Howard Zinn's Disputed Legacy

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

Michael Honey teaches African-American and U.S. history, civil rights and labor studies and specializes in work on Martin Luther King, Jr. He holds the Fred T. and Dorothy G. Haley Endowed Professorship in the Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma (UWT). He is the president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association.

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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Peter Kovachev - 2/9/2010


Reid Reynolds - 2/2/2010


Maarja Krusten - 2/2/2010

covered in my comment at
under Ron Radosh's essay.

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 2/1/2010

If the term "neo-con" is so nonsensical, then how do you know it is perjorative?

Jeremy A. Kuzmarov - 1/31/2010

Beautifully put.

Maarja Krusten - 1/31/2010

Mr. Beall, I’m an historian and I think you make an excellent point. An activist has a choice of directing his or her actions against the implementers of policies or decision makers and the formulators of policies. As you correctly point out, soldiers don’t make policy.

History has many components and there are many ways to write about it. I think it is perfectly possible to draw some of the connections Dr. Honey does—valid connections between ordinary citizens and historians--without value judgments. For example, one can cite various examples of direct action by U.S. citizens whose views are on different ends of the ideological spectrum or who belong to opposing political parties. Or none at all, as with some people who identify with the TEA party movement. I’ve heard people from all sides refer to history as an explanation of their activisim. I also believe historians can write about this and a neutral approach, avoiding characterizations such as “awful game changing decade.”

If I were writing this, I would use qualifiers to make clear that a third party holds a view rather than the author. Take the phrase, “history of nonviolent direct action as a valid method to resist government wrongdoing.’ If he wanted to keep the essay value neutral, the author could have inserted the phrase “what the activist perceives as” between the words “resist” and “government wrongdoing.” By the way, I found Daniel Ellsberg’s account of his government and post-government actions in his book, Secrets, to be very interesting. That despite the fact that he and I were in different places philosophically during the Nixon administration. (I supported the Vietnam war then—I was an undergraduate during Nixon’s first term in office--although I’ve re-thought some of the issues since then.) I’m very interested in the question of how people wrestle with and handle choices of the type he made.

For whom is the author writing? I don’t know. I’m not easily classifiable. My parents were not wealthy and I paid my way through grad school by working entry level jobs not in my field of specialty. I later rose in rank to a very comfortable and satisfying managerial type position in my field. I’m an Independent who sometimes votes Republican and sometimes Democrat. As to the 1960s, the source of so battles in the later “culture wars,” I supported the Vietnam war. I voted for Nixon and Ronald Reagan. I presently find my greatest enjoyment in reading books about the civil rights movement. My temperament is more like Barack Obama’s than Richard Nixon’s. One of the people I most admire in public life for his courage and integrity is John Lewis, whose skull was fractured on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965 and who later attained elected office. I’m a solution oriented non-ideologue. Obviously, there are many of us out there who defy easy classification or labeling.

In studying governance, I’m more drawn to questions of character and how people high and low handle challenges than class or politics. In working with Nixon’s tapes, I learned a lot about the President. But I also gained insights into the people who supported or criticized him (many of their letters are in the collections I once processed at the National Archives).

Thanks for posting and thank you for your service.

Reid Reynolds - 1/31/2010

..."all the neo-cons..."

Please define your terms. This all-encompassing pejorative is about as descriptive as railing against "Wangdoodles, and Hornswogglers, and Snozzwangers, and rotten, Vermicious Knids."

Reid Reynolds - 1/31/2010

I friend provided me with the lovely words of Thomas Carlyle which encapsulate the above. I do not have the exact quote, but he rendered it: "Revolution is a term meaning one starts back at the same place."

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 1/31/2010

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I apologize for the harsh tone of my own first response to your comment. I suppose I felt upset about all the neo-cons who couldn't wait to start spitting on Zinn's grave. I'm sure Zinn himself would not have wanted discussions of his life and work to be dominated by hagiography, but by vigorous critical debate.

Reid Reynolds - 1/31/2010

"If ever elections showed working-class people voting against their own class interests..."

Ah, yes, if only the working people banded together and voted for it, peaceful Nirvana would break out all over the world, and we would live in a land overflowing with milk and honey, where everyone has everything his or her heart desires without any particular effort. Economic scarcity simply would vanish in a puff of evaporating self-delusion.

I just can't comprehend how grown men and women can be susceptible to such sophmoric reasoning, such as conveyed by men like Zinn. So, we abolish the moneyed interests, and divide the spoils equally amongst ourselves. What will you do with your $50 bucks? And, who will write your next paycheck?

Answer: it will be written by whomever sets themselves up as the Authority afterwards, and assumes for themselves all the perquisites of the elites today, and runs your life from then on. Frankly, given that we've done pretty well compared to the rest of the world, I think I'll just keep the "parasites" we have, thanks so much for caring.

Lewis Bernstein - 1/30/2010

If what you state about your high school history courses is true, and I do not doubt your veracity for a single second, it is a reflection on the poor state of instruction as well as a reflection on the way university history departments have ignored primary and secondary education. In defending Howard Zinn you have quite properly brought up defects that MUST be remedied sooner rather than later. But this would involve university history departments in reconstructing state-wide curriculum changes and get them into the teacher education business. Both are hard and require a greater commitment in time and energy than they are, at this time, collectively prepared to make.

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 1/30/2010

It's a sad commentary on the consevative state of mind of society and academia that Howard Zinn's friends and admirers feel they need to preface their praise for him as an activist with doubts about his scholarship.As though they were all eager to state,"I am not now and never have been a admirer of Howard Zinn's history."

Zinn wasn't a path-breaking researcher; instead he popularized the findings of his colleagues for a larger audience. Considering the state of general historical knowledge at the time, that was quite an accomplishment in itself. I graduated from high-school in New Hampshire the year A People's History" was first published. Although I was aware of the slaughter of native Americans and slavery, I had no detailed knowledge of these subjects, and I didn't know that the oppression of these and other American minorities persisted long after they had achieved their legal equality. Moreover, I was also ignorant of the history of American labor's opposition to its officially sanctioned exploitation. Howard Zinn opened my eyes to these matters and encouraged me to learn more about them for myself. I also learned to disagree with him on some questions, such as his belief that the US should not have entered WWII.

You say Zinn wasn't "complex" enough. But how complex should he have been? Historians regularly lament the historical ignorance of the population at large, but then they write their books in a language no non-academic can understand. Was that Zinn's great crime against scholarship, that he wrote plainly and clearly?

You also accuse Zinn of being too simplistic in his presentation of the past, neglecting the fact that many of the powerless have enabled their own victimization. But one paragraph later you admit Zinn "knew people are not pure," thereby contradicting yourself.

Then again, he was right to portray some groups as victims who were not responsible for their fate. Or would you argue that native Americans and blacks have, as a group, traditionally "rooted against their own interests?"

President Obama lamented in his State of the Union address that Democrats were now "running for the hills" before the conservative onslaught. It would seem that Howard Zinn's admirers are doing the same thing. With liberal friends like these, who needs Zinn's conservative critics?

James Daniel Beall - 1/30/2010

Sorry to get off the main topic, but- "history of nonviolent direct action as a valid method to resist government wrongdoing"? My soldiers could conceivably be put at risk, or even be killed, because two women are blocking military equipment from being sent to them, and you say they have the right to prevent "wrongdoing." The soldiers have committed no wrondoings. They were sent by their elected Commander in Chief to go thousands of miles away and place their lives in jeopardy. I wonder how those women would feel if it was their sons and daughters in Iraq.

Danny Beall

Matt D'Aguiar - 1/29/2010

You wrote, "He was, after all, a political scientist to begin with...." I've tried (albeit with not much energy) to find Zinn's vita online. Barring access to that I am left with the NYT obit and the obit in UK's The Guardian, and both indicate that Zinn received his PhD in history, not political science.

John Frederick Strodtman - 1/29/2010

Well, there's always Studs Terkel's "Working People..." I guess may be that's a more accurate blue collar perspective.

Joseph Hunkins - 1/29/2010

my reverence for Howard Zinn is not about his history-writing, it's about his humanity

Out of respect for a major figure in the interpretation of history I'll spare the rant about why I think Zinn's talks and writings reflected his worldview far more than reflecting the facts, but I do want to take issue with your suggestion about the importance of activism in academia. Rather than celebrating that approach I think need to work against it, because it's getting hard to figure out what hat a historian (or even worse, a physical scientist) is wearing when suggesting courses of action based on their interpretations of history.

Just the facts please. Just the facts.