In the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, the French Revolution proclaimed the freedom and equality of all. The bourgeoisie interpreted the declaration in a limited form that established a franchise limited by property and residence and that focused on economic liberty. In contrast, the petty bourgeois Jacobins interpreted the democratic revolution as requiring a universal franchise, the protection of social and economic rights, and the subordination of property rights to the needs of society. From 1792 to 1794, the Jacobins took control of the revolutionary process; but from 1789 to 1792 and after 1794, the revolutionary process was constrained by bourgeois interests (see “Bourgeois revolution in France, 1787-1799” 11/25/2013; “Class and the French Revolution” 11/27/2013).
Meanwhile, on a foundation of African slave labor, the French West Indian colony of San Domingo exported sugar, cotton, indigo, and hides. The trade generated by San Domingo was more than twice that of all of the British colonies combined, and it was the basis for the wealth of the French maritime bourgeoisie, which had led the bourgeois revolution against the Old Regime (James 1989:45, 47, 51, 57-58). In this way, colonization and slavery provided the material foundation for the emergence of classes that would proclaim democratic values and forge a democratic revolution, establishing a situation in which the political and ideological centers of the world-system would proclaim values in contradiction with the fundamental political-economic structures that are the foundation for its development.
This contradiction would have consequences in the colonies, and its first manifestation was immediately seen in San Domingo, where white planters, white small farmers, and mulattoes saw new possibilities established by the French Revolution. Each acted in accordance with its interests, in conflict with each other and with the French bourgeoisie. But the actors that would emerge as the central force were the black slaves.
In The Black Jacobins, a classic work written in 1938, the Trinidadian C.L.R. James describes the influence of the French Revolution on the black slaves. He writes: “And meanwhile, what of the black slaves? They had heard of the revolution and had construed it in their own image: the white slaves in France had risen, and killed their masters, and were now enjoying the fruits of the earth. It was gravely inaccurate in fact, but they had caught the spirit of the thing. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” (James 1989:81).
By the end of 1789, there were meetings in forests at night and uprisings on isolated plantations, which were bloodily repressed. Learning that isolated actions could not succeed, they began to organize for larger actions, traveling great distances to communicate with one another. In July 1791, a group of 12,000 slaves under the leadership of Boukman, a Voodoo High Priest, put into action a plan to burn the plantations and massacre the whites, which did not succeed in its entirety. They divided into two large gangs, one under the leadership of Biassou, and the other under Jean Francois. Both leaders were able to impose order and discipline, and they demonstrated a capacity to govern (James 1989:81-82, 86-89, 93-94).
We can thus see the interconnectedness of things. Colonization and slavery in San Domingo functioned to promote the economic development of France and the emergence of the French bourgeoisie, which had an interest in overthrowing the nobility and the remnants of feudal society, and the resulting bourgeois democratic revolution would in turn stimulate slave rebellion in the colony.
But the slave leaders did not have a clearly-defined political direction, and this lack was overcome by the arrival in Biassou’s band of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a charismatic leader whom we will discuss in the next post.
James, C.L.R. 1989. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Second Edition, Revised. New York: Vintage Books, Random House.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, French Revolution, Haitian Revolution, slave rebellion, Toussaint L’Ouverture