Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

January 30, 2010

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Howard Zinn, worker, political activist, radical historian, teacher and playwright, died of a heart attack on Wednesday, January 27th, in California.  He was 87 and a resident of Auburndale, Massachusetts, USA.

Sanhati remembers him with deep respect and comradely fondness. Among his multifarious and widespread activities in fighting for the poor and the oppressed, he stood in solidarity with the efforts of our collective against the preparatory moves by the Indian state for its currently ongoing war against some of its most vulnerable people, and was a signatory of the recent Sanhati statement against Operation Green Hunt.

 “His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our lives,” wrote Noam Chomsky. Zinn is well-known all over the world for, among other things, his famous book: A People’s History of the United States (first edition:1980). In addition, he was the author of books such as Politics of History (1970); Logic of Withdrawal in Vietnam (1967); You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train:  A Personal History of Our Times (1995);  Terrorism and War (2003);  and A People’s History of the American Empire (2008).  He also penned three plays, i.e., Daughter of Venus (1985), Emma (1986)—a play about the life of the anarchist Emma Goldman, and Marx in Soho:  A Play on History (1999).

Much of Zinn’s life is well-known. He was born in New York City on 24 August 1922.  He was the son of Jewish immigrants, attending New York public schools. “We moved a lot, one step ahead of the landlord,” he said.  “I lived in all of Brooklyn’s best slums.”  He worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a pipefitter.  According to Louis Proyect:  

While working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the late 1930s, he became a union organizer and gravitated toward the organized left without ever becoming a member. When a CP [communist party] member invited him to a party-led midtown Manhattan rally, he was knocked unconscious by a cop for just being on the scene.

 A veteran of World War II, after the war he worked at a series of jobs until entering New York University as a 27-year-old freshman.  Zinn, who had married Roslyn Shechter in 1944, worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to finance his education.  He received his bachelor’s degree from New York University, followed by a doctoral degree in history from Columbia University.  Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of Spelman College of Atlanta, in 1956.  He served at the historically black women’s college as chairperson of the history department. Sacked from this job because of his active involvement in pro-people political activities, Zinn became an associate professor of political science at Boston University in 1964 where he spent the rest of his professional academic life till his retirement in 1988.

The justly celebrated A People’s History of the United States provides a transformative experience to a lay reader, especially if from the third world. Raised with the vague vision of the `American dream’, USA storied as the land of opulence and freedom, she gets an unforgettable shock as the book shears off, bit by bit, the golden veneer that is usually plastered on that uncouth monster, the ruling class of the USA. While Zinn’s debunking in the book of Columbus or his emphatic exposure of the genocide of the native Indians are quite well-known, what makes this book especially important is the consistent unfolding of the idea that the central theme of the entire history of the USA is the struggle of the oppressed people. Zinn expounds how the ruling class attempted to perpetuate their exploitation in the frameworks of race, gender and above all, class and how they tried to maintain the necessary ideological hegemony using, for example, the idea of an American nationalism. Zinn identified the fundamental importance of class struggle: for example, he emphasized (in Chapter 17 of A People’s History) how the movement of the Blacks in the 1960s developed over time a conscious class-angle which was perceived as “more dangerous’’ and as a response how the US ruling class attempted to develop a “black capitalism’’ to counter this.

 Zinn was an embodiment of the age-old vision about the necessity of intellectuals attempting to change the world, going beyond merely interpreting it. During his tenure at Boston University, he was a co-chairman of the strike committee when the faculty went on strike in 1979.  After the strike, he and four colleagues were charged with violating their contract for refusing to cross a picket line. The charges against the so-called the B.U. five were soon dropped. Even on his last day at Boston University, Zinn ended his class early so that he could join a picket line in support of a nurses’ strike and urged the students attending his lecture to come along.  About 100 are said to have done so.

His activism in context of the US aggression on Vietnam as well as on Iraq and other parts of the Middle-East is well-known.  His deep humanism is evident in his assessment of the Vietnam war: “[w]hen the United States fought in Vietnam, it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won.” Zinn famously, and sanely, contextualized the 9/11 incident and the subsequent invasions by the imperialist US state:

It was an unprecedented assault against enormous symbols of American wealth and power, undertaken by 19 men from the Middle East… They were willing to die in order to deliver a deadly blow against what they clearly saw as their enemy, a superpower that had thought itself invulnerable… It seemed that the United States was reacting to the horrors perpetrated by the terrorists against innocent people in New York by killing other innocent people in Afghanistan. (A People’s History, Chapter 25).

Along with his exposure of the imperialist character of the US ruling class, Zinn was also a perceptive critic of the illusions of capitalist democracy within U.S. itself.  With respect to the election of Obama, the most recent and seemingly benign mouthpiece of U.S. imperialism, he wrote in January 2010

As far as disappointments, I wasn’t terribly disappointed because I didn’t expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that’s hardly any different from a Republican – as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike.

 During a conversation with Arundhati Roy in 2002, moreover, he said:

Imagine, you go into the voting booth and you pull the chain, and you have fulfilled your duty. And that’s it. And then you can sit back and let the President do what he wants. During the Vietnam war, there are Americans who are naive enough to believe the constitution of the United States, to believe what they learned in junior high school about American democracy and …. when you sit there, as a young person, you say this is marvelous. Nothing bad can happen. And then you grow up and you see nothing but bad things happen.  

During the Vietnam War, the President decided on war, or I should say the President and the people around him, some of them unknown to the public, others not known to the public. The President and the people around him decided on war.  

He went to Congress …. As if we don’t know the history of Congressional obsequiousness. That we don’t know the history of Congress approving every war that has ever been fought in one way or another.

These perceptions led Zinn, famously, to envision a revolution in the US (Chapter 23 of A People’s History) and as always, he analyzed its possibility positively, but critically. While he did not get straitjacketed within the confines of the CPUSA, he was unambiguous in his championing of socialism:

Let’s talk about socialism. … I think it’s very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion to where it was at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union gave it a bad name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman. It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the country… Socialism basically said, hey, let’s have a kinder, gentler society. Let’s share things. Let’s have an economic system that produces things not because they’re profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need. People should not be retreating from the word socialism because you have to go beyond capitalism.

(Quoted in http://www.thenation.com/blogs/notion/522763/howard_zinn_the_historian_who_made_history)

Howard Zinn lived as a soldier for the struggle of the oppressed to bring about true freedom for themselves, be it in US, Vietnam or India. We express our deep sorrow at his demise, and as struggling people in India say about a dear, departed comrade, we say: Howard Zinn Zindabad.

[Material from the Associated Press was used in this article. The references to “A People’s History” are from its 2003 edition.]