The Enlightenment outside Europe



The effective realization of the universal values ​​of the Enlightenment in Haiti

There is no doubt that Enlightenment philosophers believed that they were elaborating universal concepts and principles, that is, direct and valid for all humanity, transforming them into ideals to be realized, regulative principles of any future practical action inspired by them.[I] The model of this new form of philosophical thought is represented by the Kantian motto: "Act only according to a maxim such that you can at the same time will that it become a universal law".[ii] It is, as is known, a formal categorical imperative, but it is, at the same time, regulative of any future universal law.

Enrique Dussel uses the universal regulative principles in a non-formal but material way, that is, placing “the principle of production, reproduction and development of human life of each ethical subject in community” as the content of the principle of moral conduct. This principle might not be totally viable, but it continues to be for navigators like the polar star, the point of reference, practically unattainable, but indispensable to guide their direction, or rather, their practical action. This new orientation of practical behavior, which reconciles the formality of the categorical imperative with the materiality of human life, comes from the existential experience, which has become philosophical, of those who think and act morally outside the prevailing dominant system, that is, outside the Center of the World (United States, Europe, Japan).

The experience and thought of Enrique Dussel, which I will use as a tool for this essay, come from Latin America, the first victim of the European colonial system, or rather, the victim that allowed, with its exploitation, the foundation of Modernity,[iii] that is, with the looting of its natural wealth (precious metals), the original accumulation of capital, which took place mainly with the use of slave labor violently uprooted from Africa.

Enrique Dussel clearly indicates what the normative principles of politics are: “The essential normative principles of politics are three. The material principle obliges to take care of the lives of citizens; the formal democratic principle determines the duty to always act in accordance with the procedures of democratic legitimacy; the principle of viability limits, equally, to operating only for the possible (below the anarchic possibility, and beyond the conservative possibility)”[iv].

In my view, the normative principles of politics should be inspired by the universal regulative principles of Enlightenment origin, more precisely, the normative principles subsume the universal regulative principles in them, to the point of assuming an ethical nature in themselves: they become ethical principles of the common behavior, that is, collective behavior and, later, become moral principles of individual behavior.

The homeland of the Enlightenment was France, which was simultaneously a slaveholding colonial power. Enlightenment politicians acted to make these regulative principles normative principles, so that any practical action could find universal consensus. Thus, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” (1789), based on a text by La Fayette, with the collaboration of Jefferson, and inspired by the thought of Montesquieu,[v] Rousseau and Voltaire, was understood as a universal law and is recognized as such.

The principles underlying that declaration, Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality, have, for the past two centuries, been the foundation of every civil declaration or state constitution. The “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1945), of the United Nations, is also inspired by these regulative principles, therefore they were the foundation of a universal legislation and of all actions of liberation from any form of oppression. They were and certainly will be for any other liberation action, both individual and collective, that will be put into practice in the future.

The “Declaration of Independence of the United States of America” (1776) was also inspired by regulative principles, considered universal, that derive from the thought of John Locke, who, incidentally, considered slavery legitimate, since he judged private property superior to its own. freedom. Some of these principles are the same as those of the future “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”, such as equality and freedom, but the recognition that every human being has inalienable rights, such as life and happiness, was added.

But at the time of drafting the “Constitution of the United States of America” (1787) an evident forgetfulness meant that those universal regulative principles were ignored and slavery was not abolished, but simply regulated (see articles I, II and V). At this point, it is useful to ask a few questions: Why was slavery not abolished? Perhaps slaves were not considered equal to their white owners?

The most obvious answer is yes, so much so that, even after the abolition of slavery, in 1865, racial segregation did not end and still today, more than 250 years after the “Declaration of Independence of the United States of America” and more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, segregation was not completely overcome, as the current movement teaches Black Lives Matter. Susan Buck-Morss presents her own interpretation in relation to the scarce knowledge of events linked to the world of the excluded or the oppressed: “The more specialized the knowledge, the more advanced the level of research, the longer and more venerable the academic tradition, the more easily conflicting facts are ignored. It should be noted that specialization and isolation pose a danger to new disciplines such as African American studies as well.”[vi]

But it is appropriate to ask another question more radical than the previous ones: in what did the inequality of slaves in relation to their owners consist? The answer is obvious and evident: they were black, that is, they were not white, or rather, they were not European, because only Europeans consider themselves to be true whites, denying the evidence that Asians (Chinese, Koreans and Japanese) are also white. . It seems that universal regulative principles only applied to Europeans and not to all human beings, so they were not universal, or rather, they were universal in theory and not in practice, that is, in society, politics and economics. The reproduction of life itself was not equal between whites and blacks. The “Declaration of Independence of the United States of America” was denied by the same citizens who had declared their independence from the English motherland.

A first theoretical conclusion can be drawn: at the moment when the universal regulative principles of the Enlightenment were about to become normative principles of politics, the three normative principles, as Enrique Dussel indicated them, were not recognized: the material principle was strongly restricted to the simple reproduction of the slave workforce, while the formal principle was completely negated, since slaves had no legal dignity, except as commodities, and the principle of viability, because the only existing possibility was realized, which was that of considering human beings like things.

I extract another consideration from the beautiful book by Susan Buck-Morss: freedom as a universal value, asserted itself at the moment of maximum development of slavery[vii], then, such a phenomenon, in full expansion, conditioned its practical realization. In fact, Susan Buck-Morsse reports an interesting fact: 20% of the French bourgeoisie lived on a slave economy.[viii], therefore, it was liberal in the homeland and slaveholder in the colonies.

Given the cultural hegemony of the United States over world culture, these events are very famous and well known. Much less known is the story of who actually implemented the universal regulative principles of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”: the Haitians. Very little is known about the small island of Hispaniola in European culture. It is known, without a doubt, that there are two small Caribbean nations: Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

But it's not widely known that these two small nations share the island of Hispaniola. I wrote “nations” because different languages ​​are spoken in both parts of the island: French in Haiti[ix] and Spanish in Santo Domingo. It is obvious to think that in Haiti people speak French, because it was a French colony, but Haiti has a particularity that differs it from other French colonies, along with Martinique and Guadeloupe, it was the only French colony where slavery was allowed.

It is true that on March 28, 1792 and February 4, 1794, slavery was abolished in the colonies as well, as a consequence of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”, although Robespierre refused to sign the abolition decree of slavery. As in the United States, universal regulative principles thus remained in theory, in practice slaveholding segregation remained unchanged until January 1, 1804, when the French abandoned the island of Hispaniola due to the bad natural conditions, to which, on the contrary, slaves Africans were more easily adapted than Europeans.

The white landowners managed, in the name of legislative autonomy, not to enforce the decisions of the French mother country of 1792 and 1794, so freedom and equality were non-universal regulative principles, moreover subordinated to the legislative autonomy of the colonies, just as had happened in the United States, where some States of the Federation had not respected the regulative principles of Liberty, Happiness and Life. Therefore, the universal regulative principles had a limit in the autonomous decisions of each political reality: in practice, their universal character was denied. Naturally, the normative principles of politics as Dussel understood them were denied. Universal regulative principles were denied by the French African slave-owning class.

In Haiti, however, black slaves did not peacefully accept remaining slaves, they knew that in France their condition of slavery had been abolished and, therefore, they wanted those universal regulative principles to be put into practice in their land. In reality, it was the victims of slavery who wanted to transform the universalist theory of the French Enlightenment into political, economic and social practice. This liberation movement from slavery found a leader in the figure of Toussant Louverture, a former slave, who fought against revolutionary France and against Napoleon, trying to obtain Haiti's independence from France, because independence was the only political condition that would allow liberation of African slaves.

Enlightenment, revolutionary, Jacobin and Napoleonic France bloodily repressed this liberation movement, until the very nature of the island, diseases such as yellow fever, and the tropical climate decimated French troops and forced the motherland of universal Enlightenment to to leave the island and to allow Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussant's successor, who had died in prison in France, to transform universal regulative principles into practical universal normative principles. Thus, the first truly free territory in America was born, taking into account that slavery was still in force in the United States. The revolt of the victims of slavery turned universal regulative principles into instruments of class struggle. The era of class struggles in the name of Enlightenment principles was really beginning.

In fact, the class struggle is based on the exclusion of the universal regulative principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, as some more radical French revolutionaries intuited. The economic law of the market, on the other hand, is based on the exclusion from remuneration of all value produced by the worker. Marx realized that the worker excluded from ownership of the means of production was external to the market, in fact, his body was external, while his workforce was a fundamental element in the production of wealth. So, exteriority is the founding category of exclusion and who is more external than the African slave? He lives far away from the Eurocentric world.

The legality that the French owners of African slaves wanted to impose was not inspired by the universal regulative principles of the Enlightenment, but by those of the market, which tends to hide men, relationships and things. In practice, the intention was to legitimize exclusion, exploitation and denial of human dignity. The critique of this legal logic is therefore also a critique of the political economy on which this logic is based. Franz Hinkelhammert is very clear on this point: “Absolute legality is absolute injustice. This does not imply any abolition of legality, but rather the need to intervene when it destroys human coexistence itself. This legality in its logic is incompatible with the validity of human rights”[X].

Thus, the revolt of the African slaves stemmed from the living conditions to which they were forced by the French owners, who, with their anti-enlightenment economic-political practice, were transforming the rationality of universal regulative principles into irrational forms of inhumane living conditions for the African slaves. The justification of an autonomous local legislation is precisely a form of rationalization of the irrational. The African slave revolt, therefore, had as its objective the abolition, even violent, of these inhuman conditions of life, in practice the African slaves rebelled against the very condition of things, of merchandise, of reification of their lives.

Universal regulative principles had initially offered African slaves a prospect of liberation, but the reintroduction of the legality of the condition of slavery had denied and repressed this universalist aspiration for liberation from slavery, and only the violent act of rebellion had freed them from this reconstituted legality. oppressive legal system and restored a life worthy of being lived, always bearing in mind that their way of life was in keeping with the tropical nature of the island of Hispaniola.

In the words of sociologist Anibál Quijano, we discover another aspect of the Haitian revolution: “The most radical experience happens and not by chance in Haiti. There, it is the slave and 'black' population, the very basis of Antillean colonial domination, which together with colonialism destroys its own coloniality of power between 'whites' and 'blacks' and the slave society as such. Three phenomena in the same movement of history. Although destroyed later with the neocolonial intervention of the United States, that of Haiti also represents the first world moment in which national independence, the decolonization of social power and the social revolution come together”[xi].

Anibál Quijano, by playing with the contrast between “whites” and “blacks”, intends to highlight that the liberation of Haitians was also the liberation of European racism, that is, the conviction, elevated to ideology, that “blacks” were so inferior to the point of being unable to receive a wage. The United States of America, a country founded on the principles of the Enlightenment, intervened to restore colonialism in Haiti, but the lived experience remains (experience) of having denied colonialism with the very struggle for liberation and independence, confirming that true decolonization occurs in the separation of liberal and enlightened Europe.

But, as mentioned, the greatest paradox consists in the fact that this struggle for liberation was inspired by the universal regulative principles of the Enlightenment, which in themselves are so little Eurocentric that Europeans themselves deny them. But these universal regulative principles also raise the need for a claim to justice on the part of victims., which is substantially a political claim to justice.

Enrique Dussel defines the political claim for justice as follows: “The 'political claim for justice' is the position that the political subject adopts (…) when exercising a human act that normatively respected the principles that politics subsumed from ethics. The political subject is normatively aware of practicing, within the limitations of the human condition, an act of “claiming” justice, honesty, in coherence with the normative principles that he claims to defend and practice”[xii].

Thus, using Dussel’s definition, we can consider the Haitians’ act of rebellion an interpellation, a request for a “political claim for justice” based precisely on universal regulative principles, addressed not only to French landowners, but to all humanity, because a single act of liberation, that is, of passage from possibility to actual, free and equal reality, is a common and universal act of liberation.

Action for the liberation of African slaves in Haiti demonstrates that universal regulative principles and the claim that they become normative principles of politics are critical instruments against the dominant system. The victims of slavery demanded the realization of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity, because from these universal regulative principles they could criticize the existing slave system.

The knowledge of enslaved Africans in Haiti that those principles were stated reinforced their claim to justice. Liberation from slavery was historically the first step in claiming justice for all mankind. I refer to the women's liberation movement, which was born after the liberation of slavery. The experience of liberation from slavery became the weapon of women's movements to criticize the sexist system of exclusion. In this case, too, it was asked that universal regulative principles become normative principles of policy.

*Antonino Infranca He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Author, among other books, of Work, individual, history – the concept of work in Lukács (boitempo).

Translation: Juliana Hass.


[I] I am referring to what Enrique Dussel states in relation to the regulative principles of Kantian origin (cf. E. Dussel, Liberation ethics, Madrid, Trotta, 1998, p. 565). Dussel speaks of a “regulative idea”, I prefer to use the term “regulative principles”, because they are the initial and fundamental moments, whereas the idea, only in the Platonic sense, can be used as a principle and I do not want, in any way, to run the risk of being confused with an idealist of the Platonic type, which would be a way of trivializing a discourse that is certainly not banal.

[ii] I. Kant, Fondazione della metafisica I gave custom, tr. it. P. Chiodi, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 1980, p. 49.

[iii] See my text Apocalypse. L'inizio e la fine della modernità, Trieste Asterios, 2020.

[iv] E. Dussel, Read about politics, tr. it. A. Infranca, Asterios, Trieste, 2009, p. 95.

[v] Remember that Montesquieu was in favor of slavery.

[vi] Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel and Haiti. Schiavi, philosophi e piantagioni, tr. it. F. Francis, Verona, Ombre cut, 2023, p. 11.

[vii] Same, pp. 9-10.

[viii] Ditto, p. 22.

[ix] In reality, French is spoken by a small minority of the population, as the most widespread language is Haitian Creole, a language born from French and the languages ​​of African slaves. The French language has always been considered by French rulers as an instrument for the formation of French nationality. Today it is considered the official language in 32 states and spoken by around 270 million human beings, but in reality, native French speakers number 80 million. So that from the fifth most widespread language in the world, it drops to 17th place among mother languages. To understand this situation well, let's compare French with Spanish. The Spanish language is spoken by 560 million human beings and that number makes it the second mother language in the world, after Chinese, but more than English (430 million).

[X] F. Hinkelhammert, The curse that weighs on the law: The roots of critical thinking in Pablo de Tarso, Arlekín, San José de Costarica, 2010, p. 298.

[xi]A. Quijano, “Raza, etnia y nación en Mariátegui: open questions”, in José Carlos Mariátegui and Europe. The other face of discovery, the cure diR. Forgues, Lima, Amauta, 1991, p. 179.

[xii]E. Dussel, “Critical-political pretension of justice”, in Liberation policy, vol. III, the cure di E. Dussel, Madrid, Trotta, 2022, pp. 707-708.

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