Troping Toussaint, Reading Revolution Print

Research in African Literatures, Volume 35, Number 2, Summer 2004, pp. 18-33 (Article)

Published by Indiana University Press
DOI: 10.1353/ral.2004.0050

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What is the meaning of the Haitian Revolution for those who look back upon it in 2004? Does it reveal progress in social justice and universal human rights, or just the opposite? This essay focuses on the problem of progress and interpretation, looking to two interpretations of the Haitian Revolution that have received little or no analysis in this regard. While Aimé Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture has remained virtually unanalyzed in Césaire studies, the first great analysis of the Haitian Revolution, that of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, offers an astonishingly progressive and sympathetic analysis that has yet to be considered in the literature on the revolution.

Looking back across two hundred years of Haitian independence to the revo- lution of 1791–1804, faced with a succession of despotic regimes, systemic economic underdevelopment, and terrifying social injustice, it is difficult to
avoid the pessimistic question of the utility of a revolution that paved the way for these historical (under-) developments. Perhaps, one is tempted to conclude, all those timorous French assimilationists, from Condorcet to l’Abbé Grégoire and others were right: a too rapid freedom granted to slaves “unprepared” for liberty could only lead to chaos.1 Given our knowledge of subsequent Haitian history, the Saint-Domingue revolution comes to stand as the true reference for Hegel’s famous condemnation of Absolute Freedom in the Phenomenology: it was in Saint-Domingue, not Paris, that violence reached unimagined heights of brutality on both sides, that an entire society was literally reduced to ashes in the name of a single imperative: universal emancipation.2 In the face of this categorical imperative, nothing else mattered, not property, not happiness, or any other good. Dessalines and Henri Christophe each willingly torched their luxurious mansions to initiate the campaign of total war that led to the successful outcome of the revolution on 1 January 1804. Nothing was left of the greatest overseas colony the world had known, and this fact of the total nature of this revolution serves as both its glory and misery.

* R ESEARCH IN AFR ICA N LITER ATUR ES, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Summer 2004). © 2004 *

To anyone familiar with Haitian culture, the answer to such pessimism is obvi- ous: for all its economic, political, and juridical dysfunction, Haitian society is one of the most vibrant and dynamic in the world. Its people are extraordinary, having pro- duced one of the most original and vital cultural traditions of the twentieth century in domains including music, religion, literature, and visual art. The response vindicating the absolute destruction of the revolution is obvious and simple the moment one en- counters contemporary Haiti. For all the difficulties of daily survival in Haiti, no am- biguity on the question of the revolution is possible: Haitians are no longer enslaved, and in this their lot is infinitely improved over that of their ancestors of 1789. Because of the events of this total revolution, hundreds of thousands of Haitians avoided the vicious reprisals against revolt that fell upon blacks in Guadeloupe when Napoleon reinstated slavery there in 1802. Moreover, their gain is quantifiable: they avoided precisely forty-six years of enslavement (1802–1848). Who else but those concerned could judge what this progress was worth? Just as Condorcet never bothered to ques- tion whether those who would undergo the effects of his calculations would be happy to remain enslaved for a generation or two, it is pointless for observers to question the decision of the revolutionaries. The slaves of Saint-Domingue, who knew slavery first-hand, decided for themselves that faced with its imminent re-imposition, nothing else mattered, that they would never return to slavery.
What, then, is the meaning of the Haitian Revolution for those who look back upon it around the world? Does it reveal progress in social justice and universal hu- man rights, or just the opposite? Innumerable studies have addressed these questions, and there can be no question of considering all of them in what follows. Instead, I wish to focus on the problem of progress and interpretation, looking to two interpre- tations of the Haitian revolution that have received little or no analysis in this regard. While Aimé Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture has remained virtually unanalyzed in Césaire studies, the first great analysis of the Haitian Revolution, that of Hegel, offers a surprisingly progressive and sympathetic analysis that, so far as I can discern, has never been considered in the literature on the revolution.
Two hundred years ago, on 1 January 1804, the African slaves of the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue defeated the greatest, most powerful army in the world (Napoleon’s) in a successful guerilla war that for the first time forcefully extended the universal human right of freedom from enslavement beyond the province of Western Europe (see Plate 1). The event that initiated the Haitian Revolution was also the founding event in the history of human rights: the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen of 26 August 1789.3 If various philosophical defenses of universal hu- man rights had been formulated prior to this date, the French declaration remains compelling because it was the first attempt to implement and actualize such universal rights within an existing society (Morange 7). Both its universal truth (general eman- cipation) and its parochial failure (to abolish slavery) were dramatically revealed in the Haitian Revolution. Beyond any mere historical interest, the Haitian Revolution remains important because it so clearly formulated the paradox of universal human rights that continues to confront us today. On the one hand, there is no way we can conceive human rights as anything other than universal. If all humanity were not included under the rubric of human rights, if some people remained outside the umbrella of their protection, then they would not be human rights anymore, but merely the rights of a particular, partial group. On the other hand, there is no way to extend human rights to all humanity without exclusion. No one has yet conceived an

adequate way even to define humanity and assure us that it actually exists, let alone actually to extend those rights to real existing humans without exclusion. To take an extreme example, there seems to be no way to set up a stable definition of what separates men from apes; on the contrary, a convincing argument can be made that in so far as they and other “animals” exhibit the ability to reason (or whatever other defining “human” characteristic we might choose), apes should be considered to some degree human, and thus benefit from “human” rights (Wolfe). Any attempt both to define and even more to implement universal human rights appears necessarily to operate through various exclusions.
If we should ever get to the point where nearly all humans benefited from hu- man rights, we would never reach any end point in this process of universalization, because our set would always be incomplete; we would always be finding limit cases like the reasoning apes that we had excluded. But obviously the most pressing and actual problems with human rights are reached long before such extreme limit cases. Today, there is as yet no social consensus that apes or other animals are in part hu- man, but the millions of stateless refugees around the world, and even more blatantly those still detained in Guantamo Bay, Cuba, are all indisputably human, yet they must live a subhuman existence without rights precisely because they are stateless. The Haitian Revolution implemented Rousseau’s critique of the Enlightenment: the only way to overcome the necessary exclusions of any concept of universal human rights, Rousseau argued, is precisely not to have a mere conception of human rights, but to make them a progressively less exclusive reality. Furthermore, Rousseau added, hu- man rights can only exist in society, or, more precisely, in a state. The momentous leap Rousseau took in the Contrat social was to argue that human rights are not natural, a phenomenon of the natural world, but are rather a man-made creation that can only exist in human society. We must thus work to construct a state in which all humans would benefit from those rights, in other words, a society in which all humans would be free. This is precisely the project the Haitian Revolution implemented.
Has there been any progress in implementing universal human rights since
1789? A whole tradition of critique says no, from Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, through Heidegger (“the they”) and Carl Schmitt (Crisis of Parlia- mentary Democracy), and on to contemporary theorists such as Alain Badiou (Ethics). These critics point to the degeneration of ethical idealism announced in 1789 into the Terror of 1793 and the guillotine. In Haiti, both the Napoleonic French army and the rebel slaves resorted to terrorization through ultraviolence and every form of torture imaginable to them. From the actual results of the Haitian Revolution to the impotence of a Declaration of Human Rights and United Nations powerless to stop the Rwandan genocide or war in Iraq, or the subjection of millions of stateless, rightless refugees around the globe, whether there has been any progress remains an open question.
Given the suffering it engendered and its historical aftereffects in an (economi- cally, judicially) impoverished country, does the Haitian Revolution demonstrate historical progress in social justice? Kant asked the same question about the French Revolution in his 1798 text “Contest of the Faculties,” and responded that it was precisely not the contingent violence and incompletion of the Terror, all the failings and shortcomings of such an event that in fact pale in light of the total violence of Saint-Domingue, that should retain our attention. Rather, the progress of the French Revolution lies in its construction of a universal idea of freedom, an idea that negated

the local, communitarian politics of race, ethnicity, and nation to interpellate all those innately endowed with the capacity to understand its logic. Kant asks the question “Is the human race continually improving?” and in offering a positive answer to this question, Kant presumes precisely what remains to be demonstrated: that humanity actually exists as an immanent totality. Instead, Haiti and the case of slavery as an attempt at radical de-humanization posits humanity as no more than an immanent possibility to be conquered: amid the violence and destruction of enslavement and war, humanity remains only an idea of which we can conceive, and thus produce historically (we can become human).
Kant maintains that one can in fact obtain a “prophetic” vision of human history “if the prophet himself occasions and produces the events he predicts” (177). He finds just such an event in the French Revolution: for all its violence and bloodshed, its “misery and atrocities,” it has aroused a “sympathy” that proves “a moral disposition within the human race” (177).4 The Haitian revolutionaries who had labored as slaves, making cane grow in the fields and transforming it into sugar and rum, knew all about labor, and “producing an event [one] predicts.” Farming is perhaps the prototypical event in the history of humans’ domination of nature, mastering its unpredictability through the imaginative power of human reason to conceive of a nonexistent project (to avoid starvation by growing food in the coming season) and to implement that project. The violence of the slave-holding plantation system, of course, transformed this bucolic vision into a living hell. In response to this attempt at dehumanization, Haitian slaves, certain in their own humanity, conceived of another project and worked to “produce” that event: universal emancipation from slave labor. This work of productive human reason is at once a historical process leading to independence and a philosophical event that points to the auto-production of Haitian autonomy, of a people subject to the universal human right to freedom that their enslavers would have denied them.
A seemingly unrelated moment in the history of philosophy dramatically un- derscores the momentous implications of the Haitian revolution as a “production” of universal human autonomy. In the middle of the 1929 debate between Martin Hei- degger and Ernst Cassirer in Davos, Switzerland, a student in the audience addresses to Cassirer a question at once disarmingly direct and charming in its naïve expression of hope that a substantial answer might follow: “What path toward infinity does man posses?” he asks, “And how can man participate in infinity?” Rather than banishing any concrete answer to these questions as the mere dreams of a young spirit-seer, the neo-Kantian philosopher gives a remarkably concise response that synthesizes in a few lines the vision of what it means to be human that lies at the root of modern experience:

There exists no other path, Cassirer responds, than the mediation of form. For this is the function of form: in transforming his existence into form, that is to say by transforming necessarily all that is in him of the order of the lived into an objec- tive form, whatever it may be, in which he objectivates himself, man doubtless does not liberate himself from the finitude of his point of departure, [. . .] but, in emerging from finitude, he causes this finitude to overcome itself in something new. This is what makes up an immanent infinity. (41)

This vision of human experience as the production of a simultaneously immanent, yet infinite truth via the process of production is perhaps the defining characteristic of

Western modernity and its subject, homo faber. The insight of Giambatista Vico that humans can only have access to truth by exercising their freedom to create, knowingly transforming the world through the fabrication of objects first conceived via their faculty of productive imagination, is here brought into explicit relation to our capac- ity to know the infinite and universal. And nowhere does this truth of Modernity, understood as the construction of an immanent infinity, receive more striking form than in the experience of New World Slavery that culminates in the 1804 Declaration of Haitian Independence.5
The novelty of the Haitian Revolution and Independence stands in dialectical relation to the traditions it critiqued and perfected. Haiti uniquely demonstrates the complex interdependence of human rights and preexisting symbolic constructs (such as ideas, social forms and customs, and positive law), rather than the simple priority of the former over the latter.6 For the concept of human rights is just that, a concept; it does not preexist its formulations in the human mind and its consequent objectifications. Human autonomy is no hidden reserve; it cannot be saved up and it cannot be separated from its expression. It only exists in the event of its objectifica- tion, as Cassirer maintained. To become free, a human subject must enter into and transform a preexisting social order. On the other hand, for the participants in the Haitian Revolution to assert the universal, non-negotiable status of human autonomy, they must already have acceded to what their enslavers would deny them: subjectivity and a consciousness of their rights as humans. In other words, they had become au- tonomous participants in a global human discursive community reflecting on human rights, a community that pre-existed their birth, subjects demonstrating precisely the process of majoration that Kant called “enlightenment.” It was no accident that the revolution erupted following the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen on
26 August 1789. Beyond the many local contingencies that led to the beginnings of a merely regional slave rebellion in Haiti that year, the determining factor that turned these events into what Eugene Genevose has identified as “the call for a new [. . .] more advanced society” (82) based on a universal right to autonomy is the slaves’ active participation in a global discursive community that pre-existed and informed their own subjectivity. The slaves and former slaves of Haiti were active participants in a (for them, largely oral) trans-national discourse on human rights, one whose oral traces are largely lost to us.7 They were able actively to construct their right to autonomy precisely because they were able to represent to themselves the discrepancy between a received symbolic object (the Déclaration) and their own situation, and to move to overcome that discrepancy.
To interpret the Haitian Revolution in relation to the problem of progress is to envision this event in its singular truth, a singularity that takes the paradoxical form of a categorical, global imperative: to abolish slavery unconditionally and universally. The suffering and dehumanization of slavery, the violent overthrow of a brutal social structure, this most terrible materiality aligns itself in this event to an unparalleled degree with a fidelity to a categorical, universal truth. If the French and American Revolutions had first articulated an abstract universal recognition of human rights, the Haitian Revolution stands as the truth of these earlier, more partial revolutions: the freedom of the few cannot be predicated upon the enslavement of the many. To say that the Haitian Revolution was unique in its substantiation of this relation between materiality and truth, that it worked to construct this “immanent infinity” of a world without servitude, is to underscore the privileged intersection holding

between slavery, the production model of human experience, and universality (as human rights).


In the years following the independence of Haiti in 1804, the triumph of the world’s first postslave republic remained a scandal; Haiti was quarantined by the Western powers, and the southern United States in particular feared the spread of this rebel- lion to its territory (see Geggus). Within this context, no sympathetic and articulate defense of the Revolution would appear until the founding studies of Thomas Madiou (Histoire de Haiti 1847–1848) and Beaubrun Ardouin (Etudes sur l’histoire d’Haïti,
1853–1860). Not until the abolition of slavery by France in 1848—and really not until Victor Schoelcher’s 1889 Vie de Toussaint Louverture and C. L. R. James’s 1938 The Black Jacobins— did works appear outside Haiti that began to analyze the remarkable events of the 1804 Revolution in all their singularity. In 1821, however, a philosophi- cal analysis of the Haitian Revolution was published in Prussia that not only took the risk of defending in the strongest terms the absolute right of slaves to overthrow a slave-holding society, but offered an analysis of this historical conquering of freedom that has, I think, in some ways yet to be surpassed in all the studies of 1804. Surpris- ingly, this analysis, which seems never to have been noticed in the literature on Haiti, occurs in what is perhaps (with Marx’s Das Kapital) the single most influential and widely read work of social and political theory of the nineteenth century.
And yet this is not at all surprising, and not only because Hegel never actually refers to Haiti by name in the 400-odd pages of the Philosophy of Right. The longstand- ing reputation of the Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts as a reactionary defense of the Prussian monarchy, to say nothing of Hegel’s infamous comments on Africa in his various (posthumously published) lectures on the Philosophy of History, have perhaps kept commentators from noticing this explication and radical defense of the right of slaves to revolt. Of the latter text, nothing is to be said in Hegel’s defense. This philosophical genius was willing merely to repeat unthinkingly the racist views on Africans that he absorbed from the travel literature of his time (though he did at least bother to read every narrative he could get his hands on for these lecture notes published after his death). Susan Buck-Morss puts the matter bluntly: “In an effort to become more erudite in African studies during the 1820s, Hegel was in fact becom- ing dumber [. . . even as he was] adding empirical material from his reading of the European experts on world history” (863–64). The passages are well known and the staple of off-hand rejections of Hegel’s importance for postcolonial thought:

[Africa] has no historical interest of its own, for we find its inhabitants living in barbarism and savagery in a land which has not furnished them with any integral ingredient of culture. [. . . It is] the land of childhood, removed from the light of self-conscious history and wrapped in the dark mantle of night. [. . .] The char- acteristic feature of the negroes is that their consciousness has not yet reached an awareness of any substantial objectivity—for example of God or the law—in which the will of man could participate and in which he could become aware of his own being. The African, in his undifferentiated and concentrated unity, has not yet succeeded in making this distinction between himself as an individual and his essential universality. (174, 177)

Ignoring for the moment the fact that the Haitian Revolution—whose events he knew of8 —and the 1801 constitution of Toussaint demonstrate the sheer falsity and absurdity of this last statement, the astounding partiality and ignorance of his com- ments stand as a negative confirmation of the Hegelian methodology he would have done well to hold to. Rather than “immersing” himself in the “content” of African ex- perience, as the Preface to the Phenomenology encourages—by actually encountering and attempting to understand African culture it, that is—he remains content merely to base his analysis on abstract, second-hand opinion. Were there sources available to him in Berlin in 1821 that would have revealed even an inkling of the millennial traditions of the various African religions and social structures? Perhaps not. In any case, he felt confident enough to pontificate from his Berlin chair on the “barbarism and savagery” of Africans he had never encountered.9
The case of the Philosophy of Right, however, is quite different. Since the 1950s, commentators such as Eric Weil and Joachim Ritter have radically critiqued received scholarly wisdom, to the point that “there is now a virtual consensus among knowl- edgeable scholars that the earlier images of Hegel, as philosopher of the reactionary Prussian restoration and forerunner of modern totalitarianism, are simply wrong” (Wood ix). The Philosophy of Right is a distinctly progressive work, as Allen Wood shows in his introduction to the most recent translation of the volume, one that in its basic orientation to freedom as well as its specific call for a republican (albeit monarchical) state, stands in contrast to the turn to conservative authoritarianism of 1820s Prussia. Ritter describes a Hegel for whom the French Revolution remained the defining historical event of modern times, one he celebrated with friends every year of his life with a toast to the fall of the Bastille: “For Hegel, the French Revolu- tion is that event around which all the determinations of philosophy in relation to its time are clustered, with philosophy marking out the problem through attacks on and defenses of the Revolution. Conversely, there is no other philosophy that is a philosophy of revolution to such a degree and so profoundly, in its innermost drive, as that of Hegel.” (43).
Hegel’s dismissal of Africa in the Philosophy of History is of no more than passing interest; it blinds us in a moment of senile crankiness to the fundamental dimen- sion of Hegel’s entire thought that makes his the single most important philosophy for postcolonial thought, as figures such as Césaire and Fanon clearly recognized: Hegel’s is a philosophy of freedom, and, in the Philosophy of Right, “of the political realization of freedom. [. . .] Hegel takes up the idea of freedom and makes it the ‘basic element’ and ‘sole matter’ of his philosophy” (Ritter 47–48). Similarly, Weil points to the unresolved issue confronting those who would dismiss Hegel’s (or Kant’s) work because of its random moments of racist ignorance: the Philosophy of Right undertakes “the science of the historical realization of freedom” (36) and as such is of interest to all those who see freedom as not merely a problem of one specific group, but of all humanity. Hegel’s concern is precisely freedom as a universal problem confronting humans; Hegel is perhaps the most rigorous and probing (though certainly fallible and contradictory) of modern philosophers of freedom. In attempting philosophically to understand human freedom not as a mere concept, but as an unfolding historical reality in the world [Wirklichkeit], his thought stands as a primary foundation (to be developed, to be critiqued and overcome) of any postcolonial theory. Even more than 1789, the Haitian Revolution in its uncompromising and absolute struggle for freedom and its consequent total destruction of the society that preceded it operates according to Ritter’s formulation:

In Hegel’s view, the essence of modern political revolution, which differentiates it from all other forms of upheaval, uprising, rebellion, and putsch, lies not so much in the particular political form which the violence takes, but rather in the social emancipation underlying it and in the establishment of an order that ac- cording to its own principle is presuppositionless, excluding everything preexist- ing, historical, and traditional, like a radical new beginning that nothing should precede. (76)

In a process analogous to Rousseau’s critique of the philosophes, the Philosophy of Right overcomes the abstraction of Kantian morality to argue that freedom can only exist as a substantial ethical community [Sittlichkeit]. It proceeds to examine the unfolding of human freedom as inseparable from its social institution, tracing it through the development of property, morality, family, civil society, and, finally, the (true) state. Hegel understands the latter not as its various historical instances of alienating domination over individuals (of which he was of course aware, and unam- biguously condemned), but rather in its true (as yet unfulfilled) potentiality to realize the freedom of determinate, heterogeneous individuals in a universal ethical state.10
Early on in this analysis, in §57 of his discussion of the abstract right of property as “Taking Possession,” Hegel addresses the human being’s capacity to “take possession of himself,” i.e., to realize his autonomy. The first paragraph of Hegel’s published text remains abstract, not yet explicitly mentioning slavery until the notes we have from his various lecture explications.
“The human being,” Hegel begins, “in his immediate existence in himself, is a natural entity, external to his concept; it is only through the development of his own body and spirit, essentially by means of his self-consciousness comprehending itself as free, that he takes possession of himself and becomes his own property as distinct from that of others” (all italics in original). This sentence recapitulates the process first described in the Phenomenology of a production-based subjectivity in which the slave comprehends and substantiates her freedom through labor (Nesbitt 21–33). When the unfree slave freely produces an object she has conceived of, she suddenly attains the humanity (defined by Hegel as the capacity knowingly to transform and set oneself in opposition to nature) that had been merely an implicit possibility. She realizes that she is free to transform the world, while the master is in fact unfree, dependant upon her labor for his very existence as master. “By this means, what one is in concept is posited as one’s own, and also as an object distinct from simple self-consciousness, and it thereby becomes capable of taking on the form of the thing.” Many interpretations of this abstract passage are possible; Hegel habitually leaves it up to his readers to fill in the content of his abstract analyses. Fortunately, however, we have exacting notes from his lectures on the Philosophy of Right taken by assiduous students, and it is these comments that, in their explicit reference to the revolution- ary overthrow of contemporary, modern slavery, constitute the first great analysis of the Haitian Revolution.
While much has been made of the fact that the Phenomenology’s analysis of the master-slave dialectic uses the archaic term Knecht11 (translated by A. V. Miller as “bondsman”), strangely, no commentators seem to have noticed that the Philosophy of Right no longer speaks of Knechten and Knechtschaft. Instead, Hegel’s commentary begins: “The alleged justification of slavery [Sklaverai] [. . .] depend[s] on regarding the human being simply as a natural being whose existence [. . .] is not in conformity with his concept.” Hegel thus begins his analysis in explicit reference to the institu-

tion of slavery, rather than feudal relations of indentured servitude.12 His analysis begins by contrasting the two traditional stances regarding slavery that held prior to the Haitian Revolution. Those who would defend slavery, he argues, point to the subhuman state of Africans (absence of reason, religious spirituality, and the like, just those characteristics that Hegel himself will ignorantly refuse Africans elsewhere), to a debased, instinctive, merely animalistic existence, a “Naturwesen” or natural es- sence. Slaves are not human, in this view, because they do not meet the criteria for humanity that their enslavers have defined (the “concept” of the human). In contrast, those who would critique slavery based upon “absolute” natural rights (as in the Enlightenment standpoint of the Encyclopédie), “the claim that slavery [Sklaverei] is absolutely contrary to right,” is no less partial in its absoluteness and abstraction; it is “firmly tied to the concept of the human being as spirit, as something free in itself,” and in this, it is a mere abstraction, not actual freedom, “one-sided inasmuch as it regards the human being as by nature free.” This abstraction is, Hegel says, a mere “antinomy [. . .] based on formal thinking, [. . .] so that both are lacking in truth and do not conform to the Idea.”13 These, then, are the views held in the debate on slavery up to the radical intervention of the Haitian Revolution. As such they were indeed mere debate, in which the two sides remained in radical and abstract separation, a text like Condorcet’s no more than mere “Reflections” devoid of real effect.
It is here that Hegel inserts his radical estimation of the importance of the Haitian Revolution. Hegel, in 1821, now offers for the first time exactly the analysis that Aimé Césaire would arrive at in 1960: “The free spirit,” Hegel writes of the emancipated and autonomous former slave, “consists precisely in not having its be- ing as mere concept [. . .] but in overcoming [auf heben] this formal phase of its being [as merely naturally free, “born free,” yet still and nonetheless a slave in the actually existing world] and hence also its immediate natural existence [as unfree, bestialized slave], and gives itself [autonomously, without the paternalism of a Condorcet], an existence which is purely its own and free.”14 While it may appear that the brutality of the slave-holding system has the upper hand against the mere logical arguments of Enlightenment, this is an illusionary appearance of nature [Naturwesen], what we would today call the racist ideology that describes Africans as essentially and naturally inferior or subhuman. In fact, as it had in the earlier logic of lordship and “servi- tude”—here Hegel explicitly refers his readers to the Phenomenology, reverting to his earlier terminology of “Knechtschaft”—this mere appearance of a natural “essence” is overthrown by the slave himself, because his perception of his freedom (achieved through labor) “contains the absolute starting point” for the realization of the Idea of a historically actualized freedom (as opposed to its mere logical concept).15
But if the Phenomenology had presented this process as an abstraction, “merely in its subjective content” says Hegel in a moment of autocritique, the enormous step of the Philosophy of Right is to call for the actualization of human freedom as a universal emancipation from servitude, realization of the Idea of freedom as neither mere empty concept (natural right), nor as a limited, local event (maroon rebellion), devoid of relation to the universal (until all are free, none are). Hegel’s words are unambiguous and of momentous radicality: “The ineligibility of the human being in and for himself for slavery should no longer be apprehended merely as something which ought to be [as for the philosophes or Brissot’s Amis des noirs arguing inconsequentially to deaf ears that slavery should be abolished, someday . . .].” Instead, it must be instantiated

as a real historical fact, and this, Hegel concludes, “is an insight which comes only when we recognize that the Idea of freedom is truly present only as the state.” Here, in abstraction, is precisely the interpretation of the Haitian Revolution that Eugene Genovese will put forward in a more limited, historical argument in 1979: freedom as a universal Idea is not attained through mere local revolt against the harshness of slavery, lessening punishments or ameliorating working conditions, opening the way for a few maroons to return into a regressive state of nature. Freedom as a concrete and actual universal Idea is only to be attained through the institution of a (potentially universal) state, that is to say, through the total overthrow and destruction of the social system (colonialism) that instituted the slave’s debasement to a mere natural, animalistic being. Precisely what Toussaint Louverture first accomplished with his Constitution of 1801 declaring the de facto independence of Saint-Domingue, and that Dessalines brought to fruition on 1 January 1804.
In the face of this radical and explicit defense of slave revolution, Hegel’s final commentary (Addition H), threatens to throw us back into confusion regarding his standpoint:

If we hold firmly to the view that the human being in and for himself is free, we thereby condemn slavery. But if someone is a slave, his own will is responsible, just as the responsibility lies with the will of a people if that people is subjugated. Thus the wrong of slavery is the fault not only of those who enslave or subjugate people, but of the slaves and the subjugated themselves. Slavery [. . .] occurs in a world where a wrong is still a right. Here the wrong is valid, so that the position it occupies is a necessary one.

Slavery is “the fault of the slaves” and a “necessary” wrong!? Though one might see this as a regression to the conservative racism of the Philosophy of History, close reading reveals that it is in fact consonant with the previous passage’s call for slave revolution. Slavery is an absolute wrong, Hegel does not waver on this point and repeats it unam- biguously here. But slavery exists, and freedom cannot no more be achieved by simply having it bestowed upon slaves by benevolent masters than through the expression of pious sentiments. It must be conquered and actualized autonomously, and until slaves actually take that step, they share the responsibility for its continued existence. Again, this is the lesson of the Haitian Revolution. To say that in a world where “a wrong is still right,” where slavery exists and is still called “ just” (slaves are better off than their African brethren, they are fed, housed, and “civilized” by their masters, etc.) slavery is a “valid” and “necessary” wrong, is for Hegel only to repeat what he has been arguing up to this point: in the world as it existed prior to 1791, slavery is necessary only as a brutal fact of nature [Naturwesen], enforced by violence and ter- ror as an incontrovertible, eternal reality that is indeed necessary (“you will work or die, and in any case you’ll die like an animal soon enough”), but it is not true. Truth, the actualization of human freedom as a concrete universal in the world, can be at- tained only by the forceful negation of this natural existence, through the rational and imaginative construction of human freedom as something never before seen on the face of the earth, in human history: a free nation based on the principal of universal emancipation. In a word, Haiti. Though he never names it, in 1820 Hegel could have been referring to nothing else but this world-historical and previously unimaginable event that ignited and scandalized all of European society for decades.


In 1960, Aimé Césaire published Toussaint Louverture: La révolution française et le problème colonial. Although at 345 pages it is by far the longest work Césaire has published, it has received virtually no attention from Césaire scholars. As a work of history, it sits oddly in Césaire’s corpus, passed over by literary critics more interested in poetry or theater, unacknowledged by professional historians, for whom Césaire’s text fails to follow the discursive norms that mark scholarly participation in this academic discipline. Césaire’s own voice is often lost in page after page of extensive quotations from original sources. But when he does speak, Césaire’s interpretation is highly original and merits closer attention. In his introduction, Aimé Césaire puts forward the claim that “Saint-Domingue est le premier pays des temps modernes à avoir posé dans la réalité et à avoir proposé à la réflexion des hommes, et cela dans toute sa complexité, sociale, économique, raciale, le grand problème que le vingtième siècle s’essoufle à résoudre: le problème colonial” ‘Saint-Domingue is the first country of modern times to have set forth in reality and to have proposed for consideration , in all its social, economic, and racial complexity, the great problem that the Twenti- eth Century is finding so difficult to resolve: the problem of colonialism’ (24). If the Haitian Revolution were only the world’s first successful slave revolt, as we so often hear, it would be of little more than historical interest. In fact, Haitians invented the process of decolonization that would only take hold in the majority of European colo- nies a century and a half later, and recent events have reconfirmed that Imperialism was by no means ended by 1960, that it continues to haunt us today. Less inspiring, but equal in its continued relevance, was the first appearance, in the aftermath of the Revolution, of a neocolonial alliance between a parasitic merchant class and the military, all at the expense of the multitude of citizens, a process that Michel-Rolph Trouillot has analyzed in his book Haiti: State against Nation.
Césaire locates the origins of the Revolution in the Haitians’ spontaneous un- derstanding of the full implications of the French Revolution:

Attendre l’abolition de l’esclavage d’un geste spontané de la bourgeoisie française, sous prétexte que cette abolition était dans la logique . . . de la Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme, c’était [. . .] méconnaître que sa propre tâche historique, la révolution bourgeoise elle-même, la bourgeoisie ne l’avait accomplice que harcelée par le peuple et comme poussée l’épée dans les reins. L’étonnant est que les masses nègres aient si vite compris qu’il n’y avait rien à attendre de Paris et qu’ils n’auraient en definitive que ce qu’ils auraient le courage de conquérir.

To have awaited the abolition of slavery as a spontaneous gesture of the French bourgeoisie, under the pretext that abolition was a logical implication of the Dec- laration of the Rights of Man, would have been [. . .] to ignore that the bourgeois revolution’s own historical task was only carried out when they were pushed on by the people with a sword at their back. What is astonishing is that the black masses so quickly understood that they should expect nothing from Paris and that they would only definitively achieve what they would have the courage to conquer for themselves. (171)

Like Eugene Genovese a generation after him, Césaire identifies the specificity of the
Haitian Revolution in its transformation from one of many slave rebellions that looked

back to a lost African past, into a progressive, modernist revolution at the hands of Toussaint. “Dès que Toussaint y fut engagé, il n’eut de cesse que [l’émeute] ne s’élargit en revolution. Et cela signifiait [. . .] la rendre consciente d’une chose: que, par-delà les hommes, c’était un système qu’il fallait détruire. Le but, le seul but valable, ce ne pouvait être que la liberté, la liberté générale” ‘As soon as Tousssaint joined in, [the rebellion (l’émeute)] became a revolution. And this meant [. . .] becoming conscious of one thing: that, beyond individuals, it was a system that had to be destroyed. The goal, the only valid goal, could be none other than freedom, universal freedom’ (196). The Haitian Revolution, Césaire tells us, was fundamentally a transformation in consciousness, consciousness of universal freedom as a categorical imperative, and only secondarily a complex and contingent series of events. Precisely, it seems to me, what Kant had called, in 1784, “enlightenment”: leaving our self-incurred minority, in which we accepted an external authority instead of that of our own reason. In
1795, Toussaint writes: “Frères et soeurs, le moment est arrive où le voile épais qui obscurcissait la lumière doit tomber” ‘Brothers and Sisters, the moment has arrived in which the thick veil that obscured the light must fall’ (Césaire 228).
Following Césaire, one could say that Toussaint stands in relation to the French Revolution as Rousseau had to the Enlightenment he criticized for its abstraction17: “[La part de Toussaint], c’est tout le domaine qui sépare le seulement pensé de la réalité concrète. [. . .] Contribution essentielle: le passage à l’esprit, c’est par Toussaint- Louverture qu’il se fait” ‘[Toussaint’s role] lay in the domain separating what is merely thought from concrete reality. [. . .] An essential contribution : the passage into con- sciousness [à l’esprit] occurred thanks to Toussaint-Louverture.’ Who is the subject of universal human rights, Toussaint asked? “Le faux universalisme nous a habitués à tant de faux-fuyants, les droits de l’homme se sont si souvent rétrécis à n’être que les droits de l’homme européen, que la question n’est pas superflue” ‘A false universalism has accustomed us to so many excuses and pretexts, the rights of man have so often been reduced to no more than the rights of European man, that the question is not superfluous’ (343). And Césaire’s conclusion is magnificent:

Quand Toussaint Louverture vint, ce fut pour prendre à la lettre la déclaration des droits de l’homme, ce fut pour montrer qu’il n’a pas de race pariah; qu’il n’y a pas de pays marginal; qu’il n’y a pas de peuple d’exception. Ce fut pour incarner et particulariser un principe; autant dire pour le vivifier. Dans l’histoire et dans le domaine des droits de l’homme, il fut, pour le compte des nègres l’opérateur et l’intercesseur. [. . .] Le combat de Toussaint Louverture fut ce combat pour la transformation de droit formel en droit réel, le combat pour la reconnaissance de l’homme et c’est pourquoi il s’inscrit et inscrit la révolte des esclaves noirs de Saint-Domingue dans l’histoire de la civilisation universelle.

When Tousaint Louverture came on the scene, it was to take the Declaration of the Rights of Man at its word; it was to show that there is no pariah race; that there is no marginal country; that there can be no excepted peoples. It was to incarnate and particularize a principle; that is to say, to vivify it. In history and in the domain of the rights of man, he was for blacks the architect [opérateur] and intermediary [intercesseur]. [. . .] Toussaint Louverture fought for the transformation of formal rights into real rights, his was a combat for the recognition of man, and that is why he inscribed himself and the revolt of the black slaves of Saint-Domingue within the history of universal civilization. (344)

The Haitian invention of decolonization and universal emancipation was a mo- mentous rupture in being, one that obliterated the slaveholding logic of eighteenth- century global capital. It was the production of a concrete universal, the construction of imminent human possibilities and unknown worlds that remain largely unfulfilled today. As we witness in our world radical and exponential increases in the mediated powers of constituent subjectivity, imperfectly instituted in the internet, in the furtive construction of a global democracy subject to the rule of universal laws such as the banning of offensive wars and the total elimination of slavery and nuclear weapons, we can no longer have the faith of Kant that humanity is progressing irreversibly despite its local and temporary setbacks. If even a few years ago, some could confi- dently predict the demise of the nation state, we know today that progress is all too reversible, that genocide and nuclear annihilation are all too real threats; we see with each passing day how fragile even the smallest progressive steps remain. And yet, to examine the Haitian Revolution in its historical specificity is to bear witness to the fact that progress occurs. Perhaps the only hope that we can permit ourselves is that as long as we continue to exist, as long as we can keep from wiping ourselves out in of- fensive global explosions of violence that knows no limits, that human consciousness continues to possess a definite orientation, an orientation to truth, an orientation that allowed Haitian slaves to understand themselves as subject to a universal process of emancipation in the face of everything the actually existing world shouted in their face and lashed across their backs. This orientation unleashed in the events of 1791–1804 propels us into the future and toward the difficult construction of a universal freedom that Hegel, like Aimé Césaire after him, first identified in the Haitian Revolution.

1. As in Condorcet’s 1781 text “Réflexions sur l’esclavage des nègres,” where the philosopher-mathematician argues quite “rationally” for a gradual elimination of slavery over the course of one or two generations (38, 44). For a strong critique of the limitations of Enlightenment Universalism in light of the problem of slavery, see Sala-Molins.
2. On the general significance of the events of the Haitian Revolution for Hegel’s
Phenomenology, see Buck-Morss.
3. Obviously, there can be no simple causation drawn here given the diverse range of factors involved and relative lack of historical documents compared with the events in France. I wish simply to make a strong case for the role of ideas, one that I draw more fully elsewhere (“The Idea of 1804,” forthcoming). For a balanced appraisal of current interpretations of the causes of the Haitian Revolution, see Geggus ch. 4.
4. Michel Foucault recalls Kant’s argument in the lesser-known version of his talk
“Qu’est-ce que les Lumières? ” from 5 January 1983.
5. As well as its negation: the ecological catastrophe that is the destruction of Haiti’s indigenous forest testifies to the obvious need to critique any production-model of human experience; it is this ongoing critique, rather than any univocal affirmation of progress, that constitutes a dialectic of enlightenment. This implies that one must not simply aban- don a “philosophy of the subject”—in any case an impossible endeavor—but rather sublate an imperfect subjectivity, whether, to name only two competing examples, along the lines of an intersubjective discursive community without a subject (Habermas) or via Hardt and Negri’s vision of a radically productive “constituent” subjectivity of the “multitudes.”
6. See Habermas’s postscript to Between Fact and Norm for a discussion of this inter- dependence (456).

7. I discuss this transnational public sphere more fully in “The Idea of 1804.”
8. Were there any doubt following Buck-Morss’s rigorous demonstration, she reminds us that Hegel in fact “mentions the Haitian Revolution by name” in the 1830 Encyclopedia (854).
9. Buck-Morss considers Hegel a “cultural racist” and not “a biological one” (864). My reading of the Philosophy of Right in what follows sustains just such an interpretation: African slaves are perfectly able to and indeed must overthrow slavery to enter into a historical, autonomous existence.
10. It is Hegel’s dismissal of the possibility of a global ethical society as “not real” (cited in Wood xxv) that marks the conservatism of the otherwise radical Philosophy of Right. Certainly, a global ethical society does not yet exist, yet progress toward it since Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History” has been enormous. In refusing to consider this movement of history in deference to the more limited nation-state (PR § 344), in dismissing it because it doesn’t yet exist, he suddenly places an absolute block on human possibility of achieving a determinate universal, the very block he dismissed as a mere figment of the imagination in his critique of the Kantian thing-in-itself. Weil, however, catches a glimpse even of this possibility in a paragraph of the Encyclopedia (77).
11. David, in Racisme et antisémitisme: essai de philosophie sur l’envers des concepts, rightly takes the most recent French translators of the Phenomenology to task for abandoning Hyppolite’s esclave in favor of the far weaker valet. While it may be, as Pierre-Jean Lab- barière puts it, that “the knecht is the individual who, in a domestic setting [au sein d’une domesticité], finds himself owing [redevable] his force of labor to a master,” this is to ignore that, in David’s words, “it is here a matter of life and death, which is manifestly not the case [. . .] in a domestic setting” (Labarrière, cited in David 294).
12. Thanks to Susan Buck-Morss for reminding me that Hegel had also used the term Sklave in the earlier, pre-Phenomenology “Jena” manuscripts, that is to say, precisely at the time he was reading of the Haitian Revolution in the German paper Minerva along with Adam Smith (Buck-Morss 846 –47).
13. The Idea [Idee], it will be recalled, is distinct in Hegel’s usage from the more lim- ited and abstract concept [Begriff ]. The latter is a mere mental abstraction, while the Idea designates the full development of a concept as it unfolds and reveals itself in historical reality through the movement of historical human development via concrete, reflective social action.
14. See discussion of Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture below: “[La part de Toussaint], c’est tout le domaine qui sépare le seulement pensé de la réalité concrete” (343).
15. This is where I would disagree somewhat with Buck-Morss, who sees Hegel’s us- age of Knecht and Sklave from the Jena manuscripts to the 1830 Philosophy of Subjective Spirit as “interchangeable” (854). While this may be true for these bracketing texts, in the Phenomenology and Philosophy of Right, they are used quite precisely. My thesis is that the Phenomenology sustains the radicality of the earlier Jena manuscripts in the substance of its argument (the fight to the death that only a slave, and not a bondsman or “valet,” must confront) while becoming more conservative on the surface of this published text in its terminological refusal to confront the modern institution of slavery. In the Philosophy of Right, this differentiation is then made quite explicit, as the term Knecht only appears when Hegel refers his listeners back to the earlier Phenomenology.
16. On Rousseau’s critique of the Enlightenment, see Hulliung.

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  • Saturday, 07 June 2014


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