Reviewed by:
Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957. By Matthew J. Smith. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 296. Table. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $59.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Matthew J. Smith's engaging study of Haitian political change from the end of the U.S. occupation in 1934 to the beginning of the Duvalier regime in 1957 is both a welcome contribution to an overlooked period in Haitian history and an important contribution to understanding interactions between class-based and race-based political ideologies in the Caribbean and Latin America. Building on the work of David Nicholls, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and others who have framed questions of color and class, state and civil society, Smith offers a new perspective grounded in the complex interactions of political movements, radical intellectuals, charismatic personalities, state repression, and foreign influences in the postoccupation period. His work could usefully be read, alongside other studies of black radicalism in the early to mid-twentieth century, as a recovery of its significance even in the face of bitter defeats. [End Page 413]

Organized chronologically, the book begins with opposition to the elitist and repressive Sténio Vincent regime in the 1930s, including a fascinating account of two counter tendencies within Haitian radicalism: Marxist intellectual elites like communist writer and activist Jacques Roumain and socialist leader Max Hudicourt, who were persecuted for their oppositional activities; and the black nationalist and noiriste Griots, who promoted ideas of racial difference and embraced Haiti's African-based folk culture and vodou rituals. The second chapter covers the conservative Elie Lescot regime of 1941-1945, which strengthened state power, deepened ties with the United States, and waged antisuperstition campaigns. Left wing movements suffered divisions and fragmentation, while the négritude movement and black consciousness gained ground. Paralleling international Pan-African movements, this led to greater support for race-based political ideologies, including the rising popularity of the young black nationalist writer and activist Daniel Fignolé, as well as various thwarted military plots against Lescot.

Chapter 3 analyzes the revolution of 1946, which signaled "a breakdown in the legitimacy of elite political supremacy; forcefully asserted radical ideology as a political weapon; gave the black middle class unprecedented political leverage; announced the crucial role of the labor movement as a force in national politics; and strengthened the role of the military" (p. 72). A mobilization of young radicals, students and workers overthrew Lescot and brought to power the black peasant-born Dumarsais Estimé, who is shown by the end of the chapter masterfully playing off his opponents against one another and consolidating his own rule. Chapter 4 recounts in detail the Estimé years, especially rivalries between the black nationalist agenda and the old milat elite, as well as tensions between a rising black middle class with its authentiques intellectuals, and both the labor unions led by Fignolé, and the Marxists and other socialists. Behind the scenes the Untied States and its strong anticommunism also placed important pressures on the Haitian political scene. Finally, Chapter 5 offers new interpretations of the rule of Paul Magloire, including the economic stagnation of this period and the political maneuvers that thwarted the presidential campaign of Fignolé and other leftists, leading to the election of François Duvalier, soon followed by his dismal reign of state terror.

Despite this unfortunate turn of events, Smith argues for the significance of the radical movements in shaping Haitian politics and wider black political ideologies in the Americas. Smith bases his account not only on extensive primary research in archives, personal letters, and government correspondence, but also on more than a dozen interviews with key protagonists of the radical movements. While the book makes brief comparisons to more recent post-Duvalier politics in the conclusion, it might have been productive to trace back the ideological roots of issues of class and color, struggles for democracy, anti-imperialism, and struggles for state control to the nineteenth century. The relation between noirisme, Marxism, nationalism, and populism have strong parallels in the liberal revolution of 1843, the subsequent Piquet Rebellion and rise of Emperor Soulouque to power, just as it foreshadows the 1986 overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier, the rise to power of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and the troubled legacies of his overthrow.

While making an important and carefully researched contribution to Haitian historiography, the book falls short of elucidating our understanding of the full trajectory of Haiti's [End Page 414] radical politics within a hemispheric history of the modern Americas, which might require a more speculative kind of writing. Furthermore, while Smith does an excellent job of reconstructing the milieu of young intellectuals and radical newspapers, he offers only a tiny glimpse of the surrounding culture of literature, the arts, everyday life, and popular culture. Although the narrative mentions women's involvement in events ranging from street demonstrations to labor unions to political parties, it never directly addresses women as political actors or the rise of feminist ideologies and movements. Despite these limitations, this joins a very short list of the best studies we have of twentieth-century Haiti.

Mimi Sheller
Drexel University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.