Immanuel Kant – Racist and Colonialist?
V. A. Chaly 
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 18th 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 particularlism 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.
Prof. Dr Vadim A. Chaly, Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University (IKBFU), Kaliningrad, Russian Federation.
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
 Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University,
14 Aleksandra Nevskogo Street, Kaliningrad, 236016, Russia.
© Chaly V.A., 2020