What Howard Zinn Got Wrong

The problem with Zinn’s work is that it fails to offer an honest account of how political change actually happens.

Kyle Williams March 9, 2020

Howard Zinn’s many con­tri­bu­tions to the Amer­i­can Left make his sins as a schol­ar for­giv­able — such is the usu­al (and under­stand­ably sym­pa­thet­ic) cri­tique of this icon of revi­sion­ist his­to­ry. But now, on the eve of the 40th anniver­sary of A People’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States—with more than 2.5 mil­lion copies in print and its influ­ence con­tin­u­ing to grow — read­ers may want to reex­am­ine how Zinn deliv­ers his message.

'A People’s History' focuses almost exclusively on victimization and tragedy.

Zinn earned his crit­i­cal view of Amer­i­can pow­er after drop­ping explo­sives and napalm over France and Cen­tral Europe from B‑17 bombers dur­ing World War II. Back home, he went to col­lege through the G.I. Bill and stud­ied his­to­ry at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, the base of tow­er­ing lib­er­al intel­lec­tu­als like Richard Hof­s­tadter and Hen­ry Steele Com­mager. In 1959, a year after Zinn fin­ished his doc­tor­ate, he pub­lished his first and only for­ay into exten­sive archival research: LaGuardia in Con­gress, a con­ven­tion­al mono­graph on Fiorel­lo LaGuardia’s pre-may­oral career as a con­gress­man in the 15 years lead­ing up to the New Deal.

But if grad­u­ate school gave Zinn his cre­den­tials, his first teach­ing posi­tion, at the his­tor­i­cal­ly black Spel­man Col­lege, gave him his voca­tion. In the late 1950s and ear­ly 1960s, Zinn host­ed stu­dent activists and par­tic­i­pat­ed in deseg­re­ga­tion efforts in Geor­gia, Mis­sis­sip­pi and Alaba­ma. Work­ing with the Stu­dent Non­vi­o­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee, Zinn observed reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves in the South and wrote about the civ­il rights move­ment for sym­pa­thet­ic peri­od­i­cals like The Nation, earn­ing him­self an FBI file in the process. Zinn’s role in stu­dent activism led the Spel­man admin­is­tra­tion to fire him (not the last time Zinn ran into prob­lems with uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion), and he took a posi­tion in the depart­ment of gov­ern­ment at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, where he stayed for near­ly 25 years.

Was Zinn an activist or a his­to­ri­an? He was not alone in chal­leng­ing the dichoto­my. Like his­to­ri­an and In These Times founder James Wein­stein, Zinn was a bit old­er than many of the activists of the New Left, but he nev­er­the­less belonged to a move­ment of his­to­ri­ans who took Van Wyck Brooks’ ide­al of a usable past” as a mantra for their schol­ar­ship. Young his­to­ri­ans of the Left defined their work in delib­er­ate oppo­si­tion to what they thought of as detached lib­er­al­ism and super­fi­cial­ly objec­tive his­to­ry. Instead of mere­ly inter­pret­ing the past, these his­to­ri­ans want­ed to change the present.

Zinn described his ide­al as val­ue-laden his­to­ri­og­ra­phy” to sharp­en pop­u­lar per­cep­tions of how bad things are for the vic­tims of the world.” The historian’s job was to retell the offi­cial his­to­ry (as writ­ten by the vic­tors) instead as a sto­ry of the oppressed — and wake peo­ple out of their com­pla­cent slum­ber in the process.

Zinn was not alone in his belief that his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives should pro­voke change, but he broke with oth­er left­ists of his gen­er­a­tion (includ­ing Eugene Gen­ovese, a Marx­ist his­to­ri­an of slav­ery) through his strong com­mit­ment to his­to­ry as a way to move peo­ple for­ward. For Zinn, this goal sup­plant­ed loy­al­ty to any ide­ol­o­gy or pro­fes­sion­al norm. Because the stakes were so high, he thought there was no time to waste.

As the first edi­tion of A People’s His­to­ry, pub­lished in 1980, insist­ed, there was no such thing as val­ue-free his­to­ry — all his­to­ry advo­cates one per­spec­tive or anoth­er; his his­to­ry advo­cat­ed for the 99% against rul­ing elites, from colo­nial­ism to the present day, cen­tered on the plight of the mar­gin­al­ized and the resis­tance of the powerless.

The Nation­al Book Award final­ist stood as an anti­dote to con­ven­tion­al school text­books that left out social move­ment fig­ures and events that cast the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment in a bad light. It became clear to me,” Zinn said, that the real­ly crit­i­cal way in which peo­ple are deceived by his­to­ry is not that lies are told, but that things are omitted.”

Since its pub­li­ca­tion, A People’s His­to­ry has had mul­ti­ple new edi­tions and spin­offs, a rare feat for any his­to­ri­an and espe­cial­ly for one who pos­sessed no inter­est in telling sto­ries about found­ing fathers or pres­i­dents. Zinn’s nar­ra­tive not only intro­duced many peo­ple to a crit­i­cal per­spec­tive on U.S. his­to­ry, but became an invi­ta­tion to join the resis­tance. The book’s influ­ence is undeniable.

The prob­lem with Zinn’s work, how­ev­er, is that it some­times tries so hard to assault our com­pla­cen­cy that it fails to offer an hon­est account of how polit­i­cal change actu­al­ly happens.

At Zinn’s hand, the pow­er­less are one-dimen­sion­al vic­tims with puri­ty akin to for­mu­la­ic Chris­t­ian mar­tyrs. Hero­ic social move­ments are so egal­i­tar­i­an and ide­al­is­tic that they nev­er actu­al­ly suc­ceed; tem­po­rary vic­to­ries are sim­ply used to build ten­sion before an inevitable defeat.

Con­sid­er how Zinn treats the Pop­ulist revolt of the late 19th cen­tu­ry. A demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ment of black and white farm­ers, the Pop­ulists sup­port­ed rur­al Amer­i­cans against the emerg­ing cor­po­rate-finan­cial sys­tem, from Wall Street and Lon­don to small-town mer­chants in Texas and North Car­oli­na. Along with urban move­ments like the Knights of Labor, the Pop­ulists cam­paigned with far-reach­ing reform poli­cies that includ­ed the reg­u­la­tion of pub­lic util­i­ties and trans­porta­tion, a demo­c­ra­t­ic and decen­tral­ized finan­cial sys­tem, and labor pro­tec­tions. The agrar­i­an rad­i­cals of the Farm­ers’ Alliance (and, sub­se­quent­ly, the People’s Par­ty) formed coop­er­a­tive orga­ni­za­tions and ran can­di­dates for nation­al office in the 1890s. With William Jen­nings Bryan on a fusion­ist tick­et, the People’s Par­ty won some local and con­gres­sion­al races, but dra­mat­i­cal­ly lost in 1896 and dis­solved short­ly thereafter.

Pop­ulists saw their fail­ure — and the 1896 vic­to­ry of busi­ness ally Pres­i­dent William McKin­ley — as a tragedy, and many his­to­ri­ans have since agreed. But elec­toral pol­i­tics is just one part of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal his­to­ry. Many of the ideas the Pop­ulists con­ceived or ral­lied around — from antitrust and inter­state reg­u­la­tion to a decen­tral­ized finan­cial sys­tem and oth­ers — did not sim­ply dis­ap­pear. These pol­i­cy pro­pos­als still exist in mod­i­fied forms. The lega­cy of orga­nized farm­ers remained a per­sis­tent force in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for nation­al con­trol over eco­nom­ic struc­tures. The con­tin­ued rel­e­vance of Pop­ulism can be found, among oth­er places, in the small oil towns of ear­ly-1900s Kansas or the urban his­to­ry of Pro­gres­sive-era Port­land, Ore.

In Zinn’s nar­ra­tive, how­ev­er, these local and par­tial vic­to­ries, made com­plex by the twists and turns of his­to­ry, are irrel­e­vant; the sto­ry that mat­ters is one-dimen­sion­al and (pri­mar­i­ly) elec­toral. The Pop­ulists were defeat­ed by the cor­po­ra­tions and the press. Even the hint of Pop­ulism” could not be tol­er­at­ed, Zinn wrote, and the big guns of the Estab­lish­ment pulled out all their ammu­ni­tion, to make sure.” Before any con­sid­er­a­tion of the Pop­ulist lega­cy, Zinn has already left the scene for Wound­ed Knee (the cli­max to four hun­dred years of vio­lence that began with Colum­bus”) and the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War (“a way of drown­ing class resentment”).

Con­sid­er, for a moment, labor action dur­ing the Great Depres­sion: A mil­lion and a half work­ers went on strike in 1934. In Zinn’s telling, all they got for their trou­ble was the crush­ing machin­ery of the state through a mobi­lized Nation­al Guard and a paci­fied AFL-CIO. (No seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion is made of the sig­nif­i­cant Demo­c­ra­t­ic gains in that year’s Con­gres­sion­al elec­tion or the pas­sage of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act the fol­low­ing year.) As for the New Deal, though the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tion stands today as inspi­ra­tion for the left wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, Zinn says there is lit­tle to be learned except that cap­i­tal­ism remained intact.”

Zinn is on his strongest foot­ing as a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tor in his dis­cus­sion of the civ­il rights and anti-Viet­nam War move­ments, but even there the rise and devel­op­ment of social move­ments is exclud­ed for a parade of protest sto­ries that have been most­ly stripped of con­text. And by the mid-1970s, the sys­tem” went back to work con­trol­ling peo­ple once again.

All his­to­ries, of course, omit some facts and details and rab­bit holes, but A People’s His­to­ry focus­es almost exclu­sive­ly on vic­tim­iza­tion and tragedy. Zinn’s his­to­ry, though bril­liant with pathos and sto­ry­telling, ulti­mate­ly presents an unus­able past; it too often fails to con­sid­er the change that occurs through untidy and often dis­ap­point­ing com­pro­mis­es, human long­ing, unin­tend­ed con­se­quences and sur­pris­ing moments of advantage.

Like his­tor­i­cal change itself, the val­ue of his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship is often unex­pect­ed. As in much of the best sci­en­tif­ic research, the his­to­ri­an resists the urge to make their writ­ing over­ly prac­ti­cal or imme­di­ate­ly applic­a­ble to the needs of the present in favor of fol­low­ing the slow and often frus­trat­ing path of the research process. This process fre­quent­ly results in unex­pect­ed twists and new and some­times incon­ve­nient con­clu­sions, pro­vid­ing fresh insights into change.

Zinn’s suc­cess had an unin­tend­ed con­se­quence itself: A People’s His­to­ry quick­ly moved out of the typ­i­cal­ly small envi­rons of a rad­i­cal academic/​activist and became an inter­na­tion­al sen­sa­tion. Its essen­tial mes­sage, that Amer­i­can his­to­ry is a long sto­ry of pow­er­ful elites dom­i­nat­ing com­mon peo­ple, counter-bal­anced the cul­tur­al con­ser­v­a­tive embrace of Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism, which gained spe­cial promi­nence in the post-Rea­gan years. Zinn’s book became a light­ning rod in the cul­ture wars over pub­lic school cur­ric­u­la, and Repub­li­cans in states like Indi­ana and Arkansas have repeat­ed­ly tried to ban the book in schools.

Under­stand­ably, the Left has ral­lied around A People’s His­to­ry and the book con­tin­ues to be regard­ed among some in the activist com­mu­ni­ty as a req­ui­site, if some­what dat­ed, state­ment of America’s dis­or­dered past.

The rhetor­i­cal bat­tles of the cul­ture war rarely lend them­selves to care­ful reflec­tion, and there are good rea­sons to put A People’s His­to­ry away. More­over, much of the schol­ar­ship Zinn relied on has itself been revised. Many of the insights and sto­ries that Zinn col­lect­ed have made their way into con­tem­po­rary text­books that are wide­ly avail­able and serve as good alter­na­tives to the right-wing text­books that Texas cur­ricu­lum com­mit­tees con­tin­ue to insist upon. His per­spec­tive is pal­pa­ble as a mem­ber of a left­ist move­ment that was in quick retreat on the verge of the Rea­gan Rev­o­lu­tion and the decline of New Deal liberalism.

Today, we occu­py a much dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal scene. The social demo­c­ra­t­ic ideas inspired by the New Deal, Pop­ulist and social move­ment tra­di­tions are once again pop­u­lar and stand to influ­ence pub­lic pol­i­cy in sig­nif­i­cant, imme­di­ate ways. Zinn is no longer enough. We need new his­to­ries that are clear-eyed about the chal­lenges of cre­at­ing pos­i­tive polit­i­cal change in a moment when the Left is poised no longer to sit on the mar­gins of politics.

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