[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Jesse Lemisch, New Left historian and author of, among other things, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” “The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up,” and “On Active Service in War Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession.” He is also a longtime friend of S-USIH and of this blog. He has, in the past, written a number of guest posts for the blog, including, most recently “Naomi Weisstein: Psychology, Science, and Women’s Liberation.” This post has been updated at the author’s request. — Ben Alpers]
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.