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Jesse Lemisch says he is not and never has been a believer in a usable past

Historians in the News
tags: Jesse Lemisch



Jesse Lemisch is a historian.

Back in the Sixties (and again today), there was much talk about the duty of left historians to “serve the movement” and come up with a “usable past.” I disagreed. My side seems to have lost. Let me explain.

At various times, people have confused me with another New Left historian/activist, Staughton Lynd. (Here is a 2013 instance, in which David Greenberg is similarly confused.) Admiring Staughton as I do – yea, even revering him — I’m usually happy enough with that confusion. (Don’t we New Left Historians all look the same?). However: In the May 8/15 issue of The Nation, Richard Kreitner presents “A Usable Past: A Conversation on Politics & History with Eric Foner” Foner, whose important work I admire, says in passing:

The “usable past” is a term that became popular in the late 1960s. Howard Zinn used it; Jesse Lemisch used it. Radical historians began talking about it. I like the term because the past should be usable.


As far as I can recall, I never used the term, nor have I endorsed the idea, as did Howard Zinn, Staughton and others. The many-years-long friendly debate about this between Staughton and me goes back to the spring of 1968, when some of us (including people in our tiny University of Chicago left faculty group) organized what was to be the founding meeting of the New University Conference, an organization consisting at the beginning of Students for a Democratic Society alums who had become academics.[1] Guilt-ridden about being academics (and thus echoing the larger society’s belief that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach), the conference organizers invited Staughton to deliver a plenary speech, in which he pointed out that among the numerous noted Marxists who he named, going back to Marx Himself, “no one…put bread on his table by university teaching.” (The fact of the matter was that at the time Staughton was being turned down, on the basis of his politics, for 14 academic jobs in and around Chicago, so that getting out of academe was not for him a merely, er, academic matter). “To hope,” Staughton continued, “that upper middle-class white professors can have much illumination to shed upon black power – is intellectual hubris.” He conveyed disdain for “cloistered thought,” and he voiced rosy words that seem ironically prescient, in light of the plight of young historians trying today to put together a living from various fragments of jobs:

“Disgorge the bait of tenure, and the problem of making a living can solve itself year-by-year. Face the problem of livelihood as husband and wife, accepting the possibility that one of you sometimes the other, will be the main breadwinner, and you will have take a long step toward solution of the so-called woman question.”

Hearing Staughton’s talk, overnight I developed a leaflet for distribution at the conference the next day. Satirizing the sexist terminology then used in the male led Movement. the leaflet was headed, “Who Will Write a Left History of Art While We Are All Putting our Balls on the Line?” Shortly thereafter, the New England Free Press published a pamphlet consisting of Staughton’s speech and my response. Twenty-one years later the Journal of American History reprinted both pieces. ...

Beyond the historian’s critical role, I believed and continue to believe that the better society that we seek to build will include play and other things that may have no immediate relevance — a society that doesn’t reduce art, science, music, history, truth, etc. to the merely instrumental, one that provides room for the joy of those who practice these things, include those who take joy in doing history. I wrote, “I do not share Staughton’s disdain for truth-seeking.” History that seeks truth is a worthy endeavor and one that should be very much a part of our vision of the good society. So I see the pursuit of a “usable past” as perhaps a good thing, but also as a limiting goal. As I put it in “2.5 Cheers… “I can’t see much hope for an enduring left that lacks contact with art, science, truth, and beauty.” This idea is very much at odds with assigning historians to create a “usable past.” ...
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