2.5 Cheers for Bridging the Gap Between Activism and the Academy


Mr. Lemisch is the author of many books including, On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession.

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The following article is based on remarks Mr. Lemisch delivered at an April 2002 conference held at Columbia University on the history of activism.

Being an activist is a necessary prerequisite for historians who want to see through the reigning lies, and I take it as a given that we must be activists. Activist experience gives the historian experiential understanding of the power of the state, repression, social change, agency, surprise in history, the distortions peddled by authority, and the depth of commitment of those with power to maintaining the standing order through their journalists, historians, police, and law. Activism shows us how it is that people told that there is no alternative to the way things are can in fact invent new alternatives, particularly in the streets and on the picket lines. You can’t begin to understand how history happens unless you have this basic training as a historian/activist. A good dose of tear gas makes us think more clearly as historians.

Surprise in history: I can’t be the first to note the role of surprise, and I am sure that others have seen this. Historians (Marxists in particular!) can always establish a persuasive causality after the fact. This misses the reality of surprise in history as it is actually lived. Radicals who are living history should take heart (or, often the reverse) from the fact that things do not necessarily have to turn out as they appear to be headed, and that history is marked by sudden turns.

Journalists and the standing order: Speaking in the shadow of Low Library, where soon-to-be-no-longer Columbia President Grayson Kirk’s office was located in 1968, it is hard not to recall the New York Times’ placing on the front page Abe Rosenthal’s despicable classic article, written after the police attack on protesting students at Columbia in April of that year. Rosenthal exaggerates the destruction wrought by students and all but ignores the bloody police assault. The article begins with Kirk returning to his office at 4:30 AM after the police bust that removed the student occupiers, passing a hand over his face, and saying, as he observed the condition of his office, “My God, how could human beings do a thing like this?” The first passing mention of the bloodied heads of students appears in paragraph fifty.

Tear gas and the historian’s education: It is literally true: my capacity to understand the terror and fight involved in eighteenth century crowd behavior was enhanced by the experience of being in a crowd that was tear-gassed and nearly blinded by Chicago Mayor Daley’s police on Michigan Avenue in August 1968.

So much of my generation once knew experientially the necessity of activism for the historian, but it has been deradicalized and demobilized. I remember the 1988 John Jay College building occupation by students, when I tried to get our faculty group, heavy with one-time radicals, to organize in support. One of them, a well-known American historian, told me, no, we should not picket because such action might fail, and, anyway, it was our job as faculty to lay the theoretical groundwork for resistance by composing position papers. Another famous left historian told me, “We must get the kids out of the building before they get hurt,” failing to understand that “the kids” knew very well what risks they were taking and that holding the building was their only leverage.

Another big Upper West Side left intellectual and sixties veteran spoke to Columbia architecture students a year or so ago. Some of the students seemed to wonder how they, in a profession that depends so much on the rich, might still be able to be radicals. This person, who looks so sixties, with an admirable collection of multicolored T-shirts, in no way addressed the students’ yearning. He could only say to them that the Disney-fication of Times Square wasn’t really so bad, and that we should just wait and see how it all works out. But the sixties were not about our being passive spectators, waiting to see how things worked out, but rather about being active makers and participants, and it saddens me that so many of my cohort have put themselves into voluntary retirement from activism.

In talking about the deradicalization of former radicals, I haven’t begun to mention the increasing inability of many of them to distinguish radicalism from liberalism. It’s bad times when the Nation adorns its cover with an adoring piece by Jack Newfield on Teddy Kennedy, Bush’s new friend—with Teddy pictorially represented as a knight on a white donkey—and boasts that “Mario Cuomo is a longstanding Nation reader.” Why in the world would we want to read a left magazine that boasts of its appeal to Mario Cuomo, the Clinton-before-Clinton, whose cutbacks as governor of New York, especially in public higher education, had such devastating effects?

A decline on another front: Cindy Cisler, an unsung hero and pioneer of the pro-abortion movement (I said pro-abortion, not pro-choice), told me that in speeches she was invited to give to young academic feminists in the late 1980s she had taken to saying, in confiding stage whispers, “you know, feminism was a movement before it became an academic discipline.” The program for the 2002 Berkshire Conference on Women’s History, though full of wonderful things, in some ways reflects this academicization, depoliticization, and specialization. The program looks a lot like that of the American Historical Association. Leafing through it, people my age recognize a tier of older veterans of feminism balanced precariously on top of the younger scholars’ more academic sessions, with the older women speaking on general topics and trying to relate scholarship in women’s history to feminism. Still, the accumulating scholarship in the field is immensely valuable.

But it’s no big news to you that there’s a lot around that calls itself radical but has lost touch with what radicalism means. I’ll now turn to the .5 part beyond my 2.5 cheers for bridging the gap between activism and the academy. Why do I carp about the history of activism? It's to speak for the importance to the left of doing history, regardless of its relevance or irrelevance to current movements of resistance. I see doing history as deeply connected to building a democratic and self-critical left, and as preparing the way for utopia, as well as for the joyful and playful intellectual life that will be part of utopia. Let me explain by looking back for a moment.

In 1968 some of us founded the New University Conference (NUC), an attempt to organize academic-based activists and to build on and promote the organization of radical caucuses that was then in process across the academic map, from the Modern Language Association to the American Historical Association and beyond.

The opening session at NUC featured a talk by my friend and sometime coworker, the great blacklisted radical historian Staughton Lynd, who is now a creative radical labor lawyer in Youngstown. At the 1968 NUC, Staughton issued a call for us radicals to get out of the university: “Not Marx,” said Staughton, “not Engels, not Plekhanov, not Lenin, not Trotsky, not Bukharin, not Rosa Luxembourg, . . . not Antonio Gramsci, not Mao Tse-Tung—put bread on his table by university teaching.”

Although Staughton argued well, his 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”; “We’re being paid [$8000]”). Since I believed and do believe that the challenge is not to get out of the university—God knows, the universities wanted us out; they were making little brown-bag lunches for us, saying, here, take this peanut-butter sandwich with you, have a happy trip—but rather to stay and fight, to be radical wherever you are—in dance, in arts, at your workplace, in history, in science, in architecture, in academics—I wrote a leaflet that was circulated at the conference, and later by the New England Free Press, and reprinted in the Journal of American History, with perhaps the oddest title that journal has ever published. I called my leaflet (which ridiculed the sexist terminology popular in the movement in 1968), “Who Will Write a Left History of Art while We Are All Putting Our Balls on the Line?”

I asked then, and I ask you again today, “What is going to be your attitude toward intellectuals who call themselves left but whose work has no immediate or even apparent long-term usefulness to the movement?” Then I turned to a question that I think is also relevant for this conference, a question that arises from a perspective that sees intellectuals not as better than anybody else, but as necessary, independent critics within the movement.

“I wonder who is going to write a Marxist history of art in America?” I asked, and went on, “What if the movement is wrong?” as it was at the time in sharing the larger society’s sexism. “If the movement is wrong on this and on other matters, will its intellectuals have served it well by responding to its ‘needs?’” “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?” Today, I would add that the attitudes I was criticizing echo the old notion that “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” For reasons that should be clear, this is an ultimately sexist notion widespread in the mainstream (it was certainly common when I was a Yale undergraduate in the 1950s), which the left often adopts unquestioningly.

After its founding and early peak, NUC died a fairly rapid death as, in its ardor to prove its activist credentials, it lost its academic identity and became indistinguishable from so much of the rest of the activist left in the grim years following the self-destruction of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) in 1969. NUC failed largely because, as those of you who are now organizing academic unions know, you can’t organize academics around their guilt and shame at being academics, reducing them to self-hating and self-sacrificing cheering squads for other people’s movements, no matter how worthy those movements are. Columbia’s John McMillian has described NUC’s “peculiar ethic of self-flagellation.” (Something of the same sort happened in the student movement of the sixties, which started to die later in the sixties after such glorious earlier high points as Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, as students began to grow ashamed of seeking student power, which many New Left leaders saw more and more contemptuously as merely parochial and privileged.) You went into history presumably with some element of passion for figuring out how things really were, and some excitement over ways of reconstructing the past, even about arcane questions of methodology. There will even be times when you feel joy in this work. Don’t bury those passions in shame, under some idea that your political mission must directly determine your research agenda. The quest for a better society only loses when you de.ne your purpose so narrowly.

Not discussed here is another frequently heard argument: we live in such dire times that we cannot afford the luxury of a non-relevant history. But, terrible as these times are, history is in fact a perpetual state of emergency, with atrocities committed on an hourly basis, and we will never develop a left that is proactive, and more than a response to emergency, unless we manage to keep working on this vital project even in the midst of the dire present.

So here I am railing against relevance and arguing for constructing a broadly ranging left culture that is not necessarily immediately useful. Letting a movement define your scholarly goals and the questions that you ask isn’t good for the left. A vital source of debate and criticism will be cut off if the left’s intellectuals become captives of a current left and reduce themselves to—as Staughton would have it— a merely “accompanying” role, or, in his words, “to live amongst [the poor and marginalized] for a time, and to assist, if possible, in articulating and transmitting their collective experience.” We don’t serve the people very well by uncritical admiration.

Concern for what may seem even the most abstract and nonactivist kinds of questions, such as form in art and music, can be part of building a better left. To understand the rebellions involved in the breaking of form, you have to understand what artistic form is. Who knows, until we have actually done it, what unanticipated fruit may come from studying such seemingly abstract questions? Sneaking into, er, sitting in on, an introductory history of art course at Barnard College two years ago, I found that notions such as form, beauty, and even art itself are not in fashion. I can’t see much hope for an enduring left that lacks contact with art, science, truth, and beauty.

Yes, I did say, truth. We need people who know about everything, not only about movements. For instance, although it may sound like an oxymoron, we need left engineers. The collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 was the result of a vile assault. But it appears to the lay person that a factor contributing to the resultant catastrophe was the weakening of the structures by market values: supports placed so as to maximize rentable space; cheap and inadequate fireproofing. If the left discourages people from becoming engineers or building designers by denying the “relevance” of such fields, then we won’t have people with the skills to make informed judgments about the role of capitalism in the WTC’s collapse. And, to look at a related larger issue, after the seventy-plus-year-long debacle of the Soviet Union, the left appears to have utterly lost touch with the notion of planning and the expertise necessary for it.

One major difference between 1968 and now is that you are making your own unions. Hallelujah and congratulations, and hurray for the movement that picks up where the movement for student power started to fail in the sixties when it gave up on this allegedly too privileged a goal. What will your unions be about? We know that they need to be about wages, hours, and benefits. But a union of academics should also be thinking about whether teaching assistants have academic freedom and should provide a center of intellectual activity, offering to its members an alternative in intellectual life to the university’s still medieval hierarchy, in which your fellowships, jobs, and lives depend on currying favor with one professor—who may be capricious, or utterly insane—and your fate depends on carrying on his or her ideas in your own research. If a union doesn’t include in its agenda the creation of alternative arrangements that enable us to function as intellectuals, I fear that it will wilt and lose touch with its members’ passions.

To conclude: I hope you will be both activists and historians and will figure out how to put the two together, maybe not only in the kind of mechanical and unexamined way suggested by the title, “Bridging the Gap between Activism and the Academy,” but also by thinking deeply about alternative roles for intellectuals. You are here because you want to do history—don’t let anybody embarrass you about this. Try to get beyond the repeated invocation of the word community, which seems always for left academics to be code for someplace else. Face the challenge of figuring out how to be radical where you live. I say, stay and fight.

This article is excerpted from"2.5 Cheers for Bridging the Gap between Activism and the Academy; Or, Stay and Fight," Radical History Review (winter 2003). It is reprinted by permission of the author.

©Jesse Lemisch

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Homer Simpson - 4/22/2003

It's 1968!!

Jessee leads the protesters in yet another great sequel to the block buster hit: "We're Hippies!!"

And this jackass is teaching somewhere?

This guy should be working at a manual labor job.

mjtalbert - 4/17/2003

This is a confused article in several ways; that includes an almost nonsequitur mention of the structure of the World Trade Center. Like many, I fixated on those crashes, caused incidentally by activists who felt totally justified in their fatal activity. One of the things that amazed me, in reading and rereading some of the architects reports, was that no where in the architects plans was there a consideration of the effects of flying a pair of nearly fully fueled jetliners, loaded with non-activists who didn't volunteer for the mission along with the crews of hijackers, at near subsonic speeds into those structures, which amazingly withstood the implact of the crashes themselves. It was only the extended application of heat from the burning on tons of jet fuel that removed the temper of the steel, something that any schoolboy watching a farrier at work would learn will happen. It was only after that weakening forge of fuel that the mass of the upper stories of the WTC towers led to the collapse that only sheer bulk of 30-something and 20-something stories of structure structure in free fall could cause. It is amazing that architects are gratuitously blamed in the middle of Lemisch's article on the joys of activism for the results of an act of activism no one could imagine musch less anticipate anticipate.
I am not sure history should be written by activists, because by their sheer activism they color their version of history. Just as he earlier blames the tear gassing of activists in Chicago solely on the police, when for weeks before hand, I recall horrified reports by even Walter Cronkite that SDS and their more marxist supporters that they were training people to elicit such a response. To me the irony of the 1968 Democratic convention was not so much the police riots, but the way the gratuitiously dismantled the Democratic coalition and allowed the election and subsequent re-election of Richard Nixon.
Then this activism that skewed itself into a radical viewpoint that totally took academia out of the mainstream of American thought, must now be the recorder of itself? Maybe. But the author presumes that somehow this elevates the radical, the activist, above those who channel their thoughts and industries into more commercial channels as though non-academica, non activist life is less than academia itself. Somehow he thinks the activist architect has to overcome guilt because he designs for the wealthy producer? To be sure he has to compromise, because those who hire architects do demand that function be a part of form. Which I guess is how the WTC go in there in the first place. The architect chose not to design his building to withstand to impact of a jetliner not yet designed stolen by yet unborn activists bent of killing themselves for an ideal in an act that seemed to violate several tenets of the religion they professed to serve.
Mr. Lemisch almost decides that the record of history should be based not on what happens but on a specific disestablishmentarian perspective of what happens. I think his opening words give lie to the fact one will get a true picture of history from him:

"Being an activist is a necessary prerequisite for historians who want to see through the reigning lies, and I take it as a given that we must be activists. Activist experience gives the historian experiential understanding of the power of the state, repression, social change, agency, surprise in history, the distortions peddled by authority, and the depth of commitment of those with power to maintaining the standing order through their journalists, historians, police, and law."

In effect everyone but but the activist is a liar. Yet the only difference that I can see between an activist and a politician is the politician won the election, and represents a viewpoint more closely in line with an alagamation of the viewpoints of the majority, of whom the activists are sure are wrong.