Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution

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Haitian re­volu­tion­ary lead­er and states­man Tous­saint Louver­ture was born 274 years ago today. You can read a num­ber of books, es­says, and art­icles by click­ing on the links be­low.

  1. CLR James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution (1938)
  2. CLR James, Lectures on The Black Jacobins (1974)
  3. Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004)
  4. Jeremy D. Popkin, Facing Racial Revolution: Eyewitness Accounts of the Haitian Insurrection (2008)
  5. Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009)
  6. Jeremy D. Popkin, A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution (2011)

Fore­most among these, of course, is CLR James’ clas­sic The Black Jac­obins: Tous­saint Louver­ture and the Haitian Re­volu­tion (1938). Against the naïve im­per­at­ive that says “we must not cen­sor works hailed by the sub­al­tern as mas­ter­ful pieces of our his­tory, but in­stead cel­eb­rate them if the sub­al­tern says we should” — which al­most reads like a re­duc­tio ad ab­surdum of stand­point epi­stem­o­logy — we ought rather to up­hold those works which pass crit­ic­al and schol­arly muster. James’ book, though not writ­ten by an aca­dem­ic, stands up bril­liantly to this test.

Some of the oth­ers are also worth check­ing out. In par­tic­u­lar, Susan Buck-Morss’ in­flu­en­tial study of Hegel, Haiti, and Uni­ver­sal His­tory (2009), which caused something of a stir when the first half was pub­lished as an es­say back in 2001. “De­co­lo­ni­al dia­lec­tician” George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er cri­ti­cized her for fo­cus­ing too much on Tous­saint, at the ex­pense of his com­pat­ri­ot Jean-Jacques Des­salines. Nev­er­the­less, out of these two, I greatly prefer Tous­saint.

James re­peatedly com­pared Tous­saint to Robe­s­pi­erre, and in this ana­logy Des­salines could only be com­pared to Na­po­leon. After selling Tous­saint out to Le­clerc, and dis­pos­ing of rivals such as Charles and Sanité Bélair, Des­salines crowned him­self em­per­or and ruled with an iron fist over the ex-co­lo­ni­al is­land. Marx, as we know, had little pa­tience for would-be New World Na­po­leons like Si­mon Bolivar, so it’s not hard to ima­gine what he would have thought of Des­salines.

But even bey­ond these mono­graphs and his­tor­ies, Tous­saint’s life has in­spired works by great lit­er­ary fig­ures as well. To hon­or and com­mem­or­ate his birth­day, then, I’m also in­clud­ing a poem ded­ic­ated to Tous­saint by the poet Wil­li­am Wordsworth and a short story by the nov­el­ist Ral­ph El­lis­on. En­joy!

To Tous­saint L’Ouver­ture

Wil­liam Wordsworth
The Morning Post
February 4, 1802
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Tous­saint, the most un­happy man of men!
Wheth­er the whist­ling Rus­tic tend his plough
With­in thy hear­ing, or thy head be now
Pil­lowed in some deep dun­geon’s ear­less den; —
O miser­able Chief­tain! where and when
Wilt thou find pa­tience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheer­ful brow:
Though fallen thy­self, nev­er to rise again,
Live, and take com­fort. Thou hast left be­hind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breath­ing of the com­mon wind
That will for­get thee; thou hast great al­lies;
Thy friends are ex­ulta­tions, ag­on­ies,
And love, and man’s un­con­quer­able mind.

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Red leaves of red books (1935)

Richard Wright
The New Masses
(April 30, 1935)
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Turn
….Red leaves of red books

Turn
….In white palms and black palms

Turn
….Slowly in the mute hours of the night

Turn
….In the fingers of women and the fingers of men
….In the fingers of the old and the fingers of the young

Turn
….Under the nervous flickering of candles
….Under yellow gas sputterings
….Under dim incandescent globes

Turn
….In the North and in the South
….…In the East and in the West

Turn
….…Ceaselessly and reveal your printed hope

Turn
….Until your crispness leaves you
….Until you are dog-eared
….…Until the calloused hands that grip you

Are hardened to the steel of unretractable purpose!

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Note: Credit goes to Clara Everbeck for tracking down this poem and bringing it to my attention. She suggested that I publish it on my blog along with a short bio or introduction to Wright and the issues he was looking to address. My familiarity with his work is unfortunately limited to the recollections featured in The God that Failed, alongside contributions by Arthur Koestler, André Gide, and Ignazio Silone.

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Stalinist kitsch

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The title of this entry deserves some explanation. “Stalinist kitsch,” one might object, is a bit superfluous. Or redundant, rather. Everything is announced by simply saying “Stalinist,” after all. Doesn’t matter if it’s politics, aesthetics, whatever. It’s already assumed that it’s kitsch.

All the same, there’s plenty about Stalinism that deserves to be taken seriously. Not because it’s “right” about history or society or economics; no, nothing like that. Rather, it’s because whether we admit it or not, Stalin did seem to represent one solution (or at least stopgap) to the problem of mass society. Perhaps not a likable answer to the issues posed by modernity, but a likely one. This is something that Boris Groys, among others, has pointed out.

Moreover, though Stalin might have been more than a little lackluster as a theoretician — the primitiveness and crudity of his imagination was legendary — it’s not like he was completely ignorant. Least of all about Bolshevism and its various controversies over the years. He’d been in the party since 1903, so he was hardly a novice. And to be honest, many historians politically aligned with Stalinism wrote very rigorous, detailed accounts of their various objects of study. Though they may be a little vulgar and undertheorized at times, they’re preferable to a lot of the crap that’s published.

What’s even scarier is that those few explicitly Stalinist parties that still exist often have better politics than their soi-disant “Trotskyist” counterparts, who now operate more or less according to the logic of Stalinoid popfrontism, but without even the vague self-consciousness that Stalinists possessed. Sad times indeed.

Below are a bunch of the kitschier photos, posters, and artworks from the Stalin era. Click on any of the images to enlarge them. Furthermore, to compensate for this bit of lighthearted parody, I’m including Evtushenko’s somber 1961 poem, published in Pravda, on the “heirs of Stalin.”

The heirs of Stalin

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Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fixed bayonets.
He also was mute — his embalmed fists,
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory:
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie,
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab,
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past. Continue reading