The importance of Howard Zinn
March 29, 2004
On Thursday the 25 th 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 (www.dissentmagazine.org). 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.
A recent anniversary serves as an excellent example of the power of popular, engaged history. This past week also featured the sixtieth anniversary of the "Great Escape," as commemorated in the film of the same name. On March 24 th 1944, seventy-six airmen from the Commonwealth and the United States crawled through a tunnel that led past the walls of their prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft 3, and burst into the German winter and freedom. Ultimately, the escape can only be characterized as a failure, as only three of the seventy-six actually escaped and fifty of the escape artists were secretly executed and abandoned in ditches by their vengeful German guards. Nonetheless, it stands as a small example of the enormous courage that combatants (and civilians) showed during the Second World War, millions of whom risked their lives regularly to fight against fascism or for the freedom of their nation. To commemorate the sixtieth anniversary, the Globe and Mail published an article by Canadian historian Jonathan Vance, who has done impressive work studying how Canadian society remembers the World Wars, and what effect that has today. Vance argues persuasively that the film The Great Escape , released in 1963 and starring Steve McQueen, plays a key role in ensuring the continued remembrance of the escape attempt. Although the film takes liberties with the history, Vance argues that the important fact is the film's role in popularizing the history of the event. In my own experience, the film has been enormously successful. In two summers working at a military museum on Vancouver Island , I learned that the Great Escape was a historical marker for many of our visitors. When, in my first summer there, a prisoner in the camp who had worked on building the tunnels donated his illustrated diary from the time to the museum, it became clear to me how truly significant the film was. It stood in as the primary way in which many people 'remembered' the war. People who had long forgotten the significance of the names Dieppe and Juno remembered details from the escape. The film was a powerful tool for us at the museum, because it was a great way to make the history we were trying to present immediately accessible.
Some historians, undoubtedly Kazin included, would find the power of the film, and Zinn's book, coupled with their inaccurate or political recounting of history, troubling. History has a powerful role in shaping society, though, and is more than a hunt for truth. This is not to say that history based on lies is of any value - but there is power in constructing narratives that celebrate themes of heroism or rebellion, especially when these are constructed so as to privilege the perspectives of rebels, resistors and those traditionally oppressed. Contrary to Kazin's suggestion, this sort of engagement, which Howard Zinn's body of work unflinchingly embraces, will not marginalize the Left. Instead, it provides the Left with a history that can be used both to understand past resistance and inspire future activism.