Black Sansculottes - CLR James


This article originally appeared in Newsletter, published by the Institute of Race Relations in London, in October 1964, four months after Francois Duvalier was re-elected in Haiti as President for life. On the day of his death, 21 April 1971, he was succeeded as President for life by his son, Jean Claude Duvalier. James’s intention in this piece is “to make Blacks aware that in the history of revolution Blacks have played a tremendous role, even in the history of the great French revolution”.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on April 7, 2023

The Black Jacobins of the Haitian revolution of 1791 are the Black Sansculottes of 1964. This is now. The press has reverberated for more than a year with the jungle politics of President Duvalier of Haiti. Although these appear to be merely a continuation of Haitian politics during its 150 years of independence, Duvalier, unlike his predecessors, has had to add a strong-arm force — the Tonton Macoute. This is a body of armed gangsters who murder Duvalier’s enemies and potential opposition, and hold for official ransom (and their personal gain) both Haitians and foreigners in a manner hitherto unparalleled anywhere. Before the era of the Tonton Maconte, Haitian politics followed a regular pattern. Independence was won in 1803 by a heroic army of
black men, formerly slaves. Since independence, the Haitian brown-skinned middle class, their eyes still glued on Paris and French civilisation, have regularly filled all government and professional posts. But the political dictator has usually been a black man, who could win the support of the army, which still continues to be drawn from the impoverished black peasantry. The fact that Duvalier can no longer depend on such an army means that the black peasant is beginning to question his long martyrdom.

It was not only the disdain of the brown-skinned upper class for the black peasant that has helped to make Haiti into the most backward state in the Caribbean. The sugar estates which dominated the country in the colonial period were destroyed during the revolutionary war. The land was divided into peasant plots. The population was about half a million in 1804 when independence was won; today it is over three and a half million. The land has been constantly divided and redivided to satisfy the ever-increasing population. Today sugar constitutes only 5
Per cent of the island's production. The chief product is coffee and most of the peasants produce for mere subsistence. In the fifties an attempt was made with American money to initiate large-scale schemes of development. But the light-skinned (and dark-skinned) elite who are about 5 per cent of the population continue to occupy all professional and administrative positions, monopolising such wealth as the island affords.The dark-skinned masses, about 90 per cent of the population, have the lowest per capita income in the Latin-American countries —
about $70 per cent (less than £2.5) and the lowest percentage of literacy (about 10 per cent). Yet the Haitian peasants, alone among the people of the Caribbean, have a long and vibrant historical tradition; they proved themselves capable of resisting an American attempt to take over the island and despite the accumulated ills of decades of poverty, they have managed to retain a notable vitality.

At the time of writing (September 1964) the regime is being attacked by more than one armed group of revolutionaries. Tonton Macoute is said to be wavering. Long current among the incessant flood of conflicting rumours is this: that a smile from the United States on the forces opposed to Duvalier would have long ago resulted in his overthrow. But the dread alternative is ultimately a Castro-like rebellion — there are still people in the world who think that ten Duvaliers are preferable to one Castro.

As this time of renewed revolution in Haiti, it is worth looking again at the original revolution that started Haiti on her singular course. “It is not enough to have taken away Toussaint. There are 2,000 leaders to be taken away. . . . We have in Europe a false idea of the country in which we fight and the men whom we fight against." So reported the commander of the French expedition General: Leclere, chosen by his brother-in-law, Napoleon, to lead the expedition to San Domingo.

An incredible transformation had taken place in the slave population. They not only produced a body of men (some unable to sign their names) who to this day astonish all observers by their achievements in war and the multifarious demands of government. Toussaint and his lieutenants, inspired by freedom, the concepts of French revolution and their long experience of a colonial regime, accomplished what leaders of struggles for national independence are rarely able to do. They did not take over the former colonial régime. They constructed, from the round up, a new government based upon their own consciousness of their needs. Toussaint, however, recognised the backwardness his government had inherited, and strove to make a working arrangement with the French government (by this time Bonaparte) whereby independent Haitians would have the benefit of French culture and French capital. In pursuit of this ideal, Toussaint sapped the newly-created energies of his own followers. He made strenuous efforts to convince Napoleon that former slave-owners were not only welcome, but would be treated with dignity in the new regime. It was not to be. Toussaint was deported and imprisoned, and the independence was won by his barbaric lieutenant, Dessalines, under the slogan “Eternal hatred to France.” For this divorce from Western civfiisation Haiti has paid dearly.

After the establishment of independence, Haiti soon split into two states, the mulattos in the South under Pétion and the blacks in the North under Christophe, who established himself as emperor and ruled with vision but merciless despotism. After Pétion died Haiti was reunited under Boyer, who brought under his sole power the east of the island, the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic. But this did not last. Boyer was deposed and there followed a long succession of seizures of power, assassinations of rulers and would-be rulers, during which the
Dominican Republic established its independence both of Spain and Haiti, and to this day the island is divided between the two states. American bankers entered Haiti at the beginning of the century, followed by the Marines in 1915. But although the Americans did introduce certain material advantages (roads, attempts at popular education, etc.), the tradition of independence against the foreigner is to this day storm in Haiti and in the early thirties a combination of revolt on the one hand and the “Good Neighbour” policy of President Roosevelt on the other resulted in the evacuation of the American military forces.

Recent history has shown that the dilemma of Toussaint was an elemental and primitive form of the dilemma which faces all newly-independent backward territories today. Conceptions of the method and aims of the writing of history have not stayed where they were in 1938 and their development has affected the image of Haiti. As recently as 24 July 1964, Mr Geoffrey Barraclough ended a review of books on Nazism in the New Statesman as follows:

The truth is that the study of Hitler and Hitlerism is in an intermediate stage where the old formulations no longer satisfy but new formulations can only be tentatively made as new evidence is sifted. The historiography of all great revolutions passes through well-defined stages, and it seems to me that the historiography of the nazi revolution has now reached the stage Michelet referred to in that of the French Revolution when he said that the time had come to reduce to their “just proportions” the “ambitious marionettes” in whose minds and actions the motivating forces had hitherto been found, and bring out instead the role of the artisans, peasants and labourers we call “the people”.

Although he had very little to say of the colonial question, many pages in Michelet are in my view the best preparations for understanding what actually happened in San Domingo and in this context I should also like to add a quotation from the works of M.George Lefebvre, for many years the doyen of the great school of French historians of the French revolution:

It is wrong to attach too much importance to any opinion that the Girondins or Robespierre might have on what needed to be done. That is not the way to approach the question. We must pay more attention to the obscure leaders and the people who listened to them in stores and the little workshops and dark streets of old Paris. It was on them that the business depended and for the moment, evidently, they followed the Girondins.... It is therefore, in the popular mentality, in the profound and incurable distrust which was born in the soul of the people, in regard to the aristocracy, beginning in 1789, and in regard to the King, from the time of the flight to Varennes, it is there that we must seek the explanation of what took place. The people and their unknown leaders knew what they wanted, they followed the Girondins and Robespierre, only to the degree that their advice appeared acceptable.

Reviewing the history of the Black Jacobins of San Domingo, I do not blame Toussaint for his attitude to his former masters, which compromised him with his followers, but have attempted to clarify the dilemma he faced. “His unrealistic attitude to the former masters, at home and abroad, sprang not from any abstract humanitarianism or loyalty, but from a recognition that they alone had what San Domingo society needed. He believed that he could handle them. It is not impossible that he could have done it. He was in a position strictly comparable to that of the greatest of all American statesmen, Abraham Lincoln, in 1865; if the thing could be done at all, he alone could do it. Lincoln was not allowed to try. Toussaint fought desperately for the
right to try.”

Both in the United States and the Caribbean as a whole, the thing still remains to be done. Despite the partial substitution of French custom by African culture (an unconscious Negritude) in the 1920s the Black Sansculottes have not yet come to their own. As a Trinidadian observer,
Rosa Guy, wrote recently in a special number on the Caribbean published in Freedomways (a quarterly review of the Negro Freedom Movement, Vol.4, No.3, Summer 1964):

The age of heroic hopes and grandiose schemes based on a grand and magnificent history is passed. The dilemma of any honest government today is the dilemma of sustaining a steadily growing population on gradually shrinking land resources. lts development is desperately urgent and can be done only with a bold and sweeping land-reform programme. The timid steps taken by Estime in the social justice concept of 1946 is woefully inadequate for the revolutionary necessities of 1964. The incipient revolution to come must come to grips with these realities by taking the bold and important measures necessary.

Haiti puts one in mind of a fragile old estate: the ghosts of great men abound, the echoes of greatness pervade but with further decay, a loud shout will bring down the ruins, burying its greatness beneath piles of useless debris. It is not true that the land is always waiting. The land dies too. For the land, like all else, if it does not progress, must retrogress. Years of abuse, of neglect bring its natural consequences as witnessed by the terrible erosion, the acres and acres laid bare by misuse and ignorance. To equivocate on the needs of the people for mere self-indulgence or for political expediency is to place the people of Haiti on the chopping block of time. The people of Haiti are waiting and they will be free.