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8991: This Week In Haiti 19:24 80/29/01 (fwd)
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"This Week in Haiti" is the English section of HAITI PROGRES
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"Le journal qui offre une alternative"
* THIS WEEK IN HAITI *
August 29 - September 4, 2001
Vol. 19, No. 24
The Lessons of the Haitian Revolution
Selections from "The Black Jacobins"
(Second of two parts)
Last week, we noted how C.L.R. James, author of "The Black
Jacobins" (written in 1938), had many penetrating insights into
the strategic approach of Toussaint L'Ouverture, an approach
which bears uncanny resemblance to that of President Jean-
Bertrand Aristide. Toussaint's misreading of French imperialism
and his overconfidence in his rapport with the masses eventually
resulted in his capture by Napoleon Bonaparte's troops in 1802
and his imprisonment in France, where he died.
Karl Marx once said that history always repeats itself: the first
time as tragedy, the second time as farce. As one reads the
following excerpts from the chapter entitled "The Bourgeoisie
Prepares to Restore Slavery," one cannot but wonder whether
Aristide will repeat history.
In the following selection, James often refers to blacks, whites,
and mulattoes. His intent, as he repeats throughout the book, is
not a racialist analysis, but a class analysis. For James,
"blacks" is shorthand for recently freed slaves, who were mostly
black but included mulattoes; "mulattoes" is short for free
property owners, who were mostly mulattoes but included blacks;
and "whites" is short for the class of colonists, who were both
French and locally born, including some mulattoes. In colonial
St. Domingue, race and class lines usually coincided, but James
warns, "the race question is subsidiary to the class question in
In last week's selection, we read about Bonaparte's preparations
to restore slavery in San Domingo, as James calls the French
colony of St. Domingue. Bonaparte dispatched 20,000 battle-tested
troops under the command of his brother-in-law General Leclerc to
the island on Dec. 14, 1801. It was the largest French expedition
that had ever been mounted.
And in these last crucial months [of 1801], Toussaint, fully
aware of Bonaparte's preparations, was busy sawing off the branch
on which he sat.
In the North, around Plaisance, Limbé, Dondon, the vanguard of
the revolution was not satisfied with the new régime. Toussaint's
discipline was hard, but it was infinitely better than the old
slavery. What these old revolutionary blacks objected to was
working for their white masters. [Toussaint's African-born
adopted nephew General] Moïse was the Commandant of the North
Province, and Moïse sympathized with the blacks. Work, yes, but
not for whites. "Whatever my old uncle may do, I cannot bring
myself to be the executioner of my color. It is always in the
interests of the metropolis that he scolds me; but these
interests are those of the whites, and I shall only love them
when they have given me back the eye that they made me lose in
Gone were the days when Toussaint would leave the front and ride
through the night to enquire into the grievances of the laborers,
and, though protecting the whites, make the laborers see that he
was their leader.
Revolutionaries through and through, those bold men, own brothers
of the Cordeliers in Paris and the Vyborg workers in Petrograd,
organized another insurrection. Their aim was to massacre the
whites, overthrow Toussaint's government and, some hoped, put
Moïse in his place. Every observer, and Toussaint himself,
thought that the laborers were following him because of his past
services and his unquestioned superiority. This insurrection
proved that they were following him because he represented that
complete emancipation from their former degradation which was
their chief goal. As soon as they saw that he was no longer going
to this end, they were ready to throw him over. 6
This was no mere riot of a few discontented or lazy blacks. It
was widespread over the North. The revolutionaries chose a time
when Toussaint was away at Petite-Rivière attending the wedding
of [his General Jean-Jacques] Dessalines. The movement should
have begun in Le Cap on September 21st, but [Toussaint's General
Henri] Christophe heard of it just in time to check the first
outbursts in various quarters of the town. On the 22nd and 23rd,
the revolt burst in the revolutionary districts of Marmelade,
Plaisance, Limbé, Port Margot, and Dondon, home of the famous
regiment of the sansculottes. On the morning of the 23rd it broke
out again in Le Cap, while armed bands, killing all the whites
whom they met on the way, appeared in the suburbs to make contact
with those in the town. While Christophe defeated these,
Toussaint and Dessalines marched against the rising in Marmelade
and Dondon, and it fell to pieces before him and his terrible
lieutenant. Moïse, avoiding a meeting with Toussaint, attacked
and defeated another band. But blacks in certain districts had
revolted to the cry of "Long Live Moïse!" Toussaint therefore had
him arrested, and would not allow the military tribunal even to
hear him. The documents, he said, were enough. "I flatter myself
that the Commissioners will not delay a judgment so necessary to
the tranquility of the colony." He was afraid that Moïse might
supplant him. 7
Upon this hint the Commission gave judgment, and Moïse was shot.
He died as he had lived. He stood before the place of execution
in the presence of the troops of the garrison, and in a firm
voice gave the word to the firing squad: "Fire, my friends.
What exactly did Moïse stand for? We shall never know. Forty
years after his death Madiou, the Haitian historian, gave an
outline of Moïse's programme, whose authenticity, however, has
been questioned. Toussaint refused to break up the large estates.
Moïse wanted small grants of land for junior officers and even
the rank-and-file. Toussaint favored the whites against the
mulattoes. Moïse sought to build an alliance between blacks and
mulattoes against the French. It is certain that he had a strong
sympathy for the laborers and hated the old slave-owners. But he
was not anti-white. He bitterly regretted the indignities to
which he had been forced to submit [French General] Roume, and we
know how highly he esteemed [French Commissioner] Sonthonax. We
have very little to go on but he seems to have been a singularly
attractive and possibly profound person. The old slave-owners
hated him, and they pressed Toussaint to get rid of him.
Christophe too was jealous of Moïse, and Christophe loved white
society. Guilty or not guilty of treason, Moïse had too many
enemies to escape the implications of the "Long Live Moïse"
shouted by the revolutionaries.
To the blacks of the North, already angry at Toussaint's policy,
the execution of Moïse was the final disillusionment. They could
not understand it. As was (and is) inevitable, they thought in
terms of color. After Toussaint himself, Moïse, his nephew,
symbolized the revolution. He it was who had led the insurrection
which extorted the authority from Roume to take over the Spanish
San Domingo, an insurrection which to the laborers had been for
the purpose of stopping the Spanish traffic in slaves. Moïse had
arrested Roume, and later [French General] Vincent. And now
Toussaint had shot him, for taking the part of the blacks against
Toussaint recognized his error. If the break with the French and
Vincent had shaken him from his usual calm in their last
interview, it was nothing to the remorse which moved him after
the execution of Moïse. None who knew him had ever seen him so
agitated. He tried to explain it away in a long proclamation:
Moïse was the soul of the insurrection; Moïse was a young man of
loose habits. It was useless. Moïse had stood too high in his
councils for too long.
But so set was Toussaint that he could only think of further
repression. Why should the blacks support Moïse against him? That
question he did not stop to ask or, if he did, failed to
appreciate the answer. In the districts of the insurrection he
shot without mercy. He lined up the laborers and spoke to them in
turn; and on the basis of a stumbling answer or uncertainty
decided who should be shot. Cowed by his power, they submitted.
He published a series of laws surpassing in severity anything he
had yet decreed. He introduced a rigid passport system for all
classes of the population. He confined the laborers to their
plantations more strictly than ever, and he made the managers and
foremen responsible for this law under pain of imprisonment.
Anyone fomenting disorder could be condemned to six months' hard
labor with a weight attached to his foot by a chain. He
prohibited the soldiers from visiting a plantation except to see
their fathers or mothers, and then only for a limited period: he
was now afraid of the contact between the revolutionary army and
the people, an infallible sign of revolutionary degeneration.
And while he broke the morale of the black masses, he labored to
reassure the whites. Some of them rejoiced openly at the rumors
of the expedition, and Toussaint, instead of treating them as he
had treated the laborers, merely deported them. There were
others, we need not doubt, who, holding the same views, thought
it wiser to keep their mouths shut. A substantial number,
however, accepted the new order, and viewed with dismay the
violence and destruction which they knew were inevitable if a
French expedition came. Some began to leave and asked for
passports. One of the most notable creoles in San Domingo, a man
of good education and judgment, who fully accepted the new San
Domingo, 8 came to Toussaint and asked him for a passport. Here
was what Toussaint dreaded: the break-up of the unstable régime
before it had had a chance to acquire cohesion. He went quickly
to the door to see that he was not likely to be overhead (a
characteristic action). Then coming back, he looked de Nogerée
full in the face and asked him: "Why do you want to go away, you
whom I esteem and love?"
"Because I am white, and notwithstanding the kindly feelings you
have for me, I see that you are about to become the irritated
chief of the blacks."
With some injustice he accused Toussaint of deporting those
whites who had rejoiced at the coming of the expedition.
Toussaint justified his action with warmth: "They have had the
imprudence and folly to rejoice at such news, as if the
expedition was not destined to destroy me, to destroy the whites,
to destroy the colony."
With a mind such as his, essentially creative and orderly, this
was the prospect which preoccupied him and warped his judgment.
"In France I am represented as an independent power, and
therefore they are aiming against me; against me, who refused
General Maitland's offer to establish my independence under the
protection of England, and who always rejected the proposals
which Sonthonax made to me on the subject."
He knew that the expedition was on its way, but still he hoped
that somehow the coming catastrophe might be averted.
"Since, however, you wish to set out for France, I consent, but
at least let your voyage be useful to the colony. I will send
letters to the First Consul [Napoleon] by you, and I will entreat
him to listen to you. Tell him about me, tell him how prosperous
agriculture is, how prosperous is commerce, in a word, tell him
what I have done. It is according to all I have done here that I
ought and that I wish to be judged. Twenty times I have written
to Bonaparte, to ask him to send Civil Commissioners, to tell him
to dispatch hither the old colonists, whites instructed in
administering public affairs, good machinists, good workmen: he
has never replied. Suddenly he avails himself of the peace (of
which he has not deigned to inform me and of which I learned only
through the English) in order to direct against me a formidable
expedition in the ranks of which I see my personal enemies and
people injurious to the colony, whom I sent away.
"Come to me within twenty-four hours. I want, - oh, how I want
you and my letters to arrive in time to make the First Consul
change his determination, to make him see that in ruining me he
ruins the blacks - ruins not only San Domingo but all the western
colonies. If Bonaparte is the first man in France, Toussaint is
the first man in the Archipelago of the Antilles."
He had no false modesty as to what he meant to San Domingo.
He reflected for a moment, then said in a firm tone that he had
been making arrangements with the English to get 20,000 blacks
from Africa, but not for treachery, to make them soldiers of
France. "I know the perfidy of the English. I am under no
obligation to them for the information they gave me as to the
expedition coming to San Domingo. No! Never will I arm for them!"
But reality forced itself on him again.
"I took up arms for the freedom of my color, which France alone
proclaimed, but which she has no right to nullify. Our liberty is
no longer in her hands: it is in our own. We will defend it or
This strange duality, so confusing to his people who had to do
the fighting, continued to the very end.... He issued another
proclamation, and devoted most of it to reassuring the white
proprietors who "will always find in us ardent protectors, true
friends, zealous defenders...."
What did all this mean to the former slaves? When he touched the
expedition, the confusion of his mind was evident in every line.
"Men of good faith... will not be able any longer to believe that
France, who abandoned San Domingo to herself at a time when her
enemies disputed possession... will now send there an army to
destroy the men who have not ceased to serve her will..."
After thus sowing doubt in the minds of the people as to the
intentions of the French, he continued: "But if it so happens
that this crime of which the French Government is suspected is
real, it suffices for me to say that a child who knows the rights
that nature has given over it to the author of its days, shows
itself obedient and submissive toward its father and mother; and
if, in spite of its submission and obedience, the father and
mother are unnatural enough to wish to destroy it, there remains
no other course than to place its vengeance in the hands of God."
So God was to defend the blacks from slavery. What of the army
and the people and himself, their leader?
"Brave soldiers, generals, officers, and rank and file, do not
listen to the wicked... I shall show you the road you ought to
follow... I am a soldier, I am afraid of no man and I fear only
God. If I must die, it shall be as soldier of honour with no fear
Toussaint could not believe that the French ruling class would be
so depraved, so lost to all sense of decency, as to try to
restore slavery. His grasp of politics led him to make all
preparations, but he could not admit to himself and to his people
that it was easier to find decency, gratitude, justice, and
humanity in a cage of starving tigers than in the councils of
imperialism, whether in the cabinets of Pitt or Bonaparte, of
Baldwin, Laval or Blum.
Criticism is not enough. What should Toussaint have done? A
hundred and fifty years of history and the scientific study of
revolution begun by Marx and Engels, and amplified by Lenin and
Trotsky, justify us in pointing to an alternative course.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution faced much
the same problem as Toussaint. Russian bourgeois culture was a
relatively poor thing, but Lenin admitted frankly that it was
superior to that of the proletariat and would have to be used
until the proletariat had developed itself. He rigidly excluded
the bourgeoisie from political power, but he proposed that they
should be given important posts and good salaries, higher than
those of Communist Party members. Even some Communists who had
suffered and fought under Tsarism were after a time dismissed and
replaced by competent bourgeois. We can measure Toussaint's
gigantic intellect by the fact that, untrained as he was, he
attempted to do the same, his black army and generals filling the
political role of the Bolshevik Party. If he kept whites in his
army, it was for the same reason that the Bolsheviks also kept
Tsarist officers. Neither revolution had enough trained and
educated officers of its own, and the black Jacobins, relatively
speaking, were far worse off culturally than the Russian
The whole theory of the Bolshevik policy was that the victories
of the new régime would gradually win over those who had been
constrained to accept it by force. Toussaint hoped for the
It is in method, and not in principle, that Toussaint failed. The
race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics,
and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But
to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error
only less grave than to make it fundamental. There were Jacobin
workmen in Paris who would have fought for the blacks against
Bonaparte's troops. But the international movement was not then
what is it today [James wrote this in 1938, on the heels of the
Spanish Civil War - Ed.], and there were none in San Domingo. The
black laborers saw only the old slave-owning whites. These would
accept the new régime, but never to the extent of fighting for it
against a French army, and the masses knew this. Toussaint of
course knew this also. He never trusted Agé, his chief of Staff
who was a Frenchman, and asked Agé's junior, Lamartinière, to
keep an eye on him.
But whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware
of every step, and explained carefully the exact position of the
bourgeois servants of the Workers' State, Toussaint explained
nothing and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies
were being favored at their expense. In allowing himself to be
looked upon as taking the side of the whites against the blacks,
Toussaint committed the unpardonable crime in the eyes of a
community where the whites stood for so much evil. That they
should get back their property was bad enough. That they should
be privileged was intolerable. And to shoot Moïse, the black, for
the sake of the whites was more than an error, it was a crime...
Toussaint's position was extraordinarily difficult. San Domingo
was, after all, a French colony. Granted that, before the
expedition was a certainty, plain speech was impossible; once he
understood that it was coming, there should have been no
hesitation. He should have declared that a powerful expedition
could have no other aim than the restoration of slavery, summoned
the population to resist, declared independence, confiscated the
property of all who refused to accept, and distributed it among
his supporters. Agé and the other white officers should have been
given a plain choice: accept or leave. If they had accepted,
intending to be traitors, the black officers would have been on
guard against them, the men would have known where they stood and
would have shot them at the slightest vacillation before the
enemy. The whites should have been offered the same choice:
accept the black régime which has guaranteed and will guarantee
your property, or leave; traitors in war-time would be dealt with
as all traitors in war. Many of the planters favored
independence. They would have stayed and contributed their
knowledge, such as it was, to the new State. Not only former
slaves had followed Toussaint. Lamartinière was a mulatto so
white that only those who knew his origins could tell that he had
Negro ancestry, but he was absolutely and completely devoted to
the cause of Toussaint. So was Maurepas, an old free black. With
Dessalines, Belair, Moïse and the hundreds of other officers, ex-
slave and formerly free, it would have been easy for Toussaint to
get the mass of the population behind him. Having the army, some
of the better educated blacks and mulattoes and the laborers who
had supported him so staunchly in everything, he would have been
invincible. With the issue unobscure and his power clear, many
who might otherwise have hesitated would have come down on the
side that was taking decisive action. With a decisive victory won
it was not impossible to re-open negotiations with a chastened
French government to establish the hoped-for relations.
It was the ex-slave laborers and the ex-slave army which would
decide the issue, and Toussaint's policy crippled both.
hrtHe left the army with a divided allegiance. There were
Frenchmen in it whose duty would be to fight for France. They,
the mulattoes, and the old free blacks had no fears about their
Instead of bringing the black laborers nearer, he drove them away
from him. Even after the revolt it was not too late...
Instead of reprisals, Toussaint should have covered the country,
and in the homely way that he understood so well, mobilized the
masses, talked to the people, explained the situation to them and
told them what he wanted them to do. As it was, the policy he
persisted in reduced the masses to a state of stupor. 9 It has
been said that he was thinking of the effect in France. His
severity and his proclamation reassuring the whites aimed at
showing Bonaparte that all classes were safe in San Domingo, and
that he could be trusted to govern the colony with justice. It is
probably true, and is his greatest condemnation.
Bonaparte was not going to be convinced by Toussaint's justice
and fairness and capacity to govern. Where imperialists do not
find disorder they create it deliberately, as [French General]
Hédouville did. They want an excuse for going in. But they can
find that easily and will go in even without any. It is force
that counts, and chiefly the organized force of the masses.
Always, but particularly at the moment of struggle, a leader must
think of his own masses. It is what they think that matters, not
what the imperialists think. And if to make matters clear to them
Toussaint had to condone a massacre of the whites, so much the
worse for the whites. He had done everything possible for them,
and if the race question occupied the place that it did in San
Domingo, it was not the fault of the blacks. But Toussaint, like
Robespierre, destroyed his own Left-wing, and with it sealed his
own doom. The tragedy was that there was no need for it.
Robespierre struck at the masses because he was bourgeois and
they were communist. That clash was inevitable, and regrets over
it are vain. But between Toussaint and his people there was no
fundamental difference of outlook or of aim... Toussaint, as his
power grew, forgot that. He ignored the black laborers,
bewildered them at the very moment that he needed them most, and
to bewilder the masses is to strike the deadliest of all blows at
His personal weakness, the obverse side of his strength, played
its part also. He left even his generals in the dark. A naturally
silent and reserved man, he had been formed by military
discipline. He gave orders and expected them to be obeyed. Nobody
ever knew what he was doing...
Moïse's bitter complaint about Toussaint and the whites came
obviously from a man to whom Toussaint had never explained the
motives of his policy. They would not have needed much persuasion
to follow a bold lead. Moïse was feeling his way towards it, and
we can point out Toussaint's weakness all the more clearly
because Dessalines had actually found the correct method. His
speech to the army was famous, and another version - he probably
made it more than once - ran this way: "If France wishes to try
any nonsense here, everybody must rise together, men and women."
Loud acclamation greeted this bold pronouncement, worth a
thousand of Toussaint's equivocal proclamations reassuring the
whites. Dessalines had not the slightest desire to reassure
The whites were whites of the old régime. Dessalines did not care
what they said or thought. The black laborers had to do the
fighting - and it was they who needed reassurance...
In the last days of December, the fleet of Admiral Villaret-
Joyeuse, bearing on board the first detachment of 12,000 men,
sailed into the harbor of Samana Bay, [now a part of the
Dominican Republic]. Toussaint, standing alone on a neighboring
peak, watched the vessels. Unaccustomed to naval armaments, he
was overwhelmed by their number; as he returned to his staff, he
uttered the words, "We shall perish. All France is come to
overwhelm us." It was not fear. He was never afraid. But certain
traits of character run deep in great men. Despite all that he
had done, he was at bottom the same Toussaint who had hesitated
to join the revolution in 1791 and for one whole month had
protected his master's plantation from destruction. Only this
time it was not a plantation and a few score slaves but a colony
and hundreds of thousands of people.
6. Georges Lefebvre: La Convention, Volume I., p. 45,
mimeographed lectures delivered at the Sorbonne (see
Bibliography, p. 379). "The Jacobins, furthermore, were
authoritarian in outlook. Consciously or not, they wished to act
with the people and for them, but they claimed the right of
leadership, and when they arrived at the head of affairs they
ceased to consult the people, did away with elections, proscribed
the Hébertistes and the Enragés. They can be described as
enlightened despots. The sansculottes on the contrary were
extreme democrats: they wanted the direct government of the
people by the people; if they demanded a dictatorship against the
aristocrats they wished to exercise it themselves and to make
their leaders do what they wanted."
The sansculottes of Paris in particular, saw very clearly what
was required at each stage of the revolution at least until it
reached its highest peak. Their difficulty was that they had
neither the education, experience nor the ressources to organize
a modern state if only temporarily. This was pretty much the
position of the revolutionaries of Plaisance, Limbé and Dondon to
relation to Toussaint. Events were soon to show how right they
were and that in not listening to them Toussaint made the
greatest mistake of this career [James' emphasis].
For a balanced account of the way in which the sansculottes
themselves worked out and forced upon an unwilling Robespierre
the great policies which saved the revolution, see Lefebvre
(mimeographed lectures), Le Gouvernement Révolutionnaire (2 juin
1793-9 Thermidor II), Folio II.
7. Toussaint himself admitted this not very afterwards, See
Poyen, Histoire Militaire de la Révolution de Saint-Domingue,
Paris, 1899, 9. 228.
8. We know this from his report to Bonaparte. Les Archives
Nationales, F. 7, 6266.
9. Idlinger, Treasurer to the Colony. Report to the French
Government, Les Archives du Ministère des Affaires Etrangères.
Fonds divers, Section Amérique, Nº. 14.
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