Defending Howard Zinn

February 11, 2010

Stuart Easterling challenges the dismissive attitude of some well-known mainstream historians toward the writings of Howard Zinn.

THE DEATH of Howard Zinn has generated an outpouring of tributes and praise from around the world, celebrating the life and work of this great historian and activist.

Meanwhile, the right wing, not surprisingly, has attempted to use the occasion of Zinn's passing to do the exact opposite. Even some liberals have seemed keen to join in: In its obituary, National Public Radio, for example, gave conservative nut job David Horowitz a platform to spew his vitriol against Zinn.

Some prominent mainstream historians have also taken the opportunity of Zinn's passing to attempt to dismiss his work. Their arguments are important to engage with, because they repeat criticisms often made of radical or Marxist historical writing--ones that many people take seriously.

According to Princeton University's Sean Wilentz, for example, A People's History of the United States contains a "simplified view" of U.S. history, in which all Zinn did was to take "the guys in white hats and put them in black hats, and vice versa." Historian Michael Kazin has similarly argued that Zinn's arguments are "better suited to a conspiracy-monger's Web site than to a work of scholarship."

Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn

Joseph Ellis adds that Zinn portrays history as an "eternal struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness." Instead, history should be seen as being "all about irony, paradox and unforeseen consequences"--in other words, as ostensibly more complex than it appears in Zinn's work. Even erstwhile supporters of Zinn have echoed these sorts of arguments.

Among historians, it should be noted, perhaps the cruelest "dis" possible is to tell someone that their work is "simplistic" or "not nuanced." Graduate students--apprentice historians--live in fear at having such a label attached to them in public. It's a bit like someone at the prom telling you that you don't know how to dance.

Producing "simplistic" history conjures up images of brutish, ham-handed "Marxist" historians who are incapable of understanding complex phenomena like culture and ideas because of an archaic interest in things like social class. (Many of the people who repeat this criticism have never actually read a Marxist history book.)

But today's historians, we are told, have fortunately moved on from the Marxists, who were stuck making stick-drawings in caves.

BASICALLY, WHAT the historians above have been saying about Zinn's work, and specifically A People's History, is that "it's more complicated than that."

On the surface, this is a pretty trivial criticism. After all, the past as it was lived is always going to be more complicated than the way we choose to write about it. Historians are always selective in what stories they decide to tell about the past. Some people write histories of technology, for example, while others write histories of popular culture, and so on.

Zinn, for his part, focused his history of the United States on the struggles between oppressor and oppressed. The question is always whether the story that the historian tells obscures or leaves out something important, given the topic and level of detail at which the story is being told.

In the case of Zinn's critics, there is one often-repeated issue that is worth examining more closely. This is Zinn's presumed inability to explain the existence of "consent" to oppression.

According to this argument, Zinn places so much emphasis on people fighting against oppression that he is allegedly unable to address the ways in which oppressed people will often seem to accept their oppression, or even support their oppressors, including in the oppression of others.

This, the critics say, is leaving out an important part of the story about oppressor versus oppressed. Fair enough. But is it actually true of Zinn's work? Michael Kazin thinks so; according to him, Zinn "makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?"

Now, anyone who has lived, worked, organized among or been in the camp of oppressed people knows that they have a range of common sense answers to this question. Zinn--having been born into an immigrant Jewish working-class family, worked in blue-collar jobs during the Depression, and been a soldier, a teacher, and an activist--was exposed to this question countless times in his life. In short, Zinn likely understands consent far better than the historians who criticize him.

But he does choose to explain it differently. To understand this, let's begin with Zinn's critics. The published critique that everyone seems to refer to, whether explicitly or implicitly, is a pointedly negative 2004 review of A People's History in Dissent magazine by Michael Kazin.

So how does Kazin explain consent, in criticizing A People's History? First, he argues that the oppressors are just not as bad as Zinn says they are. Kazin argues that Zinn is mistaken in his argument that "a governing class is motivated solely by its appetite for riches and power--and by its fear of losing them" and that it is "just a pack of lying bullies."

Secondly, given that the oppressors are not as bad as Zinn says they are, we need to work with them. And so, "short of revolution, a strategic alliance with one element of 'the Establishment' is the only way social movements ever make lasting changes in law and public policy." (Here he means: the Democratic Party.)

Third, working with the oppressors--or "The Establishment"--is what has produced material gains for the oppressed, which leads to their consent. Thus, Kazin claims that Zinn doesn't understand "how economic and social reform improved the lives of millions, even if they sapped whatever mass appetite existed for radical change." One case is that of "wage-earners who took pleasure in the new cars and new houses" they were able to purchase after the Second World War.

Before taking on these arguments, let's first look at how Zinn explains consent in A People's History. Even a quick review of the book demonstrates that it is plainly false to argue that Zinn "makes no serious attempt" to address the issue.

Like Kazin, Zinn alludes to the oppressor's strategy of "mollifying opposition with reforms." But Zinn does not see this as the only factor, or even the principal one, in ensuring consent.

He emphasizes a range of factors, including the effects of the ideology of the oppressor (in the news media, for example), the use of violence and repression by the oppressor, forcing the oppressed to compete for scarce resources, the oppressor's control of the main available political alternatives (that is, Democrats and Republicans), and the oppressors' knack for "dispersing [their] controls" and giving the oppressed "small rewards" for maintaining the organizations and institutions that help perpetuate oppression.

It turns out that these, taken together, can be powerful mechanisms to help produce consent. Every chapter in A People's History talks both about how the oppressed struggle against their oppressors, and also the ways the oppressors use these various means to try to counter these struggles, or keep them from emerging or re-emerging. All this in fact makes Zinn's explanations far more persuasive than Kazin's.

After all, if it's principally "economic and social reform," and "new cars and new houses" that are the basis of consent, then why have we not seen a mass renewal of struggle, as these things have been increasingly taken away over the past generation? Clearly, the effects of the oppressor's ideology and their control over political alternatives are important factors that must be overcome here. Kazin has taken an explanation partially valid for an exceptional period in U.S. history--the post-Second World War boom--and attempted to generalize from it, but unsuccessfully.

Moreover, Kazin is mistaken in part about the post-Second World War boom as well. After all, in the case of Blacks, "economic and social reform" had not "sapped whatever mass appetite existed for radical change." Things like the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act did not lead to a falloff in struggle or radicalization; quite the opposite.

In fact, reforms can give people more confidence in themselves, as Zinn ably documents, rather than confidence in their oppressors, as Kazin believes. Ultimately, it took government repression, extra-legal violence, and the calculated political and ideological intervention of the Democratic Party to curtail the movements among Black people; their being showered with things like "new cars and new houses" was not the prime factor.

As should be clear, the differences between these positions are not related to the simplicity or complexity of the historical explanations. Rather, they are based on a clear political disagreement: these critics of Zinn believe that oppressed people have some stake in maintaining the oppressor's system, and have an interest in allying with the oppressor to meet their interests. Zinn does not.

In other words, these critics of Professor Zinn are liberal reformists. Zinn is not.

WHETHER THEY are liberal reformists or something else, we should remember that historians of all stripes are very useful for the left--after all, they really are experts in history.

But the problem (as anyone who has put down a history book in annoyance or disgust knows) is that their class bias often undermines their analysis. This bias has gotten even worse over the past generation of Reaganism and neoliberalism. Academics will often extend their own partial middle-class stake in the oppressor's system--and its associated narrow self-interested cynicism--to everyone else, and particularly to oppressed people.

In the academy, expressing this class bias is unfortunately often made synonymous with being "nuanced" and "complex."

History certainly can be complicated, and merits serious study and debate. But to argue that Zinn overly simplifies things is inaccurate: A People's History is not a simple book, and his explanations for struggle and consent are not based on simple ideas or arguments. Saying so just serves to mask a key political disagreement between liberals and radicals.

To point out, as Zinn does, that in history there are people who wear black hats and those who wear white hats, who are opposed to and often in conflict with one other, is not overly simplifying. It is, in fact, clarifying.

It took a former worker and soldier, an activist and radical, to keep that insight alive within the historical profession--and society at large--during a difficult period for the left. For that gift alone, Zinn will be sorely missed.

But don't take my word for it: if you haven't yet, read A People's History of the United States for yourself.

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