The Promise of Freedom and the Predicament of Marronage: On Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage

Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); 264 pages; ISBN 978-0226201047 (paperback)

• February 2017

In response to “our late modern impasse on thinking about freedom” (143), Neil Roberts’s ambitious and timely intervention argues that political freedom must be thought in relation to the existence and experience of slavery. His bold call to understand “freedom as marronage” is also motivated by the important project of “creolizing political theory” (147) by grounding it in black historical experience and paying close attention to how black thinkers have reflected on that experience. Freedom as Marronage should provoke fruitful discussion in black studies, political theory, history, and postcolonial studies.

Roberts seeks to develop a dynamic and relational theory of freedom that points beyond liberal faith in the absence of external interference. More interested in processes of becoming, he writes sympathetically about Hannah Arendt on freedom as natality—the human capacity to begin anew and create novel political orders. Roberts rightly reminds us that emancipation from domination should not be conflated with freedom as such. Yet he also argues that republican conceptions of freedom, including Arendt’s, are compromised by a “disavowal of slave agency” (27). Following Orlando Patterson, Roberts insists that political theory must start from the fact that enslaved peoples were the first moderns to treat freedom as the highest human good. In this spirit, he offers close readings of the reflections of W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass on flight, fugutivity, and freedom. Roberts praises Du Bois’s emphasis on slave agency and Douglass’s concept of “comparative freedom” as entwined with forms of domination (24). But, according to Roberts, they did not develop a revolutionary conception of marronage. For this he turns to the Haitian Revolution.

Roberts defines the regime created by Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the 1790s slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, as a case of “sovereign marronage” (89), when fleeing slaves coalesce into a revolutionary force that overthrows the existing political order. Here freedom is bestowed, protected, and embodied by a sovereign lawgiver who stands apart from, and may also act despotically toward, the population of freed people. In contrast, he identifies the rule of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who established Haiti as an independent national state, with a higher form of “sociogenic marronage” (113). Beyond merely securing state sovereignty, Roberts argues, this type of marronage transforms the very basis of the social order. He contends that under Dessalines, Haitian peasants enjoyed a more equitable relationship to the land, participation in popular assemblies, and greater gender equality. He emphasizes that Dessalines severed all ties with imperial France, transformed emancipated blacks into Haitian “natives,” and, crucially, instituted a political rather than biological conception of blackness.

Roberts uses sociogenic to refer both to a type of marronage and an approach to studying it. The term comes from Frantz Fanon, for whom, Roberts explains, it referred to an approach to the study of social life that attended to both subjective and objective acts by situated beings who bring specific social orders into the world. According to Roberts, a sociogenic approach would examine actors’ lived experience, paying equal attention to the psychic, existential, and material conditions that shape opportunities, choices, and imaginaries. It would privilege ordinary people over the lawgiver, the government, or the legal order.

With close readings, sharp observations, and provocative claims, Roberts makes many important points. Among them are that micro-acts may have macropolitical consequences, that slave conditions and experiences of flight were important resources for maroons’ freedom practices, and that any conception of freedom should attend to the flexibility, dynamism, and relationality that were cultivated by marronage. He usefully discusses how marronage challenges the liberal fiction of absolute freedom and how it challenges attempts to conflate freedom with state sovereignty. These all flow from Freedom as Marronage’s central and exciting aim to resist “provincializing marronage as relevant merely to Caribbean regional discourse” (13). In the last line of the book Robert boldly asserts that “marronage still matters” (181). I certainly agree, but the question is how? I would like to focus on some of the broader issues raised by this welcome effort to show “the normative value that marronage affords” (113).

A first set of questions concerns the historical opposition that Roberts draws between Toussaint and Dessalines. The fact that Toussaint established an authoritarian regime is beyond dispute. But students of Haiti might contest this portrait of Dessalines’s regime as a plural popular democracy. Laurent Dubois, following Haitian scholar Jean Casimir, uses the term “counter-planation” to describe the informal system of collective labor and land possession among self-managing Haitian peasants that developed after the revolution. Such practices may indeed have derived from maroon precedents. But these developed in opposition to Dessalines’s state policies.1

We might also ask whether Dessalines embodied marronage as a “non-sovereign state of being” more fully than Toussaint (116). Dessalines equated self-determination with national independence, was preoccupied with categorical separation from France, and sought to turn Haiti into an autarchic territory of indigènes. This despite the crushing debt and chronic threat of invasion through which the new nation remained fatefully bound to France and entangled in hemispheric geopolitics. In contrast, Toussaint attempted to create a novel political arrangement whereby Saint-Domingue would be a self-governing black republic that also remained formally federated to the metropolitan French state. Such an arrangement may have proved to be disastrous. But insofar as it instituted a system of political autonomy (rather than assimilation into the existing French nation), it should not, as Roberts contends, be regarded as an incipient form of departmentalization. He also repeats, without support, the dubious but commonplace accusation that Toussaint’s program was a function of his fateful commitment to the legal and political ideals of Enlightenment. One could as easily argue that Dessalines’s conventional national state followed the Enlightenment template more closely than Toussaint’s autonomy within federation. And we could understand the latter as flowing less from a misguided loved of France than from a canny recognition of the black republic’s vulnerable and inescapably interdependent situation within the existing order of Atlantic slavery, global capitalism, and Western imperialism. Perhaps it was Toussaint who better recognized how the quasi-independent black republic faced a maroon predicament, he who was more attentive to the realities and possibilities of nonsovereignty.

On another level, it is difficult to see how either Toussaint or Dessalines exemplify Roberts’s expansive and generative understanding of sociogenic marronage as “a non-sovereign state of being” for which “condition, not place, is vital to its phenomenology” (116–17). A second set of questions thus concerns the relationship between the book’s historical examples and conceptual claims. How do the differences that Roberts posits between Toussaint and Dessalines map onto and illuminate the distinction that he makes between sovereign and sociogenic marronage? On the one hand, he uses regime differences to distinguish one from the other. On the other, he repeatedly characterizes sociogenic marronage in terms of the will to flee and a state of becoming that have nothing to do with state form. He thus writes of a “marronage philosophy” defined by “attempts at actualization of flight, of the ability of individuals to become free and to exit from that condition, and perpetual acts of attainment and restructuring [that] are part and parcel of what it means to be human” (116).

If we bracket the historical examples and focus on these interesting conceptual claims, there arises a different set of questions. Roberts repeatedly characterizes marronage as the flight from a zone of enslavement. But he oscillates between figuring flight as freedom and flight as a movement to freedom. (His theoretical propositions suggest the former while his historical examples emphasize the latter.) But he does not specify how flight and founding do or should relate to one another within his normative concept of marronage. Insofar as it signals escape from immediate domination, it would help to hear more about how it differs from a liberal concept of emancipation. Insofar as it signals the founding of a new order that institutes real freedom, it would help to hear more about the kinds of sociopolitical arrangements this might entail.

I am ready to take up Roberts’s useful call to think modern freedom from the standpoint of Atlantic slavery in order to treat marronage as a nonprovincial political concept (and vice versa). But doing so would seem to require us to start from the peculiar forms of freedom that were shaped by the particular conditions of flight and founding that have historically defined maroon communities and practices. Insofar as maroons fled the legal sanctions and immediate violence of plantation slavery, they established autonomous communities. But these existed, whether overtly or covertly, within the broader territorial perimeters of that slave society and under perpetual threat of discovery, social destruction, and re-enslavement. All maroons were identified as fugitive slaves. Their survival depended on relations and transactions with sectors of that broader society (whether illicit or officially sanctioned, secret or overt, violent or peaceful, military or commercial). Under such conditions, definitive escape for fugitive maroons was impossible. They lived a vulnerable and conditional autonomy that bound them to the system they fled. No stable sphere outside of domination existed. Marronage thus entailed experiments in self-determination as well as inescapable negotiations, accommodations, and compromises.

We might therefore define marronage as a situation of precarious autonomy under conditions of asymmetrical interdependence. If it created a legacy of freedom dreams and practices, it was also a predicament to be overcome. How might such an understanding allow or compel us to think differently about modern freedom? Does Haiti serve as a useful reference point for doing so? Most immediately, it does not. Following conventional understandings, once the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue established a national state, they transcended the maroon condition. But insofar as independent Haiti enjoyed only a provisional and conditional freedom, with respect to a hostile global order organized around racial capitalism, plantation slavery, and imperial extraction, it might indeed be understood as an ongoing experiment in marronage. From this perspective, the maroon predicament can also illuminate a situation like decolonization, when subject peoples obtained nominal independence within a framework of inescapable global economic and geopolitical inequality in relation to which there was no stable outside. Such a concept of marronage could also help to illuminate the conundrum of ongoing occupation, nominal sovereignty, or constitutional autonomy for small and poor peoples in our globalized present. Places such as Palestine, Greece, Martinique, and Puerto Rico could be understood as confronting the maroon predicament. More hopefully, we might reconsider recent experiments in autonomous democracy without state sovereignty in places such as Mondragon, Chiapas, Buenos Aires, and Rojave, as examples of late-modern marronage. We could even approach the predicament of black Atlantic communities after the abolition of slavery but within racial states (like the United States) in terms of marronage.

If were are to rethink freedom through and as marronage, it cannot be restricted to a one-sided celebration of agency and flight. Marronage does not only index a remarkable commitment to emancipation and an extraordinary repertoire of freedom practices. It also names a profound predicament for subject communities within broader systems of domination that might reveal something deeper about human freedom. The dynamic and expansive character of this mode of becoming is inseparable from the precarity that has always defined the maroon situation. If the price of flight is fugitivity and the consequence of founding is complicity, marronage may not serve as the most robust model for an emancipatory politics that seeks to establish a society within which substantive freedom could be universally practiced and protected. It is one thing to treat marronage as an insightful sociological description of the historical situation in which so many New World blacks risked death to found communities of relative freedom under duress. It is another to treat marronage as an analytic concept that can illuminate a range of historical situations and help us to think more deeply about freedom as a problem that must be thought in relation to entanglement, interdependence, precarity, complicity, and compromise. But these are not the same as affirming marronage as a normative political ideal.

At one point Roberts bolsters his argument by quoting a Haitian proverb: “Beyond the mountains there are mountains” (113). He reads this as a comment on the probability of flight as well as the difficulties and creative frictions produced by ongoing mobility. We might also add that the endless mountains offer innumerable opportunities for refuge, habitation, and autonomy—resources for finding and creating a place apart. But the fact of marronage means that any such refuge will also be within the broader world of domination. This folk wisdom thus seems to crystalize a certain maroon consciousness, rooted in long-term lived experience, that there is no outside, no beyond the mountains. In such a world, the aim cannot be simply to flee with the goal of escape but to confront and inhabit the predicament. This orientation should be conveyed by any attempt to reonceptualize freedom as marronage.

Early on, Roberts interprets Aimé Césaire’s poem “The Verb ‘Marronner’” as endorsing the practice “enacted by the masses of slaves as a flight from slavery to freedom” (7). Certainly. But in the poem, Césaire relates the act of marooning to poetry and conviviality—to drinking, laughing, singing, dancing, wandering, and creating. His point is that transgressive art cannot follow prescribed patterns, and poetry cannot operate according to an instrumental logic. When Césaire invites his Haitian comrade Renée Depestre to “maroon” with him, it is more than a call to flee. He seems rather to be invoking the history of marronage as the creatively subversive engagement with real dilemmas by refusing all dogmatisms. Naming the “demented song” that mythically sparked the Saint-Domingue slave insurrection, Césaire calls forth the anti-autarchic inversions, reworkings, inflections, and habitations—turning insides out and outsides in, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar—that must orient antiracist and anti-imperial politics and poetics, as it did for historical maroons, in a plural and interdependent world.2

Césaire spent his life confronting and reflecting on the problem of freedom for black Atlantic communities. So did his student and interlocutor Édouard Glissant. Roberts cites Glissant’s writing on marronage as a “vocation” that grasps “freedom as becoming” and a “perpetual flight from slavery” (167, 171). We should also recall that Glissant’s writings equally emphasize how New World blacks, displaced by slavery, were compelled to negotiate an impossible political situation from which simple exit has always been impossible (e.g., return, nativism, autarchy, sovereignty). Glissant's use of marronage as an image and metaphor invites readers to think political freedom in terms of the endless webs of intersection, the perpetual détours, and the condition of relation that characterized black Atlantic social formations as well as modern globalized social life within what he calls Tout-monde—a world in which in there are always mountains beyond the mountains.


Gary Wilder is a professor in the PhD programs of anthropology, history, and French, and the director of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Duke University Press, 2015) and The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism between the World Wars (University of Chicago Press, 2005).


1 See Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan, 2012), 33, 47, 371; and Jean Casimir, La culture opprimée (Delmas, Haiti: Lakay, 2001).

2 Aimé Césaire, “Le verbe marronner / The Verb ‘Marronner,’” in The Collected Poetry, trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 368–71.


Related Articles