Radical media, politics and culture.

Howard Zinn's "Zinn on History" Reviewed

Zinn on History

By Howard Zinn

Seven Stories Press, New York, 2001.

You may be familiar with the work of the radical American historian and
activist, Howard Zinn. It includes the witty, humane play Marx in Soho, as
well as his magnificent Peoples Histories, of the United States and the
twentieth century. During the Vietnam War it was Zinn, together with Noam
Chomsky, who helped copy, smuggle out and then edit and publish the
Pentagon Papers, official documents that illustrated the full and savage
involvement of the American ruling class in the appalling invasion and
destruction of South-East Asia.

This current volume is a collection of Zinn's essays that date from the
mid-sixties to last year, and concern themselves with broadly historical
themes÷sketches of individuals, tales of action, meditations on the role
of the academic and history in general, on Marx and "Marxism".

This sense of history shines through in his essay on the Seattle protests.
Zinn welcomes the shift away from the single issue campaigns that
characterised much of left-wing US protest in the eighties and nineties,
and a growing targeting of capitalism itself. He reminds readers of North
America's rich (and sometimes overlooked) history of class resistance and
militancy. Seattle was the stage for a general strike in 1919 of some
35,000 dock workers.

Moreover, the area was often deeply militant, with the "Wobblies" (the
anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World) strong and much
anti-war agitation against US involvement in World War I. So often today's
anti-capitalist protestors are ignorant of this legacy; Zinn's work is
going some way to remedying this.

Socialists will, I think be most interested on his thoughts about Marx and
his ideas. Zinn, like Marx before him declares "je ne suis pas marxiste!"
("I am not a Marxist!"). The present reviewer feels the same. Marx's turn
of wit was, on this occasion given to one Pieper, a young German sychopant
(or "nudnik", as Zinn calls him in wonderfully colourful Yiddish)ü a
self-styled "Marxist", who was attempting to get Marx to attend his Karl
Marx society. Zinn, in quoting Marx's weary and witty reply is saying that
we ought to reflect on what is relevant and alive in Marx's writings,
rather than turning them into sterile dogma.

Marx wasn't just a scholar, but an activist and commentator on the world
he often painfully lived in. Zinn points readers to the "Theses on Feurbach"
and the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. These are not "early"
or "immature" works, he says, but rather rich in insights that are still
as profoundly relevant as when they were written. The alienation and
exploitation produced under capitalism are appalling; "It [The 1844
Manuscript] simply stated (but did not state simply) that the capitalist
system violates whatever it means to be human". To overcome this
alienation a complete change÷indeed , a transcendence÷of capitalist
society's social, economic and political relationships is required. Zinn
reminds us of Marx's hostility towards nationalism, and points out that he
would have been horrified by the so-called "socialist" societies that
Stalinism created. Marx instead lauded the 1871 Paris Commune with its
direct democracy, egalitarianism, levelling of wages and abolition of the
guillotine as his idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", as he
called the political transition to a socialist society.

The rest of the book is devoted to accounts of Zinn's own activism, mainly
against the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. One of the best
essays is on the Freedom Schools in Mississippi the free, egalitarian
summer schools for poor blacks that Zinn and others set up in 1964, often
at risk of injury and death. Zinn reminds us that "education is not just a
tool of indoctrination, but a powerful tool of emancipation as well.

I can't pretend to agree with Zinn all the time; yes, some of Marx's
economics is dense and difficult, but an understanding of surplus value
and commodity production is vital to understanding capitalism. Zinn is
also too often prone to supporting reformism on grounds of "pragmatism",
provision of public healthcare in the US being a case in point. However,
given where he comes from and the generation he belongs to, it is at least

"Human beings make history, but not always in circumstances of their own
choosing," as Uncle Charlie was fond of saying. Given all the history out
there being written by bourgeois apologists, plodding careerist
empiricists, dull local-fixated antiquarians and childish, pretentious
postmodernists, we need more radical historians like Howard Zinn. A
touching and worthwhile collection; read it and start reading and
researching your own radical history.