Reconceptualizing Universalism and Radical Egalitarianism through Francophone Caribbean Thought

Nick Nesbitt, Caribbean Critique: Antillean Critical Theory from Toussaint to Glissant (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013); 346 pages; ISBN 978-1846318665 (hardcover)

• June 2019

Caribbean Critique: Antillean Critical Theory from Toussaint to Glissant is a prodigiously researched and compelling conceptualization of francophone Caribbean critical thought. The writing under consideration in Nick Nesbitt’s book includes not only the contributions of francophone Caribbean intellectuals such as Toussaint Louverture, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, and Maryse Condé, but also the work of canonical Enlightenment philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, Baruch Spinoza, G. W. F. Hegel, and Marxian intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Jacques Rancière. According to Nesbitt, this expansive genealogy of Caribbean critical thought articulates a form of critique that is deeply impacted by the Haitian Revolution, an event that continues to inspire and complicate Francophone Caribbean writing. A letter written by Jean François, Georges Biassou, and Toussaint Louverture in 1792, for example, serves as a kind of founding document for universal concepts like freedom and equality in a way that, Nesbitt argues, realizes and advances a radical project of freedom beyond the scope of the European Enlightenment. Nesbitt’s work, which deftly asserts the fluid trajectory of radical ideas like freedom across space and time, is exciting not only in the way it theorizes francophone Caribbean literature in relationship to questions of universality but also in the way it establishes its connection to European philosophical traditions. Nesbitt demonstrates that, rather than being external to developments in Enlightenment discourse, the francophone Caribbean tradition may indeed have been the source of its production.

Nesbitt is less concerned with the literariness of these writings than the extent to which they elaborate a “politics of principle,” a term he uses to describe how writing with “a reflective, abstract and theoretical element” can also “articulate a response to the question ‘What is to be done?’” (15). These Caribbean-centered texts include Victor Schoelcher’s Des colonies françaises: Abolition immédiate de l’esclavage, C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, Frantz Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre, Édouard Glissant’s Le discours antillais, Césaire’s Discours sur le colonialisme, and Maryse Condé’s La civilisation du bossale. Each of these works constitutes what Nesbitt calls a form of “critique,” a mode of critical engagement that refuses to arbitrarily separate theory from practice, and, in the struggle for universal egalitarianism, is driven to resolve the fundamental contradictions of slavery and colonialism.

Caribbean Critique is divided into three parts: “Tropical Equality: The Politics of Principle,” “Critique of Caribbean Violence,” and “The Critique of Relation.” Part 1 posits that the idea of radical democracy as universal popular sovereignty was radicalized by the black Jacobins, a group of revolutionaries whose philosophical contributions form the basis for the politics of principle. In part 2, Nesbitt focuses on the question at the heart of the politics of principle: the legitimacy of political violence. Finally, part 3 explores the idea of Relation, a political and aesthetic concept that is at times the basis of “a forceful summons to critique and transformation” of the political order (231). In a fascinating set of early chapters, Nesbitt grounds Caribbean critique in the philosophical-intellectual traditions of the French enlightenment. In particular, Nesbitt takes up the term C. L. R. James famously used to describe Haitian revolutionaries, “Black Jacobins,” to establish continuity between the ideas of the French Jacobins (in particular, the “implications of the universal truth that Tous les hommes naissent et demeurent libres et égaux en droits” [30]) and the events of the Haitian Revolution.1 Arguing against scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s assertion that there were no “‘adequate instruments to conceptualize’” the events of the Haitian Revolution, Nesbitt contends that the Jacobin discourse of radical democracy as universal popular sovereignty mobilized the early revolts in Saint-Domingue (29).2 This move allows Nesbitt to assert not only that the Haitian Revolution was a foundational event in the formation of Caribbean critique but that the imperatives of the Jacobin tradition were at the core of a politics of principle. The ideas promulgated across the Atlantic world by way of France were ones that were “reconceived, radicalized, and perpetuated” throughout francophone Caribbean discourse (31).

Nesbitt constructs the rest of Caribbean Critique around a diverse array of philosophers, writers, and intellectuals across the francophone Caribbean and Europe, including Toussaint Louverture, Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Maximilien Robespierre, Baron de Vastey, Victor Schoelcher, Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, Maryse Condé, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Part 2 offers a particularly compelling discussion of legitimate political violence. According to Nesbitt’s reading of Fanon, rather than endorsing violence as a general politics, Fanon demonstrates that violence is legitimate only in particular instances, when the degree of alienation, exploitation, and suffering is extreme enough to compel individuals to overthrow the old order and establish a democratic one in its stead. Engaging a discussion of the legitimacy of violence, while provocative, is one that Nesbitt weaves into the larger narrative regarding the “imperative of justice as equality” (215). Though critics continue to debate the legitimacy of political violence in colonial and postcolonial revolutions, Nesbitt makes a compelling case for its significance in the context of Caribbean critique as a politics of principle.

There are a series of foundational moments in the history of Caribbean critique that impose an order on its various texts and thinkers. In line with “the Haitian Revolution and Schoelcher’s 1848 abolition,” Nesbitt contends that departmentalization was a seminal event in this history (87). He remarkably characterizes the arguments made by Aimé Césaire in favor of departmentalization as a form of dissidence. Critics of departmentalization, of course, regard Césaire’s move as the ultimate form of assimilation. Nevertheless, despite some of its failures and even Césaire’s own disillusionment with its outcomes, Nesbitt contends that departmentalization can be understood in terms of the democratization of political power and as an anticolonial form of critique. Nonviolent, anticolonial politics, as with political violence, he argues, constitutes an attempt to push forward the needle of radical egalitarianism in striving for the “equal application of republican law to all citizens” (97).

Caribbean Critique is significant in positioning francophone Caribbean literature against the traditional organizing parameters of national or regional frameworks. Furthermore, Nesbitt’s transnational and transtemporal comparison of European intellectual traditions with those of the francophone Caribbean is an innovative framework that expansively historicizes the underpinnings of universalism. By mapping the legacies of colonialism and slavery in the genealogy of egalitarian universalism, Caribbean Critique centers the francophone Caribbean in the story of freedom and equality, while emphasizing the primacy of material, historical conditions in relation to abstract, universal concepts. This work is equally significant for its contribution to African and African diaspora studies. In line with much of this scholarship, Nesbitt shows how francophone Caribbean intellectuals and anticolonial revolutionaries proposed visions of radical egalitarianism that were far more radical and transformative than those of their intellectual precursors.

 

 

Gabriella Rodriguez is an English PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin whose interests include Caribbean literature, neoslave narratives, and African diaspora studies.

 

1 Nesbitt references the 1789 French Constitution, article 1 of the La déclaration des droits de l’homme: “All men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

2 Nesbit quotes Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995), 82.