The Successful Failure of Haiti’s Revolution

23 01 2008

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As this column recounted last week, Haiti was the first colony of the modern world to win freedom. What is even more astounding is that when Haiti declared independence from France on January 1, 1804, its army – composed of slaves who had been brought from Africa – had defeated the armies of France, Great Britain and Spain in the span of 13 years.

I would argue that Haiti was the completion of the process that began with the American War of Independence about three decades earlier. The American War of Independence was fought on the principle of self-rule and against colonial subjugation. It raised the slogan of “No taxation without Representation” and stated that all countries were equal and one could not subjugate the other. The French Revolution extended this principle of self-rule, which the American War of Independence had established between countries, to the domestic sphere. The French Revolution stated that not only were all countries equal to one another, but all people residing inside the country were also legally equal and free. There could be no political authority on earth that was higher than the citizen. While these revolutions have justly been hailed as the pioneers of our modern regime of rights and freedoms, what is forgotten is that these revolutions remained confined to the white man and did not extend these rights to either the non-whites or to women.

Haiti was the revolution that actualised the slogans of the American and French Revolutions by extending their principles, ironically in opposition to the pressures of the French and American governments, beyond the charmed circle of white men. Haiti truly was the culmination of the great liberatory revolutions of the late 18th century. But Haiti was also a mortal danger to the global property relations that were being established by the American and French Revolutions and to the rule of capital as it was becoming actualised in the 19th century – a specific form of the rule of capital that we today refer to as ‘colonialism’.

The eagerness of France, Britain and Spain to retain and annex Haiti exposed the dependence of their economies on the slave-driven prosperity of the colonies. It also exposed that the European Enlightenment and its universal freedoms were meant only for the white man and not for the ‘black’, ‘brown’ and ‘yellow’ races of the world. Further, the repeated defeats of their armies by the slave army of Haiti also had the danger of instilling confidence in those countries that were being colonised that they too could defeat these colonial powers. Instead of being the shining example of the fruition of the principles of ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’, Haiti had become the festering wound in the young body of capitalist colonialism. Therefore, it needed to be excised at the earliest.

While the Haitians could, and did, defeat the colonial powers in battles on their soil, they were helpless in front of the colonialists’ combined naval power. In a rare, but entirely predictable, show of unity between the otherwise hostile colonial powers of Britain, France, Spain and the US, an economic naval blockade – cordon sanitaire – was imposed on Haiti from the moment of its independence for about 60 years. Without the ships of these countries and their traders, the plantations of Haiti could not sell any of the sugarcane, tobacco, cotton or coffee that they produced. The official reason given for this blockade was that Haiti had not paid indemnity of 150 million Francs to France and its citizens for appropriating their property (the slave plantations). The Vatican too withdrew its priests from Haiti and no government in the world recognised the independent Republic of Haiti. It was only in 1861 that the US, under Abraham Lincoln, recognised Haiti as a sovereign state.

Finally, the Haitian Revolution was starved and brought to its knees when they agreed to pay compensation to France. This ‘repayment’ to France continued till the 1940s and crippled the Haitian economy, which went into severe debt to make these payments. A familiar cycle of poverty, indebtedness and political instability was established. Though the Haitian Revolution was defeated, it took five decades for the combined might of the colonial powers to achieve their nefarious end.

In those five decades, Haiti remained a beacon for freedom in the Western Hemisphere. The successful slave army of Haiti inspired numerous slave revolts in the US slave plantations, in other islands of the Caribbean and even in faraway Brazil. The Venezuelan revolutionaries, Simon Bolivar, who is today known as the liberator of Latin America from Spanish colonialism, and Francisco Miranda were given shelter, finances, arms and soldiers by the revolutionary Government of Haiti for their liberation struggle. Haiti gave assistance to the Abolitionists in the US and also hosted them in Fort Liberte when they had to flee the US.

It is instructive that the leaders of the slave revolution, who were so singularly successful in defeating the colonial powers, fought among each other for power and control and often killed each other in palace intrigues. It is further instructive that once successful in gaining independence, Bolivar himself joined the other colonial powers in boycotting Haiti. In a sense the final defeat of Haiti’s Revolution was due to both the economic strangulation of the country, as well as its leadership’s inability to work out a stable political structure. But before we are too harsh in our judgement, we should also remember that Haiti was the pioneer revolution of the colonised. They had no prior experience and were charting out an unknown path. In such circumstances it was near impossible for the Haitian Revolution to succeed.

But there is one more reason for the eventual failure of the Haitian Revolution. Haiti’s plantations were the nearest thing to industrial factory production that was achieved in agriculture. Thousands of slaves toiled next to each other in subhuman conditions, the slave overseer’s whipping into creation a veritable proto-proletariat. They were almost completely property-less and the only thing they owned was their ability to labour. These were the conditions that created the victorious slave army of Haiti, which could so easily adopt the slogans of ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite’ raised by the French Revolution and actualise it.

While this proto-proletariat created the victorious slave army, it was unable to move beyond the property relations that had created it. The new Republic of Haiti did not, it could not, abolish the plantations on which the slaves had worked. While slavery was abolished, the plantations were not. Former slaves were expected to now labour in these very plantations as free men (and women). The plantations were expropriated from the (white) slave owners and transferred to mulattoes or blacks. Because the Haitian revolutionaries did not have an alternative conception of organising their economic life or what can be called, transcending their given property relations, they continued to desire a compromise with colonial France wherein their political freedom would be recognised in return for the continuation of extant property relations. These revolutionaries perceived their slavery, and their aspired freedom, in purely political terms and were innocent of the economic reality that underlay their unfreedom.

In a sense, the Haitian Revolution occurred well before the historical and ideological conditions that could lay the foundation for its success were created. Its very success was its failure.

(to be continued)

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This was published in The Post on 23 January, 2008.

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5 responses

23 01 2008
Authority » The Successful Failure of Haiti’s Revolution

[...] KuklasKorner : Canucks and Beyond wrote an interesting post today on The Successful Failure of Haitiâs RevolutionHere’s a quick excerptThere could be no political authority on earth that was higher than the citizen. While these revolutions have justly been hailed as the… [...]

23 01 2008
Authority » The Successful Failure of Haiti’s Revolution

[...] Left ~ Write wrote an interesting post today on The Successful Failure of Haiti’s RevolutionHere’s a quick excerptThere could be no political authority on earth that was higher than the citizen…. [...]

24 01 2008
Ronel Lorius

I would not call it a failure based on the fact that by the Haitians winning over slavery it exposes mankind greed and cruelty.

Hilliard “d Auberteuil” a famous French writer as he was visiting Cap Haitian says.” The “black men” does not have this cruel character given to him by fear and ignorance.

They have not raised their hands or try to kill their masters. It is from us that they have learned to use poisons. One can travel day and night in the colony, no one gets robbed even the maroons will not hurt you. The author went on to say that in 1680 there was 800 thousand blacks brought from Africa. With a population as dense, it should have resulted millions of offspring.

Sadly in 1776, 96 years later there were just 96 thousand left. Almost 700 thousand men women and children were murdered litteraly at the hand of their masters, not by sickness”.

Having said that, it was only a matter of time for a revolution to take place. It is true that by coming from slavery today and being free the next day, people were disoriented,did not know what to do with their freedom.

The same Haitian army that had conquered the slaves owners had their guns and found it easy to put those same people ,those ex slaves back to work while they were celebrating their new found freedom.

Haiti was pretty much left alone and was seen as bad example to other blacks living elsewhere.
And up today the first thing ,even in the Depatrment of State website it says ” Do not travel to Haiti”.

Until we realize that a lot of wrongs were done to this nation and are willing to help , to so some real reparations, I would not accept failure, but rather surviving, taking it one day at a time until real help will come to the Haitian people that is needed today as it was needed the day after those slaves had won their freedom through their sweats and blood. Failure is not an option with the Haitian people, slavery was a failure

31 01 2008
Mais da revolução de São Domingos « Aloisio Milani

[...] Estão na lista dos mais lidos do blog Left ~ Write, de Aniket Alam, três posts (1, 2, 3) sobre a Revolução de São Domingos, o fato histórico que culminou com a independência do [...]

6 12 2008
I. Langalibalele

The title of this blog entry seems not only pretentious but facetious and lacking comradeship with the historic Haitian struggle. It seems ultra-right wing to attack poor people, to humiliate them because of their condition, and to claim to be revolutionary. That is how the Nazis defined socialism. I disagree that this blog is “Ruthless criticism of all that exists!” This is not criticism but empirical polemics based upon Imperialist illogic.

Ronel Lorius sed it best. “Until we realize that a lot of wrongs were done to this nation and are willing to help , to so some real reparations, I would not accept failure, but rather surviving, taking it one day at a time until real help will come to the Haitian people that is needed today as it was needed the day after those slaves had won their freedom through their sweats and blood. Failure is not an option with the Haitian people, slavery was a failure.”

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