Hegel mentioned Haiti exactly once, as far as we know, in a life not marked by taciturnity; but it was a great idea to put the two together. The pairing here makes for a stirring polemic. Buck-Morss insists that Hegel knew the Haitian Revolution for what it was, a profoundly modern event on the cutting edge of world history; that the Revolution played a central role in his articulation of the master–slave dialectic; and, finally, that there is a lesson to be learnt from this regarding the ‘unapologetically humanist project’ she thinks politically necessary for our present moment. She is right that Hegel knew about Haiti, but she is wrong about the master–slave dialectic. Her appeal to some syncretic universalism, meanwhile, is a matter of opinion. I myself remain unconvinced. To reduce the opus to a few propositions, however, is to misrepresent it. There are lots of other allusive and elusive arguments, a series of points on a graph, or constellation of flashes in the sky, connected by the ‘pathways’ that are meant to explain what’s going on.

The form itself is important: two main essays, of which the second, ‘Universal History’, is an expansive commentary on the first, ‘Hegel and Haiti’; both being framed by introductions which in turn constitute self-reflective commentaries, chiefly on the first intervention. Written in the self-professed spirit of a fragmentary philosophical and political history, ‘Hegel and Haiti’ itself is conceived as a ‘mystery story’, in which illustrations provide the clues. Summary is hard. This is a book that advertises its adventurousness. It must be held to that standard.

‘Hegel and Haiti’ first appeared in 2001 as a controversial article in Critical Inquiry and is reproduced virtually as was. Buck-Morss now describes it, a bit extravagantly, as ‘something of an intellectual event’. The world(s) of Hegel scholarship paid scant attention but others certainly found the argument an eye-opener; not least because it restored the Haitian Revolution to its rightful place among the monumental transformations of its epoch, having been largely ignored in standard Eurocentric accounts. Buck-Morss’s linking it to Hegel, supreme philosopher of the world-historical, brought the point home with the greatest polemical verve and power. One must begin, therefore, with that connexion. Hegel’s concern with Haiti, obscured but really quite obvious in her view, provides the central drama of the proceedings. Lots of people have of course thought about the Haitian Revolution, as well as slavery, in Hegelian terms. It has been hard, indeed, to think of slavery in any other way, as it has been hard to think of identity and difference outside of that dialectic, certainly until Gilles Deleuze’s frontal assault on the dialectic itself in the name of (Nietzschean) frontal assault. In the Caribbean context, specifically the Francophone one, there is a distinguished lineage of engagement with Hegel going back at least to Aimé Césaire in the early 1940s. We are always already in Hegel, as the staunchly anti-Hegelian Michel Foucault once implied. What’s new in Buck-Morss’s account, then, is not that one might profitably read the Haitian master–slave relationship in Hegelian terms but that Hegel himself read that relation in Haitian terms, in his first great publication, the Phenomenology of Spirit (or Mind if you prefer) in 1807.

To have Hegel not only reading Haitian events but drawing precise philosophical conclusions from them is not an easy proposition, since he said nothing about them until 1830, the year before his death, when he commended the Haitians for having created a real, legal state and a Christian one at that. So on this matter, Buck-Morss needs to present a more sustained argument than on any other. It is not enough to be suggestive; what is at issue in her account overall is the relation, the connexion, not the finer points of Hegelian philosophy or the particularities of Haitian history. This is a prudent but problematic move. Lifetimes have been spent on Hegel (often productively); there is a library and a half about the master–slave dialectic alone. What Buck-Morss wants to establish is that the form and content of that dialectic is derived from Haiti. She tends, accordingly, to be more precise about Hegel than about Haitian events, which she typically presents in extended footnotes, the genre of the ever-present caveat. She knows the Revolution is no single event and that the historiography is fraught with controversies and difficult matters. No synopsis or ‘take’ is provided.

The empirical argument is set up by means of a gloss on David Brion Davis’s epochal work from the 1960s and 70s: the massive conceptual presence of ‘slavery’ in the Enlightenment, as the antithesis of ‘freedom’ on the part of the properly autonomous, free-willing Self, is contrasted with the astonishing lack of interest in actually existing slavery; a supreme case of ideological misrecognition, so to speak, which fails egregiously to see that the institution of slavery was integral to the whole operation of ‘Europe’, that indeed it was an economic condition of possibility for the very emergence of the enlightened bourgeoisie itself. In the French Revolution this paradox (is it a paradox?) came to its sharpest possible expression, courtesy of the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue that broke out in August 1791. Saint-Domingue, on the eve of the Revolution in 1789, was less the jewel in the crown than an enormous chunk of the bank accounts of the expansive French bourgeoisie. The island was the supreme envy of every rapacious maritime entrepreneur in Europe: by far the greatest money-machine in the colonial world. Five hundred thousand slaves, a majority born in Africa and imported at accelerating pace in the 1780s, produced half of all the sugar and coffee consumed in Europe and the Americas. Mercantilist policies ensured that the metropolitan French made enormous profits in the re-exporting business. Upwards of a million people in France probably depended for their wherewithal on the colony, but the trade was also strategic, the surpluses underwriting naval expansion. It made some sense for France to concede its Canadian possessions in the 1760s to secure Saint-Domingue and the smaller colonies in the Caribbean. It was this prized possession, then, that was lost after an exceedingly bloody war, or series of wars, beginning in 1791 and ending with the declaration of independence on 1 January 1804, when Saint-Domingue was renamed Haiti/Hayti in accordance with an ancient Amerindian designation.

The moment of Haitian independence—the first and, as it turned out, the only politically successful slave revolt in the New World—occurred when Hegel was at Jena, thinking about reciprocity and the struggle for recognition within the conventional context of Smithian property, exchange and the division of labour. What interests Buck-Morss here is the decisive ways in which the problem of recognition escalates in Hegel, as it were, from the Smithian frame into a potentially lethal struggle between master and slave; revolving, indeed, around the stark contrast between ‘liberty or death’ much beloved by Western revolutionary liberals. This is what takes place in Haiti, as the astounding end product of a struggle that saw, in essence, the defeat of three of the most eminent European powers—Spain, Britain and France. There is, then, a certain correspondence between Hegel’s reconceptualized struggle for recognition and the unfolding Haitian events, grasped as a successful struggle to the death in the name of liberty.

Hegel was an ardent reader of news about current events and always considered thought, Philosophy, in some essential way a condensation of the present. Given that Haiti was news, Hegel cannot not have paid attention to it; once we realize that, the Phenomenology must be read in a new way. Exhibit A in Buck-Morss’s account is Minerva, a German journal of public affairs which Hegel read. Politically sympathetic to the Girondists in France, it happened to take an early interest in Saint-Domingue. Its very first issue in 1792 contained a relatively informed article about the uprising; the journal returned to the subject consistently and incisively from late 1804 onwards, a period which thus coincides with the genesis of the Phenomenology. (Readers may wish to brush up on their German Frakturschrift by examining this for themselves, as Minerva is now conveniently online in facsimile.) Once again, ‘the eyes of the world are now directed towards St. Domingo’, the publication noted, following the 1804 Declaration of Independence; adding, condescendingly, that one could not call this agglomeration of resident blacks a real republic. That verdict introduced what was actually a vicious propaganda tract, originally ordered up by Napoleon himself. The tone changed markedly a year later when Minerva published an excerpt from Marcus Rainsford’s highly flattering portrait—C. L. R. James called it a hagiography—of Toussaint Louverture, the pre-eminent black leader. ‘The Negroes’, Minerva’s editor now said, ‘appear here in a very different light’ and Toussaint Louverture is ‘an admirable, really great man’ whose sad fate was most regrettable. Essentially, the point was that whereas the French themselves had regressed into barbarism and terror, Toussaint’s regime indicated moderation, civility and humanity. With less enthusiasm, Minerva also published documents and analyses pertaining to Toussaint’s successor, the rather more drastic and brutal Jean-Jacques Dessalines.