The Socialist Conception of Human Rights and Its Dissident Critique

Hungary and Czechoslovakia, 1960s–1980s

In: East Central Europe
Michal Kopeček Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague,

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Much has been written about human rights language as a keystone of democratic dissent in Eastern Europe as well as about its damaging impact on the communist dictatorships—the so called “Helsinki effect.” This article analyzes the less familiar criticism of the core of the socialist theory of human rights and discusses whether this criticism proved to be particularly damaging for the socialist regimes’ legitimacy, self-esteem, and international standing, leading to their defensive stance in this sphere. Simultaneously, it will question, to some extent, the prevailing and rather one-sided “liberal” reading of dissident human rights theory itself. With this aim in mind, the article begins with the specific “developmental” socialist conception of human rights elaborated in the 1950s and the 1960s by prominent legal scholars and philosophers such as I. Szabó and I. Kovács, and outlines how this theory served as a tool of self-confident state socialist human rights politics in the first decades of the Cold War. Second, it will follow the diverging paths of this socialist human rights theory during the period of consolidation and the authoritarian turn in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Third, the article turns to some of the 1970s–80s dissident criticism of human rights abuses in communist countries. It will focus not on the best-known cases, which serve to emphasize encroachments upon civil and political rights and freedoms, but rather on critical approaches (like those of J. Tesař, J. Šabata, O. Solt, M. Duray, or the Solidarity’s Charter of Workers Rights) directed at the heart of the socialist theory of human rights, that is the abuses and unfulfilled promises in the area of social, economic, and—prominently in the Hungarian case—cultural rights.

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