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The Significance of the Haitian Revolution for the Practice of Contemporary Theory.

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The significance of the Haitian Revolution for the practice of contemporary theory.

1. Introduction Philosopher Peter Hallward claims, “If the French Revolution stands as the great political event of modern times the Haitian Revolution must figure at the most decisive sequence of that event” (Hallward, 2004:2). From a historical perspective, it is important that one recognises the significance of this event. The Haitian Revolution was a struggle for self-determination against colonial imperialism and slavery but it was also so much more than that as it was a struggle for the liberation of the African mind too. The Haitian Revolution influenced thinkers such as Peter Hallward and Alain Badiou, C.L.R. James as well as pan-Africanist thinkers such as Marcus Garvey and later Franz Fanon himself. In this paper I will analyse the Haitian Revolution not in a historical context per se but rather by examining its significance on the practice of contemporary theory. My argument in this paper is that the Haitian Revolution as an empirical event challenged many assumed theoretical universalities and in so doing has made contemporary theory ever more useful in terms of making sense of the world and uncovering hidden truths. For the purpose of this paper, theory as a concept as well as the practice of theory as process needs to be discussed in detail. Theory as a concept can best be understood as a system of ideas that are meant to explain a facet of existence. Thory can be very bold in that it attempts to explain many facets while other theory is more modest in its attempt to make sense of something on a far smaller scale. Theory then is the exercise of reason in order to better understand the world. Theory is based on reason and should therefore be self-critical and self-reflecting as reason can often be wrong. Theory has the ability illuminate one’s understanding of something but it can also blind and obscure it too.
The practice of theory as a process has to do with how theory moves and is produced, is accepted as truth and passed on; or rejected as a falsehood. The Aristotelian concept of praxis can be used as a starting point for understanding this process. Praxis is the process by which theory is actualised into existence; how it is manifested into the empirical world. Theory exists as a system of ideas. Subjective agency propagates these ideas. Theory subsequently spread and is consumed by many individuals who in turn scrutinise it in terms of its validity. If an individual believes that a theory may reveal a truth, they can accept it and may choose to pass it on to other individuals. This is the basic cognitive-mechanical process of how ideas spread. The awareness derived from this acceptance of a theory as revealing a truth will inevitably lead to resulting understanding influencing subjective perceptions, decisions and actions so much so that through this process theory can be actualised into an event as a result of it very own existence, “the existence of an in-existent” (Alain Bordiou, 2006: 286).
The event being emergent in nature, then needs to be made sense of and can subsequently be theorised about and so the cycle of theoretical genesis and the subsequent actions resulting continue into infinity as even a falsehood can reveal a truth. Theory can also affect other theories directly through the academy without becoming an event. This can happen through the process of academic debate and the application of reason therein. When one speaks of the practice of contemporary theory, one is speaking to the above-mentioned processes in a contemporary context. This is to say that the theorists responsible are usually alive and the theory is still hotly being debated in terms of its validity. What is important to note about the practice of theory is that it is not an isolated process. Theoretical practice and especially the practice of contemporary theory more so occurs against the backdrop of the historical. The historical can thus be seen as a constraint that shapes and controls the flow of theoretical discourses and theoretical discourses subsequently shape theories being produced. Of course this happens retrospectively usually which is why history is far more effective at shaping contemporary theoretical discourses as opposed to those of classical theory being during produced at the time of the event. I agree to an extent with Peter Hallward’s claim regarding the significance of the Haitian Revolution (2004). The Haitian Revolution should be considered an extremely significant event if considered a sequence of the French Revolution, however I believe Hallward makes an ontological error his statement. Is it not in Haiti where the three principles of the French Revolution were universally affirmed, namely liberty, equality and fraternity? Surely it would be more appropriate to consider the French Revolution a sequence of the Haitian Revolution.
It is the Haitian Revolution that defied the European imagination of the day to such an extent that even in contemporary times we are still wrestling with the historical lessons that arose from it. As Michelle-Rolph Trouilliot argues, “the contention that enslaved Africans and their descendants could not envision freedom – let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom – was based not so much on empirical evidence as on an ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants” (1995: 73).
Trouilliot is arguing that the western imagination of the period was unable to comprehend the Haitian Revolution in its fullness. This is to say that the Haitian Revolution was incompatible with the prevailing western beliefs of the eighteenth century because the Haitian Revolution began as a slave rebellion and slaves were thought to be incapable of reason and unable to successfully self-mobilise. One has to acknowledge the relationship between the French and Haitian revolutions respectively but to argue the Haitian Revolution as a “decisive sequence” (Hallward, 2004:2) of the French Revolution does not do the event justice and in fact uses an ontological reasoning in itself. Is ascribing the Haitian Revolution as a sequence of the French Revolution not the same as attributing the success of the revolution to the French thus denying the black agency responsible for its success? Indeed contemporary theory is not immune to ontological reasoning either. The Haitian Revolution highlights many interesting lesson for the practice of contemporary theory such as while one may think that contemporary theory is at the height of rationalisation, one inevitably finds irrationality within it.
Michelle-Rolph Trouilliot makes another point about the Haitian Revolution with his claim that “the successive events within that chain were systematically recast by many participants to fit a world of possibilities” (1995: 95-96). Peter Hallward echoes this sentiment when he says the “achievement of Haitian independence reminds us that politics need not always proceed as ‘the art of the possible’” (2004:2). Indeed one can only understand the significant of an event when one accepts the possibility of its very existence.
The denial of the full significance of the Haitian Revolution by Western scholars has had a ripple affect across the centuries into the contemporary period. The Haitian Revolution fell outside the eighteenth century Western plethora of possibilities. Western scholars subsequently historisized the event with narratives using tropes referred to by Trouilliot as formulas of erasure and banalisation (1995: 96). Formulas of erasure refer to presenting the Haitian Revolution in a manner that erases the fact that a revolution occurred and presents it as more of an uprising or rebellion. Erasureit means to literally erase from the historical memory the significance of the event. Formulas of banalisation refers to the distorting of revolutionary sub-events with the main event to the point that the entire sequence of events that occurred in Haiti becomes trivialised.
Both tropes are forms of historical silencing and pose massive challenges to contemporary theory in terms of trying to understand the truth behind an event. This is because theory is often built upon theory. The practice of theory is an oscillating conversation that continues above and beyond the life span of any of its contributors therefore what is said now affects what will be said in the future and what was said then affects what can be said now. Theory has a tendency to disseminate into society and so do the falsehoods they carry. This invariably leads to the social reproduction of the falsehoods, which directly affects the now. This is why it is so important to heed the lessons that events like the Haitian Revolution bring into focus though the work of thinkers like Trouilliot because concepts like the formulas of erasure and banalisation are not unique to classical theory alone; they exist in contemporary theory too.
One only needs to look at how the modern media reports on events such as the Marikana Massacre and the 2011 London Riots. The media has portrayed the miners who are striking at Marikana as irrational individuals incapable of reason by running stories that depict them as superstitious, moetie-using, machete-wielding brutes who are selfish in their quest for more remuneration. Indeed many people have accepted this falsehood as truth. The idea that neo-liberal economic policies are not in the best interest for the majority of people exist outside the realm of possibilities, at least for the elites who have the power.
It is a similar situation with the protestors in London. They are depicted as anarchists with a thirst for destruction but in actuality they have a political project and are protesting in activism. Although post-modernism has lost its credibility in the academy, in the empirical world it is alive and well. When an event falls outside this realm of possibilities of the society’s imagination in which it occurs, it is played down using the tropes identified by Trouilliot and this invariably leads to the silencing of the historical truth. This is not to say that individuals are explicitly trying to misrepresent an event but rather as a collective we incapable of understanding possibilities we do not acknowledge. Contemporary theorists must be aware of this as if they are not these sorts of mistakes will continue to be repeated.
For many years the Haitian Revolution occupied an unjust place in world history because world history itself has been dominated by and seen through the Western perspective. In 1938 however this changed with the publication of C.L.R James’ The Back Jacobins, which brought Haiti Revolution back into the spot light of the political. The Black Jacobins is an account of the Haitian Revolution from a bottom-up perspective and is a starting point for understanding the slave experience in the Caribbean. The Black Jacobins is significant to the practice of contemporary theory because for the first time it give black slaves an agency as opposed to be silent observers of the event. Western theory for the most part had up to that point in time totally negated the possibility that the slaves themselves had played a critical role in the revolution as opposed to being directed from front by individuals like Toussaint L’Overture.
Great historical events often tend to be reduced to the individuals who lead those movements. When one thinks of the success of the Haitian Revolution, one can sometimes make the mistake of reducing this mass event by attributing its success to the elites who were involved in it such as Toussaint L’Overture. An example of this problem in more recent times is that of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela. When most individuals think of Apartheid they automatically reduce the event to Mandela’s prison term on Robben Island and his subsequent journey to the office of the presidency.
This is in part thanks to the South African post-liberation media machine and days like Nelson Mandela day which reinforce this cult following. Indeed Mandela’s role as an activist in the anti-Apartheid movement was crucial to the liberation outcome but many other individuals participated and actively contributed to the liberation campaigns success. The same conceptual problem exists with regards to the Haitian Revolution and the importance of the agency of slaves who participated within it.
Nick Nesbit refers to the agency of the masses as popular insurgency and frames the problem of popular insurgency as “when the elites and the people speak at different moments of problems such as freedom and independence, democracy, autonomy, and the like, to what degree are they conceiving of entirely different objects and goals” (2008:1). Often the elites and the masses have shared objectives and goals for the outcome of an event. They may however also have different perceptions of how those goals will be actualised into existence. In the case of Haiti, both the elites and the masses were pursing freedom and the right to self-determination however these two outcomes meant different things to both groups. On the one hand, elites like L’Overture wanted to continue the plantation economy and on the other hand the masses had a completely different idea of how they wanted to live. They rejected the dominant European labour ideologies of their time and opted to return to the subsistence lifestyles they lived in Africa.
People usually know what is better for them over their leaders. This is to say that there is a distinction of interests between the elites and the masses. The significance for the contemporary theory from this lesson is that contemporary theory must take the agency of ordinary people seriously. Often it is the masses that set the agenda and to reduce a struggle to simply the experience of its elites is to reduce the ontology of the masses involved. This is an important lesson for contemporary theory as it too can make this error of reason.
In conclusion, the Haitian Revolution defied the reason of the period it occurred in and by doing so opened up space for contemporary theory to examine possibilities that were incomprehensible before it. The Haitian Revolution, though thinkers such as Nesbit and Trouilllot, revealed false universalities that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. The lessons learned has shaped contemporary theoretical discourse and made contemporary theory ever more useful in terms of understanding the world as truths have been revealed that cannot be ignored.

Badiou, Alain., 2006, Polemics, London: Verso.
Hallward, P., 2004, Haitian Inspiration. Radical Philosophy, No. 123, 2004
James, CLR, 2001 (1938), The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Penguin.

Nesbit, N., 2008, Turning the Tide: The Problem of Popular Insurgency in Haitian Revolutionary Histography, Small axe.

Trouillot, M. 1995. An Unthinkable History. Boston: Beacon Press.

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