Has Universality Ever Been Abstract? An FAQ


What is abstract universality?

The idea that universal man, the subject of the declarations of the rights of man and citizen, is an abstraction that is transhistorically valid for all people, and refers to a concept of man, even human nature, but not to concrete individuals invested with socio-historical particularities.

Is this true or false?

It’s both true and false.

True, because the declarations of 1789 and 1793 put forth a dogma: the unity of human nature. In order to postulate this unity and transform it into an invariant, an abstraction needs to be created, which can incorporate all men who demand their rights as proposed under these declarations.

It’s false, however, for several reasons.

The first is that there have actually been multiple declarations: therefore, their historical context, and revisability in light of political discretions, cannot be ignored. They are political and cultural – and hence not natural – objects, even if the idea of natural right is just as valid as it was in the 18th century. This natural right only exists if it is culturally declared.

The second reason is that in 1793, there was an awareness that constitutions and their normative principles cannot be viewed as eternal. Article 28 of the 1793 Declaration: “A people has always the right to review, to reform, and to alter its constitution. One generation cannot subject to its law the future generations.”

The final reason is that the universal is not understood as an abstraction, but as a concrete and effective instrument: a very real war machine to include very concrete individuals who are themselves already guaranteed rights in the social sphere.

Article 1 of the Declaration of 1789: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.” This was a threat to the caste system of the ancien régime, a society of order where one is born either noble or non-noble, granted privileges or granted the bare right to live and subsist. It is enough to remember the outburst from Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro:

Because you are a great lord, you think you are a great genius! … Nobility, wealth, rank, position … they all make you feel so proud! What have you done to deserve so much? You went to the trouble of being born—nothing more! As for the resta rather ordinary man! And as for me, zounds! Lost among the obscure masses, I have had to use more knowledge and be more calculating just to survive than all the rulers of Spain have needed over the last hundred years!

Social utility completes the picture, as there were accusations that the nobles could no longer wage a defensive war, and served no purpose! They did not belong to the common good.

But this 1st article goes further, because it questioned the slavery then prevailing in the colonies, where men could be born as slaves — this article was directed against this logic that turned men into commodities. There had been no shortage of criticisms of slavery in the 18th century; in an article on the “Slave Trade” in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopedia, L’Abbé Jaucourt thoroughly explained that merchants of human flesh could not be pardoned:

The slave trade is the purchase of Negroes made by Europeans on the coasts of Africa, who then employ these unfortunate men as slaves in their colonies. This purchase of Negroes to reduce them into slavery is a negotiation that violates all religion, morals, natural law, and human rights…Men and their freedom are not objects of commerce; they can be neither sold, nor purchased, nor bought at any price. Thus, a man must blame only himself if his slave escapes. He paid money for illicit merchandise, even though all laws of humanity and equity forbid him to do so.

Olympe de Gouges wrote about marronage, too; Robespierre and Grégoire – from 1789 onwards – consistently and tirelessly defended the rights of free men of color and the enslaved. Mirabeau, in his “Discours sur la traite des Noirs,” argued for their rights in the following terms:

How can we withhold from distant peoples this revolution that is their glory? Does not the proclamation of the rights of man and citizen hold for every part of the globe? If this more or less far-reaching effect of the revolution is inevitable, will the multitude of slaves remain only immobile witnesses, hapless, resigned victims of the exclusive privilege of liberty? Will they want to conquer it or be provided with it? Will we succeed in shielding them from the spectacle, thus depriving them of reason and reflection like we have deprived them of their liberty? Would it be enough for the whites to maintain the regime that you have destroyed? Or would they be confined to making an insolent parody? Would they transform the uses and duties of free men into religious mystery? Would they reserve the practice of freedom to certain places and certain days? No…beginning from this moment, black people must be prepared to possess a good that no man can take from his fellow man, and is the universal domain of humanity.

The royalists and the colonial lobby were not mistaken or fooled. They hoped to render this declaration, which had become their nightmare, negligible. As whites, they were seeking representation in the Constituent Assembly, and looking to prevent free men of color from gaining access to this constituent power. Rivarol railed against the declaration in these terms:

The nègres in our colonies and the servants in our houses could chase us from our inheritance, with the Declaration of Rights in hand. How can an assembly of legislators pretend to ignore that the law of nature exists alongside property…The National Assembly does not want to remember that law is the art of levelling natural inequalities.

So while this universal could seem abstract, it is actually a concrete tool, opening up the struggle against slavery by effectively possessing a norm that puts the latter into crisis, allowing for it to be debated within political and social space.

The same royalists no longer supported the social mobility that the deracialization of nobles and non-nobles could produce within French society. A society of order in the strict sense: without disorder, each in their own place and with the certainty that this place is hereditary and immutable. But this way of placing social roles outside of time is still abstract – the future is either an imaginary or an abstraction.

But is this tool valuable to those who are in the minority, those who are exploited, even alienated from obtaining these rights?

No, of course, rights are only effective if they are defended and fought for through intense political struggles.

Even during the Revolution, it took five years to abolish slavery. On one side there were those who wanted to keep the rights of citizen and man for whites in the metropole, while abandoning slaves to their sad fate; and on the other side, those other subjects who demanded abolition so that the actual state of positive rights would conform to the norms of natural rights. It is clear, however, that the 1789 Declaration of rights does not merely pronounce a single humanity; it asserts the right of resistance against oppression, by basing it upon the principle of reciprocal liberty or freedom. Here again, the assumption of a single humanity allows for the foundation of this right. In his reasoned exposition of the rights of man, which precedes the writing of the actual text, Sieyès argues:

Since all men possess an equal right that is derived from the same source, it follows that…the right of each man must be respected by the right of every other man, that this right and this duty are unable not to be reciprocal.

Thus, the right of the weak over the strong is identical to that of the strong over the weak. When the strong succeeds in oppressing the weak, he produces an effect without producing an obligation. Far from imposing a new duty upon the weak, he revives in him the natural and eternal duty of resisting oppression.

Thus it is an eternal truth that cannot be too often repeated: the act by which the strong subjugates the weak can never become a right; on the other hand, the act by which the weak liberates himself from the domination of the strong is always a right, always an imperious obligation that he owes to himself. 1

This reciprocal and anti-tyrannical conception of right stems from a primordial recognition of common humanity – that all beings possess sensibility, reason, and speech. The violence of right is not just wanton violence, or the violence that would force one into a state of slavery, but a violence that enables one to break away from slavery.

But for whom is this abstract-concrete universal a problem, then?

Here again, there’s nothing surprising, at least initially.

Those who accused the French revolutionaries of being abstract – and thus unfeeling – are the same ones who defended the colonial lobby and the royalists, i.e., the anti-lumières: Edmund Burke in 1790, then Joseph de Maistre, then Louis de Bonald. They did not subscribe to the idea that there could be favorable sentiments towards this new equality or reciprocal liberty. They invented a revolution that was unambiguously cold and devoid of emotions.

With the Revolution, Burke argues in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, for the first time “[n]othing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth,” since he denies the existence of what the sensualists, and numerous revolutionaries following them, termed “sensual reason [raison sensible].” Burke creates a motif, one that opposes that the cold abstraction of the revolution to the warmth of religion and aristocratic or noble heredity. In particular, he rejects seeing human liberty as resulting from the use of reason, instead holding that human beings are beings of passion, who must therefore rely on God. For Burke, humanity’s historical development is governed by divine providence, continually deployed through tradition according to hereditary rules. The French Revolution, then, is both a blasphemy against, and a negation of, the natural laws of history, in the name of the abstractions of the “sophisters, economists, and calculators.” Burke thus affirmed, if we may paraphrase him, that “the spirit of the Church and the chivalrous spirit of fealty are trampled over” by a revolution considered to be a return to barbarism. But if the anti-esclavagistes were sensualists, basing their norms on the sensible intuitions of a common humanity, political equality, and equitable justice, those who did not want to bring change to the colonies were whites who effectively called themselves revolutionaries, turning the situation into a parody decried by Mirabeau. They were not the only royalists to reject the intuitions of equality or proto-Aristotelian values; there were those who upheld unlimited economic freedom, itself in contradiction with the reciprocity of right. They preferred the realpolitik of interests against a politics based on principles of justice.

The revolutionary period is certainly not exempt from contradictions. There were some who used the declarations of the potential power of right to justify conquering the world by force, shamelessly inverting the meaning of those declarations.

So, again, this universal is not abstract. It becomes an alibi, a justification for framing France as a superior nation, capable of conquering the world and then policing it. Many revolutionary actors – Grégoire, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Billaud-Varenne – fervently repudiated this logic of conquest. Robespierre, for example, will declare that “He who oppresses a single nation is the enemy of all,” and that “no one loves armed missionaries” – but the damage is done. The interference of history, it could be said, will never end.

How did these heartless men deal with the declarations?

They got rid of them!

From 1795-1799, there were no more Declarations of the Rights of Man within a logic of equality, and then none until 1948. Now there was a pure, positive right, one that no longer contained universal norms – not only was there a violent attempt to re-establish slavery in 1801, but also the passing of legislation sanctioning political, civil, and juridical inequality in the colonial world until 1945, as well as a specific law against Jews in 1940. When the unity of mankind and equality in right is no longer no longer openly declared, terrible things result for minority and oppressed groups. In this case, the law acts as a barrier instead of liberating them from their condition. This is a fact. The forgetting and betrayal of Articles 1 and 2 of the 1789 Declaration produced horrors.

How was it that no one asked for these rights before 1945?

Some did call for or demand them, but with Marx seeing formal rights as only fragile ideals, they became discredited on the side of the Left. There are echoes of Burke in The Communist Manifesto, in which Marx reduces the French Revolution to a bourgeois revolution; and, like Burke, obscures the role of revolutionary sensualism:

The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part. The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

However, no rentier took part in storming the Bastille!

As a result, for a long time, the power of this instrument has been played down or denied, and with it, the idea of a single humanity, including the republican tradition of the Third Republic, which was revived under an unequal leadership, ignored anti-colonial and anti-slavery activists, and propounded a civilizing mission, when it excised all references to any version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in its constitutional texts! Certainly, there are no longer slaves, but there are forms of forced labor…

But since the French Revolution, haven’t these Declarations, and this abstract universality, only been used to consolidate colonial rule?

No, colonized people have mobilized to demand their rights; in 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared:

“All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America m 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free. The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Moreover, the notion of the Third World comes from the notion of the Third Estate, and the will of the excluded to have a stake in politics.

And today?

Today, we are confronted with two major problems.

A majority of the Left has turned its back on the universal, without wanting to know what potentialities it could have for struggle. Some scholars, like Eugen Weber in his 1976 work Peasants into Frenchmen, writing on 19th century France, disqualify the French Revolution. He evokes Frantz Fanon in discussing the hexagon as a colonial empire, and views the French Revolution as the origin for all its evils. Postcolonial studies, as a discipline, often neglects to take the political conflictuality between revolutionaries during the revolutionary period into account. We are still caught within the very problematic heritage of the Third Republic, and we haven’t really looked to move past it. Étienne Balibar has argued that French racism is tied to “the idea that the culture of the ‘land of the Rights of Man’ has been entrusted with a universal mission to educate the human race” – a far cry from Robespierre’s remarks about armed missionaries. 2

Serious consideration of the revolutionary literature and experience, and thus the question of political commitment, could stimulate discussion around identifying the contradiction between these political principles and colonial policies. Reanimating the revolutionary experience – readings its texts, recovering its language – is never a futile endeavor. The declarations of independence were not made against this language or vocabulary, but against that of Vichy. At least at first, Mamadiou Diouf upheld this universalist horizon:

The discourses of the colonized, evoking humanist discourses anchored in the French Revolution, forced the colonizers to explore their buried, concealed identities. On the other hand, the colonized could neither systematically appropriate nor reject Western values precisely because of the obscene discrepancy between these professed values and the monstrousness of the colonial system. 3

This discourse was one of possible alliances between all those who possessed the will to take control of the cruelty, dehumanization, and perversion of right. Whether they were Western or not, the revolutionary language or vocabulary of the universal was not repudiated, as it was recognized as having a triple importance: for the process of decolonization; for the rejection of the Vichy regime, anti-revolutionary by definition; and for what Sartre and Aimé Césaire called the moral “salvation” of Europe through decolonization. 4

But today the question of the universal is facing a setback, because of the second major problem: it is the Right that makes appeals to the universal, perverting it anew by using it to erect an impenetrable barrier between different cultural groups. They employ the Enlightenment for purposes of exclusion rather than inclusion, and cast aside the possibility of a subjectivization or even an exemplarity. They utilize the Enlightenment against its own project: the escape of men from their self-incurred tutelage within an equality of intelligences, through the use of sensual reason.

Political conflictualities are foreclosed, in lieu of a defense of the West against the East. However, what’s needed is a defense of the freedom of conscious action, and the freedom of thought to rediscover a common space. Of course, this does not resolve social inequalities, because politics is not exhausted by right, and universality comprises both right and the utopian horizon. Between the two lies the gritty reality of struggles.

This is a slightly edited version of an article that originally appeared in Vacarme.

-Translated by Patrick King


1 Emmanuel Sieyes, “Reasoned Exposition of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” in The Essential Political Writings (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 118-134, 121.
2 Étienne Balibar, “Is There aNeo-Racism’?,” trans. Chris Turner, in Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991), 17-28, 24.
3 Mamadou Diouf, “Les études postcoloniales à l’épreuve des traditions intellectuelles et des banlieues françaises,” Contretemps 16 (January 2006), 21-34, 24.
4 See Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 78.

Author of the article

is a historian and researcher with TRAM, transformations radicales des mondes contemporains. Among other works, she is the author of In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution.