Howard Zinn: In Memory of a Radical Historian

On January 27th, one of America’s most high profile progressive voices passed away. Howard Zinn, the anti-war activist and historian, wrote the first edition of A People’s History of the United States in 1980 and unlike many radical critiques of conventional history that have been published over the years, his became a bestseller, selling over 2 million copies with many schools and colleges across the country incorporating the book into their curriculum.

A People’s History injected a solid class analysis totally lacking in conventional narratives about US history, discarding the nationalist myth of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, with the focus instead being on working people, rebelling slaves and farmers, labour radicals and the heavily marginalized indigenous.

Some of the many observations Zinn made in the book include the class origins of America, claiming that the American Revolution against the British occurred so the colonial elites of the time could distract their populace from their own economic problems, a tactic they would often utilize again in the future. Zinn also devotes an early chapter in the book to the institutional origins of American racism, debunking the myth that racism is a naturally occurring phenomenon produced by a fear of difference. The latest edition of his book goes all the way up to 2003, covering the early years of the imperialist “War on Terror”.

Zinn however was no armchair academic, and he practiced what he preached. A long-time veteran of civil rights, civil liberties and anti-war movements, Zinn viewed activism as a natural extension of his radical brand of history. He served as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC), a 1960’s civil rights organization that played a major role in the sit-ins and freedom rides so characteristic of the movement at the time.

He was also heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement, writing one of the earliest books calling for US withdrawal in the region, Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal. As Zinn’s contemporary Noam Chomsky noted, “there wasn’t even a review of the book. In fact, he asked me if I would review it in Ramparts just so that people would know about the book”.

In 1963 Zinn was dismissed from his tenured position at Spelman College, Alabama, for siding with his students in their struggle against the school’s racial segregation. His struggle with the bourgeois University establishment did not end with Spelman College either. In 1969, he participated in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the American Historical Association to pass a resolution against the Vietnam War, resulting in AHA President John Fairbanks wrestling the microphone from Zinn’s hands. Zinn was the co-chair of the strike committee when Boston University professors walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues were charged with violating their contracts when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against the “BU Five” were soon dropped.

Some people have criticized Howard Zinn for letting his politics influence his scholarship, effectively using history as a pedestal for his radicalism and not being “objective”. What these critics fail to understand is that you can never be “objective” in such subjects as the humanities and social sciences. By their very nature these disciplines are subjective. Being “objective” in such a situation merely means parroting the dominant ruling class ideology in your work, and as is often said, the victors are the ones who write history. Howard Zinn was acutely aware of this and sought to balance this in favour of the masses, and for that he will be deeply missed.

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