Lessons to be taken from the life of Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn speaking at Marlboro College on Feb. 17, 2004. (credit: Courtesy of Redjar) Howard Zinn speaking at Marlboro College on Feb. 17, 2004. (credit: Courtesy of Redjar)

The following is an excerpt from an obituary written by two Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. students to commemorate the life of historian Howard Zinn.

Howard Zinn died recently, on Jan. 27. This is surely not an informative statement for those interested in his work and legacy, who have been mourning this loss since that Wednesday. As a historian who intimately experienced the hottest political moments of the 20th century — like the Great Depression, World War II (in which he served as a bombardier), the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall — while being educated in school and academic environments absent of bigotry, political propaganda, and religious fundamentalism, Zinn belonged to a generation that produced most of the brightest intellectuals of outstanding talent and diligent effort in analyzing and studying U.S. society from a radical point of view.

Zinn now joins a number of brilliant scholars who have recently passed away, such as Giovanni Arrighi, Gerald Cohen, and Peter Gowan.

The common subject among Zinn’s publications is his rather different perspective on U.S. history, starting with the arrival of the first European settlers; his focus on the people as history’s main collective agent, rather than the mainstream approach based on individuals; and anecdotal political episodes.

The concept of class struggle was pivotal. Considered to be one of the most important legacies of Karl Marx, it allows the analysis of several events of the history of human societies as direct consequences of historical dynamics that have class as their main agency.

The Great Depression of the ’30s is a good example of how this alternative historiographical method has the most powerful explanation ability. Zinn experienced this harsh period of American history and the following economic recovery due to the policy measures implemented by the Democratic government of Franklin Roosevelt. Among several influences, Zinn helped us to understand that Roosevelt’s New Deal — a series of measures aimed to revive investment and consumption and to relieve the acute social problems caused by unemployment — was a reaction to the class struggle generated by the Great Depression, which could be objectively observed from intense social contestation, politically organized, toward the wealthiest sectors of society.

Later, during the ’50s and ’60s, after fighting for his country and seeing the rise and fall of dictatorships during World War II, Zinn became a strong and influential human rights activist in fighting against racial segregation in the U.S. and against ensuing wars. These actions were taken together with a generation of U.S. Marxist intellectuals that developed political roots against conservative elites and always stood for the people. This generation acted as a powerful, intellectual, “organic” collective that supported the civil rights movement and the fight against the Vietnam War.

In opposition to a traditional historical point of view, in which the masses are practiced to iconic events and figures mystified and created by the biased view of the influential elites, as a scholar deeply interested and involved in class struggle, Zinn was pivotal in establishing the American people as the central character of U.S. history in the notable history textbook A People’s History of the United States, a book that has been present in various contemporary icons of popular culture, such as The Sopranos. This work, which faced severe intellectual persecution inside academia, testifies to the unique intellectual qualities of Zinn as a hardworking academic who was the bearer of a clear insight to his objectives, and a solid interdisciplinary intellectual background that went beyond the scope of a single area of study.

With few exceptions, such as the Canadian Naomi Klein, we don’t see similar individuals in the intellectual firmament of the globalized world. We fear that a generation of brilliant intellectuals is being lost and that no equivalent is being generated in the global academic environment. The work of Zinn may provide us with the guidelines to action and change, knowing that it is the people who make their own destiny.

We have particular responsibilities in the current historical context. We live in a period of acceleration of history, where substantial changes occur globally in a short amount of time, severely affecting our habits of life. Aspects of globalization like the Internet, associated with consumerism-oriented visual mass culture, can be considered factors that affect the intellectual development of scholars who are more worried in publishing fast and getting funding even faster in order to climb the ladder of academic hierarchy in the quickest way possible. This leads us to follow a path of particular knowledge specialization that may imply an unedited alienation of the intellectual intelligentsia from the social reality that surrounds us.

We should look to the example of Zinn as one of broad historical knowledge and social engagement that the ones who believe that a better world is possible should follow.