The book is short, edited by the leading American Marxist, Michael Hardt—the coauthor of the best-seller Empire—and primarily contains letters written by and to the author
of America's defining document, the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson was a strange man, and it seems even stranger that Verso included him in Revolutions, a series on radical writers. The place Jefferson holds in American ideology is that of a founding father. He is a symbol of the establishment; his image reinforces the tradition. We see him not as a groundbreaker but as the ground on which standard American values stand.
"It cannot but feel rather odd speaking about Thomas Jefferson, who occupies such a central position in the U.S. national pantheon," writes Hardt in the introduction to the book, "in the same breadth as Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro as a figure of modern revolutionary thought. For almost a century, after all, the United States government has served as the principal anti-revolutionary force in the world." Hardt, however, is able to find the revolutionary essence of Jefferson not in his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, but his belief that revolutions must never cease. Jefferson wanted America to be in a permanent cycle of revolutions.
"I like a little rebellion now and then," wrote Jefferson in a letter to John Adams's wife, Abigail, "It is like a storm in the Atmosphere." In another letter, this time to John Adams's son-in-law, William S. Smith, he wrote: "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion."
These days, when we speak about revolutions we mean a big change in the ruling technology (steam engine, electricity, internet), or ideas, or car models, or software—the iPhone is revolutionizing cell phones, telecommunication satellites have revolutionized banking, and so on. For Jefferson, revolutions were real, brutal, and bloody. "The tree of liberty," he wrote to Smith, "must be refreshed from time to time with blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." A revolution is the manure of liberty. Jefferson was a strange, strange man.
Mao held a similar view. He feared complacency, the establishment of a stable order, a tradition, and encouraged the youth of his time to revitalize China with the manure of liberty. Hardt, however, does not make the connection between Mao and Jefferson, but focuses instead on the differences between Jefferson and Lenin. Lenin felt that once the revolution was over it was time to build a new society on its fresh ground. A permanent revolution was not the ideal condition for Communism. Communism was the result and final stage of all revolutions. But even more than that, Lenin believed that the education of the people was the sober work to be done after a thrilling revolution. Lenin was no fun.
Though preferring Jefferson's option to Lenin's, Hardt does not entirely agree with it. The revolution must come to an end, but it should not result in a dictatorship or a new emperor. That is his point; there is a third way. Despite the clarity and strength of his analysis, Hardt, however, misses something very important about the American founder: He wanted revolutions to recur because, like booze, they are intoxicating. Jefferson had experienced the joy of having the moral advantage, the wonderful high of challenging absolute power, the orgasm of bringing down an old order. "The spirit of resistance to government," Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams, "is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not be exercised." These are the words of a man who could not get enough of the intoxicating stuff of revolutions.