Howard Zinn, Historian and Anarchist
- News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
(en) US, AK Press: Obituary: Howard Zinn, historian and anarchist* who
challenged status quo, dies at 87
Date Thu, 28 Jan 2010 16:33:48 +0200
Howard Zinn, the Boston University historian and political activist who
was an early opponent of US involvement in Vietnam and a leading faculty
critic of BU president John Silber, died of a heart attack today in
Santa Monica, Calif, where he was traveling, his family said. He was 87.
---- “His writings have changed the consciousness of a generation, and
helped open new paths to understanding and its crucial meaning for our
lives,” Noam Chomsky, the left-wing activist and MIT professor, once
wrote of Dr. Zinn. “When action has been called for, one could always be
confident that he would be on the front lines, an example and
trustworthy guide.” ---- For Dr. Zinn, activism was a natural extension
of the brand of history he taught. His best-known book, “A People’s
History of the United States” (1980), had for its heroes not the
Founding Fathers —many of them slaveholders and deeply attached to the
status quo, as Dr. Zinn was quick to point out—but rather the farmers of
Shays’ Rebellion and the union organizers of the 1930s.
As he wrote in his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving
Train” (1994), “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own
history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but 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. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”
Certainly, it was a recipe for rancor between Dr. Zinn and Silber. Dr.
Zinn twice helped lead faculty votes to oust the BU president, who in
turn once accused Dr. Zinn of arson (a charge he quickly retracted) and
cited him as a prime example of teachers “who poison the well of academe.”
Dr. Zinn was a cochairman of the strike committee when BU professors
walked out in 1979. After the strike was settled, he and four colleagues
were charged with violating their contract when they refused to cross a
picket line of striking secretaries. The charges against “the BU Five”
were soon dropped, however.
Dr. Zinn was born in New York City on Aug. 24, 1922, the son of Jewish
immigrants, Edward Zinn, a waiter, and Jennie (Rabinowitz) Zinn, a
housewife. He attended New York public schools and worked in the
Brooklyn Navy Yard before joining the Army Air Force during World War
II. Serving as a bombardier in the Eighth Air Force, he won the Air
Medal and attained the rank of second lieutenant.
After the war, Dr. Zinn worked at a series of menial jobs until entering
New York University as a 27-year-old freshman on the GI Bill. Professor
Zinn, who had married Roslyn Shechter in 1944, worked nights in a
warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his
bachelor’s degree from NYU, followed by master’s and doctoral degrees in
history from Columbia University.
Dr. Zinn was an instructor at Upsala College and lecturer at Brooklyn
College before joining the faculty of Spelman College in Atlanta, in
1956. He served at the historically black women’s institution as
chairman of the history department. Among his students were the novelist
Alice Walker, who called him “the best teacher I ever had,” and Marian
Wright Edelman, future head of the Children’s Defense Fund.
During this time, Dr. Zinn became active in the civil rights movement.
He served on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee, the most aggressive civil rights organization of
the time, and participated in numerous demonstrations.
Dr. Zinn became an associate professor of political science at BU in
1964 and was named full professor in 1966.
The focus of his activism now became the Vietnam War. Dr. Zinn spoke at
countless rallies and teach-ins and drew national attention when he and
another leading antiwar activist, Rev. Daniel Berrigan, went to Hanoi in
1968 to receive three prisoners released by the North Vietnamese.
Dr. Zinn’s involvement in the antiwar movement led to his publishing two
books: “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” (1967) and “Disobedience and
Democracy” (1968). He had previously published “LaGuardia in Congress”
(1959), which had won the American Historical Association’s Albert J.
Beveridge Prize; “SNCC: The New Abolitionists” (1964); “The Southern
Mystique” (1964); and “New Deal Thought” (1966).
Dr. Zinn was also the author of “The Politics of History” (1970);
“Postwar America” (1973); “Justice in Everyday Life” (1974); and
“Declarations of Independence” (1990).
In 1988, Dr. Zinn took early retirement so as to concentrate on speaking
and writing. The latter activity included writing for the stage. Dr.
Zinn had two plays produced: “Emma,” about the anarchist leader Emma
Goldman, and “Daughter of Venus.”
Dr. Zinn, or his writing, made a cameo appearance in the 1997 film “Good
Will Hunting.” The title characters, played by Matt Damon, lauds “A
People’s History” and urges Robin Williams’s character to read it.
Damon, who co-wrote the script, was a neighbor of the Zinns growing up.
Damon was later involved in a television version of the book, “The
People Speak,” which ran on the History Channel in 2009. Damon was the
narrator of a 2004 biographical documentary, “Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be
Neutral on a Moving Train.”
On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes early so he could
join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his lecture to
come along. A hundred did so.
Dr. Zinn’s wife died in 2008. He leaves a daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of
Lexington; a son, Jeff of Wellfleet; three granddaugthers; and two
Ziga Vodovnik: From the 1980s onwards we are witnessing the process of
economic globalization getting stronger day after day. Many on the Left
are now caught between a “dilemma”—either to work to reinforce the
sovereignty of nation-states as a defensive barrier against the control
of foreign and global capital; or to strive towards a non-national
alternative to the present form of globalization and that is equally
global. What’s your opinion about this?
* Howard Zinn: I am an anarchist, and according to anarchist principles
nation states become obstacles to a true humanistic globalization. In a
certain sense, the movement towards globalization where capitalists are
trying to leap over nation state barriers, creates a kind of opportunity
for movement to ignore national barriers, and to bring people together
globally, across national lines in opposition to globalization of
capital, to create globalization of people, opposed to traditional
notion of globalization. In other words to use globalization—there is
nothing wrong with idea of globalization—in a way that bypasses national
boundaries and of course that there is not involved corporate control of
the economic decisions that are made about people all over the world.
ZV: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once wrote that: “Freedom is the mother, not
the daughter of order.” Where do you see life after or beyond (nation)
HZ: Beyond the nation states? (laughter) I think what lies beyond the
nation states is a world without national boundaries, but also with
people organized. But not organized as nations, but people organized as
groups, as collectives, without national and any kind of boundaries.
Without any kind of borders, passports, visas. None of that! Of
collectives of different sizes, depending on the function of the
collective, having contacts with one another. You cannot have
self-sufficient little collectives, because these collectives have
different resources available to them. This is something anarchist
theory has not worked out and maybe cannot possibly work out in advance,
because it would have to work itself out in practice.
ZV: Do you think that a change can be achieved through institutionalized
party politics, or only through alternative means—with disobedience,
building parallel frameworks, establishing alternative media, etc.
HZ: If you work through the existing structures you are going to be
corrupted. By working through political system that poisons the
atmosphere, even the progressive organizations, you can see it even now
in the US, where people on the “Left” are all caught in the electoral
campaign and get into fierce arguments about should we support this
third party candidate or that third party candidate. This is a sort of
little piece of evidence that suggests that when you get into working
through electoral politics you begin to corrupt your ideals. So I think
a way to behave is to think not in terms of representative government,
not in terms of voting, not in terms of electoral politics, but thinking
in terms of organizing social movements, organizing in the work place,
organizing in the neighborhood, organizing collectives that can become
strong enough to eventually take over —first to become strong enough to
resist what has been done to them by authority, and second, later, to
become strong enough to actually take over the institutions.
ZV: One personal question. Do you go to the polls? Do you vote?
HZ: I do. Sometimes, not always. It depends. But I believe that it is
preferable sometimes to have one candidate rather another candidate,
while you understand that that is not the solution. Sometimes the lesser
evil is not so lesser, so you want to ignore that, and you either do not
vote or vote for third party as a protest against the party system.
Sometimes the difference between two candidates is an important one in
the immediate sense, and then I believe trying to get somebody into
office, who is a little better, who is less dangerous, is
understandable. But never forgetting that no matter who gets into
office, the crucial question is not who is in office, but what kind of
social movement do you have. Because we have seen historically that if
you have a powerful social movement, it doesn’t matter who is in office.
Whoever is in office, they could be Republican or Democrat, if you have
a powerful social movement, the person in office will have to yield,
will have to in some ways respect the power of social movements.
We saw this in the 1960s. Richard Nixon was not the lesser evil, he was
the greater evil, but in his administration the war was finally brought
to an end, because he had to deal with the power of the anti-war
movement as well as the power of the Vietnamese movement. I will vote,
but always with a caution that voting is not crucial, and organizing is
the important thing.
When some people ask me about voting, they would say will you support
this candidate or that candidate? I say: “I will support this candidate
for one minute that I am in the voting booth. At that moment I will
support A versus B, but before I am going to the voting booth, and after
I leave the voting booth, I am going to concentrate on organizing people
and not organizing electoral campaign.”
ZV: Anarchism is in this respect rightly opposing representative
democracy since it is still form of tyranny —tyranny of majority. They
object to the notion of majority vote, noting that the views of the
majority do not always coincide with the morally right one. Thoreau once
wrote that we have an obligation to act according to the dictates of our
conscience, even if the latter goes against the majority opinion or the
laws of the society. Do you agree with this?
HZ: Absolutely. Rousseau once said, if I am part of a group of 100
people, do 99 people have the right to sentence me to death, just
because they are majority? No, majorities can be wrong, majorities can
overrule rights of minorities. If majorities ruled, we could still have
slavery. 80% of the population once enslaved 20% of the population.
While run by majority rule that is ok. That is very flawed notion of
what democracy is. Democracy has to take into account several
things—proportionate requirements of people, not just needs of the
majority, but also needs of the minority. And also has to take into
account that majority, especially in societies where the media
manipulates public opinion, can be totally wrong and evil. So yes,
people have to act according to conscience and not by majority vote.
ZV: Where do you see the historical origins of anarchism in the United
HZ: One of the problems with dealing with anarchism is that there are
many people whose ideas are anarchist, but who do not necessarily call
themselves anarchists. The word was first used by Proudhon in the middle
of the 19th century, but actually there were anarchist ideas that
proceeded Proudhon, those in Europe and also in the United States. For
instance, there are some ideas of Thomas Paine, who was not an
anarchist, who would not call himself an anarchist, but he was
suspicious of government. Also Henry David Thoreau. He does not know the
word anarchism, and does not use the word anarchism, but Thoreau’s ideas
are very close to anarchism. He is very hostile to all forms of
government. If we trace origins of anarchism in the United States, then
probably Thoreau is the closest you can come to an early American
anarchist. You do not really encounter anarchism until after the Civil
War, when you have European anarchists, especially German anarchists,
coming to the United States. They actually begin to organize. The first
time that anarchism has an organized force and becomes publicly known in
the United States is in Chicago at the time of Haymarket Affair.
ZV: Where do you see the main inspiration of contemporary anarchism in
the United States? What is your opinion about the Transcendentalism
—i.e., Henry D. Thoreau, Ralph W. Emerson, Walt Whitman, Margaret
Fuller, et al.—as an inspiration in this perspective?
HZ: Well, the Transcendentalism is, we might say, an early form of
anarchism. The Transcendentalists also did not call themselves
anarchists, but there are anarchist ideas in their thinking and in their
literature. In many ways Herman Melville shows some of those anarchist
ideas. They were all suspicious of authority. We might say that the
Transcendentalism played a role in creating an atmosphere of skepticism
towards authority, towards government.
Unfortunately, today there is no real organized anarchist movement in
the United States. There are many important groups or collectives that
call themselves anarchist, but they are small. I remember that in 1960s
there was an anarchist collective here in Boston that consisted of
fifteen (sic!) people, but then they split. But in 1960s the idea of
anarchism became more important in connection with the movements of 1960s.
ZV: Most of the creative energy for radical politics is nowadays coming
from anarchism, but only few of the people involved in the movement
actually call themselves “anarchists”. Where do you see the main reason
for this? Are activists ashamed to identify themselves with this
intellectual tradition, or rather they are true to the commitment that
real emancipation needs emancipation from any label?
HZ: The term anarchism has become associated with two phenomena with
which real anarchist don’t want to associate themselves with. One is
violence, and the other is disorder or chaos. The popular conception of
anarchism is on the one hand bomb-throwing and terrorism, and on the
other hand no rules, no regulations, no discipline, everybody does what
they want, confusion, etc. That is why there is a reluctance to use the
term anarchism. But actually the ideas of anarchism are incorporated in
the way the movements of the 1960s began to think.
I think that probably the best manifestation of that was in the civil
rights movement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—SNCC.
SNCC without knowing about anarchism as philosophy embodied the
characteristics of anarchism. They were decentralized. Other civil
rights organizations, for example Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, were centralized organizations with a leader—Martin Luther
King. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
were based in New York, and also had some kind of centralized
organization. SNCC, on the other hand, was totally decentralized. It had
what they called field secretaries, who worked in little towns all over
the South, with great deal of autonomy. They had an office in Atlanta,
Georgia, but the office was not a strong centralized authority. The
people who were working out in the field—in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana,
and Mississippi—they were very much on their own. They were working
together with local people, with grassroots people. And so there is no
one leader for SNCC, and also great suspicion of government.
They could not depend on government to help them, to support them, even
though the government of the time, in the early 1960s, was considered to
be progressive, liberal. John F. Kennedy especially. But they looked at
John F. Kennedy, they saw how he behaved. John F. Kennedy was not
supporting the Southern movement for equal rights for Black people. He
was appointing the segregationists judges in the South, he was allowing
southern segregationists to do whatever they wanted to do. So SNCC was
decentralized, anti-government, without leadership, but they did not
have a vision of a future society like the anarchists. They were not
thinking long term, they were not asking what kind of society shall we
have in the future. They were really concentrated on immediate problem
of racial segregation. But their attitude, the way they worked, the way
they were organized, was along, you might say, anarchist lines.
ZV: Do you think that pejorative (mis)usage of the word anarchism is
direct consequence of the fact that the ideas that people can be free,
was and is very frightening to those in power?
HZ: No doubt! No doubt that anarchist ideas are frightening to those in
power. People in power can tolerate liberal ideas. They can tolerate
ideas that call for reforms, but they cannot tolerate the idea that
there will be no state, no central authority. So it is very important
for them to ridicule the idea of anarchism to create this impression of
anarchism as violent and chaotic. It is useful for them, yes.
ZV: In theoretical political science, we can analytically identify two
main conceptions of anarchism —a so-called collectivist anarchism
limited to Europe, and on another hand individualist anarchism limited
to US. Do you agree with this analytical separation?
HZ: To me this is an artificial separation. As so often happens analysts
can make things easier for themselves, like to create categories and fit
movements into categories, but I don’t think you can do that. Here in
the United States, sure there have been people who believed in
individualist anarchism, but in the United States have also been
organized anarchists of Chicago in 1880s or SNCC. I guess in both
instances, in Europe and in the United States, you find both
manifestations, except that maybe in Europe the idea of
anarcho-syndicalism became stronger in Europe than in the US. While in
the US you have the IWW, which is an anarcho-syndicalist organization
and certainly not in keeping with individualist anarchism.
ZV: What is your opinion about the “dilemma” of means—revolution versus
social and cultural evolution?
HZ: I think here are several different questions. One of them is the
issue of violence, and I think here anarchists have disagreed. Here in
the US you find a disagreement, and you can find this disagreement
within one person. Emma Goldman, you might say she brought anarchism,
after she was dead, to the forefront in the US in the 1960s, when she
suddenly became an important figure. But Emma Goldman was in favor of
the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, but then she decided that this is
not the way. Her friend and comrade, Alexander Berkman, he did not give
up totally the idea of violence. On the other hand, you have people who
were anarchistic in way like Tolstoy and also Gandhi, who believed in
There is one central characteristic of anarchism on the matter of means,
and that central principle is a principle of direct action—of not going
through the forms that the society offers you, of representative
government, of voting, of legislation, but directly taking power. In
case of trade unions, in case of anarcho-syndicalism, it means workers
going on strike, and not just that, but actually also taking hold of
industries in which they work and managing them. What is direct action?
In the South when black people were organizing against racial
segregation, they did not wait for the government to give them a signal,
or to go through the courts, to file lawsuits, wait for Congress to pass
the legislation. They took direct action; they went into restaurants,
were sitting down there and wouldn’t move. They got on those buses and
acted out the situation that they wanted to exist.
Of course, strike is always a form of direct action. With the strike,
too, you are not asking government to make things easier for you by
passing legislation, you are taking a direct action against the
employer. I would say, as far as means go, the idea of direct action
against the evil that you want to overcome is a kind of common
denominator for anarchist ideas, anarchist movements. I still think one
of the most important principles of anarchism is that you cannot
separate means and ends. And that is, if your end is egalitarian society
you have to use egalitarian means, if your end is non-violent society
without war, you cannot use war to achieve your end. I think anarchism
requires means and ends to be in line with one another. I think this is
in fact one of the distinguishing characteristics of anarchism.
ZV: On one occasion Noam Chomsky has been asked about his specific
vision of anarchist society and about his very detailed plan to get
there. He answered that “we can not figure out what problems are going
to arise unless you experiment with them.” Do you also have a feeling
that many left intellectuals are loosing too much energy with their
theoretical disputes about the proper means and ends, to even start
“experimenting” in practice?
HZ: I think it is worth presenting ideas, like Michael Albert did with
Parecon for instance, even though if you maintain flexibility. We cannot
create blueprint for future society now, but I think it is good to think
about that. I think it is good to have in mind a goal. It is
constructive, it is helpful, it is healthy, to think about what future
society might be like, because then it guides you somewhat what you are
doing today, but only so long as this discussions about future society
don’t become obstacles to working towards this future society. Otherwise
you can spend discussing this utopian possibility versus that utopian
possibility, and in the mean time you are not acting in a way that would
bring you closer to that.
ZV: In your A People’s History of the United States you show us that our
freedom, rights, environmental standards, etc., have never been given to
us from the wealthy and influential few, but have always been fought out
by ordinary people—with civil disobedience. What should be in this
respect our first steps toward another, better world?
HZ: I think our first step is to organize ourselves and protest against
existing order—against war, against economic and sexual exploitation,
against racism, etc. But to organize ourselves in such a way that means
correspond to the ends, and to organize ourselves in such a way as to
create kind of human relationship that should exist in future society.
That would mean to organize ourselves without centralize authority,
without charismatic leader, in a way that represents in miniature the
ideal of the future egalitarian society. So that even if you don’t win
some victory tomorrow or next year in the meantime you have created a
model. You have acted out how future society should be and you created
immediate satisfaction, even if you have not achieved your ultimate goal.
ZV: What is your opinion about different attempts to scientifically
prove Bakunin’s ontological assumption that human beings have “instinct
for freedom”, not just will but also biological need?
HZ: Actually I believe in this idea, but I think that you cannot have
biological evidence for this. You would have to find a gene for freedom?
No. I think the other possible way is to go by history of human
behavior. History of human behavior shows this desire for freedom, shows
that whenever people have been living under tyranny, people would rebel
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Skipper: Professor, will you tell these people who is
in charge on this island?
Professor: Why, no one.
Skipper: No one?
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-- _Gilligan's Island_, episode #6, "President Gilligan"