Howard Zinn, who died of a heart attack last week at the age of 87, was a scholar of extraordinary influence. Indeed, few academicians did more than the late Boston University professor to poison the minds of so many young Americans with a vulgar narrative of history in which the United States was forever cast as the villain.
The author of more than twenty books, Zinn was best known for his 1980 publication of A People's History of the United States. Though its first press run consisted of a mere 4,000 copies, by 2003 the book had topped a million sales over the course of multiple editions. Today the title's aggregate sales are approaching the two-million mark. A People's History is assigned as required reading in high schools and colleges across the United States, not only in history classes but also in such fields as economics, political science, literature, and women's studies. As a result, its author became a household name in academic circles and emerged as one of the most sought-after speakers on the college lecture circuit. As his colleague and admirer Noam Chomsky said last week, “The happy thing about Howard was that in the last years he could gain satisfaction that his contributions were so impressive and recognized. He could hardly keep up with all the speaking invitations.” Added Chomsky, Zinn's “historical work changed the way millions of people saw the past.”
On this count, Chomsky was correct. At its root, A People's History is a Marxist tract that paints the United States as the wellspring of earthly evil– a wretched embodiment of sexism, racism, and imperialism and a scourge not only to most of its own population, but also to a vast portion of humanity around the globe.
Zinn's portrayal of America, the world's standard-bearer for capitalism, reflected his deeply held conviction that free-markets breed greed, vice, and suffering. Having long maintained that “capitalism has always been a failure for the lower classes,” Zinn in March 2009 rejoiced in saying, “[T]he American capitalist system is falling apart. And good! I'm glad it's falling apart.” He cited capitalism as the reason “why we have 45 million people without health care,” “2 million people homeless,” and “millions and millions of people who can't pay their rent.”
In A People's History, Zinn claims to present American history through the eyes of those whom the raging tide of capitalism has engulfed in poverty and oppression: American Indians, blacks, slaves, women, and the ever-exploited “workers.” In 1995 Zinn wrote candidly about the political agenda that underlay his work:
“I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle. I wanted to be a part of history and not just a recorder and teacher of history. So that kind of attitude towards history, history itself as a political act, has always informed my writing and my teaching.”
In an interview three years later, Zinn elaborated that his goal in producing A People's History had been neither to write an objective history nor to write a complete one:
“There's no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete. My idea was [that] the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.”
When confronted by critics who suggested that his book was “not an unbiased account,” Zinn shot back:
“So what? If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it’s a different story.”
In keeping with that perspective, Zinn wrote America's story as an uninterrupted narrative of depravity. Born in sin, the nation, as Zinn saw it, would forever be morally defective – at least until such time as its leaders might finally awaken to the healing splendors of Marxism.
In Zinn's telling, America's “Founding Fathers … created the most effective system of national control devised in modern times, and showed future generations of leaders the advantages of combining paternalism with command.” The Declaration of Independence, Zinn said, was not so much a revolutionary statement about the God-given rights of man and the principles of limited government that logically flowed from it, as it was a cynical effort to manipulate people into rebelling against the King of England for the sole purpose of further enriching a handful of already-wealthy “white males.” And for good measure, Zinn condemned “the English invasion of North America” as “a barbarous epoch of history” that was “ruled by competition,” and whose noteworthy hallmarks included “deception,” “brutality,” “slavery,” the “massacre of Indians,” and “conquest and murder in the name of progress” – all as a result of the “powerful drive born in civilizations based on private property.”
The Pilgrims who came to New England “were coming not to vacant land but to territory inhabited by tribes of Indians,” Zinn explained – portraying those natives essentially as a peaceful network of brothers who had long lived in idyllic harmony with one another, until the fateful moment when white “invaders” (as Zinn put it) first arrived on the shores of North America.
From Zinn's account, one would never learn that the history of American Indians was replete with inter-tribal conflicts of great violence, or that slave-trafficking played a very significant role in a number of Indian societies. Indeed, long before the first Europeans arrived in the New World, an elaborate slave-trading network had developed among the Indians of the Northwest coast, where slaves constituted as much as 10 to 15 percent of some tribes' populations. But in Zinn's version of history, the only slavery that mattered was the white-on-black variety. The vices of nonwhites were deemed insufficiently interesting to merit mention. The lines between good and evil were drawn with clarity and boldness. There were no shades of gray; there was only white wrongdoing on the one hand, and the radiant goodness of nonwhites on the other.
As Zinn saw things, America's moral failings were not merely the stuff of yesteryear. When the professor looked at modern America's physical and social landscape, he saw nothing worthy of redemption. Rather, he saw a nation engaged in “the poisoning of the air, the seas and rivers”; a nation beset by profound economic injustice; and a nation that spent far too much money on its weapons of war, but far too little on the teeming masses who had been dealt a most unfortunate hand by capitalism's unpredictable caprices. All of these flaws, Zinn maintained, were the bitter fruits of the free market.
Where there was crime, Zinn saw “a class of criminals” who had been “bred by economic inequity.” Criminals, in Zinn's calculus, were merely people engaged in understandable rebellion against the “fierce competition” and “the contrasts of wealth and poverty” that epitomized America's “culture of possession.” He explained that American society, “so stratified by wealth and education,” lent itself “naturally to envy and class anger.” And of course Zinn saw racism, observing not only that “a disproportionate number of prisoners in American jails” were “poor and non white,” but also that black children were “four times as likely as white children to grow up on welfare.” All these things, Zinn reiterated, were the result of capitalist society's failings.
The disgust that Zinn plainly felt for America stood in sharp contrast to his more benign view of the most notorious Communist dictatorships of the 20th century. For example, Maoist China was, in the professor's estimation, “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people's government, independent of outside control.” Castro's Cuba, similarly, “had no bloody record of suppression,” according to Zinn. And the Marxist Sandinista dictators of Nicaragua in the 1980s were allegedly “welcomed” by the people of that country, while the opposition Contras – who were supported by the United States, and whose presidential candidate emerged victorious when a free election was held – were described by Zinn as a “terrorist group” that “seemed to have no popular support inside Nicaragua.”
During the Cold War, Zinn supported the Soviet Union in its rivalry against the United States. And in a pamphlet titled Terrorism and War, which he penned after 9/11, Zinn depicted America as a veritable terrorist state, while painting its jihadist enemies as freedom fighters who were bravely defending themselves against the ravages of U.S. imperialism.
Just as Zinn held the United States in contempt, so did he despise America's closest ally in the Middle East, Israel. Zinn maintained, for instance, that “after the Six-Day War of 1967 and Israel's occupation of territories seized in that war (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the Sinai peninsula),” he personally “began to see Israel not simply as a beleaguered little nation surrounded by hostile Arab states, but as an expansionist power.” Missing from Zinn's narrative was any acknowledgment of the fact that Israel's role in the war was purely one of self-defense against an impending Arab invasion, and that the territories Israel captured in the battle were acquired not as a result of aggression, but in the course of a desperate fight for survival against the Jewish state's would-be Arab exterminators.
During his long career as a professor and public speaker, Howard Zinn's hatred for Israel and America alike became dominant themes of his writing and his pedagogy. As noted, he was more than candid about his burning desire to make his teaching of history “a political act.” His ultimate objective was to influence new generations of young students into becoming revolutionaries whose hatred for the United States would impel them to work toward “a transformation of national priorities” and a comprehensive “change in the system.” “The prisoners of the system will continue to rebel,” Zinn said in hopes that someday “our grandchildren, or our great grandchildren, might possibly see a different and marvelous world.”
That “world” was the Marxist utopia that had led to the deaths of so many throughout history – and that one of America’s leading historians encouraged his students and readers to pursue by any means necessary.