Thaddeus Russell’s Right-Wing Libertarian Historical Revisionism

Thaddeus Russell, a putative historian, may win the prize for the most ridiculous US and labor historical revisionism.

The right-wing libertarian ideologue spoke on his “Renegade History of the United States” thesis at the 2013 New Hampshire Liberty Forum. Delivered to, unsurprisingly, what looks like a 100% white and almost exclusively male audience, his lecture is rife with truly jaw-dropping ridiculousness.

Russell’s primary points?

  • He argues many workers have the weekend off in the US not because countless workers, leftists, and labor organizers fought and died for it, but rather because lazy drunkards simply refused to show up for work.
  • In completely backward history, Russell insists that people work so many hours in the US (more than in other comparable industrialized nations) because of the “Protestant work ethic,” not because capitalists force them to work as much as possible to maximize profit, justifying it using the bourgeois “Protestant work ethic”—an ethic that is much more a product of economics than it is religion or culture.
  • He argues France has a shorter working day than the US because it supposedly doesn’t have a legacy of puritanism and the “Protestant work ethic,” not because of a history of strong leftist movements and labor organizing.

The list goes on.

His analysis of history almost entirely lacks a critical materialist perspective, preferring mostly idealist nonsense. It is laughably shallow.

Russell argues that injustices were overcome not by years and years of organizing, struggle, and sacrifice but essentially by sheer happenstance.

His approach is largely anecdotal. It reminds one of how, in whitewashed high school history classes, students are taught that, one random day, Rosa Parks unwittingly “sparked” the civil rights movement with a single brave action, thereby erasing the myriad people who suffered and died before her in order to set the stage necessary for the movement to begin—not to mention the fact that Parks had already been a committed feminist, anti-racist, and socialist activist.

Defending Slavery, Smearing “Commie” Historians

This historical revisionist is a man who happily defends slavery, writing in the Huffington Post (emphasis mine)

I argued not only that many white Americans envied slaves but also that they did so for good reason, since slave culture offered many liberating alternatives to the highly repressive, work-obsessed, anti-sex culture of the early United States. I demonstrated that prostitutes, not feminists, won virtually all the freedoms that were denied to women but are now taken for granted.

Romanticizing slavery? Peak right-wing libertarian white male has officially been reached.

What is perhaps worst of all is, in the HuffPost letter, “Why I Got Fired From Teaching American History,” Russell makes himself out to be some kind of martyr, as if he sacrificed his career for the “truth.” He insists all the “left-liberal” historians out there (a largely imaginary characterization, considering a good chunk of historians in academia are reactionaries) were throwing him—and his “groundbreaking” research that supposedly shows what really happened in history—under the bus in defense of their politics, not because his scholarship was frankly poor and unsubstantiated—yet alone because of his proudly “unprofessional,” vulgar, and “politically incorrect” (read: oppressive) attitude.

Once again, Russell, like so many a right-wing libertarian white male, likes to play the part of the honorable defender of “truth,” under attack, oppressed even, by the “politically correct” statist status quo.

It’s okay though, because Russell childishly writes off the work of “commie” historians simply by calling them that: “commie” historians.

I’m glad his intellectual approach has evolved so much beyond McCarthy’s. (I will hand it to him that at least he concedes that “Marxists aren’t always wrong”—probably because, were he to do so, his ridiculous scholarly reputation would be tarnished even more than it is today.)

Bashing Feminism, Embracing Lifestylism

A silver lining: Russell does raise some good points about how sex workers advanced women’s rights in many ways. But, of course, once again, like a typical right-wing libertarian white male (this characterization should be an cautionary acronym at this point, RLWM), he uses this fact to bash feminism, completely writing off the work of the feminists who spilled their blood for basic human dignity.

I am all for putting a stronger emphasis on the importance of the lumpenproletariat in history, but this is one of the most luxurious attempts at discrediting the labor movement, feminism, and more that I have ever seen.

Russell naturally concludes that, to solve the problems today, we just have to all be lifestylists, happily embracing insults like “lazy” and “prostitute,” calling ourselves “freedom fighters,” as we recklessly smoke dope on street corners (he conveniently forgets to mention that, although affluent white men might be able to do this, as soon as poor people of color smoke marijuana outside, they’ll get thrown in (privatized) prisons for years).

His argument, his “strategy,” reminds me of the nonsense Bookchin briefly flirted with with his puerile 1969 pamphlet “Listen, Marxist!“—albeit an even more absurd, right-wing perversion.

In Russell’s view, collective action is seen as synonymous with statism, so all we can rely on apparently is the rebellious libertarian white dudes to save us with their exercises in lifestylism. His philosophy is bourgeois liberal individualism at its finest.

A final note (largely of warning): This charlatan (a regular contributor to the neoliberal publication Reason) is teaching people—and at the prestigious New School and Columbia, of all places!