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Take the Revolutionary Road

The US has been the world's principal anti-revolutionary force for almost a century. As Thomas Jefferson would have said, it's time to rebel.

Michael Hardt

It cannot but feel rather odd discussing Thomas Jefferson, who occupies such a central position in the US national pantheon, 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, striving to suppress revolutionary movements, openly plotting to overthrow successful revolutionary governments, and supporting surrogate counter-revolutionary forces in countries throughout the globe.

National political traditions, however, are not cut of whole cloth but rather contain sometimes surprising divergences and contradictions. The present anti-revolutionary vocation of the United States, in fact, makes it all the more interesting to find the thought of a revolutionary such as Jefferson at its core. When reading some of Jefferson's most radical writings it is hard not to be struck by the vast gulf that separates his thinking from that of the current United States, its ideology, its constitution, and its political system and culture.

After this initial surprise at the fact that Jefferson's thought belongs to the revolutionary tradition, we should recognise how it still has important contributions to make, and can help us move beyond some of the central obstacles to thinking about revolution today.

Jefferson's declarations of independence throughout his life not only mark the separation of the colonies from the colonial power but also, and more importantly, seek to keep alive the pursuit of freedom within society - striving to conceive of how the revolutionary process can continue indefinitely, how what 18th century revolutionaries called "public happiness" can be instituted in government, and ultimately how self-rule and democracy can be realized.

Like all great revolutionary thinkers, Jefferson understands well that the revolutionary event, the rupture with the past and the destruction of the old regime, is not the end of the revolution but really only a beginning. The event opens a period of transition that aims at realizing the goals of the revolution. The concept of transition, however, is today a fundamental stumbling block of revolutionary thought and practice. The (often authoritarian) means employed during revolutionary transitions frequently conflict with and even contradict the desired (democratic) ends; moreover, these transitions never seem to come to an end. The travelers on the long journey through the desert end up getting completely lost, no nearer to the promised land, and that leader with a big stick starts looking a lot like the old Pharaoh.

In fact, whenever revolutionaries start talking to you about "transition" today, you had better watch out: they are probably trying to put one over on you. Jefferson's thought, however, poses a novel conception of transition, which can help steer revolutionary thought around its current obstacles. He provocatively brings together, on the one hand, constitution and rebellion and, on the other, transition and democracy. The work of the revolution must continue incessantly, periodically reopening the constituent process, and the population must be trained in democracy through the practices of democracy.

The first key to understanding Jefferson's notion of transition is to recognize the continuous and dynamic relationship he poses between rebellion and constitution or, rather, between revolution and government. A conventional view of revolution conceives these terms in temporal sequence: rebellion is necessary to overthrow the old regime, but when it falls and the new government is formed, rebellion must cease.

In contrast to this view, Jefferson insists on the virtue and necessity of periodic rebellion - even against the newly formed government. The processes of constituent power must continually disrupt and force open an establishment of constituted power.

"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere."

Rebellion against the government, he maintains (pdf), is so virtuous that it should not only be tolerated but even encouraged.

Rebellion is not just a matter of correcting wrongs committed by the government, and thus only valuable if its cause is just; it has an intrinsic value, regardless of the justness of its specific grievances and goals. Periodic rebellion is necessary to guarantee the health of a society and preserve public freedom. "God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion," he writes. In Jefferson's view, rebellion should not become our constant condition; rather, it should eternally return. By my calculation we are well overdue.

Michael Hardt is a literary theorist and political philosopher. Associate Professor of Literature and Romance Studies at Duke University, USA, his recent writings deal primarily with the political, legal, economic and social aspects of globalisation. He has written several books, including the world renowned Empire. His most recent is a new edition of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (2007).

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007.

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