Review: Jeremy Popkin

Jeremy D. Popkin. You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 440 pp.

You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery by Jeremy Popkin

The legacy of the French Revolution is one of the primary concerns of Jeremy Popkin’s You Are All Free. Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, throughout his account of the Haitian revolution, he wages a critique of the developments in France, the ideas driving the decisions about the colonies and the conservative turn of those, like Robespierre, who later prioritized the stability of the colony over the emancipation of the Saint-Domingue slaves.  And while Popkin’s criticism often displays an irascible impatience with the political leadership’s paranoia over counterrevolutionary conspiracies, he also raises important questions about the connection between the revolutionary ideology of the French Revolution and the emancipation of the Saint-Domingue slaves: Is there a necessary connection between the ideas that inspired the French Revolution and the call to abolish slavery? Is the call for emancipation an eventual outcome of the Revolution? Or, was the abolishment of slavery simply brought on as a response to necessity—by the need to arm the slaves in order to defeat the enemy? Popkin’s argument is that the French Revolution need not have led to the abolition of slavery. i.e., this outcome was not “ideologically predetermined.” Rather, it was the events at Le Cap on the crucial day of June 20, 1793 that changed the course of history, resulting in the emancipation decree. [1] Thus, the “weakness and bad judgment” of men like Galbauld, a recalcitrant advocate of Saint-Domingue’s social stratification along racial lines, played a crucial role in accelerating the conflict that then brought on the actions by commissioners Sonthonax and Polverel to emancipate the slave population of Saint-Domingue.

In order to support the claim that the journée of June 20 was a “turning point” in history, Popkin provides ample evidence that neither Sonthonax nor Polverel went to Saint-Domingue with the intention of abolishing slavery in one blow (Popkin, 167).  While committed to the gradual eradication of slavery, both were, initially, most preoccupied with reintroducing stability to the colony and went to great lengths to do so. Throughout this process however, the political divisions between the freemen of color, the whites with property (grand blancs) and those without any (petit blancs) came to a head. The situation in St. Domingue had a substantial impact on the decisions made by the commissioners—Popkin’s observation stands, in this respect. But it was their allegiance to ideas of freedom and equality that proved decisive in the face of conflict. The divisions between the commissioners and General Galbauld are predicated on two different interpretations of what the Republic ultimately stood for. Not quite cut and dry, these differences nonetheless represent contradictory perspectives on the universality of freedom. This was the primary political, ideological, division between the commissioners and Galbauld. The crisis, exasperated by the stubborn refusal by the General to submit the military to civilian authority—especially on the question of political participation by the citizens of the fourth of April—resulted in a virtual civil war that forced the issue of emancipation on the table for good. Arming the slaves was a rational choice only in so far as the commissioners saw the abolishment of their bondage as a political possibility. As Popkin rightly points out, June 20, 1793 did “significantly change the range of historical possibilities that were previously present,” (Popkin, 386) but the content of this transformation was conditioned by the ideological tensions already present in French revolutionary politics embodied by the Commissioners and the General. The conflict that rose to the level of political battle was the result of a confrontation between two different political tendencies borne of the French Revolution as it confronted the questions of colonial relations. Without this already burgeoning conflict, and without the depth of its divide, the situation would not have escalated to the point of civil war.

So why wasn’t the immediate abolition of slavery an immediate demand by the French Revolutionaries? (Popkin, 13) The vacillation surrounding this question sheds light on a contradiction in the political demands of the French Revolution that can be best characterized as the contradiction between the political rights of property and the political rights of all men. As Popkin writes in his introduction, “these conflicts [both the events in Cap Francais and the events at Fort Sumter on April 11, 1861] resulted from the impossibility of reconciling constitutional guarantees protecting slave holders’ property rights with assertions of slaves’ natural rights.” (Popkin, 19) Sonthonax wanted to be able to both protect the rights of the masters and of the slaves but the irreconcilability of these demands wasn’t apparent to the Commissioner until it manifested violently on the island between the separate groups who, correctly, recognized that granting political rights to the freemen of color would lead to the rights of slaves and could open the floodgates to the complete abolition of slavery, thus undermining their interests (Popkin,270). Similarly, although the dominant U.S. Republican thought in the mid-nineteenth century was a far cry from demanding the immediate abolition of slavery, the political response by the South to the burgeoning possibility of the abolishment of slavery furthered the divisions between the South and North. In both instances, Saint-Domingue and the antebellum United States, these political conflicts accelerated the confrontation between pro and anti-slavery political forces but they did not, in themselves, create the political possibilities for the abolishment of slavery.

Did these ideological conflicts have to manifest the way they did? It appears to me that in both in the case of Saint-Domingue and the Unites States, there is nothing inevitable about the abolition of slavery. The conflict, however, is likely to have taken place with or without Gibauld or Lincoln, respectively. In the case of the United States in which a politically powerful Southern planter class faced off with the manufacturing North, the outcome wasn’t clear, not was it clear that the powerful planters lobby would be defeated. Both classes, both the Saint-Domingue planters and the Southern planters had a lot at stake, enough to wage a fight against those who stood in the way of their property rights. How this battle was waged, for what purpose, through what convictions and what the political legacy of this battle is seems to be what is of most importance.

The vacillating political response by the Commissioners to the problem of slavery cannot be explained by their character flaws or poor judgment, rather it is a symptomatic expression of the contradictory impulses that arise in the modern, capitalist, world. The ideological divisions present in the conflict between the Commissioners and the General are epiphenomenal of the irreconcilable demands for the rights of property and the rights for social equality.  The labor codes in Saint-Domingue most acutely present this problem, when demands for political freedom are undermined not simply by the political suppression of some over others but by the demands on production reconstituted, blindly, by the social activity of all.

I want to return to the problem of human agency and contingency that Popkin places at the center of his treatise (Popkin, 387). Or, to rephrase, that of the role of subjective and objective factors in the making of history (“individual vs. large impersonal forces,” Popkin, x), the ways in which these interact and are able to transform the conditions under which they operate. The self-imposed amnesia in Popkin’s narrative obstructs from view how agency is shaped by both the accumulation of previous human activity and thought and the conscious apprehension of this history. This obstruction limits how he approaches the interaction of contingency and human agents, whose choices appear to be wholly driven by their response to crises. Ultimately, where Popkin’s narrative falls short is in recognizing what James kept so often present in his work, “Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make” or to directly quote Marx “Men make their history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstance chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.”

Popkin presents this work as a way of working through the reasons for the Iraqi war, i.e., as a way of making sense of the political developments of his time. If we treat the writing of history as revelatory of political consciousness (political imagination?), Popkin’s work leaves room for critique. In his myopic assessment that the poor reasoning of handful of politicians (Popkin, x), or of George Bush (Popkin, xi), Pompkin’s perspective mirrors the same political consciousness dominant in the U.S. left before the election of Obama. In the lead up to the election, organizations on the left dedicated their time, funds, and organizing power toward campaigning for Obama (a man who was perceived as antithetical to Bush in a party antithetical to the Republicans). This perspective resulted in the death of the anti-war movement after the U.S. presidential elections and in the political confusion that continues to dominate the left today.

A question that I return to constantly throughout this course is how would the Haitian Revolution appear to us today if the prospect for a political revolution were actually on the table? How do we treat this moment in history in order to further clarify the possibilities of historical transformation today?


[1] Popkin leaves it open as to whether or not the insurgents would or would not have been victorious without the political alliance with the French Republic—or what this victory would amount to (Popkin, 10).

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