Remembering Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010)

By Saswat Pattanayak “To be neutral is to collaborate with whatever is going on, and I as a teacher do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world today.” (Howard Zinn)

In the grossly unequal world that we inhabit, it is always tempting to remain apolitical, especially if one is an academician materially benefiting from the status quo system of education. It is only logical to separate classroom instructions from political activisms, since teachers are desired by the system to enhance employability of students within the social framework, not to agitate their conscience to challenge the social order. In a world of established, codified and professional knowledge, it is required on part of historians to promulgate official narrations of national heroes and victorious wars; not overthrow ruling class histories to replace them with versions of the oppressed subjects.

Howard Zinn’s aspirations to become a teacher were also founded with similar convictions. But unlike most people in his times, he was fundamentally a radical thinker. When he heard Woody Guthrie’s song on Ludlow Massacre, he wondered why he never read about it in history books. He questioned the omission of labor struggles in historical manuscripts. When for the first time he joined a mass demonstration at the age of 17 to strengthen the Communist Party of the United States of America on Times Square, he questioned the claimed neutrality of barbaric police and brutal government orders. Unlike most people of our times, he decided he must choose a side, and he chose his side early on. A side of the toiling masses, and mine workers, of protesting students and peaceniks, of marginalized sections and conscientious objectors. A side, which he never left, not even in his death. For the world of the oppressed, Zinn shall always remain alive as the working class professor who dedicated his life in challenging the system of education by getting the world to enter the university and letting the university enter into the world.

University was not to be merely wasted in academic pursuits. As a white professor in Atlanta-based predominantly black Spelman College, Zinn organized students around issues of desegregation and racial justice in manners which led FBI to enlist him. Bringing to national attention the remarkable acts of resistance orchestrated by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he redefined nonviolence: “Non-violence does not mean acceptance, it means resistance. Not waiting, but acting. It is not at all passive; it involves strikes, boycotts, non cooperation, mass demonstration, and sabotage.” Zinn’s involvement in black liberation struggles cost him his job, led to his arrest and raised questions on his acceptance as a historian. His Vietnam coverage as a journalist to uncover the Operation County Fair – the systematic killings of Vietnamese men and torture of women and children – added to his disrepute for the administrations. For the free American society, he had unbridled rage: “We grow up in a controlled society. When one person kills another person, that is murder. When a government kills a hundred thousand persons, is that patriotism?”

Subjective Historian

When he finally authored A People’s History of the United States, it was boycotted by American Historical Review – the foremost American academic history journal. Zinn was accused of taking sides of the indigenous, in his authoritative and foremost assessment of Columbus as an anti-hero. He silenced the objectivists: “There is no such thing as impartial history. The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lie. It is omission or de-emphasis of important data. The definition of important of course depends on one’s values.” One’s values often metamorphose with changing times. But Howard Zinn’s never did. He remained a radical throughout, his capacity for moral outrage remaining unparalleled.

He wrote, for instance, “There is no objective way to deal with the Ludlow Massacre. There is the subjective (biased, opinionated) decision to omit it from history, based on a value system which doesn’t consider it important enough. That value system may include a fundamental belief in the beneficence of the American industrial system. Or it may just involve a complacency about class struggle and the intrusion of government on the side of corporations. In any case, it is a certain set of values which dictates the ignoring of that event. It is also a subjective decision to tell the story of the Ludlow Massacre in some detail. My decision was based on my belief that it is important for people to know the extent of class conflict in our history, to know something about how hard working people had to struggle to change their conditions, and to understand the role of the government and the mainstream press in the class struggles of our past.”

Discovery of Columbus

If the world was certain about one American knowledge, it was the discovery of the continent. Columbus had discovered America, until Howard Zinn discovered Columbus through the latter’s diaries. Zinn contended that a people cannot be discovered by their class enemies. They can only be brutally murdered, captured and subjugated. With thoroughly fundamental researches, Zinn proceeded to conclude on Columbus and the foundation of America which was hitherto unknown. “What did Columbus want? In the first two weeks of journal entries, there is one word that recurs seventy-five times: GOLD,” the historian revealed. Zinn’s infusion of people’s history in America inspired similar Marxist interpretations of indigenous histories throughout the globe. In popularizing the possibility of telling history from the lens of the oppressed, Zinn virtually legitimized the subject as a progressive weapon.

Pacifism as a Necessity

Zinn did not oppose wars because doing so was in fashion. In fact, his kind of opposition has never been in fashion. He has been a steadfast pacifist who saw no merit in wars. There was no such thing as a good war in our times, he would conclude after using chemical weapons during the Second World War as a fighter pilot. His was an imagination that has not been fully expanded so far, but its merits are experienced daily as the American power continues its “just wars” on the “axis of evil”. Suffice it to say, if history is a great lesson, Zinn’s pacifist stances are certainly among the greatest ones.

Zinn wrote in his Just and Unjust Wars: “What war does, even if it starts with an injustice, is multiply the injustice. If it starts on the basis of violence, it multiplies the violence. If it starts on the basis of defending yourself against brutality, then you end up becoming a brute.”

Disobedience to Law Ruling class always uses ‘national security’ as the potent excuse to suppress mass rebellion. Zinn instigated students and young people to question such tactics, especially during the times of wars. In his essay, Second Thoughts on the First Amendment, Zinn wrote: “The First Amendment has always been shoved aside in times of war or near war. 1798 was near war, 1917 was war. In 1940 when the Smith Act was passed the country was near war. In those trials against the Communist and Socialist Workers Party the courtroom was full with stuff the prosecution had brought in. What had they brought in? Guns, bombs, dynamite fuses? No, they brought in the works of Marx, Lenin, Engels, Stalin. That’s like a bomb. So people went to jail. For national security.”

Throughout his academic and journalistic career, Zinn maintained that progress of the society depended not on the premise of abiding the law of the land, or to uphold “national security”, but through demonstration of mass disobedience towards unjust laws. He would enlighten students and readers on how Supreme Court never changed the course of American freedom path. No well-meaning jury ever changed any law for the better. People on the streets have always forced the judiciary system to reform itself. Even to the last days, he wrote how President Obama was incapable of bringing fundamental changes, unless mass participations against his power status quo forces him to radically different directions. Zinn’s capacity to comprehend potentials within the masses as opposed to within the leaders is what distinguished him from many progressive thinkers.

Progressive Storyteller

One remarkable aspect of Howard Zinn was his lack of professionalism. Zinn, despite belonging to the world of academics, was an anti-academician. He never waited for academic peer reviews or approvals by purist committees. He was not a historian with any astute sense of proportion or dignified scholastic languages. He was never one to claim for fame or stick to major publications glorifying inaccessible texts. About his greatest work, A People’s History, he once said, “I wanted to tell the story of the nation’s industrial progress from the standpoint not of Rockefeller and Carnegie and Vanderbilt, but of the people who worked in their mines, their oil fields, who lost their limbs or their lives building the railroads. I wanted to tell the story of wars, not from the standpoint of generals and presidents, not from the standpoints of those military heroes whose statues you see all over this country, but through the eyes of the G.I.’s, or through the eyes of “the enemy.” Yes, why not look at the Mexican War, that great military triumph of the United States, from the viewpoint of the Mexicans?”

If Zinn wrote, he did so in order to reach out to the masses that had no inkling of theoretical underpinnings or paradoxical paradigms. Zinn wrote in order to tell the lesser told stories. He wrote biographies of unknown strugglers of the past. He made accessible the speeches of the striking miners. He edited books that were entirely collections of radical writings. As though an enthusiast, a sucker for historical trivia, Zinn became the greatest medium for radical messages for people of all ages and walks of life.

Reclaiming Marx

Zinn was never afraid of being labeled a Marxist in the world of hypocritical academia, but he wondered if Marx would have been pleased with such an epithet reserved for a genuine activist. Many of his contemporaries immensely borrowed from the works of Marx and Lenin, but steadfastly refused to acknowledge. Zinn brought Marx alive within historical realm, not just through the framework with which he studied history, but also by penning down Marx in Soho. Not just was it a satirical take on the current pseudo-Marxists, it was also a grave reminder on how Marx was possibly the most relevant text in contemporary times.

Class analysis formed the core of every historical research Zinn conducted. He had an impeccable ability to discern illusions. Zinn vehemently opposed the capitalistic propaganda around freedom of speech as a moral injunction to gain respectability in contemporary world order. He turned the question on its head for American freedom: “Freedom of speech is not just a quality. It’s a quantity. It’s not a matter of do you have free speech, like in America we have free speech. Just like, in America we have money. How much do you have? How much freedom of speech do you have? Do you have as much freedom of speech as Exxon?”

Critical questions alone have guided the world to progressive historical interpretations. Employing radical perspectives, Howard Zinn has not only left behind issues that have legacies of progressivism, but also equally powerful tools for future reinventions of the current world. “We the people” are stricken by the grief of his passage, but enriched by his enduring imaginings.