Debating: "A Question Sharply Posed: Nat Turner or Thomas Jefferson?"

August 4, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |



Some months ago, a reader of Revolution newspaper received the following comment from a professor to a piece by Bob Avakian, “A Question Sharply Posed: Nat Turner or Thomas Jefferson?”  We are reprinting here the comment and a reply to it.



I seldom reply, am in the trenches as are you… but as you know, and I've spoken clearly, I have dedicated my life to battling oppression and working tirelessly as are we all against the machinery of globalization, unbridled capitalism and oppression everywhere.

In our world of Liberation Arts, we have been defining oppressive rhetoric as binaries—either/or.  George W. Bush used to tell us you're "either with us or with the terrorists."  Hideous.

My question for you is, how is Bob Avakian any different?  "You're either with Nat Turner, or with Thomas Jefferson"…really?

I choose option three: neither, completely, and both, partially.

Jefferson was a slave owner, that is indisputable.

Is that all he was?

Turner was a liberator.  Was that all he was?

Blessings for all the tireless work you do; once again, though, I find myself reminded again and again why I am not a fan of Bob Avakian.



The problem with this is that in the actual world we live in—full of exploitation, mass immiseration, unnecessary suffering, and tremendous destruction of the natural environment—there is no “option three” and to attempt to find one will keep this world, with all these antagonistic divisions and institutionalized oppression, intact.

To illustrate how this is so, let's walk through an historical hypothesis.  Taking this professor’s logic, and putting yourself back into history: what would you have done if the slaves marched up to Monticello—the house on Jefferson’s plantation—saying they were going to burn it down and kill every white person inside?

Would you seek to forcibly prevent them from rising up until you could put certain conditions on their struggle?  Would you have pleaded with them to put their arms down and go back to the plantations and brutal working conditions until they promised their rebellion would contain no excesses?  Think what this would have meant.  On Southern plantations, including Jefferson’s famed Monticello, the whip was used with great brutality at any sign of disobedience, let alone rebellion.  Children as young as 10 years old were whipped for missing a day of hard labor in the nail factory which generated great wealth for Jefferson.  Can you imagine what the response would have been to outright rebellion?  This would have meant tremendous punishment and brutality to prevent the slaves from ever even considering this kind of rebellion again.  Power would have stayed in the hands of the slave masters, and it would have meant even harsher conditions for hundreds of men, women, and children destined to a life of heart-rending brutality, families broken apart, and backbreaking labor—from “can’t see in the morning til can’t see at night.”

Would you have argued that the slaves should not be so “binary,” that perhaps there was a way to negotiate, to find a third way between slaves and slave masters?  This would be like saying to the slaves to go back and remain slaves until I can convince your master to change his mind.  With Jefferson himself, there was actually more than one person who asked him to change his mind and give his slaves—the human beings he owned—their freedom.  But he refused.  In addition to the great amount of wealth his slaves and their labor yielded, he dreaded the reaction of his fellow slave owners, and the implications that setting his own slaves free would have on the institution of slavery.

But even more than that, you could not have put an end to the economic system of slavery—an essential foundation of this country—by changing all the minds of the slave masters who sat atop it.  It took a civil war to do that.  A civil war which dismantled the slave system, stripped the slave owners of their property and freed the hundreds of thousands of Black people held in slavery.  (And even then, not long after the slave system was officially ended, because of the needs of American capitalism at that time, many tens of thousands of Black people were held in new forms of slavery through the use of convict labor and the brutal sharecropping system.)

To go back to the historical question posed here, your only other option would have been to stand with the slaves in their righteous rebellion demanding to be slaves no more and then, in that context, struggle together with them about how to fight better, about who should and should not be the target of their rebellion and how to fight to win.

As can be seen by walking this through, if you attempted to attenuate or ameliorate the objective contradiction between slaves and slave masters, regardless of your intentions, you would have ended up siding with the slave master.  Or if you used secondary contradictions in how the slaves were fighting to justify standing aside, you would have been standing aside from and been witness to great atrocity that you could have had a role in preventing. 

So here we are, back to what objectively in the real world is the either/or question, “a fundamental dividing line,” as Avakian puts it: “Nat Turner or Thomas Jefferson?  Slave rebellion or slave master? Do you support the oppressed rising up against the oppressive system and seeking a radically different way, even with certain errors and excesses—or do you support the oppressors, and the leaders and guardians of an outmoded oppressive order, who may talk about ‘inalienable rights’ but bring down wanton brutality and very real terror, on masses of people, to enforce and perpetuate their system of oppression?”

The Viewpoint of the Class in the Middle

The aspirations of the professor to find this nonexistent third way represents the outlook of a class in society which finds itself between the oppressor and oppressed classes.  This is the petite bourgeoisie who is suppressed and ruled over by the big bourgeoisie and yet does not experience the conditions of exploitation of the proletariat—the class who works only so long as their labor enriches the ruling class, who own not just the wealth but the means to make wealth (the large-scale factories, farms, mines, oil wells, manufacturing, etc. the world over).  The petite bourgeoisie is squeezed in between—either trying to improve their position while being suppressed in certain ways by the big accumulators of capital or attempting to rein in particular excesses of capitalism without questioning the fundamental foundation of the whole capitalist system.  

To understand this more deeply, I’ll quote Marx. who speaks to this powerfully:

    “ must not form the narrow-minded notion that the petite bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petite bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class and the class they represent....

“But the democrat, because he represents the petite bourgeoisie, that is, a transition class, in which the interests of two classes are simultaneously mutually blunted, imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally. The democrats concede that a privileged class confronts them, but they, along with all the rest of the nation, form the people. What they represent is the people’s rights; what interests them is the people’s interests. Accordingly, when a struggle is impending, they do not need to examine the interests and positions of the different classes.” (quoted from Marx in Bob Avakian’s Phony Communism Is Dead... Long Live Real Communism! second edition, pp. 209-10)

This is a complex quote and Avakian has broken this down and wrangled with the materialism and dialectics of this in a number of places.  I won’t attempt here to speak to the many layers that BA has drawn out of this important quote.  But in response to the professor, there are two points I want to highlight:

  • Because the petite bourgeoisie is this “transition class,” in between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, where the interests of these “two classes are simultaneously mutually blunted, imagines himself elevated above class antagonism generally.”  Its interests, as a class, are bound up with blunting and attempting to ameliorate the fundamental contradiction between these two classes, attempting to find a nonexistent middle ground and aiming to reconcile fundamental material contradictions which cannot actually be reconciled.  Again, go back to the example of slaves and slave masters—to attempt to find a middle ground, a “third option,” would have been impossible and would have meant keeping intact, and backing up, the slave system—with all its brutality and repression.

  • In the idea and approach that “binaries” or an “either/or” approach is “oppressive rhetoric,” we see the smug arrogance of portraying petty bourgeois biases and prejudices as a universal truth.  As Marx speaks to, this is not done to “enforce an egoistic class interest” (in other words, not out of a narrow self interest) but because of the view that “they [the democratic intellectual], along with all the rest of the nation, form the people. What they represent is the people’s rights; what interests them is the people’s interests...” But again, as can be seen by the example above, in speaking on behalf of “the people” without any analysis of the different class interests of those who make up that “people” (i.e., the different class interests of the slaves and slave masters), and speaking against clarifying the sharp differences among those people, you are condemning those slaves to maintain their position as slaves.

Finally, it should be clear through all this why the professor is “not a fan of Bob Avakian.”  Exactly because of what Bob Avakian is about and sharply challenges others to be about: confronting the sharp edges of this nightmare system and “a real, really radical and thorough revolution, aiming for the ultimate goal of communism throughout the world and the emancipation of all humanity as a whole from thousands of years of tradition's chains, exploitative and oppressive relations and outmoded ideas.” (from "BA: A Contended Question”)

The exploitation and brutality that this professor is dedicating his life to battling cannot be ended within the confines of this system or by shying away from the sharpness of the contradictions bound up with this system.  We need a revolution, and in fighting for that revolution, the question is sharply posed:

“Do you stand with this oppressive system, or with the struggle to overthrow and uproot it, and bring into being a radically different, emancipating system and way of life?” (emphasis added)

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