“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx
Mar 2, 2021
The following text was written by the revolutionary communist organization Combat Ouvrier (Internationalist Communist Union), which is active in Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the Caribbean. The text takes up a question that is current today in the U.S., that is, the need for reparations to make up for the enormous destruction of human life that was the slave trade and slavery itself. The examples in this text of the wealth that was made, and the current fortunes that still derive from it, come from the West Indies, but the political reality these fortunes reveal is an apt depiction of how U.S. capitalism based itself on the slave trade and accumulated its original capital from slave labor.
The demand for reparations for the enslavement of and trade in Africans from the 17th to 19th centuries has resurfaced over the past several years. Those making this demand include several organizations in mainland France, pro-independence organizations in the West Indies, and certain African and Caribbean governments.
“Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” Marx said in relating the crimes of the primitive accumulation of capital and the “barter of human flesh.”
The crimes and plunder of the Crusades, the enslavement and extermination of the Indians of Latin America, the enslavement of more than 15 million Africans deported to the Americas, child labor in Europe, vagrancy laws, forced labor, 16–18 hour workdays in the earliest factories in Europe—it was by pillage, rape, and ferocious exploitation of human beings throughout the entire world that the current exploiting class, the bourgeoisie, accumulated its original capital.
For us, revolutionary communists, only the destruction of capitalist society through social revolution can allow the wealth created by the exploited of the world to be recovered, so it can benefit all of humanity and not just a rich minority, as happens today. It is the creation of a socialist society without social classes, without the exploitation of humans by other humans, that will allow us to put this barbarity behind us.
Who are the groups and individuals who today call for reparations within the framework of current society? And what do they want?
For years, the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations (CRAN) and the International Movement for Reparations (MIR), among others, have called for reparations. The case which the MIR and the Global Council of the Pan-African Diaspora filed against the French state in 2005 for crimes against humanity has not yet ended. It is now before the European Court of Justice, which has judged it admissible. The plaintiffs view this as a step forward in legal action.
Thirteen governments in the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM), the former British colonies in the Caribbean, have decided to sue Britain, France, and the Netherlands in the United Nations. For now, France and the other former enslaving powers have refused to make financial reparations. In the French West Indies, young activists have been organizing dramatic actions for several months. In Martinique, they demonstrate with the red, black, and green Black Nationalist flag. They have blocked supermarkets belonging to the rich descendants of white colonists, or békés, and have destroyed statues recalling slavery and colonialism. They are demanding reparations.
Other organizations are doing the same. In Guadeloupe, these are the International Committee of Black Peoples (CIPN); the Force to Build the Nation of Guadeloupe (FKNG), which is headed by nationalist leader Luc Reinette; and the MIR-Guadeloupe. In Martinique, these are the Movement of Democrats and Environmentalists for a Sovereign Martinique (MODEMAS) and the MIR-Martinique, which notably is led by the Martinican pro-independence leader Garcin Malsa.
In November 2013, these same organizations, along with 64 descendants of the enslaved, went before the court in Fort-de-France (capital of the ex-colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, today the Territorial Collectivity of Martinique, or CTM) to demand a payment of 200 billion euros in damages from the French government.
On February 13, 2014, a conference was held in Guadeloupe with the theme of “Reparations: What Political, Economic, and Social Repercussions for African-Descended People?” This took place on the initiative of the MIR, the CIPN, and the FKNG, with the support of the local government of Lamentin. Representatives from a number of countries responded to the invitation, including Jamaica, Dominica, Barbados, Haiti, Trinidad, French Guiana, Martinique, the United States, Brazil, and several African countries.
For the moment, the big Western powers are responding with deaf ears. However, even in the event that they pay reparations, where would they go? They would mostly go into the budgets of the Caribbean and African governments that are calling for them, if not into the hands of the politicians calling for them. Given the degree of corruption of the political ruling class in Haiti and Africa, this is in fact likely. This political class already happily makes off with the miserable international aid stingily granted to these governments, with the complicity of the imperialist powers. Meanwhile, the working class and the poor layers of the population live in dire misery.
In Guadeloupe and Martinique, the nationalists are hoping that reparations would provide a substantial sum to increase the budget of a future independent state.
In no case would these reparations be paid directly to the Black exploited and poor under a capitalist regime. For the time being, the demand for reparations is a refrain that allows the nationalist organizations to maintain their militants on an ideological level and to provide them with an objective.
After the movement that followed the assassination of George Floyd, the media revealed or recalled the origins of certain well-established companies in the slave trade. For example, the French insurance corporation AXA emerged from several insurance companies, the oldest of which, the Paris Mutual Fire Insurance Company, dates back to 1816. Its founder, Jacob du Pan, made his fortune in Saint-Domingue, the giant French sugar colony that became independent in 1804 under the name of the Republic of Haiti. Another example: the French alcoholic beverage company Marie Brizard started out in the middle of the 18th century as a Bordeaux liquor that was exchanged for enslaved people in West Africa. And LVMH, the leading luxury goods company, owns the French cognac distiller Hennessy, which also made a great deal of money in the colonial trade.
The merchants who in 1800 founded the Bank of France, originally as a private bank backed by the state, also made their fortunes in the colonies. One of the main shareholders of this bank was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who lived off the revenues of slave plantations in Martinique owned by his wife, Josephine de Beauharnais. Even though slavery and the slave trade had been abolished in 1794 during the French Revolution, Napoleon reestablished them in 1802, since the business was far too lucrative. Slavery lasted until 1848 in the French colonies.
In Great Britain, following the recent publication of research, the banks Barclays and HSBC, as well as the insurance company Lloyd’s, publicly admitted that some of their founders or former executives had profited from the rich financial proceeds of slavery and the traffic in Black people. Other companies just as rich, like the brewing company and pub retailer Greene King, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and the Bank of England, whose governors and founding directors owned plantations, got their start by profiting from the wealth produced by slavery. In order to avoid being boycotted by anti-racist organizations, many of these companies have recently issued apologies.
There are countless examples of enrichment from slavery and the slave trade. The Trinidadian historian Eric Williams (1911–1981) cited many of them in his book Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Notably, he explained how the trade in slave chains, produced by British ironmasters, gave an advantage to early British industry.
In the West Indies, although not all of the local white people are rich, the wealthiest people are those whites descended from the old slave-owning families. These are the békés, a term that probably comes from the word in the Igbo language of Nigeria meaning “whites” or from “M’Béké” in the Ashanti language, which means “those who hold the power.” These rich families made their original fortunes from the exploitation of the enslaved on sugarcane plantations and rum distilleries. Today, they own a large share of the banana plantations, especially in Martinique, and major retailers like Carrefour. The most striking example is that of Bernard Hayot, who is currently the richest person in the French West Indies and is listed on the French equivalent of the Fortune 500. The Bernard Hayot Group manages the Caribbean distribution of French retailers, including Carrefour, M. Bricolage, Decathlon, Euromarché, Renault, Y. Rocher, and others.
A series of rich or privileged white families, like Huyghues Despointes, Fabre, de Reynal, Vivies, Loret, Aubéry, Assier de Pompignan, and Damoiseau, can also be added to this list of descendants of slaveowners. In the French overseas department of Réunion, the “big whites” who are local equivalents of the békés include, for example, the Barau, de Chateauvieux, and Isautier families.
These families and big European companies therefore emerged economically from a primitive accumulation of capital, one of the criminal sources of which was the trade in enslaved people. They were partially at the origin of the foundation of international capitalism.
The height of this outrage is that when slavery was finally abolished, the enslaving powers compensated the former slaveowners for the loss of their slaves.
On April 17, 1825, the king of France, Charles X, issued a decree forcing Haiti, at the time led by Jean-Pierre Boyer, to pay reparations to the colonists deprived of their slaves after independence. He sent a fleet of 14 warships to threaten the Haitian government with a new war in case it did not pay. Bled dry after its previous victory against French troops, the Haitian government was forced to recognize payment of 150 million gold francs, lowered to 90 million several years later. This sum would be the equivalent today of about 28 billion dollars. Haiti had to borrow it from French and U.S. banks and paid it back to them with interest. This was a terrible burden on Haiti, lasting until 1947, and is one of the causes of this country’s extreme poverty today.
In the wake of the February 1848 Revolution in France, the struggles of slaves in the West Indies, and the demonstrations of workers in Paris, a Commission for the Abolition of Slavery was created on March 4, 1848, with Victor Schoelcher as its president. The provisional government signed the abolition decree on April 27, 1848.
The Commission proposed to indemnify the slaveowners, and on April 30, 1849, the National Assembly in France voted an indemnity for the colonists who had owned slaves in the West Indies, Guiana, Réunion, and Senegal for the “loss” of 247,810 enslaved people. According to the historian Claude Ribbe, they received the sum of 123,784,426 francs (comparable in relative value to the indemnity which Haitians were forced to pay). This would be worth about 5.3 billion dollars today. More decrees followed, dividing up the sums between the territories in question. The slaveholders of Réunion received 711 francs per slave (for 60,651 slaves), those of Guiana 624 francs (12,525 slaves), those of Guadeloupe 469 francs (87,087 slaves), those of Martinique 425 francs (74,447 slaves), those of Senegal 225 francs (9,800 slaves), those of Nosy Be and Nosy Baraha (in present-day Madagascar) 69 francs (3,300 slaves). In Réunion, Marie-Hermelinde Million des Marquets received 86,031 francs for 121 freed slaves, the equivalent of 3.5 million dollars today.
French ship-owners deported at least 1.4 million enslaved Africans from major ports like Nantes, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Le Havre, and Honfleur to the French colonies in the West Indies. Around 150,000 were deported to Réunion.
British slave traders deported about 3.4 million slaves to the sugar colonies of the West Indies, British Guyana, and Mauritius. At the time of the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1833, some 20 million pounds sterling (about 143 billion dollars today), or 40% of the state budget, were paid out as indemnities to the slaveowners. These sums were the basis for many fortunes in banking, industry, railroads, and insurance, some of these still very present today.
A percentage of the indemnities paid out to former owners of the enslaved served to create the banks of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion in 1851 and 1853, profiting these same former owners. Article 7 of the laws of January 19, 23, and April 30, 1849, stipulated that 1/8 of the sum paid to slaveowners in the colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion would be set aside for the establishment of a lending and discount bank in each of these colonies.
These banks themselves issued bills until 1944, and up until 1952, they continued to do so under the control of the Central Fund for the French Overseas Territories, the ancestor of the present-day French Development Agency (AFD). In 1967, the Bank of Martinique and the Bank of Guadeloupe combined to create the Bank of the French West Indies (BDAF), which, along with the Bank of Réunion, forms part of the BPCE Group. In 1980, the major French bank Crédit Lyonnais became the principal shareholder of the BDAF.
Since September 2015, the BDAF, like the Bank of Réunion, has become a branch of the CEPAC savings bank (Savings Bank of Provence-Alpes-Corse), which is now also an online bank.
Today, those in the best position to overthrow this system are the wage slaves, the working class. This is because they are at the very heart of the capitalist machine: the factories and workplaces. They produce everything. Due to their labor and their number, they form a significant potential force. The exploitation of their labor power allows the capitalists to make fantastic profits. By expropriating the bourgeoisie and socializing the private property of the means of production, the workers would benefit the whole of the poor and working classes.
As we have seen, capitalism was born by reducing millions of Africans to slavery. But it also took shape from the exploitation, sweat, and blood of millions of men, women, and children in Europe, and in every country, across several centuries.
The debt of the imperialist states for the enslavement of Africans is immeasurable. Not 200 billion, not all of billions of dollars in the world would settle the score.
Even more so, the debt of the rich countries and of the bourgeoisie toward the billions of exploited people in every country and of every color is impossible to measure.
True reparations would come from the general expropriation for the benefit of the exploited of the wealth accumulated through capitalism, slavery, and the horrific oppression of peoples and poor classes around the world.
Only the destruction of the capitalist system would allow it. And this could only be global. The recovery of wealth by the poor Blacks in every country is therefore inseparable from the struggle of all the other oppressed people of the earth.
It is through this sole path that the descendants of Black slaves will find their share. But they can do this only as the outcome of the victorious revolution of all the exploited. There can be no true emancipation of the Black peoples outside of that of all the peoples and dominated classes. This is not a pious wish but a necessity, an objective political and economic necessity, and a historic imperative. There will never be an alternative way. It is either worldwide socialism or barbarism!
Revolutionary successes can be guaranteed only if the proletariat is able to form its own revolutionary communist parties.
Since struggles are contagious, they take on an international character at a certain level of their development, offering larger perspectives to workers around the world.
The working class is the only class that is potentially revolutionary due to its place in capitalist production. It will offer a perspective to all the dominated and oppressed classes, including at a national and racial level. It is the working class that will change the world, whatever will be the rhythm in which it will do so.
It will then be possible for human society to walk down the path which the Russian workers, with the Bolshevik Party and its leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, opened 103 years ago. They destroyed the feudal and capitalist state and for 6 years built a workers’ state conceived as the first stage of the worldwide revolution.
Only this path will allow us to get past the barbarism of the capitalist system. The narrowness of nationalist ideology cannot offer this perspective. It has already led down many blind alleys, and can only lead us into a dead end.
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote. There is no way forward other than this class struggle waged to its conclusion, the proletarian revolution, and then the construction of a global classless society, a socialist society.