Howard Zinn:  people’s historian

Howard Zinn died yesterday but he will live on, as future generations read his A Peoples History of the United States and say “Wow!” – comparing it to both the old and new conventional wisdoms that they are taught to accept.

I knew Howard Zinn, not well but enough to feel personally sad at his passing. His world view was that of the broad left ,what the sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950s called a “plain Marxist.” He was both a scholar and an activist, an “organic intellectual,” a “public intellectual,” all sorts of things that others write about, build careers on, but rarely are.  He was never an “end of ideology,” “no value judgments” man in the 1950s and 1960s.  Concepts like “post-modernism,” post-Marxism, the new idealisms of subjectivity and identity, in their own way more difficult to challenge because of their slippery nature than the old dogmas, never had anything to do with his work.

Born into a working class Jewish family, Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II and experienced the horrors of war – horrors which never left him. The GI Bill enabled him to get a higher education, a Ph.D. in government.  He came to teach at Spelman College, an African American college, in 1956 as the civil rights movement was beginning to advance. His support for radical students at Spelman cost him his job. In 1964 he became an associate professor at Boston University, where he would stay until his formal retirement.

There he began to write books and articles for people’s movements, civil rights and anti-war, that establishment academics largely ignored and newspaper critics baited.  But progressives realized that there was something special here, and young people, then energized by the civil rights and anti-war movements as many today still are by the Obama victory, read these books to give them intellectual nourishment against the processed and predictable intellectual junk food that they were expected to purchase and digest for the rest of their lives. 

These works included SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1965), Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967), and Disobedience and Democracy (1968).

In 1980, Zinn published the first edition of A People’s History of the United States, which has been read by millions throughout the world and has given people everywhere a history of social struggle in the U.S. against those who advanced slavery in the name of defending freedom, conquest of the West and destruction of native peoples in the name of manifest destiny, and exploitation of working people and the establishment of a global empire in the name of democracy.

Zinn earned handsome royalties from this work, which he needed, since John Silber, the tyrannical president of Boston University, himself a leading establishment figure, froze Zinn’s salary, denied him teaching assistants for courses which students flocked to, and vilified him in public and private.

Among other things, Zinn had been active in trying to form a union at Boston University, which Silber successfully smashed. I remember being asked a few decades ago to go to Boston University and participate in a Ph.D. defense for a student. I did it gladly in part because Howard Zinn, along with a former professor I knew from my days at the University of Michigan, was on the committee. I was supposed to receive modest compensation for my trip (the cost of gas and the hotel) and the relevant documents were prepared for this. Later I was told that the history department couldn’t process this because President Silber, learning that Zinn was on the committee, vetoed it.

Actually, I was a little flattered.  It was perhaps the only time in my life, in the numerous situations where I have been denied something for political reasons, that I was merely an “innocent bystander”” to the events.

Silber, once the highest-paid college president in the U.S. is gone and fortunately forgotten, except as a bad memory to those he hurt  Howard Zinn will never be forgotten thanks to his work.

Zinn retired from Boston University in 1988 but kept on writing and speaking. I would especially recommend You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (1994). You can also find him on YouTube declaiming against the U.S. empire, or read his later Terrorism and War (2002) on post 9/11. You can even read the silly red-baiting attacks on him by the pipsqueak pundits of the right, who come from Rupe Murdoch’s central casting office at Fox. You can read and maybe see his play, Marx in Soho. Howard Zinn is here, there and everywhere.

Let me conclude this tribute to Howard with what are the last lines of an old edition of The People’s History of the United States. Marlin Fitzwater, George H.W. Bush’s press secretary, responds to reporters who question him about a presidential dinner where huge sums of money were paid by corporations for the “privilege” of attending. Fitzwater says honestly:  “It’s buying access to the system. Yes.”  When he is questioned about those who don’t have money for that kind of access, Fitzwater replies, “They will have to demand access in other ways.

Zinn’s final comments are: “That may have been a clue to most Americans wanting real change. They would have to demand access in their own way.” And that today, in the face of the monopoly banks, the rapacious insurance companies and the still sacred cow of the military industrial complex, is exactly what they, with the help of the work of Howard Zinn, can and must do.

Photo: / CC BY-SA 2.0





Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a Professor of History. He writes and teaches from a Marxist perspective, and has written many articles on a variety of topics, including biographical entries on Jimmy Hoffa, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the civil rights movement, 1930-1953, and poor peoples movements in U.S. history.