Making a case for German Enlightenment thinkers as agents in the history of emancipation – Fellows’ seminar by Martin Ruehl

20 May 2019

“For millennia, probably since the first settled agricultural societies, forms of bond-servitude were considered natural, God-given, or at any rate unobjectionable. Then, towards the end of the eighteenth century, something extraordinary happened: small, but well-connected groups of evangelical Christians in Britain and the United States launched an impassioned campaign against slavery – racial slavery in particular – that rapidly delegitimised and, over the next 100 years, terminated the ‘peculiar institution’. Or so the standard accounts of abolition tell us,” said Martin Ruehl of the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge. “My aim is to challenge this narrative and to make a case for the German Enlightenment as an agent in the history of emancipation. Even though the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire were barely involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, philosophers such as Kant and Herder actively participated in the anti-slavery discourse. Indeed, they frequently took positions more radical than those of celebrated abolitionists like Condorcet and Thomas Paine.”

Ruehl - 1 (1)
 STIAS fellow Martin Ruehl during his seminar presentation on 7 May 2019

“Specifically I believe that these two thinkers made two important contributions – namely the fusion of anti-slavery and anti-colonial thinking, which is absent from British and French thinking, and the rejection of slavery based on the universal system of rights and values.”

Ruehl’s project is looking at the intellectual history of unfree labour in Germany from the 1700s and part of this involves analysing how philosophers, writers and other intellectuals affirmed or challenged forms of serfdom and slavery from the Age of Enlightenment up to the Third Reich. It forms part of the STIAS ‘Being Human Today’ theme.

“I’m also eager to counter the exclusive focus on American and British abolitionists,’ he added. “To many, ending slavery was seen as an achievement of the British Empire.  This is a real form of imperial amnesia. The reality is that Britain continued to profit from the slave trade long after abolition.”

An unfinished story

“There are still up to 40 million people in some form of slavery today. Man’s inhumanity to man is the most important problem of history.  Slavery is the most extreme form of oppression, dehumanisation, of viewing people as less human – the most extreme form of unfree labour.”

“We need a longue durée viewpoint,” he added. “It has been a long drawn out but still unfinished process.”

He pointed out that although the eighteenth century was the Age of Enlightenment it was also the heyday of the trans-Atlantic slave trade when over six million slaves were transported from Africa.

“I believe the extent of and engagement with African slavery led to a redefinition – a turning point. African slavery was the worst manifestation of coercive labour. It revealed the blind spots leading to an emergence of the awareness of injustice, a rethinking of forms of oppression and more understanding of the universal potential of conceptions of freedom, rights and justice.”

“Within a period of 150 years what was not objectionable became objectionable,” he continued.

“Most of the beacons in the anti-slavery movement were Christian thinkers – who added an impassioned, zealous renunciation. Christian rejection of slavery was about seeing slave owners as sinners. However, at the same time, imperialism was driven to some extent by a civilising mission and the involvement of Christians was not just a philanthropic endeavour – many justifications for slavery are biblical.”

He pointed to an important transition between the early and late Enlightenment period from protecting the master’s/owner’s rights to protecting individual rights. In the early period two of the main ideas were that of the sacrosanct nature of property, which included people, and that of honouring contractual agreements – many slaves chose slavery over death after war but were seen as having agreed contractually to be slaves.

“I’m particularly interested, however, in the scholarship of Enlightenment and the critical literature of the anti-slavery movement. I’m interested in understanding how the problem was negotiated in the German Enlightenment and who spoke up against slavery.”

“There were undoubtedly lively debates about abolition, in general, reflected in an upward spike in German books, letters, poems, plays and legal documents addressing the subject.”

Ruehl has looked specifically at the role of Herder and Kant in the development of these ideas.

“Johann Gottfried Herder (philosopher, theologian, poet and literary critic) saw slavery and colonialism as inseparable which was in opposition to many who endorsed the colonial project but opposed slavery. He highlighted the hypocrisy of free labour and free trade. He was an outspoken critic of injustices who saw slavery as theft and slave owners as robbers of men.”

“He rejected the justification of slavery as a European, Christian civilising mission. He rejected the idea of a global standard of cultural superiority and believed no nation should impose its values on another. He saw slavery as subjective exploitation, part and parcel of colonialism, its injustices radicalised by colonialism, and he rejected both.”

“By contrast, philosopher Immanuel Kant came not from a philanthropic but from a rights-based approach,” said Ruehl.

“He was a dubious champion of anti-slavery – much of his earlier writings had been openly racist. He approached the issue from a cold hearted, legalistic basis – centred around inviolable, non-transferable rights. He believed rights lie in every human creature, that beings cannot have duties without rights, and no one has the right to take people or lands. He condemned the slave trade for its violation of these rights. In his view slavery was impossible and self-contradictory because a rational being cannot be an object – so slavery is therefore null and void.”

“Kant focused on the notion of universal rights, global connectedness and global injustice – that a violation in one place is felt throughout the world.”

“He believed the solution was not more irrationalism but more reason.”

Ruehl pointed out that the change in Kant’s thinking in this period was possibly affected by the French Revolution as well as by the Haiti Revolution initiated by slaves in 1791 and often described as the most successful slave rebellion which by 1803 had succeeded in ending slavery and French control.

In discussion, Ruehl agreed that there are many confounding factors involved in the abolition movement including the voices of the slaves themselves, the growth of feminism, as well as global power changes and the economics of slavery.

“All of these are hugely important,” he said, “but I am particularly interested in the role of German thinkers.”

“I see it as a starting point to understanding how serfdom was abolished in the German states and the general social question of what labour means in the German context. I’m interested in exploring how the abolitionist movement affected thinking around class – in many cases the lot of the working classes was as bad as slaves – so how abolitionism triggers overall thinking around social justice and human rights in this period and beyond.”

“Then of course, how all of this influences the rise of aggressive nationalism in Germany from the 1880s onwards; the uptake of Nietzsche who challenged the inalienable right to freedom and, to some extent, defended slavery; as well as the role of Darwinian ideas including ideas of master race – the many, many transformations that occurred in Germany before the war and genocide.”

“My interest is in understanding ideas as drivers of historical change,” he said.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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