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Subject: This Week In Haiti 19:24 80/29/01
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The Lessons of the Haitian Revolution: Selections from The Black Jacobins (Second of two parts)

Haiti Progres, Vol. 19 no. 24, 4 September 2001

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 politics.

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, Limbi, Dondon, the vanguard of the revolution was not satisfied with the new rigime. 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] Moose was the Commandant of the North Province, and Moose 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 battle.

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 Moose 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-Rivihre 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, Limbi, 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. Moose, avoiding a meeting with Toussaint, attacked and defeated another band. But blacks in certain districts had revolted to the cry of Long Live Moose! 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 Moose might supplant him. 7 Upon this hint the Commission gave judgment, and Moose 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. Fire.

What exactly did Moose stand for? We shall never know. Forty years after his death Madiou, the Haitian historian, gave an outline of Moose’s programme, whose authenticity, however, has been questioned. Toussaint refused to break up the large estates. Moose wanted small grants of land for junior officers and even the rank-and-file. Toussaint favored the whites against the mulattoes. Moose 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 Moose, and Christophe loved white society. Guilty or not guilty of treason, Moose had too many enemies to escape the implications of the Long Live Moose shouted by the revolutionaries.

To the blacks of the North, already angry at Toussaint’s policy, the execution of Moose was the final disillusionment. They could not understand it. As was (and is) inevitable, they thought in terms of color. After Toussaint himself, Moose, 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. Moose had arrested Roume, and later [French General] Vincent. And now Toussaint had shot him, for taking the part of the blacks against the whites.

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 Moose. None who knew him had ever seen him so agitated. He tried to explain it away in a long proclamation: Moose was the soul of the insurrection; Moose was a young man of loose habits. It was useless. Moose 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 Moose 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 rigime 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 Nogerie 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 perish.

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 of reproach.

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 Bolsheviks.

The whole theory of the Bolshevik policy was that the victories of the new rigime would gradually win over those who had been constrained to accept it by force. Toussaint hoped for the same...

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 rigime, 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 Agi, his chief of Staff who was a Frenchman, and asked Agi’s junior, Lamartinihre, 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 Moose, 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. Agi 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 rigime 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. Lamartinihre 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, Moose 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 liberty.

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] Hidouville 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 the revolution.

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...

Moose’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. Moose 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 whites.

The whites were whites of the old rigime. 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 Hibertistes and the Enragis. 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, Limbi 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 Rivolutionnaire (2 juin 1793-9 Thermidor II), Folio II.

7. Toussaint himself admitted this not very afterwards, See Poyen, Histoire Militaire de la Rivolution 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 Ministhre des Affaires Etranghres. Fonds divers, Section Amirique, N:. 14.