Howard Zinn on History

Howard Zinn on History

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by Howard Zinn

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Howard Zinn began work on his first book for his friends at Seven Stories Press in 1996, a big volume collecting all his shorter writings organized by subject. The themes he chose reflected his lifelong concerns: war, history, law, class, means and ends, and race. Throughout his life Zinn had returned again and again to these subjects, continually probing and

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Howard Zinn began work on his first book for his friends at Seven Stories Press in 1996, a big volume collecting all his shorter writings organized by subject. The themes he chose reflected his lifelong concerns: war, history, law, class, means and ends, and race. Throughout his life Zinn had returned again and again to these subjects, continually probing and questioning yet rarely reversing his convictions or the vision that informed them. The result was The Zinn Reader. Five years later, starting with Howard Zinn on History, updated editions of sections of that mammoth tome were published in inexpensive stand-alone editions. This second edition of Howard Zinn on History brings together twenty-seven short writings on activism, electoral politics, the Holocaust, Marxism, the Iraq War, and the role of the historian, as well as portraits of Eugene Debs, John Reed, and Jack London, effectively showing how Zinn’s approach to history evolved over nearly half a century, and at the same time sharing his fundamental thinking that social movements—people getting together for peace and social justice—can change the course of history. That core belief never changed. Chosen by Zinn himself as the shorter writings on history he believed to have enduring value—originally appearing in newspapers like the Boston Globe or the New York Times; in magazines like Z, the New Left, the Progressive, or the Nation; or in his book Failure to Quit—these essays appear here as examples of the kind of passionate engagement he believed all historians, and indeed all citizens of whatever profession, need to have, standing in sharp contrast to the notion of "objective" or "neutral" history espoused by some. "It is time that we scholars begin to earn our keep in this world," he writes in "The Uses of Scholarship." And in "Freedom Schools," about his experiences teaching in Mississippi during the remarkable "Freedom Summer" of 1964, he adds: "Education can, and should, be dangerous."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
• "The thing about Howard is that the history that he taught was not just about losing the official illusions about nationalism, about the heroic figures. It was about telling people to believe in themselves and their power to change the world." —Naomi Klein
• "A welcome collection of essays and occasional pieces by the dean of radical American historians." —Kirkus Reviews, on The Zinn Reader
• "Howard's life and work are a persistent reminder that our own subjective judgments of the likelihood of success in engaging human problems are of little interest, to ourselves or others. What matters is to take part, as best we can, in the small actions of unknown people that can stave off disaster and bring about a better world, to honor them for their achievement, to do what we can to ensure that these achievements are understood and carried forward." —Noam Chomsky
• "Unlike many historians, he was not afraid to speak out about the difference between right and wrong." —Eric Foner, The Nation

Product Details

Seven Stories Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Chapter One


The following essay was written after I attended an international gathering of socialists in London, and reflected on the degree of pessimism we find among people on the Left these days.

The order, came from above (I will not reveal the name, unless tortured): "Write something inspirational." The exact words were: "Inspire, please." The courteous approach concealed a certain desperation. For those not in the know, let me explain that we who write for the progressive-radical movement have our specialties. Some specialize in writing depressing stuff. Others write humorous pieces. Some concentrate on trashing other Left writers. It seems that there was an opening this month for someone to inspire, and I was chosen.

    Not an easy job, when the United States government (I was about to say "we," in Dan Rather style, but decided that my interests and those of the White House do not coincide) has just finished dropping thousands of cluster bombs on Yugoslavia, the victims being whoever happened to be in the vicinity, whether Albanians or Serbs, men or women, adults or children, who are now dead, or without limbs. And yet my editor says: "Inspire, please."

    Okay, let me have a go at it. I've just returned from London, where I was invited to speak to a gathering of socialists (I won't get more specific than that) who assemble every year, I learned, around the topic of "Marxism." I confess that what enticed me was thatthey promised to do a one-evening performance of my play "Marx in Soho," a one-person play in which Marx appears in the present, saying, with a laugh (yes, Marx really said this to someone who annoyed him): "I'm not a Marxist!"

    Well (to get away from promoting my play, though it's hard), I expected to find assembled in London a few hundred aging, solemn Leftists who, against the general insistence, across the political spectrum, that "Marxism is dead," insist on the importance of the old "Moor" and the validity of the socialist ideal.

    I had the numbers wrong. Not hundreds, but six thousand were there, mostly from the United Kingdom, many from other European countries, and some from the United States. I also had the ages wrong. They were almost all young people, from early twenties to early thirties. And I had the temperament wrong. They were lively, exuberant, fun-loving people.

    Maybe you won't agree, but I found this inspiring. Or, to use less extravagant language, encouraging. Six thousand people, assembled in one place, who believe in socialism, and who were denouncing the actions of the U.S. and Britain in Yugoslavia? At a time when the British Labour Party, once committed to socialism, is Blairing forth its belief in the wonders of the market, and the miracle of bombing? Yes, that's encouraging.

    Now comes the difficult part. The gathering was sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party. Yes, as some on the Left would say, caustically, "the Trots."

    And about half of the six thousand people seemed to be trying to sell the Party newspaper, the Socialist Worker, to the other half. I have always been careless about security matters, and, have never checked the credentials, or run their literature through a scanner, of people or organizations who invited me to speak to them. I suppose I have been so hungry for listeners that, unlike Groucho Marx, I will talk to any group that will have me.

    I recall a moment during the Vietnam War when a self-appointed political commissar of the anti-war movement phoned me: "Howard, I see you endorsed the anti-war rally called by the SWP [yes, that same inescapable bunch]. You really should have run that by me." Well, I was always repelled by this scrutinizing of people who, whatever they were doing at other times, seemed to be devoting themselves at the moment to a worthy cause. As sectarians often say, let's not be sectarian.

    The London conference began with a spirited rally at the Friends Meeting House (those Quakers don't scrutinize either, the softies!) at which Tariq Ali, the veteran English radical, subjected the New Labour honchos now ruling Britain to an eloquent and scathing critique. And the next days were filled with dozens and dozens of gatherings, with these young, eager people rushing from one to another, whether the subjects were topical (East Timor, global warming, Kosovo, blues and rock, the arms trade) or theoretical ("the birth of historical materialism," "is there progress in history"), or esoteric political economy ("the labor theory of value," "the declining rate of profit").

    It was encouraging to find people there who foreshadow a coming multiracial generation of radicals. Like the young woman, born in Vietnam, transported to the United States at the age of two by her parents. Her father had been in the Saigon army and a supporter of the United States, but over the years his daughter, now an enthusiastic socialist, had led him to rethink his views.

    The evenings were filled with music, disco, plays. And movies: Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (Vietnam at its rawest), Gallipoli (one of the most powerful of anti war films), When We Were Kings (Muhammad Ali).

    It was not a gathering of scholars but of activists. And so the air was filled with leaflets advertising this or that rally, demonstration, action.

    There was no coverage in the mainstream English press: not in the Times, the Guardian, the Independent. Which should instruct us all, not to judge the degree of dissidence in the society by what we see in the media. Imagine how many gatherings and actions are taking place all the time that we don't know about because they are not covered by radio, television, or newspapers.

    But when you look closely, when you listen to alternative radio broadcasting, read outside-the-mainstream periodicals (The Progressive, Z Magazine, The Nation, In These Times), check the stories in The Nuclear Resister, or the newsletters put out by Jonah House in Baltimore, keep your eyes open for unorthodox sources of information, secretly check the internet—you realize how many people in this country and all over the world do not accept the political and economic system that now dominates.

    I don't know about you, but I am encouraged.

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