The Legacy of Howard Zinn

There is a constrained jubilation in the right wing intelligentsia at the passing of the legendary historian and activist, playwright and an iconic leftist intellectual Howard Zinn. A perpetual source of trouble for the right, Howard Zinn rallied against the conservative agenda in the US all through his life. Even at the age of 87, when he died, he was constantly traveling, speaking and inspiring people (with his remarkable humor) to organize and be agents of change. His voice was sharp, mind alert but the body had become frail and it could not sustain the massive heart attack he suffered in Santa Monica, California leading to his demise on January 27 2010. During his lifetime (1922-2010) he witnessed major upheavals of the twentieth century and actively participated and pioneered people’s movements. He called himself a ‘radical’ and believed that change can only come from bottom.

Howard Zinn came from a working class family and grew up in the slums of Brooklyn, New York. Through his parents he got an opportunity to read writers like Charles Dickens and others at a very young age. In his formative years, he not only suffered poverty but also read about it; it was the beginning of his class consciousness. He worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for three years where he was involved in organizing an apprentices’ union and discussed socialism with his fellow workers. His first police beating while participating in a peace rally radicalized him.

He then went on to become a bombardier in World War II in 1943. It was a ‘good’ war for the US, where the soldiers like him fought thinking they were fighting fascism. However, interacting with allies from other countries made him see that the war was not as righteous as he and his compatriots had believed. The war changed his life irreversibly. It sowed in his mind the seeds of understanding imperialism; and he later asserted several times that both World War I and World War II were imperial wars; and defeating Germany had more economic reasons than fighting or containing the Nazis. The dropping of nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not only to make Japan surrender to the US but was also the first diplomatic cold war step against Russia. Zinn discusses this bombing and the the bombing at Royan (in which he participated, and which was the first military use of napalm) in his book ‘The Bomb’. The loss of lives and the intent of war appalled Zinn leading to his absolute opposition to wars. He said, “War is by definition the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain. The means are horrible, certainly; the ends, uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate. Surely, we should be able to understand that in between war and passivity, there are a thousand possibilities.” He never equated a ‘just cause’ to a ‘just war’.

After World War II, through the GI (Government Inductees) Bill of Rights, he went to college and finally obtained a doctorate in history from Columbia University. In 1956 he was hired by Spelman College, a conservative black women’s college in Georgia to teach History. His activism against segregation in use of libraries and encouragement to women students (including Alice Walker, then a student at Spelman) to fight against antiquated restrictions and the finishing-school atmosphere in the college cost him his job in 1963. He then joined Boston University in Boston, Massachusetts from where he continued his activism (academic as well as otherwise) for the rest of his life. He became a pioneer against the Vietnam War and his participation and speeches in rallies against the Vietnam War led to his beatings and arrests. He would openly address the intelligence people in plain clothes in rallies and would appeal to them to not do their jobs as it was against people and democracy. He wrote in 1971, the first book on the Vietnam war, ‘Vietnam, The Logic of Withdrawal’, in which he demanded that the US withdraw immediately and unconditionally. In the same year, he helped his life-long friend Daniel Ellsberg, who worked at Pentagon at the time, leak the secret Pentagon Papers to the press - eventually leading to the end of the Vietnam War. In his obituary, Daniel Ellsberg wrote that Zinn was “in my opinion, the best human being I've ever known. The best example of what a human can be, and can do with their life.”

Zinn the historian dethroned kings and presidents and brought to fore the true heroes from common people. He turned the way we read and understand history upside down. According to Associated Press, Schlesinger, a mainstream Harvard historian dismissed Zinn as ‘polemicist and not a historian’; Zinn however never cared about the elite intelligentsia. The far-right stooped to belittling Zinn immediately after his death, trashing his work in a most indecent way. A far-right activist David Horowitz on NPR (National Public Radio) declared, “There is absolutely nothing in Howard Zinn's intellectual output that is worthy of any kind of respect. Zinn represents a fringe mentality which has unfortunately seduced millions of people at this point in time.” He was referring to Zinn’s book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ which has sold over two million copies; and he seems unaware that “fringe mentality” and “millions of people” are a contradiction in terms. This posthumous diatribe against Zinn actually affirms Zinn’s giant intellectual stature. The iconic book has transformed millions of American minds by introducing them to facets of their history that the ruling class would keep hidden, and has inspired them to act against government repression and the military-industrial complex juggernaut. The book is very much a subaltern view of the American history where the class struggles of the common people [instead of the exploits of the presidents and the capitalist class] to change their conditions, lives, society is chronicled and emphasized.

Howard Zinn used to write for ‘The Nation’ and ‘The Progressive’ magazines, widely read among left intellectuals in the US. In his most recent piece in ‘The Nation’, "The Nobel's Feeble Gesture," he expressed his dismay about President Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize. He denounced the ongoing Iraq and AfPak wars and reminded the people that it was unwise to search for saviors (like President Obama) among ruling elites and be disappointed with them. His belief in popular mass movements to change the course of events came from a deep understanding of human history. He always said, ‘Agitate, Agitate, Agitate’; he very clearly understood that the ruling class by itself will never concede anything for the people unless people protested, demanded and forced the rulers to concede rights. His piece "Election Madness" in The Progressive’s March 2008 issue says, "Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens." He was disillusioned by Soviet Union’s socialism and US democracy but never lost faith in the ideas of socialism and democracy. He believed in democratic socialism in which the world would be without national boundaries and tyrannical governments, where the economic system would be for the welfare of the people and not for corporate profit and where there would be equitable distribution of wealth leading people to live in peace and harmony.

His belief in educating young people correctly made him write ‘A Young People’s History of the United States’ which is a shorter version of his original ‘People’s History’. He got a fitting tribute towards the end of his life when his ‘People’s History’ book was translated to a mini television series ‘The People Speak’ for a wider audience. In his autobiographical work, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), he says, “I wanted more than ‘objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.” In one of his last interviews he said he would like to be remembered as someone who introduced a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality and for getting more and more people to think that way. And that’s the legacy of Howard Zinn, who continues to be the inspirational and transformational figure for millions around the world.

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