• August 29, 2015

Howard Zinn, Philosopher

Howard Zinn, Philosopher 1

Bryan Bedder, Getty Images

Howard Zinn in 2009

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Bryan Bedder, Getty Images

Howard Zinn in 2009

Since his death last week at age 87, Howard Zinn—author of the best-selling A People's History of the United Stateshas been called a historian, teacher, activist, radical, pacifist, and socialist. To my knowledge, no one has remarked on his existentialism.

Perhaps that is because experience, not ideas, seemed to explain the evolution of Zinn's thought. Although he called Charles Dickens, Langston Hughes, and Upton Sinclair early influences, Zinn played down his bookishness, preferring to tell the story of his consciousness in more concrete ways: growing up poor in New York City, the blow to his head from a policeman at a Popular Front demonstration in Times Square during the 1930s, three years spent at a Brooklyn shipyard, his World War II bombardier service and subsequent disillusionment with war, and his civil-rights activity while at the historically black Spelman College from 1956 to 1963 (which ended in his peremptory dismissal).

"Existentialism" might seem an overly fancy term, given Zinn's unpretentious style. Anyone among those who packed the house to hear him speak on college campuses in recent decades was likely to be charmed by his self-deprecating sense of humor, which owed something to the Yiddishkeit of his parents' world. Plainspoken, wry, Zinn would impishly undermine his own status as "expert" while cleverly poking holes in official illogic. (Daniel Ellsberg reports that in 1971, after civil disobedience against the Vietnam War, Zinn quipped: "Thousands of us were arrested for disturbing the peace. But there is no peace. We were really arrested because we were disturbing the war.")

No one ever thought of Zinn as a philosopher. Many critics complained over the years that he was not really a historian, but the usual alternative category was polemicist. As early as 1964, the newspaperman Claude Sitton wrote that Zinn's elegant refutation of the white South's claim that it was impervious to change, The Southern Mystique (1964), showed him to have "all the impartiality of a political pamphleteer on election eve." Zinn was the sole white person—and one of two adults, the other being the activist Ella Baker—invited to join the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967) was an early argument for ending intervention in Vietnam. Along with Jesse Lemisch and Staughton Lynd, Zinn typified the combination of New Left radicalism and "history from below," giving voice to those previously ignored.

That approach to the historical craft and calling was, at root, existentialist. Zinn said so himself in an essay on the "Historian as Citizen," in 1966. The source of the greatest leaps forward were those who acted "as if," he wrote. "The four Negro youngsters in Greensboro who in 1960 walked into Woolworth's acted as if they would be served; Garrison and Phillips, against all apparent common sense, acted as if they would arouse a cold nation against slavery; England in 1940 acted as if it could repel a German invasion; Castro and his tiny group in the hills behaved as if they could take over Cuba." To act as if change is possible in the face of decidedly unfavorable odds was to engage in what Zinn called "the Existentialist call for Freedom, for Action, for the exercise of Responsibility by man."

As if: That was why Zinn held that scholars must set aside scholasticism, antiquarianism, and the shallow pretense of neutrality. ("We publish while others perish," he once wrote.)

As if: That was the foundation for Zinn's view that history is often made by forces outside the corridors of power: American Indians, rebellious slaves, fiery abolitionists, hell-raising suffragists, immigrant strikers, civil-liberties agitators, and war resisters—who acted as if they could alter the world, and often did.

It is not hard to see why A People's History has been so popular. It combines passion with simplicity. It is roguishly irreverent toward national legends, causing one hero after another—Columbus, the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln—to fall to earth when measured by our avowed national ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy. Zinn's book is admired by people who don't typically like history, and it has resonated in popular culture. "That book will knock you on your ass," Matt Damon's character in Good Will Hunting (1997) tells his therapist, played by Robin Williams.

Liberal and radical critics of Zinn's historical writing have their own "as ifs": as if a middlebrow popularization like A People's History could capture the complexity of the American past; as if a narrative that ignores central aspects of society, like Christianity and conservatism, could really explain the country; as if a "Manichean fable" (Michael Kazin) of heroes and villains serves readers well; as if history from the bottom up were not "as limited in its own way as history from the top down" (Eric Foner, who also called A People's History a step toward a coherent new version of history); as if "a historical account emphasizing how radicals, reformers, and workers have fought heroically to wring concessions from politicians and bosses" will suffice if it ignores the system's enduring power, especially "ideology as a mechanism of class rule" (Aileen S. Kraditor).

Professional historians have often viewed Zinn's work with exasperation or condescension, and Zinn was no innocent in the dynamic. I stood against the wall for a Zinn talk at the University of Oregon around the time of the 1992 Columbus Quincentenary. Listening to Zinn, one would have thought historians still considered Samuel Eliot Morison's 1955 book on Columbus to be definitive. The crowd lapped it up, but Zinn knew better. He missed a chance to explain how the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s have transformed the writing and teaching of history, how his People's History did not spring out of thin air but was an effort to synthesize a widely shared shift in historical sensibilities. Zinn's historical theorizing, conflating objectivity with neutrality and position with bias, was no better.

The critics would be churlish, however, not to acknowledge the moving example Zinn set in the civil-rights and Vietnam moments, and they would be remiss not to note the value of A People's History, along with its limitations. Zinn told tales well, stories that, while familiar to historians, often remained unknown to wider publics. He challenged national pieties and encouraged critical reflection about received wisdom. He understood that America's various radicalisms, far from being "un-American," have propelled the nation toward more humane and democratic arrangements. And he sold two-million copies of a work of history in a culture that is increasingly unwilling to read and, consequently, unable to imagine its past very well.

Ordinary people can make history, Howard Zinn held. He urged others to use the past to find inspiration to dispel resignation, deference, and demoralization. The past means nothing, he averred, if severed from present and future.

We all owe a debt to Howard Zinn. We can repay it by acting as if.

Christopher Phelps is associate professor of American studies in the School of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham.


1. thomaswaite - February 01, 2010 at 06:01 pm

Dimayed and disapointed -- How wonderful -- another socialist.

As a student of Russian language, history and literature, and now teacher at the graduate level, I still fail to know why so many academics are socialists? Is it a working life without accountability -- life without some usual business ups and downs of the real world. The thrill of owning and operating one's own endeavor? Failure to grasp real accomplishment and the thrill of profit? What? I am dismayed anyone would trade the value of this country's founders for Marx and his misguided ilk....how could anyone trade opportunity for a mediocre stage of being governed by the few. Socialism is slavery in its most logical evolution. Granted the morons in Washington and Wall Street have recently taught us very little about virtue, but that doesn't mean our system is not the best -- because socialism is not and never will be intuitive to human nature and individualism.

Can't you all just move instead of working in our wonderful education system in this once great country -- :)

2. 22086364 - February 02, 2010 at 08:09 am

Wow, thomaswaite:
Did you read the article before writing your rejoinder? "A working life without accountability"? How do you square that with being hit on the head at a Popular Front demonstration in the 30s? Or the comment "we publish while others perish"? Sounds like Zinn was held accountable, and thought historians and academics OUGHT to be.
I object to the idea of deifying Zinn, but I objecy more strenuously to people either not reading or MISREADING essays as a means to getting to their own polemic.
It's still a great country, thomaswaite. One of the things that makes it great is the people who live in it, experience it, and have opinions about it. We even listen to them once in a while.

3. thomaswaite - February 02, 2010 at 09:47 am

Well said -- and I did read it along with much of his papers. I even espouse his existentialism. And even though he was not an active socialist or Marxist, if you will, he still valued a different form of government, opposed to the free Republic. My point better stated is socialists always bite the hand that feeds them because only in this Republic, founded by still the greatest documents of government ever written, can one freely proclaim to not value the form of government. I would never want to alter anyone's stance to have any freedom, my only comment was or should have been too bad he was misguided in his studies of government and history beacuse again -- socialism to its logical end is slavery and absurd. Possibly my comments should have been towards the author that is clearly hopeful that he would be a socialist.

4. johntoradze - February 02, 2010 at 10:31 am

Zinn was an unreconstructed Marxist, an apologist for Marxism to the end. Anyone who has seen his silly play about Marx coming back to life for a day deifying bakunin and all the rest of it knows that. Such sophomoric rubbish. His "People's History" has received very well deserved criticism from the left, not just the right. It was historical rubbish by the lies of ommission it committed. Zinn wore blinders for his whole life, and was an ideologue to the core. He was able to remain influential by virtue of speaking to young minds who didn't know any better.

Handlin said it better than I in The American Scholar in 1980:

It simply is not true that “what Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.” It simply is not true that the farmers of the Chesapeake colonies in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries avidly desired the importation of black slaves, or that the gap between rich and poor widened in the eighteenth-century colonies. Zinn gulps down as literally true the proven hoax of Polly Baker and the improbable Plough Jogger, and he repeats uncritically the old charge that President Lincoln altered his views to suit his audience. The Geneva assembly of 1954 did not agree on elections in a unified Vietnam; that was simply the hope expressed by the British chairman when the parties concerned could not agree. The United States did not back Batista in 1959; it had ended aid to Cuba and washed its hands of him well before then. “Tet” was not evidence of the unpopularity of the Saigon government, but a resounding rejection of the northern invaders.

As a microbiologist and minor historian who has worked on a manuscript on genetic susceptibility of Native Americans for years, having read much of the earliest records we have, I know that what killed the Indians was disease. The doctrine of "Manifest Destiny" came out of that in sermons in the earliest colonies.

5. libraryguy - February 03, 2010 at 11:18 am

Thank you John. His "People's History" is an embarrasingly bad book that unfortunate college students are subjected to. So full or errors and wildly leftist in view that it makes your head spin to read it. He shall not be missed.

6. thirdcamper2 - February 04, 2010 at 04:36 am

Anyone doubtful whether he shall be missed ought to read Alice Walker's tribute to Zinn in the Boston Globe:

7. abruzzo - February 05, 2010 at 12:46 am


Handlin was a Nixon apologist and Vietnam War cheerleader. Of course he despised Zinn, his vitriol could never get past the truth's in his work and the good he performed. Handlin could never step out from the veil of academia to make a real difference in the world, a coward behind the desk. These types of assessments lead to the ignorant rants of people like libraryguy. In order to make a difference you need to have courage, few have it. Zinn did. No one should make Zinn out to be some deity. But to deny his impact for the good is not only asinine but cowardly.

As for your Native American Indian rant, please it's not a new theory that disease killed most of the Indians, but no virus or bacteria caused white America and the government to become racist and treat those Native American left as sub human. Or are you still researching that excuse and haven't found that racist causing bug yet? That was the whole point of Zinn's book, the Indians and early settlers weren't singing kumbaya and eating Turkey. Or is it all all a leftist conspiracy and no NA were massacred at all? Please get off your pedal-stool, your blocking the sunshine.

8. stephennathanson - February 08, 2010 at 10:15 am

Howard Zinn was also a philosopher in the sense that he analyzed moral and political issues in a historically informed way. Many of his works, including the individual chapters in his book "Declarations of Independence," discuss problems concerning politics and moral principles in a thoughtful, critical manner and relate these issues to our actual history.

Howard Zinn was also an amazing person. In addition to his writings and his activism over many years, he possessed a great appreciation for what other people (most of whom are not famous) have done to promote justice under difficult circumstances. People looking for inspiration would do well to read his memoir "You can't be neutral on a moving train" or see the film version of it.

Stephen Nathanson
Professor of Philosophy
Northeastern University
Boston, MA

9. trainer12 - February 08, 2010 at 10:43 am

Johntorade may be it was disease that killed a lot of the Native American population but some of that disease was intentionally inflicted on thier tribes when they were forced off their land and herded into reservations and given blankets contaminated with small pox. Have you forgotten the "Trail of Tears" forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma? Have you seen or read the story of Squanto? The way that European colonists treated native people's in the America's is nothing short of genocide. We stole their land from them, destroyed the ecosystem to extract cash crops, meat, minerals, oil, coal and gas. Along the way we imported slaves from Africa to do the agriculture and other nard labor. Zinn got it right. It was about time someone wrote a history from the people at the bottom and not the typical "historians" whose view of history reflected the victors. "The Peoples History of the United States" is biased but so are other history books. It was about time to be "fair and balanced" in interpreting history. So much of our history is overlooked, ignored or glossed over. People can rise up and organize to make a better life. You can fight City Hall and the corporate robber barrons. His stories, views and life give us hope and inspiration. Most history books and historians don't do that.

10. hannibalbob119 - February 11, 2010 at 07:02 pm

I am not sure if I understand trainer12? Is the comment that bad history is okay if it inspires? Compare with historians like Paul Johnson (I believe he did not see Zinn as much of a historian, and I note that some comments emphasize "philosopher" instead. History has subjective views and choices in its writing, but these vary with how much they obscure or distort the truth. Sometimes bad history's grinding axe drowns true accomplishment and objective judgement, however charming or witty it may be.

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