It is easy for modern Marxists to simply dismiss the US revolution as the creation of a racist, imperialist, capitalist and reactionary system. And to some extent it is. But in 1776, there really were no Marxist Parties or anti-imperialist movements of any significant size.
As described in Marxist writings, society goes from primitivism—to feudalism—to capitalism—to socialism—to communism. So in 1776, Europeans began to move away from a system of feudalism that they had for over 1,000 years—to capitalism, a system that moved society farther down the road to progress, by allowing people to earn wealth and power, rather than that being set aside only for those by their birthright.
Not all our founding fathers could see the significance of such change. Some, such as Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist supporters, were outright dullards on the subject of changing society away from an aristocracy. They may have even sought to create a new US aristocracy over time. In some ways we do have some aristocrats in the US today. After all, what did Paris Hilton do to become a billionaire and celebrity other than to have parents that built a family fortune?
So I do admire the writings of both Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, both understood the growing Republican movement in Europe and the changes that were coming as the result of the US revolution and later the French Revolution.
I’ve often enjoyed reading Thomas Jefferson. His best writings were from his letters where he could write honestly about the people he had to deal with in the mid 1700s, both before and after his presidency. There are many Marxists who hate the idea of “liking” Jefferson for any reason, because he was a racist, and some people still take his capitalist ideas seriously today. I like the fact that he was not religious; he had an almost Epicurean view, as was Paine. Jefferson was well educated.
I’ll never forget what he wrote comparing Hamilton to John Adams in his letters:
“Another incident took place on the same occasion, which will further delineate Mr. Hamilton’s political principles. The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them where those of (Francis) Bacon, (Isaac) Newton and (John) Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: “the greatest man,” said he, “that ever lived, was Julius Caesar.” Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.”[i]
I would have drawn about the same conclusion about Hamilton, accept I would have been harsher on him. He seemed a bit of a dolt, to believe the Caesar was the greatest man who ever lived. Caesar was a tyrant and an imperialist. He had some good qualities, but comparing Jefferson’s favorites to Hamilton’s was like comparing a Harley Davidson Sportster to a tricycle. Hamilton was clueless as a revolutionary. I don’t share Jefferson’s enthusiasm for all of those theoreticians, but at least they are people with theoretical modern ideas for their time and scientific views as opposed to a political brute.
As for the judgment of Jefferson based on his 1700s writings, I can point to the writings of Antonio Gramsci in his writings on “Judgment of Past Philosophies;”
“The superficial criticism of subjectivism in the “Popular Study” leads into a more general question, that of the standpoint taken regarding past philosophies and philosophers. To judge the whole philosophical past as madness and folly is not only an anti-historical error, since it contains the anachronistic pretence that in the past they should have thought like today, but it is a truly genuine hangover of metaphysics, since it supposes a dogmatic thought valid at all times and in all countries, by whose standard one should judge all the past. Anti-historical method is nothing but metaphysics. The fact that philosophical systems have been suspended does not exclude the fact that they were historically valid and carried out a necessary function:
Their short-livedness should be considered from the point of view of the entire historical development and of the real dialectic; that they deserved to perish is neither a moral judgment nor sound thinking emerging from an “objective” point of view, but a dialectical-historical judgment. One can compare this with Engels’ presentation of the Hegelian proposition that “all that is rational is real and all that is real is rational”, a proposition which will be valid for the past as well.
In the Study the past is judged as “irrational” and “monstrous” and the history of philosophy becomes the historical treatment of teratology, since he starts from a metaphysical point of view. (In fact the Communist Manifesto contains the highest praise of the dying world.) If this way of judging the past is a theoretical error and a deviation from Marxism, can it have any educational significance, will it generate activity? It does not appear so, because the question would reduce itself to presuming that one is a special person simply because one was born in the present time and not in a past century. But at every time there has been a past and a present and being “up to date” is praise only for jokes.”[ii]
Gramsci also has examples of past writers who influenced modern history:
“It appears that in Giordano Bruno, for example, there are many examples of such a new conception; Marx and Engels knew about Bruno. They knew about him and there remain traces of Bruno’s works in their notes. Conversely, Bruno was not without influence on classical German philosophy, etc.”[iii]
So it should be OK that I chose to read books by a racist founding father of a nation that eventually becomes one of the most barbaric empires since the Romans.
Jefferson’s choices of writers or men of inspiration aren’t that bad considering what he had to choose from at that time period. But who would I pick? Certainly I would pick more modern writers and thinkers, such as Mao Zedong/毛泽东/ and Hunter S. Thompson. Other heroes I might admire include both Jiang Qing/江青 and Salvador Allende, who both faced death for ideals they believed in.
So I still believe there is some good that came out of the US Revolution, even if that revolution has far less modern significance than it had 200 years ago. History is what it is and there are always a few people who understand the significance of the times they live in and produce better ideas and better understanding. They do the best they can with what they know and what ideas they are exposed to. We are all a product of our experiences and the ideas we are exposed to.