Liberty or Death in the Haitian Revolution: Contribution to the Critique of Politico-Juridical Forms in Marx

Carl Wilén


The French Revolution declared the rights of man and of the citizens in 1789. Yet, the implication was not an immediate abolishment of slavery within the French colonial empire. However, in 1791 the slaves at an island called Hispaniola took to arms and initiated what was to be entitled the Haitian Revolution – the only revolution in history executed by slaves that has succeeded with establishing a state claiming sovereignty and with abolishing slavery within its territory. In 1789, the French part of Hispaniola was called Saint Domingue. Saint Domingue was a small part of the colonial system and at once the most profit generating in the world. By implication, the slaves did not only turn their politics against their French owners but also against a well-established commerce with sugar, tobacco and black slaves. The political ideas of 1789 encouraged the slaves in their struggle at the same time as the economic current and its politics were running in the opposite direction of abolition. The conflict-ridden relation between the two events has led scholars to deep conflicts over the problem of historical the theoretical status of politico-juridical forms, continuity and discontinuity. Were the Haitian Revolution a break with or prolongation of the French Revolution and its politico-juridical forms? The overarching aim of this article is to construct a theoretical defence of a third position arguing that the relation ought to be understood as one of radicalization containing both difference and unity. The theoretical argument will be constructed through a reading of Marx on the problem of politico-juridical forms. A conclusion of this reading is that if we are to reach the third position on the relation between the French and the Haitian Revolution, we also have to accept the later Marx’ implicit self-critique that indicates a shift from his earlier understanding of liberal rights as merely illusions. Lastly, the unity of the historical problem and the theoretical argument presuppose a number of qualifications on the relation between Hegel and Marx and of the concepts of form, ideology, and class.

The French and the Haitian Revolution, Hegel, Marx, the critique of right, liberal political categories, ideology, class