'Bush Drives Us Into Bakunin's Arms!'
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'Bush Drives Us Into Bakunin's Arms!'
An Interview with Howard Zinn
by Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit
Bad Subjects, Issue # 54 , March 2001
At last year's Sundance Festival, historian Howard Zinn was invited
a lecture on Hollywood's propagandistic slant. Zinn's talk was
recently released as Stories Hollywood Never Tells by San Francisco's
Alternative Tentacles Records and the UK-based radical publisher, AK
Over the course of sixty-some minutes, Zinn, speaking to the
film elite, spins out a marvelously accessible lecture about how
has always toed the establishment's line, reinforcing falsehoods and
mythologies across the board.
Not only does it offer an incisive expose of Hollywood chicanery, but
compact disc also provides the perfect forum for an activist cum
like Zinn to reach beyond privileged university students seeking
arts enlightenment before moving on to law school and connect with
audience, the culture industry itself.
The recording's one flaw is its introduction, which David Barsamian
provides. Barsamian, noted leftist talk show host, head of his own
syndicated Alternative Radio Project program, and much-loved in
media circles, introduces Zinn to the Sundance audience by comparing
one of the towering figures
of Islamic esoteric, a Sufi mystic Jalal al-din Rumi. Zinn, Barsamian
explains, is not so much a religious mystic, rather he, like Jalal al-
Rumi, teaches forbidden
knowledge, in this case, real history. For those familiar with the
tenets of Marxist ideology criticism, there's some truth to
discomforting, extremely 1960s analogy: Ideology is always about
the truth, that is, about the process of 'mystification.' In this
Zinn is the great revealer of suppressed truths or, in other words,
In all likelihood, this kind of Freudian slip was not what Barsamian
intended. Instead, Barsamian most likely wanted to underscore Zinn's
standing in a particular community of progressive intellectuals tired
the layers of lies consistently put forth by an academic and a media
establishment all too willing to embrace the self-congratulatory
of the corporate state and big business. It's not as though Zinn
worth mystifying to a certain extent either.
Now a professor emeritus in Boston University's history department,
been one of the most influential US historians of his generation.
People's History of the United States (1980) decisively influenced
study and teaching of US history, opening it as a field of
discussion. Revised editions have
secured its status as one of the most popular university history
On the day before George Bush was inaugurated as president, we asked
about his observations concerning this juncture in American history.
BS: Since George W. Bush seems so much the emblem of commerce and the
privileging of capital in the US, how might he also speak to an older
history of robber barons and 19th century capitalism?
Zinn: Let's go back to President McKinley and the age of the robber
and ask who was the original cause of people like George Bush? In
McKinley beats the populist candidate William Jennings Bryan and
corporate wealth. It's a time when monopolies are being created. A
years after McKinley's election, US Steel is formed from a merger of
major steel companies. The railroads are consolidating, and the
Court is making all sorts of decisions in favor of big business and
So sure, you can go back to the era of the robber barons in the late
century and say, "Here we have Bush again, representing robber
it would be deceptive to pretend that this is a departure from what
had under Clinton or Carter, just as McKinley wasn't a tremendous
from Grover Cleveland. Grover Cleveland was a Democrat, and McKinley
Republican. And although McKinley was more in tune with corporate
than Cleveland, Cleveland was certainly a friend of big business and
friend of labor. It was Grover Cleveland who brought out the troops
to break the Pullman Strike.
The point I'm making is that whether you have a Republican or a
power, the robber barons are still there. If you look at Clinton, his
administration was very good to the corporations. The Dow Jones
during the Clinton years went up from four thousand to ten thousand.
whom did it go up for? Who benefited mostly from that? The great
stockholders of the nation are the ones who benefited the most. Under
Clinton administration, more mergers of huge corporations took place,
than any others that had ever taken place before under any
I'm saying this not to soften the impact of Bush's alliance with the
only to say that the Democrats have made a similar alliance with the
except that they cover this over with a lot of different kinds of
and a softer approach because the Democrats need the votes of the
unions, women and black people. Nevertheless, whether you have
or Democrats in power, big business is the most powerful voice in the
of Congress and in the ears of the president of the United States. So
is more of the same, only more so.
BS: You mention primarily domestic policy and the internal
capital in the US. How about any comparison between the old-fashioned
imperialism of William McKinley and the questions surrounding the WTO
today? Are they comparable?
Zinn: Well, they're generally comparable, although they look
Under McKinley, we were engaging in blatant military occupation of
territories and blatant imperialism. Under McKinley, we go into Cuba
1898, drive the Spaniards out, and put ourselves in, including our
our railroads, our corporations. We take Puerto Rico, Hawaii, we send
army to take the Philippines. It's blatant imperialism at its height
What we have in our time with the WTO and the power of the World Bank
the power of the IMF and the reach of American corporations around
world is a more sophisticated kind of imperialism in which we don't
send armies into other countries.
We send corporations instead. We send Disney and McDonalds into other
countries. When we think we have to, we're certainly ready to send a
military force abroad. The elder Bush sent a military force into Iraq
years ago in 1991. I would call that 'imperialism'. Imperialism
an excuse. The elder Bush's
excuse was that the Iraqis had invaded Kuwait. And we had the excuse
Cuba, if not us, then it's the Spaniards. We had an excuse in the
Philippines. If we don't take it, somebody else will. We had an
the Persian Gulf in 1991 with Kuwait, but it was oil. President Bush
not weeping tears over the Kuwaitis. He didn't weep tears over the
any other countries which were invaded by other powers. Oil was the
consideration. When you're sending a military force halfway across
world to engage in a war for oil, that's imperialism.
What we have is a more sophisticated form of imperialism, which is
economic. But lurking in the background, always ready to go, is an
force. That's why, even though the Soviet Union is gone, the
just the Republicans, but the Democrats, wanted a military budget as
as it was during the Cold War. Why did they want it? So they could
military power, if necessary, to reach into far corners of the world
extend our political and economic power through military bases.
Imperialism is the factor in American policy, not just since 1898,
fact long before it when we were expanding across this continent and
away Indian lands in order to enlarge the territory of the United
We have been an imperial power and an expansionist power for a very
time. It will continue
regardless of whether we have Republican or Democratic
power. In fact, it's hard to tell who would be more likely to further
ends of imperialism. The Democrats or the Republicans, Bush or Gore?
yes, in domestic policy you can find some differences among them.
the appointments to the Attorney General, environmental affairs, and
on....but in foreign policy, it's very hard to find a difference.
BS: So beneath the globalist consciousness that is so discussed, we
basically find a repetition of older patterns of American imperialism?
Zinn: Right, but as I said, it takes a more sophisticated form now.
BS: Why do you think that progressives have adopted the term
'globalization' so readily instead of using the term 'imperialism'?
progressive ears, 'globalization' has a far less pejorative
seems to be used to describe a systemic world-wide capitalist
that is far more neutral than a term with a Leninist history like
'imperialism', for example.
Zinn: Are you suggesting that progressive forces should be using the
'imperialism' more than using the term 'globalization'?
BS: (Laughter) Yes, because it more fully expresses the value
latent in the way progressives talk about the integration of world
Zinn: Sure, it's very important to point out that globalization is in
imperialism and that there is a disadvantage to simply using the term
'globalization' in a way that plays into the thinking of people at
World Bank and journalists like Thomas Friedman at the New York Times
are agog at globalization. They just can't contain their joy at the
of American economic and corporate power all over the world. Sure, it
very good to puncture that balloon and say "This is imperialism."
BS: In terms of counter-forces to that imperialism, could you talk
how American progressivism has fared considering, for example, that
achieved three percent of the popular vote, which is a historic low
terms of the percentage of vote for progressive presidential
Zinn: I think that the Nader campaign made a mistake in hitching
reputation on how many votes they would get. I think they made a
insisting that they must get five percent, that they must get a
number of votes. It's a bad move for progressive organizations to tie
themselves to the electoral system because the electoral system is a
grave into which we are invited to get lost. For progressive
future does not lie with electoral politics. It lies in street
protest movements and
demonstrations, civil disobedience, strikes and boycotts, using all
power consumers and workers have in direct action against the
and corporations. To sink too much of our energy into electoral
a mistake. The result is to dishearten people because it gives us a
picture of how much strength the establishment has; because counted
looks as though all these people voted for Gore or Bush, but only a
voted for Nader.
The fact is that millions and millions of people voted for Gore who
have voted for Nader if they thought he had a chance to win. That is,
millions and millions of people would whose basic views are closer to
than they are to Gore. But because people are trapped in this
system in which two
parties and wealth control the media and control the electoral
people are trapped in that therefore they vote their conscience, they
vote their beliefs.
They become pragmatic the moment that they go to the polls. They sort
shrug their shoulders and go "We've only been given two choices,
given a multiple choice test with only A and B. We can't do C or D."
result is to give a misleading picture about the strength of the
progressive movement. That was the mistake of the Nader campaign, to
into that trap.
BS: The other depressing way that one could read the Nader campaign
listen to what certain conservatives have been saying: that Nader's
to do better demonstrates the limits of the new progressive movement
has arisen since the WTO protests in Seattle.
Zinn: They would do better by taking a look at the actions people
taking these past few years, the new vitality in the labor movement,
unionization of white collar workers, the victory of the United
Workers strike, which is one of the largest labor victories of the
decade. Ten thousand people will turn up in Georgia to protest the
of the Americas. Take a look at the tens of thousands of people that
up in Seattle or Washington, DC. Take a look at the thousands of
organizations around the country that are working on women's issues,
environmental issues, local issues of all sorts. That gives you a
picture of the energy of the new progressive movement than to count
votes in an election campaign.
BS: One of the things that's been very curious about this new
is its political character. One of its most over-hyped motifs,
in the US, is its anarchist leanings. Do you want to address that? Is
really the case, and if so, why?
Zinn: There's always been an anarchist element in progressive and
movements in the history of this country. But it's also true that as
result of the movements of the sixties, movements moved away from the
Left and its hierarchical, centralized organization, into more
participatory democracy, into more egalitarian forms of organization.
Examples of that are the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee
its decentralized actions and emphasis on grassroots organization or
women's movement, which didn't have any real center or any
leaders but had little centers all over the country.
Since the sixties, the reason why it was called the New Left was
broke away from the old form of organization, and it had more ideas
fit anarchist philosophy, decentralization and direct action, as
emphasis upon politics. I mean the Civil Rights Movement's greatest
achievements were a result of direct action, not through politics.
women's movement didn't succeed in getting an Equal Rights Amendment,
did it depend on one, it depended on its own power against employers,
against oppressors in every aspect of their lives.
So I think if we separate out those people labeled anarchists by the
press--anyone who throws a brick through a window is labeled an
if we separate that out and we look at the anarchist philosophy,
not centered on brick-throwing, but centered on certain forms of
organization and action which are direct action, then I think
stronger roots in the progressive movement today than it's ever had.
BS: Does anarchism have a critique of capitalism that's analogous to
of Marxism? Is it as conscious of the class composition of capitalist
society?Zinn: It depends on which anarchists you're dealing with. For
there's a difference between Bakunin, Emma Goldman, and Alexander
One of the reasons that Bakunin was in conflict with
Marx in the First International was because Bakunin didn't accept
class analysis. Bakunin didn't see a cohesive working class as being
makers of revolution. Instead, he saw a kind of generalized
dissatisfaction in society amongst people whom Marx probably would
considered working class
all sorts of alienated and marginalized people. They would create
of great force that would overthrow the old order. It wasn't a class
analysis.On the other hand, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who
themselves Marxists, were closer to Marxist thinking. Without using
language of class analysis, their actual thinking about American
was a thinking which incorporated the idea of "there are the
there are the employers, here are the workers."
BS: In God and the State, Bakunin writes one of the classic analyses
permeation of religious authority into philosophies of state. How
that sort of thought begin to analyze a figure like George W. Bush,
brings such profound reverence for Christianity into government?
Zinn: Well-put! When you have somebody like George Bush becoming
it drives you into Bakunin's arms!
BS, Zinn: (Laughter)
Zinn: If you were softening up to the church and religion in any way,
goes for liberal elements like liberation theology, radical
well, you might be tempted to forget how insidious the power of the
can be. But then Bush comes and reminds us once again. We see in him
his ties with the
Christian right, despite all the rhetoric about the separation of
and state, which has never really been true in this country, we see
Christian right uniting with the state in the Bush administration. So
see where Bakunin speaks to this. For Bakunin, God and the state were
targets. For a long time we would put God in second place, which is
a terrible thing to do. Now Bush is compelling us to think about the
of religion as a reactionary power in our society.
BS: Do you see this as being analogous to the Reagan era, when
re-entered public life, or are the stakes much higher now?
Zinn: I think the stakes are much higher. Reagan talked a lot about
went to church a lot, and made a big deal of it. But
terms of his actions and appointments, it wasn't as dangerous a
we have now with George Bush.
BS: Why do you think the religious right is so powerful a counter-
force when many of the class explanations that progressives give for
religious revivalism, such as a poor economy, increasing class
etc., don't seem to fit the prevailing liberal view of the Clinton
one of prosperity and generalized wealth? Does the rise of Bush
the legitimacy of that kind of perspective?
Zinn: The Clinton era was good for big business, but it left so many
behind and alienated. In fact, disgusted with politics in general. In
kind of situation, people will turn to religious demagogues.
make the mistake of turning on the television on a Sunday morning and
see thousands of people gathered listening to some real idiot
forth. These people, their lives are not satisfying them. So the
interpretation, Marx's interpretation, is true.
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed, the soul of the soulless
the opium of the people. People need to turn to something when they
unhappy. And there are a lot of unhappy people in this country. I
you don't believe it, then look at the amount of violence that's
place. The turn to violence and the turn to religion are the twin
the twin consequences of profound alienation. Sometimes they overlap,
they involve the same people, the same people who go to church are
people who use guns a lot.
BS: So Bush's election can be seen as a product of that same kind of
Zinn: The fifty percent of the people who didn't vote at all, and
large numbers of the people who voted for Gore and Bush, the number
people who were enthusiastic about Bush and the number of people who
enthusiastic about Gore was relatively small. Most people, however,
that they really had no alternative, or voted out of desperation.
BS: What's your prognosis for the next four years?
Zinn: There's going to be a lot of demonstrations and a lot of
think with the Bush administration, there'll be more possibility for
action. With a regime so unfriendly to the labor movement, we'll see
strikes, more labor organization. Without that false hope that
put in the Clinton administration, people will be more ready to
and take direct action. I think we'll see a lot more conflict.
Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit are both members of the Bad Subjects
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