History’s Forbidden Truths
by Anthony Gregory: Lies
Are the Health of the State
Renegade History of the United States (New York: Free Press,
2010), 382 pages.
At the risk
of oversimplifying, we could divide American leftist historical
scholarship into two basic strains. Both have historiographical
origins in progressivism and attempt to speak for the downtrodden
and for the common people, to amplify the voice of those allegedly
silenced by conservative institutions. But they part ways in their
interpretation of where this voice is to be found.
For the more
boring, dominant and conventional leftists, the savior of mankind,
the equalizer of social disparities, is in formal leftist institutions
– unions, left-leaning political parties, mass political movements
directed by great leaders who sought to integrate minorities into
mainstream culture, and especially the federal government. Thus
Lincoln addressed America’s original sin of slavery; Teddy Roosevelt
and Woodrow Wilson, while imperfect, took working conditions seriously;
the suffragettes and official Civil Rights movement are history’s
great engines of political, racial and gender equality – a yet-to-be-won
battle, but a much fairer fight thanks to marches on Washington
and federal legislation. Franklin Roosevelt, despite some flaws,
gave "economic democracy" a real chance for once. The
Great Society brought the United States a step closer to the bare
standard of modern civilization, to be found in the administration
of democratic socialism. Obama represents the last of this narrative,
which is why even most antiwar leftist intellectuals can’t bring
themselves to despise him as they did George W. Bush.
But then there
is the more interesting, the less typical, and the more illuminating
strain of American leftist scholarship – the tradition that goes
back to progressives who had some classical liberal impulses, like
Henry Elmer Barnes, and that came of age in the 1960s through such
refreshing New Leftist historians as Gabriel Kolko. While he dabbled
in both schools of thought, the late Howard Zinn, venerated hero
of college and high school students nationwide, was, at his best,
an example of this more radical interpretive impulse: to see large
institutions, especially the state and most particularly its warfare
organs, as enemies of the common good. Militarism and imperialism
should not be given a free pass, even if sold in the name of globalizing
human rights. Economic regulation should be seen, not as egalitarian
blessings, but more often as tools of the corporate establishment
to consolidate its own power. Just as important, in the realm of
cultural history, progress is not made for the disenfranchised mainly
by unions, bureaucracies, do-gooder social workers and agitators,
much less the federal government – but by individuals themselves,
working within their communities, defending their rights, asserting
their dignity, pursuing their interests, and creating alternative
networks of economic and social progress that lie outside of Washington’s
accepted avenues. This is a tradition of leftist scholarship that
is most fascinating, and certainly of most use to those of us who
aim to defend individual liberty.
In our time,
no historian better encapsulates this interpretive radicalism than
Thaddeus Russell. His A Renegade History of the United States
is gold. It is provocative, idiosyncratic and iconoclastic.
It does not balk at violating the gospels of political correctness,
even as it shatters every conservative myth of American history
that rightwing authors, seeing themselves as rebels against left-liberal
academia, cling to. While libertarians might find some or even much
disagreeable, they cannot help but walk away from this book with
a somewhat different outlook on history.
Fathers are the first official heroes targeted, appropriate in both
chronological terms and in considering the civic mythology of the
United States. And so who were the true heroes? According to Russell,
it was the rabble. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Sam Adams, John
Jay and the rest of them looked upon the common American people,
populating Philadelphia where they were holding their conspiratorial
meetings, as "vicious," "vile" and otherwise
unsavory folk. "But what the Founding Fathers called corruption,
depravity, viciousness, and vice, many of us would call freedom"
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. The Founding Fathers were keenly, painfully aware
of this" (p. 5). Places of inebriation were especially progressive
in their social politics. "Lower-class taverns were the first
racially integrated public spaces in America" (p. 9). But despite
these virtues, the Founders saw such freedom as the enemy. "There
was virtually no moral or legal proscription against drinking until
after the War of Independence" (p. 7) but fuddy-duddies like
Ben Franklin were unhappy with this libertarian status quo: "During
the Sugar Act crisis, [he] and other prominent Pennsylvanians repeatedly
and fruitlessly petitioned the colonial government to take action
against taverns and drinking" (p. 25). These prohibitionist
gestures were but the beginning, for the respectable classes continued
to push for temperance, many of them hoping the war would force
it upon the people. "In 1784, Benjamin Rush, America’s founding
doctor, published An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors,
which became one of the most important of the Founding Fathers’
many antipleasure manifestos during the early national period"
(p. 30). This founding generation’s movement lasted throughout the
19th century and eventually culminated in the authoritarian
and disastrous 18th Amendment.
But is it an
exaggeration to call the drunken American people the real heroes?
"As we already know, the first violence in the conflict occurred
in Boston in 1770, when drunkards, ruffians, and gamblers tumbled
out of taverns to curse, throw rubbish and horse manure, and assault
British soldiers" (p. 26). Today’s conservatives cheer the
American patriots who sparked and fought the American Revolution.
But should such a revolution happen again, who doubts they would
be cheering the modern analog of the redcoats, as they subdued the
crowd with teargas, batons and riot guns? Who doubts they would
have sided with King George’s soldiers?
that some of the Founders even saw commerce itself as a "bane
of patriotism" (p. 29). In defending the market against confusion
on the left and disingenuous defenses on the right, Russell writes:
on the conservative side of the political spectrum like to make
the founders into champions of a free-market economy, while many
on the left claim that they were simply the tools of the rising
merchant class. Neither of these sides understands that the market
economy has always been a friend of the renegades and an enemy
of moral guardians (p. 37).
If by "moral
guardians" we mean the hypocritical social conservatives who
wish to trample liberty to maintain their vision of social order,
libertarians must agree.
State Save American Minorities?
If the cult
of the Founding Fathers is a touchy subject for every American rightwinger,
the role of government and conventional political activism as the
alleged saviors of African-Americans is an issue where practically
the entire American left cannot countenance rational discussion.
Russell deserves special recognition for his willingness to question
this sacred history.
story is that blacks were enslaved, mostly in the South; Lincoln
freed them; but it was not until a century later (if it happened
at all) that blacks began to gain true equality, and this was again
thanks to the federal government and the nationalization of Civil
Rights. But the true heroes of black liberation, Russell argues,
have always been blacks themselves – and not typically ones in suits
giving sermons and speeches, appealing to politicians and effecting
legislation. It has always been the ones disenfranchised, seizing
what liberty they could and declaring their dignity, who have made
the most difference.
way that slaves rebelled on a day-to-day basis was by minimizing
how much work they did. This later became warped into an insult
of black Americans for being lazy, but on the plantation, refusal
to work more than was absolutely necessary, and carving out leisure
time, were heroic acts of resistance.
Russell also shows how the supposedly free American whites in the
early 19th century also suffered under the lash. The
cruelty of violence against slaves, while in a special category
of its own, in fact shared some similarity with what "free"
Americans were subjected to in early America under the criminal
whites, severe physical punishment, including death, at the hands
of authorities was a common occurrence. During the colonial period,
not only murder and rape but also arson, adultery, buggery, and
witchcraft were punishable by death. In eighteenth-century Virginia,
a first conviction for hog stealing brought twenty-five lashes.
. . . The third offense sent one to the gallos. In Massachusetts,
first-time burglars were branded on the forehead. . . . a third
offense made one. . . subject to death. All of the colonies ordered
whipping, branding, and other forms of bodily mutilation for crimes
such as breaking the Sabbath, petty larceny, and sedition. (p.
Thus the peculiar
institution of slavery, while undeniably subjecting a whole race
of Americans to a perpetual state of cruelty and injustice, was
not as distinct in terms of punishment and physical violence as
many might suspect. So long as America has had governments – which
is to say, since the Founding of the country – there has been punishment,
including for non-crimes, that was on par with the punishment meted
out by slaveowners. Russell astutely challenges the commonly assumed
idea that private slavery is intrinsically and unquestionably more
inhumane than public sector discipline.
Many who opposed
the institution of slavery – although they were doubtlessly correct
on this matter of unparalleled importance – "were also opponents
of freedom" (p. 62). "Of particular concern to the abolitionists
was the sexual freedom of slaves" (p. 63). The general worry
was that slave culture bred imprudence and lasciviousness. But Russell
sees slaves’ escaping from the dominant conservative values as something
of a virtue in itself.
goes so far as to question the image of a slave as a completely
helpless victim of his master. For example, "While no laws
protected the slave from a rapist, masters and overseers had many
reasons not to force themselves on enslaved women. For one, such
attacks almost inevitably brought reprisals from the victims, their
mates, the attacker’s wife, or the surrounding community" (p.
67). Government did virtually nothing to protect slaves, of course,
but the slaves themselves fought back with what they had. As for
the particularly horrendous evil of families being broken up – one
of the most brutal aspects of slavery – the author finds that the
number of families so disrupted "is certainly smaller than
the number of free people who were forced from their homes"
by such governmental cruelties as the "War of Independence,
the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War"
(p. 69). Slavery was an unspeakable evil, supported until the bitter
end by the government at all levels. But even without the participation
of plantation owners, the government has always been capable of
such extreme crimes against humanity.
black Americans continued to face extreme institutional and socially
maintained hardships, which is regularly recognized. But Russell
takes on Reconstruction itself, describing the Freedman Bureau as
an agency concerned with indoctrinating freed blacks and turning
them into good, hardworking citizens, as much as it was inclined
toward giving them a simple hand up. One typical piece of propaganda,
a story of recently emancipated slave John Freeman, has "a
Yankee lieutenant" handing down the federal lesson: "You
have come out from your bondage, my friends, to enjoy the blessings
of freedom, and have put yourselves under the protection of the
United States government. . . But, if you come to this flag for
protection, you have to do service for the flag" (p. 81).
W.E.B. DuBois, Russell writes that "slaves created a uniquely
liberated culture that valued pleasure over work and freedom over
conformity" (p. 99). Much of the Reconstructionist project
was about stamping out that value of freedom and instituting conformity.
The state was actively attempting to wipe out elements of African-American
culture, many of them not just understandable or admirable, but
ultimately enriching to America. "If Reconstruction had been
fully realized," Russell concludes, "many of the freedoms
and joys given to us by the slaves would have been taken away. If
the freedmen had been made into citizens, there would be no jazz"
in the book, Russell grapples with the 20th Century Civil
Rights movement. He characterizes it, by the chapter’s title, as
at least in part being an "attack on African Americans"
(p. 295). What does he mean by this? He cites condemnations of black
culture by Martin Luther King, Jr., who attacked blacks for being
lustful and violent and for listening to music that "plunges
men’s minds into degrading and moral depths." Many lesser known
Civil Rights leaders are shown for all their puritan authoritarianism
and desire to control black Americans in their voluntary behavior.
Moreover, many movement leaders were whites attempting to force
blacks to conform to a nationally accepted conception of citizenship
But black Americans
had, by and large, been heroic in at least some of their refusal
to abide by white cultural norms. For example, "Draft evasion
as well as insubordination against commanding officers in the military
remained far greater among African Americans than among whites from
the two world wars through the Korean and Vietnam wars" (p.
305). This tendency to reject arbitrary and immoral authority is
undeniably a positive cultural trait. This tied in to a tendency
to want to defend individual and community diversity in a true sense,
rather than national identity. Russell writes:
civil rights movement sought not just desegregation, not just
access to space and to the privileges of whites, but integration,
which for King and the leaders of the civil rights movement, meant
the complete merger of the races. . . . But what is missing from
the narratives of the desegregation of Birmingham is the majority
of black people in the city, namely those who did not participate
in the movement. (p. 316)
was more characterized with fights against the police, in direct
"defense of autonomy" and liberty – rather than integration
with the nation-state’s majoritarian conception of society. Some
of this violence was also directed against civilians, and not all
of it was strictly justified on libertarian grounds – but much of
it was, in defense of person and property. We rarely hear about
this movement of anti-racist resistance, because it was directed
against the establishment from below, rather than imposed above
from Washington, and because it sought freedom rather than integration
as a principal value.
minorities in America are treated with chapters in Renegade History.
In each case, we learn about a white minority that at one time was
more associated with blacks only later to be assimilated into American
WASPish culture – the Irish, the Jews and the Italians. The Irish,
one of the most persecuted of the European races in American history,
are "now rarely even considered as ‘ethnics,’" although
at one time they were regarded in approximately the same way blacks
were. They also share with blacks an important role in developing
jazz music and culture. They furthermore created dozens and dozens
of slang terms and everyday words, likely including everything from
"brisk," "feud" and "swoon" all the
way to "pet," "racket" and "jackpot."
were seen as ethnic outsiders, far more than today, and they used
to dominate in jazz, basketball and boxing. And Italian immigrants
"settled in neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans
that were populated by African Americans, and many shared tenement
buildings, workplaces, and recreational facilities with blacks"
(p. 186). And of course, before their image was that of crooners,
Italian-Americans were seen as the first example of modern gangsta
culture. A whole chapter in Renegade History is dedicated
to how Italian and Jewish gangsters benefited American society with
huge contributions in bar culture, gambling and film.
are celebrated. But, as with the other sections, we are not treated
to hagiographies of the usual textbook heroines that made groundbreaking
strides in politics or brought the vote to women. A controversial
chapter, sure to earn the resentment of social conservatives and
many feminists alike, looks at prostitution in the Wild West, a
business that empowered women, often at the very top of the industry
– women who became some of the richest Americans around, who undermined
social controls and readily defended themselves and their property
with firearms. The right to bear arms gets a consistent implicit
defense throughout Renegade History.
and the Awful New Deal
cause of celebration in a leftist historical work is commercialism,
and here Russell masterfully weaves it together with women’s liberation.
Taking on the Progressives of the early 20th century,
and their counterparts today, the historian cheers on the boom of
shopping – "the real American Revolution." There is nothing
wrong with the masses being able to consume a lot, despite what
the ascetic anti-capitalists will say. "Opposition to shopping
grew especially severe during World war I, when bourgeois disgust
over the new working-class culture took the form of well-organized
campaigns against drinking, prostitution, and venereal disease,
and in the moral condemnation of working-class spending habits"
(p. 214). Single women and men began to mingle as never before.
Governments responded with crackdowns on subversive dance styles.
Feminist leaders were often at the forefront, condemning the free-spirited
women. "When feminists spoke of ‘freedom’ for women, they did
not mean the freedom of desire" (p. 221).
If not for
this principally female-driven consumer revolution – a revolution
that spat in the face of progressives and most official feminists
– "Coney Island and American amusement parks as we know them
would not have existed." Everything from modern dancing to
grocery stores would have never sprung up. "The generation
of working-class women who drove the American revolution of leisure
and pleasure. . . broke through the common belief that women seeking
pleasure in public spaces were immoral and degenerate. . . . They
created the weekend. . . . Against all odds, they created American
fun" (p. 228).
is willing to revere the uncommonly celebrated elements of American
social development, he is equally willing to question the events
that are almost always put on a pedestal. His chapters on the New
Deal and World War II, in particular, demonstrate a very sharp and
unusual willingness to take on the conventional wisdom.
is called "‘Behold a Dictator’: Fascism and the New Deal."
The chapter is worthy of its title. In one of the best summary treatments
I’ve seen on the similarities and even intimate connections between
the New Deal and fascism, Russell has written a short masterpiece
of radical leftist anti-statism. He does not cite the usual libertarian
and Old Right authors. Nevertheless, Russell compellingly explains
why it is "absurd to ignore, as all our textbooks do, the fact
that the New Deal and European fascism grew from the same ideological
roots, produced strikingly similar policies, and fostered national
cultures that, if not identical, bore the resemblance of siblings"
economic historian Robert Higgs, Russell finds precedents for the
New Deal in America’s World War I economic policies. But he also
finds a lot of similarity between the U.S. system and that of Italy
and Germany in the interwar period. The head of General Electric,
Gerard Swope, wrote the first draft of the National Industrial Recovery
Act, the crown jewel of the early New Deal, which "created
an economic system that was virtually identical to the national
economies established in Italy and Germany, and further consolidated
power in the hands of the president" (p. 245). The similarities
were not lost on American commentators: "George Soule, the
editor of the New Republic, wrote, "We are trying out
the economics of Fascism without having suffered all its social
and political ravages’" (p. 243).
the New Deal was created," writes Russell, "few of its
supporters in the United States were as effusive in their praise
as were German and Italian Fascists." And the commonality among
the systems was clear:
The New Dealers,
Mussolini, and Hitler were united in the belief that the conditions
of the working class had to be greatly improved. The Fascist and
Nazi regimes outlawed trade unions, but they worked hard to make
factories safer, cleaner, and more pleasant workplaces, and also
provided subsidized housing, low-cost vacations, and sports programs
to millions of German workers. . . . The Nazis instituted a full
employment program. . . . (p. 254)
the similarities to not extend to areas of civil liberties? In fact,
Russell shows how the New Deal was a time of increased censorship
in film – through the Hays code and the near-purging of Jewish identity
from Hollywood pictures throughout the 1930s – as well as governmental
social control over family life. Perhaps most ominously, "racial
purity was a prominent theme in New Deal culture," which made
sense given that "American eugenics and the New Deal were both
progeny of the progressives. . . . [M]ore sterilizations took place
during the New Deal than at any other time in American history."
Given all this, Russell concludes that "the New Deal and Fascism
went to war not over ideas or values or a way of life. Rather, it
seems, the war was a struggle between brothers for control of the
world family (pp. 268–70).
As for that
war, Russell questions the unchallenged and pervasive assumption
that World War II was virtually invincible in its popularity. Indeed,
it was especially unpopular among the disenfranchised. Despite politically
correct tales of how black Americans gallantly fought in the war,
such history books "ignore the fact that African Americans
comprised 35 percent of the nation’s delinquent draft registrants
and more than 18 percent of those imprisoned for draft evasions"
(p. 271). Thousands of Americans were jailed for not wanting to
fight. Japanese-Americans were not particularly thrilled to be corralled
into concentration camps. As to the common workers who were supposedly
blessed by the wartime "prosperity":
of Price Administration, which had been created during the war
to control inflation, and the War Production Board, set strict
limits on wages in most industries. Many workers made less per
hour than they would have without the controls, since the labor
market was so tight. Because of this, but also because of the
strict discipline that had been instituted in the war industries,
including mandatory overtime, there were more than fourteen thousand
strikes involving more than six million workers during the war.
Most of these strikers were in defense industries (pp. 276–7).
We often hear
about labor acting up and striking in the early 20th
century, but rarely do we hear about these fourteen thousand
strikes during the supposedly wonderful days of World War II.
Russell celebrates the liberalization of culture, especially for
gays, that came as an unintended result of World War II – but finds
very little other reason to call it a "war for freedom."
continues into his analysis of recent American history. He credits
"juvenile delinquents" with winning the Cold War. As much
as conservative American anti-communists hated rock ‘n roll, the
Commies actually hated it much more. In the 1950s, youth from East
Berlin crossed the border to watch Hollywood films, inspiring them
to demand more cultural liberty. In the Eastern Bloc, "the
introduction of reel-to-reel tape recorders in the 1960s helped
create a vast underground culture of fans of rock, rhythm and blues,
and later disco and hop-hop" and "by the 1970s, desire
for music frequently turned to hatred for the Communist regime.
Riots broke out at several rock concerts" (p. 293). "When
the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, East Germans flooded West Berlin
record shops" (p. 294). But youthful rockers get little credit
for undermining communism, because, as Russell suspects, "leaders
of all political varieties – from the American presidents to Communist
commissars – share a devotion to social order and are therefore
natural enemies of renegades" (p. 294).
gay rights, Russell takes the unusual position that gay marriage
and other attempts to integrate gays into heterosexual culture are
counterproductive in a sense, that "Today’s movement for gay
marriage. . . ended gay liberation, is helping to end straight liberation,
and seeks to return all of us to the 1950s" (p. 331). Instead,
he cheers on the legacy of the Stonewall rioters, who in 1969 in
Greenwich Village fought for their right to be left alone. Rather
than seeking acceptance or equal political privilege, they sought
only to defend their rights and private property against the police
In his final
chapter, transcending the typical culture-war nonsense, Russell
casts a similar interpretive eye upon hippie and redneck culture,
demonstrating especially their similarities in being devoted to
the work ethic as a first principle. For those skeptical of this,
the author reminds us of how devoted hippies are on their communes
to work, almost as an ascetic end in itself.
state's encroachments on our lives means undermining its lies –
especially about history. The establishment thrives on the historical
propaganda taught in schools, advanced at universities, distributed
uncritically in the texts, adopted by the media and propagated by
all the conventional thinkers, left and right. Thaddeus Russell's
A Renegade History of the United States scrutinizes the unquestioned
narratives and raises neglected, often uncomfortable, truths about
America's past. It smashes through the mainstream myths spewed by
court intellectuals who offer a sugarcoated, oversimplified and
dangerous vision of our nation, its founding, its wars, its legacies
in economic central planning, its social crusades and cultural history.
History is not a typical tract in praise of the free market
or the Randian heroes throughout the U.S. experience. Indeed, there
is a clear tension between Russell’s belief that American conceptions
of liberty and self-restraint are all-too-compatible, and the paleolibertarian
respect for self-restraint as a possibly important, and not necessarily
undesirable, component of a free society. But this disagreement
on values does not negate the wealth of information and explanatory
power in Russell’s interpretation. Here we have a book that celebrates
individual freedom against the state, community and self-determination
against coercively maintained nationalist identity, peace and commerce
instead of war, freedom of association rather than mandatory integration,
voluntary commercialism for the pleasure of the masses rather than
corporatism or progressive asceticism for the sake of the nation-state.
It is far more compatible with libertarian philosophy than the more
typical tracts from the left, far more interesting and radical than
almost anything you’ll find on the right, and even more illuminating
than what our closer allies produce in the way of cultural history.
It is difficult if not impossible to read this book and not come
away looking at America a bit differently.
Gregory [send him mail]
is a research analyst at the Independent
lives in Oakland, California. See his
webpage for more articles and personal information.
© 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.
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