Information icon.svg Consider taking the RationalWiki Community Survey 2017 or see the results.
Bronze-level article

Howard Zinn

From RationalWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922 — 2010) was an American left-wing activist, author, historian and professor of history and political science. He is most infamous for his magnum opus A People's History of the United States.

A controversial historian, Zinn's belief in social justice determined how he approached researching and presenting U.S. history. While he paid great attention to many shameful chapters of American history that textbooks often sanitize (and praised the oft-overlooked reformers who fought to set these wrongs right), his unabashedly partisan goals often compromised his empiricism and nuance. The result is that his work, though important, is more akin to political pamphleteering than to scholarly history.


Zinn was a World War II veteran and criticized "collateral damage" that occurred in the bombing of Dresden and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He started out his academic career in 1956 as a history professor at Spelman College, a black women's college in Atlanta, Georgia. He was eventually sacked from this position for assisting the students in anti-segregation efforts.

Later, he became a central figure in the movement against the Vietnam War, authoring an early work calling for the U.S. to withdraw quickly and unconditionally, and also traveling to Vietnam as part of an attempt to get U.S. prisoners of war released. He also played a part in an attempt to get the American Historical Association to pass a resolution against the Vietnam War. To overcome the objections of the majority of its members, who did not wish to see the AHA get involved in politics, Zinn snatched the speaking microphone in an effort to get the relevant proposals heard; this resulted in an impromptu wrestling match between him and the AHA president for control of the microphone,[1] which Zinn compared in magnitude to the Spanish-American War.

With Noam Chomsky, he edited and expounded upon the Pentagon Papers, that series of confidential U.S. government memos about the Vietnam War leaked by Daniel Ellsberg.

Political views[edit]

He described himself as "something of an anarchist, something of a socialist. Maybe a democratic socialist,"[2] although the anarchists to whom he gave this description considered it contradictory. In A People's History of the United States, he expresses a fondness for the American Indian tribal social order, which seems to largely be because said social order was later obliterated by the villains of that book, as discussed below. In the rest of the book he tends mostly toward the straight-up anarchistic view, espousing a preference for large, leaderless grassroots revolutionary movements working by direct action, though a socialistic view also makes an appearance in his positive portrayal of the Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh.[3] The democratic part does not seem to be present, as he did not have very much good to say about democratic institutions (or, as he often termed it in the form of a snarl word, "electoral politics"), which in his view mostly assumed the role of Satan, seducing the hearts of social activists.[4] For example, at one point he downplayed the significance of the very long-lived and moderate farmers' organization, the National Grange, in favor of the short-lived and radical Farmers' Alliance, in order to criticize it for moderating itself into the Populist Party.[5]

Communist involvement[edit]

The FBI fingered him for a member of the Communist Party USA during that party's Stalinist period:

Zinn was born in Brooklyn, New York and died at the age of 87 on January 27, 2010. As a young man, he worked as a shipyard hand and served in the U. S. military as a bombardier during World War II. Returning from the war, he became involved in a number of left-wing political causes, some of them associated with the activities of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). In 1949, the FBI opened a domestic security investigation on Zinn (FBI File #100-360217). The Bureau noted Zinn’s activities in what were called Communist Front Groups and received informant reports that Zinn was an active member of the CPUSA; Zinn denied ever being a member when he was questioned by agents in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the Bureau took another look at Zinn on account of his criticism of the FBI’s civil rights investigations. Further investigation was made when Zinn traveled to North Vietnam with Daniel Berrigan as an anti-war activist. The investigation ended in 1974, and no further investigation into Zinn or his activities was made by the FBI.[6]

However, the actual evidence for him being a card-carrying CPUSA member was quite slim, and Zinn was opposed to Soviet communism, the association being mostly a result of his willingness to make common cause with communists on certain social and labor issues. If not a member of the party, he would instead have been what at the time was called a "pinko" or a "fellow traveler." However, this minor complication did not stop wingnuts from wetting their pants with excitement and calling Zinn a commie when the FBI's file on him came out via a FOIA request.[7]

Historical work[edit]

Views on bias in history[edit]

Zinn did not believe in an unbiased approach to history,[8] citing a belief that it is impossible to write impartial or unbiased history.[9] His greatest concern with the standard narrative of history was not that facts are distorted, but that certain things are omitted and that what is perceived as important ultimately depends on the values of the historian.[10]

He wrote A People's History of the United States as a work of propaganda, with the intent that it be read by people "beginning to take power within the institutions," inducing them to start a "quiet revolution."[11] On the first point it has been a success, making a few high school history reading lists; on the second, not so much.

He claimed that A People's History was an important work as the first textbook written from that perspective; as a historical work, in general, it was of course not terribly original, as Zinn could not be stuffed to utilize primary sources and borrowed most of its talking points from Marxist historians such as Eugene D. Genovese, causing history professor Michael Kammen to liken it unto "a scissors and paste-pot job."[12] It does read rather like a CMI article in some places, blowing off a large number of historical works because they are not written by people whom the author counts to be on his side, and also featuring ellipsis-filled quotes from neutral or opposing sources but fuller quotes from sympathetic sources.

Zinn is often criticized for his biased approach, although since he is quite frank about his bias, this puts these critics in the ridiculous position of "exposing" bias everyone already knows about.

Views on truth in history[edit]

When the literary critic Walter Kirn attacked Zinn in the New York Times on account of A People's History being propaganda, insinuating that Zinn did not believe telling the truth to be the first goal of historians,[13] Zinn defended himself by stating his belief that there is no such thing as objective truth.[14]

A People's History of the United States[edit]

At Zinn's death, the history professor Eric Foner wrote of him:

Friedrich Nietzsche once identified three approaches to the writing of history: the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical, the last being history "that judges and condemns." Howard Zinn, who died on January 27 at 87, wrote the third kind. Unlike many historians, he was not afraid to speak out about the difference between right and wrong.


I have long been struck by how many excellent students of history first had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn. Sometimes, to be sure, his account tended toward the Manichaean, an oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and darkness. But A People's History taught an inspiring and salutary lesson — that despite all too frequent repression if America has a history to celebrate it lies in the social movements that have made this a better country. As for past heroes, Zinn insisted, one should look not to presidents or captains of industry but to radicals such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Eugene V. Debs.[15]

What is meant by "Manichaean" is that Zinn responded to the traditional apportionment of heroes and villains in grade-school history, not by taking a more rounded and nuanced approach to the questions of heroism and morality, but by simply recasting most of the heroes as villains (and, to a lesser extent, vice versa), producing a work that is on the whole more essentialistic than the works it is intended to supplant.[16] Several critics, including Foner himself in a positive review, objected to Zinn's very selective cherry-picking of incidents, which, Foner said, effectively caricatured such groups as African-Americans and workers "either as rebels or as victims."

Zinn wrote from a broadly Marxist perspective of class struggle and economic determinism. But while much Marxist historical work — including Karl Marx's own — simply involves analyzing tendencies without ascribing ulterior motives to individual players, Zinn did assign such motives. One of the central premises of A People's History is that the U.S. government has been, for the whole of its history, under the total control of a conspiracy of warmongers and industrialists (Zinn names the Founding Fathers[17] and the financier J.P. Morgan[18] as being among this conspiracy's leaders at various periods), who choreographed such events as the American Revolution,[19] the Jacksonian realignment,[20] the Civil War,[21] and the activities of most labor unions except the Wobblies,[22] in aid of duping the people so as to prevent a popular revolution. Oscar Handlin referred to this as a "deranged fairy tale" and stated that Zinn had quote-mined from a number of his sources, omitting any facts that did not jive with this theory.

Michael Kazin, writing in Dissent magazine, stated that anyone with even a basic knowledge of American history could spot large holes in Zinn's theses, and also that Zinn made too many assumptions about how other people thought: for example, assuming that "all right-wingers really care about is keeping all the resources and power for themselves," that people in the past would think like him (particularly by hating the Rich and Powerful unless such hatred were diverted somewhere else by flummoxing), and that the 9/11 terrorists were primarily acting against the U.S. government, as opposed to acting against the entire U.S., or for the Islamist cause.[4]

An illustrative example of Zinn's approach to history is this quote about U.S. President Jackson:

If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Andrew Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.[23]

Zinn, on the other hand, wrote about Jackson the exterminator of Indians and not Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, or democrat — except to write off "Jacksonian democracy" as a con-job cooked up by the warmongers' conspiracy.

Hence, while A People's History serves as a good starting point for learning about the seedy underbelly of American history, it is at best highly incomplete and, taken as a whole, grossly inaccurate. One particular point of concern is that Zinn, in his inversion of heroes and villains, does some whitewashing of his own. One example is, as mentioned before, the positive portrayal of Ho Chi Minh; he positively cites a report that Ho had "eliminated landlord domination," without mentioning that he had done it by mass slaughter of the landlords. Noam Chomsky has been similarly criticized for this omission.

Another example of whitewashing is his treatment of the European colonization of the Americas. Having determined that the Europeans were the only oppressive imperialistic villains, he had little but praise for the social organization of American Indian societies. This required that he whitewash the oppressive behavior of the Aztec Empire, including the mass ritual sacrifices that took, by conservative estimates, hundreds of thousands of lives.

But beyond the conspiracy theories and whitewashing, Zinn also stuck in some outright fabrications to bolster his case. For example, much anti-war rhetoric during the Vietnam War was based around the claim that the Viet Cong, the insurgent forces in South Vietnam, were not under the command and organization of the North Vietnamese government. This was, of course, a lie, just a routine cover for agents operating covertly in foreign territory; indeed, it could be argued that the North Vietnamese government would have been remiss in its duty had it not lied about this. After the war, however, they quite freely acknowledged their control of the Viet Cong. Zinn, on the other hand, in support of his notion that none of those misdeeds in that war came from them, saw fit to repeat the lie in A People's History.[24]

He also, in a 2005 addendum to the book, criticized the Bill Clinton-era "Crime Bill of 1996" (he actually meant the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994Wikipedia's W.svg but at that point was apparently not concerning himself with irrelevant details that only historians care about, such as correct dates) by claiming that around the time it passed, "violent crime continued to increase."[25] In reality, the violent crime rate in the U.S. at that time was in a free-fall that would see it decrease by 2005 to little more than half of its 1991 peak.[26]

So basically...[edit]

A couple of good ideas, but some very bad ideas. He could have been tolerable if he didn't stick his head into a history classroom.


If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.[27]
I'm worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel - let the wheel spin them around as it wants without taking a look at what they're doing. I'm concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that's handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers.[27]

See Also[edit]


  • Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States, 20th Anniversary edition. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
  • Zinn, Howard, A People's History of American Empire, a graphic history by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki, and Paul Buhle. (2008) [28]


  1. Forty Years On: Looking Back at the 1969 Annual Meeting, AHA
  2. "War is the Health of the State: An Interview with Howard Zinn"
  3. A People's History, Chapter 18.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Michael Kazin on Zinn
  5. A People's History, p.285.
  6. Howard Zinn FBI records
  7. Here and seriously, Hollywood's most famous historian?
  8. Howard Zinn, Historian, Dies at 87, The New York Times
  9. "Howard Zinn: The Historian Who Changed The History"
  10. Conversations with History: Howard Zinn, University of California
  11. Another interview with Zinn
  12. "How the Other Half Lived," Washington Post]' Book World, March 23, 1980.
  13. Children’s Books, The New York Times
  14. Making History, The New York Times
  15. Foner on Zinn
  16. Zinn goes so far as to state that Supreme Court justices would side against workers for no other reason than because they were born into the middle class; a statement that was questioned even by the publishers of a student's edition of the book.
  17. A People's History, p.59.
  18. Op. cit., p.258.
  19. Op. cit., p.59.
  20. Op. cit., p.217.
  21. Op. cit. pp.171-172, 198.
  22. Op. cit., pp.323 & 352.
  23. Op. cit., p.132.
  24. Op. cit., p.473.
  25. Op. cit., p.647.
  26. Graph of DOJ violent crime statistics, 1960-2007Wikipedia's W.svg
  27. 27.0 27.1 Zinn quotes on Goodreads
  28. I am proud to have supplied one photograph used in the book