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.” He was, in other words, presenting a usable past; not a false one, but one constructed for the purpose of the present. Continue reading