Gurminder Bhambra: What does the Haitian Revolution tell us about the Society of Equals?

The Society of EqualsWhat does the Haitian Revolution tell us about the Society of Equals?

Gurminder K Bhambra

The revolution in Saint-Domingue that brought into being the new state of Haiti occurred around the same time as the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence and yet it is rarely accorded a similar status of being considered a foundational event of world history. While there have been significant accounts of the Haitian revolution – most notably, perhaps, CLR James’s The Black Jacobins – few histories of the general ‘Age of Revolutions’ variety have included it as part of their understanding of that age and fewer social scientists, still, have sought to understand the emergence of modernity in the context of the Haitian Revolution. This omission has been addressed in recent years, with social science scholars beginning to reference Haiti along with their discussion of the other revolutions. Often, however, this is all they do – reference Haiti.

In Pierre Rosanvallon’s new book, Society of Equals, Santo Domingo (as the French colony is named by the translator) is mentioned on page 16, alongside the United States and France, as one of the fundamental sites of the new spirit of equality that animated the revolution of modernity. It is then never returned to through the rest of its 384 pages. Instead, the discussion of equality – its historical conditions and contemporary political possibilities – is articulated through a discussion of selective episodes of US and French history (with Britain as a counterpoint in footnotes and increasingly in text as Rosanvallon approaches his conclusion). Rosanvallon believes that equality can be conceptualised through a discussion of US and French history that, not only fails to address issues of dispossession, appropriation, enslavement, and colonisation as limits to the contemporary ideological understandings of equality, but also fails to consider these as perhaps the very negation of those understandings.

Rosanvallon points to the invention of equality in France and the US in the context of their rejection of ‘aristocratic racism’ – that is, the rejection of the idea that the nobility, in its own terms, constituted a separate ‘race’ on the basis of its distinction – but has little to say on racism of the more common or garden variety and its relationship to understandings and practices of equality. The one mention of Santo Domingo comes in a section titled ‘A Legacy of Christianity?’ but has little to say on the fact that it was the Christian French who enslaved others and thus denied the practice of equality in Santo Domingo and it was the ‘voodoo’ or ‘pagan’ beliefs and practices of the enslaved population which brought into being the first revolution that instituted political equality.

Slavery is presented as the archetype of inequality, but the limited discussion of the contemporary enslavement of African populations is quickly devolved to metaphors of political slavery vis-à-vis the relationship between the incipient US and Britain, or to discussion of the commonplace analogy at the time between waged labour and slavery. The use of slavery as a metaphor to point to the terrible conditions experienced by white citizens implies that they are aware of the nature of slavery and reject it as a condition they should share with those who have been enslaved, while believing the latter to be outside any consideration of the ‘society of equals’.

At a number of points, Rosanvallon equates equality with sameness or homogeneity of membership within a community which, after all, is the way in which he is able to discuss equality in the round without any reference to the limiting historical instances of enslavement or colonisation – those who were enslaved or colonised were not recognised as members of the communities under discussion. This sameness of community is linked to notions of citizenship and has, and comes to have later in the book, disturbing connotations in terms of towards whom we might be obliged to act equitably. The latter part of the book, which I will discuss in a second post, focuses on issues of equality in the present and attempts to do so without any consideration of immigration as necessarily central to such discussions. Beyond this, however, Rosanvallon also manages to put forward the notion that the solidarities of immigrant communities are somehow in breach of the foundational equality of citizenship within the French nation. But more on this later. For now, I want to consider the issues that arise from the earlier discussion.

The histories that we use to interpret and communicate our concepts and categories matter to their overall shape and subsequent efficacy. If the history standardly used is demonstrated to be inadequate as a representation of all that happened of significance, then it is incumbent upon us to consider the broader histories being brought to our attention and to do the work necessary to reconsider our concepts and categories in light of the difference made by these ‘new’ histories. Part of the reason why I put ‘new’ in quote marks, is that because if these histories have now entered the academy they were nonetheless circulating elsewhere as lived memories and are only ‘new’ in relation to their increased prominence within the academy.

When I first started reading and teaching about the Haitian revolution I would regularly refer to it as a ‘silenced’ or ‘forgotten’ revolution. Then I became aware of the numerous instances – from the revolts of enslaved peoples in the southern states of the US, to the independence movements of Latin America, to the cultural renaissance in Harlem in the 1960s, to the Maori movements for justice and equality – where the Haitian revolution was a live and lived experience for communities in struggle. On learning of these broader resonances of Haiti I realised that the silence referred only to the failure of the academy to take seriously the significance of the revolution there and to learn anew from it.

So what might we learn about equality if we took Haiti seriously?

First, in terms of Haiti itself, we would learn about the ways in which those who had been enslaved, on achieving their freedom and independence, honoured the people who preceded them on the land. In renaming Saint Domingue as Haiti they honoured the name given to the island by the Arawak people who were wiped out by Spanish and French colonisation.

Second, we would learn that on achieving freedom and independence, colour was made no bar to political participation. This extraordinary political act occurred as the American Revolution maintained enslavement and segregation of its populations and the French maintained forms of domination and exclusion with their colonies and over their colonised populations. In Haiti, on the other hand, everybody who was Black could participate in politics and black was not an issue of phenotype, but of a commitment to the values of equality and freedom and an opposition to colonialism.

Colonisation of others was outlawed and a delegation from Haiti travelled to Paris to argue in front of the Constituent Assembly for a clause to abolish slavery to be included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The most radical political statement of the French Revolution – that is, the one with the greatest universal potential – came from Haiti.

More broadly, we would learn that as Haitians fought for self-emancipation, they did so from that country otherwise presented as the fount of liberty and equality and brotherhood – France. We would need to think about what taking the Haitian revolution seriously would mean for any discussion of equality as emerging from the traditions of French thought (as is the case, for example, of much sociological discussion), particularly in their studious refusal to consider the implications of the Haitian revolution to their own deliberations.

It is this latter point that explains why Rosanvallon, while referencing Santo Domingo, cannot consider it further, because to do so with any seriousness would also cause him to have to reflect on its implications for the whole theoretical edifice of his understanding of equality. It would require a radical reconstruction of the very idea of equality through the engagement with and development of traditions not usually presented as central within the academy.

It is significant that Rosanvallon uses the earlier Spanish name for the island – Santo Domingo (or, in the original French version, Saint Domingue) – rather than that chosen by the self-emancipated citizens, Haiti. Even in its naming, Rosanvallon chooses to efface the momentous achievements of the Haitian Revolution and to defer consideration of how the ideas of equality that emerged in this revolution could contribute to, challenge, and inform contemporary understandings of equality and what it would take to create a society of equals.

Gurminder K. BhambraGurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Theory Centre at the University of Warwick. Her research addresses how, within sociological understandings of modernity, the experiences and claims of non-European ‘others’ have been rendered invisible to the dominant narratives and analytical frameworks of sociology. While her research interests are primarily in the area of historical sociology, she is also interested in the intersection of the social sciences with recent work in postcolonial studies. She is the author of Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2007, Winner of the BSA Philip Abrams Memorial Prize) and Connected Sociologies: Theory for a Global Age (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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