Hegel and Black history

September 30, 2014

From March 2001 News & Letters.

Black-Red View by John Alan

After giving a talk recently on “Hegel, Black History and the Idea of Freedom” in the San Francisco Bay Area, a new article on this subject was brought to my attention: “Hegel and Haiti” (CRITICAL INQUIRY, Summer 2000) by Susan Buck-Morss. My talk took off from how Hegel’s master/slave relationship, as the starting point for his dialectic of self-consciousness and freedom in his PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT, has been central to Black liberation theorists from W.E.B. DuBois to Frantz Fanon.

Not only did Hegel impact Black liberation theorists but, as Buck-Morss shows, there is compelling evidence, ignored in the world of Hegel scholarship, that the Black masses in the Haitian Revolution of 1803 were the source for Hegel’s famous narrative on the master/slave relation in the PHENOMENOLOGY.

Buck-Morss shows that though the major figures of the European Enlightenment proclaimed a new concept of liberty as the opposite of slavery, they were nearly blind to the horrors of actually existing slavery which was the foundation for the accumulation of wealth in the new world trading system. She writes: “A glaring discrepancy between thought and practice marked the period of transformation of global capitalism from its mercantile to its protoindustrial form” (p. 821).

“The Haitian Revolution,” she shows, “was the crucible, the trial by fire for the ideals of the French Enlightenment. And every European who was part of the bourgeois reading public knew it” (p. 837). Yet the prevailing intellectual histories silence that reality. In the early 19th century the German journal MINERVA, edited by Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz, reported extensively on events in Haiti in the context of the unfolding of the ideals of the French Revolution. MINERVA was very influential among German intellectuals, including Hegel, who referred to reading MINERVA in his letters.

Buck-Morss points to the way Hegel changed his theory of mutual recognition, in the period before the PHENOMENOLOGY (1806) took form, from one founded on customs and ethical life in the community to one based on a struggle to the death, culminating in a fight for full social selfhood and freedom in the master/slave dialectic. Buck-Morss takes to task the whole world of Hegel scholarship who are at a loss to adequately account for this dramatic development.

Some, like Otto Pöggeler, say it emerged in Hegel as a “totally ‘abstract’ example” (p. 843). This in spite of the fact that Hegel was an avid, indeed “religious,” imbiber of current events. As Hegel wrote in this period, “Reading the newspaper in early morning is a kind of realistic morning prayer.”

Why can’t intellectuals fathom the impact on Hegel of the Haitian Revolution–a then unprecedented extension of the idea of freedom to an historical struggle of actual slaves? Buck-Morss’ answer is that “the intellectual historians of German philosophy know only one place to look for the answer: the writings of other intellectuals” (p. 843).

Unfortunately, Buck-Morss lumps Marx together with “(white) Marxists” who helped to bury the concreteness of the master/slave narrative because they focused on class struggle. She writes, “Since the 1840s, with the early writings of Karl Marx, the struggle between the master and slave has been abstracted from literal reference and read once again as a metaphor–this time for the class struggle” (p. 850). She fails to see that for Marx, not only was literal slavery integral to capitalism’s globalization and explosion of wealth, but the struggle against slavery became the pivot around which modern freedom could unfold. As I put it in my talk:

“We talk a lot about the need to oppose the globalization of capitalism today, but it was Marx who made clear that capitalism’s first moment of globalization was built on slavery. He saw as well the centrality of the slave revolts and Black regiments in the American Civil War to get to a new freedom. On Dec. 26, 1846 Marx wrote to Pavel Annenkov that ‘Direct slavery is thepivot of our industrialism today as much as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery, you have no cotton, without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies; it was the colonies that created world trade; it is world trade that is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Also, before the slave-trade in Negroes, the colonies supplied the Old World with but very few products and did not visibly change the face of the earth. Slavery is thus an economic category of the highest importance.'”

It was Raya Dunayevskaya who saw, in the actual opposition to slavery, the indigenous roots of Marxism in America (see MARXISM AND FREEDOM). Her AMERICAN CIVILIZATION ON TRIAL (1963) traces the self-development of the idea of freedom in U.S. history in which the Black masses have been vanguard. Black masses have continuously exposed the hollowness of the pompous, abstract proclamations of democratic ideals as they fought for genuine democracy and freedom in the face of actual oppression in the form of slavery and racism.

Buck-Morss rightly takes to task the academic world’s lack of a genuine objective scholarship which appreciates the objectivity of “subjective” mass struggles, that is, that the “spirit of liberty…could be catching, crossing the line not only between races but between slaves and freemen.” (p. 845) For her, grasping this has “potential for rescuing the idea of universal human history from the uses to which white domination has put it…the project of universal freedom does not need to be discarded but rather, redeemed and reconstituted on a different basis” (p. 863).

Hegel intended that his articulation of the “catchiness” of the idea of freedom, which he called the self-determination of the Idea, would aid in the realization of “universal freedom.” Today’s liberation theorists and activists would do well to take another look at Dunayevskaya’s body of work, built on the development of the idea of freedom in masses in motion. For Dunayevskaya this was a way to “unchain” Hegel’s dialectic of the Idea of “universal freedom,” which could itself become a force for coalescence and the realization of new forms of social solidarity among different subjects struggling for freedom and a new society.

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