- Professor Emeritus of History at the John Jay College in New York
- Self-described radical who believes that “being an activist is a necessary prerequisite for historians”
- “I see doing history as deeply connected to building a democratic and self-critical left, and as preparing the way for utopia.”
- Disdains history of “great white men,” and writes radical history “from the bottom up”
Jesse Lemisch is a Professor Emeritus of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Among the more prominent historians to emerge from the New Left movement, Lemisch continues to describe himself as a “left activist,” and enthusiastically boasts of his “direct life-long involvement in radical causes.”
In the course of his career, Lemisch, like many of his radical colleagues, has never attempted to separate his political activism from his academic duties. He seems to have made the transition from his rabble-rousing graduate days at Yale in the late 1950s, when he proclaimed himself a socialist and, in his own words, “offended in various ways against the Yale mainstream,” without the moderating intervention of discipline and professional civility. Radical activism is at once his life and his career.
For instance, in 1968 Lemisch, then an uncompromising agitator in the New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society, was fired from his job as an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Chicago. One year later, Lemisch raised hackles even among his fellow radical historians when he attempted to turn the American Historical Association, an organization for professional historians, into a partisan platform for protesting the Vietnam War. That same year, Lemisch published an essay entitled “On Active Service in War and Peace,” wherein he castigated historians who supported the Cold War against the Soviet Union. What the field of history needed, Lemisch claimed, was a radical alternative to their “very narrow range of politics and activism.” Upon his hiring by John Jay College in 1988, Lemisch immediately set about organizing a faculty support group to encourage radical students to occupy a building at the college. When a fellow “left historian” voiced his concern that the students might get hurt in the process, Lemisch retorted that they “knew very well what risks they were taking and that holding the building was their only leverage.”
Still using his academic role to further a political agenda, Lemisch is now active in the radical group Historians Against the War (HAW). The group, not content merely to declare against U.S.-led military efforts, has recently taken upon itself to mount a “legal and quasi-legal challenge to the policies of the United States [sic] empire in Iraq.” Lemisch provided another revealing illustration of his priorities during an April 2002 speech at a conference called “History of Activism, History as Activism,” at Columbia University. Political activism, he claimed, made up an essential part of a professional historian’s work, stating that the “activist experience gives the historian experiential understanding of the power of the state…and the depth of commitment of those with power to maintaining the standing order.” In a statement that neatly crystallized the professor’s preferred brand of activism-fueled pedagogy, Lemisch declared: “A good dose of tear gas makes us think more clearly as historians.” Lemisch again stressed the point the following year in an article for the Winter 2003 issue of the far-left journal Radical History. Drawing on his remarks at Columbia, the article, “2.5 Cheers for Bridging the Gap between Activism and the Academy; Or, Stay and Fight,” argued that successful historians must also be avid radical activists: “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,” Lemisch wrote. In addition, he had a yet more ambitious aim: “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,” Lemisch confided.
In Lemisch’s hands, history becomes a rhetorical cudgel for denigrating the United States. Representative of Lemisch’s scholarship in this vein was an article he published in August 2002 on the History News Network. A scarcely concealed fusillade against the American military response to the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the article likened the United States to the colonial Britain of the Revolutionary War period, implicitly equating Islamic terrorists detained by American forces with the patriots of the Continental Army. “Today’s detentions by the U.S.,” Lemisch claimed, “are very similar to what was done to Americans by the British during the Revolution.” This bleak précis was in keeping with America’s historical inclination toward indiscriminate brutality, Lemisch posited, writing that “our country has an extraordinary and continuing record of killing civilians in warfare.” Stretching his argument yet further, Lemisch explained away anti-American terrorism as a method of “correcting the military imbalance” represented by the United States.
Any treatment of American history perceived to be insufficiently critical provokes the professor to anger. Such was Lemisch’s response to a fall 2005 exhibit on Alexander Hamilton at the New York Historical Society. What evidently galled Lemisch about the exhibit, titled “The Man Who Made Modern America,” was its disavowal of radical historicist theory of history in preference for traditional historical approach that paid tribute to individual human agency. The exhibit’s preferred “theory of how history happens,” Lemisch sniffed, was “an archaically hagiographic approach (which is coming back into style in Bush’s America).” Lemisch grimly recorded that he detected in the exhibit “a certain political partisanship,” as evidenced by the fact that the exhibit paid unpardonably little attention to those “contemporaries who dared to utter critical words about Hamilton.”
Lemisch’s signature approach to history, which he famously called “history from the bottom up,” owes more to leftwing identity politics than to dispassionate research. The professor is less than forthcoming about his unabashedly radical approach. Proclaiming himself to be “in some ways a historian of the old school,” Lemisch purports to write history “as it actually was.” In actuality, his disestablishmentarian approach, which holds that history must be considered from the vantage of sundry special interest groups—for instance, union workers and minorities—owes more to modish notions of multiculturalism than to traditional history. Adamant that history as traditionally written was unduly concerned with the feats of “great white men,” Lemisch has labored throughout his career to write such men out of history books. “Great Men,” Lemisch explained in a June 2002 letter-to-the-editor of The American Prospect magazine, do not make history but merely “respond to movements arising outside of our sterile two-party system.” Lemisch instead favored “an accurate history,” one primarily focused on the “realities of social change in this country.” This distinctly radical approach, on prominent display in Lemisch’s influential 1968 book, The American Revolution Seen from the Bottom Up, became the standard for a generation of radical historians in the 1960s and 1970s.