The Life and Work of Howard Zinn
Keywords :Radicalism, historiography, Howard Zinn, global justice movements, war on terrorism, Nine-Eleven, Iraq, Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, World War Two, antiwar movement, Sixties, social movements, public intellectual, US Left, new social history, intellectual history.
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1In May 2003, « a publishing milestone » was celebrated in New York City, the sale of one million copies of A People’s History of the United States by radical historian Howard Zinn. The popularity of this book can be measured in various ways2. The book has served as an inspiration to various American artists, such as film director and actor Tim Robbins, rock star Bruce Springsteen, lead singer Eddy Vedder from the band Pearl Jam and folksinger Ani Difranco3. Zinn’s treatment of Christopher Columbus is so famous that in an episode of The Sopranos, son A. J. is holding a copy of A People’s History during an argument with his father about whether the man the father Tony calls « a brave Italian explorer » was really a hero. Another open reference to the book can be found in the Oscar-winning script of Good Will Hunting4.
2Though largely ignored by the historical profession when it came out in 1980, A People’s History slowly made it into mainstream academia. Judging by the enthusiasm of high school and college teachers and students who wrote to Zinn over the last two decades, it seems that the book overcame its marginality to become unavoidable as a textbook reference5. Zinn’s book is now seen as a « counter-textbook » to mainstream history6. Zinn belongs to a generation of scholars who experienced the momentous social upheavals of the 1960s : « As a result of these changes, American life was reordered and new modes of intellectual inquiry were promoted »7. Revisionist scholars began to take into account the lives of ordinary people, thus broadening the range of human experience recorded by history. They also experimented with « new interpretive paradigms »8. A path-breaking awareness of the ways race, class, gender and sexuality have shaped the lives of Americans ensued. Zinn can be seen as a spokesperson for this generation of new historians who adopted a historical perspective « from the bottom up »9. Indeed, when A People’s History first came out in 1980, historian Eric Foner spoke of the book as « a step toward a coherent new version of American history »10.
3Zinn emerged as a scholar-activist through his involvement in the southern Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. He became a figure of the New Left as an adult advisor to SNCC11 and later as a member of the Radical Caucus in the American Historians Association12 engaged in the movement against the Vietnam War, together with historians such as Jesse Lemisch and Staughton Lynd13. By the end of the 1970s, he had risen to national prominence. The publication of his People’s History strengthened his position as a radical historian. The next two decades would consolidate his identity as a public figure. In the 1990s, he would appear on national public television on issues of foreign policy, most notably the first Gulf war of 1992 and the bombing of Serbia in 199814.
4But as the millennium drew to a close, the political landscape changed, as the « global justice movements » 15 grew, and as 9/11 and the subsequent « war on terrorism » generated a new antiwar movement16. A critic of American foreign policy in the tradition of revisionist historian William Appleman Williams, Zinn has made war the backbone of his identity as a scholar-activist. He regularly engages in public debates about the causes and the consequences of modern warfare on campuses, in churches, and in local communities throughout the United States and abroad17. Along with popular figures such as foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky, novelist Gore Vidal, independent journalist Amy Goodman and Canadian political essayist Naomi Klein, Zinn’s influence points to a sizeable audience for radical ideas on the Left in the United States.
5However, Zinn stands out as a generational oddity. Indeed, born in 1922 and a fellow traveler of the American Communist Party in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Zinn seems to have shed the identity of the « Old Left »18 and has become identified with the New Left of the 1960s19. Moreover, though now 85 years old, Zinn has become an influential figure of the new social movements of the 21st century, especially dealing with issues of the « war on terrorism ». How is one to account for this surprising influence ?
6Actually, Zinn’s prominent role as a « public intellectual » comes precisely from this sense of historical continuity embodied by his personal story20. We shall first see how this generational oddity serves as a touchstone for the emergence of new forms of political radicalism in the United States. Then we will look at how Zinn used his own life as raw material for his work as a historian. Finally, we will show how he has served as a bridge among periods of resistance in both his life and work. Indeed, it is precisely because Zinn embodies a sense of historical continuity that he remains to this day among the oldest and most popular public intellectuals in the United States.
7French historian Michel Winock argues that a new generation can be defined through the combined influence of two trends : the coming of age of a new generational cohort and the impact of an unprecedented historical event or series of events21. Applying this framework to the present context, one could follow sociologist Charles Derber’s view that the new millennium opened with two new national circumstances22. One was the emergence of new « global justice movements » and the other was the terrorist attacks on 9/1123. The late 1990s saw the rise of new networks of alternative media, with New York-based show Democracy Now! a key representative of that trend when it was first aired in 199624. What would come to be called the « global justice movements »25 were gathering momentum, leading to their first public expression in the US with the massive demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in December 1999. Canadian journalist Naomi Klein published what would become one of the leading political statements of the movement in 2000 under the title No Space, No work, No Jobs, No Logo : Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.26 This work was inspired by student activism in the late 1990s that was changing in its nature, from more parochial, single-issue, identity-based politics to a broader perspective connecting issues to the global economy. The book itself came out of a new wave of student activism around demands for a living wage for Harvard University workers27. Hence, the « global justice movements » gave rise to a new generation of social activists.
8Zinn saw the Seattle demonstrations as a turning point, a qualitative change in the type of social movements occurring in the country after the end of the long decade of the 1960s :
In Seattle, the demonstrators were grappling with impossibly complex economic issues—globalization, protectionism, [and] export trade (…) It was a turning point in the history of the movements of recent decades—a departure from the single issue focus of (…) the nuclear freeze rally in Central Park in 1982 (…) the gatherings for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978, for lesbian and gay rights in 1993, for the Million Man March in 1995 (…) This time the union movement was at the centre. The issue of class—rich and poor, here and all over the globe—bound everyone together28.
9According to Zinn, the Seattle events participated in the redefinition of the political landscape in the country. When Green Party candidate Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000, Zinn supported his campaign actively. Among other events, on September 29, 2000, Howard Zinn, film director Michael Moore and Green Party vice-presidential nominee Winona LaDuke shared a platform in Boston in support of the Nader candidacy29. But the tragedy of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 momentarily brought the wave of international demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization to a halt. The « War on terrorism » took centre stage. However the country did not remain united over the means and ends of the « war on terrorism ». In the spring of 2002, over 60,000 American public intellectuals, artists and ordinary citizens signed a « statement of conscience » opposing the « war on terrorism ». Howard Zinn, along with Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky and African-American public intellectuals Angela Davis and Cornel West, was among the endorsers of the appeal30. The pre-emptive strikes on Iraq in March 2003 further fuelled opposition to the Bush administration. The unprecedented movement against the invasion of Iraq became the biggest international campaign since the movement against the war in Vietnam31. In the United States, this was true as well32. Zinn emerged as a national public speaker against the war in Iraq33. He has been invited on public radio and television shows, such as the Ron Stewart Daily Show in January 200534.
10His international popularity has also grown. A few years ago, French independent publishing company Agone took interest in a number of American radical intellectuals35. Agone published French versions of A People’s History of the United States, Marx in Soho : a Play on History and Emma : a Play in Two Acts About Emma Goldman, American Anarchist36. In May 2003, Zinn spoke in Paris on the subject of « Just and Unjust wars »37. Furthermore, on December 1, 2003, Zinn received a special prize from the independent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, emphasizing the value of A People’s History as a scholarly work standing against « la pensée unique »38. Finally, a national public radio show was devoted to Zinn’s historical approach39. A new interest in the « Other America », understood as networks of resistance to the Bush administration seemed to have taken hold in France40.
11In the United States, the crisis continued to deepen, with a combination of unprecedented protests against the war in the summer of 200441. Rallies and demonstrations took place throughout the country, and Zinn spoke at many events in Boston, supporting the « Anybody But Bush » campaign42, but adding that in « safe states », as in his home state of Massachusetts, people should vote for independent candidate Ralph Nader43. A peak in political tension came during the Republican Convention in New York with a demonstration of about 500,000 people44. The presence of Iraq veterans, military families and families of 9/11 victims made for a qualitative change in this demonstration which was also unprecedented in its numbers45. Moreover, compared to the movement against the war in Vietnam, the level of protest had been much higher, and had started even before the bombing of Iraq46.
12In addition, the unprecedented level of social unrest has led to changes inside the American historical profession itself. A caucus called Historians Against the War was created on September 21, 2003 and has gained members over the years47. HAW has held public meetings on the history of US foreign policy over the last four years and has appeared as a specific contingent during antiwar demonstrations. Moreover, at the annual convention of the American Historical Association in Atlanta in 2007, an antiwar resolution was passed on « Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession ». This resolution echoed the controversies inside the profession during the Vietnam War. But in 1969, the antiwar resolution had been voted down. At the time, the Radical Historians Caucus was led by, among others, Staughton Lynd, Howard Zinn and Jesse Lemisch. Marxist historian Eugene Genovese opposed the caucus, insisting that the profession should remain neutral and devoted to detached scholarship48.
13Today, the radical HAW seems to have been more easily accepted by the historical profession, thus indicating a change in the political atmosphere49. Radical history as a whole has gained relevance inside the academia. The Organization of American Historians recently paid tribute to Zinn’s work at a town meeting in Boston for the opening of its annual convention in 200450. Similarly, Staughton Lynd was a keynote speaker at the 2007 AHA annual convention51. In the latter case, the purpose was to rehabilitate a professional historian whose career had been destroyed following a trip to North Vietnam in 196952. More generally, a new interest for radical history can be found with publications such as The Radical Reader : A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition53.
14Zinn’s recent work speaks directly to the present situation54. One of his latest books is a companion volume to A People’s History. Entitled Voices of a People’s History (New York, Seven Stories Press, 2004) it is a collection of the primary sources quoted in A People’s History,
Readers of A People’s History always refer to the wealth of quoted material in it—the words of (…) dissenters and dissidents of all kinds. (…) I wanted the voices of struggle, mostly absent from our history books, to be given the place they deserve55.
15Updated to include both the « global justice movements » and the movement against the war in Iraq, it has been used as a collection of oral histories of resistance. For over two years now, actors such as Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover and Dinah Washington, as well as late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, participated in a series of public readings from the book56. With Zinn and Arnove alternating as narrators presenting each character, from Mark Twain denouncing the Mexican-American War of 1848, to military mother Cyndi Sheehan57, these public readings have become part of the growing opposition to the war both influenced by, and feeding into, the movement58.
16At the start of the 21st century, Zinn has emerged as a popular, though controversial, intellectual who has managed to reach mainstream US society through some of his work, thus reflecting shifts in the political atmosphere of the country and the growth of an audience for radical ideas.
17Zinn has essentially built his philosophy of history on his personal experience. In his memoirs, he claimed that his deep sense of optimism was rooted in the key experiences of his life. Writing a « political » biography, he chose to tell his story thematically rather than chronologically59. He deals first with « the greatest days » of his life in the South during the Civil Rights movement60, then with his opposition to the Vietnam War as « A Veteran Against the War »61 and finally expands upon the unusual circumstances of his early life leading him from a Jewish working class life to that of a tenured professor at Boston University62.
18Compared to other historians who grew up during the Great Depression and the contemporary emergence of Stalinism and fascism, Zinn has remained surprisingly unscarred by those times, hinting perhaps at the relative invisibility of his generational roots63. Indeed, together with political figures such as Ella Baker (1903-1986), Zinn was deeply transformed by the social movements of the 1960s, apparently shedding in the process much of his former generational identity.
19The Civil Rights movement was the central experience of his life. In 1956, Zinn left the working class world of New York and moved to Atlanta, Georgia with his family. He was offered a position at Spelman College, a school for young African American women64. Zinn took part in the struggles to desegregate the public facilities of the city of Atlanta. He was an observer and participant in the student movement, sitting in, desegregating the gallery of the State Legislature and picketing the State Capitol65. Upon termination of his contract in 1963 because of his political activities, he moved to Boston (MA) where he would teach at Boston University for the next twenty years. For a while, he remained active in the southern movement, spending the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi and writing about racial violence and the role of the Federal government in enforcing change in the South66.
20The Civil Rights movement inspired Zinn’s scholarly work. He wrote the very first oral history of SNCC67. « What I am attempting to do here is to catch a glimpse of SNCC people in action and to suggest the quality of their contribution to American civilization »68. Zinn used first-hand information and conducted his research among the archives in Atlanta and the files of the Southern Regional Council69. The Southern Mystique was also based on personal experience, though it remained primarily a speculative essay challenging the idea of southern exceptionalism70.
21Zinn’s involvement against the war in Vietnam was triggered by the increasing connections drawn by civil rights activists between domestic and foreign issues71. When SNCC leader Robert Parris Moses criticized the federal government for sending troops to Vietnam while failing to protect civil rights workers in Mississippi, Zinn claims he witnessed the first stages of the build-up of the anti-war movement in the country72.
22Soon, Boston University would become a hotspot of student unrest73. His personal involvement in demonstrations and as a supporter of draft resisters would strengthen his position as a public intellectual against the war74.
23Calling for immediate military withdrawal in a controversial book dedicated « To the People of Vietnam », Zinn tried to demonstrate how withdrawal was the only viable solution for both the United States and Vietnam75. The book became both popular and controversial in many regional newspapers across the United States. It was also sent to Congressmen and was sold at antiwar events as a pamphlet76. Profoundly shocked by the destruction he saw in Vietnam during a trip in 1967 with Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan as representatives of the American peace movement, he was led to explore the inherent contradiction of the concept of a « just war »because of the inevitably high level of civilian casualties77. This would lead him to revisit his involvement as a bombardier in World War Two78. He would come to question the objectives of one of his bombing missions over the French town of Royan, a mission later proven to be uncalled for79. In 1966, he would conduct specific research about the diplomatic and military situation that led to the bombing. His findings would eventually be published by the early 1970s80.
24The current antiwar movement has also prompted Zinn to draw upon his experience as a veteran81. Founded in the 1980s by late Vietnam veteran David Cline, Veterans for Peace played a major role in providing a sense of continuity among generations of veterans who had come to oppose the means of modern warfare. A keynote speaker at its annual convention in July 2004, Zinn shared his personal experience as a WWII bombardier with young veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, who in turn told of how they had been misled in believing the goals of the « war on terrorism »82. This event was representative of a growing sentiment of betrayal felt by soldiers returning from Iraq. A group called Iraq Veterans Against the War was formed in the wake of these events, modeled after the group of Vietnam Veterans from a previous generation83.
25Hence, in the new context of the « war on terrorism », Zinn’s life experiences have taken on a new meaning84. The present situation in the United States has made Zinn’s generational roots more relevant. In August 2004, Zinn wrote of being invited to the World War II Memorial celebration in Washington DC organized by the Smithsonian Institution that same year,
I am here to honor all (…) who died in that war. But I am not here to honor war itself. (...) I certainly don’t want our government to use the triumphal excitement surrounding World War II to cover up the horrors now taking place in Iraq85.
26Zinn has constantly opposed the way the symbol of the « good war »86 has been used to justify new military interventions, such as the war in Vietnam, the first Gulf War in 1991, the bombing of Serbia in 1999, and the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq. For over fifty years, war has remained the backbone of his work, thus reflecting the way his personal story directly impacted his philosophy of history. Actually, in life and work, Zinn’s trajectory bridges generational gaps between periods of resistance, thus making him a living embodiment of radical history.
27Zinn’s biographical and political trajectory could illustrate a trend of continuity among generations of political activists on the left. He was a union organizer in the early 1940s as he worked in the Brooklyn Navy yards. At the time, he was a fellow traveler of the CP USA, though he remained skeptical about the Soviet Union’s foreign policy87. The war and its aftermath would deepen his political involvement, as it would for a whole generation of veterans88. Studs Terkel recorded this trend in his collection of interviews entitled The ‘Good War’89. The high level of politicization of the generation of young people who benefited from the GI Bill by 1949 has been noted by many historians90.
28This contrasts with the general political atmosphere which shifted to the Second Red Scare with its record of political repression and intimidation as the Cold War with the Soviet Union set in91.
29But Zinn was not weakened or demoralized as many others from the « Old Left » generation were. Indeed, according to Vivian Gornick, a large proportion of those who had joined the party following the Great Depression had left by the late 1950s, under the combined pressure of political repression at home and disillusionment with the Soviet model after the official recognition of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 195692. This was not so with Zinn, as he had shed any illusions about the democratic credentials of the Soviet Union by the end of the war93. But he continued to participate in political movements on the Left such as the American Labor Party94. He also joined the American Veterans Committee and became head of the Brooklyn chapter in New York City during the late 1940s95. This chapter was among the most radical in the country and called itself the « Gung Ho » chapter, taking its political inspiration from the Chinese revolution of 194996. But by the early 1950s, the tensions of the Cold War led to the collapse of the AVC. Moreover, the intimidations of the F.B.I. forced Zinn to adopt a low political profile. Visited twice by agents in 1952 and 1953 for questioning about his political activities, he and his wife decided to throw out the letters they had written to each other during the war. In them, they mentioned Communist friends whom they now feared might be harmed by the F.B.I.97. Out of intimidation, Zinn was thus led to focus more exclusively on his studies as a doctoral student at Columbia University, as the pressure of McCarthyism rolled back some of the gains of the New Deal98.
30On the whole, Zinn was surprisingly unscarred by the Red Scare and his years of involvement with « Old Left » networks. Apart from personal political intimidation and from the direct witnessing of violence at the Peekskill riots in 1949 during a Paul Robeson show, Zinn personally benefited from the economic boom of the 1950s and the social opportunities provided by the GI Bill as he completed his doctorate in history99. One could argue that the main reason for this came from a peculiar set of circumstances which led him to move away from the centers of power of the country and into the networks of resistance of the black community. « It did not occur to me [then that] ‘negro’ colleges being out of the main line of vision in American education, could be a kind of refuge for unorthodox teachers, but this was often the case »100.
31Indeed, he benefited from the way the black liberation movement allowed older activists to become involved in new struggles and were welcomed as radicals. In a way, those involved in the struggles of the late 1950s and early 1960s were saved from the political amnesia that swept over most of the networks of radical politics existing before World War Two. This is especially true for groups connected to the Communist Party101. In a crucial way the struggles of African Americans served as a bridge between the 1930s and the 1960s, overcoming, at least in part, the historical amnesia that had set in with McCarthyism and allowing those who were disillusioned with Stalinism to reinvent new ways of fighting for social change102. This is expressed by white radical activist Ann Braden who became involved in social movements at the height of the Second Red Scare : « There was only one thing which could not be suppressed, that was the burning desire of African-Americans to be free »103.
32Some historians have recently favored taking the long view on the black liberation movement from the 1930s to the 1970s104. This reading of history serves to bridge generations of radical activists. Figures central to the Civil Rights movement like Rosa Parks (1913-2005), unionists A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979) and E.D. Nixon (1899-1987), Malcom X (1922-1965), pacifist Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) and Ella Baker are testimony to the continuity among political generations of radicals in the United States during and despite the atmosphere of political repression of the time. Both Zinn and Baker served as adult advisors of SNCC in its early years. Baker’s influence in SNCC is now largely acknowledged, and illustrates the role of older political activists for the next generation. Historian Barbara Ransby described her role in SNCC as a « conduit of experiences » from one generation to the next105.
33Parallel to this biographical bridge, Zinn’s work has emphasized continuity among periods of resistance. A People’s History is arguably his strongest work serving this purpose. Taking a long view on US history « from 1492 to the present », Zinn aimed at « disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win »106. Although A People’s History is regarded as a product of the new social history of the 1960s, one could argue that it serves as a larger bridge among generations of scholars on the left. Although the footnotes were left out to attract a wider readership, the bibliography is quite telling in terms of historical continuity among generations of radical scholars. Indeed Zinn notes, « This work could not have been written without the work of several generations of scholars »107. Works by Communist historians Herbert Aptheker and Philip Foner published in the early 1970s but long-ignored in the historical profession are referenced with the autobiography of Big Bill Haywood and Mauritz Hallgren’s Seeds of Revolt108.
34More importantly, the role Zinn assigned for himself as a « thinking » person who should « listen to the cry of the poor » in order to « know what justice is » and to avoid being « on the side of the executioners » is strikingly similar to another central work of « history from the bottom-up »109. In his famous The Making of the British Working Class, Edward P. Thompson declared he sought « to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, (…), the utopian artisan (…) from the enormous condescension of posterity »110. The now famous first chapter of A People’s History is strikingly similar :
Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, 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 Spanish-American War as seen by the Cubans, (…) the first World War as seen by the Socialists, the Second World War as seen by the pacifists, the New Deal as seen by the blacks in Harlem (…)111.
35Thompson was a central influence among the new social historians in the 1960s112. Such a direct influence illustrates generational continuity. Indeed, Thompson belongs to the same generation as Zinn : born in England in 1924, his radical views were informed by Stalinism, fascism and WWII (during which he served in the British army)113. A member of the British Communist Party in his youth, he broke away from Stalinism in 1956. From then on, he would seek to recapture a humanist approach to Marxism through his writings and political activism114. One of the early founders of the New Left in Britain, he would come to influence a new generation of activists and scholars in the United States. The new social history of the 1960s was dramatically transformed by his work. Published in 1963, The Making participated in deep historiographical changes and served as a major contribution to social theory115. Thompson’s intellectual role for the New Left in Britain and in the US is another illustration of continuity among generations of radicals116.
36To conclude, three decades after Zinn’s rise to prominence as a scholar-activist of « history from the bottom-up », his generational identity has taken on a new meaning. This is not only because he outlived some of the major historians of his time, but because historical circumstances have given new meaning to his generational identity117. Indeed, Zinn has revisited his life and work in light of the « global justice » and antiwar movements of the 21st century. In turn, he has served as a touchstone for the emergence of a new audience for radicalism, or perhaps even the emergence of a new generation of social activists. Zinn has emphasized how his philosophy of history came out of his personal experience, as he claimed that acknowledgement of biases is better than false objectivity. It is precisely this sense of continuity among periods of resistance, so explicit in his personal life, from the Great Depression and World War Two, to the Cold War and the major turning points of the Sixties, which has driven Zinn to national prominence as a public intellectual. But this biographical fact would be nothing without the scholarly commitment to retrieve a sense of continuity among periods, hence generations, of popular movements. This intellectual commitment, also a political one, lies at the core of Zinn’s controversial status and popularity today, at a time when a deep national and ideological crisis has opened up new challenges for proponents of social justice.
Judging from Zinn’s correspondence, it seems that many students have become acquainted with Zinn’s book in high school. Also, while teaching at Boston College in 2006-2007, the author noticed that graduate students and faculty members in the history, sociology and African Diaspora departments all knew of Howard Zinn’s work. At Boston University, Zinn is still a celebrity.
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