Preferring lightning to light: The case of Haiti
By Kole Omotoso
14 October 2018 | THE GUARDIAN
In 1790, the American diplomat and politician Gouverneur Morris compared the French and American Revolutions, saying that the French ‘have taken Genius instead of Reason for their guide, adopted Experiment instead of Experience, and wander in the Dark because they prefer Lightning to Light’” Comment on Sister Revolutions: French Lightning, American Light
“The Bolsheviks soon realised that they could not survive without the knowledge, skills, and education of the old elite. The workers and peasants, in whose name the Bolsheviks claimed to rule, were simply not qualified to run a vast state. And so began an uneasy collaboration between the old and the new masters of Russia. . .” p.11 Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith
It is now accepted that all revolutions want the old order out and the new order in. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution all worked for the old to go and the new to come. But things never work out that way. The new order always needs some information, some skills from the old order. This makes it necessary for the old order and those who belong to it to be seen hobnobbing with the people of the new order. The question then arises why should there be a new order at all, if the old order is still in order!?
In some revolutions though, the old order becomes so prominent that sooner or later it changes things supposedly new to the old order, and you get a restoration. This happened in the case of the French Revolution in which the king was killed, and then the king was restored, which must have taught the French their saying that the more things change the more they remain the same!
Restoration also happened in the case of the English Revolution (1688) in which the king had been beheaded, and a commonwealth was declared under Oliver Cromwell. Well, the king was restored after the death of Oliver Cromwell and Cromwell was accused of regicide, a crime for which his body was exhumed and he was hanged!
Given the number of human lives lost in the violence which accompanied and then followed these revolutions, did they die in vain since the old other was restored?
The case of the Chinese Revolution must make humanity shudder. Launched in 1948 the Revolution was to take the baton from the Russian Revolution and achieve the dream of the end of capitalism and the dawn of the classless society. The various failures of the Chinese state until the intervention of Deng Xiaoping “with far-reaching market-economy reforms” show that ultimately, revolutions are not necessary! Nobody reading The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962 – 1976 by Frank Dikotter and listening to Chinese people grumble about their loss during that cultural revolution would not wish that the cultural revolution had not happened. Today, China is more capitalist than the United States of America. Why would you go through the horrors of the various attempts to leapfrog into development only to come back to a market economy?
Two revolutions wiped out the old order completely with devastating consequences for their countries. The first revolution is the Russian Revolution. Those who know in details the history of the serfs in Russia say that it was a system that rivalled the slavery of the Southern States of the United States of America. There were serf revolts that were bent on destroying the Russian aristocracy long before the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Between that date and the death of Stalin in 1953 the Russian aristocracy was wiped out and their property stolen.
Unfortunately, the new order set up could not compete with the capitalism that it set out to displace. It collapsed in 1989 to be replaced by chaos which will take some time to convert to a market economy. What was the use of the death of millions to the state of Russia in all these years?
The other revolution is the Haitian Revolution. From 1789 to 1804 450,000 African slaves fought 39,000 white plantation owners and managers to free themselves from slavery and the plantation system in the Caribbean island of San Domingue. There were 27,500 persons of mixed race ready to go to either side depending on which side was winning. Out of the fear that Napoleon was going to restore slavery, the leadership of the African Freedom Fighters killed every white man, woman and child in Haiti in January 1804.
The infrastructure of the plantation system was destroyed – the irrigation system, the sugar cane crushing machines and the other machinery were destroyed. The ex-slaves swore never to go back to the plantation again. Independence was declared. The blue-white-red French flag was torn up, the white in the middle thrown away and the flag of Haiti was blue and red. Later the blue was replaced by black.
In an attempt to have some sort of economy the leadership asked Haitians to go back to the plantations and work them for their own benefit just as they had worked them for the benefit of the whites. But they refused. The land was divided into small-small portions for use by each Haitian family. This would forever make plantation economy impossible.
Unlike Soviet Russia that destroyed its patrimony of governance knowledge, industrial skills and civic education, Haiti had no prior history of statehood. By wiping out those who had the knowledge of statehood, the skills of working an economy and the plan of societal education, it had nothing to fall back on. The Africans of Haiti might have begun their revolt against the French slave-owners by calling on the help of Ogun, the Yoruba god of war and struggle, but they did not remember the Yoruba proverb that says the eyes of your tears must, at the time of tears, also begin to see things beyond your tears. Two hundred years after that madness of mass murder of whites, Haiti remains poor and impoverished and miserable.
Unlike the other revolutions whose validity we question here, it is impossible to say that the Haitian Revolution was not necessary. But was the massacre of the whites inevitable? Was there no other means of putting the fear of God into Napoleon and his messengers of enslavement?