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New Left Review 52, July-August 2008


Robin Blackburn on Louis Sala-Molins, Dark Side of the Light. Polemical assault on the French Enlightenment’s record on slavery—Condorcet’s contradictions, Diderot’s compromises, Montesquieu’s motivations.

ROBIN BLACKBURN

THE PHILOSOPHER AND HIS BLACKS

The origins and nature of anti-slavery are important stakes in rival attempts to appropriate abolitionism’s perceived ‘moral capital’. The British celebration of last year’s bicentenary of the 1807 suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, Mitterrand’s invocation of French Revolutionary emancipation in 1989 and, no doubt, the claims that will be made for Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, in 2009—the bicentennial of his birth—are all cases in point. These commemorations are instructively selective: 2007 was also the bicentenary of the us suppression of its Atlantic slave trade, but this passed almost without mention (the 1607 founding of Jamestown was instead celebrated at an event which brought together the British Queen and the us president). The British government was content to commemorate slave-trade suppression but ignored the tercentenary of the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England—a touchy subject, given the nationalist administration in Edinburgh. Haiti’s own plans to celebrate the Republic’s bicentenary in 2004 were, of course, rudely terminated when us and French special forces deposed the country’s president.

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