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How could Haiti win its freedom?

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Haiti has an incredible history of resistance – but could it go further? Mark L Thomas argues that, even in the poorest countries, the working class can spark revolutionary movements that can transform society
Issue 2186

The people of Haiti have a powerful record of resistance. They have fought back even in the most appalling conditions – from the great slave rebellion in the 1790s, to the movement that destroyed the brutal regime of “Baby Doc” Duvailer in the 1980s.

They are not alone. People in some of the poorest countries have driven out hated rulers.

But could they go further? Could they defeat the power of US imperialism and make a revolution?

And even if a revolution did take place, aren’t countries like Haiti – or Somalia, or Bangladesh – simply too poor to develop a socialist society?

The revolutionary Karl Marx argued that capitalism creates the preconditions for socialism.

Capitalism creates enormous wealth compared to previous societies. There is now enough food, shelter, clothing and so on in the world to end poverty.

At the same time capitalism gives birth to a new class: the working class. Forced together in large workplaces, the collective production by this class is the source of capitalism’s vast wealth.

Workers occupy a unique position at the heart of the capitalist economy. Without them, no buses or trains run, no steel is made, and virtually nothing can be produced.

Marx saw workers as the force that could use their power to create a classless, socialist society.

Yet there are many countries in the world, like Haiti, where workers are a minority of the population – in some cases a tiny minority. How can they lead a revolution under such conditions?

Socialists have debated similar problems for centuries, and their arguments can offer valuable insights for today.

As capitalism spread out from Western Europe and North America from the 19th century onwards, the rest of the world was increasingly drawn into the global market.

The big capitalist powers like Britain and France, and later the United States, carved up Africa and Asia between them. The remaining independent states were forced to rapidly industrialise to survive and fend off predators.

But the pattern of capitalist development in these countries did not simply repeat that of Britain or France a century earlier.

Some older industries were destroyed – a flood of cheap machine-made cotton goods from Lancashire ruined India’s once prosperous textile producers.

In other countries, small pockets of advanced industry grew up alongside millions of peasants who continued to till the soil with rudimentary tools.

This was the situation in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century.

Old meets new

The Tsarist regime turned to promoting modern industry from the 1880s onwards to ensure it could compete with its rivals in Western Europe as a major military power.

The new industry that was created often employed the latest technology.

By the First World War, the Putilov armaments factory in St Petersburg was one of the largest and most advanced in the world.

Yet Russia’s population was still made up overwhelmingly of peasants.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky called this “combined and uneven development” – old and new methods of production coming together. It remains an important feature of 21st century capitalism.

Today, China’s coastal regions have become one of the great workshops of global capitalism, supplying vast quantities of consumer goods to the world market.

Yet only 30 percent of rural households in China own a fridge, in large part because of the lack of electricity.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the poorest countries in the world, has over a million mobile phone users. Street vendors use car batteries to recharge phones, despite often patchy and limited power supplies.

In such situations countries which have only very recently industrialised will leap to the most advanced techniques without going through all the previous stages of development. And the working class can equally move forward at a rapid rate.

But didn’t Marx argue that the working class must become the majority before it can act as the agent of socialism?

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued that the revolution against the Tsar would have to be led by workers even though they were still only a minority of Russian society.

Russia’s capitalists were too weak and too tied to the old order to lead a revolution. The peasantry could strike blows, but were too dispersed and politically backward to play a central role.

The new working class, on the other hand, was concentrated in big factories and was capable of leading the peasantry. Having overthrown the Tsar, workers were not prepared to stop and allow the creation of a capitalist state founded on their own exploitation.

Trotsky put it well­ – “The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement”.

This raised an immediate contradiction. The material wealth to build socialism did not yet exist in Russia, a point Trotsky fully accepted.

The solution lay in spreading the revolution, above all to more industrialised countries.

“How far, however, can the socialist policy of the working class go in the economic conditions of Russia?” he wrote.

“Only one thing we can say with certainty… without direct state support from the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power.”

A revolution could begin on a national scale in a country with a small working class, but could succeed only if it linked with the global working class.

Trotsky called this the theory of “permanent revolution”.

The events of the 1917 revolution in Russia vindicated it brilliantly.

Workers gave leadership to the peasant rebellions on the land and in the army, overthrowing the Tsarist regime and establishing a workers’ state.

Revolutions swept the whole of Europe in the following years­ – but their defeat left the Russian Revolution tragically isolated.

The spread of global capitalism and the emergence of new centres of development, from China to Brazil, mean the process of one revolution sparking others can be repeated today. The global working class has grown massively since Trotsky first developed the theory of permanent revolution in 1905–6.


In Haiti the working class is small, and globalisation has left the economy ravaged by neoliberalism. But even here, workers can still play a crucial role.

The wealth workers create remains vital to the ruling class – and workers possess the capacity for effective collective action, like mass strikes.

A militant workers’ movement can pull behind it the thousands of former peasants pushed off the land into vast slums, often in close proximity to the industrial centres.

Haiti’s biggest slum, Cité Soleil on the edge of the capital Port-au-Prince, is home to up to 300,000 people.

Workers there could pull peasants behind a revolutionary movement. But it’s only by looking to allies beyond Haiti’s borders that the workers’ movement could turn such revolts into successful socialist revolution.

Haitian workers will find allies if they look to the working class across the Caribbean – in big capitalist states like Mexico and Brazil in Latin America, and the working class of the United States itself.

This does not mean simply waiting for revolution to break out in more developed countries.

Revolutionary crises can develop more quickly in weaker states, and then radicalise workers in stronger ones.

The mass movements in Venezuela and Bolivia that have developed over the last decade are still a long way from socialist revolution. Nevertheless, they have inspired those fighting back across Latin America and beyond.

Imagine the impact of a revolution in Haiti that swept aside the US and the local rich and started to create a society run by ordinary people.

In the 19th century Haiti inspired people across the world. The slave rebellion led by Touissant L’Overture mattered far beyond the Caribbean. It struck a blow against slavery as a global system.

Today a revolution against capitalism, even in the poorest states, can have huge resonance.

And Trotsky made one final point. He insisted that the process of permanent revolution ultimately rests on the strength of workers’ “tradition, initiative, readiness for struggle”.

This is what socialists must direct themselves to fostering, wherever they live.

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