A Note from Bob Avakian: On Montesquieu, Slavery and the U.S. Constitution

Revolution #037, March 5, 2006, posted at revcom.us

Recently, Revolution ran an excerpt from a pamphlet I wrote, which was originally published in 1987, U.S. Constitution: An Exploiters' Vision of Freedom. In that excerpt, there is a quote from De L'Esprit Des Lois (or, in English, "The Spirit of the Laws") by Charles Montesquieu, an 18th–century French philosopher, who was one of the sources of inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, and in particular the theory of the separation of powers that is incorporated in that Constitution. The quote from this work of Montesquieu's, which was published in 1748, is one in which he recites an extreme and grotesquely racist justification for "the enslavement of the Negroes." In relation to this, it is not infrequently argued that Montesquieu was being ironic here, and deliberately overstating this argument, in order to, in effect, polemicize against the enslavement of African people, and that in general Montesquieu's writings express opposition to slavery. But the reality is not so simple as this, nor does this reflect what Montesquieu was essentially seeking to do in this part of "The Spirit of the Laws." It can be said that in "The Spirit of the Laws" Montesquieu's position is one of general opposition to slavery, and he indicates that slavery is not appropriate in countries like France; but, at the same time, he speaks to various circumstances in which he believes slavery can be justified or reasonable. For example, he argues that in the parts of the world, in particular the southern regions, where the climate is warmer, this climate makes people lazy (indolent), and slavery may be justified in order to get them to work (and he argues that in a despotic country, where people's political rights are already repressed, slavery may not be worse for people in that condition).

This, and the general discussion of slavery that makes up this part (book 15) of "The Spirit of the Laws," is included in a broader discussion by Montesquieu on the nature of different societies and governments in different countries and parts of the world (this is found not only in book 15 but also books 14 and 16 of "The Spirit of the Laws") in which Montesquieu argues that geography and in particular climate plays a big part in determining the nature of different peoples and the character of their society and governing system. And it is important to understand that, although in this discussion Montesquieu makes logical refutation of certain arguments, including certain defenses of slavery, this is not a polemic for or against slavery, or other forms of government, and its character is not that of moral argumentation, so much as it is an attempt to explain why various practices, and various forms of society and government, have existed (and in some cases continue to exist) in various places.

Another way to put this is that what Montesquieu is doing, in these parts of "The Spirit of the Laws" (and generally in this work), is attempting to make a kind of materialist analysis of these phenomena, including slavery in many places where it has existed--although it must be emphasized that this is not a thoroughly scientific, dialectical materialism but instead a rather crude and vulgar materialism which is marked, and marred, by a considerable amount of determinism: it is a kind of mechanical materialism that argues for a direct and straight-line (linear) connection between things like geography and climate and the character of society and government. It is a kind of materialism that does not adequately and accurately characterize the real motive forces in the development of human society, and in fact this kind of vulgar materialism has often been used to justify various forms of oppression, including colonial and imperialist domination. While we can, and should, recognize that, in the circumstances and time in which he wrote--about 250 years ago--there are aspects of what Montesquieu was seeking to do that were new and represented a break with the suffocating and obfuscating feudal outlook and conventions, it is very important to understand how Montesquieu's outlook and method were marked, and limited, by the social, and international, relations of which they were ultimately an expression: relations in which one part of society, and of the world, dominates and exploits others. And that is the basic point that was being emphasized in relation to Montesquieu and the U.S. Constitution, in the pamphlet U.S. Constitution: An Exploiters' Vision of Freedom.

With regard to the specific passage that was cited in U.S. Constitution: An Exploiters' Vision of Freedom, "on the enslavement of the Negroes," there is, in fact, some reason to accept that Montesquieu does not actually agree with the justification for this enslavement that he summarizes, and that he is actually subjecting this kind of justification to some ironic and satirical treatment. A reasonable interpretation of Montesquieu's arguments, as he goes on in this part of "The Spirit of the Laws" (book 15), is that this kind of argument, about the non-human character of the Negroes, is not a valid argument, not one that actually justifies this enslavement. But then he does go on to explore the question of what might actually be reasonable justifications, in certain circumstances, for slavery; and, as spoken to above, he finds such justifications in situations such as those where there is a despotic government, or where--as he concludes, through an application of vulgar and determinist materialism--the warm climate makes people lazy and unwilling, on their own initiative, to work.

Thus, in looking into and reflecting on this further, I would say that, while it is important to understand the complexity and nuance of what Montesquieu writes here--and it can be said that the way in which I cited Montesquieu in writing this pamphlet on the U.S. Constitution does not really or fully do that--it is not the case that what Montesquieu was doing here was actually making a case against the enslavement of the Negroes, or against slavery in general. Once again, it is important to keep in mind the fact that, although he was opposed to slavery on general principle, and declared that it was a good thing that it had been eliminated in his home country, France, and more generally in Europe, Montesquieu did not think slavery was wrong, or without justification, in all circumstances. And it also seems that Montesquieu did not hesitate to invest in companies involved in the slave trade. In this, there is a parallel with John Locke, the English philosopher and political theorist, who, as I pointed out in this same pamphlet ( U.S. Constitution: An Exploiters' Vision of Freedom), was also a major influence in the conception of the U.S. Constitution. As I wrote in Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That? (p. 29):

"In sum, the society of which Locke was a theoretical exponent, as well as a practical political partisan, was a society based on wage-slavery and capitalist exploitation. And it is not surprising that, while he was opposed to slavery in England itself, he not only defended the institution of slavery, under certain circumstances, in the Second Treatise, but turned a not insignificant profit himself in the slave trade and helped to draw up the charter for a government headed by a slave-owning aristocracy in one of the American colonies. For as Marx sarcastically summarized: ‘The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.’"

Send us your comments.