In Memory of Howard Zinn: His Life and Ideas

On January 27th, 2010, the working class and the oppressed of the United States lost one of our greatest historians. For many of us on the left, our introduction to political life was reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which presents a comprehensive history of this country from the “bottom-up.” Zinn made it his life goal to speak for those whose voices had been silenced in the traditional telling of this nation’s history, and to make this history as accessible as possible, so that it did not remain isolated in the ghetto of academia, but was taught in high schools and colleges across the US.

Life

Howard Zinn. Photo by Douglas BrownZinn was born on August 24th, 1922, the son of working-class Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, NY. Early on, he became radicalized as communist friends brought him to a demonstration, which exploded into a battle with the police. This experience forever shaped his understanding of the nature of the power of the state and the supposed “neutrality” of bodies such as the police, which had the outward appearance of being “above society.”

From the ages of 18 to 21, he worked as a shipyard worker, but eventually, he signed up to go and fight in World War II, which he saw as a fight against fascism. He would serve two years in the Air Force, but near the end of the war, yet another event would come to shape his political outlook, as he was asked to bomb the small town of Royan in France. As it turned out, the “jelly gasoline,” which he had been asked to drop, was in fact an experimental weapon, known as napalm. The bombing raid on Royan was to serve as its first military usage, a sort of “test,” which resulted in the death or injury of half of the town’s 3,000 civilian inhabitants. He would come to visit the region in France on multiple occasions later in life, as the unnecessary and inhuman action would weigh on his conscience and steel him in his anti-war convictions for the remainder of his life.

After the war, Zinn would attend college on the GI Bill, along with 7.8 million other working class veterans that otherwise would not have had access to this privilege. The GI Bill itself serves as an excellent example of the benefits of Zinn’s approach to history. Why was the GI Bill enacted? In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, 43,000 veterans of the First World War and their families had marched on Washington to demand their promised service bonuses. Rather than concede to their demands, the government troops, under the direction of Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur and (then) General Dwight D. Eisenhower, opened fire on the “Bonus Army” demonstrators with machine guns. This event and the public outcry against the brutality of the state machinery brought down upon the protesters left its mark on the ruling class. The “enlightened” wing of the capitalist class, fearing the social consequences of such incidents, aimed to prevent anything like this from happening again after WWII, and so, they granted the GI Bill as a preventative reform.

This event serves to underscore the merits of Zinn’s approach to history, which gives voice to the struggle of the masses of veterans, working people and their families, which in turn casts light upon the later passage of the law. This approach makes it clear that such reforms are not due to “benevolent acts from above,” but rather, are the product of struggle.

After receiving his Bachelor’s from NYU, and while attending grad school at Columbia, Zinn went to teach at Spelman College, an all-black college in Atlanta. This was in 1956, which threw him into the middle of the Civil Rights struggle. He would go on to serve as the adviser for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), about which he would later write a book, SNCC: The New Abolitionists. Members of SNCC have said that Zinn’s book gave them perspective on the historical importance of their organization and their struggle, which would serve to give them strength and inspiration.

Eventually, he was fired from Spelman and in 1964, went to work at Boston University. There, he became active in the movement against the war in Vietnam. He would write an influential book against the war, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, speak at demonstrations, write articles against the war, and at one point, after the Tet Offensive, even go to North Vietnam to recover hostages.

The Method of “People’s History”

These events shaped Zinn’s life and threw him into the heart of many of the great historical events of the 20th Century. His perspective was always from the “bottom-up,” a view that shaped what has come to be known as the method of “People’s History.” It is best summed up by Zinn himself in the introduction to his magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States:

“I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America. And so on, to the limited extent that any one person, however he or she strains, can "see" history from the standpoint of others.”1

This view is skeptical of the supposed “objectivity” of the traditional, mainstream telling of history. Rather, it states that you “can’t be neutral on a moving train,” which is the name of Zinn’s autobiography. Encompassed in this phrase is the notion that events, history, and society are already in motion, so to remain “neutral” when writing history (or when living your everyday life) is to accept its current course. This concept is not incompatible with analyzing events from a subjective point of view objectively. As Trotsky outlines in his introduction to his History of the Russian Revolution:

“The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies – open and undisguised – seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement. That is the only possible historical objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and tested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but by the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself.”2

Through the historian being upfront as to which side of the barricades he or she stands on, Trotsky’s history of the Russian Revolution, and Zinn’s history of the United States stand head and shoulders above the pompous aloofness of traditional histories. Both Trotsky and Zinn were participants in the struggles about which they were writing; to deny that role would be dishonest, however their “bias” does not prevent them from writing histories that accurately depict their respective subject matter.

Through Zinn’s tireless work, this “bottom-up” approach to historical studies has caught on and an entire series of “People’s Histories” have popped up, ranging in subject matter from sports to science to the history of the world. In the last years of his life, Zinn presented a tour featuring readings of selections from his Voices of a People’s History, which is an accompaniment text, co-edited by Anthony Arnove and containing selected source material from A People’s History. The readings featured celebrities such as Matt Damon, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Viggo Mortensen, Morgan Freeman, Rosario Dawson, Sean Penn, and others. This popular presentation was filmed and broadcast in December of 2009 on the History Channel, only a month before Zinn’s death.

One of Zinn’s main goals in life was to make his “bottom-up” history of working class struggle available to the working class itself. Toward that end, he made teaching aids and adaptations of his works available in youth and high school level reading formats, in comic book form, etc., all with the purpose of presenting the untold side of US history to youth from the perspective of the class, racial and ethnic backgrounds, or genders, whose history had been silenced. He became an advocate of “critical pedagogy,” which is a fancy way of saying “teaching youth to think for themselves,” and helped found the Zinn Education Project (www.zinnedproject.org ), which seeks to teach classrooms across America the untold history of their own communities and class.

Historical Materialism

Nonetheless, Zinn’s approach was not without its weaknesses, and we would be doing no service, either to Zinn’s memory or to the working class, which he wrote so passionately of and for, if we ignored what we consider to be an occasional one-sidedness in his method. Zinn's “bottom-up” analysis is both his work’s greatest virtue and its greatest weakness. This method seeks to combat what is known as the “great man” theory of history, which in short, is the notion that what we call history is little more than the product of great minds and/or great individuals, who shape history through their independent actions or wills. In this version of history, the mass of workers, oppressed, women, national and cultural minorities, gays and lesbians, etc., play no role. In fact, they are actually written out of history. This is an extremely one-sided view of history, which Zinn and others have clearly shown to be riddled with problems. However, in combating this “great man” theory, Zinn, at times, presents a version of history that can be just as one-sided, albeit from a different angle. For example, take his presentation of the New York draft riots:

“When recruiting for the army began in July 1863, a mob in New York wrecked the main recruiting station. Then, for three days, crowds of white workers marched through the city, destroying building, factories, streetcar lines, homes. The draft riots were complex – antiblack, antirich, anti-Republican. From an assault on draft headquarters, the rioters went on to attacks on wealthy homes, then to the murder of blacks… They shot, burned, and hanged blacks they found in the streets.”3

As an objective statement of facts, this is 100% true, however, within what context is it presented? Zinn presents it between other reports of mutinies on both sides of the Civil War, which are presented more or less abstractly as “people’s” rebellions. The above quotation comes immediately after the approving quotation of a “Song of Conscripts” by the very mob quoted about above.

This is not to suggest that Zinn somehow sympathized with the anti-black pogromist character of these riots. But he does not present the Civil War itself within its actual relationship to the emancipation of US blacks from the bonds of slavery. By not understanding the Civil War as a revolutionary struggle waged by the North, the product of the irreconcilability of two incompatible economic modes of production, but rather as the product of “a long series of policy clashes between the South and North,”4 Zinn ends up presenting mutinies and rebellions on both sides of the war on objectively equal ground. But they were not equal. Whether the participants understood it this way or not, it was a war between revolution and reaction, between a rising and at that time historically progressive capitalism in the North, and a reactionary Southern slavocracy.

It is true that the situation in New York was complex, but this complexity is not sufficiently drawn out. This is not to say that the outrage of the poor and some layers of workers against draft exemptions for the rich was not justified and worthy of some popular response. But the draft riots came after the Emancipation Proclamation and had the wild-eyed character of a pogrom with very little “antirich” content once the rioting began. It is an example of what happens when an explosion produced by objective conditions lacks coherent leadership and direction, an important aspect that is too often lacking from the strict “bottom-up” approach to analysis.

Zinn also essentially wrote off the role of Abraham Lincoln, portraying him as essentially just another racist and elitist. While certainly, Lincoln was imperfect, he went through a process of development during the war itself. It is true that he initially sought reconciliation with the South, but as the war went on, it was Lincoln’s leadership, which ultimately transformed the war from endless carnage over unclear goals into a revolutionary war against slavery and for genuine social and political national unification. Zinn wrote that the “rhetoric of a crusade” was used during the Civil War, but that this was later toned down after the war ended to keep people in line.5 This is also true, but what this perspective ignores is that the boldness of the “rhetoric of a crusade” – a revolutionary war of emancipation – is what turned the tide of the war and ended slavery.

History is not one-sided; there is a dialectical interrelationship of various factors, which need to be understood in their context, their interconnections, and their development, i.e., in their totality. It is classes, but it is also parties. It is the masses, but it is also leadership. To fail to analyze how these different factors interact – in the case of the “great man” approach to only present history as the actions of Great Leaders moving pawns on a chessboard, or in the case of some examples within the “People’s History” style, to gloss over the important role played at times by the individual in history – is to not present a complete picture.

Not all of Zinn’s analysis suffers from this lack of well-roundedness, and his service to the working class and oppressed in writing numerous untold stories from their past is a true treasure trove of material that will inspire generations of young revolutionaries. However, if we are to understand history and analyze our past (and our present) in its totality, we need a truly “holistic” method, a method that we call historical materialism; the philosophy of history of Marxism. By his own admission, Zinn himself was not a Marxist:

“Marx was often wrong, often dogmatic… He was too insistent that the industrial working class must be the agent of revolution, and that this must happen first in the advanced capitalist countries. He was unnecessarily dense in his economic analysis (too much education in German universities, maybe) when his clear, simple insight into exploitation was enough: that no matter how valuable were the things workers produced, those who controlled the economy could pay them as little as they liked, and enrich themselves with the difference.”6

We, on the other hand, believe that Marx’s method of analysis retains its full validity and is essential to a useful approach to history and analyzing current events. In short, we argue that history should be understood as part of a general process of development, that it is the product of the struggle between social classes, and that progress can be objectively measured through the development of the means of production and the progressive domination by humanity of the external conditions of our existence. This is important for those of us who do not simply want to write about history, philosophy, or sociology, but want to actively intervene in the struggle to change their course in a direction beneficial to the interests of the working class majority.

Conclusion

Zinn’s work is of immense importance to our class and all those that seek a detailed repository of the untold stories of the workers and oppressed in the belly of the beast. He may not have been a Marxist, but he certainly was militant and a socialist until the very end. Speaking at the University of Chicago in 2009, Zinn stated, when asked about the reappearance of the word “socialism” in the political discourse in the US, that:

“I’m really happy, happy that the word socialism is entering the conversation, despite the way it is entering [as a right wing scare tactic]… I’ve never thought that we should be afraid of the word socialism… We had a great socialist movement in this country in the early years of the 20th Century.”

Let’s toast to that and say “farewell” to a fine comrade and class fighter. Above all, let’s fight to make his socialist vision for humanity a reality.

Footnotes

1Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 2003, p. 10.

2Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 1964, p. xxi.

3Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 2003, p. 235.

4Ibid. p. 188

5Ibid. p. 172

6Howard Zinn, “Je Ne Suis Pas Marxiste” from The Zinn Reader, 2009, p. 617