Has Universality Ever Been Abstract? An FAQ

Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man_and_of_the_Citizen_in_1789

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.