Mulhall column: Zinn’s land of opportunity
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
— Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, “The Manifesto of the Communist Party,” chapter 1 line 1
Howard Zinn was an American historian, playwright, social activist and Boston University political science professor. He wrote more than 20 books, including “A People’s History of the United States” (“History”). He perished in January 2010 at age 87.
“History” begins with Columbus and ends with America’s war on terror. Over 2 million copies of “History” have sold, and it is a perennial entry on many high school and college syllabi. Zinn also published several revisions of “History,” occasionally focusing on a particular era in his original work. One revision titled “A Young People’s History of the United States” suggests Zinn’s interest in reaching youth extended beyond teaching.
If you’ve read Marx and Engels, there’s no reason to read Howard Zinn, for the first line of “The Communist Manifesto” is the prism through which Zinn views history. Thirty years ago, I studied Russian history — an entire semester on the revolution alone. From this background, I find Zinn’s perspective on America astonishingly daft.
Last August, in “The legacy of the Southern strategy,” I cited Harry S. Truman’s executive orders 9980 and 9981 on military desegregation as evidence of slow change in post-Civil War racial mores. There are interesting reasons for this, but that’s a topic for another column.
In “History” Chapter 3, “Persons of Mean and Vile Condition,” Zinn taps these same executive orders to portray an American president doing level least to elevate morale among black soldiers as the possibility of military involvement in Vietnam loomed.
In other words, Zinn might have written, “Truman wanted happy black soldiers to die in Vietnam.”
To substantiate this “morale problem,” Zinn catalogs a litany of post-World War II American civil rights struggles: Montgomery, Monroe, Greensborough and Harlem; King, Carmichael, Malcolm X and Newton; SNCC, CORE, the NAACP and the Chicago 8. Zinn offers a legion of symptomatic events, figures and organizations — familiar and obscure on no particular timeline — to underscore black apathy. This tortuous march through our disconsolate past exhausts, yet many have found reprieve in Zinn’s premise.
While his conflation of civil rights struggles and the morale of African-Americans in the military hinges on decades of events drawn together without much of a nod to temporal coherence, Zinn’s forte is placing theory before fact. The unrecognized history of the Civil War, emancipation and the civil rights movement is, according to Zinn, their interference with the otherwise natural course of socialist revolution. Never mind 1860s America was half free, or that from the idea of America emerged a humanity that overcame a centuries-old institution of savage depravity.
Even against the shadowy backdrop of the Vietnam War, Zinn romanticizes socialism. He portrays Johnson — “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today” — and McNamara as puppeteers behind tall curtains, blithely orchestrating death and misery. Against this malevolent puppetry, Zinn juxtaposes the bucolic Plain of Jars, c. 1968, and the youthful recollections of a young Laotian woman:
“I was at one with the earth, the air, the upland fields; the paddy and the seed beds of my village. Each day and night, in the light of the moon, I and my friends from my village would wander, calling out and singing through forest and field amidst the cries of the birds … But in 1964 and 1965, I could feel the trembling of the earth and shock from the sounds of arms exploding around my village. I began to hear the noise of airplanes, circling about in the heavens. One of them would stick its head down and, plunging earthward, loose a loud roar, shocking the heart with light and smoke so that one could not see anything at all …”
Off this narrative Zinn casts the Neo Lao (aka Pathet Lao) as liberators from poverty and unenlightened tradition, as though their socialism were the sole delivery mechanism of good life. Hence, the Neo Lao’s survival against the merciless brutality, greed and subjugation of those pernicious U.S. Oz wizards warrants our applause even now, or so Zinn would have us believe.
While I find myself in agreement with his broader narratives on the effect of manifest destiny on Native Americans and duplicity of the Wilson administration, Zinn’s views on whole amount to socialist apologetics. “If it weren’t for America’s myopic capitalism and greed,” I hear Zinn saying, “we’d all be contented Marxists.” The thought that “History” may be to some the correct narrative of America’s past is a troubling proposition if ever there was one.
During a 1998 interview by Raymond Lotta, Zinn said, “I wanted my writing of ‘History’ and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle [emphasis mine].” If in that statement you hear an echo of Marx and Engels, you are not alone.
Zinn became a highly successful, best-selling author condemning capitalism and the United States. Perhaps it’s worth noting Zinn could only have given voice to his views through his inalienable rights.
Just ask Alexei Navalny while he’s alive.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.