History

The Last Leftist

The late Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, puts today's lefties to shame.

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Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, by Martin Duberman, The New Press, 344 pages, $26.95

There was once a radical left in the United States. Back then, it was common to hear on college campuses and in respectable left-wing publications that liberals and the Democratic Party were the enemies of freedom, justice, and the people. Democratic politicians who expanded welfare programs and championed legislation that aided labor unions were nonetheless regarded as racists, totalitarians, and mass murderers for their reluctance to defend the civil rights of African Americans, for their collusion with capitalists, for their use of police powers to repress dissent, and for their imperialist, war-making policies. There was widespread left-wing rejection of the liberal claim that government was good, and many leftists spoke of and stood for a thing they called liberty.

There was no better exemplar of that thoroughgoing, anti-statist left than Howard Zinn, the author of A People's History of the United States, whose death in 2010 was preceded by a life of activism and scholarship devoted to what could be called libertarian socialism. It is difficult to read Martin Duberman's sympathetic but thoughtful biography, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left, without lamenting how different Zinn and his ilk were from what now passes for an alternative political movement in this country. And for those of us with an interest in bridging the left and libertarianism, the book will also serve as a painful reminder of what once seemed possible. Howard Zinn's life was a repudiation of the politics of the age of Obama.

At the age of 21, Zinn eagerly enlisted in the Army Air Forces to serve in World War II, but soon became one of very few Americans who questioned "the good war." Thereafter, Zinn accumulated impeccable anti-war credentials, capped by his characterization of Obama's foreign policy as "nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike."

Following his service as a bombardier on B-17 Flying Fortresses, Zinn found out that what he had dropped on French towns were 100-pound canisters filled with a new invention called "jellied gasoline," later known as napalm. By the end of the war he had come to believe that "modern warfare, being massive, indiscriminate killing of people, is a means so horrendous that no end"—not even the destruction of fascism—"can justify it." Though he never considered himself to be a pacifist, the 60 million deaths caused by the war against the Axis caused him to see that "to retaliate against violence with more violence [is] to multiply the cruelties which you set out to stop." Hiroshima and Nagasaki confirmed for him that, in Duberman's words, "there was no such thing as a 'good' war." On his way home from Europe, Zinn wrote on the box containing his Air Force medals and insignia, "NEVER AGAIN."

Zinn was deeply influenced by anarchists, and this anti-statism kept him from doing what most of the left has been doing of late—identifying with the holders of state power. Some of Zinn's friends, Duberman writes, resented his "never speaking well of any politician." When many considered John F. Kennedy to be a champion of black civil rights, Zinn declared that the president had done only enough for the movement "to keep his image from collapsing in the eyes of twenty million Negroes." Going farther, Zinn argued that African Americans should eschew involvement with any state power, and even counseled against a campaign for voting rights. "When Negroes vote, they will achieve as much power as the rest of us have—which is very little." Instead, they should create "centers of power" outside government agencies from which to pressure authorities.

Much of today's American left identifies with a black authority figure who criticizes blacks for eating fried chicken, wearing baggy jeans, and "acting like boys instead of men," and who has remained astonishingly mute on civil rights. (The political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion found that Obama, in his first two years in office, spoke about race less than any Democratic president had since 1961.) In contrast, Zinn's first political battle was with the black president of Spelman College—Zinn's first academic employer—over the college's mission to produce, amid a burgeoning civil rights movement, "sedate, quiet, careful" black women who were, as Duberman puts it, carbon copies "of a genteel finishing school for young white ladies." Zinn unreservedly attacked the Spelman president in a letter to the college's board of trustees for acting "like a colonial administrator in a country burning with nationalistic fervor," for demonstrating "the sincere moralizing of the true Puritan," and for creating a "warped" program of accommodation to segregation and assimilation into white bourgeois culture that was worse for blacks than the deeds of racists.

Looking at Zinn's career from a time when formerly antiwar lefties are calling for a "responsible" gradual withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan and defending the mass murder of civilians with unmanned aircraft, one can only marvel at the uncompromising ferocity of his attacks on liberal warmongers. In 1966 he wrote of Democratic leaders what now could be said of the current inhabitant of the White House: "American statesmen who are 'liberals' at home will sustain a state of terror abroad by surrounding it with the promise of change." To liberals who declared their affinity for government, Zinn asked, "Are not governments the greatest murderers of all?"

At times, Zinn could have been confused with Murray Rothbard. Though always favorable toward socialism, Zinn consistently demonstrated what Duberman calls a "considerable attraction to the anarchists' antiauthoritarian stance." He called for the elimination of all national borders, and he even acknowledged that capitalism had "developed the economy in an enormously impressive way" by increasing "geometrically the number of goods available." He admired many of the New Deal's accomplishments but saw its legacy, in Duberman's words, as one where "big business and big government had joined forces, becoming allies more concerned with their own prestige and power than with the multiple needs of the people."

Sadly, Zinn was not without lapses into authoritarian thinking. Presaging the politically correct assault on intellectual freedom in higher education, in 1969 he argued that the university should discourage scholarship that does not advance the cause of "eliminating war, poverty, race, and national hatred [or] governmental restrictions on individual freedom." Deriding free intellectual exchange as "endless academic discussion" of "trivial or esoteric inquiry" that goes "nowhere into the real world," Zinn insisted that academics apply their work only to causes he supported. "Let the economists work out a plan for free food, instead of advising the Federal Reserve Board on interest rates," he wrote. "Let the political scientists work out insurgency tactics for the poor, rather than counter-insurgency tactics for the military."

Zinn was in some ways a product of the conservatism of his era. "Though sympathetic to the New Left," Duberman writes, "Howard was late in acknowledging feminism or ethnicity as primary aspects of identity, and even later in regard to sexual orientation." Indeed, the first edition of A People's History, published in 1980, contained only a brief recounting of feminism in the 20th century and no mention of Latinos or gays.

Despite its important omissions, Zinn's opus was a liberatory corrective to traditional American historiography. Until the publication of A People's History, textbooks that narrated the march of time from Columbus to the modern era were peopled almost exclusively with presidents, senators, generals, inventors, and capitalists. Those "great men" were solely credited with creating the institutions and cultural norms of the United States. Zinn inverted the perspective. The old heroes were cast as oppressors while Indians, slaves, workers, radicals, and Third World peasants took center stage as noble protagonists. As one reviewer put it, "The book bears the same relation to traditional texts as a photographic negative does to print: the areas of darkness and light have been reversed."

Though it presented material that had already been made available by New Left historians in narrow monographs, Zinn's book was the first reconception of the whole story of the country. By breaking the lock of tradition and patriotic loyalism on the historical profession, A People's History, which has now sold more than 2 million copies, made possible the very act of radical, comprehensive revision.

Duberman rightly criticizes Zinn for ignoring or downplaying modern-day women's activists, non-black racial minorities, and gays, and also for presenting a Manichean view of the world. A People's History often "lacks nuance, with the world divided into oppressors and oppressed, villains or heroes; the history of the U.S. is treated as mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit." Nothing positive is said about the "great men" and, perhaps more troubling, the masses are portrayed as either powerless victims or thoroughly political creatures wholly devoted to struggle against their oppressors.

In fact, as Duberman reminds us, "the workers in this country haven't been in a state of constant agitation." An uninformed reader of A People's History would likely come away from it with the impression that most ordinary Americans were left-wing activists. Yet even at its height, in the 1910s, 1930s, and 1960s, radicalism never achieved anything approaching majority support in the U.S. The largest left-wing organization in American history, the Communist Party U.S.A. of the 1930s, had at its peak approximately 100,000 members and another 100,000 "fellow travelers."

There is a larger problem with Zinn's work that neither Duberman nor, to my knowledge, any other critics have mentioned. As a boy Zinn was a fan of radio shows like The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and The Shadow, and he played hooky to go to movies and Brooklyn Dodgers games. Yet there is no reference in A People's History to the pursuit of leisure, pleasure, and fun, to which the American working class has devoted far more of its time, energy, and money than it has to explicitly political activities.

Zinn claimed to place workers and their struggles at the center of his narrative, but he ignored the workers of the early industrial revolution who refused to obey factory discipline by drinking on the job and disregarding work schedules. His account of slavery is filled with whippings and rebellions, but nothing is said of the slaves' leisure activities or comparatively relaxed attitudes toward work and sex. Even the slaves' and their descendants' enduring contributions to American music, a music that has meant freedom and pleasure to the people Zinn purports to understand, does not rate a mention.

Zinn tells of the organized movement for women's suffrage but does not mention the legions of prostitutes in the 19th century who won many of the freedoms women now take for granted, from high wages to ownership of property to the ability to walk in public without a male chaperone. Crime, in particular the small-time street crime that was always part of the fabric of ordinary people's lives, and which counterintuitively enlarged so many of our freedoms, does not make the cut as "relevant" history. Nor is there a single mention of consensual sex, which undoubtedly was a central part of the lives of Zinn's "people."

Zinn's shortcomings—especially his unconscious Puritanism—are shared by much of today's left. But the world would change for the better if his commitment to fight the power no matter who holds it again became part of what it means to be a leftist.