Howard Zinn: Better than His Critics Are Willing to Acknowledge

Historians in the News

Dale McCartney, in Left Hook (May 2004):

On Thursday the 25th of March, the first of the 4-day annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Howard Zinn was honoured with an evening spot as a plenary speaker. He spoke on “The Uses of History,” clearly a topic that he is uniquely positioned to discuss. There is an irony in a professional association of historians inviting a speaker who has spent a significant portion of his career hectoring other professional historians for their failure to engage with politics in any meaningful manner. Regardless of the irony, the topic is a perfect choice for such a speaker. Not only has Zinn established himself as a legend because of his activism among historians, he is the author of the bible of radical American history – A People's History of the United States . A People's History has occasioned considerable comment ever since its publication in 1980, and with his appearance in Boston this weekend, a new collection of critiques has appeared.

The most prominent of these recent reviews was published in the online winter 2004 edition of Dissent magazine ( Michael Kazin, himself a prominent labour historian, lashes out at Zinn and his masterwork, deriding it as “bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions.” Kazin reads Zinn's work as “better suited to a conspiracy-monger's website than a work of scholarship.” His complaints come fast and furious, but they seem to boil down to one complaint formulated in two different ways. Kazin finds Zinn's work reductionist – that is, he complains that Zinn oversimplifies American history both politically and historically. A People's History , in Kazin's view, is a “painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed.” For Kazin, this sort of narrative fails to account for the historical uniqueness of figures like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, and doesn't do justice to the differing motivations of activists and rebels of the past. Kazin's head-shaking goes so far that he laments the book's enormous sales, suggesting that it has contributed to keeping “the left just where it is: on the margins of American political life.”

Kazin's review itself oversimplifies the issue, as a careful reading of Zinn's work reveals that he offers a considerably nuanced vision of his subjects. Importantly, and this is the reason for Zinn's success, his subjects are the “ordinary folks,” and not the Washingtons and Jeffersons of American history. Zinn's work is not academic history, although Zinn clearly has the breadth of knowledge only possible through a life of study. Instead, the book is a chronicle of ordinary folks, for ordinary folks. Kazin is right to suggest that Zinn has written a political document, as well as an historical one – where he's wrong is in assuming that these are not compatible. Kazin calls the book a polemic, and it's an accurate description. Zinn is not neglecting a more objective perspective on American history; he's rejecting it in favor of an openly political stance that reclaims the history of oppressed peoples, regardless of race or gender. His popularity is testament to both the appeal of such a reading of American history, and the desperate thirst of working class people, people of colour, women and the many other victims of modern society's ravages for a history in which they are at the centre. I would go so far as to argue that not only has Kazin underestimated the importance of this role for Zinn's book, but that the academic tradition of objectivity (read: liberalism that favors white men) has played a key role in marginalizing oppressed peoples and derailing social movements. Zinn's work is an important corrective to this destructive tradition in historical writing.

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Mathias broeckaert - 3/30/2005

The discussion about objectivity in history (or better, is history itself a science or does it merely uses scientifical methods? ) is a hopeless and an endless one, I'm afraid.. Therefore, the best way to make your opinion is reading books with different points of views on the same topic..
As a European, I'm really impressed by the book of Zinn, regardless of his radical commitment..
If anyone can advise me a book that matches this one, on general american history but by a 'conservative' historian (and not Huntington), please let me know !!!!

Chris Osborne - 6/18/2004

I'm not sure that objectivity has to marginalize outsider groups in society, whether this actually happens or not. Additionally, how can objectivity derail social movements? Although objectivity does not "take sides" with social change movements, neither does it take sides with conservative forces. Conservative polemicists take sides with conservative forces.