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Global History and The African

A new reading of Hegel

—by Wilson Décembre


Since the last decade of the twentieth century, there has been a new reading of Hegel that deserves the attention of the intellectual public independently of the differences that are effective among the academic branches or academic subjects. Actually, it is not completely accurate to refer to this intellectual movement as “a new reading”. Indeed, because it is the matter of a very passionate debate, because it is plural according to the diversity of the points of view, I should rather talk of “new readings” of Hegel. But, what allows us to keep the singular is the fact that all these readings are about a unique new conception of the relationship between the Philosophy of Hegel and the concrete global history.

Readers around the world know a specific Hegel. The one who made an imposing analysis of history, a complex philosophical history in which reason is working, striving to conquer itself through the passionate and often contradictory human political fulfillments. Because Hegel himself understood the most important event of his time and of his environment (the French Revolution) as the real figure of the realization of Freedom, as it is theoretically thought in the Phenomenology of Spirit, it was not difficult for scholars in the Western Hemisphere to see in European history, in Europe itself and in Europeans, the summit of Global history. Universal reason is the one that is realized in European being-in-the-world. Recently, an American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, published a bestseller in which he shows that “the end of History”, as Hegel analyzed it, corresponds exactly to the western way of life (politically and economically understood). As you can imagine, it was quite difficult for Fukuyama to convince serious readers around the world that capitalism, with what accompanies it currently (globalization understood first as a global market), is the final horizon of humanity, that means the end of History as Hegel thought it.

So History, as Hegel analyzed it, has always been understood as the fulfillment of something European. This view has made extra-western cultures (and peoples) secondary, peripheral. Their functions are almost null and void. This is the case for Africa and Africans. All the more since in some Hegel’s texts, first of all, The philosophy of History, Africans are not presented in a positive way. In the chapter called, “Geographical basis of History” of The Philosophy of History of G.W. Hegel, The Africa of the nineteenth century is said outside of History, that is the adventure of “the Spirit that governs the world”. Therefore, the African is splashing in the infra-human realm. (Hegel, Philo. of history, 91–98). Generally, Hegelian scholars are not very talkative about this part of the introduction of the Philosophy of History. Most of them pretend that it does not exist in the imposing Hegelian Opus. But it exists, and it is the document that is at the center of the question that divides scholars of the “new readings”.

Among these scholars, I will be interested in Pierre Franklin Tavarès, Susan Buck- Morss and Nick Nesbitt. They are the very protagonists of a very significant debate about the function of the Haitian Revolution in the political and historical philosophy of Hegel.

Pierre Franklin Tavarès, a Cap-verdian born Hegelian scholar educated at the Sorbonne, is the one who started it all. He was the first to raise the question whether Hegel was inspired by events happening in Saint-Domingue at the end of the eighteen-century. He wrote a series of articles in the nineties in which he showed that Hegel was not unaffected by the issue of slavery that was very important at his time. He showed that Hegel criticized slavery in many texts even though the criticism is not obvious, due to many references made by Hegel to the ancients, notably Aristotle. Tavarès stated that Hegel read Diderot and Abbé Raynal’s History of the Indies in the center of which was the issue of slavery in the Caribbean. Therefore, for Tavarès, Hegel was aware of the problem and he was an abolitionist throughout his life.

Susan Buck-Morss gave credit to Tavarès. Drawing on his conclusion, in her book called Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, she showed that the master and the slave that Hegel speaks of in the Phenomenology of Spirit are in fact “real slaves revolting against real masters” in a context that is the one of the Haitian Revolution of the end of the 18th century.

Nick Nesbitt showed that the defense of the right of slaves to revolt is not really the matter of The Phenomenology, but instead of the more mature work that is The Philosophy of Right. According to Nesbitt, this work provides the first significant analysis of the Haitian Revolution as an important event for world History.

There are many disagreements among these readings. I hope that they will be apparent in this report. But they share a common point of view that is the positive function of the Afro-Haitian Revolution in the making of the political and historical philosophy of Hegel. It will be our task to answer the question whether these “new readings of Hegel” are important for post-colonialism and why.

Hegel and Africa

In The Philosophy of History, Hegel condemns African culture as being outside of History. The land of Africa itself is considered as a land of “childhood” that is not lying into the day of “self-conscious history”. It is the land that is “enveloped in the dark mantle of Night” (Hegel, 92). The African is thoroughly presented as men who show “the most reckless inhumanity and disgusting barbarism” (Hegel, 93). According to Hegel, to comprehend the “peculiar” African character, one must forget the principle that is considered as fundamental in his philosophy, the category of Universality (Hegel, 93). For the level of consciousness of the African does not allow him to attain or realize a substantial objective existence.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Hegel does not confer to the African the very features that he considers as specifically human. If he calls him “the natural man”, it is another way to show that he is an animal. And by doing that, he does not show any fear of contradiction. Indeed, for Hegel the Negro is the man that exhibits “the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state” (Hegel, 93). For this reason, to comprehend him, one must put aside any consideration about reverence and morality, that means any consideration about feeling. Hegel states abruptly: “There’s nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character” (Hegel, 93).1

And, because moral sentiments do not exist among the Negroes, they are not only responsible for being slaves:

“Through the pervading influence of slavery [inside of Africa] all those bonds of moral regard which we cherish towards each other disappear, and it does not occur to the Negro mind to expect from others what we are enabled to claim” (Hegel,  96).

Therefore, we can understand that Hegel, whose philosophy advocates Freedom as the essence of man, proposes, in this case, a gradual abolition of slavery instead of its sudden removal. Through the state of slavery [the white slavery], the African slave is educated. Slavery is itself a state of progress away from the previous sensual existence in which the African was unaware of his moral being. Now, the slave participates in a level of morality that he did not know, and at the same time he participates in the culture connected with this morality. That does not mean that for Hegel, slavery is good in itself. Instead, because the essence of humanity is Freedom, it is injustice in itself. But, if the man is not matured, he cannot have Freedom (Hegel, 99). Therefore, slavery is for Hegel, the period of education by which the African learns what is Freedom, that means humanity.

After reading this, one must wonder how and why new readings of Hegel give an account that makes the African action in history a positive and active element of Hegel’s philosophy.

Tavarès’ reading

Franklin Tavarès has written a series of articles that grew out of his work on a doctoral dissertation.ii All these articles are about the connection between Hegel and the African participation in History. In the letter that he has sent to the French journalist Jean Ristat, he gave a short and clear explanation of his points of view.

As I already pointed it out, he is the first scholar to ask the question whether Hegel was inspired by the revolutionary events of Saint-Domingue or not. For him, the African Revolution in Saint-Domingue and the birth of Haiti as a State must be considered as the main historical source (not the only one) of the famous “figure of consciousness” called “dominion and servitude” but that is improperly called, “the master-slave dialectic”. Nevertheless, for him, The Phenomenology of Mind refers to the Revolution of 1789 and to the victorious slave uprising in Saint-Domingue only as “figures of consciousness”. It’s up to the reader to find out the times and the historical events behind these figures of consciousness. For this reason, he affirms that the figure called “dominion and servitude” had many sources (Old Testament, Hercules, Spartacus, etc.) but that the main source is the book of L’Abbé Raynal, Histoire philosophique des établissements européens dans les deux Indes, in which, Raynal and Diderot, for the first time, announce the future victory of a Black slave over his master in the Black world. According to many historians, Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Revolution in Saint-Domingue, has read the book.

According to Tavarès, Hegel read the book when he was in Berne. And by reading it, he became aware of the horrors of slavery. From then on, he became a violent opponent of slavery in the Caribbean.

Because of that—and this is one of the points on which Susan Buck-Morss disagrees with him—Tavarès refuses to consider Hegel as a racist. He points out that Hegel had a long relationship with Abbé Grégoire friends’ circle. Moreover, he criticizes Buck-Morss for ignoring that particularly in The Philosophy of Mind, Hegel completely destroyed the racist and racialist arguments of his time, notably by criticizing and making a mock of Gall’s phrenology. According to Tavarès, Hegel is not the author of the texts that are attributed to him (Cf. in this report: “Hegel and Africa”). Hegel is considered as a racist because of texts that are apocryphal.

Susan Buck-Morss: “Hegel, Haiti and Universal History”

In Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, Buck-Morss places the relationship between Hegel and slavery in its general ideological context that is Enlightenment. She shows with many convincing details and references how this intellectual trend that advocated Freedom as the essence of Humanity never explicitly criticized the horrors of the slavery system in the Caribbean:

“The exploitation of millions of colonial slave laborers was accepted as part of the given world by the very thinkers who proclaimed freedom to be man’s natural state and inalienable right. Even when theoretical claims of freedom were transformed into revolutionary action on the political stage, it was possible for the slave-driven colonial economy that functioned behind the scenes to be kept into darkness”. (Buck-Morss,22)

This accusation affects European writers who belonged to all the colonial powers of the time3 and Buck-Morss states that this paradox, this contradiction between the discourse of freedom and the practice of slavery itself ”marked the ascendancy of a succession of Western nations within the early modern global economy” (Buck-Morss, 23).

But the real topic of Buck-Morss’ book is the function in Hegel’s work of the Revolution made by African slaves in Saint-Domingue. Let’s recall that the French colony of Saint-Domingue was the richest colony of the whole colonial world. But, in 1791, the Black slaves rebel against the system of slavery so that, in 1794, the French commissioners, Santhonax and Polverel, declared the abolition of slavery on the Island. But, it was not the end of the struggle for the Blacks. Toussaint Louverture, the leader, although loyal to the new Republic of France, wrote a constitution for the colony, that was, according to Buck-Morss, “in advance of any such document in the world—if not in its premises of democracy, then surely in regard to the racial inclusiveness of its definition of the citizenry” (Buck-Morss, 38). But, Napoleon, willing to reestablish slavery and The Code noir made Toussaint arrested, then deported to France, where he died in the prison of Fort-de-Joux (Jura, France) in 1803. Violently determined to not come back in slavery, the armed Blacks, led by the slave-born Jean-Jacques Dessalines, fought against the troupes sent by Napoleon under the General Leclerc. After “winning this war of genocide”, on I January 1804, Dessalines declared independence from France, making The New Nation called Haiti, the first Black Republic of History.

Under the banner of Liberty or Death (these words were inscribed on the red and blue flag, from which the white band of the French had been removed), he defeated the French troops and destroyed the white population, establishing in 1804 an independent, constitutional nation of “black” citizens, an “empire” mirroring Napoleon’s own, which he called by the Arawak name, Haiti. These events leading to the complete freedom of the slaves and the colony were unprecedented. “Never before had a slave society successfully overthrown its ruling class” (Buck-Morss, 39).

The Haitian author, Michel Rolph Trouillot, quoted by Buck-Morss, calls the Haitian Revolution “the most radical political revolution of the age” (Buck-Morss,39) and Robin Blackburn, in The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery writes: “Haiti was not the first independent American state, but it was the first to guarantee civic liberty to all its inhabitants” (Buck-Morss,39). What is important is that this Revolution was not against a particular tyranny, but embodied in itself the general principles of human liberty that mean the core idea of Enlightenment. The Haitian Revolution was “the trial by fire” for the very ideals of the French Enlightenment. The question asked by Buck-Morss is: did Hegel know?

The answer is positive. Remember that for Tavarès also, the answer was positive. But Buck-Morss is not satisfied repeating the thesis of the African-born scholar about the possible reading of the Abbe Raynal’s book by Hegel. She shows that Minerva, the most important political newspaper of its day in the German-speaking world—a paper that Hegel read regularly at the time he was writing the Phenomenology of Mind, (Buck-Morss, 45)—reported extensively about the Haitian Revolution in over a hundred of pages that included source documents, news summaries, and eyewitness accounts.

The conclusion for Buck-Morss is that Hegel was fully aware of the horrible condition of the real slavery system as well as of the struggle of the slaves.4 She goes on to state that the events in Haiti were the factual basis of the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Mind.5 Hegel, according to Buck-Morss, brought into his writing the current, historical facts that were going on at the time he was writing.” Hegel knew about real slaves revolting successfully against real masters, and he elaborated his dialectic of lordship and bondage deliberately within this contemporary context” (Buck-Morss, 50).

Let’s remember that in The Philosophy of History, Hegel stated that the slave himself was responsible for his lack of freedom. In the Phenomenology, the same idea becomes more conceptual or theoretical, the slave in the struggle for recognition is at the beginning responsible for his situation by initially choosing life over Liberty, by preferring basic self-preservation. But, in the Phenomenology of Mind, he states that freedom cannot be given by slaves from others. Only a trial by death can allow the slave to realize self-liberation, that means it’s only by risking his life that he can obtain freedom. For Buck-Morss, Hegel used “the sensational events of Haiti as the linchpin in his argument in The Phenomenology of Mind”. And this is “the most political expression of his career” (58).

It is obvious that the events in Haiti strongly challenged the racist views of the time. And she notices that not only have Hegel scholars failed to answer the question about the relationship between Hegel and the Haitian revolution, “they have failed, for the past two hundred years, even to ask it “(Buck-Morss, 56).

But, what about the racist Hegel? The one who wrote the shocking pages about African culture? Disagreeing with Tavarès who stated that Hegel was not racist at all, Buck-Morss considers Hegel a cultural racist (and not a biological one) (Buck-Morss, 74)6 due to the fact that in his philosophy we can understand that African slaves are perfectly able to overthrow slavery. But, according to The Philosophy of history, they did not have the level of consciousness that can allow them to fulfill this task in order to enter into a historical and autonomous existence.

Nevertheless, she quoted the pages of The Philosophy of History in which Hegel condemns African culture to prehistory and making the Africans responsible for New world slavery. She also points out the fact that Hegel affirmed that slaves were better in the American colonies than in their African homeland, where slavery was ”absolute”, and also that the philosopher endorsed gradualism instead of direct abolition.

”Why is ending the silence on Hegel and Haiti important?” Trying to answer this question, Buck-Morss recalls the reader that beyond the cultural racism of Hegel, his Philosophy of History “has provided for two centuries a justification for the most complacent forms of eurocentrism” (Buck-Morss, 74) before repeating what she pointed out many times in her book: the extraordinary importance of the Haitian Revolution for Universal history, because of the fact that it represents “the realization of absolute spirit”.

Nesbitt’s reading

Nick Nesbitt’s Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment is a book in which the author shows how Haiti transformed universal rights as a pure abstraction into a concrete and historical fact. According to him, before Haiti, “no society had ever been constructed in accord with the axiom of universal emancipation”. “The construction of a society without slavery, one of universal and unqualified human right to freedom, properly stands as Haiti’s unique contribution to humanity” (Nesbitt, 2).

In this book full of references to many authors, ranging from Spinoza to Habermas, only one chapter is devoted to Hegel. But, it is, in our opinion, one of the most significant chapters of the book. In this chapter of 16 pages, simply called “Hegel and Haiti reconsidered”, Nesbitt shows that the first philosophical analysis of the Haitian Revolution was published in Prussia in 1820. This brief analysis consists of only three pages in a nearly 400-page work, “yet, it appears in what is perhaps (with Marx’s Das Kapital), the single most influential and widely read work of social and political theory of the nineteenth century”.

The book in question is The Philosophy of Right of Hegel. After summarizing the approach of Buck-Morss, Nesbitt affirms that “Hegel’s argument in the Phenomenology is more ambiguous than Buck-Morss’ account allows” (Nesbitt, 115). His thesis is exactly what follows:

Since at least Jean Hyppolite’s analysis, it has been well recognized that the master-slave dialectic leads not to revolt, but instead to the establishment of the very social relation the actual slaves of Saint-Domingue overthrew. The slave’s life-and-death struggle, in fact, leads dialectically to the creation and institution of the lord-bondsman relationship. For Hegel, the life and death struggle is antecedent to the institution of slavery, not its result. The master-slave relation is explicitly not undone by the autonomous activity of a revolution such as the one occurring contemporaneously in Saint-Domingue, but by the inactivity or passivity of the lord.

Actually, in the Phenomenology, slavery is only the path that leads dialectically to self-consciousness on the part of the bondsman. It is the very expression of Hegel’s gradualism already expressed in The Philosophy of History. The French scholar Jean Hyppolite concludes from this point that because Hegel thinks that the discipline of service and obedience is essential to self-consciousness, in The Phenomenology, “imperialism” and “colonialism” at certain stages of development are given justification” (Nesbitt, 116).

But, according to Nesbitt, the argument in The Philosophy of Right is different. In The Phenomenology, slavery, as we could see, is the dialectical means by which the slave acquires self-consciousness. But, The Philosophy of Right goes beyond this subjective point to conclude that the overthrow of the slaveholding system is the necessary consequence of the new self-conscious slaves.

Nesbitt affirms that the racist and ignorant dismissal of Africa in The Philosophy of History is “a mere moment of senile crankiness that should not blind us to the fundamental dimension of Hegel entire philosophy”. Hegel’s thought is presented by Nesbitt as one of the most important doctrines for postcolonial thought, and according to him, intellectual figures such as Césaire and Fanon recognized it. In The Philosophy of Right, Hegel attempts philosophically to understand human freedom not as a simple concept but as historical reality in the world, offering the philosophical foundation for postcolonial thought. The Haitian Revolution is presented as this historical reality, whose significance is universal, for it is the actual realization of the essence of humanity:

“Even more than 1789, the Haitian Revolution in its uncompromising and absolute struggle for freedom, decolonization, and the destruction of the society that enabled these processes operated according to Ritter’s formulation: “In Hegel’s view, the essence of modern political revolution, which differentiates it from other forms of upheaval, uprising, rebellion, and putsch, lies not so much in the particular political form which the violence takes, but rather in the social emancipation underlying it and in the establishment of an order that according to its own principle is without presuppositions, excluding everything preexisting, historical, and traditional, like a radical new beginning that nothing should precede” (Nesbitt,119).


These new readings of Hegel show the importance of his thought for post-colonialism. This is pretty ironical, because the Hegel that we knew was the racist one and the one who justifies anti-democratic politics by stating that “the people is a formless mass […] The term “the people” […] refers to that category of citizens who do not know their own will [...] highest officials within the state necessarily have a more profound and comprehensive insight into the nature of the state’s institutions and needs” (quoted by Nesbitt, 117). Last but not least, the Hegel that we knew is the one that justifies European imperialism.

But if Hegel can give such very important conceptual tools to post-colonialism, it’s because the colonized fulfilled concretely what the Hegelian philosophy thought as an abstract ideal. The colonized shows that he has always been ready for Freedom, and not because, as Hegel explains in the Phenomenology, that he had acquired self-consciousness in the slave-holding system. He always has been human.

But, in our opinion, what makes these new readings interesting is that they put the emphasis on the category of Universal. The intellectual and theoretical basis of post-colonialism used to be found in what they call in French les pensées de la différence (Nietzsche, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, etc.). This différentialisme is severely criticized by Alain Finkielkraut who understands it as a new racism that destroys the unity of human species, by affirming the absolute value of differences. Finkielkraut does not hesitate to make a connection between the ideas of Fanon and those he calls the writers of the Volkgeist (Finkielkraut, 105-110). Whether Finkielkraut is right or not is a question that requires a deep analysis of les pensées de la différence. A work whose importance is too big for this little report.

But, it is a fact that what we have now is a post-colonialist reference that is universalistic. Everything in Hegel is thought according to the universal, the whole. This is what he does when he refers to Freedom as the essence of Humanity, that means that Freedom is the first feature of human nature. But, it is obvious that for Hegel, the full realization of this nature can be done first of all in European culture. This is what explains the views of a writer such as Fukuyama who considers the western socio-economic and political system as the end of History.7 The Universal for Westerners is obviously western.

Did Hegel really think of the Haitian Revolution as the actual and historical realization of his political philosophy? For the three scholars presented above, the answer is positive. Let’s hope that more (serious, rich and interesting) studies are coming.

—Wilson Décembre Professor of French Studies at Pace University and CUNY (New York), author of Vitalité et Spiritualité: Apologie du rapport-au-monde afro-haïtien. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2009.


1. See also p.95: “The Negroes indulge […] that perfect contempt for humanity, which in its bearing on Justice and Morality is the fundamental characteristic of the race […] The undervaluing of humanity among them reaches an incredible degree of intensity.”
2. Cf. Tavarès : “Hegel, critique de l’Afrique”. “La conception de l’Afrique de Hegel”; “Hegel et l’abbé Grégoire”; “Hegel et Haïti”; Hegel, philosophe anti-escalvagiste””. Unfortunately, I could not consult these articles. I will refer to a letter that Tavarès has sent to a French journalist, in which he summarized his positions. Cf. “A propos de Hegel et Haïti, Lettre de Pierre Franklin Tavarès à Jean Ristat”.
3. Even Rousseau is not spared. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” So writes Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the opening lines of On the Social contract, first published in 1762. No human condition appears more offensive to his heart or to his reason than slavery. And yet even Rousseau, patron saint of the French Revolution, represses from consciousness the millions of really existing, European-owned slaves, as he relentlessly condemns the institution” (Buck-Morss, 32).
4. Buck-Morss points out that Hegel, “in his late work The Philosophy of Subjective Spirit mentions the Haitian Revolution by name” (62).
5. According to Hegel, in the Phenomenology, the master-slave relationship is the result of an uncompleted fight to the death for “recognition” or status, and it is marked by a dialectic such that the master, through increasing dependence on the slave, and the slave, who develops independence through work, switch roles. Cf. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, p.p. 228-240: “Independence and dependence of self-consciousness—Lordship and Bondage”. Cf. also, Buck-Morss, p.p. 53-64.
6. It is also the position of N. Nesbitt. Cf. p.226, n. 54
7. Cf. Francis Fukuyama. The End of History and The Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992.


Buck-Morss, Susan. Hegel, Haiti and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Finkielkraut, Alain. La Défaite de la pensée. Paris : Gallimard, 1987.

Fukuyama, Francis. La fin de l’Histoire et le dernier homme. Paris: Flammarion, 1992. Hegel, G.W.F, The Phenomenology of Mind. New York: harper and Row, 1967.

The Philosophy of History. New York: Dover Publications, 1956.

The Philosophy of Right. London: Oxford University Press, 1942.

  • Nesbitt, Nick. Universal Emancipation- The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
  • Tavarès, Pierre-Franklin. “À propos de Hegel et Haïti : Lettre de Piere-Franklin Tavarès à Jean Ristat”. Journal L’Humanité, 2 décembre 2006.
Aller au sommaire de ce numéro de Tanbou/Tambour, été 2015

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