by Nica Cornell
This essay will discuss two of the ways in which the Haitian Revolution is significant for the practice of contemporary theory. It suggests that the Haitian Revolution unseals the silenced history of the contemporary praxis of liberal democracy – issuing a warning of the long-term consequences of silencing that which is deemed unthinkable at one time - and in the process offers the emancipatory potential of an actual universal doctrine of human rights.
It will track the history of the hegemonic global political order that is now understood to be that of “neo-liberal capitalism and democracy” (Neocosmos, 2011: 362) and its limitation to a negative, legal interpretation of human rights (Nesbitt, 2009: 94). The contradictions and silenced chapter of that history establish the need for a rethinking of human rights. This is necessary for the practice of contemporary theory to constitute an emancipatory political project. The recognition of the Haitian Revolution shifts the genesis of contemporary human rights discourse – with emancipatory implications.
Nick Nesbitt (2009: 95) specifies that human rights have attained “hegemony over the concept of the political” as they have become the standards by which political regimes are now judged. Their invention in the late eighteenth century was the event that signalled a seismic political shift from “early-modern, slave-based agrarian capitalism” to “liberal, wage-based industrial capitalism” (Nesbitt, 2009: 96). This new form of capitalism was founded in the American and French Revolutions which fought for the rights of white men who owned property (Nesbitt, 2009: 97). The history of these Revolutions is the source of contemporary human rights discourse which articulates the concept of a right as something one possesses. With such a history, and a silenced third chapter, contemporary human rights discourse has come to function as a tool of oppression instead of emancipation.
Outside of the domain of civil society, people are not considered to be “citizens with legally enforceable rights” (Neocosmos, 2011: 359) and political subjectivities but rather as populations with certain entitlements. This domain is the one in which most people encounter the rule of the state. Similarly, Nesbitt (2009: 94) discusses how contemporary human rights discourse locates human rights as a problem that states and structures such as the United Nations have to fix – they are “merely negative, beneficently bestowed upon passive populations reduced to their suffering.” This means that rights are based on claims of what one should not have – such as hunger, torture, and death – and the means to be spared these is granted from some external entity such as a state. This is different to a positive conception of human rights which is centred in what constitutes a human being – the capacity to make decisions and to act of one’s own free will. Negative rights are guidelines to maximize the conditions in which human beings embody their humanity. However, they are not human rights in their totality. When a negative interpretation of human rights is practiced alone it becomes a tool of de-politicisation, reducing human beings to their physical conditions and context.
One of the central aspects of the dominant contemporary theory of Western liberal democracy is that it grows alongside the inculcation of such a purely legal, negative ‘culture of rights’. The process of democratisation, which originates in the “struggles of people from all walks of life for greater control over their daily lives,” is therein made into a technical process under the control of a few legal and structurally empowered experts (Neocosmos, 2011: 362). Such is the dominant model of the practice of contemporary theory a process of political exclusion. This stands in contrast to the activity of the slaves who lived in the southern areas of Saint-Domingue who instituted their positive human rights from 1793 via a radical egalitarian practice – disproving the negative interpretation that would posit human rights as depending on the state for enforcement (Nesbitt, 2008: 20).
William Rasch (cited in Nesbitt, 2009: 94) extends the critique of negative human rights to ask which political power representing which order decides what defines human rights – and “what it means to be properly human?” This question of power and its role in the formation of contemporary theory is central to the silencing of the Haitian Revolution in history. Partha Chatterjee (2004: 27) specifies that the canonical moment at which the potential of “enlightened modernity” seemed to unite with the “universal political aspirations of citizenship within the nation was, of course, the French Revolution” [own emphasis].
The self-evident promise of that moment, suggested by the emphasized words, belies the contradiction identified by Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1995: 79) within the title of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen drafted by the French National Assembly in 1789. In relation to the colonies, the “citizen won over the non-white-man” (Trouillot, 1995: 79). This is in line with Michael Neocosmos’ (2011: 365) distinction between those who are included in civil society and are therefore considered to be citizens with positive rights, and those who are excluded and are perceived as victims to be granted or denied rights by the state. Contemporary human rights discourse prioritizes the law above including those who are excluded and therefore sustains the possibility for there to be a difference between a human and citizen.
The limited nature of contemporary human rights discourse, as the ideology of hegemonic contemporary political practice, seems inevitable when one encounters its genesis. While Chatterjee (2004: 27) refers to the French Revolution as the self-evident moment at which universal political aspirations combined with the ideals of the Enlightenment, Nesbitt (2009: 98) clearly identifies the selectivity of the two revolutions commonly referred to as constituting the Revolutionary Age that birthed human rights. The French Assemblée Nationale “actively side-lined demands for immediate abolition” of slavery as it aimed to guard the interests of “Metropolitan property owners and their colonial holdings” (Nesbitt, (2009: 98). This was in stark contrast to the first article of the Declaration which proclaimed that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights” (Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789: 1). The American Revolution that preceded it announced “all men are created equal” while fighting for the equality of “non-slaves: white, adult, male property-holders” (Nesbitt, 2009: 97). The Boston declaration of 1772 stated that it was in defence of the “Rights of the Colonists to life, liberty and property” [own emphasis] (Nesbitt, 2009: 97).
Therefore, the texts of the Revolutionary Age which informed the content of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Humanium, n.d.: 1) were grounded in notions of human rights that were hierarchical and exclusionary despite their “auspicious initial propositions” of universal ideals (Nesbitt, 2009: 98). It is therefore almost inevitable that with such a genesis, contemporary human rights discourse – an eminent aspect of the practice of contemporary theory - is “inimical to the self-empowerment of the politically excluded” (Neocosmos, 2011: 365).
However, the Age of Revolutions – and the genesis of human rights – did not end with the French Revolution. According to Trouillot (1995: 98), the Haitian Revolution was the “most radical political revolution” of the Age. From 1791 to 1804, 500000 human beings (half of whom were born in Africa) “decided that slavery was inhumane. Rather than live under it, it was better to fight it, to death, if necessary without outside help of any kind” (Depelchin, 2007: 1)
In August 1793, the leader of the army of emancipated slaves Toussaint Louverture issued a proclamation for immediate and unconditional freedom and equality for all. Importantly, as Carolyn Fick emphasizes, this proclamation was an articulation of a struggle to construct an “emancipatory social structure” (cited in Nesbitt, 2008: 14) that was conducted by the “whole multitude of Haitian slaves.” Such a proclamation and its origin in the uprising of human beings, who had been uprooted, abused, exploited and demeaned, four years after the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, “went further than the enlightenment philosophers ever thought possible” (Depelchin, 2007: 1). Peter Hallward (2004: 1) emphatically endorses this, describing how of the American, French and Haitian Revolutions, only the last “forced the unconditional application of the principle that inspired each one: affirmation of the natural, inalienable rights of all human beings.” It was in the Haitian Revolution alone that this declaration was “sustained at all costs, in direct opposition to the social order and economic logic of the day” (Hallward, 2004: 1).
The French and American Revolutions, in the current telling of the history of human rights, are the site of their conception. This is apt – however they are the source of a conception mired in contradiction, and a conception that has been reduced to a purely negative framework that can be granted or denied to human beings. Of the three revolutions, it is “Haiti’s that has the most to teach those seeking to uphold” (Hallward, 2004: 1) because it offers an alternative – a declaration of human rights that were fundamentally present in and equally possessed by all human beings. This is demonstrated in its origin within those who were understood as property rather than property and rights holders.
In the French colony of Saint Domingue as it was known at the time, the colonial apparatus was crumbling. From 1797 to 1798, that apparatus -military, political and civil - was captured by Louverture and his closest lieutenants (Trouillot, 1995: 89-93). In 1802, the French launched an expedition to recapture the colony. It failed. In 1804, the declaration of independence was issued and Saint Domingue was named Haiti to honour one of the names the indigenous Taíno names had for the island (Harvard Caribbean Law Association, n.d.: 1).
Trouillot (1995: 88) specifies that the Haitian Revolution was the “ultimate test to the universalist pretension of both the French and the American Revolutions. And they both failed.” Nesbitt (2009: 95) establishes that the Haitian Revolution extended the political philosophy of human rights first proposed in the French and American Declarations. Through this reworking, the doctrine it articulated “continues to pose – some two centuries since its formulation – a profound challenge to the dominant western understanding of universal rights” (Nesbitt, 2009: 102). The inclusion of the Haitian Revolution in the history of the human rights (as a key ideology in the practice of contemporary theory) is therefore imperative for “overcoming the contemporary impasse of human rights discourse” (Nesbitt, 2009: 93) as an exclusionary and limited framework. The exclusion of the Haitian Revolution as a key and emancipatory chapter of the Revolutionary Age – to the detriment of the practice contemporary human rights - is part of a silencing that was and continues to be the dominant response of theory to the unthinkable events of the Revolution.
Trouillot (1995: 82) defines the unthinkable nature of the Haitian Revolution as “that which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions were phrased.” What is meant by this is that the possibility of the Revolution could not be conceived of within the existing theoretical frameworks at the time, never mind its reality. Trouillot (1995: 82) emphasizes this by stating the lack of any frames of reference for the revolutionary events in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in even the extreme political left in England and France. No resistance whatsoever was recognizable within the dominant theories of the time as this required recognizing the capacity of those who were enslaved to reason and organize and therefore their ‘total’ human status. This was according to the Enlightenment’s assertion of the capacity to reason being the defining answer to the question of “’What is Man?’” (Trouillot, 1995: 78).
Trouillot (1995: 82) highlights that he is not claiming that theorists at the time should have been able to conceive of the fundamental equality of all human beings. Rather, he is claiming that they could not have. The reality of the events of the Revolution could not be contained within the available theories, and their conceptions of “Negroes” (Trouillot, 1995: 72). Theoretical assumptions that black leadership would entail anarchy continued to circulate and dominate after Louverture and his supporters had established control over the colonial apparatus (Trouillot, 1995: 93). “Discourse always lagged behind practice” (Trouillot, 1995: 89) which immediately suggests the fallibility of contemporary human rights discourse that originated from the historical frameworks that already existed by the time the Revolution occurred, and issues a warning to the practice of contemporary theory to be aware that definitions of the unthinkable are constantly in transition.
The unthinkable was happening and the response was to force the reality to return to the scope of established and entrenched belief systems, to “repress the unthinkable and to bring it back within the realm of accepted discourse” (Trouillot, 1995: 72). Such a response undermines the capacity of theory to guide the comprehension of reality and retards the emancipatory capacity of theory borne out of such reality. This is what renders Trouillot’s (1995: 73) claim relevant to the practice of contemporary theory. The implicit capacity of theory to propose and perpetuate an ontological hierarchy is demonstrated therein – and the moral and academic necessity of contemporary theory responding to reality and being receptive to the multiplicity of the totality of humanity.
Trouillot (1995: 86) highlights that it was the way in which the Haitian Revolution challenged slavery and racism that established its events as unthinkable. As he describes, the premises and demands of the revolution were so radical that they could not be preconceived, but were rather formed as they were enacted (Trouillot, 1995: 88). This sets an important precedent for the practice of contemporary theory – the Haitian Revolution was the “most radical political revolution” of the “Age of Revolutions” (Trouillot, 1995: 98). However it continues to be ignored and silenced as a significant political event.
This demonstrates the long-term consequences of the failure of contemporary theory to remain open to political events that do not conform to its criteria. It also highlights the constraints of political theory – and the requirement that it be practiced in awareness of such limits. The occurrence of a sequence of events that were entirely unthinkable at that time demonstrates that no theory is all-encompassing, and theory has to be responsive to real events. Real events originate with real people, and as such can be unexpected, or even unthinkable. As described by Peter Hallward (2004: 1), “historical ‘necessity’ emerges only retrospectively.” It is thus vital that the practice of contemporary theory, which is defined by retrospective assessment, remain fluid.
The exploration of the Haitian Revolution by a practitioner of contemporary theory simultaneously unseals the silenced history of the contemporary praxis of liberal democracy and in the process offers the emancipatory potential of an actual universal doctrine of human rights. Jacques Ranciére (cited in Neocosmos, 2011: 362) holds that “politics begins exactly when those who ‘cannot’ do something show that in fact they can.” This is supported by Nesbitt (2009: 95) who identifies the initial revolt of 50000 slaves as involving both a process of “political subjectiviation and identity” and a “strategic disidentification with their attributed roles.” The importance of the Haitian Revolution in proposing an alternative, affirmative model of human rights therefore supports Neocosmos’ (2011: 363) analysis of contemporary human rights discourse as a process of “’de-politicisation.’” This is a process in which people who were once meant to accept allocated roles as “slaves, labouring beings, racialised sub-humans” (Nesbitt, 2009: 95) are in contemporary times persuaded that they are merely victims of violence.
The slaves of St. Domingue “depended only upon themselves” (Nesbitt, 2009: 98) and “did not dwell on being slaves” (Depelchin, 2007: 1). This was impossible according to the theoretical frameworks that existed before the revolution. The dominant and unquestioned ontology was that of there being “degrees of humanity” (Trouillot, 1995: 76) with “natives of Africa or the Americas” at the bottom of the hierarchy. This ontology, inherited from the Renaissance, was the basis of the ideological justification for the enslavement of Afro-Americans and the stubborn belief that such slaves could not desire, never mind deserve, emancipation.
Such thinking is in line with the contemporary human rights discourse that posits rights as something one possesses. Nesbitt (2009: 101) cites John Donnelly a leading contemporary theorist and defender of human rights as describing a human being as a “right-holder authorised to make special claims” against a government to have those rights bestowed upon one. Neocosmos (2011: 359) holds that not everyone enjoys equal access to the making of such claims. This negative contemporary understanding of human rights, as something one either has or does not, depends on a construction of human rights as objects. Such a practice of contemporary theory is historically complicit in the construction of humans as objects with varying degrees of humanity, and at present, victims who “can then lay claim to state largesse” (Neocosmos, 2011: 363).
Nesbitt (2009:101) is not critical of a negative interpretation of legal rights. Rather, he is critical of legal rights – which are “bestowed upon citizens by a transcendental governing apparatus” - being mistaken for human rights in their totality, a phenomenon that Neocosmos (2011: 362) diagnoses in the current practice of contemporary theory. Human rights are therein reduced to legal rights. Revolution is reduced to a legal concept of change from authoritarianism to the Western liberal-democratic model that is rooted in a “liberal notion of development from the in-human to the human” (Neocosmos, 2011: 363).
The Haitian Revolution and its radical remaking of the content of the Age of Revolutions into a “call to subjectivity” (Nesbitt, 2009: 103) enacted that call to propose something transcendent. Lynn Hunt (cited in Nesbitt, 2009: 105) states that human rights or what were at the time referred to as “the rights of man” could only be conceived of “when people learned to think of others as like them in some fundamental fashion.” The Haitian Revolution located the defining feature of that shared humanity in the “mindset of those who, against all odds, refused to submit to dehumanisation, not just in their own name, but in the name of the larger community, including those who were dehumanising them” (Depelchin, 2007: 1).
It was not only its challenge to the entrenched and productive doctrine of racism and slavery that rendered the Revolution unthinkable – it was the particular form in which it did so. The premises and demands of the revolution were so radical that they could not be preconceived, but were rather formed as they were enacted (Trouillot, 1995: 88). This is central to the capacity of the Haitian Revolution to propose an extreme counter-model to the contemporary human rights discourse – it was “at the limits of the thinkable, even in Saint-Domingue, even among the slaves, even among its own leaders” (Trouillot, 1995: 88). This highlights the importance for practitioners of contemporary theory to remain open to the possibility of that which they view as being unthinkable.
Thought out by its participants, as it was happening, the Haitian Revolution proposed and enacted a definition of human rights as the capacity of any human being to decide that they deserve to be free, and act to make it so. In relation to the practice of contemporary theory, in stark contrast to current human rights discourse that promotes politically passive victims who make claims on the state’s generosity, the Haitian Revolution is the original historical articulation of the capacity of the poor viewing themselves and therefore endowing themselves as having the “capacity to overthrow the mindsets which keep insisting they, the poor, can only be helped out of poverty by charitable gestures and structures” (Depelchin, 2007: 1).
The Haitian Revolution therefore proffers the ideological basis for an emancipatory practice of contemporary theory by invigorating human rights – which have attained hegemony over the notion of the political - as an articulation of the human capacity to achieve the unthinkable. Enslaved people, located as the ‘least human’ by an ontology that was the “most crushing form of ideological prejudice ever faced by a resistance movement” (Hallward, 2004: 1), gave themselves the right to be fully human. Through their actions, they defined their humanity as irreducible.
Such a break with the two revolutions that preceded it, and extended ‘universal’ rights to white, adult, male owners of property has significant effect on the practice of contemporary theory two centuries later, because the definition of human rights, and therein humanity, prescribed by the contemporary hegemonic ideology is an embodied oxymoron that does not reach the transcendence of the Haitian Revolution’s claims regarding humanity. Such contradictions are unavoidable when a history of selective universalism and omissions of that which was unthinkable is their celebrated origin.
Joseph Jacotot (cited in Ranciere, 2010: 167) defines emancipation as the route out of a scenario in which one has to be led because following one’s own sense of direction would “lead you astray.” He specifies that the Enlightenment’s rationale, in which elites have to guide those who are intrinsically less somehow, fundamentally reproduces inequality. In contrast to this, emancipation means starting with the premise of the “communism of intelligence, enacted in the demonstration of the capacity of the ‘incapable’: the capacity of the ignorant to learn by himself” (cited in Ranciere, 2010: 168). This is directly echoed in the Haitian Revolution which was conceived and constituted by slaves who made a new structure of knowledge – one not yet incorporated into the practice of contemporary theory. This structure was founded on the starting assumption that “all humans share an equal intelligence” (Nesbitt, 2008: 30) and therefore intrinsically emancipatory.
This essay has established that the Haitian Revolution is significant for the practice of contemporary theory in its proposal of human rights not being limited to a negative legal framework but expanding to include an embodied, positive conception of human rights. Such an expansion depends on the recognition of a silenced chapter of history and is a cautionary tale of the long-term consequences of silencing. The Haitian Revolution therefore shifts the genesis of contemporary human rights discourse, establishing both a conception of humanity that is emancipatory and the importance of contemporary theory being practiced with the awareness that the categories of unthinkable and acceptable reality are and should be susceptible to change.
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