The Limits of Revolution

Late in life, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson rekindled a friendship and a correspondence that had withered under the strain of political disagreements. “You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other,” Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1813. The topic was revolutions, past, present, and future.

Adams was keen to the pitfalls of political turmoil, which often gave way to utopian dreams of justice and equality that ended in oppression and massacre. Revolutions had a propensity to devour themselves and turn into their opposites. He detested and, rightfully, distrusted mob violence. Proponents of revolutions all too often misunderstood the limits of human nature and what Adams deemed the “science of government.”

Jefferson, on the other hand, believed that revolution was an inevitable and necessary feature of a healthy political order. As Michael Hunt explains in his fascinating study, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, Jefferson was fond of metaphors when explaining his position. He considered revolution as a manure essential to the healthy growth of the tree of liberty. Even failed revolutions are steps in the right direction, a necessity for social, economic, and intellectual progress: “At every vibration between the points of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. As men become better informed, their rulers must respect them the more.”

(An Aside: In these words one may find as good an explanation as any for the uncompromising politics of Christopher Hitchens when it comes to the Iraq War. Hitchens – who has spent the last few years mining the early decades of the American republic, producing biographies of Jefferson and, forthcoming, Thomas Paine – is surely no stranger to these sentiments. The dedication of his volume on Paine is to President Jalal Talabani, “first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people’s army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.”)

It was the French revolution that tested these stances. Jefferson was an early supporter of the uprising, seeing it as the logical extension of the cause of liberty from its cradle in the nascent American republic. “I have so much confidence in the good sense of man, and his qualifications for self-government, that I am never afraid of the issue where reason is left free to exert her force,” Jefferson wrote from France in 1789. By 1793, the revolution had taken an excessively radical turn. Assassination contributed to the erosion of moral and civic ties. Jefferson was forced to admit that “the cause of true liberty has received a deep wound.”

“Once begun,” Hunt writes, summing up Jefferson’s realization, “the ultimate fate of a revolution depended on a close adherence to a moderate course.”

This dictum echoes with obvious relevance in our own time. One cannot read about the Adams-Jefferson dialogue on revolution and not find your mind wandering to Iraq. Those of us who supported the war misunderstood not only how grievously Saddam had broken Iraqi society, but also the limits of man and the “science of government.” We were immodest and not sufficiently reflective about the dangers of intervening in other societies. An effort to ease human suffering has been drowned in a sea of blood. Matters are unremittingly bleak over there. As Marty Peretz notes over at his TNR blog, The Spine: “Does not calling it a civil war keep it from being a civil war? The death rates are worse than those in the Spanish Civil War and much worse than those in Bosnia. Why the hesitancy, both official and from others? Let’s face it. There is a civil war going on in Iraq, and it has been going on for months and months.” For what it is worth, Kofi Annan apparently agrees.

Iraqis who have been brave enough to stand for a democratic future, a liberal future, stand in peril of facing retribution similar to that meted out by the Khmer Rouge against any Cambodian deemed sympathetic to the West. Wholescale massacre. As the world crumbles around them, we owe it to them to make sure they are protected and, if need be, provided safe haven abroad.

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