Original Zinn

The Zinn Reader
March 20, 1998

No historian incites in me such mixed feelings as does Howard Zinn. The Zinn Reader brings together a selection of 60 articles, essays, speeches, reviews, editorials and memoirs written during the past 35 years by the United States's premier radical historian, organised into sections on race, class, war, law, history and politics. I have never felt so ambivalent about a book.

In the best US tradition, Zinn comes from a humble background. He grew up in Depression-era New York, the child of Jewish working-class parents ("Growing up class-conscious"). After labouring in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a teenager, he served as a bombardier in the second world war ("The bombing of Royan") and then attended university on the GI Bill for veterans. He has been both a prolific writer and an engaged activist; as he proudly explains, his scholarship and politics have inspired each other ("The uses of scholarship").

Zinn first taught at Spelman (1956-63), a black women's college in Atlanta, where he and his students enlisted in the civil rights movement ("The southern mystique" and "Finishing school for pickets"). In 1963, he moved to Boston University but he remained active in civil rights campaigns and moved energetically into the anti-war movement ("Vietnam: a matter of perspective").

In the course of these struggles he developed interests in working-class history ("The Ludlow massacre") and the politics of history and public memory ("Historian as citizen" and "Columbus and western civilization").

In time he would also confront his university's eccentric and conservative president, John Silber ("A university should not be a democracy").

Not simply because Zinn has persistently sought to make history, as well as write about it, he has stood somewhat outside the mainstream of the historical profession. Scholars traditionally pride themselves on their objectivity and originality. Zinn has eschewed neither but he has understood and pursued them in more critical ways than most. As the title of one of his books puts it, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), objectivity does not mean refusal to take sides. The critical and democratic scholar must stand with the oppressed and the exploited. Objectivity still means making every effort to recognise where you might be wrong. Yet it also necessarily means making every effort to avoid being taken in by the powerful by trying to see things from the bottom up.

Originality too often has been equated simply with making incremental additions to knowledge on some narrowly defined subject. Zinn has made traditional contributions, for example, his award-winning dissertation book, La Guardia in Congress (1959). However, his most original and important contribution has been as a critical synthesizer and populariser, and, as much of the present volume attests, as a historical critic. His book A People's History of the United States has gone into more than 25 reprints and sold more than 450,000 copies as well as appearing in a new "teaching edition" from the New Press.

For these things I admire Howard Zinn and have used his work in my teaching and writing. A great deal of The Zinn Reader is valuable, but some of the arguments strike me as irresponsible, if not reprehensible.

Zinn refuses to acknowledge the distinction between "just and unjust wars" and "universally rejects war as a solution to any human problem". He even rejects the justness of the war against Hitler's Germany ("Just and unjust wars"). Pacifism on moral grounds one can understand, even if one does not agree with it. The late E. P. Thompson's "historical pacifism", which distinguished between pre-nuclear and nuclear ages, I understood and appreciated. But Zinn attempts to rationalise his universalist and absolutist position on supposedly historical and political grounds by way of examples which are not thought through in either deeply moral or critically historical terms.

Zinn emphasises that wars were rarely, if ever, entered into in pursuit of the ideals proclaimed by the leaders. Fair enough. Nevertheless, the cynicism of leaders does not mean that all wars have been wrong and/or futile, or that those who did the fighting did so unaware of their leaders' cynicism and ambitions, or that they did so without aspirations of their own.

Furthermore, Zinn fails to grant that the worst horrors of war might have been avoided by not having hesitated to go to war in the first place (even though, at times, his own arguments would seem to lead to such a conclusion). In this respect, Zinn's discussion of the second world war and the Holocaust is truly outrageous. He states that he does not intend by his words to "remove the responsibility from Hitler and the Nazis"; and yet, he writes (reminding one of the recent German revisionist historians and, I hope, making the reasons for my revulsion all the more evident): "Not only did waging war against Hitler fail to save the Jews, it may be that the war brought on the Final Solution of genocide I Hitler's early aim was forced emigration, not extermination, but the frenzy of (war) created an atmosphere in which the policy turned to genocide."

British, French, Soviet and American leaders should be held historically accountable, both for failing to provide refuge for German Jewry and for failing to stand up to Hitler sooner than they did. But Zinn's remarks imply more than that, leading one seriously to question his historical reasoning.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, United States.

The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy

Author - Howard Zinn
ISBN - 1 888363 53 3 and 54 1
Publisher - Seven Stories Press
Price - £25.00 and £12.99
Pages - 668

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