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Concerning the Thomas Jefferson Controversy...

Automatically Disqualified


Editors' Note (updated August 26, 2017): Recently, in the wake of the Klan-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, where fascist thugs defending a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee rampaged through the streets and murdered Heather Heyer, Trump made clear where he stands. With the racists and fascists—loud and clear. When there was widespread outrage at this, Trump refused to back down. In defense of the Confederate monuments, he said that tearing those down would lead to bringing down the monuments to all slave-owning founders, including Washington and Jefferson, and that this would be a threat to American values. This actually revealed a great deal about the hypocrisy at the core of American politics. Thomas Jefferson was—in addition to being a major figure in the American Revolution and the first decades of the United States—also a major slave owner and defender of the slave system. As president, he oversaw the Louisiana Purchase—the buying from France of a huge territory that now comprises part or all of 15 states, primarily in the interests of the slave owners and with the aim of spreading the brutal and murderous version of the slave system in North America into these new areas. Some people argue that Jefferson must be "judged in the context of his times," and that—taking into account his beliefs and actions concerning slavery—he was a "flawed giant." The following, which is taken from parts of a talk by Bob Avakian (BA) several years ago, was originally posted at in 2012, and we think it is quite relevant in the current situation. For a more thorough treatment of Jefferson and his theories, see BA’s Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy.

Now, in this context it might be useful to think about the contrast—in response to a system of oppression and the possibilities offered by the oppressors—the contrast between the response of a slave who seeks at most minor changes in the conditions of slavery, or the response of the serf in the Middle Ages who cannot imagine a world without his lord and master owning the land and dominating the work and the very lives of the serfs, who cannot imagine a different world than the one in which the place of everyone, from the ruling monarch to the lowly serfs themselves, is predetermined by a supposed god and reinforced by religious dogma. All that on the one hand, but in contrast to that, the response of the conscious, scientific freedom fighter and emancipator of humanity. What the latter, the conscious freedom fighter and emancipator of humanity, knows and which the slave needs to know is that only by getting rid of the system of slavery can there be really any meaningful change in the position of the slave. And the same applies to the serf—only by abolishing that whole system can the possibility of something radically different and better be opened up. And the same is true in relation to the current system of exploitation and oppression we live under, the capitalist-imperialist system.

But we have a problem. The problem is we have a lot of bourgeois-democratic intellectuals thinking like serfs. [laughter and applause] You go out and you try to talk to them about something radically different... "No, no, no, we gotta make sure the Democrats stay in office." You say: "But the world could be a completely different way." "I can’t imagine there could be anything better than our system of democracy—we just have to make it work better." "Yeah, but look, there’s a whole history here of communist..." "Oh, don’t talk to me about communist revolution—that was a nightmare and a horror and it just proved what I’m saying that there’s nothing better than this system." Bourgeois-democratic intellectuals thinking like serfs—unable to see beyond the confines—or refusing to see beyond the confines of this system.

Now, I want to introduce a phrase into political discourse. I got it from a movie and I’ll talk about that in a second. The phrase is "Automatically Disqualifed." If you come up to anybody and start saying: "I want to talk about freedom and democracy," and then you want to go on and talk about our great founding fathers, you are Automatically Disqualified. [laughter and applause] I mean somebody needs to tell these people: "You do know that you’re talking about slave owners, right? You do know that out of the first five presidents of the United States, four of them were slave owners. You do know that, don’t you? Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe—you do know that’s what we’re talking about—people who owned other human beings and viciously exploited them while they were denouncing the ‘slavery’ the British monarch imposed on them." Automatically Disqualified.

Now I got this from the movie High Fidelity which is a movie about . . . the main character is played by John Cusack. And he’s a guy who owns what used to be called a record store—now it’s gotta be called a music store. But anyway, he owned a record store and during the course of the goings on in the record store, some of the employees there, one of whom is played by Jack Black, would get into discussions about what music was great music and so on and so forth. And at one point one of the other characters mentions a song—I believe it was by the Temptations—and the Jack Black character says, "Automatically disqualified because of its association with The Big Chill." Now I don’t know how many of you remember the movie The Big Chill. But The Big Chill was a movie very consciously made by Lawrence Kasden, whom if I remember correctly was actually part of SDS back in the University of Michigan in the ’60s and then turned his back on it. And this is a movie that’s consciously made to say to all those kind of people who were part of the upsurge of the ’60s, particularly the white middle class youth in the student movements and antiwar movements: "It’s okay for you to have turned your back on all that. It’s alright for you to have settled in and accommodated to the system and go along with it because now we know better."

That was the whole point of the movie and it’s captured in many scenes, but one in particular stuck with me. And that’s when there’s a woman—I believe it’s played by Mary Kay Place—who became a public defender to help people out. And think about how insidious and vicious this is: they’re going back and forth, she’s talking about how disoriented she is, disillusioned she is, and all these people she has to defend as a public defender. And other people said, "What do you expect?" And she said, "Well, I expected they’d all be Bobby and Huey—I never thought they’d all be so guilty." Now think of the viciousness of this and what message it’s delivering—and it makes me furious. Look, there have been people from among the oppressed nationalities, Black people and others—I’ve known some—who’ve given up and sold out and stabbed people in the back. But there was a phenomenon when we went out in the ’60s—we would go out into the neighborhoods of the oppressed, spreading the word of radical change and so on. And a lot of people were very positive toward it but some people if they got to know us a bit and felt like talking to us down on the ground would say, "Look, you white people, you come out here and you say this and talk all this stuff but when this is all done, when this movement ebbs you’re gonna go back into your lives and get comfortable with this system and leave us here fucked once again." And it makes me angry that so many people have allowed that to be what they’ve done.

I think of the song by the Clash, "London Calling." I don’t know what they were getting at but I want to take one of the lines—"London calling" and they’d say "Come out of your cupboards, you boys and girls." And I feel like saying to all these people who once knew better and should know better now from out of the ’60s: "Get the fuck out of that place. You know that you were right when you recognized the criminal nature of this system. You know you were right when you knew there was a radical alternative that was better. Get out of that whole shit of accommodating to the system. Come out of your cupboards and join with the movement and get back into the thing where you’re doing something real that means something and is fighting for the oppressed." [applause] Whether they do that or not we have to win many, many more people, older and especially younger, to be doing just that from all different parts of society, but especially among those who most urgently and desperately need this revolution.

So don’t come talking to me about the founding fathers and Jefferson and Madison. "Well, yes," you say, "but you gotta understand. See, that’s the way everybody saw things in those times. People didn’t know any better in those times. Everybody thought that slavery was just a natural part of things, and it eventually would die out."

Bullshit! Don’t try to tell me that nobody in the time of Jefferson and Madison knew better. There were many people who knew better—not the least of which were the slaves themselves! [applause] And here’s a fact—I referred to Adam Goodheart who unfortunately just put this in a footnote in this book 1861, but he did have it in there. He recounts that this man named Edward Coles, who for a time was private secretary to James Madison and later became the governor of Illinois, freed his own slaves and then tried to convince Madison and Jefferson to do the same. But they refused. So don’t tell me people didn’t know that there was another possibility and it couldn’t have been done differently. Jefferson, the big hero of American bourgeois democracy, not only was a slave owner, he was actively using his presidency and his prestige to fight for the extension of the slave system. That’s a big part of what the Louisiana Purchase in the early 1800s was all about which at the time doubled the size of the United States and provided an avenue for the expansion of the slave system. And don’t talk to me about Andrew Jackson, the great populist hero being upheld these days, who was a slave owner and who then forced the Cherokees—who had gotten into a bad place, some of whom had actually gotten set up on plantations and owned slaves themselves—but then, when it was decided that they needed more room for Europeans to come in and do that, under Jackson’s direction these Cherokees were sent on the Trail of Tears, marching across huge expanses of territory in harsh conditions and with many dying, including children, all along the way. Don’t talk to me about the founding fathers and the great populist slave-owning leaders of this country. If you do, you are Automatically Disqualified.