modern world, social laws appear to be as objective as natural laws. The capitalist system seems to carry on regardless of our individual actions and the exercise of our rights and freedoms seem to have little impact beyond our personal relations. We are free to do anything except change the world.

The situation is different when we engage in collective struggles. The huge size of the 2003 global demonstrations against the invasion and occupation of Iraq gave rise to a feeling that imperialism could be challenged.

Experiences in Venezuela and elsewhere show that when workers are involved in heightened periods of class struggle they are able to recognise their power to reorder the world. In doing so, they can also begin to recognise that social “facts” are not as stable as they appear to atomised individuals.

Collective actions create the possibility that workers will begin to see that the world, which normally appears as a power over them, is actually a product of their labours and that it is within their power to change it.

National Human Rights Consultation

Comrade Dorothea asks what the conditions were that made the Rudd Government decide to establish an inquiry into the need for a bill of rights and to invite public submissions. She argues that such legislation is usually enacted at historically significant turning points but this was not the case in Australia.

However, the context is clear. The election of the Rudd Government was, for many Australians, a time of hope for change. It came out of the experiences of the power of broad united work in the huge union-community Your Rights at Work movement. The brutal right-wing Howard Government had been booted out and Rudd held a talk fest in Canberra. Many will remember that Cate Blanchett was prominent at this gathering. From it came a strong push for a human rights charter for Australia backed by the argument that it was timely and necessary, given that Australia is the only western country without one.

It was an illusion that a bill of rights could change anything fundamental, but it was an illusion that many liberal-minded people believed in. This is shown by the fact that 35,014 written submissions were received, the largest number ever for a national consultation in Australia. Of these submissions, 28,000 supported a human rights charter and 4,000 were against it. These figures were remarkable as right-wing think tanks and the Catholic Church came out strongly against the charter and were given top billing in mainstream media.

The CPA has always been active in the struggle for greater democratic rights, taking our direction from Lenin who wrote:

All “democracy” consists in the proclamation and realisation of “rights” which under capitalism are realisable only to a very small degree and only relatively. But without the proclamation of these rights, without a struggle to introduce them now, immediately, without training the masses in the spirit of this struggle, socialism is impossible.

Lenin, “A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism”, 1916 p 74, Lenin Collected Works Vol 23

And again later in that document:

For socialism is impossible without democracy because: the proletariat cannot perform the socialist revolution unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy …

In this context, the CPA Central Committee Peace and Democratic Rights Committee (PDRC) decided it was correct to make a submission to the government’s consultation and to encourage party members to attend the consultations as the federally appointed commission moved around Australia.

The party’s submission to the Human Rights Consultation was based on the real struggles that the party has been undertaking over the years. The rights we emphasised were both individual and collective and we did not see a contradiction between the two.

The PDRC had some clear targets. Federal and State Governments had enacted the so-called “terror laws” which severely undermine political and legal rights, which in some cases date back to the Magna Carta. These laws were intended to stifle dissent. We had also just seen the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory for the so-called “intervention”. It was important to resist the new laws and to work with others to get the long-held democratic rights restored.

The CPA had been heavily involved in the defence of Lex Wotton from Palm Island. This man was sentenced to six years jail for a protest against an Aboriginal death in custody. The policeman who killed Doomadgee with a blow that split his liver, got off with minimal censure. This case was so unjust that even the Australian newspaper (November 8-9, 2009) wrote:

The question needs to be asked: why is it that the justice system can move so efficiently to punish Wotton but cannot find anyone who is responsible for Doomadgee’s death?”

The party’s view was that we needed to get the best charter we could in the circumstances of Australia in the early part of the 21st Century.

One area the PDRC submission focussed on was trade union rights. Another was indigenous rights — we were after all the party in Australia which was the first to fight for indigenous rights.

The party submission also focussed on the right to protest.

We may need reminding that in NSW, for example, major episodes of dissent have been met by special laws to counter the right to protest. There was special legislation for APEC and the outrageous “offensive T-shirt” legislation for the Pope’s visit and World Youth Day — all draconian and all clear violations of democratic rights that attracted little if any comeback from the legal profession, politicians or the media.

Freedom of expression may be one of the individual rights that Comrade Dorothea argues is of less value to the working class but when we look at real life we can see its importance for progressive struggles.

Shopping mall operators have taken the people off the high streets of our suburbs and enticed them into big establishments. Social justice campaigners and candidates from small parties who distribute material in shopping centres are quickly surrounded by security and ejected from the premises. Attempts to persist can bring arrests and court appearances.

The UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights protects the right of people to express their political views in public places. Some years ago this was tested in a court case where the magistrate agreed that private ownership of a place does not mean that it is not a public place and that activists who were arrested for demonstrating at a politician’s office about the Indonesians in East Timor should be acquitted.

Our democratic rights are the result of struggle. Unless these rights are protected and extended, we cannot fight for and with the working class. There is no grade of merit between individual and collective rights here, only the greatest level of democracy we can achieve in a class divided society.


  • Thank you to comrades Hannah Middleton and Bob Briton, of the CC Peace and Democratic Rights Committee, for their assistance with this article.

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