Lessons from a Past Master

MOST people – to paraphrase the radical British poet Adrian Mitchell – ignore most history because most history ignores most people. It is traditionally the domain of “great” people: conquerors and kings, statesmen and generals, prophets and pioneers. Other people – the overwhelming majority – don’t get much of a look in. At best they are like extras in a Hollywood epic, relegated to the periphery. Or, at most, momentarily – and anonymously – propelled to the centre of the action in a mob or battle scene.


There are, of course, exceptions, but they tend to be confined to the academic sphere, often taking the shape of dull, impenetrable theses focused on relatively narrow spans of time. Professor Howard Zinn had the audacity to attempt something completely different: in 1980 he came up with an extremely accessible account of the popular struggles waged in his country, covering the entire period since its “discovery” by Christopher Columbus half a millennium earlier.


It was an extraordinarily ambitious task, but once it had been accomplished, the author did not expect much kudos. The first print run of A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present did not extend beyond 5,000 copies. There were no rave reviews in the mainstream press. But it seems anyone who read the book couldn’t help talking about it. It offered a perspective on the past that differed sharply from what they had been taught at school. In most cases, it struck a chord. Until the past decade, its value was conveyed generally by word of mouth. The various editions (and permutations) of the volume are now reported to have sold close to two million copies.


Within the book, Zinn acknowledges its limitations and describes it as “a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance”. He continues: “That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction …. that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.”


The author makes no excuses for recounting the past from the point of view of those who are all too frequently judged to have been on the wrong side of history: the Native Americans, African slaves (and, subsequently, supposedly “emancipated” African-Americans, who struggled for a century to formally gain acceptance as citizens with equal rights), destitute farmers, working-class immigrants (a category that included his own parents), and women. And along the way he does not hesitate to excoriate all those who in his opinion deserve it, which includes most presidents.


Zinn’s iconoclasm and his exposure of the overall pattern of governance as a system designed to serve the interests of small but powerful minorities wasn’t intended to suggest that there was nothing in their nation’s past in which Americans could take pride. Rather, he illuminated a host of alternatives: personalities and struggles far worthier of respect and retrospective affection than famous battles and familiar white males.


Had A People’s History been Zinn’s only notable accomplishment, he would still no doubt have been venerated, but his demise late last month at the age of 87 probably would not have occasioned such a profound sense of bereavement among the American left. He had a great deal more to his credit, however – and not just other books, pamphlets and plays, but a record of activism that stretched back some 60 years and cost him two academic posts.


As a passionate proponent of civil rights, he served on the executive of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and in the mid-1960s turned his attention to the Vietnam War. His 1967 book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal was among the first texts to advocate the immediate and unconditional pullout of US troops from a country in which they ought never to have been deployed. Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers that devastatingly undermined the case for continuing the war in Vietnam, recalls encountering Zinn for the first time at a meeting in Boston in 1971, “where we both spoke against the indictments of Eqbal Ahmed and Phil Berrigan for ‘conspiring to kidnap Henry Kissinger’ ”. After four decades of friendship, he describes Zinn as quite simply “the best human being I’ve ever known. The best example of what a human …. can do with their life.”


Many of those who had the privilege of attending Zinn’s classes have similarly warm recollections of him and his pedagogical style.


The advent of a new millennium and a new series of wars inevitably brought the retired professor back into the limelight, alongside long-time comrades such as Noam Chomsky, and Zinn was once more tireless and eloquent in elucidating the present by placing it in its historical context.


A familiar presence – once more – at antiwar rallies, he also guardedly supported the candidacy of Barack Obama, whom he saw as “a very sensitive and intelligent and thoughtful and promising person”. But he could see that the president is also something else: a politician – and therefore, more or less by definition, untrustworthy. Yet his sense of history told him that popular pressure could make a big difference. Just a few weeks ago, evaluating the presidency’s first year for The Nation weekly, he wrote: “I think people …. ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president – which means, in our time, a dangerous president – unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”


That wasn’t a reference to the Tea Party, obviously.


Every country would be well-served by a radical public intellectual of comparable erudition, commitment, wit and wisdom. Americans should be very proud of Howard Zinn. Those who have long intended to tackle A People’s History  but never got around to it ought to pick it up without further delay. And not just Americans: it’s an invaluable resource for anyone who wishes to catch more than a glimpse of the reality behind Uncle Sam’s mask.


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