If you associate the era of the American Revolution with individual liberty, you’re right in more ways than you probably realized. In the lead-up to the War of Independence and during the revolution itself, prosecutions for prostitution, sodomy, and drunkenness were rare. Divorce was easy. Women entered a wide range of professions. Members of different races mixed freely in raucous taverns.
Such liberties shocked the more respectable classes, including the Founding Fathers; in what one historian calls “a counterrevolution against the pleasure culture of the cities,” the young country’s leaders called for new restrictions on disreputable recreations. Soon there were crackdowns on illicit sex, tighter controls on divorce, and a booming network of anti-vice groups that “targeted gambling houses, brothels, dance halls, and lower-class taverns.”
The historian speaking is Thaddeus Russell, 45, a professor at Occidental College and the author of a provocative and engaging new book, A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press). The book’s title deliberately echoes A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn’s retelling of the American story from a New Left perspective. But Russell’s book takes a rather different vantage point, celebrating the prostitutes who seized new freedoms for women, the gangsters whose gay bars opened spaces for same-sex liaisons, the lower-class Birmingham blacks who threw bricks at racist cops, and the consumer revolution that expanded American pleasures. And while Russell is a man of the left, more or less, he doesn’t have many kind words for the traditional pantheon of liberal heroes. One chapter of his book attacks Franklin Roosevelt for cartelizing the economy and regimenting the culture. Another highlights the puritanical side of Martin Luther King, who “called for blacks to stop drinking and gambling and to curtail their desires for luxuries.” Even the ’60s counterculture gets a mixed review, with Russell finding an ascetic strain in a movement more famous for its hedonism.
There’s a lot here for libertarians to cheer, but this is no more a conventional libertarian account than it is a standard leftist tale. When Russell describes the Founders’ clampdowns on drinking and other pleasures, he doesn’t merely point out that they felt such restrictions were necessary for democratic self-government. He forthrightly agrees with their analysis, with just one difference: He counts this as a mark against self-government. In one controversy-courting chapter, Russell celebrates the ways plantation slaves managed to resist their masters’ controls and build their own autonomous culture. That might not sound so controversial, except he argues that the slaves were able to create this culture “not despite slavery, but because of it” and that “slaves enjoyed pleasures that were forbidden to white people.” This isn’t, he stresses, a defense of slavery. But it takes his critique of self-government into potentially precarious places.
The Berkeley-bred son of two socialists, Russell is the author of one other book, a revisionist study of the Teamsters titled Out of the Jungle: Jimmy Hoffa and the Remaking of the American Working Class(2001). In addition to his academic work, Russell writes regularly for popular venues such as The Daily Beast, where his articles on subjects ranging from ultimate fighting to Glee have sparked some of the most entertainingly angry and puzzled comment threads on the Internet.
I spoke with Russell via phone in December.
reason: One of your themes is that the outlaw classes tend to be invisible not just in mainstream histories but on the left.
Thaddeus Russell: Traditionally, history was written about elite white males, an approach that critics called history “from the top down.” With the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s, scholars started writing history with a new class of heroes, who they claimed were the bottom of society. That is now known as history “from the bottom up.” But as a graduate student and as a professor, I was always skeptical about that. Those heroes didn’t really seem to be at the bottom of society. The way they spoke and their aspirations were very much in line with the 19th-century middle class.
I began as a labor historian. I started out as a fairly orthodox Marxist-inspired intellectual. But the more I researched labor unions, and later civil rights leaders and feminist leaders, the more I found that they talked just like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller and Thomas Edison and George Washington. They urged, and in some ways forced, their constituencies to adopt Victorian sexual repressions, to adopt the Puritan work ethic, to speak in proper English and avoid slang, to show propriety at all times, to dress respectfully, and the rest. Then I began to look down further, at what they were worried about among their constituencies, and a whole new world opened up to me.
reason: Your book draws heavily on existing historical work. So bottom-up historians were already beginning to reach further down.
Russell: Absolutely. There’s been a whole wealth of literature focusing on the same people I do. Especially since the mid-’90s, when younger scholars—people who were born after the New Left—started to go into the academy. People who are now in their 30s and 40s have had similar curiosities. They still are essentially wedded to a left-liberal politics. But nonetheless, they have looked in the right places.
[Interview continues after the video, "Historian Thaddeus Russell on the Renegades Who Made America Free."]
reason: How do you define your own politics?
Russell: Left-libertarian. I have major issues with the left, and some issues with libertarians, but in the last five years I’ve become really enamored with a lot of libertarian thinking. To me libertarians are the only people doing really radical intellectual work right now.
reason: How so? What are you drawing on from libertarian sources?
Russell: It began with anti-imperialism. That’s what first caught my attention. Particularly during the Obama campaign, I felt like I was on a raft in a vast ocean. I was just the only person I knew in my whole world who felt that Obama was basically a neocon and just terribly reactionary in every single way. There’s not one thing I like about him. He represents every negative strain in American history that I write about.
[Libertarian historian] David Beito somehow found out about me and asked me to participate in this Historians Against the War organization. He had basically taken over their blog; no one else was interested in doing it. He was putting libertarian stuff on the blog, and they weren’t happy about it, but there was so little energy in that organization that they couldn’t bother one way or another. Then I came along and we really went after Obama hard, especially over what I would call his imperialist foreign policy prescriptions.
We also then were chastising the organization for not criticizing him. Even after Obama was elected, even after the inauguration, all they would do is put anti-Bush stuff on the front of the website, and it just drove us crazy. For months we kept saying, “Would you please now talk about the guy who’s in office?” Finally they expelled us.
reason: Are there other areas where libertarian scholarship has notably influenced your thinking?
Russell: Charles Paul Freund’s article for reason, “In Defense of Vulgarity,” was one of the first things by a libertarian I read. It was stunning. And it helped me see how the free market can produce genuine liberation for ordinary, working-class people and subvert repressive traditions more quickly and thoroughly than any formal social movement.
I think what I like most about libertarians is that they are perpetually oppositional. They never merge their identities with the sovereign power. When speaking of the nation-state, they don’t say “we.”
reason: Where do you see your work on civil rights fitting together with other strains of revisionist civil rights history?
Russell: It begins with Robin Kelley, a black historian. He burst onto the scene in the ’90s. He has a great book called Race Rebels, which every libertarian should read, even though Robin’s a communist. That’s where I part with him. But in particular in that book, he has several amazing articles that look at what Marxists call the lumpenproletariat. He has one chapter that was obviously an inspiration for me; it’s called “Shiftless of the World Unite!” It’s essentially the history of black resistance to work, which he champions. He says, basically, “Why is it a good thing to devote your life to work?”
The bottom-up history of the ’60s and ’70s made all black people into ideal American citizens. That’s what they had to do to make them into heroes to put them in textbooks. And Robin challenged that. He said, “As a matter of fact, there was something good about challenging white-dominant norms.”
But Robin and that generation, they make all that activity into this collectivist, proto-socialist set of events or activities, which I don’t. I say it is what it is. It’s people having fun, people having sex, people avoiding work, people fighting the cops in the street, but there’s no evidence of any explicit political discourse about it.
reason: You do talk at least some of the time in terms of political resistance. The thrust of the civil rights chapter is that these people who were less respectable played a major role in Birmingham and therefore in ending coerced segregation in the South.
Russell: Absolutely, but there’s no evidence that there was anything consciously political about it. They simply wanted to get the cops off their block or off their back, literally. Whereas civil rights was always an explicitly political project.
All the heroes in the book don’t speak. There are no manifestos. There’s no political discourse whatsoever. It’s simply behavior that I look at. And I don’t make any claims about their consciousness. That’s very important for me. One of my major issues with New Left historians is that they make lots and lots of claims on behalf of “the people.”
reason: Let me zero in on one example from your book. You mention the wave of strikes that hit the country in 1919, and you make a pretty interesting argument that they’re better understood as a sign of the rising American consumer culture than a sign of incipient American socialism.
Russell: The 1919 strike wave has always been portrayed as America’s revolutionary moment, that these were essentially socialistic strikes aimed at seizing control of industries. And in fact, not one of them was intended to do that. The leaders of many of the strikes were socialist. There’s no question about that. But the strikes were waged for higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours. Period. These were not Bolshevik demands. These were bread-and-butter issues: more stuff and more leisure. That’s completely consistent with the rising consumer culture at the time, and not consistent with socialism.
reason: A 1970s labor historian might push back by saying there were experiments in grassroots democracy, with Seattle becoming the American version of the Paris Commune for a week. You had people setting up committees to take care of garbage collection, things like that. That can be portrayed as an example of people trying to administer their society themselves.
Russell: Show me the evidence that it was more than a tactic. If the rank and file was really interested in taking over industry, why did the strike last exactly one week? And also, I should say, Seattle was the only such strike at the time.
There is simply no evidence. And this is borne out by the history of radicalism in the United States. There’s a famous essay by Werner Sombart called “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” That’s something the New Left historians have been beating their heads against since the 1960s, basically trying to invent a socialism in the United States where there simply has not been one.
reason: The idea that American workers are more interested in higher wages and more leisure than in any sort of industrial democracy is also a theme of your Hoffa book.
Russell: The aspirations of the working class are demonstrated in their behavior. Hoffa represents that. There’s clear evidence that he was enormously popular. There’s clear evidence that he was more popular than pretty much any other labor leader within his union. Walter Reuther was fairly popular but never achieved that kind of status with his own rank and file. There were huge factions opposed to Reuther throughout his career, and that goes for every one of the major CIO unions.
I’ve been called a champion of Hoffa. I’m not at all. I’m just saying he was a vehicle for working-class aspirations, and those aspirations were material. He himself was simply interested in holding onto his job, and he understood that holding onto his job meant getting better wages and shorter hours and better conditions for his constituents, and that was it. He was a nonideological human being who was therefore very useful for a nonideological working class.
reason: Sometimes, in the more recent book, it felt to me that you were taking a traditional hero of the left, such as Franklin Roosevelt, and recasting him as an authoritarian villain. Other times, as with the abolitionists and the civil rights movement, I felt like you maintained an appreciation for the ways they extended freedom while exposing their less emancipatory side.
Russell: I don’t know where you got that. I don’t have any kind words for those guys.
reason: But there’s always a “to be sure” statement—you criticize the leaders, but to be sure, you’re not defending slavery or Jim Crow. Martin Luther King was fighting a particular set of restrictive rules that people were better off without, in addition to supporting these restrictions you don’t like.
Russell: Yes. I distinguish between desegregation, which means achieving access to space and to the privileges of whites, and integration, which for King and the leaders of the civil rights movement meant assimilation into the dominant white culture. I’m all for desegregation. King was for integration. But to get to integration, you have to go through desegregation, so he of course had to champion that along the way. Which was a wonderful thing.
reason: I don’t see anything comparable in the New Deal chapter. Maybe I’m missing something.
Russell: There’s nothing. Well— (pauses) I don’t know. This gets to a deeper conversation about the welfare state, and this is something where libertarianism has forced me to think hard, and I’m still working through it. Is Social Security a good thing? Well, I’ll be glad to take it.
Basically my position is—and this is where I part ways with libertarians, not in principle, but as a practical, utilitarian position—if the state is going to give me something, I’ll take it. If it’s a road or a bridge or a check in the mail, I’ll take it. The problem I have is the individual’s identification with the state, merging one’s identity with the state. That’s what I find to be dangerous.
That’s the problem with the left for me. That’s what I’m critiquing. And that’s what the New Deal was all about, culturally: getting the American people to merge their own identities with the nation-state.
reason: The one place where you make an argument that sort of parallels an argument for the welfare state is in the slavery chapter. You write that one difference between the slaves and someone who is supporting himself is that you have these things guaranteed to you by the slaveholder: free room and board and so on.
Russell: You’re really homing in on the stuff that’s the trickiest things for me to deal with, that almost no one else in the world would get. (laughs) I don’t want to defend either one—the welfare state or slavery. But my ideas about them are mixed.
reason: At one point you argue that it was fairly rare for slaveholders to sexually assault the women they owned or oversaw. The main part of that argument was all these texts in which they were admonished not to do so. But when I see so many admonitions not to do something, I start to suspect it’s something that did happen a lot—that that’s why people felt the need to keep proscribing it.
Russell: There’s absolutely no denying that it happened. And likewise there’s no denying at all that slaves were whipped. I put the evidence in for exactly how often they were whipped. But the major point I was making is certainly not that white slaveowners and overseers were nice guys and they avoided raping the women under their charge because they were benevolent. It’s because they had good reasons not to, and because slaves had much more power in that relationship than we were led to believe. If you rape a woman who takes care of your children, have you now increased the chances that she will poison your child? Yes, you have.
reason: Before we go any further, maybe you should give a quick summary of your argument about slavery.
Russell: The way I frame the stuff on slavery is with a critique of white repressive culture in the 19th century. This was the Victorian era. This is when the Protestant work ethic reigned supreme. Sexual repression took on almost comical dimensions.
This helps explain why blackface minstrelsy was the most popular form of entertainment through the 19th century and into the 20th. It was not just anti-black racism; it was not just an expression of hatred. It was certainly an expression of resentment at times, but resentment comes from envy. I’m not the first historian to say this.
reason: I think you are the first one to say the envy was in some sense justified.
Russell: Yes, I’m the first one to put together those two arguments.
reason: I think there’s unquestionably a big strain of envy in a lot of the minstrel songs. But the usual interpretation is that the audience is admiring an imagined world, not plantation lives as they were actually led.
Russell: Most people are not even that sophisticated. The vast majority of Americans think that black minstrelsy was simply derogatory and anti-black. And then the more sophisticated layer, which is the minority, says what you just said: that it was all made up, that it was pornography.
But since Eugene Genovese, dozens of scholars of slavery have shown that the slaves, in general, were far more liberated culturally than whites were. The Protestant work ethic is the idea that work is godly regardless of what you gain from it—not that you should work to gain money in order to spend it, but that one should work no matter what one gains from it, that it is virtuous in itself. That’s a European invention. It was not invented in West Africa. There’s no evidence it was a prominent part of any culture in West Africa. No one disputes that. And when West Africans were brought here and put into slave quarters, they had absolutely no incentive to adopt it. On top of that, no one tried to proselytize among them in terms of the work ethic, because they were considered to be a waste of time. They were considered incapable of adopting the work ethic, because they were considered to be savages.
Well, that has a very positive unintended consequence of allowing a particular class of people to live without believing that working from dawn to dusk every single day is the way to live. Is it any surprise that a music that is improvisation, that is breaking through very tight structural barriers in European classical music, namely blues and jazz and rock and rhythm ’n’ blues and hip-hop—is there any wonder why that came from such a people?
reason: In a more modern context, when Norman Mailer writes an essay like “The White Negro” or when a Jack Kerouac narrator declares he’s “wishing I were a Negro,” it comes across as patronizing.
Russell: James Baldwin’s criticism of Mailer, and the general criticism of those people, is correct in part, in that there is no question whatsoever that they reduce black culture to those elements. It’s absolutely reductive. No human being simply dances and sings all day long, all the time.
What the critics miss is that dancing and singing might be good things. If there is a more pronounced tendency toward things like dancing and singing and leisure, why must we consider that to be negative? Why must we be ashamed of it?
reason: You write, “On nearly every block in every eighteenth-century American city, there was a public place where one could drink, sing, dance, have sex, argue politics, gamble, play games, or generally carouse with men, women, children, whites, blacks, Indians, the rich, the poor, and the middling.” Could you describe how the Founders reacted to this kind of activity?
Russell: They were so horrified that several of them at times during the war wished for a British victory. They believed that a British victory would force Americans to discipline themselves.
reason: You also make the argument that they believed democracy would force Americans to discipline themselves.
Russell: That’s the bigger argument. That’s the major argument. The Founders argued that democracy requires what they called virtue, which is really a system of self-discipline, self-sacrifice, social order.
There must be discipline in order to run a place, and when you give sovereignty to the people, that means the people must be disciplined. Every one of the Founders made this argument, and I think they’re absolutely correct. Prison is for people who don’t undertake what Martin Luther King called the “process of self-purification,” the people who are unwilling or unable to be virtuous. In a democracy, external coercion takes place when people are unwilling to participate in the project.
reason: But it’s not just a matter of police and prisons. There’s a debate within democracies as to what virtues need to be imposed at the end of a gun, what virtues arise through the requirements of a market economy, and what virtues should be generated through other segments of civil society. I don’t want to make a grand claim that the United States is in all respects looser today than it was in the founding era, but it’s clear that a lot of things that would have been considered extremely nonvirtuous then are now accepted without having an effect on the fact that we are on some level a democratic society.
Russell: Yes. That’s for the better.
reason: I agree it’s for the better, but how far do you take your critique of democracy in light of that?
Russell: There’s a constant tension. That’s how I view history, by looking at that tension between virtue and nonvirtue in a democracy. Those who spend their time fornicating and doing drugs and drinking and slacking off are not being democratic citizens. That’s where we are less democratic, but that’s a good thing.
The socialists have always said that socialism is the purest expression of democracy, and I think they’re correct. But that also is totalitarian, in my view. And it’s also just a lot of work. You work in the factory for eight hours, and then you have to manage the factory for the next eight hours, and then you have to manage your city block and your city and the country and the fucking world? When exactly do we rest in pure democracy?
reason: So what is your alternative? Is that an argument for a constitutionally limited democracy? Do you have an anarchist streak? Or do you just react to the situation you’re in without proposing a grander political system?
Russell: The last one. I embrace the tension, and I take the side of the renegades—until they’re on the verge of taking over.
reason: You had that bit at the beginning where you say you don’t “advocate a renegade revolution” because “it would be a living hell. No one would be safe on the streets, chaos would reign, and garbage would never be collected.”
Russell: Foucault contrasts what he calls “the regime of blood,” which is monarchy, slavery, external control, and what he calls “the regime of sex,” which is modern republican democracy in which everyone is brought together and power flows through them and everyone participates willingly. There’s a great moment where he suggests that those people who live in “the shade”—meaning in the shade from power—have more freedom. And he very strongly suggests that those who live in a regime of blood, like peasants and slaves, live almost entirely in the shade, because they’re not participating.