Prof. Dr Vadim A. Chaly, Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University (IKBFU), Kaliningrad, Russian Federation

A murder of an Afro-American detainee by a policeman at the end of May 2020 caused a public outrage in the United States,  which  led  to  a  campaign  against  the  monuments to  historical  figures  whose  reputation,  according  to  the protesters, was marred by racism. Some German publicists, impressed by the campaign, initiated an analogous search for racists among the national thinkers and politicians of the  past.  Suddenly  Kant  emerged  as  a  ‘scapegoat’.  This statement is an attempt to assess such reactions from the perspective of Russia’s experience.

In November 2018 Kant’s monument in Kaliningrad was attacked with pink paint and strewn with leaflets calling Kant an enemy and urging students to protest against the local university’s use of Kant’s name. The global media eagerly absorbed the photos of ‘pink Kant’. By the time the news reached its audience, the monument was restored to its normal condition in which it has since safely remained, but the deed was done and the global public unequivocally condemned the act of vandalism in Russia. The Russian public did so, too, but they differed in opinion whether this was a genuine act of spontaneous vandalism, or a special propaganda operation.

Over a year passed and the situation changed. Now the progressive public are the attackers of the monuments —  of  both  those  in  bronze  and  those printed on paper. In the USA the confederates and Jefferson  fell  victims  to  the  statue-toppling  campaign as did Cervantes, while in the German press Kant is again accused of racism. What brings together the Western critics, blending Kant with confederate generals and colonial moguls, and the Russian paint-throwers proclaiming him an enemy?

First  there  is  ressentiment,  insensitive  to  arguments  and  directed  at  anything  that  scratches against the sore consciousness. It can seem spontaneous and “authentic” when expressed by a crowd toppling  a  monument,  or  mostly  feigned  when adopted by a certain admiral, obliged by his position to transmit a particular complex of emotions from above (Kant would have excused the admiral’s salvo as a private use of what could be called reason). But this is still the same phenomenon described by Nietzsche and Scheler and again rearing its head. It is imaginary revenge for the long lasting injustice, the real elimination of which requires much thought, endurance and calm confidence in one’s rightness. Throwing paint at a monument or its toppling by an emotional crowd is not a solution to the problem, but a symptom of wounded impotence, a recognition of one’s own inability to solve the  problem  by  taking  it  to  court,  creating  one  if necessary.

Second is the unabashed immediacy with which current  standards  and  conventions  are  applied  to historical figures. To the admiral, Kant was a “traitor of his motherland” because in 1758 he assumed Russian  citizenship  instead  of  calling  to  arms  or starting a resistance, and he “grovelled to obtain a chair” in his letter to the Russian empress. The fact that the forms of loyalties and identities, as well as the norms of writing and courtesy, were vastly different in the eighteenth century than they are today did not occur to the speaker, because his performative  act  pursued  agendas  beyond  accuracy  and truth. Although far more nuanced and careful, some of the present attacks on Kant follow the same template. The ideas of the eighteenth century are judged by current standards which themselves were made possible  by  the  development  of  these  very  ideas. This either signifies the neglect of thoroughness in argumentation  or  reveals  that  the  purpose  of  the critics, just as that of the admiral, is not truth but the consolidation and channelling of ressentiment to fuel this or that political agenda, served by this or that newspaper editorial.

To  the  readers  who  do  not  judge  Kant  by  the newspapers  his  racism  is  old  news.  It  has  been discussed in the philosophical literature for decades and  does  indeed  present  a  serious  challenge.  For Kant’s racism is, arguably, not a remnant peripheral prejudice in the worldview of the otherwise brilliant thinker,  but  a  systematic  part  of  his  theoretical statement  regarding  the  natural  development  of humanity. Criticising and overcoming this statement, not  least  from  the  platform  of  Kant’s  own  moral philosophy, is an important theoretical task carrying practical  implications.  But  this  task  has  nothing  to do  with  the  anti-monument  campaign  and  cannot be  accomplished  by  its  means.  On  the  contrary, such  campaigns  inhibit  progress  by  inviting  those infected  with  ressentiment  to  ‘enrich’  the  discussion with  their  methods.  Granted,  some  good  can  be made from bringing at least a portion of the public’s attention to the impressive conceptual work already accomplished by scholars criticising racist tendencies in Kant and the Enlightenment in general. But this is overshadowed by the harm done by the immediate and  simplistic  association  of  Kant  with  racism  in the eyes of the general public. If one of the greatest Western thinkers is little more than a racist who also happened  to  write  “incomprehensible  books”  on other utterly boring subjects, what can save Western philosophy?

Ressentiment  and  primitivism  aside,  there  are conceptual similarities between the two positions that seem  especially  vivid  from  a  Russian  perspective. Russian  philosophy  long  before  critical  theory, postcolonialism  and  decolonization  noticed  the colonial  component  of  Western  Enlightenment.  To some Russian thinkers this constituted the essence of Western modern philosophy as such, and particularly that  of  Kant.  Western  reason,  colonising  Russian being,  subjugating  it  to  an  alien  form,  replacing Russian communitarianism and religiosity (whether real  or  imaginary)  with  the  autonomy  of  rational individualism and the industrial capitalist order, was the target of criticism in Russia at least since the early nineteenth century. The most radical of the Slavophiles went as far as seeing the Russian modern state itself as the chief instrument of Western colonisation. The epoch initiated by Peter the Great, and still ongoing, divided the Russians into a westernised minority of the exploiters, a “comprador elite”, and the exploited people  subsisting  on  the  shrinking  remains  of traditional ways of life. The artificial barrier between the two proved comparable to that between races, and the position of Russian peasant serfs was not much different from that of the African slaves of the West. On such a view, the catch-up modernisation of Russia was in fact double colonisation, external and internal, and  German  philosophy  was  essentially  a  tool  of oppression. Kant provided not only for the Western guns  of  Krupp  but  also  for  the  batons  of  Russian police and the shape of Russian jails. Thus, the pink paint on Kant’s monument was not an accident but an echo of a long standing debate.

The  objections  to  this  view  in  Russia  are  as  old and  will  certainly  sound  familiar.  They  state  that humanity  has  a  common  cosmic  destiny,  that  we are  subject  to  the  same  normative  ideas  and  that these  universal  ideas  acquire  being  only  through the  variety  of  particular  races,  nations  and  human personalities.  However,  such  particularism  has  to rely on universalism to secure the basis for a peaceful proliferation  of  plurality.  And  this  universalism  is drawn  from  the  universality  of  human  reason  and the  capacity  for  compassion  and  love.  Admittedly, Kant  was  not  a  champion  of  love,  but  he  certainly was the champion of reason. The alternative to reason is  obscurantism,  the  intellectual  poverty  of  which forces its adherents to immerse themselves into two states. One is the state of riot, in which resentful and thoughtless mobs crush whatever they have failed to understand and overcome. The Russian revolution of 1917 and the Stalinist reaction offer an example of this path, and Russia’s present is still carrying the burden of  this  historical  choice.  The  other  is  the  state  of acceptance and glorification of whatever negligence one happens to possess and whatever contradictory and bloodthirsty ideology is offered by one’s “own” and “true” state, party, ethnic group, or religious sect. Acceptance and glorification of whatever we already are  and  vehement  criticism  of  enlightenment  and education as attempts at colonisation or oppression of one’s identity doom us to smugness and degradation in self-incurred immaturity. This path was also well-travelled  in  Russian  philosophy  throughout  the nineteenth century.

Russian  experiences  show  that  today’s  Western radicals,  discarding  the  “philosophy  of  dead  white males”  and  its  universalist  reason  from  what  they take to be moral perspectives, foredoom themselves to these conditions of riot and smugness. However, the refined public causes far more surprise when it opts for the policy of appeasement, or is overtaken by empathy towards the protesters, or gets carried away by what it mistakes for a fun game of statue-toppling or  takes  for  a  career  opportunity,  or,  conversely, accepts the guilt and kneels in front of a mob. From an outsider’s point of view this seems like a capitulation to  ressentiment  and  has  nothing  to  do  with  the elimination  of  evil  done  by  racism  and  racists.  On the  contrary,  this  capitulation  to  immaturity  means abandoning one of the very few positions from which it  is  possible  today  to  forcefully  argue,  lawfully demand and practically organise the consistent and thorough eradication of racism. If we wish to climb on the shoulders of giants like Kant and see further than they did, it makes sense not to overthrow them or spray their monuments with bright paint, not to detest or worship them, but try to understand them, paying  due  respect  to  their  discoveries  as  well  as overcoming their errors.

To cite this article:

Chaly,  V.A.,  2020.  Immanuel  Kant  —  Racist  and Colonialist?  Kantian  Journal,  39(2),  pp.  94-98.  http://dx.doi:10.5922/0207-6918-2020-2-5.