The New Left’s Usable Past

Genovese, Eugene

Recently, the USIH blog has been debating what historians mean by “a usable past,” and whether that concept is, well, useful. It reminded me of a clash of views from fifty years ago, which has always struck me as a defining expression of the tension at the heart of the New Left, and perhaps the historical enterprise itself: Eugene Genovese’s argument with Staughton Lynd.

In Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, Lynd gave a provocative summary of his goals. “I am less interested in eighteenth-century radicalism than in twentieth-century radicalism. […] The characteristic concepts of the existential radicalism of today have a long and honourable history. Acquaintance with that history may help in sharpening intellectual tools for the work of tomorrow.”[1] He was, in other words, presenting a usable past; not a false one, but one constructed for the purpose of the present.

Genovese’s verdict was equally blunt. “The book is, therefore, not history at all… but a political testament with historical references added to establish a pedigree.” Genovese ridiculed Lynd’s selective attempt to construct a radical tradition, and his ‘moralistic version of radical doctrine.” The New Left’s signal aim was to overthrow the “economic determinism” of the Old, its “glorification of the lower classes, and [its] self-defeating tendency to read the past according to the political demands of the moment.” Lynd himself, though, “might more properly be placed in the tradition being overthrown.”[2]

When I first read Lynd’s book, I was fired up by the bravery of his commitment to the present; his desire to use the past for the purpose of the future; I wanted to declare with him, “freedom must mean freedom now.”[3] Some years later, I find a lot more wisdom in Genovese’s critique. Where his argument connects with the thrust of the USIH debate (as I make it out), and where I think he’s especially right, is here: for left historiography to focus on finding and celebrating exemplars of resistance is a bad use of its energy, and often the way those exemplars are presented is misleading and, ultimately, unhelpful.

But notice that no one in this debate—not even Genovese—is saying history isn’t or shouldn’t be part of our present struggle. Nobody wants a useless past. The question is how to use it. For Genovese, what was useful in Lynd’s work was where “he begins to discuss class positions as a complex mixture of material interests, ideologies, and psychological attitudes,” where he “comes close to… a sophisticated class analysis of historical change.”[4] He wanted less inspiration and more information: that is, not knowledge for its own sake (there’s no such thing), but tools for understanding the structures within and against which we struggle.

Resistance and radical thought aren’t useless objects of study: they too helped make the world what it is. Genovese’s masterpiece, Roll Jordan Roll, was predicated on that complex dialectical process. But a left historiography that treated only the good guys, or the little guys, or the ones left behind, would be an all-too-empty toolbox. Ironically, one way to interpret Genovese’s own intellectual trajectory is that he fell in love with the way southern slaveholders constructed what he saw as a powerful and heroically doomed form of resistance to capitalism.

As for the New Left, and especially Staughton Lynd: he’s still a hero worth glorifying, if ever there was one. But to usefully tell his story, you would have to pay as much attention to the things we don’t like about the late 1960s as the things we do. Left history must be more than the history of the left. It must be a way of seeing the present we face.


[1] Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (Faber & Faber: London, 1969), vii.

[2] Eugene Genovese, “Staughton Lynd as Historian and Ideologue,” in In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History (Allen Lane: New York, 1971), 358, 354-5.

[3] Lynd, Intellectual Origins, 13.

[4] Genovese, “Staughton Lynd”, 355.

3 responses

  1. It seems to me that the subsequent trajectory of Genovese might affect the way we read this encounter “historically.” Genovese’s trajectory from marxism to anti-marxism, with no self-reflection in between, might suggest that he was never capable of resisting the urge to identify with the Southern conservatism that he ultimately allied himself with. I think Genovese’s ultimately hermetic ideological destination makes Lynd’s history-as-activism look a lot better and more open.

  2. Tom,

    “The book is, therefore, not history at all… but a political testament with historical references added to establish a pedigree,” is a delicious quote. What is your opinion concerning the application of that sentiment to say Edmund Morgan’s Birth of the Republic? Morgan certainly delivered the book that Daniel Boorstin wished. Boorstin certainly though the past was “usable” in a Cold War context.

  3. USIH contributor Jim Livingston repeated his position in a response post. The introductory remarks clarified his notion of the “usable past,” a clarification that may elaborate on Mr. Cutterham’s “one constructed for the use of the present:”

    “I’m grateful to Rivka Maizlish for her brave, angry, and hilarious response to my post on the usable past, the originary blame for which I happily assign to Ben Alpers—who somehow noticed that I’ve been rethinking the relation between radicalism, reform, and revolution [acknowledgements].”

    “My complaint about historians in that brief post, as in my “review” of Paul Murphy’s fine book, was, I thought, quite straightforward—we have been reproducing the past in what Nietzsche called the monumental and antiquarian modes, not teaching our fellow citizens how to learn from it, and thus to act on it, as it now appears to us in profile, in present relief.”


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