Howard Zinn: a political obituary

Howard Zinn is dead. While my own political development has led me down a different road than the one Zinn traveled for so long, he was so clearly such a good and kindly man that I can't help but feeling a bit morose. His family and friends have my most sincere condolences.

That said, I feel compelled to say a few things about Zinn's politics. In the media he will be referred to as a socialist, an anarchist, a revolutionary, or even a Marxist. He was none of these, at least in recent years. Whatever Zinn's claimed to believe in, A People's History of the United States -- his most famous work -- and his support for bourgeois politics in 2000, 2004, and 2008 combine to paint a very clear picture of Zinn's bad politics.

In 2000, Zinn was an impassioned supporter of Ralph Nader, the consumer safety advocate turned perennial left-wing presidential candidate. "I am for Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke", he said, "because someone must speak the truth. Someone must say: Ours is a country of enormous wealth. We can use that wealth to guarantee to every American free medical care, decent housing, work at a living wage, child care and nurseries, clean air and clean water." With this, and his demand that Nader be included in the televised debates between the major presidential contenders on the grounds that "democracy requires a free marketplace of ideas," we can see how far Zinn was from any kind of radical critique of capitalist society 1. Evidently, his demands didn't go any further than a fair wage (which even in Marx's day was a "conservative" demand 2), good schools, and health care. Whether capital has the resources and wherewithal to implement such programs, history shows that none of them is inimical to the dictatorship of the capitalists. After all, the British state in the 19th century passed the Factory Acts in part to raise the health of the working class and ensure that it would be able to reproduce itself on a biological level 3, it was the anti-socialist Bismarck that institute the world's first universal health care system, and today Mr. Obama is peddling health care reform in the U.S. to improve that country's overall profitability by cutting into the profits of the drug makers and by reducing employers' health care costs. Likewise, the child care and nurseries Zinn demands would be an extension of the current system of indoctrination.

By 2004, and again in 2008, Zinn had abandoned Nader moved firmly into the camp of lesser-evilism along with fellow leftist Noam Chomsky. Their support for Kerry and Obama was based on a peculiar piece of sophistry which posited that the historical situation was such that even the minute differences between the democratic and republican candidates would translate into huge changes in the world. As he said in a 2008 interview, there are certain moments in history when even a small difference between the candidates may be crucial, may be a matter of life and death for a large number of people 4. Minute differences such as which strategies to carry out in Iraq, or which country to attack next? In the same interview, he sounded like a typical Democrat as he blamed the Bush administration for the economic downturn of the 2000s (God forbid!) and accused the Bush administration of disregarding the Constitution ... the same Constitution which he criticized in the above cited 2000 speech as a Constitution designed to prevent more rebellion, to maintain control of the country by slaveowners, merchants, manufacturers, and Western expansionists! In his final piece published before his death, Zinn repeated one of the most confounding liberal delusions, that there could be "some national movement to push him [Obama] in a better direction" 5.

Even though Zinn was mired in electoral politics and reformism, there can be no doubt that Zinn's hope for real change was heartfelt. This juxtaposition can only be understood by Zinn's inability to see that the proletariat's struggle against exploitation is the only force capable of creating a new world.

His esteemed A People's History of America bears this out. The title is wholly accurate -- instead of drawing lessons and inspiration from the American proletariat and its valiant fight, Zinn focused on every "marginalized" group fighting for equal rights as citizens within the illusory community of the state. Swathes of the book look at the struggles of Native American radicals in the 60s, farmers in the 18th century, pacifists, feminists, black nationalists, student protesters, etc. Nowhere is it clear that Zinn appreciates the central insight of Marx, which is that "the emancipation of the workers contains universal human emancipation" 6.

Disturbing confirmation of Zinn's bourgeois perspective comes in the form of A People's History's chapter on World War II. Zinn is clearly ambivalent about the notion that this was a good war, but his claim that "only one organized socialist group [the Socialist Workers Party] opposed the war unequivocally" is in contradiction to historical fact. Of the groups with a proletarian veneer, the SWP in fact were the war's greatest cheerleaders after the "Communist" Party. What the SWP objected to was the notion that the bourgeoisie could adequately safeguard democracy -- and the party believed so strongly in this that it drummed its members into the ranks of the imperialist American army. By contrast, the most advanced American workers, particularly the council communists around Paul Mattick (organized under the name the Groups of Council Communists, and putting out International Council Correspondence, New Essays, and Living Marxism), understood that the working class's agenda in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War had to be "revolution against fascism and bourgeois democracy" 7. Of these steadfast warriors, Zinn makes no mention. For Zinn the pinnacle of political development was the struggle for integration into bourgeois democracy and the defense of it. This colored his perspective of what was possible and how it could be achieved.

At any rate, I'm sure more can and will be said in defense of or disagreement with his legacy as a radical. This is a discussion that I'd like to see, so feel free to comment with your thoughts or even just link to another post or a discussion in a forum.

  1. Both quotes are from this speech he gave in 2000

  2. Thus Marx wrote in Value, Price and Profit that Instead of the conservative motto, 'A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!' they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wages system!' 

  3. See Douglas E. Booth, "Karl Marx on State Regulation of the Labor Process: The English Factory Acts," Review of Social Economy 36, no. 2 (October 1978): 137-157, as well as the April 1980 issue (Volume 38, issue 1) for a critical reply by Lawrence as well as Booth's response to Lawrence. 



  6. Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

  7. See "The Civil War in SPAIN!," International Council Correspondence 2, no. 11 (October 1936): 1-40.