Howard Zinn and “People’s History”


Howard Zinn not long before his death in 2010.

Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was never a stranger to controversy. As an historian at Boston University he was pilloried for his Marxist interpretation of American history with its emphasis on class and deep divisions in our past as well as our present. The forces of those seeking a consensus interpretation of history very much resented his complicating of the story to include the serious inequities that have existed, the struggles of the have nots for a greater slice of the pie, and the opposition of those at the top of the ladder to make sure that others do not climb too far up.

I reviewed on this blog last year Zinn’s The Twentieth Century: A People’s History (HarperCollins, 2003), which will give you a good idea of the type of history that he wrote. As I said at the time, he argued that the power elite in America have created a system of control in which most people do not even realize they are being controlled. Both through his history and in his life he offered understanding of those who battled the class structure in place, and celebrated the thousands who challenged the status quo.

No question, Zinn viewed throughout his career the history of the U.S. in the twentieth century—as well as earlier—as a struggle between the haves and the have nots. The haves, he commented, have been enormously successful in securing their hegemony against far greater numbers by manipulating nationalism, religion, and other unifying ideologies. Appeals to these themes, he argued, have been effectively used to blunt the criticism of the system that otherwise might bring it tumbling down.

Now we find Zinn again at the center of a debate raging three years after his death over his historical studies. Purdue University president, Mitch Daniels, has recently condemned the ideas and books of Howard Zinn, and called for them not to be taught in Indiana schools. He labelled Zinn’s work “propaganda” and “crap.” Moreover, he tried to ensure as governor of Indiana, his previous post, that Zinn’s work was kept out of the hands of public school students.

I don’t universally endorse Zinn’s position, but I find reprehensible any effort to censor the pursuit of historical understanding. There is no question but that his ideas are both powerful and revolutionary in character. Zinn certainly made no apologies for his position. His was a distinctly minority voice in a discussion of the American past, but an important and eloquent one. One from which we all might learn something.

I agree with Michael Kazin’s comment on this: “I don’t think much of Zinn’s interpretation of U.S. history, it’s true. But it’s an interpretation, which like any serious work of history, chooses to emphasize certain themes and details in order to make a larger argument. I would be unhappy if Zinn’s book were the only or even the main text in a high-school or college history class (as I understand is sometimes the case). But chapters of it can be quite useful if contrasted with alternative interpretations. When Daniels accuses Zinn of being a ‘biased writer,’ he just shows how little he understands about how history is now and has always been written. Every historian has a point of view about whichever portion of the past they choose to study. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place.”

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One Response to Howard Zinn and “People’s History”

  1. Erik Conway says:

    I always find the efforts of American right-wingers to suppress undesirable perspectives both rather Sovietesque and quite informative. You’d almost think they don’t believe their own perspective can stand up to the critical thinking skills of undergraduates. . .

    I wonder how long the Purdue faculty will tolerate Comrade Daniels.


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