As the communist-sympathizing Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders leads the primary pack by double digits, some journalists, like the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, Ben Shapiro, and National Review columnists made connections to A People’s History of the United States by one-time Communist Party USA member and lifelong promoter of communism, Howard Zinn. While we have a president who has repeatedly vowed that the United States will never be a socialist country, and the Department of Education fights to offer school choice and to restore free speech and the rule of law on college campuses, the Zinn Education Project, blithely uses the resources of the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Humanities to spread Zinn’s overtly political, anti-American, and untrue lessons.
As the popularity of Zinn’s textbook has grown, so has Sanders’ following, with the most devout between the ages of 18 to 29. According to Tufts University research, in 2016, Sanders won more primary votes among voters under 30 than “[Hillary] Clinton and [Donald] Trump combined.” And he has been running ever since. For some reason, young people are drawn to radical white-haired men, as revealed by the popularity of Zinn’s YouTube talks, ten years after his death, and Sanders’s popularity on college campuses. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education article, “When the Candidates Come to Campus,” Sanders visited 37 campuses over six months, beating out Biden, Buttigieg, and Warren.
Sanders’s campaign website, in language redolent of A People’s History, rails against the “establishment” and promises a worker takeover of business with government-mandated racial, ethnic, and gender diversity on boards, along with college debt forgiveness and free four-year degrees. Not surprisingly, “The People for Bernie Sanders” Facebook page features Zinn’s inspirational quotation from his essay “The Problem is [sic] Civil Disobedience,” originally published in Violence: The Crisis of Confidence and republished in the The Zinn Reader:“If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, not as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.”
Here, Zinn uses his characteristic sleight-of-hand, presenting patriotism in the form of a straw man (pretending patriots blindly obey government or submissively worship flags and anthems) and then offers “love of one’s country” alongside the contradictory principle of “fellow citizens (all over the world).” Ergo (in Zinn logic) loyalty to principles requires “disobedience”–usually of a violent kind. Civic involvement through voting and legal challenges is hopeless under Zinn’s version of the Founding—a “system” of checks and balances really set up to protect the rich with the middle class as a “buffer” against the suffering masses. Heroes in Zinn’s anti-capitalist epic are gun-bearing revolutionaries, like abolitionist John Brown and Black Panther H. Rap Brown.
Recently, in an effort to broaden his appeal, Sanders began distancing himself from old pro-communist statements. He replied to Mike Bloomberg’s accusations of communist sympathies with the claim that he believed in “‘democratic socialism, not communism.’” Similarly, he accused President Trump of ignorance about communism, claiming—in that timeless fashion—“’I am not a communist.’”
Yet, only months ago, Sanders asserted, “communist China has ‘made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization.’” On the February 23 60 Minutes, Sanders praised the literacy program of Fidel Castro (a Zinn hero) while also condemning the “authoritarian nature of Cuba.” (See also Zinn’s criticism of Stalin’s “authoritarianism” and promises that it would disappear under a “people’s” form of communism.) Sanders doubled down during a townhall the following night, claiming the Castro regime took more people out of “extreme poverty than any country in history.” He also explained that he has been “extremely consistent and critical of all authoritarian regimes all over the world, including Cuba, including Saudi Arabia, including China, including Russia.” (See the Sanders-defending spin by “authoritarian” equivalence in the Washington Post.)
Sanders’s consistency has inspired commitment. In the 1980s he claimed Castro “’educated the kids, gave them healthcare, totally transformed the society.’” He praised Castro for “’rising up against rather ugly rich people’” and “blasted the New York Times for not telling the ‘real truth’ about Nicaraguan communism.” In 1972, he claimed that “U.S. military action [in Vietnam] was ‘almost as bad as what Hitler did” (see Zinn on American fascism during World War II). When Jake Tapper recently brought up a recording from 1974 about capping wages, Sanders snapped back, comparing the question to one about an essay from his third-grade days, and in the next breath railed about the “Trump billionaire class.” In 1974, Sanders was 33 years old. In response to Trump’s charge that Sanders was married in Moscow, Sanders called him a “’pathological liar.’” Actually, Sanders and current wife Jane honeymooned there in 1988. A video shows them lauding Moscow’s public transportation, “youth programs,” and “palaces of culture.” First-hand experiences by Katya Sedgwick and a Never-Trumper confirm the facts about “youth [indoctrination] programs” and horrific conditions in Soviet hospitals.
For those educated with a positive presentation of communism, as Millennials and Generation Z increasingly are, workers councils, and free education, health care, and housing are rightful functions of the state. They do not know about the Hitler-Stalin pact or the 100 million killed under communism. Though the most “woke” on race, they do not know how the First Black Communist, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, died—horrifically in the Sevvostlag Prison Labor Camp, a gulag.
Sanders, before he entered politics—like Zinn—produced educational materials (after trying carpentry and writing pornography). In the 1970s he founded a nonprofit “educational filmstrip business,” called, curiously, the American People’s Historical Society. According to the University of Vermont Libraries Special Collections, the first project in 1977 was “standard fare” Vermont history for students in grade 6 and up. Subsequent projects extended to the neighboring states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
The nonprofit’s last product, before Sanders became mayor of Burlington in 1981, was a 1979 documentary about Eugene Debs, written and narrated by Sanders, and portraying Debs as a spotless hero (as he is in Zinn’s book). In the promotional brochure, “Sanders announced that Debs was the first documentary in a series called ‘The Other Side of American History,’ which would deal with people and ideas that the major profit oriented manufacturers of audio-visual material will not cover because of economic and political reasons.” The “other side of American history” echoes the marketing of Zinn’s book (first published in 1980)—as a “bottom-up” history.” Zinn claimed to tell “the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the viewpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees. . . .” and on.
Sanders campaigner and friend of Zinn, Cornel West, former Ivy League professor, in a recent interview recalled the documentary in glowing terms, and claimed that “Because Bernie can’t run as a democratic socialist, he’s running as a radical FDR-like progressive.” Furthermore, “He’s not talking about nationalizing anything, he’s not talking about workers’ councils or anything like that. . . .” Oddly, he charged that Sanders is being unfairly pegged as a democratic socialist “because he identifies with the legacy of Debs and [Norman] Thomas.”
Professor West echoes Professor Michael Kazin of Georgetown University, a member of the Democratic Socialists, who pretends that socialism is the natural outgrowth of Americanism. He asserted in the New York Times that Sanders, by virtue of his transformation of the Democratic Party, has “already won”—a claim repeated from the book he co-edited and co-wrote, We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Kazin reversed course on Zinn when a Republican, then-Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, criticized Zinn (by quoting Kazin’s criticisms of Zinn). Kazin admitted that he still did not “think much” of Zinn’s history, but condemned Daniels, claiming Daniels did not understand how history “is written,” i.e., from a “point of view.” (“Point of view” was the alibi Zinn used in presenting his falsified and plagiarized history, as I point out in Debunking Howard Zinn.)
But peaceful transformations into a “people’s” voluntary communism are a chimera contradicted by every Zinn’s “interpretation” of historical events: all point to violent socialist revolution. It is no coincidence that paeans to Zinn’s memory are published in the magazine for Democratic Socialists whose name recalls the guillotine of the French Revolution, Jacobin.
Nor are Sanders’s supporters beyond violence. A “Bernie bro” almost assassinated a U.S. Congressman. Young Bernie field organizers call for violent revolution. South Carolina organizer Mason Baird was captured by the Veritas Project railing against “empire”—a favorite Zinn word to recall a spin-off title, A People’s History of American Empire—blithely calling for violence against “property” (which inevitably hurts people physically and financially), and maintaining that the hardships of the “gulags” were exaggerated. In his vision of a presidency involving “dual power” (instead of the three branches), President Bernie would be a strong man leading a “mass movement”—ala Zinn. Baird’s fellow South Carolinian, Daniel Taylor, called for “extreme action” if President Sanders’s demands were not met (presumably by the other governmental branches). Martin Weissgerber, also of that Dixie state, described his fantasies of violently overthrowing the U.S. government and forcing Republicans into reeducation camps, or gulags, recalling the gulags of the Soviet Union, which he maintained were founded as therapeutic reeducation camps. Iowa field organizer Kyle Jurek would burn down cities. He extended the gulag invitation to liberals, and would even put them to death.
The Sanders campaign refused to disavow these statements. But Sanders himself once belonged to “a radical left splinter party that advocated the abolition of all restrictions on the Second Amendment.” In his educational film, Sanders expressed admiration for “Debs’ decision to give ‘unqualified support to the Russian Revolution which had just taken place under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky.’” As Stanley Kurtz pointed out, “Some of the quotations from Debs which Sanders speaks in his own voice and presents in an entirely positive light . . . will take you aback. For example: ‘while there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.’ Crime here is seen as nothing but a product of exploitative capitalism. Sanders also clearly approves of Debs’ attribution of racial animosity in the South to a plot by employers to undercut ‘working class unity.’” Kurtz concludes, “This is classic Marxist doctrine.” It is also classic Zinn, who praised violent black separatists over the peaceful NAACP, asking hopefully, “’Was there fear that blacks would turn their attention from the controllable field of voting to the more dangerous arena of wealth and poverty—of class conflict?’” Zinn praised the “new” and “’more dangerous than civil rights” “’emphasis’” for creating “’the possibility of black and whites uniting on the issue of class exploitation.’”
Bernie Sanders moved from similarly trying to indoctrinate sixth-graders to revere Eugene Debs instead of George Washington, to a millionaire politician shaking his fist at billionaires. As Cornel West stated, Howard Zinn would no doubt be supporting Sanders.
Mary Grabar, Ph.D., is a resident fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, founder and executive director of the Dissident Prof Education Project, and author of Debunking Howard Zinn: Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America.