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Mar 23, 2004 8:04 pm

What Should A People's History of the United States Be? ...

America's capitalist market churns up all sorts of cruel ironies. One of them is the remarkable success in sales of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. It has sold over a million copies."A People's History may well be the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written," writes Michael Kazin.
But Zinn's big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People's History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and 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?
At Dissent, Kazin publishes a devastating critique of Zinn's text from the point of view of a thoughtful historian on the American left.

Update: Kazin hopes to weigh in on this discussion in the next day or so. In the meantime, you may be interested in reading American Amnesia's interview with Howard Zinn and the extensive comments on the interview there. On related issues, see: Tim Burke's critique of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival; and American Amnesia's interview with Chomsky and the comments on the interview there. Then, there is my favorite left lit crit, Bre'r Chun, who thinks not well of Kazin on Zinn, Luker on Kazin, or Cliopatria's forms. She is sufficiently annoying, however, to rule his recent posts.

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Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/26/2004

Derek, how is a working poor Southern white Republican's support for his party any different than the warm feeling a poor Russian peasant had for the Czar?

Recall that Abraham Lincoln said you can fool some of the people all of the time.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/25/2004

Yes, all of them have been duped. Every last one. Michael Meo, smarter than my father about how my father prioritizes his interests. Michael Meo, smarter than all of the millions of working class southerners who have voted Republican lo these many years. Michael Meo, the only one capable of seeing through the nefariousness. And all based on circumstantial detail from Esquire. Silly me -- roll over workers of the world, stop exercising the franchise, and let the people's revolution overcome you. Master Meo and the good folks at Esquire are here to tell you the news.
And I don't even like Reagan. But no wonder some people caricature liberals. But of cpurse those millions of Republican voters all were quoted as saying they wanted Wall Street out of power in washington. I'm sure Mr. Franks just let the quotations take him where they would, right? No selectivity concerns there. These folks are all just too dumb to know what's good for 'em.
While I may agree with much of your last paragraph can you understand how obnoxious it is for you to sit here and proclaim that those 50% of Americans who don't agree with you have all been duped? because what you are saying, at the end of the day, is that you are smarter than every one of them, that you see cleartly where they do not, that you are the final arbiter of these things, that no smart people could possibly read evidence differently from the way you do. I wish your smart conservative students luck. But then you probably don't believe you have any of those, do you?

Michael Meo - 3/24/2004

Well, Mr Catsam, I would like to pose as problematic just exactly what you take as the basis of a rhetorical question.

In this month's Harper's Magazine, Thomas Frank's cover story, "Lie Down for America: How the Republican Party Sows Ruin on the Great Plains," examines in some circumstantial detail how 'conservative'--i.e., corporate, candidates continually claim to be committed to reversing the social changes that modern life has produced, but in reality only reward the corporate entities that control the Republican Party.

To respond to your rhetorical question, it certainly appears that when someone says that he voted for the Republican because he wanted to get Wall Street out of power in Washington, he must be considered to be ignorant of his own interests. "Rural America is pissed," a small-town Pennsylvania man told a reporter from Newsweek [quoted in Frank's article]. Explaining why he and his neighbors voted for George Bush, he said, "These people are tired of moral decay. They're tired of everything being wonderful on Wall Street and terrible on Main Street."

Despite the testimony of David Kay, who has asked his former boss to apologize for the invasion of Iraq, despite the report of Treasury Secretary O'Neil that Bush spoke of invading Iraq on the very first Cabinet meeting of his Administration, despite Richard Clark's assertion that Bush just about ordered the counter-terrorist experts to link Iraq with al-Qaeda, the polls show 50% of Americans still believe that Bush is honest.

Yes, they have been duped.

mark safranski - 3/24/2004

k-12 history education is not " conservative " so much as it is simply bland, superficial and error-ridden. The texts try to nod vaguely in a PC direction on most key liberal hot-button issues without offending the religious right in the process.

No, the textbooks do not take a rigidly hostile view of America popular among crits, pomos, deconstructionists and the 31 flavors of Marxism found in academia but those are fringe viewpoints, numerically speaking, when measured against mainstream opinion.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/23/2004

I love Chun calling historians' tomes "dry as dust." This from a lit crit person? Chuckles. Of course what we have here is failure to understand, apparently, that Zinn is a professional historian. In other words, what is she nattering on about. To be ignorant of one's ignorance truly is the malady of the ignorant.
And what does her "rock banging" comment mean? I am baffled and befuddled. Of course you'll note that she doesn't actually, you know, make an argument or anything. That would mean engaging with some of those dry as dust historians -- you know, dry as dust like Leuchtenburg and Foner and McPherson and Woodward and Fairclough and Thornton and . . . . .

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/23/2004

Gregory --
No, actually -- Zinn does purport to speak to the interests of the masses, of the working class. His entire _People's History_ is precisely predicated on a fundamental idea of what is and is not good for his masses. The problem is that most of his masses would look at what he wrote and see it is nonsense, or at least as not fully representing their lives. Look at Zionn's take on reagan, a president I hardly am a booster of, and explain to me how so many working class males, for example, voted for reagan and how that jibes with Zinn's thesis. It does not. Because Zinn's thesis is simplistic, and as a consequence wrong.
You are engaging in remarkable transferrence here -- what Kazin said in "Populist Persuasion" is really irrelevent -- and no way is it as reductionist as Zinn, nice try -- what is at issue is his review. This is what this conversation is about. Bringing in other writings is not especially germane to what the review itself says, and the review is pretty spot on.

Gregory Downs - 3/23/2004

I'll withdraw my admitted overbroad generalizations about professional historians when you withdraw yours in your previous comments about people who presume to speak for the people. We're all simiplifying here.

Kazin's stance in regard to the people is rendered in pretty stark form in the Populist Persuasion. There's not much guesswork involved in reading that book, and it is, in fact, not much more complex in its final rendering than Zinn's work--the people and the populist strain in American politics being the bearer of American vice, in his telling. Kazin is, I think, remarkably open about his elitism, and has written essays in well-distributed publications about the need for leftist politicians to avoid populist rhetoric.

While Kazin dresses most of his critique in the gowns of "professionalism," it isn't unreasonable to ask whether the public nature of his political commitments didn't play in.

In the end, I still stand that Zinn wrote a book that many people were better off because they read it, and even better off when they moved beyond it. That's a more active and interesting model of learning history than imagining that a perfect synthesis could make it possible for people to get a single story from a single source.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/23/2004

Gregory --
Er, let's be clear -- Zinn is a professional historian, so right away your generalizations about professional historians simply do not hold.
Meanwhile. How is Kazin's an elitist take -- I mean other than you saying it is so? It is no such thing.

Gregory Downs - 3/23/2004

At least two comments in the discussion here critiqued Zinn for just the point I responded to--his lack of originality, a critique that as I suggested is irrelevant to the discussion of his book.

As I wrote before, I wouldn't use Zinn's book as the only or as the primary text in any class, at any level. I do wonder though if we might benefit by thinking of history texts and history education in stages. Not just as a nod to the realities of the school system--that people advance in grades--but as a statement about how people learn.

Many people learn bits and pieces of the grand narrative of America the Land of the Free as young children. Historians and even elementary school teachers have very little say in this; it happens through media and, in some families, through dinner-table discussions.

Zinn's book therefore served many people as an intermediary position, a place where they started to question the stories they had heard, and started to make their own. For many of the people I know, I am sad to say, their history classes and textbooks played little role in this reformulation. The textbooks can be too bland, or at times too painstakingly nuanced, to help students make their own useful stories of America.

Many of them went on to make new and better stories about America, over time, shedding Zinn's simplifications and growing, as they aged, more comfortable with nuance and multiple endings and variation. But this was a synthesis they reached in many respects on their own. Not by reading and incorporating a different, better synthesis in toto, but by starting to think as historians.

So I think that Zinn's book is certainly open to the historians' criticisms raised here, but that those criticisms--and Kazin's elitist take--do not necessarily prove Kazin's first point, that the book doesn't deserve its attention and success. A flawed book can do good work, not because it is right, but because it plays a role in helping people move through different stages of historical thinking. Professional historians, with their obligations to the discipline, are hamstrung by the fact that they have to choose professional standards over effectiveness. As such, they reach students well, once they students have grown--on their own--to the point where they can make sense of the historians' points.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/23/2004

Kazin'z criticism, in a nutshell, is that _People's History_ is not an especially good book. He is right. This has nothing to do with "popular" history, usually a chimera pulled out by those who would claim that historians resent those whose books sell. Nonsense -- James McPherson has written wonderful popular history; C. Vann Woodward's _Strange Career_ is still selling books, and the list could go on for days. Those who embrace Zinn's book need to address it on its merits and not ascribe sinister motives to the very criticism of it. In any case, I still await someone addressing the simple fact that the working class Zinn purports to speak for have exercised their free will and often times have seen their self-interest tied up in the interests of democratic capitalism and of theis citizenship in the US. Are all of those Reagan Democrats just ignorant of their own interests? Did those millions of working class who saw an interest in choosing between Gore and Bush really not identify those differences? Were they duped? And if so, I'd like to see Zinn or anyone else step into a bar in, say, Gloucester, Massachusetts or Lubbock, Texas and tell the folks there that they did not know what they were doing, that they are dupes, that they are working for their own oppression. Bah.

Timothy James Burke - 3/23/2004

I feel like we read different reviews. First, I don't think Kazin is attacking Zinn for not being more scholarly. He's criticizing him for the nature of the story he chooses to tell, both because it is empirically wrong and because it is misguided as a way of mobilizing its audience.

The core criticism here is that Zinn has an essentially static story to tell about American history: wholly demonic elites rule over and repress the masses; the masses resist and are crushed. Zinn shrinks to unimportance differences between historically oppressed groups and categorically denies that elites ever share common ideals or interests with their subjects. Resistance is ubiquitous but never succeeds in creating meaningful progress.

I think Kazin is rightfully observing that this is actually a reactionary narrative dressed up in revolutionary clothing, and the quintessential case of an allegedly populist rhetoric actually completely vesting agency in elites.

It seems to me that there could be a book which has the clarity and legibility of Zinn but which does not straightjacket itself in this way. I suppose Chun the Unavoidable would say this is criticizing Zinn for not writing a different book than that which he wrote, but what of it? Most of us are agreeing that Zinn's book occupies an important niche in public culture, but it carries within its pages a fairly neat if accidental explanation for the eclipse of the left. By crafting a narrative in which the consent of the governed is seen always and inevitably as a false and ideological artifact represented cynically by elites, rather than a genuinely popular fact on the ground in American history, Zinn sets himself up in a doomed vanguardist posture, trying to get Americans to recognize the totality of their oppression and finally, at last, struggle and win rather than struggle and get crushed. Because he can't recognize that America is a "world they made together", to quote Mechal Sobel's title, he can never really hope to rouse the final passion he seeks--even when he can quite persuasively recast his readers' understanding of the hidden history of American society.

Gregory Downs - 3/23/2004

If the point of Kazin's comentary and some of the responses here is that Zinn's book is "popular" and not academic history, then I think the exercise is a bit peculiar--does anyone think Zinn is hoping to be called a historiographical innovator? Suggesting that Zinn hasn't written a new academic theory is a bit like suggesting that Michael Jordan isn't an especially good golfer--true, I suppose, but a little beside the point.

The important difference that Kazin is articulating here is a class one, a shot in the longstanding battle between leftists who see change coming from above and more populistic leftists. Kazin's position is clear--he defines the evils of American politics as populist in nature and in the process bizarrely mischaracterizes both the Populist Party and several other important historical eras.

I wouldn't want Zinn's book to be the only text in a class--or maybe not even the primary text--but I can say with great assurance that his stances, crude as they sometimes are, are at heart no more crude than Kazin's elitism. What Zinn's book lacks is the refinement and taste that elitism clothes itself in.

But that wouldn't surprise Zinn; he called it, after all, a "people's history" for a reason.

I wrote a little more on this at:

Grant W Jones - 3/22/2004

Debate or no, this junk is still required in too many history classes. At my local community college Zinn's tome is the text to an introductory U.S. history course. Children who probably don't even know in what century the Civil War was fought, are the vessals of a propagandist.

Jonathan Rees - 3/22/2004


Remember, The People's History is essentially a textbook. If it's flat and pat and lacking in nuance, what then are the countless parade of American textbooks that consistently invoke the eternal forward march of the American system? [The earlier in grade the book is designed for invariably the worse it is]. Those voices are, in a literal sense, conservative, even if many liberals believe the same thing. The People's History is an antitode to this near-universal background assumption.

With regard to bias, all I meant to suggest is that everything is relative. One person's liberal is another person's conservative, and sometimes the two groups meet somewhere at the edges. Not everything can be easily measured on a left to right scale.
I don't find someone on the left attacking a writer on the far left at all remarkable, particularly when Kazin himself is working with the same assumptions about class that mainstream liberals and conservatives share. Organizing a text around the concept of class is no different than organizing a book around who's president. It's just that Zinn's book is so rare it stands out much more.

To me, Zinn's unrelenting critique of capitalism is the book's strength and its weakness. It is certainly what makes it unique among full-length treatments of American history. However, I would never assign it to one of my survey classes because it leaves out to much of what I cover in lecture. It would also alienate more people than it inspires. Nevertheless, I'm glad its out there so that interested readers can get a voice from completely outside the mainstream.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/22/2004

Jonathan, Of course, scholars on the left carry on even farocious warfare and debate. _That_ they do is no good reason why students should be exposed on the collegiate level _only_ to those exchanges, unless you really do believe that left answers of whatever denomination are the _only_ possible intelligent answers. Zinn's declaration that Kazin is a conservative, if that is what Zinn declares, doesn't make it so. I suspect that you are not seriously making this argument. Nowhere have you responded to Kazin's argument that Zinn's history is too flat, too pat, too lacking in nuance -- only seeing patterns of the same confrontations repeating themselves.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/22/2004

The weakness several here have noted, that Zinn reduces each era to a simplistic, repetitive twilight struggle, is also his strength. He presents a theme around which people can understand past history and their own times. In the process he brings some important facts to an audience that did not know them.

We do not need new facts to supplant Zinn, but we do need new themes: Themes that are simple enough to be grasped and yet true enough to lead readers to the realization that a greater complexity exists.

Themes that organize well-written books and that lead their readers to new questions.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/22/2004

I guess I quibble with just how rare Zinn's views are. In other words if one wants to read critiques of American history or get the perspectives of social history, it is just plain lazy and historiographically wrong to think that Zinn does something that many, many historians do not do more reasonably, more insightfully, and more rationally. I don't find Zinn all that useful. It is an extended polemic-cum-caricature. I've always thought it might be fiun in a historiography class to assign Zinn and paul johnson and let them have at it, but then that would be only slightly more responsible than giving Ann Coulter and Michael Moore equal time just because they oppose one another.
I do think Zinn's _SNCC_ is somewhat more useful, not for its conclusions or for its role as a work of history, but simply as reportage.

Jonathan Rees - 3/22/2004

What we have here is another illustration of why conservative calls for political diversity in college classes are so silly. The left has more than enough debates of their own to keep history students occupied for hours on end. At the same time, from Zinn's perspective, just about everybody else, including Michael Kazin, is conservative (so they're already represented).

To me, Kazin's critique is not devastating. It's exactly what I expect from someone carrying his own baggage to the table.
From my perspective, although I find it hard to embrace someone who thinks John L. Lewis was part of the problem rather than part of the solution, Zinn does have a point of view that deserves to be heard (and critiqued if that's your cup of tea).

Just last week, my daughter's school board heard from a parent who condemned the use of the People's History as a supplementary reading in a high school AP class because it "promoted violent revolution." I don't think he could have misread the book any worse. Much to their credit, the board voted unanimously not to ban the book. One of the board members told the meeting that students should be able to have access to all points of view and make up their mind for themselves.

The conservative point of view with regard to American history is everywhere you look in K-12 classes. As Timothy Burke suggests, Howard Zinn's views are a lot more rare, practically unique. You may not like them, but they fill a useful niche.

Jonathan Rees

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/22/2004

Yes, I too agree with the review about 100% with some additions. Is there anything more noisome than those who presume to speak for the people, even when the people are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves? There is, after all, the uncomfortable fact that many within the working masses for whom Zinn presumes to speak actually vote, and many of them have voted for folks like Reagan and Bush. There is the uncomfortable fact that many who fought for, say, civil rights decided that a good way to do so eventually was to enter politics themselves as working members of one or another of the parties -- does Howard Zinn really get to sit in judgment of John Lewis for joining to work within the system? There is also the uncomfortable fact that when presented with options of communism and socialism it has been workers who have most rejected these onslaughts and instead bought into the American Dream and their desire to access it, or whetever pithy title one might want to give it. And what of those who have volunteered for the US armed services for causes Zinn so blithely dismisses. were they all just dupes who did not know better?
And I do not especially give Zinn much credit for historiographical originiality. Zinn was hardly the first historian to address race in a unique way (Woodward and Franklin, anyone?) or the Populists, or labor history. And hasn't anyone heard of the Beards? That Zinn did so in a synthesis would be a great and noble thing if he had not gone about it in so cartoonish a way. This is why Kazin's review provides such a service -- it is a critical review by someone "of the left" and while some will attempt to lambaste Kazin as some sort of shill for the man, the fact is, that dog won't hunt.

Timothy James Burke - 3/22/2004

Wow. I really agree with Kazin, which will doubtless occasion some carping that once again I'm (or he is) caricarturing "the left" in some fashion. In many ways, his critical comments on Zinn parallel some of my thoughts on Chomsky as well, but they're especially right-on about A People's History. It took me a couple of readings, but as an undergraduate I remember reading it again and thinking, "Every friggin' chapter in this book is the same: evil elites crush the people, the people struggle back, briefly gain ground, and then are crushed again." Every historical episode Zinn recounts is a perfect case of the eternal return; nothing really ever changes in essence. It's a dialectic running in place on a treadmill.

That being said, I think Kazin underestimates one reason for the book's popularity. It's well-written, well-marketed and at the time it originally came out, there was nothing like it within US historiography, and maybe there is still no ready equivalent. It is a shadow textbook, written perfectly against the blandness and passive cheerleading of the average high school US history text. I remember reading it for the first time as a junior in high school and feeling electrified: it exposed a lethal hail of lies and omissions from the standard text and standard presentations. In this respect, Zinn's ideological straightjacket mattered less than the mere fact that he was covering a host of topics that got lost or buried in pedagogical business as usual.

Now I would happy to see a successor to that role that introduced all that material but with more imagination and richness, but I do value Zinn enormously for doing that job in the first place. It made a big difference to me then, even if I have a lot of criticisms now.

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