The Philosopher’s Haiti

Along with the Mike Davis (excellent, by the way), I very belatedly (it was published in 2000) got round to reading Susan-Buck Morss’s essay ‘Hegel and Haiti’ (available through the usual sources). This is also well worth a read. And I see no strong reason why her thesis can’t be true, that Hegel’s ‘Master-Slave Dialectic’ was inspired in part by the revolution in Saint-Domingue occuring whilst Hegel was writing the Phenomenology. Pretty strong evidence is adduced by Buck-Morss via details of the political journal Minerva, which Hegel read, and which was covering the uprising for a European audience. With this interpretation Buck-Morss seeks to ‘rescue’ this famous theme in Hegel from being solely philosophical (though in criticism I’d say it’s undeniable that Hegel did have Aristotle, Hobbes and Fichte also in mind when writing it; philosophy and politics were inextricable for him) and in so doing radicalises our picture of Hegel, who is now seen to treat an empirical event which for all their humanitarianism few other Aufklaerer touched. For Buck-Morss the dialectic of Master and Slave needs to be rescued from the appearance of concerning only feudal social relations and seen as a critique of the enslavement of Africans which had created the very ‘wealth of nations’ which the Aufklaerer now enjoyed. It should be said that such a particular inspiration, if true, would not detract from the wider resonance, a relevance to any relation of dependence and independence which Hegel clearly intended, and this is no doubt the enduring appeal of the passage. Again one could criticise Buck-Morss for downplaying precedents for the critique of slavery amongst les Lumières themselves – her reading of Rousseau’s silence on the Code Noir is unsympathetic, as she herself acknowledges. In Rousseau’s defence the point of asserting freedom as a universal right was that the reader would see the injustice of particular unfreedoms; these didn’t need to be named. It was arguably the very generality of Rousseau’s claims which made them incendiary – they could be applied to any form of inequality, whether in Old Europe or the New World. These fine points aside, I think Buck-Morss’s thesis holds much water.