by Celucien L. Joseph
Wednesday, July 15, 2015
Jacques Roumain and The Crisis of Haitian Intellectuals in the Era of the American Occupation in Haiti (Part 2)
Jacques Roumain and The Crisis of Haitian Intellectuals in the Era of the American Occupation in Haiti (Part 2)
by Celucien L. Joseph
by Celucien L. Joseph
Roumain did not see the Haitian bourgeoisie and ruling class in a positive light or as a constructive pillar in the Haitian society in the period of the American Occupation in Haiti (1915-1934). He viewed both classes as a destructive force augmenting the oppression and misery of the Haitian people. As a group, they destabilized and continue subverting Haitian civil society and the country’s political life. In other words, according to Roumain, they contributed to the dysfunctionality and estrangement of the Caribbean nation. The Haitian ruling class was never shown any interest in the welfare of the Haitian masses and the common good of the Haitian population. Roumain contended that Haitian intelligentsia and bourgeoisie have miserably failed the country for their lack of solidarity with the Haitian poor and the oppressed peasant majority; they also refrained themselves from engaging in the democratic process, championing intellectual activism, and promoting political emancipation of the people. For Roumain, this target group had distanced itself from the common people and failed to play an active role as agents of social change in the era of the American Occupation. Part two of the series explores Roumain’s criticisms of the failure of the Haitian intelligentsia and the ruling class to contribute to human flourishing and a more democratic order in Haiti.
At the heart of the crisis of Haitian intellectuals and bourgeoisie is a problem of effective leadership and their unwillingness to think constructively in public neither with the Haitian people nor for the interest of the Haitian population. Both groups do not cultivate a deep commitment to the Haitian masses; perhaps they do not possess the intellectual vision, human empathy, and patriotic loyalty to alter the course of the country.
The Haitian dominant class does not possess what Roumain has phrased “principles nouveaux à proner” (“new principles to advocate”) nor does it aspire to cultivate “l’originalité dans l’expression” (“the originality in expression”) as social and political actors of emancipation. These intellectuals are disengaged with the country’s social problems. What’s lacking in the Haitian society, accordingly, are agents of inventive, clear, and emancipative principles that could potentially be used to lead the people to a life of freedom and a life of collective solidary, in which shared dreams and national goals could be realized together. By contrast, Roumain’s position on the public role of the engaged intellectual could be framed as in follows: the intellectual should be able (1) to diagnose the problem; 2) critique the present condition; 3) foster social transformation through deep thinking; 4) propose new solutions and come up with new plans, ideas, methods, strategies to alter the present Haitian predicament; and 5) create new future possibilities and foster a new vision of life and humanity in the Caribbean nation. In Roumain’s worldview, “the praxis of liberation demands principles, coherence, resoluteness to the death, and infinite patience.”
Individuals who transform their society are armed with social and political principles of liberation, and they promote these ideals unreservedly toward radical social change for the public good. They defend their people and their territory, and strive to uphold the integrity of their people and country; they dream anew a life of countless future possibilities with the people, and believe that another world is possible! In his brilliant book, Twenty Theses on Politics, political philosopher Enrique Dussel comments on the role of public intellectuals as actors of human emancipation and individuals of principles:
The operative principles must be described at the outset, because political actors who create history anew, who introduce innovation into actions and institutions, and who act first on behalf of the excluded, the victims, and the poor, are actors with principles—principles that are, moreover, explicitly. They are conscious of directing their actions and the transformation of political institutions on the basis of the normative demands of those who can reply clearly and with reason.
Roumain’s analysis of the Haitian society and his harsh criticisms of the failure of the Haitian intelligentsia and dominant class is that they had not contemplated profoundly and critically about the collective plot of the Haitian people, what Roumain has termed “le vrai visage de notre pays” (“the true face of our country”). They remained indifferent to the catastrophic suffering of the people. According to Roumain, the most significant historical moment that marked the treason of Haitian intellectuals and the ruling class occurred during the period of the American Occupation, which could be characterized as the age of the intellectual-bourgeois organization of patriotic hatred. Roumain coined the expression, “intellectual paralysis,” to describe the turbulent and intellectual crisis the country suffered in the period of the Occupants. In the paragraph below, he explains why:
In 1915, the Haitian bourgeoisie lived from the oppression of the masses and could therefore not make their cause its own. A natural and historical accomplice of imperialism, it merely demanded the continuation of its own privileges and the granting of new emoluments under the Occupation. The satisfied faction collaborated ‘honestly and faithfully’ while the other faction revolted.
While the Haitian ruling class and elite had become conscious of themselves, of their social status, economic privileges, and intellectual resources, they, however, had awakened to a false and delinquent consciousness of the national crisis. The Haitian privileged class and intelligentsia had become unresponsive to civic engagement and insensitive to the suffering of the common people and the working class. They had formed a closely-cadre of intellectual-bourgeois charlatans and became the hatred of the people, the enemies of democratic system, social progress, and economic justice. Roumain captures the crisis in this remarkable paragraph:
During the massacre of peasants in the north of the country and in Artibonite and the Central Plateau, the Haitian bourgeoisie happily played hosts to the leaders of the assassins in the drawing rooms of Haiti’s fashionable circles and at home. It was a willing accomplice of the Occupation, working for it, crawling at the feet of the masters, looking for favors such as the presidency or posts in the civil service. Some received favors, others did not. That dissatisfaction was the beginning of bourgeois opposition.
Roumain’s target audience lived a life in the shameless exploitation and subjugation of the masses. Roumain interprets the actions of the bourgeoisie class as “traitors and sincere combatants in all camps,” as representative of a class, a system of exploitation, and not of individual persons. While the disengaged Haitian intelligentsia and bourgeoisie class betrayed the country, the Haitian proletariat and peasants resisted the imperial assault; Roumain sustains that the latter could not, however, ignore the economic consequences of American neocolonialism because of its impact on their work production, livestock, and material resources. As a group, the Haitian intelligentsia and elite were driven by false motives, collective greed, selfishness, narcissism, and economic profit during the period of the American occupation. Such historical moment occupies a conspicuous place in the moral history of Haiti. The subsequent paragraph clearly reveals Roumain’s feeling of moral rage or indignation toward the group:
The masses had serious economic grievances. The right to plunder was the economic grievance of the bourgeoisie. But of course, it could not own up to this. Initially, its nationalism was verbal. Its newspapers raised vehement laments and churned out millions of well know jingoistic clichés such as ‘Our ancestors, sublime beggars of 1804,’ etc., etc…“the bourgeoisie then turned its attention to the anti-imperialist masses, pretending to defend their rights, to support their protest against taxes. It spoke solemnly about the destiny of our race, the same race that it despises and is ashamed of. The masses listened and followed the Haitian nationalism was born. The bourgeoisie as the avant-garde of the proletariat. Unbelievable!
The Failure of Haitian intelligentsia and the Ruling Class
The Haitian bourgeoisie and ruling class embraced a peculiar form of Haitian nationalism during the period of the Occupation whose sole objective was financial gain and the ascension to authoritative leadership to dominate over the general masses. Roumain clearly dismantles the false conception that Haitian nationalism was a unified phenomenon, which brought about Haitians of all social classes and races together to strive toward the common cause of Haitian independence and sovereignty from the imperial force and American economic exploitation. For example, by unflinchingly stating that “the occupation rekindled racial nationalism in Haiti by reuniting blacks and mulattoes for national defense,” Leon Pamphile has overlooked the economic and political power and other material advantages the Haitian bourgeoisie and ruling class benefited from the Occupation. Michael Largey is correct to uphold that the small middle class, which consisted of mulatto-elite and black petit-bourgeois in the nineteenth-century, had terrific upward social mobility in post-independent Haiti; he also noted that they “played an important role in the emergence of a Haitian nationalist consciousness in the early twentieth century.” Nonetheless, this seemingly Haitian nationalist consciousness in the period of the American Occupation, which Largey said the dominant class and Haitian intelligentsia shared with the peasant population, was devious.
By contrary, Roumain differentiates distinctively two polarized types of Haitian nationalism in the first half of the twentieth-century: the Haitian bourgeois nationalism, and the Haitian proletarian nationalism. Roumain succinctly describes the action of the former in these words: “It is the shameless exploitation by a politically scheming bourgeoisie of the anti-imperialist masses, for private motives…Haitian bourgeoisie lived from the oppression of the masses and could therefore not make their cause their own.” In contrast, the proletariat Haitian nationalism was “anti-imperialist and therefore anti-capitalist, while its upper echelon was made up of the bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie.” For Matthew Smith to deliberately “generalize” Haitian nationalism of the American Occupation is an incomplete interpretation of Roumain’s characterization of the nature and different expressions of Haitian nationalism.
Haitian nationalism was not monolithic. On the other hand, Smith is correct in his assertion to proclaim that Roumain “viewed the nationalist movement as being corrupted by its inherent class contradictions that worsened once political power was attained.” Precisely, Smith has failed to differentiate these two brands of Haitian nationalism, which Roumain explicitly separates. Roumain goes on to clarify accurately the manner which each representative of Haitian nationalism distinctively responded to the Occupants:
There were traitors and sincere combatants in all camps. However, considered as a whole or, better terms of class, the bourgeoisie betrayed and the proletariat resisted. What informed this opposition on the part of the frustrated bourgeoisie? The masses had serious economic grievances. The right to plunder was the economic grievance of the bourgeoisie. But of course, it could not own up to this. Initially, its nationalism was verbal. Its newspaper raised vehement laments and churned out millions of well-known jingoistic clichés such as “Our ancestors, sublime beggars of 1804,” etc., etc.
In his assessment of the attitude of both groups toward the Occupants, Roumain comes to the conclusion that “The satisfied faction collaborated ‘honestly and faithfully’ while the other faction revolted.” We believe Julien Benda’s idea of the “life of passions” described the pursuit of French intellectuals for material wealth and power in the 1920s could be applicable to the predicament of Haitian intellectuals and bourgeoisie in the first half of the twentieth century:
It seems to me that these passions can be reduced to two fundamental desires: (a) The will of a group of men to get hold of (or to retain a hold on) some material advantage, such as territories (i.e. lands), comfort, political power and all its material advantages; and (2) the will of a group of men to become conscious of themselves as individuals, insofar as they are distinct in relation to other men. It can be reduced to two desires, one of which seeks the satisfaction of an interest, the other of a pride or self-esteem. These two desires enter into political passions in very different proportions, according to which passion is involved…insofar as it is not one with national passion, is chiefly based on the will of a group of men to set themselves up as distinct from others…On the other hand, class passion… at apparently consists solely in the will to abstain possession of material advantages. A passion whose sole motive is interest is too weak to contend with another which combines interest and pride.
The comparison is reasonable since most of the incipient and ingrained Haitian intellectuals and members of the dominant class in that era identified themselves with the fine tradition of French culture and intellectual life—some even saw Haiti as “an intellectual province of France” (Dantes Bellegarde) in the Americas. These individuals were educated in the French savoir in terms of the acquisition of French education, culture, taste, lifestyle, and mentality. The writer John Vandercook, who travelled to Haiti in 1927, provides a first-hand testimony about the obsession with whiteness and French-Western civilization among the ruling class and Haitian bourgeoisie:
And the ruling classes….have implicitly accepted the essentially American premise that the white race and white civilization are the best, the last and the ultimate perfections of evolutionary destiny. It is rather troubling to see where the logical development of that idea has led them.
Roumain goes on to explicate a great divide between the two forms of Haitian nationalism: the nationalism of the Haitian masses, which is anti-imperialist, anti-bourgeois, Pro-Vodou, and anti-capitalist, and the nationalism of the Haitian bourgeoisie class, which is anti-peasant, anti-Vodou, supporters of the American imperialism, and economic oppressors of the peasants. To put it another way, Haitian patriotic nationalism in this era of the Occupation was the assertion of one form of mind and worldview against other forms of mind and worldview.
The crisis reached its high point in 1930 during the Borno administration. Roumain states that President Borno himself was an honest and faithful collaborator of the American Occupation; ultimately, he was pressured to leave the government. Underscoring the ambivalence of Haitian bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, Roumain points out that the anti-Occupation nationalism, which was made up of the bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie, “contained internal contradictions doomed to destroy it…The nationalist movement could not keep its promises, since the promise of the bourgeois nationalist, upon their ascension to power, conflicted with their class interest, proving to be electoral deception.” He expands on the economic and class interests of the phenomenon:
[As a result, the law on retail trade was promptly buried, because the class interests of the exploiting minority and therefore of the Haitian State, are linked to those of international capitalism… Small alcohol producers continued to close their distilleries, agricultural laborers continued working 10 to 12 hours per day for one and a half piasters. The crippling taxes on goods continued, as did the merciless exploitation of workers. Furthermore, no consideration was given at all to reinstating the peasants dispossessed of their land by large American companies… Hence the collapse of Haitian nationalism. Most of the working class now understands the lie of the bourgeois nationalism. Increasingly, that class links the idea of the anti-imperialist struggle to the idea of class struggle. More and more, it realizes that to fight against imperialism is to fight against foreign or domestic capitalism, is to fight tooth and nail against the Haitian bourgeoisie and bourgeois politicians, lackeys of imperialism, cruel exploiters of workers and peasants.
Thomas Sowell’s critical evaluation of the political and ideological views and self-
defining role of the intellectual-elite is quite parallel to Roumain’s observation of the puzzling relationship between the Haitian bourgeoisie-elite and the Haitian society. Sowell remarks, “To understand the role of intellectuals in society, we must understand what they do—not what they, or even what they are doing, but what in fact are their actions and the social consequences of those actions.” Roumain was persuaded that the conundrum was economic domination which had a sizeable effect on the social order and political life of the nation. He was also convinced that “the simple truth is that a black proletariat and a largely black petite bourgeoisie are mercilessly oppressed by a crippled minority, which is largely mulatto bourgeoisie proletarianized by a huge international industry.” Here, Roumain does not divorce color, class, and economics, but instead sees them coexist in the Haitian society.
Roumain pronounces a number of confrontational jeremiads to reprimand the country’s intellectuals, and the ruling class associates for becoming corrupt by the “American dollar.” According to him, they were cowards (“laches”) and men of dishonor who did not possess the will to produce any heroic act to resist the Occupants and redeem the country. As Richard A Posner notes, “The jeremiad illustrates but does not exhaust the prophetic strain in public-intellectual discourse.” Roumain condemns the individuals as a group or class for operating as “degenerates,” and for having accepted as honor and happiness to live in greater abject of servitude to the Occupants. The public warning against these self-serving leaders who betrayed their country and disdained the Haitian masses is quite alarming:
Like degenerates, we have, under the guise of ‘honor and happiness”—and by allowing the glory of the ancestors to be tarnished—accepted to live in the most abject servitude, corrupted by the American dollar and cowards to the point of being powerless of producing any salutary reaction.
The disruptive behavior of Roumain’s interlocutors pertains to their commitment to a
lifestyle characterized by treachery, dishonesty, and a volitional pursuit of materialism and wealth, even if they had to commit the sin of patriotic treason. Roumain compares this group of snobbish leaders to passive dogs that refuse to bark, even in moments of crisis, from external attack. He states that these men are more despicable than dogs; for the dog is not allowed itself to be abused one day without biting with his sharp teeth: “En vérité, ces hommes me sont plus méprisables que des chiens, car le chien ne se laisse pas maltraiter sans mordre un jour avec des dents aigues, tandis qu’eux se contentent de bégayer avec des mâchoires tremblantes. Roumain questions the purposive function of the intellectual-elite precisely in this statement:
It is a joy for any country to have affluent and literate elite. But the elite have not the right to exist unless their privileges lead them to public service. In the case they do not fulfill their duties, they are but useless, despicable, and often harmful parasite... the Haitian bourgeoisie contributed to the downfall of the country.
It is evident that Roumain is underlining the importance of the Haitian intelligentsia and elite leadership to play an important role in shaping the cultural, social, and political life of the country. He deploys of a number of startling phrases, what we might class a rhetoric of degradation— parasite inutile, and meprisable et souvent nuisible—to expose the failure of their leadership. They don’t merit the felicitous title “elite” for their actions and guidance led to the demise of the country. Perhaps, we should construe Roumain’s admonishment and appeal here as a strategy that is purposefully designed to lead the country’s bankrupt leadership to self-reflection, self-criticism, even reform. As Sowell points out, “Many intellectuals erode or destroy a sense of the shared values and shared achievements that make a nation possible, or a sense of national cohesion with which to resist those would attack it from within or without.”
Roumain pronounces that the Haitian elite had betrayed and sold the country: “La Patrie est trahie, vendue par une minorité de misérable protégés par les forces américaines.” Those who have committed the act of treason, according to Roumain, are “cowards,” “deserters,” “hungry opportunists” (“Des lâches, des déserteurs, des opportunistes affames, voilà ce qu’ils sont. Nous n’en voulons pas et les meprisons.”) One might inquire how they have betrayed Haiti. They have fulfilled their moral role and duties as leaders, intellectual-activists, and servants of the people, which they claimed to be. Historian Benda Plummer provides a penetrating insight of the psychology, cultural alienation, passion, interests, and lifestyle of Haitian bourgeoisie and intelligentsia of the twentieth century:
Thoughtful Haitians worried about the pressure exerted on the country by private foreign interests and foreign governments. They shared the Latin American fear of losing control over their resources and of compromising their national sovereignty. Yet Haiti’s problem did not rest entirely on penetration from abroad. To a large degree, Haitians had adopted attitude and behaviors that made cultural and psychological infiltration possible. A Eurocentric worldview permeated the national leadership, not only officials but the intelligentsia and urbanites of various classes. Kingship linkages bound many at the top to a foreign outlook and of foreign interests…City life put the Haitian intelligentsia in touch with mainstream intellectual currents. The subsequent exchange ideas, commodities, and cultural artifacts was not, however, equal. Wealth, whiteness, and urbanity, all associated with progress, left little room for the articulation of an indigenous Haitian ideal…the devaluation of things Haitian was a critical consequence of the failure to address this cultural problem. The bourgeoisie’s retreat into the asylum of ambiguous nationality reflected the political and pecuniary advantages of identification with foreigners…Those so strongly drawn to Europe as to deprecate their Haitian identity did not, however, have a transcendent ideology in mind. They were not internationalists. Wordliness rather than idealism described their sophisticates, whose outlook rested on a fundamental individualism.
The crisis of Haitian intelligentsia and ruling class is arguably their inability or unwillingness to initiate and sustain effective and democratic institutions in the Haitian society and contribute in the creation and nurturing of a strong political order and participatory civic life. They members of the country’s leadership cadre do not contribute to job creation nor have they helped build the country’s infrastructures toward the common good. Largey’s perceptive reflection on the nature of the social estrangement and geographical split between the Haitian elite and rural population is informative at this juncture:
For one thing, Haitian elites, most of whom live in Haiti’s urban areas, had limited contact with the rural population. Despite the pep’s [people’s] numerical superiority over the elite classes (roughly 75 percent of the population lives in rural Haiti), the pep are both physically and psychologically distanced from the elite. This social isolation is reproduced in elite ways of speaking about the pep; rural dwellers are known as moun andeyo (literally, “the outside people”), indicating their status as outside the social mainstream as defined by elite society. When elites refer to pep (people or masses) or abitan (rural framers), frequently the words employed define the pep for what they lack.
The economic dependence of the Haitian ruling class and elite on peasant agricultural
production is also brought to surface:
Besides their isolation from pep, elites, especially those associated with the federal government, were economically dependent on the abitan for food and tax revenues…. Thus urban dwellers depended on abitan not only for food but also for the tax revenues that supported them. This pattern has persisted through the twentieth century, forcing peasants to squeeze more product out of decreasing productive farmland.
The Haitian ruling class and bourgeoisie-elite have no interest in alleviating the country’s systemic poverty, massive suffering, and calamitous social woes, nor do they have the disposition to activate fruitful social reform and undertake lasting social transformation painfully needed in their homeland. For example, if the current administration proves hostile to their interests and goals, constraints on opportunity in Haiti give them a powerful motive to subvert the existing order and crush the current leadership; they prefer politics over entrepreneurship, gaining over losing, exploiting over sacrificing (or serving), and authoritarianism over democracy. Robert Fatton reiterates that the country’s dominant class “controls the state apparatus to enrich itself through prebendary comprador activities…The ruling class’s systematic practice of extortion rests on this control and willingness to use naked violence. For the ruling class, politics is the means of material possession.” In the same vein, the Haitian ruling class, and “bourgeois bandits” operate efficiently like big corporations and institutions that have no soul, no compassion, and no sense of public justice to empathize with the poor, the working class, and the outcast in their own country.
Cornell West and Tavis Smiley in their important study (The Rich and the Rest of US) on poverty in the United States attempt call our attention to the idea that “true democracy focuses on the public interest; it defends the common good and protects its citizens—especially the weak and vulnerable. We maintain that no democracy can survive without the powerful notions of compassion and public service.” The members of the ruling class and Haitian bourgeois have not abandoned this democratic tradition West and Smiley highlighted nor do they possess the critical power of loving compassion and sympathy for their fellow Haitians. Theologian Walter Brueggemann brings our attention to the necessity to exercise compassion as a radical form of criticism and as a facet of revolutionary humanism in this present world:
[Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural, but it is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness…Empires live by numbness. Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. Governments and societies of domination go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact…Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt.
 Jacques Roumain, “La Trouée,” in Jacques Roumain, Œuvres Complètes, 433.
 Enrique Dussel, Twenty Theses on Politics, 95.
 Dussel, Twenty Theses on Politics, 83. Dussel gives an example of Emiliano Zapata, a political actor from Anenecuilco, a town in the municipality of Ayala, Morelos in Mexico, about whom he asserts, possessed clear principles: (1) “’’Land for those who work it with their hands!’ (Critical material principle); (2) ‘We always make decisions together, and afterward no one backs out!’ (Critical legitimacy principle); and (3) as a last resort, ‘We will take up arms!’ to defend land against the decisions taken by large landowners (critical feasibility principle). In Zapata’s Ayala Plan, point 15, we can read the following: ‘We are not personalistic, we are partisans of principles and of persons!’”
 Roumain, “Entre Nous: Jacques Roumain,” 440.
 Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934,” 50.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Pamphile, Haitians and African Americans, 103.
 Largey, Vodou Nation, 9.
 Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934,” 43, 42.
 Ibid., 43.
 Smith, Red & Black in Haiti, 20.
 Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934,” 43.
 Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals, 35.
 Cited in Dash, Haiti and the United States, 33.
 Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals, 18.
 Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years,” 43.
 Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 281.
 Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years , 44.
 Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, 9.
 Roumain, “A la Jeunesse,” 463.
 Roumain, “Voix de la Jeune Haïti: Les Tièdes,” 464.
 Roumain, “Réflexions,” 466.
 Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 304.
 Roumain, “Manifeste à la Jeunesse,” 467.
 Ibid., 468.
 Plummer, Haiti and the United States, 68.
 Largey, Vodou Nation, 10-11.
 Largey, Vodou Nation, 11.
 Plummer, Haiti and the United States, 67.
 Fatton, Haiti’s Predatory Republic, 36-7.
 Smiley and West, The Rich and the Rest of Us, 9-10.
 Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 88-89.