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.
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Samuel Moyn is Professor of History at Columbia University.Review:
A most welcome book, The Last Utopia is a clear-eyed account of the origins of "human rights": the best we have. (Tony Judt, author of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945)
In this profound, important, and utterly original book, Moyn demonstrates how human rights constituted a new moral horizon and language of politics as it emerged in the last generation, a novel and fragile achievement on the wreckage of earlier dreams. A must read. (Nikhil Pal Singh, author of Black is a Country)
With unparalleled clarity and originality, Moyn's hard-hitting, radically revisionist, and persuasive history of human rights provides a bracing historical reconstruction with which scholars, activists, lawyers and anyone interested in the fate of the human rights movement today will have to grapple. (Mark Mazower, author of No Enchanted Palace: The End of Imperialism and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations)
The Last Utopia is the most important work on the history of human rights yet to have been written. Moyn's search for origins reads like a great detective story as he carefully sifts the evidence of where and when human rights displaced alternative political ideals. (Paul Kahn, Yale University)
Human rights have always been with us--or so their most zealous supporters would have us believe. With surgical precision and forensic tenacity, Moyn reveals how recent and how contingent was the birth of human rights and how fraught has been its passage from 1970s antipolitics to present-day political program. (David Armitage, author of The Declaration of Independence: A Global History)
Anyone who truly cares about human rights should confront this bracing account. (Jan-Werner Müller, Princeton University)
The triumph of The Last Utopia is that it restores historical nuance, skepticism and context to a concept that, in the past 30 years, has played a large role in world affairs. (Brendan Simms Wall Street Journal 2010-09-08)
The way the phrase human rights is bandied about it sounds like an age-old concept. In fact, it was coined in English in the 1940s. Samuel Moyn examines the myths of its historical roots; most explicitly, the conflation of human rights with the revolutionary French and American concepts of droits de l'homme. The latter implies "a politics of citizenship at home"; the former "a politics of suffering abroad." His book teases out the legal and moral implications of this difference, using country-specific and international examples, in a way that leaves little hiding space for the self-serving usages of foreign ministers, supranational institutions and pollyannaish charities. (Miriam Cosic The Australian 2010-10-02)
Moyn has written an interesting and thought-provoking book which will annoy all the right people. (Jonathan Sumption Literary Review 2010-12-01)
It is not hard to imagine how impatient Bentham would have been with the notion of "human rights" that has grown so prominent over the past few decades. Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia provides a succinct narrative of how that idea came to occupy the centre stage of so much international political discourse and activism. But the book also challenges the hegemony of human-rights-speak in ways that are nearly as combative as Bentham's polemical flights, though far more subtle and telling...There is a power and elegance to this book that my survey of it cannot convey. Over it hangs the question of whether the notion of human rights may still have a future, or if some other set of aspirations will take its place. Moyn stops well short of speculation. But it is a problem some activist or philosopher (or both) may yet pose in a way we cannot now imagine. (Scott McLemee The National 2010-12-03)
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