Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian revolution

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


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.

Continue reading


Pam Nogales, “Book review: Universal Emancipation, by Nick Nesbitt”

IMAGE: A Romantic portrayal of Haitian
revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture

Originally posted on Eleutheromania.  Though I’ve not read the book, Pam’s review gives me the distinct impression that Nesbitt is working within a Deleuzean frame, with a strong emphasis on “singularity” cribbed from Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza.  Thus, the notion of “radical enlightenment” adopted from Jonathan Israel’s well-known book championing Spinoza is shot through with a distinct Deleuzeanism.  Such are its theoretical underpinnings, anyway, for what it’s worth.

Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. By Nick Nesbitt. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 2008. Pp. viii, 261.

“The radical transformation of France after 1789 did not determine the appearance of the Haitian Revolution; instead, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was a key element in creating what David Scott has called the ‘conditions of possibility,’ the ontological ground that allowed for a local rebellion’s increasing articulation in terms of universal human rights.” (Nesbitt, 62)

Similar to historian Jeremy Popkin, although with a radically different conclusion, Nick Nesbitt also grapples with the question of whether or not the Revolution in Saint-Domingue was “ideologically predetermined” by the radical ideas of the French Revolution (Nesbitt, 128). While Popkin’s exposition argues that the Revolution was caused by a set of intricate contingencies and the blunders of human reason, Nesbitt’s argument prioritizes the legacy of the Enlightenment tradition as the grounds of possibility for the Revolution in Saint-Domingue. But this is only one side of the argument and it comes after an important clarification: Nesbitt challenges the understanding of the Enlightenment as a homogenous development, located in Europe and “accessible” only to privileged subjects. He argues that this perspective not only obfuscates the conditions under which the Revolution took place but blocks recognition of a critical contribution to the discourse of human rights.[1] By way of its “singularity,” writes Nesbitt, the slaves in Saint-Domingue went beyond the limitations of bourgeois revolutions but in order to learn from this historical rupture, we must recover the link between the Revolution and the tradition of Radical Enlightenment thought. Continue reading

A critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?”

Toussaint Louverture

The following is a brief critique of Asad Haider’s and Salar Mohandesi’s co-written article for Jacobin, “Is there a future for socialism?” The authors present a forceful argument, but in the final analysis I must take issue with many of their conclusions — not least of which is the relationship of “socialism” to “communism.”  Though it may seem superfluous, or even slightly disingenuous, to praise the authors I am about to criticize, I will preface my remarks by saying that I greatly enjoy many of the things they’ve published for their own publication, Viewpoint Magazine.  Especially excellent is Ben Lear’s review of Berardi’s After the Future, which appeared recently on their blog.  I thought the exchange on Lenin they hosted a few months back was also clarifying.  Salar’s historical analysis, “On the Black Bloc,” is also excellent.

All these gestures at diplomacy aside, however, I must take issue with the following historical characterization:

The Erfurt synthesis, which made some sense [questionable] in non-revolutionary situations like the one which gave birth to it, quickly proved ineffective when a new cycle of struggle took shape in the decade before the First World War. The party, failing to register this changed situation, stuck to the old line — it misunderstood the growing militancy of the rank and file because its institutional structure had so dangerously exacerbated the distance between an increasingly bureaucratized party apparatus and the everyday lives of workers. A socialist subculture had been the foundation of class solidarity, based on grassroots practices of self-reliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations (also known as “potato clubs”) to horseplay on the shop floor. But the SPD leadership increasingly tried to measure up to respectable bourgeois standards, with patriarchal families, ‘high culture,’ and patriotism, which immediately set them against the militancy of migrant workers in the Ruhr mines, and the wildcat strikes of female textile workers. “Women don’t want to know about politics and organization,” said one male socialist. “They appreciate a May Day festival, with singing and speeches and dancing…but they don’t appreciate political and trade union meetings.”

Dovetailing on Pham Binh’s quite correct remarks regarding the problem of legality vs. illegality, I would like to reiterate that the problem with the German Social Democrats was not that they had “lost touch” with the party’s working-class membership and constituency. Contrary to widespread belief, there is nothing inherently revolutionary about the working class. Marx’s entire argument regarding the proletariat was that it is the only potentially revolutionary class in modern society. This is because of its status as the only actually “universal” class in modern society (an inversion from of Hegel’s argument about the bureaucracy being the only “universal” class). The proletariat, at a sociological and empirical level, is “universal” insofar as it is both constitutive of and constituted by capital through the wage-relationship. It is unclear to me, however, whether it is all forms of universalism that the authors reject, or only the selective universalism of colonial rule. Universal suffrage is, of course, a form of universalism. Presumably this kind of universalism would meet with their approval.

Of course, when Marx was writing Capital, proletarian labor — defined as participating in the production and circulation of commodities, as well as through sale of its own labor as a commodity — was still mostly unique to the most advanced capitalist countries of the West. Since that time, the relationship of wage-labor has only become further generalized, resulting in nearly global proletarianization, at least at an objective level. That is to say, at the level of individuals’ objective relationship to the means of production.  Perhaps the most important lesson of the twentieth century is that the political tendencies of a given social stratum are by no means guaranteed.  Haider and Mohandesi gesture at this in their rejection of inevitabilism, but this does not itself go beyond the inevitabilism they ascribe to the Bernsteinians and Kautskyites.  For whether or not a person is objectively (i.e., sociologically) a member of the working class, it cannot be assumed that subjectively (i.e., politically) the person has attained proletarian class-consciousness. “The proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing,” Marx wrote in 1871. His statement should be read as follows: until the proletariat is revolutionary, it remains nothing.  It just remains unrealized potential.

Moreover, the various practices of working-class self-organization (“grassroots practices of self-reliance, ranging from cooperative shopping associations…to horseplay on the shop floor”) were not at all more militant than the party’s actual line. It wasn’t as if the cooperative networks signaled a great radicalism on the workers’ behalf. In fact, one of the greatest advocates of workers’ cooperatives was the archrevisionist Eduard Bernstein, (see his Preconditions of Socialism) while one of their greatest detractors was of the cooperatives was the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (see her classic Reform or Revolution). The idea that the everyday practices operated to radicalize the workers in the factories perhaps have some incidental truth, but in general this kind of assertion (when made categorically) belongs only to the most boring kinds of “history from below,” a dreary form of Alltagsgeschichte. The failure of the SPD was not that it had become too elitist or “bourgeois.” What happened was a flagrant betrayal of what had before been agreed upon and passed as a guiding principle for the world war that everyone saw was on the horizon: namely, the 1907 Lenin-Luxemburg amendment, in which it was agreed that in the event of widespread international conflict, International Social Democracy would come out in firm opposition, and try to exploit the situation to foment world revolution.

Likewise, in decade or so after World War I, there was a general rightward lurch within the German proletariat. This is difficult to explain if one maintains that the working class or the “oppressed” in general are innately revolutionary. As Wilhelm Reich asked in 1933, while still a Marxist working in Austria as a volunteer psychoanalyst, providing services to working class families,

What produced the mass-psychological soil on which an imperialistic ideology could grow and could be put into practice, in strict contradiction to the peace-loving mentality of a German population uninterested in foreign politics? The “betrayal of the leaders of the Second International” is no satisfactory answer. Why, one must ask, did millions of workers, with a liberal and anti-imperialistic attitude, let themselves be betrayed? Fear of the consequences of refusal to take up arms could be the motive [18] only in a small minority. If one had witnessed the mobilization of 1914, one knew that the working population showed diverse attitudes. There was a conscious rejection on the part of a minority; a peculiar submission to fate or an indolence; and violent enthusiasm not only in the middle classes but also in masses of industrial workers.

Reich insightfully observed that the political orientation of the working class is ambivalent: “The discovery of the fact that the working individual is neither unequivocally reactionary nor unequivocally revolutionary but in a conflict between reactionary and revolutionary tendencies, must of necessity lead to a practical program which opposes the reactionary psychological forces with revolutionary forces.” As he goes on the point out, the erroneous belief that workers are somehow inherently more militant and revolutionary seemed to be materially disproven by the widespread support of the German working class for Nazism.

The authors also issue a harsh indictment of the Enlightenment and of bourgeois revolutions in general:

Those who equate political liberation with the flowering of the bourgeois individual often say that the French Revolution represented the Enlightenment’s point of culmination. What they leave out is that it was also its point of explosion. The slaves of Haiti — who watched their newly enlightened French masters continue to lop off their limbs, bury them to the neck, and burn their families alive — quickly learned that there was little difference between a master who read Rousseau and one who didn’t. The Enlightenment was just slavery under another name. So on August 21, 1791, while the noble revolutionaries in Paris tried to find the most effective way to keep the slaves tied down to the plantations of their most profitable colony, the Haitian slaves forced their own counter-Enlightenment by emancipating themselves through revolution. Inspired by their Caribbean comrades, almost exactly one year later, the same Parisian masses who seized the Bastille and held the king hostage stormed the Tuileries Palace, declared a Republic, and exploded the continuum of history, imposing an entirely new calendar to mark the birth of a new world.

Likewise, I fail to see how you can claim that Enlightenment was just “slavery under a different name,” or your implication that the thought of figures like Rousseau made no difference in the colonial world. Wasn’t Toussaint the same man whose revolutionary spirit was nurtured on the writings of Rousseau, Raynal, and Diderot? CLR James himself wrote that “Toussaint’s failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness” (The Black Jacobins, pg. 288). Wasn’t Robespierre a disciple of Rousseau himself? Furthermore, it is difficult to characterize the Haitian Revolution as anything other than a bourgeois-liberal revolution. There was no attempt to overcome capital as the dominant form of social existence, as the oppressive character of capital had still not yet obviated itself in history. The Haitian Revolution was animated by ideas of liberty and equality, by republican ideals, and fought for the rights of individuals. In other terms, the Haitians fought against the slaveholders and foreign powers that surrounded them in order to establish an autonomous Rechtsstaat, which was still at that time by far the most revolutionary form of governance.  (This despite Toussaint’s occasional overtures toward royalism, a sad blemish on an otherwise consummately revolutionary, and for the most part staunchly republican, career).

This is why we’re pleased to enter into an exchange with Jacobin, whose logo recalls that we live in the world made by Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Black Jacobins. The reverberations of their confrontation with the colonialist universalism of the so-called “bourgeois revolutions” would be felt throughout the 19th century — just as, in 1848, the Jacobinism of Blanqui would be challenged by the growth of working-class neighborhood clubs.

Here I think it would be appropriate to invert the authors’ use of scare quotes in the second sentence.  It is telling that today we hear talked of the “so-called” bourgeois revolutions, as if they were neither revolutionary nor bourgeois.  This is something that I elaborate upon in a forthcoming essay on the relation of liberalism to socialism, so I’ll leave this as more of an aside for now.

In the interview that Pam Nogales and I conducted with the Italian Marxist theorist Domenico Losurdo, we touched on the question of Toussaint, Haiti, and bourgeois revolution, if anyone’s interested.

Liberalism and Marx: An interview with Domenico Losurdo


Image: Photograph of the Paris barricade during the
1871 Commune, taken by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg


On March 17, 2012, Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Domenico Losurdo, the author, most recently, of Liberalism: A Counter-History
(2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. Full video of the interview can be found here.

Ross Wolfe:
How would you characterize the antinomy of emancipation and de-emancipation in liberal ideology? From where did this logic ultimately stem?

Domenico Losurdo: I believe that this dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism. The class struggle Marx speaks about is a confrontation between these forces. What I stress is that sometimes emancipation and de-emancipation are strongly connected to one another. Of course we can see in the history of liberalism an aspect of emancipation. For instance, Locke polemicizes against the absolute power of the king. He asserts the necessity of defending the liberty of citizens against the absolute power of the monarchy. But on the other hand, Locke is a great champion of slavery. And in this case, he acts as a representative of de-emancipation. In my book, I develop a comparison between Locke on the one hand and Bodin on the other. Bodin was a defender of the absolute monarchy, but was at the same time a critic of slavery and colonialism.

RW: The counter-example of Bodin is interesting. He appealed to the Church and the monarchy, the First and Second Estates, respectively, in his defense of the fundamental humanity of the slave against the “arbitrary power of life and death” that Locke asserted the property-owner, the slave-master, could exercise over the slave.

DL: Yes, in Locke we see the contrary. While criticizing the absolute monarchy, Locke is a representative of emancipation, but while celebrating or legitimizing slavery, Locke is of course a representative of de-emancipation. In leading the struggle against the control of the absolute monarchy, Locke affirmed the total power of property-owners over their property, including slaves. In this case we can see very well the entanglement between emancipation and de-emancipation. The property-owner became freer, but this greater freedom meant a worsening of the conditions of slavery in general.

RW: You seem to vacillate on the issue of the move towards compensated, contractual employment over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it. By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another — paid and unpaid labor — isn’t there a danger of obscuring the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production? Do you consider this shift, which helped usher in the age of capitalism, a truly epochal and unprecedented event? What, if any, emancipatory possibilities did capitalism open up that were either unavailable or unthinkable before?

DL: It was Marx himself who characterized the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689 as a coup d’état. Yes, the landed aristocracy became free from the king, but in this way the landowners were able to expropriate the peasants and inaugurate a great historical tragedy. In this case, too, we can see this dialectic of emancipation and de-emancipation. After the Glorious Revolution, the death penalty became very widespread. Every crime against property, even minor transgressions, became punishable by death. We can see that after the liberal Glorious Revolution the rule of the ruling class became extremely terroristic.

RW: Insofar as the de-emancipation of the serfs led to the development of an urban proletariat (since the peasants thus uprooted were often forced to move to the cities, where they joined the newly emerging working class), to what extent did this open up revolutionary possibilities that didn’t exist before? Or was this simply a new form of unfreedom and immiseration?

Losurdo's Liberalism: A Counter-History

Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History

DL: Of course, you are right if you stress that the formation of an urban proletariat creates the necessary conditions for a great transformation of society. But I have to emphasize the point that this possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism. Bernard De Mandeville is very open about the fact that to maintain order and stability among the workers, the laws must be very strict, and that the death penalty must be applied even in the absence of any evidence. Here too we can speak of terroristic legislation.

I also describe the conditions in the workhouses as approximating later internment camps and concentration camps. In the workhouses there was no liberty at all. Not only was there no wealth, or material liberty; there was no formal liberty either. Continue reading