Review: Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History

Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. By Susan Buck-Morss (Pittsburgh, Pa. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Pp. 164).
Haiti and the Myth of Resistance

buck-MorssFor Buck-Morss, the strain in historiography that demarcates Enlightenment thinking as Western or that of Voudou as culturally other, has created obstacles to what she calls “a common humanity” (p 133) that exists “in spite of culture and its differences.” This commonality across cultures is the basis of her attempt to rescue a “universal history” that doesn’t subsume the culture of one nation/people/region to another but focuses on the “porosity” of exchange across cultural demarcations, “It is in the discontinuities of history that people whose culture has been strained to the breaking point give expression to a humanity that goes beyond cultural limits” (p133).

In the second part of the book, she focuses on a comparison between Freemasonry and Voudou practice and the roles they each played in the Saint Domingue Revolution. She notes how Oge, a member of the Freemasons, was funded through the group and was thus able to purchase weapons from the US to take to Saint Domingue. The thwarted revolt of the freemen of color led by Oge had a lasting influence both on the colony and Paris. For the slaves, Vodou provided a way of making sense of their enslaved condition, an expression of a “shared trauma” (p 126) that provided a common basis for instrumental resistance against the slave owners. For Buck-Morss, both, Freemasonry and Vodou, share a common sentiment and a common stance against the irrationality of the present state of things. The difference for her is that Vodou develops in a different context, from the “inhuman experience of modern slavery” (p 126). So whereas, the Freemasoners experience the march of time as progress (i.e., felt like history was on “their side”), the slaves experienced history as catastrophe. What Buck-Morss wants to say is that both then are expressions of a protest against inhumanity (p133), both are expressions of judgment by a “moral universality” (p 84) that rebels when “conditions are not right” (p84). But from here on is where, I think, the argument begins to slip. She asks,

 “The dilemma of the insurgent, then as now, is that violent resistance, apparently justified by moral sentiment, sets the stage for new brutalities that are repugnant to that sentiment, because against the enemy of humanity, every barbarism is allowed. What dialectical understanding, what political struggle will provide liberation from this contradiction?” (p 134)


A young Hegel.

This is precisely the problem of “resistance” narratives. The answer of what exactly is the “enemy of humanity” is important, but is never really addressed here. Buck-Morss’s formulation that the enemy of humanity is recognized by “universal morality” doesn’t provide an answer. It matters a great deal, for example, if people resist against immigrants because they are understood to be enemies to “humanity” or if people resist against a totalitarian dictatorship. Moreover, how people “resist,” i.e., what is the ideological content of this protest, matters a great deal: toppling a regime in the name of democratic equality is different than toppling in to institute a theocracy. These are different and while they are not a matter of culture, they are a matter of politics.[1]

If Vodou, as Buck-Morss implies, was an expression of a proto-political consciousness, then it should be judged as such. What are the limitations of this consciousness? What are the possibilities it opened up? Was the assessment of reality one that addressed the sources of the problem? Similarly, one has to ask the same of the politics of the French Revolution: What are the limitations to this political perspective? What contradictions was it unable to address? Finally, these questions are not raised to prove the superiority of one culture over another but to assess the explanatory potential of these ideas, their role in transforming the world, and the limitations they were not able to overcome. The problem is one of historical consciousness vis-à-vis historical transformation, not one of exclusion or inclusion of agents in the process of historical development.

The problem with Buck-Morss’s argument is that in replacing freedom with “humanity” (unfreedom with “inhumanity”) and political judgment with “moral judgment,” the link between political consciousness and history is severed. In this way, the politics of “resistance” has a depoliticizing effect. The defense of “humanity” throughout time as the guiding beacon for historiography falls short of addressing the problem that, historically, has been at the center of political revolutions the world over: how can humanity be transformed?


[1] On page 143, Buck-Morss says “in the name of universal humanity, the vanguard justifies its own violence as a higher truth.” But she never actually answers what this “universal humanity” is? And what/who is the “enemy” this “humanity”? Ultimately, her call for a “radical neutrality” (p 150) is what I find most incoherent about her argument.

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