15 February, 2010Issue 11.3History

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Howard Zinn

David Sim

© Penguin Books Ltd.

Howard Zinn, professor emeritus of political science at Boston University and author of many books, most notably A People’s History of the United States, died on 27 January of this year. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1922, the son of two immigrant factory workers, he worked at a naval shipyard and served as a bombardier during World War II before embarking upon a career in academia. An activist and sometime playwright, his interpretation of U.S. history emphasised the agency of ordinary people at the expense of political, commercial, and military elites, aiming to overturn what he perceived as the unremitting narrative of American greatness presented in the country’s textbooks. His approach proved wildly successful. Published in 1980, A People’s History sold more than a million copies and became a standard text for left-leaning American activists looking for a usable past to inform their present-day struggles.

Professor Zinn was himself a committed activist and his historical interpretation was a function of his engagement with contemporary political contentions. That engagement was deep and sustained. In 1963 he lost his job at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, as a consequence of his involvement with the civil rights movement. And during the Vietnam War he called for civil disobedience. “Thousands of us were arrested for disturbing the peace”, he observed. “We were really arrested because we were disturbing the war.” He drew on his experience of civil rights activism to highlight the importance of persistence in the pursuit of social justice and of keeping faith in the possibility of fundamental societal change. Fittingly, he cut short his final class in order to join a picket line, encouraging his students to join him.

Mention of A People’s History‘s appearance in the 1997 blockbuster Good Will Hunting has been a ubiquitous, wearying fixture in Zinn’s obituaries, but it is illustrative of the broader purchase that the book has had amongst a popular readership. Few historians have garnered such an extensive audience beyond the academy. Few have held such celebrity cachet. And few have had their position as an historian so contested. In the wake of his death there has been some controversy over just this issue: could Professor Zinn properly be named an historian? Conservative critics were understandably perturbed by Zinn’s rejection of the moral superiority of the United States and his seeming dedication to pull apart the fabric of the nation’s political narrative. Jingoism and militarism, Zinn argued, were the inevitable corollaries of nationalism, evidenced, in his view, by the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Zinn sought to debunk national heroes such as Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, and denounced American territorial expansion in the 19th century as little more than a glorified land grab.

In short, his historical interpretation was a function of his political convictions rather than the other way around. The people were inherently progressive, and if reaction prevailed this could only mean that the popular will had been subverted by perfidious elites. That this jarred with right-wing sensibilities is obvious, yet Zinn was hardly a darling of the left. In one of the more notable critiques of Zinn’s work, Michael Kazin criticised him for not asking “the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?” Rather than historicising the left’s struggles with capital, authority, and power, Zinn offered no more than a “Manichean fable…gilded with virtuous intentions”. And if Kazin is right—if the American left does really understand itself in terms of such an uncompromising binary of good and evil—it is no wonder that it struggles to effect change in the world.

The go-to term for those looking to defend Zinn’s reputation at the hands of his critics (and there are many) is “polemicist”. The charge that Zinn had little interest in producing an objective portrait of the past is acknowledged, but blunted by the counter-assertion that he was merely offering a corrective to a dominant, even hegemonic, interpretation of the American past. Moreover, his defenders point to his broader intent: he sought to inspire protest and discontent in a world still marked by injustice. To this end, Zinn promoted a pragmatic and sober approach to political organisation, preaching patience and perseverance as favourable alternatives to zeal and enthusiasm. In this endeavour he undoubtedly achieved some success. As a further defence, Zinn’s sympathisers contend that all historical interpretations are conditioned by their political context. Professor Zinn wanted to challenge the hegemony of an equally narrow, jaundiced, America-as-beacon-of-liberty presentation of the past.

In 2010, writing history from the bottom up is hardly news, but this was not the case in the late 1970s. By challenging curricula on this score, Zinn’s long-term significance is secure. Yet the fact that he aimed for neither objectivity nor neutrality does nothing to suggest we ought to take him seriously as an historian. The question can be fairly asked: do the conscious, deliberate omissions in his account of American history—modern conservatism, for instance, or the popular anti-Catholicism of the middle decades of the 19th century—fatally undermine his claim to be read as an historian?

Certainly, A People’s History evinced a willingness to favour a unitary narrative over complexity and nuance in the interest of prosecuting a present-minded political case, but perhaps more damning is the thin sense of the people themselves that emerges from his work. This shortcoming is intimately connected with Zinn’s idiosyncratic conception of power and its distribution in the American republic. On the one hand, his oppositional, totalising, elites-versus-people model compelled him to emphasise the fundamental goodness of the American people and their ability to improve their world. Abolitionists, opponents of American aggression in the Philippines, civil rights activists, and the (sometimes violent) protesters of the Vietnam War: these are Zinn’s heroes, offering the hope of substantive, progressive change to the American body politic. As historian Christopher Phelps writes, these are the people who acted “as if change is possible in the face of decidedly unfavorable odds”, and in doing so, reshaped the historical trajectory of the United States. “The People”, the great unwashed masses, understanding perfectly their own interests, wield power.

Yet despite the power that inheres in the people, the American republic looks as it does. We can dispute the 2000 Presidential electoral returns, but 50 million people still voted for George W. Bush. Only the smallest fraction will be corrupting, decadent millionaires set on frustrating the progressive evolution of American history. And perhaps we can assume that some had their vote “bought” under any reasonable understanding of that term, but surely this could only represent a minute number. But the majority are not, and did not. Bush was elected—twice—and it is dismissive and condescending to assume that “the people” got their own minds wrong somewhere along the line. Kazin’s point about the people accepting the legitimacy of the capitalist republic can be taken further: the people have actively colluded in building that republic, and they have done so in light of a rational assessment of their own interests. Professor Zinn pronounces upon the morality of this, and of course that is a proper subject for debate, but he does little or nothing to lay bare the power structures of the American state, family, or workplace. For this his work suffers.

In an interview conducted near the end of his life, Howard Zinn said, “The really critical way in which people are deceived by history is not the lies that are told, but that things are omitted”. By this standard, Zinn deceived his readers. But perhaps the application of this standard is too harsh. A People’s History was almost certainly meant to be read alongside the conventional accounts it sought to challenge. Ultimately, we can accept this partial defence but still find his interpretation dissatisfactory. Perhaps we expect more nuance and more honesty from historians of the left: they are supposed to speak truth to power. When they replicate the modes of narrators of the right, constructing noble lies to live by, we are disappointed.

David Sim is reading for a DPhil in History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Photograph © Penguin Books Ltd.