The most dramatic feature of Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia is a graph that tracks appearances of the phrase “human rights” in The New York Times and the Times of London since 1785. Essentially flat until the turn of the twentieth century, the line begins to move around the outbreak of the First World War and rises dramatically with the entry of the United States in World War II. The early years of the Cold War, however, see a decline to pre-war levels. References really take off only in the early 1970s. By 1977, the year Amnesty International received the Nobel Peace Prize, they were mentioned more than 3,000 times, compared with the previous peak of just under 1,000.

The graph is arresting because it belies the standard story about the rise of human rights. According to that story, human rights emerged from classical philosophy, went on to inspire the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, and were finally recognized as a universal imperative in response to the Holocaust. In many versions, the moral necessity of human rights is treated as proof of their inevitability. But if human rights were discovered only in the 1940s and then virtually forgotten until the Carter administration, this story looks more like an article of faith than a serious explanation. In place of what he calls the “church history” of human rights, Moyn suggests that human rights “are best understood as survivors: the god that did not fail while other political ideologies did.”

The argument has three strands, each of which challenges a pillar of the standard story.

The argument has three strands, each of which challenges a pillar of the standard story. The first is an account of the conceptual novelty of human rights. The idea, in its broadest sense, has ancient origins. But Moyn shows that the defining feature of modern human rights—their status as claims by individuals against the state—has little precedent.

The Stoic cosmopolitanism of Antiquity, to begin with, was essentially nonpolitical. Rather than generating theories of government, it articulated the ethical claim that a wise man should live as if he were a “citizen” of the whole world. Enlightenment conceptions of the rights of man, by contrast, were both political and egalitarian. By asserting the inalienable rights of every man, the Declarations of Independence and the Rights of Man justified revolution against arbitrary law and inherited privilege.

They were not, however, demands for the limitation of government as such. Particularly in its European version, revolutionary theory assumed that rights would be secured only if every man was a member of an autonomous political community. In most cases, this community was assumed to be based on a pre-existing “people” constituted by shared history, language, and religious commitments. The nation-state was thus seen as the consummation of human rights. This association helps explain why human rights gained currency in the nineteenth century—and swiftly lost it. Once dynastic regimes were replaced with nation-states, the rhetoric of merely human rights lost its relevance. Despite a few famous remarks by FDR and others suggesting a more individualistic conception of human rights, the rhetoric of the Second World War continued to emphasize the right to national self-determination.

What about the U.N. Declaration, which does suggest that human rights transcend national sovereignty? Didn’t it signal, as every schoolchild is now taught, a new dawn for world politics? Moyn’s careful analysis—perhaps the most heavily documented part of the book—shows that it did not. First, and contrary to the narrative promoted by human rights evangelists like Michael Ignatieff, the Holocaust was not a major motivation for the Declaration. Although the fate of Europe’s Jews was widely known, the U.N. drafting committee was just not very interested in genocide. Indeed, it was only in the 1980s that humanitarian concerns became associated with human rights. Second, the Declaration was merely declaratory. Until the International Covenant on Human Rights went into effect in 1976, it did not even claim to be enforceable international law. As such, the Declaration asked only voluntary observation by states. Many contemporary advocates saw this, accurately, as a defeat for the more muscular vision of human rights that they were beginning to articulate.

Finally, to the extent that the Declaration did imply universal standards of legitimacy, this was at least partly because the imperial powers wished to deprive national liberation movements of a useful argument. Unless new states were in a position to guarantee human rights, defenders of colonial rule argued, it would be wrong to establish them. Anti-colonial movements had little use for the new conception of human rights because of its status quo implications. Indeed, they tended to invoke the concept only in the old-fashioned sense of demands for national sovereignty. The prominence of the colonial issue helps account for the decline of human rights talk between 1948 about 1970.

The prominence of the colonial issue helps account for the decline of human rights talk between 1948 about 1970.

But the main event was the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union—and human rights didn’t seem particularly relevant to that struggle. In principle, democratic capitalism and Marxism even agreed about the desirability of human rights. Their dispute concerned the best means for securing them—and no declaration could settle this question. Needless to say, human rights could ground a critique of the reality of communism. In practice, however, this critique was much more characteristic of Christians than liberals, particularly adherents of Catholic personalism espoused by Jacques Maritain. Moyn deserves credit for acknowledging religious and conservative contributions to human rights theory.

The last major strand of Moyn’s argument tries to explain how and why human rights reemerged in the 1970s. The story has two parts: the adoption of human rights language by dissidents within the Soviet bloc; and the embrace of the dissidents’ cause by Western activists. The major events, including the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, will be familiar to many readers. Moyn’s account of the intellectual context of rights theory is more interesting. On the one hand, human rights were appealing because they did not obviously belong either to the West or to the East. European conservatives’ interest in human rights as a middle course between liberalism and communism was crucial here. On the other hand, the failure of decolonization to secure human rights refuted the assumption that sovereign states were sufficient conditions for their achievement. Indeed, many left-wing activists recognized that human rights abuses in post-colonial states they had once supported were worse than under imperial rule.

Moreover, the limitation of human rights to a few basic and ostensibly universal principles—initially a much more restricted list than the U.N. Declaration—allowed dissidents to disarm the authorities by disavowing regime change as a political goal. The turning point was the Helsinki Accords of 1975, by which the Soviet Union committed itself to protecting human rights. In demanding an end to imprisonment without trial, torture, and other abuses, dissidents could claim to be holding the state to its own promises.

But the constellation of circumstances that made human rights so popular was short-lived. Partly due to political developments, especially Carter’s identification of human rights as the keystone of American foreign policy, the movement faced a dilemma. Are human rights just a minimal standard of decent politics compatible with a variety of political forms and conceptions of the good? Or do they imply a comprehensive account of the right way of life?

Moyn prefers the more modest conception. Although George W. Bush is never mentioned, concern that human rights maximalism leads to a disruptive “freedom agenda” is evidently among his reasons. Moyn is right to be worried. Whether it is conceived as an ever-expanding alliance of democratic states or a binding regime of international law, the human rights utopia will meet the same fate as the anti-colonial and Communist dreams that it rejected.

Moyn, however, hopes that human rights will not be the last utopia of the volume’s title.

Moyn also worries that the orientation of political theory by human rights displaces the fundamental questions that characterized the Cold War. By making the requirements of the right society appear uncontroversial, the emphasis on human rights discourages efforts to imagine new ways in which the world might be transformed. From a conservative point of view, this outcome is highly desirable. Moyn, however, hopes that human rights will not be the last utopia of the volume’s title.

There is a sense in which the conception of human rights that Moyn documents in this important book is already obsolete. Many of the worst human rights violations of recent years have not been perpetrated by sovereign states. Instead, they are the work of non-state actors: terrorists, militias, or simply criminal gangs. Virtually everyone agrees that such vile acts should be prevented. The difficulty is that a state powerful enough to protect human rights against non-state actors will always be tempted to limit them in the moments of crisis provoked by these actors’ attacks. How are we to gauge the necessity of the evil?

It would be too much to ask a work of history focused on the years 1941 to 1977 to locate the right balance between internal security, international order, and human rights. Moyn’s contribution is to prove that human rights are not a fixed truth awaiting discovery, but rather an ideology subject to periodic renovation. If the idea of human rights is to survive, it must help us meet the challenges of our own time. Otherwise, it will join other utopian ideologies as the relics of the twentieth century.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 9, on page 75
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