In a year packed with reminiscences and reappraisals of the Russian Revolution, what form does the Haitian Revolution take in its current historical incarnation? Christian Høgsbjerg, co-author of Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions, compares and contrasts the two events, examining their mouthpieces, ideological reference points and their derivatives.
Any attempt to compare the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 might seem at first sight, somewhat stretched. The first, is the first and only successful slave revolt in world history, which resulted in the establishment of one of the world’s first postcolonial nations and the first independent black republic outside of Africa. The second, was the world’s first socialist revolution. Ostensibly, both events were undoubtedly critical and inspirational, and for their time somewhat ‘unthinkable’, historic events that shook the world and struck powerful blows against racism and imperialism. It might be argued that the critical sociological differences between the slave society of eighteenth-century French colonial Saint-Domingue – on a tiny island in the Caribbean with a population of some 500,000 people – and twentieth century Tsarist Russia – a sprawling empire of some 150 million souls – were so vast as to negate any value that might come from making any such comparison.
The enslaved of Saint-Domingue had developed traditions and cultures related to the fact that two-thirds of them had been born in pre-colonial Africa before they had undergone the experience of the ‘middle passage’ and barbaric bondage in the New World. For them a key source of strength during the revolution came from Vodou, as evidenced by the Bois Caïman ceremony held just before the launch of the great insurrection of August 1791. In comparison, in Tsarist Russia, the emergence of a modern working-class movement can be seen from the formation of the first Marxist organisation in Russia, the League for the Emancipation of Labour, in 1883, and during the 1905 Revolution, not only did mass strikes become a revolutionary weapon of choice in the workers’ movement for the first time in history, but you also saw the first workers’ council in world history emerge – the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. A rich heady mix of revolutionary socialist, syndicalist and anarchist currents subsequently shaped the Russian working-class movement in the run-up to 1917, and during the eruption of revolution – and the re-emergence of Soviets – including for the first time also ‘Peasants’ Soviets’ alongside ‘Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies’ that year.
Clearly, the two revolutions had very different historical tasks in front of them. During the Haitian Revolution, the task was firstly to abolish slavery, and secondly to strive for national self-determination as a colonial territory of France, both of which was done successfully. What followed was various of forms of neo-colonial domination over the next two centuries from imperial powers including France and the US. In Russia’s case, the historic tasks of the revolution were articulated by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet in October 1917: ‘immediate proposals for a democratic peace, abolition of landlord property rights over the land, workers’ control over production, creation of a soviet government’, all in a sense achieved by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. However, the greater task facing the Bolsheviks after October 1917 was nothing less than ‘the construction of a new socialist order’, aiming to overthrow world capitalism through spreading workers’ revolution internationally. This second task ultimately proved beyond Lenin and the Bolsheviks. For very good material reasons, aiming at socialism was never on the agenda of any of those making the Haitian Revolution. The revolution took place amidst the age of bourgeois-democratic revolution and was central to the wider transition from the old feudal order to the new world of global capitalism then underway. However, the socialist tradition of internationalism was arguably first born when one of the world’s very first modern socialists, Gracchus Babeuf, representative of an emerging embryonic working class movement, supported the Jacobin-controlled National Convention’s decision to abolish slavery across the French empire on 4 February 1794 (16 Pluviôse an II). Occurring in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, he hailed ‘this benevolent decree which has broken the odious chains of our brothers the blacks’.
One political thinker and historian who did always try to make connections between the Haitian Revolution and the Russian Revolution was the late, great black Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James (1901-1989), author of the classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938). In 1980, in his foreword to The Black Jacobins, James declared that ‘it is obvious to me today, as I saw in 1938, that further study of [the Haitian Revolution] will reveal more and more of its affinity with revolutions in more developed communities’. James’s pioneering Marxist analysis of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade – and the resistance from the enslaved themselves – emphasised for the first time the comparative modernity of slavery. In a more sophisticated analysis of the relationship between capitalist accumulation and the barbarism of slavery, James noted the plantations and the slave ships were fundamentally modern capitalist institutions; they did not just enrich but were formed by the French and British bourgeoisie. James described the plantations as ‘huge sugar-factories’ and the enslaved as not only a proto-peasantry, but a proto-proletariat, when they rose as ‘revolutionary labourers’ and set fire to the plantations, he compared them to ‘the Luddite wreckers’. Indeed, the bold Haitian rebels were, James insisted, ‘revolutionaries through and through…own brothers of the Cordeliers in Paris and the Vyborg workers in Petrograd’.
James’s use of ‘brothers’ here is perhaps revealing of the fact that he was writing in 1938, before the rise of women’s history, which has shed new light on the critical role played by women in both revolutions. If it is well known today, for example, that striking women textile workers in Petrograd on International Women’s Day sparked the February Revolution in Russia, less well appreciated is the Vodou priestess Cécile Fatiman who at Bois Caïman helped inspire the insurrection of August 1791, or the subsequent critical role played by women in the Haitian Revolution as both fighters in their own right (evidenced for example the remarkable figure of Sanité Bélair who by age twenty had risen to become a lieutenant in Louverture’s armies) and sources of intelligence during intense guerrilla warfare.
James’s reading of the Marxist classics, above all Leon Trotsky’s masterful History of the Russian Revolution (1930), ensured that in The Black Jacobins he made a pioneering application of the historical ‘law of uneven but combined development’ of capitalism to the colonial Caribbean. As Trotsky had noted, the peculiarities resulting from the ‘backwardness’ of Russian historical development had explained the ‘enigma’ that ‘a backward country was the first to place the proletariat in power’:
Moreover, in Russia the proletariat did not arise gradually through the ages, carrying with itself the burden of the past as in England, but in leaps involving sharp changes of environment, ties, relations, and a sharp break with the past. It is just this fact – combined with the concentrated oppressions of czarism – that made the Russian workers hospitable to the boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought – just as the backward industries were hospitable to the last word in capitalist organization.
One of James’s most striking achievements in The Black Jacobins was his demonstration that just as ‘the law of uneven but combined development’ meant the enslaved labourers of Saint-Domingue, suffering under the ‘concentrated oppressions’ of slavery, were soon to be ‘hospitable to the boldest conclusions of revolutionary thought’ radiating from the Jacobins in revolutionary Paris; hence the phenomenon of black Jacobinism. Therefore, the Marxist theory of permanent revolution, as developed by Trotsky, illuminated not just anti-colonial struggles in the age of socialist revolution, but also the anti-slavery liberation struggle in the age of bourgeois-democratic revolution.
There were of course distinctive specificities relating to the causes of both the Russian Revolution – linked in a critical way to Tsarist Russia’s disastrous intervention in first the Russo-Japanese War and then the First World War – and the Haitian Revolution. While the Haitian Revolution also took place in a wider environment of inter-imperialist rivalry and warfare, its direct causes in 1791 were fundamentally related to the barbaric bondage of slavery with its obscene injustices that cried out to be avenged. Although the timing of the insurrection critically took advantage of the new opportunities caused by divisions amongst the local ruling class that were prompted by the eruption of revolution against the ancien régime in the imperial metropole in 1789.
In essence, Tsarist Russia was as much of an absolutist dictatorship as the dictatorship of the white colonial elite pertaining on colonial Saint-Domingue. However, in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution the Tsar was forced to concede the Duma assembly (parliament) – and in a much more meaningful sense under the Provisional Government which was formed after February Revolution of 1917, reformism as a current had some space to grow and develop – even if establishing a sustainable liberal parliament proved an impossibility. In colonial Saint-Domingue, however, a fixed racial hierarchy upheld a brutal system of white supremacy. When, inspired by the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity thrown up by the great French Revolution, the free people of colour who suffered racial discrimination sought equality and the ‘rights of man’ in 1790, they were brutally crushed and repressed. Reformism as a political current for either the free people of colour or the masses of black enslaved on the plantations was not an option in the same way in this slave society – the slogan of the Haitian Revolution was ‘Liberty or Death’ for a reason. Once they made their great insurrection, with the aim of wiping out the white master planter class, they had no alternative but to try and spread the revolt from below – any retreat meant capture and almost certain death.
However, this is not to say that the pressure and tendency towards compromise and moderation among the leaders of the black insurgency was completely absent. Just as the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries and even the Bolshevik leadership (before Lenin’s arrival in April 1917) was in favour of critically supporting the new Provisional Government, there were competing visions of ‘liberty’ during the Haitian Revolution in its early stages. After their inspiring leader Dutty Boukman was killed in battle in November 1791, the new leaders of the insurgency, such as Jean-François Papillon and Georges Biassou, were above all concerned with liberty for themselves and those closest to them, and took a somewhat elitist attitude towards the great mass of the black insurgents. When the initial revolt began to lose momentum, Jean-François and Biassou decided to make a peace offer to the three new French civil commissioners. They would end the revolt in return for an amnesty for 300 rebel leaders, the abolition of the whip and one extra day of freedom per week (i.e., three days rather than two) for the enslaved on the plantations – a betrayal of the rank and file of the insurgents by their leaders by any standard. This attempt at a compromise was rejected out of hand by the arrogant white planter class on Saint-Domingue, who as James memorably noted, ‘could not understand that Biassou was no longer a slave but a leader of 40,000 men’.
Just as Lenin’s re-arming of the Bolshevik Party with revolutionary politics was to be critical to the ultimate victory of the Russian Revolution in October, so now another figure slowly emerged to a leading position within the Haitian Revolution – a man who would soon become known as Toussaint Louverture. It was to be Louverture’s leadership that was critical to the ultimate victory of the Haitian Revolution in 1804. Louverture acquiesced in Jean-François and Biassou’s attempt at a compromise, but confronted with the utter intransigence of the planter class, James noted that ‘then and only then did Louverture come to an unalterable decision from which he never wavered and for which he died. Complete liberty for all, to be attained and held by their own strength.’ Freedom for Louverture was not something that was to be a ‘gift from above’, but something that had to be fought for and taken from below. As Louverture put it in August 1793, ‘we will obtain another freedom, different from the one you tyrants want to impose on us’.
From 1794, when he famously brought his section of the black insurgent army over to join the French revolutionary armies in Saint-Domingue, Louverture emerged as the quintessential ‘black Jacobin’, who ensured that the ideals of the Enlightenment, of liberty, equality and fraternity, became a material force to be reckoned with in Saint-Domingue, embodied in the black rebel army. As James put it, Louverture understood that the revolutionary slogans of liberty and equality were ‘great weapons in an age of slaves’, and ‘used them with a fencer’s finesse and skill’, helping ensure the new revolutionary ideas triumphed over the old – just as Lenin and the Bolsheviks ‘patiently explained’ the ideas of international socialism and workers’ power during the revolutionary turmoil of Russia in 1917.
The French, Haitian and Russian Revolutions – and their new ideas and ideologies – Jacobinism and Bolshevism – were such a threat and challenge that almost the entire old world was mobilised against them to try and crush them, and just as the French revolutionary armies triumphed during the 1790s, and just as Trotsky built and led the Red Army to victory against the odds during the Russian Civil War, so Louverture built an army that could fight and defeat the far better equipped professional armies of Britain and Spain. No wonder Lenin refused to be intimidated when the charge of ‘Jacobinism’ was thrown at him, once writing ‘A Jacobin, indissolubly united with the organisation of a proletariat conscious of its class interests – that is a revolutionary social-democrat [Bolshevik]’. Yet tragically, while the Parisian masses had been able to exert tremendous influence over the French Republic from 1793–94, putting the Jacobins in power, there were strict material limits on what was possible for them to achieve and the French Revolution itself soon stalled, degenerated and fell back into reaction and counter-revolution. After Bonaparte became First Consul, he sent an army to try and restore slavery in Saint-Domingue, something the Jacobins would have never considered attempting. Though Bonaparte’s army was ultimately destroyed in Saint-Domingue, it did successfully capture Louverture, imprisoning him in France where he died in 1803. Such a tragic fate might place the ‘black Jacobin’ Louverture alongside many Bolsheviks who ended up themselves exiled, imprisoned or murdered as the Russian Revolution itself stalled, degenerated and then spiralled down into counter-revolution under Stalin. As James wrote poignantly in The Black Jacobins, if Louverture failed, ‘it is for the same reason that the Russian socialist revolution failed, even after all its achievements – the defeat of the revolution in Europe’.
Christian Høgsbjerg is a historian who works for the Centre for African Studies at the University of Leeds. He is author of C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Duke University Press, 2014), editor of Toussaint Louverture, James’s 1934 play, and World Revolution, 1917-1936, James’s 1937 history of the Communist International and co-editor of The Black Jacobins Reader (Duke University Press, 2017).
Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions by Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg is available from Pluto Press.