U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Eric Foner and Staughton Lynd: “Usable Past” Reconsidered (Guest Post by Jesse Lemisch)

[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.

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. My piece was short, taking up a page and a half. Here it is:

Who Will Write a Left History of Art While We Are All Putting Our Balls on the Line?

There is a consensus in the conference that the movement needs some of the information which intellectuals—both inside and outside of the university—can provide. I share that consensus, know how important that need is, and have tried in the classroom—within the limits of what is permissible without trampling on the rights of non-left students—to interest students in doing some of that research. I have done some of it myself. Clearly there is a tremendous need for that kind of information.

My question is this: What is going to be your attitude towards intellectuals who call themselves Left but whose work has no immediate or even apparent long-term usefulness to the movement? Louis Kampf tells me that a man doing research on 12th century trade patterns would better use his time in contemporary activism. The idea that historians should meet as a group to ask each other what it means to be a radical historian was put down as “chit-chat” and alien to the spirit of the conference, one of whose aims, I have been told repeatedly, is to break down the lines between the disciplines. Here in the land of Robert Hutchins, I don’t believe that breaking down the lines between the disciplines is necessarily a radical idea; I am prepared to argue that it is the reverse of radical. We have heard much talk, to use the current male chauvinist term, of putting “our balls on the line.” We have been told that where it’s at, baby, is not in the ivory tower but in slashing professors’ tires, which seems to include all professors who do not adjust their research to the needs of the movement. Now I have plenty of reason myself to dislike professors, and I think that most of the work that they are currently doing in all fields is trivial. But I do not dislike scholarship. I think that the idea of finding out how things actually work and have worked is an extremely radical idea. I do not share Staughton’s disdain for truth-seeking. Thus I think that if we have a Left historian who wants to work on 12th century trade patterns we should not be telling him to research the local power structure.

I wonder who is going to write a Marxist history of art in America? What if the movement is wrong? As Staughton pointed out, it has been wrong many times. It is dead wrong about women; here, in its most noticeable blind spot, it simply shares the larger society’s disdain for humanity and human rights. If the movement is wrong on this and other matters, will the movement’s intellectuals have served it well by responding to its “needs” or would they have served it better by saying, with Tom Paine, that it is possible to master the world through reason, that disciplined thought is an indispensable part of making a better world? And what kind of an enduring Left will we have in this country if Left intellectuals feel that they have to apologize for leaving the picket line to go back to the ivory tower to write a Marxist history of art?

Staughton asks, What has scholarship contributed to activism and social change? Another historian has asked another very tough question: What has activism contributed to social change recently? I don’t know the answer to either question. Neither does Staughton. To ask the question, What has scholarship contributed to social change?, is not to answer it. As long as we keep telling our scholars that scholarship is not where it’s at, baby, we will never have an answer to Staughton’s question.[2]

In a certain sense, my piece turned out to be somewhat prophetic: NUC became a tail on the anti-war movement and died in 4 or 5 years: you can’t get very far in organizing people around guilt, shame and contempt for the work that they have dedicated their lives to (John McMillian has written about NUC’s “peculiar ethic of self-flagellation.”[3]). I later wrote that Staughton’s idea “fit nicely with the tsunami of guilt then passing through movement people in academe (‘We’re not where it’s at; ‘We’re irrelevant to the Struggle’).”  Staughton further developed his thinking over the years, reducing the role of the intellectual to that of “accompanying” movements. Of this idea, I have written that this is an “abandonment of the historian’s critical responsibility.”[4]

In my leaflet, I suggested that a proper agenda for Left historians should include using our skills to become critical voices within the Movement. I pointed out that movements are sometimes wrong, and that it was wrong at that time about women: “take her off the stage and fuck her” was a common cry at SDS events when women tried to speak. Certainly such a movement called for criticism. I wrote, “What if the movement is wrong? It is dead wrong about women; here, in its most noticeable blind spot, it simply shares the larger society’s disdain for humanity and human rights.”

Those things in the past that seem “relevant” to today and tomorrow, may turn out to be a dead end, blind alleys.

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.”

______________________________________

[1] For the call to the conference, see Mitchell Goodman, ed., The Movement Towards a New America (New York, 1970), p. 711.

[2] For the piece to which I was responding, see Lynd, “Intellectuals, the University, and the Movement.” The Journal of American History 76, no. 2 (1989): 479-85.

[3] McMillian, “Love Letters to the Future: REP, Radical America, and New Left History,” Radical History Review 77 (2000).

[4] [Lemisch, “2.5 Cheers for Bridging the Gap Between Activism and the Academy; or, Stay and Fight,” in Jim Downs and Jennifer Manion,eds., Taking Back the Academy! History of Activism, History as Activism (New York, 2004).

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m glad USIH put this up. And grateful to Ben Alpers for struggling though the poorly formatted draft that I had sent him. But along the way, some things that I inserted, beyond the piece as originally submitted, didn’t make it through. The missing material includes a fuller conclusion and a few other changes.

    Staughton’s 1968 NUC talk and my “Who Will Write a Left History of Art While We are Putting Our Balls on the Line?” are accessible as reprinted in the Journal of American History in 1989.

    Please substitute the following for my conclusion:

    Those things in the past that seem “relevant” to today and tomorrow, may turn out to be a dead end, blind alleys.

    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.”

    Instead of accusing my critics of anti-Semitism ;-). Substitute “Don’t we New Left Historians all look the same?”
    =========================================
    H

  2. Thanks for this post. I broadly agree. I would think that any scholarship that seeks to understand a society at a given time and place is “useable,” insofar as there’s no knowledge that can’t help us think about a society we would like to build. Even if it wasn’t, it doesn’t offend me that some people are into the archives say, solely for the archives.

    But from my perspective as a underemployed PhD, I’ve seen and watched how the academy and majority of faculty within it have responded to the privatization of the university. To me, their decisions and actions on this front are what is important. I could see how in the late 60s, academics could feel like they were not on the front lines; but nowadays, the university, as with the whole idea of public education, is very much on the front lines, and there has been countless opportunities for faculty within the humanities to participate in meaningful social struggle precisely *in their capacity as professors,* regardless of what their scholarship concerns. By and large, however, they’ve pretty much sucked at this. For leftist academics of my generation, *this* is where the big disappointment lies.

    Of course if you are a conservative scholar and declare yourself to be well, ok; what can one say to you? But what does generate a dynamic of radicalizing disillusionment — for all of you wondering where this much talked about anti-liberalism comes from, here’s at least one source — is to begin graduate school with seminars where we are taught about structures of racism, sexism, and power, only to watch over the years our teachers and mentors fail, sometimes spectacularly, at standing up in the real here and now against racism, sexism, and inequality. The kids are just never doing it right; there’s always an excuse.

    Study whatever you are passionate about, for whatever reason, by all means; but if you claim to be in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized, please like, actually be so. For me at least, that’s much more “usable” than a “usable past” narrowly defined!

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