The Enduring Importance of the Haitian Revolution


By: Cornelius Drew

While capitalism has always been rooted in a world market, following the development of digital technology and the fall of the Soviet Union, the global power of imperialism has been greatly intensified. As capital has become increasingly global, a brutal contradiction has emerged between the global mobility of capital and the enforced immobility of labor. In what the media euphemistically refer to as the migrant crisis at the US border, we have seen numerous shocking examples of direct physical violence against working class people: mounted agents whipping refugees, uniformed officers herding people into camps, and vigilantes murdering so-called “illegal immigrants”.  Much of this violence is expended with the goal of forcing people back into countries that U.S. imperialism has immiserated, forcing workers to accept starvation and hyper-exploitation, forcing workers to give up hope. Fiterson Janvier, a Haitian migrant seeking refuge in the U.S. explained to the BBC[1] what imperialism is doing to people every day in countries all over the world, “Haiti is like hell for me now, there is nothing for me there. Nothing. If they’re going to send me back, they may as well just kill me…”



The problem with imperialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s countries to despoil. This is where U.S. imperialism finds itself today; it is getting into a general crisis, it has reached a limit—this is what we are seeing at the border. Facing the crisis of U.S. imperialism, popular governments in the Americas, spearheaded by Cuba and Venezuela and supported by the PRC, have developed anti-imperialist alliances-breaking with liberal institutions like the IMF the World Bank and the OAS, and assembling alternative paradigms of international development. Across the region, the compradors and the ruling classes insist on an imaginary connection to “the West” over the concrete connection to the other struggling peoples in the so-called “New World”. Too many US “leftists” and liberals have followed this hegemonic outlook and turned to European Social Democracy and Marxism based on European conditions as models, thinking that class struggle is something is done via the writings of European academics. This continued identification with “the continent” reflects the colonial origins of the United States-it is the return of the unfinished anti-colonial dimension of the U.S. revolution of 1776.  


Communists in the United States are the ones who break with this Eurocentric narrative and stand in solidarity with the other post-colonial peoples in the Western Hemisphere. This is one of the things that distinguishes communists-their devotion to the multi-racial and multi-lingual working class. Despite the cult of the “West” promulgated in the bourgeois media, we recognize that the United States is in the Western Hemisphere-it is not an island off the coast of Europe. Being a “New World” state means that the United States was colonized. As in so many other Western Hemisphere states, a large portion of the working class was kidnapped from Africa and enslaved, others came from Europe under various forms of duress and were exploited, others were indigenous and were expropriated, enslaved and exploited. This altered the character of the working class in the Western Hemisphere, among other things, making the abolition of slavery an immediate problem for the workers movement. As Marx put it, “Labor in white skin cannot be free so long as labor in a black skin is branded. “[2] We strive to address hemispheric realities instead of the Eurocentric fantasies of the ruling class and petit bourgeoisie, we aim to go to the root of this struggle that was so important to Marx and unify the working class.



Thinking of the struggle against slavery as a labor struggle leads us to foreground the Haitian Revolution in a way that has not been done in the past. From this standpoint, the Haitian Revolutionaries were the vanguard for the working class of the Western Hemisphere. Along this line, the historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker called the Haitian Revolution “the first successful workers revolt in modern history.”[3] The U.S may have been the first colony to achieve independence in the “New World” under enlightenment principles, but the U.S. stopped a bit short of fulfilling those principles in practice, giving rise to the paradox: if the enlightenment principles are universal then why did the enlightened government still enforce the enslavement of human beings? The Haitian Revolution faced and resolved this paradox, following the enlightenment principles to their logical conclusions with a consistency that eluded the Europeans. In the Haitian republic, the enlightenment was fulfilled and transcended, leading to a new set of problems caming into focus. When the Haitians achieved the world’s first victorious workers revolt, when they abolished slavery and expelled or executed the colonizer, they produced a model of social revolution that would echo through the ages.


The Haitian Revolution

Haiti supplied, like the United States Republic had in the decades before, and like the Bolsheviks would a century later, a model of a new kind of revolution for struggling people everywhere. In practice, Haiti supported revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar and gave material and spiritual aid to enslaved people in the United States and other countries in the region. In the United States, the Haitian Revolution emboldened African people to intensify their fight against slavery and roused many Europeans into radical moral and political opposition to slavery.[4] These tendencies coalesced into abolitionism. This abolitionism was the concrete model of revolutionary action for many US radicals and early communist leaders. For example, Eugene V. Debs was inspired by abolitionists like John Brown and Wendell Phillips among others[5].  The First International echoed this sentiment in their letter to Abraham Lincoln in 1865, writing, “The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes.”[6] The Haitians unleashed a war against slavery that still resonates in our time, though their revolution eventually succumbed to counter-revolution, the force of their revolution never did or will.


As the revolution developed, the French claimed that Haiti owed them money as a condition for recognition of their independence and used that spurious claim to keep Haiti in a state of siege for over a century. Haiti needed allies to break that encirclement but none could be found. Starting with a sixty-year refusal to recognize the Haitian Republic, the U.S. has done all that it could, in conjunction with France, to sabotage Haiti for the past two centuries. In 1915, the United States invaded Haiti, and established the modern Haitian army which has been used by imperialism to subjugate and intimidate the people ever since. In the 1980’s the CIA helped to set up and fund the Haitian National Intelligence Service which has been busy fomenting coups and disorganizing popular movements using violence and intimidation. When in 1990 Haiti was permitted to have a democratic election, these bodies were used to remove the elected leadership of Jean Bertrand Aristide, the leader of the popular Fanmi Lavalas movement. In 1991, these armed forces made Aristide sign a resignation under duress and later, when he was elected again in 2000, they kidnapped him and sent him into exile in Africa[7]. These hard power tactics have done much to destabilize the country and maintain the status quo of desperation and impoverishment; in addition, Haiti has been plagued by imperialist-backed NGO’s and charitable organizations that prey on the peoples suffering and weaken efforts at popular mobilization. 

US military in Haiti

 Today, we need to focus our time and resources on building up that alliance, the alliance that breaks the encirclement of Haiti and makes any such encirclement impossible in the future. We need to set as a horizon for our action the creation of a free hemisphere. We need a peoples’ hemispheric alliance to bring the workers of the United States together with the workers in the rest of the hemisphere to coordinate action and provide mutual aid. Today’s Haitian refugees do not just represent the Haitian struggle, many of them have been through multiple South American countries searching for a place to live and have been forced at last to seek refuge in the United States. Their tragic journeys embody the sufferings of workers immiserated by imperialism throughout the region and should be a call to urgent action and solidarity for communists everywhere.

This article reflects the opinion of the author




[1] BBC: Haitian migrants at U.S. Border: ’We’ve been through 11 countries’

[2] Marx, Karl  Capital Volume 1

[3] see Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker The Many Headed Hydra pg 319

[4] “The year 1791 marked the beginning of the revolution of the Negro slaves in St. Domingo, which, after 14 years of unsurpassed heroism, culminated in the establishment of an independent Negro republic. Both events filled American newspapers and formed the great topic of conversation in the North and in the South. The latter event, the Negro revolution, directly affected the South, for it caused an exodus of thousands of panic-stricken slaveholders, together with some slaves, into cities like Richmond, Norfolk and Charleston.

     “The general upsurge of revolutionary feeling gave a considerable impetus to anti-slavery sentiment. In the South, this resulted in the freeing of hundreds of slaves by conscience stricken masters, the growth of anti-slavery groups like the Quakers and Methodist and, indeed, the formation of emancipationist societies in several of the more northern of the slave states. In the North the period was marked by the enactment of gradual emancipation acts so that by 1802 every northern state (except New Jersey whose act came in 1804) had provided for the ultimate extinction of slavery.

            It is to be noted that even in this early period, the anti-slavery feeling went, in some cases, to the extent of condoning if not urging slave rebellion”

Apthecker, Herbert, Negro Slave Revolts in the United States 1526-1860.

1939 International Publishers

[5] See, for example, Debs, Eugene V. “John Brown: History’s Greatest Hero” Appeal to Reason, November 23, 1907

[6] The International Workingmen’s Association. 1864. Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America

Presented to U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams January 28, 1865 

Written by Karl Marx between November 22 & 29, 1864
Published in The Bee-Hive Newspaper, No. 169, November 7, 1865;

[7] A History of United States Policy Towards Haiti By Ann Crawford-Roberts

A History of United States Policy Towards Haiti