Reading

Social and Economic Rights: Eleanor’s Speech at the Sorbonne

As the work of the Human Rights Commission wound down, the Western delegations and the Soviet Bloc members quarreled over social and economic rights. Would the final document address the right and responsibility of the state to provide health care, employment, and education? In this excerpt from a speech delivered at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), Eleanor tackled the differences between the Americans and the Soviets regarding the right to work:

There are basic differences that show up even in the use of words between a democratic and a totalitarian country. For instance “democracy” means one thing to the U.S.S.R. and another to the U.S.A. and, I know, in France.

The U.S.S.R. representatives assert that they already have achieved many things which we . . . 
cannot achieve because their government controls the accomplishment of these things. Our government seems powerless to them because, in the last analysis, it is controlled by the people. They would not put it that way—they would say that the people in the U.S.S.R. control their government by allowing their government to have certain absolute rights. We, on the other hand, feel that certain rights can never be granted to the government, but must be kept in the hands of the people . . .

I think the best example one can give of this basic difference of the use of terms is “the right to work.” The Soviet Union insists that this is a basic right which it alone can guarantee because it alone provides full employment by the government. But the right to work in the Soviet Union means the assignment of workers to do whatever task is given to them by the government without an opportunity for the people to participate in the decision that the government should do this. A society in which everyone works is not necessarily a free society, and may indeed be a slave society; on the other hand, a society in which there is widespread economic insecurity can turn freedom into a barren and vapid right for millions of people. We in the United States have come to realize it means freedom to choose one’s job, to work or  not to work as one desires. We, in the United States, have come to realize, however, that people have a right to demand that their government will not allow them to starve because as individuals they cannot find work of the kind they are accustomed to doing . . . but we would not consider in the United States that we have gained any freedom if we were compelled to follow a dictatorial assignment to work where and when we were told. The right of choice would seem to us an important, fundamental freedom. . . .

Long ago in London during a discussion with Mr. Vyshinsky [the Soviet representative to the United Nations], he told me there was no such thing as freedom for the individual in the world. All freedom of the individual was conditioned by the rights of other individuals. That, of course, I granted. I said: “We approach the question from a different point of view; we here in the United Nations are trying to develop  ideals which will be broader in outlook, which will consider first the rights of man, which will consider what makes man more free: not governments, but man."

The totalitarian state typically places the will of the people second to decrees promulgated by a few men at the top. . . .

Freedom for our peoples is not only a right, but also a tool. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of information, freedom of assembly—these are not just abstract ideals to us; they are tools with which we create a way of life, a way of life in which we can enjoy freedom. . . .

Among free men, the end cannot justify the means. We know the patterns of totalitarianism—the single political party, the control of schools, press, radio, the arts, the sciences, and the church, to support autocratic authority. . .

The place to discuss the issue of human rights is in the forum of the United Nations. The United Nations has been set up as the common meeting ground for nations, where we can consider together our mutual problems and take advantage of our differences in experience.

It is inherent in our firm attachment to democracy and freedom that we stand always ready to use the fundamental democratic procedures of honest discussion and negotiation.It is now as always our hope that despite the wide differences in approach we face in the world today, we can with mutual good faith in the principles of the United Nations Charter, arrive at a common basis of understanding.1

  1. Citations

    • 1 Eleanor Roosevelt, “Struggle for Human Rights,” quoted in The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. Black, 901–05.

Audio Version

In this audio recording, an actor reads Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech delivered at the University of Paris, or the Sorbonne, in 1948, which is featured in the resource book Fundamental Freedoms: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the speech, Roosevelt describes the differences in the ways that people in the United States the and Soviet Union understood human rights.

Connection Questions

  1. What is a democracy? What does Eleanor mean when she says that democracy is interpreted differently around the world?
  2. How did the Soviets interpret the right to work? How does Eleanor interpret this same right? How does she try to integrate the two perspectives? 
  3. How might the Great Depression have influenced Eleanor’s thinking in addressing the right to work?
  4. Eleanor says, “A society in which everyone works is not necessarily a free society, and may indeed be a slave society.” What does she mean by this? What is the difference between the right to work and the opportunity to work? 
  5. What does Eleanor mean when she says, “Freedom for our peoples is not only a right, but also a tool”? For what is it a tool? Do you agree with her? What does this statement suggest about what Eleanor believes is the purpose of a human rights document? 
  6. What is a “common basis of understanding,” and how do you arrive at one? How does Eleanor herself try to model a common basis of understanding?

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