A Prophetic Vision of Haiti’s Past

By Slavoj ŽižekApril 17, 2016

A Prophetic Vision of Haiti’s Past

The Black Radical Tragic by Jeremy Glick

JEREMY MATTHEW GLICK’S The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution is a book we were all waiting for without knowing it. Only now, after finding it, do we know what we were waiting for. In order to get an idea of its tremendous achievement, one has to take its title and subtitle seriously and consider the three topics they indicate. First, Glick is concerned with the immanent tragic dimension of the radical (revolutionary) process. Second, he elaborates this tragic dimension through a series of historical cases, from the German Peasants’ War to Cuba and Vietnam, whose focal point is the Haitian Revolution. Third, the matter of analysis is not historical reality but its echoes in artistic texts, plays, novels, and films. These three topics form a true Hegelian syllogism where each term mediates the two others.

So why does Glick focus on art performances (theater and cinema) in dealing with this complex political topic? A quote from Édouard Glissant provides the key: “Martinican reality can only be understood from the perspective of all the possibilities, aborted or not, of this Relation.” That’s why one needs narrative fiction, from Glissant to O’Neill, from Eisenstein to Fanon. Art plays with possible alternatives and thus provides the dense cobweb against the background of which the reality of what happened acquires its true profile. We thus get, as Benjamin would have put it, “a prophetic vision of the past,” a past portent of future tragic possibilities. Although I will focus in this review on some basic political and theoretical dilemmas touched on by Glick, I cannot emphasize enough the irresistible charm of his readings of Sergei Eisenstein’s debate with his students on how to shoot Dessalines’s escape through a window, of Paul Robeson’s acting and singing.

As for the tragic dimension, Glick goes much further than the standard notion of revolutionary tragedy. Marx and Engels locate the tragedy of a revolution in the figure of a hero who comes too early, ahead of his time, and who is therefore destined to fail, although, in the long view, he stands for historical progress. Their exemplary figure is Thomas Müntzer. For Glick, by contrast, tragedy is immanent to a revolutionary process. It is inscribed into that process’s very core and defined by a series of oppositions: leader(ship) versus masses, radicality versus compromise, and so on. For example, the gap between leader(ship) and masses, their miscommunication, emerges necessarily. There is no easy way out. Glick quotes a touching passage from Édouard Glissant’s play Monsieur Toussaint (Act IV, Scene V) where Toussaint, laughing in delirium, sadly reflects upon how he “can barely write”: “I write the word ‘Toussaint,’ Macaia spells out ‘traitor.’ I write the word ‘discipline’ and Moyse without even a glance at the page shouts ‘tyranny.’ I write ‘prosperity’; Dessalines backs away, he thinks in his heart ‘weakness.’ No, I do not know how to write, Manuel.”

(Note the irony of how this passage refers to the racist cliché about Black people who cannot write.)

The background of this passage is the tension in the revolutionary process as reflected in personal relations: Toussaint’s nephew Moïse advocated the uncompromising fidelity to Black masses and wanted to break up large estates, while Toussaint himself was possessed by a fear of masses and saw it as his task to retain discipline and to run the production process smoothly, so he ordered Moïse to be executed for sedition. Dessalines later triumphed and, after the establishment of a Black state, proclaimed himself emperor of Haiti, introducing a new form of domination (as well as ordering the massacre of all remaining white inhabitants of Haiti) in the very triumph of the revolution. In order to grasp these tragic twists, it is crucial to count the crowd (which, in the theatrical dispositif, appears as chorus) as one of the active agents, not just as the passive commentator of the events. The title of chapter two of Glick’s book is therefore, quite appropriately, “Bringing in the Chorus.”

So why Haiti? For Glick, the Haitian Revolution is not just an arbitrary example used to articulate a general revolutionary dynamic, but a kind of nodal point, a singularity that reverberates in all other later revolutionary attempts. True, the Haitian Revolution is not the beginning, but already a repetition. However, it is a repetition in the Hegelian sense, a repetition that is not just a copy of the original since it elevates the contingent original into a universal event. The French Revolution became a world-historical event with a universal significance only through its repetition in Haiti where the Black slaves led a successful rebellion with the goal to establish a free republic like the French one. Without this repetition, the French Revolution would have remained a local, idiosyncratic event.

But there is another tension, which exploded in an exemplary way in the Haitian Revolution, the one between Black liberation and universal emancipation whose poles are the “universalist” Toussaint and Dessalines, the agent of the massacre of all non-Blacks in Haiti. Among the best pages in Glick’s book are those where he directly addresses this issue. If I understand him correctly, his line of thought resembles the position exemplified by Malcolm X. While in prison, the young Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam, and, after his parole in 1952, he engaged in its struggle, advocating Black supremacy and the separation of white and Black Americans. For him, “integration” was a fake attempt of the Black to become like the white. However, in 1964, he rejected the Nation of Islam and, while continuing to emphasize Black self-determination and self-defense, he distanced himself from every form of racism, advocating emancipatory universality. As a consequence of this “betrayal,” he was killed by three Nation of Islam members in February 1965. When Malcolm adopted X as his family name, thereby signaling that the slave traders who brought the enslaved Africans from their homeland brutally deprived them of their family and ethnic roots, of their entire cultural life-world, the point of this gesture was not to mobilize Black people to fight for the return to some primordial African roots, but precisely to seize the opening provided by X, an unknown new (lack of) identity engendered by the very process of slavery, which made the African roots forever lost. The idea is that this X, which deprives Black people of their particular tradition, offers a unique chance to redefine (reinvent) themselves, to freely form a new identity much more universal than white people’s professed universality. Although Malcolm X found this new identity in the universalism of Islam, he was killed by Muslim fundamentalists. Therein resides the hard choice to be made: yes, Black people are marginalized, exploited, humiliated, mocked, also feared, at the level of everyday practices; yes, they experience daily the hypocrisy of liberal freedoms and human rights, but in the same movement they experience the promise of true freedom with regard to which the existing freedom is false — it is this freedom that fundamentalists escape.

What this means is that, in the struggle for Black emancipation, one should leave behind the lament for the loss of authentic African roots. Let’s leave this lament to TV series like the one based on Alex Haley’s Roots. To put it in speculative Hegelian terms (and one of the great points of Glick’s book is its continuing reference to Hegel), the true loss is the loss of the loss itself: when a Black African is enslaved and torn out of his roots, he does not only lose these roots. He must also realize that he never had these roots. What he, after this loss, experiences as his roots is a retroactive fantasy, a projection filling in the void. And the same holds for human rights. Yes, universal human rights are effectively the rights of white male property owners to exchange freely on the market, exploit workers and women, as well as exert political domination. However, this is only half of the story. When we experience the gap between the false universality of human rights and the particular injustices this universal form justifies, this gap should not push us to renounce human rights and freedoms as fake, but to begin to struggle for their content. Is the entire struggle for human rights not also the struggle for this content? First, women (beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft) demanded the same rights, then the slaves in Haiti did it in the first successful Black uprising (for which they are punished even today).

Glick is here very precise: while advocating universal emancipation, he does not neglect its mediation with the topic of Black Power. The best tool to think this mediation is provided by Hegel’s notion of “determinate negation.” In a political process, this means that it is not enough to directly assert universality against a particular identity — the specific path to universality matters. Which particularity is negated in a new universality? If, in a conflict between universality of human rights and Black identity, the universality is directly the white liberal one, then Black people are called to join it, to sacrifice part of themselves. The white-liberal universality is therefore falsely universal, which is why universality had to proceed as growing out of the Black Power process. The paradox is thus that the overcoming of Black identity politics has to proceed as a double negation. Yes, one should negate exclusive Black particularity, but one should simultaneously negate the hegemonic white universality, which secretly privileges white people. Say, in France today, the true representative of égalité/liberté is not a pure Frenchman, a Frenchman sans phrase, advocating universal citizenship and exerting pressure on African immigrants to abandon their local customs and integrate themselves into the French way of life, but precisely those immigrants who want to be part of French society as equals and reject anti-immigrant populists — they are literally more French than Frenchmen themselves.

The principal antagonism that underlies this tension is the one between fidelity to the universal cause and the necessity of compromise — and, at least from my standpoint, Glick’s deployment of this antagonism is the theoretical and political climax of his book. Glick’s starting point is the reference to C. L. R. James, who clearly saw that the early Christian revolutionaries “were not struggling to establish the medieval papacy. The medieval papacy was a mediation to which the ruling forces of society rallied in order to strangle the quest for universality of the Christian masses.” Revolutions explodes with radical millenarian demands of actualizing a new universality, and mediations are symptoms of its failure, of thwarting people’s expectations. The quest for universality of the masses “forbids any mediation.” Was the tragic turnaround of the Syriza government not the last big case of such a “mediation”? The principled No to European blackmail was immediately followed by a Yes to the “mediation.”

Glick mentions here Georg Lukács, the great advocate of “mediation” who, in 1935, wrote “Hölderlin’s Hyperion,” a weird, but crucial, short essay in which he “praises Hegel’s endorsement of the Napoleonic Thermidor against Hölderlin’s intransigent fidelity to the heroic revolutionary utopia:”

Hegel comes to terms with the post-Thermidorian epoch and the close of the revolutionary period of bourgeois development, and he builds up his philosophy precisely on an understanding of this new turning-point in world history. Hölderlin makes no compromise with the post-Thermidorian reality; he remains faithful to the old revolutionary ideal of renovating “polis” democracy and is broken by a reality which has no place for his ideals, not even on the level of poetry and thought.

Lukács is here referring to Marx’s notion that the heroic period of the French Revolution was the necessary enthusiastic breakthrough followed by the unheroic phase of market relations. The true social function of the revolution was to establish the condition for the prosaic reign of bourgeois economy, and the true heroism resides not in blindly clinging to the early revolutionary enthusiasm, but in recognizing “the rose in the cross of the present,” as Hegel liked to paraphrase Luther, that is, in abandoning the position of the Beautiful Soul and fully accepting the present as the only possible domain of actual freedom. It is thus this “compromise” with social reality which enabled Hegel’s crucial philosophical step forward, that of overcoming the proto-Fascist notion of “organic” community in his System der Sittlichkeit manuscript and engaging in the dialectical analysis of the antagonisms of the bourgeois civil society.

It is obvious that this analysis of Lukács is deeply allegorical: it was written a couple of months after Trotsky (another figure that appears in Glick’s book) launched his thesis of Stalinism as the Thermidor of the October Revolution. Lukács’s text has thus to be read as an answer to Trotsky. He accepts Trotsky’s characterization of Stalin’s regime as “Thermidorian,” but gives that description a positive twist. Instead of bemoaning the loss of utopian energy, one should, in a heroically resigned way, accept its consequences as the only actual space of social progress. For Marx, of course, the sobering “day after” which follows the revolutionary intoxication signals the original limitation of the “bourgeois” revolutionary project, the falsity of its promise of universal freedom. The “truth” of the universal human rights are the rights of commerce and private property. Lukács’s endorsement of the Stalinist Thermidor implies (arguably against his conscious intention) an utterly anti-Marxist pessimistic perspective. The proletarian revolution itself can also be characterized by the gap between its illusory universal assertion of freedom and the ensuing awakening in the new relations of domination and exploitation, which means that the communist project of realizing “actual freedom” necessarily failed.

I see a third way beyond the alternative of principled self-destruction and compromise: not some kind of “proper measure” between the two extremes but focusing on what one might call the “point of the impossible” of a certain field. The great art of politics is to detect it locally, in a series of modest demands, which are not simply impossible but appear as possible although they are de facto impossible. The situation is like the one in science fiction stories where the hero opens the wrong door (or presses the wrong button) and all of a sudden the entire reality around him disintegrates. In the United States, universal healthcare is obviously such a point of the impossible; in Europe, it seems to be the cancellation of the Greek debt, and so on. It is something you can (in principle) do but de facto you cannot or should not do it. You are free to choose it on condition you do not actually choose it.

Today’s political predicament provides a clear example of how la verite surgit de la meprise, of how the wrong choice has to precede the right choice. In principle, the choice of leftist politics is the one between social-democratic reformism and radical revolution, but the radical choice, although abstractly correct and true, is self-defeating and gets stuck in Beautiful Soul immobility. In Western developed societies, calls for a radical revolution have no mobilizing power. Only a modest “wrong” choice can create subjective conditions for an actual communist prospect. If it fails or if it succeeds, it sets in motion a series of further demands (“in order to really have universal healthcare, we also need…”), which will lead to the right choice. There is no shortcut here, the need for a radical universal change has to emerge through such mediation with particular demands. To directly begin with the right choice is therefore even worse than to make a wrong choice. It is a version of the Beautiful Soul, amounting to a position that says, “I am right and the misery of the world, which got it wrong, just confirms how right I am.”

Such a stance relies on a wrong (“contemplative”) notion of truth, it totally neglects the practical dimension of truth. In his (unpublished) Seminar XVIII on a “discourse which would not be that of a semblance,” Lacan provided a succinct definition of the truth of interpretation in psychoanalysis: “Interpretation is not tested by a truth that would decide by yes or no, it unleashes truth as such. It is only true inasmuch as it is truly followed.” There is nothing “theological” in this precise formulation, only the insight into the properly dialectical unity of theory and practice in (not only) psychoanalytic interpretation: the “test” of the analyst’s interpretation is in the truth effect it unleashes in the patient. This is how we should also (re)read Marx’s Thesis XI. The “test” of Marxist theory is the truth effect it unleashes in its addressee (the proletarians), in transforming them into emancipatory revolutionary subjects. The true art of politics is thus not to avoid mistakes and to make the right choice, but to commit the right mistake, to select the right (appropriate) wrong choice.

Would Glick accept this conclusion? He describes “the revolutionary leadership as vanishing mediator” as “the only responsible vanguard model.” And he concludes that “[p]olitical work in order to qualify as radical work should strive toward its redundancy.” He combines here a sober and ruthless insight into the necessary tragic twists of the revolutionary process with the unconditional fidelity to this process. He stands as far as possible from the standard “anti-totalitarian” claim that, since every revolutionary process is destined to degenerate, it’s better to abstain from it. This readiness to take the risk and engage in the battle, although we know that we will probably be sacrificed in the course of the struggle, is the most precious insight for us who live in new dark times.


Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and critic. He is a professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His books include Living in the End Times, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, In Defense of Lost Causes, and others.

LARB Contributor

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and critic. He is a professor at the European Graduate School, International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London, and a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. His books include Living in the End TimesFirst as Tragedy, Then as FarceIn Defense of Lost Causes, and others.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!