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Howard Zinn: The Historian
Who Changed The History

By Pankaj Prasoon

10 February, 2010

History since its origin remained in the realm of the ruling elite. It presented, commented and concentrated on a minority gang of monarchs, tyrants, and their tales. It was called objective history. It comfortably and knowingly ignored and omitted the real history of the millions of people, who were oppressed by the ruling class.

Howard Zinn challenged this academic establishment by boldly emphasizing that “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.” Zinn decided to choose side; and he chose to take side of the oppressed, exploited and the toiling masses against the bourgeoisie regime.

He termed it as subjective history.

He used to say he wanted to be known as "somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn't have before."

Author of over 20 books Zinn was active in and wrote extensively about the civil rights, civil liberties and anti-war movements. In his best-selling760 pages seminal book A People's History of the United States (1980), he defused the halos around Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln and of course Thomas Alva Edison. He gave an insistent light on the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, labourers and resisters of slavery and war.

Zinn wrote,” Columbus called them Indians, because he miscalculated the size of the earth. In this book we too call them Indians, with some reluctance, because it happens too often that people are saddled with names given them by their conquerors. And yet, there is some reason to call them Indians, because they did come, perhaps 25,000 years ago, from Asia, across the land bridge of the Bering Straits (later to disappear under water) to Alaska. Then they moved southward, seeking warmth and land, in a trek lasting thousands of years that took them into North America, then Central and South America. In Nicaragua, Brazil, and Ecuador their petrified footprints can still be seen, along with the print of bison, who disappeared about five thousand years ago, so they must have reached South America at least that far back…”

Howard Zinn discovered Columbus through the latter’s diaries. Zinn said that a people cannot be discovered by their class enemies. They can only be brutally murdered, captured and subjugated. Armed with authentic researches, he concluded 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,” he revealed. Zinn’s monumental work inspired similar Marxist interpretations of indigenous histories throughout the globe. In popularizing the possibility of telling history from the angle of the oppressed, he virtually legitimized the subject as a progressive weapon.

“A People's History of the United States” provides other perspectives on American history. It depicts the struggles of Native Americans against European and U.S. conquest and expansion, slaves against slavery, unionists and other workers against capitalists, women against patriarchy, and African-Americans for civil rights. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1981.It was boycotted by American Historical Review - the prestigious American academic history journal. He was accused of taking sides of the indigenous, and making Columbus as an anti-hero.

It describes the American Revolution as a clever device to defeat "potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership". The Civil War was another elaborate confidence game. Soldiers who fought to preserve the Union got duped by "an aura of moral crusade" against slavery that "worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against 'the enemy'".

According to A People's History, "The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history." It uses its wealth to "turn those in the 99% against one another" and employs war, patriotism, and the military to "absorb and divert" the occasional rebellion.

In the years since the first edition of A People's History was published in 1980, it has been used as an alternative to standard textbooks in many high school and college history courses, and it is one of the most widely known examples of critical pedagogy. According to the New York Times Book Review it "routinely sells more than 100,000 copies a year".

In 2004, Zinn published Voices of A People's History of the United States with Anthony Arnove. It is a sourcebook of speeches, articles, essays, and poetry and song lyrics by the people themselves whose stories are told in A People's History.

Dr. Zinn’s involvement in the antiwar movement led to his publishing two books: "Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal" (1967) and "Disobedience and Democracy" (1968). He had previously published "LaGuardia in Congress" (1959), which had won the American Historical Association's Albert J. Beveridge Prize; "SNCC: The New Abolitionists" (1964); "The Southern Mystique" (1964); and "New Deal Thought" (1966). He also was the author of "The Politics of History" (1970); "Postwar America" (1973); "Justice in Everyday Life" (1974); and "Declarations of Independence" (1990).

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 was never afraid of being labeled a Marxist 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 dishonestly 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: A Play on History published in 1999.

The story of this witty and insightful "play on history" is that Karl Marx has agitated with the authorities of the afterlife for a chance to clear his name. Through a bureaucratic error, though, Marx is sent to Soho in New York, rather than his old stomping ground in London, to make his case. Zinn introduces us to Marx's wife, Jenny, his children, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and a host of other characters. Marx in Soho is a brilliant introduction to Marx's life, his analysis of society, and his passion for radical change. Zinn also shows how relevant Marx's ideas are for today's world.

Zinn explains in his introduction that he intends to show that "Marx's critique of capitalism remains fundamentally true in our time." Mercifully, however, Zinn's Marx spends little onstage time defending chimerical Marxist oddities like the surplus value theory. Instead, Zinn presents Karl Marx the revolutionary, the family man, and the impecunious scholar. Marx emerges here as an earthy, passionate figure, righteously angry about poverty, injustice, concentrations of wealth and power, and rapacious corporations. Marx also emerges as a beleaguered family man, struggling to keep his wife and children clothed and sheltered.

Proclaiming that "I am not a Marxist," Zinn's Marx decries the defunct Soviet Union and other countries created in his name, and talks dreamily of the paradisiacal socialist society which he still believes will follow the imminent collapse of capitalism, in which workers are no longer alienated from the products of their labor and from one another, and in which inequality and want will be abolished. Imaginatively pointing to the globalization of the world economy and the merger frenzy as dark confirmations of the truth of Marxist criticism of capitalism, Zinn has Marx urge Americans to strive for an egalitarian society. The onstage Marx urges that we use "the incredible wealth of the earth for human beings" and to give people the necessities of life. An imaginative critique of our society's hypocrisies and injustices, and an entertaining, vivid portrait of Karl Marx as a voice of humanitarian justice—which is perhaps the best way to remember him.

Every historical research Zinn conducted was from the perspective of Class Analysis. He had an impeccable ability to discern illusions. Zinn vehemently opposed the Bourgeoisie propaganda that made 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?”

Ruling class always uses ‘national security’ as the potent excuse to suppress mass rebellion. Zinn told the students and young people to question such tactics, especially during the times of wars. In his essay, Second Thoughts on the First Amendment, he 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.”

He wrote in his autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" (1994), "From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble."

It was the feud between Dr. Zinn and John Silber, former president of Boston University. Dr. Zinn, being a leading critic of Silber, twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and cited him as a prime example of teachers "who poison the well of academe."

Dr. Zinn was a co-chairman 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 contract when they refused to cross a picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against "the BU Five" were soon dropped.

In 1988, Dr. Zinn took early retirement to concentrate on speaking and writing. On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his lecture to come along.

After retirement he produced two plays : "Emma," (about the anarchist leader Emma Goldman), and "Daughter of Venus."

Dr. Zinn was born in New York City on Aug. 24, 1922 to a Jewish immigrant family in Brooklyn. His father, Eddie Zinn, a waiter, born in Austria-Hungary, immigrated to the U.S. with his brother Phil before the outbreak of World War I. Howard's mother, Jenny (Rabinowitz) Zinn, a housewife emigrated from the Eastern Siberian city of Irkutsk.

Both parents were factory workers with limited education when they met and married, and there were no books or magazines in the apartments where they raised their children. Zinn's parents introduced him to literature by sending 25 cents plus a coupon to the New York Post for each of the 20 volumes of Charles Dickens' collected works. He also studied creative writing at Thomas Jefferson High School in a special program established by New York lawyer and poet Elias Lieberman (1883-1969).

He attended New York public schools and while working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard when he met Roslyn Shechter. "She was working as a secretary. They were both working in the same neighborhood, but didn't know each other. A mutual friend asked him to deliver something to her. She opened the door, he saw her, and that was it. Meanwhile he joined the Army Air Corps, and they courted through the mail before marrying in October 1944 while he was on his first furlough. She died in 2008.

During World War II, he served as a bombardier, was awarded the Air Medal, and attained the rank of second lieutenant.

After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering New York University on the GI Bill as a 27-year-old freshman. He worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor’s degree from NYU, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Columbia University.

Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, in 1956. He served at the historically black women’s institution as chairman of the history department. Among his students were novelist Alice Walker, who called him "the best teacher I ever had," and Marian Wright Edelman, future head of the Children's Defense Fund.

During this time, Dr. Zinn became active in the civil rights movement. He became a member of the executive committee of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the most aggressive civil rights organization of the time, and participated in numerous demonstrations.

Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU in 1964 and became full professor in 1966. In 1956, he was appointed chairman of the department of history and social sciences at Spelman College, where he participated in the Civil Rights movement. There he lobbied with historian August Meier “to end the practice of the Southern Historical Association of holding meetings at segregated hotels.”

At Spelman, he served as an adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and in 1964, he wrote the book SNCC: The New Abolitionists. He along with historian Staughton Lynd mentored young student activists, among them writer Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

Zinn was a tenured professor, but he was dismissed in June 1963, after siding with students in their desire to challenge Spelman's traditional emphasis on turning out "young ladies" when, as Zinn described in an article in The Nation, Spelman students were likely to be found on the picket line, or in jail for participating in the greater effort to break down segregation in public places in Atlanta.

While at Spelman, Zinn wrote that he observed 30 violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution in Albany, Georgia, including the rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and equal protection under the law. In an article Zinn described the people who participated in the Freedom Rides to end segregation, and the reluctance of President John F. Kennedy to enforce the law. Zinn pointed out that the Justice Department under Robert F. Kennedy and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, headed by J. Edgar Hoover, did little or nothing to stop the segregationists from brutalizing civil rights workers.

It is hard to believe that Howard Zinn is no more and he himself is consigned to history. He died on January 27 this year of heart attack in Santa Monica, California while doing laps in a swimming pool. He was 87 years old. He is survived by his daughter Myla Kabat-Zinn, son Jeff Zinn and five grandchildren.

As Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, said, "He's changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can't think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect…I can't think of anyone who had such a powerful and benign influence.. "His historical work changed the way millions of people saw the past."

The author of this obituary is also one of them.

Pankaj Prasoon







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