Howard Zinn's Disputed Legacy

Historians/History
tags: Howard Zinn, historical criticism, A People's History, Michael Honey

Rick Shenkman and Michael Kazin, writing six years apart, criticized Howard Zinn's historical method, and there is much to criticize.  It's true we have seen many, many instances of people at the bottom or in the middle, the masses of people, going along with those in power or even leading the charge in the wrong direction.  History is full of people rooting against their own class interests.  We see a lot of that today.

So, historians rightly have arguments with A People's History.  It is not nuanced, it is not complex enough, it is wrong in particulars.  Or maybe you think it is leads people in the wrong direction altogether, creating "the left's blind spot."  Presumably, a bottom up view of history is pretty simple and absolves the masses from their culpability in the affairs of the state.

But Zinn did not argue that the people are pure.  In fact, he suggests that most people stumble around not really knowing what is going on.  People are not very well informed about current events or history when they are digging ditches or unemployed and trying to feed families.  Zinn's insight, growing out of his own working-class and activist experience, is that occasionally the truth bursts through and people in various situations organize, and that they can create movements that change history.  That's a needed insight.

A People's History came out in 1980, at the onset of the Reagan years.  If ever elections showed working-class people voting against their own class interests, they did so in the Reagan years.  But ever since that awful, game-changing decade, Zinn's writing and speaking have helped people to wake up to the fallacies and brutalities of American military and economic power.  In the worst of times, he helped people to see there is no cause for apathy.

He also helped historians to see that they too have a responsibility not just to research, write, think and teach, but to join in as citizens in movements for resistance and change.

How many of us through our writings have captured the imagination of masses of people who did not go on to get post-graduate history degrees and inspired them to become active citizens?  How many of us could draw a thousand people to a historical lecture that shed light on the issues of the day?  How many of us popularized the idea that organized people can really make a difference?  And how many of us actually put our lives on the line?  

Many of us are mourning the loss of Howard Zinn not because we think he wrote a perfect history.  He was, after all, a political scientist to begin with, and he remained a popularizer and agitator above all.  And in that role he offered some basic insights that people need.  We can turn to the other historians for nuance, but people turned to Zinn for a few basic insights and for inspiration.

On the day Zinn died, I was to testify in a court trial as an expert witness (along with Daniel Ellsberg) on the history of nonviolent direct action as a valid method to resist government wrongdoing.  This was in defense of two women arrested for blocking military equipment being sent through the Port of Tacoma to Iraq and Afghanistan.  (For an extraneous reason, the judge declared a mistrial and the case is rescheduled for Apr. 21-22).  On that day, I had a book to write and questioned whether I should spend a day in court arguing history before a jury that presumably knows little about this topic.  Does it really matter?

I am glad I went, and I will again.  Whenever I have doubts about whether I should make the extra effort, I think of Howard Zinn.  I'm fine with criticizing and debating his historical work, but my reverence for Howard Zinn is not about his history-writing, it's about his humanity.

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