Hegel, Haiti and Universal History

by Susan Buck-Morss
University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2009, £15.50 pb
ISBN 9780822959786

Reviewed by Philip Cunliffe

Philip Cunliffe lectures in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent (P.Cunliffe@kent.ac.uk)

Cunliffe, Philip. "Hegel, Haiti and Universal History." Marx and Philosphy Society (2010): n. pag. Web. 23 Aug 2010. <http://www.marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2010/160>.


The premise of Susan Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History is the arresting claim that Hegel’s renowned ‘master-slave dialectic’ was directly inspired by the contemporaneous Haitian Revolution. Commencing with a slave uprising on the French colony of Saint Domingue in 1791, the victorious former slaves declared Haiti’s independence from Napoleon’s France in 1804, three years before Hegel published his Phenomenology of Spirit, which contained the earliest published (and still the best known) rendition of the master-slave dialectic. Buck-Morss’ claim is an intensely tantalising one – so tantalising, indeed, that one wills it to be true while reading her short and captivating book. Before considering the evidence that Buck-Morss presents for her claim, it is worth considering what is at stake in this discussion – particularly given, as we shall see, that Buck-Morss herself never satisfactorily resolves this question.

More accurately translated as lord (Herr) and servant (Knecht), the master-slave dialectic still exerts immense influence over contemporary philosophy. The category of ‘the Other’ (commonly used to designate any identity defined by its subordination to that of the privileged and powerful) is as ubiquitous as to be mundane in fields and disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, social theory, psychoanalysis, political theory, cultural and literary studies. The origins of the concept lie in Hegel’s exposition of the dynamics unleashed by the struggle for recognition between master and slave. For Hegel, this struggle ultimately results in mutual reconciliation and equal recognition, forming a balanced civil society crowned by a constitutional monarchy. In Hegel’s original formulation, the Other was merely a transitory shape assumed by the historic development of consciousness.

Contemporary thinkers still draw on Hegel in so far as they believe that the identity of the privileged is dependent on the identity of the oppressed. But today’s more urbane theorists are not as naïve as to believe in the idea of any ultimate reconciliation between the strong and the weak, let alone of the superseding of inequalities of power. The ubiquity of the category of ‘the Other’ in contemporary philosophy is an historic rebuke to Hegel – a rebuke to his optimism from the viewpoint of a later, ostensibly more sophisticated society more accustomed to the variety and enduring character of oppressed identities, whether these be sexual, racial, cultural or gender-based.

However, if Buck-Morss is right to claim that Hegel was alluding to the Haitian Revolution when writing his master-slave dialectic, then Hegel’s seemingly callow optimism was not mere fancy but drew directly on lived historical experience: the achievement of Haitian slaves not only in overthrowing a savage and comprehensive tyranny but also in establishing their own modern state. Buck-Morss only hints at this possibility, however. Her aim, she says, is different: she wants to ensure that the great German philosopher is forever linked to the greatest of Caribbean revolutions (16).

Astonishing enough in itself for the political and military odds surmounted by the former slaves (who defeated British, Spanish and French armies), the Haitian Revolution is crucial to understanding broader political dynamics of the nineteenth century – not least the eventual extirpation of slavery. Haiti being the first state in the Americas to grant civic freedoms to all its inhabitants, the Revolution was closely observed by slave-owners and abolitionists around the world. The Haitian Revolution was also critical to wider regional politics, precipitating the eclipse of French colonial power in the Caribbean, the restructuring of Atlantic trade as well as boosting the struggle for independence from Spain in South America. Buck-Morss makes a compelling argument for placing the Haitian experience at the core of political and social modernity: ‘Scholars of modern philosophies of freedom are hobbled in attempting to do their work in ignorance of Haitian history. Historical context permeates modern philosophy – that was indeed Hegel’s modernist, self-conscious intent’ (16).

This goal is a welcome one. The reason that Buck-Morss fails is, as we shall see, due to the diffidence with which she treats Hegel himself. Buck-Morss is willing to make the case for Haiti, but less so for Hegel. Hegel is only known to have mentioned Haiti once, in the Philosophy of Subjective Spirit, when he credited the ‘Negroes’ of Haiti with having formed ‘a state on Christian principles’ (62 n. 199). To be sure, there is no direct evidence that Hegel was thinking of Haiti when he penned the Phenomenology. Buck-Morss however produces a welter of compelling circumstantial evidence to suggest that Haiti was indeed uppermost in the philosopher’s mind when he was forming his thoughts regarding his dialectics of recognition. Among Buck-Morss’ primary historical exhibits is that Hegel is known to have been regularly reading the Edinburgh Review and Minerva periodicals in this period. Both of these covered the tumultuous events in Haiti in depth.

Despite Hegel’s often maddeningly elliptical language and abstract categories, it is well established that the thrust of his project was an attempt to absorb the impact of modernity by offering a philosophical response to the French Revolution and the unfolding of the modern division of labour. Given that he was so allusive and elliptical about these events, why not also presume, Buck-Morss reasonably asks, that Hegel was being equally allusive and current in his treatment of colonial slavery and the Haitian Revolution?

Buck-Morss is sensitive enough to the nuances of the relevant passages in the Phenomenology to point to two aspects of Hegel’s dialectic to support her case. First, Hegel insists that the two individuals initially confront each other in a ‘life-and-death struggle’ in which ‘it is only through staking one’s life that freedom is won’ (Hegel 1977, p. 114). The servant’s failure to risk his life leads to his subordination to the lord. Second, Hegel famously gives priority to the slave in his dialectic, as the servant transforms himself from the passive, obedient extension of his master’s will into an active, self-aware agent. The initially bold and decisive lord meanwhile slides into slothful self-absorption through his dependence on the labour of the bondsman. Both of these points, Buck-Morss claims, resonate with the Haitian experience, from the banner of ‘Liberty or Death’ under which the Saint-Dominguans finally defeated Napoleon’s army (39), to the fact that the slaves emancipated themselves through their own efforts, without simply relying on the magnanimity of others or merely formal recognition: ‘Those who once acquiesced to slavery demonstrate their humanity when they are willing to risk death rather than remain subjugated’ (55).

If Buck-Morss is right, then the Haitian Revolution could be seen as exemplifying the power of Hegel’s intellectual accomplishment. Prior to Hegel, the problem of freedom in modern political thought was defined by being counterposed to slavery: ‘slavery [was] the root metaphor of Western political philosophy, connoting everything that was evil about power relations. Freedom, its conceptual antithesis, was considered by Enlightenment thinkers as the highest and universal political value’ (21). Yet as Buck-Morss reminds us, the philosophes preferred to castigate slavery everywhere except where it actually existed.

One could go further: it was not merely a moral failing on the part of individual thinkers, but a deeper failure in that the political theorists of the time simply did not generate the intellectual resources to envisage how it might be possible to transcend the practice of slavery. Hobbes brusquely accepted slavery as part of the web of power relations. Even Rousseau simply ignored Le Code Noir, the barbaric regulations that covered the rights of private ownership over black people in French colonies (32-34). Whatever Rousseau’s failing on this score, he did not in any case believe that genuine political freedom could much extend beyond the small political communities embodied in sovereign city states.

It is with Hegel that this dichotomy of freedom and slavery is overthrown, and the logical possibility of transcending slavery entirely arises. For Hegel shows that the logic of the master-slave relationship necessarily transforms its constituent terms (that is, the individuals who comprise the relationship). Each moment in Hegel’s dialectic occurs independently of any disposition or goodwill on the part of its subjects. The reconciliation of the master with the slave results not from any magnanimity towards the master, but because Hegel maintains that freedom built on the subjugation of others eventually implodes – autonomous individuals need the recognition of equals to be truly free.

But Buck-Morss is not much interested in what Hegel brings to Haiti, or indeed how and why Haiti may make Hegel an even more impressive figure. There is no exegesis of the master-slave dialectic, or expansive understanding of its possibilities. Indeed, for Buck-Morss metaphorical understandings of the master-slave dialectic are problematic in so far as they take us away from the historical context of the Haitian Revolution. Buck-Morss even goes as far as to suggest that the tendency to read the master-slave dialectic metaphorically is responsible for blinding us to the link with Haiti. She blames this on the Marxist appropriation of Hegel, which is often presumed to see the dialectic as an idealised vision of the proletariat gaining political self-awareness through its labour. This view itself is fallacious (albeit common, see Arthur, 1983). Marx’s concerns properly begin where Hegel’s end (that is, after the resolution of the master-slave dialectic and the achievement of formally recognised equality within civil society.)

But more importantly as regards the Hegel-Haiti connection, Buck-Morss’ suspicion of metaphorical readings and her turn towards the ‘literal’ character of Hegel’s exposition (56) tends to strip away the suppleness and subtlety of Hegel’s thinking. Buck-Morss thus undercuts the possibility of translating the founding of Haiti into the categories of philosophical modernity. Instead of seeing the multiple perspectives from which Hegel’s dialectic can, should and has been read as an affirmation of the vast depths of the Haitian revolutionary experience, these perspectives are reduced to garbled echoes of the founding of Haiti.

Buck-Morss’ attitude towards Hegel is essentially instrumental. Hegel is the philosophical winch for hoisting the Haitian Revolution into place as a bulwark of political modernity. Buck-Morss does not attempt to show us why Hegel is still among the foremost political philosophers of modern individuality and freedom. Instead she prefers to dwell on the intrinsic ‘racism’ of treating history in a teleological fashion, the impossibility of totalising thought, and recalling Hegel’s notorious racist views of Africa in his Philosophy of History and the Christian roots of his secular universalism. The scope of Hegel’s insight is reduced to a brief glimpse into a particular historical moment (155).

Having lashed Hegel and Haiti so tightly together, Buck-Morssscepticism towards Hegel inevitably ends up expressing itself as scepticism towards Haiti. The foundation of a sovereign, modern state by former slaves against the most fearsome of odds is seen to be too paltry and particularistic an accomplishment. For Buck-Morss, the founding of Haiti is limited for occurring ‘within the context of European civilization’, (146-147, original emphasis). Unable to mediate between universal ideas and concrete achievements, or to offer us any historical schema, Buck-Morss concludes that ‘no clear historical narrative emerges of any kind’ (144). As a result, she fails to elevate Haiti to the height of philosophical modernity while simultaneously draining Hegel’s philosophy of its profundity. Buck-Morssscepticism towards the philosopher pushes her to turn to other means to demonstrate the centrality of Haiti to modernity. The latter part of book is taken up with a discussion of the links between vodou and nineteenth century freemasonry, and between the political economy and sociology of Caribbean plantation slavery and early industrial wage labour. Buck-Morss’ discussion here is fascinating and intriguing by turns, but her image of vodou as a kind of insurgent multicultural fusion feels forced after what came previously.

Despite this, it would be churlish to see Buck-Morss’ book as another mechanistic disavowal of European modernity, falling readymade off the postmodern production line. For whatever Buck-Morss’ ambivalence about the legacy of modernity and Hegel, she explicitly does want to make the case for universal history and what she calls a ‘new humanism’: ‘rather than giving multiple, distinct cultures equal due … human universality emerges at the point of rupture’ and ‘Common humanity exists in spite of culture and its differences’ (133). Buck-Morss gives the example of the Polish soldiers in Napoleon’s army sent to re-establish slavery on Saint-Domingue, who began to identify the struggle of the Saint-Domiguans with their own struggle for overthrowing national oppression and Polish serfdom back in Europe. Some of the Poles even joined the former slaves as the ‘white negroes of Europe’ in the words of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led the Haitians to their final victory over Napoleon’s forces (75). Here, Buck-Morss suggests, universality emerges through the forging of common links amongst the oppressed when they fight against a common enemy.

Few books as short as Buck-Morss’ contain as much fascinating material, new interpretations, intriguing possibilities and intellectual stimulation. At the very least she is right to say that after this work, we should no longer think of Hegel without thinking of Haiti.

16 July 2010


  • Arthur, Chris 1983, ‘Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic and a Myth of Marxology’, New Left Review, no. 142 pp. 67-75.
  • Hegel, G.W.F. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press)