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From Slavery to What World?
Flight and Exteriority in Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage

Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage is an ambitious and inspiring attempt to rethink the concept of freedom by filling that conceptual vessel with the content provided by the self-activity of those who fled slavery. In so doing, Roberts builds explicitly upon Aimé Césaire’s insistence on verbing a noun, inventing the term marronner to turn the phenomenon of marronage into an active project of marooning.1 Like Césaire’s invented verb, Roberts’ own effort is as much about form as it is about content. Césaire was doing more than to coin a verb to describe a concrete historical referent: he was performatively endorsing the creativity of the poetic against the straitjacket of the scientific. More than simply describing a thing in the world—flight from slavery—for Césaire to speak of marooning as a verb was to set language into a constant and irrepressible motion.

So too with Freedom as Marronage, which seeks to recover not a historical object but a dynamic process—flight from slavery—leveraging that process as a contribution to what Roberts understands to be a still-stunted fugitive turn in political thought. As with Césaire, however, there is clear complicity between content and form—for how better to shed light on the ossified concepts of political thinking—and freedom in particular—than through those fleeing the civilization and society that most named freedom while undermining it in practice? The active process of marooning, of leaving this world for another entirely, might just be the best source for a radical reconceptualization of what it means to be free. For Roberts, the category of marronage exceeds the limitations of the concept of diaspora, while simultaneously transcending predominant debates in the history of political thought by bridging negative and positive concepts of freedom, the flight from slavery and the creation of something new.

Freedom as Marronage therefore names an ambitious project indeed, and tackles that project admirably, consistently, coherently. With great ambitions, however, comes great difficulty, and for reasons of space I will cut right to the chase by emphasizing the difficulties this ambitious vision suffers as a result of having brought into view. These difficulties emerge from Robert’s novel typology of marronage (arguably a difficulty of typology in general), which in turn emerges from his analysis [End Page 193] of the Haitian Revolution. While this choice may seem strange to some, it is by centering this oft disavowed historical moment instead of the long history of flight from slavery—by conjoining revolution and marronage—that Roberts is able to extend existing typologies of marronage in provocative and productive ways.

Specifically, he supplements existing categories of petit marronage (individual acts of flight) and grand marronage (the collective establishment of larger maroon communities) with two new normatively-laden categories that serve to complicate grand marronage in particular. The first, sovereign marronage, is a collective process, but one “achieved through the agency and vision of a lawgiver” and identified historically with Toussaint L’Ouverture. The second, drawing upon Frantz Fanon’s concept of sociogeny, is what Roberts calls sociogenic marronage—“the supreme ideal of freedom”—a non-sovereign form of flight driven not by a leader from above, but by the masses from below.2

It is on the basis three of these four forms of marronage—and in particular from the difficult task that Roberts sets himself of keeping these categories conceptually distinct—that my questions follow. These questions revolve first around the fixity of Roberts’ categories themselves, and then—through the example of the Haitian Revolution—about the stability of the distinction between sovereign and sociogenic marronage. Finally and consequently, I wonder about how clearly we can distinguish these new and intriguing categories from that of grand marronage itself, and whether attempting to do so might end up foreclosing on some of the radical potential they offer.

First, on the question typology and categorization itself, while Roberts seeks to introduce a mobility into considerations of freedom, he seems torn by the (arguably unavoidable) imperative to ground these categories by freezing them, even if momentarily. Marronage, he tells us, is a “constant act of flight,” only to then immediately insists that it rests on four pillars.3 But how can fugitivity incarnate stand upon pillars? And how can one of those four pillars then be, as he describes it, “motion.” This isn’t meant to be pedantic, but to point toward both the laudable attempt to set categories into motion and the profound difficulty of that task. This difficulty creates a temptation to fall back into the same kinds of static conceptions Roberts himself hopes to challenge, potentially undercutting the radical motility of his approach, one that attempts to think hard not only about slaves who have seized their own freedom, but about that seizure as a process.

This question unfolds directly onto another. If sovereign marronage might be understood to align with the constituted power of the state and its institutions, I understand Roberts’ concept of sociogenic marronage to be more of an expression of constituent power, of the revolutionary grassroots obscured by a blinkered emphasis on the [End Page 194] towering heights of power. In this regard, Roberts is absolutely right that we need to, as he puts it, “remove the epistemological cataract” that prevents us even seeing movements, insurgencies, and popular struggles from below.4 Once we do, however, we run the risk of destabilizing the very divide separating sovereign from sociogenic marronage, and separating both of these from grand marronage.

Turning to sovereign marronage, Roberts argues that Toussaint’s failures mark what he calls the “edges” of the form, an “irreconcilable contradiction” built into republican notions of freedom expressed as a “conflict between the Haitian state and the Haitian nation with the latter’s non-sovereign conception of freedom.” Toussaint’s failings were not his own, but a reflection of the intrinsic contradictions of sovereign marronage itself, a failure to “enact a cosmopolitan nationalism that would satisfy the freedom envisioned by revolutionary slaves.”5 Here, there are several threads to be disentangled.

Was the failure—as others like Susan Buck-Morss have argued—an absence of cosmopolitanism?6 Or was “Toussaint’s failure” instead—as C.L.R. James would have it—“the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness.”7 Indeed, in James’ account, Toussaint failed precisely because he was Roberts deems a “stepchild of the Enlightenment”: too cosmopolitan, too universal, too imbued with and enamored of French concepts of freedom that had never become reality in San Domingue.8 Toussaint’s successor—Jean-Jacques Dessalines—was successful because, by contrast, he “could see so clearly… because the ties that bound this uneducated soldier to French civilisation were of the slenderest. He saw what was under his nose so well because he saw no further.”9

This does not seem to be Roberts’ central contention. Instead, he seems to locate Toussaint’s true failure in the second part of the statement above—in the gap between sovereign marronage and “the freedom envisioned by revolutionary slaves.” However, this only raises more questions about what this gap consists of. Roberts suggests, on the one hand, that the failure lay in the militarized system of agriculture that continued to bind the ex-slaves.10 At one point Roberts suggests that Toussaint’s paradoxical formulation of the ex-slaves as both “free and French” is “rooted in the problem of sovereignty.”11 Elsewhere, he suggests—on an even more fundamental level—that, “the desire for sovereignty collapses the vision of the lawgiver into a form of dictatorship.”12 What is unclear to me is why any of these failures are predetermined or built-into the form of sovereign marronage.

After all, Dessalines would largely maintain militarized agriculture and dictatorial powers, and would succeed in part by slashing the Gordian knot binding freedom to Frenchness—as sovereign an act as any. Roberts’ concern seems to be less with Toussaint’s concrete failure—to permanently abolish slavery by declaring independence—than with [End Page 195] Toussaint’s failure to better reflect the content of the slaves’ freedom dreams, the form of life they would have themselves described and embraced. But there is a risk of conflating this shortcoming with the sovereign form itself, and consequently of falling into too easy an embrace if its opposite.

Roberts is concerned to show the contradictions of sovereign marronage precisely because he hopes to propose sociogenic marronage as an alternative. Toward this end, he reads James’ Black Jacobins as exemplary of the sovereign form and its vicissitudes. But—following from my prior convern—I worry that this is a misreading, and that this misreading is symptomatic of the desire to establish too clean a break between constituent and constituted power, and between sovereign and sociogenic marronage.

Roberts is absolutely correct to insist that, “Black Jacobinism is freedom from above,” but I argue that James was ultimately ambivalent toward his own chosen title.13 While the title Black Jacobins certainly evokes the view from above of a hero bringing freedom to the masses—and while this title might have reflected James’ original purpose, to write a biography of Toussaint14—this vision effectively unravels during the course of the text. Jacobinism comes to simultaneously denote the abstract universalism that would be Toussaint’s downfall and the distance between leadership and the masses that he shared with French counterparts like Robespierre.

The two dangers are bound together historically, since Toussaint’s distance from the masses was marked by his inability to grasp the contours of their Black identity, their hatred of whites, and their demands for a strictly concrete freedom that could only be guaranteed at the expense of such intoxicating universals. By the end of the text, we are right to wonder (and James is clearly part of this “we”) whether “Jacobin” and by extension “Black Jacobin” could even be compliment at all. The importance of this distance was only confirmed in James’ 1963 revision of the text, in which he inserted an extended footnote distinguishing Jacobins (“enlightened despots”) from sansculottes (who despite their brutality, were “extreme democrats”), with a clear preference for the latter.15

In light if this, I disagree with Roberts’ contention that “James writes a black Jacobin philosophy, a history centered on the sovereign agency of a charismatic leader who tried to indigenize the thought of a French revolutionary faction,” in part because it is precisely in that failed—and impossible—indigenization that James locates Toussaint’s eventual defeat.16 And it is in this defeat that he then locates the need for a Dessalines, who is no less sovereign, of course, but better able to read the masses in a way that draws constituted power into a productive relation with the masses. [End Page 196]

In some ways, then, Dessalines provides a bridge from sovereign marronage to sociogenic marronage, albeit not in a way that Roberts intends, and in so doing threatens the very distinction between the two categories that he hopes to establish. I hope this doesn’t contradict my already expressed skepticism about typologies, but what precisely is sociogenic marronage? On the one hand, as I have said, it engenders a bottom-up perspective, but it also derives its name from Fanon’s decolonial extension of Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach: that what matters is not merely grasping the structure of the world, but transforming that structure. As a result, sociogeny does more for Roberts’ analysis of marronage than to simply displace the view from the top, even if it is positioned opposite this view, and it does more than simply reflect a view from the grassroots, even if it is constituted by this view.

But this orientation—which he also terms “macropolitical flight” geared toward the “state of society”—nevertheless contains a particular “non-sovereign” and egalitarian content. The form of society envisioned by this return swing is what Roberts calls “vèvè architectonics”: a sort of anti-sovereign ordering that he describes as “a pictogram of mass flight.”17 But such a vision—evocative as it is of Hardt and Negri’s Multitude—is easier said than done, and I am left wondering what it actually looks like, although Roberts does briefly mention the participatory spaces he terms proto-constituent assemblies that sprung up in the aftermath of abolition.18

Sociogenic marronage is grounded in the desire to overcome the “false binary” that Roberts finds between “flight or structural reordering,” to insist—à la Fanon—that marronage is about more than mere fugitivity.19 Despite its limitations, sovereign marronage also surpassed the isolation of petit and even grand marronage, since for Toussaint, “flight was not to be atomistic and fleeting, nor a secluded retreat from the realities of an order in need of systematic repair… flight had to match the scale of macropolitics.”20 By understanding how marronage can be sociogenic, Roberts argues, here writing at his best, we can “understand how revolutions are themselves moments of flight that usher in new orders and refashion society’s foundations.”21 But these various and overlapping descriptions with their form intertwined with their content all leave me wondering what sociogenic marronage actually is in a precise sense.

Roberts describes sociogenesis as “the prism that captures the process of flight from the zone of nonbeing” but it is clearly more than just that, since he also illustrates sociogenic marronage with a curving arrow that leaves the realm of slavery and unfreedom—Fanon’s “zone of nonbeing”—only to return and contest the status of that zone by attacking slavery as a social structure.22 However, it seems that Fanon coins sociogenesis to describe the psychic effects of inhabiting more often than escaping the zone of nonbeing. Yes, sociogenesis describes “the [End Page 197] idea that lived experiences fashion our social world,” but it is more often the opposite: that the social world shapes our experiences, producing traumas and neuroses as a result.23

Regardless, the imperative to contest existing structures is undeniable, and appears most clearly in Fanon’s letter of resignation from the French psychiatric clinic to which he had been assigned in colonial Algeria. Where psychiatry sought to put individuals back into society, Fanon collided with the reality that it was society itself that was sick: “The function of a social structure is to set up institutions to serve man’s needs. A society that drives its members to desperate solutions is a non-viable society, a society to be replaced,” not evaded through flight.24 Psychiatry fails for Fanon where petit marronage fails for Roberts: by leaving the structure intact.

The impetus here is on the laudable imperative to (dialectically) attack the existing order, to bind flight somewhat paradoxically to the object away from which it occurs. It is to insist that mere separation, the isolation he associates with petit and even grand marronage are insufficient, and that against this sort of bad faith flight that Sartre might call a “flight from freedom” nevertheless accomplished in flight, there exists an engaged form of flight that takes seriously its responsibilities to the world. This all is a powerful and important contribution to re-thinking freedom.

My final concern is with the apparent immanence that this framework presupposes—especially in the insistence that flight must “match the scale of macropolitics”—and how this immanence threatens to naturalize precisely those orders and scales that Roberts seeks to oppose. In Roberts’ words: “Flight occurs within the always existing orders of civil and political society… in the overturning of asymme-tries internal to the respective zones.”25 But my question is which orders are always-already existing? Certainly not, one would hope, the colonial-imperial order against which slaves-turned-Haitians rebelled. If the point is to make an appeal to scale, then it makes sense, but that scale should not be bounded by the preexisting structures determined by the colonial order. The pace, scale, and dynamics of the slave insurrection are not—and should not be—mirror images of French imperial war games, and nor should the society they generate.

To come at the question from a different angle that turns us finally back toward grand marronage: isn’t the move to categorize grand marronage as isolationist itself a sovereign and even a colonial act, since it entails accepting sovereign and colonial borders as given? This is another way of wondering why, in Robert’s illustration of marronage the Fanonian zone of nonbeing occupies the center, a point of obligatory return by any properly sociogenic marronage? Why, in other words, is the order to be reordered precisely that from which flight initially departed? [End Page 198]

Substantive decolonization, as Fanon insists, is indeed drawn to the national scale. We could make a case that this is for contingent historical reasons, but the more important point is that decolonial reordering does not conform to the internal structuring of that nation. Instead, it seeks to reorient and restructure not only society, but politics, geography, and an export-oriented economy as well (precisely those elements captured by the concept of vèvè architectonics). If Fanon’s concept of sociogeny does indeed contain an imperative to institutional refashioning, the “macropolitical” scale should not be understood as given. But this means that the distinction between grand marronage and its sociogenic counterpart is blurred as well: Palmares mocambo in Brazil, which lasted nearly 70 years and housed more than 10,000 inhabitants, was hardly a flight from the macropolitical.

A more worrying consequence is the apparent erasure of any space for what Enrique Dussel would call “exteriority,” and which serves for him as a supplement to internal dialectical contradictions.26 Beyond opposition to slavery there is a beyond and outside of slavery that, in the words of Cedric Robinson, makes Black radicalism more than “a simple dialectical negation” of Western slavery.27 Is marronage the establishment of an autonomous distance within which a new society can gestate according to its own structures, or is it—as Roberts occasionally suggests—so bound to return like a boomerang against the existing order that it is more liminal than outside?

It seems to me that one of the crucial contributions of marronage to theories of freedom lay precisely in this outside, in the establishment—whether petit or grand—of a sphere of concrete freedom that models the new society while providing necessary refuge and sanctuary for inevitable dialectical confrontations. This, by way of conclusion, offers a slightly different gloss on what Roberts describes as being “between [Frederick] Douglass and [Angela] Davis,” in the way that these two maroon thinkers understood the mutual imbrications of space and resistance.28 For Davis,

The conscious thrust towards its abolition could not have been sustained without impetus from the community they pulled together through the sheer force of their own strength… the realm which was further most removed from the immediate arena of domination. It could only be located in and around the living quarters.29

In this view, the (dialectical) process of slave resistance that Roberts associates with the return arrow of sociogenic marronage to abolish the zone of nonbeing—a moment that coincides with Douglass’ hand-to-hand combat with Covey—this frontal attack would have been impossible according to Davis without some foothold in the exteriority of communal life. While this holds even under conditions of slavery, it [End Page 199] encounters a more radical form in marronage itself: grand marronage as a reservoir of power for an eventual counterattack aimed not only at the abolition of slavery, but the abolition of the very ontological and social structures that are its most pernicious legacies.

George Ciccariello-Maher

George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia and currently visiting researcher at the Institute for Social Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He is co-editor, with Bruno Bosteels, of the Duke University Press book series Radical Américas, and author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke, 2013), Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela (Jacobin-Verso, 2016), and Decolonizing Dialectics (Duke, 2017). George can be reached at gjc43@drexel.edu


1. Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 5–6.

2. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 11.

3. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 9.

4. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 115.

5. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 109.

6. Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

7. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1989 [1963]), 288.

8. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 105. See George Ciccariello-Maher, “‘So Much the Worse for the Whites’: Dialectics of the Haitian Revolution,” Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy 22, n. 1 (2014), 19–39.

9. James, Black Jacobins, 288.

10. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 108.

11. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 107.

12. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 111.

13. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 110.

14. C.L.R. James, “Lectures on the Black Jacobins,” Small Axe 8 (September 2000), 67.

15. James, Black Jacobins, 276n6.

16. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 109.

17. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 126.

18. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 129.

19. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 115.

20. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 105.

21. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 116.

22. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 118–119.

23. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 119.

24. Frantz Fanon, “Letter to the Resident Minister,” Toward the African Revolution, trans. H. Chevalier (New York: Grove Press, 1967 [1964]), 53.

25. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 127–128.

26. Enrique Dussel, Twenty Theses on Politics, trans. G. Ciccariello-Maher (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008 [2006]), 79.

27. Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000 [1983]), 73.

28. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 86.

29. Angela Davis, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” The Massachusetts Review 13, n. 1–2 (Winter–Spring, 1972), 86. [End Page 200]