Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 3, 2018

Remembering Jesse Lemisch through his fiery assault on Popular Front culture

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

On August 26th, FB friend Marcus Rediker announced the death of another FB friend Jesse Lemisch. I am posting the entire item since some of you—for good reasons, I might add—are not on FB.

Rest in Peace, Jesse Lemisch (1936-2018), radical historian and fun-loving contrarian. I first met Jesse in 1978. I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who would study eighteenth-century sailors, just as Jesse had done so memorably in his famous article “Jack Tar in the Streets.” I visited him in his small Greenwich Village apartment. We sat on the sofa in one corner of the room as his wife, the brilliant feminist psychologist/neuroscientist Naomi Weisstein, wore headphones and pedaled a stationary bike in the other. Jesse was animated, funny, irreverent, brash, and helpful. It was a joy for me to sit and talk with the person who had done so much to give meaning to the phrase “history from the bottom up.”

There was much to like about Jesse – his fierce intelligence, his endearing warmth, his larger-than-life spirit. He was a red-diaper baby and radical to the bone, a natural-born fighter. We worked together on various projects over the years. When his legendary dissertation, “Jack Tar vs John Bull,” was finally published in 1997, I wrote the introduction, link below. That intro begins with a description of an adventure Jesse and I had as we searched the massive Hotel Rossiya in Moscow in 1991 for a group of Siberian miners who had come to the capital city to wage a hunger strike.

It was my pleasure to dedicate my book Outlaws of the Atlantic to Jesse in 2015. I hope he knew how much he meant to me. I lament the passing of someone who showed us how to write history from below.


Rediker announced that he will have a short article on Lemisch in the Nation Magazine this week, so look for it there.

I was obviously not as close to Lemisch as Rediker but I enjoyed the electronic camaraderie I had with him. Whatever you want to say about the rottenness of FB, and it is undoubtedly true, there is still something valuable about its ability to connect you to people you never would have encountered, let alone “friended”, in the pre-Internet days. Besides Rediker and Lemisch, I also value the friendship I have with historians Greg Grandin, David Roediger and Richard Drayton, who also come out of the “history from below” perspective.

My first encounter with Lemisch was in the old-fashioned print media days when I read an article in the October 18, 1986 Nation Magazine that had everybody on the left buzzing, including me. It is an all-out assault on the culture of what Yale historian Michael Denning called “The Cultural Front”, in other words the films, novels, music and dance of the Communist Party and its periphery during its heyday. I loved the book, not least of all for the reason that Denning’s dad taught Latin and French in my high school and was part of the subculture of leftist teachers who cautiously discussed politics at Fallsburg Central in the early 60s.

My first reaction to Lemisch’s article was “what the fuck”? But even if I was annoyed with it, I found it 10 times more compelling than anything I had read in The Nation that year. At this point, I am still with Leadbelly and “Salt of the Earth” rather than MTV and “Sorry to Bother You” but if there was anybody who could dissuade me from my moldy fig preferences, it would be Jesse Lemisch.

Since Lemisch’s article, titled “I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night”, cannot be read unless you are a Nation Magazine subscriber like me (only for the cryptic crossword puzzles), I reproduce it below. If you find his arguments overlapping with the aesthetics of Jacobin Magazine, I can’t blame you. It is also funny to see MTV being described on the leading edge. I guess it was 32 years ago. In any case, Lemisch was the kind of polemicist we need more of on the left, not afraid to speak his mind and let the chips fall where they may. The contrast between his vitriolic article and his sweet, gentle presence on Facebook could not be more striking. They were just two sides of his personality, god rest his soul.

The Nation Magazine, October 18, 1986
I Dreamed I Saw MTV Last Night
By Jesse Lemisch

My friend, a fellow red diaper baby, has modified his politics, but he is still locked into the Popular Front culture that we grew up with: Pete Seeger, songs of the Spanish Civil War and some New Left versions of the same thing. He gave up trying to get me to Pete Seeger concerts. I had bad reactions, somewhat surprisingly, since, in my heart, I like Seeger. Sullenly, I mumbled things like “blue overalls,” “disingenuous,” “archaic aesthetic” and “dead end for the left.” So my friend gave up on me. Then one day he called to ask me to go to a Si Kahn concert with him. Kahn, he told me, is a rabbi’s son who came out of the New Left and has played an honorable role in labor, civil rights and community organizing for twenty years, and who sings in new ways about new causes.

My friend’s instinct proved unerring: it was Pete Seeger all over again, but offensive in ways that Seeger is not. Kahn makes a much longer leap than does Seeger into a culture and voice that are not his own. His singing raises some important general questions about left thought and culture, concerning authenticity, class, the relation between the left and the rest of America, yd a variety of issues at the intersection of aesthetics and politics. Some of the same questions are raised by the documentary films Seeing Red, The Good Fight and Union Maids.

One of the chief problems in left expression centers on the question of authenticity. Can people on the left speak honestly in their various voices, or must they pretend to be somebody else and speak in a voice that they imagine, erroneously, to be mainstream American? For Kahn it is the latter. He writes and sings songs of love, some of them touching, and of current causes: labor, feminism, gay liberation, Central America, disarmament. He accompanies himself on the guitar, singing of new issues in the old style. Unlike Seeger, whose songs genuinely move audiences, Kahn’s songs are so bad that it’s hard to see how any of the people whose voice he affects would want to sing them. In an updated version of what we used to call white liberal tolerance, Kahn, singing as a man who “loves women,” celebrates his friendship with a gay man:

There’s no need to keep it from me
You can come right out and tell me
You know I love you just the way you are.

A cry of “Thanks, Si” rises from a thousand gay throats.

When he spoke for the victims of sexual harassment- “they say it’s oil yer fo1t”–the women in the audience around me winced. “They call you in their office/And they stare straight at your breasts,” he sang. The sentiments are fine, but Kahn is completely unaware of the arrogance and condescension of his setting himself up in this way as definer of the pain of sexual harassment. Finally, perhaps the ultimate in misplaced authenticity: he sang of his ancestors’ flight from the Cossacks, proceeding to a song of the concentration camps, accompanied by a dulcimer, and, again, in the voice of the cracker.

Kahn imitates the old forms nicely, but why bother? There is much that is noble in these traditions and in the struggles associated with them, but isn’t there sufficient dignity and significance in the causes that Kahn sings about to let them be expressed in a modern voice? Why are they the real people, and not us? To return to Seeger-who is currently on tour with Kahn and has just released a joint recording with him-what goes through the minds of his many college-educated listeners when he leads them in singing Malvina Reynolds’s anthem of middle-class embarrassment, “Little Boxes,’’ in which people go to college, become doctors, lawyers and executives-“And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky/And they all look just the same”? Why must the left dress up in workers’ garb? The whole guilt-trip associated with the notion that blue overalls and only blue overalls, are where it’s at is sexist, aesthetically retrograde and deeply out of touch with the realities of class in America today. Why does authenticity reside only in the accents of the South and West, anywhere but in New York City? How was it determined that this must be the voice in which we speak to-America? Why is it such a bad thing to be a Jew in left folk song? Why, at a time when so much of avant-garde culture is crossing over toward a mass audience, does the left, with more important messages to convey, intentionally remain so isolated? What we have is a culture descended from a noble tradition of popular struggles–one whose public rehearsal is an important ritual of affirmation for those of us who grew up in it–that leaves us speaking a language that more and more Americans don’t understand.

A related complex distorts left film and documentary, where the question of truthfulness is raised more directly. The dominant aesthetic of this genre, which we might call first-person heroic, became the documentary style of the New Left, but it has its origin in the aesthetic of the left of the 1930s. In its older version we were presented with-the voice of the people, apparently unmediated. The style strongly expressed the idea that the testimony of those who participated in great events is the truth, needing no comment or analysis. In fact, as William Stott shows in Documentary Expression and Thirties America, the alleged voice of the people was deeply mediated in the documentaries of the 1930s, sometimes through the selection of data and sometimes through misrepresentation and outright deception.

Seeing Red and other left documentaries are descended from that aesthetic. Their stories are told largely in the first person, with contemporary clips and- with narration playing a secondary role. Truth and art are seen to be at odds, with  truth given a lower priority as a merely academic concern. The films and their “unsung heroes” are described in the promotional literature as “inspiring” and “stunning, ” and no one would deny their power.

But the films mishandle first-person testimony, leading to ahistoricity, and, finally, to falsehood. First-person testimony is important in the reconstruction of history, particularly for getting at the lives of ordinary people. Social. historians have been turning to material like the- Works Progress Administration’s extraordinary collection of slave reminiscences, which was largely ignored by the profession until the 1960s. A new history that focuses on biographies of ordinary people has produced modern classics such as Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre and Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. These works rely on first-person testimony, but never uncritically, and never alone. History is complicated; people disagree. For all the filmmakers’ antiacademicism, their characters take on the authority that we associate with the textbook. There is little sense of the complexity of the past and little confrontation between conflicting views. Interviewers’ questions are admiring and credulous. The simple repetition of pieties and platitudes by people who were “there” is not history.

Despite the subordination of truth to story-telling, the irony is that, ultimately, these documentaries are boring. They are didactic and klutzy. They look like the 1930s, and they speak in-the-ancestral visual language. Pete Seeger praises Union Maids: “No, it’s not wide screen, not color. Hell with all that. It’s real.” The assumption is clear: plainness and antiquated presentation translate into truth. As Seeger’s statement suggests, the appearance of these films has as much to do with ideology as with money; it’s militant amateurism. Seeger’s assumptions dominate contemporary left aesthetics, reinforcing a New Left notion that concern with form is “bourgeois” and elitist. Those assumptions are present in film, in new but old-fashioned agitprop theater, and in public-access cable television, an area of enormous potential but one in which the impact of otherwise promising left efforts has been limited by the rejection of mainstream technology and the use of such devices as handheld and hand-lettered signs. The same applies to much left journalism. A direct-mail solicitation from a brand-new left magazine boasts that it “isn’t slick,” has “no lavish color spreads” and is “printed entirely on newsprint.” In these ways the left fails to address people raised on and thoroughly at home with a more advanced, “bourgeois” aesthetic.

Finally, for all its plainness and artlessness, sometimes what we see in this left genre just isn’t true. The euphemism “progressive” hangs heavily over some of the films, masking the presence of the Communist Party. This cuts both ways, suppressing the Communist role that is open to criticism and also concealing the party’s positive accomplishments. The Good Fight is, to say the least, a debatable view of the Spanish Civil War. Seeing Red has come under heavy fire from researchers who have compared the 400 interviews done by the filmmakers with the fifteen actually used. Looking at what was edited out, Phyllis Jacobson, writing in New Politics, accuses Seeing Red of presenting a “fairy tale version of Party life and history.” Harvey Klehr, writing in Labor History, has pointed out the disproportionately low presence of Jews in the film, and he objects to the film’s caricature of anti-Communism, as if the only critique of the C.P. came from Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. The film is one long platitude, epitomized in Seeger’s remarks on the C.P. (“Better to have loved and lost . . .”), followed by a scene of Seeger chopping wood in the cold. The left should be embarrassed by the authoritarianism, manipulation and falsehood in much of the current documentary-film genre.

There are new ways of looking at the world, some from inside the left, some from outside. Say what we will about the values of television advertising and MTV, we recognize their form as distinctly contemporary, and so does much of America. They offer us rapid movement, mobile cameras, quick cutting, excitement, condensed expression, wit, comedy and attractive color. While I hold plenty of reservations about content, anyone who wants to talk to Americans–as the left presumably does–must understand this language. MTV’s influence has pervaded the culture, and, as we will see, the left is beginning to produce some visual images that have a similar look. But even in the mainstream there are some fine examples of the use of music video to convey political messages. One thinks of the Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin’s video, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” The strongest evidence that real songs of protest can be presented in the music video genre is Artists United Against Apartheid’s “’Sun City Rap’”, written by Little Steven Van Zandt and produced by Van Zandt and Arthur Baker, which topped both The Village Voice’s and The New York Times’s list of singles for 1985 [see “’Sun City Rap’,” The Nation, December 21, 1985]. “Sun City” delivers a hard political message in the contemporary idiom, reaching a mass audience and making what Robert Christgau calls “the essential rock and roll equation between celebration and revolt.”

The most powerful example I know of an emerging left aesthetic is found in the work of the American Social History Project, which, in its own way, draws on music video and underground comics, as well as other influences. Begun at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York under the supervision of the late social historian Herbert Gutman, the project has turned out a prize-winning collection of films and audiovisual productions, under the overall direction of Stephen Brier and with the magnificent art direction of Joshua Brown. This work represents a striking alternative to the traditional aesthetic and is a fascinating example of left culture in transition.

The project’s most ambitious production to date is the thirty-minute film 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation. In that year, propelled by economic depression and pay cuts, 80,000 railroad workers struck, and across the country hundreds of thousands of others joined a national protest which was called the Great Uprising. Describing these events, 1877 is full of visual excitement, much faster than what we expect from this genre. The color is beautiful, and the camera is wonderfully active: it pans, zooms in on detail, pulls back.

Among the basic materials used in I877 are nineteenth-century graphics: black-line wood engravings from the newspapers of the day. But they are put into motion by two deliberate anachronisms:, tinting and animation. Brown found that the engravings looked “archaic, static and murky to audiences accustomed to the photographic and moving image.” Rather than immerse us in this antique look, Brown tinted the engravings, as he says, “to bring out details and add dimensionality to the drawings.” Suddenly, we are looking at a colorful scene that conveys familiarity and reality, rather than a dead and impossibly unreal past. Sometimes the graphics are retouched and animated, and the film has the overall appearance of a cartoon. Based on stills, 1877 is more of a movie than are the left documentaries.

The sound of this film is also innovative. An original score by Jane Ira Bloom takes us far from the folk singer’s guitar to synthesizer, trumpet, percussion and soprano saxophone. Just as the period graphics were colored to avoid archaisms, so was a deliberate decision made to avoid folk music, with its archaic connotations.

Like Seeing Red, 1877 uses first-person testimony. But in 1877 there is a strong narrative for which the first-person testimony is illustration. The narrative is spoken, powerfully, by James Earl Jones. Seeing the past through the mediation of the narrator brings us closer to reality than does the unmediated presentation of first-person testimony. Oral history is not history; narrative is. Here we are not left on our own to worship past heroes.

Another of the project’s productions, a slide/tape presentation titled “Tea-Party Etiquette,” offers a fine example of a critical approach to oral history. “Tea-Party Etiquette” is an adaptation of Alfred Young’s biography of George Hewes, the shoemaker who was lionized late in life for having been at the Boston Tea Party. “Tea-Party Etiquette” shows a biographer interviewing and arguing with Hewes, challenging his memory of the event. The effect is like watching Mike Wallace hector someone on ’60 Minutes. It’s lively, but, more than that, it adds layers to our understanding of the complexities of the past at a point where Seeing Red closes down and presents a single sanctified vision.

The only other left documentary I know of that breaks with the frozen conventions of the 1930s“there must be others-is Jill Godmilow’s Far From Poland. Unable to make the trip to Poland to do a film on Solidarity, she instead uses all sorts of comic and imaginative devices. An actor walks through the countryside reciting the published reminiscences of a government censor who came over to Solidarity, the scene set to a laugh track. Blackout. With melodramatic piano music in the background, there’s Fidel on the telephone, delivering an apologia for Soviet policy on Poland and lecturing Godmilow on art and politics. (“It’s your nickel,” she tells him.) This film has the mark not of the 1930s but of Jean-Luc Godard, with a touch of Laugh-In. What all of this adds up to is not solely a question of aesthetics; it is also a question of politics and honesty. The aesthetic I’ve criticized is disingenuous; it has not and it will not serve the left well. If that is the best we can do, the American people show their good sense by not listening.

Jesse Lemisch is a professor of American colonial and social history on the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is currently a visiting professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York.



  1. Jean -Paul Sartre famously said, more or less, “There is no such thing as human nature.” There obviously is such a thing in the biological and genetic sense, of course–death, two arms, two legs, two eyes, the myriad of genetic traits that make up our much-trumpeted 98% of genes in common with chimpanzees–but none in the existential sense of what we experience on the raw perceptual edge of living and dying and none in the sense of some immutable destiny that limits the possibilities of social relations to a reliable gamut offering no alternative to an established order (TINA).

    This bears on artists in the sense that people reliably elaborate personas, genres, and languages of performance that in some sense are always inauthentic because implicitly they freeze a limited conception of human nature. Woody Guthrie is no less inauthentic in this sense than Pete Seeger–or Sartre. If there is such a thing as human nature in the artistic sense, it may be this endless process of rendering inauthentic, the production of a counterfeit nature, without which there might be no art.

    When an artist “makes it new” (to paraphrase the godawful Ezra Pound) a kind of miracle of recognition occurs that nevertheless is no more authentic in any ultimate sense than the outmoded shiver that it replaces.

    If (for my money, and I know I’m almost alone in this) a double-dyed three-dollar bill like Bob Dylan can become an authentic icon of the Left (and how many readers here or on Marxmail won’t leap to his defense?) what are the limits?

    “Can people on the left speak honestly in their various voices, or must they pretend to be somebody else … .”

    Don’t all artists in some sense wind up pretending to be somebody else?

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 4, 2018 @ 11:39 am

  2. May he rest in peace with the saints in light. Pray for us, Jesse, that we may be worthy of the tasks set before us…

    Comment by Kurt Hill — September 4, 2018 @ 1:40 pm

  3. […] written analysis of the US war in Afghanistan and the steady shrinking of its stated goals. "Remembering Jesse Lemisch through His Fiery Assault on Popular Front Culture" By Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist blog, posted September 3 "The Crisis That Created […]

    Pingback by H-PAD Notes, 9/7/18: Links to recent articles of interest – Historians for Peace and Democracy — September 7, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

  4. […] written analysis of the US war in Afghanistan and the steady shrinking of its stated goals. “Remembering Jesse Lemisch through His Fiery Assault on Popular Front Culture” By Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist blog, posted September 3 “The Crisis That Created […]

    Pingback by This is a Challenging time to be a Historian | Eslkevin's Blog — September 10, 2018 @ 4:00 am

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