Fischer and Blackburn on French abolitionism

Sybille Fischer’s contention with Robin Blackburn in two block quotes:

Before considering two recent alternative proposals to this view, it is worth pointing out that from a political perspective decidedly different from that of Ozouf, we come across a similar phenomenon. In his monumental study of antislavery between 1776 and 1848, Blackburn comments on Brissot a number of times, usually linking Brissot’s stance on slavery to his “new forward policy which would take France to war in Europe and would reassert metropolitan authority in the Antilles.” 16 Never mind that Brissot had written pamphlets like “Réflexions sur l’admission aux États généraux des députés de Saint-Domingue” (Reflections about the admission of deputies from Saint Domingue to the General Estates) where he advocates a strong autonomy for the possessions outre-mer and says, among other things: “It is impossible that in the whirlwind that sweeps everything toward liberty, the substantial colonies alone remain attached to bodies that are two thousand leagues away from them, and that they should consent to be governed by those.” This proposition raises for Brissot the problem of slavery, since immediate autonomy would have given all the power to the planters. Unsurprisingly, Brissot could not figure out a solution that would have guaranteed both abolition of slavery and autonomy, and he appears to have contradicted himself at various points. Whatever his insights or failings may have been, however, it is somewhat surprising that Blackburn presents Brissot’s view on slavery as unequivocally linked to French colonialism, while also diminishing his import for the slavery question as a whole. At one point we even read the following: Paradoxically by the time the Convention decreed the abolition of colonial slavery in 1794 the Amis des Noirs no longer functioned and most of its members no longer played a role. It is almost as if enlightened abolitionism was as much part of the old order as the exclusif and the acquis de Guinée. Only once this whole superstructure was in ruins could slave emancipation be adopted in the metropolis. 18 No mention here of the fact that one of the leading proponents of abolition, Brissot, did not play a role because he had found his end on the guillotine. No mention either of the fact that the Amis des Noirs and their Girondin supporters had been involved in a publicity war with the representatives of the planters, who, out of hatred of Brissot, had thrown their support behind Robespierre (with whom they shared nothing, of course, except hatred of Brissot), and that the demise of the Girondins has to be counted at least in part as a victory for the planters.

Fischer, Sibylle (2004-04-09). Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (John Hope Franklin Center Book) (Kindle Locations 4183-4203). Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.

For some reason, Brissot appears to be an extremely uncomfortable figure in the story. Whatever Blackburn might have in mind in this somewhat obscure paragraph— the vague “as if “ clearly signals an element of speculation and hesitance here— the upshot seems to be that slavery is a premodern phenomenon that vanishes only when feudalism has dissolved. Although this suggestion is quite inconsistent with the overall argument Blackburn pursues in The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, the issue of the Girondins appears to push him to retreat to an economic determinism that is otherwise absent from the book. For the Girondins, antislavery was by and large a strategic matter in the attempt to expand and consolidate the French Empire. In other words, Blackburn locates in the Girondin faction a universalism of liberty that turns into imperialism— an argument we are familiar with from those who, unlike Blackburn, want to discard the whole project of an emancipatory modernity as an imperialism in disguise. Instead of confronting the underlying problem of how to resolve the potential contradictions between a universalist ideal of individual liberty, popular sovereignty, and national sovereignty head-on, Blackburn seems to run away from the problem by giving a one-sided account of the Girondin position in which antislavery becomes a mere posture.

Fischer, Sibylle (2004-04-09). Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (John Hope Franklin Center Book) (Kindle Locations 4203-4213). Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.


One thought on “Fischer and Blackburn on French abolitionism

  1. Pingback: Sibylle Fischer on the early Haitian Law | Dennis R. Hidalgo

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