Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 4, 2010

Howard Zinn’s detractors

Filed under: Academia,liberalism — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

79415Jill Lepore

The latest instance of pissing on Howard Zinn’s grave came from Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard (of course) and a regular contributor to the New Yorker Magazine (of course again) where she wrote:

Every fall, the freshmen troop into town tugging laundry bags stuffed with extra-long fitted sheets and trunks packed with aspirations, Scrabble, and socks. The next week, when they gather around the seminar table with their laptops cocked, the brashest are the kids who read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” in high school. It got them thinking and gave them something to argue about, aside from how to cram for the AP and whether the DBQ ought to count for more than the multiple choice. Zinn doesn’t come up in scholarly journals, but he introduced a whole lot of people who hadn’t thought about it before to the idea that history has a point of view. Kids can figure this out all on their own, but it’s nice to read it in a book. I suspect that reading “A People’s History” at fourteen is a bit like reading “The Catcher in the Rye” at the same age (history’s so goddam phony): it’s swell and terrible and it feels like something has ended, because it has.

Zinn wanted to write a people’s history because he believed that a national history serves only to justify the existence of the nation, which means, mainly, that it lies, and if it ever tells the truth, it tells it too fast, racing past atrocity to dwell on glory. Zinn’s history did the reverse. Instead of lionizing Andrew Jackson, he mourned the Cherokee. The problem is that, analytically, upending isn’t an advance; it’s more of the same, only upside-down. By sophomore year, the young whippersnappers have figured that out, too, which can be heartbreaking to watch, but it doesn’t make them any less grateful for what Zinn taught them, or any less fond of him for having braved it. Come September, the freshmen will be back, Zinn on their Kindles, zeal in their striped messenger bags, and I’ll be awfully glad to see them.



Michael Kazin

These are the same talking points made by Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin and co-editor of Dissent Magazine in the Guardian:

Unfortunately, Zinn’s big book is stronger on polemical passion than historical insight. For all his virtuous intentions, Zinn essentially reduced the past to a Manichean fable and made no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about US history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

Now I don’t know if Zinn did or did not address why Americans “accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live” but I have no problem explaining Kazin’s accepting such legitimacy since he is a prime example of how privileged academics, journalists and trade union bureaucrats adopt social democratic politics that put them in bed with the U.S. ruling class, a story that goes back to the late 19th century at least. The magazine Dissent that Kazin co-edits with Michael Walzer serves as a mouthpiece for such rotten politics.

To give but one example, Michael Walzer is a defender of torture in the same terms as Alan Dershowitz and Rush Limbaugh:

Back in the early 1970s, I published an article called ‘Dirty Hands’ that dealt with the responsibility of political leaders in extreme situations, where the safety of their people seemed to require immoral acts. One of my examples was the ‘ticking bomb’ case, where a captured terrorist knows, but refuses to reveal, the location of a bomb that is timed to go off soon in a school building.

Michael Walzer

Both Kazin and Walzer have used the pages of Dissent Magazine to launch ideological missiles at Zinn. Here’s an excerpt from my response to Walzer’s attack on Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” in Dissent Magazine 6 years ago:

The interesting thing, of course, is that despite Zinn’s support for Kerry this year, he still gets mud flung at him because his history of the USA is replete with examples of Democratic Party treachery, including that which occured during FDR’s presidency, a kind of Golden Age for social democrats like Walzer.

Walzer seems particularly miffed that FDR would be depicted as a warmonger in Zinn’s book:

Of course, as an imperial bully, the United States had no right, in World War II, “to step forward as a defender of helpless countries.” Zinn thinks the meaning of the biggest war in history down to its meanest components: profits for military industries, racism toward the Japanese, and the senseless destruction of enemy cities-from Dresden to Hiroshima. His chapter on that conflict does ring with a special passion; Zinn served as a bombardier in the European theater and the experience made him a lifelong pacifist. But the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism seems not to occur to him.

One can certainly understand why WWII would loom large in the calculations of somebody like Walzer. Along with the European Social Democracy, they cheered on the bombing of Yugoslavia under the rubric of “stopping fascism”. Milosevic was the latest Hitler, who was necessary to stop in his tracks unless we would risk another Chamberlain appeasement. It is most odd that the USA, which has had military bases all over the world backing up ruthless dictators since WWII, would be seen in this light today. Most reasonable people that observed consistent US support for the Pinochet, Thieu, Suharto and Rhees of the world might conclude that an “abhorrence of fascism” is the last thing on the minds of American presidents. But, of course, people like Walzer are not reasonable. They are hysterical opponents of the barbarian enemy who threaten US interests everywhere in the world.

I imagine that most people have heard Woody Allen’s joke about Dissent Magazine in “Annie Hall” but I love to repeat it every chance I get:

Alvy Singer: I’m so tired of spending evenings making fake insights with people who work for “Dysentery.”

Robin: “Commentary.”

Alvy Singer: Oh really? I had heard that “Commentary” and “Dissent” had merged and formed “Dysentery.”

Sean Wilentz

The last piss-ant worth mentioning is Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University professor who bad-mouthed Zinn in the AP obit and detracted further in the Los Angeles Times:

What he did was take all of the guys in white hats and put them in black hats, and vice versa.

His view was that objectivity was neutrality, which I think is a formula for bad history. Objectivity is not neutrality; it is the deployment of evidence and building an argument based on historical logic. That’s how we engage in rational discourse. To see history as a battleground of warring perspectives is to abandon the seat of reason.

He saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That’s what he said he did. It’s fine as a form of agitation — agitprop — but it’s not particularly good history.

To a point, he helped correct mainstream popular conceptions of American history that were highly biased. But he ceased writing serious history. He had a very simplified view that everyone who was president was always a stinker and every left-winger was always great. That can’t be true. A lot of people on the left spent their lives apologizing for one of the worst mass-murdering regimes of the 20th century, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You wouldn’t know that from Howard Zinn.

I must say that I am quite surprised that a Princeton professor would allege that Zinn’s writings would lend support to the proposition that Lincoln did not free the slaves. You learn something new every day, especially from big-time Ivy League professors.

Even more tawdry is the charge that Zinn had something to do with “apologizing for one of the worst mass murdering regimes of the 20th century.” Giving the pinhead Wilentz the benefit of a doubt, we can probably assume that he was only accusing Zinn of  being a Stalin fan rather than of Hitler.

Anybody who takes the trouble to do five minutes of research on the Internet using “Zinn” and “Stalin” will turn up something like this, an excerpt from Zinn’s preface to Daniel Singer’s “Deserter from Death”. Singer was a life-long opponent of the Soviet bureaucracy and in particular a supporter of Solidarity in Poland:

This independence of dogma did not mean that he held no solid positions in the social struggles happening all around him. On the contrary, what stands out as you read Daniel Singer’s work is his unshakable commitment to the idea of socialism, but a socialism uncorrupted either by Stalinist cruelties or by liberal timidity in the face of capitalist power.

He had no use for those who called themselves “Communists” but violated the spirit of a humanistic communism by behaving like thugs. Khrushchev’s startling revelation of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow led Togliatti and the Italian Communist Party to break with the Soviet Union. And other Communists around the world were shaken. In the United States, many members of the Communist Party left as a result of Khrushchev’s speech, and the invasion of Hungary later that year.

One imagines that in order to get tenure in the history department at Princeton, you have to learn how to twist things into a proper pretzel, especially when it comes to turning a great American radical into a wicked tool of the Kremlin.

Finally, to return to the regrettable Professor Lepore, whose book on King Phillip’s War in Massachusetts sits on my bookshelf at home. I am fairly sure that she was more of a liberal when she was young, but years of working at Harvard and for the New Yorker do have a tendency to wise careerists up. She writes that “Zinn doesn’t come up in scholarly journals”, as if that would matter to somebody who once told a student that learning the truth about American history requires time spent at the library doing your own research rather than sitting in a classroom.

She also complains that “Instead of lionizing Andrew Jackson, he mourned the Cherokee”. One wonders why this is such a problem, keeping in mind that Jackson was responsible for the genocidal forced march of the Cherokees to Oklahoma. One supposes that Professor Lepore is capable of such an ill-considered remark only because her tenure at Harvard has taught her the ropes about how to get ahead in the academy: become sophisticated in the process of shedding your principles.

I imagine that the abuse directed at Zinn from her, Kazin, Walzer and Wilentz is ultimately explained by their own conflicted feelings about making their peace with the Establishment rather than fighting it like Howard Zinn for over 60 years. He is a constant reminder of their own failings.


  1. http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=20155

    Comment by BK — February 4, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  2. All of this criticism of Zinn is B.S., of course, but one can make some valid criticisms of the way A People’s History of the United States was written – basically just as a litany of ruling-class atrocities and various agitations by the oppressed. No coherent narrative structure, very little analysis, basically just what amounts to a damn laundry list. It gets unreadably tedious.

    Comment by Steve — February 4, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

  3. None of these cranks can ever take away the profound influence and inspiration Howard Zinn had and will continue to have on so many people. And in fact, in ‘A People’s History’, Zinn shows that, though purposefully and strategically divided by racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. by the ruling class and though, as Marx would say, the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, and though brutally suppressed for standing up to the system again and again by the state and corporate power, many, many people HAVE fought back and many many people HAVEN’T accepted the ‘legitimacy of the capitalist republic’ in which they live. In fact, everything that has made life somewhat more livable in this ‘capitalist republic’ (shorter work days, higher wages, social security, gains in racial justice, periods where imperial war was more unpopular and harder for the ruling class to justify, etc) has come from struggles from below by people who challenged the ‘legitimacy of the capitalist republic’ in which they live.

    Comment by tim — February 4, 2010 @ 6:56 pm

  4. Like so many academics, Professor Lepore probably measures success by the number of books she sells and the amount of her royalty checks. No doubt Zinn exceeded her in both, and will continue doing so despite being dead, all of which might well explain both her pomposity and her nasty attitude.

    Comment by Richard Greener — February 4, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

  5. Unreadably tedious? It is the first history book ever to strike me as a nailbiting pageturner. “No analysis”? Steve? Did you actually read A People’s History?

    Comment by Jason — February 4, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  6. Richard, you may have a point. Zinn’s history is number #13 on amazon.com while her book on King Phillip’s War is number #27,899. Of course, that’s a lot of books as well. Here, btw, is a review of her book on amazon.com that has sort of made me not that eager to read it:

    3.0 out of 5 stars Warning-Not really about King Philip’s War, June 29, 2004

    By A Customer

    Be warned, if you’re looking for a history of King Philip’s War then this is not the book for you. Instead what Lepore is investigating is the ways that colonial New Englanders conceived of the war and, by extension their identity. As part of the new wave of cultural history that is coming out of the universities this book represents what is great and frustrating about that movement. On one level the book is, at times, a great look at how early white New Englanders conceived of their identity, the lengths to which they would go to defend this identity, and the ways in which they would justify this defense. Like great cultural history it gives us a vivid peak into the minds of the people it studies, thereby giving us a better understanding of how they thought and lived. On the other hand the book is, at times, frustrating in that it contains elements of the worst aspects of post modern history. Lepore gets carried away sometimes and lets her study drift too far into the realms of philosophy or literary criticism. Two examples I think illustrate this trend. At one point Lepore spends several pages in a great examination of the contradiction that the colonists felt: on one hand they feared that proximity to the native Americans would turn them into savages, on the other hand if they moved to exterminate the natives then they would lose that quality of justice and mercy that defined them as Englishmen. After laying out this excurtiating argument Lepore tritely concludes that the solution to the problem was that the Colonists would wage a war against the natives and then write histories of it that would justify their actions. While this is undoubtedly what happened it doesn’t pass muster as a historical solution to the colonists dillema. While it makes literary and, to some degree logical, sense to us the solution Lepore provides isn’t one that a colonist genuinely in a moral quandry would use. The very cynicism of the strategem makes it a violation of the moral guidelines that the colonists saw themselves as possesing. Another example is in a description of a New Englander who visits the bones of King Philip on display and steals Philips jawbone. Lepore asks why he did that instead of some other act of defilement such as breaking the skull or spitting on it. Her conclusion is that the man stole the jaw in order to shut Philip up. Again, while this is an apt literary analysis, it seems dubious that the thief was motivated by a desire to symbolicly shut up the skull. It could just as easily be true that the man wanted a souvenir and that the jawbone was the most easily removed piece of the skull. History is not literature and while the new trend of postmodernism and cultural history can provide us with a lot of insight into the past authors must be careful to avoid the mistakes that Lepore makes in treating historical documents as PURELY literary works without any connection to real people or events. Still for these few flaws Lepore has produced an interesting and useful book. As a stand alone about King Philips war it is limited in it’s usefullness but in conjunction with another book about the war or a history of early New England it provides us with an informative glimpse into the mind of early Americans.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 4, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

  7. “What he did was take all of the guys in white hats and put them in black hats, and vice versa.”

    Yeah, well these guys are obviously over-simplifying Zinn to a far worse extent than he did American history.

    When reading the chapter on slave revolts and Nat Turner, I was thinking “holy shit, that guy massacred a good number of people, some relatively innocent”. Moral ambibuity, even in rightteous revolt against slavery, was certainly there.

    And I can’t for the life of me understand what Steve is talking about above. Peoples History I thought was one of the most readable long books I have ever read. To each his own I guess.

    Comment by Sheldon — February 4, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

  8. i’m hoping to write an extended, friendly but critical piece on zinn and people’s history of the us, probably for isr. stay tuned.

    brian kelly

    Comment by BK — February 4, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

  9. Wilentz really turns the truth upside down, almost like a Republican denying Evolution. Apparently class struggle is not a significant historical force when he concludes: “To see history as a battleground of warring perspectives is to abandon the seat of reason.”

    As far as commenter Steve’s observation in #2, while I’m sympathetic to his claim I will say that a few years before Zinn wrote his opus I took a yellow legal pad & tried making a laundry list of Uncle Sam’s crimes starting from 1776 and there were so freaking many it was indeed a tedious task. Too bad I never envisioned turning my tedium into a book.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 4, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

  10. The problem is that, analytically, upending isn’t an advance; it’s more of the same, only upside-down.

    This makes no sense. Of course upending can be an advance.

    Most ‘intellectuals’ in our universities just aren’t that smart or educated.

    Comment by purple — February 4, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

  11. Jason – Yes I have. Zinn’s book constantly jumps back and forth in time and gives no impression of any causal connection between events – like I said, a laundry list. What little analysis that is offered is stuff that any Marxist will have already heard a thousand times before and any clearheaded rebellious teenager will have already figured out intuitively. Again, I have no problem whatsoever with the political content of the book, but the same sort of thing has been done better and in much more depth by others.

    Comment by Steve — February 4, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

  12. I see that Steve is allergic to providing examples. What a pity in light of his lack of inhibition in trashing Howard Zinn’s writing.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 4, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

  13. Zinn’s chapter on the IWW and populism is one of his best, and though some may criticize it for being “stuff that any Marxist will have already heard a thousand times before,” it seems like some of the ivy-league professors Louis discusses above could use a refresher. In this chapter, Zinn also talks about some of the racist elements of populism and even Eugene Debs’ less than zealous support for black rights. As Sheldon said above, “these guys are obviously over-simplifying Zinn to a far worse extent than he did American history.”

    Comment by Greg — February 4, 2010 @ 9:31 pm

  14. Brian Kelly, I look forward to your piece. A critique of that kind would be great, perhaps in the same sort of spirit as (Zinn collaborator and co-editor) Anthony Arnove’s friendly but critical assessment of Noam Chomsky’s politics from some years back. It can be read here:

    Comment by tim — February 4, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

  15. Fine, here’s an example:

    This is a summary of any given chapter in Zinn’s book after about chapter 7 or so (the first part of the book dealing with early American colonialism, the Revolutionary War, the oppression of blacks and native Americans, etc, is all right, but has the same flaws as the rest of the book only less prononunced):

    “So one day, workers were being treated horribly and decided to strike. They gave it a good go but then the ruling class suppressed them, as they always do. Then there was another strike, because workers were still being treated horribly, but the ruling class were able to quash it again because they had all the guns and were able to get just enough of the public on their side to appear to have democratic legitimacy. Then for a while there weren’t any strikes. But then, whoa, another strike! See, because even though things had gotten a little better materially for some workers as a result of the system buying them off, on balance living standards were still pretty ass. Unfortunately, this strike was suppressed yet again. Then there was another one! That too was a fail. Then strikes kind of tapered off again.” and so on for pages and pages.

    Occasionally a war breaks out and the content shifts to this: “One day the ruling class decided to have a war, because it would pay big dividends. Most people supported the war, because they were bought off/manipulated by the system. But some opposed it! So there was a protest. That didn’t have any effect. Then there was another protest somewhere else. That didn’t have any effect either. Then there was a third protest! That too was a fail. Some of the protestors, over the course of this, were jailed under various sedition or draft evasion laws.” and so on for pages.

    Seriously, if you insert dates, place names, and occasional anecdotes from participants in the events, that is eck-freaking-zactly what the bulk of APHotUS reads like. Go back and actually read it again, and see if I am wrong. Zinn’s “analysis”, when it occurs, is something along the lines of “the ruling class propounds disingenuous ideas among the public to suit their own purposes” or “the ruling class is usually able to implement policies that benefit just enough people to prevent popular uprising”, expressed in terms not much less clipped and humdrum than those. Like I said, nothing any leftist hasn’t already read a thousand times.

    Comment by Steve — February 4, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

  16. Steve, you really are a fucking idiot, aren’t you? I asked you for an example of Zinn’s writing and you supplied your own.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 4, 2010 @ 9:59 pm

  17. Forgive me for feeling that your comments page does not warrant the effort to dig out my old, moldy copy of the book and transcribe one of its soporific paragraphs. Besides, do what I said – look up any given passage from these chapters and see if I am wrong. The result may surprise you.

    Comment by Steve — February 4, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

  18. I wrote some reflections on Howard’s life and work here if anyone’s interested.


    Comments and/or discussion appreciated.

    Comment by John Halle — February 4, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

  19. Zinn’s complete “History” is linked here: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/zinnapeopleshistory.html

    Steve’s characterization of Zinn’s text is slanderous.

    While I agree a comprehensive documentaion of Uncle Sam’s crimes such as Zinn has thankfully provided is indeed tedious — that’s not Zinn’s fault but rather Uncle Sam’s.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 4, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

  20. […] Howard Zinn’s detractors The latest instance of pissing on Howard Zinn’s grave came from Jill Lepore, a history professor at Harvard (of […] […]

    Pingback by Top Posts — WordPress.com — February 5, 2010 @ 12:38 am

  21. Tim – this is a bit off the Zinn topic (although I find Chomsky’s and Zinn’s politics practically indistinguishable) but the Arnove article you cite in post # 14 has a glaring inaccuracy regarding Chomsky’s view of the collapse of the USSR. According to Arnove: “Chomsky… is certainly right to stress that the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe is a tremendous advance for the struggle for socialism.”

    On the contrary. In a Fall 1991 speech entitled “The 500 Year Reich” which I attended at Bowling Green’s campus in OH Chomsky said the collapse of the USSR represented a huge defeat for the South in the 500 year North/South conflict in general (he stressed that the USSR was historically not only part of the South but it’s leader) and a hugely demoralizing setback for the masses in the South, that is, the 3rd world toilers in particular, who actually aspired to, according to Chomsky, emulate the 2nd World Soviet model insofar as they knew joining the 1st World was as impossible as a migrant farm worker joining a Protestant country club.

    I remember this clearly because it was precisely those conclusions in his speech that astonished me (being so close to my own views) but were loathed by my DSA Professor colleagues.

    Of course, it is possible Chomsky changed his views later on? After all, once that speech was over I met him at the local bookstore/ coffee shop where he told me, in a one on one conversation, that he was for giving sanctions a chance on the eve of the 1st Gulf War, a view that he no doubt retracted once he realized, like I explained at the time, that bombing would have actually been more humane than sanctions insofar as the suffering wouldn’t be as prolonged. Chomsky looked up from my book he was signing in shock at that one and probably remembered it later on, once he realized how terrible the sanctions really were.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 5, 2010 @ 12:46 am

  22. To prove that I’m not just being a meanie, I ask you all to look at it this way: a simplistic, saturation-based approach like that which is taken in Zinn’s book is a recipe for creating flash-in-the-pan revolutionaries who sell out and go to business school by age 21, or quietists who live in perpetual mourning for society’s victims, not because they themselves actually want a better society, but because it’s they way they get their psychological rocks off. Why the fuck do you think this book gets assigned so often in high schools? It’s because, thanks to the way it’s written, Zinn’s anti-capitalist and anti-establishment message is completely lost in favor of an impression that “a lot of bad shit happened in the past, and things still kinda suck today. P.S. – social justice is good”, which is a message that the system can safely “internalize” and assimilate since it does not have enough depth or trenchancy to induce a reader to do something effective about the system itself. Any two-cent reactionary can chuck a copy of The Black Book of Communism (which is better-written, by the way) at someone who’s read Zinn and say “See, the U.S. may have been bad, but in the grand scheme of things it was definitely the lesser evil”, and the Zinn reader would have no effective counterargument, since with Zinn vs. the Black Book it all comes down to the atrocity-documentation equivalent of dick measuring.

    Comment by Steve — February 5, 2010 @ 12:52 am

  23. Never heard of any of these critics.
    As for Zinn’s work, perfection it may not be, but I know that in my union more members have read his work than I can count.
    As for what goes on at college, that’s another world far, far, away from mine.
    Workers all around the country — maybe the world — will note Zinn’s passing with respect and sadness. He gave a damn about our struggles against the employers and that’s what matters to us.

    Comment by Chris Townsend — February 5, 2010 @ 3:29 am

  24. Interesting Karl Friedrich. I’m really not too sure exactly what Chomsky’s views on the Soviet Union’s collapse are. It seems, according to the wikipedia page on Chomskys political views that he may have changed his mind and taken up the view that Arnove attributes to him. It says: “He has also defined Soviet communism as “fake socialism,” particularly because any socialism worthy of the name requires authentic democratic control of production and resources as well as public ownership. He has said that contrary to what many in America claim, the collapse of the Soviet Union should be regarded as “a small victory for socialism,” not capitalism.”

    Comment by tim — February 5, 2010 @ 3:43 am

  25. Then Arnove still got it wrong insofar as “a small victory for socialism” (whatever that means in light of abolishing a planned economy, atheist education, the right to a job, free medicine, plus subsidized food & shelter?) cannot possibly be the same as a “tremendous advance for the struggle for socialism.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 5, 2010 @ 4:23 am

  26. Objectivity, meh, its just a rehashing of the old ‘truism’ that the truth lies ‘somewhere in the middle’. Does the truth of the evolution versus creationism debate lie somewhere in the middle?

    Comment by SGuy — February 5, 2010 @ 5:28 am

  27. I particularly appreciate your pointed critique of Sean Wilentz. A friend of mine, comparing his snide remarks in the New York Times’ Zinn obituary with a comparable assessment made years ago by Schlesinger, labeled Wilentz “the heir apparent (designate) court liberal historian.” Lepore has written some good books, but she apparently suffers from absorption in what Chris Hedges calls the “exclusive dialect” that marks the work of academics who struggle to communicate beyond the borders of their specialty, rarely speaking truth to power and instead retreating into “specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves.” Part of the problem is that when she does write for a popular audience that audience is the readers of publications such as The New Yorker Magazine. The idea that a work of history should be a direct, political intervention that mobilizes people to action is not a concept with enormous appeal to such an audience. Howard wrote several books that took deeper, nuanced, but never neutral looks at specific historical period, events, and phenomena. His intentions for A People’s History were somewhat different, something more politically engaged radicals immediately recognize.

    Comment by burghardt — February 5, 2010 @ 5:35 am

  28. Steve – while having respect for what Zinn did, I do agree with your message. I take your message not in the context that you are trying to bash Zinn, but merely as a way of noting that the real analysis of capitalist production/distribution, the rise of class power is not tackled by Zinn. For a reader who wants this understanding, the three volumes of “The Capital” by Marx would be an excellent resource.

    Zinn opened the eyes of a lot of people about the basic injustices of the system, but a well-versed theoretician of capitalism can provide “answers” to the questions Zinn poses. a deep analysis is required to disprove those claims. Well, you answered your own rhetorical question as to why Zinn is accepted in schools. As far as I know Marx is not.

    Comment by thushara wijeratna — February 5, 2010 @ 6:58 am

  29. The Black Book of Communism is better written than A People’s History of the United States?! My god. I think Steve is a classic example of a “concern troll”:


    Comment by dylan — February 5, 2010 @ 7:30 am

  30. It is interesting to note that three of these figures once approached the study of labor and working class history seriously. For more than a decade, Wilentz considered himself a labor historian, served on the editorial board of the University of Illinois Press’s labor history series, and engaged in some interested debates in journals in the field. Kazin still writes some labor history, but presents himself as “an expert in U.S. politics and social movements.” And one of Lepore’s early published essays is entitled “Resistance, Reform, and Repression: Italian Immigrant Laborers in Clinton, 1896-1906,” which was published in a collection edited by Kenneth Fones-Wolf and Martin Kaufman, _Labor in Massachusetts: Selected Essays_.

    Comment by CP — February 5, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

  31. Steve said, “[A] simplistic, saturation-based approach like that which is taken in Zinn’s book is a recipe for creating flash-in-the-pan revolutionaries who sell out and go to business school by age 21 […].”

    Steve, you’re right that not everyone who reads Zinn takes it to heart, and many do go on to become dutiful capitalists and believers in the system. But I don’t see how you can attribute this to Zinn. A lot of people who become familiar with Chomsky or Marx or Marcuse or these days Zizek also eventually conform. But wouldn’t it be safer to say that the reason for this apparent tendency towards turncoat radicalism stems more from the barrage of pro-status quo messages inundating us from all sectors of society–the church, the media, the entertainment industry, the education system… college loans (!), etc.? Zinn may have gained a certain bit of fame, but for most people, his leftist work represents a mere drop in the bucket. I think Althusser and his concept of Ideological State Apparatuses is very relevant here…

    Besides, this characterization of Zinn’s readers totally ignores those multitudes who have been seriously influenced by his work, myself included. For me, Zinn’s dedication to civil disobedience and social activism has been very empowering–much more so than the work of Chomsky. I think Zinn’s ceaseless optimism contradicts Steve’s argument that Zinn leaves “an impression that ‘a lot of bad shit happened in the past, and things still kinda suck today. P.S. – social justice is good.'” Zinn focused on successes of the anti-oppression struggle and never gave up hope in what may otherwise seem to be hopeless times.

    Comment by Greg — February 5, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

  32. Steve’s criteria are bizarre. Is there any one book out there which provides an effective rebuttal to anticommunist smears about Stalinism, a systematic critique of the functioning of ruling class dominance in American history, and a study of the most effective strategies of resistance? If there is, to be honest, I don’t really want to read it. Zinn’s book taught me (when I read it in high school) that the government only serves the rich, that the US has always been an imperialist nation, and that there is a long tradition of people who have fought back, often marching under the banner of socialism. To me, given the book’s tremendous success in communicating these few points to millions of people over the last two decades, it seems churlish in the extreme to demand that it present a refutation to every right wing talking point out there. Not to start a whole other argument, but I’d say that A People’s History (or the very underrated Declarations of Independence) is a far better starting point for a young activist than any of Chomsky’s work.

    Comment by pauly — February 5, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

  33. Ok, this has probably already been said to Steve. Most people aren’t born Marxists, or even rebellious teenagers! Regardless, Zinn tell the story of class and social struggles in the U.S. that most people don’t get in mainstream U.S. history. It is invaluable in giving people a radical history education in detail, whether they know it intuitively or not. So you found it tedious? Sorry, but like I said to each is own. Fact is millions of readers disagree!

    Comment by Sheldon — February 5, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  34. I’d jump over fifty of these clowns to stand next to one Howard Zinn. I dispensed with People’s History as a main text some years ago because I found that historians like Richard Hoftstadter or Vincent Harding left my urban students a lot more room to maneuver, and less apt to fall into dispair around the immensity of blood and grease found in chronicles like Zinn’s.

    By the same token, Zinn is always good for a somewhat easy read. I’d vastly prefer being able to assign the more creative marxist intrerpreters of U.S. history, and one semester actually was able to give chops from CLR James’ study of Herman Melville alongside selections from Moby Dick. That happens rarely. Most of the time, you have to deal with what students are able to bring when you’re studying the Constitution of the United States in contrast with everyday reality. Zinn validates the experience of working class students urban or rural- many of whom hate reading history- like few other historians I know, and in this I find his value. For these students Zinn sets up a basic history from which you can ratchet upwards for nuance and subtleties. But it takes a long time to develop these traits in a young learner. Zinn is invaluable in that regard.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say that about Zinn’s critics like the ones you’ve cited here, who remain in that rarified atmosphere inhabited by what many of my students call “big head professors’. The geniuses you’ve cited here are the type who lecture the “left” endlessly on how we have to meet people where they are, but the truth, so far as this teach is concerned, is a lot more concrete then these jackasses are able to see. Sound and fury signifying nothing. It all calls to mind that old Thomas Nast cartoon drawn to commemorate the death of Edwin Stanton, and to razz the conciliationist democrats of the north during post civil war reconstruction. Just live jackasses kicking another dead lion. There, as Marx said, the phrase went beyond the content, here the content goes beyond the phrase.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — February 5, 2010 @ 7:40 pm

  35. My father once told me that the simplest way to view Marxism is that it’s really the history of the workers and oppressed that wouldn’t otherwise be written and in that spirit Zinn ranks among America’s greatest Marxists and his prolific writings a cultural heritage to be cherished.

    He will be sorely missed.

    Howard Zinn Presente!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 5, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

  36. […] Defending Zinn is all very well, and our previous post on the rise of modernity shows the way that Zinn’s viewpoint was once an original insight. After more than a century of propaganda about Columbus discovering America it was almost food for the starving to hear the truth about the holocaust Columbus set in motion. In general the ambiguity of American history (the obvious example being the fate of the American Indians. Those dratted Brits wanted to stop independence of the killer yanks because they knew what would befall the Indians,sure enough…) arises from selective memory, and Zinn had very clear grounds to correct the record. But when a book has such a success the tactics backfire and the result sadly was a new form of propaganda. Savaging American history and remaining silent on the history of Bolshevism was an result so shitty that it discredited Zinn’s whole effort, which, in any case, spoke to another generation. So the defense of Zinn here on the left, while understandable, simply defers the issue of the left’s need for self-criticism and renewal. […]

    Pingback by Darwiniana » Zinn critics — February 5, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

  37. […] Howard Zinn’s detractors « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by My Bookmarx 02/06/2010 « بهدوء — February 6, 2010 @ 12:37 am

  38. […] Louis Proyect has done us all an unwitting favour by drawing attention to a priceless assessment of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” in the New Yorker by Jill Lepore: Every fall, the freshmen troop into town tugging laundry bags stuffed with extra-long fitted sheets and trunks packed with aspirations, Scrabble, and socks. The next week, when they gather around the seminar table with their laptops cocked, the brashest are the kids who read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” in high school. It got them thinking and gave them something to argue about, aside from how to cram for the AP and whether the DBQ ought to count for more than the multiple choice. Zinn doesn’t come up in scholarly journals, but he introduced a whole lot of people who hadn’t thought about it before to the idea that history has a point of view. Kids can figure this out all on their own, but it’s nice to read it in a book. I suspect that reading “A People’s History” at fourteen is a bit like reading “The Catcher in the Rye” at the same age (history’s so goddam phony): it’s swell and terrible and it feels like something has ended, because it has. […]

    Pingback by SOCIALIST UNITY » A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES — February 6, 2010 @ 5:02 pm

  39. Just read that Lepore piece. How terrible to be taught by someone as smug and self satisfied.

    Comment by johng — February 6, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

  40. Great post, Louis. I notice that (predictably) Andy Newman on ‘Socialist Unity’ [sic] has picked up on your post only to join in the slagging-off of Zinn.

    Leaving aside right-wing crazies like Horowitz, what the critics of Zinn hate is the fact that he takes clear stand – he sees that there are two sides in a struggle, and identifies clearly with one side. He does NOT whitewash ‘his’ (our) side – I seem to recall that in the intro he quotes a saying that ‘the voice of the poor may not always be just, but if you do not listen to it, you will not know what justice is.’ People like Kazin (pro-Iraq war ‘liberal’, I believe) try to attack him in left-wing sounding terms, but are pursuing a right-wing agenda – Kazin seems to suggest we need to strengthen our support for the Democratic Party, and give up on all this striking and protesting nonsense. I don’t think Kazin has got over William Jennings Bryan losing the 1900 election yet. Incidentally, Kazin’s comments after Zinn’s death were cut-and-pasted almost entirely from a piece he wrote in 2004.

    Comment by Mike, B in E — February 6, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

  41. Howard Zinn’s work: a weapon in the class struggle

    By Shelley Ettinger
    Workers World Newspaper
    Published Feb 4, 2010

    On occasion someone makes such a significant contribution to the cause that the work speaks for itself and, assessed objectively, functions as a weapon in the class struggle.

    Such an occasion was the life and such a contribution was the work of Howard Zinn.

    Zinn, who died on Jan. 27 at age 87, was called “the people’s historian.” Everybody knew who “the people” he strove to serve were: the working class and oppressed nationalities. This is why so many worldwide are mourning his death.

    Howard Zinn was best known for his groundbreaking study first published in 1980, “A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present.” From its opening chapter, titled “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” this book announced itself as something new and different.

    This was history recounted from an unaccustomed perspective. Unlike virtually every other telling of U.S. history, either academic or popular, and most strikingly unlike the standard textbooks used in schools across the country, “A People’s History” was unabashedly on the side of the masses of people — that is, the workers and oppressed.

    The conventional version had claimed to be objective. Actually, it skewed the whole sweep of history. In the telling that was fed to generation upon generation of schoolchildren, the invaders, exploiters and oppressors were portrayed as heroes: inventors, explorers, adventurers, saviors.

    Colonial occupations and imperialist wars were depicted as noble self-sacrificing endeavors by an enlightened, civilizing force. Technological development, scientific innovation, societal advances were all the result of impressive strokes of genius by individual Great White Men.

    The vast majority of humanity was nowhere to be seen. Not as actors, not as creators, not as drivers of the engine of history. Not even, for the most part, as oppressed by the social and economic forces these standard histories uniformly applauded as natural, positive developments. For example, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was generally treated as cursorily as possible; the central role of slave labor in the creation and enrichment of U.S. capitalism was mentioned not at all.

    Neither was the other project, the project that along with the system of chattel slavery is the most important fact of early U.S. history: the theft of the lands and genocide of the Indigenous nations of North America.

    This was the landscape of history. Then came Howard Zinn.

    What he did, first and foremost, was strip the mantle of impartiality from those other histories. Every telling is biased, he said. My bias is on the side of those who until now have been made invisible. Then he proceeded to bring them onto the page.

    The Native peoples, fighting to defend their lands and their lives. The Africans shackled and enslaved — and rebelling. The immigrants shivering in tenements, and the workers fighting for unions. The women demanding equal rights.

    These were the heroes of Howard Zinn’s history. And history has never been the same.

    Bourgeois historians still constitute the majority of those whose works are published. They are still considered “mainstream” while historians in Zinn’s tradition are dismissed as “radical.” But ever since the first edition of “A People’s History” was published, an alternative has been available.

    Zinn was not the first or only historian to tell the class truth. There are excellent explicit Marxist analyses that deserve to be widely read. But Zinn’s works, because of their uniquely popular character and the way they passed from hand to hand, played a role like few other books in our time.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 7, 2010 @ 3:35 am

  42. I loved that Jill Lepore book on King Phillip’s War. Disappointing to see this sort of followup.

    Comment by ish — February 7, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

  43. Lepore not only shows contempt for Zinn, but patronizes her students who (bless ’em) come to class full of naive enthusiasm for Zinn, before they are put right by the superior, more nuanced analysis of the Ivy League professor.

    If I may paraphrase Phil Ochs, I can imagine Lepore singing:

    Once I was young and impulsive
    I wore every conceivable pin
    Even went to the socialist meetings
    Read everything by Howard Zinn
    But I’ve grown older and wiser
    And that’s why I’m turning you in
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

    Comment by Mike, Brit in Exile — February 8, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  44. […] nearly as odious as his co-editor, the unctuous laptop bombardier Michael Walzer, I did find his nasty swipe at Howard Zinn  aggravating. As for Dissent Magazine, there usually is an article or two worth reading even […]

    Pingback by What ever happened to the American left? A reply to Michael Kazin « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 26, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  45. […] Reading some stuff yesterday I came upon this survey of slimeball corporate liberal academics taking the opportunity to attack Howard Zinn after his […]

    Pingback by Howard Zinn in Black and White « Volatility — September 28, 2011 @ 6:37 am

  46. Yea, the book was so unreadable that I bought it. lol.

    The unreadable million seller. That’s what big publishers should now ignoble, only publish mindless dreck. The kid’s will eat it up.

    Comment by Frank Church — April 5, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

  47. […] I pointed out in https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/howard-zinns-detractors/, Sean Wilentz took the opportunity of Zinn’s passing in 2010 to piss on his grave in the L.A. […]

    Pingback by An open letter to a NYT Magazine hack « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 25, 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  48. […] I’ve had my own complaints about the New Yorker in recent years. I found Malcolm Gladwell tendentious on social networking and was appalled by Jill Lepore’s pissing on Howard Zinn’s grave. […]

    Pingback by Fact checking the New Yorker | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 15, 2013 @ 8:06 pm

  49. Wilentz lumped with Kazin and Walzer — just where he belongs. It never fails — when the old “respectable”, “left” guard steps-up with polemic against a proven organizer of progressive movements, reality comes to bite them in the arse.

    We have this from Wilentz, “A lot of people on the left spent their lives apologizing for one of the worst mass-murdering regimes of the 20th century, and Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. You wouldn’t know that from Howard Zinn.” His negligence is seen here in bold relief. Here’s Zinn, PH, at the beginning of Ch. 9: “Hence, it was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, not John Brown.” Eh, another overrated blowhard from an overrated Ivy League school. Who’s surprised? In the age of the world wide web, a supposed scholar who doesn’t bother to check his assertion against fact is properly labelled “moron.”

    And then we have this from Walzer: “But the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and his aides were motivated both by realpolitik and by an abhorrence of fascism seems not to occur to him.” In PH Ch.16, this very question is addressed extensively. To wit: “Was this simply poor judgment, an unfortunate error? Or was it the logical policy of a government whose main interest was not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States?” And the question is investigated substantively and in detail.

    Lepore doesn’t even merit mention — another yawn on the maw of the Ivy League.

    Comment by Mark Paris — March 8, 2014 @ 11:04 pm

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