Monday, May 13, 2024

Howard Zinn - A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a remarkable book in several senses. The first is it's scope, by which I don't just mean the breadth of US history from 1492 to the late 1990s. What's more remarkable is Zinn's ability to cover the breadth of the historical moment, capturing events at the "top" of society and the interaction with the mass of people at the bottom. The second is its radicalism. Zinn's personal radicalism is well attested (and shines through the book), but Zinn's approach to history itself is radical, and nearly unique in terms of books that have become must reads for those grappling with the long view of US history. As Zinn writes of the struggles that are central to his book:

I don't want to invent victories for people's movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should... emphasise new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people shows their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.

Zinn's history is more than a recounting of events, with a special emphasis on history from below, or forgotten struggles. These are there, of course, and Zinn manages to tell these stories with verve, even within the limitations of brevity imposed by the nature of the book. But Zinn's book does more than this because he discusses what was needed for movements to win. For instance he acknowledges the limitations of the trade union leadership, or movements that repeatedly allow themselves to be sucked into the Democratic party at its cycle of elections.

A review of Zinn's book could focus on many different aspects. The opening chapters look at the genocidal policies of European settlers and subsequent US governments against the indigenous people. These are powerful, and Zinn explores the nature of those societies far more than most histories of this ilk. He discusses their different approaches to nature, resources, land and each other. From here Zinn looks at the early settler colonial society and slavery - and emphasises that the modern United States is built on violence and bloodshed

But reading history is always coloured by the present, and while it would be tempting to review this book by simply regurgitating Zinn's history in an even shorter format, I wanted to dwell a little on one particular aspect of history which Zinn was intimately connected to - the Vietnam era. This is, of course, interesting and informative. But it has its contemporary relevance with the current wave of pro-Palestine movements in US (and internationally) colleges. The movement bears striking resemblances to the US movement against the war in Vietnam. It is centred on colleges and educational institutions, but has moved out further. The anti-war feeling of the 1960s was, as Zinn painstakingly shows, more predominant among poor and working class people. There are hints of this today, no doubt for the same reasons as in the 1960s. People are sceptical of the role of governments, and angry at the use of resources for war that might be better spent on health, education and wages.  

But the radicalism of the anti-Vietnam war movement has its parallels with radicalism today - and the processes that Zinn highlighted - growing discontent with the establishment, hopes for alternative politics and a rapid growth in anti-capitalist ideas - have only developed further since he wrote this book. The reason for this, he points out, is the role of social movements as well as the inability of capitalism to deliver for ordinary people. When Zinn finished this book the radicalism and mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s had died away. He finished it with hope though, because he expected new movements to arise due to the contradictions of US capitalism. Those movements did develop in the early 2000s with the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements, though too many US socialists abandoned the struggle in that period.

But Zinn's warnings from history - particularly the ability of the system to protect itself from radicalism by using the Democratic Party remain important today. Writing about the Jimmy Carter era Zinn shows how limited his policies were, yet the Democrats were able to position themselves as the alternative, simply by promising a few changes and bringing the leading figures into the Democratic space. Zinn uses an absolutely superb speech by Malcolm X about the Civil Rights March on Washington to illustrate this. The speech is too long to quote here, but Malcolm X finishes by showing how Kennedy's co-option of the movement meant the radicalism of the march was diluted and everyone left "by sundown". As we face an election between Biden and Trump this year, we'll here the siren voices saying that US activists must hold their noses and campaign for Biden to stop Trump. But Zinn shows why this strategy is a disaster. Activists in the US would do well to read the sections of this book on the post-1960s Democrat/Republican consensus again, if only to remind themselves of the pitfalls we face.

It is, of course, possible to nitpick. Every reader of A People's History of the United States will doubtless find something that is missed, or not done justice - that's the nature of such a sweeping history. I do think though that were Zinn writing today he would have included much more on the Native American history in the 15th to 19th centuries, even while acknowledging that he really does do justice to the history after this era, and especially the struggles by Native Americans in the 1970s. I would also suggest that Zinn might have done more about the single issue radicalism of the 1960s - there's very little here on the LGBT+ movement, though Zinn does mention it. It seems odd to this reader that he does not mention Stonewall. Again though, the fact he does talk about these struggles must have been a major breakthrough for a mainstream US history book - and the sections on women's struggles, feminism and the changing US family are fantastic. The ending chapters of the book focus on what Zinn calls the "coming revolt of the guards". Here he suggests that the crisis of US capitalism would force those whose previous roles involved protecting the system - such as university professors - into conflict with it. While he perhaps over-estimates the importance of this, he would no doubt be pleased to see the number of these people who have engaged in struggles recently. 

All in all this really is an indispensable book, a book for activists today, a book for your US travels and a book that illuminates how we got into this disaster, and how we might get out of them. Read it.

Related Reviews

Horne - The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism
Blackburn - The American Crucible

Tyer - Opportunity, Montana
Johnson - River of Dark Dreams: Slavery & Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
Punke - Fire and Brimstone

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