Thomas Jefferson: The Leninist Patriot

Usually when one mentions Thomas Jefferson, Vladimir Lenin isn’t particularly the first person to come to mind (nor the second, nor third). At a superficial initial glance, they have little in common: a conflicted slave-owner, president, and brilliant writer that planted the seeds of democratic republicanism versus a Bolshevik leader and the main theoretician behind 20th century revolutionary thinking and praxis. A comparative analysis of these two different men would seem rather absurd given the political climate of the United States — who would have the gall to compare one of, if not the, founder of the original constitutional republic to a dirty red?

After we take off our post-McCarthyist goggles, there are some genuine comparisons to be made that merit a closer look at Jefferson’s ideology through a Leninist perspective. When the American experiment was rearing its head in the international scene, it was the first of its kind. A struggling republic midst an onslaught of Western imperial powers — few expected it to last. However, Jefferson held a firm belief that the empires of Europe would succumb to their own violence, which he considered alien to the United States. He writes to James Monroe in 1823:

I have ever deemed it fundamental for the United States never to take active part in the quarrels of Europe. Their political interests are entirely distinct from ours. Their mutual jealousies, their balance of power, their complicated alliances, their forms and principles of government, are all foreign to us. They are nations of eternal war. All their energies are expended in the destruction of the labor, property and lives of their people [1].

Calling for the complete separation from European politics, he writes to George Logan in 1801:

It ought to be the very first object of our pursuits to have nothing to do with the European interests and politics. Let them be free or slaves at will, navigators or agriculturists, swallowed into one government or divided into a thousand, we have nothing to fear from them in any form [2].

He would go on to exploit, what he viewed, European weaknesses during his time in diplomacy and terms as president. Realizing early that New Orleans was crucial for the development of the American experiment, he managed to properly balance his diplomatic talks with French powers to cheaply acquire Louisiana, while some Federalists were calling for war [3]. And he remarkably did so by using the Napoleonic wars in Europe to his advantage, since Napoleon was lacking the funds to fuel his imperialist ventures. Similarly, Lenin utilized the contradictions of European imperialism after World War One in his diplomacy and managed to retreat Russia from the war and marginally keep it secure.

Jefferson also took an internationalist approach to the American experience. “The Empire of Liberty,” as he called it, must spread its wings across the entire American continent and eventually the entire globe. He writes in 1795, commenting on the revolutions in France and Holland, in a letter to Tench Coxe:

This ball of liberty, I believe most piously, is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe, at least the enlightened part of it, for light & liberty go together. it is our glory that we first put it into motion [4].

Again he argues this point in a 1824 letter to William Ludlow Monticello:

And I have observed this march of civilization advancing from the sea coast, passing over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition, insomuch as that we are at this time more advanced in civilization here than the seaports were when I was a boy. And where this progress will stop no one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime, been receding before the steady step of amelioration; and will in time, I trust, disappear from the earth [5]

After the Revolution of 1917, Lenin expounded a similar view of the ultimate destruction of the bourgeois powers of Europe. He argues in his influential pamphlet, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, about the nature of “decaying capitalism” and how historical necessity will bring about the demise of capitalist powers. He writes:

That imperialism is leading to annexation, to increased national oppression, and, consequently, also to increasing resistance [6].

And then on the inevitability of the destruction of imperialist capitalism:

That private economic and private property relations constitute a shell which no longer fits its contents, a shell which must inevitably decay if its removal is artificially delayed, a shell which may remain in a state of decay for a fairly long period… but which will inevitably be removed [7].

Lenin’s thoughts on the ultimate collapse of Western capitalism and its predatory nature bears resemblance to Jefferson’s writing on the destruction of the empires of Europe. The difference being, they were analyzing completely different social epochs. Lenin was witnessing, or so he believed,  the transition from capitalism to some form of socialism. Jefferson, on the hand, witnessed the development of fledgling democracies and the destruction of archaic monarchies. Both articulated an internationalist tone in their message, either for Jeffersonian democracy or for socialism, and preached the inevitability of such events — Lenin called for a “revolutionary vanguard” in his April Theses, Jefferson believed in an empire of liberty with which “this ball of liberty… will roll around the world.”

Objectively speaking, both Jefferson and Lenin were internationalist revolutionaries. They viewed the old order with disdain, inevitable in its collapse, and believed in securing the future through revolution and popular struggle. Jefferson was keen and uptight in his support for the French Revolution and its excesses. Although not particularly pleased with all the Terror, he still argued in favor of the French struggles. He writes to William Short in 1793:

But time and truth will rescue and embalm [the Jacobin Terror], while their posterity will be enjoying that very liberty for which they would never have hesitated to offer up their lives. The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood? My own affections have been deeply wounded by some of the martyrs to this cause, but rather than it should have failed, I would have seen half the earth desolated [8].

His dedication to the French revolution is unquestionable; he sees it a worthy endeavor to defend at all costs. As he puts it, most bluntly, he would rather see “half the earth desolated” than see his ideals in France wither and fail. And as for Lenin, the Red Terror was used under his rule to purge the countryside of dissenters in order to ready it for socialism. The point being, both these individuals viewed themselves as instruments of history. They viewed themselves as prime movers of a social development that was inevitable in the grand historical narrative of humankind. There is a hint of arrogance in both Jefferson and Lenin in their push for social transformation, much of it being dogmatic, which is likely the reason why their ideologies intersect so often. From their condoning of violence to their opinion of Western powers to their internationalist political demeanor, Lenin and Jefferson can both be considered eerily similar in their interpretations of history and their justification for its transformation.  And oddly enough, at least in American politics, one is lamented as an American savior, while the other is considered the absolute worst scourge of the Earth — never compared, they hold completely different chairs in history, seldom discussed in conjunction. Perhaps this dynamic best illustrates how absurd historiography can become, and how easily it can be morphed into fitting a particular nationalistic narrative. Two sides of a similar coin, Jefferson and Lenin truly show this absurdity in full.

Jefferson fist

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