It shouldn’t go unremarked that radical left historian Howard Zinn has passed away at the age of 87. Zinn, Matt Damon’s favorite historian, is best known for his A Peoples History of the United States, a controversial work that has generated mountains of debate within (and outside of) the historical profession. (He even caused a stir around here back in 2004 when he was invited to speak at South Kingstown High unbeknownst to many parents). Disagree with him or not, Zinn will remain hugely influential in the fields of history and political thought for years to come.
That being said, there is plenty of ammo to refute the Zinn-ites. Perhaps the most recent and thorough critique of the work was written in 2004 by Michael Kazin in Dissent magazine (no right-wing rag, that!). Kazin explains how Zinn has been a buttress for the leftist/progressive ideology of those who idolize him:
Pointing out what’s wrong with Zinn’s passionate tome is not difficult for anyone with a smattering of knowledge about the American past. By why has this polemic disguised as history attracted so many enthusiastic readers?
For the majority of reviewers on Amazon.com (381, as of February 2004), A People’s History has the force and authority of revelation. “Zinn single-handedly initiated a Copernican revolution in historicism,” writes “eco-william” from Oregon. Others rave about his “compassion and eye for detail” and proclaim the survey “a top contender for greatest book ever written.” Zinn’s admirers have a quick retort to conservatives who claim his work is “biased.” Writes “culov” from Anaheim: “The book is purposely meant to be biased. It tells the story of American history from the point of view of ‘the losers’ because we all know that the winners write history. If you want something written from George Washington’s point of view, go buy a textbook . . . those are as biased as possible.”
The unqualified directness of Zinn’s prose clearly appeals to his readers. Unlike scholars who aspire to add one or two new bricks to an edifice that has been under construction for decades or even centuries, he brings dynamite to the job. “To understand,” wrote Frederick Douglass, “one must stand under.” Although Zinn doesn’t quote that axiom, the sensibility appears on every page of his book. His fans can supply the corollary themselves: only the utterly contemptible stand on top.
Many radicals and some liberals clearly want to hear this moral stated and re-stated. Even Eric Foner, whose splendid scholarship delivers no such easy lessons, praised Zinn’s book in the New York Times as “a coherent new version of American history.” The Story of American Freedom, Foner’s own 1996 attempt to write a survey for non-academic readers, is far more scrupulous-and far less popular.
Zinn fills a need shaped by our recent past. The years since 1980 have not been good ones for the American left. Three Republicans and one centrist Democrat occupied the White House; conservatives captured both houses of Congress; the phantom hope of state socialism vanished almost overnight; and progressive movements spent most of their time struggling to preserve earlier gains instead of daring to envision and fight for new ideas and programs….
Perhaps the greatest flaw of his book is that Zinn encourages readers to view so formidable a force as just a pack of lying bullies. He refuses to acknowledge that when they speak about their ideals, those who hold national power usually mean what they say. If FDR lied to Americans about the threat posed by Japanese-Americans during World War II, why should anyone believe his prattle about the Four Freedoms? So there’s no point in debating conservatives who prescribe libertarian economics, Victorian moral values, and preemptive interventions for what ails the United States and the world. All right-wingers really care about is keeping all the resources and power for themselves.
This cynical myopia afflicts an alarming number of people on the left today. The gloom of defeat tends to obscure the landscape of real politics, which has always witnessed a clash of ideologies as well as interests, persuasion as well as buy-offs and sellouts. Zinn fiercely details the outrages committed by America’s rulers at home and abroad. But he makes no serious attempt to examine why these rulers kept getting elected, or how economic and social reform improved the lives of millions even if they sapped whatever mass appetite existed for radical change.
No work of history can substitute for a social movement. Yet intelligent, sober studies can make sense of how changing structures of power and ideas provide openings for challenges from below, while also shifting the basis on which a reigning order claims legitimacy for itself. These qualities mark the work of such influential (and widely read) historians on the left as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Gerda Lerner, C.L.R. James, and the erstwhile populist C. Vann Woodward. Reading their work makes one wiser about the obstacles to change as well as encouraged about the capacity of ordinary men and women to achieve a degree of independence and happiness, even within unjust societies. In contrast, Howard Zinn is an evangelist of little imagination for whom history is one long chain of stark moral dualities. His fatalistic vision can only keep the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.
Kraditor began by noting that the first thing a historian has to do is respect “the pastness of the past.” She goes on to write that a new group of Left historians clearly ignore that. “I believe,” she wrote, “the judgement applies with particular force to those on the Left who have endeavored to find in American history justifications for and forerunners of their own party or movement,” and that many “have been interested in little else.” History, in their eyes, becomes a “cheering section as they root for the same victims or reformers struggling against the same Oppressors or Interests.” It is a conflict paradigm shared by both liberal and Left historians. They believe only that the people fight the elites, and they never ask about the “consensus about all the values and beliefs that really matter to the maintenance of the established order.” Instead of asking for examples of the people fighting the interests—as Zinn does today—she says the real question is “Who fought whom and over what issue,” and whether or not the fight affected “the basic structure of the system.” These are, of course, precisely the kind of questions Howard Zinn and his followers never ask.
Kraditor’s observations are so adroit it is as if she read Zinn’s book before he even wrote it. The Left historians, she writes, “have tended…to focus on Our Side’s heroism, dedication, love for
The People—non-historical qualities that they of course see in themselves and want their contemporaries to see in them. In both their views of historical events and their views of their own vocation as radicals they have often underestimated the importance of ideology as a mechanism of class rule.” When they deal with the radicals of the past they eulogize- they almost never discuss what the majority of the people believe or the ideas of the elites of the day. In fact, she argues, when the masses take positions they do not like, they simply see them as “obstacles to overcome, illusions to be dispelled.” They never look at their actual beliefs to see “elements of truth” that led common people in the past to not follow the radicals of their own day.