Haitian Revolution

 “The N.’s revolutionary history is rich, inspiring, and unknown.”1 Written by C. L. R. James (1939) in the midst of globally connected struggles against fascism and colonialism, this observation is not primarily a critique of bourgeois historians. Rather, it is directed at the Fourth International and at all the Marxists who, according to James, still have to recognize “the tremendous role played by N.s in the transformation of Western civilization from feudalism to capitalism” (ibid.). Even though Marx himself had emphasized the importance of the European enslavement of people of African descent for the rise of modern capitalism (MECW 6, 167), he remained peculiarly silent regarding the most radical expression of Black revolutionary history: the Haitian Revolution. Marx mentions the Haitian Revolution only in the margins, hidden in the The German Ideology, where he defines it as an anti-colonial struggle for liberation, enforcing the abolition of enslaved labor. Yet the successful uprising of the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue does not qualify as a proper revolution in the eyes of Marx, even though it resulted in the overthrow of a colonial plantocracy and in the independence from a revolutionary, yet racist, French Empire. In a polemic, he claims that Max Stirner “imagines that the insurgent N.s of Haiti and the fugitive N.s of all the colonies wanted to free not themselves, but ‘man’” (MECW 5, 309) – a thought Marx refuses. In contrast to Hegel, who in the Philosophy of Subjective Spirit had appraised post-revolutionary Haiti as “a state on Christian principles” and as a signifier of Black people’s inherent capability of freedom, Marx, on the other hand, defines the historical role of the newly created “N. republic” as merely having laid out the ground for the abolition of enslavement in the United States (MECW 19, 229). In both cases, Haiti only represents the liberation of people of African descent, not of humankind.

Today, Marx’s dismissal of the revolutionary credentials of the Haitian Revolution permeates most of the critical theories inspired by Marx, which either silence or trivialize it as a marginal event on the periphery of modernity. In contrast, throughout the worlds of the Black Atlantic and the Black Pacific (Shilliam 2015), Haiti has been, and continues to be, a symbol of universal emancipation both in political movements and in counter-hegemonic theory-production initiated and cultivated by Black people and People of Color. It was none other than Paul Lafargue, husband to Marx’s daughter Laura, who declared the Haitian Revolution to be an inspiring example of a radical socialist revolution with an anti-racist agenda. While Marx condescendingly referred to his son-in-law as “African”, “gorilla” or “creole”, who was lacking “English manners” (MECW 42, 315f.), Lafargue himself took pride in his Black ancestry – which, ironically enough, went back to pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue. He self-identified as homme de couleur, person of color (Derfler 1991, 53), a political category invented in Saint-Domingue that transcended the racialized matrix of European Enlightenment and colonialism. In a world of institutionalized white supremacy, Haiti was constituted as a decolonial and deracialized republic, making it a safe haven for all indigenous people and people of color endangered and threatened by colonization, enslavement, racist terror, and genocidal violence perpetrated by white people. Historically, this was proven by the mass migration of African-Americans from the United States to Haiti in the 19th century. Well into the 20th century, Haiti became a political counter-model to Western liberal capitalist democracy for various anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist liberation movements, from Aotearoa to Vietnam to South Africa.

It was Black Marxism that prominently put forward the idea that the Haitian Revolution was indeed not a mere instance of individual emancipation – the transformation of colonized and enslaved people of African descent into free men and free laborers, as Marx had claimed –, but a crucial step in the universal emancipation of humankind. According to James (1939), the formerly enslaved revolutionaries, who had been classified as “movable property” by the Code Noir, were, in fact, “black proletarians”. The Caribbean plantation complex, which had been based on a proto-proletarian division of labor, at the same time enabled the political organization of the enslaved population as revolutionary subjects. By destroying this complex, the “Black Jacobins” became the vanguard of universal emancipation, staging the first socialist revolution in world history (James 1938). However, what James performs in his book Black Jacobins as an epic of emancipation is not the mere integration of Black revolutionary politics into a conventional Marxist frame. Rather, he changes the frame itself by decentering the white, Euro-American urban proletariat that had been thought of as the only revolutionary subject and the embodiment of universal emancipation. By writing the history of the Haitian Revolution as the history of a revolution proper, Black Marxism thus deconstructs the “North Atlantic universals” (Trouillot 2002) and the “white mythologies” (Young 2004) that are prevalent in conventional Marxist and even post-Marxist theories.

While Susan Buck-Morss (2000) continued to study the hidden connection between the Haitian Revolution and Hegel – a connection that for the first time had been examined by Pierre Franklin Tavares (1990) –, post-Marxist interpretations of the Haitian Revolution gained momentum in the run-up to its bicentenary in 2004, leading to a so-called Haitian Turn. This intellectual shift in North American academia re-centers the Haitian Revolution and includes it in the history of Enlightenment and the Atlantic revolution (Joseph 2012). Although post-Marxists no longer outright ignore the Haitian Revolution, they unreflectingly incorporate it in their canon of a particular Euro-North American Marxist thought, which masks its implicit whiteness as an assumed universality. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000, 118), for example, compare the iconic revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture with Marx, stating that both were global utopian thinkers, with Toussaint translating the rhetoric of Enlightenment’s universalism and the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen “into practice”. In a similar vein, Slavoj Žižek (2008, 208) describes the events of Saint-Domingue as “a key supplement” to the French Revolution. According to him, the Haitian Revolution was “clearly ‘ahead of its time,’ ‘premature,’ and as such doomed to fail” (ibid., 392). Instead of questioning the epistemological and political conditions of their theoretical practice, the post-Marxists inscribe the Haitian Revolution into a grand narrative of European Enlightenment and the bourgeois French Revolution. In doing so, they do not take seriously the autonomous struggles for, and conceptions of, emancipation brought forward by the enslaved people themselves. Not only that, they also do not recognize the importance of colonialism, enslavement, and racism as specific forms of domination and exploitation that are more than a mere momentum in the dialectics of class struggle.

At this point, the contributions of Black Marxism are vital. From the vantage point of Black Radicalism – a body of social and political theory rooted in the lived experiences and in the genealogies of resistance of Black people on their forced journey from Africa to the Americas –, Black Marxism rethinks Marxist theory from scratch. Cedric J. Robinson (1983) places the Haitian Revolution in the theoretical framework of a “racial capitalism”, which suggests an intertwining of class and race in the transatlantic history of colonial and racist violence. Likewise, in The Souls of Black Folk W. E. B. Du Bois reflects the centrality of race as a fundamental category of domination, oppression, and exploitation on a global scale and even after the formal abolition of enslavement when he predicts that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the colorline” (Du Bois 1903, 31). In the midst of the anti-colonial revolutions of the 20th century, Frantz Fanon states that “a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue” (Fanon 2004, 5). Similarly, the central aim of the Haitian Left after the foundation of the Haitian Communist Party in 1934, bringing together intellectuals such as Jacques Roumain and Jacques Stephen Alexis, was to understand the interlocking, but also contradictory, logic of race and class domination (Smith 2009). Trying to integrate racism, capitalism, and neo-colonialism, Haitian Marxism thus made an important contribution to a Marxist grammar of political economy and a Marxist critique of modern capitalist society that is still largely unacknowledged.

It is obvious that the Haitian Revolution has remained mostly unnoticed in critical theories of the global North up until today. But we cannot tell a solely heroic story of this revolution. While anti-racist struggles are being ignored most of the time in what Charles Mills (2003) calls a “White Marxism”, this rings true even more for the revolutionary struggles fought by Black women. The celebration of the Haitian Revolution as a moment of universal emancipation within the narrative logic of a masculinist, heroic storyline obscures the contradictions of this revolution in the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The fact that the newly created republic was founded on the subordination and exclusion of Black women underlines the importance of Black Marxist feminism as a critical social theory (Hill Collins 1990) – even more so as the Left today puts forward polemics against what is often called “identity politics”, accusing the theorization of different positionalities of being a strategy of social division. In her response to this accusation, Selma James, a Jewish socialist feminist thinker and activist married to C. L. R. James, claimed that “if sex and race are pulled away from class, virtually all that remains is the truncated, provincial, sectarian politics of the white male metropolitan Left” (1974: 92). Envisioning a democratic revolutionary socialism therefore does not only require a social and political theory that is aware of the intersectionality of different forms of oppression and exploitation. It has to start from the Black feminist insight that, as Angela Davis (2016) puts it, emancipation is only imaginable as the common practice of an “intersectionality of struggles.”


I would like to thank Vanessa Eileen Thompson for our ongoing discussion of Black feminism and for bringing to my attention the work of Selma James. I am also thankful to Felix Trautmann, Aaron Zielinski, and the editors of Krisis for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.