Contrary to popular belief, socialists have long been at the forefront of human rights struggles. For example, the Chartists fought to expand voting rights in 19th century England. Similarly, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks defended the “rights of nations to self-determinations.”

Not to mention the critical role of socialist support of human rights, such as that represented by Karl Marx’s argument, “between equal rights force decides,” suggesting that rights are a necessary but insufficient condition of human emancipation, or by Simone de Beauvoir’s claim that women’s rights have to be backed up by women’s “economic autonomy.”

Ultimately, socialists take pains to elaborate the social conditions in which human rights can be realized. I argue in my article that it is necessary to transcend capitalist relations of production to realize the United Nations’ (UN) “right to development” (RTD). I suggest that the RTD should be reformulated as the right to choose alternative relations of production like socialism.

Development as a human right

The 1986 UN “Declaration on the Right to Development” (DRD) stipulates that development is a human right to which “every person and all peoples are entitled.” This helps combat the notion that development is a luxury that only rich Western countries can afford. Moreover, the DRD defines development as a “political, economic, and cultural process” helping broaden the economistic definition of development popular among technocrats.

However, the DRD fails to specify a mechanism for prioritizing between component rights of the RTD. Thus, developed countries stress individual over collective rights to development because this allows them to avoid their aid obligations. Developing countries call for aid citing the rights of peoples to development only to have developed countries dismiss these claims because they are not made by individuals.

Similarly, developed countries emphasize political over economic component rights of the RTD because this allows them to pressure developing countries to adopt neoliberal policies. Developing countries that attempt to pursue “developmentalist” alternatives to neoliberalism are criticized for being “authoritarian” and violating political component rights of the RTD.

Thus, critics argue that the RTD has become a wish list that is “operationally meaningless.” Donor countries sponsor aspects of the RTD that align with their interests and ignore others that developing countries would prefer to have prioritized.

Recognizing this, proponents of the RTD formulate a set of metrics that assign weights to component rights of the RTD. However, the contradictions between different aspects of the RTD have social rather than technical roots. The question that is not being asked in the RTD debate is: what social relations of production would enable the realization of the RTD?

Capitalism and the RTD

Proponents of the RTD tend to assume that capitalism is the only way to generate economic growth and that capitalist production is consistent with “rights-based” development. However, capitalism is inconsistent with the RTD in several respects.

First, capitalist production is alienating. Capitalism transforms work into a means of subsistence rather than a form of self-actualization. This violates Article 2 of the DRD which stipulates that development must promote the “free and complete fulfilment of the human being.”

Moreover, capitalism is inherently exploitative. It generates an incentive for investment only by enabling employers to pay workers less than the value they contribute to production. This violates Article 2.3 and 8.1 of the DRD, which call for “fair distribution” and “equal access to basic resources,” respectively.

Capitalist production is premised on the violent separation of peasants from the land and the accumulation of money-wealth from colonial plunder. This “primitive accumulation” violates article 5 of the DRD, which stipulates that development must help eliminate “massive and flagrant violations of human rights akin to colonialism.”

Capitalism promotes technical progress to a large extent by devaluing women’s work and thereby cheapening the reproduction of the labor force. This “patriarchy of the wage” violates Article 8.1 of the DRD which calls for “active participation of women in the development process.”

Capitalist globalization is inherently uneven. It tends to widen the gap between rich and poor countries, violating Articles 3.3 and 4.2 of the DRD which stipulate that development should create a “new international economic order” and promote “more rapid development of developing countries,” respectively.

For these and other reasons, capitalism is inimical to the realization of the RTD. But what social relations of production would facilitate “rights-based” development?

Socialism and the RTD

Socialism promotes the RTD, firstly, by allowing growth to be delinked from exploitation. Economic planning, public ownership, and “proletarian dictatorship” allow labor to be renumerated according to quality and quantity of work. This facilitates realization of Articles 2.3 and 8.1 of the DRD which call for “fair distribution” and “equal access to basic resources,” respectively.

Socialist organization of labor promotes the realization of Article 2.2 of the RTD, which calls for “free and complete fulfilment of the human being.” Socialist workplaces can be designed in accordance with workers’ needs for leisure and community. Likewise, socialist planning and public ownership facilitate provision of childcare services which enable women to have an “active role in the development process” as stipulated by Article 8.1 of the DRD.

Furthermore, democratically and collectively planning development promotes stable and equitable growth, facilitating realization of Article 2.3 of the DRD which stipulates that development must promote “constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population.” Socialism also promotes peaceful international relations by allowing destructive inter-capitalist competition to be replaced by planned complementarities. This facilitates realization of Article 7 of the DRD which calls for “strengthening of international peace and security.”

Lastly, socialist globalization enables the creation of a “new international economic order” as stipulated in Article 3.3 of the DRD. Socialism allows growth to be delinked from exploitation within and between countries. Thus, socialist globalization does not inherently widen the gap between rich and poor countries. These are just some of the ways in which socialism creates the conditions for realization of the RTD.


Theorizing development as a human right helps transcend economistic and eurocentric definitions of development. However, to realize the RTD capitalist relations of production must be transcended, and socialism established.

Development is neither a technical problem as mainstream economists contend nor is it purely a moral right as proponents of the RTD contend. Rather, development is a social process mediated by class struggle as Marx suggests. While socialists can leverage human rights discourse to promote development, they must transcend liberal interpretations of the RTD. Ultimately, the RTD should be reformulated as a right to choose alternative social relations of production.


Justin Theodra is a political science Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut interested in the historical sociology of colonialism and decolonization in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

To read more, see Justin Theodra. “Capitalism, Socialism and the Human Right to Development” in International Critical Thought 2022.

Image: Stephen Codrington via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.5).