Historical Constellations and Political Futures (Past)

Rejoinder by Gary Wilder

[Prompt: Césaire’s political legacy: whither/whether postcolonial sovereignty?]


The wonderful quote from Raymond Gama that Yarimar Bonilla shares does indeed seem to be refracted, whether intentionally or not, through the spirit of Aimé Césaire. To use Bonilla’s felicitous phrase, Gama’s acute reflections, along with the 2009 strikes across the French Antillean departments, may indeed be read as a “Césairean transcript past.” And this in the distinctive sense, elaborated by Césaire in his own practice, that emancipatory politics must be boldly oriented toward open futures and new forms of life even though there never exist ready-made recipes, maps, or transcripts for realizing such alternatives or knowing in advance what institutional forms they must assume.

Césaire was a utopian and visionary thinker, but his thought was neither apocalyptic nor messianic. He was concerned with creating and seizing historical openings, but he neither fetishized rupture nor sacralized the event. And although patience was central to his political ethos, he did not simply wait for conditions to change, for something to happen, for revolution to come. He insisted that Antilleans were (or that they become) world-making political actors, that they struggle to create their futures. For Césaire this meant recognizing the transformative potentialities that may dwell within existing arrangements. He also regarded politics as an art of taking chances, risking failure, through experimental attempts to endorse this or that set of arrangements in order to secure favorable conditions under which Antilleans could exercise real self-management and pursue meaningful emancipation. These are some of the reasons I call him a “pragmatic utopian” political thinker (Note how different this political orientation is from those suggested by Badiou’s fidelity to the event, Derrida’s messianism without a messiah or unconditional cosmopolitanism or justice, Hardt and Negri’s anarchistic multitude and stateless commonwealth, or, on the other extreme, Chatterjee’s dessicated politics of the governed).

In the portrait that Bonilla presents of the 2009 strikes and protests we can recognize several aspects of this Césairean ethos and orientation towards politics as experimental and proleptic. We can also recognize some of the content of Césaire’s conviction that (Antillean) freedom is a genuine problem for which there are no transhistorical solutions, that there is no necessary relationship between self-determination and state sovereignty – especially for “small peoples” committed to a democratic socialist project while buffeted by global economic and geopolitical pressures and existing precariously within the shadow of the American hegemon. In a Césairean spirit, the recent Antillean actors seems to show us that political strategy must always be calibrated to shifting historical conditions. And that a political movement must act as if a wholly different set of arrangements were at hand and insist on the possibility of a leap into an open future.

I am struck, in Bonilla’s description, by how these social actors joined a refusal to foreclose future possibilities by naming them preemptively, by refusing to adopt premature slogans, with a readiness to sit down at the table here now and negotiate concrete concessions. Césaire, too, pursued world-historical restructurings while fighting fiercely for seemingly small, mundane, reforms (e.g., civil service salaries, veteran’s pensions, family allocations etc.) He pursued the impossible in a deliberate and concrete manner even as he suggested that incremental changes might make all the difference in the world.

Bonilla rightly reminds us that the 2009 strikes and protests unfolded in a very different historical conjuncture than the one that Césaire confronted – that these actors were not only heirs to Césaire’s political ethos but that they also inherited the predicament that his generation’s struggles helped to create. The point is not that Césaire’s specific political initiatives could or should be taken up by social actors today, but that any engagement with the problem of (Antillean) freedom might be usefully informed by, and unfolds in the space created by, Césaire’s legacy of thinking decolonization non-dogmatically. Antilleans in 2009 can thus fruitfully think with Césaire’s postwar initiatives – and we should think them together – just as he thought with and through the legacies of Victor Schoelcher and Toussaint Louverture about the problem of colonial emancipation in the modern Caribbean. And just as he sought to recognize the unrealized possibilities that remained crystallized in his predecessors’ foreclosed projects, we too can see how in certain ways the 2009 movement exceeded or surpassed what Césaire hoped to do, precisely in some sense, by being faithful heirs of his political spirit and legacy. It’s worth noting that one of Césaire’s favorite concepts was dépassement.

Let me explain. In his parliamentary interventions and his political criticism Césaire was mindful that transformative action required formal (legal, constitutional) initiatives to be tethered to direct action, popular insurgency, vital social movements. Without these, he believed, the abolitions of slavery in 1794 and 1848 would not have been possible, or would have assumed a different (gradualist and paternalistic) form. But, as we know, Césaire devoted his political energies to parliamentary politics and municipal government, to constitutional initiatives and struggles to create a viable social security regime in Martinique. He neither generated nor connected with an independent social movement outside of electoral politics through which to pursue his postwar initiatives, whether for socialist departmentalization or regional autonomy. We can debate whether he could have, should have, or chose not to. But the fact is, his pragmatic-utopian and untimely or visionary political projects developed in parallel to, but were never organically connected to, the popular revolts that punctuated the postwar period in Martinique and Guadeloupe. The 2009 revolt across the DOMs should also be recognized as inheriting and inhabiting the legacy of strikes (such as the civil service workers in Martinique in 1953) and insurgencies (such as the 1959 riots in Martinique), which Bonilla surely does as well. Remarkable to me is that, whether or not intentionally, Antilleans in 2009 joined a Césairean orientation to an open future through experimental forms of political association to this tradition of popular direct action. In so doing, they created a possibility that neither Césaire, nor the syndicalists, nor the Communists were able to do in the 1950s.

And more. Césaire’s political thinking indicates the importance of a prefigurative, performative, and poetic approach to political action. But he himself practiced these virtues primarily in textual form (to great effect!). By contrast, a group like the LKP in Gudaeloupe has embodied and expressed them in forms of public association and intervention that, as Bonilla’s recent research shows so beautifully, use images, music, and multivalent terms such as la pwofitasyon to such powerful effect.

I am not trying to erect the kind of false dichotomy or simplistic opposition between popular and rarefied aesthetics, or critical reflection vs. direct action that Césaire’s legacy invites us to call into question. But it is interesting to think, with Bonilla and with Raymond Gama, about how the 2009 movements might be Césairean in ways that Césaire might only have dreamt about. Or should we simply regard them as deeply Antillean? For Césaire’s experimental approach to politics was itself informed by the deep memory of a long history in which repeatedly the institution of formal liberty was not a sufficient guarantee of substantive freedom. In the spirit of this dialogue, it is, therefore, intellectually and politically productive to think about the 2009 strikes in relation to the legacy of Cesaire, and to think both in relation to a long and misunderstood Antillean political tradition.

The overdue exploration of this multifaceted Antillean tradition has perhaps been overshadowed by the understandable fascination among academics and activists with the Haitian Revolution (which also provided such a vital reference point for Antillean actors and intellectuals, including Césaire himself). It has also been partly foreclosed by the methodological nationalism that has conditioned so much thinking about colonial emancipation and decolonization since 1945. We can only hope that work such as Bonilla’s, the renewed interest in Aimé Césaire, the efflorescence of non-statist political movements worldwide, and a possible turning point in postcolonial and critical theory will foster this kind of creative remembering and conjoining of legacies. It seems to me that much of what made Césaire a distinctive political thinker resonates with our own historical present and political predicaments. Our task is to recognize it.


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5 thoughts on “Historical Constellations and Political Futures (Past)

  • I’ll join the others who have posted in this discussion in thanking you both, Yarimar and Gary, for a fascinating exchange.

    My response is admittedly narrow, focusing on the provocative opening to Gary’s closing paragraph: “The overdue exploration of this multifaceted Antillean tradition has perhaps been overshadowed by the understandable fascination among academics and activists with the Haitian Revolution.” I want to pause here because of what the Haitian Revolution can do. I have for some time been grappling with the oftentimes casual, perhaps uncritical, repetition of CLR James’s famous description of the Haitian Revolution as “the only successful slave revolt in history” (from his preface to the first edition of The Black Jacobins, and also the subtitle to his recently published 1936 version of the play, Toussaint Louverture).

    The repeated invocation of this phrase–and I intend the sacred sense of the term invocation and ritualistic sense of the word repeated–raises a number of questions for me that I think are implied in the gentle criticism Gary offers of what he calls the “understandable fascination” with the Haitian Revolution and its establishment of the first independent black nation-state in the Americas. First, what does success come to mean when coupled with the “only” in James’s phrasing, and what does it mean to maintain that “only” after 1946, or, more to the point of this discussion, after Cesaire? What is the relationship between this idea of “the only successful slave revolt [or revolution]” and the predominant and unfortunate representation of Haiti as a failed state, or, invoking the other hyperbole applied to it, as “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere”?

    The question about whether or not national liberation need be discussed dogmatically in the form of the nation-state is an important one, but not, I think, because the political assertion of the nation-state has lost its relevance or future-oriented possibility. Maybe it’s simply a way of considering the limits of a binary logic governed by “success”–and, consequently, “failure”–that for too long has oriented our evaluation of revolution.

    • Thank You Raj! This dovetails with some of the comments I made in the responses to my piece. I too have thought long and hard about this idea of “the only successful slave revolution” indeed, the only slave revolution that led to the formation of a nation-state would be the more appropriate description. And how are we to judge this as an outcome when it was not indeed a goal of the revolt as envisioned by its participants? As I commented elsewhere, I think this demonstrates the need to think more critically about the entwinement of the problem of freedom and the problem of sovereignty in the Caribbean, and to revisit the concept of marronage as a political category – one that should perhaps have its own measures of success, ones that are not reducible to the norm of the nation-state….

  • Great point Raj!
    I thoroughly agree that conventional metrics around how to figure political success or failure need all kinds of rethinking. They also tend to be very temporally narrow/punctual, when we know that the signifance of an act, the many ways it might ramify, may not be felt or known for many decades… Thinking with Césaire, I believe, provokes us to do some of that rethinking.

  • I want to ask you two to think through these things in the context of Edouard Glissant. If there’s anyone who has pathologized Antillean non-sovereignty… But of course, that was (most explicitly) in the 1970s and early 80s – that was then (Glissant’s legacies?!)… And how should we think about such things also with respect to the later, non-nationalist Glissant of the Tout-monde and – especially – the fairly negative critical response to this perceived shift. Chris Bongie has done part of the work re: the latter, but I’d like to think these things through in this context.

    • This is a sharp question and one that’s vital re: Glissant, his project, and his relationship to Antillean thought more broadly. If I can follow up with my own question, Kaiama: are there really distinct periods in Glissant’s work? The polemics over this matter in both Bongie and later Hallward might obscure Michael Dash’s suggestion that Glissant’s oeuvre was an oeuvre, was unified by a consistent set of questions that at different times occasioned divergent answers, for example that he saw overcoming Antillean non-sovereignty, particularly what he called Antilleans “non-mastery” of their “l’espace-temps” as a necessary first step so that a poetics of relation would not result in the obliteration of an Antillean form-of-life.

      In my own attempts to sort through these questions, I find myself repeatedly returning to David Scott’s “problem space” in order to make sense of the warps and weaves in Glissant’s thinking from the 1950s – where, arguably, there are already hints of the Tout-monde work – through the more “nationalist” (a designation I think requires nuanced questioning) 1970s/80s and onwards to the “rhizomatic” “late Glissant.” Anyway, just some thoughts.

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