The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History.

Author:Zaremby, Justin
Position:Book review

In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Samuel Moyn attempts to correct the recent historiography of human rights and international law. He criticizes historians who fail to understand that theories of contemporary human rights, which envision rights in a world not dominated by the sovereignty of nation-states, did not evolve out of historic discussions of political and human rights. Moyn argues that international lawyers and advocates who fail to understand that today's idealistic definition of human rights arose unexpectedly in the 1970s lack the understanding and drive to properly advocate for today's utopian vision of rights. In making this claim, he rejects what historians might call a "whig" approach to human rights history--a historical narrative that reveals a clear evolutionary path toward progress. This Book Review examines Moyn's claims and discusses the origin of the term whig history. It then suggests that whig approaches to history, although possibly inaccurate, in fact have a persuasive power which advocates of human rights and international law could use to further Moyn's idealistic aims.


In his "untimely meditation" on history, Friedrich Nietzsche reflected upon the extent to which too much history may be a bad thing. "We want to serve history," he noted, "only to the extent that history serves life: for it is possible to value the study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate...." (1) Nietzsche's modern man finds himself in a constant struggle with history. The philosopher explains that

[m]an ... braces himself against the great and ever greater pressure of what is past: it pushes him down or bends him sideways, it encumbers his steps as a dark invisible burden which he can sometimes appear to disown and which in traffic with his fellow men he is only too glad to disown, so as to excite their envy. (2) An escape from the invisible shackles of history would bring man the happiness known only by animals grazing in the field, the ability to "sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past," and know a calm, blissful, and completely thoughtless form of happiness. (3) Nietzsche challenges his reader to discover that "the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture." (4) If man allows his entire life to be shaped by history, he cannot truly live. If man lives in a perpetual state of forgetfulness, he is hardly man. Stated with typical Nietzschean lyricism:

It is true that only by imposing limits on this unhistorical element by thinking, reflecting, comparing, distinguishing, drawing conclusions, only through the appearance within that encompassing cloud of a vivid flash of light--thus only through the power of employing the past for the purposes of life and of again introducing into history that which has been done and is gone--did man become man: but with an excess of history man again ceases to exist, and without that envelope of the unhistorical he would never have begun or dared to begin. (5) Properly pursued, the analysis of the past helps define the present. Pursued without limit, history strips the present of any value. The present must be understood as neither the inevitable result of the progress of history, nor as a self-standing moment, born as if from the head of Zeus and divorced from all that came before.

In The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, historian Samuel Moyn does not cite Nietzsche. (6) Nevertheless, Nietzsche's concerns about balancing the historic life with the unhistoric life are highly relevant to Moyn's subject. Moyn's protagonist is not one historical figure. Instead, he writes about a particular vision of human rights, created at a particular historical moment, with a particular set of character traits. Moyn's human rights are not merely a "familiar set of indispensible liberal freedoms" or "more expansive principles of social protection." (7) Instead, Moyn's human rights compose a:

recognizably utopian program: for the political standards it champions and the emotional passion it inspires, this program draws on the image of a place that has not yet been called into being. It promises to penetrate the impregnability of state borders, slowly replacing them with the authority of international law. It prides itself on offering victims the world over the possibility of a better life. It pledges to do so by working in alliance with states when possible, but naming and shaming them when they violate the most basic norms. (8) Moyn's human rights are not the rights found in the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, (9) nor in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (10) Instead, his concern is with human rights that are not tied to any particular nation-state or vision of world affairs. His is the human rights of Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations which monitor the failings of nation-states. Moyn's human rights movement, whose origins he traces to the 1970s, is not the outgrowth of centuries of searching for human rights, but is instead a fundamentally new and idealistic vision of how to best preserve human dignity--born out of the "collapse of other, prior utopias, both state-based and internationalist." (11) Human rights entered the vernacular as part of an atmosphere in which "an internationalism revolving around individual rights surged ... as a pure alternative in an age of ideological betrayal and political collapse." (12) Human rights were the utopian response to "belief systems that promised a free way of life, but led into bloody morass, or offered emancipation from empire and capital, but [which] suddenly came to seem like dark tragedies rather than bright hopes." (13) After the failure of anticolonialism, communism, and international socialism to protect human rights, contemporary human rights arose to take their place.

In The Last Utopia, Moyn seeks to remedy what he perceives as a flaw in the current historiography of the modern human rights movement. He explains,

[C]ontemporary historians have adopted a celebratory attitude toward the emergence and progress of human rights, providing recent enthusiasms with uplifting backstories, and differing primarily about whether to locate the true breakthrough with the Greeks or the Jews, medieval Christians or early modern philosophers, democratic revolutionaries or abolitionist heroes, American internationalists or antiracist visionaries. (14) Although Moyn's utopian movement is merely four decades old, he is concerned that contemporary historians fail to recognize that the contemporary human rights movement was not the inevitable result of progress in Western history. They:

approach their subject, in spite of its novelty, the way church historians once approached theirs. They regard the basic cause--much as the church historian treated the Christian religion--as a saving truth, discovered rather than made in history. If a historical phenomenon can be made to seem like an anticipation of human rights, it is interpreted as leading to them in much the way church history famously treated Judaism for so long, as a protoChristian movement simply confused about its true destiny. (15) These contemporary historians, according to Moyn, pick and choose among references to political rights and human rights throughout history, cobbling together a narrative in which today's human rights were the inevitable and undeniably just conclusion of two millennia of struggle. (16)

In retelling the history of human rights, Moyn explains that "[t]o give up church history is not to celebrate a black mass instead." (17) He writes with genuine interest and respect for the contemporary human rights movement, which he considers "the most inspiring mass utopianism Westerners have had before them in recent decades." (18) Only when the history of contemporary human rights has been separated from the laudatory history Moyn condemns can historians understand human rights' "prospects today and in the future." (19) By explaining the true origins of human rights, Moyn hopes to "understand more honestly how and when human rights took shape as a widespread and powerful set of aspirations for a better and more humane world" that "have done far more to transform the terrain of idealism than they have the world itself." (20)

Moyn's book has received attention from students of international law. At a recent conference at Duke Law School, Judge Jose A. Cabranes of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit favorably cited The Last Utopia. (21) In addition to offering personal reflections on the relationship between international law and human rights, based on his experience as a lawyer and federal judge, Cabranes described Moyn's book as a refutation of a "whig" version of the history of human rights. The term "whig" was famously used by the Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield in 1931 to describe the sort of laudatory history practiced by English constitutional historians--history which, like the "church" history described by Moyn, lionized particular historical moments and figures in order to prove the existence of a constant march toward progress and liberty. (22) Cabranes praised Moyn for telling a more honest history of the contemporary human rights movement, and suggested that such honest appraisal can help scholars of international law better understand the relationship between law and human rights.

In addition to appealing to scholars, Moyn's book offers great value to practicing international lawyers curious about the history of their field. It provides a careful survey of great figures in the field, and the frequently fractured relationship between contemporary human rights and the long history of international law. Moyn's rejection of a whig history helps elucidate the tensions between law and human rights and provides an important...

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