Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Samuel Moyn on human rights in history

The Last Utopia
Human Rights in History

by Samuel Moyn

(Belknap Press, 2010)

352 pages


Human rights offer a vision of international justice that today’s idealistic millions hold dear. Yet the very concept on which the movement is based became familiar only a few decades ago when it profoundly reshaped our hopes for an improved humanity. In this pioneering book, Samuel Moyn elevates that extraordinary transformation to center stage and asks what it reveals about the ideal’s troubled present and uncertain future.

For some, human rights stretch back to the dawn of Western civilization, the age of the American and French Revolutions, or the post–World War II moment when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was framed. Revisiting these episodes in a dramatic tour of humanity’s moral history, The Last Utopia shows that it was in the decade after 1968 that human rights began to make sense to broad communities of people as the proper cause of justice. Across eastern and western Europe, as well as throughout the United States and Latin America, human rights crystallized in a few short years as social activism and political rhetoric moved it from the hallways of the United Nations to the global forefront.

It was on the ruins of earlier political utopias, Moyn argues, that human rights achieved contemporary prominence. The morality of individual rights substituted for the soiled political dreams of revolutionary communism and nationalism as international law became an alternative to popular struggle and bloody violence. But as the ideal of human rights enters into rival political agendas, it requires more vigilance and scrutiny than when it became the watchword of our hopes.


1. Humanity Before Human Rights.
2. Death Through Birth.
3. Why Anticolonialism Wasn't a Human Rights Movement.
4. The Purity of this Struggle.
5. International Law and Human Rights.
6. The Burden of Morality.
7. "Human Rights" in the New York Times.
8. Human Rights in the 1940s.
9. Human Rights between 1968 and 1978

Samuel Moyn is Professor of History at Columbia University.

See Samuel Moyn's lecture on "The Last Utopia" (video, 48 minutes).

An excerpt from his new book appears in "The Nation" (August 30 -September 6, 2010), entitled "Human Rights in History". Also see his "On the Genealogy of Morals" from "The Nation" in 2007.

1 comment:

David said...

Hi, i've been reading your blog on and off for the last few months and I just wanted to say how much I enjoy it. I watched this video of Moyn's views on the history of human rights though my enthusiasm for it is less so. There seems to be a very admirable desire to see human rights as the centrepiece of a cosmopolitan international order, but striking naivity about the mechanisms of political governance required to make good on the social contract this entails. I can only imagine that this blind spot stems from a somewhat dismissive perception of rights as configured under the nation state, since his very mentioning of the word seems to bring him close to shudder. But he would do well to recognise the innate legitimacy the nation state retains in the eyes of its citizens simply because it alone answers to them. It's a pretty simple question, but what other authority apart from that of democracy, articulated through a constitution has the power to enforce such rights?