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. Continue reading

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