Review: Nick Nesbitt

Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. By Nick Nesbitt. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 2008. Pp. viii, 261.

“The radical transformation of France after 1789 did not determine the appearance of the Haitian Revolution; instead, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was a key element in creating what David Scott has called the ‘conditions of possibility,’ the ontological ground that allowed for a local rebellion’s increasing articulation in terms of universal human rights.” (Nesbitt, 62)

Similar to historian Jeremy Popkin, although with a radically different conclusion, Nick Nesbitt also grapples with the question of whether or not the Revolution in Saint-Domingue was “ideologically predetermined” by the radical ideas of the French Revolution (Nesbitt, 128). While Popkin’s exposition argues that the Revolution was caused by a set of intricate contingencies and the blunders of human reason, Nesbitt’s argument prioritizes the legacy of the Enlightenment tradition as the grounds of possibility for the Revolution in Saint-Domingue. But this is only one side of the argument and it comes after an important clarification: Nesbitt challenges the understanding of the Enlightenment as a homogenous development, located in Europe and “accessible” only to privileged subjects. He argues that this perspective not only obfuscates the conditions under which the Revolution took place but blocks recognition of a critical contribution to the discourse of human rights.[1] By way of its “singularity,” writes Nesbitt, the slaves in Saint-Domingue went beyond the limitations of bourgeois revolutions but in order to learn from this historical rupture, we must recover the link between the Revolution and the tradition of Radical Enlightenment thought.

“To understand the events of the Haitian Revolution as such a spontaneous, self-moving singularization of the Spinozian Radical Enlightenment implies that the Haitian Revolution be understood not merely in its difference from the French, American revolutions, but rather in both its singularity and its commonality with other revolutionary moments in the Age of Enlightenment.” (Nesbitt, 24)

Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment by Nick Nesbitt

First, it would be wise to address how this concept of “singularization” functions in Nesbitt’s argument. For Nesbitt, “singularization is the actual unpredictable instantiation of the infinite possible modes of being” (Nesbitt 107, and 26). It represents the distinct expressions of being that although part of a universal whole (Spinoza’s “universal substance”), is far from homogenous. This useful dialectic between the particular expressions of universality and their corresponding universal concepts (or even the “universal” itself as a concept), allows Nesbitt to argue that it is possible to imagine that these singular expressions of the whole are capable of going beyond the bounds of their original concepts and thus, have the potential to transform how we conceptualize, or re-imagine, the whole. This is important for Nesbitt because it allows him to argue that the legacy of the Enlightenment should be treated as something dynamic, open to reinvention through the interpretation of its many instantiations. The Revolution in Saint-Domingue is precisely one of these moments of re-invention, of re-articulation, that Nesbitt wants to highlight as offering critical insight into the problems of reason and freedom, both central to the Enlightenment tradition.[2] This is the propelling force behind his endeavor of “charting the process through which the symbolic field of social understanding (the Radical Enlightenment) was transformed in practice” (my emphasis).

“If the English, French and American bourgeois revolutions all served to create the structural conditions for the protection of individual liberties of economic choice and property, the particularity of the Haitian Revolution was to redress the imbalance they had introduced between equality and liberty in favor of the latter.” (Nesbitt, 18-19)

Nesbitt dedicates a good portion of the book to the ways in which the newly freed men and women in Saint-Domingue attempted to solve this imbalance.[3] In particular, Nesbitt focuses (similar to Caroline Fick) on the ways in which exslaves organized themselves against the militarization of plantation labor instituted under Toussaint. He contrasts the “individualistic freedom of wage-labor/consumerist individual” freedom, embodied by Toussaint, to one dedicated to “a fully egalitarian, subsistence-based, stateless community,” embodied by the ex-slaves, which, he argues, divided Saint-Domingue between “(elite) state and (Bossale) nation” (Nesbitt, 172). This novel self-organization by the freedmen, what he terms “stateless egalitarianism” (Nesbitt, 172), is characterized by “a refusal to all forms of transcendental authority” and the lack of class division (the creation of an “elite” society).  Nesbitt notes that this achievement of a utopic vision was short-lived, an alternative that was doomed to failure from the beginning by the tragic isolation of Haiti.

It was unclear, he writes, how this order was to sustain itself in the face of looming threats of invasion and the pressures of an international order in direct conflict with Haiti’s existence as a “free” state. Nesbitt notes that the Bossale community never reached a consensus as to how it might sustain itself in the face of the capitalist world-system. Throughout a century and a half it was able to survive by “passive and (occasionally) active resistance to the liberal world-system, in a strategic withdrawal of maronnage to the Haitian hills” (Nesbitt, 174). How would this “Bossale vision of an anarchist, multifundia-based freedom” have been able to sustain itself? Here is where is where Nesbitt is conceptually stuck (one could say also, politically stuck). How could have these egalitarians means achieve a total eradication of the social order? Nesbitt hints at the problem of the means and ends regarding social transformation but doesn’t dedicate too much time fleshing out the issue,

“As a radical extension of the process of the Enlightenment – understood as the uncoerced public use of human reason—the Haitian Revolution was both a grandiose success and a failure. While I have argued in this chapter that it enacted a globalization and reconceptualization of the concept of the universal human right, its ultimate limitation lay in the historical conditions of that process.” (Nesbitt, 80, my emphasis)

How do historians understand the defining characteristics of these “historical conditions”? The problem would need further articulation so that historians can asses the ways in which the experiments by the freed men and women were either capable or incapable to grapple with these limitations. Nesbitt provides different answers to this question, sometimes he points to the “unfree totality of Western modernity in 1804” other times to the prevalent “logic of the will to power” but sometimes he simply seems to be pointing to capitalism (Nesbitt, 174).  This is probably the least developed part of his argument but correspondently the most interesting and pertinent.

At a recent presentation on NYU’s campus (02.18.11), Nesbitt spoke about the issue of unfreedom. And while thinking retrospectively about this book, he offered that Haiti is both a success and a failure, but its failure should not be attributed to the individual personalities of men like Toussaint but should, instead, highlight the structural limitations underpinning its “tragic” future:  Under what conditions of constraint, one could ask, was Haiti limited to become an example of what was possible but thwarted in the 19th century? A critical history of the Revolution in Saint-Domingue must come to terms with precisely this problem.


[1] Throughout the book, Nesbitt critiques current use of the notion of “human rights” as a “formally empty” concept (Nesbitt, 191) that is far removed from the political demands necessary in order to created the conditions under which this can be achieved (Nesbitt, 131).

[2] Nesbitt often uses this rhetorical device asking his readers—if they are so generous—to be “more Kantian than Kant.” I think this shows the kind of imminent critique the book attempts to wager, i.e., a critique of the legacy of the Enlightenment through grappling with its unresolved problems and incomplete aspirations.

[3] Ultimately he concludes that it is unable to surpass this problem, “No true freedom, one that would allow for the sustained development of both liberty and social equality, was ever possible for Haitians in such an unfree totality as was Western modernity in 1804.”

One comment

  1. Pingback: Pam Nogales, “Book review: Universal Emancipation, by Nick Nesbitt” | The Charnel-House

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