Michael Hardt Presents the Declaration of Independence

Michael Hardt Presents the Declaration of Independence (New York: Verso Books, 2007).

This slim volume is the first in Verso’s “Revolution Series” in which a contemporary philosopher introduces a significant revolutionary manuscript. Hardt provides a brief and thoughtful introduction to Thomas Jefferson’s political thought, followed by a series of Jefferson’s writings, mostly letters to notables such as James Madison, Abigail Adams and Benjamin Banneker. The letters alone serve as a valuable source to examine Jefferson’s radical political thought. Hardt divides the writings into four sections: Rebellion against Government; The French Revolution; Republicanism and Self-Government; and Native Americans and Black Slavery.

Hardt is careful to note that the selected writings are not necessarily representative of Jefferson’s entire body of work. The statesman abounds with contradictions and it is impossible to encapsulate his work into a single theme. Anyone dealing with Jefferson’s legacy will be torn. There is the deeply problematic issue of Jefferson’s slaveholding and the ongoing plunder of Native Americans under his presidency. Yet, there is the Jefferson who offers radical critiques of state power. What is important for Hardt is that we “discover and learn from what remains revolutionary in Jefferson’s thought.” Hardt believes that “the prestige of Jefferson in the US canon might serve to renew…and open spaces for rebellion and participation.”

One only wishes that Hardt’s insightful and well-presented introduction went a bit further, and made clear that Jefferson embraced an American radical tradition that was articulated by working people and not just elites for political purposes. Here I am reminded of Staughton Lynd’s Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (1968). Ordinary workers throughout US history have been advocates of a revolutionary tradition. Lynd pointed to those who did not go to college as exemplars of this tradition: Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Eugene Debs.

It is no coincidence that both Lynd’s and Hardt’s books appeared during times of constitutional crisis – Lynd’s at the height of the Vietnam War and Hardt’s during the US occupation of Iraq, both cases where the US waged imperial wars abroad while trampling on the constitution at home. Indeed, Hardt notes that in reading Jefferson we find a “vast gulf” between his thinking and the contemporary US political system. Hardt suggests that Jefferson’s perspective on revolution is far closer to Mao, Lenin, and Castro than to any recent occupant of the White House.

For many readers, this assertion will be difficult to swallow. How could one of the Founders of this counter-revolutionary nation be situated within a radical tradition? Hardt acknowledges that the United States has consistently fought revolutionary movements across the globe since Jefferson’s time: putting down Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87; intervening in Russia in 1918; overthrowing Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954; undermining the Sandinistas in the 1980s; and harassing Venezuela today.

If we follow Hardt, we will nevertheless discover that Jefferson’s political writings unequivocally support the case for revolution. Some readers will immediately charge that this is too simplistic. Many of the Founders employed radical rhetoric to justify a bourgeois revolution against British domination. True, but Hardt is quick to remind readers that Jefferson’s revolutionary ethos is not confined to throwing off the yoke of colonialism; it is an inherent right of citizens after the revolution. This is what makes Jefferson important.

Therefore, the entry point for understanding Jefferson’s radical thought concerns the revolutionary “transition,” a stage between overthrowing the old oppressive regime and the creation of genuine democracy. Hardt’s brief juxtaposition of Jefferson’s and Lenin’s views on transition is more rewarding than many voluminous writings on this topic.

For Lenin and like-minded theorists, Hardt explains that the “source of transformation comes from above, from outside the people.” One might point to Chapter five of Lenin’s State and Revolution, where he discusses the “necessary suppression” of rebellious movements after the revolution. The state remains the “special machine for suppression.” Although Lenin goes on to say that the state and its repressive machinery will wither away, anti-democratic procedures are the logical extension of this position. The problem with such theorists, Hardt underscores, is that there is a sharp distinction between “means and ends, between the form of transitional rule and the revolutionary goals.”

Leninists have argued that the historical situation necessitated some degree of repression; and Hardt concedes as much to Lenin. Hardt still wonders, “How could democracy, after all, result from its opposite?” Hardt does not want to separate means and ends in discussing how to forge democracy. He proposes a way out of this conundrum, and he turns to Jefferson to lead the way. The key point here is that Jefferson “insists on the virtue and necessity of periodic rebellion – even against the newly formed government.” If democracy is the goal of the revolution, then citizens must preserve it when the state fails to live up to its stated principles. “The further the departure from direct and constant control by the citizens,” in Jefferson’s words, “the less has the government the ingredient of [democracy]” (65).

Hardt cites two instances of rebellion to support his point. He finds Shays’ Rebellion in the northeastern states shortly after the revolution “somewhat analogous” to the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion in the Soviet Union. In Kronstadt, sailors revolted against the revolutionary government, having accused it of not representing the will of the people and suppressing free speech. Shays and the farmers rebelled against property qualifications to vote, excessive taxes, and land foreclosure for delinquent tax payments. In both cases, the army was deployed to crush the rebellion. Leninists will bemoan the “outside” influence behind Kronstadt, but the point is not to quarrel about the nuances of these revolts. What is important, Hardt insists, is that Jefferson defended the citizens’ right to revolution, including against the new revolutionary regime. Revolution is not a single event, but an ongoing right to transform society. Concerning Shays’ rebellion, Jefferson wrote, “I hope they pardon them. The spirit of resistance is so valuable…. I wish it to be kept alive… I like a little rebellion now and then” (30). Hardt emphasizes that Jefferson supports the “intrinsic value” of rebellion, irrespective of the cause.

Revolution, then, is the continual process of participation and decision-making by the people. Citizens must act as active agents in an “unending revolution.” For Jefferson, revolution is an “educational experience,” in which participatory engagement transforms people. It fosters “habits” of democracy and resistance to “any form of authority that tries to take power from them,” as Jefferson put it. Hardt similarly argues that debates regarding human nature are transcended in Jefferson’s formula: the process of active participation in government transforms people; unending revolution is a “process of becoming.” Whether people are naturally brutish or compassionate, the practice of democracy has the best chance of facilitating habits of cooperation and resistance. Hardt’s recovery of Jefferson’s focus on praxis is refreshing. Should one live democracy rather than talk about it, one is more likely to create a democratic society.

Hardt offers readers a Jefferson located within an American radical tradition that is a sorely needed antidote to today’s corrupt and misguided leadership. With all the chatter from that leadership about regime change abroad, scholars and activists should recall the Jeffersonian tradition and demand regime change at home. This book might also remind socialists that the goal of American socialism is – to borrow Lynd’s observation – the completion of the American Revolution.

Reviewed by Carl Mirra
SUNY/College at Old Westbury

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