What We Miss: Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

Richard Greenwald February 7, 2010

By Richard Greenwald

When Howard Zinn passed away on Jan­u­ary 27, we lost a cham­pi­on of the pro­gres­sive move­ment and work­ing peo­ple. Zinn was able to do what oth­er aca­d­e­mics only can dream of: reach large num­bers of Amer­i­cans. He became a cul­tur­al fig­ure dur­ing the last 15 years. As the author of 20 books, through his years as a teacher, Zinn seemed a man on a mission.

Howard Zinn remind­ed whole gen­er­a­tions that work­ers mat­tered. His work syn­the­sized that of a whole gen­er­a­tion of labor and work­ing-class his­to­ri­ans for a larg­er audi­ence. Thou­sands of high-school stu­dents, col­lege stu­dents, and just plan reg­u­lar folks read his work and learned a great lesson.

His pass­ing marks the loss of a gen­er­a­tion of left intel­lec­tu­als whose aim was to reach beyond the acad­e­my, and into the streets. I think of Studs Terkel, who passed in 2008, as anoth­er hero gone. These were men who were not careerist aca­d­e­mics, were ded­i­cat­ed activists and intel­lec­tu­als — they didn’t see a divide. They inspired our gen­er­a­tion to be more than a wit­ness and chron­i­cler of our world. They remind­ed us of the pow­er of the word.

Zinn’s great­ness was his abil­i­ty to place work­ers, slaves, indige­nous peo­ple and oth­ers lack­ing pow­er back into his­to­ry as play­ers not vic­tims. Sure, oth­er have done this. But few have done it as grace­ful­ly and with such tal­ent. We for­get that Zinn was a very good writer, some­thing many ignore and too few emu­late. His abil­i­ty to fold into his nar­ra­tive the details of the past allowed thou­sands to enter into the conversation.

Reread­ing A People’s His­to­ry after his death, I was blown away by his nar­ra­tive force, the beau­ty of his prose, and force of his argu­ment. He did not bend one for the oth­er. They seemed nat­u­ral­ly to fit togeth­er. And, I think that was his genius, this abil­i­ty to be writer, his­to­ri­an and rad­i­cal at once.

In read­ing the obit­u­ar­ies and remem­brances of Zinn, I am sad not just for those who knew him well, as that is a loss I can only imag­ine. What sad­dens me, hon­est­ly, is that there appears to be no great emu­la­tors. Where is our generation’s Howard Zinn, the war­rior intellectual?

I hope s/​he emerges soon. We need them.

Richard Green­wald is a labor his­to­ri­an and social crit­ic. . His essays have appeared in In These Times, The Pro­gres­sive, The Wall Street Jour­nal among oth­ers. He is cur­rent­ly writ­ing a book on the rise of free­lanc­ing and is co-edit­ing a book on the future of work for The New Press, which fea­tures essays from the coun­ty’s lead­ing labor schol­ars and pub­lic intellectuals.
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