“Brief Notes on Haitian Atheism, Radicalism, and Marxism”“Brief Notes on Haitian Atheism, Radicalism, and Marxism”
***This post is not an attack on Mr. Kerby’s atheism or philosophical worldview! However, as a Haitian intellectual historian and religious scholar who has published prolifically on the history of ideas in Haiti and the experience of the Haitian people with religion, I seek to bring some clarification on the subject matter.
Haiti has a strong (theistic) humanist tradition, which can be traced in the early nineteenth century, such as in the ideas and writings, for example, of Haitian public intellectual Pompée Valentin Vastey. Haiti, nonetheless, does not have an atheistic tradition or a non-theistic humanist tradition.
Ismael de Kerby, the President of “Society of Atheists of Haiti” (“President de la Société des Athées d’Haiti”), is quite an articulate Haitian thinker and well-versed in the history of ideas of Western atheism, but he is ignorant of the history of ideas in Haiti and the history of Haitian radicalism. In his superb interview on Blocus, he referenced the ideas of Jacques Roumain, one of the most influential Haitian thinkers in the first half of the twentieth-century, to promote his philosophy and worldview of Haitian theism. In 1934 when the American military forces left Haiti, Jacques Roumain founded the Haitian Communist Party (Le Parti Communiste Haïtien: PCH) and spread enthusiastically the Gospel of Marxism and Communism as promising future possibilities in the Haitian society. Roumain had exercised a profound intellectual influence on the emerging Haitian intellectuals, including Marxist thinkers and communist-militants René Depestre, Jacques-Stéphen Alexis, Christian Beaulieu, Max Lélio Hudicourt, etc. In 1932, both Roumain and Beaulieu travelled to New York to forge alliance with the American Communist Party and to find resources to help them launch PCH in Haiti in 1934. Hudicourt, for example, was the leader of the Parti Socialiste Populaire (Haiti) (PSP). Gérald Bloncourt helped launch a journal, “La Ruche” (“The Beehive”) in Haiti and published many Marxist-themed pieces for the Haitian public. He also worked for the Parisian Communist Party newspaper called L’Humanité (“Humanity”).
Haitian radicalism is not a substitute for Haitian atheism or non-theistic Humanism. For two recent and brilliant texts on the history of Marxism in Haiti and Haitian radicalism in the twentieth-century, see Jean-jacques Cadet, “Le Marxisme Haïtien : Marxisme et Anticolonialisme en Haïti (1946-1986)” (2020), “Marxisme et aliénation. Cinq études sur le marxisme haïtien” (2021), and Yves Dorestal, “Jacques Roumain (1907-1944) : un communiste haïtien : Le marxisme de Roumain ou le commencement du marxisme en Haïti” (2015). Additional readings include Matthew J. Smith’s grounbreaking book on Haitian radicalism and Marxism, “Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957” (2009); Leslie Péan’s helpful essay, “Du côté de la liberté – Christian Beaulieu,” published in Le Petit Samedi Soir, no. 320, 12-18 (Janvier 1980); René Depestre, “Cahier d’un art de vivre: Journal de Cuba, 1964-1978” (2020) ; Wilson Decembre, “Vitalité et spiritualité: Apologie du rapport-au-monde afro-haïtien” (2009), and “Cosmopoétique : La symbolique païenne dans l’œuvre de René Depestre”(2022).
I am arguing that one cannot ground the birth of Haitian atheism in the ideas and writing of Jacques-Roumain. Although Jacques Roumain was a classic Marxist and radical Communist, he was not an atheist nor a non-theistic humanist. (Many contemporary Haitian intellectuals today are exploiting the ideas of Jacques Roumain to promote a non-theistic philosophy in the Haitian culture. This is a profound misreading of Roumain and his works! I have dealt with the religious sensibilities and intellectual, radical, and philosophical ideas of Jacques Roumain in a BIG book called “Thinking in Public: Faith, Secular Humanism, and Development in Jacques Roumain [496 pages; published in 2017]).
Further, some of the most brilliant and influential Haitian thinkers including Pompée Valentin Vastey, Thomas Madiou, Benito Sylvain, Joseph Antenor Firmin, Demesvar Delorme, Louis Joseph Janvier, Jean Price-Mars, Jacques Roumain, Jacques-Stephen Alexis, Marie-Vieux Chauvet and many others were not “atheists;” rather, these thinkers and many others in the twentieth-century embraced a form of “theistic humanism” and “soft secularism.” These Haitian thinkers (Vastey, Firmin, Roumain, Price-Mars, Alexis, Vieux) did not commit themselves to any religion, creed, or dogma—including Haitian Catholicism, Haitian Protestantism, Haitian Vodou, etc.—nor did they identify themselves specifically with a particular religious tradition or system. For example, Roumain, Price-Mars, and Alexis wrote about Haitian Vodou and even defended its significance in Haitian history and the Haitian society. Yet they were not Vodouizan or Vodouists, in the very sense of the word. All of them were brought in Christian families—both Catholicism and Protestantism—yet they were not “Christians.”
In summary, the Haitian thinkers referenced above did not set an intellectual foundation to promote contemporary Haitian atheism, nor should their writings and ideas be used or misused to counter theism. Those who are advocates of Haitian atheism today need to reshape their arguments and engage in more careful exegetical reading or critical analysis of the ideas these Haitian thinkers sustained in regard to the intersections of faith, humanism, and the Haitian culture. By any means am I saying that there is not an intellectual, humanist, and Marxist foundation for Haitian atheism based on the writings and ideas of Haitian thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By contrast, I am arguing that contemporary Haitian atheists should not reference the writings and ideas of the referenced thinkers, especially Jacques Roumain, the most radical thinker in Haitian history, to promote the philosophy and worldview of atheism. Haiti has produced a catalogue of ardent theistic humanists, a tradition they inherited from European humanism, especially France’s humanist culture.